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“Super. But if you want to give any work to Dawn or I, anything we can help you with….”
That was another thing that drove me crazy, that she’d gone to Wellesley and she still didn’t know to say if you want to give any work to Dawn or me, though she’d been an English major and had a year of law school at Columbia behind her. She was going to finish her J.D. out here, once she and the sugar daddy were settled in. Meanwhile she pouted and sashayed when the interns, third-year law students, were in the office. Mostly she sat at her desk and shopped for lingerie online. I kept my mouth shut, because they had created this job for me, too, twenty-five years ago when I was married to the hot young professor they wanted to keep around.
Now my job was all that stood between the homeless shelter and me. The homeless shelter and I, Cornelia would have said. Dawn and I didn’t even have BAs, but at least we knew what the object of a preposition was, and the lawyers had us proofread their letters and briefs to get the grammar right. Just like Cornelia, I dropped out of school to marry a professor, but unlike Cornelia I wasn’t ever going to pick up my degree. When I was in my twenties I was raising babies and giving cocktail parties for geniuses, and I giggled with gratitude when the legal clinic hired me as a typist. I was the Saga of Another Generation—the mad housewife—but Cornelia is a New Woman, and soon she’ll be a high-powered attorney in a push-up bra, just like the lawyers on TV.
After a while, her voice floated through again. “Ted’s going to have a lot of trouble with this one.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Oh, Immigration’s not going to touch Nigeria. They’re not going to want to hear about Ken Saro-wiwa.”
“You’ve heard of him?”
“That year I was in England”—she’d been at the London School of Economics—“the Brits were obsessed with Saro-wiwa. And oil. They wanted it to be Shell’s fault, not BP’s.”
Mostly I hated her because she’d been everywhere, because she spoke like a twelve-year-old but had dined with Hillary Clinton, because she paid attention to everything. She was the most ambitious person, aside from my husband, I had ever met.
Ted Reilly, the immigration lawyer, was funny about Okapu. He was going to file for asylum, all right, but meanwhile he had me call over to the poly sci department, where Dr. Okapu had been a graduate student for eight years, to find out everything I could. It turned out that Dr. Okapu had survived a long dispute about whether his dissertation was passable, but he hadn’t had a single job offer in the States and his visa had expired two years ago. Undocumented, he was living on mysterious means of support, but his three sons were very happy in the Greenglass schools.
“Think he’s lying about the political stuff?” I asked Ted. The dissertation had a chapter on Saro-wiwa, written before the execution. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted Dr. Okapu to be a good guy or a bad guy.
“I think we find out everything we can, to prepare for the hearing.” Ted was a softie—well, you can guess who volunteers to work pro bono in the legal clinic—and he was going to put on the best show he could, no matter what I found out from poly sci. He just wanted to know the worst.
“If it took him eight years to get his doctorate, and then he stayed around without a green card another two, how could he have been helping Saro-wiwa?”
“He went back a couple of summers. He has family in the region.”
Something funny in his voice made me say: “Family?”
He gave me an even funnier look. “Another wife. And kids.”
“Is he Muslim?”
Ted shrugged, and I didn’t know whether that meant he’d divorced the other wife or not. Our university was Catholic, and Okapu would have been sent here from some Catholic university, in Lagos probably. I didn’t have much of a sense of where the Ogonis came from or what religion they practiced—actually, I didn’t have any sense of Nigeria, or Nigerians.
“He’s not Muslim,” Ted said, “he’s just a lusty native.” Ted said outrageous things about the clients all the time, especially the Africans. He said They’d lie about the time of day, if they knew what time of day it was, and you had to remind him how maybe it wasn’t such a great idea for an immigration lawyer to tell ethnic jokes about an entire continent which had, after all, fifty-four countries, and who knew how many cultures. If I did remind him, he’d pretend to laugh, but then he’d avoid me for days. I knew what he was thinking, though, because Frank used to say: Don’t be such a Puritan, Peg, can’t you take a joke? and It must be a burden, being right about everything all the time. “Maybe you want to let Cornelia take this one off your hands?”
I shook my head. I didn’t like the way Ted had been lingering at her desk lately, getting a good look at those plummy breasts. “Ah, no. I find Dr. Okapu intriguing.”
“That’s good, because we’re going to be seeing a lot of him.”
And in fact, before the week was over Dr. Okapu returned with one of his sons, impossibly tall for such a tiny father. The boy, Winston, looked sixteen or seventeen. He wore short fat dreads stuck up all over his head, a discreet gold cross in his ear, a tight black leather jacket, enormous pants that drooped from his waist and flared along the floor, picking up dust. He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t hang back either. His eyes darted, taking in everything.
“Awesome jacket,” Cornelia said to him.
He flashed a golden smile. I was standing in the doorway to my office, gossiping with Dawn during the mid-afternoon slump. That week we’d had a dozen food stamps denials, five gas deposits required of single mothers who couldn’t possibly pay, three cases of domestic violence, including one in which a woman smashed her boyfriend over the head with an iron skillet that sprayed hot bacon fat over both of them, one vehicular homicide, and a contested commitment to the state hospital. A father and son from a stable family, even if it wasn’t the only family the father had, made a pretty picture. I noticed that Dr. Okapu wore a black leather jacket too, though his floated above his chest.
Dawn said: “I’m sorry, Mr. Reilly’s tied up in Chicago all day.”
“We don’t need Mr. Reilly personally.” Dr. Okapu stood there.
“How can we help you?” Dawn was a patient matronly woman of sixty who had faced down loaded weapons. She looked the clients right in the eye, whether they were armed or not.
“I’m dropping Winston off.”
“And how can we help Winston?”
Dr. Okapu looked at me then, as if all this were my fault. “Mr. Ted Reilly says he has an after-school job for him.” His voice was sharp, higher-pitched than I remembered. The way he said Mr. Ted Reilly was an accusation all by itself. I mistrusted him more than ever, but I tried to keep an open mind. Two years since the Ph.D. No job. Pricey leather jackets. And that other wife and family, back in Nigeria. Oh, my mind was wide open.