I loved the Mayor’s office. The musk of blue backs and Law Journals. Of fine leather shoes and silk suits. Of Coronados and coffee. Of Old Spice and the Wrigley’s Big Red gum he’d chew whenever he was breaking himself of the Coronados. The heat off his copy machines and the heat off his secretaries. Carl Sandberg’s Abraham Lincoln: The War Years eye level to clients on his President’s Resolute desk.
I especially loved our early morning Saturdays, the Mayor and the Mayor’s son working side by side. Mornings as rare as spring in January or his sleeping at home more than a week’s worth of nights. His rows of file cabinets, his cubicles and windowed offices, his waiting room with its photographs of hard hats and migrant workers, all seemed charged with the ghosts of actors fresh from their bows. I could hardly wait until The Law Office of Arthur Krakow was re-christened Krakow & Son.
Those hours watching him work were always a condition precedent to the real treat of the day, a movie “in the city,” with a stopover at the Broadway Arcade in Times Square, where he let me fill my pockets with tokens until my pants drooped. The Shangri La like culmination of our Saturdays: The Stage Deli, where we’d devour sandwiches that could prop open a door, and cheesecake wedges as big as your head.
So I almost didn’t mind killing time while he worked on files, or that when we finally crossed the bridge to Manhattan, I often had to wait again, this time for a stop at Kino’s, so he could “take care of a little business.”
Kino’s was on Fulton Street. Paulie Mishkin, a defrocked lawyer, was the owner. The Mayor had helped Paulie get a license to sell liquor despite Paulie’s having been stripped of the one that let him practice law. The price for this favor involved something I couldn’t quite follow concerning a client’s wife, ten thousand dollars, and a gun.
But Paulie drew a line through his IOU at letting a kid be seen strolling into Kino’s and pulling up a chair. So I would be forced to wait outside while the Mayor disappeared through thickening smoke to where this councilman or that judge’s clerk sat facing the wall, prepared for the sort of conversation that could only be had on a Saturday at noon in a topless bar on Fulton.
I would spend that half hour pretending not to stare through the picture window at barmaids sporting thongs and nipple tassels. How matter-of-fact they were in their nakedness! How blasé their expressions as they poured and strode and served! I longed for the day when the Mayor would let me follow him through the haze to discover, finally, what “taking care of business” was all about.
“Are you ready to become a junior lawyer?” the Mayor asked, rocking me awake.
He never touched. Not a kiss on the head, no fingers through your hair. It was strange, with his hand on my shoulder, how gentle he could be.
I leapt from bed and he watched appraisingly while I buttoned an out-of-the-box short sleeve shirt and clipped-on a tie. He unstraightened my collar. “The idea’s you’re just a kid,” he explained. Then, as if reading my confusion, added, “Trust me.”
As usual, we spent the morning in his office. I passed the time by pushing off on a secretary’s chair to break the record for wheeled chair distance rolling. Lenny Horowitz’s office won me the Olympic Gold Medal. Then I searched the lawyers’s desk drawers for stuff that might be incriminating, or at least edible.
Finally, just as I was deciding that he’d changed his mind and I wasn’t going to be a junior lawyer after all, he opened a polished wood box and removed a fountain pen embossed with tiny white gold triangles and capped with a shimmering black cover. He caught me gazing as he ran a finger along the studded shaft. “Never go to war,” he said, sliding two fresh legal pads, a handful of important-looking papers, and finally, the pen, into his leather satchel. “Without your finest sword.”
As his Corvette hummed to life, all I could see was Paulie Mishkin’s look of surprise and the welcoming smiles of tasseled barmaids as the Mayor led me to our sit-down with whomever it was we were meeting to do whatever business.
But we didn’t cross the bridge to Manhattan. Instead we drove the Belt Parkway straight into Sunset Park and Chinatown, already surging with purpose while the rest of the city was coming reluctantly awake: A jumble of storefront hieroglyphics, backfire and horn blare, the bobbing of intent faces above a sea of olive clothing. The Mayor seemed to know exactly how we fit in; I could only guess.
As we rode the elevator in a ten-story yellow brick apartment house, he inspected himself in the mirrored wall, notching his tie at his throat, adjusting his gold tie pin, spitting his Big Red into a corner.
“Remember,” he said. “A lawyer never opens his mouth until he studies the people in the room and calculates the play. You got that?”
“Yes,” I said, wishing for a clue what a “play” was.
“This works out, there’s a movie about some kind of alien I wouldn’t mind seeing.”
He didn’t seem to know—or did he?—that among my friends the heat coming off Aliens was unbearable, because it had creatures who ate your face, and it had Sigourney Weaver. Looking me over diagnostically, he mussed my hair with a smile, the one that instantly seduced would-be clients, judges, opposing counsel, and any number of women throughout the court district, except my mother.
“My son,” he said. “My son.”
What a strange Saturday this had become. But now I felt ready, “play” and all. He rang the bell to apartment 5R and the Xiaos appeared. They seemed as old as grandparents, but they had smooth, delicate skin, and fine black hair. Mr. Xiao leaned on canes, holding them at his waist as if they could protect him from whatever catastrophe, official or otherworldly, stood in his doorway in a silk suit with matching tie clasp and cuff links.
“I’m from insurance,” The Mayor nearly shouted, reaching for a business card. “Guardian Accident and Life.”
He handed the card to Mr. Xiao, but Mrs. Xiao grabbed it, studying it as if it were a warrant.
The Mayor gave a small bow—I’d never seen that before. I also couldn’t understand why he spoke like an English primer: “You filed claim. Insurance has money for you. Money for your pain.”
Life with the Mayor had already ingrained me with unusual caution. I didn’t even lean to see how his card could say he worked for an insurance company. We had money for the Xiaos, that was the important thing. Money for their pain.
Mrs. Xiao glanced my way for the first time; somehow I knew to try a shy smile. Her eyes seemed to soften—we were there to help, after all—then Krakow & Son followed the Xiaos to the kitchen, which was just large enough for a round Formica table and appliances that looked a hundred years old. Although it was July, and morning, a dusky November sun diffused through a window blind.
Then a girl appeared without a word to stand at a chair near the window. She seemed around my age–at least I hoped she was. Her complexion was the color of a Caramel Cream, her eyes brimmed with intelligence. An entirely different order of female from a Kino’s barmaid, or my classmates with their bewilderingly changeable weather of gossipy whispers, skirmishes, flurries of pop songs, and laughter—that always, to me, seemed mocking—and who unsurprisingly wanted little to do with a bookish asthmatic whose top sport was singing along with the cast album of A Chorus Line.
I sort of made eye contact with her and straightened my tie as if to signal that a junior lawyer had come to the rescue. She gave no hint of knowing I was in the room. Mrs. Xiao gestured for me to sit. The Mayor’s clenched jaw told me it was okay.
Mr. Xiao leaned his canes against the table and lowered himself onto a chair. His daughter waited with her eyes averted while Mrs. Xiao settled herself, then waited some more until her mother seemed to allow, with a crisp nod, that she finally had permission to sit.
The Mayor, who was hardly known for restraint, stole a hesitant glance at his hosts before taking off his suit jacket and rolling up his sleeves. Only years later did I see that, the table being round, it offered no dominant position. This left him, as he liked to say, “Behind the eight ball” when it came to establishing a beachhead for his authority. So he loosened his tie and leaned grandly in his chair, arms spread as if to seize the entire room in his embrace. He dropped his fractured English, enthusing about their wonderful apartment and lovely daughter, of whom, he was certain, they must be “more than proud.”
The Xiaos nodded and smiled, but the girl never changed expression. Then the Mayor swept his satchel from ankle to table; the authoritative thump of leather on Formica seemed to demand their attention, and they complied. He unsnapped the gold buckle, drew out his legal papers and yellow pads, and made a great show of preparing his special pen for the important work it was about to perform.
The Xiaos gazed as if it all contained some occult secret, but hadn’t made up their minds whether one best left unrevealed.
The Mayor held the room in a ceremonious silence.
“No man should have to go through this…” he gestured toward the canes. “This tragedy. I can only imagine how worried you are. ‘How will I take care of my lovely wife?’”
The Xiaos followed his hand as it squeezed my shoulder and settled on the back of my neck.
“‘How can I provide for my lovely daughter,’” he added.
He was right, she was lovely: a beautiful, serene alien, unreachable by me even with Sigourney’s spacecraft Nostromo. The kind who always sat in the front row in class, pencils sharpened so you could almost smell the shavings, books neatly bound in a plain elastic clasp, never raising her hand but always having the answer (so very different from the alien who stalked the Krakow apartment like the giantess in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, trailing her perfume of Comet and Winstons). Xiao’s daughter might never vanquish an acid-spitter with the muscular authority of Sigourney Weaver, but she would surely have it panting at her feet; in her halo of composure, her penetrating intelligence was a force field to which surrender was the only possibility.
“But we’re not going to let your family go uncompensated,” The Mayor continued with his hand at my neck, his eyes flashing righteous determination. “Not Guardian Life. Not me.”
“Not us,” I wished I could add in the direction of the girl, waving the Mayor’s shimmering fountain pen with a flourish.
He asked them many questions about Mr. Xiao’s accident. Their English was halting and unsure, but he kept saying, “You’re doing great,” and, “How long have you been in this country? You speak English better than me!”
Mr. Xiao pushed up on his canes to describe, mainly with excited gestures, how the roof he’d been fixing collapsed beneath him. No crack or groan of warning, no tremor at his feet. How he fell five stories until his hips shattered and a lung was punctured. Mrs. Xiao frequently interrupted to add a detail or correct his memory, and to answer the Mayor’s questions about what married life was like now that Mr. Xiao was a changed man.
The Mayor made a great show of documenting their story in scrupulous detail on his yellow pad. The reliving of his accident exhausted Mr. Xiao. The Mayor said, “You have been through hell. Take your time.” Finally, he held out his pen with a gesture that seemed less an offering than a command.
“Big check will come,” he said. “Very much money. Big house. Cadillac car.”
Mr. Xiao looked to his wife for word whether he should sign.
Maybe it was the magnitude of the moment–the story he’d relived dozens of time in thoughts and nightmares fixed on the lined yellow pages. The elaborate pen promising to write a new but uncertain life. Maybe the urgency of the Mayor’s pitch had thrown them from the dream of their new house. But Mr. Xiao couldn’t sign without his wife’s okay.
And she, somehow, couldn’t give it to him.
An intriguing oblong container, blood red and decorated with raised Chinese letters, caught my eye from the top of the refrigerator. It looked like it had been passed down many generations.
Mrs. Xiao rushed to boil a pan of hot water. “The boy is hungry,” she said.
“No thank you,” I told her, glancing at the Mayor for a sign whether that was the right play.
“It’s good,” she assured me from a footstool at the refrigerator door. “It’s good.”
He laid his pen on the pad and locked his fingers together on the table. “How lucky,” he said, from low in his throat. “Henry loves to eat.”
Mr. Xiao smiled as if all was right in the world, now that Mrs. Xiao had thought to feed me. Mrs. Xiao tried to hand me the large container.
“Take whole box,” she insisted. “Whole box for you.”
I gazed into a lake of cookies, each pale yellow with a droplet of chocolate like a Hershey’s kiss. If I ate, they would sign. If they signed, what would happen to them? Only the Mayor knew, and I wasn’t about to ask.
“You can bring it for a treat,” he lilted menacingly. “If you get to see that movie we were talking about.”
I reached to take the container from Mrs. Xiao. Her hands were soft as snow. Mr. Xiao nodded eagerly. The girl never changed expression, so it was impossible to tell if she understood: I had no idea when, or if, there would be another Saturday with the Mayor, or whether Aliens would still be around if there were.
The container turned out to be made of tin, but the cookies were good, sweet and light. The chocolate mound had a surprising kick.
Mrs. Xiao brought three cups of tea to the table, only three–her daughter would go without. The Xiaos watched with satisfaction as I ate.
Finally, Mr. Xiao signed his statement and the letter of guarantee. The Mayor shot up from the table and hustled it all into his briefcase. “I’ll be there for your housewarming,” he promised, finishing the sentence at their door.
They struggled to keep up, smiling and bowing as if to say that whatever it was he’d said about their house, if he thought it was good, it was good.
I hugged the cookies to my chest, knowing better than to offer to return them.
I glanced back at the girl, but she just kept staring with her black reflecting eyes.
In the car, the Mayor tore off his tie and rolled down his window. “What you did with that cookie. Polite and shy, taking your time. The minute Metro told me the Xiaos had a kid, I knew that was my in. Bang-up job, son.”
Son. I felt like I’d eaten every cookie in the tin, bathing each Hershey’s kissed morsel in a glass of cold milk.
But my happiness slipped away as we sped off toward Manhattan. The eyes of the Xiao’s daughter followed me everywhere, like brilliant one-way mirrors that seemed to reflect what I’d learned from my first case as a junior lawyer: that I was capable of doing anything for a movie and a slice of cheesecake as big as my head.
The Mayor dropped me off at the curb in front of our apartment building. “Take my briefcase. Leave it by the front door.”
His briefcase was brushed cowhide, with a gold buckle engraved with his initials. To even think about opening it was to violate a Talmudic oath. Still, when he wasn’t around, I’d steal a reverent caress, imagining the teeming cosmos of Important Business locked away inside. Now that I’d finally earned the right to carry it, I wished the moment hadn’t come so soon.
I rode the elevator to our penthouse apartment, fighting to keep the tin from slipping out from under my arm, his briefcase weighing down my hand. Suddenly, I knew what I had to do. I had to save her.
First, I needed to sneak the cookies past Nina, my mother. I eased our tumbler open, but she rushed up to our vestibule in a flurry of anticipation. When she saw I was alone, I knew the cookie tin wouldn’t be a problem–I could have trailed an elephant on a leash and she wouldn’t have blinked.
“He has a meeting with a client,” I muttered as I hurried to my bedroom.
“On Saturday night?” she said, in a way that was only half a question.
I shut the door behind me and put the tin on my desk. The Xiaos hadn’t told us their daughter’s name. I decided to think of her as Ripley.
“Ripley!” I said as I upended an old Adidas box and watched my stash of allowance and birthday money tumble onto my desk. “Ripley! Ripley!” I filled the shoe box with cookies from the container, fixed the shoe box lid shut, and pushed it under my bed where Nina wouldn’t find it, but in reach of my fingers if I needed emergency field rations in the middle of the night.
Then I swept my money into the tin and waited for morning.
The first thing I’d overlooked was that I had no idea how to find them.
The second was that my bicycle didn’t have a basket.
I clutched the cookie tin under an arm as I charted a course by landmarks from my ride with the Mayor: the Amoco station, a corner Waldbaum’s, that scaffold and giant crane, a bus stop ad with Jane Pauley wearing a mustache and goatee.
When I finally arrived and climbed off my bike, wheezing and drenched with sweat, a cluster bomb of pain shot across my back from wrestling the tin for all those miles.
No one answered their bell.
I’d pedaled half of Brooklyn for nothing.
I walked my bicycle down 44th Street wishing I knew the bus to take me home. Then I saw them: Mr. Xiao, in work clothes, using the canes to push his weight forward, one painful step at a time. Mrs. Xiao at his side, in a prim, dark suit, marching toward the high steps and wide doors of a church, as if commanding Mr. Xiao to keep moving.
And half a block behind: Ripley, in a gray dress and black shoes.
I climbed on my bike and pedaled onto the street, hoping she would see me signal her, praying she wouldn’t call me out to her parents.
She turned and stared as if she’d known I was there all along. I pedaled closer, but the cookie tin kept slipping; the more I struggled to steady my wobbling bike, the more it insisted on making me look ridiculous. She gestured that I should wait near the church’s open gate.
Then she was beside me, on the concrete steps of the Church of the Holy Innocents.
“What’s your name?” she said. “I’m Cassie.”
“How old are you?
“Sixteen,” I lied. “Do you like MacGuyver?” It was obvious she had no idea what I was talking about. “He can rig a lie detector out of an alarm clock and a stethoscope.”
In school, whenever I’d take a test, I’d feel the feverish desperation of the totally unprepared. This was like that.
“It’s my favorite TV show,” I stammered.
“We don’t own a television,” she said, eyes gleaming. “If I don’t get straight A’s, my mother will send me to work in her brother’s factory in China.”
She glanced at the cookie tin but said nothing. Then she glanced at my bike. “Where do you live?” she asked.
“Ocean Parkway. I can actually bike to Coney Island from my apartment. It’s only a mile and change.” The Mayor always said and change.
“I’ve never been out of Sunset Park. Never in my life.”
I didn’t see how that could possibly be. Especially, to never have seen Coney Island.
She said, “My parents didn’t think I was possible, because they were old. And, being a girl, I’m a disappointment. They wake in the dark and come home in the dark. Then they’re too tired for anything. But I’m going to college with the money you win for them,” she added proudly. “I skipped two grades.”
There was more to her than I’d thought. She was smart and tough, but it had come at a price. I could sense it in her loneliness, hear it in the sadness when she spoke. Plus, she didn’t have a television.
I said, “I really need to tell you something.”
She shrugged. “My father will walk again, and I’ll go to college and become a medical researcher. You’re like To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch is a lawyer and a hero. I’m going to call you Finch. Henry Finch.”
“I’m not really a lawyer,” I said. “You have to take a test.”
“Is that what you wanted to confess?” she asked with a quick smile.
I put the tin on my knees and held it by the lid. Although it was crazy to think the Mayor could have followed me, I stared up toward 7th Avenue and back toward the Xiao’s apartment building.
“My dad’s almost famous,” I said. “He’s helped so many people. I think they’re blackmailing him.”
She looked confused.
I blurted, “No check is coming! Or maybe one is–but not for the right amount.”
She didn’t seem surprised–I figured she was too shocked to make sense of what I’d just said. I opened the tin and stared at the money, afraid to look for her reaction, pretty sure if she cried from joy, I might, too.
She stood and straightened her dress, and in a monotone, said, “I have to get back inside.”
Looking down at my coins and crumpled bills, I suddenly realized how childish my plan was, and wished I could bike away at warp speed.
She shrugged and barely glanced my way. “There’s no hope without your father’s yellow pad.”
She waited for me to acknowledge that I understood.
“The one with my father’s signature,” she added. Then, as if reading my thoughts: “Your father will never know. Trust me.”
“What happens when he tries to give it to Metro? He won’t just kill me—have you seen Aliens?”
Standing above me, she hesitated with a foot on the next step. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you, but I can’t. Not until I have those papers. Ring my door bell three times and run down to the lobby and wait for me there. I have never had a boyfriend, Finch.” Starting up the steps, she stopped and turned. “Oh–and don’t forget his pen.”
Then she disappeared into the church.
It wasn’t Henry Krakow who biked home. It was Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, gunning his motorcycle and plotting the liberation of the Xiao Statement.
Phase One: Sneak home and into the Mayor’s leather briefcase. This would be the least challenging part, because his client meeting that started Saturday had extended, as usual, through the weekend. And Nina would be gone, too–attending Sunday services in the basement, at the Shrine of the Perpetual Clothes Dryer.
But as I walked my bicycle through our front door, he loomed just inside our vestibule, temples and forearms pulsing with liquid dynamite. The thing about the Mayor was he had two kinds of dynamite, angry and exhilarated, and I’d always needed a long moment to decide which it was.
He said, “You look like hell! Where’d you ride that thing? Alaska?”
“I didn’t see him leave, Artie,” Nina said defensively, though he was still clearly surfing his wave of elation from our visit with the Xiaos, and from whatever his client meeting had been about.
“I was telling your mother I just settled a whale of a case. There’s some paperwork to finish here in the apartment, then I say we celebrate with a family dinner. Your choice of restaurant, junior lawyer.”
“Junior lawyer!” she cried. She seemed confounded by the fragile hope that the Krakow family had somehow turned a corner, in the Mayor’s abrupt homecoming and the news that I had, against all odds, done something right.
“So what’ll it be,” he asked. “Where are we going to eat?”
I chose Einhorn’s Kosher Palace, where the dining rooms opened out like magician’s scarves from one end of the avenue to the other, in a dizzying display of exuberant, red-leathered, Tiffany lamp-lit gluttony. I ate a turkey club that could have fed a Siberian village through a barren winter, crowned with fries that were nearly as thick as chair legs, studded with salt diamonds. But it was hard to savor my junior lawyer feast, knowing what I was about to do to the Mayor–or, if I changed my mind, to Cassie and the Xiaos.
Perhaps sensing my ambivalence, he didn’t wait for me to choose desert and possibly settle on a depressing scoop of vanilla ice cream. Instead, he ordered a Whole Shebang, a sundae that required, the menu both promised and warned, a glass so large they’d had it made special order by Corning Glass Works. It had to be the first time in history a Whole Shebang had been weaponized in a battle between father and son.
Later, things really got strange: He slipped into bed to watch television with Nina. His briefcase sat at the opposite end of the apartment near the front closet. What would be the more terrible death, getting caught stealing Mr. Xiao’s statement, or living without Cassie? I imagined us again on the stone steps of the Holy Innocents, moving together slowly for our first kiss.
It wasn’t a choice. It was destiny.
I felt my way down the dark corridor by the meek refracted light of the nine o’clock movie that spilled from my parents’ cracked-open bedroom door.
The Mayor’s briefcase unbuckled like the pin from a grenade, then his laughter tore through our apartment. With my fingers hesitating just inside the gaping darkness where Mr. Xiao’s statement waited to be liberated, I imagined how Cassie would look when I surprised her in the dark of night.
And I imagined our kiss, and more.
Three times her bell echoed. Then I remembered I was supposed to wait for her in the lobby. She called to me as I reached for the elevator button.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered, as I hesitated in her threshold. “They’re sleeping.”
I rested my bike against the fridge. She turned on the light and sat at the table.
“I thought we were supposed to meet downstairs,” I said, reluctant to slip off my backpack.
“It’s ten o’clock, nothing can wake them now. Sometimes I escape, but there’s nothing to do in Sunset Park. So I walk a few blocks and come home. Sit down. I told you it’s okay.”
I slipped off my backpack and sat in the chair the Mayor had used.
She tore her father’s statement from the serrated seal of the yellow pad, then eased the pages into a neat pile and placed them on the table to her right. She lifted the Mayor’s lucky pen from its wooden box without pausing to admire it, then held the pad steady beneath her right forearm and hand. Three alabaster teeth bit pensively onto her lower lip while she copied the true story of her father’s accident, in what struck me as a perfect approximation of the Mayor’s all-capitals handwriting.
She never stopped for a break, never rested her hand, never spoke, or looked my way.
“We’re going to go to jail,” I said.
“Trust me,” she said, without glancing up. “Grownups never pay attention to anything.”
She paused at the last paragraph to read it out loud. “I hereby agree to settle all claims, past, present, and future, against Metro Insurance Company, in the amount of fifty-thousand dollars.” Now she finally did look at me, but I couldn’t read her thoughts. Was she remembering how my simple thank-you for her mother’s tin of cookies had given her father the confidence to sign away a new life for a measly fifty-grand?
She tapped the pen three times, and with a small nod, began to write again. “Nine-hundred thousand. It’s less than a million, so they won’t notice.”
Then she copied her father’s signature, shuffled the papers into a neat stack, and handed them to me.
As she walked me to her door, I wished that Steve McQueen had had a love scene in The Great Escape, so I’d have notes.
I leaned clumsily across my bicycle.
“I’m keeping the pen,” she said.
“But if it’s not in his bag when he wants it, he’ll know it was me.”
“I’ll give it back when the check comes. It’s only three weeks–that’s what he told my parents.”
“Actually, he said two.”
“But the check has to clear. My father can’t pay the bills without me, so I know. Two weeks to arrive, then one to clear.”
“My father loves that pen; what if he needs it?”
“That could happen,” she said, her eyes glistening black. “But it won’t. You have to give it to me so I know you’ll actually go through with this.”
“I’ll go through with it, you can trust me.”
She stared with her ferocious Ripley intelligence, as if to remind me how I’d sat without a word while my father wrote lies about her father’s accident.
I leaned over my bike and handed her the pen, and then I kissed her.
Days went by and the Mayor said nothing. After a while, I began to breathe again, and a profound peace descended. It was my first summer as a counselor-in-training at Y camp. I chased my kids through water fountains, unwrapped ice cream sandwiches, helped them sculpt misshapen animals out of clay and paint. On breaks while my friends shared wistful day dreams about the girls they liked, I kept Cassie to myself.
All I had to do now was count every minute until I saw her again.
Then all the days but one were crossed off the calendar I’d made from a cardboard backing from one of the Mayor’s dry cleaned shirts. It was an unusually sparkling summer’s afternoon. My friends and I planned a Hell’s Angels road trip to Sea Gate, where Billy Greenberg’s father was throwing a barbecue, so I needed to go home to get my bike.
But when I walked through our door, I heard the Mayor, then Nina, in our kitchen.
“You’ve had trouble before, Artie,” she was saying, her tone uncharacteristically soothing. “And always come out ahead.”
“Who could have changed those papers?” he asked with a sob in his voice.
An M-80 detonated in my mouth. I crept closer, careful not to breathe. Waiting for him to ask about his pen.
Nina said, “No one changed them. Someone at Metro decided that’s what the case is worth. Arthur? It was just a business decision.”
“Nine hundred thousand bucks?” he pleaded. “Are you kidding?”
“Well, can’t they just cancel the check? Put a stop-payment?”
In the pool at the Y, standing at the bottom, I liked to listen to voices drifting down from above in their cryptic, water-warped language. Nina reassuring a panicked Mayor was like standing at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
He said, “Jerry can’t stop payment now without a lot of spotlight.”
“But he’s president of Metro.”
“First of all,” he explained, sounding more like himself again. “Vice president. And what if he did put a stop payment? Someone’s always watching, you can’t just do what you want, you’re vice president. Jerry’s too fucking lazy to check the papers before signing off on them, and now I’m dead with him and Metro. They were in my bag; I took them out and gave them to Gloria and told her messenger them right away. Maybe she left them on her desk and someone took them? Or a clerk in the mail room’s getting greased by one of my enemies? Or someone at Metro?”
There was a very long minute where neither of them said a thing.
If I breathed, he might remember how he’d brought his son to the Xiaos.
“It gets you can’t sleep except with one eye open,” he finally said.
“But Artie, don’t you always say–”
“Could it be Gloria? Why would she? Remember she and Ben couldn’t get the loan for the house and I called in a marker? But you don’t know; you never know.”
“–don’t you say you can see around corners?”
“So okay you lose Metro, you lose Jerry. You can always make money. But not knowing who changed that statement, it’s like having cancer and the best doctors in the world can’t find the tumor to kill the thing before it kills…”
He stopped and his chair scraped the floor. “Henry?”
I shuffled in place to make it seem like I’d just come home.
“Come in here,” he said.
His shirt looked like he’d slept in it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him without a tie. “I knocked off early,” he explained. “Why not, I just made a bunch of money, big case,” he added with a fugitive wink. “So I came home to see your mother about a family vacation.”
“A family vacation!” she chimed, glancing down as if she’d lost a contact lens. Then she opened the fridge and stood there, blinking at the light. “If you’re going to be home I should think about dinner.”
“To do business,” he told me, with the same soft tone as when he’d rocked me awake to ask if I was ready to become a junior lawyer. “You have to harden yourself, this world.”
I wished more than anything that I could reverse time and walk backward away from his briefcase.
“Artie!” my mother said from behind the fridge door.
“He needs to learn life sometime.”
My father sat to his full height and leaned back in his chair with his arms spanning the table, as he’d done at the Xiaos. My mother put a stick of butter and a jar of Ragu on the stove top and gripped the handle of the oven door.
She said, “I was thinking, meat loaf?”
I waited for the ceiling to cave in. But he smiled with a kind of sadness, and hugged my waist with an arm, and I was pressed against his side, and I could find no junior lawyer lesson in everything I was feeling.
I crossed off the final day on my shirt back calendar.
Ocean Parkway blurred by, but I gunned my bike harder, kicking up sidewalk dust. I thought about the Mayor’s office: his hive of lawyers hunched over files, or shouting into phones, or trading war stories from the day’s court appearances. His wall of laborers. How his clients held their settlement checks up to the light as if God himself had opened the heavens to rain down money. How they clasped his hand and wouldn’t let go. How their voices broke when they thanked him.
I thought about Cassie. Cassie was good and true. Now she could go to college, and become a lawyer, and we would be partners. She’d give me the Mayor’s pen and I’d put it back in his bag, and we’d never again have to do what we’d done this one time. This one time only–because our hearts were pure.
I flew up 7th Avenue with a hairpin turn, past the Church of the Holy Innocents. Rang her door bell three times, rang it again. Pressed my ear against her door and heard nothing but silence. I gripped the knob and it spun open. They were at church, I figured, or choosing the color for their Cadillac. I’d wait inside. That would be okay, because they could trust me, I’d made them rich.
The door swung open and I rushed in, glancing from the foyer to the shadowed hall that led to their bedrooms. It took a moment for me to realize there was no furniture.
No rug. No curtains. Nothing.
Everything was gone. The Xiaos were gone. It was like a stage set just before the curtain rises and the actors take their places.
But there was my pen, in the middle of the kitchen table, in its wooden box. A sheet of lined school paper lay between the box and the table. I smiled, because she’d drawn an arrow pointing to the box, and beneath the arrow she’d written, with the Mayor’s lucky pen, I assumed, one word: Finch.
Her handwriting was all loops and flares and petals, and for a few moments, the last few moments before I would head home to where the Mayor waited, I adored it.