Sammy Sosa's chauffeur, Gil, the keeper of the HumVee limousine, has not heard from the silver slugger since his return to the Dominican Republic following the end of the 2005 season. Sammy had been kind enough to keep him on retainer, for family members still in the Chicago area, and for his visits back to his suburban property, but the checks stopped coming in that fall. Now a driver for Chicago Limo Limited, Gil keeps one of Sammy's cards from the heyday tacked to the dashboard like a cabby license. He looks at it now and again with a feeling that cuts deeper than nostalgia. It's a feeling of failing too soon.
"Hey is that Sammy Sosa up there?" the plump-faced white man in the back of the Lincoln Town Car asks Gil as they pull away from the Renaissance Hotel. "You guys here in Chicago still love him that much?"
"Some of us do," says Gil.
"C'mon, that guy was a juicer," he says. "The way his career went into a downslide after all the allegations, I just think it's funny, don't you?"
"As funny as destroying you where you sit," says Gil.
The car pulls to the side of LaSalle Street and stops, the fat man already at his destination, the full five blocks for which he needed Gil's service spent.
"So you'll wait here for me?" the man says as Gil opens the car door. Gil nods.
Once his client has disappeared through the revolving doors, deep into the building's oak lobby, Gil pulls into the street and begins a delicate weave through the one-way maze of Chicago's loop. He eventually pulls into a paid parking lot, waves to Miguel in the booth, who never charges him. He walks just a few steps to the Marquette Inn, one of the Loop's old-school lunchrooms, with the heavy smells of pastrami, fried potatoes, smoke and salty soup in the air. He sits down across from Martin, slurping his coffee.
"How long do you have?" asks Martin. His black chauffeur's coat hangs stiffly on the bench beside him, as if an invisible man is eavesdropping on the conversation.
"At least 45, I'd guess," says Gil. "You?"
"I got all day," he says.
Gil and Martin meet here often, though it's never scheduled. Gil had romanticized these types of routines when he was younger, the comfortable idea of being a regular somewhere, of having the same things served by a waitress who becomes like a sister to him. Seated among colleagues of a similar profession, it would become the second home he could never afford. Now that he's arrived at this station in life, he's found that none of that romance exists.
But something is different about Martin today. The usually laconic, on bad days boring, Martin is fidgety and bright-eyed. Gil hasn't seen him in a few weeks. Though the two have been friends for years, it's not uncommon to go some time without seeing each other. Chauffeurs, who have no control over their own schedules, are as interchangeable in these booths as parts in cars.
"What's with you?" Gil asks.
"What do you mean?" Martin says through a smile.
"Look at that smile," Gil says. "I know you got something to tell me. Just tell me before I lose interest."
"Okay, okay. But you gotta be cool about it."
Gil nods what he considers to be a cool nod.
"Okay, so." The waitress comes over and puts a cup of coffee in front of Gil, along with a slimy lemon pastry. She lingers for a moment to say hello, but Gil can tell Martin is about to burst with his news, so he just smiles pleasantly to let her know that's all he needs for now.
"Is it a girl?" Gil asks.
"No, nothing like that." Martin breathes. "I've joined a collective. It's the most eye-opening experience of my life. It's so spiritual."
Gil, who remembers Martin best as the driver who tried to unionize before he realized union membership meant paying dues, doesn't know what to say.
"Like a jazz combo?"
Three weeks ago, Martin was driving a young man into the north suburbs. An advertisement came on the radio. He'd heard it before. It was for men who felt they were without goals or direction. It instructed them to go to
"You have to admit," says Martin. "It's pretty crazy. I mean what are the odds?"
"Who cares?" says Gil.
"Let me finish."
Martin went on to explain that every man has an umbra, a dark spot on his soul that prohibits him from growing spiritually--a shadow or a bruise on a person's aura. With Brother Greg's help, and his brothers in Men in Need, he was able to locate his umbra and contain it.
"And that's helped you?" ask Gil.
"I'm a different person. I can feel things so much better."
Gil stares into his coffee, a tepid and dark thing hovering before him.
"I might have to change apartments," says Martin. "Bridgeport is messing with the meaning of my aura."
Gil remembers when Martin tried to drink ten cups of coffee in one sitting without going to the bathroom.
"Umbras are natural," says Martin. "You shouldn't be ashamed."
Gil looks up from his coffee. He didn't know he should be ashamed.
"You think I have one?"
Martin stares hard at Gil's chest.
"I can see it, on you, it's shaped like an armadillo and it's blocking your happiness vector."
Martin takes his focus off Gil's chest and another look comes over his face.
"Are you ready to stop doubting me? This is important."
This is not the type of conversation Gil had planned for his morning coffee break. He'd hoped to talk about the Cubs this season, or at least he had expected to. It's not the type of conversation for which one holds out hope. He tries to find the waitress.
"I've taken the next step," Martin says.
Gil signals the waitress, who refills his coffee cup, providing a break from Martin's relentless transformation.
"What's the next step?" Gil asks.
"You wouldn't understand, but once you control your umbra, you have to build your aura exponentially, so during my off hours I'll be doing exercises."
"Soul exercises. It's all for the greater good. The stronger our auras, the more good energy gets into the world."
"I'm happy for you."
"If our auras shine bright, those umbras will have nowhere to hide."
Gil feels this conversation has come to a crossroads. He doesn't want to condescend to his friend, make him feel like he's wrong to have found meaning in his life. Even if Martin is wrong, even if www.meninneed.com and their bizarre soul shadows are wrong, Gil doesn't want to dissuade him. It's jealousy that drapes over Gil now. When Martin suggests Gil join him at the next meeting, he declines.
"Good luck with the exercises."
"Thanks," says Martin.
"Let me know how it goes."
"Oh, you'll be able to tell. Everyone will."
Gil drops a few dollars on the table and walks out into the dirty slush on the sidewalk. The restaurant smells still hang on his jacket, and the sweat--he didn't realize he'd been sweating--makes the walk to his car clammy.
Back outside the office building, waiting for his client to be done with his meeting, Gil flips on sports radio. He thinks of Martin's epiphany, the moment when umbra became a word that meant something to him and he became convinced of his place. He could see it on Martin, the world aligning for him. Back from commercial, the morning show voices are ecstatic with sarcasm. Sammy Sosa is coming back. He's signed a non-guaranteed contract and is playing for the Texas Rangers spring training 'B' squad. Scottie Pippen, too, has put out word that he wants back into the NBA. The radio personalities can't believe it, men clearly past their prime trying to make it back. But Gil gets it. Sammy, Scottie, the two of them were just sitting idle. That wouldn't do. Even superstars have shadows on their souls.
"Why do these guys think they can do it?" one of the radio voices asks. "Don't they know it's over for them? Time moves on."
Gil sees his client walking toward the car. The pudgy-faced man in the ill-fitting suit takes his time getting there, chatting on his cell phone, and Gil finds himself putting the car in drive. He shuts off the radio and pulls onto the street. Through the rearview mirror, he can see the man standing there, alone on the sidewalk, hands raised in wonderment and exasperation, and the sun, glaring through Gil's spotted rear windshield, casts the whole scene in a circle of colors, a sparkling ring of confusion.
About the author:
Jonathan Messinger is the author of Hiding Out, a collection of short stories due out in October. He's also the books editor of Time Out Chicago and host of The Dollar Store Show, a literary and comedy series featuring performances inspired by junk purchased from a dollar store. He co-publishes Featherproof Books, a Chicago-based small press publishing full-length fiction and downloadable mini-books. More of his fiction is forthcoming in Other Voices and Awake!, an anthology from Soft Skull Press.