The vibration in his hand triggered a chain of incipient emotional reflexes that began with annoyance and flashed through dismay and dread before reaching indignation, jerking Blow from his stupor in time to flip open his cellphone and preempt the tedious ringtone he kept forgetting to change.
“Quit piling on, God dammit. Leave me the fuck alone!” He said it aloud, feeling shame at the whining tone in his voice. He guessed he'd fallen asleep tilted back in the chair behind his desk. Yet, the phantoms tormenting him in the dream he seemed to have escaped just now still leered from the periphery of his uncertain consciousness.
He'd opened the phone before noticing if it recognized the caller. A wave of relief swept his immediate worries away when he saw the text message. She'd sent only a symbol: a left slant bracket before the number three. It formed a perfect heart.
“Rose.” He said it fondly, and a smile brightened his face.
She'd been his high school math teacher until rumors circulated she was introducing some of her male students to more than school work during tutoring sessions in her home. The rumors cost Rose McGillicutty her career and some jail time, although criminal charges ultimately fizzled from lack of evidence. She took herself away then, far from Leicester County, returning six years later to open a discreetly exclusive boutique brothel that served clients by invitation only. Blow's invitation had arrived via a cream-colored, uniquely scented business card, embossed with a rich red rose and bearing in small red type at the bottom a phone number and a local address.
It became apparent eventually that Rose's secret passion was writing novels, a skill at which she also excelled and which brought her considerable success, albeit under a pseudonym unknown in Leicester County to all but her most intimate associates.
“I've been given a sign,” she told Blow now in bed after a loving hour that seemed to have scrubbed all of the worries from his mind.
Her comment caught Blow by surprise. Rose rarely talked about herself, deflecting questions that strayed beyond friendly surface banter. She loved physical intimacy and she enjoyed listening, but when it came to her she pulled the blinds on personal details, often with the excuse they were material she was saving for her novels. Blow always had the impression Rose was not religious, at least not so far as attending a church. He'd assumed she was too worldly to abide authoritarian restrictions or suffer the hypocrisies such artificial societies inevitably entailed.
“You mean, like...a burning bush type sign?” Blow sensed he should be careful.
“No, not that dramatic.” She braced herself on an elbow and fixed him intently with tawny sparkling eyes. Her dark brown hair and the tip of an ample breast brushed his shoulder, and one of her knees rested on his flank. A warm wave of female essence tinged with cinnamon enveloped his senses and teased at his attention. But he knew she was serious.
“This is kind of surprising, Rose. I've always had the impression you were...agnostic.”
“You're very observant, dear Blow, and sensitive. Two qualities I've always treasured in you. Yes, I suppose I have been...maybe not officially agnostic, but never really committed one way or another. I guess the older I've gotten the more the wonder of it all has come up, been on my mind, you know, just to myself. I think now I realize I've always wanted to believe in something, you know, outside ourselves, to sort of give meaning to it all. And the trouble for me has always been that I could never find a logical support for such a yearning, something that could be explained without sounding superstitious. You know?”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. I'm kinda that way myself.”
She bent over abruptly and licked his shoulder, then nipped it lightly and moved closer, bringing her eyes so near his their noses touched. “OK, Darlin, don't get all skittish now, thinkin I'm gonna try to proselytize or convert you or anything.” She reared back an inch or so. “You won't, will you? Get all skittish on me?”
“Promise. I might hafta find some other church to go to, Rosie, but I won't get skittish on you. Never do that.”
She reached around with her free hand and pinched his cheek. “You'll never find another preacher treat you like this. Now look...” She pushed herself up into a sitting position, facing him on the bed, ankles crossed, knees akimbo. “I'm gonna get real serious now. I've not told a single soul what I'm about to tell you, and I don't expect I ever will. Tell another soul. OK?”
“I'm flattered, Rose. I really am. I'm listening.”
“OK. I appreciate this, Blow. I just feel like I've got to tell somebody, and then I'll let it go. I won't tell anybody else, and I ask you to please keep it yourself, too. OK? Our secret?”
“Deal. Our secret.”
“Here it is then. It happened last Easter. I didn't sleep very well. Probly because I knew it was Easter Eve. Easter's always been kind of special, special strange for me. We don't need to get into that now, except that I've always kind of felt that if anything was going to happen, you know, so I could believe in something, in God or Jesus, you know. A sign. Something definite that could not be explained rationally, and yet could be proven. Sort of mystical and yet provable. By other people, not just me. I knew that this would be the only way I could believe.
“The idea of blind faith to me is crazy. I could never just decide I was going to believe in something because other people told me to or because I wanted to. It had to prove to me somehow that it was real.
“Well, it happened to me. Twice. Each time on Easter. The first time definitely got my attention, but I could see it was explainable as probably random coincidence. And that was not good enough. For me to believe, to have faith. But the second time, this past Easter, it was the coincidence argument that wasn't good enough. What happened, hit me so suddenly and profoundly I had no choice but to believe, and I've been thinking about it ever since, and I do believe. I still believe, and I think I can explain how it happened...you're not getting skittish on me now, are you, Blow dear?”
Blow had rolled onto his side facing Rose. His face was sober, thoughtful. He moved his head almost imperceptibly from side to side, looking into her eyes. He murmured, “No, Rose. I'm with you here.”
She smiled shyly, nodding affirmatively, and continued. “Well, the novel I was working at the time—it's finished now—has a character in it named Tom Archia. I made the name up. It just came to me. I envisioned him from the start as a sort of martyr character. A major character.
“I was having a pretty tough time getting through an important scene. I was stuck. It happens. I've always solved whatever problem was holding things up, but this time it seemed insurmountable. I was getting depressed, worried I might have to let the work go, at least for a while. Turn to something else. I hate to do that, once I've got something going. I like to go straight through to the end.
“That's probly another reason I had trouble sleeping that night. Worrying about that damned scene. Anyway, I got up about an hour earlier than I usually do. So I'm up at four-thirty and making breakfast. I have NPR on listening to some music show I'd not heard before. Didn't recognize the host's name, and I've already forgotten it. I'm not really paying that much attention. Just background music. Kinda nice. My coffee was ready, and my muffin, so I sit down in my recliner just about when the show is winding up.
“I hear the host start reading the credits, the names of the performers. A couple of the names sound familiar, but this was kind of a jazz program and I'm not all that up on jazz, you know? And then my heart almost stops when he says Tom Archia. I feel this kind of rush. Disbelief and belief at the same time. It startled me so much I was actually a little scared. I immediately go to the Internet to see if I'd heard it right, that there really is a musician named Tom Archia. And there was. Played jazz saxophone. Back in the forties. Spelled the way I had it. One in a million chances? A billion? I'm thinking, what the hell does this mean?
“Then I remember the earlier time, also on Easter and, coincidentally, also something to do with a book I was writing. It was my first novel, and I was feeling overwhelmed and terribly afraid I was making a big mistake, that I would never finish it and that even if I did it would stink.
“I was trying to find the end point of a large tornado that figured prominently in the story, another major character, I guess.” She chuckled briefly. “The tornado originated in St. Joseph, Missouri, the starting point for the Pony Express. Only instead of going west, it went across Lake Michigan. I wanted it to end at a place that would have some symbolic significance, like St. Joseph did at the other end. I studied the atlas and couldn't find anything that made any sense. I was getting panicky. I know now that was probly just an excuse because I was starting to worry about the plot itself. But the destination of the tornado became so important to me as a distraction I simply couldn't move on until I had found the right place.
“That Easter morning I went back to the atlas in a sense of desperation. I thought maybe because it was Easter...you know, feeling a little superstition maybe? Anyhow, I studied the area all along the Lake Michigan shore, and suddenly I found it. St. Joseph, Michigan. What a feeling of relief I had. And a thrill. And a sense of Easter being what I'd always hoped it was, a day for miracles. Yet, I knew, despite how exalted I felt all that day and for some days afterward, it wasn't enough to completely persuade me to believe. It was a coincidence. A nice one, to be sure, but not quite enough. And I eventually abandoned that novel, which is just as well, because I know now it was not going anywhere. It was ill-conceived.
“But this time? With Tom Archia? Sure it's another coincidence, but as far as I can see it's no longer a random one. It wasn't accidental. The odds are too long. Way too long. Like winning a thirty-million dollar lotto, except this means way more to me than winning all that money. You know what I'm saying?”
Blow hadn't broken his gaze through her entire account. He was rapt, face frozen. He nodded slowly. “I do, Rose. I know what you're saying.”
“What do you think?”
“I'll have to think about it awhile. All I know for sure is that you are wonderful. And that means more to me than any lotto ticket ever could. I love you, Rose.”