‘Welcome home. Sister Margaret!’
The banner above the main entrance to the Convent had a slightly used look, betraying the weakness of crepe paper and irresistible power of gravity. It was 2:23 in the afternoon when the cab driver handed me my suitcase and stood, an expression of un-comfortable but determined hope, every bit the 15-year-old boy at the end of a date with a girl his aunt insisted would be perfect for him. I reached into my pocket and, fingers brushing two embossed cardboard rectangles, found the remains of my cash. Un-crumpling them and putting them all presidents-side-up, I offered him my last three dollars, the elemental self-conscious offer of a slightly blemished cheek, at the end of the blind date. The cabbie glanced at the three one dollar bills, looked around the courtyard, at the grand Second Empire architecture of the main residence, turned to take in the concrete-fortress modern design of the School Building and finally turned his attention back to me.
“Thanks,” he said. He got into his cab and drove away.
I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach when I wasn’t looking. Like the sudden absence of oxygen in my lungs, I found myself disoriented, unable to find the words for what I felt. I stood in the driveway and watched as the cab disappeared through the ornate gates of the convent, turning right out on to Hammock Pointe Rd and back to the world.
“Thank you …Sister!!! That’s what you were going to say, ‘Thank you, Sister!!!” I heard my shouted words bounce off the solid, mute walls of the buildings around me. Tears filling my mind, if not my eyes, made thoughts blurry and impossible to understand.
I suddenly felt conspicuous, despite being the only living thing in sight, so I picked up my suitcase and walked into the main building. Being the middle of the afternoon, all the nuns were in class. I was startled by the voice of Sister Cletus behind me, just as I started up the staircase to the living quarters.
“You’re back safely, Sister Margaret.” She walked down the dead center of the hallway, in that special way of both the infirm and the very old. She didn’t simply watch her step, she studied her path. It was almost as if they (the infirm and very old) insisted on constant verification that the world, or at very least, their immediate surroundings, had not changed too greatly. Given how much I’ve noticed the tendency for the months and years to go by faster and faster over the course of my 23 years on the earth, after 80 years, surely Sister Cletus must see the world around her as a blur of motion. Curving streaks of light and life narrowly avoiding crashing into her as she walked alone through her careful days.
“That’s good.” Her gaze distant, she sought for the true nature of what she was experiencing. The old often possess an uncanny ability to express the simplicity of life in a way that, without fail, is heard by the young as an obstinate under-appreciation of life. Having experienced so much of life, the old (and sometimes the infirm) are uniquely qualified to grasp fundamental values. It’s a kind of wisdom that results from living through life, not from anticipating the course of one’s life. Sister Cletus continued down the hall, towards the chapel, her wisdom now only a mirror (not a window) of life’s lessons.
The stress of the previous two days had the effect of increasing the steepness (and, somehow, the number) of the stairs up to my room. Closing the door to the bedroom I shared with Sister Claire, I sat at the desk. Its light brown wood looked soft to the touch, but remained cool in its featureless perfection. I left my suitcase, un-opened on my bed, like a book of condolences brought home, un-read, from a funeral.
It had all started as I stood next to a long, black limousine, that I thought was purple…
I was standing on the concrete sidewalk, in a once-quite-nice neighborhood in the West Town section of Chicago, debating (with myself) whether or not to accept the offer of a ride. My original plan was to meet the Omni Corp software engineer who created the website program used at St Emily’s and ask him some questions. That part of my plan went according to plan. I succeeded in learning more from this confident, friendly and attractive young man than I would have hoped, but there were two problems I hadn’t anticipated: the friendly and attractive quality of my informant, and exactly how I could apply the information he provided. I learned that Omni Corp pulled the software product from the market, shortly after Father Noonan’s death. I knew this was significant; I just didn’t know why. I wanted very much to know what one had to do with the other, if for no other reason than once I had that information, I’d be able to return to Sister Bernadine and offer an insight into why her friend died. Too bad I hadn’t the slightest clue what to do next and to make matters worse, I was growing impatient.
My phone rang, just as I was about to decline the offer of a ride in the limo. I can’t imagine why I felt the flash of anger at the ringing of my phone. However, I did. I answered the call with an impatient, “What is it!?”
I talked to Maribeth for what seemed a long time. Looking back on it, I now remember it as a very brief and not-very-pleasant exchange. There was something about the way she talked, that, somehow, reminded me that my friend was a cop. Not just a cop, a detective. I decided, without even realizing that I was going to say no. I got in the car,
“Sure. If it’s not too much trouble. I’m flying home tonight, I need to get my luggage and get back to the airport by 7:00 pm.”
The blonde woman smiled from the darkness of the car, “Make yourself comfortable, Sister Ryan”
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Mrs. Eddington standing in the front window of her small two story house, making the sign of the Cross.
The car door closed silently, automatically. I couldn’t tell if it was the driver or the woman who controlled the door. I sat, my back towards the front of the car, facing Stephen Eddington and the woman, who leaned forward and introduced herself.
“Anya Clarieaux, I work for Stephen’s boss at Omni Corporation.” She smiled the words ‘Omni Corporation’, but did not offer her hand, “Where are you serving your novitiate?”
The lighting in the car made her hair look less flashy blonde and more of a muted gold. Her business suit was a modern take on the pin-striped suit, but whoever the designer was, he was a genius. The first impression was, ‘staid banker,’ the second impression, ‘What a sexy woman!’ Something to the cut of the jacket, the spacing of the buttons on her blouse, the overall effect was, ‘this is a woman of power.’ The interior lighting was somehow changing with the scenery outside the smoke-grey windows, and Stephen Eddington, in his seat next to this woman looked a lot younger than when I was talking to him in his grandmother’s house. That he kept glancing at her did not help. A line from a movie popped into my head, “She was the kind of woman who made you want to drop to your knees and thank God you were a man!” I was beginning to have second thoughts about my decision.
Without thinking, I said, “St Emily’s Convent in Mt Prospect. If that’s too far out of your way, I don’t mind getting a cab.”
“Don’t give that a second thought! From the airport to Mt. Prospect is only a short run up RT 83.” I noticed the small LCD display built into the console between the two back seats. The striated colors of a google map reflected in her eyes,
“We need to drop Stevie here off at the airport and then we can run out to Mt. Prospect, get whatever baggage you have there and I’ll have you back to the city before you know it.” Anya Clarieaux smiled, “It’ll be fun!”
The car’s windows provided a time-lapse panorama of the battle between established residential neighborhoods and encroaching commercial development. The initial skirmish lines were always the same: small strip malls with middle-class consignment stores flanked by nail salons and real estate offices taking possession of traffic lighted intersections; the trees that once shaded the sidewalks, replaced by bare stalks of incandescent lighting with the buds of CCTV blooming at their tops. The limo driver drove at the speed of obstruction i.e. the fastest possible, provided that there was nothing in the way. We arrived at the airport in what seemed like minutes, but a quick check of my phone showed it to be 45 minutes. There was no conversation during this time. Stephen spent the trip staring into his phone and Anya Clarieaux was doing something on the computer that was built into the console. She caught me staring, then smiled and said, “This is a Company vehicle, it has all the modern conveniences. This console? Folds out of the way.” she touched a button on her left armrest and the display slid downward and the whole console folded into the back of the seat. “…in case I have a need to spread out, isn’t that right Stephen?” The young engineer looked up from his phone and, with the beginnings of a man-grin, said, “Yeah… really comfortable back here.” That I wasn’t offended by his near-leer didn’t bother me as much as my reaction to Anya’s response. She rolled her eyes, and I smiled. I felt some small and increasingly distant alarm ringing somewhere inside me; I chose to ignore it.
She must have pushed the button again, as the console folded down, the screen slid up and the changing colors of what she was reading was again reflected in her eyes. Stephen looked at me, his grin replaced by something more boyish and he quickly looked back at his phone. The not-purple limousine sped down asphalt paths through a forest of factory and warehouse buildings, toward O’Hare.
Lowering the window on my left, I could hear the hissing of buses pulling up to the entrance gates, and could smell the diesel exhaust as it climbed the glass towards the small gap in the window. On the broad sidewalk, skycaps moved luggage from car trunks to the initial check-in stations. Like caddies in a noisy country club, their uniforms of faux military design imparted a sad dignity to them. All worked without ever looking up at jets that were constantly taking off and landing, soldiers in an army-less battle.
“Don’t forget what we talked about, Stephen. You can expect my package in the mail very soon. Do everything correctly and you and I will go somewhere and celebrate.” Stephen seemed to be in a hurry to get out of the car, but his progress was slowed when Anya grabbed his jacket sleeve, perfectly manicured fingers digging into the almost-good-quality herringbone jacket. Brought to heel, he waited; satisfied that he took the lesson, she released him to the outside world.
Without waiting for Stephen to get past the check-in station, the door shut. The limo surged forward, narrowly missing a very old man who about two car lengths ahead, standing with of his aluminum walker. He stared at the curb rising above the pavement, like an idealistic East German youth staring at the Berlin Wall.
“Come, Margaret, sit next to me! You sitting up there all alone makes me feel on display, come on! This seat is much more comfortable than that bench.” I lean-crouched towards her, facing her as I sat down in the still warm seat to her right.
“So, what’s a nice girl from Radcliffe doing in a nunnery?” Her eyes sparkled like jewels, very attractive and just a little non-human. Sitting next to her I could see signs of age, the extra skin just behind and below the ear lobes, a certain tired and worn look.
“What?” I felt a quick-turning pressure in my chest. Covering my reaction, I smoothed out the already smooth folds of my habit and grasped my rosary (which was safely in my pocket). Satisfied that I covered being caught off guard, I leaned to my left and looked at the LCD display. It was a page of text, half of which was in ‘hyperlink blue’. For reasons that I really didn’t care to know, I smiled at Anya and swiveled the display to face me more directly. She didn’t seem to object and continued,
“Well, you did know that Stephen, your ‘neighborhood friend’, worked for the Omni Corporation, didn’t you? Even a nun would recognize Omni Corporation as being the leading provider of computer network hardware and services, especially a nun with an interest in Omni’s website hosting services.” Anya looked at me, and the impulse to tell her to stop the car and let me out dissipated like smoke from the pinched out flame of a candle. I knew that running away wouldn’t be the worst thing, but the part of me that wanted to get answers to take home to Sister Bernadine would not permit it.
“You know, after we get your luggage, we should have a coffee together. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea? I’m thinking that you’re a girl of underrated abilities.” She leaned back in the dark leather seat.
“Sure, on one condition.” Choosing to cover my own indecision, I saw her arched eyebrow as an indication that she was not completely confident of her position,
“You stay here in your… car when we get to St. Emily’s…”
“Why ever would you think I’d insist on coming in and meeting your Mother Superior?” she interrupted,
“And, when we get back to the city, I want to talk about Omni Corp.”
Her smile was anything but re-assuring. There was a simple pleasantness that, in its superficiality, acquired a creepiness that made my hair stand on end. There was a part of me that wanted nothing more than to run anywhere and hide from this woman. To my increasing dismay, I felt like I did after scoring 800s on my College Boards, or the first time that I…. Well, this ‘new’ part of me felt like more of a threat than the exquisitely dressed woman sitting to my left.
Even though the light was beginning to fade, as the evening pushed away the afternoon, I could see the increasing space between the buildings we passed. Strip malls gave way to enclosed malls, professional office buildings and finally, residential homes.
Somehow we were already slowing to a stop, in front of the Convent at St Emily’s. I got out and walked up to the front door.
Sister Phyllis was waiting in the living room to the right of the entry hall. Without stopping I turned and said,
“I’ll be right down, Reverend Mother,”
I took the stairs two at a time. After the last hour or so of sitting, this burst of physical activity felt better than it should have. Within three minutes, I was back down the stairs and standing in front of the Mother Superior of St Emily’s. For some odd reason, I took note of the fact that I wasn’t out of breath nor showed any other signs of exertion.
“Sister Phyllis, this will sound unusual but…”
“No need to explain anything to me, Sister Margaret.” I started to protest and she held up her hand and continued.
“Do you remember, during your first visit here that I told you about how your Reverend Mother came to us, when she first joined the Order?” I nodded, and without word, sat next to her on the couch,
“You remind me very much of that young Bernadine Ellison and yet, there are important differences. She had the kind of energy, the desire to do something, that I saw in you when we first met, on that awful day when Father Noonan died. But you don’t have her anger. Our novitiate, Sister Bernadine, was so very angry. God is both wise and understanding of the frailties of his creations, and so He encourages people to come together in our Order and become a family. Our Convent here is a home. Just as any good family would show patience and love when finding one of its members troubled, so does this convent. Your Sister Bernadine wanted this life more than she wanted her anger and, though it took a great deal of effort, she found her way.” Sister Phyllis closed her eyes, as if seeing the memory.
“Here, this is for you,” She reached over and put a rosary in my hands and gently bent my fingers over it.
“I gave this rosary to Sister Bernadine years ago and, at the appropriate time, she returned it to me. After the occasion of her last trip away from St. Dominique’s, she came back to us and returned the rosary. Can you promise to return it to me, in person, when the time comes?” Her face had a look of serenity that somehow also projected strength and confidence. ‘This is what a woman of true faith looks like’, I thought, sitting next to Sister Phyllis in the evening-quiet convent.
“You’re in my prayers. Now go. You have the strength to do what you must. Just remember that fear is the language of the devil. If you hear it, know that it is Satan talking, not you. Do not listen. Your faith must be in the still, quiet voice that does not command, only assures.”
The Vantablack Mercedes sped away from St Emily’s Convent without a sound, taking me to the heart of the city. No sooner had the door closed than Anya Clarieaux was talking.
“So, where shall we go? I have a feeling there is much you think you want to know.” The self-assurance of this woman was, I must admit, un-nerving. It was as if she didn’t have a care in the world and, at the same time, had limitless resources.
“Oh! I know!” She touched a button on the console and said, “We’ll be going to the Bedford. Make certain they have my table available in 30 minutes.”
“Look, I appreciate the ride and all, but I need to meet my friend and then head out to the airport, I have a…”
“…8:30 flight to Philadelphia. Yes, yes. I know.” Anya affected the patient tone of exasperation that is usually permitted only between girlfriends, or teachers and their prized students.
“How did you know that!?” I was not feeling very friendly towards this woman. Worse, I was beginning to get angry at myself for being stupid and acting on the impulse that brought me to this place, at this time, in a speeding limousine heading towards Chicago. My status was less and less clear as the time passed; was I a guest, incidental passanger or hostage?
“What part of, ‘obviously-powerful-woman-employed-by-a-multinational-corporation’; specializing in information systems, for Christ’s sake, did you choose not to notice??” Anya’s face was a kaleidoscope of emotions: amused, annoyed, concerned and, just-on-the darker-side of angry.
“Jesus H Christ, Em, do not take that innocent young nun approach with me! I assure you that you will not enjoy the rest of our time together, if you do. Now let me work and we’ll have a nice dinner and talk about anything you want to talk about.” Anya Clarieaux focused on the screen, now turned back toward her, making it un-readable to me. I reached for my phone.
“Can I see your phone for a second?” Anya smiled as she took my phone, pushed a button causing her window to slide down, and threw it out into the traffic.
“There! Much better! …What?” she watched my reaction very closely. I felt fear, followed by the flaring of anger. She watched me, without saying a word, without the slightest change in her expression. I started to turned towards her and felt the rounded shapes of the rosary that Sister Phyllis gave me slide across the inside of my pocket. I immediately felt a sense of peace and the fear evaporated. I decided that saying a rosary might be my best course of action. It bothered me, though, that despite my fear disappearing, my anger remained.
The Bedford was a restaurant in a former bank in Wicker Park. Our limo pulled up to the front and Anya immediately stepped out of the car. This left me the choice to either get out on my side (the street side) and walk around the car or just slide across the seat and get out that way. I chose the less dignified approach and slid out of the car in an avalanche of heavy black pleats and wide-flapping sleeves. Anya then made it worse by offering me her hand, which I took. There was a line of well-dressed, sucessful-ish people running down the stairs and to the side and plenty of lights. The young women were dressed for imaginary paparazzi and the men wore their indifference like medieval codpieces.
Standing next to Anya Clarieaux, I felt like one of those stilt walkers in a circus. My habit looked like a little girls attempt to create a wedding gown out of blankets. The only advantage of the volumes of fabric was that my elbows and knees remained safely hidden from view. Anya was standing, all 5’3″ of her in her conservative banker’s pinstripe suit that somehow lost four inches on the hem and two buttons from the blouse. Not since 9th grade gym class have I felt so awkward. I smiled beatifically at everyone as we walked up the stairs and to the front door.
The Bedford kept many of the archaic design features from its previous life as a bank, including an old-fashioned revolving door, mostly glass and shiny brass. I held back and watched as Anya Clarieaux walked through the revolving door, never once lifting a hand to touch or otherwise make sure she wasn’t hit by the sweeping motion of the door. The self-assurance that she exhibited was, I’ll admit, beginning to get a little intimidating. I followed after her, tried to time my steps to the rotation of the door, slowed a little, and skipped into the next open segment, but my forward motion was too great and I had to almost stop walking. I put my hand against the brass railing and pushed. Looking to be sure that my habit didn’t catch as the door segment closed completely, I took two steps and as soon as there was room, I stepped out into the interior of the restaurant. Anya stood at the top of a short marble staircase and watched my performance,
“Come, I have a table in the vault. You’ll love it to death,” she said as she turned and walked ahead. The staff showed every sign of knowing her by sight, and by the way they smiled at her, it was clear that she was a very appreciated client. The vault was literally that, complete with a very large circular door in gleaming stainless steel. Inside the vault (a room about 20 by 30), tables were set a very discrete distance apart from each other; about half of the them were occupied. There was one booth, in the farthest corner, and I was not at all surprised to see my host sitting, quite relaxed, with a martini glass already in front of her.
I sat down opposite Anya. A waiter appeared, looked at Anya and asked if there was anything he could do. Anya looked at me for a length of time that was intended to make me uncomfortable. Without looking away, I said, “I’ll have ginger ale. No ice. No straw.” The waiter waited. Anya continued to stare into my eyes. I smiled and after another 30 seconds she smiled and looked at the waiter and nodded.
“Great. So you’re a regular here and you turn heads. I’m impressed and I’m about 30 minutes from being late for a plane home. How about an explanation? You’re a powerful and beautiful woman, I get that. So why am I, a 2nd year novitiate nun, sitting in the hottest nightspot in Chicago with a woman I’ve known less than a day?” As I spoke, my ginger ale appeared on the table to my left.
“Let’s say I’m in a recruiting mood tonight. And, in case you’ve forgotten, I didn’t come looking for you, you were the one sniffing around one of my pet engineers, asking some very pointed questions about an Omni product.” I started to tell her that it was a free country and I could talk to anyone I wanted, when I realized how naive that would sound. Before I could re-frame a more credible defense, she reached across the table and took my hand in hers.
“Do you know how I managed to get to my current position with Omni Corporation?” There was a glint in her eye and she laughed, “Yeah, besides that. Any girl with an MBA and enough ambition is capable of that, but it gets one only so far and no farther. I don’t even have a college degree, never mind an MBA. The reason I’m in the position I am is that I have an eye for talent. Don’t get me wrong. The business world is full of young, smart, accomplished boys and girls. They’re totally necessary to run a business like the Omni Corporation. That’s why we have a Human Resources Department, to find and recruit engineers and analysts and attorneys and all the skilled workers necessary to run a global information company. I’m the person who finds the people with the rarest of talents, people who have the killer instinct. Do you have any idea how hard that is to find in today’s youth?”
As she spoke, I wanted to reach for my ginger ale, but she wouldn’t let go of my right hand, so I took my left hand from inside my habit and reached for the glass.
“Well, that’s all fine and good, Mz Clarieaux. I’m very impressed, really I am, but I need to leave. I’d find all this quite fascinating, if I were…. Well, wait! No, the circumstances in which I’d be enjoying this is ‘never’.”
She reached into her purse (Hermes, of course) and, as she pushed a cell phone across the heavy linen table cloth, said, “Any girl capable of hacking a DIA facility and planning an ecotage raid on a very heavily guarded government animal testing facility and still manage straight A’s in her Medieval Lit courses, is the kind of girl I’m always on the lookout for… Em? What I really want to know is how you managed to get your name deleted from the TSA’s Do Not Fly List and a half a dozen other Watch Lists, that I know for a fact had you listed during two out of your three years at Radcliffe?”
I sat very still. I thought about the rosary in my pocket. For some reason, I thought about my roommate at the convent, Sister Claire. She was as sweet a person as I’ve ever met and sometimes, when she’d be too self-conscious in public to do anything more than smile at the ground, I’d tell her to have faith in herself. She’d always smile and say, ‘I wish I could be half as smart or confident as you.” Yet throughout the process of the death of her father (which actually took two years), she never once complained or asked for help; her faith in God made me feel like a little girl playing dress up.
“Cat got your tongue now, Sister Margaret? At least you’re not putting on a weary show of protesting your innocence.” There was a ‘glow’ about this woman sitting opposite me in the too, too clever restaurant; it was the reaction of the large cat when the fleeing antelope stumbles and falls. I felt the need to act and so I began to whisper and immediately her expression changed from triumphant to wary puzzlement.
“What’s that? You haven’t even heard my offer yet! Don’t start praying at me or I swear I’ll call the bouncer.”
I slid out of the booth and sat next to her, putting my arm on the back of the leather booth. She turned to face me, wariness increasing. I noted a new element in her face, the best description would be appetite.
As her eyes widened in mock surprise, her pupils dilating in anticipation, my left hand slid her martini glass off the table into her lap.
I got up and sat back on my side of the booth. There was no indication that any of the other people sitting in the vault noticed. Anya did not make a sound; her eyes, however, were screaming.
“Well, as I was saying, I’m responsible for locating and recruiting people of special talent for the CEO of the Omni Corporation. I’m not always successful, but I don’t limit myself to one try. You’d be surprised at how often people insist that their final answer is no, only to find themselves asking for a chance at a later time. I’m not in any rush. You have a lot to think about. And, somehow,” there was the hint of a touch of vindictiveness in her voice, which a part of me noted with satisfaction, “it appears that you’ve missed your plane. Not to worry, young Sister Margaret, the Omni Corporation views its business concerns over a very long term. We never rush our plans. Be assured that the CEO of Omni does not concern himself with short-term gain. He guides the company along a path that will involve decades, if not generations. Your past and your secrets are safe with me. We maintain a number of suites at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport. A room will be waiting for you tonight, your ticket has been rescheduled, and you’ll be home tomorrow by early afternoon. No need to thank me, we value all our assets, even the ones who resist our interest. Especially them. It’s been my experience that the kind of person Omni wants is not inclined to believe that our company has anything they need. With enough time, they almost always realize that they are wrong.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I seemed to have gotten all wet. I am very happy that you accepted my offer of help today. If you have any questions, here is my card. Call me if you ever need something that the world is not willing to give you.”
She got up from the booth,
“There’ll be a car out front to take you to your hotel when you’re ready to leave. Your suitcase is already in it. Goodbye, for now, Sister Margaret Ryan.”
I found the door to the Sister Bernadine’s office open. Holding in my left hand the rosary beads that Sister Phyllis gave me, I walked in and sat in the single straight back wooden chair in front of the desk. Sister Bernadine did not look up at me when I walked into the office and she did not say anything to me when I sat down in front of her desk. She continued to do whatever administrative tasks that it was she did, in order to provide for the women who occupied the convent at St. Dominique’s. It was early afternoon when I sat down. The hours passed. I sat and Sister Bernadine worked, sometimes talking on the phone. On two occasions people came to the office to speak to her directly. At no time did they acknowledge my presence.
The fear and hopelessness surrounded me at the moment I first sat in the chair. As time passed, it seemed that these feelings grew impatient, and I would be certain that I’d just heard Sister Bernadine mention my name when on the phone to someone I could not see. I did nothing. I held Sister Phyllis’s rosary in my left hand and prayed.
The sun set behind Sister Bernadine. The bright and varied background, framed by the floor to ceiling windows. grew dimmer and less interesting. The figure of Sister Bernadine, a life study in black and white and brown, became more and more part of the view through the windows down to Chesapeake Bay. Finally, all activity from outside the office slowed to non-activity, and quiet crept down the corridors, shutting some doors and opening others. Sister Catherine was the last visitor. She opened the door and stood and said nothing for a short time. When she left, I heard through the overly ornate door, “Good Night, Sisters.”
The night wore on.
I started to speak. The silence of hours caused words to seem like a set of badly carved wood toy blocks. I hesitated.
Rising from her desk, Sister Bernadine faced out the window and said, “You are home, Sister. No one can take that from you….”
I sat as she walked out of her office. She left the door open. I could hear her turning on the lights in the night-darkened hallway… and I sat and waited to return.