Story Excerpt

Ticking of the Big Clock

by O’Neil De Noux

Big-Clock__RChironnaArt by Ron Chironna

Ester wondered, as she walked past the inn, if everyone looked at the big clock as they passed. The clock must be three feet in diameter, white hands on a crimson face. Coated with luminescent paint, the hands picked up the headlights of vehicles passing along Esplanade Avenue so anyone could tell the time—day or night. The clock hung above the inn’s front door alcove, the inn’s name standing out in large neon lights, crimson letters on the white wall above the clock:

Crimson Clock Inn

established 1893

The clock’s big hand pointed to the nine, the little hand nearly to the five, 4:45 a.m. Ester had fifteen minutes to walk around the next corner to be on time for work when Mr. Angelette opened the bakery. She crossed Esplanade to the small neutral ground, stepped between two towering oaks to the other side of the avenue, and then up Royal Street. The neon sign above Angelette’s Bakery flickered on as Ester stepped to the door and Mr. Angelette opened it.

“Good morning. Good morning.” Bald, portly Mr. Angelette, in all white with a heavy white apron dotted with dough, smiled and moved aside to let Ester into the pristine bakery showroom filled with strong, wonderful aromas of freshly cooked bread and sugar.

She took her purse into the back room and drew down a fresh apron. She checked herself in the mirror, tucking a loose strand of hair back into place before peeking through the back door, where Carl shoved three loaves into one of the ovens. He spotted her and smiled and she smiled back and went up front to the counter to help Mr. Angelette fill the glass cases with eclairs and donuts and cakes and brownies and other confections. Mrs. Angelette, in a white dress, standing nearly as wide as her husband, took charge of positioning the goods in the cases. Carl came out with fresh loaves of French bread and baguettes and rye bread and muffuletta loaves dotted with sesame seeds.

Their eyes met and Carl gave Ester that familiar, warm look. She felt the stirring inside, like a nervous twitch. Carl’s eyes, darker brown than Ester’s, seemed to sparkle this morning. She wondered what was on his mind.

“I was thinking,” he said in a low voice as he slid a tray of croissants into the glass case. Casablanca finally made it to the Saenger. Wanna go tonight?”

Ester felt a warmth in her chest, felt her heartbeat for the first time that morning.

“Oh, yes.”

“Good. It’s Friday. Mrs. J will fry fish and French fries. We’ll go to the seven ten showing.”

He left her with a smile on her face, this great looking guy with the dazzling smile, cleft chin. As he stepped back to the ovens, she watched his limp, the way his hip rolled as he moved. How many times in the three months she’d worked here had she explained to the curious it wasn’t a war wound? Carl could not go to war with his two brothers, one fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, the other fighting Nazis in Europe. It was nothing traumatic, she told old Mrs. Huffington who always wore mink, Carl Lawrence’s left leg was shorter than his right leg. He was born that way.

The hours seemed longer than usual, and Ester hardly ate any of the egg salad sandwich she brought for lunch. Carl’s shift ended at noon and on his way out he made sure to catch her eye as he passed behind the line of customers at the counter.

“See ya’.”

“See ya’,” she answered, and went back to her customer and let her mind drift back to all the lonely nights she spent since coming to New Orleans from her papa’s strawberry farm in Tangipahoa Parish. Lonely nights before Carl finally seemed to notice her. Hard not to. She lived in the same boarding house. Worked with him.

When she came to New Orleans, Ester had found a job quickly at Lucky’s Auto Repair Shop working the phone and accounts, but the men were creepy. Oily, filthy with filthy mouths.

“You ain’t no beauty,” her former boss told her. “But you got what counts, nice tits and a cute round ass, which he referred to as her meal ticket. “Come park your meal ticket on my lap, Babycakes.”

She was afraid to walk out without a reference until one of the grease monkeys ordered a hum job. When he explained he meant oral sex, Ester was gone.

Mr. Angelette never acted that way. Maybe because of his wife and his two daughters who worked the counter when Ester got off at two o’clock. Maybe because he was just a nice man.

 

The crimson clock read 2:10 as Ester hurried along the banquette. Her heel caught on the uneven sidewalk and she almost tumbled. She went around the corner at Chartres Street to Mrs. Joeffle’s rooming house, rushed in, and went upstairs to her top-floor room. According to Mrs. J, the house was a Queen Anne style, built by a wealthy family around the turn of the century. It was now divided into eight apartments, Ester’s the smallest. She drew a bath and sank into it, washed her light brown hair, and refilled the tub to lay in it until the water cooled.

The jittery feeling in her stomach returned and she gently rubbed it. She should see a doctor. She was sure she was pregnant, although she’s had no morning sickness. Ester had missed her period, a girl who was always regular. She closed her eyes, replayed the conversation with Carl the first time they did it. Up here in her room, they didn’t mean it to happen and he’d paused, said they needed to be careful. They were there, at the edge, poised and panting and she gave him the lie she’d seen a woman use in a movie.

“We don’t have to be careful,” she said, almost panting with desire. “I can’t have a baby right now. The doctor says I need a procedure. A minor operation before I can bear children.” The lie came so easily and the lovemaking was ecstasy. If she got pregnant she would have Carl’s baby and he would stay with her. She knew he would even if he’d never told her he loved her.

Ester climbed out of the tub, toweled off, and set her wind-up alarm clock and climbed into bed. Too excited to nap, she closed her eyes anyway. The alarm woke her two hours later. Now it was time to decide on an outfit and put on makeup. Try her best to cover the flaws in her face. Not flaws, she told herself. Her eyes on the narrow side, mouth thin, chin too large to hide. Ester sucked in a deep breath and started.

Carl’s eyes were much darker brown—as dark as a Hershey’s kiss; his hair was darker brown with a natural sheen. He towered over her at six one, with muscular arms and a chiseled, hairless chest.

Not much she could do with her figure that wasn’t a figure—a thick body with hardly any waist. She brushed her hair. Nothing she could do with it either. Limp, straight hair that hung like mop string to her shoulder. It wouldn’t hold a curl. It just lay there. Maybe she could get a clever haircut?

By the time she went down the back stairs in the only dress Carl had not seen her wear—a pale orange sundress shorter than dresses worn before the war—she found Carl sitting out on the back gallery. He turned when she stepped out and put a finger over his lips. She tiptoed over to see a fat calico cat eating from a bowl at the bottom of the steps.

“She’s gonna have kittens soon.”

Ester stood next to Carl. The cat’s eyes on her now as it ate.

“Can you pet her yet?”

“She lets me, but she’s wary of anyone else.”

Ester backed away and Carl stood and looked at her.

“You look nice.”

“Thank you.”

He stepped back to the screen door and opened it for her. They moved into a hall filled with the sharp scent of fish frying. They went in separately and sat apart. Couldn’t let Mrs. J know what was going on. Boarders were not supposed to fraternize. The wily old woman might know what was going on but no sense flaunting it in front of everyone.

***

The rain let up by the time Carl and Ester climbed off the streetcar.

“Up on the banquette,” he said, taking her hand.

“I’ve been meaning to ask why y’all call sidewalks banquettes?”

“French for a river bank.” He pointed to the street. “Street’s lower than the banquette so we can walk where it ain’t flooded when it rains.”

She squeezed his hand and pulled him close as they both looked up at the crimson clock when they passed, saw it was 10:05. Casablanca ran a hundred and two minutes, starting after ten minutes of newsreels about the war and Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker cartoons. They had stopped for coffee at the Sunshine Diner on Rampart before catching the streetcar back.

Carl waited at the corner of Chartres and watched Ester go into the boarding house first. For ten minutes, he thought about Ester, worried how she’d grown clingy lately, giving him sad, needful looks. Pulling him close as they sat in the theater. She watched him as much as she watched the movie.

Six months. They’d been going out for six months, both filling lonely, empty nights with occasional passion, smiles at work, walks through the French Quarter, picnics in City Park. But it wasn’t love. At least he hoped it wasn’t. This was no love affair like Rick and Ilsa. He couldn’t imagine looking into Ester’s plain eyes and saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

There had to be more to love.

After ten minutes, as the rain approached again, falling on the oaks, dropping on his shoulders, Carl ran to the door and got in before the deluge. Old Mr. and Mrs. Cross looked up from their books as they sat in the living room when Carl moved past the door. Carl removed his shoes before going up the back stairs to Ester’s room where she lay naked atop her covers, the light down low.

 

On the way to work Monday morning, the umbrella kept Carl’s head dry, but that was all it did. By the time he crossed in front of the crimson clock reading 3:05, he started jogging. Water splashing from the concrete banquette soaked his pants. Mr. Angelette let him in quickly.

“I have an extra raincoat, boy. I will give it to you.”

Mrs. Angelette stepped up with a towel just as the phone rang. She hurried to answer as her husband and Carl went in back to fire up the ovens. Mr. Angelette started mixing the donut dough while Carl started up the French bread.

“That was the Crimson calling,” Mrs. A announced when she stepped back in. “Their driver left a note. He joined the Marine Corps. Can we deliver their order this morning?”

“Unless the streets flood.” Mr. A turned to Carl. “Feeling like a little drive?”

The rain stopped a little after Ester arrived at 5:02 and the men filled the back of the ’35 Ford Panel delivery van they used for deliveries before the war and gas rationing. The heat from the ovens had dried Carl’s clothes and he ran a comb through his hair before pulling into Royal Street, water halfway up the tires. He turned down Governor Nicholls to Chartres and up Esplanade to pull into the loading zone in front of the Crimson Clock Inn.

Early morning bright sunlight shimmered off the white walls of the three-story inn. Unlike the old mansions along Esplanade that were built for families, this building looked more like an apartment house. The crimson clock read 6:45 when Carl stepped in with his first tray of bread. A balding, thin man with a pencil-thin mustache standing behind the counter waved Carl to a hall on the right.

“Kitchen’s in back.”

Three trays of bread later, Carl brought in three boxes of donuts, then a tray of pies—apple, cherry, pecan, and lemon meringue. He put the pies next to the donuts, turned, and a young woman with a clipboard stepped into the kitchen, pointed to the loaves of bread with a pencil, and counted them.

Carl eased aside and watched her, this long-legged beauty in a dark blue dress with buttons up the front and wearing white high heels and stockings that made her legs look suntanned, which she was not, her face and arms a creamy pale pink. Her long, reddish-brown hair hung halfway down her back in waves. She turned to look at him and their eyes met, and for a heart-thundering five seconds they stared at each other.

“Same order each day for the rest of the week,” she said. “Only my father would like two boxes of croissants on Friday for the weekend.”

“Your father?”

“Yes.” Her green eyes still looking into his. “My father is Edmond Geret. He owns the place. I’m Miranda.” She stuck out her hand for Carl to shake and he wiped his hand on his apron first. A slight smile came to her lips when he did that and they shook hands.

“I’m Carl Lawrence. Guess I’ll be delivering until you replace your driver.”

“Yes.” She looked down at her clipboard, took a white envelope from it, and handed it to Carl. “Check’s inside.”

He thanked her and she looked down at her clipboard again, smiling wider, and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Mr. Lawrence.”

He turned and left.

 

Miranda watched him limp away and wondered if it was a war wound and immediately thought of her brother with the First Infantry Division in Sicily. The newspapers said the fighting was over on that island, and her brother never mentioned what was next for the Big Red One Division.

She blinked the thoughts away and went back up to the front desk. Carl was out the door now, limping down the steps to the white delivery van. He looked back before he went around to get in and he met her eyes and stopped. She was in the alcove now.

Miranda felt her hand rise and wave at him, and he smiled and waved back, went around the truck, and drove off. She thought, nice-looking fellow. Not a lot of them her age around lately, except for the foppish sons of the rich, the boys her father wanted her to meet. His lawyer’s son, banker’s son, a few from old, rich New Orleans families—all who managed to avoid going to war for whatever reason, usually getting their doctor to say they had flat feet or bad eyesight or worked in an industry too valuable to the war effort. No combat volunteers among those mama’s boys.

 

His hands still shook as Carl parked the panel van on Royal Street. He turned off the engine and sat for a few minutes, going over what had just happened at the Crimson Clock.

Miranda Geret. What a beauty, and that smile, the way she held herself with such confidence, a smart, pretty girl. Her dress was snug enough to show her figure and with the bottom two buttons unfastened, it showed her sleek calves and part of her thighs. His stammering heartbeat evened out and he took in a deep breath and went back to work, back to the oven heat and the yearning looks from Ester.

 

Tuesday morning arrived with more rain. Carl tried not to act too excited packing up the van. The crimson clock read 6:46 when he parked in front of the inn, and Carl spotted Miranda when he stepped into the inn with his first bread tray. She stood next to the front desk in another button dress, this one peach-colored, with two buttons unfastened up top and two unfastened along the bottom.

Leaning her back against the high desk with her feet crossed, toes pointed showing the muscle tone off her sleek legs, she smiled at him and asked if she could get the bellhop to help.

“No. I’ve got it.”

She followed him into the kitchen and he went back for more bread. It took him six trips to get everything. She checked everything, ticking it off with her pencil moving in the air. Standing closer to her, he picked up the scent of her light perfume. She’d pinned the sides of her hair up in barrettes and wore a thin gold necklace with a small round medallion.

Her eyes looked into his as she passed him another envelope. Several seconds passed before she asked, “Can you drive me to your bakery and then right back? I need to place a special order for Saturday and my father’s not here to drive me.”

“Sure.”

The rain was back and the bellhop opened a big umbrella for Miranda, who told Carl there was room under it. She took the umbrella from the bellhop. Carl jogged past her out to the panel van, opened the door, and brushed off the seat before climbing in the other side. Miranda slid the umbrella into the back.

“Better hold on,” he said. “I’m a terrible driver.”

She looked at him the way a puppy did when you made a strange noise, and he smiled at her and cranked up the engine. In the confines of the van, he could smell her perfume better. He watched the street as the wipers vainly kept the windshield clear. Typical of New Orleans, two blocks later, as he pulled up near the bakery, the rain slackened.

“Get under the umbrella,” she said as she climbed out, and Carl had to hustle around to get beneath the open umbrella, which she passed to him and tucked an arm into his as he led her to the bakery door. His heart beat so hard in his chest he wondered if she could feel it, her arm pressed against him.

They stepped in and moved around three customers at the counter. Ester gave Carl an owl-eyed look. Carl took the umbrella aside as Mrs. A came out of the back with two pies. He introduced Miranda and Mrs. A smiled—not a normal occurrence.

“She has a special order.”

“Okay, darling. What do you need?” Mrs. A picked up an order sheet.

Darling? Grouchy Mrs. A never called anyone that before. Then again, the Crimson Clock Inn was an important customer and the owner’s daughter had come to them today with a special order.

“We’re having a fiftieth anniversary luncheon at the inn,” Miranda said, pulling out a sheet of paper from her small purse, unfolding it, and passing it to Mrs. A.

Carl forced himself to keep from looking at Miranda. He tried smiling at Ester, but she kept the owl look in her eyes as she waited on a lady with a wide-brimmed rain hat.

“My cousin makes wedding cakes,” Miranda explained to Mrs. A. “He cannot make bread.” She turned and smiled at Carl. “Whoever heard of a baker who doesn’t make bread. Just cakes and sweets.”

Mrs. A glanced at Carl. “You’re dripping on the floor.”

Carl stepped into the back for a towel, felt Ester’s gaze following him all the way. He put on an apron and helped Mr. A.

A few minutes later, Mrs. A peeked in and said the young lady was ready. Carl tucked two small towels in the pockets of his apron and stepped back into the showroom to more customers, Ester’s owl eyes, and Miranda smiling at him from the door, umbrella at the ready.

Rain came in swooshes, windblown in waves, and they hurried into the panel van, both getting wet despite the umbrella. Carl passed one of the towels from his apron pocket to Miranda, and he wiped off his face and arms with the other before starting up the engine to make the slow ride back to the inn. He parked in the loading zone as another heavy wave of rain washed over the van. They waited.

“So, tell me about yourself, Mr. Lawrence.”

Carl leaned against the driver’s side window. He resisted looking at her legs and focused on those green eyes. He shrugged, said he was born and raised here.

“Went to Saint Anthony of Padua Grammar School, then Holy Cross.”

Miranda said she went to Cathedral Academy right in the French Quarter, then Sacred Heart. Both Catholic school kids. He was four years older.

She ran her towel across her neck again, then said, “I don’t want to get personal. But your leg. Is that a war wound?”

“No.” He looked at the rain splashing against the windshield. “I tried to enlist but they wouldn’t take me. I was born with my left leg shorter than my right.” He shrugged. “Even tried to join the merchant marine, figuring they could use cooks, but they said I probably couldn’t swim with mismatched legs. I told them dolphins don’t have legs and they swim pretty well.”

This drew another smile.

“I was trying to be funny, but they didn’t think so. Showed me the door.”

The rain stopped, like a giant spigot had been turned off, and Carl walked Miranda back into the inn. She told him she’d see him tomorrow morning. Backing away she added, “I’ll give you a quick tour of the place. Okay?”

“Okay.”

She liked him. He saw that. Probably not as much as he liked her but it was a start.

 

When the last of the morning rush of customers left with two loaves of French bread Ester took in a deep breath. She looked at the door. How long will it be before Carl returned? She held on to the counter and closed her eyes, snapped them open immediately as a vision of the pretty girl in the peach-colored dress flashed in her mind. The girl with Carl. The girl who looked right through Ester like she wasn’t there. Like the pretty girls in school used to do. She fought back tears and tried to control her breathing.

When Carl returned thirty minutes later, she forced herself to look at the customer she was waiting on. She rang up the sale, gave the old man his change, and saw Carl still there.

“You okay?” he asked.

She shook her head, wiped her eye, and said they need to talk after work.

“Okay.” He smiled. She tried her best to return the smile. She knew her face, when frowning, was hideous. As soon as he went in back, she wiped her brow and face. Sweating. She ran her fingers through her hair. Oily already.

Carl worked through lunch and Ester forced herself to eat her ham sandwich. She was eating for two now. The hours dragged until she was able to go home. She took a long, hot bath, put on another dress, and waited for Carl who worked late.

At supper, they sat apart as usual and Carl met her eyes a couple of times. She wondered if she would have to wait for Carl to sneak up to her room after midnight to talk to him until he said, “The rain’s let up. Who wants to go for a walk?”

She was the only one to raise her hand, and she followed Carl out to the street. The cool air felt damp on her face and smelled clean as if the city had been washed. She took his hand as they crossed the neutral ground and moved into the Quarter. Neither spoke as they walked along the narrow streets, the sound of their footfalls drowned out by passing cars. It wasn’t until he opened the door of Morning Call Coffee Stand did Ester realize why Carl had skipped coffee after supper.

They sat at the marble-top center counter with its wooden arch above the counter. The cafe’s name stood emblazoned across the arch with dozens of light bulbs reflecting off mirrors at the corners of the counter. Strong scents clashed in the narrow cafe—coffee, sugar, oil boiling in the stainless-steel cooking pits.

Carl ordered two coffees and two orders of three beignets, which the waiter brought right away. Carl picked up a silver shaker and slapped the bottom to sprinkle powdered sugar over the hot beignets—light French pastry—donuts without holes. Each took two teaspoons of sugar in the strong café au lait.

“So, what did you want to talk about?”

Ester let out a breath, looked at the windows along the Decatur Street side of the coffee stand.

“That girl.”

He took another sip of coffee.

“What about her?”

“She looked right through me. Pretty girls always look right through me.” She turned to Carl, struggled to keep her lips from trembling. “I don’t like the way she looks at you.”

He shrugged, said, “Oh.” He picked up a beignet.

“Or the way you look at her.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it, then took a bite of beignet.

Her shoulders sank and she added, “I just wanted to tell you . . .” Her voice faded.

“What?”

The clatter of coffee cups on saucers must have covered her words. She shook her head and bit into a beignet, felt the heat, maybe a hint of cooking oil in the pastry, the taste drowned by powdered sugar.

“Looking for someone?” she asked a half minute later.

“Huh? No.” He turned back to her, leaned close. “This place has the strangest characters.”

At one table a woman wore a Carmen Miranda hat with a banana, orange, lemon, and small pineapple. She sat with a man in a striped serape and a Mexican sombrero hanging on his back. At another table a man with pale white skin and wearing a black tuxedo had finished his beignets and licked the powdered sugar off his fingers, dabbed them into the pile of sugar still in the saucer, and sucked the sugar off each long finger.

“So that’s what’s bothering you?” Carl put his hand over Ester’s. “I’ve only seen her twice. At work. I’m sure she has a boyfriend or two, maybe even a husband.”

“Are . . . are you . . . my boyfriend?”

She caught him biting off another piece of beignet. He kept eating.

It wasn’t until they were crossing the neutral ground back on Esplanade did Ester pulled Carl’s hand to stop and told him, “I’m pregnant.”

In the darkness beneath an oak she could see the outline of Carl’s face. The streetlight filtering through the trees caught his eyes and they were wide, and Ester thought she saw something else in them, a look she’d seen in the movies just before they put a blindfold on a man about to be shot by a firing squad. . .

 

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. Ticking of the Big Clock by O’Neil De Noux

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