In memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa

He was a short man, five-two or so, no taller than I am. Straightaway I mistrusted him.

“My family and I are coming from Rwanda.” He would not meet my eye. He swept away imaginary dust from the seat I offered, waved off my offer of coffee, snorted when I said then how about tea. His feet dangled down from the big plastic clinic chair the same way mine did: like a child’s.

I had not seen a Rwandan that short. Not that I had a large sample to compare—maybe twenty Rwandans had streamed into Greenglass after the genocide, with their children and their adopted children and any little ones they could grab up and pass off as their children, and they were all tall, even the Hutus in mixed marriages. Greenglass has been taking in refugees since the Vietnamese boat people: Lebanese, Somalis, Kurds, Cambodians, Croatians, Bosnians. The interfaith council gets them here, and then God help them. Last year a Kosovar kid slashed five black girls in the Greenglass Middle School lunchroom with a razor blade. We’ve had our share of suicides.

I took out a legal pad and wrote down all the business you record about people whose lives have been ripped from them—not that I believed for a minute that this man was Rwandan. I would have staked my job on it. But I played along, told him that so far we’d had good luck with judges moving things along quickly. His was a very late request but we’d see what we could do. I could have one of the attorneys interview him tomorrow, and meanwhile he might think about any kind of trauma that would help account for the delay. That was going farther than I was supposed to go.

He wouldn’t look at me—he turned his torso almost to a right angle—but when I said he should bring all of his papers when he came back, all of them, he swung around and stared hard, straight at me.

“We are not coming from Rwanda.”

“Well, how long did you think it was going to be before somebody figured that out?” I didn’t usually speak to the clients that way, but then, the clients didn’t usually treat me this way, either.

He matched any evil eye my ex-husband ever cast my way and lifted his chin. “We are coming from Nigeria.”

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

“Because I have heard that the lawyers speak only to Rwandans. Because I am not telling my private business to any busybody.”

I drew my own chin up, offended that he expected me to confuse one suffering African for another. “Mr. Okapu, I am not a busybody. I am the case manager. I compile the information the attorneys will need to interview you.” And I slashed through Rwanda, rather dramatically I admit, and wrote Nigeria in block letters big enough for him to read upside down. Then I affected a businesslike tone to indicate how uninterested I was in his private business.

“Perhaps you would be good enough to tell me the basis for your claim.”

A minute passed, but I did not so much as tap my pen. Finally he said: “Doctor Okapu.”

“Dr. Okapu, perhaps you would be good enough….”

“Write that I was helping Ken Saro-Wiwa.”

The little man might as well have slapped me. I could not write a word.

“That is spelled—”

“Yes, actually, I know how it’s spelled.” I knew how it was spelled because for a long time, around the time of my divorce, I thought I had killed Ken Saro-Wiwa. I was part of an urgent-action network—the do-gooders, my husband Frank called us—that sent telegrams and letters for political prisoners around the world. The bulletins asking me to beg for Saro-Wiwa’s life came thick and fast, and though usually I answered execution appeals like those the night they arrived, these I piled up by the computer with all the unanswered mail. Around that time I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my plans to put ground glass in Frank’s granola or to lob a hand grenade into his girlfriend’s condo. I drifted off to take two-hour naps and showers while I plotted revenge. In the morning I woke dizzy with guilt—I had to write about that guy, that Sorro-whatsis, but by then I was running late for work.

I never did write a letter, not one, never lifted a hand to phone in a telegram, because I was falling apart, because I was so humiliated those days after my husband betrayed me that I could barely dress myself, much less save someone. The Efficiency Queen, Frank used to call me. But I, who had recently been so competent, so on top of our three sons’ flights back and forth from college and grad school and the dry cleaning and the lectures and the dinner parties—not to mention the urgent appeals—I, the Efficiency Queen, let the dirty linen pile high and the unanswered envelopes flutter to the floor.

And one morning not long after they sentenced him, I opened the paper and saw that they’d executed Ken Saro-Wiwa. How could that be, so soon? I let out a howl I can still hear ringing in my own ears. I’d done it. I’d let him die.

Maybe you know who Saro-Wiwa is, though I can’t say anybody I’ve told the story to the last couple of years remembers. He was a big deal in Nigerian TV, a writer, the bulletins said, and he’d been organizing the Ogoni people to stop Shell and the other oil companies from fouling up their tribal lands. The Nigerian government cooked up conspiracy charges against him and threw him in prison but everybody figured they wouldn’t really execute a famous person like that, a guy who preached nonviolence. Then, while the whole world drifted off, they hanged him.

So now I was the one who couldn’t meet the little man’s eyes. “Are you Ogoni?” I was practically whispering.

He must have gone back to staring at the wall, because that was what he was doing when I finally had the courage to look.

“What a fascinating guy!” Cornelia said as soon as the door clicked behind him. She had recently arrived in Greenglass from New York, and I was still surprised to hear her breathing the enthusiasms of the Midwest. Already she’d ingratiated herself, learned to parrot the local accent. The powers that be had decided that even though there was no more money for poverty law there was money enough to hire Cornelia part-time to help me manage cases I could handle perfectly well on my own.

“What did you think was so fascinating about him?” I strained for civility through the doorway. The space was so tiny—Cornelia and Dawn, the secretary, sat right outside my office—that we didn’t even need to raise our voices. In fact, I had to concentrate on holding my voice down, to keep the contempt out. It wasn’t even Cornelia’s fault. I hated her because she was in her twenties, because she was blond and lush, because she wore low-cut clingy blouses so we could all see her perfect plummy breasts when she leaned over. I hated her most of all because she’d married an old slob who dumped his wife to take up with her. He’d been some official in the first Clinton administration, and now he’d accepted an endowed chair in our poly sci department, because out here in the middle of nowhere they would pay him kazillions of dollars and he could hide from the Scorned Woman. Cornelia was perfectly pleasant—she tried really, really hard—and that made me hate her even more. She said awesome. In the Midwest, she picked up super.

“He was so secretive. Want to fill me in?” As if she hadn’t already heard every word.

“I’ll let Ted know,” I said.

“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.

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?”

She patted me on the back. “Some prisoner needs you to write a letter and you write it, and then you have to feel guilty too?”

I loved her for saying that. “I am wound a little tight.”

“So what? If it keeps you doing what you have to do.”

“I am a little controlling. A little judgmental.”

She got the giggles again—twice in one day—and I told her I’d better hide at my desk because here came a client. But back in my office I began to cry again, and she let me, all afternoon. The Efficiency Queen wept profusely at her desk, and the clients stared in at me as if a madwoman had taken up residence. I felt I was sliding down a long dark chute. I tried to remember what the lady with the gas bill had looked like, but I could only see her chins, her neck, her bundles. At the end of the day Dawn brought me my coat and as she was handing it over she said: “Frank is an arrogant prick.”

I’d never heard such a word from her lips. “I thought you liked Frank.”

“Now you know.”

And now she said: “Mind if I go out there and have a smoke too?”

“’Course not. I’ll hold the fort.” I was returning the little smile, I guess. All the secretaries smoked—there was nothing you could do about it—but since Cornelia came Dawn was up to a couple of packs a day. I wanted to tell her that I’d seen Cornelia scoop up two and three dollars in change from petty cash to go get her afternoon latté, that sometimes she called up her Victoria’s Secret page on the screen all afternoon to torment Winston. My heart raced and my thoughts did, too.

The two of them were gone forever. They must have gone for a walk, or for coffee, or to talk over how I was abusing Cornelia. I heard Winston come back—I looked over my shoulder, to make sure it wasn’t a client—and he saluted, a funny, charming gesture. I saluted back.

But after a while I imagined he was standing in my doorway and when I looked over my shoulder again to reassure myself, he was standing in the doorway. I gasped, the way you do when anybody surprises you.

“Pretty scary, big black guy coming at you.”

It was a joke. I laughed. “You don’t scare me as much as some of the lawyers do.”

He said: “That’s what I wanted to ask you about. You think my father has a shot at asylum?” It was the longest string of words I’d heard from him and he left me as speechless as his father had, that first day. Ted, who was usually so optimistic, had been hedging about the case.

“How old were you, when you came over?” I shouldn’t have been asking him that. It didn’t matter how old he was.

“Six.”

“And your brothers? Were they born in Nigeria?”

“Yeah. I think they were, like, one and two when we got here. I know Buster cried the whole flight.”

So Dr. Okapu brought three little children with him to America. And called his baby Buster. It probably would have been better if he’d just kept living below the radar, if he’d never filed for asylum.

“I don’t want to go to Nigeria.” Winston’s eyes bore down on me. “I don’t even remember what it’s like. They execute anybody who protests there.” They execute…. Maybe he just knew how desperate I felt, too, sometimes, how my heart pounded so hard I thought it might fly away. Maybe that was why Winston Okapu stood in my doorway, asking me to perform some miracle.

The night Winston asked me to help him I went home and switched on the computer before I had a bite of dinner. I thought I could type in Ken Saro-wiwa and finish up with my guilt—so much time had passed, nobody knew who he was—but page after page of Saro-wiwa opened up to me. I’d never imagined a face to go along with my concept of the man, but there he was, a beaming man of fifty-four, the same age I was, sentenced to hang. Every photo showed him smiling, large perfect teeth gleaming under a jaunty mustache. In every shot he looked straight in the camera’s eye. I couldn’t bring myself to read about him—it was a judgment on me, on how I never lifted a finger to help—and when I put the computer to sleep I imagined it was haunted.

My night was haunted too. I counted Ogonis and Rwandans and Kosovars, mothers who couldn’t pay the gas bill or the light bill or the rent. Their crowded faces floated above me in my lonely bed, too many, too many souls clamoring, speaking an English I couldn’t understand. Dawn came to me in my twilight sleep—One case at a time. One letter at a time. Go easy, go easy, go easy—and I drifted off for a little while.

But I couldn’t stop my heart from pounding. The next day at work I got up and closed the door, as if I were about to leer at pornography, and I typed in the name again. His story sprouted into electronic buds: Saro-wiwa the novelist, the television producer, the activist. His last words to the court were inscribed on the screen, the way they might have been carved in stone a century ago. He sent his five children to England for their schooling, but one of them had a heart condition and died, in the middle of a rugby match.

A rugby match. I imagined him in Nigeria, getting the call. Your son is dead, a continent away. Your son has collapsed on the field. Behind my closed door, my eyes filled, but this time I knew it wasn’t Ken Saro-wiwa I was crying for. It wasn’t Saro-wiwa for whom I was crying. I was crying for me, for my own sons, who’d gone off to lead their own lives. I was standing on the sidelines at their soccer games, the hot Greenglass sun beating down on the barren field. And when we got home I was berating their father for insisting they play and then holing up in his office to work on his latest project. As soon as the youngest left for college—he went back East, the way his brothers had—Frank started a brand new project, a tall assistant professor in fishnet stockings and breasts out to here. Our sons sobbed like babies over the phone when we told them and I could see the rest of my life rolling out with no one to hold in my arms, no one to touch. I felt good and sorry for myself. Right now, for all I knew, my boys were dating ambitious Wellesley girls who said between you and I. I could have taken the computer and heaved it through the window.

Only there was Ken Saro-Wiwa’s smile on the screen. They arrested him, once, twice, and when he got out of jail he demonstrated all over again. They tried to kill him, and here he was. I was the one who was dead, the one whose vision was so narrow I’d never thought of a route out of this grim college town. Why couldn’t I move back East? Why couldn’t I find myself a job in another legal aid clinic and take night classes and get my degree? Why didn’t I just roll up my sleeves and pull up my socks? I tried to picture a time when Frank had been tender to me, but I only remembered our boys making us pose for snapshots, his arm a log on my shoulder, my whole body flinching. Dawn was right: he was an arrogant prick. Why’d I pretend he’d broken my heart? And why—this came out of nowhere—why, if Winston’s family were deported, couldn’t I take Winston in? If I were in a big city I could say he was Rwandan, that I had adopted him. Nobody would think that was odd. My mind was racing. I tried to remember how many cups of coffee I’d had, how many hours of sleep.

A rap at my door. I started the way I did when Winston stood there. “Come in,” I called, and realized too late that I should have erased the screen. Dr. Okapu stood in my doorway, and when I swiveled around, I was sure he could see Ken Saro-wiwa smiling behind my chair. He didn’t say a word about the computer screen, though. He gazed at a spot on the wall above my right shoulder and said: “No one is in this office.”

“They’ve probably just gone out for a smoke.”

“Where is my son?” He addressed me as if I’d kidnapped Winston.

“He must be on an errand, Dr. Okapu.”

“Where is that…young woman? Who says her husband knows people in the State Department?”

“Cornelia?”

“I need to speak to her.”

“Oh, Dr. Okapu, does Ted know Cornelia’s getting involved?”

“Ted!” He might have been spitting. “Mr. Ted Reilly has done nothing for us but get us deported.”

“Deported? He hasn’t said a word about that.”

“How else can this end, if we don’t get asylum?”

We stared to the right of one another. Finally—I knew I shouldn’t have said it, I knew it—I said, “Dr. Okapu, if you do go back to Nigeria, I could take Winston in.”

Now he did spit, a slow sizzle through the gap in his front teeth. “Do you think I can’t take care of my own sons?”

“No, Dr. Okapu, of course not.”

“That I would hand them over? To—” He swept his arm across the room until it stopped at me. Then he pivoted on one heel and marched out. From the outer office he called: “Perhaps you would be good enough to ask Cornelia to call me.”

Ted said the judge looked at Dr. Okapu, who was describing how he’d been photographed during a demonstration, as if he were a shifty-eyed drug dealer. “Which he was—well, the shifty-eyed part.” Ted waited for me to tell him not to call a client shifty-eyed. “Why couldn’t he just look the judge in the eye? If he wants to stay so bad.” Still I didn’t say anything. “So badly? If he wants to stay so much.”

“Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Not looking people in the eye.”

“He damn well better learn that much about this culture.” I’d never seen Ted that angry at a client. Dr. Okapu had shamed him in front of a big-deal federal judge.

“Will they be deported?”

“Well, you know….” What Ted meant, in those pre-9/11 days, was that the judge would deny asylum and issue a deportation order, but if Dr. Okapu really wanted to stay he could just disappear into the South Side of Chicago or even the West Side of Greenglass. He could get a new social security number for a thousand bucks, and Ted could probably tell him where to buy it—but he would always be looking over his shoulder.

“Do you think he really demonstrated with Saro-wiwa?”

But Ted was an attorney and knew better than to answer that question. He shrugged and left for the law school to teach his afternoon class, and I began to practice the blank faces I could wear when Winston came in after school.

“Bad news for the Okapu family?” I could have throttled Cornelia. Her husband was supposed to be seeing what he could do, but I doubted she’d even told him about the case. She strolled off in the afternoons with one intern or the other, and the petty cash box was always empty.

And then when Winston came in an hour later, she let out a squeal. He was wearing a new basketball jersey. “You made varsity!” He flashed his golden smile, went to his chair, sat at attention.

“Winston! “ Cornelia wagged her finger. “Come let me give you a hug!”

He obeyed, slowly. She more than hugged him: she did a bump and a grind. I retreated to my office so I wouldn’t say anything nasty, but from inside I could hear her carrying on: “You’re going to have girls crawling all over you, Winston, you know you are. This is super. This is awesome. Varsity. Oh baby, I am proud of you. Are you going to let me do your hair now? Come on, let me braid you for the first home game, say you will.”

I cleared my throat. The office settled down. But after a few minutes I heard her say:

“Come look at this one. You should see me in this,” and I jumped to my feet and called her name. I would have dragged her into my office by the scruff of her neck if she had not come willingly. I met her halfway.

“Please close that door.”

She did. Showdown in the O.K. Legal Clinic Corral. We were six inches from each other. I could smell her Chanel. She was wearing a suit that might have been Chanel too, for all I knew, pink plaid over her curvy little hips.

“Cornelia, that boy is sixteen years old.”

She looked at me as if I were mad.

“You have to stop tormenting him.”

Now she was the one practicing blank faces. “I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you.”

“To offend me?”

She scrunched the left side of her mouth. “Maybe you identify him with your own sons.”

“This has nothing to do with me.”

“Have you ever heard of projecting?” she said. “Because, you may not be aware of it, but white people do that—.” She stopped dead. She must have seen my face turning a floral shade of purple. I could hear my heart fluttering like a bird in my chest. “And also I think maybe you identify me with whomever busted up your marriage.”

A little strangled cry left my throat. “Whoever busted up my marriage.”

“I don’t know who busted up your marriage,” she said. “Just between you and I—”

“It’s just between you and me.” I was calm at first, but I began to repeat myself, and in the chorus I heard myself picking up the pace. “You and me. You and me. You and me.” I took a step forward. I slapped her in rhythm to my words, left cheek, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek. She was so surprised she let me, and I was so surprised I kept at it. I remember barking, “You steal the petty cash from a poor people’s clinic,” but Dawn says I said more, lots more, about stealing people’s husbands and stealing young men’s dignity. Dawn and I had a good giggle about it later, but right then I wasn’t giggling. I had progressed to shaking Cornelia by the shoulders and evidently I was rattling her teeth, because when Dawn and Winston burst in they both looked terrified, as if I were a marauding stranger. Cornelia was trying to push me away with her slender Chaneled wrists, so they peeled me off and Dawn pinned me against the wall.

“Just between you and me,” I called to Cornelia, “I already know I’m uptight and judgmental and guilt-ridden. Ha!” I actually said ha. I was elated. It was all a big joke, though a joke on whom I’m not sure I could have said. Maybe I’d hit the bottom of the chute. I could finally remember what that lady with the gas bill looked like: above her chins a full mouth painted purple, a broad nose breathing fire. Her small eyes were wide-set, white-hot coals.

They offered me psychiatric help, but once I’d breathed my own fire, I felt saner than I had in thirty years. So of course they had to let me go. After a couple of weeks, my heart slowed its fluttering and my mind didn’t race as fast, so I called Ted to beg him to make Dawn the case manager. I was too late. Cornelia had already moved into my office.

But it turned out there were still a few months between the homeless shelter and me, so I took my time, figuring out where I was going. I didn’t need to save Winston anymore. To everyone’s surprise, the Okapu’s asylum came through. Ted said somebody pretty high up in the State Department sent such a strong letter the judge didn’t have a choice. Now Dr. Okapu actually had a green card, though he didn’t have a job to go with it. He still sold leather jackets at a flea market on the outskirts of town, one of those places where green cards are as irrelevant as the provenance of the jackets. Dawn told me how to get there.

Under the low winter sky, with shopping bags floating through the slushy parking lot, the place looked as depressed as the rest of Greenglass. A plastic yellow sign on wheels announced the latest load fallen off the truck. I recognized a Kosovar woman getting into her car: the mother of that kid who lost it in the middle school. People endured unspeakable sorrow and came all this way looking for a little peace, and instead they got more struggle.

I entered the long, low shed and spied Dr. Okapu straightaway. He was wearing an old-fashioned fedora—a gray professor’s hat—but he was playing the huckster, roaming the aisle in front of his stall, gesturing and putting his arm around a customer’s shoulder. He looked taller in the hat. I still had no idea whether he was the good guy or the bad guy, but when I got close, I saw that he had framed a picture of Ken Saro-wiwa for the back of his stall. In this dreary bazaar in this dreary town, Saro-wiwa beamed down on me. I froze, but I made myself meet his smiling gaze, so full of life that you could imagine people all over the world remembering him and rolling up their sleeves, pulling up their socks, marching out to stop the oil companies and the gas companies and the military dictators. Beneath the picture, Dr. Okapu had set up a narrow table with two candles on it: a kind of an altar. He’d made a saint of Ken Saro-wiwa and already I was doing the same, when the truth was, I didn’t know any more about him than I knew about Dr. Okapu, or about Cornelia for that matter.

I waited till Dr. Okapu finished with his customer. When he spotted me, he nodded in that remote, formal way of his, but then he relented and flashed a large gap-toothed smile. “You should read about this man,” he said. “A great man. I can give you a book.”

Did I take a step backward? No, his arm was around my shoulder, and I was trying not to flinch. “Thanks.”

“I’m the one who owes you thanks,” he said, in that unexpected high pitch. He thought I had something to do with the asylum.

“That was Cornelia who helped.” It wasn’t an easy sentence to choke out.

“Now, now, you mustn’t be modest.” He was a different man on his own territory, no longer at the mercy of lawyers and judges and case managers on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

“No, really. I’m not responsible. I just came to ask if everything is OK with you and Winston. I…he’s a lovely boy.”

“He is a good son,” his father said, and when he squeezed my shoulder, his eyes filled. He was a big mush—who would have guessed?

“Isn’t there anything I can do for him? Anything I can do for you?”

Dr. Okapu let out a deep belly laugh, the first laugh I had ever heard from him. “Oh, no, my dear lady, I think we must agree that it’s my turn now.” He pressed me tight against his rib, and his laughter trailed off. “Isn’t there anything I can do for you?”

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