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Dawn looked from Cornelia to me and back. “Hmmm. Mr. Reilly didn’t mention anything about a job. Why don’t you come tomorrow?” You could see her thinking What in God’s name is Ted thinking? We had three interns floating through, Cornelia hogging the desk, no space to turn around. We needed more attorneys, not a sixteen-year-old boy who looked like an ad for the Gap.
Dr. Okapu said: “Mr. Reilly told me to come today.”
Dawn said: “I don’t know what we can do about that,” and silence washed through the room like a wave. Dr. Okapu held his ground.
Finally Cornelia jumped in. “That’s super you’re working for us, Winston. Remember, Dawn? How Ted said we need somebody to messenger?”
She was right: the one thing we did need was a messenger, though we needed a plain old noun and not an infinitive. The clinic was a couple of blocks east of campus, on the raggedy edge of town. We moved it there so the people who needed our services wouldn’t be intimidated, and it worked—now we had so many cases we were backed up for months. But the lawyers needed to deliver documents to campus or grab articles from the law library. Why they couldn’t send Cornelia was a mystery, but I suppose it would have been beneath her sexy-young-wife-of-an-endowed-chair station.
Dawn got right in the spirit of things. “Oh, happy day!” she sang. “I missed the pick-up and I was going to have to hike over there.” She produced a Fed Ex envelope. “Do you know where the box is?”
Winston shook his head no while Dr. Okapu shook yes. He pinched at his son’s elbow: “I’ll drive you.”
Dawn said: “Do you have a bike, Winston?” and we all looked down at his sagging pants. He laughed, easily, and Cornelia laughed with him.
“He hasn’t had a bike since he was twelve years old,” his father sniffed, as if a teenager on a bike was the most unseemly concept he had ever imagined, and Winston said the first words he’d spoken: “I’m a fast walker.” He stuck his chin up in the air when he said it, just the way his father did, but his voice was low-pitched, self-assured. I liked him for it, liked him with such a rush of affection that I realized how much I missed having sixteen-year-old boys around, how much I needed someone with drooping pants in my life.
The entire first week, Winston stood by the door every afternoon, facing Cornelia’s desk, silent and attentive as the clients came and went. They thought he was a security guard, an unforeseen benefit. We begged him to sit, but he said he couldn’t take a seat the clients might need, and even when we scared up an extra chair he sat at attention, his spine straight. My opinion of Dr. Okapu, or at least of his child rearing, rose.
Sometimes when we had the office to ourselves Cornelia asked Winston for answers to the Times crossword puzzle—this kid who hoarded words was good with them—and sometimes she called him over to look at her computer screen. “Ooh, Winston, did you see this about the Bulls?” When she issued a summons, he rose slowly and went to stand behind her, neither stiff nor loose, waiting for her chatter to stop. Every now and again he flashed a wholly adult smile, as if he found her an amusing child. But she was flirting with him, and I didn’t like it. He was sixteen years old. “Who did your hair this week, Winston?” she’d say. “You ought to let me do it. I’d do it good. Mmm-hmm.”
When he went out on a pick-up she said: “I feel badly for him.”
“I feel bad,” I muttered. I wasn’t even sure she could hear me, but I was breathing hard in case she had.
“I do, too. I feel so bad”—a long pause, as if she’d finally figured out that I was correcting her—“the way he just sits here all the time.”
“Well, you certainly keep him amused.” My heart tightened like a fist.
After a minute she said she was just going out for a smoke. Glory be. I lived for these moments when she left, so I could talk to Dawn in private for a change, but Dawn looked me right in the eye and I knew that she had something to say.
“You have to go easy on her.”
I played dumb. “You think I’ve been giving her a hard time?”
Dawn produced a tight smile to say I knew perfectly well what I was doing. It reminded me of the way she smiled ten years ago, when they gave me the promotion. I joked then that she’d finally have the whole reception area to herself, but we both knew that the difference between our paychecks would get a little bigger each passing year. She’d been stuck in the secretarial pay grade forever, her salary two inches over the poverty line, and all because she was so good at it.
But aside from that tight little smile she never held it against me. Once, when Frank was in the middle of leaving me, a client went on a rampage in our office. She was a single mother, a large woman with ashy skin, and her gas had been cut off. “Look at these babies,” she bellowed, “gonna freeze all night.” I looked at the babies, bundled up on either side of her, and while I was looking she rose from her chair and threw it down in my direction. She herself was a bundle of flesh, her chins jiggling above a massive neck. She came at me with her fists raised. Dawn was the one who hooked her by the elbow and told her that her behavior was completely inappropriate and called the gas company and got her on her way. I was nonfunctional through the whole thing. After the woman left, I tripped on the chair she’d overturned, and then I tripped on the doorjamb, going back into my own office. I let out a silly panicked cry. I must have sounded like a trapped animal, because Dawn said:
“What’s wrong? Peg, what’s wrong?”
I began to sob. “It’s just too much,” I said. “The refugees and the mothers with their gas bills, it’s just too much.”
Dawn came running and put her arm around my shoulder. “Oh, Peg,” she said. “Oh, hon. It’s not the lady with the gas bill you’re crying for.” I sniffled and she got a case of the giggles. “It’s not the lady with the gas bill for whom you’re crying.”
We said, in unison: “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” because we’d both learned our grammar from the Sisters of St. Joseph. It cracked us up.
“Frank says I’m uptight.”
“Tell him to go soak his head in ginger ale.”
“He says I only send out the urgent action appeals so I can pat myself on the back. He says I only kept this job all these years so I could tell poor people what to do.”
“Tell him to soak his head in motor oil.”
“I don’t know what to do, Dawn. I don’t know what to do about the clients or Frank or anything.”
“You can only do what you do. One case at a time.”
“At least I’m not rampaging through the office. Do I just want a pat on the back?”