Darker days

The fretful buzz of the alarm, distant, and its cloying tone softened by suddenly depleted batteries, slowly – far too slowly – penetrated the enveloping layers of sleep and, unwillingly, Frank gradually surfaced, still feeling too tired for it to be already 'the hour'.

In fact, it was not - it was a full 30 minutes later.

Frank's eyelids creaked upward and, on seeing the minute hand ticking past 6:45, his eyes flew open like blinds released on the pull of their spring-load. The fact that the time was 'wrong' was immediately evident on his being sufficiently conscious to perceive his surroundings. In September, even when the sun retains its heat and cities become oppressive with humidity, the season has, nevertheless changed; the illuminating rays are starker, thinner and shadows draw out in naked contrast even at the peak of the day.

“Oh, crap,” he muttered and, his body still half-embroiled in somnolence, obliged and, he rolled clumsily onto his back. His mind began to click sluggishly, entertaining eventualities.

“Gonna be late for work – at least 15 minutes even if I make good time into the city.”

He took a great breath, gathering his strength, and allowed his lungs to slowly relax and expel it.

“I'm this tired,” he observed to no one and shook his head, “and it's only Tuesday.”

Still reluctant to leave the quilted comfort of the duvet, he thrust his legs from beneath and clumsily rose to sitting on the edge of the bed, his hand running over the burr of stubble on his chin. The urgency of getting moving began to press and, with an exaggerated movement reflecting his weariness, he stood and, feeling the cool of the chestnut flooring through the soles of his feet, he stumbled into the hallway.

On the way to the bathroom, he called out:

“Rach? Sweetie? Are you up? Rachelle? I'm sorry - I slept in. We've gotta get moving!”

There was no answer but, thankfully, he heard movement from the kitchen below. He sighed gratefully, preparing himself psychologically for an all-to-brief and less than satisfying shower. Heaving another heavy sigh, he closed the bathroom door and hastily began his morning routine.

Rachelle was his daughter – living with him in the comfortable, suburban townhouse after the dissolve of his marriage two years previously. At 16, he knew that she was possibly not the best daughter a father could ask for but, she was definitely not the worst. She was diligent in her studies, despite being in a new school for only two weeks. She had mentioned a 'Shauntelle' who, Frank hoped, might be a new girlfriend. She was affectionate and seemed to be staying away from boys – something for which Frank was eternally thankful, at least, for now. He knew that the divorce had bothered Rachelle and, possibly, coloured her view on relationships, since, sometimes, he found her to appear bitter and withdrawn; he tried to talk to her about it as much as he could. He also knew that he loved his daughter profoundly.

Fifteen minutes later, as the time ticked past 7 o'clock, Frank emerged from his frantic preparations and scooted back to his bedroom. He still imagined that he might be able to make up the time and get downtown on time.

In the bedroom, he quickly chose a suit and, while pulling on his trousers, he was simultaneously filling the pockets with wallet, keys and change. He pulled a fresh-smelling, white shirt from the closet and, after buttoning it, tucked it in and draped a tie across the back of his neck thinking to tie it over a hasty coffee in the kitchen. Finally, with his jacket across his arm and briefcase in his other hand, he left the bedroom and took the stairs, two at a time, down to the kitchen.

“Good morning, sweetie,” said Frank entering and depositing the case on the floor with the jacket draped over it. His daughter was on a stool at the kitchen nook, slouched over an enormous mug of warm milk with a dollop of coffee added. From behind, he touched her shoulder and then, passing to the side, gave her a kiss on the top of her head.

“Morning, Daddy,” she responded, sullenly. Frank made note her mood.

“I'm so sorry I slept in, Rach,” he offered. “Are you ready for school? Did you make your lunch?”

“I don't want to go to school today, Dad. I think I'm sick.”

At the counter, the carafe of coffee stopped versing into the mug while Frank took in what she said. Then he calmly proceeded but glanced to the clock above the refrigerator to gauge the passing time.

“So, you don't want to go, or you are sick – which is it?”

Rachelle sighed heavily and stared, lost, at the steaming mug.

“I guess I just don't want to go.”

Frank didn't know how much of a tug-of-war this was going to be. He hoped not a lot, however, as conscious as he was of the time, this was his daughter. He carefully plucked the mug from the counter and deposited it close to hers. He then took a stool beside hers.

“Do you want to tell me what's going on?”

Rachelle looked at him sidelong and then fully, biting her lower lip.

“It's just – I dunno – like, I'm the new kid and I think some of the other girls don't like me. I don't even know them but, they make it like there's something wrong with me. Can I just stay home for today? Please?”

Frank took in the offered information and nodded, sipping delicately from his coffee. He swallowed and cleared his throat.

“Look at it this way, Rach,” he began. “You are, effectively the 'new kid' but, I don't expect that there's any particular reason for anyone not to like you – you're a very sweet girl.” He surmised that there might be an issue with image and territory. He proceeded.

“You are also a pretty girl and they might be nervous about you.”

“I don't want to steal anyone's boyfriend,” retorted Rachelle.

“I didn't think so,” answered Frank, “but they don't know that, do they?”

“No,” answered Rachelle, reluctantly.

Frank swallowed deeply from his coffee and continued.

“Sweetie, can we make a compromise because it is already late and I don't want you missing school?”

Rachelle listened but did not respond.

“OK,” - he took it as a positive - “I'll give you some money for lunch and you get yourself ready,” he glanced at the clock, “in ten minutes. For today, do your best to stay away from any stressful situations – just look straight ahead and smile. Go to the library and study quietly and, tonight, we'll talk about this more. Can we do that?”

Rachelle huffed dramatically and said, “Yeah, I guess.”

“You're my good girl, Rachelle,” he said and offered her a quick hug before shooing her off to brush her teeth.

The time was 7:33.

In the back of the taxi that wasn't supposed to be, Rachelle fretted with her book bag and Frank drummed his fingers against his kneecaps. He began to wonder if this should not just be chalked-up as 'one of those days' and laid to rest as such. The taxi jolted to a stop at the curb in front of the high school.

“OK,” said Frank, extracting his wallet from his trousers. “Have you got everything? Got your cell?”

“I think so, Dad.”

“Here's a twenty - just in case, kay?”

Rachelle nodded and shouldered the bag. Frank reached out as his daughter took the money and he gave her a quick squeeze. In return, he received a peck on the cheek that made his heart glow.

“Thanks, Dad. You need to get to work. Bye!” Rachelle slid toward the door and began to step into the street.

“Yes, I do, sweetie. Bye! We'll talk tonight,” he shouted as the door slammed shut. Rachelle smiled and waved as the taxi lurched into motion toward its previously ordered destination and, from the rear window, Frank, smiling, watched his little girl sprinting toward the school steps.

True to her word, Rachelle had emerged in a little over fifteen minutes, dressed in a bright pink blouse over jeans and with matching canvas sneaks dangling from her fingers. It was in the driveway, however, that the situation had deteriorated. Repeatedly, the engine of the SUV had choked and refused to catch. After numerous tries, the battery began to fail.

Frank slumped over the wheel.

“We could just both play hookie today,” suggested Rachelle, grinning, and strapped into the passenger seat. Frank was not so easily swayed.

“I said you were getting to school,” he stated flatly and Rachelle deflated. He extracted his cell phone and dialed for a taxi.

Now, what seemed like endless time later, Frank checked his watch and the cabby studied him from the rear-view mirror while taking the ramp to the bridge.

“What time you due in, buddy?”

Frank looked up, hoping against hope that a good cabby could produce, from under his threadbare cap, a miracle.

“Uhn, officially 8:30 but, I'm usually there around eight,” he shouted across the sound of traffic.

“Yeah, we ain't gonna make it for 8:30 – maybe not too much past,” offered up the cabby. “It's gonna cost ya though.”

“I know – it's OK,” answered Frank. “Just get me there.”

“You got it.” The cabby nodded, focusing on navigating the bridge and, then, said, “Just one of those days, huh?”

Frank smiled, increasingly agitated for the lateness and simply responded, “Yeah, you could say that.”

Time passed, traveling slowly south and, two blocks short of his destination, Frank called the cabby up short.

“You can just drop me here.”

On the opposite corner was his habitual stop: Lenny's News and Gifts. Despite the hour, he could not forgo the newspaper purchased there nor the coffee at the shop on the corner one block south. The hour was what it was and, with his office in sight, towering over the city, a few more minutes did not seem to be so crucial. He paid in cash, leaving a generous tip and the cabby responded.

“You have a great day, buddy. Thanks for the fare!” With that, he cut into traffic and disappeared.

Lenny, it seemed was a bit of an institution on that corner, inhabiting, as it was, one of those prefabricated kiosks with the 'flip' front that, on a sunny day like it was, was drawn up allowing those sharp, angled and spare rays to penetrate and warm. Lenny had no last name that was known but, in his own mind, Frank imagined it would end in '-owicz', or something similar, given the corpulence of the fellow and his characteristically ethnic demeanour. As Frank arrived in front of the kiosk, Lenny's jaw dropped and his eyes widened. He looked at his watch, clasped to a fleshy wrist.

“Where you been, Mr. Ballestraccio? I've had this copy of the Times for you for three-quarters of an hour!” Lenny began to laugh.

“I'm so sorry, Lenny,” answered Frank, joining in as the paper slid across the desk. “I've been running a bit late this morning.”

“Thank you, by the way,” said Frank, retrieving the paper. “For saving it for me, I mean.”

“It ain't no problem, Mr. Ballestraccio. Besides, it's only 8:45 – you ain't gone too late.”

Frank nodded, smiling at Lenny, and quickly scanned the front page, squinting to read the headlines and the text that followed. The first that caught his eye was, 'Key Leaders Talk of Possible Deals to Revive Economy'. Frank resolved to get going and read it in a more in-depth fashion later. Lenny interrupted.

“You know, Mr. Ballestraccio, that's something about you that I like,” Lenny began in his unobstructed fashion. “You always polite even on a day, like today, when you running late and got's other things on your mind. You know, Mr. Ballestraccio, I seen lots of folks pass in front of my stand – some of them buy somethin' and some of them don't – but, it seems, to me that...”

Suddenly, Lenny's voice was drowned in a sonic wave of whining jet engines and, together, Frank and Lenny looked up, toward the brilliant, blue sky, surprised at the nearness of the sound and, in an instant, the shadow of an airplane crossed the sun, sending a stark shadow, fleeting, into the street.

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