Helen Marks used to have a thing for the Happy Meal. It was worth the wait in the amorphous queue at the Wall-Street-themed McDonald’s under the streaming tickerboard. Oh, the sad little patty! Oh, the mushy white bun! The lone salty pickle, the blob of sugary ketchup! And the hamburger wasn’t even the point. The point was the tiny prize. She always asked for the girly prize: a Beanie Baby, or Hello Kitty, or spokescritter of the latest Disney offering. All in shades of pink. Shocking, or rosy, or tender, or loud: pink.

She had them arranged, her mute, smiling audience, along the top of her monitor and around the sides of her cubicle. Virgil Feliz, her friend from the Help Desk, was creeped out by it. “How can you work with everyone staring at you?” he said often, popping his head over their shared beige wall.

“How can I work in general?” she said, though she was managing, sort of. Productivity was important. It was patriotic. They would stick it to the terrorists through productivity.

“I hear you,” Virgil said, then returned to his gargantuan task, answering a perpetual phone ring, reassuring the weary and traumatized, telling them where to point and click, encouraging the reboot.

Helen didn’t go to McDonald’s much anymore. It wasn’t worth it. She would have to hike around the giant gaping hole in the sky. Back through police checkpoints, through workers laying new power and telephonic cable under the streets of Tribeca, streets dug into channels like the canals of old Amsterdam, then down to Broadway, and into the sickening pack of lookers. Grungy memorial gifts were everywhere down there, tacked to fences and walls, teddy bears growing crusty with ash, strings of faded origami birds. Tourists were having their photos taken in front of it: Miss, please, do you mind? The fire wasn’t even quite gone yet. Look, Ma, I was here! That, plus the fife player tweeting “God Bless America” over and over — it made her brain go spongy. It made her fists do something ugly. It made her lose her urge for a Happy Meal. The corporate cafeteria would do just fine. At least in there they were among their own. Everyone had the same emptied stare. Everyone had their work cut out. No one wanted pictures.

***

The world knew the layoffs were coming. Wall Street Journal: Singer Martin to Cut 5,000 Jobs. People discussed résumés in the elevator. Virgil had a running joke: Nice to see you! Nice to be seen! Whole departments were likely to get the chop.

When Helen got the call from Human Resources, she popped her head over the wall, but Virgil was on the phone. His look told her he knew already. The tech guys were “pre-notified,” just in time to cut off network permissions.

The HR guy, Nick Bartoni, looked exhausted. He was clean-shaven, but his face looked scraped raw, like he was fighting serious grown-up acne. He wore a suit, which was no longer required, probably intended to give the goodbye meetings a professional air, though the air had worn off by three o’clock. He gave her a short, tightly-canned speech: cost cutting, market woes, the need to reconfigure the organization as a whole. “The Quant department is just too big,” he said. Meaning they were keeping some of her colleagues, but not her. Her boss had gone through the roster and picked her.

“How many of these have you done today?” Helen asked.

He sighed, ran a hand through his sandy hair. This was the same guy who drank mojitos and danced a silly electric slide with her at the holiday party last year. He looked hollowed out. “You don’t wanna know.”

“Really. I do.”

He sank back into his generic chair. There was a stack of folders on his desk, at least twenty deep. “You’re the sixteenth.”

“Damn. How many you got left?”

He looked at the stack of folders. “You mean today, or altogether?”

He obviously didn’t want her to reply, so she didn’t. He looked her in the eye, a man on the edge of an abyss. Behind him was a sealed picture window. Outside, a big gap where the North Tower used to be. Light streamed in over the still-smoldering pit. Clouds, wispy cotton, dotted a stark, blue sky. Helen took a deep inhale, looked up at the blue. He slid a thick white packet across the desk.

“No pink slip?” she said.

He didn’t laugh. Her question was as old as the Catskills. “The package is as generous as we could make it,” he said.

“Thank you,” Helen replied, automatic. It’s what you say when someone gives you a package.

***

Helen had met Virgil on the day of the main event. She had been hearing him for over a year, on the other side of the wall, cooing to his lover on the phone, or patiently talking down hysterical users. Once, she had even wandered by to connect a face with the voice, but she didn’t say hello. She had pictured a Chelsea butch guy in a tight white tee shirt and wallet chain, but Virgil was small in stature and wore the nerd uniform of his techie brethren, a decent grey suit with the labels cut out, jacket draped over the back of his chair, white shirtsleeves rolled up over skinny forearms, lunch-stained tie. Next to his monitor was a framed photo of a fierce little pug in a rainbow sweater.

But she didn’t talk to him, not until she got an email from a London colleague: “Is it true a plane flew INTO the World Trade Center?” It wasn’t possible. That was right next door. She hadn’t heard a crash. Then people started running in the halls around her. Helen froze. And Virgil, bless him, strode right into her cubicle, laptop under his arm, stuffing phone and keys into his suit pockets.

“Grab your gym shoes,” he said. “Don’t leave your bag behind. You’ll need your phone.” He held out his hand. She took it, and didn’t let go, all the way down twenty flights of fire stairs and into the panicked streets. They stood outside their building trying to get phones to work, looking up at the tiny blaze. The fire was so far away, so high overhead, unreachable.

Virgil had started to cry. No one was in charge. “Don’t look at it,” she said, turning his head away, just as she saw something she knew she could not unsee. She gripped his hand, marched him to the mouth of the Brooklyn Bridge, and hugged him goodbye. Then, she took off her suit jacket and began the long hike to her apartment uptown. She did not look back. She was in Chinatown when the towers fell. She kept walking as the people around her stopped and stared at the spectacle, as if they were not going to see it over and over, forever, on their televisions. Virgil was still at the bridge when it all collapsed, Helen learned later. He was helping a stranger, an asthmatic. They both got a mouthful of ash, but they made it over the river.

They didn’t see each other again for a month. The office building was powerless and unsafe. Helen telecommuted. She called the Help Desk once, and Virgil answered. His voice was cool again, and tired. “This problem is expensive,” he kept saying. “There’s no way they can pay us all.”

“They won’t have layoffs. Not after this. That would be just cruel.”

But Singer Martin was not their mother. And he was camping out on a cot in a server room, some nights. He had smelled the rotten entrails of the dying beast.

After of month of cleanup, the headquarters was reopened. Helen’s Happy Meal characters welcomed her back to the warm cubicle. The apples she had left on her desk had been removed. She had been expecting a pool of decayed fruit flesh on her desk and the smell of hard cider made the hard way.

She had lunch with Virgil her first day back, in the third floor cafeteria. They didn’t talk much. People stared out the window, forks frozen in hand, all with that same far look. Feeling lucky and unlucky at the same time. The plaza outside, normally full of lunching suits, had been turned into a staging area — a flatbed truck and a shipping container plopped amid the stone picnic tables. On the plaza railing, facing the Hudson, was inscribed, in letters a foot tall, a quote from Walt Whitman: City of tall facades, of marble and iron — proud and passionate city — mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!

“Wanna hear something sick?” Virgil said, stabbing the yolk of his hard boiled egg. “The attacks are spawning new industries. The guys on the Desk are all talking about this biometrics outfit, you know those retinal scanners? Booming. The stock is about to take off. Is that blood money or what?”

“All money is blood money,” Helen said, quoting an old Econ professor. “The veins of New York are pumping with blood money.”

“More like bleeding out,” he said.

At the table next to them, a group of firemen hunched over their free lunches. They ate silently and slowly. They were keeping to themselves, avoiding the clean people with clean clothes and clean jobs.

“I think I’m done with New York,” Virgil said.

“How can you say that?” she replied. “There’s no place in the world like this.”

“New York is full of itself,” he said.

Helen disagreed. It seemed, to her, to be emptying itself out.

***

For two days, she didn’t tell anyone about getting sacked. Virgil didn’t call. Maybe it was one of those kinds of friendships, the trauma-friendship, the kind that doesn’t last past the trauma. She toyed with the idea of calling the Help Desk to ask for some Help. But he was busy enough, processing all the firings, killing off permissions.

She sat around in her apartment, flipping through channels, unable to get up and turn on the computer and mess with her résumé. She didn’t even bother looking at her mail. Not until it was unavoidable. A messenger with six file boxes labeled MARKS PERSONAL EFFECTS, packed with care by one of the temps, each Happy Meal toy shrouded in bubble wrap. She cried as she unwrapped them and arranged them on her cramped desk. The phone rang.

“Helen? What’s going on?” It was Mom. “I called you at the office and there was some girl on a recording saying you were no longer at the firm. Did you quit?”

“No. I’m a statistic.”

“You’re what?” Pause. “Oh. Oh, Helen. Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m fine. They gave me a package.” She tried her best to sound fine, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I still get paid for six months.”

“Dick? Dick?” Mom shouted into the house. “Pick up the phone, it’s Helen.”

“Helen?”

“Helen’s been laid off,” Mom said.

“Oh.” His disappointment struck Helen in the gut. She didn’t try to hide her tears anymore. She couldn’t, not from him.

***

One of her salient Singer Martin memories: waiting for a client lunch on the 33rd floor. The client was over a half hour late, and Helen had brought nothing to read. So she looked out the window. At the Hudson, filled with big chunks of ice, floating slowly to the Atlantic. The park along the shore, way, way below, dogs and children running like dots on the snow-covered grass. And inside, on one wall of the executive dining room, portraits of the CEO’s of the last fifty years, all authoritative, portly gentlemen in blue and gray suits. She inspected the portraits closely, noticed a slight evolution of style in the application of paint, a mini-art-history lesson for those who paid attention. In the earliest ones, the look was flat and no-nonsense, poses stiff but flattering, faces confident, the peaches and whites of skin blended seamlessly. But then, there came a gradual softening of the brushmarks as time passed and old artists were replaced. She put her face up close to the latest one, interesting for the dewiness of the man’s pink cheek, and for the glazed highlight in the corner of each blue eye, almost like a tear.

***

It was time to network, to put feelers out there, but Helen had no energy and no feelers. She finally gave in to Mom’s suggestion and went home for a little suburban R and R.

There, she found her twin bed, packed with stuffed animals, each with its own story and name and personality. The Dogs Playing Poker print still hung on the wall, a gift from Dad for her tenth birthday. She had forgotten the softness of her pink blanket, which she kept folded under her pillow and stroked as she went to sleep.

In New York, she hadn’t been sleeping well, but here, the dark, country quiet enveloped her and the dreams came, the ones she had been expecting. Some almost goofy, like one with her and Virgil getting on the elevator to go for drinks at Windows on the World. Halfway up, the elevator stops, and everyone gets out. “I’m sorry,” says a guard on the fiftieth floor. “The rest of the building is gone. This is as far as it goes.”

“They couldn’t tell us that in the lobby?” Virgil says.

“We are all on a need-to-know basis,” the guard says.

The worst dreams were nothing but memories, brought back into real time by sleep. Replaying that day, the endless trek down the crowded fire stairs, walking away from her office and wondering if she will ever go back. The smoke and papers flying and her hand turning Virgil’s head away, so he won’t see that thing, the thing Helen can’t unsee: a figure in a navy blue business suit, back first, then turning, flapping pink tie becoming closer and clearer.

Finally, she closes her eyes, shutting out the man, the suit, the thing. Shutting it out.

***

“So, what are you going to do while you’re here?” Mom asked over the breakfast table. Her cheeriness was grating sometimes, but not now. Now it was refreshing and restorative, like orange juice. “You know your painting stuff is still in the basement.”

“She should work on her résumé.” Dad put down his newspaper. “I can look it over for you, maybe show it to some of the guys at the club.”

“Dick, shush. The résumé can wait.” Even if Mom was wrong, Helen was relieved to have a spokesperson.

Dad gave one of his self-assured shrugs. “Maybe not, Marian. Gotta stay in the game while you still have some decent cards in your hand.”

“Cards!” Mom lit up. “What a great idea! Why don’t you come with me to my bridge club tomorrow? There’s bound to be room for you, Helly. Do you still play?”

“Not really.” Helen had learned when she was nine, much to her mother’s pride. Dad’s pride too, though he didn’t play. Bridge was a smart game, for smart girls, in his view.

Helen jabbed a toothpick between her two front teeth. They were crooked, crowded just enough to trap food at every meal. “I hate my teeth,” she muttered.

“What’s wrong with your teeth?” Dad said. “They’re perfect.”

“Look.” She bared them under the pendant kitchen light. Dad leaned in, the gray hairs of his nostrils huge. She could hear his wheezy breath as he studied her mouth. “They’re getting more crooked every year,” Helen said through frozen lips. “I can’t smile for photos anymore.”

“Let me see,” Mom said, leaning in too now, her floral perfume enveloping the trio. Something to focus on. A family barn raising, right here in Helen’s mouth. “Hm,” she said, and stood up. “I never noticed that before.”

“They look great,” Dad said, re-raising his shield of newspaper.

“You know, a lot of adults get braces now. Cindy, the church secretary, has them.”

“Mom, I’m thirty-four.”

“Why not?” Mom’s object was clear. Her mind made up. This would be Helen’s big project while she was home. “Isn’t your friend Jerry Steloff an orthodontist, hon?” Dad snapped his newspaper and hmmphed the affirmative. “Well, great. Good. Helen, we’ll get you an appointment.” Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. Come home, straighten her head, straighten her teeth. Go back to New York a new person.

***

Dr. Steloff’s assistant, Cheryl, was mixing putty in a little plastic dish. She was cute, pixie red hair and a Hello Kitty smock, probably worn for the younger patients, but Helen welcomed it. “Okay Helen, this stuff tastes nasty, but I can flavor it if you want. Do you want strawberry, mint, or piña colada?”

“Do you put rum in the piña colada?”

“That’s the best one, it covers up the plastic taste.”

“Make it a double.”

“Just taking an impression,” Cheryl murmured as she placed the curved cup over Helen’s upper teeth. “Bite down.” She put a suction tube in Helen’s mouth, which grew loud with her saliva, making her gums dry and uncomfortable. “Sorry, it’s disgusting, I know.”

“Mmmmhph.” Helen replied, trying not to gag. She let her mind drift while Cheryl pulled out the putty, then put another round on the lower teeth. There was a poster on the ceiling, an orange kitten hanging by his claws from a tree branch, the old saw caption below: Hang in there baby, Friday’s coming. The kitten looked scared. Helen had never noticed that before. Mortally terrified, like the fall from the tree was many stories, would be his last. It wasn’t funny at all. Friday’s coming. The kitten knew better than to count on that. Cheryl rinsed, asked her to spit. Helen obeyed.

“Well, Helen,” said Dr. Steloff, sweeping into the room with a big, perfect smile. He rode a rolling stool over next to her, focused a light on her face, and leaned in, his red beard showing hints of gray beneath his plastic face shield. “Let’s take a look. Open.” Helen obeyed again. His tie was dotted with tiny Elmer Fudds, mimicking the ruddy, round face inches from hers. “Okay, now bite down on this paper. Open again. Hmm. Bite again. Okay, I think we can help you.”

“Gooth.”

“I’m sorry?” He let go of her jaw.

“Good.”

He went in again with a tiny mirror, his blue eyes terrifyingly close. “Your dad says you work on Wall Street. What do you do?”

“Quanthithathid analytht.”

“Quantitative analyst? Interesting. I hope you’re enjoying your vacation.” Vacation? “I imagine you need it. The market has not been easy, has it?” Helen shook her head. “How soon you have to go back to the city?”

How to answer that? Had Dad been lying about her status? Dr. Steloff smiled, inches from her face, just another workday, hanging on cheerfully for a Friday that was surely coming. His fat wedding ring was studded with diamonds under the latex glove.

“I go bhack nextht week,” she said, before she could stop herself.

“But you’ll be able to come back here regularly to continue the orthodontia?” He pulled his fingers from her mouth, then ripped the gloves off, tossed them in a foot-controlled bin by his feet.

Helen stretched her jaw. “Sure,” she said. Why had Dad lied?

Steloff had rolled over to the counter, was looking in her chart, probably at the full-head x-ray from that mysterious booth Helen had sat in half an hour before. “I’ll just hop on Metro North,” she said. “A good excuse to see my folks.”

“Good girl.” He rolled back over and handed her a Dixie cup of water. He pulled off his face mask, rubbed his beard thoughtfully, looked at her straight on, like one would a peer. “Say, you would not believe what has happened to my stock portfolio.”

“I probably would.”

“I’m getting creamed. Bought a bunch of internet stocks, like an idiot. And now this terrorist thing.”

Helen didn’t answer. She knew better than to invest in tech companies with no foreseeable revenue. And she really didn’t feel like thinking about this terrorist “thing.” But she had lost money too.

Dr. Steloff wasn’t done talking. “But I keep thinking, there has to be something. If you don’t mind my asking. Your dad says you’re a real crackerjack. Isn’t there some way to invest, given the terror attacks? Awful, I know. Awful.”

“It’s a normal question.” Maybe it was a normal question, or maybe it was a horrific question, or maybe she just wanted him to think she was smart. “Aerospace-defense maybe,” she said, thinking aloud. “Or, this other new industry … “

“What? Tell me.” He rolled his chair closer, looked down at her with an intensity and desperation that she had seen plenty in her macho colleagues, day-trading addicts, glorified gamblers, everyone ready to pounce. The cartoon tie kept her talking.

“Well, security. Biometrics. There’s this company I like, RetImaging Systems. They’re developing those retinal scanners.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that, for identification.”

“Yeah, only these guys have patented a lot of the technology. And they also are developing the database aspect of it too, like a plug-in package you can use for, say, a corporate office or whatever. Building security. You know, or for secure computer logins.”

Dr. Steloff was sold. “What did you say they were called again?” His pen at the ready.

“RetImaging Systems. R-E-T-I-M-A-G-I-N-G.” Helen rinsed her mouth, spit into the bowl. Steloff wrote the name carefully. “They’re on the NASDAQ.”

“Wow. Superb. You’re my new favorite patient.”

***

Helen dug her old painting stuff out of the cabinet in the basement. She found a small canvas she had stretched and gessoed nearly twenty years ago, dusty but decent, and a box of paints, still alive with the addition of a little linseed oil. She set up a studio on a tarp on top of the pool table, laid the canvas under the hanging tavern light, and got to work. First, an undercoat of deep blue, then she scratched in the outline of five figures around a table: portly, authoritative men in business suits. Some had cards laid out on their felt tabletop, others held them to the breast. At the end of each jacket’s sleeve, she sketched in the paws of a bulldog or mastiff or collie or Saint Bernard. She giggled to herself as she mixed lead white, burnt umber, alizarin crimson, and vermilion with shiny oil on her glass palette, seeking the perfect shade of whiteboy pink for each of the faces of her five CEO’s.

Dad stepped out of his office on the side of the house, and through the sliding glass doors into the basement. “Whatcha doin?” he said, peering over her shoulder.

“Don’t you recognize it?” Helen giggled again, feeling the ache of the new spacers between her back teeth. “It’s the Dogs Playing Poker!”

“They don’t look quite like dogs.”

“No, but that’s what they really are.” Helen had forgotten the heady smell of the pigments and the linseed oil, the squishing of the paint under her palette knife. A feeling welled up with each squish, a release of something.

“Hmmm.” Dad said with a bemused shrug. “Interesting.” He headed for the stairs, for his punctual lunch in the kitchen, then turned. “Have you made any progress on that résumé?”

“Not really.” She did not look up.

He squared back. “How long are you going to do this?”

Until you stop lying to my orthodontist? She didn’t have the balls to say it. “I don’t know.”

“Your Mom needs help with the Christmas party.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll help her.”

“You can’t do this forever. You’ve got to stay on your game.”

Helen didn’t answer. She had found it, in the squish under her knife, the exact hue she had been looking for to shape the nose of her favorite CEO.

Dad turned, finally, and walked up the stairs.

***

“Well, how’s my favorite patient?” Dr. Steloff beamed and wheeled his stool over to the reclining chair. Bugs Bunny tie today. “Ready, Brace Face?”

“Ready.” She opened her mouth wide for him and he swabbed her gums dry with cotton, then wedged several pieces in to catch the spit. He was trying bands on her molars, for the right fit, then setting the winners on the tray beside him. The lamp was hot and she couldn’t look at the kitten poster. She closed her eyes.

“I’ll be putting some cement on your teeth here, so try not to swallow.”

“Okhay,” she said through the cotton.

“You know, Helen, I owe you a debt of gratitude. I bought RetImaging Systems at sixteen, the day you told me about it. Today it’s at twenty and a half! I can’t believe it. You found me the one stock that is going up.” He stuck the suction tube in her mouth. “Close your lips for a second. Okay, open.”

She felt a surge of pride in her good suggestion. Then a surge of something else. She thought of Virgil and the haunted cafeteria, the silent firemen eating their gift lunch. Mettlesome, mad, extravagant city! Paint squishing her glass palette. Blood money. Lunch. Lunch, squish, lunch.

“So what should I do now, boss, huh?” Steloff said. “Bite down on this stick.” She could feel the steel band closing around her tooth. “I love this stock! Should I double down?”

She hadn’t been following the story, but it didn’t sound right. There was no way the price could hold up. “I dhon’t know,” she struggled to say. “I habhen’t reawwy researthed it.” He held the stick again for her to bite down. Her jaw ached. “I think you thould thell.”

“Sell? It’s just getting good.”

“Trutht me.” She was annoyed at herself, at the phony confidence of her cotton-addled voice. She didn’t know. She was only following her gut. Lying to this innocent person in Looney Tunes attire. It violated every professional standard.

He backed away, set down his hands on his lap, still holding a pair of skinny pliers and that painful biting stick. “You sure? Sell? Hmm. Okay. Okay, I trusted you before. Okay. Okay, I’ll do it.”

“You won’t bhe thorry,” Helen said. She tried to smile as he inserted the suction tube again.

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?”

“Helen Marks.”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

Helen looked at the man, looking at the man in the painting. His calm smile, working at nothing. He looked familiar. She had seen him somewhere before, she was sure.

“Helen!” her mother shouted down the stairs. “Can you help me in the kitchen a moment?”

“Thank you,” she said pointedly to the stranger, and made her exit.

***

Mom was freaking out a little, in the privacy of the kitchen. “Your Dad told me what happened downstairs. I wish you’d be nicer to Jerry Steloff. He’s one of our biggest clients.”

“You mean one of Dad’s biggest clients.”

“I mean, we can’t afford to make him uncomfortable.”

Afford. It was possible Helen had never heard the word cross her mother’s lips before.

“I’m sorry.” Helen gulped. “I might be a little drunk.”

“It’s okay, we just have to be careful now is all.”

Silently, Helen helped her mother rinse glasses and put them in the dishwasher. Mom looked tired. Her Christmas sweater had a blob of tomato sauce staining the snowflake over her heart. Her hands were old, a hint of arthritis in the knuckles, liver spots haloing her diamond wedding ring.

“Who’s that guy, Mom? The one in the navy blue suit? The young one?”

“I didn’t see him.” Mom wiped the counter now with a sponge, her mouth firm, deliberate, too exhausted to smile.

“He was downstairs. By the bar.” Mom showed no recognition. “Was that this Brent dude you were talking about? Because if it was, I don’t think he likes girls.”

“Helen, honestly. Your negativity … ” Mom let her pursed lips finish the sentence.

Helen closed the dishwasher. Its click punctuated the silence. And in a flash of clarity, she remembered where she had seen that blue suit before. On another stranger, burned into memory: his back first, then spinning slowly in the air. Falling, pink tie flapping, limbs helpless against gravity and time, his whole body resigned to the fact that everything had already changed.

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