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Steloff smiled, spun around on his chair, then returned from the counter with a handful of little plastic brackets in bright candy colors: red, green, black, baby blue. “These go on your front and side teeth. You can pick your color while you wait for the cement to dry.”
She reached into the cup of his latexed hand, sorting through the tiny dots until she found the one she wanted. “Thith one,” she said, holding up the pink.
Helen dreamed she was sitting in the x-ray booth in Dr. Steloff’s office, her body covered with a lead apron. The machine moved slowly around her head, clicking and buzzing. And an overwhelming panic and paranoia. It is taking a picture. It is taking a picture of my brain. They will know everything.
The panic didn’t fade after she woke up. She had to do something. She grabbed the old princess phone from her nightstand and dialed the old Singer Martin Help Desk, hoping for a familiar voice. Maybe Virgil had heard more about RetImaging, or maybe she just wanted to know he was okay, or maybe she needed a deeper kind of help now, as she wound the tired pink coil of cord around her finger, again and again, the way she used to back in junior high, talking to her girlfriends.
“Help Desk.” The voice was high and nasal and fussy. It wasn’t him.
“Is Virgil Feliz on the Desk today?”
“Virgil left the firm.”
“Oh. Was he … downsized?” The tech guys probably process themselves last.
“Maybe. Who is this calling?”
“Weren’t you … ?”
“I was one of them. Yes. Do you have any way to reach him?”
“We can’t. Give that information out.”
“Of course. I’m sorry.”
Helen’s forefinger had swelled purple with blood. She unwound the cord, and watched the color fade.
Mom’s party had a big turnout: the ladies from the bridge club, Dad’s clients and golf cronies, a few friends from church. Mom kept talking about somebody’s kid, who was Helen’s age, a good-looking fellow named Brent. “He’s definitely coming. Single! You never know!” She kept winking as they put Ritz crackers and cheese cubes on a tray with a little cup of toothpicks. Helen ate a piece of cheddar, then had to poke a toothpick at the wires in her mouth to get the residue out. If her teeth were catching food before, they were starting a real collection now. The insides of her cheeks were full of canker sores. A swish of whisky was good to dull the pain.
For a while she helped Mom, as she had promised, refilling chip bowls and relish trays, refreshing people’s drinks. Helen came to this shindig every year, but this year was different, people commenting, or not commenting, on her pink braces. Awkward remarks about her job status from Mom’s friends, who all knew she had been laid off, and disturbingly cheery questions from Dad’s friends, who knew nothing at all. “So how is Singer Martin treating you? Your Dad is so proud of you.” Proud, indeed. So proud he couldn’t bear to share the truth: she was not good enough to be indispensable.
Helen answered with noncommittal smiles, hoping the pink teeth would prove distracting. She found herself refilling her glass more than she ever did at home. She had never been drunk in front of her parents. As her equilibrium started to give, she retired to the basement with a gaggle of men, among them Dr. Steloff, who challenged her to a game of pool. Her art studio had been removed, tarp folded up, paints stowed away, the Dog-CEO’s Playing Poker, nearly done, propped against the wall behind the bar. She accepted Steloff’s challenge, racked the balls, rolled them around and into place, then picked her favorite cue from the rack on the wall.
“Care to make it interesting?” he said, chalking his own stick.
“Nah. I don’t gamble.”
“No, you don’t, do you?” he replied, looking at her intensely now, reading her. “You’re no dummy. I never thanked you for suggesting I sell that RetImaging Systems. Have you been following it?”
She had. After failing to reach Virgil, she had taken matters into her own hands, on her father’s computer. “Yeah, it closed at eighteen today,” she said. “Rumors of litigation.”
“You got me out just in time, Helen. I’m telling you guys, this woman’s a real crackerjack. Your dad is right.” Woman. No more good girl. Some appreciative smiles from men twice her age, Dad watching quietly from the corner, pretending to listen to some guy blabber.
“Your break, Dr. Steloff,” she said, standing back, leaning on the cue for balance.
“Please. We’re not at work. Call me Jerry.”
“Okay, Jerry. Your break.”
Jerry Steloff had a couple drinks in him. It was a weak break, pocketed nothing, left several striped balls open for the taking. Helen zeroed in, the whisky bolstering her confidence, and sunk the ten ball into a side pocket, leaving a clear shot at the fourteen ball. There were advantages to growing up with a pool table in the basement.
She pocketed four balls before she got stuck, but was able to leave Steloff without a clear shot. The big rule — in pool, and life — as Dad had taught her: if you can’t make a shot, don’t leave one open. Steloff chalked his cue excessively, surveyed the table, seemed to realize he might actually lose to a woman, here, in front of his friends. He wore a boring gray sweater without any cartoon faces on it at all. “Helen, you’re good,” he said, his admiration adult, baldly sexual.
“I had a good teacher,” she said, looking up at Dad for approval, but he didn’t hear. Steloff aimed for the corner, but missed, leaving her a clear shot. She chalked, moved some people aside, and aimed.
“So what’s your next tip for me, huh, Helen?” interrupted Steloff. “There’s got to be something hot you’ve been hearing about at work.”
He rattled her. She made the shot, but left nothing for the next one. She looked up at Dad. He was deep in his own conversation. Steloff smiled with his crafted teeth, an overture, or desperation, or greed, she couldn’t tell. She paused, aiming for the cue ball, looked straight at her opponent, and said firmly, “I am not working now.” Then shot the nine ball between his cue and the rest of the balls, leaving him empty.
“I know, I know,” Steloff said. “I’m sorry. You’re not at the office. I’m sorry.” He made a clumsy attempt to shoot, but his face was flushed. “I’m sorry Helen. It’s a party. You don’t ask me about braces. I don’t ask you about stocks.” He backed away from the table, smiled into his bland sweater. The room had gone quiet. The men were all looking at the table.
“Actually, Jerry, what I meant was, I have no job.” Whisky and bile rose in her throat, voice a little louder than she meant it to be. “I was LET GO. I am UNEMPLOYED.” She paused. “And I cannot discuss your portfolio any more. I REALLY DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.”
And only the sound of balls hitting balls as she sunk the rest of the stripes and focused the yellowed cue on the final black one. Steloff was blushing fully now.
She looked over at the corner of the room, at Dad. He was looking right at her, pity and shame and disappointment shading his normally steadfast face. She held his eyes for a second until she couldn’t any more, then overshot. The cueball followed hers into the pocket. A scratch. Game over.
She walked over to Steloff, shook his clammy hand. “Congratulations,” she said. The room was too quiet. Dad, in the corner, looked right at her, shook his head, then turned and walked upstairs.
Helen needed another drink. She walked, as steadily as she could, to the bar, then behind it, dug through bottles to find the bourbon. A young man was leaning on the bar — handsome, dark hair, dark blue suit, brave pink tie. “Can I make you a drink?” she said.
“No, no. I was just looking at this painting.” He had a lilt to his voice. Helen suspected he preferred boys. His eyes were honest and harmless. She trusted him immediately.
The painting was still wet, but was turning out just as she had imagined it. Hours and hours of work had produced five CEO’s, like the ones in the old executive waiting room, their faces dewy and pink, their canine claws clutching cards in the highest-stake game of all.
“You did this?” said the man. She nodded. “It’s funny. But not really funny. It’s beautiful.” He was sincere, thoughtful, his gray eyes meeting hers without greed or fear. “This one especially.” He pointed to the CEO in the center, her favorite. Face soft, brushstrokes of pink and white and hints of yellow, a highlight in each blue eye that looked almost like a tear. The stranger looked straight into her for a second, understanding something, then back at the man in the painting. “It’s his skin tone, I think. It gives him an air of innocence. You almost feel sorry for him. He doesn’t know what’s about to hit him.”