Sense and Sensibility Too
My Right Arm
I meant it when I said it. I still mean it. And that smart-ass kid twists it and thinks it’s funny. What the hell would he know, the punk. I’ll show him–I’ll push so much ice through the chute tonight the sweat will freeze on his ass. He’ll see. Him and his smart-ass friends coming round here wantin’ free ice for their beer coolers. I could fix their wagons so they won’t roll around no more. One call to the Chief of Police and those kids would lose their license–that’s all it would take.
She only comes up here once a week, around five o’clock on Saturday night. I know what she needs the ice for. She’s got that grocery store with one of them little ice machines with the polar bear on the front. She buys twenty-five bags here and I’ll bet she sells them out real quick Saturday night.
I could let that kid load ’em in her trunk but he don’t do it right. Hell, he can barely bring himself to be polite. She’s a customer, I told him. You got to treat her right-that’s just good business, common sense. He says the fewer customers the better, as far as he’s concerned. Means he doesn’t have to work so hard. I told him, you take Mr. Cunningham’s money, you owe him an honest night’s work. He don’t care, that kid. None of ’em do, as far as I can tell.
Anyway, whenever she comes in I load them ice bags in her trunk myself. If I left it to the kid he’d just line ’em up on the loading dock and let her do it. That’s no way to treat a lady, I told him. Let me do it, I says and I bring ’em out on a pallet truck to where I load ’em in her trunk easy. She stands there watching. She don’t tip but I don’t expect it and she’s not supposed to. I know it’s hard running a grocery store. Hard to make money at it. She gives me a smile every week now. She appreciates it, she says.
She ain’t married, I know. She owns that store with her momma. The father died, and they run it all by themselves now. That’d be a nice business–it would. Sure would beat pullin’ ice on the two-to-ten shift Saturday night.
I’m gonna say somethin’ to her tonight, if that damn kid isn’t hanging around where he can hear me. I’ll tell her straight out. I won’t say I want to get her alone-that’s not the way to start things. And I’ll wear a shirt so my tattoo don’t show. She don’t look like the type that would like them. It ain’t a girl’s name, but it says “Born to Lose”. I don’t want her to think I’m a loser.
Maybe I’ll strike up a conversation–I’ll say “You sure buy a lot of ice” or something like that. Maybe if we ever start dating I can say I used that line as an “ice breaker.” Then when she tells me, maybe I could offer to deliver her 25 bags at the beginning of my shift. That way she wouldn’t have to drive clear over here from South 65. She’d appreciate that. I’d have to tell old man Cunningham he didn’t have to pay me for the half hour it’d take. That would make him happy-him with silver dollars in his front walkway, too.
Or maybe I’ll just drop in there, casual-like some night. Say, well hello! Fancy meeting you here! I’d tell her my name. The kid wouldn’t be around to laugh at me then. That’d be good.
Hell, I ain’t gonna do that. There’s got to be people in and out of the store all the time. Maybe I’ll become a regular-just say hi every time I go in, get to know her that way. Just mention my name at some point so she’d know who I was. Not just the guy down at the ice plant.
I could mention something technical, like about her freezer cabinets, or the produce section. Give her a money-saving tip, like “Did you know you lose a ton of refrigeration for every hour those doors are open?” Or something like that. She could probably save a lot on electricity just by putting in night covers.
Then I could say something like “I know a lot about refrigeration, but I’m hot for you.” Naw, that’s no good. “I know a lot about keeping things cool-would you like to have a cold beer with me some night.” Maybe she don’t like beer. Probably drinks wine. I could buy a bottle of pink wine for her in case she ever came over. I’d hate for anyone to find it in my fridge if she didn’t.
I know what-I’ll call out there some Saturday night around eight and ask her if she’s running out of ice. That’s just good customer service. I can pull the last load of ice out of the floor at ten and take off early if that damn kid will cover for me. Maybe if I offer to buy beer for him and his friends so they don’t have to go over to colored town to get it. I wonder how much extra they have to pay. Maybe five bucks-I’ll tell him I’ll do it for free. He just has to close up, drop the key in the slot and keep his mouth shut. That ain’t too much to ask, is it?
Aw, what am I talkin’ about. That kid ain’t gonna do me any favors. He’d probably tell on me, then where would I be? I’d be fired is where. Helluva marriage prospect I’d be then. No job, beat-up car, no money. Shit.
Maybe she goes to church. I could pull that off. I can be just as holy as the next guy. Although there’s probably plenty of church-goin’ guys who’ve already got their eyes on her. Or women who want to introduce their kin to her. That’s the problem–church is always crowded.
Maybe I could slip when I’m puttin’ the bags in her trunk one night and ask her to take me to the hospital. Then once I got in her car and we had drove away a bit I could tell her I just faked it so that I could get to know her better ’cause I think she’s so pretty. She might appreciate that-think it’s funny and all.
Or maybe not. It’d probably startle her when I told her. And Cunningham would want to know why we didn’t have enough ice for the chicken plant in the morning. Naw, that’s no good. I’ll just have to tell that kid to take off some Saturday and I’ll cover for him. That way it’ll be just me and her when she drives up. And then I’ll tell her what I want to say. What I told that kid that he thought was so funny.
I’d give my right arm for five minutes alone with her.
The Crazy Woman in the Bookstore
They had gone to the bookstore after dinner. It was too late to go to a movie; the only one they’d agreed on was two towns away, and at dinner she’d said she wasn’t up for it.
They went off in different directions when they got there, she with a purpose, he uncharacteristically ambling around. At one point their paths crossed at the end of an aisle.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked him.
“Oh—that? I tracked it down at the library this afternoon.”
“Well, why did we come here then?”
“Something to do—you’re looking for something, right?”
“Yes, but I don’t have to have it tonight. I’ve got a book for now.”
“That’s okay. Just killing time,” and with that she headed down the aisle, found the author she was looking for and began to examine her books. He rounded the corner and his eye caught the brightly-colored spine of a novel by a publisher who’d turned his work down.
“A punk-Muslim manifesto!” a back cover blurb screamed. Probably was a waste of time to send it to them, he thought.
He made his way out to the open floor where the coffee table books were stacked; nothing of interest to him, so he raised his gaze to the room as a whole instead of looking down at the covers.
His eye caught a woman in a white ski jacket, around his age, her eyes wide open as if startled. She had a look of determination on her face and a book in her hand, and her eyes caught his as she moved purposefully towards him.
He averted his gaze, a bit put off by the intensity of the woman’s aspect, then turned back to look at her again. She was almost upon him now and staring straight at him as she said “Fucking CIA!” under her breath. He couldn’t help but glance at her as she went past, then he turned to see if she would continue on her path or confront him. He watched as she strode swiftly towards the back of the store, not saying a word to anyone else.
He turned and, as unobtrusively as he could, looped back in the direction from which he had come, but the woman had disappeared from sight. He rounded the rows of racks to see if she was there, but there was nothing to see but the usual browsers, some absorbed in books, others looking for something they hadn’t found yet.
He came up beside his wife and said in a voice just above a whisper “There’s a crazy woman in the store—for some reason she’s irritated at me.”
“How do you know she’s crazy? Seems to me that’s a perfectly rational reaction,” she said without looking up at first, but then glancing at him with a sly smile.
“I’m not kidding,” he said, this time with an urgent emphasis.
“I’m not going to run out of the store just because there’s a crazy person in it. I’ll be done in a minute,” she said, turning back to the book she was looking through.
He exhaled, a little exasperated. “I’m thinking of you, too.”
“Tell one of the people who work here.”
“As if that would do any good. They’re a bunch of English majors. They’ll probably be looking up the proper procedure in the company handbook while she’s slashing kids in the children’s section.”
“I said I’d be just a minute,” she said as she replaced on book on the shelf and pulled another off.
He didn’t think the woman was anything who couldn’t be handled, but she definitely was crazy and not the kind of harmlessly weird person you usually saw in a bookstore, the ones who spent all day in the comfortable chairs reading graphic novels or big picture books. She was paranoid, probably schizophrenic; he’d learned long ago to treat her kind like a tornado, and walk swiftly away. A crazy guy had come out of a downtown alley at him many years ago and thrown stuff at him for no reason at all. Another time a guy’d thrown a punch at him, and there was the guy who’d been stabbed for no reason at all on Comm Ave. Better safe than sorry, he thought.
He thought back to another time that a woman had refused his gesture of chivalry; he’d gone swimming on the Esplanade while his girlfriend had stayed outside the fence to do yoga—right out in the open, as if she was at a spa or something. He saw her get up into a headstand, and when he’d completed a lap and come back there was a guy sitting next to her, smoking a cigarette, trying to chat her up.
He got out and went up to the fence and said “Do you want me to come out?” to her, but she just said “I can handle it”—didn’t even open her eyes.
“She’s cool,” the guy said and then took a drag on his cigarette.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” he had said, then glared at the guy for a moment, but he was more angry with his girlfriend, that she’d do something as stupid as yoga in an area where there were pretty tough bars right across Storrow Drive, a jail further down and people whizzing buy on roller skates and bikes. That she’d make a point of not accepting his help, of acting as if her highly-developed psychic powers could repel unwanted advances, like the guy who claimed he could bend metal spoons with his brain waves. That was just like her, he remembered, and one of the reasons he’d eventually broken up with her.
He made one more loop around the floor, saw nothing amiss, and stopped at the end of the aisle where his wife was still standing, trying to decide which book to buy.
“I’m ready,” she said as she replaced one title and stuck another under her arm. “Did they throw your girl friend in the loony bin?”
“Next time I sense you might be in danger when we’re out, I’ll go home and leave a note on the refrigerator.”
She tsked at him. “Don’t be that way. I never know when you’re kidding.”
“I think I made it pretty clear I wasn’t.”
“Still—I can’t imagine someone going nuts in a bookstore.”
As they walked through the line he continued to scan the store for the woman. He considered telling the person at the register about her, but figured he’d done enough to save an indifferent world that evening.
The boy’s father wanted him to play soccer because he’d played the game as a kid growing up in St. Louis, but the boy didn’t think it was much fun. There was a lot of running around and unlike basketball the ball stayed in bounds and they didn’t call a lot of fouls so you had to keep running all the time. Plus you played outdoors in the fall wearing shorts, and he was always cold. He was the only white kid on his team, and he let the other kids control the ball on offense before the season started, hoping he’d end up as the goalie. He did, and he turned out to be good at it, but sometimes he wondered whether it was because the other kids on his team were so good they kept the ball at the other end of the field all the time.
He was working on his physical education merit badge at the same time, and he had to run a half-mile every day. The Scoutmaster didn’t care how fast you ran, you just had to run it, so he didn’t have to compete against somebody on another team and run fast; you just had to plug away at it, which he didn’t have a problem with.
The other kids would look at him as if he was crazy when he ran eight lengths of the field before a practice or a game. “Man, whatta you workin’ so hard for?” the little kid named Charlie would say.
“Same as you’re gonna be doing once the whistle blows,” he had said, “running up and down the field.”
“That’s different,” Charlie had said. “It’s fun to run when you goin’ after that soccer ball.”
The boy didn’t think so; he’d rather take it slow and steady. Slow and steady wins the race, he remembered from the Aesop’s fable where the tortoise beats the hare. That was fine with him, that’s how he wanted to do it.
When he’d finished his 880 yards he caught his breath, then started to hang out with the other kids while they waited for their coach. A caramel-colored boy named Dennis—nicknamed “Posse”–was dribbling a ball back and forth between his feet.
“Kick it to me,” the boy said.
“This is Posse’s ball,” the other boy said. “You want it, you got to take it away from me.”
The boy thought Posse was strange. He had two nicknames—he was also called “DJ”—and he talked about himself as if he were a third person. It was always “Posse” this and “Posse” that. The boy thought it sounded conceited.
“C’mon—try and take it away.”
He didn’t think it would be too hard. He figured he would just run up to the other boy real fast and bowl him over. He wasn’t good at dribbling himself, and he recalled that that was the way other kids seemed to take the ball away from him.
“Unh-uh, that ain’t gonna do it,” Posse said as he easily side-stepped the other boy’s rush. “You can’t take the ball away from Posse that way.”
The boy regained his footing and made another rush. “Whoa,” Posse said. “You must be new at this. Posse been playin’ for a long time, Posse’s good.”
The boy tried again, and again Posse sidestepped him and dribbled past him, then turned around to taunt him.
“C’mon man, I’ll make it easy for you,” Posse said. He stopped and stood with his feet close together, as if at attention, with his ball beside him. “C’mon.”
The boy decided he would try to fake Posse out; he’d act as if he was giving up and slowly start to walk past him, then reach out and kick the ball away.
“I give up,” he said. “You’re too good for me.”
“Naw, man, c’mon. We supposed to be warmin’ up.”
“I should take some shots in goal. You go ahead and dribble around, unless you want to take some kicks on me.”
He started to execute his stratagem but just as he flicked his leg out Posse blocked his foot and pushed the ball ahead. He was laughing when he turned around, the big hole where he was missing a front tooth like a gap in a picket fence.
“You can’t fool the Posse—nobody plays possum on the Posse.”
The coach blew the whistle from the middle of the field where he’d been meeting with the other coach and the referee. All the boys gathered round him for instructions.
“Okay, everybody, this is just a scrimmage, but we’re gonna go at it like it’s the real thing,” the coach said. He was a big man, heavy in the middle, who’d learned to play soccer when he was in the Army in Germany. He had told the boy he had to choose between soccer and basketball, and the boy had said no I don’t, my dad said I could keep playing on my school team.
They put their hands in the middle of a circle, did their little chant and then yelled “Let’s go!” The boy went off to his goal and hoped the game would be an uneventful one.
He stood there in the cold without much to do because Charlie and Posse and Kenny and the others kept the ball down at the other end of the field, as usual. He had to handle one rush when a big white kid he knew, the son of the doctor in town who always walked to work like some kind of oddball, broke through the fullbacks. He got to the ball before the kid could kick it, but the kid landed on top of him and he was heavy, a year older than him. He threw the ball back up to one of the fullbacks who kicked it up to Charlie.
He’d had the wind knocked out of him so he was glad that Charlie was able to clear it out past midfield, and he stood there, breathing heavily in and out, while his coach and the other coach stood talking behind him, their clipboards held under arms crossed over their chests.
“Naw, he’s a good kid,” the other coach was saying. “I was gonna draft him ahead of you but I thought he was too undisciplined. He skipped a couple of practices on me last year.”
“He’s been all right for me,” the boy’s coach said. “I’ve tried to emphasize the positive things he does, and it seems to be working.”
The two men were silent for awhile, and the boy wondered whether his coach was ever going to ask him if he was all right after the older boy on the other team had fallen on them.
“Naw, I’ll tell you what,” he heard his coach say. “You take a white boy and you buy him a helmet and a nice uniform and he thinks he’s a football player. You take a black boy and give him a pair of shorts and a soccer ball and he’ll play for you—you know what I mean?”
“I sure do,” the other coach said. “Makes all the difference in the world if you’re hungry.”
The boy turned around to look at the coaches, who looked back at him for a moment, then downfield. He promised himself as he turned back around that he wouldn’t turn out to be the kind of boy they were talking about.
As I passed his office I saw the associate packing up his briefcase, one of those big bags that look like the cases that TV repairmen used to bring into your house back in the days when TVs had tubes and they were so new that repairmen actually made house calls.
“Going out of town?” I asked, sticking my head in.
“Yeah—we’ve got a two week trial in Chicago,” he said, showing just a touch of manly trepidation at the enormity of the task before him, the way the girl in the Cole Porter song showed a glimpse of stocking.
“Who’s first chair?” I asked.
“Nelson,” the kid said. He allowed a note of reassurance to color his answer, I suppose so an old buffalo like me wouldn’t think that the firm had entrusted a big case to a rookie quarterback such as himself.
“Ah, the client’s in good hands then,” I said. Nelson was ten years ahead of me out of law school, but showed no signs of slowing down. “We used to call him The Wallbanger,” I said with a wistful little shake of my head.
“Why?” the young man asked.
“Because when he came back from court after losing a motion, he’d close his door and start banging on the wall.”
“Wow,” the kid said, clearly impressed—or something.
“Yep. When you work as hard as Nelson does, and fight for every last scrap like a German shepherd in a tow truck lot, it makes it harder to take when you lose.
“Huh,” said the kid, as he turned back to his packing. Probably didn’t want to risk his career listening to one partner gossip about another. “I assume nobody calls him that to his face,” he said gingerly.
“No, no, of course not. Only behind his back,” I said, leaning up against his bookshelf. “To be quite honest, I think people were a little jealous of him. I mean, he had a pretty prestigious clerkship—9th Circuit—before he came here, and he drove himself very hard, made partner a year ahead of schedule.”
“You can do that?”
“Sure you can. He was a real star. He was like a football player who brings his own photographer and reporter to the game. If he won a case, he made sure everybody heard about it. Still does. You know the newsletter they send around here?”
“A few months back he put in a little item about how he’d won a motion for summary judgment.”
“The marketing department asks people to send stuff in . . .”
“I know, there’s nothing wrong with that. But as soon as it went around, I got a call from somebody in the department, a young woman who . . . let’s just say she felt Nelson didn’t respect her enough, didn’t give her credit for her contributions.”
“Did he do something to her?”
“Nope. She just thought it was curious to note that Nelson didn’t say it was an unopposed motion.”
“So . . .”
“The other side didn’t even file any papers, much less appear in court. Not hard to win when the other team doesn’t show up.”
The kid got a look on his face like he’d just found out that his mom and dad had sex before he was born.
“Don’t worry, Nelson’s the real deal,” I said. “He’s gone on to fame and glory and tons of money, all of which he richly deserves. In a year or two he’ll get out of the way and let the young Turks run the department.”
“So . . . is this like his ‘Last Hurrah’?”
“Hmph,” I snorted, laughing. “I didn’t think anybody read that book anymore.”
“Somebody told me I should if I wanted to understand Boston.”
“Not our world, you know, but that’s the real Boston—or at least it was. Yep, this may be Spanky’s last hurrah.”
As soon as I said it I realized I shouldn’t have.
“Who’s Spanky?” the kid asked.
“Sorry, that’s . . . uh . . . another name Nelson picked up along the way.”
“So . . . like Spanky and Our Gang?”
“No, no, not that at all.” I looked at the young man, trying to judge if he could be discreet. He gave me a funny sort of smile, as if he knew that the story was probably a good one, one I shouldn’t tell him, but maybe I would. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help smiling back at him; he was going to be with Nelson—I’m sure his mother chose that name so he’d never have a nickname—for two weeks. He deserved to know what he was in for.
“Can you keep a secret?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said; the smile was more open now.
I leaned back in the chair and gave his door just enough of a push to close it.
“It was . . . I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago. Nelson was at the peak of his career. Busy as hell, probably keeping five associates hopping at the same time, in court every day. He had a bet-the-company case going on, probably just like the one you’re working on.”
“I don’t think ours is that serious, just complicated.”
“Well, this one was World War III. Plus, if he didn’t win, there was more than a little risk the firm wouldn’t get paid anywhere near what we were owed in fees. So it was a triple threat; the client could have gone under, we could have taken a big hit, and Nelson wouldn’t be compensated for all the time he’d put in on this one case, which took him away from other work. He was wound pretty tight.”
“I can imagine.”
“Anyway, he flies out to Chicago with the client and an associate and they’re staying at the same hotel for obvious reasons. They work late into the night on the eve of the hearing, and when they come down in the morning they meet at the front desk to check out.”
“Well, the client’s this tough-talking, no-nonsense guy, so he says to the concierge ‘Give me his bill, I’m the client, I’m going to be paying it anyway.’ All of a sudden, Nelson’s face goes white, and he starts in with ‘No, I’ll take care of it,’ which the client thinks is just the usual act you put up when somebody else grabs the tab.”
“So what happened?”
“The client’s used to this little minuet, he’s a big wheel, so he assumes it’s just for show, and he turns towards the desk so Nelson can’t get the bill and throws down his credit card.”
“And . . . that’s the story?”
“That’s not the end of it. Nelson’s standing there, hoping that the client is only going to look at the bottom line—he’s a businessman, right, that’s all he cares about.”
“Except that he’s the kind of guy who looks at every bill just to make sure he’s not getting screwed.”
“And what did he see?”
“Well, uh, there was ‘Cheerleader Sex Slaves’ and ‘Naughty Nurse Nancy.’”
The young man was silent. “They put that kind of stuff on the bill?”
“It’s all computerized. You buy the movie, it goes right down to the front desk. Anyway, so the client gets a look on his face like he’s swallowed a bad oyster, and say ‘Christ, Nelson, what were you doing? Spanking the monkey all night long?’”
The kid suppressed a laugh—my guess is he figured the Law Firm Gods would strike him dead if he let loose. “So what’d he do?”
“Well, he tried to deny it, but of course the evidence was right there in black and white. Maybe it’s from the night before, he says to the clerk. No, the clerk says, checking the computer, today’s the 17th, the charges were incurred on the 16th. Are you sure that’s my room, he says, nodding towards the associate. The guy at the desk says you were in Room 1421, the suite, sir, while the younger man was in 1423, the single. So then Nelson tries to laugh it off, and the client’s looking a little queasy, but I guess he figures he’s stuck with Nelson, the partner-in-charge. It’s not like he can switch horses, it’s post time.”
The kid looked at me and started shaking his head. “So what happened?”
“Well, as you can imagine, Nelson wasn’t at his best that day. The fiery courtroom presence was, shall we say, doused a bit.”
“Did he win the case?”
“No, but who’s to say it was his fault. I mean, the facts weren’t on his side, and the law was unclear.”
“So . . . did the client go under?”
“Yep. They hired another firm to handle the bankruptcy. They had to, we were one of their biggest creditors.”
“We lost a couple hundred thousand.”
“Jesus is right.”
The kid was quiet again, this time for longer than before. “So . . . right at the peak of his career, he got hit with something like that–and still recovered?”
“Yep. Pretty remarkable when you think of it. Of course the client didn’t say anything, but the story got back to the firm.”
“How? There was just the two of them.”
“And an associate,” I said.
“Ah . . . I remember now.”
“People will talk,” I said. “Even a circumspect individual like me.”
The kid nodded his nod slowly, and a knowing look stole over his face.
“As you might imagine, that’s another nickname that is not used to his face,” I said.
“I guess,” the kid said.
There was a knock at the door, and when it opened slightly there was Nelson in his three-piece suit and his overcoat with his suitbag and briefcase. His vest had slim little lapels—it was an English model he’d picked up on a trip to London.
“You about ready?” he said to the associate, ignoring me, his mind already focused on the trial that lay ahead.
“We’re through here,” I said as I got up.