It’s almost 12:30 when I’m done sweeping the front steps, so I go inside and stash the broom and dustpan and lock the closet door. In the foyer there’s a crisis hotline flier on the bulletin board; beneath it, next week’s sign-up sheet. Professor Wardlaw has volunteered for Friday, her usual night. I walk out of Cromer Hall and into a November day warmer and sunnier than you usually get in these mountains. The clock tower bell rings. In my mind I move the heavy metal hands ahead to 8:30 p.m. Kerrie has already finished supper and is getting ready to go to sleep. Over at the ATM, students pull out bank cards like winning lottery tickets. I wonder if there’s a single student here because of the Army college fund. The nice cars and SUVs, like the tuition, argue it unlikely. Probably not one of them ever thinks that, while they’re sitting in a classroom or watching a basketball game, kids their own age are getting blown up by IEDs. I think again about how we wouldn’t be in Iraq if there was still a draft. You can bet it’d be a lot different if everyone’s kids could end up over there. Just a bunch of stupid hillbillies fighting a stupid war, that’s what some jerk on TV said, making a joke of it. There are times I want to grab a student by the collar and tell them how good they got it. Other times I tell myself I’ve given Kerrie more than my parents gave me. But I also think how if I’d had more ambition years back and gotten a welding certificate or a two-year degree at Tech, maybe Kerrie wouldn’t be in Iraq.
I cross the street separating the campus from town and go into Crawford’s Diner. Professor Wardlaw’s in a booth with Professor Abram and Professor Lucas, who also have offices in Cromer Hall. Ellen brings my plate quick as I sit down at the counter. She has it ready since I get just 30 minutes for lunch. I eat free, a perk, like Dr. Blanton letting us use his computer. Ellen pours my iced tea and gives me a fork and knife and napkin.
“Not a good morning?” I ask, because Ellen’s waitress smile looks frayed.
“It’s been okay,” she answers, speaking softer as she nods at the professors. “That one with the black hair is who said it, ain’t she.”
“Yeah,” I say, “but she didn’t mean nothing by it, not really.”
“When they came in, I had a notion not to serve them at all,” Ellen says.
“You know, she does a lot of good,” I say. “She’s signed up this weekend, and it’s a holiday.”
“That still don’t excuse it, though,” Ellen says, and takes the water and tea pitchers off the counter.
I watch in the mirror as Ellen fills glasses and makes small talk, except at Professor Wardlaw’s booth. Ellen lifts her eyes as she passes so that even if they do want something she’ll not notice. I shouldn’t have told her what Professor Wardlaw said, or made it worse by pointing her out in the parking lot. Ellen’s as good a wife as a man could ask for, but she’ll hold a grudge.
I check the wall clock. It’s 12:50, so I finish and take the plate to the kitchen. Ellen’s there changing an order, and we talk a minute about Kerrie’s application. I come back, and the professors are going out the door, backpacks hanging from their shoulders. A single dollar bill is on the table. I leave, too, and walk back to Cromer Hall. Someone’s spilled a drink near the entrance, ice cubes scattered like dice across the floor. There’s a folding yellow caution sign by the entrance, so I set it up. I’m walking down the hallway to get my mop and bucket when I hear my name. Professor Korovich is standing by her office door, a stack of books in her hands.
“I have these for Kerrie,” she says.
I thank her and put them on the closet shelf beside the paper towels and disinfectants. I lift the mop bucket to the sink and fill it, pour in the Lysol and head down the hall. Professor Wardlaw’s office door is open, but she’s alone. I think about last month when Professor Korovich gave me some books and I’d stored them in my closet. When I came back up the hall, Professor Wardlaw was in her office talking to Professor Abram. Poor Nadia doesn’t realize that he’ll turn around and sell them, but better the flea market than the outhouse.
I mop the foyer and put the caution sign back up. I get my broom and dustpan and sweep the stairwells, then empty the bathroom trash cans and clean the toilets and sinks. When the 3:30 tower bell rings, the last classrooms empty, so I sweep them. Since tomorrow’s a holiday, most of the faculty’s gone home. I get out my master key and empty their trash cans. When I get to Professor Korovich’s office, the light’s still on. She’s been at the college only since August, and all her family is in the Ukraine. Sometimes we talk about how hard it can be when you’re separated from your loved ones.
I knock and she tells me to come in.
“How is Kerrie?” she asks, saying the name so the first part’s longer than the last.
“She’s doing fine,” I tell her.
“Less than a month now?”
I nod as I empty her garbage can.
“Not so long,” Professor Korovich says and smiles.
I ask about her family. She tells me her mother’s home from the hospital, and I tell her I’m glad to hear that. I thank her again for the books and close the door. By the time I’ve done all the offices, the hall clock says 4:20. I check the bathrooms a last time and punch out.
There’s a note tucked under my windshield wiper from Ellen saying she’s working till 5. I think about going to the cafe and having a cup of coffee but decide to wait in the truck. Sometimes I’ll find a Newsweek in a trash can to bring home, but I don’t have anything like that, so I look over the books Professor Korovich gave me. Three are about teaching, but one is called “Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov.” I open it and start reading a story about a man whose child has died. He tries to tell other folks what’s happened, but no one wants to hear it so he finally tells his horse. You’d think a story like that would be hokey, and maybe it is to some people, but when Ellen gets in the truck she asks if I’m okay. She says I look like I’ve been crying.
Before I can answer, Ellen raises her hands to her mouth.
“Kerrie’s fine,” I say quickly. “It’s allergies or something.”
Ellen’s hands settle back in her lap, but now they’re woven together like you’d do to say a prayer. Maybe she is saying one.
“Kerrie’s fine,” I say again.
“You’d figure it would be soothing that she’s made it this long,” Ellen says as I pull out of the lot, “but the closer we get to her coming home the scareder I am.”
I put my hand on her shoulder and tell her everything’s going to be fine. When we pass in front of the quad, we both check the clock.
“A bunch of folks came in for early supper, and Alex asked stay me to stay,” Ellen says.
“We’ll be on time,” I say.
“I did make an extra $9 just on the tips.”
“That’s good,” I say and smile. “You must have given them better service than I saw some folks get at lunch.”
I stop at a crosswalk and a group of college students passes in front of us.
“Alex said something to me about that,” Ellen says.
“No, but Alex don’t miss much.”
Ellen nods at the books between us.
“Professor Korovich gave us some more?”
“Yes,” I say. “Remind me to tell Kerrie.”
We get lucky on the lights, three greens and one red, but once we pass the city limits sign, a car is piddling along and I’m stuck behind it. The road’s curvy, and the driver’s going 30 in a 55 zone. It’s two miles before the road straightens and I can pass. By the time we pull into the lot that says Patient Parking, we’re running late, but Dr. Blanton’s car is still outside. We hurry in, and I tell him we’re sorry to hold him up.
“Don’t worry about that,” he says. “I’m just glad you won’t miss your call.”
He nods at the waiting room floor. There’s a red stain wide as a tractor tire.
“A logger nearly cut his arm off this morning. Tania and I got a lot of it up, but the floor needs a good scouring.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, and check the clock.
“I left five more dollars, for the extra work on the floor,” Dr. Blanton says, and takes out his keys. “Tell Kerrie the man that brought her into this world says to be careful, doctor’s orders.”
“We’ll tell her,” Ellen says.
Dr. Blanton leaves, and Ellen goes in to make sure the Skype camera works and that the chat is set up. I go to the storeroom and fill up the mop bucket, then add the bleach and set it in the lobby. It’s time for Kerrie to call, so I go into Dr. Blanton’s office. Ellen’s in the chair, and I’m standing behind her when the box comes up and Ellen clicks “answer.” Kerrie appears on the screen, and it’s like every other time, because a part of Ellen and me that’s been knotted up inside all day can finally let go.
Since it’s already Thanksgiving over there, Ellen asks if they’ll have turkey and dressing for lunch, and Kerrie says yes but it won’t taste nearly as good as what Ellen makes. I lean over Ellen’s shoulder and ask how things are going, and Kerrie says fine, like she always does, and tells us she has two more days before she has to go back out. Ellen asks about a boy in her unit who got hurt by an IED, and Kerrie says he lost his leg but the doctors saved the sight in one eye. I tell her Professor Korovich gave me more books, and Ellen asks about school. Kerrie says the head of the education department at N.C. State is matching up the tuition costs with the Army’s college fund. They’ve been really helpful, Kerrie says, and tells us again how excited she is about college.
Maybe it’s because the picture’s a little blurry, but one second I see something in Kerrie’s face that reminds me of when she was a baby, then something else reminds me of her in first grade and after that high school. It’s like the slightest flicker or shift makes one show out more than the others. But that’s not it, I suddenly realize. All those different faces are inside me, not on the screen, and I can’t help thinking that if I remember every one, enough of Kerrie’s alive inside me to keep safe the part that isn’t.
We stay on a while longer, not saying anything important, but what we talk about doesn’t matter as much as seeing Kerrie and hearing her voice, knowing that she’s made it safe through one more day and night. Only 26 more and she’ll be home. Like Professor Korovich said, not so long. Afterward, we clean up the office, mopping the waiting room last. The blood stain’s a chore. We get on our hands and knees, rubbing the linoleum so hard it’s like we’re trying to take it off, too.
We finally get done, and Ellen picks up the two 20s and the 5 on the receptionist’s desk. The money we get from Dr. Blanton goes into an envelope we’re giving Kerrie the day she gets home. It’ll be nearly $2,000, enough to help get a car or pay the rent. On the way home I turn on the radio. It’s a station Ellen and me like because it plays lots of songs we heard while dating, songs we listened to when we were no older than Kerrie.
Several stores already have their Christmas decorations up, and they brighten up the town as we drive through. As I wait for a light to turn, I think about Ellen being more scared the closer we get to Kerrie coming home. It’s like Kerrie’s been lucky so long that the luck’s due to run out. I can’t help thinking that we can still get a phone call saying Kerrie’s been hurt. Or even worse, a soldier showing up with his cap in his hands.
The light turns green, and I pass the clock tower; behind it, Cromer Hall. The office windows are all dark, but there are lights on at the student center. Some students won’t be going home for the holidays, and because of that, someone in town has a phone close by, ready if it rings. I think about a young woman who’s hurt and scared making that call, and how someone will be there to listen.