Page 10 of The Firm

The paperhanger was a short muscle-bound woman advanced in years but conditioned to hard work and superbly trained. For almost forty years now, she explained to Abby, she had hung expensive paper in the finest homes in Memphis. She talked constantly, but wasted no motion. She cut precisely, like a surgeon, then applied glue like an artist. While it dried, she removed her tape measure from her leather work belt and analyzed the remaining corner of the dining room. She mumbled numbers which Abby could not decipher. She gauged the length and height in four different places, then committed it all to memory. She ascended the stepladder and instructed Abby to hand her a roll of paper. It fit perfectly. She pressed it firmly to the wall and commented for the hundredth time on how nice the paper was, how expensive, how long it would look good and last. She liked the color too. It blended wonderfully with the curtains and the rug. Abby had long since grown tired of saying thanks. She nodded and looked at her watch. It was time to start dinner.

When the wall was finished, Abby announced it was quitting time and asked her to return at nine the next morning. The lady said certainly, and began cleaning up her mess. She was being paid twelve dollars an hour, cash, and was agreeable to almost anything. Abby admired the room. They would finish it tomorrow, and the wallpapering would be complete except for two bathrooms and the den. The painting was scheduled to begin next week. The glue from the paper and the wet lacquer from the mantel and the newness of the furniture combined for a wonderful fresh aroma. Just like a new house.

Abby said goodbye to the paperhanger and went to the bedroom where she undressed and lay across her bed. She called her husband, spoke briefly to Nina and was told he was in a meeting and would be a while. Nina said he would call. Abby stretched her long, sore legs and rubbed her shoulders. The ceiling fan spun slowly above her. Mitch would be home, eventually. He would work a hundred hours a week for a while, then cut back to eighty. She could wait.

She awoke an hour later and jumped from the bed. It was almost six. Veal piccata. Veal piccata. She stepped into a pair of khaki walking shorts and slipped on a white polo. She ran to the kitchen, which was finished except for some paint and a set of curtains due in next week. She found the recipe in a pasta cookbook and arranged the ingredients neatly on the countertop. There had been little red meat in law school, maybe an occasional hamburger steak. When she cooked, it had been chicken this or chicken that. There had been a lot of sandwiches and hot dogs.

But now, with all this sudden affluence, it was time to learn to cook. In the first week she prepared something new every night, and they ate whenever he got home. She planned the meals, studied the cookbooks, experimented with the sauces. For no apparent reason, Mitch liked Italian food, and with spaghetti and pork cappellini tried and perfected, it was time for veal piccata. She pounded the veal scallops with a mallet until they were thin enough, then laid them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. She put a pan of water on the burner for the linguine. She poured a glass of Chablis and turned on the radio. She had called the office twice since lunch, and he had not found time to return the calls. She thought of calling again, but said no. It was his turn. Dinner would be fixed, and they would eat whenever he got home.

The scallops were sauteed in hot oil for three minutes until the veal was tender; then removed. She poured the oil from the pan and added wine and lemon juice until it was boiling. She scraped and stirred the pan to thicken the sauce. She returned the veal to the pan, and added mushrooms and artichokes and butter. She covered the pan and let it simmer.

She fried bacon, sliced tomatoes, cooked linguine and poured another glass of wine. By seven, dinner was ready; bacon and tomato salad with tubettini, veal piccata, and garlic bread in the oven. He had not called. She took her wine to the patio and looked around the backyard. Hearsay ran from under the shrubs. Together they walked the length of the yard, surveying the Bermuda and stopping under the two large oaks. The remains of a long-abandoned tree house were scattered among the middle branches of the largest oak. Initials were carved on its trunk. A piece of rope hung from the other. She found a rubber ball, threw it and watched as the dog chased it. She listened for the phone through the kitchen window. It did not ring.

Hearsay froze, then growled at something next door. Mr. Rice emerged from a row of perfectly trimmed box hedges around his patio. Sweat dripped from his nose and his cotton undershirt was soaked. He removed his green gloves, and noticed Abby across the chain-link fence, under her tree. He smiled. He looked at her brown legs and smiled. He wiped his forehead with a sweaty forearm and headed for the fence.

"How are you?" he asked, breathing heavy. His thick gray hair dripped and clung to his scalp.

"Just fine, Mr. Rice. How are you?"

"Hot. Must be a hundred degrees."

Abby slowly walked to the fence to chat. She had caught his stares for a week now, but did not mind. He was at least seventy and probably harmless. Let him look. Plus, he was a living, breathing, sweating human who could talk and maintain a conversation to some degree. The paperhanger had been her only source of dialogue since Mitch left before dawn.

"Your lawn looks great," she said.

He wiped again and spat on the ground. "Great? You call this great? This belongs in a magazine. I've never seen a puttin' green look this good. I deserve garden of the month, but they won't give it to me. Where's your husband?"

"At the office. He's working late."

"It's almost eight. He must've left before sunup this morning. I take my walk at six-thirty, and he's already gone. What's with him?"

"He likes to work."

"If I had a wife like you, I'd stay at home. Couldn't make me leave."

Abby smiled at the compliment. "How is Mrs. Rice?"

He frowned, then yanked a weed out of the fence. "Not too good, I'm afraid. Not too good." He looked away and bit his lip. Mrs. Rice was almost dead with cancer. There were no children. She had a year, the doctors said. A year at the most. They had removed most of her stomach, and the tumors were now in the lungs. She weighed ninety pounds and seldom left the bed. During their first visit across the fence his eyes watered when he talked of her and of how he would be alone after fifty-one years.

"Now, they won't give me garden of the month. Wrong part of town. It always goes to those rich folks who hire yard boys to do all the work while they sit by the pool and sip daiquiris. It does look good, doesn't it?"

"It's incredible. How many times a week do you mow?"

"Three or four. Depends on the rain. You want me to mow yours?"

"No. I want Mitch to mow it."

"He ain't got time, seems like. I'll watch it, and if it needs a little trim, I'll come over."

Abby turned and looked at the kitchen window. "Do you hear the phone?" she asked, walking away. Mr. Rice pointed to his hearing aid.

She said goodbye and ran to the house. The phone stopped when she lifted the receiver. It was eight-thirty, almost dark. She called the office, but no one answered. Maybe he was driving home.

* * *

An hour before midnight, the phone rang. Except for it and the light snoring, the second-floor office was without a sound. His feet were on the new desk, crossed at the ankles and numb from lack of circulation. The rest of the body slouched comfortably in the thick leather executive chair.

He slumped to one side and intermittently exhaled the sounds of a deep sleep. The Capps file was strewn over the desk and one formidable-looking document was held firmly against his stomach. His shoes were on the floor, next to the desk, next to a pile of documents from the Capps file. An empty potato-chip bag was between the shoes.

After a dozen rings he moved, then jumped at the phone. It was his wife.

"Why haven't you called?" she asked, coolly, yet with a slight touch of concern.

"I'm sorry. I fell asleep. What time is it?" He rubbed his eyes and focused on his watch.

"Eleven. I wish you would call."

"I did call. No one answered."

"When?"

"Between eight and nine. Where were you?"

She did not answer. She waited. "Are you coming home?"

"No. I need to work all night."

"All night? You can't work all night, Mitch."

"Of course I can work all night. Happens all the time around here. It's expected."

"I expected you home, Mitch. And the least you could've done was call. Dinner is still on the stove."

"I'm sorry. I'm up to my ears in deadlines and I lost track of time. I apologize."

There was silence for a moment as she considered the apology. "Will this become a habit, Mitch?"

"It might."

"I see. When do you think you might be home?"

"Are you scared?"

"No, I'm not scared. I'm going to bed."

"I'll come in around seven for a shower."

"That's nice. If I'm asleep, don't wake me."

She hung up. He looked at the receiver, then put it in place. On the fifth floor a security agent chuckled to himself. "'Don't wake me.' That's good," he said as he pushed a button on the computerized recorder. He punched three buttons and spoke into a small mike. "Hey, Dutch, wake up down there."

Dutch woke up and leaned to the intercom. "Yeah, what is it?"

"This is Marcus upstairs, I think our boy plans to stay all night."

"What's his problem?"

"Right now it's his wife. He forgot to call her and she fixed a real nice supper."

"Aw, that's too bad. We've heard that before, ain't we?"

"Yeah, every rookie does it the first week. Anyway, he told her he ain't coming home till in the morning. So go back to sleep."

Marcus pushed some more buttons and returned to his magazine.

Abby was waiting when the sun peeked between the oak trees. She sipped coffee and held the dog and listened to the quiet sounds of her neighborhood stirring to life. Sleep had been fitful. A hot shower had not eased the fatigue. She wore a white terry-cloth bathrobe, one of his, and nothing else. Her hair was wet and pulled straight back.

A car door slammed and the dog pointed inside the house. She heard him unlock the kitchen door, and moments later the sliding door to the patio opened. He laid his coat on a bench near the door and walked over to her.

"Good morning," he said, then sat down across the wicker table.

She gave him a fake smile. "Good morning to you."

"You're up early," he said in an effort at friendliness. It did not work. She smiled again and sipped her coffee.

He breathed deeply and gazed across the yard. "Still mad about last night, I see."

"Not really. I don't carry a grudge."

"I said I was sorry, and I meant it. I tried to call once."

"You could've called again."

"Please don't divorce me, Abby. I swear it will never happen again. Just don't leave me."

She managed a genuine grin. "You look terrible," she said.

"What's under the robe?"

"Nothing."

"Let's see."

"Why don't you take a nap. You look haggard."

"Thanks. But I've got a nine o'clock meeting with Avery. And a ten o'clock meeting with Avery."

"Are they trying to kill you the first week?"

"Yes, but they can't do it. I'm too much of a man. Let's go take a shower."

"I've taken one."

"Naked?"

"Yes."

"Tell me about it. Tell me every detail."

"If you'd come home at a decent hour you wouldn't feel depraved."

"I'm sure it'll happen again, dear. There will be plenty of all-nighters. You didn't complain in law school when I studied around the clock."

"It was different. I endured law school because I knew it would soon end. But now you're a lawyer and you will be for a long time. Is this part of it? Will you always work a thousand hours a week?"

"Abby, this is my first week."

"That's what worries me. It will only get worse."

"Sure it will. That's part of it, Abby. It's a cutthroat business where the weak are eaten and the strong get rich. It's a marathon. He who endures wins the gold."

"And dies at the finish line."

"I don't believe this. We moved here a week ago, and you're already worried about my health."

She sipped the coffee and rubbed the dog. She was beautiful. With tired eyes, no makeup, and wet hair, she was beautiful. He stood, walked behind her and kissed her on the cheek. "I love you," he whispered.

She clutched his hand on her shoulder. "Go take a shower. I'll fix breakfast."

The table was arranged to perfection. Her grandmother's china was taken from the cabinet and used for the first time in the new home. Candles were lit in silver candlesticks. Grapefruit juice was poured in the crystal tea glasses. Linen napkins that matched the tablecloth were folded on the plates. When he finished his shower and changed into a new Burberry glen plaid, he walked to the dining room and whistled.

"What's the occasion?"

"It's a special breakfast, for a special husband."

He sat and admired the china. The food was warming in a covered silver dish. "What'd you cook?" he asked, smacking his lips. She pointed and he removed the lid. He stared at it.

"What's this?" he asked without looking at her.

"Veal piccata."

"Veal what?"

"Veal piccata."

He glanced at his watch. "I thought it was breakfast time."

"I cooked it for dinner last night, and I suggest you eat it."

"Veal piccata for breakfast?"

She grinned firmly and shook her head slightly. He looked again at the dish, and for a second or two analyzed the situation.

Finally, he said, "Smells good."

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