Outside the hotel the city was black, reflective. In the lobby, a Miles Davis number quietly contemplated heroin. The whole town was in fugue. Rain before and snow to come; nothing now but cloud and calm.
Aidan stepped out smartly as the Jetta rolled up. He was at the driver door before the occupant finished shifting into park. A fast Young Republican type, Brooks Brothers aspirant, tossed Aidan the keys, his eyes already scanning the entrance to the lounge. As if dodging a tackle, he swung smoothly round the quarter panel.
“You scratch it, I fuck you up,” he said, as if to the world in general.
Impassive, Aidan lowered himself into the driver’s seat, engaged the gear and slid away.
Four blocks should be enough. He found a half-block outdoor lot without cameras, circled once to be sure, then parked the hunter green sedan in the middle. From ten steps away, it was just another yuppie drive.
He walked back to the hotel feeling more bemused than excited. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but that’s the kind of understated smartness people expect from these new boutique hotels. All glass and class; no epaulettes, no piping. He was just what the guests expected him to be.
He wasn’t really black or white. Handsome, but not strikingly so. He strode the sidewalk smoothly. One would have to pay attention to notice that in spite of all the standing water, he left no ripple behind.
Slowing as he approached the entrance, he allowed a silver-haired man with a briefcase to pass, then followed him through the glass doorway. He didn’t pause on his way across the lobby to the stairs, took them two at a time with the easy lope of someone saving effort, not time.
He reached the third floor corridor, whistling softly as if to apologise for his silence. He fished in his trousers pocket and produced a room key, slid it into the lock on 337 and stepped inside. The suitcase was already open, lying on the bottom quarter of the bed.
Aidan sorted through the contents quickly, pausing only once to compare the shoes’ size to his own. When he was done, he had set aside four shirts, two pairs of trousers, a tie and a belt. He lifted the rejected heap and placed it back into the case, closed the lid and set the latch. An overstuffed plastic shopping bag took his winnings. He could press them later.
Down in the lobby, a tired and slightly drab young man leaned against the marble fronted reception. Beaten down but not defeated, he appeared to be committed to a dogged war of attrition with the night clerk. The clerk, phone draped over a shoulder, armoured in professionalism, was laying out in certain terms the futility of the fight.
Aidan left his bag beside the planter and walked across.
“It’s not just you, sir,” the clerk explained. “Nobody’s flying anywhere east of here. That front is hundreds of miles long.”
“Well, then, give me my room back.”
“Sir, you checked out at 8:00 a.m. We cleaned the room and checked someone else in by noon. We’re not going to ask them to leave. We have no rooms for you here.”
“Look, you have my credit card, all my details. Maybe there’s a cancellation. Somebody always cancels. Why don’t I just wait and you can put me into the first room that comes up.”
“Every room is accounted for. I’ve checked twice. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to give you false hope. Nobody is going to cancel, sir. Not this late.”
“I’ll wait. Lord knows, I have time. I don’t care. I’ll share a room, even. Look, I spent 12 bloody hours at the airport for nothing. I need a room. I just want to fucking sleep. Sorry.”
He smiled conspiratorially to the desk clerk, said, “Betty, maybe I can help.”
He asked the man, “Where are you trying to get to?”
“Cleveland. But nothing’s flying. Nothing’s going east, anyway. I’m sick of even trying, and now I can’t get a goddam room, even.”
“And you won’t,” Aidan replied. “Not within forty miles of Chicago. But look, maybe we can help each other out. I’m driving back to Buffalo. What do you say you chip in for gas and tolls, and I let you sleep all the way? It’s not ideal, but the seats are alright; it’s this year’s Jetta.”
The man didn’t reply.
“What’s your name?”
“Jerry, look, I’m Aidan.” He extended his hand. “It’s a lousy situation, but I’ll get you home sooner than the plane, and it’ll cost you less. I can’t promise about the quality of the food, but….”
“Tell you what,” Aidan continued. “At least let me buy you a drink. You look like you could use one. You can think it over. I’ll just grab my stuff.”
Jerry laughed defeatedly and followed him outside.
“There’s a better place than this just about a block from here,” Aidan explained as they stepped into the night. “Hotel prices murder you.”
“Yeah. No kidding.”
Chester’s was a popular but quiet pub occupying an old, ex-industrial stone building. Aidan was reaching for the brass handle when the door opened on its own, disgorging two women. The leading one, a tinted blonde, jerked to a stop a foot in front of him.
“Adam! Hi!” She glanced at her companion and composed herself.
“Aidan,” he corrected gently.
“Aidan. Of course. How are you?”
“Fine. I’m fine, thanks.” He smiled.
“God….” She paused, caught herself staring and lowered her eyes with a chuckle. “How long has it been?”
“Thirteen months, give or take,” he replied, looking at her shoulder.
“So what are you doing in Chicago?” Before Aidan could reply, she added, “Sorry, Ad – Aidan, this is my friend Bonny.”
“A pleasure.” They shook hands.
“Jerry, this is Nancy, Bonny.”
A brittle pause, then Nancy broke it. “Look,” she lied, “I said I call. I’d still like to. If that’s okay.”
Aidan smiled warmly, “That’s not just the wine talking?”
Nancy laughed, relieved. “No it is not just the wine. I’d like to. May I?”
“Of course,” Aidan held her gaze until she turned. He kept watching as she strode away in whispered conference with her friend, smiled when they looked back at him and giggled.
“I’m not supposed to be thinking what I’m thinking.” Jerry eyed him with wry admiration. “I’m a married man.”
“She’s not going to call,” said Aidan, and ushered Jerry inside.
Jerry came back with another round. “Heineken for me, apple juice for the driver.” He slid into the booth Aidan had chosen for them. “So you’re from around here, then?”
“Grad school,” Aidan replied, swirling the ice. “I stayed on for a bit, but it never felt like home.”
“Grad school? Huh, I wouldn’t have taken you for the professor type.”
“I’m definitely not.” Aidan spoke in measured tones. His voice managed to bridge distance without volume. “It just took me longer to find out than most people. And cost a little more.”
“Heh. Yeah. I been out ten years already, I’m still two years away from finishing my loans. Assuming my bank stays afloat that long.” Jerry seemed pleased with his joke, so Aidan smile appreciatively.
“So you’re from Buffalo, then?”
“My mother is. That’s where she is now, anyway.”
Jerry took a long sip, and then another. “You two get along,” he ventured. “Wish I could say the same.”
“Families are peculiar things.”
“Too fucking right.” Jerry glanced across the table, shrugged. “Sorry. I’m just wasted. Spent the entire fucking day at O’Hare trying to get a flight. It’s funny, you know? I’d rather jab myself in the eye with a toothpick than look at my wife some days, but when I’m away there’s nothing I want more than to get back to that sweet, uncomplaining icicle. Sorry.”
He gestured with his bottle. “This,” he said, “is not making me any clearer.”
Aidan watched the gloomy street outside. A police cruiser glided pass, slowed as it turned the corner.
“Look,” he said, “it’s gonna take us at least five hours to get you home. What do you say we get a move on?”
Jerry took a breath. “Sure, if you want. Just let me take a piss first. By the way, we need to stop at an ATM at some point.”
“No problem. I’ll bring the car around. It’s a dark green Jetta.”
Traffic was minimal, what with the weather and the time. The Jetta was a turbo six; it barely felt the road beneath it, hissed softly as it uncoiled. Aidan kept it reined back to a safe sixty-five, didn’t pass more than he had to. It was a nice ride. Too much plastic in the body work, but you didn’t have to look that closely. It was just another dark sedan.
“I never said thank you.”
Aidan started slightly. “I thought you’d dozed off.”
“I almost did. This thing rides like a good buzz. Seriously, though: thank you.”
“I thought you were the manager at first. Thought you were going to pull a room key out of your pocket. Now I find myself thinking I’m almost glad you weren’t. You’re not, I mean.”
Aidan felt himself being watched.
“Do you mind my asking why?”
“I don’t like driving alone.”
“No, I mean why me? You could’ve just walked by. Anybody would. I mean, I’m grateful, but why didn’t you just call a buddy – heh, your friend Cindy there….”
“Nancy, right. But seriously, this it not the American Way. Frank Capra is dead and gone, and you don’t look like Jimmy Stewart to me.”
Aidan laughed. “No,” he agreed. “I don’t.”
Jerry shifted in his seat. “So? Why me.”
“It’s hard to say.” Why him, indeed? To Aidan, it was like a telegraph. Everybody ticked a different way. You could just tell who had something to give, who needed a little more. He felt he understood, but hadn’t ever bothered to explain. He decided to try.
“I guess… I guess I just had a feeling. Look, this isn’t charity. It’s uh… it’s an investment. You look at the prospects, and try to extrapolate the return. Now, I’m cutting my driving costs, I’m making things safer for myself. I can use the carpool lanes.” He smiled. “But it’s not Adam Smith. At least it’s not Adam Smith the way the brokers understand him. They see a simple one-to-one, a give and take. I sell, you buy, we’re both happy.
“But commerce goes in all directions. I don’t want to get too philosophical, but there’s a system involved. I give to you, you give to someone else. The System profits. I don’t get everything back from you directly. You don’t pay me back directly. But – and this is just an example – I get you back to your wife. Maybe not on time, but I get you back to her, and you get there in a good mood. Maybe you’re happy to see her. Maybe she’s happy to see you. That’s not my responsibility. I let the System take care of that part.
“I’m going to get a little existential, but bear with me. There’s a kind of a rhythm to things, or a harmonic. Every now and then, you catch a note that’s out of place, like a badly tuned string in an orchestra. I’m no maestro, but I like to think I have an ear for things.”
“So I was a badly tuned fiddle,” Jerry interjected.
Aidan stifled a laugh, “Kind of, yeah.”
“So you tune me up and put me back in my place, and the world just gets better?”
Aidan watched the road.
“Look man, I gotta confess: I don’t really think too much about that shit. Maybe you got a point. All I know is that I lucked out. And for that, I thank you. You alright to drive, still?”
“No problem. I said I’d do the driving. Sleep all you want.”
The fog lights gazed down on the obsidian road.
Jerry roused himself. “What?”
“We’re going to need to fill up fairly soon.”
Jerry hunched his hips, pulled a wallet from his back pocket and placed it on the dash.
“Card’s in there. Use the Visa. That way I can expense it.”
Aidan scanned the empty highway ahead, then turned his gaze to the wallet.
“Goodnight, Jerry,” he said.