The cherry wood heart.
He was seventy-seven then and I'd just turned twenty-five, the undistinguished graduate of an undistinguished law school. When he arrived to my interview fifteen minutes early, I was already waiting on the steps outside the office, a Queen Anne house with a wraparound veranda, porte-cochere, and an American flag that hung from a porch post. It was after hours, early autumn, and he'd come from home, dressed in a drab flannel shirt and what used to be called dungarees, looking more like a farmer than a lawyer.
He unlocked the front door with an oversized key and ushered me into the library where we took our places at a long conference table. He began by asking me flat-out why I wanted this job and I told him that I'd become a lawyer because I wanted to solve problems. I'd used this line before. "You don't need to be a lawyer to solve problems," he said. "There'll always be plenty of those and always plenty of lawyers." His smile evaporated. "But that wasn't the question. I know you want a job. I asked why you want this job." He glared at me as if I were an intransigent witness who was wasting both the court's time and his, and so I told him the truth. I said, "I came here for a girl," and then I told him about Liss.
She was born Clarissa but her family called her Liss on account of the way she mispronounced her name as a child. Her father had left before she was in high school and her mother took it hard. By the time she'd graduated from college, the mother had remarried and moved to Boulder and her two older sisters split off for opposite coasts, leaving Liss and her younger brother Perry here in New Cardiff, where she worked at a daycare center called the Apples and Oranges School and he rented a room above the movie theatre. Still, they remained a family enamored of itself, of the idea of being a family. New Cardiff was the seat of Crocker County--both the circuit courthouse and Quetsch's office were located here--but more important, it was where Liss lived and worked, and that was why I wanted this job.
I told Quetsch more about Liss than about myself, and he listened with his eyes closed and his head hung low, saying nothing except an occasional antiphonal "yes." When I was through, he raised his head. "Well, the job's yours," he said, "but let's get one thing straight." He smacked the table with the palm of his hand. "This is my show and I won't put up with any monkey business. Understand?" It was an expression my grandparents had applied to my mother throughout my childhood. "Funny stuff." "Shenanigans." "Monkey business." My very existence was what came of my mother's monkey business.
I was conceived on a commune in far upstate New York, a Christmas tree farm within spitting distance of the Canadian border. My father was a carpenter and nineteen years old, and in my last trimester he crossed over to avoid the demands of fatherhood and the Selective Service System. This was all I knew of him. My mother died in a jeep accident when I was two, whereupon I moved into her parents' house in Flushing, Queens. Though they were younger then than I am now, what I mostly remember were small hours spent among small people in small, stale rooms, and when the surviving members of the commune sold the farm to a developer, my mother's share of the proceeds paid for the better part of my college and law school educations.
Quetsch told me what the job paid and when to start, and then he walked me out and shook my hand. It was dark now. Before I'd reached my car, he called after me, "Now you take good care of that girl of yours." Liss came by the office on my first day and insisted on meeting him, and whenever she dropped by thereafter, hearing her voice or maybe just registering the change in mine, he'd come downstairs or call her upstairs, almost crooning. Though he clearly loved her--loved her, I think, before he ever saw her--I don't know if he loved her for herself or for what she meant to me. It was Liss who invited him to our wedding, who impressed on him that he was its sine qua non, that but for him and the chance he'd given me there might be no wedding.
The wedding took place in our apartment, the top floor of a two-family house, which the downstairs landlady leased to us with the understanding that we wouldn't cohabitate until we were husband and wife, and when Liss invited her to the wedding, she cried. We moved our things in on New Year's Day and warmed the house with our wedding the following afternoon. The Quetsches gave us a check and a thirty-year-old bottle of port in a flannel sack, which he suggested saving for "a special occasion." The landlady brought a big blond cake laced with rum and with a ceramic trinket baked inside--a tiny infant which represented either the baby Jesus or a fertility charm, though the point became moot when the justice of the peace fished the baby from his mouth. Most of the firm was there, along with the faculty of the Apples and Oranges School. No family attended, but Liss had counted on her brother Perry coming. Though I was secretly happy he hadn't come and though I doubt any of our guests could sense it, a current of sadness ran through the afternoon, Liss's sadness, and I hated him for it.
But it's wrong to say no family attended because in a very real sense the office became my family, however dysfunctional. It was strictly a civil practice, built largely on insurance defense, but a good chunk of this had disappeared two years earlier when Quetsch refused to make his son partner and the son started his own practice in the next town over, and the two stopped speaking. Besides Quetsch and myself, there were three other attorneys then--Bill Philips, who concentrated on real estate, closely held corporations, and estate planning; Walter Wyman, who did workers' compensation and insurance subrogation; and Jim Field, who mostly handled our appeals and whose office adjoined mine. Quetsch and three secretaries worked upstairs on the second floor, while the four of us had offices on the ground floor. But we were a family and I was its youngest member, the good son, and happy to be among them, and I think they loved me for it, all of them.
It was around this time that I began to receive telephone calls at the office from a certain Ray Glisovich. Ray Glisovich, I knew, was my father's name, and I wouldn't take or return his calls. At first, I was frozen by the simple strangeness of it, the awkwardness; I found it profoundly embarrassing. My embarrassment evolved into anger--at my father and at my own failure of feeling. He never left a message, only a telephone number with a Massachusetts area code, so that his calls became a sort of running joke with the secretaries: the mysterious Ray Glisovich or Ray or R. G. And though I never told Liss about these calls, I never threw his messages away, but rather accumulated a stack of little pink pages headed "While You Were Out" and kept them on a shelf in my office under a heart-shaped paperweight.
Before I was born, my father carved a heart from a block of cherry wood and gave it to my mother. I suppose that, in a way, it was a quintessential sixties artifact; still it was a fine thing in itself, dark and hard, with the size and heft of an apple. Roundness pleases, and the cherry wood heart had an almost sexual shape and smoothness, polished by her hands, then mine, but knotted with dark feeling, like a tumor that, once removed, I somehow couldn't part with. I've heard of people holding onto baby teeth, kidney stones, even umbilical cords. In Vietnam, Bill Philips lost a leg to a Claymore mine and had the shrapnel removed from the other leg set in a cube of amber, which he kept on a corner of his desk. Jim Field's grandfather had been a drunk who played a red and gold pennywhistle for change on Grafton Street and on which Field would now play sad old Irish airs with his feet propped up on his desk. Though you might call these conversation pieces, neither man had much to say about them, and this was something I could understand.
My office was on the first floor, off the lobby. A century earlier it likely served as the home's front parlor, with stained glass windowpanes and mahogany wainscoting. I spent a lot of time at the office, far more than the others, not so much because I was a hard worker (though I was that, too), but because I didn't want to disappoint the old man. He was the first one in every morning and I was invariably the second and always the last to leave. It was, as I say, a civil practice in every sense of the word, and the affection I felt in the office extended to the lawyers we did business with, even our opponents, half of whom had worked for Quetsch early on in their careers, as did some of the judges. It seemed to me that the office, the courthouse, and that entire Our Town town were filled with love, more love than my mother and my father and their entire commune could ever have dreamed of. I felt it from the Polish dry cleaners and the stationer with his tartan eye-patch and the landlady, who'd look out for me when I walked home for lunch and meet me in the driveway with a plate of lasagna, and sometimes Liss would come home, too, and we'd make love on a mattress set on top of a box spring and cover the radiator vent in the floor with a pillow. Climbing the outside stairs and passing through the screened porch, I felt as if I were entering a tree house, with its low ceilings and old furnishings, though all of it was new to us. On Friday nights we'd have dinner at an Italian place called Armando's and on Saturday nights we'd walk to the movies and afterwards stop for ice cream where they always knew our favorite flavors, and then we'd take the long way home, looping through the old neighborhoods with their fine old houses spilling buttery light, the old courthouse looming behind it all like a mountain in the dark and always with a single window lighted on the top floor.
The call came at a little after four in the morning. We'd just made love as we used to then, hardly waking, our bodies falling through the dark and finding each other. I was asleep when the phone rang and Liss went to answer it. When she didn't return, I went to the kitchen. She stood naked on the linoleum floor with her back to me. Then she quietly set the phone down, so as not to wake the landlady, and turned to me with the saddest face. "Perry's in jail," she said. "I need you to go save him."
I dressed quickly and drove to the Crocker County Sheriff's office. A deputy at the desk explained matter-of-factly that Perry had been arrested for residential burglary and led me into a small room with buzzing fluorescent lights. Soon Perry was brought in wearing a baggy orange jumpsuit. He looked frightened and lost and younger than I remembered, but as soon as he saw me his face broke into a delighted smile, as if we'd just run into each other at a party. We sat across a table from each other, and when I asked him what had happened, he said, "You must have a pretty good guess."
He leaned across the table. "I've got a thing for cameras."
"I didn't care about the other stuff," he said, excited now. "My buddies could have all that. But cameras? You'd be surprised what some of these folks have. Some real beauties, Ralph. Leicas, Zeisses. One old guy had a Swedish army camera. You know how rare those are?"
I scoured my memory for what little I knew about criminal procedure. "Did they search you?"
"You bet. My apartment, my car. They even had me empty my pockets."
"Did they show you a search warrant?"
"Sure," he said. "Two of them, for all the good it did them."
"Listen, Perry." I moved my face closer to his. "If I'm going to be of any use to you, you're going to have to be a lot less cryptic. Okay?"
"Comprendo." He looked as if he were trying not to laugh.
"So did they or didn't they--"
"See, that's the thing, Ralph." He glanced over one shoulder, then the other, though no one else was in the room. "I pawned the stuff and somehow they knew where to check. Way the hell over in Elgin. That doesn't seem fair. I mean, is that even within their jurisdiction? Is that the right word, Ralph? Jurisdiction?"
I leaned in closer. "If you had such a hard-on for cameras, why'd you go and hock them?"
He flashed a goofy grin. "Man's gotta eat."
"Did they get any of the other guys?" I asked. "Your buddies?"
"Get? You mean like arrest?" I nodded. "See, that's the other thing. I'm the one who pawned the stuff, hocked it. Just me."
"So they don't know there were--"
The deputy who'd brought me in poked his head around the corner and asked if either of us would like some coffee. I thanked him and said we were finished. Then I got up but Perry stayed seated. I told him I'd see him at the bail hearing, which was set for nine o'clock that morning. I said, "Let's see if we can get you out of that jumpsuit and back into your own clothes." He was something of a dandy--a New Cardiff dandy--and always particular about his clothes.
"Hey, the suit's not bad," he said, still sitting. "Kinda comfy, actually." I'd put up with a lot in that little room that morning, but it was the word comfy that made me want to slap him hard across the face. "Maybe you could ask the judge if I can keep it?"
Liss was in the shower when I got home. I put the toilet seat down, and as she dried herself I sat and told her about my visit with Perry, about the bail hearing and how much it might cost us to post bond, and how I'd have to talk to Quetsch.
"Yes, but how is he?" she asked.
"Your brother? He seems to be having a good enough time. It's all one big joke to him."
She wrapped herself in a towel and went out of the bathroom. I shaved and showered and when I came out, I heard the squawk of the ironing board opening. Liss stood in the kitchen, ironing a shirt. "You don't have to do that," I said.
"You forgot to pick up the dry cleaning," she said. "You can't go to court looking all rumpled." Wrapped in a moss-green bath towel, with a smaller towel tied around her hair, she looked like some wood nymph of the suburbs, and when I moved to touch her, she turned the flat of the iron toward me. "It's not one big joke to him." I could see that she was trying not to cry. "Perry had it harder than the rest of us kids."
"You kids had it so hard?"
"He did. He was only twelve when Dad left and--well, he was always a little bit different from us, like he didn't quite belong." The air was fragrant with scorched starch, and she wielded the hissing iron like a weapon, an instrument of sympathetic magic, as if my shirt were a blank blue map of myself and wherever the iron pressed, a corresponding body part would burn. "Didn't you ever do anything stupid when you were a kid?"
"Perry's not a kid," I said. "He's twenty years old."
"Some crazy reckless thing? Haven't you ever made some really dumb mistake?" As she spoke, it struck me that she was talking about herself, and I felt as if I'd caught a glimpse of something I wasn't meant to see but without quite knowing what it was.
"How do you learn anything without making some mistakes?" she said. "Anything worth knowing."
"You make it sound as if there were something noble about breaking into people's homes and robbing them."
"What an ugly thing to say." She thrust the steaming shirt into my hands. "I'm talking about forgiveness, Ralph, mercy. I know Perry's done bad things, probably even worse things than this, things we'll never know. But I forgive him. I have to. He's all the family I've got."
"Would you forgive him if he weren't your brother?"
She looked at me as if I'd said the stupidest thing in the world, and then she said, "But he is my brother."
When I got in, Quetsch was in the mailroom. I went upstairs and asked if I could have a word and then followed him into his office. Oddly, I'd never been inside his office proper; nor had we ever had anything close to what you might call a personal conversation, except once. We'd taken the train into the city for the deposition of an anesthesiologist; there were lots of records and exhibits, including a plaster replica of a spinal column, and more than anything he'd needed my help carrying it all. Afterward he took me to his favorite restaurant, Binyon's over on Plymouth Court. He wanted me to try the turtle soup; this was somehow important to him. We talked about the deposition, about who else needed to be subpoenaed and so forth. He sipped a whiskey sour, while I stuck with ice water. He plucked the maraschino cherry from his glass and set it in the ashtray. Still pinching the cherry's stem, as if transmitting through it, he said, "You know, if I hadn't become a trial lawyer, I think I might've liked to have gone to medical school." He drained the glass. "But law school's what the old man wanted." Then the waiter brought our soup and we returned to the business at hand.
Now he asked me to shut the door, though no one else would be in for at least another hour. The curtains were drawn and the room was lit by a gooseneck desk lamp. Every flat surface was littered with manila folders, yellow legal pads, accordion files, loose correspondence. He lifted a great pile of pleadings from a chair, slid it underneath, and asked me to sit down. "I don't know quite how to say this," I began, "but it seems my wife's kid brother has gotten himself into some trouble." Before I could get any further, he raised one hand, his palm turned toward me, and softly, even bashfully, said, "You just do what you've got to do." Then he stood up and I stood up and then he returned the stack of pleadings to the chair and that was that.
In that moment, I interpreted this as a sort of blessing, an act of kindness--if not to me, then to Liss--a chivalric gesture. Either way, I thought he was being a gentleman. What I didn't realize that morning, though it seems clear to me now, was that somehow he already knew what the "trouble" was, even before I did.
Bail was set, we posted bond, and Perry pled not guilty to a dozen counts of residential burglary. It wasn't until a week later that anyone in the office broached the subject of Perry's case. Through the open door that connected our offices, Jim Field called me into his. He wore a sweater vest and his shirtsleeves were rolled up. His athlete's body had gone to fat and his forearms and elbows and the backs of his hands were ravaged with psoriasis. The Racing Form was spread over his desk and I knew that soon he'd be off to Arlington Park to watch the thoroughbreds. He claimed the sunshine was good for his skin.
He asked me where I was at with Perry's case, and briefly, excruciatingly, I described its status. He looked at me bluntly and asked, "You sure you know what you're doing?"
"I can learn."
"I know you can learn the law," he said. "But do you know what you're doing?" Then he said, "You know how they say that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client?" I nodded. "Well, a lawyer who represents a relative is an even bigger fool. Believe me, I speak from experience."
I told him that my wife insisted.
"You know, I used to work in the State's Attorney's office," he said. "Not here, but over in DuPage County. If you want I could take a look at the file and we could talk it over."
I said that wouldn't be necessary. There was an open bottle of Jack Daniels on his desk and a boozy vapor hung over the room, practically visible, a fine amber mist, and it wasn't yet noon.
"Is it such a good idea to be drinking this early in the day?" I asked.
"It's the best idea I've had so far," he said. "You got a better one?"
Liss had proposed fondue for dinner and asked me to pick up the makings on my way home. I stopped at a shop called Cheese 'n' Stuff and bought three little bricks of gruyere, emmenthal, and fontina, and walked home with a baguette under one arm and my briefcase in the other hand. When I got home, Perry was there and I saw they'd already polished off half a bottle of white wine. He was still under-age and under the present circumstances this made me uncomfortable. Liss must have seen this because when she hugged me hello she whispered, "Who eats fondue without wine?" I could smell it on her breath.
We ate at a little round table whose top wasn't bolted to the base and the two of them traded family stories about characters who were total strangers to me. At some point Perry leaned forward and the tabletop gave way under the pressure of his elbows. It began to tip upwards until Liss and I grabbed it--together we righted it--and then Perry said, "Why do you guys live in a shithole like this? I mean, I thought lawyers were supposed to make lots of money." Liss looked at me, and then Perry looked at her looking at me. "Hey, I don't mean it like--"
"First of all, we don't think it's a shithole," I said and laid the long fork beside my plate. I'd lost what little appetite I had and could no longer stomach the notion of eating out of the same pot as Perry. "We've been pretty happy here, actually. That is, until--"
"All right, Ralph," Liss said.
"And secondly, it's none of your fucking business how much money--"
"Enough, I said. Perry just said he was sorry."
"Did he? I guess I missed that part."
"That's because you didn't give him a chance," she said. "Weren't you about to apologize, Perry?"
He nodded and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "I was way out of line there, Ralph. I'm sorry. Really." He put his hand on top of Liss's. Though they were both small people, they had the same long fingers. "Jesus, what I wouldn't give to have a life like you guys." He looked at me earnestly. "Let me tell you something about myself," he said. "Say I was walking through the woods and I came upon a beautiful cabin, some pretty little gingerbread house or something. Well, I hate to say it, but my first impulse would be to pick up a rock and throw it through a window, smash 'em all. I don't know why. I wish I did, but I don't. Maybe I'm angry about something. Maybe it's something about my parents." He looked at Liss. "You know, I never told anybody anything like this before."
"I appreciate that, Perry," I said, though I knew it was horseshit. "Let's just forget about it."
Perry insisted on helping with the dishes, and then we moved to the living room. I fetched the bottle of port that Quetsch had brought to our wedding, along with three small glasses, tinted blue, green, and rose, and set them down on the coffee table. The rim of the rose glass was chipped and Perry picked it up and examined it appraisingly.
"You know, you really ought to have better aperitif glasses than these," he said. "I could get you some really nice ones." Liss softly shook her head. Perry put down the glass and grabbed the bottle by its neck.
"'Aged Tawny Port,'" he read. "Wasn't she some seventies porn star?"
"Let me think." Liss shut her eyes and pressed her fingers to her temples. "A Boy in Every Port? Any Port in a Storm?'
"Featuring Tawny Port."
"And a cast of thousands."
Perry waggled the bottle over the ring of glasses. "Any takers?"
"Ralph here's a teetotaler," Liss said, and I realized she was drunk. "He practically got shitfaced on our wedding cake. He's probably tipsy from the fondue."
I tapped the lip of the green glass. "Hit me," I said.
"You sure?" Perry said.
"It's a special occasion."
"Hit me, too," Liss said. "Really let me have it, baby. Wallop me but good."
He filled our glasses and then his. He drank it down in one great gulp, then filled it up again, and I pictured its sharp edge piercing the plump of his lower lip, a burst of blood trickling over his teeth and chin and spattering the tiny horse and rider stitched on the breast of his pretty pink shirt.
Liss sighed. "Poor old Tawny." Then she said, "They were just things," and I saw she was crying.
The next morning, Liss was quiet at breakfast. As I sat eating my oatmeal, she shuttled back and forth between the little round table and the kitchen, running the water, opening and closing cabinets and drawers. Then she sat down across from me and asked, "What was that all about last night?"
"What was what all about?" I said. "At dinner, you mean?"
"No, afterwards. In bed, I mean."
"You mean making love?"
"Is that what you'd call it?"
"Well, what would you call it, Liss?"
"You could call it sex or fucking or maybe something else, but it wasn't about love."
"What are you trying to say?" The kettle whistled on the stove and she went into the kitchen. She came back and set her teacup steaming on the table. "For God's sake, Liss, what are you saying here?"
"What I'm saying--" She looked away. "I'm saying there was an edge to it, a proprietary edge." She turned a plastic bear full of honey over her teacup. "It felt like jealous fucking, is what I'm saying."
"I don't need to hear this," I said, collecting my dishes.
"Yes, you do." She reached across the table and took my face in her hands, roughly. "It's okay," she said. "It doesn't always have to be romantic. Sometimes fucking is just what the doctor ordered." She let go of my face. "Just don't kid yourself that you're above it, is all."
Bill Philips left the firm at the beginning of June taking most of the non-litigation stuff with him, and Walter Wyman soon followed. What they left behind came to me, all of it, and I found myself working even longer hours. The pile of pink paper gathered under the cherry wood heart, and as Perry's case marched along toward trial, it became apparent just how seriously the State was taking it. The State's Attorney bemoaned the pressures exerted by the police, the victims, and the community, assuring the judge that they were "loaded for bear." Perry represented a cancer that needed to be cut out as a matter of community hygiene, and his fate weighed on me like a glacier.
But then, at the beginning of September, the State's Attorney called. He began, "Today's your lucky day," and proposed a plea bargain: in exchange for Perry's cooperation, including his providing complete and truthful information about the burglaries and testifying against his buddies, he'd only have to serve eighteen months. "We're doing you a favor here," he said, "a big one. A single count of residential burglary is punishable from three to seven years. Your boy's got a dozen." I told him I'd need to consult with my client.
I phoned Perry and left a message on his machine that the State's Attorney had made an offer and that he should come for dinner that night so we could talk it over. I was glad he hadn't answered. I wouldn't have known what to tell him. I had no compass, and in desperation I finally asked Field to take a look at the file. He told me that Quetsch wanted him to cover a pretrial conference in a medical malpractice case, but that the other side couldn't make it, so it was simply a matter of getting a new date from the judge's clerk. If I could cover this for him, he'd give Perry's case the once-over. So we traded files, but when I got to court, the other side was there and raring to go and the judge gave me holy hell.
When I got back to the office, it was late in the afternoon and Quetsch was in the lobby, pulling up the weights in the grandfather clock near the foot of the stairs. The receptionist, a high school girl who worked from noon to four-thirty, looked at me with a wild-eyed, exasperated expression. "Oh, here he is," she spoke into the telephone and thrust it at me as if it were burning her hand. "He says he's so-and-so from the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary something-or-other," she said. "He says it's important." Quetsch climbed slowly up the stairs.
"Take a message," I said. On the top step, I could see the cuffs of Quetsch's trousers draped over his sad brown shoes.
"He says it can't--"
I snatched the phone from her. The mouthpiece smelled of cigarettes and Juicy Fruit. "Yes?" I said.
On the other end, a man's voice said, "Ralph?" and I knew right away who it was.
"Listen," I said. "I don't know what you want from me, but I sure as hell don't want anything from you."
"I'm asking you nicely," I said. "Just leave me the fuck alone. Okay?"
Before he could say anything more, I hung up, hard enough that the receptionist jumped in her chair. Then Quetsch came down as far as the landing and, on the edge of outrage, asked, "Now what the heck was that?"
"It was nothing."
"Don't you get smart with me," he said. "It sure didn't sound like nothing."
"I told you it was nobody." He stared as if daring me to look away. "It was my father."
His hand was on the newel post, and the air seemed to go out of him. Then he straightened himself, and almost whispering, he said, "Well, I don't care what he did or didn't do, that's no way to talk to your old man." Then he climbed the rest of the way up the stairs. Tears glittered in the receptionist's eyes and she pointed to the door of my office, which was shut. "Oh, for Christ's sake," I said. "What now?" She continued biting her lower lip and pointing at the door, but I had no patience for this pantomime and pulled it open.
Perry stood in the middle of the room, holding the cherry wood heart in both hands. He had on a blue linen sports jacket that must have cost three times as much as the suit I was wearing.
"You didn't need to come here," I said. "I told you I'd see you at home."
"You meet your other clients at home?"
"I'm not married to my other clients' sisters."
"Are you embarrassed?" he asked mildly. "Do I embarrass you?"
"I told you. I'd rather talk at home. I think it's better that way."
"You are embarrassed, aren't you?" I didn't say anything. "Well, I imagine you've handled worse cases than mine."
I stepped into the office and shut the door.
"So tell me," he said. "Tell me now. How much do I have to pay?"
"You said they made an offer. Well, how much?" Then I told him about my conversation with the State's Attorney. His face crumpled and his nose began to bleed. I fetched him a Kleenex. He set the heart down on a corner of my desk and looked as if to sit down but didn't. At last, he said, "No way."
"That's only if you cooperate with them," I said. "That'll mean identifying the others, testifying--"
"That's a year and a half." He leaned forward, his hands on his knees. "Why do I even have an attorney? I could've done better on my own."
"Perhaps you should have chosen a less dangerous hobby."
"Perhaps?" he said. "What's with this perhaps business?"
"Maybe's not good enough for you? Who do you think you are? Sherlock Holmes or something? You think this is fucking Masterpiece Theatre? Talk plain, Ralph." He spoke my name as if taking a big bite out of the air.
"I can't change the facts, Perry," I said. "You picked the wrong place to--"
"Place?" He stood up straight and brought his face close to mine. "Don't you tell me about place."
I opened the door and walked out into the lobby, but he didn't follow. The receptionist was gone now and it was silent upstairs. I was afraid he wouldn't leave and didn't know what I would do if he refused. I turned back around and said, "We'll talk at home." He came into the lobby with one hand deep in his jacket pocket; with the fingers of his other hand he fished through a dish of candy corn on the reception desk. Then he left.
I went back into my office, shut the door, and stood at the stained glass window until he was out of sight and for a long time after. Behind me, through the open door between our offices, I heard Field's pennywhistle, piercing, sweet, and sad. It was a tune I knew--"She Moved through the Fair"--and I even knew some of the words. "My young love said to me,/my mother won't mind/ and my father won't slight you/for your lack of kind." I pressed my forehead against the cool glass and followed the melody back through time until it stopped and then Field was standing in the doorway, his sleeves rolled up to his lichenous elbows. He said, "Today's your lucky day."
"Yes, I've heard that one before," I said. "Remind me why that is."
He rubbed his back up and down against the doorjamb like a bear. "They didn't have a search warrant."
"Yes, they did," I said, making no effort to hide my irritation. "They had one for both his apartment and his car. Besides, they didn't find the goods in either place. Did you even look at the file? They found the stuff in a pawnshop."
"That's what I'm saying." He stepped out of the doorway and set the file on my desk. "They didn't have a warrant."
"To search the pawnshop?"
He regarded me incredulously, as if offended by my stupidity. "You took the bar, right? You passed?" His flushed face turned his small eyes a fiercer blue, too blue. "The pawn shop stuff is tainted," he said. "The whole shebang. Fruit of the poisonous tree. None of it comes in."
I came away from the window. I didn't know what to say.
"Why do you think they offered you such a sweet deal?" he went on. "Because they like you? They have no case. They might have a civil rights suit on their hands, but that's another matter." He went back into his office and packed his briefcase. "Don't look so depressed," he called through the door. "I know it's distasteful, but I just saved you from a malpractice case--a slam-dunk." He snapped his briefcase shut and, crossing through my office, opened the door to the lobby. We were the last two in the building. "So now you can be a hero," he said. "Enjoy it. The chance doesn't come often." And then he was gone.
After a while, I went upstairs to turn off the Xerox machine and the lights, and then I went out onto the veranda and brought in the flag. I knew I should be happy, but somehow I wasn't. When I stepped back into my office to grab my briefcase, a pink phone message fluttered to the floor and I stooped to pick it up. Ray Glisovich. When I stood up, something seemed off about the room, some ingredient was missing, and then without even looking I knew what it was. My stomach fell. I searched my office, my desk, the shelves, and even the lobby, though I knew I wouldn't find the cherry wood heart. I stood in the middle of the room for a long time, the big old-fashioned key in one hand and the pink phone message in the other. Then I sat at my desk and dialed the number.
I could smell the oranges before I even walked in. I was late for dinner. Liss had cooked three Cornish hens from her mother's recipe, glazed with orange juice and Cointreau and stuffed with nutty dressing. As soon as I came in she brought them to the table, one at a time, set them on our plates, and asked us to sit down. There was an open bottle of Riesling on the table and I filled my glass.
Perry seemed contrite now, humbled and scared. "About this afternoon," he said. "I was pretty fucked up and said some things--"
"Forget it," I said and spread my napkin on my lap.
He didn't say anything for while. Liss moved back and forth from the kitchen to the table. She wore a white apron with the words, "Kiss the cook," stitched across the front in bright red cursive. Then Perry said, "Okay, I'll do it." He wasn't looking at me. "I talked with Liss and I'll accept their offer."
Then Liss sat down but nobody moved. I touched the bright flowers sewn along the top hem of the bed sheet she'd laid as a tablecloth.
Perry said, "How soon do you think--"
"I'd say the sooner the better." I picked up my glass and took a big swallow. "There's always the chance they'll change their minds."
Perry surveyed the table. "You always hear about the prisoner's last meal," he said. "You know, the guy on death row who gets to order whatever he wants before--well, you know." He brought his hand to his mouth. "Food's the last thing I'd be thinking about."
"Oh, come on now, Perry." I reached over and put my hand on his shoulder. "It's not as if you're going to the electric chair."
"Eighteen months," he said.
"More like twelve, if you keep your nose clean." The words sounded comical and false in my mouth and I withdrew my hand. "Perhaps," I said and took another drink.
"That's just a year," Liss said with forced cheer, and I was suddenly sad that I'd never seen her at work, all those four-year-olds clambering into her soft warm lap. "It was just a year ago that Ralph came to work here and--well, it seems like yesterday."
Perry stared into his plate. "Oh, Jesus," he said and pushed it away. "I'm sorry, Liss. It looks delicious and all, but I can't eat a thing."
She took hold of his hand. "I can't either," she said. Their fingers were intertwined on the wobbly tabletop so that it was hard to tell whose fingers were whose. I picked up my fork and knife, but my hands were shaking and I set the utensils down alongside my plate. My appetite was gone and I'd become acutely conscious of the fact that the plump little corpse on my plate had once been a thing with feathers, a living thing that walked and ate and flew through the air, and I knew that, against my advice, Liss would be there when they took her brother away, and I pictured her face as she made the long drive down to Vandalia to visit him, alone. I didn't want to think beyond that point, though I had a good idea what waited there, and I could feel it, hard and dark at the bottom of my throat. With my fingers, I pulled a sticky wing off the hen and took a bite, and before I'd even swallowed I pointed down at the table and said, "You don't know what you're missing," though I knew neither was listening.
CHARLES HAVERTY'S stories have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Gettysburg Review, Ecotone, Colorado Review, The Massachusetts Review, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.