He was in no position to miss the meeting, or cancel it for that matter. He hadn’t written a thing in months: not a paragraph, not a sentence, not a word. And he had to admit: they’d been nice about it. Yes they had. They had granted him a six-month sabbatical, followed by a two-week creativity retreat in Colorado. When that had failed, they had stepped it up, and he couldn’t blame them: weekly mandatory group therapy, a writer’s boot camp in Nebraska, goal setting, visualization, coaching, hypnosis. Now this.
He had driven bumper-to-bumper for two hours and parked in the last spot on the roof of the garage across the street. It was raining, the hard October wind pushing moisture into his shirt collar. He should have worn a scarf. He should have shaved. He hurried into the stairwell and made his way to the ground floor, bracing himself for the short walk to the Bellevue. He remembered going on a date there, eons ago, with someone’s sister.
He pushed the door open.
The hostess, lumpy and myopic looked vaguely familiar. He handed his coat, finger-combed his hair into some semblance or order, and scanned the dining room.
There she was, the only guest at a square table under the oversized crystal chandelier. She was shorter than he’d imagined, much older, with what looked like a dead animal around her neck, or was that a fur collar?
Peter Knudsen, he said. Pleased to meet you.
She squeezed his fingers, limply he thought.
I have taken the liberty to order. The mussels are excellent here. I hope you don’t mind.
He was allergic to seafood. Surely that would be in his file? But would they have shared this information with her? He wasn’t sure how these things worked.
That’ll be great, he said.
She smiled and motioned for the waiter. The baby blue walls, the fussy gilded dining chairs and the tall windows with their two layers of semi-transparent curtains were as he remembered. The menu was probably be the same as well, and the catatonic-looking waiter pouring the white wine. She lifted her glass.
They each took a sip, hers considerably deeper than his. He’d barely set down his glass when the waiter came back with two steaming black pots of mussels, and two small plates of French fries balanced on his inner wrists. She made an ambiguous noise. Was that a hint of a mustache on her upper lip? He made an effort to return her gaze.
So, Peter, why don’t you start by telling me about you? Writer in Chief for the Little Sisters of Prayerful Mercies is an impressive position. How did you get there?
This was simple enough. He’d answered an ad for a part-time position his senior year of undergraduate studies in romance languages. The Sisters had started him with the weekly prayer at the back the their children’s magazine, Papillon, she must have heard of it? (She hadn’t). Within the year, he had progressed to writing the monthly prayer of contrition for Spiritual Teen and by the time he was finishing graduate school, he was in charge of the congregation’s seven annual novenas: for the well-being of expectant mothers, the safe return of the troops, the recovery from cancer, pneumonia, croup and bankruptcy and of course the two semi-annual retreats at the shrine of Our Lady of Infinite Pardon. One thing led to another. When the previous Writer in Chief died of a heart attack, a month before his graduation, the Little Sisters offered him a full-time job. That was it. He paused, considering the food.
She gnawed at the foot of an impressively large mussel, juice dripping from her chin. Should he say something? Offer his napkin? She was older than his mother. Certainly his gesture couldn’t be misinterpreted as anything but kindness. Before he could act, she reached for her own napkin and slurped at the sauce in the shell.
Do you write for the deceased?
Rarely. There is another writer who is in charge of funerals. But I do write the annual card for All Saints Day and the Prayer of General Mercy for the Unborn.
He watched her work the food. He’d not touched his plate yet.
The sisters make quite a bit of money from all those prayers don’t they?
I don’t deal with the business aspects of the congregation.
But he had thought about money. In fact, he had toyed with the idea of going into business on his own, writing a small prayer book perhaps, under a pseudonym, something comforting and light, one of those small formats that sold in the magazine rack of drugstores. But he had never had the stamina of an entrepreneur. In any case, his non-compete agreement prevented him from writing anything spiritual for anyone but The Little Sisters. There were ways around it of course, and the sisters had never refused permission for him to write an occasional heartfelt birthday or sympathy card for friends or family. He just never had the time to explore anything else. That was all.
She burped into her fist.
She dabbed at her lips, leaving two scarlet crescents on the linen napkin. He picked up a French fry, dipped it in mustard.
Are you a believer Peter?
She lifted an eyebrow.
Are you sure?
I have always had faith.
She could fish all she wanted, the old bat. Mass every day, confession once a week, altar guild: he had absolutely nothing to fear in that department. She rested her hunched shoulders against the back of the chair.
Faith is a given, you know, a bit like a piece of family furniture, something that’s being passed on to you by your upbringing. Believing, on the other hand, is an act of will. It takes grits to believe. With believing comes doubts and with doubts come suffering. So I am going to ask again.
She paused for effect, a bloody drama queen.
Are you a believer Peter?
He didn’t even raise his sight from his plate.
With all due respect, I don’t agree with your semantics, though you are perfectly entitled to your opinions.
He hadn’t felt this calm in months.
She looked to the left and must have made eye contact with the waiter because the guy appeared almost immediately, a trained dog answering her call. They remained silent through the next glass of wine. Suddenly, without ceremony and certainly without asking, she switched her near empty pot of mussels for his full one and started eating his food. Seriously? Did she think he was going to fall for this?
You know who I am, don’t you? She asked.
I know what they call you: the Oracle.
Her laugh startled him: deep and pebbly, unsuited to the size of her body. And what had he said that was so funny? Everybody had heard of the Oracle. There were plenty of stories of people whose lives had been done and undone by her predictions. Happy stories, sure, but plenty of sad ones too. She was nothing to laugh about, and nothing about this meeting seemed remotely pleasant or funny to him. She was quieting down.
What do people call you, Peter? Prayer Man?
He felt the pang of anger rise in his chest. He counted to six, a trick he had learned at one of those annoying day-long workshops the Little Sisters scheduled twice a year: “Managing the range of feelings” ,or something of the kind. At least, this one had proved to be surprisingly memorable and effective. He breathed out, slowly.
To tell you the truth: I have never cared what people call me. I do my job, do it well and leave it at that.
You used to do your job.
He counted again, staring at the framed reproduction on the dining room wall above her right shoulder: “Oldham from Glodwick” by John Howe Carse. He was surprised he could name the painting. The waiter was back, clearing the table.
Dessert? Coffee? She asked, like the good hostess she wasn’t.
Not for me, thank you.
She ordered cherry pie and a triple espresso.
And a cognac, she added.
They sat in silence for a while. She was rummaging through her purse, absorbed in her search for something or other: phone or notes. He disliked her small, ferret-like movements, the way she pursed her lips. At least she was no longer talking and that was a huge relief. Soon, the waiter would bring the last of the food and drink and they would be done. He would find himself into the safety of the street and later, that of his apartment where he would lie down on the couch and listen to music as he had done almost every day for the past eight months. If the Little Sisters decided to fire him, that would be fine.
But when she finally looked up, her eyes had turned an intense shade of blue that shook him to the core. This was it. He’d read accounts of other people’s meetings with the Oracle, how there was never a way out, how you just knew you had been cornered and would have to learn your fate. His heart was racing like a miniature pony trying to escape from his chest. When her voice finally came out to him, it sounded like one of those old vinyl records, scratchy and smooth at the same time.
Listen Peter, I believe you are a good person, I really do and so do The Little Sisters, which is why we are having this conversation. But I must let you know: your chances at happiness are getting slimmer by the minute. You can keep being tossed about by life and your brand of anxieties or you can start believing – really believing – that your fate has nothing to do with you or what you do. Take me, for example, do you really think I can predict the future?
She didn’t wait for his answer.
Frankly Peter, I have no idea whether or not I can. I show up, say what I think I must say and let others worry about the outcome. You should consider doing the same.
He nodded. Whatever she was saying, he wanted it to end, the sooner the better. She leaned forward and took his wrist, her fingers warm as a ring of fire.
All of this…
She made a vague gesture toward the curtains and the street beyond.
It’s one big motion: a process. That’s all. We do our part, we move on. It’s not really our concern. Do you understand me?
He had no idea what she was saying.
She let go. He felt himself go slack. The waiter was back, placing a slice of pie, coffee and drink on the table in front of him.
This is not for me, Peter told him.
But the Oracle was up from her chair, a hand on his shoulder.
Oh, but it is, she said, her hand heavy as an iron chain. Eat it. It will do you a world of good. You’ll see.
She shushed him with a firm pat on the shoulder.
So this was it? All he had to do was eat and drink, and it would be over? He felt relieved, but as he reached for the spoon, she lowered her head, tenderly it seemed, and for a moment he thought she might kiss him.
She bent further, her lips grazed his right ear.
Peter? She whispered.
He didn’t dare look up, or move.
Do us both a favor will you? Get the fuck back to work.
Raised in a French fishing village, P.M. Neist acquired her storytelling skills from a colorful cast of spirited relatives. After moving to the United States, Neist switched to writing in English. Soon after, she started drawing. She is the author and illustrator of Barely Behaving Daughters, an illustrated alphabet of girls who like to do as they please.