She does not wipe away the drops of spit that strike her cheek. She doesn’t move or interrupt. She knows what she’s doing. Carlyle shifts to his other hip, re-crosses his legs. Flicks at the brim of his Spiderman baseball cap with one finger. “What I’m saying is, the reason I can’t find a job is because that screw-up president trashed the economy. Were there jobs before him? Well, yes there were. Elect President Yes-We-Can, and what did we get? The man was throwing money down the toilet. My big-shot sister says so, and no way she’s wrong.” His feet are shifting, jumping, like they’re trying to get the rest of him up and out the door.
“So your family cares about politics.” Her voice requires him to stop shouting.
“You could say that.”
“And your successful sister gets all the attention?”
He fiddles with the torn fabric at his knee and laughs, but not for mirth. “She’s just like you; I bet you’re never wrong either.” His feet finally win, and he’s up. “I believe we’re out of time.” His voice mocks what he’s heard in other sessions with other therapists.
“Carlyle, I’d like you to sit down.”
“I want to see you here tomorrow morning at nine o’clock. Until we know each other better, I’m going to keep close.”
“What if I say no?”
“You’re not going to do that. And call me if you need help between now and then.” She hands him a card.
His feet stop dancing. An untethered breath, in and out. “Okay.” Then he’s back up. He glances at her, leaves, closing the door with care.
She has a haircut at nine o’clock tomorrow; she will reschedule. Carlyle’s history shows a string of suicide attempts and dumped therapists, but if she can pass his tests and dodge his traps, he’ll stick around for more than this first appointment. Her toes reach for her shoes; one’s under her chair, and the other is over by the wall. This has been happening since she was a child; shoes just don’t stay on her feet when she’s preoccupied.
Traffic is light, and driving home takes less time than she thought it might. She opens the door from garage to kitchen, and instead of smelling dinner, she hears the wooden burr of Ira’s cello. He’s forgotten. She stands in the door of his study. Nothing. He doesn’t notice until her feet are inches from his own. Silence when he looks up. He sees her expression. “Damn. I’m supposed to be in the kitchen making mushroom fettuccini, so we can get to the debate.”
“Yes you are.”
He taps the sheet music with his bow. “Brahms.”
“Fine.” He always does this. She strides to the kitchen, yanks open the refrigerator, reaches for a box of eggs, slams it to the counter. Butter, sour cream, cheese, leeks from last night. She bangs the frying pan to the stove, shatters eggs against the rim of a bowl, firing shells toward the sink. She’s married a man who’s unreliable, not to be trusted. If she were her own client, they would take a good look at why.
She feels his hands on her shoulders. Okay, she thinks. Enough. It’s only dinner, and nobody’s died. “Christ, I’m sorry,” she says. “You married a crazy woman.”
His fingers work her tense muscles. “I love my crazy woman.”
“More than your cello?”
“Don’t push it, Dr. Queene.” He hands her the opened sour cream and a spoon. “Can’t we skip tonight, watch something stupid on TV instead?”
“Are you kidding? The final debate for Senate?” She folds the omelet. “I told Tommy I’d be there. You don’t have to go.”
Dinner eaten in a rush, dishes in the sink; they leave. Alida drives. Ira asks about her day. The usual, she tells him.
She grins. “You know I can’t say.”
“I never get why not. If you tell me about Mr. Nutcase, and I don’t tell anybody, what difference does it make?”
Headlights flash across her face. “Say I tell you about some guy, some patient. Next time I see him, I would know, and by way of my knowing, he would know. Minds do that. Even if he doesn’t know that he knows.” She looks at him, smiles. “Got that?”
“I should be neutral.”
“Your clients knew when you were fighting for women’s rights. How is that neutral?”
“Okay, so I’m not perfect.”
Traffic comes to a near stop. People with signs crowd between the cars.
These two, in campaign-approved blue or red. Other signs are harder-to-read marker on flimsy cardboard.
A VOTE FOR THOMAS IS A VOTE FOR OBAMASPEND
TAX THE BILLIONAIRES
I NEED A JOB
Police on horses patrol the crowd in the streets, but only the signs are shouting.
Twenty frustrating minutes past the scheduled start of the debate, they get to the parking garage. Finally heading for the elevator, she sees a familiar face. “Tommy! You’re supposed to be inside, debating.”
“Hey, Alida. I was in the same traffic as you.”
Tommy and his team get off at a different floor, and Alida and Ira find seats in the auditorium, high enough to see over the crowd below – a mob, not unruly, but loud and tired of waiting. Her row is not too far from an exit. She’s careful about that.
Microphones squeal. The moderator of PBS fame takes his place. He persuades people to quiet and to sit. The two candidates enter from opposite sides into the spotlighted zone of combat. They shake hands and retreat to their podiums. To Alida’s left, a woman is fingering her necklace, sliding a jeweled American flag from side to side on its chain.
Alida is worried for Tommy. His poll numbers are okay now, but sinking, and trends are everything. In a dark suit and Bill-Clinton-baby-blue puffy silk tie, his hair attractively graying, he’s groomed like the senator he is. Even so, he’s got the look of someone just stopped for speeding. Cindy Lee Pickett, at the opposite podium, carries herself like the officer who has stopped him, in spite of her awkward red suit revealing unattractive knees. Alida feels a moment of sympathy for the difficulties of dressing to please.
Tommy goes first. Alida thinks he spends too long thanking people. Then, hands gripping the forward edge of the podium, he declares that This Nation Has a Problem, a crisis, and that crisis is the state of the economy. He gives the history, the statistics. He describes his solution: fewer tax loopholes, fewer deductions for the rich, curtailing the lobbyists, programs that create jobs. “Everybody deserves money, not just the rich folks.”
A shower of applause like at a tennis game. The moderator stops it with a raised hand. Oh Tommy, thinks Alida, you have to do better than that.
Cindy Lee lifts her mike and steps out from behind the podium. Alida frowns at Ira. Is that allowed? She walks to the front of the stage. “Steal from the rich and give to the poor.” She gestures to Tommy, still behind his podium. “Our very own Robin Hood.” She waves hallelujah hands. “But here’s the truth.” She whips the microphone cord behind her and strolls from one side of the stage to the other. “The truth is that the Democrats are planning the same old job-killing tactics that failed before and will fail again. Is that what we want?”
She declares that the Democrats cannot comprehend that what’s needed is less government, not more. What’s needed is to send Cindy Lee Pickett to Washington. She marches back to her podium.
Whistles from the audience, which the moderator halts.
“I wonder how many jobless people in her family?” Alida speaks to no one in particular. The woman with the flag necklace eyes her, trying not to turn her head, and murmurs to her husband. Ira captures Alida’s hand in his own and bumps it against his thigh.
The moderator begins his list of questions. Alida is impatient. Nobody’s saying anything new. Tommy introduces Lola Esperanza, a thirty-two year employee of a bank, who lost her job three years ago when the bank went under, and who’s now about to lose her house too.
Cindy Lee interrupts. “Lola is going to get back to work when, and only when, the government stops destroying jobs faster than businesses can create them.”
Tommy is annoyed. Alida understands; Lola is his. “Hang on a minute,” he says. “Both the congressional budget office and independent analysis report significant job creation figures.” He stares at the gesturing moderator. “I’m not done. I have to say my opponent’s efforts at twisting the truth are shockingly effective, but that doesn’t make them accurate.” He looks at Cindy Lee. “Your Party of No is making a hash of the democratic process. Democracy runs on truth.”
Cindy Lee breaks in. “Okay, Mr. About-to-be-Former-Senator, let me tell you exactly what we’re saying no to.” Cindy Lee strides forward. “We’re saying no to tax-and-spend.” A stabbing finger accompanies a litany of rejection. “We’re saying no to a government that is morbidly obese and shows no signs of doing anything but buying pants one size bigger. We’re saying no to the long nimble fingers of Washington reaching into our wallets and taking our money to pay for programs to help people who don’t help themselves.”
A lightning bolt of hatred, everything goes white and loud; Alida can’t think. The woman is out of control. Her message is garbage, but her style is honey-fried-chicken.
Cindy Lee begins rhythmically punching her fist into the air. “No. No. No.”
People take up the chant, a few and then more.
The moderator, too close to the mike, “I’d like to remind you …” His voice drowns in the noise. The flag lady shouts something; Alida’s not sure what. The lady’s fist is in the air.
“They think it’s a goddamned football game!” Alida shouts to Ira who has leaned close but shakes his head, pointing to one ear. The room drums with noes, the Cindy Lee half of the crowd chanting, the Tommy Thomas half wishing they were watching this on TV. Debate is supposed to be something nobler, thinks Alida. Lincoln. Douglas. Kennedy. She turns to the woman next to her. “Grow up!” she shouts. The woman leans away, continues shouting and pumping the air.
Alida feels herself lifted to her feet; Ira has his arm under hers. “My shoes.” She points. Ira dives into the mayhem. Rising, he jams her shoes into his coat pockets and pushes her toward the aisle. She comes down hard on the flag-lady’s foot. The woman stops shouting and looks at her, astonished. Alida needs to apologize, but Ira shoves until they reach the aisle and the door to the upstairs lobby. He stops only long enough for her to stuff her feet into her shoes. He steers her down the stairs and through the exit doors.
Outside, he puts one arm around her. “You okay?”
“That was unbelievable.”
“Excuse me, Alida?” A young woman is beside them. Patagonia jacket, blond hair wisping from its fastening. Her expression says that Alida is supposed to know her. The woman looks back at the door. “What’s your take on what’s happening in there?”
“My take is that there’s an idiot on the stage, pretending she’s ready to take on the US Senate. Imagine her negotiating the future of Social Security and Medicare.”
She recognizes the woman, a reporter, someone from Alida’s activist days. Tone it down. “Ellen, right? You must have seen. Tommy Thomas is an intelligent man, and Cindy Lee Pickett is a bully. Her lies and platitudes made the debate into a brawl.” Ellen’s writing; Ira’s pushing. Alida can only shout a farewell.
“Was I that bad?” They’re in the up elevator.
“You were getting that bad, and I didn’t want you to get worse.”
“I suppose I appreciate that. Poor Tommy.” She digs for her keys in her purse. “Truth doesn’t matter anymore.”
“It’s a different kind of truth. We better get used to it.”
“Will that woman win? Is that who will be running the Senate?” Alida’s voice is rising.
She sees that he’s got that look; her anger upsets him. “I mean it, Ira.”
“I know you do, and I’m doing what I can. Who rescued your shoes from the gum wrappers and popcorn?”
A smile from Alida. “Is there a point?”
“Just that someday I’m not going to be there to pick up your shoes.”
“What does that mean?”
“And you and your anger are going to get yourself in trouble.”
“So you’re the therapist, now?”
He pulls her close. They step from the elevator to the rooftop of the parking garage – autumn night, air like bathwater, sky as clear as it gets in the city. No stars, but a just-past-full moon has cleared the bulk of city hall and, undeterred, carries on.
Ira is still in bed the next morning when Alida wanders into the kitchen to get coffee. Somebody at nine. Carlyle. If he shows. He will. She’s sure.
She steps outside for the paper, drops it on the table. “Debate Turns to Mêlée.” Photo of an avenging Cindy Lee. That’s not going to help Tommy’s campaign. Well, with luck, it won’t help the other side either. She opens the folded paper and, near the bottom of the page, stares into her own eyes.
The headline, “Lies and Platitudes.” A close-up from the paper’s files. She reads, “Psychiatrist and women’s rights advocate Alida Queene is not on the fence about Pickett…” Alida smiles, but front-page publicity is not what her practice needs. Her clients will see this. So much for being neutral.
She got through the women’s rights thing. It was a mess. She wasted too many sessions untangling her clients’ reactions and getting back to their own issues. One client left, saying that people like her were why this country was going to hell.
Ira will say I told you so.
She takes the paper with her when she leaves. Tucks it under one arm. Ira doesn’t need to see this until she’s there to defend herself.
She arrives at her office later than she likes. She sheds her coat and tosses the paper on the desk. The signal light is on. Carlyle is in the waiting room. She goes to get him and stands while he circles the room. He slides his hand across the leather back of the chair where he’s to sit, sees the newspaper, picks it up.
Damn. Say nothing unless he sees the article.
He doesn’t turn to the bottom of the page. He drops the paper and lurches to his seat. “Quite the scene last night.” He jerks his head toward the desk.
She’s still trying to decide whether to mention the article. He’s going to see it, one way or the other.
“I’ll get a copy. Unless you want to give me yours?” He looks provocative.
“I haven’t finished with it.” Let the discovery be his. On his own time. Not how she felt about Ira, is it? Maybe she’ll bring it up later in the session. Wait and see. Or is this about her, and she’s being chicken? She’s got to stop thinking. “Were you at the debate?”
“No, my sister told me about it.”
“What did she say?”
“For once, she didn’t make me feel like shit.”
“For once, she needed me.” He relaxes sideways into the chair.
“Tell me about it.”
“She called saying she needed a ride. She got into some kind of argument with somebody, so she called me. She was real sad on the phone. She called me Carly, like when we were kids. I drove over and picked her up. We went to my place.
“So there’s my hot-stuff sister sitting on my Salvation Army couch, drinking my beer, and we’re remembering grandma’s ranch and the time my sister left the gate open, and the thoroughbreds got out, and Grandma took a strap to her, and she ran away and hid in Stoddard’s barn, and I sneaked her a just-baked apple pie, and our brother got the blame.”
First time she’s seen her patient smile. “So you and your sister were feeling close. Why do you think she changed?”
“I don’t know … maybe she realized that family’s family? She said she’s sorry about how she’s treated me. She asked if I needed money, if I wanted a better car or a better place. I said I needed a sister more than money. We had a good cry about that. I want it to be forever, but I’m still me, and she’s still going to be better. She’s got too big a head-start to give that up.”
Alida realizes he’s got considerable insight. She’s going to be able to work with him just fine. “Last night was important.”
“Miracles happen.” Carlyle finds a scab on his elbow and picks at it. “She said she had a hell of a good time at the debate.”
“She was there?”
Carlyle looks at her like she’s stupid. “Of course she was there.”
What’s he saying?
“She whupped that Tommy guy’s ass. Cindy Lee believes in winning.”
Alida can’t face him. She has to look away, look down. Her navy suede pumps lie side by side, as if headed for the door. On one shoe the heel has broken loose, folding toward the toe, the space between the back of the shoe and the heel gaping wide like the grin of a loose-lips, jabbering fool.
She stands, walks to her desk, picks up the paper. She holds it out to him.
He frowns, takes the paper.
“At the bottom of the page.”
He flips the paper, shows surprise when he sees her photo. Looks up at her and back at the paper. She returns to her chair, waits.
“What the fuck?” He reads more. Glares at her, pushes the paper from his lap. Pages flutter and crumple.
She leans forward. “I made a terrible mistake. I’m sorry. I had no right to say those things about your sister.”
“Goddamn right.” He stands and goes as far as the window. Turns. His face is livid, nostrils wide. His hands are fists.
Alida knows what’s happening.
He is confused. Angry. Dangerous. What she said to the reporter was inexcusable in his eyes, but her apology, her weakness, is worse. He needs her to be strong. And it’s critical she stay with his feelings, not her own. The empress has no shoes, and she’s expecting him to forgive her. Unpardonable self-indulgence. She is alone, and she has failed, and for his sake she must pretend she has not. She’s got to try. She glances at his sneakers, still tied and on his feet, and starts over. “I need you to sit down, Carlyle, and tell me, from the beginning, about you and your sister.”
Author’s Comment: I wrote this story in 2011 as we were approaching Barack Obama’s reelection, and I made changes over the years as the political scene evolved. It was then (and is now) a story about how feeling helpless can result in unthinking hatred. In the life she has built for herself, Alida is always right, and this time she pays a price for it. I can’t think Alida would have an easier time of it now.