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Such A Pretty Face
By CATHY LAMB
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2010 Cathy Lamb
All rights reserved.
Portland, Oregon — 2005
I am going to plant a garden this summer.
With the exception of two pink cherry trees, one white cherry tree, and one pink tulip tree, all huge, I have a barren, dry backyard and I'm tired of looking at it. I almost see it as a metaphor for my whole life, and I think if I can fix this, I can fix my life. Simplistic, silly, I know, but I can't get past it.
So I'm going to garden even if my hands shake as if there are live circuits inside of them and a floppy yellow hat dances ominously through my mind.
I'm going to build upraised beds, a whole bunch of them, and fill them with tomatoes, squash, zucchini, radishes, lettuce, carrots, peas, and beans. But not corn.
I'm not emotionally able to do corn yet — too many memories — but I am going to plant marigolds around the borders, and pink and purple petunias, rose bushes and clematis and grapevines.
I'm going to stick two small crosses at the back fence, but not for who you think. I'm going to build a grape arbor with a deck beneath it, and then I'm going to add a table so I can paint there, as I used to, before my memories took that away. I'm also going to build three trellises for climbing roses over a rock pathway, one arch for me, Grandma, and Grandpa, which will lead to another garden, with cracked china plates in a mosaic pattern in the middle of a concrete circle, for Sunshine.
This may sound way too ambitious.
It is. But I see this as my last chance to get control of my mind before it blows.
I can wield any type of saw out there, and I have to do this, even if it takes me years. That I can even think in terms of a future, is a miracle.
Why? Because two and a half years ago, when I was thirty-two years old, I had a heart attack.
I used to be the size of a small, depressed cow.
The heart attack led to my stomach strangling operation, and I lost 170 pounds. Now I am less than half myself, in more ways than one.
My name is Stevie Barrett.
This is a story of why I was the way I was and how I am now me.
I am going to plant a garden.
Not even the glass walls muffled the screaming and shouting.
I leaned back in my swivel chair, away from my computer, and peeked into the conference room as the words "You are a cold, frigid snowwoman" echoed out after the words "I would rather remove my toes with pliers than sleep with you one more time!"
Two seconds later, high-pitched shrieking mixed with a baritone shout. "Living with you is like living with Antarctica. ... I can't stand seeing your pinched-up, wrinkly prune face. ... Move out of my house; you have poisoned it with your venom long enough. ... You and your yellow teeth can shove it. ... It's not your house; I'll burn it before you get it. ... You are a mean, dickheaded prick with a small prick!"
Then there was a crash, which was a drinking glass hitting the glass walls of the conference room. I was quite surprised it didn't shatter. I sprinted into the conference room as my boss, and the owner of this law firm, Cherie Poitras, grabbed her client around the waist, a woman dressed to the nines in high heels and a cream suit. The woman had actually crawled up on the conference table and lunged for her husband. Cherie and I wrestled her off, but not before the husband's attorney put him in a headlock to keep him from strangling his soon-to-be ex-wife.
Even in a headlock, the husband, a local politician who stressed the sanctity of marriage and traditional values, struggled to get at his wife, his arms and legs flailing around and about like a trapped octopus.
I work as a legal assistant at Poitras and Associates. I work for Cherie Poitras directly and sometimes another attorney. I work with clients and witnesses, do a ton of legal research, write up documents, organize mountains of paperwork, summarize depositions, etc.
Sounds boring, but it's often exciting.
Cherie Poitras is five feet nine inches tall and wears cheetah patterned/striped/shiny four-inch heels and therefore towers over most of the male attorneys in town. She's very private, but from what I know she had a lousy childhood, grew up in Trillium River here in Oregon, and adopted four kids who had been abused. She loves a good fight, thrives off the law, and runs her firm like an honest, compassionate pit bull who must win every legal case no matter how hard she must bite. She is single, not surprisingly. How many men could handle Cherie? Not many.
Simply put: They're not enough for her.
We have a classy sign in the entrance of our elegant entry with gold lettering. It says, "WELCOME TO POITRAS AND ASSOCIATES. WE'LL KICK SOME ASS FOR YOU.
Anyhow, we handle a ton of different legal work. Personal injury. Environmental. Insurance. And we also handle many of the city's most spectacular divorces.
People spewing obscenities at each other, throwing things, and storming out is normal for our firm. We had one divorcing wife grab a knife out of her purse, stomp across the conference table, and try to stab her ex-husband. We had a shooting, husband at wife. He missed because Cherie tackled the husband. We've had fistfights between attorneys. Pencils and legal pads have been thrown, as has, one time, a small dog (dog wasn't happy), a designer purse (blackened an eye), and a shoe (it was a Manolo Blahnik).
You want to see ugly? Become a divorce attorney.
"Hello, Stevie. Good of you to come help," Cherie called out, her voice melodious, mellow, as she dragged her wriggling, livid client off the table. I grabbed the client around the waist, too, but she was strong and rage made her a madwoman with superhuman strength.
"Come on, Mrs. Leod, let's go, please, let's take a break," I said. My black curls fell out of the bun I'd had them in as her hand swooped over the back of my head. "How about some coffee with fresh vanilla cream?"
"I am not going to take a break!" she screamed. "I don't want fresh vanilla cream. I am going to put my hands around his chicken neck and squeeze until his tongue falls out!"
I remember seeing Mrs. Leod on television, standing beside her husband, chin up, the feminine moral authority, talking about "the alarming erosion of family values in our state."
"If I have to run through all of our money, Frank, with legal fees, I'll do it," Mrs. Leod yelled. "In fact, if you don't back off I think I'll hold myself a press conference and tell them about the account in the Bahamas and your little dalliances into leather and whips —"
"Shut up, you stupid, prudish, witchly woman...."
They continued shouting at each other, full throttle, full blast. We got her off the conference table, and I fell to the ground, on top of Mrs. Leod, but that did not stop her impressive tirade. Cherie and her short, leopard-print skirt fell on top of me. "She's a slippery little thing, isn't she?" Cherie panted. "Get her legs. I'll get her shoulders."
I gave Cherie an exasperated look. Why did I have to get her legs? They were more dangerous than the shoulders. A knee caught me in the gut and I said, "Ooof."
"I'll buy you perfume and pretty lotions, Stevie. Now, hop to it."
"Fine," I huffed. We both chuckled, couldn't help it.
The husband's face was becoming a darker red, stuck in his headlock, but he was fighting like a furious four-legged octopus. I knew his attorney, Scott Bills. Scott had been in the army reserves for decades. If he had wanted to snap Mr. Leod's neck, he could have, but neck snapping wasn't on the agenda that day.
"Hello, Stevie," he said to me, calm and friendly.
"Hello, Scott," I said, trying to grab at Mrs. Leod's legs, which were flailing around, kicking me, one heel flying off into the glass wall. Cherie was on the top half of the woman, who had well and truly lost her mind.
"Don't think I won't tell everyone about your secret credit cards and precisely how you used them in Vegas!" Mrs. Leod said. "You big-nippled pervert!"
The woman was a psychiatrist. What would she make of herself, I wondered.
"If I could get it at home, I wouldn't get it there," Mr. Leod said, voice hoarse from the headlock. "And talk about big nipples! I could land a plane on yours."
Now that set our tiny she-devil off.
"How's Jae?" I asked Scott of his wife. The she-devil hit me in the chin with a knee. "Now, Mrs. Leod ... take it easy."
Mrs. Leod was not in the mood to take it easy. "Do you know why I don't want to have sex with you? It's the size of your dick. It's so small it couldn't make a banana slug come."
"Maybe it's because you're dry as a desert," Mr. Leod said, sinking lower in Scott's arms, his breathing labored. "It's like having sex with sand!"
"You can't turn me on, sandman! Sweaty, sticky hands aren't sexy, Frank — not sexy. And you would know what it's like to have sex with sand, wouldn't you, because of the Maui trip you went on when you were supposed to be visiting your mother, the old fart!"
"Jae's doing pretty good, Stevie," Scott said, as if we were at a dinner party. "I'm taking her and the kids down to Long Shore this weekend. There's a kite festival."
"That sounds fun. The weather is supposed to be beautiful." I dodged a flying foot.
"Screw you!" Mrs. Leod said, arching in her fury. "Screw you forever!"
"I don't want to screw you," Mr. Leod squeaked out, his face now an even deeper red. "You are a sick sorceress."
A sorceress? Now that was clever. Me and Cherie exchanged another look.
"Hey, when is your annual dinner, Cherie?" Scott asked.
Cherie had a dinner every year, complete with a barbeque and a band to raise money for foster kids.
"October." She shoved Mrs. Leod's swinging arms back down as the woman spit out bad words through clenched teeth. "You and Jae better be there. And you, too, Stevie."
"Wouldn't miss it." Scott's octopus client was struggling but losing steam, because he was having a problem sucking in enough air, his arms flailing. "Can I say, Stevie, without getting slapped with a harassment suit, that you are simply gorgeous?"
I couldn't help but smile, even though Mrs. Leod's knee caught me in the chest.
"I hate you, you happiness-sucking prune!"
"I hate you, too. Your evil spell over me is gone. Vannnisshhhheed!"
A spell? Cherie winked at me. It was so witchly here today.
"Thank you, Scott," I said. "I appreciate it. I'm trying. Walking every day."
"Doesn't she look fantastic?" Cherie gushed, her perfectly polished nails holding Mrs. Leod down. "Gorgeous. Stevie, you are an inspiration to all of us."
"You won't get a dime of my inheritance," Mrs. Leod hissed, her voice not quite as shrieky. I lay across her legs. "I curse you!"
"I earned that inheritance being married to you," Mr. Leod said, in a whisper voice, his face flushed. That headlock was good! Not too much, not too little!
"Let me up!" Mrs. Leod yelled. "I will not tolerate this for one second loooonger!"
"Release me," Mr. Leod hissed out, his neck in truly a bad position. "Reeeeleeasse me."
"Not unless you promise you won't try to decapitate your husband," Cherie said, tone so mild, sweet even.
"I'll release you, Frank," Scott said. "But I can't have you mangling your wife. It's impolite."
"This is none of your business!" Mrs. Leod shot out. "We demand that you let us go at once!"
"Stay out of this, Scott," Mr. Leod said, his voice tiny.
"This is my business," Cherie said. "No killings in Poitras and Associates. It's a rule we have here. The blood makes a mess, and I won't have anyone staining these new wood floors."
"I don't think I'm an inspiration," I said to Cherie and Scott, still holding onto Mrs. Leod's kicking legs. "My stomach has been squeezed into something the size of an egg. Gorging is now impossible no matter how much I want to shovel in chocolate cake. Buying clothes has also been a problem." I exhaled. Mrs. Leod finally relaxed her murderous self a bit.
"I'm sure," Scott agreed. "Every month you're skinnier."
Mr. Leod had finally collapsed, so Scott let him sink down to the floor.
"Easy does it," he said to his client. The client fell straight back. Scott made sure he was breathing, then said, "Jae said the same thing when we ran into you downtown last week. She said, 'Stevie Barrett looks terrific.'"
"I've told her not to lose one more pound. Not a pound. This is enough," Cherie said. "Now, everyone, take a breath, relax. Deep breath in, deep breath out, breathe in, out ... We're not going to talk any further unless you two promise not to try to kill each other."
Mrs. Leod was trying to catch her breath, still lying splat on the floor. "I want him dead. I want him to be a corpse."
"Over my dead body," her husband wheezed. "Over my dead body, you wicked warlock woman."
"You are the spawn of the devil," she said.
"You are the devil." He coughed, inhaled. Our octopus had had enough.
"Remember, no killing in Poitras and Associates," Cherie said cheerfully.
I eyed Scott from the floor, where I still held Mrs. Leod. "Lovely to see you."
"And you, Stevie."
"Do tell Jae I said hello."
"I'll do that. Have a great day, you two."
"See ya, Scott," Cherie said, then smiled.
We hauled Mrs. Leod up and out the door. She tried to jam herself in the door frame, legs and arms splayed out, but we wrangled her away and down the hall. She still managed to call out, "I hope your pecker dissolves, I do, you ball-less wonder!"
"She's sure clever," I said to Cherie.
"Absolutely. Have to admire the vocabulary."
"Good-bye, sand pit!" Mr. Leod called, his voice scratchy. "You barren wasteland!"
Scott would remove his octo-client from our law offices when Cherie's office door slammed shut.
They would meet again another day, if neither had gutted the other. Mr. and Mrs. Leod were still living in the same mansion in the hills, so who knew.
We left Mrs. Leod in Cherie's office to cool off. She kicked the door. Three times. We had a temper-tantrum-throwing kid.
"Nothing like an acrimonious divorce to get the blood pumping, is there, Stevie?" Cherie smiled at me. We'd gone rafting last year for our firm's party and paintball shooting another time to "relieve the stress of warring spouses."
I smiled back. She is the best boss ever. Ever. And she loves a good fight.
"Nothing like it," I agreed.
When I got back to my desk and my computer, I noticed that my hands were shaking. They'd started shaking after I'd lost about thirty pounds and have gotten progressively worse these last six months. There is nothing medically wrong, we've checked that out.
It is, as they say, all in my head.
As the weight came off, the shaking started, the memories unearthed themselves, the visions grew, and the nightmares throttled my sleep. One problem solved, another problem stalking me.
The vision of myself in the mirror was truly the most alarming. Why? Because she was there.
She scared me to death.
I live in a one thousand square foot house built in 1940. I painted it emerald green with white trim and a burgundy-colored door. It has a huge backyard with a good-sized deck under a trellis. Because of my trees, and the neighbor's trees, it's quite private. My house is on a quiet street fifteen minutes from Portland, with a white picket fence that I built myself. That's Portland, Oregon, not Portland, Maine.
My home also has a detached garage, green with white trim. I have an obsession in my garage. It's rather an embarrassing, colorful obsession, but that is a story for later.
I bought this one-story, peaked-roof house about eighteen months ago after living in a dingy studio in a sketchy part of town for about a year after The Escape and all the new guilt. The studio came complete with occasional gunfire, domestic disturbances, and exciting carjackings. I was robbed once; all they took was my jean jacket and my pink robe. I have no idea why they wanted a pink robe. I think they took it to punish me for not having anything better.
During those dark months I tried to recover emotionally and physically from the heart attack, my operation, and a couple of other heart wrenching things I don't want to speak about.
This house, here in a funky, older, classy-hippie neighborhood called Newport Village, three blocks from a street of eclectic stores and coffee shops, was in foreclosure. To buy it I sold my car for a clunker truck I named The Mobster, because the previous owner probably could have been in the Mob, only without the dashing facial features.
I also sold my TV and a ton of stuff online, including some fat clothes, and used my savings from the divorce settlement for the down payment.
Excerpted from Such A Pretty Face by CATHY LAMB. Copyright © 2010 Cathy Lamb. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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