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Some people are street-smart, some people are book-smart, but most people are just dumber than dirt.
--Chrissy (Mac) McMullen, upon finding her boyfriend in the backseat of her Mazda with a majorette
MR. HOWARD LEPINSKI was an intelligent man. He was well educated, articulate, and precise. Unfortunately, he was about two aces short of a full deck.
"So what's your opinion?" he asked, peering at me through thick-lensed spectacles. He was a little man with a twitch, a mustache, and a strangely unquenchable need to discuss, in minute, droning detail, every decision that crossed his path.
I looked him full in the face. Dr. Candon, my psych professor, had once said he couldn't possibly overemphasize the importance of looking patients full in the face. It filled them with, and I quote here: ". . . the soothing reassurance that they have your undivided attention, not unlike that of a mother suckling her newborn." Perhaps I should consider the possibility that Dr. Candon had a few issues of his own, I thought.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lepinski," I said, using my much-practiced nurturing tone. It was as far as I was willing to go on the suckling mother scenario. "I'm not certain I fully comprehend your question." The truth was, I'd become a smidgen distracted, but it was closing in on seven o'clock and I hadn't eaten since noon when I'd had a carton of cherry yogurt and a somewhat dehydrated orange. And if we're going to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't call that eating. It was merely something I did to prevent my mouth from committing suicide before dinnertime. On the other hand, the roll of flab that had engulfed my midriff since I'd kicked the nicotine habit . . . again . . . had become a rather ponderous problem and now threatened to droop over my waistband like rising bread dough--white, not wheat.
In some ways my life had been simpler as a cocktail waitress. True, delivering drinks to the town of Schaumburg's intoxicated populace had been hell on my bunions, and the propositions sent my way were often punctuated by belching of competition caliber, but at least in Chicago I'd had propositions. L.A. men were of a different breed. Which was what I had been hoping for, of course, but still . . .
"The sandwiches," Mr. Lepinski repeated. There were, I noticed, several droplets of sweat on his forehead. "Should I take pastrami or ham to work?"
I considered his luncheon dilemma with all due sobriety, but feared my sagacious expression might have been ruined by my rumbling gut. "Perhaps," I said forcefully, doing my best to drown out the sounds of impending starvation, "the question is not so much what you should take for lunch, but why you are so concerned about what you should take for lunch."
"What?" His mustache twitched like hamster whiskers, and he blinked at me, as if distracted from a run on his exercise wheel.
"I mean . . ." I steepled my fingers. I'd seen Kelsey Grammer do it on Frasier once and thought it looked pretty classy. Classy was good. Even now I regretted the less-than-classy splotch where I'd dropped cherry goop on my silk blouse. It was a burnt-umber color and matched the freshly refurbished hue of my hair. The blouse, that is, not the splotch. Elaine, my part-time secretary and full-time friend, had suggested trying club soda on the stain, but now I wondered if I couldn't just suck the stuff out of the fabric until I found something more substantial to sustain me. "Perhaps you should give some thought to why you're obsessing about sandwiches," I finished, nodding with ruminative intellect.
His twitching stopped abruptly, and his bird-bright eyes flickered toward the door and back as if he were considering flying the coop. "I am not obsessing," he said. His lips were pursed, his tone stilted, and in that moment I doubted he would have been more insulted if I had suggested his mother had, in fact, belonged to another species. Touchy! Still, it wasn't good to offend one's clients, not when one is in my financial straits. But the man was paying a hefty sum for his Thursday evening sessions and spent most of his time discussing brown-bag options. It seemed a little strange to me, but who am I to say? I once knew a guy who used seventeen different toothbrushes every day of the week. Seventeen. I was never sure why, even though I knew him pretty well. Intimately even. Okay, truth is, I'd lived with him for eighteen months. He was as loopy as hell, but he had great dental hygiene, and if I've learned anything in my thirty-odd years, it's that sometimes a girl can't be too fussy.
"Perhaps obsessing is not the proper word," I said. "I only mean, surely you have more important things to worry about."
Lepinski shifted his gaze once more toward the door, then returned his full attention to me and said, "I don't," in a tone that challenged me to disagree.
So I did what any fledgling therapist worth her double-matted, mahogany-framed diploma would do. I fantasized about fudge mocha and gave him another maternal smile.
"And I take umbrage with your choice of words," he added. "I am not, nor have I ever been, obsessed."
I considered telling him the truth, that he was as wacky as a tennis racquet, but when I glanced at the clock on the wall I saw that his time was up.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lepinski," I said and managed, just barely, to avoid ejecting from my chair like a maniacal jack turned loose from his box. Instead, I rose with dignified calm and extended my hand. Thanks to Monique the magical manicurist, it was magnificently well groomed except for that one damned nail that had popped loose on my frenetic flight to work a full twelve hours before. "I'll see you next week."
He scowled as if considering the possibility of canceling his standing appointments, but the thought of handling his sandwich crises alone must have been too daunting, because he slipped a noodly hand into mine and nodded. "Next week," he said, not meeting my gaze. "Say, you have a stain on your . . ." He motioned, limp-wristed, toward my chest.
I extracted my hand and tucked my blouse more firmly beneath its coordinated jacket. It wasn't as though I was self-conscious. After all, the man wore canary yellow socks with his rumpled tweed suit.
"What is it? Ketchup?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"On your shirt. Is it ketchup?" he asked.
"No," I said, and gave him a smile that was polite but dismissive. I'd had a good deal of practice with polite-but-dismissive working at The Warthog in Schaumburg, just around the corner and down the street from where I'd grown up. "Have a good evening, Mr. Lepinski."
His mustache twitched again as if he might catch a scent of the fascinating stain. "Barbecue sauce?"
"I hope you don't mind seeing yourself out. I'm afraid my secretary had to leave early tonight."
On my desk, there was a letter opener shaped like a sword and stuck into a fake stone. It was more ornamental than utilitarian, but I wondered now if it might not make an effective weapon. Surely I couldn't be condemned for defending myself from mind-imploding frustration in the wake of nicotine withdrawal.
"I'm afraid I have another client, Mr. Lepinski."
"You put a little Mexican soap on that, it'll come right out," he said, still staring at my chest. I'm not Dolly Parton, but I'm not Calista Flockhart either. Still, I doubted if Lepinski had even considered the possibility that there was flesh hidden somewhere inside my overpriced ensemble. The stain was all-consuming. "Unless it's grape jelly. It's not, is it?"
I found, to my surprise, that my fingers had closed around the letter opener. It felt good in my hand. I could see the headlines. Hungry Psychologist Attacks Crazy Loon with Miniature Version of Excalibur. Maybe they'd want to edit that a little. Woman with Stained Blouse Assaults Wacko.
"Or grape juice. Grape juice--"
I raised the letter opener.
I jumped. Lepinski twitched. We turned toward the door in breathless tandem.
"Sorry to interrupt." Andrew R. Bomstad leaned through the doorway and grinned shyly at me. It was a strangely innocuous expression for such a large man, especially considering his past. He'd played tight end for the Lions until a groin injury had sidelined him from the glory of his gladiator days. Now he appeared on local commercials and owned stock in companies that probably netted him an hourly rate that was more than I made in a month. It was something of a mystery why he had chosen me as his therapist. But he had secrets he didn't want aired and maybe he thought I wouldn't have anyone of importance to tell, even if I broke my vow of confidentiality. "There's nobody at the receptionist desk. Didn't know if you'd heard me come in."
"No, I didn't," I said, returning his smile. True, Bomstad had his share of problems, but next to
Lepinski, he glowed with sparkling normalcy. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"No. No problem. Take your time. I'm probably early," he said and smiling apologetically, closed the door behind him.
"Well," I said, and abandoned the letter opener with some regret. "Good night then, Mr. Lepinski."
He blinked. "Was that the Bomber?"
"That was Andy Bomstad, wasn't it?"
"I'm not really in a position to say," I replied, but I've got to admit, it did my heart good to have a client who was recognized for something other than peeing on his neighbor's lawn. "Give some consideration to what we talked about this week, will you?"
"What's he here for?"
I stepped around my desk and reached out to usher him toward the door. Shoo now. Shoo, before I poke you in the eye with my thumb. "A client's visits are confidential. You know that, Mr. Lepinski."
"Professional or private?"
Ushering wasn't working. I opened the door with polite authority and considered tossing him into the hallway like yesterday's laundry. I was pretty sure I outweighed him by a good ten pounds. Not that I'm fat. "Good night, Mr. Lepinski."
He seemed to be thinking about pestering me some more, but one glance at Bomstad's impressive presence must have changed his mind, because he closed his mouth with a snap and stepped briskly through the lobby and out into the night, yellow socks flashing like lighthouse beacons.
I turned my attention from the crumpled little man and looked with some relief at my next client. His jeans were pressed just so and his shoes were Italian.
"Tough day?" he asked, and gave me that smile that had once made a roommate of mine compare him to Tom Cruise. My roommate's name had been Brian. For a while I had thought he was the one I'd take home to Mom--until I'd discovered the pictures of movie stars under our mattress. Male movie stars. "You keep taking on other folks' problems all day, you're gonna be worn right down to nothing."
Sympathy. I sighed mentally, but kept my chin up like a real trouper. "Easier than blocking a running back's rush with my head," I said, and he laughed as he rose to his feet and followed me into my office.
"Guess that depends on what you got in your head," he said. "But hey, the day's almost over, and this'll help, huh?"
"I beg your pardon?" I said, and he raised his hand. I noticed for the first time that he held the neck of a velvet bag that looked as if it might contain a bottle of wine.
"My doctor said a shot an evening would do me good."
"Ahhh." I couldn't think of anything more clever to say. This was a new one on me.
"And it looks like you could use some, too." He stepped into my office and took two water glasses from the tiny table that stood below the Ansel Adams reproduction. I wasn't a particular fan of Mr. Adams, but the print had been free and added to the airy panache of the place. "Chic environmentalist," it said. Or maybe "too broke to buy more stuff." But the office was small and didn't need a lot of clutter, I'd told myself. Bomstad took up most of the available space anyway. He extended a glass toward me. His hand was the approximate size of my head.
"I'm afraid the board frowns on fraternizing with clients," I said, imagining what the board would actually do if I shared a drink with him. Tar and feathers came to mind, but maybe that was being unfair. Maybe they'd go straight to lethal injection and not fiddle around with poultry.
"I won't tell 'em if you don't," Bomstad said as I settled into the rollered chair on the far side of my desk.
"No, thank you, Mr. Bomstad. But it's kind of you to offer." Gosh, I sounded professional.
He raised his brows and laughed. For a second I wondered why, but he was a nice guy with a great smile and an even better body. And after the men I'd been seeing for the past . . . oh . . . decade or so, it was fun just looking at him. Not that I was interested in him for myself, mind you. The California Board of Psychology may frown on drinking with clients, but they'd grind me into pate and serve me on whole wheat crackers if they found out I'd boinked one.
"You don't mind if I imbibe, I hope."
"No. Go ahead," I said. The truth was, I wasn't sure what the rules were about clients drinking during a session, but it seemed harmless enough to me.
He slipped the neck of the chilled bottle out of its burgundy bag. A small note dangled from the smooth green glass. It was Asti Spumante--my favorite. An odd coincidence, I thought, settling back into my chair as he poured.
"So how was your week?" he asked. Setting the bottle on the floor, he lowered himself to the couch.
I swiveled my chair toward him. "It was fine. How about yours?"
"A little hairy. Stocks are down."
"Are they?" Maybe I would have known that if I owned stocks. As it was most of my funds went to pay outdated school bills and a pessimistic banker. I owned an antiquated little cottage up in the valley. The yard looked like a rattlesnake habitat, Schwarzenegger would have struggled to wrestle the garage door into submission, and the entire place needed full time attention from a handy man with a sense of humor, but the house was mine, and I hoped to keep it that way.
"You don't worry about the market?" Bomstad asked.
"Not unless I'm making soup," I said.
From the Paperback edition.