Here was Sister Kellie, doing her best to admire Brother Bertram’s profile in our round mirror. It spreads out the features on the edges of the face and gives the middle more definition. She wondered if he didn’t look almost handsome in a kind of funhouse way. Upon reflection, she thought she’d wait before extolling his looks to the world. Mention his large, exposed forehead, with the brow of an Alexander in his dark hair and all, and that’s about all you could do. Coming down from there, nothing of any note could be said of him. In itself, that wouldn’t be so bad, but Bertram came with so many attendant problems. He had no nose whatsoever for curiosity, news, gossip, romance, or achievement. He never used or even owned a handkerchief, which made him no gentleman, the ladies would report.
For a brother, Bertram seemed dark and uncaring. I remember we were walking home from church on a bell-clear Sunday morning. The ravens were gawking from the tower when Mollie Missletine dropped her showy nosegay, drawing attention to herself, as usual. She is the homeliest old gal. Bertram watched the birds and refused to bend down and pick it up. He didn’t understand what was dropped and why he would be expected to respond in a different manner. I elbowed him in the ribs and encouraged him to be charitable to the aged fool, as any sister would, but it did no good. He was amazed at the size of their regal beaks.
That was the Sunday when he complained he couldn’t breathe well. Between tending to the cook stove and to Bertram, Mother juggled her time, with her black dress swishing from room to room. She insisted she plaster his chest with eucalyptus-scented petroleum jelly. He took in air through his mouth the rest of the day, stayed in bed, and read “The Raven.” For the life of him he would not get up. No amount of ham on the bone or peach cobbler would entice his stomach to join us at the table. His taste buds were off, he said, and he protested that he never owned a sense of smell. His food never did sit right, either. I said he should try the cobbler anyway because it was bubbling in the pan, and Mother was adding a sprinkle of brown sugar on top. Bertram swore the house must have been aired with every window flung wide open because there were no cooking scents to be appreciated by him.
Father went in to take a look, and he was mighty perturbed. Here was Bertram reading without his glasses again. Father spent his week’s salary at the mill to get those glasses for Bertram, and that boy would do nothing but fuss. “They don’t fit on my face,” he would say. Or, “They don’t stay up on my eyes right,” he would holler. On occasion when he was pigeonholed into wearing them, he attached elastic to the earpieces and strung it behind his head, hoping the frames wouldn’t droop down to his mouth. It was an impermanent solution, and they dropped lower than his eyeballs anyway. Seeing how Bertram was wasting Father’s funds, which could have been better appreciated by Sister Kellie and me, Father said he had had enough. “You’re going to work, and that’s that,” he roared. We heard it from the bedroom to the dinner table. Bertram had moved from adolescence to young manhood, Father told him, clear enough so everyone in the house figured Bertram’s beard must have thickened since church. Some financial venture was expected on Bertram’s part to help keep the household solvent, just as sure as a nosegay on the ground was to be retrieved by one of the complementary sex.
On Monday morning Father marched Bertram over to the Calico Restaurant because there was a sign in the window above the red-checkered half-curtains reading “Wanted: Short-Order Cook.” Bertram had no experience whatsoever, so I don’t know what Father was thinking. “It was the only job in town,” he announced at the dinner table. The owner didn’t think much of Bertram by looking at him, but, as he would be assigned to the back and out of diners’ eyeshot, he was given a trial run. The good news is, Bertram could do the work and keep up with the orders of sandwiches, salads, soups, and breakfast supreme with flapjacks on the side. The bad news is, Bertram couldn’t season a stew or flavor a luncheon-plate casserole for the life of him. “No nose for it,” he said, and whipped off the white cotton apron, leaving the kitchen unattended and his intentions unspoken. There would be no way in heaven that boy would ever be given a second chance now, and Father bit off his moustache in disgust. Sister Kellie and I could have cobbled together in that same kitchen a splendid meal, salted to taste, but, for the record, we were never given as much as a nod of opportunity.
Naturally, prospects were dim for Brother Bertram, who now, Father said, would need to focus on lower-tier services. When it came time to jump onto Brewster’s Honey Wagon and join the crew, we all chimed out in disgust and horror for poor Bertram, even if he was dark and uncaring. The wagon was drawn by two bay horses. It was nighttime work cleaning the outhouses and cesspits. Such God-be-damned waste they all dumped into that wagon, to be hauled away by the Brewster boys in a midnight’s hush. That was about as low as one could go, we all thought.
But not Bertram.
He liked being a honey-dumper.
There was never-ending variety to it, he said, because the wagon took him to backyards and secret places he had never seen. Out behind the house, down by the garden terrace, and beyond the town proper. The Brewster boys were his pals now, he got to sleep as late as he pleased, and he had fun throwing the disgusting muck from high atop the wagon down below onto anyone along the way who cursed the crew in the dark or made sport of their good, clean, honest work ethic. Some residents might question any suggestion that the Brewster’s work was clean.
I asked Bertram whether the stink and stench kept him from enjoying the job, as Sister Kellie and I had assumed. Those coupled drawbacks forced many from staying on the crew for long. “No,” Bertram said to me, twisting a kind of no-man’s land north of his mouth and south of his eyes. “Can’t say that they do. All I notice is the nighttime breeze on my face.” He opened his mouth for a breath and closed his eyes, imagining the wind’s song through the gingko trees and the ravens’ call before sunup. But Sister Kellie and I never entered Bertram’s room again because his clothes and skin were foul-smelling—worse than swine urine.
It was on one of those working evenings, with the odor of human waste all around him, that, unbeknownst to him, Bertram was found to be most compelling, and for which his name will ever be associated with the courageous few of Dandelion, in our County of Violet.
In the early hours of a dark morning last week, the crew had finished cleaning an outhouse out on Farmers’ Hoe Road, and the horses were trotting back into town hauling a wagon full of honey, when Bertram was the first to see more than he should have behind the plate-glass window of Frances’s Bakery. The boys talked of the aroma of sweet rolls and glazed donuts, jelly-filled and sugared, fresh bread and cinnamon, but Bertram, oblivious to scent, trained his vision on a certain silhouette. Mrs. Frances always worked alone, but there was a man, it appeared, his large beak casting its length onto the Belgian lace that spread itself across the rod. Bertram said whoa to the horses and told the Brewster boys to sit tight. The tall, beak-like shadow moved from the curtain to the frosted glass door. Bertram told his pals to grab a handful of muck and hold it poised in midair. When the door opened, and the tall shadow of a man with an extended beak left the door and walked out onto the street, all parties froze. It was Mrs. Frances herself who put Bertram’s plan into action. She wailed louder than a newborn, and the sound bounced off the brick front of the First National Bank across the street. That scream alone was like giving the tick of life to a clock. With cocked arms and full hands, the boys and Bertram let it fly, and they plastered the tall and beak-faced intruder. They threw and threw, and some ill-tossed handfuls hit the windows, door, and frosted glass. Bertram kept the intruder from leaving town with a pocketful of money from Mrs. Frances’s cash register. The corner of Mrs. Frances’s Bakery may not be as clean as she would have liked, but her cash register still rings and opens to greenbacks and silver dollars, thanks to Bertram and his quick-action plan.
When the Daily-Sentinel and Sun heard about the story, reporters walked up to our house, along the path edged with fancy-leafed caladium, to hear Bertram and his courageous tale. Sister Kellie and I were proud of him, even if he was dark and uncaring. They are adding his name to the paving bricks in Dandelion’s Town Square, near the heroic firefighters, police, and serving soldiers and sailors. Sister Kellie and I couldn’t believe the tale at first, but it has been verified by Mrs. Frances—and by the splash of vile color and stain that came crashing down. It has yet to be cleaned, to everyone’s outrage. We pray for a downpour.
Since our Brother came upon such good, it is with jealousy that Sister Kellie and I sit at home most nights, mending and reading our Victorian novels. Sister Kellie and I are never given a chance to excel, earn, or make a name for ourselves. Bertram is the golden boy, favored by Father and the center of celebrations that friends continue to hold in his honor. As family, Sister Kellie and I believe we should have been invited to participate in the festivities, but Father says we are to help Mother at home. “No beaus have asked you,” he says. Humph.
The rounds of parties and get-togethers have done Bertram much good. While he remains oblivious to the charms of the ladies, young or old, he has grown in stature within Dandelion. His profile in our own round mirror has an interesting appendage. Sister Kellie noticed it on Wednesday. Bertram wandered past the mirror in the parlor, and she looked up to see the beginnings of a beak sprouting upon Brother’s face. Bertram has begun to enjoy food again, and he certainly relishes the aromas that originate from Mother’s cook stove. His glasses have the necessary support, and he chooses from among his collection of embroidered handkerchiefs one he favors and places it in folded V’s in his breast pocket. However, Brother Bertram’s employment as honey-dumper is in question. He says he would like to pursue politics and maybe run for mayor of Dandelion. It may be no more fragrant, but, with his newfound popularity, he insists he has a nose for it.
Jan Wiezorek writes and teaches at an elementary school in Chicago. His fiction has appeared at PressboardPress.com, ShadowFictionPress.com, CommuterLit.com, CracktheSpine.com, Seeds Literary Arts Journal in Chicago, Sleepytown Press, Ozone Park Journal, TheWriteMag.com, AbsintheRevival.net, Our Day’s Encounter, Blinking Cursor, RustyNailMag.com, and Midwestern Gothic. He is author of Awesome Art Projects That Spark Super Writing (New York: Scholastic, 2011). Jan holds an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts Education from Columbia College Chicago and a B.A. in Journalism from Iowa State University. He also has studied fiction writing at Northeastern Illinois University. Jan enjoys biking along the backroads of Michigan’s Harbor Country. Visit him at teachwrite.net.