The Ghost of St. Frances on Bonaventure
The way the overdressed man ran was what caught Vern's attention, how since he was tall, the black bag he carried skipped inches above the crumbling sidewalk. The weight gave him a limp, yet he was able to keep a quick clip in spite of it.
In his twenty years driving through the city in a yellow cab, Vern had seen guys booking it in the Heights before, hoisting spoils with urgency and awkwardness—televisions, armoires, stacks of hubcaps strung together like a day’s catch of fish—but they were never dressed like this. The runner wore a full tuxedo with tails and a ruffled inset, and crimson petals of a handkerchief corsage spilled out of his breast pocket, shining in the mid-afternoon sun. He reminded Vern of the key attendee at a funeral: the one in the box.
Vern pulled up alongside him, taking his foot off the gas and slowing to six miles an hour. He reached and cranked the passenger window open. Vern took in a breath, then expelled it with volume.
“You’re in a weird part of town to be wearing a suit like that, mister! Someone’s liable to make a target of you.”
The running man in the tux looked around, saw Vern, and kept running. After two more strides he slowed, nodding, brows arched above his nose.
Vern stopped the cab.
“Pop the trunk,” the man in the tux said.
Vern pulled the lever under the steering wheel and opened his door, turning to step out.
“I have it, get back in. I don’t have time.”
Tux dropped the bag into the trunk, and slammed the hood shut. He sat behind Vern, running the sleeve of his suit over the ridges of his forehead, pulling away swaths of moisture.
“What you got in that bag?” Vern asked.
“Nothing,” the runner said. He licked his lips. “Honeymoon supplies. Wedding’s today.”
“Oh. Where’s the missus? You didn’t leave her around here, did you? It’d be even worse a bride running around the Heights.”
Tux cleared his throat. “My fiancé is waiting for me at the chapel.”
“Night wedding, huh?”
“If you start driving, we might get there before the sun goes down. I need to be there by seven.”
“I’m on your end, man. What chapel?”
“St. Frances, on Bonaventure.”
Vern nodded, and clicked the fare box on. He put the car in drive and pressed the gas. He made the necessary turns until they were on the way downtown.
“What’s that?“ Tux was fiddling with his wrist in the backseat. Pale to begin with but his wrist was a purer white, and hairless. Probably traded in a watch too expensive for its own good, Vern thought to himself.
“Nothing. Say, what were you doing back there, you had some business in that part of town?“ Vern said, raising an eyebrow into the rear view mirror. His passenger’s head came up, met his reflected gaze, and turned to the window.
“Well then what? You get taken for a ride by someone else in a yellow car?“ The man offered a rude grunt.
“I did a double take, seeing you jogging up the sidewalk. Thought to myself, there’s a guy who looks like he needs to be somewhere else. Lucky for you I showed up. Don’t you know about the Heights?”
“Lost my car, I guess.” His voice raised this time, cracking in two on the last word, a broken egg of annoyance.
“Lost it? Really? Trade it in for that suit?”
Tux cleared his throat. He unbuckled himself, tugged on his suit pants, and buckled in again. “Look, I don’t want to be rude, but please focus on the road. I get that you’re trying to be friendly, but I’m trying to think.”
Vern merged onto Bonaventure, eight blocks from the old Catholic Church, St. Frances of Rome. The church was a blocky spire that loomed from his vantage on the street. He figured God had put all the extra space inside it, who cultivated awe with colorful vertiginous windows.
They came to a red light. The fare box read 22.40. The church lay ahead, rising above the strip mall that sprawled across the next two blocks. He looked back. Tux was looking at the church. Dark red splotches had appeared on his cheeks and nose.
“You want some water?”
“No, can you—would you not ask me anything else? You’ll get your tip, all right?”
The hairs on the back of Vern’s neck went erect, and he bit both of his lips.
“Not the tip I’m worried about. You got a place for a wallet in that tux?”
Tux in the rear-view mirror looked down at himself, then patted his breast pocket.
“Even if I did stiff you, the equipment in the trunk would make up for it.”
“I don’t need honeymoon supplies.”
“You could sell it.”
“Already got a job.”
The light turned green and Vern accelerated for a hundred meters then decelerated for a hundred meters. The church rose above them, God’s shadow blanketing the cab. The man opened his door, and stepped out. He came to the window, holding a twenty and a five. Vern took the bills, still biting both of his lips. Tux pulled another twenty.
“You’ll sit here while I’m inside, wait for us to come out?”
“For twenty bucks? I could get three fares in the time you’re getting hitched.”
Tux smiled, flexing a web of unused muscles. His teeth were dry and white, like stones.
“You’ll sit here?”
Vern wanted to drive off. The bag was still in the trunk. But there had always been rude fares, and twenty bucks might actually be more than he’d get running around, burning gas.
Vern took the twenty.
Tux turned, and Vern leaned over and cranked up the window. He started the air conditioning. He stuffed the money into his wallet. He bit the back of his knuckle and drew blood.
Out of the car, Tux, whose real name would be in the paper, kicked his long legs toward the church, head down, meaning to push through the door and make an entrance. He scanned the stains on the sidewalk as he walked and glanced down the street, where the shadow of the church ended and a homeless woman huddled beneath her bedroll in the sun. She was looking at him, and a key of recognition turned some mechanism in his head. He looked down and stepped forward twice, then stopped.
The woman was still looking at him. He walked toward her.
A certainty dropped all the way through him, like a brick down a well: the woman was his fiancé, about double the age and a little worse for wear. Homelessness could do that.
“What are you doing here?” Tux asked.
“It’s my wedding day,” she said. “Our wedding day.”
He knelt down. He didn’t know what to say. His mouth opened, and it opened, and it opened again.
“You probably shouldn’t marry me, you know. I know what happens,” she said.
He closed his eyes. He opened them. She was still his fiancé.
“You know how much I love you?” he said. “I’m here because it has to be me, it can’t be anyone else.”
She put a finger to his lips. “It makes you crazy, the love. On our honeymoon, when I find the hotel manager and you find the both of us, you kill him. You kill everyone in the hotel. I’m in a coma and you’re in prison and that’s married life.”
Tux imagined it. He wanted to say it wasn’t true, that he wasn’t capable. But the bag in the cab knew better. His fiancé knew better. She had always known better, that was the problem.
“We’ll go somewhere else. Go on a different honeymoon.” He was pleading past her now, eager to gain her trust and her compliance, even though she was dead, should have been dead.
“I’ll find anyone," she said to him now, "anyone at all who isn’t you. Because that’s the thing of it all. You love me so much you won’t let yourself imagine that I don’t love you.”
Tux stood up. The blood inside him came to a point behind his eyes, tightened the veins around his skull.
“She loves me. You, I don’t know what you are.”
“We don’t love you.”
The woman under the bedroll shucked it off and stood up. Tux clenched his teeth, flexed every muscle. The woman rocked forward on toes. She put moving lips to his ear, and breathed words.
From the cab Vern watched, annoyed. Why had this dingus been in such a hurry to get here only to spend time talking to homeless people? If that’s what he wanted, he could have stayed in the Heights. Vern had been homeless once.
He looked away. He let his eyes glaze over the traffic on Bonaventure, so he could see the way it flowed like water, the people in their cars like droplets, each oblivious of anything but their own destination. Where were they all going?
Tux knocked at the passenger window.
“Pop the trunk,” he said.
Vern pulled the lever under the steering wheel. The trunk popped open. Tux pulled his heavy bag out and made for the church.
“Do you want me to stay here?” Vern yelled, but the window was still up. Tux disappeared into the dark of the church door.
Vern looked around, waiting for the traffic to open so he could pull into it, another droplet joining the flow. But traffic was unrelenting, and he idled, unable to merge. He saw the woman again, the homeless woman, and as she stepped into the shadow of God’s house, her face twisted.
He knew her. She’d lived in the apartment next door, in the Heights. His childhood love. She’d taken a drive-by bullet, and that had been all. He hadn’t cried at her funeral, only later that night, when it occurred to him the box had closed for the last time--she had no way out.
He had no way in.
He watched her now. His heart was a gallon of milk exploding on the floor. His throat choked tears from his eyes, his arm hurt.
Gunfire came from somewhere, a hitching rat-a-tat that shook everything. Vern threw his hands over his ears. Now there were screams. Oh God. Oh God why are you killing us.
Vern’s dead love turned her head and met his eyes and smiled.