Anne and I exhaled frosty breath as we waited in silence for the shuttle bus back to the Intercontinental. I wanted to berate her for walking out on a free meal ticket. It would have sustained us for at least eight days. Sit through an interview or two, spend a few hours with wires attached to her fingers, and then go eat steak and swim in the hotel pool for a week.
“You know, Anne, a few days of rest and proper eating will build up your strength. You can keep going longer with just a little R&R.” I was a little annoyed with her. But I was distracted by a residual tobacco smell in the shuttlebus. The urge to smoke came at me out of nowhere. I hadn’t replaced the nicotine patch since leaving Chicago, but we had been so busy that I hadn’t thought much about smoking.
“Tim, I’ve already rested enough.”
“Why couldn’t we go back and tell Duffy we’re in on his plan after all? While we’re waiting, you can go back across town to the shelter, and maybe some other shelters, and do some more praying. And stay at the Intercontinental the whole time.”
“Tell me more about that doctor at Cook County Hospital.”
I shrugged. “I’ve told you all I know.”
“How about we call her when we get back to the hotel?”
It was still mid-morning. By the time the van reached the hotel, I was desperate for a cigarette. It had been like a dam bursting – first a trickle of desire, then a stream of want, and finally the whole structure of resistance gave way. When the elevator door opened, I waited until Anne had stepped in, and said, “I’ll catch up with you. Go on ahead.”
I bought a pack of cigarettes and two books of matches in the hotel shop. They fit in the pocket of my jacket, where they didn’t bulge. The need for a smoke might very well become overwhelming, say, in the middle of the night when the shop wasn’t open.
Moisture hung in the air when I reached the room. The shower was running, and Anne’s clothing was in a conspicuous pile on the bed.
She had known I’d be entering the room minutes after her. Why did she leave this convincing evidence that she was undressed? She’d have to ask me to hand her clothes back to her, or she’d have to come out and get them. I sat in a chair and looked at the TV without seeing the picture. What did she look like, standing naked in the stream of water? I also thought about the cigarettes in my jacket, and how good it would feel to let my lungs fill with that delicious smoke. I took the cigarettes and matches from the jacket, and put them in my pants pocket.
The shower ran a long time, or perhaps it only seemed long. The TV show ran through two commercial breaks before the sound of water abruptly stopped.
“Is that you, Tim?” Her voice came through the closed door.
“It’s Alfred Hitchcock,” I said. “I’ve got Norman Bates with me. We want to know if you’re in the shower.” I hoped she’d seen Psycho sometime, or she wouldn’t get the joke.
“Did you call that Chicago doctor?”
“I’ll do it now,” I said, and picked up the phone.
Freda answered, and I asked for Carla. I wanted that cigarette!
Carla wasn’t in, said Freda, “Tim, I think there’s a warrant out for you. A police officer came around asking about you.”
I never expected this to happen. I expected to hear from my probation officer if I were to return to Chicago, but it never occurred to me that someone might come to arrest me. I thought about the one time I had been taken away in handcuffs. That had been humiliating enough when I was alone at home, but I could never imagine what it would be like to be taken away while Carla and the others at the clinic were watching. Or worse, if Anne were watching.
I asked Freda for Jane Hennessey’s number, and called. Her answering machine picked up. She was a working physician, after all. “Dr. Hennessey, this is Tim Hardy. Remember me? I’m with Anne Bunsen in Cleveland. Carla said you wanted to see Anne, and she’s got the chance to come back to Chicago soon, perhaps even today.” I left the hotel name and number.
Until now, I had conveniently pushed the specter of my parole officer into the background. I couldn’t avoid worrying about him now. Here I was, preparing to drive Anne back to Chicago and myself to a possible confrontation with the law, and I was getting nervous.
The bathroom door moved, and I jumped back, averting my eyes and turning around.
Anne laughed behind me. “I just realized you would have seen my clothes out here. It’s okay. I’m not undressed. I just never thought about it.”
She was wearing her granny nightgown, and her hair was wet and plastered in streaks over her forehead. Nevertheless, I couldn’t avoid thinking that there was only that thin layer of cotton…
“I’ve got to wash these clothes,” she said.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “There’s supposed to be a laundry room on the top floor. Anyway, I can’t see you wandering around the halls with your nightgown on.”
By now, I was dying for a smoke. I shouldn’t have bought that package of Marlboros. But I had to get out of the room to do the deed.
Anne jumped onto the bed, found the remote, and crossed her ankles while the TV warmed up. After a brief search, I found a plastic laundry bag in a dresser drawer. I threw her clothes, and some of my own, into the bag.
As soon as the elevator door closed, I fumbled with the cigarette pack, trying to open it with one hand. Failing, I threw the laundry bag onto the floor, and hastily opened the smokes. I tucked one behind my ear.
I found the laundry room, and from several feet away, hurled the bag of clothes through the open door. My hands were freed to draw a book of matches from my pocket. I lit the cigarette, and drew a great lungful before I started loading the washing machine.
O Glorious! Within seconds, the holy drug flooded through my brain. All thoughts of parole officers and consequences, free clinics and Carla Scumaci, and shelters and destitute people, drained away. With the cigarette hanging from my lips, I loaded the machine and bought a one-wash soap packet from the vending machine. I counted out quarters until I had enough to run the load.
As the machine churned, I sat in a little wooden chair and smoked the cigarette through to the end. I lit another from the butt of the first, and took my time with this one.
I was finally able to think clearly. How long since I had left Chicago? Five days? Six? I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like years. What was happening at the clinic? I wondered about Carla and her endless quest for funding. What about Russell? He’d been sick when I left. I hoped he was okay. I didn’t wonder as much about Freda. She was probably making the same phone call she’d been making when I first began working at the Bridgeport Free Clinic.
And here I was, in a classy hotel, under false pretenses, in a city I didn’t know, with less than a hundred dollars in my pocket, and a woman with whom I was forging an emotional bond of the kind I hadn’t had since…well, never. Yet I felt secure, in the same way that Anne did. Somehow the means of existence would be provided…
I shook myself. I couldn’t count on luck to keep myself fed and Anne healthy. On my own, I knew I could make it, supporting myself any number of ways. I could beg in the streets if needed, although it would never come to that. But with Anne along, I had to find warm places for her to sleep, a regular balanced diet, and medical attention when necessary. I couldn’t sustain both of us, not living this way.
We had to go back to Chicago, and I had to face my parole officer. I might actually end up in jail.
Eventually the washer stopped. I put the clothes in the dryer, smoked a third cigarette, and went back to the elevator.
“Dr. Hennessey called while you were gone,” said Anne. “She and I had a long talk.”
“You did?” I prompted.
“She wants me to come back, at least for a while. She says she can arrange a stipend for me out of a slush fund. Enough for me to live on, at least.”
“How will that be better than staying here?” I said. “Will they put us in the Drake Hotel and feed us lobster every day?”
“I’m going to take her up on it.” She sniffed. “Tim, have you been smoking?”
“Must have been someone on the elevator,” I said, but I could feel the blush on my face. Anne was the only person who could make me do that. “I’m sorry. It just sort of bit me on the ass without warning. Before I knew it…”
“I’m disappointed in you,” she said simply. I was humiliated, deflated. I had no idea her disapproval would hurt so much.
“I worked so hard to kick this thing.”
“That’s why you were so eager to rush away and do the laundry?”
I averted my eyes and nodded, like a schoolboy caught with a dirty magazine.
“You’ve been my pillar of strength these last few days. It scares me to see you so weak.”
“I was blindsided by it. I’ve smoked since I was fourteen, and I only stopped a month ago. I thought it was done with me. I didn’t expect it to catch up with me so suddenly.”
“There’s only this one time. Can’t you stop again?”
I nodded, still looking down at my hands. “I’ll do my best.”
She took my hands. “I’ll do what I can to help. I’ll stay with you every minute so you’re not tempted. Do you have any cigarettes with you?”
I stared foolishly at her. If I said no, and she caught me lying, it would be all over. If desperate, I could always bum a cigarette from someone, somewhere. “Yes, I have. Nearly a full pack.” I took them out and gave them to her.
“I’m going to put these where they belong,” she said. She took them into the bathroom and threw them one at a time into the toilet, holding each one in front of my eyes before dropping it in the water. When she was done, she flushed.
I recalled that a toilet had played a walk-on part in the first act of my cigarette saga. I watched the soggy white cylinders whirl in a decreasing spiral and disappear. It was like watching an irresistible but toxic lover leave for the last time.
“Well, that’s that,” she said. “We should get something to eat. When the clothes are dry, we can start back to Chicago.” She threw her backpack onto the bed and unzipped it.
“Anne,” I said. She turned and looked at me.
I took another few seconds to build up my nerve. “Can you try healing me? Take away the urge to smoke? It’s very strong.”
“Does this mean you actually believe I can help?”
“I’d have to doubt the evidence of my own eyes, wouldn’t I? There’s something there; I know it.”
“You’re not much of a believer in God, are you?”
I thought about it for a minute. It’s not a question that I’ve spent much time pondering. If God didn’t exist, I’d say that I’ve been pretty lucky in my life so far. If God did exist, then He’s looked after me pretty well. Either way, the outcome for me has been the same. Specious reasoning, perhaps, but…
She didn’t wait for my reply. “It doesn’t matter anyway. You’re the first person I’ve asked that question, and I suspect it may not matter whether you believe in Him or not. You're part of His plan either way.”
“I’ve seen you do this to others, but I’m nervous.”
She moved until she stood in front of me. “Close your eyes, Tim. If you can’t believe in God, then just try to imagine your place in the Universe.”
I closed my eyes, and thought of the sky, and the whirling stars and planets, and tried to imagine some lofty and abstract capital-S Spirit in charge of it all. Anne’s warm fingers barely touched my ears and neck, moving constantly in no particular pattern. A living energy flowed from her fingertips into my body, spreading into all parts of me, like a swarm of butterflies. It gathered in certain places, seeming to inquire of the tissue there, and then moved on, flitting from place to place.
The butterflies came to rest in the upper right side of my chest, where they pulsed and grew hot.
Anne made a little “Oh!” By the time I opened my eyes, she had stepped back and was staring at me in white-faced horror.
“What’s the matter, Anne?” I was frightened for her, until I realized that she was frightened for me.
“I think it’s nothing, Tim,” she said unconvincingly. “Let’s pack up and go.”
Neither of us felt like eating after that, but she refused to say any more.