Within twenty minutes Aloysius was barreling down the Dan Ryan Expressway. He pulled into the driveway of the family house and was dismayed to find all the windows dark. It seemed odd that his sister would not be at home on a school night.
The brother straightened the realty sign in the yard before continuing up the porch steps. He felt under the flowerpot for the spare key, but it was missing. This was his only way into the house—as Miranda well knew. Baffled, he circled the property to find the patio doors unlatched.
A tumble emanated from the den ceiling upon his entrance; his ears followed its strange discordance. Aloysius thought this was his hyperactive nephew galloping about upstairs while his mother away. “Aaron?” he called out.
The silence felt so entrenched that his voice surely intruded on it.
The uncle passed through the living room to the foyer where a desk lamp on the bureau provided context: Light not only uncovered the spare house key lying in a decorative glass ashtray, but also the note he wrote Miranda days earlier. It was still unread under the paperweight. The thought occurred to him that, when he spoke to his sister over the phone the previous evening, she had no idea he was calling from a different town.
The stomping overhead sounded again, and just as abruptly stopped, as if someone disengaged from exercise equipment. Perhaps this was a rehabilitation therapy involving the invalid boarder.
The foyer lamp was turned off just when a door creaked upstairs. The whine of floorboards told Aloysius someone snuck his way. He retreated into deeper shadow, and was flabbergasted to see the muddy outline of a nude woman emerge at the stair rail above. She peered down into the foyer, but it was doubtful she saw him.
This was not his sister, for Miranda would have recognized his voice. It was another woman who gained access to the house with the spare key while his sister was out. The “invalid” boarder apparently had a lover.
The woman slowly melted from view and, shrinking from the compromising details, Aloysius sought a hasty exit. The idea his childhood home was invaded by strangers added to his insecurity. There could be no going home, even in the rudimentary sense; and not simply because the spare house key had been disturbed.
With one sleeping option removed, Aloysius drove into The Loop in search of another.
He walked into the lobby of Omar’s rundown hotel and felt its dire décor press against him. The burnished ceiling smelled of old pipe tobacco; candleholders, with long arthritic fingers of wax, drooped from the cornice.
The visitor stepped to the front desk to find a row of stanchion-braced security monitors blinking behind a counter. Cattycorner to these relics, a mangy stuffed owl beckoned with outstretched wings over a gloomy archway. An inscription beneath it read: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” ~Hegel
The bird of prey was the most conspicuous creature in the lobby, given its perch, but there were others. Stuffed animal heads covered every inch of the cherry-hued walls. These were not bucks with antlers, but large game animals, including buffalo, rhinoceroses, and wildebeests. As there was not enough room to accommodate all of them, a few were stacked two deep between divans and plaster roman busts.
The bell on the serpentine marble top desk was rung, and an elderly, dapper man, pickled in odoriferous mothballs, came out of a back room. He looked like a funeral director summoned inconveniently from his dinner.
Aloysius queried him. “Do you have rooms available on the ground floor?”
The man squinted suspiciously. “We have one room available at the moment, sir. On the top floor.”
The phobic guest hesitated, but was eager to see his friend. He placed his credit card on the counter.
The stoop-shouldered concierge finished up with a blue carbon slip. “Would you care to take advantage of our wake-up service, sir? Or our gentlemen’s library?”
The immaculate man paused to consider his words judiciously. “Videos, sir. Videos of a particular nature. This is a gentlemen’s hotel. We offer it as a service to our guests and residents.”
Aloysius, taking his receipt, answered, “No thank you.”
The guest strolled up to the rickety elevator, but was spared the encounter when a familiar voice sprang from the darkened lounge.
Omar stood under the owl’s cradling wings.
The pals headed to a favorite tavern, and a round of beers was ordered. The lawyer assessed his friend’s state of mind. “What would compel you to drive here at night?”
Aloysius sighed. “You should move to Stonesthrow. Keep me on the straight-and-narrow before I end up a homeless wino badgering people with a metal detector.”
Omar rolled his eyes. “Don’t pull that Van Gogh number on me. I don’t want you FedExing me your severed ear in some pity-grabbing attempt to make me feel guilty. What’s wrong?”
Aloysius burrowed into his mood. “I thought moving to a new town would be a healthy change, but everything is confused. The caretaker’s child has gone missing. I dreamt I saw her the night she disappeared, but can attest to nothing given my sleepwalking. Now the police have searched my house. I think I’m their prime suspect…”
Omar cut him off. “I’m glad you came up. It saves me a telegram.”
“Telegram? Since when do you send telegrams?”
“Since it’s likely your phone is bugged.”
“What are you talking about?”
Omar swelled in his take-charge way. “You know, Ally, I knew this whole inheritance thing smelled fishy. I’ve got a number of friends in Hollywood, and they hear things. Know things.”
“Fox is launching a new reality TV show in January. I don’t know what the title will be, but I know the premise—and I know they’re filming it, as we speak, in the greater Chicago area. The show involves setting up hidden cameras in a house somewhere, luring a sap into it with a phony story, and then putting him through the paces with spooks, goblins, and the works.”
“You think I’m the sap?”
“It’s an uncanny coincidence, isn’t it? Considering what you’ve just told me.”
“It sounds farfetched.”
“Well, listen, asshole. Check out the house when you go back home. The place may be wired to the rafters.” The friend rattled off a to-do list. “Check your light fixtures, behind mirrors, your phone. Be careful about it. If they think you’re on to them, they might try something like sending another squad car by your house to cow you. They’ll make you think you’re under police surveillance.”
Aloysius was dreary for effect. “I’m already under surveillance. The police told me not to leave town. They may have followed me up from Stonesthrow.”
“If they show up, we’ll say you came to consult with your lawyer. Don’t worry. I’ll come down in a couple of days and sort this out.”
Aloysius took another swig of his wheat beer, wanting to be comforted, if not wholly convinced.
Omar leaned into the table light, redirecting his friend’s thoughts. “Do you have a coffeehouse in this ‘one-college’ college town of yours? Some place you can take me?”
“Bean and Nothingness.”
“Any pretty girls in the caffeine drug trade, there?”
Omar knew his pal too well. “A few, my ass. You say ‘a few’ when you have only one in mind. Like you can blow smoke up my skirt, you bastard.”
“There is one.”
“Hah!” The lawyer smacked the table with a chortle. “If you were anymore predictable, Greenwich could strap a goddamn clock to your back!”
The friend quibbled. “I met her at a party before I met her at the coffeehouse.”
“You went to a party? Picked up a chick at a party?”
“Nothing like that.” Aloysius could see his friend rushing ahead. “I think she’s fooling around with a college professor. A painting prof.”
“Then it’s not some blue-eyed college boy? She’s got a thing for older men?”
The artist toyed with a cork-lined coaster under his glass. “I couldn’t say.”
Omar snarled. “Again with the smoke!”
“I don’t know how close they are.”
“Is he married?”
“He’s a married man banging a student and you’re worried about breaking up true love?”
Aloysius was about to raise a challenge.
Omar laid into him. “Even if she dumped this geriatric lover tomorrow, and started parading around you in tassels and making little hearts in your latte foam, you wouldn’t do dick about it!” He thrummed the table in frustration. “Seize the day and stop looking for excuses not to act!”
Aloysius thought of more. “This may all be a power trip for her. She has me sized up as a mentor. I mean, who am I to her? Just another aging guy with encroaching prostate cancer who leers at her between slurps of coffee.”
The lawyer’s eyes widened in amazement. “You’re psyching yourself out! Does it matter why she likes you?”
“It wouldn’t be ethical for me to act on this. She lost her father. Just last month.”
“Was she close to him?”
“She’s a daddy’s girl, then?” Cogs turned in the friend’s mind. “She wants to be coddled and cuddled by a father—now more than ever; and you want to get in her pants. It’s a slam-dunk.”
“I’m not so plotting.”
Omar paused. “Agendas, conscious and unconscious, abound on all sides. Reason and ethics are afterthoughts in these matters. Instinct more than happenstance is why the two of you are in each other’s lives.”
Aloysius remained conflicted.
The pal mapped it out. “Don’t look at this as yet another occasion to be humiliated. Look on it as a golden opportunity. You can play all this prof’s roles—mentor, father, flesh and blood lover—and without the complication of a clinging wife. Invariably there will be transference of affections on her part. You get your artistic ideal, and she winds end up with the better man.”
“You know young women, Ommie. Their whims and games.”
“Look, Ally. There isn’t going to be a written invitation—ever. Every woman plays the percentage: the across-the-room stare, and then the icy shoulder when you’re at arm’s length. There has to be at least one hurdle for you to tackle, even though it is sometimes only inches high. Love easily won never wrote a poem. Every woman knows this. Desire is always your weakness and her strength.”
“That’s sounds manipulative.”
The friend waxed philosophically. “Men live by logical deliberation, Grasshopper, but women live by intuition; and intuition puts them closer to the heart of the matter. Women don’t see what they do as manipulation. It never rises to the level of reflection for them: rationally or morally. And when confronted with it in those terms, women don’t recognize it as such. Most men think women are stupid because they can’t name their motives, yet men are the stupid ones because they think it all comes down to dotted i’s and crossed t’s.”
Aloysius laughed. “This coming from a man who thinks women are cattle!”
“Not cattle—sharks. I respect women more than you think. Hold your friends close, but your enemies even closer. For me that often comes to a couple of grand a night.” Omar finished the last of his beer. “Speaking of which, we need to get back to the hotel.”
The painter suddenly looked old. “Can love save me?”
The eagle pulled in his talons. “In a manner of speaking. But that’s not what troubles me. Your tortured relationship with women would baffle an air traffic controller. Most men settle—sooner rather than later. Yet you have so compartmentalized your needs, and so cultivated elaborate screens to hide them, I fear not even you can fathom the Frankenstein your heart would likely create.”
Aloysius couched his dilemma in practical terms. “I wish there were older women of my acquaintance.”
Omar was not buying it. “That sounds like something a cad would say to get laid by an older woman after a long night at striking out at the bar. Save the phony virtue.”
“I would never rule a woman out because of her age.”
“You don’t have to. Nature does it for you.”
Omar was brittle. “How many attractive thirty-something women do you know who hang out in coffeehouses looking for a ‘good man’ with no economic prospects?”
“Look—it all comes out in the wash. In the realm of womanhood, there are pretty young girls, and then there are frumpy, sweat-suited creatures of indeterminate age. There is a switch in women where they go from being lines of poetry in a book to being boarded-over storefronts—all in a sobering blink. It’s a bait-and-switch, Ally, so get what you can while you can. By the time this bohemian goddess turns into a doublewide, you won’t be able to get it up anymore, anyway.”
Aloysius dulled. “What oracle could conjure a more miserable fate? What I need is a suitable matchmaker. What I need is Jane Austen as a dating service.”
“Reality check, Mr. Darcy. Jane Austen never married.” With this declaration, Omar slapped a twenty down by his empty glass and stood up.
Aloysius rose with a smattering of resolve. “I hope, in the end, desperation will be enough of an incentive to make me act.”
Omar howled. “Only a pathetic loser like yourself would see being backed into a corner as a triumph of the spirit!”
The painter almost sank back into his seat.
Omar gave his pitiable friend some final advice. “For a passionate artist, you wield logic like an addict wields a needle. What you need most is to get laid—and I don’t mean fall in love and all that crap. I mean get your brains royally fucked-out. That would get you past all this self-defeating subterfuge. You need distance. And leverage. Neither of which you got.” He moved toward the door in a change of direction. “Will you be able to sleep tonight?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I will send a sleeping pill by your room.”
“Booze and pills don’t mix.”
The lawyer dismissed the adage. “You just need the right pill.
Chapter Fourteen/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.