The Shadow in the Blue Suit
by John F. Dillon
The unyielding sounds of battle reverberated through the tissues of his body and shook the ground below. An excruciating stench of death flared his nostrils while fear propelled efforts to borrow deep into the course sand. Pressed eyelids succumbed to flickering bursts of light as body parts flew about him. Then, with a flash that burnt the image forever in his brain, the terror was over and Jason became another wartime statistic.
He eventually lifted through the boundaries of coma to a world of hoses and tubes and the confines of a hospital bed. The low frequency thumping of organ sustaining equipment clashed with a numbness that almost masked the pain that engulfed his body. Soothing strokes from a skilled hand holding a moistened cloth, massaged his forehead. The nurse, a slim, dark skinned, middle aged, woman long hardened from past horrors remembered to mix professionalism with warmth as she delivered reassurance to quiet the waking panic of another fallen warrior. Her gentle caresses induced memories of a protective and loving grandmother and quelled Jason's racing heart.
Shortly after Jason's grandfather's final bout with cancer, a tragic auto accident claimed the lives of their son and daughter-in-law and left Jason's grandmother to spend the remainder of her life bent in pain from an injury to her spine. At the forty-one, bent beyond her the years by the pain of damaged discs, she refused to languish in misfortune, and physical frailty, and concentrated her powerful intellect on bestowing a thirst for knowledge along with abundant love and compassion, to raising her young grandchild. The solitary concession to the tragic events was the simple adornment of a black mourning veil about her frail shoulders that she wore until the day of her death.
Jason entered adolescence a shy and quiet youth an introvert too self-conscious to associate or seek solace from others. His childhood ceased with the graduation from high school and the death of his grandmother a few days later. Too reticent to seek guidance, he accepted promises of education and adventure from an experienced recruiter and joined the army. A short time later, with promises not realized, he was assigned to a combat unit and sent to war.
Eventually, Jason found himself confined to the confines of a hospital bed. After two years experiencing ongoing experimental investigation by inexperienced army surgeons, when the pain of cutting and probing became unbearable Jason repudiated future benefits and walked out of the hospital.
Finding himself among the downtrodden in a one of the poorest sections of the city, he stopped often to rest and draw large gulps of oxygen while pretending interest in the shabby storefront displays. A tall stooped man that staggered when he walked with arms hanging as lifeless appendages at his side, he was a tragic figure. Wide blemishes left from the many attempts at reconstructive surgery changed his once boyish features. A ragged, purple-colored, gash advanced from his inside his left ear and widened as it passed the side of his cartilage-restored nose and ended near his rebuilt chin. Another scar ran the length of his upper forehead and was clearly visible beneath thin strands of light blond hair. His left eye had been replaced with a glass shell prosthesis. The remaining eye muscles and tissue about the empty cavity had been so barely damaged to restrict prosthesis movement and contribute added to the loss of facial symmetry. Although, there was a drooping of the right eye, it did have vision. The blast had produced no discernible physical injury to the brain although repulsive memoirs of military atrocities that questioned moral principles resided as even greater hideous wounds of war.
Resting against a store front He used blemished hands to shield his disfigured face from eyes that lifted with curiosity before widening and lowering with horror. His remaining tear duct shed as he angled away.
A wide-brim hat on the display mannequin in the storefront window caught his attention and he went inside.
A tied looking matron dressed in the traditional navy blue serge uniform of a Salvation Army volunteer, sat alone, almost hidden behind the stacks of paper heaped upon a brown metal desk. She had also seen many disfigured warriors and controlled the initial response to turn away when he entered. Instead of recoiling in fright, she forced a half smile and issued an amiable, "May I help you."
Jason purchased the wide brim hat. Then, when the worker offered, a non-descript blue suit, and off-white shirt that could be buttoned to his chin. At last, near exhaustion, he was about to leave, when she inquired if he had a place to stay.
Jason tugged the hat brim and responded with a weak, Uh...I just got out of the military hospital and and I ah...I need a place somewhere to spend the night to rest.
The matron reached into a desk drawer and removed a slip of paper. Here are directions to the Majestic Hotel, she said, and extended her hand. Take this. It's not much...just a shelter but they have some rooms available and you'll be able to get some rest. Just give this to the clerk. Her voice broke and Jason detected a misting of her eyes before he lowered her eyes, not in fright but in shame. "It's not much but...all they gave me...it's all I have. I wish it was more."
Jason thanked the Salvationist and departed the thrift store. Following her directions, he wandered deeper into the downtrodden neighborhood to the doorway the three-story redbrick building indicated on her note.
The Majestic Hotel was not so majestic. Years of neglect had transformed a once luxurious hotel into a seedy relic permeated with the musty smell of age that carried to the meager single occupancy rooms with the shared bathroom down the hall. Jason sat on the single bed that had been pushed against the wall and scanned his surroundings. Beside the bed a nightstand bearing a copy of the King James Version of the bible and a dilapidated looking dresser that seemed to gain support from the wall. Above, a noisy, ceiling fan slowly rotated above a dust laden globe housing a low wattage incandescent light blub. The blub dispersed a fatigued yellowish glow. Coughing, screaming, and moaning passed though peeled sections of faded wallpaper that hung from the walls like crusted tree bark. The view from the single window was the brick face of the adjacent building.
Jason whined at the probing from a bedspring and shifted his position. His mouth forced a painful smile and emitted a low scornful moan. Well this is it, he chortled sardonically. This is it...the bottom.
Physically and mentally crippled, Jason began a long slow climb. Always conscious of his appearance, he developed a predilection to shield his features and avoid the eyes of others. A recluse clad in nondescript blue suit and an omnipresent wide brim hat tilted to shade his face, he learned to use shadows and darkness. He avoided people and mirrors, kept his own counsel and, when required, replied to questions in short, unemotional sentences. He performed odd jobs swept floors, loaded trucks, picked vegetables and, with a proclivity for computers, eventually developed the knowledge to start his own business.
Time passed while he lived and worked in a loft overlooking the city. A lonely solitary life, he owned neither a radio nor television shunning, as much as possible, all contact with the outside world. When his business became successful, he hired help other men of solace who worked from their homes.
Disillusioned by, what he felt, the hypocrisy of a nation that sent its young to die in the horrors of unjust wars while its politicians basked in religious rhetoric, he felt no allegiance to a flag, nor the country's leaders, or the priests that preached the virtues of wealth over the needs of its people. He found no solace in the hypercritical absolutes of the self-serving and he feared the demented ranting of the righteous that professed to interpret for the Almighty.
Upon setting an application to rid his kitchen area of ants, he rephrased a question he often asked himself and applied it to the ant population.
'Does the individual ant construe the applied treatment of the area as the justified act of a vengeful God?" He shook his head while continuing to apply the poison. "Probably, ...but what sin could an ant possibility commit that would cause such retribution?"
Reflecting on the value of money, he reasoned that the addictive power of wealth resulted in a darkness of decay and concluded, "It's like Granny used to say...'The greatest wealth is the accumulation of knowledge and the ability to witness its application'. "
Jason devoured books, both technical and literary. He spent hours enduring the agony of stretching muscles, lifting pulling and mutilating each and every joint to a repetitive cadences that enabled the brain to retrieve commands he had lost in coma. Eventually, he purchased a recording device and more time was spent reeducating the tongue to positions of fluent speech. There were hooded jogs along secluded riverbanks and long nighttime walks through dark alleyways while shunning glass storefronts in a conscious effort to avoid his reflection . He made a practice of drawing curtains at dusk to keep mirror images from entering his already dim garret.
He had no knowledge of purple fading to pink and gashes tightening to a barely perceptive line. Nor could he say exactly when his staggering withered to an indiscernible limp or when the pain numbed and was replaced with the excruciating throbbing of loneliness.
Much time had passed before that bizarre encounter with the mysterious dark-haired woman. It was late in the evening and the moon, which had begun as a barely observable white orb marked by shadowy dark spots in the late afternoon, had slowly emerged to dominate the night sky.
Protected by the eave of the corner building, she was seated before a folding table near the square, just inside the entrance to an alleyway. Pointed tips of dark shoes protruded from the bottom of a loose fitting rose-colored, dress with long sleeves and a V-neck collar. She was a thin, narrow faced woman with not quite sharp features and pitch-black hair that glistened in the glow of a nearby streetlamp. Her lone visible ornament was a thin gold band on the ring finger of her left hand.
A tender summons from her dark eyes beckoned him to approach.
His hand lifted to the hat brim then stopped and returned to his side. He took a deep breath and cautiously moved forward.
The woman's mouth formed a gentle smile as he neared. Without shifting her glaze, she reached to the ground beside her chair and into a large weathered carpetbag. When it emerged her long, slender fingers encircled a deck of Bicycle Playing Cards.
Please sit, she said, indicating a folded metal chair tipped against the building.
Jason opened the chair and placed it before the table. He hesitated briefly then sat and lifted his scared face expecting a now familiar gasp.
The woman remained emotionless. Her eyes focused on his while she extracted the cards from its package and began to slowly shuffle. A soft, reassuring voice accompanied the movement.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked.
Jason's eyes remained fixed to the dark eyes before him. He took a deep breath and tentatively replied, "I think so. My grandmother once told me," he whispered, then sensing consent, blurted, "You're the lady that that knows!"
There was a hint of a smile before she said, "I do not know." She gestured to her hands. "The cards tell me. Do you want to hear? "
""What if it's bad?""
"It is what it is, and what it was, and what it will be. It can not change."
Jason's nostrils pinched as he inhaled. His eyes remained fixed on the woman as his chest heaved and his head tilted slightly. His mouth opened, and he blurted, "Yeah! Yeah! It cant be worst then... "
Jason hesitated, and then whispered, "The loneness.... Can't be anything worst then the loneness!"
The woman's eyes seemed to darken. The sternness in her voice belied her smile. "Yes. It could be worst. "
Jason was adamant. "I want to know!"
The woman continued studying Jason while her long fingers manipulated the cards.
"You may not like my words. You may not understand my words. The cards can tell you whats going on now. What's coming. What will happen And, how it will end."
Jason did not reply.
The woman eyes remained on his face for several minutes. At last she turned to the cards in her hands. After another glance at Jason, she placed the Jack of Diamonds, face up, on the table.
"This...the Jack of Diamonds is you," she said and handed him the remaining cards. "Now, I want you to shuffle them real good and while you're doing that, I want you to think about what you want to know. Think hard concentrate."
Jason nodded and began to shuffle. When he finished, he returned the deck to the woman.
She spread the cards face down in a semi-cycle. "I want you to select twelve cards...one at a time," she told him and quickly added, "Don't look at them. Just place them face down in your hand in the order selected. Give them to me when you finish."
Jason did as instructed before returning the cards.
The woman extended her left hand and very deliberately arranged the selected cards, face up, above, below, and on each side of the Jack of Diamonds. She looked again at the table before lifting the remaining cards and spreading them in a semi-circle.
Now, "I want you to select nine more cards...one at a time. Dont look at them. Just place them face down in your handin the order selected. Give them to me when you finish."
Jason did as instructed.
The woman turned eight of the selected nine cards; face up, one at a time, beside those previously positioned on the table. She hesitated before revealing the final card: the Ten of Hearts. Holding the card by the edges with the fingers of both hands, she placed the card to her chest while exclaiming, "This is wonderful: the destination card! The best! This is the cardfeeling good about-inside outside...about yourself. Confident,feeling good about yourself!" She placed the Ten of Hearts lengthwise across the Jack of Diamonds, and sat back in the chair, obviously pleased with the arrangement before her.
The cards to the left of the Jack of Diamonds were the Queen of Clubs, Five of Diamonds, Eight of Hearts, Six of Hearts, and the Five of Hearts. The cards to the right of the Jack of Diamonds were the Four of Clubs, King of Spades, Nine of Clubs, Queen of Spades, and the Seven of Hearts. Above the Jack of Diamonds were the Nine of Diamonds, Nine of Spades, Eight of Clubs, Ace of Clubs, and Four of Diamonds and the cards below were the Queen of Diamonds, Seven of Diamonds, Nine of Hearts, Ten of Spades, and the Ace of Spades.
The woman drew attention to the cards above the Jack of Diamonds by sweeping her right hand over the display. "This is whats happening now in your life," she explained.
She rested her fingers on the Ace of Clubs. "This card is for... uh...organization or institution. You've been very disappointed with opportunity. You thought it would be better."
"Yeah, before I joined the army I thought...." he started then stopped, embarrassed by his outburst.
The woman smiled knowingly and returned to her reading. Her eyes flashed from card to card. In a low hesitant voice, again seemingly to herself, she whispered, "A move is coming... professionally rewarding...secure. "
Her eyes remained concentrated on the cards. She lifted both hands to her mouth in a moment of studied silence then lowering them to the table she lifted her head and looked into his face.
Jason had been holding his breath, he released it in a silent sense of relief when he noted her perfect white teeth glistening behind a wide smile.
"Health.... Everything looks good," she said. "I see you professionally dressed and...."
Her fingers moved to the Eight of Hearts.
"This is your wish card. Your major wish....comes true. This foretells a whole new beginning of your life.... A female....Her wish is also coming true."
Jason's eyes widened.
The woman's focus returned to the cards and the near silent deliberation resumed. Once more she became self-absorbed, quietly talking as her eyes flicked from card to card. She spoke about Jason, his injury his life, his problems and his dreams. She straightened and smiled.
"Its that female again....A gathering...a surprise meeting...a very nice surprise." She paused and sighed, "Good relationship...a good life. " She hesitated. Then, with just a hint of concern in her voice, said, "There will be help," and smiled. Without lowering her eyes, she began gathering the cards and returning them to pack.
"What help? What do you mean....help?"
The woman smiled. "There's a balance to life," she told Jason. "You just finished a part...a hard part. There's going to be a new beginning...very positive. There are good happenings in your life -bank account-love life-children...music."
She returned the closed deck to the carpetbag and removed a small ball of white twine. She transferred the twine to her right hand before again lowering her left hand into the bag.
Jason watched the searching movement of her arm as she tilted her body to expand her search. At last, she lifted her hand from the bag and removed a tiny toy scissor.
Not knowing how to react, Jason unconsciously touched his cheek. " Love life?" he asked, as a sinister curl of his lip expressed disbelief. "I'm sorry. I don't mean any disrespect but except for the telephone....I haven't even spoken to a woman since my granny."
The woman smiled knowingly but instead of addressing his concern, moved the frayed edge of wool between the thumb and index fingers of her left hand.
He watched the twine play from her fingers and observed the once pristine wool had long been defiled by varying shades of decay.
"That toy will never cut that string," he thought his eyes glued to the movement of the open scissor .
To his amazement the blunt blades easily sliced snippets of worn wool.
The woman's eyes remained on Jason. There appeared to be no relationship between her words and the seemingly absentminded movements of her fingers.
Small wool pieces danced in the soft evening breeze as they drifted downward. Some floated in the gentle wind disappearing as it moved from view. Others remained like a memory before another puff passed it to nothingness. At last, the woman's hand opened revealing a final tatted looking tread. She lifted her palm to the light air allowing the darkened fiber to flutter away. Lowering her hand, she closed the carpetbag and lifted herself from the chair.
Not knowing how to react, Jason hesitated, then sputtered, "Thank you, and began to rise." His head was full of questions. "What did she mean...a female?" He smirked. "Heaven knows how lonely I am. A gathering? What's a gathering? A sighting? What does that mean? And what's with the Hocus Pocus...and with the tread? "
Yet it was the woman who asked, "Would you help me?"
"Sure Sure. What can I do? "
"I must leave. Could you help me take my things to my truck?"
Jason folded the table and chairs. He placed the table under one arm and the chairs under the other before following the woman to a dated black pickup truck parked nearby. Neither spoke as he lifted the table and chairs into the back of the truck. Once they disappeared below the tailgate, she touched his arm and gave his bicep a gentle squeeze then turned. Without a word, she entered the truck and drove away.
Jason eyes remained fixed on the departing pickup. As it disappeared from view, he felt a mixture of confusion and excitement. Eventually, so absorbed in his thoughts he forgot to lower the hat brim, he returned to the loft. It was not until he was inside before he realized he had not offered the woman payment.
"Hope that didn't change her predictions," he sighed.
He returned to the alley early the following morning and stayed until long after dusk but there was no sign of the woman or her pickup truck. He revisited the location the following day arriving even earlier and staying later. On his fourth visit he increased the area of his search, seeking the strange woman in ever increasing circles. She never appeared. He finally concluded his search with the realization he would never see her again.
In time he began to consider the encounter as a pleasant dream. But while the dream slowly faded, he opened the shades in the loft and daylight entered and ultimately he heard music. He removed the coverings from the windows and permitted the night to enter. The first time he saw his reflection he was stunned to find little trace of his past injuries. Yet, while he grew physically, the despair of loneliness became the commanding emotion in his life. Having once embraced solitude, years of isolation left him incapable of establishing even the most rudimentary relationship and Jason was unable to socially transform himself.
His despondency increased with the passage of time. Two, three, then four years passed. On the fifth anniversary of the day when he happened upon the mysterious dark-haired lady, Jason retraced the route he had taken to that encounter.
It in was early evening before sunset. The warm sun was relaxing. His memory stirred when he passed familiar looking shops. He slowed his pace and peered inside one than another. He didn't know why but he was enjoying his dalliances. Then remembering a scheduled business telephone call, he checked his watch, before lowering his hat brim and starting for home. When he passed the alley where he sat with the woman, a passing motorcade caused him to stop and wait. Distracted by a policeman enforcing crowd control his eyes moved to a young woman in a gathering on the opposite side of the road. Her pitch-black hair glistened in the sunlight. She was thin, with a narrow face and soft features and was wearing a loose fitting rose-colored business dress with long sleeves and V-neck collar. The pointed tips of dark shoes protruded from the dresss bottom folds. Jason caught his breath. His vision moved to the ring finger of her left hand. The finger was bare.
Jason's mind filled with the memory and he stood mesmerized. He felt complied to cross the street and introduce himself but when the opportunity came, the nemesis of the introvert, the fear of rejection that developed in his youth and was nourished in the solitary years that followed, forced a slowing of gait and caused him to stop and turn his eyes. He took another peek at the girl before leaving and returning to the loft.
The light and music could not halt the self-criticism and abominations that dominated the remainder of his waking hours and invaded his dreams. He woke with a resolve to seek the young woman in the rose-colored dress. That evening, he forced himself to return and waited at one of the municipal benches near the alleyway. It was an uneventful evening, spent alone, and when he returned to the loft his emotions alternated between relief and disappointment. And so it was to be for the next five nights. Eventually, he concluded he would not see the girl again and depression mixed with a strange sense of relief.
Yet, his life had changed. He could not forget her. His days were interrupted with daydreams of the dark-haired girl and most evening walks included a stroll to the alleyway. Sometimes, she would enter in his sleep, laughing in the happiness of a dream that dissolved before he woke.
Then, months after first seeing the young dark haired woman, he saw her again. It was in a food market. Jason was finishing his selections and turned to complete his purchase when he saw her standing near a display at the end of the aisle. Instead of approaching, he panicked and maintained a hidden distance until she left the store.
Soon there were to be other sightings. He happened upon her suddenly one day in the square. They stood so close he could smell her perfume and the scent became part of his dreams. She smiled on that occasion but he again panicked and fled.
At night he would tell himself that he would go to the square and introduce himself but the resolve quickly faded when he awoke. The loneliness and heartache continued.
Sometime after the hours of darkness, during the time of first light, he had an extraordinary dream. It came following a long night of deep sleep, just after moving into the final dream state. A familiar voice was repeating his name over and over, the singsong breakfast call of his Grandmother -an octave higher than usual, but it was her. And then he was in the kitchen he knew so well in his youth. There was his high back wooden chair. Suddenly, he was sitting in the chair. And he was small. And he was young without a blemish on his face. Firm tan legs protruded from the cutoff jeans visible above the chairs seat. The toes of his worn sneakers beat a quiet tap against the table leg. And then she appeared, his grandmother replete in her favorite green flowered dress with her white apron about her waist. The illusion was so real; he could smell the pancakes heaped on the familiar brown platter she carried to the table. Her face was stern.
The joy of seeing his grandmother easily eclipsed the fact she appeared angry. She began to scold. The force of her will steeled her words commanding him to once again to return to the square and seek the young woman.
"Do it tonight! Do you hear?"
"I can't," the boy moaned. "I cant! I dont know what to say! ...I'm afraid."
Granny's manner changed as it always did and with words resembling reassuring caresses, slowly replaced his fear with confidence until, despite the boys protestations, her spirit dispelled the familiar tactics of her young ward and extracted a promise.
"Yes, Granny," he told her. "I'll talk with Miss Mincho tonight."
Her face, her words, and his promise remained when he awoke.
In the early evening morning, he found himself on the square. The usual reluctance to leave the security of the loft was gone.
She was sitting near the entrance to the ally way near the spot he once witnessed life predictions from a deck of Bicycle Playing Cards. The pointed tips of the young womans dark shoes protruded from the bottom of the loose fitting rose-colored dress. Neither seemed surprised to see the other.
Her dark eyes and gentle smile provided reassurance when he approached.
His fear remained quiet as he removed his hat and lifted the long-established shadow. The warmth of the sun on his face felt good. His mouth opened slowly. The edges of his lips quivered into a loving smile.
"Yes, I'm Ann Mincho," she replied, peering through eyes that saw the tall, handsome man of her many dreams. After a time in which no one spoke, she moved her hand to his.
"I don't know," she said while quickly withdrawing her hand. "I'm not usually.... Please forgive me I never.... I've never been so forward in my life....but I had to meet you." She blushed and dropped her eyes.
He smiled and covered her hand with his. "I'm glad. I've been dreaming of you," he told her in a confident, soft voice .
Her eyes lifted to his. "And, I have been waiting for you."
After a while, she asked, "How did you know my name?"
Jason smiled. "My Granny told me."