By: Will Meinen
Marshall sat in a high-backed leather chair in the lobby of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. Shadows pirouetted across his face from the Medieval fireplace. In relief a tableau depicting Virgil and Dante touring the 8th circle of Hell.
“To your left you can see forsaken souls wading in their own excrement.”
The 8th circle is for frauds - the denizen of seducers, panderers, flatterers and hypocrites. Marshall had been all of those in turn with the women he had dated and although he didn’t believe in final judgement the tableau of tortured souls was unsettling.
He was to meet Katherine at 7:00, in the fading light of happy hour, for a post mortem on what had started as a promising affair and ended unceremoniously after a disagreement about whether calamari was properly served breaded or sautéed.
Katherine sat in a dimly-lit street level parlor drawn like a thin-winged moth to the neon sign, ‘Psychic Tarot.’ This was her fourth visit in a month’s time to a divination consultant, her favorite being Madam Nadia, a hereditary fortune teller and enchantress. Since her breakup with Marshall she had been particularly in need of spiritual guidance. She was flailing - looking for signs, direction, focus from horoscopes, healers, core power yoga, power walking, Aura imaging, cupping, palm reading, massage, colonics, colonial poetry, self-help books, podcasts, Wiccan, witchcraft, cave painting, primal screaming, feminist screen printing, automatic writing, R.E.M’s “Automatic for the People,” advice from an automated teller, messages encoded in the transcripts of Pen and Teller’s 2015 special ‘Live from the Rio All Suite and Hotel and Casino in fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.’
Madam Nadia emerged through a string of beads wearing a floor length skirt, headscarf and more jewelry than a Brooklyn art dealer. The image was so cliche Katherine found it comforting. At least someone was meeting her expectations.
“I’m ready for you. Would you like some tea?”
“I’ll take a Negrone.” The waiter smiled and drifted away from the warmth of the fire. Marshall shivered despite the sweat forming on the small of his back. He made the sign of the cross. Marshall was raised Catholic which is what one says when they no longer attend church and consider the Pope no more than an old man who waves from his balcony in a nightgown. The sign of the cross had become a superstition, like whistling past the graveyard. This was a gravesite of sorts, the place where he and Katherine had their first drink, an unusual choice to discuss the corpse of their union. Katherine had chosen it, she was into mandalas and the spiritual significance of circles.
“Tea would be nice.”
Madam Nadia didn’t always offer tea but you made such gestures to women seeking answers. In her experience a certain kind of American women had the misplaced notion she could bend life to her will. Katherine was one of these women. She wanted what her girlfriend’s had - a sense of purpose provided by a family, a full google calendar and a constant sense of being behind. For a fee Madam Nadia could harness the heavenly bodies and entreat the dead to aid in the struggle to have it all.
“Let me see your right hand.”
She took a crow feather, tossed it in the air and lit a bundle of sage. “Today you will say things that need to be said and you will hear things that need to be heard. Remember the forest must be burnt for new trees to grow.”
Tears pooled in the corner of Katherine’s eyes. They continued to cloud her vision as she entered the hotel and scanned the bar for Marshall. He looked as he had on their first date - gangly-limbed, dark hair with patches of grey around the temples, squinting at his phone because he refused to wear his glasses out of vanity or stubbornness, she never knew which.
She cleared her eyes with a tissue and took a deep breath. Marshall saw her approaching and stood, gave her hug and waited for her sit.
“Sorry I’m late. Well, should we begin the autopsy, I guess you’d call it?”
Marshall nodded solemnly.Katherine, scalpel in hand, brushed her hair from her eyes.
“You seemed to perceive my questioning of your career path as intrusive or an attempt to control, but I was simply showing interest. You said you might want to get in the pit and I said I had a friend at the Board of Trade. I don’t know how that could be misinterpreted.”
Marshall retrieved a pair of latex gloves from the tray of a passing waiter. “Maybe I’m overly sensitive to criticism about my career choices. I’m not happy in what I’m doing and I can’t tell if that’s my attitude or work is generally drab. I fear I’ll never be satisfied in my career and therefore never satisfied in a relationship.”
“Another cocktail?” asked the vested waiter, his movements rigid from the onset of rigor mortis.
“I’ll take 40 milliliters of embalming fluid, please.”
“The same for me, and the check,” said Katherine while looking at her phone. “I have an early day. Thanks for meeting up; I know these conversations aren’t easy.”
“I can’t say I was happy to do it,” said Marshall while pulling a white sheet over the body. “When a relationship ends I prefer to walk away and never think about it again. I’m not saying that’s healthy, but endings are unnerving to me. I can’t even watch movie credits.”
“I don’t think we’ve quite identified the cause of death. May we continue?” said Katherine while uncovering the body.
“Of course. Yes, I have a little left in the tank.” Marshall quickly checked his phone. He had a date in River North, someone he met online. It was tasteless but ends beget beginnings.
“Right. Well, I was taken by surprise when you broke up with me. I didn’t think it was going particularly well nor did I think it was going that poorly either. We had a rough couple of weeks. It certainly didn’t seem fatal.”
“Relationships end over less. What seems like a minor infection can cause
organ failure. You know sepsis is one of the most misdiagnosed causes of death in a hospital. Maybe I’m too eager to call it,” Marshall mused. He was in fact, to eager to call it.
“I guess that makes me the doctor giving chest compressions to a lost cause,” she replied, the first hint of bitterness creeping into voice.
“Two embalming fluids and the check.” The waiter, now unable to bend his arm, dropped the check in the middle of the table lit by a desk lamp casting an absinthe phosphorescence on the picked over cadaver.
“I got it,” said Katherine, the heaviness that follows an autopsy pulling down the corners of her mouth, her eyelids drooping, a tightness forming in her chest. She couldn’t remember if she had a history of heart disease in her family. Is that a question anyone can answer with authority?
The two former lovers stood, retrieved their personal items from coat check and walked to the revolving doors in silence. Marshall stood near the curb, crossed himself and put his arm out, praying for a cab with a light.
He opened the door and held Katherine’s hand as she got in. Katherine gave her address to the drive and took note of a statue of the buddha stuck to the dashboard.
Marshall didn’t know what to say, he never knew what to say in these situations, so he shut the door and backed away from the curb.
Marshall had never said anything to make anyone feel better who was disappointed or heart broken. A fitting epitaph he thought.