Emile was a paralegal. He knew he’d be a lawyer someday, he’d move up and become a lawyer, with his own office and his own work to do. He’d work for himself. But for now he had to pay his dues, he worked with all the other paralegals. A cup of coffee would help.
He stood over the coffee maker, its smell every bit of air in the room. It was sweet coffee, he could tell. Not necessarily good, but sweet, some hazelnut-mocha mixed bean that the secretaries kept around. He hated the flavored stuff. “No need for sweet coffee,” he thought, “But still, a need for coffee.”
It was quiet in the office, except for the foreign sound of the brew filling his cup. Normally, there were other sounds, of course, the hum of the overhead lights—always around, always loud; every once in a while he’d notice the hum of the overhead lights, but it tended to fade into the background because the office was rarely quiet. He tasted the coffee. “I best get to work,” he thought, and then he realized that he was working—it was part of his job to make the coffee.
Voices came from the conference room, he could hear them now. One sounded like Wendy, who wasn’t saying much. Horace, from building maintenance, had a low voice which made it sometimes hard to hear the individual words. He spoke a broken mumble:
“It’s just been one of those days; started this morning … As usual, the alarm blared and I was going to slap it off. So ‘Smack!’ It was my wife’s face … then, she croaks, What the hell? Christ, I had no clue. Don’t I always sleep on that side? I asked. No, never! she says … I’m sure I do … so, this world is driving me crazy. I mean, is ‘hot’ usually on the right, or left? I guess I thought it was on the right, and you’d think I’d have learned by the time I got to brushing my teeth … Why do I do these things?”
People were entering the office, rapidly talking to each other and walking as if they would continue through the walls. Emile heard everything in pieces, the conversations moved around, and he felt separate from the pace of things:
“So, what makes it all so difficult … ”
“There’s a straight line of thought in there somewhere, I just can’t find it…”
“At that hour, my brain doesn‘t function. It’s a problem, I know, but it’s not my fault.”
“The conference follows the tape … ”
“ … straight down Hall Street, left at the light. That puts you near the capitol building…”
“Emile got it. I heard this guy’s a real loser … ”
“What can you expect anymore?”
“ … a half-cup of rice right into the sauce and simmer.”
“ … right … ”
“A real problem.”
“Well, someone’s responsible.”
“Emile? Emile?” Mr. Fareweather spoke, and the office quieted a little while the lawyers gathered around their boss.
“It’s ready,” Emile said. “I shot the footage this morning. No problems.”
“Great,” Mr. Fareweather said, “We’ll see it now.”
The fine suits and cologne all passed by Emile and into the conference room. He shut the door, then started the tape. The monitor was at eye level with a large puffy stubble-coated face on the screen peering out at the room. Two eyes pointed in slightly different directions through greasy hair, and as the camera panned back, the head got smaller but a full body cast grew from below its neck. There was a man in full traction in a hospital bed, “Well, Mitch was going on about how expensive jeans are, blue jeans, just clothes, but you know how sometimes the mind can wander … ”
Emile was standing still. Everyone faced the screen, drawn to it like sunfish, swaying casually in their chairs. The flickering lights from the video, with the sound pressing through, struck him as the only motion in the room.
“This cast is torture. I feel like I’ve been stuffed into a coffin, one-size-fits-all, Ha! I may die in here yet … look outside the window, look at all those people. They must be going somewhere—that’s the torture of it. I don‘t know where I’m going, but there they go.”
People use their fingers when they’re bored; some hands on the table, some in laps or pressed against chins.
“Certainty! Like this eight-ball, this fucking eight-ball toy that my kid gave me last year. It’s plastic and water, but it works. You ask it, ‘What’s up?’ shake, it answers—no problem, no explanations. Simple answers: ‘yes/no/try again.’ Well, I was thinking, ‘Should I?’ and it said ‘sure’ and I went out and bought the biggest thing I could get my hands on: a car. The biggest one they had: a two-tone convertible, about twenty years old, from the seventies.”
Emile knew he was just a mechanic, but he liked to think, not so much about his work but about everything else. He liked to see things connect, the wires plugged in and working. It made sense.
“Well now I’m sitting in this giant beauty with the goose next to me in the front seat. The damn thing squawked a lot at first and I had to tie one leg to the door handle where it settled down eventually. Yeah, it flopped around on the turns and tried to fly away. I wasn’t hurting it any I don’t think; though it started to make a kind of grunting sound, ‘g-g-g-g-g … ’ here, in the back of the throat, like this, ‘g-g-g.’” His head was bobbing, “I figured it was happy.”
“So I’m driving down this new stretch of the highway where they don’t have any lines painted yet—A real hazard! Yeah, and I’m shaking the eight-ball and asking whether to turn right or left next. I mean, I could have gone to Canada I was thinking. Then I look up and see these big white letters, ‘Just … Do … It!’ I’m heading right at them.
“There was a terrible crunching sound. I couldn’t feel a thing, but I could hear all that noise. It hurts to think about it. You know, the first policeman on the scene later told me there were still feathers floating around after he arrived. Poor goose, didn’t even have a name … morphine … I think I need morphine … where’s the morphine?”
Everyone was amused and talking, but Emile was drawn hypnotically to the television hum. Emile found himself gripped—like a staggering shot in the arm, it was painful and comforting. It squealed in his ears.
“That’s great!” said Mr. Fareweather. “Emile, you’re irreplaceable, truly.”
Mr. Fareweather had a gurgly voice and smiled a lot. “Emile, I’m sorry,” he said, “But I’m going to have to send you back to the hospital again. A new call this morning, but you’ve done good work.” Mr. Fareweather smiled. He pointed a finger like a gun at Emile, but before he pulled the trigger the staff formed a train leaving the room, talking about the video, and Mr. Fareweather followed.
“My father had a beautiful Ford convertible in the ’60s. God, I miss that car…”
“guh-guh-guh!” One said cocking his head back, then laughing. They left in a line.
Horace walked out to the reception area and saw Wendy typing. She was one of the other paralegals and she sat in front of the typewriter, loading it with paper. “Dear Louis Palmer … ” she typed.
“Tick, tick, tick … ”
Wendy typed from a handwritten sheet that told of a wonderful settlement. Emile couldn’t see this, but he knew where the spaces were, where the paragraphs went, and when the lines ended.
Sometimes Emile had to type, too, and he never read any of it—it just went through. He could hear the mistakes, he could feel the “typos,” he could see the words, but he couldn’t read them, not enough to grasp them. It didn’t work that way.
“See ya Wendy,” Emile waved at her as he left the room.
“Tick, tick … ”
Emile was gone, but the room continued buzzing.
Emile had gotten to the right floor in the right hospital, and room C-74 was nearby. A small piece of paper was attached to the doorknob, “Turn clockwise,” was written on it, and then, “Why are you in the hall?”
Inside, little yellow paper flags were on everything. Emile moved towards the bed where a woman was lying in a heap with a pen in one hand and a pad of post-it papers stuck to the side of her leg. She snored gently, sometimes skipping a turn. By the time he had reached the side of her bed, he noticed a few of the papers stuck to the bottoms of his shoes and bunched up in little piles around his feet. He pulled them off, read what ones he could:
“Water turned off?” one said.
“No more smoking! If you have to smoke, ask for nurse—push blue button beside head of bed, the head of the bed is against the wall, push blue button for a nurse … if you want to smoke.”
“Nothing’s in here. What did you think was in here? … push blue button for help,” was posted to a desk.
He knew Edna was sick, mentally, but he did not know how severely. The issue was insurance; her daughter’s house on fire. The file said Edna did it, and the firm was handling the case.
“Are you Geraldo?” she asked.
“They said ‘Geraldo.’ Are you Geraldo Rivera? You don’t have a moustache. They said Geraldo was coming. Who are you?”
“Emile, from Fareweather, Cleary, and Kline.”
“Well Emile sounds close, but it’s not Geraldo, is it? You say the weather is clear? Well open the curtains if the weather is clear. I want to look nice. Is that a TV camera?”
“No, no it isn’t” Emile said, “It’s for the law firm.” Edna grunted, and Emile repeated slowly, “It’s for a law firm, Fareweather, Cleary, and Kline.”
“You think I’m stupid, don’t you? I heard you, ‘for firmness’ you said. It’s about time, I’ve complained about these mattresses before, really.” She sat up in the bed.
Emile set up his stuff, pulling a chair over to the foot of the bed and brushing away the notes stuck to the seat and the arms. “Oh, you’re not dumb. I wouldn’t listen to you if I thought you were dumb.” He was condescending to her, acting like she was a child, while he busied himself, playing with cords and equipment. “I want to hear your story.”
“What story? Geraldo always has a story ready. Why should I give you a story. Hey! This is my room. You give me a story!”
“Well, let’s talk about the fire at your daughter’s house. I’m interested in the fire.” Emile wasn’t interested in fire, in fact it scared him, but the story was his job.
Edna looked all around the room. “My daughter?” she asked. “Her house?” She was trying to remember. “Oh, oh! Wait a minute. I have something. I do have something.” She opened a drawer next to the bed. It was full of papers, and note pads, and books.
Emile panned the room with the camera, picking up papers, “Pull down, wait for click. Let go, wait for light … Thursday, 15th, 2pm, call daughter. Say, “I am fine, but I could use some good food. The nurse a bitch, get another … I love Paris in the springtime … I am not stupid or crazy and it isn’t just as easy to handle insanity as she thinks … Why oh why do I love Paris and know the words, but can’t remember the tune?”
Edna could not find it, “Damn it. Damn it to hell! These sedatives is what it is. Witch doctors! I don’t need this.”
“O.K., O.K.,” Emile tried getting her attention. “Not to worry. No worries, just tell me what you know. What do you know, Edna?”
She looked at him with authority, “Geraldo, I know people.”
He centered on her face.
“It’s people—they don’t need love anymore, they just need to survive. That’s why I’m here. It’s not a matter of love. Today’s topic: ‘Convenience, Not Love’.”
“You caused an accident,” Emile interrupted. “You need to be safe.”
“Don’t you tell me safe! I lived it. Gerry … ” she paused, jutted her chin, stared at the ceiling, “You must understand that life has done its time in this body. I go through these sheets, I go through hospital after hospital, doctors and doctors, but I’m still here and these things still pass on. The house is burnt, so now my daughter has a burnt house, but it is still a house. This bed: new sheets, same bed. Do you see? See this bed?” She slammed her hand down, “Ooh! Can’t they do better than this? I think they can, but they don’t. They don’t, and I won’t—” she stretched, “So, can I smoke during this?”
If she was addressing Emile, he didn’t notice. He was caught by the way she looked around, as if seeing ghosts, watching every bit of lint in the air. She looked at the camera, “Now, I remember.”
Sliding herself from the bed, she went to a lamp hanging from the ceiling near the window, and she went to it, pulling the cord up and down, the light going on and off, while she looked around the shade. “Let’s see. Hmm. Somewhere … ” She pulled once more and the light came on, even though there was enough coming through the window, she left the light on. She turned her head to the camera, toward Emile, and still holding the cord, “Yes!” she said.
Walking to a landscape print painting on the wall, her feet scraped the floor, dragged a pile of crumpled yellow notes ahead of them and under them. Behind the painting was a pack of Carltons. “Ah, yes!” She was happy. On the edge of the bed, she lit one cigarette with a match she had drawn out of a pocket in her gown. She lit it, the match, and let it fall to the ground still smoking. “Mmm, Ah yes, my daughter.” She stared out the window. “It’s a beautiful house she has. Have you seen it? Beautiful, you know. I can’t exactly recall,” she dragged once more on the cigarette. “I was in bed,” her hand moved away from her mouth, and she set it on the bed, leaning on it. “It’s just my memory. I don’t remember.” She pulled a note off of her shoulder.
The cigarette, pointing decidedly from her hand, was no longer lit.
“It was about this time though. This time of the day,” she yawned. “There was a bunch of kids outside, throwing bricks or something. I just wanted to take a nap, and they were making all this noise. The sun wasn’t out, exactly, but then there was this smoke.”
Smoke was surrounding her head as she delivered the details, sputtering out words with bits of spit. “Yeah, that’s when the smoke came.” But, the cigarette was no longer lit. The smoke carried up from the side of the bed where the tip had fallen, lighting some papers on the floor. She saw this and started laughing, some smoke had gotten in the shot and there was a trickle rising out of her nose.
“Yeah, the smoke!” She was pointing at it, “See, see the smoke, here it is. Ha! I told you about the smoke!” Emile was looking for the blue button near the head of the bed. Smoke was coming from her slippers and ash was in the air. She had proved herself.
Late at work, Emile watched the tape of Edna, making sure all of the equipment was properly hooked up. He wasn’t feeling well. While piles of colored cable surrounded him, he considered taking the next day off. The screen was showing the part where Edna pulled the lampcord up and down, on and off—her overexposed face being most of the picture, over and over.
He was the only one in the office with every fluorescent light in every room turned on. The brightness was supposed to keep him awake, but instead he found the glow soaking through every thing in the office. It sucked up air and crowded the space. He felt his lungs sucking in light, and Edna’s face was pressing through the screen, blowing smoke.
“Air. I need more air.”
Emile drove with all the windows down in the cold air; the battering wind sound came from all sides. His beaten, beige Plymouth Duster was not a conspicuous car. People on the sidewalks didn’t look to watch him drive by, police usually didn’t bother him, it took regular gas, and it moved slowly. When Emile finally calmed, he pulled into the nearest parking lot, the one at the hospital. An enormous wall of pink concrete inscribed with windows was towering over the lot and he could only imagine how many rooms it must have. Most of the rooms were dark, some flickered with television light as if lit by candles. Some were fully lit, people moving around in them, working and fawning over patients, passing shadows.
“Patients,” he thought. “Draining away slowly.” A mist rose from nearby car exhaust and filled the scene. It was an eerie scene with the parking lot almost silent, but his thoughts weren’t morbid, really, just thoughts. He didn’t think of mangled bodies, or blood; he thought of a slow drowning, no strength to keep the air from compacting his body. No thoughts his own thoughts, but the feeling still strong. He could hear a faint noise, a knocking, some construction to the building, and he saw forms moving across the massive body of the hospital. People were walking in orange suits. “Tick … tick … ” and he was aware that all these things were around him, surrounded by three walls.
And, he was aware that it was getting late; he was tired and he’d soon have to pay for parking.
The office was buzzing. Morning traffic was heavier than usual; so to make up for lost time, much of the staff was working fast. The smell of coffee and perfume swept through the office, feet pounded the carpet, voices and coughing were trapped in the small space, and the various copying machines and computers all ran loud. Wendy sat typing while on the phone, and Emile had isolated himself in the conference room with some of his equipment.
He was trying to order all of the cables and wires with the proper plugs. He taped and labeled, “blue cable IN … blue cable OUT … AUX thru … ” he began mumbling as he worked, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Wendy was passing back and forth, carrying papers, asking questions, gathering signatures. Once she passed the conference room and waved at Emile. She could hear pieces of what he was saying through the hall, “green cable for audio … audio for sound … screen for viewing … ”
“Air … ”
He put a piece of tape on the monitor where it said “TV ON.” He wrote his initials, “E.G. ON.”
He continued mumbling, “Jimmy Grimaldi … ” he said. It didn’t make much sense to her. She knew no Jimmy. When Wendy passed the room again, Emile had come out, and she handed him a paper. “I need ten of these,” she said. Through the doors, she saw that the windows were open, it was cold, but he kept pulling at his collar.
“Fine,” he said, “Fine, ten. Good.” The paper shook in his hand.
Someone had smudged the copier. A wide fingerprint smeared across the text as Emile inspected ten copies of a legal document. Each one had the faint image of a wide finger on it. But, there were no lines; the fingerprint had no lines in it. He looked at all ten, they were all the same. Exactly the same. “How could they be?” he thought.
On his way out the door, he passed Wendy’s desk. “Bye,” he said. She thought she heard him say something else, too, but he was gone before she could get his attention.
The doors to the conference room were shut. As she approached them, she noticed and picked a bit of tape off of one of the brass knobs. “Turn counter-clockwise and PUSH,” it said. Voices were coming from the rest of the office:
“I’d love to help you … ”
“Hot is always on the left side … ”
“It doesn’t take a genius … ”
“Responsibility?” Someone said.
Wendy plugged in the VCR, and it started to hum. The room was covered in bits of tape and paper with words and letters all over them. Labels clothed the stack of equipment whose long torso rested on aluminum legs and was topped by two blue screens. A dozen cable tentacles wrapped around in spirals. A picture came on the screen, and she stared as the room filled with colored lights.
Next door Andrew Barnett told a musician client that you can’t copyright something as vague as “four-beats-per-measure,” but if you make four-beats-per-measure with an instrument, then you can try copyrighting it. It’s the way the law works. “It’s not the idea,” he said, “It’s what you do with it.”