Chapter 9

Intransigence

Tuesday, August 2

Bobbi lay on the sofa, waiting for the alarm. Wide awake now, she slipped off to sleep soon after talking to Chuck last night. It reminded her of dating Chuck in college. He called every Monday and Thursday evening, always after eleven when the rates went down so they could talk longer. His voice sounded just like that Chuck, the Chuck who was crazy about her, the Chuck she fell in love with.
Rita didn’t believe that Chuck existed anymore. Bobbi hated fighting with her sister, but dinner was the right thing to do, not just for Joel. Brad needed to deal with his anger, and facing his dad would be the first step, although she’d need a minor miracle for Brad to see that.
She switched the alarm clock off before it had a chance to buzz and grabbed her clothes from the laundry basket. Whispering a blessing on the one who decided to put a shower in the downstairs bath, she got ready for the day. Twenty minutes later, she sat nursing her first cup of coffee when Brad came in the kitchen.
“Morning, Brad,” she said, teasing her night owl son. “Does the coach understand how much you love football? That you wake up early for it?”
Brad grunted and shook his head, then opened the refrigerator. He pulled the orange juice out, and gathered four granola bars.
“Breakfast of champions?”
“I’m not real hungry, but I figure it’s this, or throw up or something at practice. It’s just conditioning this week. I’ll be fine.” Then he grinned. “Next week, however, I’ll be needing a full, home-cooked breakfast. You know eggs, pancakes, the works.”
“Will I get to meet the cook you’ve hired for this before next week?” Brad rolled his eyes at her. “Get your stuff, then come and sit down. I need to talk to you.”
“You know, the last time you needed to talk to me, it was really bad.” He slouched in the corner chair.
“Brad, I invited your dad for dinner this evening.”
“What?” He snapped up in his seat. “Did he talk you into this? Or was it Pastor Phil’s idea?”
“It was my idea. You can’t hide from him the rest of your life.”
“It’s not hiding. It’s refusing to associate with him.”
Bobbi leaned across the table. “I am not divorcing your father, so you and I need to figure out a way to deal with what he’s done.”
“You can’t let him get away with this! He can’t waltz back in here like nothing happened. I won’t let him.”
“Wait just a minute. I’m not asking for your permission. I’m telling you. Your father will be here for dinner. You will eat dinner with the rest of the family, and you will be civil. I don’t expect you to pretend nothing happened, but you will be respectful. Is that understood?” Brad didn’t respond. “I said, is that understood?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Brad forced the words out between his teeth. He ate his breakfast, and passed the ride to football practice in silence.
“I’ll see you at twelve-thirty,” Bobbi said as she let him out of the car. Brad gave her a half nod and slammed the car door. She watched him trudge the long sidewalk to the practice field and wished she could explain to him that she agreed with most of what he said. She heard herself in every one of his outbursts, and twenty-five years ago, she would have said the very same things.
*******
Bobbi straightened the knives, forks, and spoons at each place setting on the dining room table. Breathe. It’s just Chuck. She hadn’t been this nervous about a meal since the day Chuck took her home to meet his parents. Would he try to make his case tonight? Would he press Brad, or use Joel as leverage against her? Was she playing into Chuck’s hands by inviting him in the first place?
She called Donna Shannon after dropping Brad at football practice, desperate for reassurance. “Dinner is a beautiful step,” Donna said. “A wonderful idea.” Someone finally agreed with her.
Joel bounded into the dining room. “He’s here!”
“Let him in. I’ll get Brad.” Bobbi made it halfway up the stairs before the doorbell rang. I’ve got to tell him to stop doing that.
She knocked on Brad’s door. “It’s dinner time. Wash up.” He didn’t answer, but she heard movement, so she headed back downstairs.
Chuck stood in the entry hall and as soon as their eyes met, her reflexes took over, and she moved to kiss him. She’d already leaned in a little too close before she caught herself. “Things … are nearly ready.” She stumbled backward, then took Joel by the shoulders, and steered him between them. “Go wash up.”
“Why are we eating in the dining room?” Joel grumbled. “It’s not even a holiday.”
“Just go.” Because the kitchen is too intimate. I want some formality between us.
Chuck followed her into the kitchen and leaned against the sink. “Everything smells great,” he said.
“Thanks.” Things felt oddly out of balance with Chuck there for dinner on a weeknight, dressed in jeans and sneakers. It had been months since the four of them sat down for dinner. Since before ServMed.
Bobbi filled the plates and set them on the table, and Chuck and Joel took their seats. “Brad?” She called, then shook her head as he slipped into his chair. He’d been watching, waiting for the last possible moment. “Joel, why don’t you say grace?”
“Dear God, thank You for this food, for Mom fixing it, and for Dad being here with us. Let him be back with us all the time real soon. Amen.”
Brad kicked him under the table, but Joel took it without a word. Bobbi glared at Brad and he dropped his head and began to eat.
Flatware scraped across dishes and glasses clinked, but no one dared speak. After several uneasy minutes, Chuck laid his fork down and looked into Bobbi’s eyes. “How are preparations for school going?”
Bobbi sighed with relief. “Good. There’s plenty to do, but I think I have a good class. I have twenty-five kids, and I know most of them from either working with them or testing them.” Talk of lesson plans and orientation materials filled the dinner hour. Chuck attempted to engage Brad, but the teenager only spit out one-word replies.
After the meal, Chuck folded his napkin and laid it on his plate. “Bobbi, that was great. Brad and I will clean up.” He stood and began stacking plates.
Bobbi wanted to check for identification. Chuck never cleared a table in their entire married life. Anytime she had been ill, Chuck’s mother took care of the housework. Was this a show, or a genuine change? “Joel, come on. Let’s give them room to work.”
*******
Chuck stopped in the kitchen doorway and turned back to Brad, seething at the table. “Bring in the glasses, Son.” Brad stomped into the kitchen with the glasses and a handful of flatware. “I’m impressed, Brad. I know you didn’t want to be here.”
“What do you know?” Brad’s eyes flashed.
“I know you have a lot on your mind.” Chuck set the dishes by the sink, then faced his son. “Let me have it.”
“What?”
“Say it, Brad. Get it off your chest.”
Brad stared at him for a moment, then he spoke with an arrogant sneer. “All right, I’ll tell you what I think. You’re a lousy, no-good liar who doesn’t deserve to be in the same room with my mother, let alone be her husband! I’m ashamed to admit you’re my dad. I don’t care how many confessions you make, I’ll never forgive you.” He whipped a dishtowel across the room. “There! Are you satisfied? Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“Yeah, it is.” Chuck knelt, picked the dishtowel up, and laid it beside the stack of dishes. “Now how about this? I agree with you.” Chuck locked eyes with Brad, and only the teenager’s blinking betrayed his surprise. “I don’t blame you for being ashamed. What I did was shameful—”
“Why don’t you say it?” Brad spit out. “Or can you?”
“I committed adultery. I slept with another woman. I had sex with somebody besides your mother. I betrayed my wife. Good enough?”
Brad stood motionless, white-knuckled fists hooked on the waistband of his baggy shorts.
“Brad, if I could turn back time and undo everything, I would. Nothing is worth causing this much pain to the people I love.” Brad stepped back as Chuck got down on his knees. “Breaking my vow to be faithful to my wife was a despicable thing to do. I’m sorry I shamed and hurt you because of it.” He swallowed hard. “You’ve made your feelings on forgiveness crystal clear, and I understand. All I’m asking for is that you to help your mom heal.”
“Get up,” Brad said at last. “You look ridiculous.”
“Not yet. Your anger’s justified. It’s a man’s anger, and you deserve a man’s apology.”
“Whatever,” Brad said, with a dismissive wave. He brushed past Chuck, toward the back stairs that led from the kitchen to the hallway outside his bedroom. Before disappearing, he turned for one last word. “You’re not welcome at my football games.”
Chuck put a hand on the counter and pulled himself to his feet. Failure sapped his energy and made his body heavy. He opened the dishwasher and began rinsing the dinner dishes and placing them inside. He didn’t expect to win Brad over in one night, but he hoped for a little more progress.
Chuck never heard Bobbi come in to help him with the dishes. When she set her tea glass down, he flinched. “Did you accomplish what you set out to?” she asked.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Chuck said.
“This isn’t going to be fixed in one evening.”
“I didn’t expect to fix it.”
“But you thought you could come in and lay out your case, and convince him. That’s not going to work. He’s too emotional right now.”
“What about his mother?”
“Chuck, I can’t discuss it,” she said, turning away from him.
“We don’t have to, at least not tonight.” He closed the dishwasher and stepped toward her. “I, uh, started counseling with Phil yesterday. He gave me a lot to think about, and some things to study. I made the doctor’s appointment you wanted, and I took a six-week leave of absence to work on all this.” He paused, hoping in vain to get a response. “I love you and the boys, and I want you to know that I’m not taking this second chance lightly. I’m going to make this right.”
She never moved. At least Brad faced him. Chuck waited another uncomfortable moment before giving up. “Thank you for dinner,” he said. “I’ll, uh, let myself out.”
*******
Chuck struggled to contain his excitement on the phone. “Don’t worry, Tom. I’ll handle everything from here on out … This’ll be wrapped up by the first of August. I guarantee it … No, thank you. I’ll be in touch.” He dropped the phone onto its base and jumped out of his chair, pumping his fist. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
ServMed Insurance agreed to let him, or the firm actually, handle their end of the collective bargaining talks between the state university system and the employees’ union. ServMed would save the universities money on the coverage, but he had to reassure the union they weren’t losing anything in the deal.
A two thousand dollar-a-day deal, and he projected it would run four months. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars, and as the lead and a partner, he’d net a big chunk of that. He pulled up his proposal on the computer. He’d slated two or three attorneys. His choice.
He picked up his phone and dialed Tracy’s extension, but it rolled to voice mail. He ended the call and dialed Christine. “Yes, Mr. Molinsky?”
“Is Tracy in with a client?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Have her call me as soon as she’s free.” He turned back to his desk and started making notes and outlines, losing himself in the details.
“You wanted to see me?”
“What?” He looked up and Tracy stood in his office doorway. “Yeah, come on in, and shut the door.” He pulled a chair around for her. He tried to be patient, waiting for her to sit down. “I just got off the phone with Tom Conrad at ServMed. He wants me to represent them in the negotiations.”
“Chuck!” She reached over and squeezed his hand. “That’s fantastic. Congratulations. How long have you courted him?”
“Couple of months.”
“And you got him. I’m thrilled for you. This is major.”
“Single biggest client we’ve ever had. If we pull this off …”
“If you pull this off,” she corrected. “You’ve done this. You deserve all the credit.”
“Thanks. I told Tom this would take two or three attorneys. Would you be interested in working on this? Granted, it would be almost full time.”
“Thank you, but no.”
“Why not?” He made a conscious effort to keep his disappointment from showing.
“It’s nothing personal, Chuck. I love working with you, but I have absolutely no interest in labor law.”
“And there’s no way I can persuade you?”
She stood and smiled. “I made myself a promise long ago not to waste my time on anything that didn’t arouse my interest.” He watched her walk to his door, but her hand lingered on the knob. “Oh, I love your new car. It suits you.”
“Thanks. I’m still getting used to it.”
“Congratulations again. The old man might even smile over this one.”
He laughed and watched her walk back down the hallway toward her office. Her perfume still hung in the air, a spicy scent, so different from anything Bobbi ever wore. Things had been a little tense between them since her birthday. At least the sofa in the study was comfortable to sleep on. He sighed and started packing up his stuff.
Bobbi had to be too young for menopause, but something was going on with her. He never said the right thing. Her mood changed more often than springtime weather. If he didn’t know better, he’d say she was pregnant, but he knew better.
Maybe now, with ServMed, he could finally make her see what drove him. He created the opportunity to take the firm to a new level, to build a regional reputation. No, she wouldn’t get it. He was tempted not to mention it at all. She would minimize it, and he would get angry. At least Tracy understood. He shut down his computer and turned out the light. He did the right thing, telling Tracy first.
When he got home, he pushed the front door open. “Bobbi? Are you home?”
“Hey!” She came in from the kitchen and threw her arms around his neck. This was more like it. “I have fabulous news!”
“So do I.” He set his briefcase down. “ServMed gave me the go-ahead today. I’m going to handle their end in the bargaining this summer.”
“ServMed?”
“The insurance company. They’re going to be the provider for the university employees’ union if the union will go for it. It’s my job to make sure that happens.”
“This is the one you’ve been working on for …?”
“Months. I contacted Tom Conrad after the first of the year.”
“This is the huge one, right?”
He nodded. Huge. “Quarter of a million dollars in fees.” Her jaw dropped. Yes. “But this is gonna be my life now. I need you to understand that.”
“Just through the summer, though.”
“My plan is to be done by August first, so three and a half, four months.”
“You don’t have any help?”
“Yeah, we’ll have a team, another lawyer or two and the support people. I haven’t picked them yet.”
“You haven’t picked them? Walter’s letting you pick! It’s about time he let you make some management decisions. I don’t know why he doesn’t retire and just let you have it.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence.” He took her hand and they walked back to the kitchen. “Where are the boys?”
“Outside. Don’t you want to hear my news?”
“Of course.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the sink.
“Okay, Mary Atwater, one of our second grade teachers, announced her retirement at the end of last year, right?”
He nodded, but no, he had no idea.
“Ted offered me her spot today.” Her eyes danced. “I’m gonna have my own class!”
“Hey, that’s great.” He kissed her cheek and reached in the refrigerator for a Coke.
“That’s it?”
“What’d you expect?” And now she started.
“Chuck, this is what I’ve wanted since I started teaching. It’s like when you made partner.”
He almost spit his Coke out. “You’re not serious. Making partner in a law firm is nothing like teaching a roomful of kids.”
“No … It’s about reaching a goal.”
“You need to set your goals a little higher, Bobbi.” She dropped her arms. Now she was going to light into him.
“You are the most arrogant—”
“Stop. Let’s just stop with calling me names, all right? I had a great day, and I don’t deserve to come home to this.”
“Oh … my …” She gripped the back ofone of the kitchen chairs. “You don’t … deserve—”
“No, I don’t. You don’t have any respect for how hard I work, how much skill it takes.”
“And you refuse to recognize that anybody else ever does anything worthwhile!”
“I did not say that teaching wasn’t worthwhile. You’re extrapolating.”
“If kids don’t learn how to read and do math, they won’t grow up to be business people who need lawyers.”
“So you’re keeping me in a job? That’s rich.” He shook his head. “There’s nothing magical about teaching. Anybody could do it.”
“You’ve known since the first day we met that I wanted to teach.” She dropped her head and stared at the floor for a moment. He watched her, trying to judge whether she was finished or not. Life would be a lot easier if he let her have the last word. He sipped his Coke, trying hard not to make a sound. He suspected no one ever had to tell Tracy that she wasn’t reaching her full potential. No, they probably had to tell her to rein it in a little.
Bobbi spoke his name and brought him back to the present argument. “So Chuck, I’m through.”
“Wait! Through with what?”
“You weren’t listening!”
“Of course I was listening. I just wanted a clarification.”
“You’re lying.”
“No …”
“I’m sure someone as skilled and brilliant as you got it the first time.”

 

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