I keep a close watch on myself to make sure I don’t succumb to magical thinking. Irrational by nature, I’m easy meat for the false promise of instant illumination, unearned insight that will spare me days, weeks or months of weighing costs and benefits. There’s a Mexican rancho market only a short distance from me, but I generally stay away — I’m afraid I’d get thrown out for reading the tripas they put in tacos.
There was that time, about three years ago, when I decided I had a vocation for the priesthood after recognizing St. Maximilian Kolbe in a stained-glass window. My own namesake! I thought! And a Holocaust victim! What clearer sign could I ask for? Months later, when it began to dawn on me that religious life is a bad fit for cranky loners who are deeply in debt, I felt grateful the figure in the window hadn’t been Joan of Arc. I might have taken it as a cue to start dressing in drag.
Last Sunday afternoon, a young woman came to my door. From her tangled hair and gently bewildered expression I could tell she’d spent a very enjoyable weekend indoors behind drawn blinds. Ever since this guy named Chris took the unit next to mine, I’ve seen a nonstop parade of these bacchantes. Chris is about 50, a Native American of the Crow Nation, and a postal employee of 20 years’ seniority. Exactly what his schedule is I don’t know. He’ll vanish for what seems like a week, then spend the next week walled in, entertaining company.
I’ve gotten to know a few of these women as they’ve passed my unit on their way to Circle K for cigarettes and Thristbusters. They seemed to be pros or semi-pros, in their 30s and heading downhill quickly. This one was different. In her early 20s, she had clear, almost translucent skin and the long, curling eyelashes of a giraffe. “Can I use your computer?” She asked.
I’m not a prig, mind you, and I try not to be a bad or selfish neighbor. But my computer is my livelihood. I may forget to put it to sleep or let it get infected with spyware, but that’s a right I claim exclusively. Besides, I live in a low-income area. Many of my neighbors look like the kinds of people I see waiting in line for the common computers at the local public libraries. I have nightmares about the same line forming outside my door.
These calculations must have registered on my face, because the girl added, “Please?” She gave me a smile so sleepy and so sweet, it must have done something to my inner ear, because I started feeling dizzy. I asked what she wanted to use it for. She told me: “To apply for food stamps.”
A damsel in economic distress. A waif on welfare. My objections collapsed like the old Sands in Vegas. I told her to go ahead, and even typed out the URL of the appropriate agency’s website in my address bar. Then, as though she were changing or nursing, I turned my back on her. To defuse the tension further, to convince myself I was acting from the purest of motives, I stepped outside, wishing that, like St. Francis, I could find some snow or briars to roll around in.
Not two minutes later, she came to the door. “All done,” she said. “By the way, if you see Chris before I do, tell him it’s 64, not 66.” Figuring this was some food stamps code, I promised I would. Then she shook my hand and disappeared down the path that led to the parking lot and beyond.
About an hour later, I saw Chris heading up the same path, in uniform. I gave him the message; he thanked me with a smile and a wave.
Now, it happened that I’d written my way through all that morning’s Masses. Still feeling the momentum, I was thinking I might write on through the evening and confess it the following Saturday. Writers should have private chaplains to work around their muses. But just as I was getting down to work, my computer started acting strangely. Every time I clicked a link or tried to refresh a page, the little wheel-thingie would spin and spin and spin. After minutes of watching this frictionless whirling, I’d get a message: “INTERNET EXPLORER COULD NOT OPEN THAT WEBSITE.”
That’s when I had another one of my waking dreams of Constantine. It’s a sign, I thought. A sign I’ve got to go to Mass. If I go, whatever’s wrong will have fixed itself by the time I come back. If I don’t, I’ll need a new modem. Inspired, I washed and dressed. The record will reflect that on the last Sunday of Christmas season I stumbled over “with your spirit” and “under my roof” with the rest of the faithful.
When I got back, Explorer was working, but only barely. Pages would load, but had to be refreshed constantly. Nevertheless, the improvement was real enough to preclude complaint. By the following midday, Explorer was back to normal again. All things considered, the karmic exchange seemed pretty fair.
The whole business vanished from my mind until yesterday afternoon, when I clicked on my Start button. Just as my cursor reached the Explorer icon, I noticed something I’d never noticed before:
Internet Explorer-64 bits.
“Tell him it’s 64, not 66.”
When Chris first moved in, he asked me if I minded his sharing my Internet connection, promising to split the monthly bill. I said I’d think about it but blew him off. Tired of waiting for my answer, he sent his doxie to inflitrate my camp. The hungry hooker with a heart of gold was none other than Chris’ own Mata Hari. I’d been hoodwinked, duped. In wartime, I’d probably be broken before the regiment and shot at dawn. Monday night, I saw them in the Circle K as I was picking a Big-Az cheeseburger out of the cooler. I thought I heard a saucy note of triumph in her voice as she greeted me, but I couldn’t have been further from guessing the reason behind it.
As I write this, I find myself wishing, for the first time, for a blast of that old magical thinking — a penny transverberation, a budget Theophany. Rather than stand face-to-face with my own stupidity, I’d prefer to think it was the devil himself who snared me by the Cox.