I slip out the door and join the flow of traffic up the street, noticing someone across it with his eyes fixed on the front of the bar. I reenter the shadows and make my way.
There's a shop open several doors up that specializes in used clothes and costumes. Maybe it's where my neighbor at the Epistolay gets her threads. It's too early for Halloween, but I enter and start browsing. It occurs to me that if I stay for a few more days I could use a disguise. I check out possibilities and decide on a couple wigs.
I'm more relaxed on my trek back up to the motel. The neighborhoods look different. Maybe the confidence of having the means to alter my appearance lessens my need to be vigilant and allows me to take in the scenes more fully and see details. But it's also the conversation with Melina. It lingers and keeps me focused. She gave me something about the past I could've never gotten at the reunion, not just information, but a fresh angle and attitude that makes me feel immune to the surroundings somehow.
Cute punk rebel...I kept my distance from that scene because it seemed so irreverent, and not really rebellious either, just stubbornly noisy and chaotic. Maybe she was that girl who used to come with her friends to our practices dressed in strange costumes, I guess making fun of cheerleaders, and chanting something that no one seemed to understand. But from what I see now, if that was her and I'm remembering it correctly, the picture hardly fits. Her crusty, handsome features appear delinked from the genetic chain of cute. Her eyes are quietly confident smirks of worldly wisdom. Her energies seem tamped into all the right circuits.
I arrive at the Epistolay refreshed, and no longer so eager to head back to communal bliss. I try to slip past the clerk unseen, but he catches me at the last second and waves, summoning me inside. Tempted to ignore him, I give in and sport my best version of a satisfied customer.
"Hey, my bro's waitin for ya!...told him bout your case and he's..."
"...got no time, gotta get back to where I belong soon and..."
"...but someone left you a message, want it?"
"Yeah, when? Let me see it."
He rips a piece of paper from a pad and hands it to me. "Was just gonna put it in yer slot."
I palm it and head to my room, dodging a couple of fashionably, overly dressed ladies on the way.
"We got just the thing to help wayward tourists make it through the night!"
"Keep the faith, sisters!"
I slip into my room amid promises they'll be over after me if I don't show, quickly locking the door. Something seems different. Like my belongings have been rearranged. Did someone look through them? The bed even seems to be in a slightly different position. I settle back on it wondering if I'm imagining these changes. I reach for the bible, which seems to be in the same place, and feel reassured. As the tribal rhythms next door reach a crescendo, I get up and leave the room. Once outside I see no one's around and head to the phone on the corner, sprinting by the office entrance. I dial the number etched on my soul and wait for an answer. After several rings someone picks up. I hang up and return to the office.
"I'm otta here tomorrow. When's checkout?"
"So soon bro!?...some bad news in that message?"
"Haven't read it."
"Well, ya need any help just let us know! Eleven's checkout time...remember, 'Jesus is the Reason for the Season!'"
I return to the room and settle into the rhythms of channel-changing, keeping a close eye on the door as my reason fades to sleep...
I wake to a brilliantly illumined room and what seems like a piercing scream. I take a deep breath and blink several times before I witness the mid-day sun suffusing my space. I wait for sounds. The atonal symphony of traffic noises firms me up.
I recall that checkout is at eleven and leap out of bed, noticing it's already eleven thirty. Hopefully there's no eviction in progress. I look out the window for the possible source of the scream and then remember that I haven't read my phone message. But I can't seem to locate it. Finally I find it wedged between the waste receptacle and the wall.
It's from Melina. She gives me her number and says she'll be at the Breviary later on Sunday. And then this fragment: "...know someone you need to meet so hang...he has a contact who's figured St. Pete's paradox..."
I pack my things hastily and check out at the office. Luckily my friend's on break, and his sub has nothing to sell.
"Tell your boss I appreciated the accommodations, and will let him know if and when I find Jesus."
"Excuse me sir!...you lookin for Jesus?" he says, but by then I'm out the door and on my way to the street, a very hot one at that. There are heat halos around some of the people and cars.
As I reach the pay phone and retrieve my change I notice there's someone sitting in a car staring at me about a block down the street. I don't recognize the person. I'm not even sure if it's male or female. Thinking that I might be seeing things, perhaps experiencing the effects of the heat, I move away from the phone a hundred feet or so toward the car, stopping in front of a pawn shop. I enter the atrium, a perfect vantage to see who's in the car. But when I turn toward the car, it's gone. I run onto the sidewalk, looking around in all directions, but see no trace of it. I try to reconstruct who it might have been. But he or she was simply too far away. Was it the "priest?"
How would he know where to find me? If he knows this then he's probably still watching me from somewhere. I look around again, and sprint down the street for a block or so before turning right up the hill. Half way up there's a gas station. I go to the restroom. It's unlocked, but I surprise a woman who's searching through her purse.
"Isn't this the men's room, maam?"
"Do I look like a man?"
"No, I mean you certainly don't, but isn't this the men's room?"
"What makes you think it's the men's room?"
"Well, the sign outside for one thing!"
"Maybe you didn't read it correctly!"
"Look, I just need it for a few minutes...don't wanna cause any trouble!"
"Then why are you?...want me to start screaming for the police?
"No, no...I get the picture." I walk around the side of the building and enter the women's restroom, hastily retrieving one of the wigs I bought and exit a new man.
There are only a few parked cars along the street and I see no one inside any of them. I carefully make my way up the hill and fall in behind a family taking a stroll, before circling around and dipping below the main drag, losing myself in the neighborhood busyness. There's a motel near the harbor that blends in with the architecture, and doesn't even appear to be one at first glance.
It takes me a while to find the sign, the Sojourner. At least that's what I figure since not all the letters have survived, but my hunch is later confirmed when the clerk puns on the name, asking me the nature of my journey.
It seems like a perfect hideout, likely to repel many, perhaps even ward off a few evil or unwelcome spirits. It's shadowed by steeples and oil pumps, reliable beacons for any sojourner. And it's close to a liquor store and a mortuary. The one to escape reality, the other to remind me of it?
I might as well be in a motel located in an unincorporated town somewhere in the boonies of New Mexico. There are no other guests in evidence, and barely any street noises can be heard from my room. The clerk can hardly keep his eyes open, let alone muster the energy for pitches. I double check to make sure the room's secure and head out to scout the area. First I stop at the liquor store and get the local paper. There must be some reason for all the copters. Guess I've forgotten what the harbor could be like at night. But there's nothing in the paper about any pursuits or criminal activity.
What did Melina mean? Someone I needed to meet? Why? He has a contact who's figured St. Pete's paradox? Someone from our class? What in the world is St. Pete's paradox?! I'm not so sure I wanna know. Yet I feel like I have to find out, something. If I head back to Pitchfork Prairie now my life might never be the same. There's something about Melina. Her comments whet my curiosity just enough to put off my return for another day. I can barely remember her but feel she somehow witnessed something I missed. I envy her confident grasp of things. What does she have in mind?
Hand around my paper, eyes around my mind, I step into the street as an older model customized car streaks through the intersection and nearly clips me. I jump back up onto the curb, not sure if I'm losing touch with reality or if this is intentional. And then the "priest" and Louise and that whole drama rushes me, and I'm ready to dash for the airport.
Like a moth to light I find the phone on the corner and plug it, getting a message. I hesitate, not knowing the number for the Sojourner but not all that keen on giving it out anyway. I tell Melina I'll meet her at the Breviary in a couple hours. Hopefully she'll get the message in time. I proceed to the Profane Grind with caution...
The atmosphere is very different from the night of the reunion. In the bright heat of late afternoon bodies languish in the chairs along the sidewalk, reluctant to move. Their faces are blank and moist. There are few conversations. An old-timer tells a joke in what appears to be Croatian, but the members of his audience don't laugh. They gawk at the passersby, but are as oblivious to them as they're yukless until a long tall vision floats past.
"Look who's come to see us again...miss us baby?" a bereted skeleton shouts from the fringe.
She slows briefly just enough to lather the chorus.
"We knew you'd be back!...you can sit right here if..."
"...if you don't leave me alone I'm going to get this place condemned!"
"Ah comon!...wees already damned anyway," his companion responds.
She ever so cutely thrusts her taut trailer into the group's collective face without breaking stride.
"We won't hurt ya baby!" another responds, his eyes glued to the trailer as if that's where the words came from.
"Besides, we'll just turn up sumwers else," another hollers, as she stops and turns around slightly before resuming her studied gait.
"Oh, she really means it!" another barks, which unleashes a series of linguistically tested catcalls that accompany her strut into the building next door and survive as a discordant buzz.
I tune it out until everything returns to normal. From my table near the door I catch glimpses of the flow of traffic while writing a few notes to myself. This seems to draw attention so I get up and go to the restroom, but abruptly cut to the phone. A woman with child beats me to it and I return to my seat.
As I get back into my routine a middle-aged male enters the café and blankets the tables with leaflets, stopping at one near me to talk with a young black woman who seems very eager. He is too but animates a jumbled mess of consonants and vowels. It's stuttering with no familiar stretches to finesse the gaps. Like a damp carburetor that keeps sputtering. She smiles while he ministers an unbroken chain of satisfaction. A few others appear from the fringe to form what seems like a fledgling flock mesmerized by the word.
He does seem to have a certain charisma. Maybe the sputters are a language in the way that a schizophrenic's ravings can pattern profound thoughts. His gestures seem to complement the sounds. And everyone's so receptive to him, like the noises actually rhyme and the flailing arms trace a sign or otherwise hint at a message. This is apparently some kind of secret communication that I'll never be able to decode. I wonder if he's speaking in tongues.
While lost in exegesis the bodies part and I see a hearse pass by. I do a double take because I'm not sure it's real. I mean it's a very old model and painted bright red. I carefully move outside to get another glimpse as it does a u-turn at the corner, waiting for it to come back up the street, which is mostly empty except for a couple parked cars. One of them, a VW bus on the other side just down from the café, is occupied. Its occupant, a male in his thirties or forties, turns away when I look toward the vehicle, so I can't get an accurate description. As I gingerly step down the walk to get a better look the hearse pulls up to the café, blocking my view of the bus. As the hearse slips into a parking place I see the bus sputter down the street. I can only catch a partial plate and quickly commit it to memory.
I try to see who's inside the hearse but the windows are tinted, an odd embellishment for a late 60s Cadillac. After several seconds of suspense the window comes down and it's Melina with a companion, not the one from last evening.
"Well, look who's here! You're hitting all the hotspots right on cue. A few more days and you'll be a full-fledged member of our shadow society!"
She seems different in the bright light of day, closer to the target age, and more relaxed and carefree. Though now I feel like I don't really remember her. In a split second it seems an electrical current passes between us, and that she intuits what I'm thinking.
"A few more days and I'll be up to my neck in nostalgia and won't be able to find my way otta here!"
"You'll be up to your neck in enlightenment and may never want to leave us again!"
"I can't imagine I...
"...you'll see how yer brothers and sisters have kept the faith since ya been gone, padre!...member me?"
The driver's voice comes at me like at echo from within this shadowy cavern of an automobile. It sounds somewhat familiar. But who would call me that? He must have me mixed up with someone else. I can't make out his face since Melina is getting out of the car and her frame blocks my view. She gives me a feeble hug, and whispers something that I can't decipher because of the wailing paramedic siren dopplering past. I look over her shoulder before we separate and see that the bus is parked again in nearly the same spot across the street. But no one is inside. The driver stretches and grabs Melina's hand, pulling her back into the vehicle, abruptly reversing her momentum.
"Let's git otta here babe, nothin doin...how bout you padre?...game?"
I still can't see his face. Before I can even begin to imagine what this might entail, Melina pulls me inside. As this corpse carrier screeches away from the curb I take a canted final glance at the bus. Its original occupant watches us as he gets into the driver's side.
"Where to padre?...I'm your chauffer for the day!...how bout a tour of the old hood?"
"Weren't you a harbor brat?...used to see you walkin round 10th or so, just up from the cliffs, near the hotel where that shooting took place when we..."
"...once in a while...but we moved around a lot."
He just stares at me, like I'd uttered a senseless rhyme that throws him off track. His blank look conspicuously checks his confidence.
"Well, maybe I got you mixed...no, it was you, I know cuz you used to run round to lots of places, zigzagging here and there, sprinting sometimes too...on yer way to services, or maybe gettin a head start to the gridiron?"...(To Be Continued)
John O'Kane's recent books are A People's Manifesto (2014); and Venice, CA: A City State of Mind (2013).