Hank knew he was behind schedule. He promised to meet Essie at the St. Mary’s Fish Fry around 4:30 p.m. but work kept him late and it was all he could do to run home, shower, fumble with the buttons on his shirt and race up the block.
The church parking lot was already packed; as were the streets – Jefferson, Harrison and Roosevelt Drive; Barton’s intimate salute to past presidents.
Hank took a hop skip and raced past the grotto – he managed to get to the side door just in time to hold it open for Tootie Hefter. “My what a nice young gentleman you are Hank,” she said.
Hank ended up being the doorman for a couple more seniors as the cool night air was beginning to sweep between the buildings.
Essie was already holding down a chair.
Dressed in a simple blue dress Essie was getting some unsolicited attention from Bob Pick.
“You know when I was in the service we had to wait in line for three squares a day,” he said.
Essie nodded politely as Pick talked in her direction.
Bob was harmless as a puppy, but he could get underfoot. He had obviously found solace in home cooking since his days in the military. “And when we’d stand in line you could get a shave or a haircut, there was mail call, you could even get a perm,” he said.
“Sounds like it’s getting kinda deep in here Bob,” said Hank, in good natured fashion.
Oh my gosh, Essie was never so glad to see Hank in her life.
“I was in the service too Bob and it sounds to me like you had it pretty good.” Essie gave Hank a polite elbow and a look that said, “be nice!”
The hallway was busy as a July morning at the Farmers’ Market. Men with hot trays of fried fish dashed in through the side door and they were out again before you could drop a ball and scoop five jacks.
Children darted through the line; some moaned about the wait.
“Challenge you to a staring contest,” said one boy.
Essie and Hank both looked up. Did this boy realize who he was dealing with?
Essie and Hank knew they had a limited skill set but a stare down was one of their superpowers.
“You got this,” said Essie as she ‘volun-told’ Hank about his next 5 minutes in life. She patted him on the shoulder and quickly locked in on a conversation with Mary Moll.
“Didn’t I just rescue you,” called Hank….. and then he heard ‘Go!’
There was about 3-feet of breathing space between Hank and the boy.
The young man locked in a laser stare and Hank, deadpan, looked back. There was a bit of hooting and hollering as parents and the boy’s siblings chided his effort. “I didn’t blink yet,” said the boy. His pupils growing dry… and Hank, staring blankly ahead.
“I should have put money on this….,” he thought.
The line moved slowly and then in spurts. Essie grabbed a pair of fish fry tickets and was happy for some girl talk as she made her way into the gym.
There was a spirited environment as parishioners filled the tables spaced evenly across the gym floor. Folks exchanged stories about the work day and the weather.
Hank slid past the dessert table to grab a drink for dinner. “That’s going to be a collectors cap soon,” he said to the bartender.
Fried fish, potato salad, a small cup filled to the brim with applesauce, and a slice of rye bread. Hank and Essie carried their black plastic trays through the crowd – nodding salutations and weaving as they looked for a place to sit.
The pair spotted Mae Dricken sitting up on stage with her husband. Essie recognized the helpful clerk from the grocery – she gave a pleasant grin.
Reverend Nathan Reesman was already making the rounds, visiting each table and registering unofficial food reviews.
“Would you like some coffee,” said a little boy in a blue shirt and tie.
“No, thank you,” said Essie.
“Wasn’t your grandma going to be working tonight,” said Hank as he cleaned the last schmear of ketchup off his plate with a french fry.
Essie had completely forgotten. She started to scan the crowd … but had difficulty as it seemed every third person she saw was a small woman with white hair.
“Now that looks like a fox guarding the hen house,” said Hank. It was Luke Graf and his buddy in charge of distributing desserts.
“Awwww – applesauce,” said Luke.
“Applesauce? No thanks…. I just had some,” said Hank.
Essie rolled her eyes. “Boy humor,” she thought.
Hank had stopped the wheels of the cart with his foot. He was grilling the pair on what they were peddling. “Now what’s this,” Hank asked pointing to a piece of apple kuchen that looked like it measured 5 inches in each direction.
“Did you make any of these?” he teased.
Essie saw Tootie up by the dessert table. “Good luck boys,” she said as she got up to cross the room. “Pick me out something with lemon, Hank…. and don’t eat it all.”
Essie always liked Tootie. She was friends with her grandma. Nearly 91 years old she thought Tootie looked like she could start her own corporation. “You seen grandma,” asked Essie.
“Not since this morning,” said Tootie. “Saw her walking out of The Riverfront Dentist and then later she was gently giving Stacy what for at C&C Business Management. I figure she was ahead of all of us on getting money back from the government.”
Essie looked down the table at the vista of homemade desserts. “You seriously didn’t want something lemon,” said Hank.
Essie turned and watch as Hank, who held his fork like a shovel, gave a final morsel of lemon meringue pie a good home.
“You know that’s going right to your waistline,” she said.
Hank grinned. He had a bit of ketchup on the corner of his mouth…. and she wasn’t going to tell him.
“Miss Essie,” said a voice from below. “I saved you the last piece of lemon pie.”
It was Luke. His little round face beamed.
“Now I actually bought you that special…….,” said Hank, with a little cowboy twang.
“But Miss Essie,” pleaded Luke. “He was going to eat and I said ‘don’t you dare’ and then I grabbed it and ran past Hank and I even made it past Mr. Pick and the pie only brushed against my thumb once but don’t worry because my mom made me wash my hands twice before I started my shift tonight.”
“Well at least somebody knows how to spoil a lady,” said Essie – giving a quick smirk to Hank like he had been rightly shown up by a 9-year-old boy.
– – Build. Boost & Buy in Barton – – Shop these local businesses
Wisconsin House Woodworks
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Reflections by the River