It was a sultry summer morning, the kind that takes Boston by surprise–like clockwork–every year. The Fourth of July rolls around and all of a sudden it’s hot and humid, as if the Gods of Geography decided overnight to take a few degrees off our latitude and add them to our temperature. Just for the hell of it.
I was sitting in my office by South Station, looking at approximately the same view I’ve had for nearly four decades. Next to the train station, there was once a bus terminal and a package liquor store–a “packy,” in local parlance–visible out my window, which made one-stop shopping convenient for the winos who tend to panhandle in public spaces. A few years ago some urban planning goobers decided to spruce up the neighborhood; the bus station was moved, the liquor store was sent–pun intended–packing, and plain old South Station was re-christened The Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center at South Station, as if it were an upscale shopping mall, or a pricey private golf club. Some things never change, though; as I look down I see two panhandlers who’ve been in business for as long as I have. Apparently, they didn’t get the marketing brochure.
I remember my first clients, two Asian guys who walked up from Chinatown just a few blocks away, back in the last year of the self-absorbed 70’s. One was on his way back to Hong Kong, and he wanted to leave some money with his buddy to start a restaurant. After leading them through some cautionary foofaraw–I can’t represent you both unless you sign a waiver–we got down to business.
“We want note,” one said; a promissory note, an I.O.U.–what I would spend a good part of the next two score years drafting. I inquired as to the nature of the relationship; did Man 1 want to be co-owner of Man 2’s restaurant? Yes? Then what you need, I said, is stock because your interest is more in the nature of equity than debt and . . .
“WE WANT NOTE!” they said together, with urgent emphasis, since time, tide and international flights wait for no man. And so was launched, with a few deft strokes of pen on paper–nobody had a computer back then–my career of financial infamy.
From those humble beginnings I have come to a humble end. There have been peaks, sure, but if you have more than one peak, you have to have a valley in between. I won’t go into the gory details–suffice it to say that of the five firms I’ve worked at, three no longer exist. I seem to have that effect on people.
And so, as I say, I find myself back where I started, going through old files, throwing out those that have turned into dead letters, trying to find a home for those that still have some life in them. I’m not sure what I’d do at this point if a really big case walked in the door. Twenty years ago, I didn’t turn down anything. Dog-walking deals, fallen tree lawsuits–you name it, I took it. Now? Unless it piqued my rapidly-declining interest in the human misery of humans other than myself, I think I’d . . .
I looked towards my standard-issue low-rent frosted glass door and saw a pair of legs that froze my gaze from rising any higher. My guess was she was a dancer, from the looks of those gams; well-toned, slender ankles, a chiaroscuro effect where the Achilles’ tendon slithered down to her heels.
I tried to suppress a sharp inhalation, but if you’re reading this with your speakers on, you heard it. You meet a lot of dames in my business–down-on-their-luck, on-their-uppers, a little something on the side. I thought I had every female dimension covered, but I’d never seen any like this one.
“Can I help you?” I asked, letting my eyes linger just a little longer on her lithe legs.
“Probably not–I know you too well. I’m your wife, dingbat.”
I looked up finally and found she was right. She was indeed the woman I’d married thirty-two years before. “An honest mistake,” I said as I swiveled to get a better view of her.
“And one you’ve made before,” she said, referring to the time I got in line behind her in a coffee shop and was admiring her legs without realizing they were attached to the body of my fiancé.
“I got a poem out of that little mix-up,” I said, referring to my deathless verse “On Mistaking One’s Wife’s Legs for Another’s”–and try saying that five times fast.
“And did you make any money out of it?” she asked. Buffalo, New York produces cold women–must be all that snow.
“No, but someday, when I’m dead and you’re not, the royalties from my Collected Poems will start rolling in. Then you’ll be glad you married me. You know what Clarence Darrow said.”
“Who’s Clarence Darrow?”
“Shortstop for the Cleveland Indians in the fifties.”
“What did he say?”
“Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.”
“So why can’t you keep your wreck of a poet inside you like everybody else?”
“I try, but he keeps slipping out at night.”
She sat down in my single office chair and gave me a hard-boiled look, one that I recognized from the eggs she buys by the bag at Whole Foods.
“That’s not all that’s slipping out,” she said. She reached in her purse and took out a tube of lipstick, which she applied to–of all places–her lips. “You know, there are software programs that are better at recognition than you are,” she said with a gimlet glance.
“That’s not fair,” I said. “I have an uncanny ability to remember the names of people who aren’t members of my immediate family, which you have relied on at many a social occasion in the past.”
I had her there. She’ll often turn her back on someone across the room at a party and ask me if remember the name that’s attached to the face. I’ll start to turn around and she’ll say “Don’t turn around, you goombah!”–a form of mental torture psychologists refer to as the “double-bind dilemma.”
“You know what I mean,” she said. “You can never remember the names of restaurants we go to.”
I offered no resistance on that point. I was long ago diagnosed with Hip Restaurant Aphasia, the inability to retain the goofy names that celebrity chefs hang outside their fashionable little boites de nuit. She, unlike me, doesn’t need to take a box of matches from a non-smoking restaurant to remember if it’s called Truc or Troc or Tric or Grill 147 or Grill 86-93-72-Hike. I have left instructions in my Health Care Proxy that if I am ever found unconscious and can’t recall where I had dinner last, I am not to be put to sleep.
“I have a lot on my mind,” I said, affecting an air of busyness that was belied by the relatively clean surface of my desk. I was like the Sergeant of the Lawe in Chaucer, who made himself look busier than he really was. “I’ve been at this for thirty-eight years, eleven months–not that I’m counting or anything.”
“My brain’s for rent from 4:30 in the morning until I fall asleep at night for all sorts of trivial uses–leases, deeds of trust, debenture indentures. It’s no wonder if certain details that are important to you . . .”
“Like whether you’re supposed to bring our neighbor’s kid home from soccer practice . . .”
“Right. Ticky-tacky, Mickey Mouse administrative things like that. I’ve got multi-million-dollar mega deals on my mind.”
She clucked her tongue with subdued disapproval and gazed out the window, looking at the ocean. If the question came up, I was prepared to respond, lightning-round style, “The Atlantic,” just like contestants on “Password” used to do.
“Don’t pull that ‘Billy Big-Deal’ stuff on me,” she said.
“I don’t need to,” I said. “There are certain little things you can never remember that I never forget.”
“And vice versa,” she said.
“So if both of our minds are going–just in different places–it’s probably best if we stick together. Sort of a patchwork quilt approach to cognition.”
She pursed her lips and nodded knowingly. “So–two heads are better than one?”
“That would explain something.”
“Why my mother looks at you like you have two heads when you’re trying to be funny.”