When Howard Wheeler checked into the Minuteman Inn in Madison on his way back from Minneapolis to Chicago, he promised himself he would use the weekend to re-think a job offer he had as a store manager in the Hands-On Computer Mart opening soon in Kenosha. Peddling computer software throughout the Midwest had worn him down over the last few years. The one-night stands and single bar scene in Chicago were wearing paper thin, too, but he could discover no better way to boost his spirits than with booze and a broad.† He was rarely home long enough to call his lakeshore condominium home.
        The desk clerk handed him his room keys and directed him to the elevator. He followed the red-carpeted path around the lobby. A billboard announced the weekend events: Tecnolog Management Meeting -- Revere Room. Psychic Fair -- Liberty Room, Ground Floor. Howard pressed the up button. A short, sandy-haired, freckled man with a Meerschaum pipe gripped between his yellowed front teeth followed him into the elevator. Howard detected a dialect distinct from the midwestern staccato familiar to his ears, one he could not identify as either American or British.
        "I'm a psychic artist in the fair this weekend. If you'll be here until Sunday, be sure to come downstairs for a while."
        "That must be your interesting sideline," Howard in well-modulated tones quipped. "What do you do for a living?"
        "Quite right. I'm a commercial artist for a Chicago ad agency. Peter Maguire. Originally from Sydney, Australia." He looked directly up at the taller man in the three-piece suit, perfectly paired with a bold tie. The Australian in a green turtleneck sweater scanned his elevator companion from Howard's modishly permed hair to his well-polished loafers, and a smile of satisfaction settled around the corners of the Australian's mustached lips. His eyes twinkled like a leprechaun as he alighted at the floor before Howard's.† As he walked down the hall toward his room, he repeated his invitation to see the fair.
        Howard patted the paunch that had seemed to appear around his middle from nowhere in the last several months, thrust his hands in his trouser pockets and thought that this artist of sorts projected more sincerity and warmth than he had felt in a long while. As he got off the elevator and went to his room, he dismissed the man from his mind.
        Later that evening, after he had refreshed himself with a nap and a shower, he decided to pay a visit to the hotel lounge as it was his custom to do on these road stops. Maybe under some muted lights and some soft music he could count the pluses and minuses of being a traveling salesman versus the stability of taking the retail computer store position. He was thirty-eight years old and even the football pros all started to locate cushy coaching jobs by that age. If the jocks hung up their running shoes, then, he would have to seriously consider turning in his overnight bag, too.
        Standing at the entrance to the Rebel Lounge, Howard surveyed the dimly-lit room before deciding upon his approach to the leather-padded bar in the middle of the room. The neatly stacked wineglasses above the bar reflected the glitter of the low lights and candle flames. An attractive brown-haired woman in a navy-blue suit and white ruffled jabot blouse sat nursing a daiquiri. He chose an empty stool next to hers. He ordered his Scotch and water and bided his time. Eventually, she would acknowledge his presence, he was sure. When that moment arrived, he turned to face her, and asked, convinced the direct approach was usually his best. "What brings you to Madison?"
        Her large green eyes behind wide Gloria Steinem-like glasses, flashed interest and she smoothly countered, "How do you know I'm not from these parts?"
        "I can tell a big city girl when I see one. Chicago, right?
        "Right." She looked him up and down. "And you, I would say, are first-class suburbia. Wife and young'uns at home in Barrington Hills."
        "Wrong, there, lady. You didn't answer my question. What's your line?"
        "I'm here for an Area Managers' Meeting."
        "Oh! Upwardly mobile female."
        "I like it that way. Only woman at this meeting. First to break the male-dominated management ring of Technolog Components."
        "Terrific! I'll drink to that! I wouldn't mind having more women on my team. It's lonely traveling."
        "I'm sure you do all right for yourself," she responded with a knowing glance.
        "I'm sure you do all right for yourself, too," Howard, with a rakish grin, immediately countered.
        Easily, Howard was able to fall again into this barroom banter. He knew all the twists and turns, how to tease, how to inch in a joke, how to compliment the lady, and then volley the ball of clever repartee. He would serve a powerful one over the net, which she was quick to return, spike another one smack down at her, which she blocked as skillfully. The game still had its challenges. Howard leaned an elbow on the bar, and with his most disarming gaze directed squarely at the intense green eyes glimmering seductively behind the large glasses, asked, "You did not tell me your name?"
        "My name is for my friends, and none of my friends was a murderer," was her enigmatic reply, testing him if he could catch her favorite line from one of her favorite movies.
       "Ah, Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia, right?† Aw, but come on, now. Drop the mask -- the truth and nothing but the truth, what's your name?"
        "Oh, what the heck -- why not?" she asked herself aloud. "You are bound to read the name in the pages of Business Week, I'm sure, some day.† Lorene . . . Lorene Knight's my name." Howard's eyebrow questioned her truthfulness.
        "That's it. Believe it or not. I've nothing to hide. Do you want a business card?" She opened her large black leather shoulder bag, extracted a gold-embossed business card and handed it to Howard who glanced at the company name and address, then pulled out his billfold from his breast pocket and nonchalantly inserted her card there.
        "Travel much?" he asked matter-of-factly.
        "No. Not really. Just to meetings and conferences ever so often. But when I do, I like it."
        "I've been on the road now for ten years and might just settle down -- been peddling this software all over the Midwest, seen every microcomputer center between Chicago and Minneapolis. Hotel rooms are beginning to stink. I've been successful at it -- control the whole area -- I've had the highest sales records five years straight -- a mantelpiece of gold plaques and commendations at home. Even won trips to the Bahamas. But there are times when it all begins to sour somehow. The challenges are not there anymore. The doldrums hit and you wonder why you can't get all fired up about a motivational pitch from your superiors. Don't you every feel like that?"† Howard leaned toward Lorene, and for a moment, let this woman penetrate his suave exterior. Lorene examined his well-tailored suit, thick head of dark curled hair and intense brown eyes, and blandly answered.
       "Not really. At least not yet. I'm intensely motivated by my work. I'm not looking for anything else right now. Although, God knows, I have had countless offers from competing firms. My firm is growing. I am growing with it. I've set my sights of the top position with Technolog. Count on it -- in the years ahead you'll be hearing more about this company."
Howard was dully impressed by the dynamism of this woman. If there were ever a Wonder Woman it was her. He had read about women like her with underwear made of steel, but this was his first confrontation with just such a superwoman. He would have to acknowledge that his company was one of those male-dominated firms she would be sure to deprecate, and no women had penetrated the sales or management organization of Microware. Howard mellowed, studying her impeccably dressed figure, her fashionable but short, simple hair-do.† Her make-up was tastefully applied to enhance her eyes and complexion with just the right touches. Her femininity did not suffer in the least from her high-powered occupation. He mellowed more and wondered what she was like in bed. Those eyes could drive a man wild. He ordered both of them another drink, and then, turning full-face to her, he said.
"You're very attractive. I hope the board room will not spoil that." She smiled in acknowledgment of the compliment, her eyes throwing flirtatious daggers of invitation at him, which he was quick to catch. Executive directress or not, he thought, she still knew how to exert her sexual powers over a man, and why shouldn't she? Howard determined he would play the game to its ultimate conclusion.
The band, which had inched into the lounge while they had been talking, began to play a sultry tune. Howard glanced at Lorene and asked her to dance. The two drinks, warm in stomach, spread a hot glow of sensual delight throughout his frame as he glided Lorene's lithe body around the floor.
Several hours later in his hotel room, the glow gone from his body, he lay his head back on the pillow remembering that first dance. The scent of Lorene's cologne still lingered in the room. He had awakened to realize she had slipped out of the room while he slept. While he lay in bed reviewing his encounter with Lorene, not really caring whether he ever repeated the experience, the first soft rays of morning began to lighten the room. A new day -- another chance -- to start again. Mentally, he tried to sift out what calls he had to make today, then halted, realizing that this was Saturday morning in Madison -- a brief lull in his return trip to Chicago, in which he was to stop and consider whether he was going to continue working for Microware or not. This style of life had become habit, he knew, but would he regret a year from now leaving it to manage a store? That might be a new kind of boredom. He remembered a sauna downstairs. Maybe he should get up, wash, dress and do some thinking in the dry heat of the hotel sauna
Later, emerging from the sauna, he saw a short, sandy-haired man with a large yellow bath towel wrapped around his waist enter the hot room. Momentarily, he recognized the newcomer as Peter, the Australian, whom he had encountered in the elevator the night before. The Meerschaum pipe was still gripped between his teeth.
Recognizing Howard, Peter withdrew the pipe from his mouth, greeted him as if he were sincerely glad to meet him again, and said, "Don't forget to check out the Psychic Fair -- Liberty Room -- one o-clock." Howard nodded politely, only to make him believe that he fully intended to go, but he was only lukewarm about the idea. If nothing better presented itself this afternoon, he might give it a look around. He exited quickly, dressed and went back to his room.
Stretched out in an easy chair in his room with the sound of the television in the background so that he did not feel completely alone, Howard reflected that without that familiar drone, he would have to confront the center of his being. Finding that soft central core was a quest he had consciously been avoiding. Sitting relaxed in that hotel chair, a new perception, as if carried on a white light, struck him: his own company bored him.
Howard chuckled softly aloud, stood up, turned off the television, and resumed his slouched position in the chair. Speaking out loud to fill the room with the sound of his own inner voice, he said, "Howard, you bore yourself. You can't stand to be alone with yourself. You're drowning yourself in your own bullshit!"
He jumped up, grabbed his corduroy sports jacket, thinking that a brisk walk would make him snap out of his lethargy. He knew he would have to come to a conclusion about that job offer by the time he reached Chicago. Did he really want to risk making a change? To his chagrin, he was finding out that the older a person grew, the harder it became to make any kind of move that would substantially alter the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. He was as much a creature of habit as any other poor slob, he thought ruefully. If this trend continued, he would be best advised to strike the adjectives "flexible," "innovative," "mobile" from his resume. That was a bunch of bull like everything else.
What lifestyle had he become accustomed to in the last ten years? A lot of money to blow, number one, he thought. The job at the store would not pay as well as manufacturer's sales representative. But he knew every nook and cranny between Chicago and Minneapolis. His body was beginning to tell him something in its tremendous reluctance to his the road some mornings.
Howard strode down the main corridor of the hotel prepared to enjoy a swift jaunt around the city, when the placard directing visitors to the Liberty Room met his eye. Maybe I'll just poke my nose in there for a moment and then take my walk, Howard quickly decided.
Entering the Liberty Room, he saw long tables lining all four walls. An astrologist entrenched near the entrance was printing out star charts from a computer. A pompadoured bleached blonde with dangling gold earrings and the whitish complexion that he had ever seen, was peering into a crystal ball, while a red-necked man with slicked-back black hair and wearing a red plaid sports jacket was eagerly bent to receive her every message. So, the tried and true crystal ball prop was still around. Howard decided to stroll around the room and then perhaps the spirit would move him to try out one of the psychics just for fun. A young girl, quietly attractive, was using tarot cards to read for an elderly woman in a smartly tailored suit. Browsing further, a young university man was reading a businessman's biorhythms on a machine while a long ticker tape spewed out its maw. Howard was amused by the proceedings, but thought the crowd milling about were throwing good money after bad in this game of fortune. These psychics were merely adept at discerning character in the briefest of encounters, and he was not all that certain he wanted anyone to discern the abysses of his psyche. As for the future, that was an area he did not what to foresee. The here and now had enough of its own terrors, but let people amuse themselves as they would in these briefest of brief sojourns upon the earth.
Howard had seen enough when he recognized the sandy-haired Australian with a sketch pad propped up before him at a table across the room. He added a few finishing touches to the paper and then ripped off the sheet and handed it to the young woman seated before him, who was obviously pleased with the drawing. She arose and was walking away from Peter's table, when Howard approached, curious to find out what such a sensible man as Peter appeared to be had to do with all this psychic phenomena.
"Hello, there. I decided to browse after all. What's with the sketch pad, pal?"
"As I am reading, I try to capture what I am seeing. It's just an aid, a prop, like and cards and the crystal balls. A crutch, if you will," Peter readily volunteered.
"What do you see?"
"Oh, impressions.† Symbols. Essentially, though, I try to capture the image I receive from the subject's spirit world."
"Spirit world?" Howard questioned. "You mean a ghost from one's past? I don't think I would like anyone digging up any ghosts from my past."
"No. Not that. Everyone has a spirit guide, you know. Perhaps some loved one, some soul spirit, who accompanies him through his life's journey."
"A guardian angel?"
"No. Not that either. For instance, I have a spirit guide. My spirit guide is an Indian."
"An Indian? You mean an aborigine? An Australian Indian?"
"No. An American Indian. My spirit guide is a Sioux Indian who has directed me to sculpt his statue and erect it along the headwaters of the Mississippi. I know his name is Skywalker and he lived the latter half of the eighteenth century."
Howard was inclined to take the artist at this word. What was he to naysay the fellow who still had to be practical enough to make his living as a commercial artist despite any spirit guide from the netherworld. His interest aroused, Howard said, "I'd like to see what you would sketch for me."
Peter directed him to the booth where he was to buy a fifteen-dollar ticket for the reading. Howard returned a few moments later with his ticket in hand and sat down in the chair in front of Peter with the thought that if he received no great revelations for his money at least he would have a nice charcoal sketch in the bargain. Peter raised his pad so Howard could not watch the drawing in progress. Peter nimbly sketched as he dropped disjointed suggestions now and then. He explained he preferred that his subject did not see his drawings until the reading was over.
"You have another job offer. You travel a lot, don't you? You're getting tired of traveling, aren't you?"
At each suggestion, Howard nodded agreement, smugly reflecting that any Joe Blow who came in here would be told that. Next he is going to tell me there is a woman in my life, or that one will shortly appear.
"You're not married. Like it that way, too. I see only women who come and go. None of them are really distinct. I can't seem to focus in on anyone. You actually want stability now, but can't find it, but you won't find it with a woman. You might find it with a job. The job pays less, though. You don't know if you can live with less money."
What's so fantastic about that, Howard thought. That's pretty much how everyone's life went.† Who said he expected to get married and live happily ever after anyhow?
"You'll still marry, but it will be later in life."
Howard smiled. It was already late. He was nearing the big four '0".† This sucker is going to have to come up with something a bit stronger than this baloney for him to believe there was anything to psychic phenomena.† Howard was growing impatient. Wasn't his allotted ten minutes up already? He knew it was not going to get any better. Let's see the picture, he thought.
Peter deftly ripped off the sheet and handed it to Howard. In bold black strokes, he had drawn a woman in her early sixties seated in a rocking chair doing a crossword puzzle. The curly head and horned-rimmed glasses, high cheekbones, strong lip line and aquiline nose were all too familiar to him.
"That's my mother.† She died five years ago. She sat in a chair just like that. She was a crossword puzzle freak -- among other things. She must have had everyone crossword puzzle dictionary ever published. She was a packrat -- never threw anything away. I took it all. The others wanted the house. I wanted her watercolors and books, her genealogy tables," Howard blurted out.
"That's who I saw from your spirit world."
Howard hardly heard him, swept away by his own remembrances, which he thought he had submerged, so painful had it been to bury his mother and go through her things five years ago.† Howard continued, "She was an artist. Her watercolors were bold. She would do the same scene at four different seasons. In high school I won medals for speech contests. She wanted me to be a lawyer, but I didnít like studying, so I earned my living by talking in other ways. She encouraged me, but I went my own way. I used my gift of gab to sell. It was quick and easy and that's what I wanted -- the fast buck, the fast women.† But mom never faulted me for it. She'd always say, 'you'll come round some day, Howie; you'll sow your wild oats and come home to feed.' I let her hope. I always came home for Christmas. The year she died she said she did not want to take the Christmas tree down. All four of us kids were there. Mom as usual went all out, decorating the tree and the house. She never threw anything out. She had every candle, wreathe and bauble she ever made or any of us kids ever made. And she didn't take the Christmas tree down until July 4. In August she was dead. The heat got her."
Howard stopped -- his trail of memories ending there at the point he had cut it off five years ago. He studied the sketch content with the likeness, then respectfully arose and thanked the artist.
"Will you be back here again some time?"
"I really don't know. Depends how the shows fall on the weekends. Might be going back to Sydney soon. But here's my card." He drew one from his breast pocket and handed it to Howard. Howard noted the Chicago address and slipped it into his wallet. He shook hands with the shorter man in the green turtleneck and brown blazer and thanked him again for the drawing.
As he left the Liberty Room, Lorene Knight was just entering. Fresh and in a jolly mood, she immediately greeted him, frankly pleased by the encounter. Her hair was faultlessly combed and she sported an open-necked blouse with a string of pearls.† She flashed her most seductive smile and asked him if the fair was worth seeing.
"Judge by yourself."† He hastened to excuse himself.
Lorene, reluctant to let him get away so soon, said, "Come with me for an afternoon cocktail. It's three o'clock."
"I have to go upstairs, get my things together, and start back to the big city."
"Just one for the road before you go," Lorene cajoled in her most persuasive tone.
"Howard shook his head, and Lorene was too wise to persist. The supply of men was too great to get hung up on this one, but she threw out a carrot if he needed one.
"Maybe we can get together again some time. In Chicago, if you like."
"Yeah. I have your card. I'll look you up."
Lorene noticed the sketch in his hand and asked to see it. "Interesting. Who is she?" she asked.
"My spirit guide."
"Your what?"
"Spirit guide. Go in there and find yours," Howard replied unctuously, pointing inside the gold-knobbed walnut doors of the Liberty Room. He turned and walked away.
Instead of going upstairs right away, Howard walked outside to breathe the crisp December air. For the first time in months, he felt invigorated despite the cold.† Life beyond this businessman's hotel contained more than software sales, computers and one-night stands.
Mom, rocking-chair seeress, was right. He was coming home for good tonight. If he left now, he'd be home by seven.