September 20, 1990
The law offices of Pohlmann, McIntyre, Sorensen andFrost surrounded a courtyard in a low, white-painted adobe building in the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Lush flower bushes, pines, and succulents bedecked the hilly front yard where steps led to the main door. In the bright sun of mid-September the building looked overexposed, bleached like the sand on the beach at the foot of Ocean Avenue. Now, at ten in the morning, streams of Lexuses and Infinitis already cruised this side street, hungry for parking spaces.
Nina Reilly grabbed a pile of mail on the receptionist's desk. She had worked as a paralegal at the law firm for the past year, having snagged this coveted job simply by submitting a résumé. Her mother called it Irish luck, but Nina suspected it had more to do with another Irish character trait. Her father, Harlan, knew Klaus Pohlmann because he hobnobbed with everyone, but he would never confess to having pulled strings with Klaus.
Nearing eighty, Klaus was a legend in the community, the most daring and successful lefty lawyer south of San Francisco. He only hired the best, and that included Jack McIntyre, Nina's latest crush. Jack was over at the Monterey County Superior Court at a settlement conference.
Nina called out to the receptionist, "Back in an hour, Astrid. I promise."
Hurrying down the walk, she caught her sandal on the edge of the stone steps and stopped herself from falling by dropping the mail and raising her arms for balance. She dusted the letters as she picked them up, then tossed them through the car window to the seat, counting to keep track in case one fell between the seat and gearshift.
Could mean the difference between a future and no future at all, getting every one of those envelopes to the post office. If she was going to be sloppy about details, she might as well slit her throat today and skip the stomachaches and nights of worry altogether, because in the legal profession, as in medicine and architecture, a minor oversight could be lethal.
Nina had finished college a few years before with a degree in psychology, studying film, art, and people in the luxurious fashion of a girl-child awaiting her prince. She wished now that she'd had better guidance from the adults in her life, who should have known what? The future, what real life held for a single mother in her late twenties entering a slow economy? Her psych degree had not even prepared her for service positions in the restaurant business.
But she was making up for that now, between law classes, paralegal work, and Bob, not in that order. Fog murked its way in front of her. She scrutinized the hazy road for patrol cars, then executed a swooping, illegal U-turn, arriving at the post office in downtown Pacific Grove, heart pounding. She shoved the letters into the metered-mail slot.
Relieved to be rid of her latest emergency, she fired up the MG along with the radio. Moving out into the street, she narrowly missed a waiting Acura. She swung onto Pine Avenue, drifting toward the middle line as she rummaged in her bag for the address for Dr. Lindberg. She located his card, swerved to avoid a jaywalking tourist family, and turned left onto Highway 1. The pines loomed on either side as the fog drizzled over the Pebble Beach road. She drove swiftly the few blocks to her mother's cottage, parking in front of the huge Norfolk pine in the front yard.
Honking, she reminded herself about the miserable people she saw every day at work, injured on the job, alone and poor. She conjured these images to steel herself for the sight of her mother carefully locking up, pausing every few steps, looking down as if she weren't sure where the sidewalk was. Her mother had ordered her not to come to the door. She didn't like being reminded of the changes in her health.
In the one minute she had to herself Nina leaned back and closed her eyes. Breathe deep. In. Out.
Let's see, Wills and Estates tonight. Professor Cerruti made it her favorite class, but she also liked what lawyers called the "settled" law of that ancient and noble subject. Unlike environmental law, for instance, which fluxed through revolutions every time a new president came in, with Wills one could learn rules that had stuck for centuries. How nice if she could apply a few firm rules to the tatty loose ends of her own life.
I'll read the cases while I eat dinner, she decided. So much for school. As for work, she had all afternoon to obsess about how much she was falling behind there. Deal with it when she got back to the office.
As for friends, ha ha, they must think she had moved to Tajikistan, for all they ever heard from her; a boyfriend was not an option, she didn't have time, though she had fallen into some casual overnighters a while back that had left her feeling worse than lonely. But she did feel warm whenever McIntyre came into her office. Her mind began bathing in a certain bubble bath but right now here came her mother, struggling down the concrete walk.
Today, the skin on her mother's face looked tighter than usual. Nina opened the passenger-side door from the inside. Ginny paused to remove her right glove, uncovering a hand scrimshawed in pale blue lines. She leaned in and touched her daughter's hand. "Honey, why not let me take a cab? You're a busy woman."
"God, Mom. You're like ice."
Nina's mother had changed so much. Always a handsome woman with sparkling eyes and a daunting energy, she had gradually seemed to lose all color and character. Her skin stretched as tight as a stocking mask over her cheekbones, even pulling her lips back as if they were shrinking. Her once mobile face now looked somehow both flat and puffy, due to both the illness and the steroids used to treat it. Still she tried to smile.
"You always look so cheerful," Nina said, giving her a brief hug after she had maneuvered into the low-slung car. "How do you do it?"
"The right attitude makes me feel stronger. You know how much you hate it when people condescend to you, 'Oh, poor Nina, raising a boy on her own, working so hard'?"
"Oh, come on. I don't pity you."
"Sure you do. Anyone with half a brain would." Ginny patted her shoulder. "Let's just admire how delightful the leaves are at this time of year, okay?"
Maybe it had been better, those days of not knowing what was wrong, because of the hope they'd had then. Did her mother still hope?
Nina drove quickly to Dr. Lindberg's Monterey office on Cass Street. Would she have time later to run by the school library for that book on reserve? She had a mock trial coming up in a week in her Advanced Civil Procedure class and a paper due for Gas and Oil Law that demanded lengthy research. If she hurried, she could pick up Bob at nursery school, drop him with the babysitter at home, stop by the library, and be back at the office by two. Would Remy notice she had been gone longer than her lunch break allowed?
Gritting her teeth, she thought, Remy would notice.
She parked at a meter and ran around to the side of the car. "Need help, Mom? Those stairs are pretty steep. Let me help you up them at least."
Her mother let her help her out of the car, then shook her off. "I rise to all occasions. That will never change. Please don't fuss so much, Nina."
"If Matt doesn't show up to pick you up, promise me you'll leave a message for me with Astrid. I'll come get you."
"You're a worrywart."
Her mother trusted Nina's brother, Matt. Nina hoped she would call if Matt didn't show up. Again.
A few blocks north of Dr. Lindberg's office, Bob attended a preschool chosen after Nina had looked at a dozen of them and settled on this one as the least of all evils. The playroom walls were covered with outsider art Picasso would have envied, committed by three- and four-year-olds who were never given fill-in-the-blanks coloring books. Children were making collages at each table, and she spotted Bob, dark hair fallen over his round, delicious cheeks, smearing a magazine tearout onto gluey paper à la André Breton or Max Ernst.
Seeing her, he called out, "Mom, look!" Resisting an impulse to check her watch, she pulled up a tiny preschooler plastic chair and sat next to him, nodding at the collage.
"Finish up, honey, we have to go." Thank God he loved the place and was reluctant to leave. "What's this?" she asked, pointing at a tray of wooden puzzle pieces alongside the collage.
"My job." He reached over and with startling dexterity stuck the pieces into their slots to complete a duck puzzle.
"Oh. A duck! Cool!"
"But now watch this." He dumped the pieces onto the table, then stuck them across the middle in a snaggletooth row. "My keyboard," he said with a grin. "Like at home."
"But this one you can't play."
"Huh?" He ran his fingers up and down the wood pieces, humming. He was playing a sea chantey CD at home these days. "'Way haul away, we'll haul away home '"
"But you ruined your puzzle."
"We can go now."
Taking her son's backpack and his hand, Nina ushered him to the door. Bob currently loved the cheap battery-operated keyboard she had found at a discount store. He didn't want to learn real songs yet, just loved making noise, but sometimes she caught him fingering the same notes over and over with a thoughtful expression on his face. She would have to find a way to pay for piano lessons when he was older. Never squelch potential talent, Ginny always said.
As they pulled the door open, an aide handed Nina a paper bag full of dirty pants. "He had two accidents today," she remarked, carefully noncommittal. Nina took the bag. Bob looked up at her with a worried expression. "Mommy, don't break my heart," he said, watching her face. She smiled and patted his hot cheek, hustling him outside, chastising herself for her impatience.
On the way to the parking lot, she ran into an old friend she hadn't seen for ages.
"Well, look at you," Diana said.
Nina hugged her, remembering how much Diana favored flowery perfumes. "When I told you I was pregnant, you never said a thing about being pregnant yourself."
"I was scared," Diana said. "I'd already had two miscarriages and began to think I'd never have a child. Her name's Cori." They stopped to watch Diana's curly-haired daughter gather up her backpack.
"So you settled down," Nina said.
Her old friend waved a set of flashy rings. "He just wouldn't let me alone. Good thing. He teaches chemistry at the community college."
"You always said you'd never marry."
Diana corralled her daughter and nudged her toward a red minivan. "Yeah, surprise! I turned out normal. How about you?"
"No surprise. I didn't."
Diana tilted her head. "So what if you never go about things the way other people do. You're exceptional. Not abnormal."
"I decided to get everything out of the way at once, be a single mother, go to school, work like a cur. That way, I'll have earned the right to a long commitment to some quiet loony-bin spa by the time I'm thirty."
"I gotta scoot." Diana started the battle to get her daughter strapped in. "Let's gossip soon."
"You back at work?"
"Part-time until the little gal's ready to launch. Two more years. I couldn't find full-time child care I can trust that would have her." Diana latched the seat belt across her daughter's car seat with a sigh.
"It's like getting them into a good college, applications, interviews."
"And then they reject you or your child, or your private financial status." Diana shrugged, slamming the door against her cranky child. "I discovered passable child care involved dark rooms with peed-upon plastic mattresses, watery peanut butter, and drunken college students. I realized, hey, I can do that and pay nothing."
How nice for her, Nina thought. Diana had a partner to help and an option to stay home with her daughter. How might that feel? No doubt good, no doubt fortunate.
"Take care," Nina said, strapping Bob into his own car seat. He had a new book to study, so he let the process happen peacefully for a change. Suddenly starving, she climbed inside her car, rustling around in the MG's glove compartment for a snack. She found nothing to eat there, only an old brochure for a restaurant she could never afford. Disgruntled, she raised her head to another unwelcome vision.
Richard Filsen leaned against the brick wall of the church that bordered the parking lot, smoking a cigarette.
Copyright © 2008 by Pamela O'Shaughnessy and Mary O'Shaughnessy