My mother had told me that walking to school through the stand of cedars on Lake Sacagawea’s banks, taking the well-traveled, wooden footbridge to cross the narrow lake, was the safest way to go.
As school began that day, the other 6th graders at our small Catholic school along with our teacher, Sister Caroline, had left me behind in the classroom. They had gone to the church next door to practice for the special service in a week. The archbishop was coming. As the only Episcopalian in the school, I wouldn’t be part of it. Sister Caroline told me I could draw or read. Whatever I liked while everyone was gone. It was 1950 and the church had rules.
I didn’t hear Mike, The Janitor, when he came into the room. I was looking out at the cedars across the street and the path leading back home. The trees stood in the thin Pacific Northwest sunshine. The light barely touched the windows, revealing small mud splatters, leftovers from last season’s hard rain.
Mike was stocky, and a few inches taller than I was. He was old with wiry white hair which rose up from his head. He always moved quietly. On that day he wore dark grey dickies, pants held up with suspenders. He was barrel-chested and walked slowly, as if something hurt.
As he moved to the back of the classroom, he went behind the large, free-standing bulletin board, with its seasonal decorations facing out toward the students’ desks, and its display of the best students’ gold-starred work. My work was always up there. Behind the bulletin board were hooks for the students’ coats along with cubbies to hold rain-boots and lunch pails. Sister Caroline always wanted things orderly behind the bulletin board.
Mike leaned out and called to me, not using my name. Just saying, “C’mere. I want to show you something.” I got up and walked slowly over to him.
As I came near, he gave me a hug and drew his right hand up to my small left breast as he held me close, rubbing me through my white uniform blouse with the Peter Pan collar. The service for the archbishop had to be perfect, and the practice seemed to go on for a long time. I became very still behind the bulletin board.
Why the left one?
Is there something wrong with my right breast?
I could smell the remnants of Mike’s breakfast, the bitterness of the coffee he always seemed to be drinking. He was breathing heavily.
After he was finished and as he went out of the room, he said, “Don’t worry. My granddaughters always like it.”
I was glad it was Friday. But over the weekend, I thought I should remember his words whenever I felt like telling my mother.
Kate Flannery lives in a small college town, where she also practices law. Her work has been published in Chiron Review, Shark Reef, Ekphrastic Review, and Golden Streetcar as well as other literary journals. Her heart remains in the Pacific Northwest where she grew up and returns occasionally to breathe.
Photo – Kendall Johnson