AT HIS WINDOW SEAT in The Epicurean Cafe, in a shaft of sunlight that had broken through the clouds to glisten the wet street, Ben Snow took a sip of steaming coffee. Only ten minutes of the twenty-minute head start Loa Bliss had asked of him for returning to the office had passed. This is a good time to make a List of Concerns, he thought. He went right to it.
Item Number One, this morning’s seven-thirty rendezvous with Loa in Humboldt Legal Services’ basement lounge, its never-spoken purpose to have minutes alone together before the others arrived. She had begun like a deer in the headlights, pulling herself in as she spoke, spidery fingers of one hand poised at her hairline like the first delicate touch on piano keys. In her other hand she held a legal-sized file. He knew what that meant.
“It’s another child custody fight,” she said, looking past him. “I took the liberty of checking your schedule with Connie yesterday before we closed. I made a ten o’clock appointment for you on Monday morning. I know that’s not your regular time for appointments.”
“No, it’s not, but I can make it work.”
“Thanks. This doesn’t sound like one I would give to Malcolm.”
“He doesn’t approve of divorce,” Ben answered. “It looks like I’m the one.”
“I thought about taking it myself. Pull my weight for the team, you know.”
“Even with what’s going on with the board?”
Her back stiffened, and she drew herself in even tighter. “Let’s talk about that another time,” she said.
“Are you going to hand it to me?” he asked, smiling.
She extended the file toward him. He expected her to keep her hand on it, letting their fingers brush in the only act of admission they permitted themselves, but she let go so quickly he almost dropped it.
“It could be a tough one,” she said. “Out-of-state mother wants to get her kid back. His father didn’t put him on the return flight after spring vacation. A new law in California apparently says something about it being the equivalent of kidnapping unless he can justify it by her bad behavior.”
“I’ve heard something about that law,” Ben said. “I’m surprised you want us to take a case that could be law reform.”
“I’m not ready to give in to the board,” she said, “but it’s not law reform.”
“Any new relatively unapplied law could be,” Ben answered.
“Let’s not talk about that now,” she said.
“Have you looked at it for details?”
“That’s your job,” she said, a nervous impatience ruffling her voice. She looked away.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked.
Loa met his gaze. “We should stop these visits. And the long lunches.” Her voice was a whisper lacking the authority she was at last showing in running the office. “Do you think we could have a brief chat?”
“I mean after lunch,” she said, her tone growing insistent. “In Arcata at one-fifteen. Our place in the park.”
“After lunch during our holy Advice Day?”
“Let’s cover the lunch hour and meet after. It has to be today and not at the bench on the corner where everyone can see us. And before we all go to The Publican for drinks.”
With that she turned, grim-lipped and watery eyes, and walked toward the stairs. With one foot on the first riser she turned. In a whisper she said, “Let’s leave twenty minutes apart. Please find a different excuse than Arcata Traffic Court.”
“I’ll say I locked Big Eddie in the house.”
“We know you don’t do that. Try that you left an important file at home.”
“They know I don’t do that either. I’ll think of something.”
Loa walked up the stairs without saying another word. A few minutes later, when Ben entered his second-floor office, he thought he heard her door click shut, as if she had been outside it, waiting for something.
Ben wrapped his palm around the thick-sided coffee mug and closed his eyes. Loa is doing the right thing, he thought. She always does the right thing, makes the right choice. He would miss their visits and wondered how it would feel when their glances found each other and they smiled their high school smiles. At those times her face had shown a quiet reserve, a sense of restraint he thought might be born of the proprieties of the established Spokane family she spoke of as if her life there were from another time, another world. “Established,” she once said with a shake of her head, but he sensed that she missed it. He thought of how she would turn from his glance, sometimes down to the page of a text on the library table, or the lines on a legal pad, or the phone kept there for calls from Connie, or how she would get up, go to the shelves, run her fingers along the spines of the California Reporters. He imagined her flipping her braided ruddy blonde ponytail onto her back with a quick turn of her head, and her professional suits with pants that hid the athletic legs he’d seen in shorts once at a beach party volleyball game. He saw the profile of her tan face, its little nose and full lips, the even line of her pulled back hair. He thought about what it might be like to touch her. He did not lust after her, or anyone. He kept lust in a small attic room, and it was easy to do that with Loa. Proper Loa, close to the edge, but too smart to cross it.
He opened his eyes. A young woman stood on the sidewalk just beyond the glass. The arc of backward calligraphic letters of the restaurant’s name framed her. Gazing down H Street toward the Plaza amid a scattering of plump raindrops, the woman tilted her head into the light, arched her back, rolled her neck and shoulders in slow, sinewy circles, swayed her cascade of black hair back and forth. Her white summer dress, nearly soaked from the spring shower, clung to her skin. She was shivering.