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Aloneby Angela Stockton
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"They decided they're gonna do it tonight.…They're getting married like any minute, so don't come over, OK?" Jessie's gleeful report that Rick and Lily were about to be married played over and over in Karen's mind, each word resounding with the finality of a slamming door.

Dazed as she was, it took her several seconds to realize that the phone was ringing again. Numbly she turned away from her tear-streaked office window and approached her desk. She groaned as she saw that the blinking light on her phone was not the private line but the main line, which was supposed to be-but obviously had not been--set to forward incoming calls straight to voice mail after 5:00 p.m.

Her antennae warned her to ignore it. If practicing law had taught her nothing else, she had learned that anyone so obtuse as to call after hours on a Friday was a wrong number, a telemarketer, a drunk, or a loser-in short, nobody whom she'd be interested in accepting as a client. She and her partners had expected the firm's business to increase now that Karen was a local celebrity, hailed as a David to Atlantor's Goliath, for helping to thwart the multinational corporation's plan to raze an entire Chicago neighborhood and construct an office-retail complex in its place. But as if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, it seemed that every oddball in the city was crawling out of the woodwork and calling Harris, Rieger & Sammler, begging her to take their lemon complaints and turn them into lemonade.

If it were the private line, she wouldn't hesitate to answer, because it would likely be Jessie calling back, or Eli. Then it occurred to her that one of the kids, perhaps rattled by the sudden bewildering turn of events at Lily's house, might have dialed the main line by mistake. Gingerly she lifted the receiver and said, "Law office."

"Can someone answer some questions for me?" an unfamiliar male voice asked.

Karen stifled an exasperated sigh and recited the firm's standard reply to such inquiries: "I'm sorry, sir, but this firm doesn't give legal advice over the phone. You're welcome to make an appointment for a free initial consultation."

"I'm not looking for advice, I just want answers to some questions!" the voice protested. "There's a difference!"

Karen rolled her eyes; she was in no mood to spend another minute splitting imaginary hairs. "Sir, the office is closed. This is the answering service," she lied coolly. "If you wish to speak to a lawyer, please call back on Monday at nine." Then she hung up before the caller could speak again, and switched on the voice-mail system. She punched the buttons forcefully, punishing the console for the sins of omission committed by Janessa, the receptionist who had, yet again, overlooked the final chore of her workday.

Opening her Day-Timers calendar, Karen turned to the page for Monday, furiously scribbled, "Remind J re VM-again," then threw down the pen. With all the extra phone traffic spurred by the firm's Atlantor-related notoriety, it was no time to fire their receptionist and train a new one. Still, the partners were concerned that Janessa was allowing her personal problems to affect her work. She was pregnant and clinging to the delusion that Trey, her irresponsible boyfriend, was going to make an honest woman of her and willingly support their baby. Karen had tried talking to her, but Janessa took advice "for her own good" about as well as Eli did. As a result, too many of her conversations with Trey ended with her slamming down the phone and running to the ladies' room to compose herself, then returning to the front desk in a mental fog that made her forget about switching the phones over to voice mail at closing time.

Cynically, Karen suspected that Janessa's meltdowns were neither as spontaneous nor as incapacitating as they appeared. If she hadn't taken any other advice to heart, it seemed that at least she understood when Karen warned her that raising her voice on the phone, or leaving the front desk unattended while clients were in the lobby, would be cause for immediate termination. The firm would absolutely not tolerate a hysterical receptionist causing a scene or abandoning clients and the phones. Since receiving this ultimatum, Janessa had never failed to buzz Lonee, the file clerk/relief receptionist, and blurt "Cover for me!" before bolting. To Karen, this indicated that no matter how distraught and out of control she appeared, their drama queen knew, or was gambling that she knew, exactly how far she could push her poor-me theatrics without risking her job.

Karen thought that her partners, Dexter Harris and Glen Rieger, would be aghast at how she'd finessed the freeloader's call, but she hadn't really been rash. After all, she had prudently answered the phone "law office" instead of "Harris, Rieger & Sammler." She suspected, or at least hoped, that the leech was dialing at random and by Saturday morning, never mind Monday, he wouldn't remember whom he'd called. Besides, it was by no means the first time she'd blown off a caller fishing for free advice. When she was originally hired, the firm's receptionist and one secretary were both on maternity leave. If incoming calls overwhelmed the remaining secretaries, Karen herself occasionally answered phones. The experience of taking so many cold calls had left her with no patience for the (by her estimate) three-fourths of the population who resented lawyers for having the gall to charge for their services, as if they were the only workers not entitled to earn a living at the fair market rate by the only skill they possessed.

Down the hall she heard a dog growling, followed by a "Shhh!" Oh, no, she thought, first a crank caller, now them. Quickly she sat at her desk, put on her seldom-used reading glasses to conceal her red-rimmed eyes, and snatched at a file, but her fumbling only succeeded in knocking it to the floor. Loose papers flew out, and as she knelt to pick them up, she thought of a few epithets for Lonee, who was, in her own way, as exasperating as Janessa. It was an office joke that you could always tell when she'd had a busier-than-usual Friday: in order to empty her "to be filed" tray so that she could leave for her weekend job as a cocktail waitress, Lonee would "file" by simply dropping papers loosely into folders instead of taking time to do the job properly, using her hole-punch and the Acco fasteners. Why, Karen asked herself grimly, can't this firm put together a support staff that really is supportive? Is this why I marched for the ERA and FMLA?

With a pang, she thought again of Saj, and how much she was missing him. Three weeks ago he had taken his final exam at law school, then had left the same day for New Delhi, where he was to be married. Originally he was to be gone only four weeks, but when she drove him to the airport, Karen felt a foreboding which was borne out barely a week later. The first leg of Saj's journey had taken him to San Jose so that he and his bride could meet each other before the wedding. Within days he had met not only Saritha but the entire California branch of her extended family, including her Uncle Vraj, an immigration lawyer in San Francisco. As a wedding present, Uncle Vraj offered Saj a position in his firm, and Saj promptly e-mailed Karen his resignation. Karen forced herself to reply with congratulations and a quip that she was looking forward to seeing the new letterhead, "Law Office of Vraj & Saj." How ya' gonna keep 'em in the windy city, she thought, after they've seen the city by the bay, especially when Saj had often expressed an interest in learning immigration law.

Besides, though Saritha had agreed during the marriage negotiations to move to Chicago, she had never really wanted to leave her job in Silicon Valley, where she translated computer programs and manuals into the four languages, in addition to English, in which she was fluent. Now it was vital that she keep working, because she would be the chief breadwinner while Saj studied for the California bar exam, a process which could take months. Until he passed the bar and obtained his license, he couldn't act as an attorney. Instead, he would be a paralegal, with a salary to match his title.

Bottom line, Saritha would support herself and Saj while he furthered his education. It amused Karen to think that their parents, in trying to arrange a traditional Indian marriage, had unwittingly created a thoroughly modern American marriage.

It was the only amusement she derived from Saj's departure. Her sense of loss-bereavement, almost-confounded and embarrassed her. Over the years she had enjoyed observing women as they met Saj, tried to flirt with him, then, getting nowhere, disgustedly wrote him off as gay. But of course he was straight; he didn't date, or even flirt, because he saw no reason to embark on a relationship that had no future. While his parents were modern enough to give their blessing to his settling permanently in the country of his birth-though he grew up in India, Saj was born in Pennsylvania while his father was attending graduate school--they were still traditional enough to insist on arranging his marriage. In their view, the decision as to who would bear the sons to carry on the family bloodline was too important to entrust entirely to Saj, especially since he was an only son.

When Saj first explained his parents' expectations to Karen, she was appalled; but what she saw as an anachronism at best and sexism at worst, he shrugged off as the way his family had always married. Besides, after he showed her Saritha's photo and résumé, Karen was forced to concede that he could hardly have made a better match on his own. Saritha was intelligent, with a bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina and a master's in computer science from UC-Berkeley. And while Karen might remind herself that looks shouldn't matter, she couldn't deny that had Saritha been so inclined, she might have parlayed her exotic beauty into a successful career as a fashion model.

On the wedding day, Glen asked Karen how she felt now that Benjamin had boarded the bus with Elaine. Karen didn't laugh; in fact, she found her partner's implication that she was Saj's Mrs. Robinson stupid, tactless and deeply offensive, and she stayed mad at Glen all day. Of course she didn't feel that way about Saj, she assured herself. Her feelings couldn't even be described as maternal, their ages were all wrong. He was simply a valued employee, the best paralegal she'd ever had. Four years ago she had tutored him for the LSAT, and they had planned that once he returned from India, she'd tutor him for the Illinois bar exam. Ours was just a close working relationship, nothing less and nothing more, she fumed whenever she recalled Glen's feeble joke. How dare anyone suggest otherwise.

Still, when she printed hard copies of the photos that Saj e-mailed her, she decided not to have one framed and displayed on her credenza with her photos of Eli and Jessie. Instead, she tacked a half dozen to the bulletin board in the break room, telling herself that of course all of Saj's former co-workers would be interested in seeing them. Most of the photos were from the wedding and reception, but Karen's favorite had been taken in California, at an outdoor café in Sonoma. Saj and Saritha were holding hands and beaming at the camera, clearly captivated with each other. If it weren't for the fact that when the photo was taken they had known each other barely a week, Karen would say that they appeared to be already in love.

Just as Karen picked up the last paper, she heard sniffling and looked up to find herself at eye level with a fierce-looking dog. Behind the dog, a man looked down at her in astonishment and asked in a Mississippi Delta drawl, "Miz Karen, what you still doin' here?"

The speaker was Preston, the firm's runner by day, and--along with his wife, Isabel-its janitor by night. Preston and Isabel always brought along their dog, a Rottweiler-Chow mix named Artis, while they did their custodial chores. But normally they didn't report for weekend cleaning until Saturday morning.

"Oh, hi there," Karen said, sitting back on her heels and raising her voice an octave in the hope that she'd sound as surprised as Preston. "How come you're so early?"

"There's a church supper tomorrow night," Preston explained. "We're settin' up tables and chairs in the fellowship hall first thing in the mornin'."

"Oh-well, that's all right," Karen answered lamely as she scrambled to her feet. Preston stared at her curiously, and she realized that she now owed him an explanation for being there so late herself. "As a matter of fact, I was just about to leave. Eli and Jess are at-I mean, they're with their father this weekend, so I stayed late because"-her mind raced-"um, Dr. Royce called again today and of course that threw off my whole schedule."

At the mention of Dr. Royce, Preston rolled his eyes and grunted, and Karen silently congratulated herself on dodging a bullet. In his jack-of-all-trades position with the firm, Preston also answered phones. Thus he was all too familiar with Dr. Royce, Karen's divorce client from hell. About once a week he'd call with some variation on his same old tirade, "I gave you a seventy-five-hundred-dollar retainer, you've spent it like water, and I'm still not divorced!"-as if divorce court were a vending machine and all he had to do was push a fixed amount through the coin slot, punch a couple of buttons, and wait for the signed decree to tumble to the bottom. Ear-nose-and-throat specialist Royce was maddeningly deaf to what he didn't want to hear, which was that it was his own fault that his legal fees were so high and climbing higher all the time.

They had clashed for the first time at his initial consultation, when he tried to haggle down her retainer demand, claiming that it would "absolutely" be an uncontested divorce because his wife wanted out of their marriage as much as he did. But to his chagrin, his wife soon made it abundantly clear that her cooperation was contingent on an equitable division of the marital property, and that she had no intention of meekly accepting crumbs. In response to his wife's defiance, Dr. Royce provoked another argument with Karen when he demanded that she amend his petition to request custody of the children. Karen had tried repeatedly to explain that she knew Judge Elaine Mills' style, and that Mills would not look kindly on a sole-custody request from a petitioner who had been carrying on a flagrant affair for two years. In Karen's opinion, it was in his best interest to quit fighting and agree to his wife's terms rather than go to a hearing where a pissed-off Judge Mills might award Mrs. Royce not only sole custody, but also an even more generous allocation of the marital assets than she was requesting.

Karen was infuriated that "legal ethics" struck many non-lawyers as an oxymoron, because she didn't believe in winning at all costs if it meant using children as bargaining chips. It upset her that Dr. Royce didn't seem to realize, or mind, that he might be permanently damaging his relationship with the children. It wasn't as if he were seeking custody because he honestly believed he was the better parent, or that his paramour, impatient for the divorce to become final so that she could set a date for the Hawaiian beach wedding she craved, cared one whit about his children. He just resented that once a month, as long as they were minors, he'd be obligated to write his ex-wife a check for their support. They might be young now, but someday they'd realize that not only had he cheated on their mother, he had begrudged every penny he paid for their maintenance. She almost hoped that when he was an old man and longed to be close to his children and grandchildren, they'd snub him. Why, she wondered, couldn't he be more like…

"Rick," she muttered, forgetting Preston and Isabel. When she realized that she had been thinking aloud, she looked up in horror. But the two custodians were hard at work, as oblivious to her as she had been to them.

Currently Dr. Royce was irate over Karen's reminder that, since she had used up his retainer, he needed to pay her another five thousand within ten days. She had deliberately written him a snippy, intemperate letter which all but dared him not to replenish the retainer, but to fire her instead. The letter so alarmed her secretary that she held it overnight and then asked Karen if she still wanted it to go out. Karen's answer was an emphatic yes: she was more than ready to withdraw as Dr. Royce's attorney, even though losing a client was patently bad for business. As she pointed out to new employees during their orientations, it was rather like the warning about sexually transmitted diseases: that when you have sex with someone, you have sex with everyone that person has ever had sex with. Losing a client meant losing not only the client's repeat business-she gave Dr. Royce's next marriage five years, tops, and for his next lawyer's sake, whoever that might be, she fervently hoped that the second Mrs. Royce had already had her tubes tied--but also every referral he or she might make when an acquaintance asked, "Do you know a good attorney for personal injury/bankruptcies/wills/divorces?" But some clients, like Dr. Royce, just weren't worth it.

Karen despised Dr. Royce, as she despised most of her domestic clients. By its very nature, domestic work involved clients whose emotions clouded their reasoning. Karen had no patience for the clients who either dilly-dallied because they were ambivalent about divorcing in the first place, or who were like Dr. Royce, eager to get out and furious when the legal wheels ground slowly, especially when the parties insisted on fighting over the marital assets down to the last fork and tea towel. Unfortunately, clients with slam-dunk class action lawsuits didn't walk into Harris, Rieger & Sammler every day. Something else had to pay the bills in the meantime, preferably branches of law in which the clients paid up front.

When Karen joined the firm, "Harris" was not Dex but his father, Virgil, who was elderly and semi-retired but still the managing partner. Glen was doing criminal defense, and Virgil was grooming Dex, not yet a partner, to take over his real estate and bankruptcy caseload. Soon afterward, Virgil asked Karen if she would try to build a domestic practice. Like any young associate, she understood that the sooner she demonstrated her rainmaking potential, the sooner she'd make partner, so she agreed, even though she had once been a public defender and had hoped to work with Glen. Unlike the Dr. Royces on her client list, at least the criminal clients were more or less forthright about the fact that they were anti-social.

Since she had made partner, Glen would, if she insisted, toss her the bone of an occasional misdemeanor drug possession or DUI so that she could keep her hand in. But when she wasn't doing public interest law, the firm's raison d'etre, she earned most of her billable hours handling divorces, modifications, and an occasional prenup. She was conscientious enough to justify her fees, but she derived no satisfaction from domestic work whatever.

Part of her malaise was the question that had always nagged at her, but which she never found the courage to ask Virgil before he died: namely, whether he had had an ulterior motive in handing her the domestic cases. Did he believe she should learn the ins and outs of divorce because he saw something in her own marriage that made him expect it to crumble, or did he simply consider domestic law women's work? Her male colleagues were top-notch attorneys, but when she came aboard, she was appalled to discover that they told sexist jokes and referred to their employees as "the girls." She appointed herself the conscience of the firm, reminding them that the jokes could be construed as sexual harassment, and suggesting that the term "support staff" was more up to date.

Saj's interest in immigration law had given her something to look forward to, not only because immigration clients would bring in always-needed cash up front. All along, their plan had been that after Saj obtained his law degree, she would mentor him as he took his place in the firm. Toward that end, she had been collecting brochures for seminars in immigration law and had decided that she would attend the seminars along with him. But now Saj was gone forever, she didn't speak a single foreign language, and the firm couldn't afford to hire a crew of bilingual paralegals and secretaries. On the same day that Saj e-mailed his wedding photos, she threw out the brochures.

Now she couldn't bear to spend another moment in the office. Picking up her purse, briefcase and Day-Timers, she called, "Well, I'll be going now," as casually as she could. Preston's head appeared in Dex's doorway. "Let me 'n' Artis walk you to the car," he offered. Karen nodded. All she wanted was to leave, and she'd get out faster if she simply let Preston and his dog escort her instead of trying to convince him that she wasn't afraid to ride the elevator alone.

Artis was fierce with strangers but knew Karen almost as well as he knew his masters, and during the elevator's descent, he stood docilely in the cab and allowed her to absentmindedly stroke his head with one hand while she held open her Day-Timers in the other. She couldn't concentrate on a single notation in the book, but it didn't matter. The book was only a prop, intended to discourage Preston from starting a conversation.

While Preston and Isabel were the firm's most reliable employees, they were no Thad and Ella Yoder, Rick's friends who practiced their Mennonite religion but made no effort to proselytize. Preston and Isabel were active in their evangelical church and Karen always feared letting her guard down around them. If she happened to utter a vehement "Oh, God!" or, as she had done tonight, let slip a few tears, she suspected that they would whip out their Bibles and tell her that Jesus was the answer to everything if she'd only accept Him as her personal savior.

Karen hadn't always been indifferent to religion; in fact, she had won awards for perfect attendance in Sunday school. And after going on a youth-group excursion to Iowa's historic Little Brown Church in the Vale, she had resolved to be married there someday--only to be worn down, once she announced her engagement to Rick, by her mother's pleas that they marry in the Davieses' hometown. At the time, Karen angrily attributed her mother's obstinacy to sheer envy of her daughter's good fortune. Because her father and sisters were sworn to secrecy, she was unaware that only two weeks earlier, her mother had undergone a breast biopsy. Far from being relieved that the tumor was benign, Mrs. Davies became depressed, certain that with her family history of breast cancer, it was only a matter of time until another tumor appeared, and that she couldn't be lucky twice. In that frame of mind, she couldn't bring herself to plan and attend a destination wedding. Mrs. Davies knew that nothing stays secret for long in a small town, so when Karen did find out about the biopsy, she was neither surprised nor dismayed. What mattered to her was that by then, reservations had been made and deposits paid, and moving the ceremony was no longer feasible.

After Eli's birth, when Karen and Rick were shopping for a house, she had urged Rick to buy the Wilmette property partly because it was within walking distance of a church. But with life having eroded her youthful fervor, Karen was no longer capable, if she ever had been, of believing that all her problems would go away, or at least weigh on her less heavily, if she had a born-again experience. Right now her biggest problem was Eli, and for that boy, God seemed to have His own unfathomable timetable which, she was convinced, He wasn't about to alter for her.

As Preston waved good-bye, Karen drove her minivan to the exit of the parking garage. Automatically she flipped her left turn signal-but as she was about to turn, she hesitated. The last thing that appealed to her was going straight home to her empty house. She wondered if she could possibly call Judy this late on a Friday; maybe they could go out together once she had closed up BookLovers. Then she realized her mistake and gently butted her head against the door. Of course she couldn't call Judy: she'd be at her sister's wedding.

What a blow to Judy this must be, having to witness Lily's second wedding when she herself had never married at all and was still pining for her married lover, whoever he was. Among her domestic and criminal clients, Karen had met many people who seemingly had a compulsion to repeat the same self-destructive behavior. Much as she liked Judy, she feared that she fit the pattern.

She thought of her friend, Jeannine Bluford. Jeannine had known before she married her Sam--who'd shortened his surname to Blue for professional purposes--that he was a player, but had thought that she could domesticate him. Jeannine had been certain that because she was one of the few people who believed in Sam when he was an unknown, starving artist, of course he would express his gratitude by being faithful. To her sorrow, she'd learned the limits of his gratitude soon enough.

A dozen times Karen had ached to remind Judy that a man who would cheat on his first wife would cheat on his next wife, or his mistress. A dozen times she'd bitten back the words, knowing that Judy would simply reply that Karen didn't know her lover as she did, and had never been in her situation. But Jeannine-Karen suddenly realized that Jeannine was the voice of experience.

When she stopped for a traffic signal, Karen turned on her map light and jotted in her Day-Timers, "Judy & Jeannine." Why, she wondered, had it only just occurred to her to bring her two good friends together. She couldn't arrange it right away because Jeannine was going away for the summer with Jamie-she had found yet another child psychologist upon whom she and Sam were pinning their hopes that someone, somewhere could diagnose and treat their son's behavioral problems-but come fall, Karen promised herself, she'd set up a lunch date. Judy and Jeannine were bound to hit it off.

For now, she could still go to BookLovers and check out the Polaroids. At least she need not worry about bumping into Lloyd Lloyd there, because his photo had disappeared from Judy's corkboard months ago. Had he become discouraged and dropped out, she wondered, or had he finally found someone who actually welcomed his cloying adoration. She had no idea what he was up to lately. She'd had no business dealings with Lloyd's firm for over a year, she kept forgetting to ask Judy about him, and she refused to ask any mutual friends in case word got back to Lloyd and gave him the wrong impression.

Behind her, a horn honked impatiently and Karen realized that the traffic light had turned green. In her haste to move before the horn blasted again, she missed her turn and had to circle the block. The street was unfamiliar and she was surprised to see a neon sign, "Cassili Shoe & Leather Repair," in a shop window. Cassili, whoever he was, must somehow be related to David-how many unrelated Cassilis could there be in Chicago.

She wished she hadn't seen the sign tonight of all nights. It was all David's fault, she thought. Rick was so positively giddy on the night he announced that he and David were becoming partners, Karen had to bite her tongue almost until it bled. For Rick's sake, she had always been civil to David and always would be, but she often feared that she'd explode from the strain of concealing her true feelings. Rick had introduced her to David at a New Year's Eve party thrown by one of Rick's contractor colleagues. She was pregnant with Jessie at the time, but not yet showing, and David commented that she shouldn't refuse the hosts' offer of champagne. Rick, having drunk his own champagne and hers, lapsed into baby talk to explain, "She has to just say no, David. We're expecting the pitter-patter of little feet around our house again."

To her annoyance, David ungraciously made a face as if he'd bitten into something sour. Trying to jolly him along, she asked playfully, "Why, David, don't you ever long to hear the pitter-patter of little feet around your house?"

"Hell, no," he growled. "That's fine for you two, but if there's any pitter-patter around my house, it had better be a naked girl one day over legal age." Rick doubled over with laughter, but Karen felt as if she'd been slapped in the face. Her opinion of David never much improved over that inauspicious introduction.

When Rick first considered the partnership, he talked it over with Karen, but in hindsight, she suspected that the arrangement was already a done deal in everything but the signatures on the dotted lines. Clearly, Rick was surprised and peeved that she didn't simply rubber-stamp his decision. Assenting might have been the more prudent course, at least in the short run, but Rick had always claimed to admire her intellect. So when he asked for her opinion, she took him at his word and didn't hesitate to voice her deep reservations.

For all that Rick had won design awards early in his career and David, who disdained contests, had not, he and David agreed that they were more or less equal in talent, but that Rick was the far better schmoozer. Therefore, Rick would do almost all the client contact and marketing, leaving David free to do more of the designing.

But as Karen saw it, that division of labor was unfair and potentially detrimental to Rick's career. Remember the Beatles, she urged him: maybe the labels on Beatles albums said that the songs were composed by "Lennon-McCartney," but true Beatles connoisseurs knew which songs were John's and which were Paul's. It seemed to her that David was maneuvering Rick into being the public face of the firm while giving himself a pass on the hard work of actually cultivating clients-like a husband, she said, who claimed that the reason he didn't do housework was that he couldn't measure up to his wife's standards, when in truth he was just a slacker. Marketing was hard, often demoralizing work, as she knew from trying to build her own practice. If people skills didn't come naturally to David, then he should quit using his "artistic temperament"-coincidentally, Sam Blue's rationalization for his infidelity-as an excuse, take a Dale Carnegie course, and pull his fair share of the marketing weight. He owed it to Rick and to the firm in which they proposed to invest so much.

When Karen realized that Rick wasn't making the leap from the Beatles and/or lazy husbands to himself, she gave it to him straight: "Sammler & Cassili" might be the name on the contracts, the plans and specifications, and the cornerstones, she argued, but clients would recognize which designs were Rick's and which David's. How discerning did they have to be, when every drawing was stamped with "drawn by" and "checked by," followed by the initials of the draftsman and the architect? She feared that if Rick and David ever dissolved their partnership, the clients would call David and not Rick for future commissions because they would have come to regard Rick as a good-looking lightweight who assembled attractive promotional brochures and smiled charmingly but didn't actually do much designing, and David as the real brains and talent of the firm. For proof, they need only point to his initials on the drawings.

After asking for advice from the wife whose intellect he'd always professed to admire, Rick listened quietly, said little, then formed his partnership with David anyway. Once Sammler & Cassili was a fait accompli, Karen believed she had been in a no-win situation all along. Rick always insisted that the main reason he decided to take on a partner was to quiet Karen's complaints that he worked too hard and saw too little of her and the children. So what had he done but try to carve out more time for his family, only to have his wife insinuate that David, his friend, was playing him for a sucker and he was too naïve to see it. He probably thought it was impossible for her to be objective about David because she had taken such a dislike to him at their first meeting.

Whatever the reason, after their discussion, only rarely did Rick ask Karen for professional advice again. If she made the mistake of volunteering any, especially after he'd had a couple of drinks, he might sneer that he wasn't aware she had an architecture degree too. She couldn't make him understand that it wasn't about architecture, it was about running a business, something she did understand since she too was a business owner. It wasn't enough that they were eating well and keeping up with the mortgage and car payments. She was worried that they weren't saving enough for retirement, or for Eli's and Jessie's college educations.

Karen was all too familiar with the Sammler family history, how the early death of Rick's father had left his wife and sons so destitute that Rick had been forced to grow up too fast. He had worked after-school and summer jobs all through high school and college, and many of their "dates" had consisted of her going to wherever he was working, and making excuses to hang around.

Exhausting as working his way through college had been, Karen firmly believed that the experience had given Rick the burning desire to better himself that led to his initial professional success. But once he and David became partners, it was as if, with someone to share his workload, he no longer felt compelled to reach for the stars because he had David to take up the slack. Once, when she asked-innocuously, she thought--why he wasn't entering a design contest he'd entered in previous years, Rick interpreted the question as a reflection on his work ethic, and sulked for an entire evening.

Although she knew she'd never convince Rick, she had truly derived no satisfaction from being vindicated when, after David instigated the breakup of Sammler & Cassili, he had indeed taken all the clients except Miles Drentell and Atlantor. Rick might insist that he had chosen to give David the client list in exchange for a larger share of the firm's liquid assets, but Karen suspected that this had been a face-saving gesture on Rick's part: that he had decided to give up his "loyal" clients before they embarrassed him by saying that they preferred to work with David.

The division of labor at Sammler & Cassili wasn't Karen's only grievance against David. She was convinced that, deliberately or not, by spinning his lascivious tales about carefree bachelorhood, he had sabotaged every slim chance that she and Rick might have salvaged their marriage. She never understood why Rick had turned to the younger, commitment-phobic David for advice about relationships-why would a player hire a coach who had never made a team?-but she supposed it was inevitable that sex would be the number-one topic of idle conversation between two men who sat around drawing circles and angles all day. And David worked hard at projecting the image of a swinging single. It helped to have a juvenile mind, Karen thought sourly. Take "Maple Syrup Melanie," one of his former girlfriends. Karen wondered if Melanie knew of David's nickname for her, or minded that it implied that she was a kinky slut, when all it really meant was that she was from Vermont. So was Calvin Coolidge, for God's sake: did that make Silent Cal a sex machine? But with David yelling "Come on in, the water's fine," and openly encouraging Rick to act like an aging movie mogul in the throes of a midlife crisis, there seemed to be no turning back to domestic life.

Or at least not the domestic life he used to love, Karen thought as she passed the Deerfield exit.

And yet, she knew, dating a new trophy girlfriend every week hadn't made Rick happy. Rick had always underestimated himself because, embarrassed that he didn't have money to throw around, he hadn't dated much in high school and college. He had no idea how many of her dorm mates positively drooled over Karen Davies' boyfriend and would have gladly picked up his tab, had Karen not threatened to pluck every hair, right down to the nose hairs, out of the head of anyone who dared to flirt with him. Rick always said that after they made love for the first time, she practically moved in with him, and Karen never denied it. In truth, by their third date she was convinced that Rick was her Mr. Right, and thereafter she unapologetically plotted to monopolize his time until he forgot that other women existed.

But while Rick might perversely admire David, who juggled multiple girlfriends without becoming emotionally involved with any of them, he craved the security of being loved by one woman. It was the reason she had never once worried, during their marriage, about his straying. Confirmed-bachelor David was one thing, the flagrantly adulterous Sam Blue was another. He kept in touch with Sam because he had fond memories of their shared hand-to-mouth student existence, and because Karen and Jeannine were friends, but at his core he was disgusted by Sam's alley-catting.

She had never in her life been more surprised than when, three weeks after Sammler & Cassili was officially dissolved, David walked into her office unannounced and handed her a check for a thousand dollars-a donation, he explained, toward the legal fees of the neighborhood association fighting Atlantor. Caught totally off-guard, instead of thanking him she asked if he really hated Rick enough to do this. She regretted her choice of words immediately, but David replied equably that he wasn't anti-Rick, he was pro-historic preservation. "Maybe your conscience will let you accept it that way," he added wryly, "considering the way you've always felt about me." She blushed and stammered so fiercely that he picked up his overcoat and left without another word.

So lost in thought was she that a few minutes later, she was stunned to find herself in her driveway without ever having stopped at BookLovers. Sighing, she was about to shut off the ignition when she remembered that her refrigerator was almost as bare as Mrs. Hubbard's cupboard. She wasn't hungry, but it was her dinner hour and she supposed she ought to eat something. She just couldn't summon the energy to either cobble together a decent meal from her scraps of leftovers, or go to the grocery.

There's fast food, she reminded herself. Although she shared pizza with Eli and Jessie, she had tried to set an example by avoiding burgers and fries when they were with her-but they weren't with her. It occurred to her that after tonight, they might be with her even less often. Perhaps it was time not only to trade the minivan for a smaller vehicle, but also to start researching the local condo market. Under the terms of the divorce settlement, she'd have to sell the house once Jessie turned eighteen, splitting the proceeds with Rick. Then too, her alimony would terminate when Jessie graduated from high school, and having skipped eighth grade, she'd be graduating at the age of seventeen.

My world is shrinking, she thought-then scolded herself for being as melodramatic as Janessa. She turned up the volume on the radio, trying to overwhelm visions of her future with a barrage of current events from the all-news channel which she favored. Resolutely, she backed the minivan out of her driveway and drove to the nearest burger stand, where she took her place in the drive-through lane and ordered a burger with everything, large fries, and a mocha shake. But when she unwrapped her burger, she managed only a few mouthfuls before she felt nauseated. Dear God, she asked herself, do people really eat this stuff? How do they eat it? She recalled the first time her mother sent her outside on a snowy winter day with a bowlful of chopped suet for the birds. In spite of her mother's assurance that birds not only liked suet but needed it in cold weather, five-year-old Karen was revolted by all that solid fat. She deliberately threw the suet into a snowbank, hoping the birds wouldn't find it.

Now she stuffed the remains of the hamburger back in the bag, and pulled alongside a trash can in the parking lot. Climbing out of the minivan, she threw the entire bagful of food into the trash.

There was nothing else to do but go home. The only grocery on her route was a GPG, but she could no longer enter any GPG store without being mobbed like a rock star by the rank and file women employees, most of whom she had represented in their successful class-action suit, Drobiazko et al. v. Great Plains Granary, alleging employment discrimination and sexual harassment. Normally she enjoyed their effusive greetings and thanks, and laughed to herself when the managers coldly snubbed her, but tonight she couldn't face either gauntlet.

Although the public at large may have learned of Harris, Rieger & Sammler's existence only in connection with Atlantor, Chicago's business and legal community regarded Drobiazko, which had settled the year before, as the case that put the firm on the map, or in some minds, back on the map. Karen had joined what was then Harris & Rieger for the opportunity to work with Virgil Harris, who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and was a friend and adviser to Mayor Harold Washington. Virgil had made Harris & Rieger one of Chicago's most prestigious boutique law firms, but that was then. Karen, Dex and Glen considered themselves Virgil's equal in legal skills if they pooled all their talents, but they were the first to admit that not one of them possessed his charisma.

Virgil's retirement had begun a long eclipse for the firm, which was reversed only when Karen stumbled onto the case that became Drobiazko. The first plaintiff was the mother of a student at the tae kwon do academy where, years later, Jessie earned her black belt. It was Eli, not Jessie, for whom Karen originally proposed martial arts training, believing that the discipline would benefit him. Determined to inspect several schools before making her choice, she providentially visited Master Kim 's on the very day that the GPG employee, overwhelmed by job stress, broke down crying in the ladies' room. Moments later, it was Karen who happened to walk in on her and ask what was the matter, and if there were anything she could do to help.

Early on, Karen and Dex and Glen retained co-counsel, a larger firm with much more experience in employment discrimination and the resources to front the costs of depositions, medical records, and expert witnesses. So while Harris, Rieger & Sammler did not get to keep the entire attorney fee when Drobiazko settled, their share was still easily the largest single fee the firm had ever earned. For Karen it was enough to finally take the sting out of Eli's obstinate refusal to study martial arts after all, though not enough to make up for her long-simmering resentment over what she considered Rick's disloyalty and shortsightedness in choosing to side with Eli against her.

Returning home, she entered her kitchen and opened the refrigerator, where, to her surprise, she found a six-inch sub sandwich. Knowing it hadn't been there in the morning, she assumed that Eli had come home after school and wondered where he'd found the time before going to Lily's house. Probably cut his last class again, she decided irritably. She removed the sandwich and, taking a knife, trimmed about an inch off the cut end. E won't miss a piece that small, she told herself, and placed it on a salad plate, then poured half a glass of orange juice.

She set the plate and glass on the kitchen table. As her eyes fell upon the plaster of Paris models of Jessie's and Eli's kindergarten-sized handprints hanging on the opposite wall, the thought she had been suppressing flooded over her: my babies have a stepmother. The very concept made her feel weak and ill.

Even in her angst, she understood that it wasn't a stepmother per se that upset her, but Lily Manning as their stepmother-or would she start calling herself Lily Sammler. Just wait, Karen thought, I'll bet that when the school has a message for "Mrs. Sammler," they'll call the wrong one and I'll never hear about it.

She had never totally forgiven Lily for working alongside her at the school carnival almost two years earlier without ever mentioning that she was dating Rick. She had enough self-awareness to admit that this resentment probably colored her perception of Lily, but even so, it baffled her that Rick saw anything in Lily other than her physical beauty. He was so good-natured that given enough time, Rick put most (though not all) grudges behind him. But Karen was still astounded that he'd gone back to Lily within weeks of breaking up with her during their first Christmas together. From the ever-informative (and ever-indiscreet) Judy, she knew exactly what Lily had done to cause the rift, and the word "grudge" was far too inadequate to describe how Rick must have felt.

Judy, Karen reflected, was a wonderful friend if you enjoyed gossip, but the lawyer in Karen hoped that Judy would never have to give a deposition. Every lawyer advised his or her client to answer deposition questions as narrowly as possible, so that if asked "Do you own a car?" the deponent should answer simply "Yes" or "No." Karen suspected that Judy would not only say "Yes, a blue 1966 Corvair," but also volunteer that she'd had an affair with her mechanic. After all, was there anyone Judy hadn't had an affair with?

To think she had ever been critical of Saj's parents for keeping him on such a short leash. If only she and Rick could have controlled Eli as effectively. She now knew all about Carla and how, for that worthless girl's sake, Eli had almost wrecked his entire life. It was Lily's daughter Grace who had been Carla's closest friend, and after tonight Grace and Eli would be stepsister and stepbrother. Worse, in a few weeks Eli would turn eighteen, becoming a legal adult no longer subject to his parents' custody agreement. If he chose to live with Lily and Rick, she'd have no authority to stop him. His infatuation with Carla proved that, eighteenth birthday or no, he still needed parenting--but what kind of guidance would he get from Lily, who was obviously not a strict disciplinarian with Grace, or from Rick? She had a sudden mental picture of Rick wearing his new wedding ring in his nose.

And Jessie-my angel, she thought in despair-did Rick think at all about how his marrying Lily might affect Jessie, with all the problems she's had this year? How could Lily possibly be sensitive to Jessie's needs? And with a schizophrenic brother and a sex-addict sister, what exactly passed for normal in Lily's family anyway?

The sliver of sandwich felt like Styrofoam in her throat and she gulped down the orange juice. After placing the dishes in her sink, she glanced at the kitchen phone and noticed that the message light was blinking on her answer machine. Pressing the "play" button, she heard, "Not home on a Friday night, girlfriend? Are you working late, or did you get lucky? Listen, Steve and I are flying to the Badlands again tomorrow, and I need some fuel, if you catch my drift. Call when you get in-don't worry if it's late-and we'll make Steve take us out. It'll serve him right to be the designated driver."

In spite of herself, Karen couldn't help smiling. The caller hadn't said her name, but she didn't have to, because her exuberant voice identified her: Deb Whitley, who as Debbie Carter had been president of the Pep Club in their senior year of high school. No wonder she had told Karen not to worry about calling late: Debbie Carter had always thrown the best slumber parties in their small town.

According to the class prophecy, Deb was supposed to go to college, join a sorority, become head cheerleader, and marry the football hero. Instead, she enlisted in the Marine Corps directly after graduation. Even her closest friends were astonished, expecting a Marine uniform to fit Deb about as well as the tutus fit the hippos in Fantasia; but she had actually put in her twenty years and then some, and insisted that it was the smartest decision she ever made. Just as surprising to the classmates who recalled how often she bragged of having had a date every Saturday night of high school, Deb had remained steadfastly single until she met fellow Marine Steve Whitley and married him only five years before. Now retired, they had chosen to settle in the Chicago area to be near Steve's children from his first marriage. Between their pensions and his investments, they had enough money to pursue their interests, which for Deb included her stepchildren, skydiving, and tracking down old friends through; and for Steve, genealogy. He was researching his family's history with the goal of writing a book about his grandfather, a longtime sheriff in South Dakota.

Deb and Karen had attended school together from kindergarten through twelfth grade and had been cordial friends, if not bosom buddies, before going their separate ways after graduation. But since she and Steve had moved to greater Chicago, Deb had met Karen for lunch several times, and Karen, after running out of excuses, had gone to dinner at Deb and Steve's home. She had yet to reciprocate, but they didn't seem offended. In fact, they had already invited her to "the mother of all barbecues" on the Fourth of July, and Karen suspected that if she dropped a hint or two, she could score a Thanksgiving invitation as well.

As she reached for the answer machine's "rewind" button, she froze. Thanksgiving-until now she hadn't thought that far ahead. This year Rick would have Jessie for Thanksgiving, and she was certain that Eli would also choose to stay with his father, assuming that his mother wouldn't cook a turkey dinner for only two people. She'd be alone and if she didn't wangle an invitation from somebody, she'd either have to join her sister, Phyllis, on her planned singles cruise, or throw herself on the mercy of their other sister, Marjorie--and before she chose either option, she'd sooner eat Thanksgiving dinner at a soup kitchen. She got along with Phyllis, who was practically her twin since they were separated in age by only fifteen months. But unlike Phyllis, she would be embarrassed to take a singles cruise during Thanksgiving; she might as well put up a billboard on Michigan Avenue announcing that she had no family to be with. As for Marjorie, who as a child had idolized her older sisters, she was now something of a snot, insufferably proud of being the only Davies girl who had never been divorced. She might be the best cook in the family, but no pumpkin chiffon pie was worth the side of smugness that Marjorie would serve with it.

With an effort, Karen filed away Thanksgiving in the same mental box as Jessie's eighteenth birthday. Instead, she forced herself to again savor the irony that for all Deb's grab-the-gusto joie de vivre, the retired Marine had an Achilles heel: even though she had learned to skydive in the service, she was a white-knuckle flyer. When she could no longer contain her curiosity, Karen had asked Deb why she skydived when she was afraid to fly. Deb's retort: "Because when I go up in a skydiving plane, I know exactly when and how I'm coming down, which I can't say about any other plane." Since moving to Chicago, four times Steve had flown to South Dakota to research his book, courtesy of a pilot friend who belonged to a flying club and could borrow a puddle-jumper plane any time. As a relative newlywed, Deb hated to be separated from Steve, which was why she always accompanied him; but she claimed that she couldn't endure the flight unless she mellowed out with a couple of drinks the night before.

Her Marine Corps experience had taught Deb to speak her mind, and it was Deb whom Karen credited with clearing her head about District Attorney Bob Dumanjik. One day when she and Deb were at lunch, he "happened" to pass their table, then pulled up a chair and chatted with them. He stayed only a few minutes, but they were long enough for Deb. After he left, she exploded, "Oh, Karen, I feel sorry for you, having to work with an oaf like that!"

Flustered, Karen immediately pointed out that she didn't actually work with him, and insisted that stale jokes aside, Bob was quite nice when you got to know him. Then she changed the subject. But that afternoon, when she should have been paying attention during a deposition, she found herself mulling the idea that Deb had done her a favor by reminding her that of course any relationship with Bob was totally inappropriate, probably unethical as well. Certainly it would be more lurid fodder for the talk radio programs, tabloids, and even that online magazine, Lily works, she remembered with distaste--which were still feasting on the delicious irony that the Atlantor controversy had pitted ex-spouses against each other. If Deb had been present when Bob first sounded her out on the topic of Atlantor, maybe…

Don't think about what-if, Karen quickly warned herself. She reached for the phone, then hesitated again. Deb said it was OK to call late and it wasn't that late, she decided. There was something else she wanted to do first.

She ascended the stairs and entered Jessie's bedroom. She opened the closet door, trying not to cringe when she saw Jessie's shoes in a heap on the floor. With resigned humor, she reminded herself that this was actually a good sign, because at least Jessie wasn't obsessively matching up her footwear. As a mother, she'd have to worry if her underage daughter suddenly started organizing and re-organizing the contents of her closet as compulsively as she herself did for the first three years after the divorce. During those years she always claimed that it was for her children's sake that she wasn't dating, but once she started seeing Lloyd Lloyd, she admitted to herself that she hadn't fooled anyone. If Sherlock Holmes understood the significance of a dog that didn't bark in the night, then surely her friends and co-workers understood the real reason why she never received social calls at the office, why delivery services never brought her flowers on Valentine's Day, and why--although she left early on New Year's Eve because everyone else did--come January 2nd she never joined in the water-cooler conversations about parties and kisses at midnight.

She was still mortified by the memory of blurting out to Rick that she intended to date Lloyd because he was the best she could do, and that she was tired of, in effect, hiding in her closet because she had no social life. As long as she was hell-bent on humiliating herself, why hadn't she quoted crusty old Grandpa Casey, her parents' former neighbor, whose favorite description of a cheap horse was, "Well, I reckon he's better than an empty stall." For that matter, why hadn't she come right out and said in plain English, "By the way, Rick, I've been hornier than a hoot owl ever since you and I split up."

Karen knew exactly where to look, and from Jessie's top shelf she pulled down a white album--her own wedding album. After the divorce she had dithered about whether to keep it or throw it out, and instead asked Eli and Jessie if they wanted any of the photos. For answer, Jessie claimed the entire album. While it appeared that she had finally accepted that her parents' divorce was final, she was still hanging onto the book.

Album in hand, Karen sat on Jessie's bed, which was covered with a patchwork quilt that had been stitched by Ella Yoder. Jessie treasured the quilt, but while Karen acknowledged its beauty, she felt no sentimental attachment either to the quilt or to Ella herself. Because it was important to Rick, Karen had tried to cultivate a friendship with the Yoders. But she always considered it a hopeless cause: she, a non-churchgoing lawyer and mother of two, had nothing in common with Ella, the devoutly religious homemaker with a large family. Ella and Thad were always Rick's friends more than hers, and she joked that when she and Rick divorced, Rick got custody of the Mennonites.

Slowly she turned the pages of the album. She gazed longest at the photo of herself and Rick on a wooden porch swing, Rick holding her on his lap. The photo had been taken at her parents' farm, inside a shelter which resembled a covered bridge with windows, about the size of a one-car garage. A dozen times Karen had almost told Ella about the shelter, since the carpenters who built it were a Mennonite father and son. She never had, because she never could bring herself to reveal what the shelter really meant to her.

Karen had just started eighth grade when her father conceived of building the shelter, complete with swing, across a ditch containing a stream that seldom rose above a trickle and certainly didn't require a bridge, covered or otherwise, to cross it. Mr. Davies claimed that he built the shelter in tribute to his native Ohio, which, he never tired of bragging, actually had more covered bridges than did Vermont. But as he and the carpenters staked the site, Karen and her sisters realized that once it was built, their mother wouldn't be able to see the shelter from her kitchen window. It would be as convenient a place as the Davies "farmette" (as their father called his eighteen-acre spread with vegetable garden, sheep and goats, and his daughters' riding horses) offered a rural teen-age girl who craved a few minutes alone with a boyfriend.

In fact, Karen soon became convinced that their father's nostalgia for Ohio was only a ruse, and the location of the shelter, with its handy porch swing, no coincidence. A farm-equipment salesman who had never attended college, Mr. Davies was ill-equipped to deal with his depression-prone wife, whose anxieties only increased as Karen, Phyllis and Marjorie approached their teens. But to his daughters he was a devoted father, unusually open-minded for their small, conservative Midwestern community. Karen decided that, rather than try to convince their mother that it was normal for teen-agers to make out, he simply built the shelter. If, while entertaining company, his girls felt the need to stretch their legs or grab a breath of fresh air, and they happened to stroll across the yard toward the shelter, that was just one of those things.

In the photo, taken after Karen and Rick had left their wedding reception and returned to the farm, but before they had changed into their going-away clothes, they weren't just smiling-they were clearly laughing outright. When Jessie, then only six, innocently asked her mother what was so funny, Karen stammered that Daddy had been tickling her just before the photo was snapped. She was relieved when Jessie accepted that explanation, because she could no more tell Jessie the true reason than she could share it with Ella.

The previous summer, Karen Davies had brought Richard Sammler home to meet the family on the occasion of Marjorie's wedding. Karen had warned Rick what to expect, so they were disappointed but not surprised when Mrs. Davies primly led Rick to the basement rec room, where she had made up the sofa as a guest bed, while directing her husband to carry Karen's suitcase up to her old bedroom on the second floor.

Since Marjorie's bridegroom, Joel Casey, was literally the boy next door, Mr. and Mrs. Davies had offered their own far more spacious back yard to the Caseys for the rehearsal dinner. When the after-dinner dancing on the patio was interrupted by a sudden drizzle, everyone sprinted for the house-everyone, that is, except Karen and Rick. Instead of following the others, Rick took Karen's hand and pulled her toward the shelter. There he reminded her that the night before, while her parents were showing him the old family photo albums, they had mentioned that as a little girl, she loved to swing naked. He dared her to make love with him then and there, on the swing.

Shocked, Karen babbled that in spite of what her parents said, she didn't remember ever swinging naked as a child, and that if she did, she must have used a long-discarded tire swing in the back yard because the shelter didn't exist back then. But Rick's ardent kisses stifled her protests. The logistics were daunting, with the swing constantly shifting this way and that, and she in a voluminous peasant-style dress (not her style, but she was wearing it to please Marjorie, who had sewn the dress for home ec and then won a blue ribbon with it at the county fair), but they managed. After all, they had slept apart for two nights and were high on the Caseys' homemade wine-not that they needed a stimulant since, as Rick often said, when they were twenty-two they made love as if they were drunk on each other. "Managed" was, in fact, too tame a word for their enthusiastic lovemaking that evening. The next day's wedding ceremony seemed endless to Marjorie's maid of honor, who fought off an ill-timed fit of giggles only by avoiding eye contact with Rick and burying her face in her bouquet. But not once, then or later, had she ever regretted taking Rick's dare.

Now Karen stared at the photo of herself and Rick, married only two hours before, ecstatic and facing a future that looked endlessly bright and trouble-free, the "for worse" in their wedding vows a mere formality that would never come back to haunt them. It struck her that with their beaming smiles, she and Rick resembled Saj and Saritha in the photo she so admired.

Her eyes began to burn, and she had to lie down. She pressed her face against the pillow as tears coursed down her cheeks. When at last she needed a tissue and sat up to reach for the box on the nightstand, she looked down at the quilt and was horrified to see makeup smudges on it.

Karen suspected that Jessie's fondness for her quilt had less to do with an appreciation of Ella Yoder's artistry than the fact that Rick had given it to her. Be that as it may, if she came home and saw the stains, she'd demand an explanation which her mother didn't feel prepared to offer. Karen put the album back on the top shelf and methodically began to transfer Jessie's stuffed animals from the bed to the desk. The last animal she picked up was a toy leopard, which Leo Fisher had won at a combination pizzeria/arcade where he demonstrated for Jessie his uncommon skill at skee ball. Urged by Leo to select the stuffed animal she preferred, Jessie had chosen the leopard in honor of his name.

Fresh tears trickled down Karen's cheeks and she set the leopard on the desk. She pulled the quilt off the bed, then folded it to carry to the washing machine. Turning to leave the room, she caught a glimpse of her puffy face and reddened eyes in Jessie's mirror. I can't call Deb now, she thought, she'll know I've been crying, and I can't explain it to her.

Or to myself either, she added bleakly. She leaned against the door jamb and stared at her reflection. Why had she reacted as she had to Jessie's phone calls--the first reporting that Rick and Lily had called off their wedding, the second that they were going ahead with it after all.

She and Rick had been divorced almost five years, and they were both more relieved than upset when the marriage ended. Before and since, too many bitter words-relieved occasionally by Rick's long silences, which could be worse than words--had been exchanged for them to start over. She shuddered at the memory of his cold fury the other week, when he said he hated her for what she had done to him in the Atlantor debacle. Nor had his engagement to Lily come as a surprise: once Lily had chosen to expose and flaunt their relationship at the school carnival, they made no attempt to hide their intense mutual attraction, and except for their brief breakup, they had been a couple for almost two years. Besides, since they had announced their engagement weeks ago, it wasn't as if Rick had eloped with one of David's castoffs, some piece of arm candy he'd only just met.

It wasn't the loss of Rick that she mourned, Karen decided at last. It was the loss of Karen Davies, the person Rick had loved, someone so joyously and passionately in love that she had thrown off the inhibitions learned from her mother, and done something crazy like risk being caught having sex because she and Rick desired each other so much that they couldn't wait another moment to be together. That self was lost and even if she could be found, the Karen whom she had become had no clue where to look. Along with that self, she had lost any hope of again finding someone with whom she could share the kind of love-composed of equal parts intellectual compatibility and sexual attraction--which she had known with Rick in their best years, and which he obviously believed he now shared with Lily.

She could almost hear Gail, her own divorce attorney, reminding her that no one stays twenty-two forever and that the intensity of first love always fades. Nor, Gail would add, was it fair to blame any man whom she might date if he were loath to have sex at high noon in Lincoln Park with the woman whose face and name were now recognized all over Chicago. But in the years since she had slid her wedding ring off her finger, only two men had come close to rekindling in her what she had shared with Rick. The first was Leo Fisher, but with him she hadn't felt twenty-two, she had felt like a forty-two-year-old trying to pretend that she was twenty-two. It didn't last because it couldn't last, she told herself for the thousandth time. Life isn't all pizza and skee ball.

Then there had been Bob Dumanjik, but Deb was absolutely right about how unsuitable he was. What a minefield she had created for herself in choosing to fight Atlantor out of some quixotic need to demonstrate that she could, or should, live her life without regard to Rick's feelings. Why had she ever imagined that she was doing it to teach Jessie to act on her convictions without deferring to a man? She had wrecked their father's career and shattered the uneasy truce that had replaced their marriage-how had that helped her children? For good measure, she had torpedoed any chance of ever having a relationship with Bob. If she were to date the man who had sent storm troopers into Rick's home to confiscate her children's computers, and who had even threatened to indict Rick, how would she ever explain that to Jessie?

She knew why she continued to handle her detested divorce cases when she could exercise her prerogative as a partner and delegate them to associates who were as young and eager to prove themselves as she had once been. It was because the clients were bailing out of their marriages and would soon be certifiably single. Though aware that it was unethical to date someone while he was her client, she had existed for years on the hope that someday there'd be a special client who, once he no longer needed an attorney, might look at her differently and call her again. Serves me right, she told herself: she had indeed been attracted to a few of her domestic clients. But each time, it was someone who already had a new, much younger girlfriend or fiancée.

Still in her thirties when she and Rick divorced, she had never imagined that meeting someone new would be so much harder for her than it had been for him. Other people fell in love--Rick and Lily, Saj and Saritha, even Deb and Steve, two middle-aged ex-Marines who carried on almost like teen-agers--but it wasn't happening for her. How would Barry Manilow put it, she wondered forlornly--never the right love at the right time?

In her mind's eye, the future she had tried so hard to avoid contemplating suddenly unfolded: nothing but work that she didn't enjoy, children who needed her less and less and finally would fly the nest altogether, and always being alone. Next thing you know, Judy will talk me into going to a singles bar with her, Karen thought. And won't I knock 'em dead: a middle-aged woman with crow's feet and worry lines, and a daughter with no appetite and a son with no ambition.

She wondered what Lily and Rick's plans were for tonight-their other plans, she corrected herself sardonically. Eli and Jessie were supposed to stay over all weekend, but what if Rick and Lily preferred to have the house to themselves, or the kids decided that they didn't want to be fifth wheels on their father's wedding night. Why, they could be walking through the door any minute, she told herself. I can't go barhopping with Deb, how would I drive myself home if they need me here?

Clutching the quilt, she rushed down the stairs to her laundry room, where she loaded the quilt into her washing machine, poured in detergent, and pressed the "start" button. She wondered how to kill time while she washed and dried the quilt. There wasn't a book in the house she hadn't read and reread, but-of course, she thought. Erin Brockovich.

As she filled a mug with water and placed it in her microwave, she thought (not for the first time) that if she ruled the world, no one would graduate from high school without seeing Erin Brockovich. She had avoided the movie during its theatrical release, pointing out to the curious that law might be entertainment for some people, but was work for her; but the kids had given her the video and insisted she watch it. Afterward, she was grateful, because of all the legal dramas she had ever seen, there were none which more accurately illustrated that not all lawyers are rich, how rare the "mortgage lifter" cases are, and how much hard work, time and up-front expense go into the few cases where the judgment or settlement includes a huge fee.

Before Drobiazko, Harris, Rieger & Sammler had been just another Chicago law firm. After it, the firm's prestige had soared and their attorney fee meant that the firm was finally debt-free, although not so flush with money that the partners could either pay themselves million-dollar bonuses or, to Karen's deep disappointment, give up the areas of practice unrelated to public-interest law. If non-lawyers knew our fees pay for plain old unglamorous overhead, and not for private islands in the Caribbean … as Karen rummaged through her tea canister, she sighed. Who am I kidding: if they knew, they'd still hate us.

Taking the steaming mug from the microwave, she dropped a teabag into the hot water. Once it had steeped to her satisfaction, she tossed away the teabag and carried the mug into the living room. She set the mug on the end table, crossed the room, turned on the TV, and loaded the Erin Brockovich cassette into the VCR. She settled herself on the sofa, pulled an afghan across her lap, and took a few sips of the tea. Her eyes ached and she allowed her eyelids to droop. Just give me a second to rest my eyes, she told herself, then I'll call Deb before I start the movie. She'll understand that Jessie comes first. Besides, we'll see each other on the Fourth of July.


November 29, 2004

Copyright 2004 Angela Stockton
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Based on characters created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz


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