CHAPTER 21: Second Coming
Lake Michigan was a barren expanse of snow on ice. At its edge, Chicago abruptly stopped. Downtown throngs of people fled indoors to bars for warmth and cheer — despite the Mayor’s warnings about a new viral outbreak in Indonesia.
“It’s coming,” she intoned on screens everywhere. She was savvy enough to not issue any mandates on social distancing and masks or she would not be re-elected.
“Politics as usual,” her opponents accused in attack ads. “We all die one day. Life must go on. We can’t overreact again.”
“Never again!” chanted mobs of people in live protests and online viral chatter.
Kochanski decided to break his sobriety streak that started after Sichet cautioned him to “keep the monkey off your back.”
In Spirit and Stone, he asked for “a shot of Dew vodka.”
The masked young bartender leaned in to hear him over loud music.
“Don’t know that one, I’ll go look.”
He returned. “That’s just the house brand. Can I suggest a better one?”
Smells filled warm air wafting from the ovens: pizza dough, baking with cheese, tomato, herbs and meats.
A young woman in a short skirt — despite the frigid weather outside — perched on a stool next to him.
Did she have a father who did not like how she dressed? Wanted her to find a nice boyfriend but unlike the man he used to be?
Katya was the reason he had let Sichet take over the building management. Supporting her as a student in London was expensive.
But his building was no longer losing money. He tilted his head back and raised his glass to his lips.
Blessed by its location, Spirit and Stone in the Pierre was thriving. Only the stained glass in the former chapel’s windows was the same.
Ghosts of the past, a lost homeland, wife and mother replaced the commotion around him. He asked for another drink, then another.
“Bad day?” the bartender asked.
Eyes wet, he nodded.
“You’re not driving?”
“Walking home,” he said, hearing his voice slur.
To cover the tab, he showed his ID. Surprised, the man looked closely at him.
“Sorry, I didn’t know. Apologies about what I said about your vodka, Mr. Kochanski.”
“I didn’t hear. The music is loud.”
“Stay warm, sir. It seems like the Arctic is slouching into Chicago.”
After wobbling into the lobby, Kochanski made the call he had been putting off. A woman answered.
“Hello, this is Michael Kochanski. May I speak to Alex?”
“I’m Callie, his wife. He’s sleeping.”
“When can he call me back?”
“Not sure. Do you have a message?”
He hesitated. “I wanted to talk to him about my friend, Oscar Sanchez.”
“OK” — a pause — “I’ll call you back at this number.”
Instead she texted the next morning: “I’ll meet you now. Someplace public near me — she gave her location — is fine.”
“What about Alex?”
“Do you want to meet or not?”
They agreed on a location. “I’ll be wearing a Cubs hat,” he told her.
So what, he thought, if Sichet with his bug-eyed blue stare found out? Their Pierre deal made feuding between them bad for business.
The next morning, he stepped out into sub-zero temperatures to ride the rattling subway to a cafe many stops away. Sick with his first hangover in weeks, he found Callie’s photo that the Saburian techies had given him.
The snow was piled outside the cafe’s windows. A path through dirty ice had been shoveled. Escaping the bitter wind, Kochanski pushed through double doors into a cozy warm interior. A young woman waved at him to join her in a booth.
Smooth hair swept up in a bun, no make-up, she smiled at him. He felt startled. Mrs. Marion was beautiful.
“Michael,” he introduced himself, “thanks for meeting with me. So nice to finally meet you,”
He removed his gloves and rubbed his hands together to warm them before sitting down across her.
“Hot coffee, yes, and OJ.” He tapped buttons on his phone for the cafe menu. “So you’re the face that launched a thousand ships? I can see why.”
Her smile vanished. “In my hometown in Illinois, they said I was ‘too pretty.’ Then I didn’t get tall enough to be a model. It hasn’t done me much good.”
“‘Yes,’” he said thoughtfully, “that makes sense to me, my daughter also attracts the wrong type of attention.”
Her expression was blank.
“I hope Alex isn’t seriously ill?” he asked.
She lifted her chin. “My husband didn’t feel like coming. Artists get that way.”
The waitress bought his order.
“Where to begin?” Callie said. “The kids are in school.. They know me here. I can sit here all morning and drink coffee. Now, they even let me smoke outside when it’s warm. Times are changing.”
“True, no one cares about the old smoking law anymore.”
“Is it OK to call you Mike?”
“My birth name is Calista but I like Callie.”
She continued, “Oscar said you were kind to him. He was so young. His death was untimely. I can’t just let it go.
“After Oscar’s body was found, Alex and I couldn’t go to the police, and didn’t want to get into trouble ourselves with small kids and all. The cops wouldn’t give him justice anyway. Oscar trusted you. So I’m trusting you.
“But I may tell you things that you don’t want to know.”
She stopped and waited.
He nodded, squelching the urge to be sensible and leave. “Thanks for the warning. I was Oscar’s friend. I want you to tell me everything you know.”
Her lovely eyes were opaque, painted onto an expressionless face. “Oscar came into our life because of your Vermeer. When Alex agreed to make a copy of it, you never told him what it was for?”
“It doesn’t matter now, Callie.”
“OK.” She dragged out the word. “Alex is angry about what happened to Oscar. That’s why he didn’t come today.
“Oscar used to come to our house in the evenings with your painting. While Alex worked hard, even using mirrors to test accuracy, Oscar and I joked, drank wine…became friends.”
She looked far away. “When Oscar visited, he was center stage, entertaining our kids with his stories — ingenious schemes and wily escapes. He did magic tricks and card sleight-of-hand. He told funny fortunes. Alex would work late into those dim silent nights, painting by candlelight just like Vermeer did four hundred years ago.
“Then after the kids went to bed, Oscar became wicked, I mean wickedly funny. I used to laugh until I cried.
“And that little painting of yours, Michael, how Alex and I admired it! At some shop, I found a print of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. I hung it above my daughter’s bed. How do you have a Vermeer?”
“Well, I had it,” said Kochanski. “But it was stolen, “ ‘easy come, easy go,’ as they say in your country.”
Callie sighed. “Artists like my husband aren’t appreciated. But even the famous ones are also not seen sometimes — socked away someplace like your painting now.
“One evening, after Alex and I waited until the early morning, Oscar was a no-show, something that had never happened before. No call. No message. Finally even the children stopped asking.
“Then, one afternoon, this mom at school was upset that a body of a ‘Mexican’ was found in the river, saying, oh, ‘this city is just going to the devil.’
He looked away. “We’re always just a blink away from evil.”
Her eyes widened. She was waiting for him to explain.
“Well anyway,” she finally said, “ I went from being worried to horrified. Then I found Oscar’s picture online — but it was this fuzzy image from his driver’s license — it looked like he hadn’t shaven and slept for days. That picture of angst was not Oscar. Oscar always dressed well and looked happy.”
Garcia’s drivers license picture, he remembered.
“Of course, we didn’t go to the police,” she continued. “We don’t want to get into trouble especially after they said Oscar had international criminal connections — how crazy The police suspected he had been murdered for them.”
She blinked away tears.
Then she looked up, eyes drying like rain in the summer sun.
Max Herman stood at their booth. Wearing a long black coat, he was holding a styrofoam tray of to-go steaming coffee cups and a bag of bagels.
“Callie — and Michael,” he said. “This dark old place is a homey escape from the Chicago winter. How’s the second most beautiful woman in the world after my wife?”
“Max,” Kochanski exclaimed, “I haven’t seen you since my final exhibit at the Pierre. Your agent says you’re selling well.”
“Oh yeah,” Herman said, “Nick says he runs into you at the Spirit and Stone.”
“He’s a good dealer for you.”
The artist did not say anything.
“Max, would you like to join us?” Callie asked. She moved over to make room.
“Can’t, the wife’s waiting outside.”
“Max, I saw your nephew,” Callie said, “in the grocery store last month. He has gotten so tall.”
“That’s boys for you when you feed them,” Herman said. “George came in December for Winter Break and just left.”
Herman turned to Kochanski. “Michael, you remember my nephew from one of your art exhibits, and you know his father, Manny Garcia, small world.”
Kochanski nodded, remembering a skinny, awkward boy with glasses out of place among stylish adult guests.
Callie spoke and then held the artist’s gaze. “So, Max, who is George living with in Pandolf?”
Wife waiting outside or not, he appeared to be in no hurry.
“He’s in a sublet with a doctor-friend of his father’s. But she just went to Germany. So George has the place in Pandolf to himself … and a car too. I would have loved that at sixteen.”
“Is his father still working abroad?” she asked. Her uplifted face was serene. Her eyes sparkled.
“Yes. Got to admire George,” Herman said. “He always manages to wrangle into whatever he wants to do. I do take credit for teaching him.”
His eyes darkening, the faintest smile on his face, he was looking at her as if no one else was there.
“I always learn so much from you too,” she said.
“Callie, you’ll see George again soon. He’s spending Spring Break with us.”
Herman’s phone beeped. The pair’s dance of flirty glances ended when he stepped back.
“Sorry to interrupt both of you. Gotta go. Michael, I’ll miss your art gallery.”
“Yeah, the new management’s turning it into a penthouse apartment.”
“Not surprised Jim did that,” said Max, grinning, “not at all.”
“Back to Oscar,” Callie said after Max left. The light in her face had faded. “I grew to love him like family.”
Reflexively Kochanski looked around, remembering Saburia’s ever-present eavesdropping. But in this nowhere restaurant in a no-place neighborhood of Chicago — serving bad OJ reconstituted from neon orange powder mix— no one would care about the fate of an Oscar.
She picked at her crumbling muffin with a fork.
“Alex and I went to Paris after we married. We had young dreams. Alex is popular for portrait commissions. But that doesn’t pay enough. We otherwise manage with public aid, my parents’ help and my modeling for artists.
“Then a friend set my husband up to work for a company that does media work. But Alex doesn’t enjoy commercial art. Still, what else to do? Except for his portraits, nothing sells. Most of his original work sits in my family’s attic at their farmhouse.”
She looked down at the table. “So yeah, back then, he took on the job to copy your Vermeer, more fun than tweaking digital images. While Alex mixed paints and oh-so painstakingly layered them with his brushes, Oscar made our children laugh.”
She traced brushstrokes by grazing her fingertips along the grain of the wooden table, while her thumb ran the edge that joined two boards.
“Michael, I would lose myself in your painting, that long-ago room with its light and shadows, tinted blue, yellow and purple.
“Money is tight for Alex and me,” she continued. “Our public schools are bad. So we have to send our kids to private school. You heard what Max just said. His nephew would rather live by himself, away from his family rather than go to the public schools here.”
Staring at the table, she whispered, ”Alex then got a contract to paint Jim Sichet and his family. It paid well.”
“I do some business with Jim,” Kochanski said.
Cautious eyes now held his. “I’m going to tell you about the first time I met Jim. Alex had already been to his home a few times to take photos of the family. Then he did a pastel study from which to paint their portrait.
“Alex asked me to go to Jim’s office to show him the sketch. He stressed to me: dress well, be polite and respectful and most importantly, please be punctual.”
“Jim’s a stickler for punctuality.”
“I had a nickname in school, ‘Miss Lazy Late —'”
She made a face. “Among the women only to be fair.”
“So Alex warned me that this is an important man, a potential source of referrals to other wealthy clients.
“Frankly, Alex could have gone himself that day to Jim’s office. But he drinks heavily sometimes — like last night. Then he mopes around the house the next day.”
Their eyes met. Did she know about his drinking problem, he wondered?
“Alex was going to reschedule the viewing with Jim. But I decided to take the sketch instead. It was a good drawing of this tall and big-boned man with thinning light hair and a solemn expression.
“He stood with his family, his wife classic petite blonde, not smiling, low-cut dress and straps off her round white shoulders. Their three children surrounded them with earnest faces, also formally dressed.
“I imagined their lifestyle: wealthy, private schools, international travel and lessons for the kids in dress, music, arts, etiquette and languages, and how I want to give that kind of life to my children.”
“Hmmm,” Kochanski muttered.
She stopped, waiting to see what he would say?
A Saburian minister had once told him: “when the poor see how the rich live, it creates political instability. So in our country, we build high walls around our homes.”
“Never mind, Callie, please go on.”
Callie continued, “So I hurried to Jim’s office but was late anyway. The subway was delayed and honestly, Michael, I didn’t care. That’s one reason I don’t want a ‘real job’ like people tell me to.
“What kind of job would I get with my GED that doesn’t require groveling? Retail work means I need to be on time. Hours at a computer screen or on the phone with crabby customers would be drudgery.”
“The waitress asked them if they wanted anything.
He shook his head, now examining Callie’s face, her white winter hat still on. If beauty had a face, this was it.
“That’s not you,” he said.
He remembered Alex describing meeting his wife for the first time. He said, “It was in a rural parking lot, somewhere south of Springfield Illinois. Montgomery County. She stepped out of a Monet, pink cheeks and a flowered rain hat around her hair.
“I was only in town for a sausage supper at a church with my cousin, on my way north to Chicago. There I was standing on a porch next to a truck stop, drinking hot coffee, standing and inhaling the fresh air after the rain had splattered the old green plastic chairs and tables.”
“You talk like a painter.”
“It’s the only thing I’m good at.
“Anyway, Callie gave me the same smile that I now see in my daughter. She saw city life in me, sophistication, adventure…she hadn’t even finished high school.”
“So you went to France,” Kochanski said.
Her husband nodded.
Callie yawned. “This coffee is not helping me stay awake. You’re right, I’m not a gear in the machine. I don’t sleep well anymore, not just thinking about Oscar. My husband snores.”
Had she now become hungry, he wondered, for everything a big city like Chicago had to offer? The robust architecture in Herman’s painting reflected her strength, a force of nature to contend with as she grew older.
She laughed. “ I spent last night on the couch in the living room looking out the window. It’s the same cloudy night sky of all big cities. But I can pretend it’s the Milky Way — over a timeless clear night in Barbizon.
“Anyway, Michael, even if I took one of those menial jobs, we’d still have no money. Alex says I have the creativity, but he has the skills. So we walk together, the blind and the deaf down life’s road.”
The waitress returned — refilling water and refreshing coffee — catching up with Callie, chatter as boring as the clatter of dishes in the crowded eatery. Cold drafts blew in everytime the door opened.
Finally, the waitress frantically hurried away. “Back to work!”
“Sorry, Michael, see what I mean,” said Callie. “What an awful job, poor thing.
“Anyway,” she said, “so I was late to Jim … Sichet’s office. My phone was out of battery. I couldn’t call.
“Then his assistant had me wait for about an hour in this depressing room, dark wood everything and a thick rug that drowned sound.”
“He made you wait because you were late,” Kochanski said.
Callie shrugged. “Finally, his assistant came to get me. I also pasted a fake smile on my face and followed her, this high-heel click-clack hanger-for-clothes stick-figure down a long hall to his office.”
Callie paused and looked down at the table.
“He looked just like in my husband’s drawing, boring, but my husband had not yet colored in those butterfly blue eyes. I took notes about the alterations he wanted.”
“Silky smooth paper, this heavy pen with his business logo, then he…”
She bit her lower lip. Her fingers nervously brushed the table’s surface. She looked up, her eyes wet. “I was shocked, dumb huh? I hurried out of his office, still holding my souvenir pad and pen.”
“Good for you to run. Men are jerks. But how does this connect to Oscar?”
Her expression grew angry. “I’m going to tell you my way.”
There was silence. Finally, he nodded.
“OK, Callie, I’m sure that was an upsetting day,” he said. “But right now, I have another appointment. Can we meet again so you can tell me things ‘your way?’”
He had upset her, he could see. “I’m sorry, I feel bad.”
She nodded curtly. “Come to our house next time,” she finally said. “It’ll be good for Alex to be there too next time.”
“Text me,” he said, “about a time. It’ll be good to see Alex again for sure.”
“Ok,” she said, “And Alex doesn’t know about that stuff in Jim’s office. He thinks Jim is some ‘moral exception in scandal-ridden Chicago.’”
“Oh, Callie,” he said, “please trust me, I’m good at secrets.”
Kochanski’s next “appointment” was back at the Spirit and Stone. Chicago pizza with fresh-squeezed orange juice would be perfect, he thought, for what remained of his hangover after all the bad coffee at the cheap cafe and subway rides.
Then he would have the fortitude to face Beth, Sichet’s property manager, who wanted to look at more dollar figures and plans for his building later that afternoon.
He was early. Chatting with the new Pierre security guard as he waited, he saw Elise Sheraton walk in, bundled up in hat, muffler and layers of clothes. She stomped the snow off thick boots.
They hugged. “It’s so good to see you again, Michael. Look at you, so fit and trim. Chicago’s been good to you.”
“You always look beautiful, Dr. Sheraton,” he said, helping her with her coat and handing it off to the guard whose smile grew wider.
“This is a nice place,” she said after they were seated. “Those windows! Like a church, I guess that’s why this place is called Spirit and Stone.
“Michael, I’m about to make my last trip to Saburia. At least Soria moved their clinic to Ramses. Now Mary and I don’t have to make that dangerous trip to the coast.
“After Queen Noru has her baby, I will leave Saburia permanently,” she announced.
“That’s my big news.” Her voice broke with excitement. “I just took a job in the Missouri Ozark Mountains — down in the country.”
“What!” he exclaimed. “You’re an MD PhD, a Double Doctor.”
“Michael, I must be practical with two kids in college. Rural doctors make very good money. I think that from my experience in Saburia, watching AJ run that remote clinic, I’m prepared to do it.
“Michael, come on, I’ll get free housing. OK, it’s on a hundred acres outside the town. But it’s self-sufficient with solar energy, a well, a generator and even a greenhouse and chickens if I want it.”
“Elise, what kind of place is that for you to live in?” he said.
She smiled and tilted her head.
“How about you, Michael? What’s next for you?”
“Elise, I’m no longer under contract with Soria, now that their cancer project has taken off. David has moved on as Zoser’s CTO. You know I helped him to get that job.
“ I’m not going back to Saburia either,” he finished, wondering if Katya would like Elise and that the Ozarks sounded like they were halfway around the planet.
She asked, “How’re you now supporting yourself?”
“I have rental properties,” he replied, “The building you’re in now in is mine. It’s making me money, even after the mortgage, taxes and the reptile property managers take their share.
“I’m doing OK, Elise. Come visit me. Chicago would be a fun trip to the big city. Walks along the lake, the Chicago Symphony, jazz bars, an arts and theatre scene, some of the finest restaurants in the world and a fun companion” — he grinned self-consciously — “to do it with.”
“You could come see me too.”
“Rural Missouri?” he said with a mock shudder. “I’d be scared to travel far from the highway. Someone may hear my accent and run me down with his pickup truck on a one-lane country road to a rill — that’s an English word meaning a small stream that I just learned — a rill that’s flooded and it’s night-time and I can’t see anything and I can’t cross it because it’s flooded again. So I stop. Then Ozark native Americans will surround me with loaded guns.”
She laughed. “Michael, you’ve been watching too much cable. You got your language and people all mixed up too.
“Are you suggesting,” she continued, “that I would work among media caricatures? No. They’re friendly down there. I’m going to have to be careful about what I say, you know, to be sensitive to their local culture. But that’s no different than Saburia?
“I’m going there to take care of their health, not to discuss religion and politics.”
“I’m spectacle,” Kochanski said.
“That’s a joke, I mean ‘skeptical,” I used to get those words mixed up when I was learning English. But this home in the Ozarks sounds like something preppers build?”
“‘You mean survivalists? Michael, I think you’ve been watching too much cable.”
“Fair enough, my evenings are lonely except for electronic entertainment.
“Is salad all you’re having for lunch?” he asked. “The pizza here is rated top ten in Chicago. Here, try some of mine.”
Laughing, she accepted a slice, toppings and tomato sauce on cheese sliding down the thick sides of a narrow wedge.
“I should enjoy your Chicago pizza. Life is fine with plenty of bread and wine.
“Michael, AJ used to complain to me,” she said, munching happily, “saying that he is an American too. But in Saburia, everyone thinks he’s just another Indian and that all Americans actually look like David. See how misleading the media can be?
“Then there’s Manny, do you think he’ll ever leave Saburia?”
In Saburia, Garcia was grateful that it was still winter and not “hot, hot, hot.”
Shelly had called to thank him. “The Fujitsu award doesn’t often go to someone as young as me. Frankly, I think your input on my research proposal helped my entry.”
“It’s an exciting opportunity, Shelly. I was happy to help.”
“I’m sorry to leave George here on such short notice,” she said. “You know he doesn’t want to return to Chicago until the school year’s over. He’s doing so well here in their most advanced academic track. You should be proud, Manny.”
“I just told him that, Shelly.”
On their last video-call, George said he was being careful.
“If the school finds out I’ll be living alone, Dad, I may have to return to Chicago.”
“Then, George, don’t let them know.”
“Dad, the Malone sibs are returning.”
“Charlie and Dr. Julia Malone.”
“Shelly’s roommate who was getting married?”
“Lucky’s fiance just broke it off.”
“Yes Dad, really bad news. Lucky says Harry’s ‘finding himself.’ He has a new girlfriend and is traveling with her in the Far East and headed to an ashram in India. Then they’ll go scuba diving in the Australian Great Barrier Reef before it disappears.”
“Wow!” said Garcia. “Is Julia, I mean Lucky, oh Dr. Malone is what I mean, is she OK?”
“Charlie says she’s getting therapy and studying for her Boards. She’s coming back to Pandolf to work in the hospital. She wants to get away from the country club scene in Connecticut where it’s quite the scandal — they blame her — and she says everyone knows each other.”
“I’ve heard about that kind of thing,” Garcia said, “the Cape Cod elite types, but I don’t know much about it.”
George smiled. “You know Dad, we have some wealthy families here at Pandolf too. Did you ever meet the Mathers?”
On the screen, George’s hair was styled, his face straight razor clean and there was even a new elegance in how he sat and spoke.
“The Mathers are a wealthy and powerful family, George,” Garcia said carefully. “I met Dean Baluyn. He’s Pandolf Hospital’s CEO.”
“Baluyn, what kind of name is that?”
“His father has Native American heritage,” Garcia said. “On his mother’s side, his grandfather is the Mather that Pandolf’s Emergency Center is named after. If you read about the Puritans in New England, Mather is a famous name.”
After their call disconnected, he pulled up George’s January debit card charges. The pie chart still showed food, especially restaurants, as the biggest slice. But clothing, entertainment and electronics were catching up. Then there was the hefty payment for the new car.
He called AnnaMaria. “I bought a life insurance policy,” he told her. “If something happens to me, you’re George’s legal guardian. Mom will also be well taken care of.”
Campbell called him one day.
“Manny, go visit your mom in Paris. Maybe George can join you there over Spring Break. Get out of Saburia’s solar cooker.“
“Can’t yet,” he said.”Visa issues and in a few days, Elise is returning to Ramses with Mary.”
He was alone in the lab and except for the light over his desk, it was dark. Out there, his son had changed, most accurately represented by the pie chart of expenses, the world had changed and the shadow of doom seemed to creep over his fading life.
This is irrational, he told himself, to fear the future. Was it loneliness? Or that he had no country? Or the Drukker AI warnings about a cataclysm for the planet?
He unwrapped a new Drukker disc, the latest upgrade.
In black marker, he wrote on its plastic casing: “The Second Coming.”
This disc could load a dozen times the data of the old ones. Before Sheraton left Saburia for the last time, he would ask her to deliver it to Campbell.
Someday, he thought, someone will care about my work.
The disc contained the record of it all, even the Porphyry project. Its audience would be the unknown future.
Could Sheraton be trusted to tell Campbell that like his life insurance policy, the disc was only to be read in the event of his death?
He inserted it into the Drukker printer. The machine whirred on.