From Issue 18: Picking up the Pieces

Mary Ann Presman

Deep in a daydream, Janet almost launched into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” instead of “Lamb of God” at Communion. That would have been embarrassing. As it was, she saw Father John glance up at her in the choir loft—he heard that first errant note before she recovered, remembered where she was.

Which was at the organ for eight o’clock Mass at St. Seraphina’s Catholic Church, just hours away from her shift as a Guest Services Ambassador at Wrigley Field. These two occupations were not to be confused, although both were performed in what Janet regarded as rarefied air.

Janet loved to bring the entire congregation to its feet with a hymn that resounded through this beautiful old church in Chicago’s K-Town. Dust mites mingled in the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows; the smell of old wood and a trace of incense hung in the air. The ten o’clock Mass featured music provided by a trio of Spanish guitars, but this early Mass was traditional, old school—with the kind of music that had been played for decades in St. Seraphina’s. No choir now, granted. Just Janet, creating majestic music befitting the solemnity of Sunday Mass. 

As soon as Mass was over she would duck into the ladies’ room and change into her Cubs’ blue, tucking her fifteen extra pounds under the loose-fitting jersey and her still-auburn curls under her “C” cap.  She made a bee-line for the CTA stop at Pulaski and 21st and caught the Pink Line north. It took about an hour to get to Wrigley Field—transferring to the Red Line along the way—but she always arrived in plenty of time to check in and then begin greeting the enthusiastic fans arriving early for Cubs baseball. This was the best job ever. Sure, some people got a little testy when you had to make them move because they weren’t in the right seats—she could nominate many for Academy Awards the way they feigned surprise that their tickets weren’t for Section 131, but for Section 431. 

But how about being part of all the excitement at Wrigley? The Cubs were having the best year they’d had in a long time, certainly the best since she’d started ushering—‘scuse me, greeting patrons as a Guest Services Ambassador. And she worked the section above first base, where that cutie pie Anthony Rizzo performed his magic. She was right there to see him climb the rail and perch atop the rolled up canvas to catch that fly ball. And she got paid to be there! Well, granted, not that much—but she didn’t have to fork over the big bucks that people who bought tickets did. Her favorites were the Friday afternoon games—sunshine, green grass, the smell of those kosher dogs on the grill. So what if it had been over a hundred years since the Cubs had won the World Series?

Janet had not been working at Wrigley all that long. It was a much coveted job among seniors—and Janet was only sixty-one. But her regular job during the week was in the office of St. Seraphina’s School, so she had the summers off anyway and decided about ten years ago to look into the possibility of being a Wrigley Field usher.  The season started before school was out, of course, and then extended into September (and October if they were lucky!) after school started up again. But the heaviest attendance coincided with Janet’s summer off, and she had no trouble working the minimum number of games in order to guarantee being hired back the next year.

This year, there’d been no problem at all because there was no St. Seraphina’s School anymore. It was just one of the many schools the diocese had to close because there weren’t enough kids to fill the classrooms. So Janet joined the ranks of the retired, a few years earlier than she planned. 

Luckily, she didn’t have to pay rent or a mortgage payment. Her parents had bought this 2-flat before Janet was even born, living downstairs and renting out the upstairs apartment to help make the mortgage payment. It was a good deal then, and although the neighborhood had changed some since, it was certainly a good deal for Janet. She lived alone; her mom had died young—younger than Janet was now, come to think of it.  Then her dad died just about ten years ago, after more than a few years of Janet caring for him, taking him to doctors’ appointments, cooking their evening meal. After he passed is when she decided to become a Cubs usher, when she suddenly found herself with lots of free time in the summers.

“Now with the school closed, I have lots of free time in the winter,” Janet remarked to Frieda, one of the other ushers. “I can only stand to watch so much TV.”

“You need to get yourself a hobby,” Frieda said. “My sister and I took a knitting class together and now I’m knitting up a storm all winter long. It’s good therapy.”

“I don’t see myself as a knitter.”

Frieda shrugged and turned to the couple coming up the steps, “May I see your tickets, please?”

What Janet really wanted was to be the full-time organist at Wrigley Field. She knew she had every bit as much musical talent as Gary Pressy, sitting high up in his booth above home plate, playing “Good Vibrations” when Anthony Rizzo came up to bat, “Bailondo” when Miggy Montero approached the batter’s box. Wasn’t it time for someone new up there? Like Janet? She could dream.

When October came and the Cubs weren’t in the World Series again that year, Janet saw a flyer at the grocery store for classes at the art supply store near the Pink Line station. Maybe she’d just stop in and look around. 

That’s how she found herself gluing little pieces of ceramic tile to a plate in November. There were a half-dozen women in the mosaic tile class, some with plans to create Christmas gifts; others—like Janet—wanted to do something artistic without necessarily being able to draw or paint. With a great deal of help from their instructor, who was also the store owner, Janet created a plate with a deep green background and a pretty white dove. Christmas-y. And not bad for her first effort.

The store provided all the supplies for their first projects, but then Janet and her classmates were advised they might want to begin to acquire some of their own materials. Over the winter months Janet spent a lot of time browsing at flea markets and tag sales, rummaging through her own attic. She spread the word among her siblings—her two married sisters and her one sister-in-law—that she’d be happy to take off their hands any cast-offs: odd plates, saucers, leftover squares of ceramic tile from bathroom or kitchen remodeling jobs. Preferably solid-colored. Flat pieces were better than curved, but she could make some of the slightly rounded pieces from mugs or vases work.

Janet wasn’t quite sure what her next project would be, but she wanted to have raw product on hand for when the inspiration struck her.

In the meantime, she snuck into St. Seraphina’s on weekday afternoons when nobody was around to practice ballpark songs on the organ. She had “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Go Cubs Go” down pat, but wanted to work on the other songs that a savvy Wrigley Field musician might play to entertain the crowd on a sunny day in what Steve Goodman called “that ivy-covered burial ground.” You never know, Gary Pressy might have a heart attack and keel over. Somebody had to be ready to step in. Janet was determined to be that somebody.

“Hey, Janet, are the Cubs coming to Mass Sunday?”

Janet nearly jumped out of her skin. There was Father John, right behind her, grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh, sorry, Father.”

“Hope I didn’t scare you?”

“No, no. Well, maybe a little. I wasn’t aware anyone else was in the church.”

“I heard the music when I left the rectory next door and thought I’d better stop in to check it out,” the genial priest told her.

“Sorry, Father.”

“No need to apologize. It’s probably good for the organ to get used now and then between Sundays.”

“It probably is,” Janet was quick to agree. “I was going to start practicing some of the music for next Sunday’s mass next.”

“Right.” Father John looked at her a little quizzically. 

“It’s so cold out, I thought a little baseball park music might warm things up.” Janet was grasping for some sort of explanation.

“Aha! Next thing you know I’ll be hearing luau music,” he beamed at her. “Should I go get my ukulele?”

She laughed. “I didn’t know you were a musician, Father John.”

“I’d have to get myself to Confession if I said I was, Janet. I don’t really have a ukulele—I was just kidding. You’ll forgive me, won’t you?”

Janet could feel her face redden. She issued a strangled giggle.

“Not to worry,” Father John said. “There’s no sin in a feeble joke. I apologize for interrupting your practice session. I’ll be off.” The priest patted her on the shoulder and then was off down the steep steps from the choir loft, whistling “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as he descended.

She waited until she heard him go out the heavy front door, then opened the hymnal on the music stand and launched into “Soon and Very Soon,” one of her favorite recessional hymns.

Later, as she was in the kitchen warming up last night’s goulash, Janet wondered if she felt more guilty about getting caught playing baseball music on the church organ, or about her half-heartedly wishing some mishap might befall Gary Pressy. Maybe her wish was even more than half-hearted. She couldn’t recall ever wishing real harm to anyone before. 

Except maybe Bruce Osinski, that painter she had hired a half-dozen years ago to paint the entire upstairs apartment between renters. He had flirted shamelessly with Janet to the extent that she daydreamed about giving up her virginity—along with her spinsterhood, of course—until someone at school told her he had a wife and four little Osinskis at home. Janet considered two possibilities: murder Osinski by sticking his head in a paint bucket, or joining the convent. Within a week, the painting job was done, Bruce Osinski was gone, and she returned to the safety of life as usual.

Just thinking about that painter person sent Janet to the corner of the basement where she hammered plates to pieces. The long-neglected ping-pong table was her work space. She donned her safety glasses and chose a pretty turquoise dinner plate from the cardboard box on the floor. She set the plate face down on the old blanket she used to cushion the blows, picked up her hammer and BAM! smashed the plate right in the middle. That first blow was always the best. Janet wasn’t crazy about the grouting part, but she loved the smashing part. The blanket helped keep the pieces on the table, which she proceeded to hammer into smaller and smaller pieces until she had chips suitably sized for ceramic tile work. 

Only one plate tonight. This was exhausting work, and although Janet was in good shape, the Cardinals were coming to town tomorrow and there’d be a big crowd at the ballpark.

Friday afternoon at Wrigley, the wind blowing out. “There must be forty-thousand here today, don’t you think?” Frieda speculated.

“It’s always this way with the Cardinals,” Janet agreed. It was the top of the seventh and the Cardinals were up 4-3. Many of the Guest Services Ambassadors found themselves with little to do.  Janet made her way up toward the organist’s perch—she wanted to see Gary Pressy accompany the guest conductor—some hockey player she’d never heard of—in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning stretch.

Pressy looked disgustingly healthy. If she was going to wait for him to drop over from a heart attack, she’d have a very long wait. Janet knew he took good care of himself, worked out daily, even took the stairs all the way up to his organist’s booth instead of the elevator. She had to admire the way he led the hockey player–who had no voice at all, by the way—and the crowd, with the right pace so everybody could keep up. It was a highlight of every game; they really didn’t need some no-name celebrity to “lead” the crowd.

When the song ended, Pressy got up and looked as if he was going to leave his perch—something he rarely did during a game. Maybe he needed a bathroom break. Janet was close enough to the door to the booth; she could reach out and touch him if she wanted. Or she could stick her foot out and see what happened. Maybe Pressy would fall to the cement steps and get one of those concussions everybody is suddenly talking about. Wouldn’t that be a shame? After the medics hauled him away, she’d be right there. Nobody would suspect her, and she could just slide in there on the organist’s bench and finish playing for the rest of the game.

The next day they’d come to her and ask her to finish out the season.

Janet glanced down at the grassy green field which would become her domain. She saw Anthony Rizzo taking practice swings in the on-deck circle and realized he was up next. He could hit a homer and tie up the game. 

But he probably wouldn’t if she tripped Pressy and created a scene. A distraction. A jinx. A new Chicago Cubs Curse.

Janet turned and descended to her place in the right-field stands. She didn’t know if Pressy even ever left the booth, maybe he was just stretching.

That night she found a small vase in her basement stash that was just the right shade of blue and brought the hammer down with a shattering blow. There were enough red chips left from a previous project; she could make a tile with the Cubs logo to set on the windowsill over her kitchen sink. This could be the year.

 

Mary Ann Presman is a retired advertising copywriter and a Chicago Cubs fan. “Picking Up the Pieces” is part of a collection of short stories entitled “The Good Dishes.”