Right on Through
By Christopher Dungey
Glennie Milford rolled to a sitting position on the lumpy rooming-house mattress. A twinge of the North Korean shrapnel lodged behind his right meniscus reminded him about the weather. Classes at Celeryville High had already been called off at 5:30 am when his clock radio went off on the nightstand. It was the first significant snowfall of the season. Hadn’t looked so bad, what he could see of Fairground Street under the light at the corner. He listened to the Farm Bureau livestock report and the Lapeer County Sheriff’s editorial in favor of more troops for Viet Nam. Then he took two aspirin and laid his bulk between the sheets again. Concern at the loss of rehearsal time for his three choruses didn’t keep him from falling back to sleep. Well, and he might have been just a little hung over.
Fully awake now, Glennie needed another drink. And more aspirin. What was that grinding? Sounded almost like their A26 Invader, dragging a rooster-tail of sparks down that temporary runway. Actually a sweet job by Captain Towne, with the landing gear all shot up. Just finding the place in the last little chunk the Allies still held in the South. Still owed him.
Glennie eased off the bed, which really wasn’t too bad. It had taken on most of his convexities in the two school-years he’d taught at Celeryville High. Lots of leg-room so he could position himself just right. Legs that now and then still produced specks of Chinese scrap metal. He parted the faintly discolored curtains. An orange city plow. Working on what? Maybe six inches? Plugging up all the driveways, as they rumbled by. Maybe if they didn’t do the side-streets right away, he could still get the big old Mercury out through the alley. Walking up town might be tough today, depending. But how about that eye-opener and then let’s see? First things first. Pain usually the first thing.
Glennie cracked the seal on a fresh pint of Maker’s Mark. He placed a kettle on the hot-plate for coffee. The room was big enough. Must have been the master bedroom at one time. Now there was a sink in one corner. A yellowing mirror above it. He could shave and wash up. For a bath, though, he had to go down the hall. A big claw-foot tub. Took forever to fill. Ol’ Gunderson down there soaking half the morning, usually, trying to get warm. Smoked herring wafting out of his room. You’d think an old Swede like that, the cold wouldn’t bother him. Snow nothing to them. Even up in Huron County, where Glennie owned a small farm, they took it in stride. Little snow belt there with the wind coming across Saginaw Bay. Bet they were having school.
So, mop the pits, at least. He ran water into the sink. He hit the Maker’s straight out of the bottle. Burned a nice one in there. Maybe better have some saltines until he could get to a diner. But it was working. Between the liquor and the aspirin. He flexed his knee. He tried to flex his big gluteus. They probably felt better than they looked. Stitched up like a tackling dummy. He peed in his slop jar. Almost full. Had beer last night. He’d substituted on a faculty bowling team. Stayed in the lounge too long afterward.
He made instant Sanka when the water boiled. He ran hot water in the sink. Poor light above the mirror but unkind nevertheless. Turning into an old man around the eyes. Might be time for a haircut, too. Ten days before the concert. Would he just need another trim by then? Sportsman’s probably open. He poured a snort into the coffee.
Ten days. They’d be OK. Holly and the Ivy coming together. Still, Still, Still. They picked that right up. Smiths and See—decent tenors. That little smart-ass Fritch had a good voice if only he could read music better. The rest just mimicking along. All of ’em’d be baritones in a perfect world. Thank God for his principal soprano, Joan Delman. And Sandra Gladwin held her own under that. All the altos were competent. Sandra, the Homecoming Queen. Family money and Dad on the School Board. Invested in a blueberry bog, or was it strawberries? Shipped berries all over the country. Surprised she took vocal music at all seriously. Could probably solo. Give her a verse of Jingle Bell Rock? ‘What a bright time, it’s the right time’…The guys just had to get the oooos right and it’d be…Maybe have the parents join in at some point?
He had great silver hair, though. Lots of the faculty said so. A few parents at conferences. Disheveled after last night. Skip the Brylcreme until the barber was done. He turned to the ancient, battered armoire and selected a pair of boxers. He was stuck with boxers. Jockeys chafed the scar tissue. These were silk, or that’s what they felt like. Could be some kind of new synthetic. But smooth. He needed the smoothness.
Yesterday’s slacks would do. He’d thought to drape them neatly over the ladder-backed chair before weaving to bed. Wallet still in there. He put on an old Shetland wool sweater. Yeah, that wind was coming up colder and damp last night when he finally went out to the car.
One more long pull on the Maker’s. Trench coat and scarf flung in different directions; the goofy stocking cap some of the less cruel students got a kick out of. When he’d squeezed his oxfords into galoshes, he was ready to face the elements. He slid the pint into one of the deep pockets where it clanked against his stadium flask. He pulled it out. A shot left in there. What the hell? Take both. Just remember some discretion. A last slurp of the coffee, going tepid.
Glennie trudged down the back staircase. The Mercury was certainly buried. Looked like some kind of sugar-cube castle under the dark grey sky. The untouched snow looked deep in the alley, too. Someone had shoveled a path across the back stoop and down the middle of the steps. Mr. Pelham? Mrs. Pelham in double babushkas, her thick specs fogged over in all weather? Whoever it was gave up when they reached the drift around Gunderson’s little Ford Falcon.
What Glennie needed first, he supposed, was a broom. Then he’d see about clearing a couple of tracks to get a running start. Barrel her toward the alley entrance. Fifty feet to 6th Street. Like nothing for the big eight-cylinder once he got her moving. There was no broom on the porch. The shovel was gone, too. He rapped on the kitchen door. No light on. Nuts. If his landlords were in the front room reading their morning paper, he’d have to pull a fire alarm to get their attention.
Glennie sighed and went around to test the depth of the alley. Maybe he could blast his way out anyway. But he had to lift his feet with some difficulty through the wet, heavy snow. Might be more than six inches. Hopeless, for the car. He paused at 6th Street, looked toward the corner of Fairgrounds then back at the forlorn Mercury. He drained the flask, the cold already probing for his wounds.
But he wasn’t going to sit around all day. It was just seven blocks, he reasoned, setting off. Have a coronary liberating that car. Here and there, ambitious citizens had cleared their little stretch of city sidewalk. Piece of cake. He heard a far-off plow still rumbling. He heard the whine of tires spinning. It didn’t take long for the wet snow to pack into an icy hamster wheel. Easy does it, Glennie thought. “Easy does it,” he told an elderly gentleman digging between 4th Street and 3rd.
Glennie wondered how long his plume of Maker’s Mark vapor would linger in the crisp air. Seemed colder by the minute.
Halfway down the first block of stores, he paused in front of Country Counter. Decent breakfast in there. If he could just get some space to himself at that namesake counter. Looked safe. Tables crowded but three empty stools at the back. Easy hop-up and into the Gent’s for his own warm-up.
Several of the other customers greeted him; the sort of “hello, good morning’ he’d expect from people who might recognize his face but not recall his name. He returned a smile and a nod, proceeding straight to the farthest stool. He hoped there was a half-roll of peppermint Lifesavers still in his pocket. Get one started. Luckily, he’d been in Country Counter enough to simply tell the waitress: “The usual.”
“Black coffee, right?” The middle-aged gal smiled, her eyes shifting to his silver coiffure.
She winked, too, so Glennie couldn’t just wink back to affirm. “And keep ‘er coming,” he said. Then he winked anyway.
The usual was a special which included corned-beef hash with two eggs over easy. They served it with a dish of baked beans. That made it “country,” Glennie figured. He rose and ducked into the john, hoping the gal would remember Texas toast, as well.
He locked the door of the single stall and tipped the pint while urinating. He couldn’t help smiling to himself. But he wasn’t drunk. He’d know drunk. What did the kids say now? Getting high? Or was that for something else? He washed his hands then lifted his knee. Not bad. Not bad at all, even after his hike.
The platter awaited when he emerged. Texas toast, alright. He ate slowly, savoring. Kill some time before getting the trim. The one tavern uptown would be open after that. Have a few sociables before lunch. He cut bites of egg and hash to lay on the toast. Be nice if everything got along inside. Should have asked her to leave it dry. Butter OK for now, in his mouth at least. The waitress topped off his coffee. A bell clanged above the door; more leaving now than entering.
After dragging the meal out for nearly an hour, including two more trips to the can, Glennie left an exorbitant tip. Well, you never knew. He struggled back into the overcoat, the heavy pocket clanking against the back of an adjacent chair.
“You stay warm,” the waitress said, Glennie’s five quarters already vanished into her change apron.
In the middle of wrapping the scarf, this time on the outside of his collar, he fumbled for a snappy reply. “Keep moving,” he laughed. “The secret. I mean, to staying warm.” Good grief. Was that even coherent? Better just shut up and smile.
“Well, you have a great day.”
“An’ you,” Glennie managed.
At the next corner, he waited then turned up Capac Avenue. Three stoplights in the town. Traffic churning the slush at all of them. The pole at Sportsman Barber Shop turned in the translucent window. Busy, the broad glass steamed with the gossip and opinions inside. He knew there would probably be students. Couldn’t see who, exactly. He tried to manage the very last Lifesaver without removing his gloves but fumbled it into the snow. Like a real life-ring on a cresting whitecap, he watched it drift out of reach. Going to be an informal setting. Needed to use his head. He pushed into the shop.
He realized, later, that he should have looked closer before taking a seat. Against the wall there were only two empty folding chairs left. So, little choice anyway. He eased his frame, suddenly weary, into the one next to the cluttered magazine table. He selected a year-old Reader’s Digest.
“Well, hello, Mr. Milford. Can’tcha say ‘hi?'” It was Sandra Gladwin nudging him. “Enjoying your snow day?”
Glennie turned with a start. Then he saw her boyfriend, Dick Boughner, his college length hair being judiciously snipped. Last year’s Salutatorian. Must be home for midterm break.
After retrieving the Digest from the floor, Glennie turned halfway toward the girl. He breathed through his nose. But, my God, she smelled like fresh laundry. “Ahh. Uh…Sandra!” He turned away to take a breath over the magazines. He nodded at Dick, who couldn’t quite smile. “You know, i’s quite a…well, i’s a coincidence…,” he began, then lost the thought.
“OK? What is?”
Glennie stood back up and slipped out of the scarf and coat. He laid them on the magazines because all the coat-hooks were full. “Well, I happen t’ve been thinking about you. You know, this morning. I was worrying ’bout the Holiday concert and …”
“Really,” Sandra interrupted. “Are you OK? You sound…But you were thinking about the concert which led you to think about me.”
Glennie ran fingers through his hair. Now there was no way to avoid facing the girl. He looked straight into her eyes but then spoke toward some possibly safe spot above her head. “Well, uh, sure. I guess that follows. But see, what would you say to a li’l…Well, d’ya think you might be ready to solo? Is that something you’ve ever been…? Jus’, uh, maybe one li’l verse’s all?” A chill ran up his back beneath the heavy sweater, yet he felt as though his face must be flushed.
“No kidding!?” Sandra’s smile came back full and she sat up straight.
There was still something like puzzlement in her expression. Glennie couldn’t ignore that she seemed to be surreptitiously sniffing. Trying not to be obvious about it. “If ya think you’re…you know, if you’re ready. I don’t wanta pressure anybody t’…”
“Wow, Mr. Milford! My Dad and Mom will absolutely freak out!”
Glennie stepped back, bumping into Boughner’s feet. “Beg pardon? I don’t…”
Sandra giggled. “I mean, they’ll be very happy. You wouldn’t believe it to hear him bossing people at work, but he’s actually crazy about choir music.”
Still breathing through his nose, Glennie realized he wasn’t getting enough air to go with all the alcohol. Almost lightheaded, the half-baked thought occurred that he might do a little shilling for the music programs. “Don’t know him ‘cept from Board meetings an’, but…I gotta ‘mire your ol’ man. What I’ve heard. Pulled himself up. ‘Til these days he’s plain fartin’ through silk.”
Sandra’s jaw went slack. Her blue eyes opened even wider. Glennie glimpsed Dick shifting uncomfortably beneath the barber’s bib.
“What was that?” Sandra croaked. “What in the world do you…?”
“Hey, now, Mr…I’m sorry, I don’t remember your..,” Dick spoke. “What kind of a thing is that to say?”
Glennie’s heart sank. “Oh! No! Gosh, no, kids! It’s meant as complimen’ary, a compliment. Refers to somebody from humble or’gins. Only they lift ’emselves up! They earn some…sophistication, I guess you’d call it.”
“Sounds kinda gross, though, Mr. Milford,” Sandra said.
“A little off-color, too,” Boughner added.
Glennie swallowed. Was that tap-dance going to be sufficient? His stomach gurgled. All that margarine. They really slathered it on thick. “It’s like with me. Jus’ a farm boy from up in Bad Axe, but ended up flying inna Korea…conflict. But I used that GI Bill. Never woulda gone in ed’cation. Anything like performing arts. Never woulda got outta herding dairy. But…” And that’s when the baked beans delivered the coup de grace to his wriggling. With no warning of sphincter pressure, he broke wind loudly in the close, humid space; a flatulence that electric clippers could not hide. Nor would the silk boxers contain his stench for more than a few seconds.
“Oh! For heaven’s sake!” Sandra Gladwin leapt to her feet
“You, are in some deep trouble, mister! I thought I smelled liquor the moment you came in!” Dick Boughner sputtered as he fought his way out of the bib and tried to stand. The barber jumped back, mirror still poised.
Glennie spread his hands. “Awww, c’mon,” he implored. Then he just had to laugh at the situation, the futility of further squirming. “Was jus’ a practical…jus’ a demonstration, kids.” As the methane reached his nostrils, he laughed even harder, thinking: more oxygen deprivation. “I wasn’t lyin’ though, was I? Went right on through!”
“Oh, my god!” Sandra was already flinging herself into her pea-coat. She slapped a scarf over her nose and throat. “Pay the man, Dick! This is absurd!”
Boughner nodded at the barber’s work then dug for his wallet.
“So…you don’t prob’ly wanta solo then, I guess?” Glennie took a step toward the empty barber chair. Might as well get it done; take a few minutes to relax and reassess. He watched Sandra stalk through the snow to an older Cadillac. She waited for Dick to open her door.
No doubt there were factions at play on the Celeryville School Board, perhaps members resentful of Mr. Gladwin’s nouveau riche bullying. Or maybe Glennie’s war record and Purple Hearts came to light. He was not summarily dismissed but was allowed to resign.
The little farmhouse two miles from Lake Huron looked like a Christmas card. He didn’t try to go all the way up the unplowed driveway. Before lugging his bags in, he checked the mailbox and found his Veteran’s disability check. Right on time. In the chilly kitchen, he noticed an interesting ad on the front page of the Harbor Beach Advertiser: A call for applications to direct something called the Huron County Festival Chorus. Hmmm. Might be worth looking into if it paid.
The last piece of mail contained an offer of top dollar to harvest select hardwoods from his sixty acres of forest. He’d been about to toss it into the wood-stove but laid it on his desk. Looked like he might not have to do any sub teaching right away. Looked like if he kept leasing his cornfields to hunters, the silk boxers would continue to be in order.
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