All his life he had wished and waited, and there had been no change, except for the worse.
Returning to the hotel I shot a “hey, ho” to the parlor coots and caught a nap. Tommy had paid me in hundreds. I had reached my goal of building some resources to continue East. I would let the Benefactor deal with his situation in California and leave him on the backburner. I could see that The Process was up and running here in Chicago so whatever was going on in San Francisco was a local problem. I was confident the Benefactor could handle the authorities so that by the time I got back there would be work for me.
The pull of the strange, but powerful relationship with Maureen was difficult to imagine ending by simply leaving. I needed to talk to her. The short time we had spent on the subject had not answered my concerns. She had overtaken my thoughts and that had helped me keep the increasing Process effects under control. The wait until 9pm, the appointed hour, was agonizing.
I ventured into the night for a phone, too much of this drama had been played out in front of the hotel residents. The city was in a grumbling, uncaring bustle. Maureen did not answer. I drove closer to her building and called from a street corner phone booth. I tried several times. A woman materialized on the other side of the phone booth glass. She insisted with demanding snappish eyes and tapped a watch buried in ample arm flesh. I held my ground for five more attempts, but finally abdicated the phone. The woman huffed past me in a cloud of soapy perfume and cold irritation. She nestled into the booth and latched onto the phone like a seagull on a sack of French fries--phone time was over.
I drove aimlessly in the Aspen. I cruised by her apartment building. I checked the back door - locked. I hoped she was alright; there was no reason to think otherwise. I knew she was a little miffed that I had shown up at the office, but I could not see her being angry enough to slam the door on me. The pressure was building as I faced the decision.
That Saturday daytime was spent in fitful naps mixed with trips to the lobby phone and packing the Aspen. I was paid through the next week, but I didn’t want my meager belongings subjected to the whims of gloomy Gus-- “He’ll lock your shit up and make you pay all kinds of fees to get it back for no reason”. According to the rumors, there were bags of treasure left behind and guarded zealously by the acerbic proprietor.
One of the oldtimers posited that if the damsel had family distress perhaps she could be found at the family home. The idea of creeping around the city spying on a girlfriend was not too appealing, but I had nothing else to do. Maybe there was something I could do to help her. “Yes, maybe,” said the old boy.
I scoured for O'Riordans in the musty phone book hanging by the lobby pay phone. I recalled a street name from driving Tommy there. He had run into a tidy house for a few minutes and emerged with a slice of jelly toast. He didn't elaborate upon entering the car – a constantly talking man of few words. I saw a cluster of O’Riordans on that same street and took a chance. I drove through the solid working-man, edge-of-the-city neighborhood with its manicured lawns and waxed cars at the curb. I checked the rearview mirror where Studs morosely watched the nice homes pass by. He did not offer much; just sat there smoking that endless cigarette. I cruised the street without thinking I would find anything. I saw a church and guessed it to be the family church.
“St. Anthony of Padua Church Welcomes You to Worship”--a sign on the swath of ground in front read. "I should check in and see if old St Anthony could help me find my right mind," I said into the rectangle. In the reflection, Studs nodded.
Though it was past the time of Evening Mass, one of the church’s door stood open at the top of a set of cement stairs. I pulled my rig in a commodious gravel parking area. I backed into the last space; trees and unkempt shrubbery shadowed the space. I needed to stretch my legs.
In the back, Studs had company. A thin young woman in evening clothes. Her face bore the polite disdain of one who has been coaxed into a most uncomfortable and unseemly situation. Her hair was set in the bobbed curl look of her times. She held a cigarette holder, a rose-colored ember. Disgust took her gaze to the branches sliding on the car windows next to bored face.
Studs wore an overcoat over dress clothes with a tam-o-shanter rakishly cocked. The painter’s ever-present cigarette added a second, angrier glow. I held his mooning eye for a moment in the mirror. Wherever he was planning to take the dish, he needed to be nimble and he needed to do some convincing. I started to leave. An appreciative wolfish smile creased his puffy countenance. He offered advice, "Go on inside, brother. That's St Anthony in there, he'll help you find your way.
The Finder of Lost Things could be the ticket. I took the steps two at a time. Crossing the threshold onto stone tiles, the air changed to a tombstone-cold, pungent sharpness in which lingered the nervous breaths of shifting youth, reverential penitents and loyal worshippers shuddering under the mysterious words of shrouded, guarded men.
There was a group of people clustered by the altar rail. They spoke in hushed tones. They wore casual clothes. I took them to be a wedding party on a practice run.
I stood behind a glass wall that separated the vestibule from the knave. I listed nervously as memories of Sundays in a similar place washed over me. Studs was back. He sat in his overalls on a long table set with programs and brochures. His short stubby legs swung back and forth over the stone. He grinned and offered me whiskey from a fat-necked brown bottle.
A statue of St Anthony was off to the side. I moved near the statue away from the light that poured in from the center of the church. Humorously, there was a shelf in the wall next to the saint with hats and gloves left behind by worshippers.
Clicks from shoes, purses and keys echoed in the high-ceilinged knave. The statue stared at the cross behind the altar. From the shadows, I viewed the scene. A priest dressed in his collar with a colorful sweater addressed the group of ten or so. His words met with relaxed laughter as he he coaxed the bridegroom to stand next to him. The nerve racking round of phone calls I had overheard in the car made sense as Tommy stood next to the padre. He was grinning back to the relatives and buddies. I had been in a couple of weddings and I knew those boys were half drunk and having great fun at Tommy's expense. The best was waiting in the night for their hapless victim. Tommy looked away from his chums and listened as the priest now called the bride up.
A thunderbolt of psychedelic colors shot through the knave as I gasped. Jesus’ gaze moved eartward and his cross wavered like a teacup in a hurricane. St. Anthony shushed me and Studs cackled as the beatific Maureen ascended to the altar. "His fucking sister!" I spat. I kicked the base of the statue. “Go home,” the saint hissed.
The eyes of the party turned to the vestibule. They could not see me as light was reflected back from the glass wall. I bolted through a side door. A pigeon fluttered and took off in front of me. A maroon Aspen idled at the curb; its dome light was on and two figures were hunched over a clipboard. I ran to the sidewalk. I kept running for several blocks. Several minutes later I crossed over a busy roadway and ended up in a tourist area on the banks of Lake Michigan.
Through a veil of frustration I watched from a dirty shore as the lake danced an ancient pattern. Traffic rolled by. Lights were surrounded by amoeba shapes like a 6th grader’s vegetable oil light show. The wet air at the lake’s edge chilled. I shouted over the din, “the job was temporary”.
The Process had prevailed. They had mocked me at the church: the statue, the shimmying crucifx, the pigeon and the reappearing goon squad. The codgers in the hotel lounge had tried to warn me with their world-weary cynical humor.
As for that burn-out, Studs--if he showed his pasty face I would remind him I had read three books about him. For most of those books he was my hero, but at the end he as just another Irish failure.
Through these long months I had realized the to stave off the Process effects I needed to concentrate on the task at hand. I needed to act out of character.
I decided to return to my original purpose: getting back to DC. I wanted to see Miss Crimson. I was sure she had answers.
I snatched a cab outside of a well-heeled steak joint. I gave the driver the name of the church. I did not tell him I was lost--who needs the irony.
The church was dark with doors closed. I took in the hulking shape outlined by a deep blue sky--a ship towering over its humble neighbors, promising a voyage of glory. A great place to start a new life. I asked for directions to the Interstate then slipped the hack one of the hundreds Tommy had paid me with. “Consider it a wedding present,” I said to my stunned brother of the road.