"It wasn’t too hard to imagine the motherless boys going a little wild in a place like that, haunted by a sad family past"
My only job that day was to be in the Dehaine house while the appraiser was there. After three lawyers, two guardians, a well-meaning uncle, a priest, and a private investigator, I was pretty sure the Dehaine kids had little to fear from an appraiser alone in their house. But my boss Mary Ann made me go. To the family, Mary Ann said, I represented the watchful eye that the bank was bringing to bear on their rapidly dwindling trust.
But that was a joke, because I wasn’t really a banker. I was a writer, but I didn’t know how to go about making a living that way, so I never told anyone. And after two years of graduate school, I’d recently had to ask my Jesuit uncle to find me a job. Now, I answered the phone and typed letters at this admittedly venerable financial institution whose president served on his university board of trustees. Legend had it that this imperious man, the bank president, did not allow his employees to read in the bank cafeteria because he considered it antisocial. This was so petty I didn’t believe it at first, and I did my best to tune out the soap operas on the TV in the lounge while I sat with my book. But then someone I didn’t know took the trouble to warn me that he had been personally known to enforce it, so after that, I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the downtown Grand Avenue mall. Every day, I pulled back my long hair and put on some iteration of the two plain suits and three blouses my mother had bought me for work. But I still felt like an impostor; and though I believed that my present job was beneath me—after all, I did have a master’s degree--at least once a week, I had that sick feeling you get when you’ve done something wrong.
This was partly because the two women I worked for were badly mismatched. I preferred Mary Ann, who was actually pretty uptight; but she was the competent one, the scrupulous one. As for Pauline, with her champagne bob blowout and her St. John knit suits—well, Pauline looked the part, but she tended to let the details the auditors cared about fall through the cracks. She’d been really grateful at first to have someone like me backing her up. But some of the projects she gave me just didn’t make sense—or at least, they didn’t interest me much. And she probably knew how I felt.
Things came to a head when we got the Dehaine account. One afternoon, I heard Mary Ann speaking politely on the phone and then making suppressed little screaming sounds when she hung up. A few minutes later, she hurried around the cubicle wall, bracelets jingling, and plopped a thick file on my desk. Inside, she had taped snapshots of six rental properties and labeled each one in calligraphy with its address. We’d have to start selling them almost immediately, she said, because the attorney wanted us to sign a demand note for his thirty-thousand-dollar fee, and the trust had actually reimbursed the daughter for a three-thousand-dollar hotel bill, among other things. Mary Ann flipped abruptly back to the list that was clipped to the front and ran down it with one chipped red fingernail. “And look—the duplex on Hackett needs a new roof, and the one on Idlewild already has new plumbing that we can’t pay for.”
“Wait, what?” I blinked at the name scribbled on a small scrap of paper clipped to two blank file labels that I was expected to type: Theresa Dehaine Irrevocable Trust.
“Basically, here’s what it is, Maggie. Both parents have died, and there are three children—the youngest one is a freshman in high school. Their mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she and her husband went on a cruise together, and not long after they got back, he got sick too and actually died first.”
“Oh, how awful.”
“Yes, but it gets worse. The daughter was named personal representative and trustee, but the other kids had her removed, and now none of them are speaking to her. She lost her job”—Mary Ann started flipping through the file again— “last April, I guess.”
“Why did the other kids have her removed?”
“The trust started to bleed money, Maggie,” Mary Ann said impatiently. “She got involved with some older man, and now she’s pregnant—and she says she’s going to keep the baby. I don’t know how she thinks she’s going to support that child.”
It was the first opening Mary Ann had given me yet. I leaned over and studied her list. “Look at this,” I said, trying to catch her tone. “The older brother was reimbursed for hiring a private investigator to follow her.”
“Well, that may have been legitimate.” I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t have time to go over it any more right now,” Mary Ann said. “I have to go down and see about this tenant who had the new plumbing installed. Just read the file, Maggie. I’ve already tabbed the income and principal provisions.”
“Just read the file.” And with that, she stood up and rushed off, her high-heeled shoes clicking as she headed for the stairs.
After she left, Pauline approached my desk with a little smile and that strange condescending tone held over from her schoolteacher days. “You go ahead and take care of Mary Ann today,” she said. “I can see that she’s nervous. But tomorrow, you and I will make it up. Okay?”
“Oh, and I just wanted to mention to you. This morning when I was meeting with Mr. Buggs, that letter you typed for me wasn’t in the file.”
“I know I put it in there.” Pauline’s files were notoriously messy, and my work for her often got lost.
“Well, it wasn’t there. And it was very embarrassing.”
“I’m sorry that happened, Pauline.”
“I’ve been very patient about this, Maggie.”
“Yes, I know. It won’t happen again.”
Pauline patted my nail-bitten hand with her own soft, newly-manicured one. “I’m going to the Catholic Home,” she announced, and swept off in a cloud of Nina Ricci perfume.
With a sigh, I turned back to the snapshots of the duplexes in Mary Ann’s file. There was something genteel and attractive about each of them, especially the one on Downer Avenue where the family lived. With its leaded glass windows, crown molding, and hardwood floors, it looked like the gracious home of a professor who would invite his seminar students to a dinner party at the end of the year. It wasn’t too hard to imagine the motherless boys going a little wild in a place like that, haunted by a sad family past. Perhaps being underemployed at a bank was not the worst thing for a writer at all. I looked forward to meeting Katie Dehaine the next day.
With its beech paneling and its nineteen-fifties brocade, the executive dining room where we entertained clients was essentially empty except for the uniformed wait staff and one rich old lady who came in to have lunch with the senior vice president. Mary Ann and I usually ordered the trout almondine, even when the client had the filet; it was customary to encourage them to try the black forest cake while we ordered rainbow sherbet or contented ourselves with the chocolate-covered fruits from Harry and David in the silver bowl in the center of the table. I thought the attorney was coming when I made the reservation, so at first, there was one extra place setting. “You didn’t call my brother Todd, did you?” Katie asked anxiously.
“Oh, no, Katie, of course not,” Mary Ann reassured her, and I squirmed.
“Good, because he doesn’t know where I live right now. You don’t have to tell him, right?”
“No, Katie. I’ve marked my file so no one will accidentally give out your address.”
Katie relaxed a little and spread her napkin on her diminishing lap. She didn’t look like someone who’d lost her job for not showing up; in her black skirt and blue blazer, she looked like a new college graduate on a job interview. Her pale hair was drawn straight back, and her eyes in their turquoise-tinted contact lenses seemed to start from her face.
Mary Ann, who was wearing an outdated green shirtdress and a short string of chunky white beads, drew her chair closer to the table and leaned in toward Katie. “Are you afraid of Todd?” she asked gently. “Is that why you moved out?”
“Well, let’s just say I didn’t feel safe in the house anymore.”
“Okay. Todd was living in his own place when Mom got sick,” Katie began, “but after she died, he moved back in.”
“I noticed that,” Mary Ann said. “He ought to be paying some rent.”
“Yes, he should,” Katie agreed, her eyes wide, and I was sure we were about to hear a very selective version of events. I never did know why Mary Ann had picked Katie and not Todd as her main contact person. Maybe it was because Katie’s parents had chosen her first; or maybe it was simply because she was a woman.
“He’s an electrician,” Katie went on, “and he makes good money, you know? So, at first, I was kind of relieved when he moved back in. I thought he could help with expenses.” Mary Ann nodded. “But he started having parties.”
“What kind of parties? Were there drugs?”
“I mean, I wasn’t usually there,” Katie said, looking vague, “but the police had the house under surveillance. Todd thinks I was the one who called them, but it wasn’t me.”
“Was he dealing?”
“We don’t know. He was never arrested. But there were all these underage kids there, drinking and driving home every night—I was afraid one of them would get hurt, and then the trust would get sued. Not to mention what a bad influence it was on Brian.”
“I thought Brian lived with your aunt.”
“He did, but after a while, I wanted him to come back. I thought he should be with us.” Mary Ann was carefully correcting the address in her file, so she almost didn’t hear what Katie said next. “And so, everybody blamed me when Brian stopped going to school.”
Mary Ann’s head snapped up. “Brian stopped going to school?”
“Yeah, but he’s only fourteen, so they were able to make him go again. That was totally Todd’s fault—his skipping. If I hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened.” She paused. “Todd’s really turned him against me. Brian actually called me a bitch when I tried to have Todd evicted.”
I reacted to this in spite of myself; I hadn’t expected Mary Ann to ask all of these personal questions.
But Katie didn’t seem to mind. “We were so close before all this happened,” she went on, wiping her eyes. “When Brian was little and he would get hurt or something he always wanted me, even more than Mom.”
“Then I’m sure things will settle down,” Mary Ann said.
“I don’t know. We had this huge fight. Todd called me some things in front of Brian, and said some things that are absolutely untrue—”
“And it was after this fight that you moved to the hotel?”
“Right.” Katie looked anxious; I’m sure she saw what was coming.
“You couldn’t go to your aunt?”
“Well, it was complicated. Everyone took Todd’s side.”
“Maybe a friend, then?”
“It was just so hard, Mary Ann—I didn’t think I could endanger someone else.”
“All right, Katie. But you do understand that you’ll have to pay that money back.”
“Yeah, my aunt already talked to me about that when she went through the bills. I guess I’ll have to use the rest of my 401(k). But it doesn’t seem fair. I wasn’t the one partying and trashing the place.” Katie spread her hands and smiled a humorless smile. “You know, Mary Ann, my parents were lax, and so nobody liked the rules I laid down. But I didn’t care what they thought. I was the one with the responsibility.”
“I know, I know,” Mary Ann said. “Just remember that it’s not all up to you anymore. Any time you need something, I’m here to help you.”
“Thanks.” We leaned back in our seats as the waitress brought our lunch. “So,” Katie asked tentatively, sawing at her filet, “what kinds of things are you going to do?”
“Well, for starters, I’m going to send Todd a letter. From now on, he pays rent. We’ll start at four hundred dollars a month.”
Katie was silent for a few moments. Finally, she asked, “will he get the same statements that I get?”
“So, he’ll see that the trust is paying my rent. Unless you’re going to cut that off too?”
“Of course not, Katie. He has a job, you don’t. We expect you to look for a job, but we’ll continue to pay your rent until you have one and get on your feet.”
Katie’s relief was palpable in that close room. Clearly, she’d been expecting a crackdown, and at least for now, she had escaped. She took a mouthful of steak. “I’ve been looking,” she said, “but it’s hard to get people to hire you when you’re pregnant.”
“You know they can’t discriminate against you for that.”
Mary Ann asked me just then to run back to her desk to get the key to the Dehaine family’s safe deposit box, and when I came back, Katie was telling Mary Ann about all the china and crystal, the collections of apothecary jars and tools and figurines and stained-glass windows and the grandfather clock in the house—and everything, she said, was worth “a few thousand dollars.” There was all this antique furniture that had never been appraised (Mary Ann’s eyebrows went up at this procedural blunder, and she wrote herself a vigorous note), and she couldn’t get in there, so they could easily sell anything they wanted. And while Todd was living rent-free in a palace, she was living in an efficiency and had to go out and buy used furniture when there was all that stuff in the house—enough to furnish two houses—that they wouldn’t let her take.
“We’ll get the appraiser in there,” Mary Ann promised soothingly. “He’s not going to sell anything now that we’re involved. But in the meantime, Katie, maybe you should write a letter to the others, try to heal your differences. After all, you have no one but each other now.”
Katie nodded, saying she was willing to do whatever it took. But I had my doubts.
When I got back to my desk, Pauline was waiting for me. “Mr. Buggs called,” she said ominously. “He never got his special distribution.”
“I’m sure I sent that out, Pauline.”
“We’ll talk about that later.” She thrust a scrap of paper at me. “I told him we’d wire the money to his account today. Here are the wire instructions.” I glanced at them—incomplete, of course. And we’d already passed the deadline for same-day wire transfers. I’d have to go down and wheedle the ladies at the blotter, and they were none too fond of me or of Pauline.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll make sure he gets it.”
“I’m going out,” Pauline said coldly. “I’d like to see you when I get back.”
When she had left, I looked at Mr. Buggs’s account; sure enough, the money had never been sent. Perhaps someone in trust operations had made a mistake. I could dig out my paperwork to prove I’d done my part, but then she’d only fault me for not following up.
Later, when I approached Pauline’s cubicle in the hope that a nice salad at Grenadier’s would have changed her mood, she asked me to meet her in a conference room. To my horror, Mary Ann was there too.
“The two of us got together to talk about how things have been going, Maggie,” Pauline began. “Lately, we’ve noticed a lot of mistakes.”
I sat there for a moment, numb. Pauline must have caught up with Mary Ann on her way out, and now she’d influenced her, too. I scanned my memory, trying to guess what Mary Ann might have against me. There was that day when she was out of the office and I wired money before a loan request was officially approved. She and I had talked about it at the time, and I promised her I would never forget to check the paperwork again. Then there was the time I was preparing checks while she was gone, and I used some incorrect tax codes that screwed up someone’s quarterly statement. Pauline had signed the checks—she didn’t catch it either.
But Mary Ann always cleared these things up right away. I didn’t think she was still mad about it. I started to speak, but Pauline wasn’t finished. “And there’s another issue. I don’t feel that you’re adequately balancing the time you give to us, Maggie,” she said. “It seems that whenever Mary Ann asks you to do something, you drop everything you have for me.”
This was absolutely unfair, but how could I say it? Most days, Pauline got almost all of my time—I was always trying to fix her incorrectly booked assets or straighten out the intuitive math of her distribution schedules. Hell, Pauline never did anything but visit the old ladies in nursing homes—and they certainly weren’t going anywhere. Besides, didn’t they ever talk to each other about who needed what done?
“Well, Mary Ann does have this new account,” I began.
“We’ve come up with a system,” Pauline said. “We’re going to have you keep track of your hours every week. Now, I know there are always interruptions and surprises. But we don’t think it’s unreasonable for you to give each of us eighteen out of the forty. If either of us doesn’t get the full eighteen, you’ll have to make it up.”
This was never going to work--it was only a way for Pauline to trap me. I looked over at Mary Ann in mute appeal, but she just nodded in apparent agreement while Pauline talked. I had always thought Mary Ann was my natural ally, since Pauline really didn’t know what she was doing. But I guess I should never assume that women won’t pull rank.
This was the state of things when, a week later, I sat in my beat-up Toyota outside the Dehaine house, waiting for the appraiser.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and I was grateful to be out of the office; I never thought this simple job could ever become so impossibly hard. The time sheet Pauline had designed was killing me. It was already Thursday, and so far, I had only ten hours for Pauline and eight for Mary Ann, thought I had been at work every day and eaten lunch at my desk. These two hours at the Dehaine house would go into Mary Ann’s column, of course, but I had brought along a file of Pauline’s, too—I was supposed to draft a complicated letter to an unhappy beneficiary on a matter that had been mishandled months back when his mother had died. Maybe I could get an hour’s double credit while Pauline scampered off for today’s Catholic Home visit.
I tried not to think about Pauline, though. Instead, I looked up at the graceful old Downer Avenue house. It was a large Tudor built of stucco and Lannon stone, with trim painted the color of old copper. The lawn, in mid-summer, was green and only slightly overgrown. There were morning glories climbing an arched trellis that screened the side door, and roses beyond that.
Despite my skepticism about Katie, this house had engendered a strange nostalgia in me. It was a mix of things—the idea of the dead parents who’d built their nest egg with graceful old houses on the East Side, a dream that would soon be dismantled when we had to sell them all; and the young man who’d driven his sister away, throwing all-night parties in the midst of his mother’s antiques. He would not be here today, of course. None of the children would be here while the appraiser went through; there would only be me. And I was eager to see where all of that drama took place.
Soon, a Ford Taurus station wagon shot by me on its way to park alongside the curb, and a woman got out. “Claudia Shanahan,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Oh, that’s quite all right.” Claudia was short and a little heavy, with bangs and large glasses with red plastic frames. She was wearing an expensive multi-colored cotton sweater, voluminous denim skirt, thick tights and soft moccasins. I soon gathered that her work at the Dehaine house was not her main errand that afternoon. “What a lovely house,” she said as I struggled with a key that didn’t seem to fit. “I don’t get over to the East Side that often, and there are so many beautiful homes here. Say, do you know if Sendik’s is still here on Downer?”
“Sure. It’s about half a mile that way.” I pointed.
“Good. We’re having some company for dinner tonight, and I wanted to get some strawberries, maybe some fresh bread—you know, a few nice things.”
“They have a really nice bakery.”
“Do they? Oh, good. We live in Brookfield, you know, and for so long I had kids to pick up from school at different times, and I just never seemed to get out here.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Five, but they’re all grown. Say, maybe we should try the back door.”
She was correct. The door opened, and we climbed a flight of stairs flooded with sunlight from a window above. It was hot and stuffy in here; Katie had told us that the dog had been sick in the basement. I tried to decide if there was a smell.
“Oh, isn’t this nice,” Claudia said as we stepped into the kitchen at the top of the stairs. There was a breakfast nook with built-in benches, and painted white cabinets with leaded glass doors. There were even plants in the window--the jade and the ivy trailed some dead leaves, but clearly, someone was watering them. The old dog, a schnauzer mix, barely stirred when we came in.
“Oh, Maggie, look at this table!” Claudia called out from the dining room. “This is certainly a valuable piece.” I smiled to myself. Claudia made it seem as though she and I were here to explore a good estate sale before anyone else had bought anything. When I walked into the room, she was kneeling on the floor. “Look at the carving on this,” she said. “It’s probably English, certainly made before the Civil War. We’ll have to see what condition it’s in, though. It looks as though it may have been refinished, which can diminish the value.” Claudia crawled under the table to look at the pedestals while I glanced around. The doorjambs and moldings in here had a dark finish; I noticed a musty smell, a little like Chapstick. There were curtain rods at the windows, but no curtains.
I sat down at the same dining room table to work. A window over my left shoulder was open; a woman next door was hanging up laundry. On the floor in the corner beside me was a basket of clothes. There was something endearing about it--clearly, no one had thought it necessary to put it away on our account.
How strange it was to be here when no one was home. I looked at the family pictures spread out on a large secretary directly opposite me. There was a high-school portrait of Katie with bangs and fluffy hair and braces, but I didn’t see corresponding pictures of Brian or Todd. There was a picture of them at Disneyland, though, standing in cutouts so that they looked like pirates. The pictures were old, maybe ten years old, and they had probably been there since they were taken. There was also a hand-tinted black-and-white portrait of Theresa herself. Her light brown hair was parted in the center and curved over her cheekbones.
I opened Pauline’s file and combed through the loose papers, half-hoping some incriminating note would slip out—maybe even some buried letter about a threatened lawsuit that nobody knew about. But of course, there was nothing. I opened my laptop and pulled up the draft of my letter. Every once in a while, Claudia would start talking—whether to herself or to me, I wasn’t sure. Just now she was standing over some large cardboard boxes, one that said dishwasher and another that said microwave. “I assume these are new,” Claudia said. “I don’t suppose they have receipts for them, though, so I’ll look up the retail. I wonder why they put this grandfather clock over here?” She was clearly in her element, wondering about every little knick-knack, evaluating even the junk that people picked up on vacations, the ashtrays and paperweights and nesting dolls. At this rate, I thought, we would be here all night.
Claudia drifted back into the dining room to evaluate a piece that hung on a chain in the window. “Now, Maggie, what would you call this?”
I looked up. “Oh, I don’t know—stained glass window?”
“Yes, but that makes it sound as though it’s part of the house. I guess I’ll call it ‘art glass.’” She got out her tape measure.
“Sure, that sounds good.”
“It’s really lovely,” Claudia said, “but I don’t know what to call it.”
“It looks kind of medieval,” I offered.
“Yes! That’s a good way of putting it. ‘Medieval-style art glass, twenty-two by fifteen.’”
I couldn’t believe Claudia was actually writing down what I’d said. I began to enjoy myself, sitting there in a pleasant room with a pleasant breeze, writing my letter without the usual interruptions. Despite the boxes and the laundry and the strange smell, I felt quite at home here. It was one of the calmest afternoons I’d spent since coming to work at the bank. The house itself reminded me of my landlady’s place, dark and ordinary. You had a sort of terrible intimacy with the people who managed the apartments you lived in. When you needed them to fix your toilet you had to visit them at home, where they might be smoking or ironing shirts.
And yet, beneath the hodgepodge of furniture—no, it certainly wasn’t antique, I thought, suddenly and for the first time feeling sorry for Katie, whose idea of her lost parents was no doubt caught up in this stuff—there was a sort of underlying intelligence, a dream of what life could be. I knew I was right when Claudia discovered Theresa’s china with the wide Carolina blue rim hidden away in the lower cabinet of the secretary. She turned over one of the plates. “They’re Haviland,” she said, “made in New York, but Haviland.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded elegant.
I got up then and walked into the living room with Claudia. How strange that I had ever planned to do work here when I might have been following her around looking at things. The couch, sagging, white, printed with flowers, was blocking the fireplace; it had been moved to face the TV, which had a game system attached. There was a newly unwrapped box on the floor that said “Gap,” and I remembered that Katie had said she’d brought Brian a birthday present.
These boys, I thought, didn’t look so dangerous. They were living as though they had awakened one morning to find a note from their parents saying they’d gone to Bermuda. Surely, they’d been bewildered at first, unwilling to believe they were really alone. They’d told each other it was just a joke--Mom and Dad would be back tonight, just as they always were. But as the weeks went by and no word came, they had begun to enjoy it, rearranging the furniture to suit themselves, even buying new things with the money they’d found in the trust account Mom had left for them.
It couldn’t be much fun anymore, I supposed. I pictured Todd buckling down, buying apples and cereal and milk because kids needed these things. I imagined pork roasts ambitiously purchased and now languishing behind the ice cream in the back of the freezer, covered with frost.
“I wonder what that is?” Claudia remarked, pointing to a triangular box on the mantelpiece.
“Isn’t that interesting,” I agreed. “Maybe a clock?”
“Oh, I’ll bet you’re right. Something they picked up on a trip, maybe.” For some reason, she didn’t open the box right away. She was distracted, I suppose, by a pair of Chinese candlesticks that stood alongside it, and we didn’t come back to it for another hour.
Yes, I thought, I liked Claudia. It was very restful, being with her instead of Pauline or Mary Ann. I wouldn’t have minded having a job like hers someday, though I could see that she never could have afforded to do it without her husband’s income. Claudia probably couldn’t discuss the stock market or health care or politics; only a responsible job gave you authority on those things, and so far, I didn’t know many women who had it. We were always on edge at the bank, waiting for some client to ask us a question we couldn’t answer, or for some new expectation to be placed on us that we didn’t quite know how to handle.
But Claudia didn’t seem to have these worries. How I would love the freedom she seemed to have, the pleasant preoccupations. It was such a beautiful day. I wished I were the one stopping off on my way home for fresh bread and strawberries, instead of going back to the office with my unfinished letter to face Pauline.
Claudia was examining an old chair. “Reupholstered,” she said, tipping it up on its front legs. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I have a chair similar to this on my sun porch. I picked up some fabric a few weeks ago—I’ve been meaning to redo it.”
“You know how to reupholster furniture?”
“Oh, sure. I’ve done a lot of sewing. I made all my own curtains. It’s time for some new ones, though. You know how you just get sick of looking at things after a while.”
We were silent for a few moments. “You know,” I said at last, “I would love to live in a place like this and furnish it with all kinds of second-hand pieces. But I never seem to find anything good.”
“Oh, you really have to shop,” Claudia agreed. “When my kids were little, I dragged them to sales all the time. I remember the day I found the hutch in my kitchen. I was so thrilled. I bought it on the spot, and then I had to wait all day for my husband to get over there and pick it up for me. I was so afraid the guy would just sell it again and I’d be out.”
“Well,” I said, “someday, I’ll have the money to do that.”
“Oh, you’ve started in a good job,” Claudia said with a smile. “What do you do when you’re not sitting around in old houses with appraisers?”
I started to tell her; maybe here, I thought, was someone whom I could tell. “Well, actually, I’ve always wanted to--”
But at that moment, Claudia took down the triangular box from the mantelpiece and opened it. Inside was a folded American flag.
“Oh, of course,” she said, closing it up again. She did not write anything down for it.
Claudia and I talked very little after that. Perhaps we both felt foolish for not recognizing immediately what the box might be, for thinking that there might be some treasure, some mystery hidden inside. It was as though we’d been saving it for last, like the biggest present under the Christmas tree. But there was a grief here that we couldn’t penetrate; and this flag, its honoree draped in a cloak of privacy as the casket had once been draped, seemed to warn us both off. And after spending two hours in the living room poring over every little thing until I thought she’d be all night finishing the house, Claudia went through the kitchen and bedrooms in about twenty minutes and was ready to go.
As I locked up the house, I thought of Mary Ann in her outdated dress asking Katie Dehaine all those personal questions; I thought of Pauline, fluttering away her afternoons at the bedsides of grateful old ladies. They had both seemed so wrong to me—unprofessional, perhaps, as though in some basic way, they each failed to understand what was expected of them in their jobs.
But maybe they had good reasons for the things they did, and it was I who did not understand. After all, my only reason for being in the Dehaine house today had been to protect the family’s interest while this sad task of arbitration between siblings went forward. I had been placed in a position of trust; and somehow, I felt like I’d broken that trust. This job that was supposed to have been too easy for me was becoming untenable now. Whatever I did, I couldn’t make anyone happy; I couldn’t even read a book in the bank cafeteria on my own time. I felt like that tenant who’d had the new plumbing installed in one of those graceful old houses in Mary Ann’s file, only to find that the trust couldn’t pay for improvements. I probably ought to start looking for some other job before they put me out on the street.
On my way back to the office, I wondered what unpleasant assignments Pauline had piled on my chair while I was gone, what new humiliation she had in store. But of course, Pauline had been at the nursing home all afternoon. In my report to Mary Ann, I implied that the Dehaine house was basically full of junk—that Katie had really misled us when she described all those valuable antiques. But I couldn’t help thinking about the way Theresa Dehaine had left that apartment in the midst of her life, where her furniture could tell me almost nothing about her—where she could never have possibly imagined that I could ever be. And then I went back to my desk and finished my letter.
I stayed a bit late, and at five-fifteen, the manager called me into his office. He looked very grave, which was unlike him; he was a tall, overweight man with blue eyes and, under his red-striped tie, he wore a brilliant white shirt. I faced him across his desk, too nervous to speak. Surely, Pauline had spoken to him about me; surely, he knew I was floundering in this job I neither wanted nor understood. He looked at me as though I were an indifferent high-school friend of his daughter’s whom he’d tried to help. Then he looked down at his desk, and I braced myself.
But he had a very different dilemma in mind, and another way out; and a new sort of gloom settled over me now as I saw what it was. “I hope you’re ready for a new opportunity, Maggie,” he said with a sigh. “Pauline has resigned.”
Joan Bauer holds a master’s degree in English and has worked as a trust officer in a bank. Her work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Heart of Flesh, and Tiny Molecules (Observations). She is currently querying a novel that was longlisted for the 2022 Virginia Prize for Fiction sponsored by Aurora Metro Books.