A dark-haired man in jeans, black sweatshirt and dark blue windbreaker emerged from the crowd at the pulsating corner of Union Street and Northern Boulevard. Making his way past the mixture of Korean, Chinese, and English neon signs which lit that dense corner of the world at Main Street, Flushing, in the Borough of Queens, he seemed oblivious to everything around him.
The early October breeze of twilight was cooler than normal and the man, his large brown eyes ablaze with some inner passion, seemed oblivious to it all. He had a mass of thick black hair and a handsome face that was half hidden by a thick black beard.
The Iranian, who sold hot dogs on the corner, saw the darkhaired man in the dirty windbreaker pass the corner of Union and Northern every day at the same time -- between five and six. He saw the man emerge from the small SRO Hotel on Union Street, next door to the car service, and watched him walk toward Northern Boulevard as rush hour traffic flowed more east than west at that time of evening.
He also saw that the man talked to no one, acknowledged no one, and looked around for no one. He could see how the man was engrossed in his own thoughts, not even distracted by the car horns or low-flying planes on their way toward night landings at LaGuardia airport, over Flushing Bay.
Across from the hot dog man was an old armory now used to shelter the homeless. Every day at six, the man in the windbreaker waited for the flash of car lights on Northern Boulevard to stop. Then he walked across the island, across from Sears, passed the twelve-foot stone statue crowned by the large head of an eagle, dedicated to the dead of World War I, and made his way to the castlelike fortress.
Every day at six, he walked past the open steel gates, up four flights of stone steps, and entered the large doors of the shelter. Once inside, he would acknowledge the heavyset black security guard with a quick glance.
"Hey, Frank! How ya been doin'?" the smiling guard asked.
Frank Moore ignored the guard and walked down a stairway, where he found a long line of homeless men, mostly black, some disturbed, some just out of luck, waiting for the clock to strike six so they could walk up to a long metal table and get their dinner.
Another security guard, a black woman in her forties, nodded to Frank as she twirled a set of keys, balancing a dark blue security guard cap on her short but rich, thick head of hair. "We got chicken and rice," she grinned.
It must be Monday, Frank thought.
Sitting down with the roomful of men, Frank hungrily ate his meal, while watching the faces of the destitute and the lost. He saw the morose face of an elderly black man with smooth skin and gray hair, eating slowly as he stared out into the distance, facing some unknown agony. He could see the hunger in every one of the quiet faces, eating, sipping their cans of soda, all thinking quietly or talking softly to themselves.
Suddenly a white man in a dirty, baggy blue coat with a dirty blue shirt underneath it stood up. He had a ring of long white hair that circled a large bald spot at the top of his head. Tiny grains of rice clung to his chin and his light blue eyes seemed focused on some tiny object miles away.
"God is a dog!" he said to no one in particular. "God is a dog!" He then turned to Frank and glared at him. "I said God is a dog!"
"Okay, God's a dog," Frank answered.
Pleased by Frank's response, the man sat back in his chair.
After his dinner in the shelter, he walked out of the armory and down to Main Street where the Keats, an old, eight-story movie theater, stood. He walked to the large building, admiring the architecture, then continued past the old town hall and looked up Main Street, where a thousand signs flashed something to sell.
Sky black, and stars invisible, he walked in the neon glare and made his way back to the SRO Hotel on Union Street. He walked past the small desk where a thin white man in his fifties sat reading a magazine and made his way up a flight of stairs that looked as dirty as the pale green walls that bordered it.
Reaching his room, he opened the old rotting door with a key, happy that the rotten wood around the lock withstood one more day of use. Once inside, he put on the bright ceiling light and ignored the roaches that infested the once white kitchen sink. He sat in a dirty, old leather chair. Turning on the small radio, an old transistor, which sat on a small table against the wall, he listened to an inane talk show for a few minutes, then quickly changed the station to one which played opera.
Frank sat quietly, allowing the dramatic, forceful music to fill his room. The eloquent voices of sound competed with the night sounds coming from outside his window: the voices, the cars passing, and the occasional cry in the night. The only other items in the room were books and journals. There was also a pad on the desk. Frank sat at the desk and wrote, immersed in a grotesque kind of freedom.
The surface of the water was still until he stepped in, lowered his head, and pushed himself off the side of the empty pool. With strong, sharp strokes, he powered his way down the center lane, feeling the smooth, calming waters surrounding him.
With each stroke he pushed his thin but muscled frame further through the warm waters of the indoor pool. Every few feet he would lift his head to the surface to take a breath, then plunge his head back under again. His goggles protected his eyes from the sting of the chlorine and his earplugs kept him from getting ear infections. But alone in the pool, floating without the acute sense of sound and sight, he felt weightless. He felt his body glide across the darkened surface of the water, free of the clamor of the world. With each stroke he came closer to another lap and with each lap he fell deeper into the privacy of his own thoughts.
Though the pool was smaller than the Olympic-sized pools he was used to, there was still no movement or sound coming from outside its waters; no one was around except the lifeguard, immersed in a book. Through a large window at the right end of the indoor pool, strong rays of light came through the smoked glass and lightly dappled the pool, bringing to the room a look of twilight.
Having just turned thirty-five, he had been swimming most of his adult life. He used to swim four, sometimes five times a week. He didn't smoke, so the breath he needed was always there for him when he decided to swim four or five hundred yards without stopping. He needed to feel his body afloat in a world without a top and a bottom to it, without a sky above and an earth below.
Frank liked the pool. It was housed in the Y only a block away from his room. It was clean and was never very busy, especially not at six in the morning, when he usually swam. It was his main form of exercise and his only refuge.
As he swam, his thoughts drifted back to his childhood in Queens. He remembered the large pool they had in school and how he loved to stay late to swim. Back then, he didn't swim with the same passion he had discovered as he grew older, but more to float. To float alone and feel free, but most of all, to hold his breath. To hold his breath and see how long he could stay under water without coming up. He loved to do that, to sink into the silence of the pool with no one around, with no one else there but himself.
And now, as he swam, he remembered how he held his breath and wondered what it was like never to breathe again. He looked down at the bottom and thought about the tranquility his mind craved: to hold his breath, not wanting any more air in his lungs; to close out the world beyond the silence of the pool and its warm, soothing waters.
There was no loneliness for him in the pool's watery quiet. There was himself and the wide world of water. It was a world where nothing moved, nothing mattered. The bottom of the pool had no day or night, no weekend, no language, no rules. It existed as a bare place, that somehow calmed and warmed. Frank felt his heart beat more calmly in this world.
One arm over the next. Up out of water for breath, then down again. Searching for the peace lost somewhere between what he had and what now was gone. Another stroke to forget himself and who he was. Another stroke to get himself closer to the bottom.
Halfway through his swim, time and space would begin to disappear. They faded out like a slow dissolve on a movie screen. In and out, he would drift. Suddenly everything would stop. Each second of time would disappear. Space merged with emptiness and he would drift through it, alone.
On this particular morning he was fascinated by the image of a woman he had never seen before. She came to him as he pushed his way through the pool. First, he saw her face. Though it was a blur, he could make out strands of dark gray hair and watery eyes. Then came a voice that was speaking softly to him, calmly but with determination. But he couldn't make out what she was saying.
Aquatic mirages had occurred many times before while swimming. Images from his past, people from his childhood, names he thought long forgotten, all came to him in those moments when time and space melted away. But this woman who came to him he felt sure he had never seen nor spoken to before. It was as if she were right there with him as he swam. Her presence was unmistakable.
Pushing off from one side of the small pool for another lap, he glanced up at the window again. And that's when he saw her. She was standing, a silhouette at the edge of the pool, the bright light of the window glowing behind her. He could see her small, dark face watching him. He could see the outline of her body, immobile and yet strikingly alive, calling out silently for his attention.
He stopped swimming.
Standing in four feet of water, his feet felt for the bottom. He stared at the dark presence through fogged goggles which he quickly pushed up onto his forehead. He squinted. He pulled out his earplugs to help regain his senses. She was there, standing silently. All he could hear was the sound of water rippling gently.
"What do you want?" he asked, trembling.
Suddenly, the light from the window began to fade. A huge cloud was passing by the window overhead, throwing the earth below into gray shadow. He looked again. The apparition was fading with the light.
"Who are you?"
She was gone. There was no one there. It was another mirage. He looked around the pool. The lifeguard was still involved with his book. The cloud passed. Light fell back into place at the window. He may as well have been alone.
Pushing himself toward the ladder, he reached up to the top bars and pulled himself out of the water. His body felt tired yet strangely invigorated. Everything about himself felt refreshed. He grabbed his towel from a bench near the diving board and turned. He looked down at the bottom of the pool and remembered the few moments of peace. He buried his face into his towel, sat down on the bench and closed his eyes.
Nearly a week went by and Frank hardly left his room. He stopped taking meals at the armory and now bought white bread and jars of peanut butter at the grocery store. He ate this twice a day, wrote at his desk, swam, and slept for ten hours a night. He had no desire to go anywhere else anymore.
It was toward the end of this penitent week when a loud banging on the door woke Frank up. His eyes were glued shut and the pounding on the door felt like it was going on inside his head. His throat was sore and his nose felt cold. Struggling to rise, Frank could see the bright blast of late-morning sunlight exploding through his windows. He had only been asleep for a few hours.
He managed to stand and he opened the door only slightly, the few inches that the chain would allow. A heavyset round-faced man with babylike skin and small brown eyes faced him. Wearing a powder-blue suit and smelling strongly of cheap cologne, Frank knew the man to be Danny, the manager and owner of the hotel.
"Frank, you up? We gotta talk here," Danny said with a thick wise-guy accent.
Frank reluctantly opened the door, letting the large powder-blue suit with the shiny black shoes into his apartment.
Danny looked at Frank. "You look emaciated, do you know that?" he said sharply. Then, not wanting an answer, he looked around the room. "You did a nice job with the place. Now it looks like a hole-in-the-wall dump! Before it just looked like a hole-in-the-wall!"
"Danny, your humor I can handle after coffee but not before," Frank answered.
Danny turned around, sticking his large face into Frank's. "A weird thing happened to me this morning."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Frank said, finding his way to a chair and sitting.
"Some friggin' guy comes to my office in Bayside and he says he'd like to ask me some questions. I tell the guy, 'Do I look like an information booth to you?' But this guy kills with kindness so, I listen to him. He looks like a respectable guy. Decent. So, this guy tells me that he's looking for a tenant of mine. Now, I don't think this guy is a cop, and it seems that he ain't. But he shows me a photograph of the guy he is looking for, and guess what? That guy is you! I mean, the guy in the photograph was younger and without the beard but it was good old Frankie!"
Frank felt a sinking feeling. He looked to Danny, who was now dancing around the room as he told his story, showing a lot more grace than Frank would expect for a heavyset man wearing a powder-blue suit that looked like it was painted on.
"You didn't tell him I was here? Did you?"
Danny leaned down to Frank and grinned. "Look, pal, since the day you got here I've been kinda suspicious of you. I know you don't deal drugs but you don't live off welfare and you ain't checking into no hospital for no calm-you-down candies. So, what do you do, I ask myself. You pay your rent with a check from a good bank. I can't figure it, but one thing I cannot take a chance on is harboring a fugitive. See, I got a little bit of a record myself and if I hide you from, let's say, the IRS, then they are gonna come after me and I don't want those bastards checking into my background. You got that?"
"IRS?" Frank asked.
"You heard me. I bet you're one of those eccentric guys like Howard Hughes. This guy says that he found out you were here from the bank. It seems that the bank that sends me your check every month has to give your address on your income tax."
"I pay my taxes," Frank said.
"Tell that to him!"
"Who?" Frank asked.
Danny swung to the door and waved a young man into the room. This second man, looking like a choirboy with sharp blue eyes that seemed to sparkle, and wearing a cream-colored suit, walked nervously into the shabby room. Frank turned around in his chair and looked at him, then shook his head as though he had just been insulted.
The young man didn't know what to say and looked awkwardly at Frank and Danny like an uninvited guest crashing a party. Frank was half expecting him to ask for a glass of wine.
"Frank Moore?" the young man asked gingerly.
Frank could see that he was startled by Frank's appearance. In fact, Frank figured that the young man must have been shocked by the hotel itself to begin with. Frank nodded. "Well, I've done my duty." Danny smiled then leaned over to Frank, who grimaced as he did. "You runnin' from a wife and ten kids? Come on, Frankie, tell Danny!"
Frank, still not fully awake, stood and faced the young man. "Is there a problem with the bank?"
"Oh, no! I'm not from the bank."
"You're from the IRS, no?" Danny asked.
"IRS? Oh, no. I'm sorry if you got that impression. I'm with the archdiocese," the young man said, still smiling his silly smile.
"Arch who?" Danny said.
Frank ignored Danny. "So, what do you want with me?" he asked the young man.
The young man grew more nervous as he spoke. "I was told to find you. You left the retreat house sixteen months ago and if it weren't for the bank account at Chase, we wouldn't know where to find you."
"Who told you to find me?"
"Cardinal Cahill," the young man answered. "He wants to see you. Immediately. He said it was urgent."
Danny looked shocked. "You stole from a church?" he asked Frank.
Frank continued to ignore Danny and shrugged his shoulders. "I was hoping they'd forget about me," Frank said. He then walked to the closet. He glanced over his shoulder at the young man before he opened the door. "You're still in the seminary, aren't you?"
"Yes. I am," the young man said humbly. "How did you know?"
Frank opened the closet, revealing a long black cassock and three white shirts. In each shirt pocket there was a white priest's collar. "I recognized the glowing look of piety on your face."
"I hope I never lose it, Father Moore," the young man said.
Frank took out the contents of the closet and placed them on the mattress. He then reached for a small overnight bag and saw Danny standing in the corner of the room looking startled and perplexed. "You're a priest?" Danny asked incredulously.
Frank nodded. "That's right, Danny. It wasn't the IRS after me, it was God. You did your duty just fine," Frank said sarcastically. He then filled the overnight bag and walked to the door, where the young man was waiting. He then turned and stopped. He saw a small wood and brass crucifix hanging on a nail over a crack in the wall. The words Credo quia impossible est were etched in a small plaque under the cross. They echoed the early Christian thinker Tertullian, who had phrased the famous paradox centuries before.
"Credo quia impossible est," the young man said.
"I believe because it's impossible," Frank said, translating the Latin.
"I know," the young man asked looking to Frank. "Is it yours?"
Frank looked at it, then nodded.
"Would you like to take it with you?" the young man asked.
Frank thought a moment then shook his head. "No. Leave it for the next tenant. It might be of more help to him." With that, Frank handed his bag to the young novitiate, who quickly left the room. Frank then took one more look around, nodded goodbye to a stunned Danny, and walked out.
Copyright © 1997 by Richard Vetere