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Some people are street-smart, some people are book-smart, but most people are just dumber than dirt.
--Chrissy (Mac) McMullen, upon finding her boyfriend in the backseat of her Mazda with a majorette
MR. HOWARD LEPINSKI was an intelligent man. He was well educated, articulate, and precise. Unfortunately, he was about two aces short of a full deck.
"So what's your opinion?" he asked, peering at me through thick-lensed spectacles. He was a little man with a twitch, a mustache, and a strangely unquenchable need to discuss, in minute, droning detail, every decision that crossed his path.
I looked him full in the face. Dr. Candon, my psych professor, had once said he couldn't possibly overemphasize the importance of looking patients full in the face. It filled them with, and I quote here: ". . . the soothing reassurance that they have your undivided attention, not unlike that of a mother suckling her newborn." Perhaps I should consider the possibility that Dr. Candon had a few issues of his own, I thought.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lepinski," I said, using my much-practiced nurturing tone. It was as far as I was willing to go on the suckling mother scenario. "I'm not certain I fully comprehend your question." The truth was, I'd become a smidgen distracted, but it was closing in on seven o'clock and I hadn't eaten since noon when I'd had a carton of cherry yogurt and a somewhat dehydrated orange. And if we're going to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't call that eating. It was merely something I did to prevent my mouth from committing suicide before dinnertime. On the other hand, the roll of flab that had engulfed my midriff since I'd kicked the nicotine habit . . . again . . . had become a rather ponderous problem and now threatened to droop over my waistband like rising bread dough--white, not wheat.
In some ways my life had been simpler as a cocktail waitress. True, delivering drinks to the town of Schaumburg's intoxicated populace had been hell on my bunions, and the propositions sent my way were often punctuated by belching of competition caliber, but at least in Chicago I'd had propositions. L.A. men were of a different breed. Which was what I had been hoping for, of course, but still . . .
"The sandwiches," Mr. Lepinski repeated. There were, I noticed, several droplets of sweat on his forehead. "Should I take pastrami or ham to work?"
I considered his luncheon dilemma with all due sobriety, but feared my sagacious expression might have been ruined by my rumbling gut. "Perhaps," I said forcefully, doing my best to drown out the sounds of impending starvation, "the question is not so much what you should take for lunch, but why you are so concerned about what you should take for lunch."
"What?" His mustache twitched like hamster whiskers, and he blinked at me, as if distracted from a run on his exercise wheel.
"I mean . . ." I steepled my fingers. I'd seen Kelsey Grammer do it on Frasier once and thought it looked pretty classy. Classy was good. Even now I regretted the less-than-classy splotch where I'd dropped cherry goop on my silk blouse. It was a burnt-umber color and matched the freshly refurbished hue of my hair. The blouse, that is, not the splotch. Elaine, my part-time secretary and full-time friend, had suggested trying club soda on the stain, but now I wondered if I couldn't just suck the stuff out of the fabric until I found something more substantial to sustain me. "Perhaps you should give some thought to why you're obsessing about sandwiches," I finished, nodding with ruminative intellect.
His twitching stopped abruptly, and his bird-bright eyes flickered toward the door and back as if he were considering flying the coop. "I am not obsessing," he said. His lips were pursed, his tone stilted, and in that moment I doubted he would have been more insulted if I had suggested his mother had, in fact, belonged to another species. Touchy! Still, it wasn't good to offend one's clients, not when one is in my financial straits. But the man was paying a hefty sum for his Thursday evening sessions and spent most of his time discussing brown-bag options. It seemed a little strange to me, but who am I to say? I once knew a guy who used seventeen different toothbrushes every day of the week. Seventeen. I was never sure why, even though I knew him pretty well. Intimately even. Okay, truth is, I'd lived with him for eighteen months. He was as loopy as hell, but he had great dental hygiene, and if I've learned anything in my thirty-odd years, it's that sometimes a girl can't be too fussy.
"Perhaps obsessing is not the proper word," I said. "I only mean, surely you have more important things to worry about."
Lepinski shifted his gaze once more toward the door, then returned his full attention to me and said, "I don't," in a tone that challenged me to disagree.
So I did what any fledgling therapist worth her double-matted, mahogany-framed diploma would do. I fantasized about fudge mocha and gave him another maternal smile.
"And I take umbrage with your choice of words," he added. "I am not, nor have I ever been, obsessed."
I considered telling him the truth, that he was as wacky as a tennis racquet, but when I glanced at the clock on the wall I saw that his time was up.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lepinski," I said and managed, just barely, to avoid ejecting from my chair like a maniacal jack turned loose from his box. Instead, I rose with dignified calm and extended my hand. Thanks to Monique the magical manicurist, it was magnificently well groomed except for that one damned nail that had popped loose on my frenetic flight to work a full twelve hours before. "I'll see you next week."
He scowled as if considering the possibility of canceling his standing appointments, but the thought of handling his sandwich crises alone must have been too daunting, because he slipped a noodly hand into mine and nodded. "Next week," he said, not meeting my gaze. "Say, you have a stain on your . . ." He motioned, limp-wristed, toward my chest.
I extracted my hand and tucked my blouse more firmly beneath its coordinated jacket. It wasn't as though I was self-conscious. After all, the man wore canary yellow socks with his rumpled tweed suit.
"What is it? Ketchup?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"On your shirt. Is it ketchup?" he asked.
"No," I said, and gave him a smile that was polite but dismissive. I'd had a good deal of practice with polite-but-dismissive working at The Warthog in Schaumburg, just around the corner and down the street from where I'd grown up. "Have a good evening, Mr. Lepinski."
His mustache twitched again as if he might catch a scent of the fascinating stain. "Barbecue sauce?"
"I hope you don't mind seeing yourself out. I'm afraid my secretary had to leave early tonight."
On my desk, there was a letter opener shaped like a sword and stuck into a fake stone. It was more ornamental than utilitarian, but I wondered now if it might not make an effective weapon. Surely I couldn't be condemned for defending myself from mind-imploding frustration in the wake of nicotine withdrawal.
"I'm afraid I have another client, Mr. Lepinski."
"You put a little Mexican soap on that, it'll come right out," he said, still staring at my chest. I'm not Dolly Parton, but I'm not Calista Flockhart either. Still, I doubted if Lepinski had even considered the possibility that there was flesh hidden somewhere inside my overpriced ensemble. The stain was all-consuming. "Unless it's grape jelly. It's not, is it?"
I found, to my surprise, that my fingers had closed around the letter opener. It felt good in my hand. I could see the headlines. Hungry Psychologist Attacks Crazy Loon with Miniature Version of Excalibur. Maybe they'd want to edit that a little. Woman with Stained Blouse Assaults Wacko.
"Or grape juice. Grape juice--"
I raised the letter opener.
I jumped. Lepinski twitched. We turned toward the door in breathless tandem.
"Sorry to interrupt." Andrew R. Bomstad leaned through the doorway and grinned shyly at me. It was a strangely innocuous expression for such a large man, especially considering his past. He'd played tight end for the Lions until a groin injury had sidelined him from the glory of his gladiator days. Now he appeared on local commercials and owned stock in companies that probably netted him an hourly rate that was more than I made in a month. It was something of a mystery why he had chosen me as his therapist. But he had secrets he didn't want aired and maybe he thought I wouldn't have anyone of importance to tell, even if I broke my vow of confidentiality. "There's nobody at the receptionist desk. Didn't know if you'd heard me come in."
"No, I didn't," I said, returning his smile. True, Bomstad had his share of problems, but next to
Lepinski, he glowed with sparkling normalcy. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"No. No problem. Take your time. I'm probably early," he said and smiling apologetically, closed the door behind him.
"Well," I said, and abandoned the letter opener with some regret. "Good night then, Mr. Lepinski."
He blinked. "Was that the Bomber?"
"That was Andy Bomstad, wasn't it?"
"I'm not really in a position to say," I replied, but I've got to admit, it did my heart good to have a client who was recognized for something other than peeing on his neighbor's lawn. "Give some consideration to what we talked about this week, will you?"