Chapter 23: Papyrus and Poetry
Chicago winters were interminable. One night, Kochanski hurried to his car as licks of icy wind smacked him. In the home he had just left, there was a family — people entangled in love and life — who drew in others seeking that warmth: Marcella, Oscar and now him.
Driving down the Marions’ narrow street, he saw the front porch light of their house go 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 wish to hurt him or Katya even after all these years, he had no close friends among Chicago’s sizable Polish-American community. By crossing the ocean, he hadn’t safely left his past behind. Some 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. In one of his last killings. his knife silenced that uproariously wicked voice.
Then he pulled together a disorganized group of young men into a legitimate business, Dew vodka got its first distillery.
“The blood now runs clear,” his hometown priest said.
On the main road, his car picked up speed and sped away. 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, private schools and a nanny? Alex had no steady work. He wondered the worst about 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- had said, “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.”
“The kids had the week off from school — it’s closed due to the new flu again — and have been cooped up in the house by the cold weather.
“I had a long day that ended at Jim’s studio. Then I came home and accidentally tossed the mail in the garbage. Don’t worry, Alex, I took it back out — all junk except the bills.
“When I went upstairs to change, the bed was still unmade. It was so inviting.
“OK, I overslept,” she said.
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 don’t want to lose Marcella,” Callie said. “I know she thinks that we don’t discipline Sarah.”
“Sarah’s my wild child. I like her that way. But I sure hope Marcella doesn’t quit,” Alex said.
He looked at Callie as if expecting her to make sure.
“We do need Marcella’s help with the kids,” she said, “especially now that Alex has a job.”
She looked happily at her husband.
Alex looked morose.
“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 asked.
“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, left haphazardly with relatives or in daycares.”
Alex sipped the Dew. “This is good.”
“I’m so glad you like it.” Kochanski said.
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 sense — and that’s maybe why he’s not returning her messages. I’m afraid that she will go to the police to tell them everything she knows if she finds out he was murdered.
“I”ll tell her someday. But timing is everything especially with the truth. That’s what they say where I come from.”
Thick, steaming pizza arrived. Her eyes brightened.
“Before I left the house,” Callie said, “I did try to placate Marcella. I told her that I was sorry we haven’t given her a raise lately.
“We can’t afford it, Callie,” Alex said.
“It’s OK. 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 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.
“I still am trying to figure 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.
“Why?” Kochanski wondered.
“He wouldn’t answer. If I pressed him, he’d get angry and stop talking to me for a while.”
She described a closed door at the back of Sichet’s studio, and the restroom door next to it. One day, 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 said. “It would be a perfect lovers’ nest in the middle of nowhere, overlooking an industrial lot.
“I guess I was doing a little detective work,” she continued. “I was also worried — what did Jim know or would he tell the authorities that Alex did forgeries?”
She feared that Alex could go to jail and that she and her children would return to her family.
“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 its free time in their church. It’s been there for generations along with an old graveyard. I left when I was seventeen with Alex. Then I come back with two brown-eyed Middle-Eastern looking children.”
Kochanski had never before wondered before about Alex’s ethnicity. His name gave no hint. Back in the Old World, one looked at a person’s face, the shape of the bones, the accent in the voice and knew exactly where they were from. With his olive skin and dark curly hair, Alex’s ancestry in the Old World would be traced back to anywhere along the Mediterranean corridor.
“Jesus was born in the Middle East. He probably looked like me,” Alex said.
“Michael, you never ask about Alex’s partly finished painting,” Callie said. “I understand it’s upsetting to think about. A man from an African country came to our house the other day and made a cash payment for it. We figured you didn’t want it and gave it to him.”
“Did you send that man?” Marion asked.
“Thanks so much,” Callie said. “I was so glad to get it out of the 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, so beautiful,” she said, “like something I saw window shopping on Chicago’s 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.
“The stories that Oscar told us are as real as anything else I know,” she said.
“Alex, I’m going to tell Michael what happened the other night. It was dark when I came home — rainy and gusty.”
She ran her fingers through the folds of the scarf and lowered her voice. “I had stopped at our sidewalk cafe for a glass of wine to calm myself, thinking that I would not stay long but…”
“You ran into Max again.” her husband said.
“Max and I didn’t talk long. It’s just that I lost track of time and it was dark. The outside light on our doorstep was burnt out. When I unlocked the door, something caught the end of this scarf and jerked me back.
“I turned around, worried that I might have torn it, and saw it was actually 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. Maybe you just imagined it.”
Kochanski stifled a laugh at the thought of Alex killing anything. But Sichet might? Was the frozen mouse in the home a warning that Sichet had planted?
But Oscar had been shot before his body was put in the river, not strangled.
But Sichet would not be stupid enough to murder the same way again even if he had killed that teacher many years ago.
He imagined holding a knife edge to Sichet’s throat, blood spurting out. No longer a swift teenager, he would have to be fitter to ever be a competent assassin again.
Or, as his bosses did decades ago, the work could be outsourced to someone young and hungry, never again to be true for him.
Was that such a bad thing: to be older, to 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.
“How about them Cubs?” Marion looked up at the large screen. The start of the baseball season was a cheerful change of subject.
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.
He had questions about Oscar, Callie’s relationship with Sichet, Alex, but those answers lay in a different 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 said, “and something for the kids too.”
Spring arrived with confidence in Chicago. When Callie and the children visited her family in the country, Alex joined him for drinks at The Spirit and Stone. As the season changed into summer, Elise informed Kochanski about the birth of Noru’s son.
“A healthy baby prince,” Elise told Kochanski on a video-call. “I’ll be leaving Saburia to spend July with my family before 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 undertake?” Kochanski asked.
“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 sat down. Would Kochanski even have the answers to his questions.
Garcia had resurrected the Genghis Khan DNA in one of the twin embryos implanted into Queen Noru. Was the newborn that embryo?
How did Noru’s OB know that one embryo did not have any of Noru’s chromosomes? Had she known about the Khan substitution before he had accidentally slipped up and told her?
He had destroyed all the Purple project data in the Drukker after making the backup disc that Elise was carrying to Campbell.
“Please give this disc to David, just personal stuff if anything happens to me,” he had written on the edible note that he had eaten after she read it.
An ancient mode of communication, paper was resurrected to bypass new minders. Doing everything online, George had no paper checks and did not carry cash.
“Dad, that is so grandmother’s generation,” his son scolded him in Spanish.
As Elise had slipped the drive into her backpack. Garcia had said aloud, “I have seen the spider. It’s on its way — lumbering. Goodbye, Elise. Good luck with your new job.”
Poetry could also be code. He was paraphrasing a British poem he had read in English class in Argentina.
Soon Elise would travel to the Ozarks with the only remaining copy — he knew of — of the Purple project files. What could be a safer place?
Manny 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 wear to the prince’s naming ceremony.
Early morning in July, before the heat made an outside gathering impossible, the royal court, the king, his three queens and the baby prince, now a month old, appeared 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. Salma sat to 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 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 rose. 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 and placed a gold circlet on the baby’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.
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 Syed 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. Manny 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 wondered. A man in white he recognized as Prince Abdul, her brother, leaned in and said something in her ear. She gave the faintest nod.