THE GLANCE OF THE ORPHEUS II
By Ted Morrissey
The City Athletic Club was more ornate than the Blackstone, more extravagant by the looks of its façade of brick and stone. Workers were shoveling snow and spreading salt on the sidewalk. The party entered the lobby, black and white tiles underfoot and an old-fashioned interior that seemed dim to his snow-tired eyes. Dark figures milled about or were seated on an assortment of equally darkened furniture.
Their small search party went about warming themselves, while taking off gloves, pocketing stocking-caps, loosening coats.
This way, said Germanness, apparently familiar with the hotel. She led them through the lobby and into a carpeted lounge and restaurant. Beneath her faux-fur hat her hair was blond, he had thought, but now he could see it was white—even though her face and litheness projected youth. She may have been twenty-five or fifty-five.
Since Elizabeth Winters’ death everything seemed indefinite and unsolvable. It was if she, alone, was the mechanism by which some sort of cosmic compass remained properly calibrated, and with her absence the gears and sprockets and gyres were slipping further and further out of sync.
The lounge area, which was intended to resemble a speakeasy of the Twenties, was crowded but not as lively as the gathering at the Blackstone. Patrons were mainly sitting, drinking and talking. There were no billiard tables or other amusements that encouraged people to move around. Nevertheless there was a small sea of faces and the hum of many voices speaking over each other. With the subdued lighting and added clink of glassware, the complete tableau seemed to run together, like too-watery watercolors: no face was distinct, no voice comprehensible. In high school he had gone on a group tour of Europe, something like eleven cities in six days, and he recalled stepping off the tour bus at a market-square in Pamplona, at the peak of its business day.
Exhausted from the tour’s nonstop pace and still drowsy from the long ride, he found the crowd and the cacophony of Spanish-speaking voices to comprise a single organism of confusion. The citizens seemed to be all one person cloned many hundreds of times, and their voices were a multilayered din, alien accented and more closely akin to a hive’s insect hum than the marketplace drone of humans.
This sensation, in the Athletic Club’s lounge, was similar but on lower frequencies: less light, less color, lower volume.
Now what? said Beth, speaking mainly to the Swede, Too (the Norwegian). Too was checking his phone, specifically his Twitter feed. According to hashtag EWalive, she was seen here in the lounge . . . in the exercise room . . . getting on an elevator on the third floor. . . .
Sounds like we should split up, said the woman Quite, who was tall and lean in her REI parka of sunburst yellow.
Good idea, said Beth, stepping over to him. Chris and I will check out the exercise area.
Let’s stay in touch with the Twitter hashtag, said the Aussie, Here. He and Too would check out the third-floor sighting.
Everyone paired up and headed toward their chosen search area. He and Beth decided to take the stairway to the fourth floor, where the exercise room was. Beth led the way up the carpeted steps. At each landing was a modernist-style painting, something slightly abstract and geometric in its lines, each owing a debt to Picasso or Léger. On the landing between the first and second floors was a painting of a bookshop, with customers standing or relaxing in oversized chartreuse chairs, books in hand or spread open like lilies welcoming the sun, while other rectangles of books, many-colored, appeared to be ready to project themselves from the foregrounded shelves. Between the second and third floors was some sort of stargazing scene: a couple, a man and a woman, close but not touching, look nightskyward, where octagonal stars blaze here and there like queerly shaped pearls strewn across a pond of lavender ice. On the next landing: An image framed through a window, a frame within the frame, and beyond a grayscape of old buildings, their doors and windows and steps at not-quite-correct angles, as if a quake had left them standing but only barely, and an aftershock might bring their dully colored structures tumbling down altogether, all together.
Once on the fourth floor, they followed the sign to the fitness room. Admittance required a key card but there was no need. A large window in the door offered a view of nearly the entire room, which had a single occupant: a heavyset man on one of the two treadmills.
Well, so much for that, he said.
Beth removed her phone from her purse and tweeted about the deadend using the hashtag. Holy cow, she said, in the last ten minutes Elizabeth Winters has been seen in two dozen places, including a Safeway in San Francisco. There’s even a picture. She showed him.
Red hair, female presumably—yup, gotta be her. Never mind that we can’t see her face and she looks to be about a hundred pounds heavier than any other photo I’ve seen of Elizabeth Winters. Isn’t she vegan?
Maybe she switched to the Neanderthal diet. Neanderthal and peanutbutter diet.
Meanwhile two more tweets popped up. One from their group. Beth read it: CAC 3rd floor nada.
Excuse us, said a woman as she and a man needed to pass by them in the hall.
Sorry, he said and stepped aside.
The pair walked past, and he and Beth looked at each other in simultaneous recognition. Beth, her back to the couple’s backs, mouthed Marian Tate.
He nodded, watching after them.
They waited a moment then began following Marian Tate and her companion, a middle-aged fellow with thinning hair of black and gray, wearing a charcoal gray business suit. They turned a corner in time to see them stop at a door. The man fished the key card from his suitcoat pocket but before he could use it, someone inside the room opened up. Marian Tate and the man entered without much in the way of greeting whoever was inside. The door closed.
Holy shit, said Beth.
Let’s not let your imaginations run wild. It could be anyone in that room.
I know, but. . . What can we do? Stake out the room all night? Pretend we’re delivering room service.
We’re suddenly in a Wilder-Pryor picture. It’s a good thing there aren’t bellboys any longer. We’d be knocking one out to steal his uniform.
Hey you two.
They turned, a little startled. It was Quite, in her sunburst parka, and Deliberately, with his tasseled impractical shoes.
So, no Elizabeth Winters on an elliptical? said Quite.
No, he said, but there’s been something of a development. They went on to describe what happened.
Holy shit, said Deliberately. Which room exactly?
They pointed it out, and Deliberately walked down the hall. They weren’t sure what he was planning. He stood listening before the door, his head tilted like a German shepherd’s. He was at it a minute a two before returning to the group.
There definitely seem to be three voices, Deliberately reported, but beyond that I can’t say if they’re men’s or women’s.
He was tempted to try his ear at the door. He’d listened to Elizabeth Winters’ interviews online so often he thought maybe he could recognize her voice even through a closed door. He recalled the one time he and Katie had gone away together, their first romantic get-away. Katie got food poisoning or a stomach bug hit her—whichever it was, she spent most of the evening in their hotel room’s bathroom (a pricey room to celebrate their first such trip); then Katie, exhausted, turned in early and snored raucously next to him in the king-size bed, her breath tinged with vomit.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall a couple was having the sort of night he had envisioned. It sounded like a regular Olympiad of sex, complete with a thumping headboard and the woman’s unbridled shrieks of Fuck, oh fuck, yes! every time she came, which was more times than he cared to count. He thought of calling the front desk but didn’t want to be a killjoy.
Down the hall the door was opening, and the four of them literally bumped into each other, Keystone Cops-like, in their spontaneous efforts to not be discovered a few yards away ogling the door like deranged stalkers. When the little eruption of chaos settled, he and Quite were walking toward the room, while Beth and Deliberately strolled back in the direction of the fitness room.
It was the man, Marian Tate’s companion, who emerged, now jacketless and carrying an ice bucket. He nodded to them before continuing toward the ice machine. The door shut before he and Quite were able to peek inside.
They had to maintain the ruse by walking past the alcove with the ice and vending machines. Not sure where to go they went through the stairway door and returned to the lounge area. The rest of their group was already assembled there. Information, gravid with theories, was exchanged. Some of the group were determined to plant themselves in the hallway until the third person emerged. They were anxious to return to the fourth floor, fearful that the room’s mystery occupant may have slipped out in the meantime.
I think that’s going too far, he said. It’s a million-to-one chance the person in that room is Elizabeth Winters, and if it isn’t, staking out the room is an invasion of privacy. Actually even if it is Elizabeth Winters, it’s an invasion of privacy.
Chris is right, said Beth. Besides, it’s been a long day, and spending the night camped in a drafty hall waiting for a door to open doesn’t sound like the perfect end to it.
Too, the Norwegian, wasn’t inclined to give up just yet. He and These and Quite decided to visit the fourth floor, possibly to try the direct approach of knocking on the door and engaging in conversation whoever answered it. An invasion of privacy, perhaps, but at least not a covert one.
Some of the group elected to stay at the Athletic Club for a drink. A significant assemblage of Logos had been discovered in the lounge, and Seems, Here, Deliberately and The wanted to join with them. He and Beth and Germanness went to the bell captain to get a cab back to the Blackstone.
Soon they were in the backseat of a yellow cab driven by an African man who was still fascinated by Midwestern weather. He spoke excitedly about the late winterstorm in broken English from curb to curb.
The cab pulled away, and they chatted as they prepared to enter their hotel. New hashtag, said Germanness: EWalivebust. Suddenly she slipped on some ice and went down hard on her right elbow. Christ, she said in obvious pain, immediately rolling to her left and grabbing her arm.
He and Beth helped Germanness up and into the Blackstone. The lobby had thinned out somewhat and an ottoman-like seat was open near the door. They had Germanness sit. At first she insisted she was fine but as she tried to move her arm she came to a different conclusion, wincing at the piercing pain. Shit, I bet it’s broken. Skiing in college. A long time ago but I remember the pain quite clearly.
Well, we have to get you to a hospital, said Beth.
I’m afraid you may be right. Shit. If you would, just get me into a cab and I can take it from there.
Don’t be silly; we’re going with you. Well, I’m going with you. She looked at him.
Of course, we’re going with you. I’ll tell the desk we need some assistance.
The clerk at the desk, a young woman in her twenties, called the overnight manager, a young man in his twenties who was visibly rattled to be informed that a guest had fallen just outside the hotel entrance and likely broken her arm. He had a cab called, recommended that they go to University Hospital; retrieved an icepack for Germanness’s arm, and handed him a business card, quickly writing his personal cell number on the back. Call if you need anything—call me directly. In fact, let me know how Ms. Franks is doing if you would.
Hearing Germanness’s last name sparked his memory, thanks to the alliteration: Fran Franks she called herself when they began their trek to the City Athletic Club. But call me Frannie, she’d said.
He handed her the icepack. Our ride will be here momentarily, Frannie. He could tell Beth noted the name too.
In the taxi en route to the hospital ER, exhaustion caught up with him and he dozed as the driver navigated the eerily deserted streets of the metropolis. Deserted, but far from dark. Bans of light flickered across his closed lids kaleidoscopically. Only half awake, he interpreted the roving colors as forming letters and words, but ones just beyond his comprehension, as if in a language related to English. He felt that he may be close to understanding, that a gossamer touch of meaning may be filtering through the gauze of semisleep—yet he was unable to grasp a more definite image, a better-defined idea.
A bar of saffron light drifted across his lidded vision
then another of more verdant hue and at an opposing angle
in such rapid succession his mind interpreted them as the letter
A spot of white bounced against his optic nerve followed by neon blue which curled across his mind to form a
The orange of melted sherbet serpentine as a taxi tire rolled through a rut
into the letter
He remained in a quasi-dream state as the letter-pieces of light played upon his eyelids, sometimes forming morphemes (Mi Tu os) but no meaning.
At a point a white H on a field of blue . . . it took him a moment to comprehend his eyes were open and he was seeing at a hospital street sign in passing.
He looked at his companions. Beth was next to him, in the middle of the seat. Frannie was resting her head on Beth’s shoulder while Beth stroked her uninjured arm, comforting her.
The cab pulled into a special drive for Emergency Room drop-offs and stopped at the curb.
Get her inside. I’ll take care of this, he said fishing his wallet from his back pocket. It took a minute or two to manage the taxi’s card-reader but momentarily he was entering through the ER’s automatic doors looking for Beth and Frannie. The waiting area seemed even busier than the lobby of the Blackstone, except instead of a carnival atmosphere there was the moroseness of the ill and the injured, of the dispossessed. There was weeping and literal moaning, babies crying, children whining to their parents of their pain, dispirited adults as somber as the newly bereaved, old people, some in wheelchairs tucked away at odd angles here and there, lamenting woes that seemed unconnected to their failing health.
He found Beth and Frannie in a far corner. Beth had a clipboard and was filling out paperwork at Frannie’s direction. There were no open chairs so he leaned against the wall. The waiting area was a combination of light blues and tans. Paint, upholstery, carpeting, all some combination of blue and tan palettes.
He watched Frannie as she provided answers for Beth to write on the hospital forms. Strands of Frannie’s white-blond hair had fallen into her face but she was oblivious or unconcerned. Exhaustion and pain had lent her the mask of a much older woman. Her eyes were impressively bloodshot and even a touch wild looking as if she was barely restraining some antic episode.
A seat opened near them so he took it and waited. Beth returned the forms and the clipboard to the admitting desk, then returned to wait too. No one felt the need for small talk, and he drifted into a reverie about Katie and her text message. He took out his phone and looked at it again, in part to reassure himself she’d sent it. Many things had begun to take on a dreamlike air, Katie’s text most of all.
On a day autumn was transitioning into winter he and Katie decided to take a drive in the country: a rambling destinationless excursion on gray roads beneath equally leaden skies. Neither of them knew the small towns and out-of-the-way places near the university and the interstates that connected it to larger cities north and south, east and west. He’d been rereading Kerouac and itched for some time on the road, heavy on Americana with some sprinkling of adventure.
To enhance the experience, they decided to switch off satellite radio in favor of old-fashioned AM. I didn’t know AM still existed, said Katie, but soon the tuner found a crackling voice soliloquizing about soybean prices and other agricultural news.
In one small town, Elkwood, population 300, they stopped at a mom-and-pop called The Stop-Bye. They sat at a small table in the corner of the small store drinking cider and sharing a bag of kettle corn. In the picture window gray clouds rolled between inflamed maples. The Stop-Bye’s lone employee was an acneed teenager who remained focused on her iPhone. He and Katie had decided to leave their phones silenced and in the glove compartment. To unplug from the world of tweets and texts and other blasé alerts for a few hours.
Elkwood was a quaint little town. He imagined everyone knew each other, most were somehow related. He barely knew half his colleagues in the department, let alone people in the community. At the moment being a member of a tiny, tightly connected town was appealing. Then again, what if you were trapped, like a gnat in a web, in a colorless community where gossip was the main source of stimulation, where slights were committed to memory and grudges firmly held for generations, where who you were was who you were going to be, forever, eternally locked in a parabola of stunted growth, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually?
He looked at the girl behind the counter: still enthralled by her miniature-screen life.
Are you ready? asked Katie.
He drained the last drops of cider from his cup. Yup, onward and upward.
In a few minutes they were rolling along the road toward the next small town. When they began their impromptu ramble, they stopped at a convenience store and bought a roadmap. He wasn’t certain they still made such maps and sold them at gas stations, in a world of GPS and Mapquest and Google Maps on your phone. But they did, and Katie unfolded and spread the unwieldy thing across her lap as he drove. At first she was frustrated with its overlarge uncooperativeness and let loose some blue expletives. How did anyone get fucking anywhere before GPS? But she became oriented with their relative position on the map, and after a few miles she figured out how to fold the map so that only the rectangular section they needed was in view.
O.k. Pittsberg is about five miles ahead—not thee Pittsburgh of course—Pittsberg with an e. It’s on Pitts Creek. I assume there’s a bridge.
If not, that’d be the pits.
She chortled cartoonishly.
Pittsberg turned out to be about five rundown houses and a long-abandoned gas station, something from the early part of the previous century. A rusted Sinclair sign still clung to a vine-ensnared pole.
A place called Elkwood is twelve miles dead ahead. Maybe it’s more of a metropolis. It’s at the intersection of Highway 12 and County Road 2741B. I’d love to live in apartment B at 2741 County Road 2741B. That would make me happy.
I have a feeling there are no apartment houses on County Road 2741B—probably hardly any houses.
A girl can dream, can’t she? Killjoy.
After their cider and kettle corn, they got in the car and Katie studied the map. He adjusted the radio tuner trying to find some music on AM. Disembodied voices sputtered out of the speaker, some sounding as if they were being broadcast from Neptune.
This looks interesting.
What’s that? he said.
You’ll just have to see. We need to take infamous County Road 2741B—east, or left if you prefer.
They drove for a few miles on the blacktopped road, not running into a single soul. Now and then there were gravel paths leading off the road, maybe drives to farmsteads, but there were no houses in view and the fields had been harvested down to stubble.
All right. We’re looking for Saint Anthony Lane. We’re getting close I think. Hopefully it’s marked.
The stubble suddenly gave way to a green field and a barbed-wire fence, and so near the road it seemed one could touch them, three cows—were they guernseys?—heads down cudding on grass.
The local populace, he said.
Here it is. A small white sign with black lettering, badly weathered and faded and pocked here and there by small-caliber bullets no doubt fired by farm kids blowing off steam, pointed the way to Saint Anthony’s. A three which may have been an eight suggested the number of miles. He turned onto the narrow road of uneven asphalt and gravel. He hoped that the number on the sign was three.
He wanted to ask about their destination but knew Katie would keep to her vow of secrecy on the subject. Rocks pelted the car’s undercarriage and a trail of dust rose in the rearview mirror. Barbed-wired fields, interrupted now and then by copses of ancient trees, hugged the sides of the road, which suddenly tossed up a hairpin turn, then another, then Saint Anthony’s stood before them. Not a whole town but a single church.
This is it, said Katie. Pull in there, meaning a patch of white gravel in the church’s yard. It’s historic.
It’s on the map.
They got out of the car. A wind had risen and it caught Katie’s long sweater as she walked. A plaque affixed to a large rock in the yard said: ST. ANTHONY’S CATHOLIC CHURCH 1893.
The church was constructed of brown brick, including the steeple which rose above the severely sloped slate-tile roof. Small stained-glass windows were spaced evenly along the side of the main structure, the sanctuary (the term came back to him). The patterns within the glass were indiscernible from outside. Above the main doors black bricks had been used to form a cross pattern. At first it was difficult to detect on the weathered façade.
I wonder if it’s open, said Katie, already moving toward the front steps. He easily imagined a priest in white vestments greeting congregants from the top step as the faithful filed in for mass.
Katie discovered the oaken doors, thick and sun-bleached, were unlocked, and they stepped into the dimly lit interior—they understood just how dimply lit when the door swung closed behind them. They were in the back of the sanctuary itself; there was no vestibule.
Rows of wooden pews rested in regimental order in the muted light, coming mainly from the stained-glass windows spaced evenly along both long walls. The air was heavy with wood soap and incents. Katie took off her knit cap and wandered toward the altar, flanked by statuary, deep in shadow: the Virgin Mary and Jesus or Joseph . . . it was difficult to say. He, meanwhile, took in the daylit windows, which he realized depicted the stations of the cross. Nearest him was Jesus falling with the cross.
The crucifix was of massive proportion and wrought of orange-brown glass. It lay upon Jesus, who appeared to cower beneath its weight. Like the cross, Jesus was sharp edges, his beard a black triangle. An oval of crimson glass, Christ’s blood, has formed beneath him. From some long-ago catechism he knew this was the seventh station: Jesus falls a second time. He counted the windows along the walls, and there were seven on each side.
He walked along the wall gazing up at Christ’s crucifixion in reverse order, ending with Jesus’ death sentence, a window dominated by purples and yellows, from lilac to indigo, from margarine to marigold.
When he turned to see what Katie was up to he found that she’d slid into the first pew and was leaning forward on a kneeler praying, apparently. Her hands were folded and resting on the wooden rail, her eyes shut, and her lips perhaps moved in silent communication with the concept with which she struggled. He imagined her monologue drafting heavenward like an ethereal typescript but bumping against the high ceiling, becoming lost among the dark rafters.
About the Author:
Ted Morrissey is the author of two scholarly books and five books of fiction, including the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, a Chicago Book Review Best Book of 2015, and the forthcoming Crowsong for the Stricken. His short fiction and novel excerpts have appeared in nearly fifty journals. New work is coming out in Everest and Southern Humanities Review, and his novel in progress Mrs Saville is being published serially at Strands Lit Sphere. Ted teaches high school English and also in the MFA in Writing program at Lindenwood University. Visit at tedmorrissey.com and follow @t_morrissey.