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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 26


After I filled out paperwork in Chief York's office, I said good-bye and thanked her.

She nodded to her door, which was open a crack, allowing us a sliver view of Ann in the lobby. "I might have listened better had I known you kept such top-notch company. I thought I recognized her name when you said it. I've seen Ms. Berlin get children out of abusive situations. I wish more lawyers were like her."

Ann was sitting on a wooden bench, reading a book as if she'd always been there. Her posture was breathtaking. I watched her, wanting to keep the portrait forever. One day in the future, because I loved her, I would unveil it for her.

When our eyes met, she rose gracefully, closing the book without marking her place. I was something out of the Three Stooges--nine or ten people stood between us, and I left footprints on maybe six of them.

Without my customary restraint, I gathered her into my arms.

"Thanks for being here."

We held each other around the waist and locked eyes. Ann smiled. Gradually, I looked at the other people.

Dominating the east end of the lobby were Chas and Petey. Chas stepped forward and hugged me. I felt as if I were being rolled up in a king size feather mattress.

"Did you know your great aunt was back in town?" I said.

He looked confused. "Aunt Edith? Edith is back?" I gave him the address. He ran out with Petey, almost knocking Corky down.

Corky's arm was looped through Dudley's, her hair looked as if she'd sprayed it with Easy-Off and beat it into place with the Wall Street Journal.

"Hi." Her eyes, bright with merriment, as usual told more than did her words.

Dudley said, "Bill and I teamed up and retrieved the rabbit test procedures."

My mouth dropped open.

"When?"

"An hour before the liberation kicked off."

"Why did you break rank?"

Bill was standing behind Richard who was in a wheelchair.

"On Mr. Terrig's hunt I made some friends. I was talking with one just before the Laurel mission. He'd heard Lester was guarding Laurel. So Dudley and I devised a reconnaissance mission and quickly executed it."

"How'd you slip past Lester?"

Bill raised his baseball cap to me. His head was shaved, recklessly, as if he'd used a dull cheese grater.

"I knocked on the side door of Laurel. When Lester answered, I dangled a 6-pack of Body Slam Malt Liquor just out of his reach while I spewed long Biblical passages."

As only you can, brother Bill.

"While Bill preached at the side door," Dudley said, "I used the A.L.F.'s key to the front door. I found a file cabinet marked 'Test Procedures' and carted out eight boxes of files. Since I didn't know if they contained the incriminating procedures, I didn't tell anyone. I took the boxes to Corky."

Bill said, "I delivered the last van to Laurel, then climbed onto a nearby roof to scout for police. When Laurel's burglar alarm sounded and the police came, I dropped Corky's 'screaming for help' tape into a trash bin."

I threw a mental bouquet to my brother.

"Dudley and I searched through the boxes of files," Corky said. "When we found the test procedures I was so happy, I started crying. I wasn't conscious of Dudley embracing me until I felt him weeping on my neck."

Dudley's strong chiseled features blushed cherry blossom pink.

Corky continued, "Before I knew it we were laughing. We've been together ever since."

Bill stood next to Mr. and Mrs. Terrig.

"Bill," I said, "you made friends on the hunt?"

"You bet. Mr. Terrig didn't go, but fifteen others did. I told jokes and kept everyone laughing while we hiked through the woods. I shot five-hundred rounds into dead tree stumps. Wore a strong cologne and blew a warning whistle only animals would hear. After sixteen hours nobody had killed anything, but the Rednecks invited me back, promising they would do better next time."

"The Terrigs called everyone here to make amends," Ann said. "Besides, they had a vested interest in your arrest. They guaranteed the bail money."

Everyone seemed to think my expression was sidesplitting.

"I'm so glad you're all right," Mrs. Terrig said.

Beezil shook my hand. "I apologize for blaming you for Kristin's death. I guess I needed to blame someone other than myself. I want everyone to know that the Terrig Corporation will no longer be testing products on animals. To honor Kristin's memory, and because after reading all she wrote, I appreciate that all animals, human or not, feel the whip, fight the chain, and grieve for their loved ones."

Mrs. Terrig held out her arms to include us all. "You're all invited to our home for a midnight snack."

Even the receptionist, studying the finish on her perfect manicure, promised to be there.

Bill rolled Richard's wheelchair forward. I put my hand on Richard's shoulder. "You look great. But you sure had us worried, you know that?"

"You were worried? One time I woke up and heard a doctor say, 'Where's my lucky scalpel? These gunshot wounds in the groin can be a very serious thing.' I passed out again."

"Where's Hoover?" Ann asked.

"At Dr. Dean's," I said. "Let's go."

* * *

The interior of the cab was warm and smoky and smelled of vomit and pine-scented disinfectant. The plastic barrier between the front and back seats was halfway open. The meter read $3.75. Mounted on the dashboard was a black-and-white mug shot of the cabby.

Hoover, his nose out the right-hand window, was busy enjoying his release from Dr. Dean's.

"His side is swollen," Ann said, "but he doesn't seem to be in pain." She softly punched my shoulder. "You, however, look ghastly. You feeling okay?"

I stroked Hoover's head. "When I sent him to obedience school, he liked it. Now he actually enjoys being tied up and whipped."

"Can't you ever give me a straight answer? Do you have to make fun of everything?"

I shifted in the seat. "Sometime I'll give you my widely-acclaimed lecture on 'How to make fun of income taxes, cancer, and drive-by shootings.'"

Ann turned her head to the window.

The cabby spoke up, "Psychologists maintain that people use humor to avoid dealing with feelings. It's a defense to conceal their emotional vulnerability."

"Really? And how do you suppose psychologists test these theories? Teach lab rats to tell jokes? Dress them in funny little rat-sized clown suits?"

In the reflection of Ann's face in the window I was hoping to see a smile. What I saw was enough anger in her eyes to make them snap.

"It's unhealthy to hold feelings inside," the cabby said.

I've always wondered what happened to those Ph.D.s in psychology.

"Holding feelings inside creates stress," Ann said and glanced in the rearview mirror at the cabby, who gave her a quick nod of agreement.

Then it started. First Ann attacked me, then the cabby attacked me. Even in the brief silences, they somehow remained united. They assured me that I'd be healthier if I expressed more of my feelings.

"Phhhht!" I expressed. "I know I was here, but when, exactly, did this turn into my own personal roast?"

They looked at each other. "That comment is exactly like him," Ann said.

The cabby agreed, adding that "phhhht" didn't count as a feeling.

This cabby deserves a tip that shows him what his advice is worth. He's lucky I don't carry expired jars of "I Can't Believe It's Not Jelly."

Yet, I felt a stinging pang of regret for holding in my feelings.

Why can't I tell anyone what I feel? Is this why everyone else is happy and I'm as lonely as an orphan? Of course not. But it explains what happens to people who spend too much time talking to spiders.

My mind felt a peculiar sensation, as though it were sinking back into itself, assuming some mental equivalent of the fetal position. I was inhibited by a reserve that resulted less from shyness than from an acute awareness that I was a damaged man and that Ann deserved someone finer than I could ever be.

She looked at me and I saw, with a chill, that her eyes were infinitely deep, opening like a tunnel to another universe. Something in them told me I was about to change.

"I'm afraid of change," I said. "Losing the band. Loving and losing. Knowing someday I'll lose Hoover." And you.

Hoover pulled his head inside the cab, looked at me curiously, then stuck it outside again.

"I've been afraid of losing loved ones since the death of my dad and my first dog, Kirby. . . ."

Never had I admitted to anyone how much pain I'd felt when Dad died. I'd always kept that pain under my hat. Never had the rational side of my brain allowed the emotional side to assume command. Not since I was nine. Yet, somehow my emotions came pouring out, all the pain kept close, yet covered.

I rambled on about how much I missed Kirby and Dad, talking fast, almost breathless. Speaking of how, if Dad were alive, we'd look at the stars and stay up all night and talk and stand shoulder-to-shoulder and discuss life and philosophy and music and so much more. I told them of how, even now, sometimes I wake before dawn, especially after the Red Sox have won a game in the late innings and I've gone hoarse from screaming, of how I'll think, my mind still fogged with sleep, "I can't wait to talk with Dad about the game." Then I'll reach out to pet Kirby. . . . I told them that this is my cruelest dream.

When I finished, I felt strangely free, yet apprehensive about having changed. I felt, I suppose, like the first fish that grew hands and hauled himself ashore.

Softly, the cabby said, "Often when someone dies those left behind think to themselves, if only I could have one more day: I would use it so well--an hour, perhaps even a minute. You feel guilty for having spent more time with your dog, than with your dad when they were alive. You've spent your entire life feeling guilty about that, trying to prove to yourself, and to others, that animals are the equal of mankind. All so you can justify the feelings you had when you were nine. You'd like the world to say what you felt was okay. Until then, you won't let yourself be part of the world. Until you accept those feelings, you won't get close to another person. Let me be the first to tell you, it's okay to be happy in a world that isn't perfect."

As he drove, the cabby looked at me in the rearview mirror more than he looked through the windshield. But neither Ann nor he picked on me anymore.

By the time we pulled up in front of the Suite Night, the three of us had made up. I gave the cabby fifty dollars and told him to pick up the homeless man who lived in the entranceway of Hammer's, help him with his bags, and bring him back to stay my remaining paid-up days in the Suite Night. I wish I could see the expression on the face of the desk clerk who turned up his nose at me.

Ann and I went inside and got Alice. Back outside, once again, words pounded in my heart, trying to escape.

"I love you," I said. Ann gave me a jumbo hug.

"Mama told me this would happen. She said, 'Someday, Clark, you'll meet a girl so special, so perfect for you, that you won't even haggle over price.'"

Ann's laughter rippled out soft and low, as if this particular laugh had been waiting too long.

Hoover wagged his tail, wanting to share our happiness without knowing what it was.

Maybe it isn't happiness until it's shared.

Alice ran out into the snow and looked back at Hoover. Hoover was catching snow in his mouth, but standing still. Alice thumped her foot and Hoover bounced toward her, a swatch of black and white fur in the wind, enjoying the snow as never before.

I was understanding the bigger picture. My father used to say, "If your brain can't make you happy, what good is it? Practice happiness; encourage it. Think of it as an art." For a moment, just a moment, I felt the awesome dimensions of the universe in my heart and held them there, like a secret.

As each moment of the present became the past, my love for Ann grew stronger. And, after a time, or a few times anyway, she fell in love with me.

 

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