"You may see--I mean, you may go in now." The nurse guided Marissa into
the room and left at her wave of dismissal.
The beep-beep of the heart monitor was steady, the disinfectant smell overpowering. Marissa set the bag she carried on the hard linoleum floor and reached out until she touched the bed rail, cold and smooth and vibrating ever so slightly under her hand.
Was she awake? Aware? They'd said the stroke had been light, that it had only affected her grandmother's right side. Marissa stood on the other side of the bed, wondering what to do, when words startled her.
"You look like hell." The familiar voice was slurred, but she laughed anyway, relieved.
"I slept here all night. What do you expect?" She reached further and found her grandmother's hand, the orange-peel skin warm and dry, not waxy. Nails so short and trim they were practically nonexistent. A slight shake from arthritis. The cool, smooth wedding band.
"Did you bring it?" Grandmother asked.
Nodding, Marissa answered with her own question. "Will you be all right?"
"Who knows?" The bitter note in her voice was startling; it dissipated on a sigh. "Oh, child, of course I will, but I want to leave now. You know how it is."
"I do." She wanted home, the cinnamon warmth of her own room, the overstuffed chintz couch, braided rugs on the hardwood floor, and her sewing machine. Even though her hands shook when slicing apples and brushing hair, she had no problem threading needles and cutting fabric. "Here," Marissa said, and reached for the bag. "Let's get you warm."
She tucked the quilt around her grandmother, and the hospital room felt a little more like home.
"And tell Fishman, no more two-hour lunch breaks until he makes me a million. It's not like this is hard. It's a bull market!"
"Yes, sir." Marissa's back teeth ground together. Lack of sleep was playing havoc with her mood, but she could handle Pritchard. She did it every day. His shoes slapped down the hall; brushing her fingers over her watch dial, she let out a sigh. A couple of hours and she could go back to the hospital, to her family. Maybe the news would be as good as Dad had hoped, and they'd be able to bring her grandma home. And it would be the weekend, so they could all get some much-needed rest.
The door opened, and Marissa turned her most professional smile toward the front of the desk. "Welcome to Str--"
"Marissa, it's me."
The sheer incongruity of a family voice in the brokerage firm brought her to her feet. "Aunt Nina?"
"You gotta come with me, baby." Ineffable kindness sent shivers up Marissa's spine, but even then she wasn't ready for what came next. "Your grandmother's taken a turn."
"But--no, she's fine. She's getting better. Dad said so this morning."
Nina's hand covered hers, as if to anchor her to the counter. "She had another stroke an hour ago."
Though the phone picked that moment to ring, Marissa couldn't move. She stood there paralyzed, as though she was the one who'd had the stroke. The phone stopped, and some disconnected part of her brain heard Donna answer it over in the secretarial pool.
"H--how bad is it?"
Nina patted her hand, then released it. "We need to go now. Your parents and sisters are with her. Your mom called and asked me to come get you."
Pritchard had already read her the riot act for missing a couple of half days that week; if she left now, she might not have a job when she got back. But she couldn't not go. "I--but--"
"Go." The hand Donna dropped on her shoulder was as steady as a rock. "He's in a meeting. He won't notice. Go on, Marissa."
"Right." Her thoughts fluttered along with her heart; for a moment, she didn't know what to do next, would have lost her way moving out from behind the desk. "I have to--"
"Here. Cane, purse, coat."
"Go." A hug and a push sent her off in the right direction. "We'll pray for all of you."
Marissa barely had time to thank Donna before Nina hustled her down the steps, out the door, and into an idling cab. "It's been an hour?" she asked when they were on the way. "Why didn't they call me sooner?"
"Nobody knew exactly what had happened until fifteen minutes ago. They wouldn't have been able to do anything but scare you. Your mom called me as soon as the doctors gave them word."
"She's going to be--she'll live, won't she?" Marissa told herself her stuffy nose came from the stench of stale cigarettes and cheap vinyl, but she could already feel tears gathering in her throat. "She has to."
Nina scooted closer and put an arm around her shoulders. "Honey, if sheer force of will can keep someone on this earth, Naomi'll stick around for a long, long time."
But by the time they got to the hospital, Grandmother was gone. Not her body, not quite yet. But her spirit had fled. Marissa knew it when she touched the limp, chilly fingers that rested, unmoving, on the quilt. "Grandma, please--please come back to us."
"She can't hear you anymore." Her father, her big, strong, stern father, didn't even try to hide his heartbreak. "The doctors don't think it will be long."
This was impossible, that it could all be over so fast. "There's hope," Marissa said, not because she believed, but because she didn't want to hear the truth. "There has to be. And she hears us." She gripped the unresponsive hand a little tighter, and spoke the only truth she could find. "No matter what, she'll always hear us."
Swallowing the last of his bagel, Gary took the steps two at a time. Five minutes late, but it was hardly his fault. The lady trying to manage stroller, baby, diaper bag, and briefcase down the narrows steps at the El stop--well, he'd had to help her. Nobody would have gotten past the bottleneck if he hadn't.
Didn't matter, he told himself. It was just five minutes. Chuck would cover for him. If not Chuck, then Marissa Clark. She was friendly, and she understood his issues with Pritchard.
But she wasn't there. In her place, an older woman with bouffant blonde hair sat, filing her nails and ignoring the phone while it rang off the proverbial hook.
Gary stopped for his mail, as he always did. "Uh, hi."
"Heya gorgeous. Hobson, right?" When he nodded, lifting his eyebrows, she handed him a stack of envelopes. "You're late. Your weasel boss already noticed. I'm Iris." Her glance fell on his left hand, and her shoulders drooped.
Gary nodded toward the phone. "Are you going to get that?"
She sighed, rolled her eyes, and picked up the receiver. "Strauss and Associates," she snapped, while Gary popped a stick of gum in his mouth. "Yeah. No. Not yet. I'll--uh--" Patting random spots on the desk, she muttered, "Damn, there's no paper here." Gary thrust one of his envelopes back at her. Iris pulled a pen from behind her ear and scrawled on the back of the envelope in loopy script. "Got it. Yeah. Soon as she gets in, sugar."
Wincing at her lack of professionalism, Gary waved the envelope back at Iris when she tried to hand it back to him--message undelivered. "Probably junk mail."
She turned it over and chuckled. "Yeah. The Sun-Times wants to sell you a subscription."
"Why don't you just keep that."
"Thanks, hon. There's not a scrap of real paper up here." Iris lifted her hands with a disgusted grimace. "Not even one lousy post-it. I had to borrow a pen from the weasel."
"Well, the person who usually works here, she's blind." Gary hesitated, waiting for a reaction, for some indication that Iris had a heart.
"No kidding," she said with a snort. "That would explain all the crap lying around here." The sweep of her hand took in the Braille printer and phone books and the extra computer equipment that Marissa Clark used to do her job.
Gary caught Donna Soren, a few yards away at her own desk, rolling her eyes. "Temp," she mouthed. Stifling his own grin, he started to wish Iris a good day and head over to ask Donna what was going on, but a voice behind him made him jump.
"Happy Monday, Hobson. Did you finally decide to earn an honest dollar, or did you come here to stand around chatting as usual?"
"Pritchard." Gary swallowed his gum. "Where's Ms. Clark?"
Pritchard's shrug was just as careless as the temp worker's. "Called in with some cockamamie excuse about a sick relative--or a dead one--I can't remember. Not very creative; she tried the same thing last week."
"Well, maybe it's the same person," Gary said, remembering the brief conversation he'd had with Marissa on Friday morning, when she'd looked as though she'd been through the wringer. "She told me her grandmother was in the hospital."
Pritchard's sneer never wavered. "I don't care if it's her long-lost cousin from the wilds of Argentina. She already missed most of two days last week. She doesn't have her butt in that chair tomorrow, we'll clear all this stuff away--that make you happy?" he asked Iris, then whirled back on Gary. "What are you looking at, Hobson? Get to work!"
Gary rifled through his mail without seeing it as he headed down Cubicle Row. Pritchard could be a pain at the best of times, but this really took the cake. Why couldn't he ever cut anyone any slack?
A hand landed on his shoulder. "Hey. Earth to Gar." Chuck pulled him around, pointing to the cubicle Gary had just passed. "Your cage is that way, monkey boy."
"Oh, yeah. I was just...thinking." Gary headed for his space, slipping his coat onto its hook and pulling out his chair. The mail he tossed into his inbox caused an avalanche of paper to slide onto his desk, and he sighed.
Arms folded on the divider, Chuck quirked an amused grin. "Why weren't you at McGinty's yesterday? Bulls kicked the Knicks' butts."
"Marcia wanted to go to a gallery opening, and since she's gone until tomorrow night with that case down in Springfield, I didn't want to say no." Grimacing, Gary started putting the mess on his desk to rights.
"What?" Eyes narrowed, Chuck straightened his tie. When Gary didn't answer, he pushed a little harder. "C'mon, spill. What happened?"
"Oh, it's just--" Gary unwrapped another stick of gum, still not looking Chuck in the eye. "We had a talk on the way home."
"Ah." Nodding sanguinely, Chuck asked, "About what?"
"What else? Me, my career, how I need to make nice with Pritchard, even though he makes me nuts, and--hey, do you know what's going on with Marissa?"
"The new receptionist?"
"She's been here for four months."
"That's what I meant." Chuck shrugged. "Other than I suspect she's been talking to my cousin Liz, comparing notes about how to get on my last nerve, not a clue. What do you care? She's not even here today."
"That's what I mean. Pritchard said she'd called in, and he didn't sound very happy about it. He sounded like he was looking for an excuse to fire her."
"Aw, she'll be fine. You're the one he wants to can." Chuck snuck a look around the room, as if he thought Pritchard was about to pounce. "Look, I had an idea about wheat this weekend."
Wizard-like, Chuck wiggled his fingers. "It came to me in a dream. I figure it makes about as much sense as anything else. Let's get started."
Remembering Marcia's stern lecture, Gary stuck his nose to the grindstone for the rest of the morning. He even brushed off Chuck's invitation to lunch, knowing that discussion among the other traders would either be job stuff, which would just make him feel like he should be back at his desk, or a rehash of the basketball games he hadn't seen.
"That chick Iris is scary," Chuck said when he got back. "She just asked me if I wanted to go sing karaoke with her at some country bar tonight. Any luck?"
"Not really." Gary stood up, trying to stretch out the case of butt rot he was developing. "You got a paper?"
After a few minutes of searching Chuck handed a battered copy of the Sun-Times over the divider. "Okay, buddy, share. What's the buzz?"
"Huh?" Gary found the section he was looking for; his finger skimmed the page as he read.
"What's the hot tip you're working on there?"
"There is no hot tip."
"Oooh...kay." Chuck leaned over the divider, threatening to topple the whole thing. "Obituaries? What, you're looking to make a killing in estate sales? Or did somebody at Microsoft die?"
"There. Naomi Clark." Gary pointed at the box that had caught his attention. "It's her grandmother, has to be. How could Pritchard think she'd lie? She's here every day, rain, snow, shine--damn. The funeral's not until tomorrow."
"Marissa's grandmother died?" Chuck frowned. "She told me last week it was a mild stroke. She was all upbeat Friday morning."
Taken aback, Gary searched Chuck's expression for some trace of double entendre, but there was none. "You two had an actual conversation? One that didn't involve an argument?"
"Don't look so surprised, Gar. I'm Mr. Congeniality around here." Chuck glanced down at the paper, then back at Gary. "Why do you care when the funeral happens?"
"Pritchard said he was going to fire her if she wasn't here tomorrow, but she won't be." Letting the paper drop onto his chair, Gary folded his arms and thought. "He can't do that, can he? I mean, aren't there laws or something?"
"Somebody needs to talk to that guy. He doesn't have any right to fire her."
Chuck circled around the divider and blocked the exit to Gary's cubicle, his arms braced on either side of the opening. "No, Gary. No. Look, Marcia and I may not always get along, but I'm telling you, she's right this time. You know she's right. This is Pritchard. There should be yellow hazard signs around his office. I can't let you go there."
"Is a lovely individual who'll find another job like that . And I--I'm sure Intel will be back up by the end of the day," Chuck went on, his voice suddenly louder. "You know how tech stocks bounce around. Good afternoon, Mr. Pritchard. Gary and I were just discussing the NASDAQ." Only Eddie Haskell could have switched gears faster.
Arms full of files, Pritchard barely spared them a glance as he stormed down the aisle. "Why don't you use that technology to move some money around."
"On it, sir!"
"Do I need to tell you to move it in our direction?"
"No, sir, of course not."
"Pritchard--" Gary began as his boss moved away, but Chuck was overcome by a coughing fit.
"What's the matter, Fishman, choke on your incompetence again?" Pritchard asked over his shoulder. He pinned Gary with a glare when he caught him staring. "What do you want?"
"Uh, I just--" Gary gulped back what he'd been about to say. "I heard it's gonna be an early spring. Good for corn futures." The sigh of relief Marcia would have given at that echoed, in Gary's mind, with Chuck's audible one.
"What are you telling me for?" Pritchard started back down the aisle. "Get on it."
"Yeah, okay." Gary didn't let his glare show until he could direct it at the back of Pritchard's neck.
"For once, you made the right choice," Chuck said, letting his arms drop.
But Gary wasn't so sure about that. He glanced at the paper, and called himself a coward. Chewing on his lip, he tried to decide...
...Decide what? What was he thinking? How in the hell could he convince Pritchard to change his mind? The guy wouldn't have listened to Gary if he'd told him to move away from falling rocks.
But he couldn't let this go. It just wasn't right. He scooped up the newspaper and stepped out into the aisle, but Chuck caught on and sprang back out of his cubicle, into Gary's path.
"Gary, for me, don't go there."
"Yeah, look--you're my best friend. If you get fired, I'll have no one here to talk to. And I know Marcia'll find a way to blame it on me."
"Why would she--"
"And I still don't get the big deal. She's a receptionist."
Anger flared for a second; Chuck's attitude, though it was protective of Gary, seemed to be based on the same assumptions as Pritchard's. "She's a person. A really nice person."
Chuck snorted. "Not to me."
"Well, that's 'cause you make her nuts. I happen to like her."
"That's what you're going to say to Pritchard? That you like her? He knows you're a married man!"
"Not like that. Did you ever leave high school?" Fighting an urge to just pick Chuck up and lift him out of the way, Gary tightened his jaw. "Look, the way I see it, I can go home tonight either knowing I made Pritchard more money, or knowing I helped somebody." Gary shrugged. "I guess I just decided which one I'd rather be able to say."
"But you can't mess with Pritchard. You need this job."
"So does she."
"Fine. But you can't be the one to go in and tell Pritchard. It'll never work. It's like--like the guy who can't swim diving in after the drowning person."
"Then who's going to do it?"
"Don't look at me. I know my limitations. Gar, seriously, what's Marcia gonna say if you get passed over for another promotion because of all this?"
Gary broke into a grin and clapped Chuck on the shoulder. "Marcia! That's it!"
"What I'm gonna say to Pritchard. Thanks, buddy."
"But--oh, man." Chuck turned and headed for the nearest stairway.
"Where're you going?" Gary asked, baffled.
Chuck turned back and called, "What'd we learn in junior high? In case of an approaching storm, head for the southwest corner of the basement." He turned and told the rest of the baffled traders, "I suggest you all join me there."
Ignoring the theatrics, Gary hurried the other way, toward Pritchard's office. He wanted to get there before he ran out of ideas--and courage.
"You can't go in there," Pritchard's assistant told him, matching Chuck pitch for pitch.
"Got a hot tip." Flashing his most charming grin, Gary slipped past her into Pritchard's office. Soundproofed, carpeted, the room felt miles away from the hustle of the outer halls. Vintage Eighties, Chuck called the décor, all metal and leather and glass, but Gary had always thought of it as cold, and he shivered every time he was called up on the steel-colored Berber carpet.
He shivered now, too, at the astonished, angry gaze that met his. Pritchard was on the phone. "Yes, Shari, as a matter of fact, you're right. He is in my office. The question is how he got by you...never mind. We'll discuss it later."
"It's not her fault," Gary protested as Pritchard let the cordless phone clatter to the glass top of his desk. "She tried to stop me." He didn't want his efforts here to make things worse for anyone else.
And then it hit him...maybe this would actually make things worse, instead of better, for Marissa. Pritchard was a vindictive little prick; maybe he'd fire her just because Gary asked him not to. But it was too late now--the only way out of this was through it. He'd just have to make sure that he handled it right. Forcing his hands to his sides, he said, "Mr. Pritchard, we have to talk. You're not going to fire her." He'd meant to add, "are you?", but it didn't come out that way. This was starting to feel like an out-of-body experience--there was no fear, all of a sudden. Gary had always felt intimidated, even a little awed, by Pritchard, but now he saw his boss for what he really was--small and petty, nothing more than a bully. It wasn't a pretty picture, but it gave him the determination he needed to see this through.
Pritchard shook his head, as if he really didn't have a clue what Gary meant. "Who?"
Pritchard snorted. "Hell I'm not. Dereliction of duty is a serious offense, as I've tried to explain to you and Fishman countless times." Curiosity glittered in his hard little eyes. "What business is it of yours, anyway?"
Gary ignored the question. "It's not as if she didn't warn you. She called and told you what was going on, she must have, or you wouldn't have had time to get a temp here. And I'm sure you already know she won't be here tomorrow, because she would have told you that, too." He took a step closer and planted the newspaper on Pritchard's desk, jabbing a finger at the obituary he'd found. "There, that's her grandmother. She wasn't lying."
One cursory glance, then Pritchard turned his ire back on Gary and never looked at the paper again. "I'm not interested in excuses, Hobson. I'm interested in results. Right now, thanks to Iris, half our calls aren't getting through. That's money down the drain!"
"And that's why you need Ms. Clark out there."
"No, it's her fault we have this lousy temp in the first place. I need someone who can do the job every day. I don't have time to worry about peons who can't be here, or incompetents like Iris."
When had Gary's hands curled into fists? He forced them open. "You're not going to fire her."
"Hobson, what the hell do you even care?"
Gary pointed at Pritchard. "You're the one who should care. The only reason most of us, including the clients, bother to walk in this door is because Ms. Clark makes this place seem--I don't know, halfway human."
"Yeah, but right now she's not here. Why am I arguing with you? Look, I know you think you're doing a favor for your little friend, but the truth is, she needs to learn to grow up and live in the real world. Old people die, but business goes on." He sat down and started shuffling papers, a dismissal as firm as a slammed door.
Gary didn't move. "Sir--"
"I don't get it, Hobson." Pritchard dumped the Sun-Times into his wastebasket, then steepled his hands on his desk, tapping his index fingers together. "You're a married man with a gorgeous wife who has more social collateral than all of that town you came from--Hicksville?"
"--put together. Why are you trying to blow your one chance to make something of yourself on a receptionist?"
Because it's right, Gary thought angrily. Didn't anyone care about that? He had to come up with something, fast, or he was going to blow it for everyone involved, so he played his trump card, the idea Chuck's comment had sparked.
"Since you know so much about my wife," he said, keeping his tone deliberately casual, "you do know that she's a lawyer, right?"
Eyes narrowed into slits, Pritchard glared up at Gary. "So?"
"So, she's got good friends at the American Civil Liberties Union, and at a couple other unions, too. One word from her..." Gary left the sentence open-ended, since he hadn't taken the time to figure out exactly what a word from Marcia could do--or whether she actually had any friends at the ACLU. "I'm trying to save you a lot of aggravation here, Pritchard."
"This is blackmail!"
Gary caught Pritchard's wavering undertone. Now was the time to do what Marcia would, and let his opponent save a little face. "Do you know what it says about Strauss and Associates, that Marissa Clark is the first person they meet?" His own implication made Gary uneasy; he didn't want to think he liked Marissa because it was politically correct. But he'd let Pritchard think it, if it could save her job. Pritchard went from wary to pale, Gary noted with satisfaction. "C'mon, Pritchard. Be the bigger man."
Jaw working, Pritchard was silent for a moment. Gary didn't know if the rush he felt was from doing the right thing, or from besting a weasel. He held still, waiting. When Pritchard finally snapped, "Fine," he knew he'd won. That one word was all the acknowledgement Gary would ever get; he knew it, took it, and then, for some reason he'd never understand, he pushed his luck. He nodded once, went to the door, and turned back.
"By the way, I'll be in a few hours late tomorrow. I have a funeral to go to."
"Hobson--" Pritchard's neck was cardinal red.
"I've got comp time coming. And it would look good if there was a representative from the office." When Pritchard started to shake his head, Gary finished, "ACLU."
Glowering down at the papers on his desk, Pritchard muttered, "You're in by noon, Hobson, or you and your playmate are both out of jobs."
Gary didn't know if Pritchard meant Chuck or Marissa, and he knew better, this time, than to stay and ask. Heart pounding, he hurried back to his desk
Marissa spent the weekend in a fog of shock and grief, and it still engulfed her Tuesday morning. The church swam with the scent of real flowers and women's perfume; the service was a chorus of her Grandmother's favorite hymns and Bible readings. "I learned something new every time I spoke to Naomi," Reverend Ochs said, and Marissa nodded. She'd learned so much--but not how to say good-bye.
People flowed around her afterward, leaving her awash in gentle platitudes and sympathy.
"It was a beautiful service, honey. Just what she would have wanted."
"She's with Jesus, safe at home. You should be happy for her."
"The whole thing happened so quick; I'm sure she didn't feel a thing. It must have been God's will for it to happen this way."
"How's your father holding up? You make sure you take care of him."
Marissa kept nodding; she'd stopped trying to take it all in days ago. Somewhere in the avalanche of kindness, she got separated from her family. She could hear her parents at the other end of the vestibule, their voices mingling with Reverend Och's soft baritone. Her sisters had gone to chase the toddler cousins off the altar, and several neighbors from down the street were telling Marissa about the first time they'd met Naomi, repeating the stories they'd told at the wake the night before. She held herself together with the last shreds of willpower she possessed, trying to remember that she, too, had to be kind--that they needed to tell the stories they thought she needed to hear. She wanted to believe that her grandmother was still there, watching over her, but it was hard, when all the tales just seemed to push her away, back into the history of the neighborhood.
"Your grandma always made sure she greeted the new neighbors with a hot meal..." Mrs. Abrams trailed off mid-sentence; the air around them stirred with a familiar scent, but she couldn't place it until the newcomer spoke.
"Gary Hobson?" What was he--what was anyone from work--doing here? The little group around them moved off, saving Marissa a lot of introductions.
"Yes, it's me." His tone was stiff, formal--not at all like the friendly greeting he'd had for her every morning for the past few months. "I just wanted you to know that I was here and that Strauss and Associates sent some of the flowers, and we're really--really sorry about what happened."
"Thank you," she said, at a complete loss. She would have expected Donna, if she'd expected anyone. But after Pritchard had blown up at her on the phone the day before, all she'd expected from the office was a severance check and a cardboard box containing her desk accessories. "That's very nice of you."
"It's just--this must be hard for you. The way you talked about your grandmother, I thought--and then I thought, maybe if someone was here--" He sighed. "But there are all kinds of people here."
"Too many," she said before she had a chance to think about it.
"Yeah. I guess it was kind of stupid of me to come, to think you needed one more--"
"No! No, I didn't mean--oh, I'm so tired, I don't know what I mean," she admitted. "They've just been...kind of at me all morning, and it's a bit much." Marissa clamped her mouth shut, before she could come apart at the seams, and dump more on someone she barely knew.
"I understand," Gary said, and he sounded as if he really did. "It must be tough. I--I guess I'll see you in a day or two."
"Wait." She held out her hand, palm down. "I didn't mean that you shouldn't have come. It's so--so good of you." Especially, she thought, since this church, this neighborhood, had to be unfamiliar territory for a white guy from some podunk town in Indiana. He'd probably never been around this many...Baptists. And apparently the rumors about what Pritchard had said to her the day before hadn't reached him. "You won't be seeing me, but I won't forget this."
"What are you talking about?" Something in his voice, some note of kindness, told her that he knew exactly what she was talking about. Strange; she'd never thought Gary Hobson was much for office gossip. And how had he even known to be here? Suddenly she had a sense of layers in this moment that she didn't quite understand. "I'll see you every morning, as soon as you come back to work. And you'll--you'll smell me, or whatever you do to know it's me."
"Mr. Pritchard said--"
"Forget what he told you, Marissa." Gary stepped closer, and his voice was quieter, but more forceful. "Pritchard is a first class as--jerk--but you still have your job, if you want it, when you come back tomorrow, or the next day. Or whenever. You take the time you need."
Losing her job had been the one thing to which Marissa had actually resigned herself in the past few days; now the world shifted, changed again, and she had no coherent response. "What--how--"
"I had a talk with him. You don't have to worry about your job; it's still there."
"You had a talk with Pritchard?"
"Yeah. I just kinda--reminded him of a few things. He probably won't apologize for--for whatever he told you, but he wants you back. We all do."
Who would have thought Gary Hobson had a spine? She liked him, but had always thought of him as a milquetoast kind of guy--nice enough, but too easy-going for his own good. But then, working at Strauss and Associates didn't exactly bring out the best in people like Gary, people who had bigger hearts than egos.
That thought, so much like something her grandmother would have said, brought a bubble of sorrow and gratitude into her throat. She tried to push it back down with a sad smile. "You're right. Pritchard is an as-jerk," she told Gary. "But I need--and I like--my job, and I like most of the people there. I'll be back, if--are you sure?"
"Trust me on this one. Pritchard's not going to give you any more trouble."
"I don't know what to say, Gary. Thank you."
"You're welcome." She'd never heard anyone say it quite so sincerely, like he meant it, and wanted to make sure she knew he meant it.
But "thank you" wasn't enough. "It's just--what you did, it's exactly the kind of thing my grandmother was always trying to teach us to do. It means so much that you would--today, especially."
"I wish I could have met her."
"She always had good advice."
"I could use some of that right about now." They were quiet for a moment, the conversations around them dwindling as people left for their cars. Gary cleared his throat. "Are you--you know, okay? About your grandmother?" He half-laughed. "That's a dumb question, isn't it?"
"No. It's a kind question." And somehow, his kindness felt different from the sympathy she'd been surrounded by for the past few days. "I loved her. I still can't believe she won't be at home when we go back." And then, on impulse, she added. "If you'd like to come to the house later--"
"I can't," he said, and this time his chuckle was rueful. "Pritchard's watching me pretty close, and I promised my wife I'd make dinner tonight."
Marissa gulped, feeling a little guilty, but before she could say anything, Chanel No. 5 wafted toward them. "Marissa?"
"Oh." She turned to introduce Gary. "This is my Aunt Nina. Nina, this is a--a friend from work--"
"You're kidding me." Nina, who'd been ready to call down the wrath of several alderman and a state senator on Pritchard's head when she'd heard about the phone call the day before, was still spoiling for a fight. "Somebody from that place came here? Are you Pritchard?"
"No!" Marissa couldn't help her giggle, and she could hear the lingering conversations around them falter at the sound. "A friend, Nina."
"From Strauss and Associates, where Marissa works ." The emphasis was more for her than for Nina, Marissa knew. "Gary Hobson, ma'am. I think more people from the office wanted to come, but they couldn't get away. And I should have told you, Marissa, Donna wanted to, but the temp can't handle everything you do all by herself."
"Donna is a saint," Marissa said fervently, ignoring Nina's fingers fluttering impatiently at her elbow. "But she has to support three kids on her own. She can't risk her job."
"She sent flowers, though. And Chuck said to tell you hi."
"Chuck? Chuck Fishman?"
"Well, he noticed you were gone."
"Always the white knight," Marissa said wryly.
"It's time to go to the cemetery, hon," Nina said, and Marissa took a deep breath, steeling herself for the next hurdle.
"Thank you, Gary," she said, even though it didn't seem like enough. A hug would have been too much--maybe one day, she thought--and a handshake seemed too formal. While she was dithering over what to do, he gave her arm an awkward pat.
"You, uh, take care, now. I'll see you back at work."
Marissa hoped that he couldn't hear Nina's muffled snort. There'd been something honest in his stilted words and touch that made her want to call him back. But she couldn't think of a reason in the world why she should.
"Does he know about Pritchard?" Nina asked in a stage whisper.
"Yes, he actually--he talked to him, Nina. I still have a job." She let Nina lead her back to the others.
"Who were you talking to?" her mother asked.
"A--a friend," Marissa said again, and liked the way it sounded.
"A fine-looking friend," Nina told them, her tone much more appreciative than it had been when she first met Gary. "That guy has a face that could sell apple pies to little green aliens."
They all chuckled, and just for a second, things were almost normal.
"Long time no see." Gary kissed his wife on the cheek and headed for the kitchen. "How'd things go in Springfield?"
She made a face. "We lost, but there's more than enough room for appeal. Did you miss me last night?"
"'Course I did. I always miss you."
"Even when you're playing hooky?" At the quizzical look he flashed her, Marcia added, "I called you at work, Gary."
"Yeah?" He dropped the grocery sacks on the breakfast bar and started unloading the contents. Marcia stepped behind him and pulled his coat off his shoulders.
"You weren't there."
"You're right," he called after her as she went to hang his coat in the closet. "I wasn't there. There was a funeral."
"Somebody you work with died?" She returned with wide eyes, and for a moment Gary could see a much younger version of the woman he'd married. He loved it when he got to see that innocent side of Marcia; it was so rare, anymore.
"No, her grandmother."
Quick as it had come, her concern was replaced by something harder. "You left work for that?"
Now that they'd been married a few years, they slipped easily into this evening ballet, preparing dinner together while they rehashed the day--though usually the rehashing was a little more balanced than this. "I was kind of the--the company's official representative." He filled a pot with water and set it on the stove, then went digging in the grocery sack for the box of noodles. He told himself that he was only gilding the lily to spare Marcia any upset.
Sudden understanding chased the frustration off her face. "Oh, I get it. It was one of the partners, wasn't it? Good thinking, Gary."
He could have just let her go on thinking that and enjoyed her approval. But he didn't want to start lying to her, now or ever. "No, not a partner. It was Marissa Clark. You met her, remember? The receptionist."
Shaking her head fiercely, Marcia reached past him for wine glasses. "I remember. Did Pritchard know you were gone?"
"Well of course he did. I wasn't going to lie." Except about the ACLU. But Marcia didn't need to know about that. "He'll get over it."
Marcia winced. "Oh, Gary, no--"
She poured the Merlot and slid a glass his way. "I know he makes you crazy, but he stands between you and success. You have to get on his good side--you have to jump through his hoops."
He dropped the can of tomato paste back onto the counter and turned to stare at her. "What am I, a trained poodle?"
"Of course not, but if you want to be the one holding the hoops someday, you have to get over to the other side."
Somehow, a circus metaphor seemed perfect for his job. "What if I don't want to be the hoop-holder?"
Marcia perched on a stool and took a slow sip of wine. It dyed her lips a beautiful red-purple. "I just meant--"
"Because if it means treating people the way Pritchard does, I think I'll stick to sweeping up sawdust." He pulled a thawed package of hamburger out of the refrigerator and added it to the collection of ingredients. "You know, I did a good thing. I didn't just go to the funeral, I saved Marissa Clark's job. I actually stood up to Pritchard for once." Why was something that felt so good--so right--to him so unfathomable to the two people who should have known him best?
"Wait--are you telling me you put your job on the line for a receptionist?" Under Marcia's scrutiny, Gary had a sense of what it must be like to be on the witness stand while she was questioning. The kitchen seemed to shrink. "Just because someone asks you to go to bat for her--"
"She didn't ask."
"I know you feel sorry for her because she's blind--"
"I don't, Marcia; that's not the point. Look, she loved her grandmother. I mean, you should have heard her at the church. And she was going to lose her job because she wanted to say good-bye." Gary downed half the wine in one gulp, then fumbled as he tried to open the noodles. "You know, an hour ago I felt great because I talked to Pritchard and stopped that from happening, and got to be a friend to a nice person who seemed to need one. Now, I just--I feel like crap again--" He cast a baleful glance at the empty grocery sack. "--and I forgot the ricotta."
"Don't worry; we'll go out."
"I wanted to make lasagna for you. I wanted--" He shook his head and sank onto a stool. "I guess I don't know what I want any more."
"Gary. I know what I want--" Marcia reached over and took his hand. "--and that's what's best for you. You're a good-hearted man," she said, sliding closer. "But you have to get your priorities straight. You can't stop for every accident you see along the road. You can't feed every homeless person. There are limits, Gary, and sometimes you have to put yourself, your career--us, Gary--sometimes you have to put us first."
"I didn't realize that the point of us was my career."
"It's not. It's our careers." She flashed him a lopsided grin, but he wasn't convinced she was joking. "Now, get changed. I'll call and get a table at Spiaggia's."
"But I said I'd cook tonight." The last thing Gary wanted was to go to some trendy place where the egos were bigger than the servings, and where Marcia would want to stop and chat with at least half a dozen well-placed lawyers and socialites that she knew. "I can run to the corner and get the cheese."
"How can we make connections if we're never seen?" She narrowed the space between her eyebrows with a pout that he'd once found adorable. He'd once thought she was honestly confused when she made that face. Now, he wasn't sure. "We're going to need them, if you keep trying to be a hero."
"I wasn't trying to be a hero. I was just trying to be the kind of guy that you would be proud of--and that our kids might be proud of, someday."
"My hopeless romantic." Marcia's frown eased, and she kissed his cheek. "Who is this receptionist, anyway? Is she beautiful? Related to one of the partners?"
"Not that I know of. And you're the most beautiful woman I know." Even when Marcia was driving him nuts, she was gorgeous. "That's always true, and it always will be."
"Well," she said, patting his chest, "that's a start."
Marissa rubbed her free hand across her cheek; it came off mostly dry. A smallish conch shell in the other hand, she turned from the shelf of mementos she'd been exploring, souvenirs of a long-ago trip to the Carolina coast.
"Hi, Chris." Making her way past the silent sewing machine, she met him halfway across the wooden planks of her grandmother's room, the familiar space that was already foreign and echoing with absence.
"She's up here!" the boy screeched down the stairs. "What are you doing, anyway? Everybody's getting ready to eat. And we couldn't remember the story about the day CiCi ran away. We needed you."
She couldn't explain to her gregarious, almost-six, honorary nephew why she needed to be here, a space that had always been gentle with her; why she felt her grief more keenly downstairs, in the noisy bustle of a family dinner. "I just needed to find something," she said, and didn't mean the seashell still in her hand.
"Okay. But come down now--we're making ice cream--strawberry! Mom said it was your grandma's favorite. I got one turn to crank it, but Nina said I could have another if I found you for your dad. And tonight I get to stay over at Lance's! He has Nintendo! Can you hear the ocean in that thing? Oh, yeah, this is awesome! Mom says when I'm older we can go to Florida..."
Holding the shell up to Chris's ear, Marissa missed the heavy tread of her father's feet on the stairs. "Hey, you found her." His deep, commanding voice was the one thing that could stop Chris's waterfall of words. "Go tell Nina you've earned another turn."
"It was the roller skating rink," Marissa told Chris quickly. "Cici thought she was going to join the circus, but she ended up at the skating rink."
"Cool!" His light footsteps raced down the stairs.
"I think I was about Chris's age when I figured out that cranking the ice cream was supposed to be a chore, not a reward," Marissa said. Suddenly exhausted, she moved to her grandmother's bed and sank down on its edge. It seemed so strange not to have the familiar quilt under her fingers. What had happened to it?
"It's a Clark family tradition." Her father sat down next to her, and the old twin bed creaked. "We can't get together without the standard menu. The neighbors have been bringing food by since Saturday, and your mom still insists on cooking."
How could they have a get-together without Grandma? It would never be the same. Didn't anyone get that?
"Everyone's asking for you," her father added when she didn't respond. "It's mostly just family now."
"Not all the family."
"No." He put an arm around her shoulders, and, instead of feeling comforted, she felt the weight of her father's sorrow.
"How are you, Dad?"
"I'm sad, baby. She was a great woman. A little much to live with sometimes, if you were her child. But her grandchildren--you were the stars in her sky."
Fingering the smooth inner curve of the conch, Marissa said, "I miss her already. I don't know how to stop missing her."
"Maybe we don't. Maybe we just keep going." His hand covered hers for a moment, then lifted the shell away. "Trade you." Heavy paper rustled...a sack, Marissa realized, when her father placed it on the bed between them. Shifting so that she could put both hands inside, she felt...
...tight, careful stitches that would outlast the thin cotton they held together; comfort in soft drape and batting; security in a piece of home, and, when she leaned down to sniff, the mingled scents of lilac and cinnamon. "Oh, Dad..."
"She would have wanted you to have it. You spent so much time up here while she sewed--Marissa, you should keep it."
"It's--" She swallowed hard. "--like having a piece of her with me." Moving the sack to the floor, she scooted closer to her father, needed his closeness in a way she hadn't in a long, long time. "Thank you."
He rubbed a small circle on her back, like he had when she was little...like the time she was five and in trouble with her mother after a tussle with the neighborhood bully. "You still fretting about that job? You know you're good enough to find another."
"Actually, no." She pulled away, sitting up straight. "That guy who came to the church today, the one who--"
"Stood out like a corn stalk in a patch of peas?"
Swiping at her traitorous, sniffly nose, Marissa chuckled. "Gary Hobson. Yes. He--Dad, he did something really--amazing. He talked to Pritchard, and somehow, I still have a job."
"He did? That's great--as long as that's still the job you want."
"It is, at least until I can go back to school. I just--I don't know how to thank him." And it wasn't just for the job, she realized. Gary had been the only person at the funeral who'd attended for her sake alone--not for himself, not for the rest of the family, but for her. He hadn't just stood up to Pritchard; he'd been there for her--the kind of thing a real friend would do. There certainly was a whole lot more to Gary Hobson than she'd initially thought.
There was a burst of laughter somewhere below. Her father squeezed her shoulders again. "A very wise woman once told me that the best thanks for any gift was to use it wisely and well. So you go back there tomorrow, and you do your very best at that job and show that fellow that he did the right thing. Show that jerk Pritchard a thing or too, as well."
"Yes, sir." Smiling in spite of herself, Marissa gave a mock salute. "I thought...it was like Grandma was there, when I was talking to him."
"You're lucky she didn't whap you on the head and tell you to pay attention. I'd hang on to that friend if I were you." Dad stood, pulling her up with him. "C'mon, let's go before Chris eats all the ice cream."
Clutching the shopping bag close, Marissa followed her father, down to the comfort of her family.
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