Chapter 23: Papyrus and Poetry
One night, Kochanski hurried out of the Marions’ house.
”God,” he yelled to Callie as the door closed, “will winter ever end?”
In the home he had just left, there was a family — people entangled in love and life — who drew in others seeking warmth: Marcella, Oscar and now him.
He ran to his car as licks of icy wind smacked him. Then, driving down the Marions’ narrow street, he saw the front porch light of their home turn off. Feeling lost again on a frozen sea of time under a starless moonless night, he looked again in his rear-view mirror.
An upstairs window now glowed like a beacon. A relieved sob rose inside.
Shrouded by loneliness, fearful that his own people might try to hurt him or Katya even after all these years, he had made no close friends among Chicago’s sizable Polish-American community. By crossing the ocean, he never felt that he had safely left his past behind.
Some still remembered that he had killed Number One in his old gang.
Number One was a round man in his 30s who named his waste and made jokes about its adventures downstream. One night, Kochanski heard the splash and waited near the outhouse as the large man’s steps grew louder approaching him. Then his knife silenced that uproariously wicked voice.
Afterwards, he pulled together their disorganized group of young men into a legitimate business. Dew vodka got its first distillery.
“The blood now runs clear,” his hometown priest told him.
The priests in Chicago were strangers, as anonymous as the cars that now sped by him on the main road. His place was a condo in a tall tower of similar cells: no laughter of children, no dogs barking, no clatter of dishes, no raised voices of a couple having a minor argument that extinguished itself as quickly as it started — the same one they had many times before — nothing, just silence and thick walls.
How did the Marions pay for it all, he thought, private schools and a nanny? Neither had steady work. Was something up between Sichet and Callie? But she was not that type of young woman, beautiful on the outside and cold inside, an actress who could make rich men like Sichet forget that she had no feelings for them.
As unenlightened about Oscar’s death as ever, Kochanski pulled into the parking garage. Callie had described Oscar as a visionary innocent, her martyr. But then she rode gritty Chicago subways with pictures of colorful Old Testament archetypes in her head. Certainly if in great houses, there are many rooms, then in Callie’s world, he hadn’t yet found the one that hid her truth.
Still, the everyday joy that filled her home was a dream come true. As a boy running errands for the baker’s shop in Poland where the family had lived upstairs, Kochanski was the outsider in another such home.
He had not even given a stable family life to his only child. An ex- told him, “It’s clear that Katya lacked mothering when she was growing up.” It was a dealbreaker for their relationship.
Blaming work commitments and no childcare, the Marions kept postponing meeting him at The Spirit and Stone. Then they were late. Alex wore a blue dress shirt and khaki pants. As usual, Callie wore a dress, but this time she had accessorized it with a long silk scarf, draped around her shoulders and knotted around her throat.
He watched them check their coats. The new maitre d’ brought them to the table.
“Sorry we’re late,” Alex said. “Callie was delayed meeting me at the L stop, because Marcella and Sarah were fighting.”
Sitting down, Callie sighed. “Marcella was scolding Sarah, saying ‘where I come from, they don’t mess around with misbehaving children like you.’
“When Sarah saw me coming down the stairs, she repeated what Marcella had said and then added a dramatic ‘Uh huh.’ Marcella got even angrier. I had to calm them down.”
Alex groaned. “The kids had the day off from school — some kid in their class got the new flu — and they have been cooped up in the house by the cold weather.”
“At least, Alex,”Callie said, “they don’t go to the public school. It’s been online all semester.”
She turned to Kochanski. “I had to go to Jim’s studio. Then I came home and accidentally tossed the mail into the garbage. Don’t worry, Alex, I took it back out — all junk except the bills.
“Then I went upstairs to change. OK, the bed was still unmade. It was so inviting.
“I overslept,” she confessed.
She awoke when she heard Marcella and Sarah clash in the living room, battling voices getting louder and higher. Furious, she ran down the steps.
“I know she thinks that we don’t discipline Sarah,” Callie said. “I don’t want to lose Marcella,”
Alex straightened his back.”Sarah’s my wild child. I like her that way. But, yeah, I hope Marcella doesn’t quit.”
He turned to Callie as if expecting her to make sure.
She looked happily at her husband.
“We do need Marcella’s help with the kids,” she said, “especially now that Alex has a job.”
Alex made a face at her.
“It’s creative work and uses your artistic training,” she said. “Still, it wouldn’t be enough money to get someone if Marcella left us.”
“We don’t pay Marcella much,” Alex explained, “She’s richer than us.”
“How?” Kochanski exclaimed.
Alex explained. “Her mother was a housekeeper for a wealthy family and so met her father who was married. The child support arrangement was generous.”
“Marcella has a trust fund,” Callie said. “But her mother has depression. She grew up with relatives or in daycares.”
Alex sipped the Dew. “This is good.”
“I’m so happy you like it,” said Kochanski, “makes me giddy with happiness.”
Callie sampled her husband’s glass. “I’ll stick to wine, thanks.”
“I can’t fathom why Marcella is so angry,” Alex said. “Given everything that her father’s family provides, she has a better deal than most people.”
“Marcella keeps asking after Oscar,” Callie said, tearing up. “I tell her that I think Oscar is out of the country — he is in a way — and that’s maybe why he’s not returning her messages. I’m afraid that she might go to the police to tell them everything she knows if she finds out he was murdered.
“I”ll tell Marcella someday. But timing is everything especially with the truth. That’s what they say where I come from.”
Thick, steaming pizza arrived. Alex’s eyes brightened.
“Before I left the house,” Callie said, “I did try to placate Marcella. I told her that I was sorry she hasn’t had a raise lately.
“We can’t afford it, Callie,” Alex said.
“It’s OK, Alex,” said Callie. “She said that her upscale pancake house gig does pay better, especially the tips. But she likes the ‘work atmosphere’ better in our home.”
“Maybe Marcella likes being in your home for the same reasons I do,” Kochanski said. “Doesn’t sound like she needs your money.”
“I guess,” Callie said, looking mystified. “It’s hard to eat this salad, so much lettuce. Is it supposed to make me feel better about eating the fattening pizza?
“Marcella and her mother live in a condo that’s nicer than our place,” she continued. “This summer, before she leaves for college, her dad’s parents are taking her on a family trip to France and Italy.”
“Oh no,” Alex said, “we’re going to have to find another nanny.”
“Unbelievable,” Kochanski said, “her dad has paid off his mom. And his parents still take Marcella on trips?”
“She is their granddaughter,” Callie said. “They even sent her to private schools though not the same ones as their other grandchildren to avoid awkwardness.”
“Fair enough,” Kochanski said. “It’s not Marcella’s fault that she was the product of an affair. I never even knew my father. He was probably also married.”
Callie gave him a sympathetic look.
The conversation drifted to Alex’s description of his new job in commercial media. Kochanski recognized the name of his employer: a vendor for Sichet’s businesses.
“Alex was always good with computers, and he’s taking their graphics to a new level,” Callie said. “So Michael, what do you think happened to your painting?”
“I am trying to figure it out,” Kochanski said, “Jim’s connection to Oscar, how my painting landed in his studio.”
“It’s not like I can just ask Jim,” Callie said.
“He wouldn’t answer. If I pressed him, he’d get angry and stop talking to me for a while again.”
She described a closed door at the back of Sichet’s studio, and the restroom door next to it. One day, she said she walked behind the building and counted up the floors. There were windows in the back rooms of the apartment and a balcony with a wrought iron table and chairs.
“Angela and him?” she speculated, “a perfect lovers’ nest. In the back, it’s just an industrial lot.
“I guess I put on my detective hat,” she continued. “Because I was worried — what did Jim know? Would he tell the police that Alex did forgeries? What if Alex went to jail? Then I would have to go back to my parents.
“That church I grew up in would become our second home. The living and the dead would disapprove.”
“You mean?” Kochanski asked.
“My family spends all their free time doing things with the church, an old building in front of a graveyard. Here I left when I was seventeen with Alex. Then I come back with two dark children.”
Kochanski had never before wondered before about Alex’s ethnicity. His name gave no hint. Back in the Old World, one could look at a person’s face, the shape of its bones, the accent in their voice and know exactly where they were from. With his olive skin and dark curly hair, Alex’s ancestry there would be traced back to anywhere along the Mediterranean corridor.
“That’s why I don’t visit her family much,” said Alex. “Jesus was born in the Middle East. He probably looked like me.”
“Michael, you never ask us about that copy Alex was making,” Callie said. “I understand it’s upsetting to think about. So this man from Africa came to our house and paid cash for it.”
“He said you sent him?” asked Alex.
“Thanks so much,” Callie said. “I was so glad to get that out of our house.”
She unwrapped the silk scarf around her neck and shoulders, about six feet of dusky blue paisley on a saffron background.
“This was a gift from Oscar,” she said, “so beautiful, like something I saw window shopping on the Magnificent Mile. Oscar said he got it in India in the Himalayas. He described a saint there who was a hundred and fifty years old and levitated under a tree.
“But I guess Oscar just made up that story too.”
No one said anything.
Then Alex asked her, “You want to tell him?”
“Michael,” she said, “something happened last night when I came home. Remember how it was raining and windy?”
She ran her fingers through the folds of the scarf and lowered her voice. “I had stopped at the cafe for a glass of wine, thinking that I would not stay long but…”
“But you ran into Max?” said Alex.
“Max and I didn’t talk long. It’s just that I lost track of time and it was dark by the time I left. Then Alex, you were supposed to fix the outside light on our front porch.
“When I finally unlocked the door — it was so dark and hard to see — something caught the end of this scarf and jerked me back.
“I turned around, worried that I might have torn it, and saw someone in the shadows. I screamed. Marcella ran outside. We looked around with our phone lights — nothing.”
Alex put his hand over hers. “Callie then called me and I came home. If anything ever happened to you, honey, I would kill.”
She tenderly touched her cheek to his.
Kochanski looked at the fine-boned slender man facing him. Alex was not capable of killing anything. But Sichet? Had he killed that teacher in school? Planted the frozen mouse in the Marions’ home?
He imagined holding a knife’s edge to Sichet’s throat, blood spurting out. But he was no longer a swift teenager and would never be a competent assassin again.
Or as his bosses did decades ago, the work could be outsourced to someone young and hungry.
Was it such a bad thing for him: to now be older, no longer be hard and cold, now to feel, to touch, to cry, to be weak, to break open…and to see through the cracks: the infinite?
He sighed, Callie style. She gave him an odd look.
“That is a weird thing,” he said, “I’m glad you’re safe. I think you guys need to fix that light, put up some more lights and get security cameras. I’ll have one of my guys come by tomorrow and give you a quote to do it.”
“Thanks, Michael,” said Alex, “just something hopefully we can afford?”
“Yes, I’ll tell him to do it at cost too.”
“How about them Cubs?” Alex looked up at the large screen, his worried frown fading. The start of the baseball season was a cheerful change of topic.
After paying for their dinner, Kochanski called for a ride to take them home. They beamed gratefully.
“See you at our house on Saturday, Chinese and wine,” Alex said.
“Yes,” he said.
Clutter, clatter, complications and children, in the many rooms of the Marion home, they had welcomed him into the lighted one of love. Oscar too had felt loved and spent a short lifetime of savings on Callie’s scarf.
Somewhere, there was another room, with answers to his questions about Oscar, Callie’s relationship with Sichet, Alex, a room where death was the door to the infinite, a room of truth he no longer wanted to find.
“I’ll bring wine and my vodka… and dessert,” he told them, “and something for the kids too. Spring is coming with confidence.”
As the season changed into summer, Sheraton informed Kochanski about the birth of Noru’s son.
“A healthy baby prince,” she told Kochanski on a video-call. “I’ll be leaving Saburia soon to spend July with my family. Then my gig begins in the Ozarks.”
“How about coming to Chicago?”
A month passed. In July, Garcia called him back, his blurry face unsmiling on the screen.
“Congratulations to the king … and you,” Kochanski said. “Elise says the baby is strong and loud.”
“Good news for Saburia indeed,” Garcia said in a monotone. “I hear she’s also going to visit you in Chicago.”
“She told you. That does make it more likely. So have you seen the baby?”
“No,” Garcia said. “I’ll see him at the one-month ceremony.”
“How’s Mary?” Kochanski asked.
“Great!” Garcia now looked excited, “Our trial has two new patients.”
“Tell me, Manny, will you do just as good a job for any scientific project you take on?”
“Of course, I’m a scientist.”
“Science is like a religion to you.”
“Religion is irrational. No.”
Separated by screens, thousands of miles and even the tiniest fraction of real time by the laws of physics, the subtext of their conversation was the Purple project that they could not talk about for fear of eavesdroppers.
After they disconnected the call, Garcia frowned with puzzlement.
How did Noru’s OB know that one of the embryos did not have any of Noru’s chromosomes? Had she already known about the Khan substitution before he accidentally slipped up and told her?
It was best, he thought, that as few people know about the Purple project as possible. He had already destroyed its records in the Drukker after making the backup disc for Sheraton to take to Campbell.
At their last meeting, he had written on an edible note: “Please give this disc to David, just personal stuff if anything happens to me.” After she read it, he took the paper back and ate it.
An ancient mode of communication, he had resurrected paper to bypass new minders.
He smiled now, remembering George. Doing everything online, his son had no paper checks and did not carry cash. “Dad, that is so grandmother’s generation.”
As Sheraton slipped the drive into her backpack. Garcia said aloud, “I have seen the spider. It’s on its way — lumbering. Bye, Elise. Good luck with your new job and I will see you again.”
“Manny, you never stop surprising me. Poetry now!”
Poetry could also be code, he thought. Soon she would travel to the Ozarks with the only remaining copy — he knew of — of the Purple project files. What could be a safer place?
Garcia switched off the video monitor. He took out his only summer suit from the closet and draped it over a chair for the cleaners to pick up. He would wear it to the prince’s one-month naming ceremony.
Early morning in July, before the heat made an outside gathering impossible, the King, his three queens and the baby prince, appeared with other members of the royal court on the main balcony overlooking the central plaza of Ramses. Crowds gathered. Cameras filmed and televised the event on screens around the country.
The royals were in full regalia. The doctor had given the baby a drug to help him sleep through the rituals. The women sat, Salma at the King’s right as his first queen, with Noru on his left. Saira was next to Salma. The women wore black robes, only faces showing. The King stood. He wore white as did all the men standing on the balcony.
Festive colors painted the plaza. First came the parade of the Royal Guard and Band, in ceremonial purple and gold. Horns and drums played martial music. The people clustered around the perimeter of the courtyard and waved purple and gold ribbons, flags and patriotic signs, cheering nonstop.
They became silent when the Imam, standing on the balcony, said prayers broadcast over loudspeakers. Finally, the King spoke. In a short speech, he thanked his people and lauded the country’s accomplishments, especially the mining of natural resources and upgrades in education, trade and the military.
Finally, he turned to the Imam, holding the baby. He placed a gold circlet on the infant’s head.
The video monitor played translations in Chinese, Arabic and English: “Congratulations, my son on your naming day. I name you Ahmat Ali, child of mine descended from our fathers and ancient Pharaohs, I have a vision of you in the Sun’s bright future for our nation.”
Garcia stood on the edge of the crowd. He had learned from watching Saburian shows with incongruous English subtitles that non-verbal signals, facial expressions, body language, ceremony, and rituals were often truer guides than a minion’s translation.
He wondered. Did the infant’s gold band hint that he was now being crowned as the future king? Could that be the purpose for the Purple project? Impossible — the country already had a crown prince, Prince Malik.
But why wasn’t the crown prince here or even mentioned?
The crowds cheered themselves hoarse. Then the band struck up the National Anthem. The queens’ faces were expressionless as they dutifully kept their gaze on their husband.
But the show was not over. The King raised the baby toward the crowd, and then a light rain started to fall.
There was an awestruck silence. Then more cheers rose. Ancient traditions spoke of the Rainbringer to this rocky desert kingdom, and this blessing from heaven itself also helped crown the latest Prince of Saburia.
Garcia looked above at a few clouds, silver ribbons in the early morning sky. The scientific explanation had to be that the clouds were seeded.
On the giant video screen, a close-up showed that Queen Salma was also looking up . Her eyes were hooded, pupils constricted, mascara lengthening her lashes into sharp points.
“Like a predator,” he thought. A man in white he recognized as Prince Abdul, her brother, leaned in and said something in her ear. She gave the faintest nod.