Chapter 22 – Mother and child
Chicago – March 2026
Weekend nights were lonely for Kochanski.
It had been two months since he had met Callie and no word from her.
So he texted: “Worried, everything OK?”
Then he video-called Campbell to catch up. “Enjoying your new life?”
“Yes,” he said. His face was glowing. “I just ran around Drukker’s campus in the Bay Area. Any news from Manny? Soria Clinics just ordered software updates for his project.”
“Not really. But Mary’s New York City doctor reports that she’s in remission. Soria now touts her as a success to recruit more patients…”
“Michael,” Campbell interrupted, “That’s not right. You do know that one cancer success is not statistically significant.”
“Just scientific.” Campbell was chugging a drink. “Protein shake after running, shaken not stirred. I know you like those movie references. Also, I talked to Elise about the rural Missouri clinic — closer to you?”
“Rural Missouri will get boring quickly for Elise.” He ignored the innuendo. “I’m doing business with Jim Sichet, your classmate.”
“I actually never met him at StarHall. He’s a few years older than me.”
“His people are running my Pierre Building. Do you know anything about him?”
Campbell frowned. “Trying to remember.
“Michael, StarHall’s a boarding school, where you’re cooped up with other kids 24/7. We spun ghost yarns to scare each other. One was about a young teacher whose spirit was said to wander one of the older buildings.
“She had been murdered. A handyman was convicted based on DNA matching, then killed in jail, an awful scandal for my school. Jim was at StarHall when she died. They say he had a mental breakdown afterwards and left for a year, returning for graduation.”
“How did she die?”
“David, could Jim have known something? He wasn’t eighteen years old yet. Any records may have been expunged.”
“You sound worried?”
“I didn’t have a choice with this deal. The bank was getting ready to foreclose on the property otherwise.”
Callie texted back a week later. “Please come for dinner Saturday evening.”
He parked outside a two-story brick home in a crowded row of small houses. The streetlight showed snow patches on the bare brown of the front lawn. A cracked walkway led to crumbling concrete steps.
A single light pooled a warm gold on the front porch. He rang the doorbell and waited. Then he knocked hard. Alex Marion opened the door. A man of medium build, he had grown a scruffy beard since they last met.
He stepped into a warm living room, brimming with children’s books and toys and heard young voices upstairs.
“This place is homey,” he said.
Tensions dissolving, troubles left behind in the dark frigid outside, he hadn’t felt so relaxed in a long time.
“Thanks for bringing wine,” Alex said.
He followed Alex into a small kitchen. A girl, maybe eighteen, scarf around her head, was vigorously scrubbing a pot, flecks of black foam up to her knuckles.
“Marcella is helping us out today,” Alex said. “The food delivery should be here soon.”
He raised his voice over the sound of the rushing tap water. “Marcella, will you eat with us?”
“On a Saturday night?” she said loudly. “No, sorry, I have plans for dinner later.”
She turned off the water, wiped her hands and before Alex could introduce him, she dashed out.
He sat down at the kitchen table, almost sliding off the chair. The seat cushion was only precariously attached.
“Sorry,” Alex said, “She’s much better with children than with grown-ups. She’ll give the kids their bath and put them to bed. Callie will be down in a minute.”
There was a loud noise on the floor above them.
Alex added, “Our main problem with Marcella is that she’s so fast she breaks things.”
“You want to go and check if everything’s OK?”
“Callie will let me know if they need help.”
Alex uncorked his bottle, placed three glasses on the table and sat down.
He shook his head. “That business with Oscar… I’m not copying paintings anymore.”
Callie called out from the living room. “Alex, why is there a pile of cereal on the floor?”
Alex sprang up, grinning. ” My son was playing with his toy backhoe. Coming, honey, I’ll clean up.”
Callie walked in. Long hair swept up in a bun, she was wearing a frilly blouse and jean skirt.
“Thanks for coming Michael, sorry, things are a little crazy. Oh, our delivery is here,” she said, looking at her phone-watch.
She left while Alex returned to clear newspapers and mail off the kitchen table to eat. Paper plates, plastic cutlery and cups were incongruous with the crystal wine glasses.
Alex sat on the windowsill while Callie and Kochanski took the two chairs.
Wine was poured. Over fragrant and steaming Chinese take-out, Callie started, “We want to tell you what we know. Oscar trusted you.”
“It’s my fault that this mess began,” Alex said.
Callie nodded. “It’s good that you see that.”
Alex continued. “I sent Callie with my sketch to show Jim at his office. Everything cracked up after that. He began stalking her.”
“A few days after I first met Jim,” she said, “I was at that cafe, Michael, the one where you and I first met. It was summertime, a pretty morning, I was sitting outside and looked up to see Jim’s face inches from mine. Then he sat at the table next to me. The same waiter who is always rude to me ran up to him all nice.”
“Jim was Alex’s client. I said ‘hello’ to be polite and went home. Alex was still in bed.”
Alex did not meet his wife’s accusing eyes. “Back then, I was demoralized, drinking a lot and then sleeping in. It appears that even before Jim met Callie, he had seen a sketch of her by Max Herman.
Alex’s eyes were far away. “Perhaps Jim only picked me to paint his family — as a ploy to meet Callie.”
“Crazy,” Callie said.
“Jim would just keep showing up out of nowhere,” Callie said, “ and make small talk. I acted like it was normal. We needed his money. But I wondered if he had a device planted somewhere to know where I was going to be?”
Alex nodded. “Then he told Max that he also wanted to paint Callie.”
“Jim has a place next to a gallery,” Callie said.
“Max’s agent, Nick, runs that gallery,” Alex said, “and I recently visited Nick about showing my work too. I walked by Jim’s studio. The door was propped open because a woman was cleaning inside.
“Michael, it is nice, a large sunlit space like I would love to have. In the middle, there was a table, plaster head and limbs, a wood frame, rock crystal, guitar, wilting flowers, bright scraps of cloth and next to it, an easel with a charcoal sketch of the clutter.
“Have you seen it, Callie?” Alex asked.
Callie poured wine. Kochanski inhaled the woody nose of the French red and quietly sipped. Every cell in his body felt at home.
“No,” she said. “But you didn’t tell me how your visit with Nick went?”
After another morsel of rice with cashew chicken, he said, “As soon as I walked into Nick’s office, I had a feeling he would say no. It was crowded: sculptures, canvases rolled on the table, framed art stacked against the walls — he’s already swamped.
“There was barely space to walk. His antique Persian rug was put away. The ornaments on the ledges were dusty like nobody important — me — was coming to visit.
“Nick barely listened to me, euphoric about an offer for this acrylic: a sunset, a band of orange under twilight drifting in from the horizon over a row of black hills. Blackened trees poked jagged black shapes into the radioactive sky…”
Alex described the picture with his hands.
“Nick said that Angela bought it for the asking price.”
“Angela.” Callie pronounced it the French way with a sharp intake of breath on the first syllable. “I saw her picture online, a charity affair. She wore a glittering necklace of diamonds the size of grapes. She was standing with Jim. Maybe they’re having an affair?”
“Nick told me,” Alex said, “that Angela always comes with her ‘friend,’ not her husband or Jim but some ‘ruthless sculpted’ guy that Nick says he has a crush on. Anyway, Callie, Nick was in a mellow mood post-sale that day. He said he was already too busy and recommended another dealer.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed.
Alex poured Kochanski and himself some more wine. Callie looked at the bottle.
Alex shook his head. “Remember, you’re trying to cut back.”
Kochanski watched Callie’s eyes shutter in deference. She didn’t light up for her husband like she had for Herman. The spark between the artist and his object exiled others to envious darkness.
“Sorry, Michael,” Alex said. “I got off-topic. On Saturday nights, Callie and I catch up. The kids are always around otherwise.”
“Do you like the wine I bought?” Kochanski inquired.
“We like California or France for wines. Bordeaux is along those lines,” Callie said.
“When I visited Nick,” Alex said, “ I asked him who was next door. He was evasive, said ‘an amateur artist rents the studio’ and ‘there’s a nice bedroom in the back.’”
Callie flushed. “Uggh. After Jim bought Max’s painting of me, he told Max that he wanted me to model for him. So yes, I sometimes visit that studio.”
“You could have refused,” Alex said, “when that jerk was stalking you. If I had known back then…”
“You and I were barely talking. Besides, Max asked me to. His painting of me might be famous someday.
Callie continued, not looking at her husband, “We had maxed out our credit cards and had to get a second mortgage. The doctor had told Alex to stop drinking and suggested medication. But then Oscar started coming. More empty whiskey bottles were in the recycle the next day.
“Our house is small. I didn’t want the children to hear us fighting. I never used to hear my parents argue.”
She looked at Kochanski. “I grew up in a small town.”
Her husband was looking over her shoulder at the wall.
Questions hung in the air that he could not ask. Why did she not go to work for extra income? Or take the children and go back to her parents?
Instead, he asked, “What is your hometown like?”
She described the immigrant dream, the great green heart of America, where two-lane highways rolled through a landscape of plenty, dotted with barns, silos, cows and horses. On the endless roads, she and her friends sailed their pickup trucks to the beat of pounding music.
“I also grew up in a small town,” he said. “But yours sounds like a place that time stops …”
He wanted to say more: a place where love grows as generously as everything else in that fertile soil, carpeted with soybean and corn.
They heard fast footsteps on the stairs. Two children appeared in the doorway with Marcella.
“Say goodnight to mom and dad, and Mr. …?” Marcella ordered.
“Kochanski, Michael Kochanski,” he introduced himself.
“You’re Oscar’s friend.” Marcella looked at him doubtfully, eyes traveling over his plaid shirt, paunch and blue jeans. “He told us about you, ‘a successful immigrant.’
“How’s Oscar doing?” she asked. “I hear he had to go back to his country.”
“Fine, I think.
“Introduce yourself, guys,” he said to the children.
“Richard,” the small boy said solemnly.
“Sarah,” the older girl said. She looked about eight. “I don’t want to go to bed. Can I have a potsticker?”
“Not.” Marcella took their hands firmly. “I have plans for tonight, and we’re going upstairs now.”
After they left. Callie said, “We’re so glad to have Marcella. I used to worry we’d no longer be able to afford her help.”
Marion nodded. “Marcella is taking a year off between high school and college and agreed to be our nanny”.
“She was our babysitter in high school,” Callie said.
“She clashes with my daughter,” Alex said.
“Our daughter,” Callie said, “needs to not drive off the only help we can afford.
“She and the kids don’t know that Oscar is dead,” Alex said.
After Oscar’s body had been discovered, Callie described how she worried.
“I would sleep with a wine bottle to hit someone with in case they came here,” she said.
“When I went home,” Callie said. “I brought a shotgun back. My brother had to take me out to practice it first. No one had thought that a girl should have those skills.”
“I don’t know how to use a gun,” Alex said, and I didn’t approve of a firearm in the house with young children. But any discussion about this with Callie turns into politics. So we agreed on a lock for the gun and storing the ammo separately.”
“The weird thing,” Callie said, “is that after Oscar disappeared, I went back to Jim’s studio and he stopped talking to me except if necessary.
“Normally, it’s a relaxing, peaceful room — hardwood floor, high ceiling, skylights — outside it’s a vacant and silent industrial park. You can’t hear or see the street. There’s only one window and the horizon is empty facing toward the west.
“I hate the sitting chair: red, upholstered velvet.
“One day, it was getting dark, almost time to leave and…he asked me to change my pose. Then I saw it, the corner of your picture in its frame.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. When I looked at him, he glared at me, so then I — artfully — checked it out again. It was your painting.
“Leaving, I even forgot to ask for my money which he then gave me. He was talking to me again — like normal — and even called a car.
“Michael, do you think he killed Oscar for the painting?” she asked, “that he still has it or sold it.”
“I just can’t imagine how my Vermeer landed in his studio,” Kochanski said. “I’m shocked to hear this and will have to think about this new development.”
“We thought you should know,” Callie said.
“Thank you. It’s good you didn’t go to the police. You’re right, they would have made more trouble.”
They didn’t need to know that the police had returned the Vermeer to him and that he had then given it to the Saburian king to cover his debts. No one knew, not even Katya or the insurance company that the painting was now in Ramses, Saburia. No one cared, as long as someone paid the insurance premiums and taxes during his lifetime.
“How’d you get the painting?” Alex asked.
He lied. “It was in my family back in Poland for many generations. We thought it was a copy, not an original. But that turned out to be a lie to protect it from confiscation during wartime.”
“Cool story,” Callie said.
Kochanski continued, “The police only told me that Oscar had stolen it.”
“But Oscar hadn’t stolen it,” Callie protested.
“No,” he said, So Alex, Callie does know why you were making a copy?”
“I do know,” Callie said, “that Alex was making a forgery. But we never expected someone to be killed.”
“Nor did I,” Kochanski truthfully said.
He changed the subject. “I had Oscar’s body cremated. I tried to reach out to his family, but my contact information was out-of-date. If his family comes looking for him, I have the ashes.”
Callie’s eyes were teary. “Poor Oscar.”
“Are you done with modeling with Jim?” he asked.
She shook her head. “It does pay well, and we have kids in private school. The public ones aren’t good. Even Max’s nephew, George, won’t come back.”
“We are month-to-month,” Alex said, “with bills.”
“And lots of credit card debt,” Callie added.
“We need Jim’s money.” (Later, he couldn’t remember if one of them had actually said that.)
While he hadn’t been married for long, couples lived in their own world, bound in all the ways that two married people are tied-down, tied-together, boundaries-blurring amidst a muddle of kids and relatives.
“Next time we do an art exhibit, Alex, please feel free to show a couple of your paintings at the Pierre. I want to help,” he said.
Maybe there was time for one more exhibit before Beth turned his gallery into a penthouse suite.
Alex’s face broke open in a wide smile.
“Thanks! We do takeout and wine every Saturday evening. We’d love for you to join us again.”
“Alex, Callie, how about one Saturday, you get Marcella to watch the kids?” he said. “I’ll treat you to a nice dinner at Spirit and Stone, the restaurant in my building.”
“That sounds good,” Alex said.
Callie got up and went to the sink to rinse the wine glasses. He looked at her back, hair unwinding from her bun and falling between her shoulder blades. The kitchen was cluttered, the stove looked older than his hosts and the cabinet doors leaned off their hinges.
Callie had said that she and the kids went to the country often to visit her parents. Alex might make a good drinking buddy on those weekends. Would he like the Dew Vodka?
“Callie,” Alex said, “Chinese food makes me thirsty. OK to have one of the kid’s juice boxes?”
He repeated himself more loudly to be heard over the running water.
She replied by raising fingers on one hand. “Five times two is ten. No, school is closed on Friday, which makes it four times two is eight so leave that many for us.”
“What? I can’t hear you.”
She turned off the faucet. “Eight.”
With the dishes done, kids sleeping and Marcella gone, the house was quiet. He got up to go. Callie took him to the door of the darkened living room.
“Thank you,” she said, giving him a smile that could have graced the warm shadows of a Vermeer. “Oscar was right. You are a friend.”
Kochanski fell into a comfortable pattern of spending Saturday evenings at their home, listening to the couple talk, each interrupting or finishing the other with domestic stops-and-starts: laundry needing to go in the dryer, a phone call and most often something with the children.
It was a relaxing end to a stressful week, joining the rhythms of their home with food and wine, time suspending its hurried march.
Like Irina’s descriptions of storybook illustrations all those decades ago, scenes unfolded in the couple’s history.
There was Callie’s first trip to Sichet’s studio three years ago, She got lost.
“Of course, she did, she always does,” Alex said.
After boarding the noisy Chicago subway to his studio, Callie described tuning out the grit, the city palette of anonymous travelers and the glaring ads on the panels above the windows.
He too often rode those trains, glass sometimes ominously black in the noisy tunnels and then bright with blurred motion when above ground. She described escaping the pressing, troubled present into a past in tales from millennia ago.
“That day on the train, I read my Bible on my phone,” she said. “Where I come from, they had never preached about Bathsheba or Judith.”
“I think that young Bathsheba,” he said, “seduced by old King David or pretty Judith who beds and beheads the enemy of her people — are hardly role-models.”
“They are more interesting than ‘who begat who?’ she said, “I was just trying to tell you how I felt that day.”
Remembering the Purple project, he said, “I know men — even now — who care a lot about who begat who…”
After Callie reached the building, she described searching down blind corridors until she found the studio.
“I knocked. I was nervous, my first day on the job with a guy who creeped me out.
“Jim opened the door. He looked different, not shaved, not smiling, not in his suit and tie but wearing this stained painter’s smock. His eyes….”
“Always cold,” Kochanski observed. “But I’ve never seen him in anything but his suit and tie — or a fancy gym outfit.”
A wave of chaos rolled in the front door as Marcella returned with the children from a show.
Then Alex got up. “It’s getting late,” he said.
The next Saturday, Kochanski waited until Alex was biting into his second brownie. Marcella was leaving for the night. She asked him about his opinion on the new Pope.
“Since I left Poland, I don’t follow the Popes much,” he said.
He heard the door shut as Marcella left.
“So tell me more about that first time at Jim’s studio three years ago,” he asked Callie.
“When I went inside, he took my jacket and carefully looked me over, asking, ‘Is that a dress you can wear for every session?’
“I stammered something after he closed the door to the studio and we were alone together.
“He had only just come up to me from nowhere at the grocery store hours ago and said ‘hello.’
“Then I sat on the red chair looking out the big window past the floating specks.
“But he didn’t try to do anything to me.
“Eventually,” Callie continued, ” I got used to him — even sometimes showing up out of nowhere. He gives good advice about our money problems. He likes hearing about everything.”
“Do you think he actually listens to you?” Alex said
“Yes,” she said, annoyed. “That first time, I ducked into a doorway to count my cash afterwards.
“I saw Angela go by, all dressed up.”
“That was also about the time you hired me,” Alex said to Kochanski.
Callie sighed. “Yes. Alex was not able to find more artistic work and refused to do anything else. It was so gloomy after Marcella left for the night. The walls of this kitchen would close around me. Only the kids made me happy…until Oscar arrived.
“Oscar and I would stay up late talking into the night. Sometimes, Marcella would join in. He knew obscure poets and philosophers. He described God as this face he put on everything good in our evil world.
“He said he was God’s knight, fighting endless waves of darkness, suffering and chaos. He told us about his travels and spiritual experiences around the world — then Marcella became a Moslem.”
“Callie!” Kochanski was incredulous. “Oscar had never traveled anywhere outside Chicago since he was a teenager. That was his imagination talking.”
“I mostly tuned out all their religious talk,” Alex said. “Oscar often spent the night when it would get late. He always carefully unpacked and then repacked your painting. The last time I saw him was in May last year, right at dawn when he left.”
“Did Oscar encourage Marcella to become a Moslem?” Kochanski asked.
Callie shook her head. “Marcella’s just a teenager. When she was fifteen, she had been sitting next to her mother in church, half-listening as their minister preached a sermon, next to some fat old man who always fell asleep. She mimics him to make our kids laugh, how he snored, stopped breathing, then gasped and started the cycle again.
“One day, the minister was preaching about Abraham, Sarah and the slave, Hagar. Marcella said that at that moment, for the first time ever, something spoke to her in church as her mother had promised would happen.
“‘I am Ismael,” she announced to Oscar and me, ‘ Hagar’s unwanted child.’”
Callie poured more wine.
“She decided that she, too, had been cast out in the desert, like Ismael, due to growing up with a single mom and an absent father. She doesn’t like our daughter’s name because I had named her after Sarah in the Bible.”
“Marcella can over-react,” Alex murmured.
“Remember the dead mouse, Alex?
“My husband had killed it by putting it in an empty baby food jar in the freezer. How Marcella screamed when she found it.”
“I really honestly don’t remember doing that to a poor mouse.”
“People don’t remember what they do when they’re drunk.”
Kochanski no longer felt awkward when there was tension between the couple. Rather, he felt included.
“I did talk a lot about Oscar with Jim,” Callie said.
“Maybe,” Marion conjectured, “Jim was jealous because he thought Callie was having an affair with Oscar.”
Kochanski shook his head, “No, I doubt that.”
He helped to clear the table and sink. After drying pots, pans and dishes, he now even knew where to put them away.
“Good night, Mr. Kochanski,” a high-pitched duo of young voices called from the doorway.
This was now his American family in Chicago. They had even believed his romantic lies about the Vermeer painting. The real story was more complicated.
In his gang days in Eastern Europe, he had seen the little painting in the home of a politician. Liking it, he did the obvious and stole it. Eventually, he brought it to the United States as his only remembrance from his homeland.
The New York City appraiser discovered it was an original Vermeer, last seen in the 1800s. After some covert investigation, he discovered that Its previous owner had no idea that it was valuable, having received it in a graft scheme to possess the house that it hung in.
Any descendants of the original owners were lost in the fog of two hundred years of European history, its fluid borders and bloody wars.
It had been tricky to get insurance for the painting without solid provenance. Katya had agreed to lie to the company investigator that she had grown up seeing the painting in Poland on her grandmother’s wall. The insurance company could find no other claim for ownership. Finally, a bribe greased the last wheels to get the policy.
He hired Alex to make a copy before giving the original to the Saburian king to cover his debts, planning later to file a claim with the insurance company saying that it was stolen and replaced with a forgery.
If the company disputed the claim, they would likely settle rather than go to court and he would still get a partial payment from them. By then, the Saburian king would have the original in his private collections to not be seen in the foreseeable future.
But his plot had been foiled by Oscar’s murder. Kochanski had confessed his scheme to King Mohammed through his minister. The royal had still taken the antique — and bought Alex’s partly finished copy to prevent scandal.