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Heart Balm

A Novel by

Malachi Stone

©2018 by Malachi Stone

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 as amended, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the author at theoriginalmalachistone@gmail.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

for Maria: then, now, and always
























“Hi, I’m Ricky and I’m a sex addict, an alcoholic and a methamphetamine addict.”

That’s about all I need by way of introduction. My real first name is Vercingetorix but I never use it at meetings. The regular crowd gave me a “Hi, Ricky!” with real Walmart enthusiasm. We get together like this in the church basement every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning bright and early at eight AM, coffee and donuts available for a small honorarium. Today was a specially scheduled Friday-after-Thanksgiving meeting. This morning’s crowd consisted of about twenty coffee’d up specimens. After two years of making the meetings I knew every last one of them. My sponsor Kevin sat sprawled in a folding chair in the front row facing me at the lectern where I proceeded to share on topics germane to my personal trifecta of addictions.

“Well, yesterday we had a great turkey day with the family, and today my older daughter marches in the Santa Claus parade with her pom pom squad,” I began. Polite laughter mixed in with a few aww’s. “Lately she’s been insisting that we call her Anna, you know, with the a sound the same as in pom pom. I guess it’s her age or whatever, some kind of preteen affectation.” As if the name we had chosen for her—Anastasia—weren’t an affectation of its own. “Anyway, our other kids are going to be there with Diane, cheering her on. I guess all I want to say is that I’m grateful to my Higher Power and to all of you that I’m here, alive, clean, faithful and sober, and able to enjoy the good things that are going on in my life. So, thanks.”

Our group doesn’t applaud unless someone has shared an exceptional story. Mine was garden-variety candy-assed sharing today so I met only polite silence borne out of mutual respect. Or maybe mutual dread, the realization that pride goeth before a fall. I thought I sensed a species of dread recognition rolling off the crowd, from those old enough to know better.

I had been coasting for at least a month, maybe longer, going through the motions, standing up at meetings but not sharing anything personal, anything of consequence, and nothing with an emotional price tag on it. At least my sponsor gave me the thumbs-up gesture of encouragement as I passed by to resume my seat next to him. There was always a seat or two open on either side of Kevin, a safety zone, whether you’re talking bars or twelve-step meetings.

Next up was Kendra, a big-boned washed-out blonde in ass-snug jeans, a Harrah’s Casino sweatshirt, and pony hair tied tight to show off her big forehead. Kendra was what we locals call a “hoosier,” a term of opprobrium roughly equivalent to “trailer trash.” I thought I detected a rumble and shuffle of uneasy excitement from the males at this mixed meeting, an ass-shifting of anticipation. Kendra’s sharing tended to be of the memorable variety, her own personal brand of freestyle eroticism bordering on the far side of pornographic. Perfect attendees knew her to be a thirty-eight-year-old serial divorcée with a penchant for initiating hobosexual ambush encounters in public places. There’s even a term for it: at the meetings now and then I’ve heard it referred to as “shitbum sex.” And anybody who named their daughter Kendra, making no secret of the fact they would have preferred a boy, was already setting the stage for long-term psychosexual disturbances. Maybe that’s why Kendra’s sharing was always better than a letter to Penthouse.

“Hi, I’m Kendra and I’m a sexual and love addict.”

“Hi, Kendra.” Her greeting from the group seemed markedly more enthusiastic than mine had been.

“Hi, guys,” she responded with an uncomfortable shrug before launching into her customary rapid-fire pressured delivery. “Well, Sunday night I suffered a relapse, I guess you could say. Weekend was a bummer, knew it was a mistake to go online when I was in one of my moods, should have called my sponsor but didn’t, yada yada yada, same old same old, bought the t-shirt, wore it out. Anyhow, before I know it, there I am cruising every horny hookups webpage I can think of, like the bad penny you all know me to be.” All in the same breath.

“You’re not a bad penny, Kendra,” Bob the group leader protested. His reedy voice sounded like an oboe. “Stop running yourself down. You’re human like all the rest of us. Looking for love in all the wrong places.”

“Thanks, Bob. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, wore it out, like I said. Cut to the chase, some dude agrees to hook up outside a strip club in Washington Park. He asks do I mind that he’s black. I mean, what am I gonna say at that point, right? I guess the guy’s name of Tyranno should of tipped me. So next thing I know we’re all in his Jimmy, me and him shoehorned in, ass cheek to ass cheek with three or four of his runnin’ buds, heading for East St. Louis. We all pile out once we get there; he’s got this nice house—nice by East St. Louis standards, that is. Little cracker box, bars on the windows—you all know the kind I mean. Anyway, we ease on inside, share a few drinks, smoke some 420, one thing leads to another. You know how it goes. Sure enough, before long one of the guys gets one particular nasty ol’ idea in his head, lets on how he wouldn’t say no to a bukkake session. Well, a course nobody’s fixin’ to argue with him at that point. All eyes are on little ole me. You all are familiar with the term bukkake, right? I think it’s Japanese origin.”

Murmured recognition. Everybody knew what bukkake meant, and nobody in that crowd was about interrupt Kendra’s momentum at this point by asking her to define her terms.

“Whatever. I know it’s unprotected sex, risk-taking behavior and all that, stupid stupid stupid, and I didn’t even know hardly any of them guys’ street names, but brainless me, behind all that booze and dope buzz all of a sudden I heard myself sayin’ yes. Well, wouldn’tcha know, no sooner’n the word’s outta my mouth, here’s Tyranno on the horn putting out the four one one. Inside of fifteen minutes there’s maybe fifty horndog homeboys crammed into that little shitbox house of his, and before the night was over I wound up with a face full a oatmeal an nobody offerin’ me so much as a wet warsh rag.”

By now I estimated most if not all of the men at the meeting harbored the same fantasy as I did.

“What’s worse, unbeknowits to me Tyranno caught all the action on his phone, and now he says not only won’t he delete it, he’s going to post it on amateur porn sites all over the Internet. So it looks like this time you can call me F. U. C. K’d: forlorn used Cahokia klutz.”

Kevin, gaunt as ever, leaned over to me and drawled in a raspy whisper under his droopy mustache, “How about Frankenstein-ugly cum kisser?”

“Or fills up contaminated kleenex,” I offered, covering my mouth.

“Not bad. How about, uh, floppy-uddered cracker knuckle-dragger?”

GSM. Game set match. Never trade acronyms with a borderline schizophrenic who thinks Walmart is slipping Sani-Flush into his medication, despite the fact that Sani-Flush has been off the market since 2013

Ever since our health insurance lapsed and I could no longer afford the one-on-one psychotherapy; Diane insisted as a condition of holding our marriage together that I regularly attend these Sexual Addicts Anonymous meetings. In the past two years I had learned much about myself: that I am addicted to arousal, that I crave humiliating and shaming my partner, that I have deep-seated contempt for women, am preoccupied with anonymous sex, fearful of intimacy and have a morbid dread of castration causing me to be constantly mindful of my cock and balls. In other words, a typical All-American male. Joe College.

Still, for the past two years I had remained scrupulously faithful to Diane, a fact I credit more to the other condition she imposed on our marriage’s survival: weekly vespers, liturgy and monthly confession at Sts. Boris and Gleb Eastern Orthodox Church. In church I made the good confession to Jesus Christ Himself, not to nineteen other perverts just like me.

Bob the insurance man, group leader for this particular Wednesday, tried to put Kendra’s relapse into perspective for her in a supportive way. Then Kendra began heading back to her seat. As she passed by, she shot me a wink—a wink meant for me and me alone. Or at least I thought so. Hoped so? The other men in the room, taking advantage of the opportunity, craned their necks and focused their own peculiar brand of x-ray vision on the slow swing of Kendra’s ass as her low heels clicked and clocked their way down the center aisle. Kendra might have been flattered; these were men who’d spent half their lives looking at porn.

Stan took the podium. Stan, we all knew, grappled with his fascination over the glory holes in a local adult bookstore. I surreptitiously glanced at my watch as Stan launched into the latest chapter in his troubling saga of peek-a-boo fellatio on the installment plan. When it was over, Bob told Stan to call on his Higher Power and reminded him to phone his sponsor the moment he felt the urge next time, adding that we’re all in the same boat. Bob’s advice, while well intentioned, tends to be one-size-fits-all. Then Bob opened it up to the floor and Kevin began offering Stan his own unique insight.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing this same old happy horseshit,” Kevin began, his deep voice and laconic drawl making it sound almost like he knew what he was talking about. “Long as I’ve been coming here, your lame-assed rap ain’t never changed, Stan. And you ain’t never gonna change. Never. You know why that is, Hoss?”

“Why?” Stan asked, his husky boy’s voice full of anticipation. It was like he really wanted to know but was afraid to hear the answer from this werewolf in our midst, this veiled prophet of the streets, hater of Catholics, fearer of clandestine Sani-Flush contamination and inveigher against black hair, whose frequent arrests for nighttime screaming had become so commonplace they rarely made the papers any more.

“It’s because you get off on it,” Kevin pronounced as his verdict. “You get your nuts off just as much standing up here with your face hanging out humiliating yourself in front of a bunch a perverts as you do hiding behind a busted drywall on your knees with your mouth open wide. Don’t you get it?”

“No. What?”

“The meetings are giving you the exact same sick payoff you want out of the glory hole trip: Self-abasement. Mortification. Degradation. And until you don’t need those things any more, Stan, until you no longer need to fill up the gaping glory hole your tortured soul has become, the glory holes will go on singing their siren song, the one that only you and all the other cock-suckerin’ dogs like you can hear.”

“All right,” Bob interrupted, “now that’s a bit much. Let’s try and remember the reason we’re all here, which is to help each other get over our addictions. Name-calling is particularly inappropriate and doesn’t serve that purpose at all. Don’t you agree, Kevin? Kevin?”

My sponsor pulled down the bill of his Cardinal’s cap to mustache level, tilted it back and turned his face away to sulk. Or maybe he was scoping out the room for lurking papists.

One or two more sharing sessions later, the meeting adjourned with the Serenity Prayer and we took leave of one another, at least until Saturday. I had to open up the office by nine AM and interview my new prospective employee, a Ms. Heart Robbins.

I had just reached my car a half-block from the church when I felt a tap on my right arm. I turned to encounter Kendra M. She said, “Hey.”

“Hey yourself, Kendra. Can I give you a lift?” I asked.

“Where you headed?” I could see her breath, its vapor mixing with mine in strange and changing patterns.


“If it ain’t too much trouble, then.”

I held the passenger door open for her and said, “No trouble at all. It’d be a pleasure, actually. Hope you don’t mind being seen riding around in this old beater of mine. A hundred eighty-nine thousand miles on her and still running. Three quarters of the way to the moon if you like astronomy.”

“Left your Jag-you-are home today?”

“Jaguar’s in the shop, in the bay next to my Mercedes.”

“Don’t forget, I hear you constantly bitchin’ at all them meetings three times a week ‘bout your financial troubles and how hurtin’ for money you all are on accounta your addictions over the years. Alcohol, meth, and pussy.” She counted them off on her fingers. “Them three left you all broke and shit.”

“You know me too well, Kendra. You can see right through me. Most folks find it especially hard to believe that a lawyer with his own practice could have no money. It’s particularly galling because people hate lawyers in general and rich lawyers in particular, and lump me into both categories.” I nodded for her to get in.

“Life sure ain’t fair. But you can’t never tell, can you? Like for instance this one old dago that still stayed down there in Washington Park”—she pronounced it Washinton—“even after the niggers got so bad, until he was like the next-to-the-last white man left in town, he walks the streets lookin’ like a total hobo, with patches on his ass, wearin’ this ole busted out World War Two jacket, you’d pitcher him standin’ in a cheese line or hangin’ around on the sidewalk waitin’ for the food pantry to open up? I ast a friend of mine and as it turns out, that ole duffer was the head of the local mafia. Can you believe it? Had money up the ass. Fact was he chose to live like he didn’t. Funny, huh?”

She eyed me curiously. Still holding the door like a chauffeur I beckoned her to sit.

“Such a gentleman.” She scootched herself gracefully into the right front passenger seat where my Diane had last sat. After I pulled away from the curb she said, “They got them that Santy Claus thing goin’ on this mornin’, like you said?”

“Yep. The parade. Kinda cold for it this year. You going?”

“I ain’t much for parades. You got you a daughter in it, right?”

“I’m flattered. At least somebody was listening to me sharing.”

“Oh, I always listen. Listen like a panther. To everybody, I mean. I ain’t singlin’ you out or nothin.’” We had gone two blocks before she shot me a sidelong glance and ventured, “Although I have to admit mine was sorta embarrassin’ this particular time.”

“Not at all; that’s what these meetings are for, so we can let our hair down with sympathetic people. People wrestling with these same feelings.”

“Waren’t exactly sure how sympathetic the members, especially the male members, might be with the idea of a white woman, you know, havin’ group sex with a whole bunch a black men, is all.”

“Well, see? Now you know we all support you, Kendra. You’re no different than me or anybody else in the group, except maybe more honest. By the way, what was that wink all about?”

“Wink? What wink?” she asked.

“Maybe you had something in your eye.”

She paused for at least another block before she said, “Maybe.”

I dropped her off a block north of the fountain. Waiting at a light before proceeding to my interview I caught myself watching the swing and sway of her ass as she sashayed along the crosswalk. Seen through those tight jeans hers truly was a beautiful ass. And that wink had been no accident.

My storefront office faces on a side street in downtown Belleville, Illinois that had escaped suburban renewal. It was a street that time forgot, World War One-era antique storefronts with crumbling paint over brick, creeping dry rot, dilapidated canvas awnings and warped screen doors. Half the stores were boarded-up empty, bearing their For Lease signs like cancellation stamps. Some had been torn down; empty lots gaped like missing teeth, exposing on adjacent buildings the faded and forgotten ghosts of wall billboards painted by men long dead. There is a strictly enforced sign ordinance in Belleville, so the only advertisement for my existence is stenciled prominently on the store window in vulgar gild letters: Rick Galeer, Attorney at Law. The morning sun magnifies and projects it against the far wall inside.

One of the primary areas of my practice is child advocacy. In exchange for referrals of guardian ad litem work by an organization known as BAWD (the acronym stands for

Battered and Abused Women’s Defense) I am obliged to offer a subsidized paralegal secretarial position for a worthy battered woman selected by the organization. In my case, Heart Robbins, about whom I knew nothing other than her name, the logical assumption that she had suffered a history of battery and abuse, and the fact that, during the same time period while I was busily engaged in being faithful to my Diane lo these past two years, Heart had managed to successfully complete four semesters of legal career coursework at the local junior college.

The interview had been scheduled for nine AM and I was running late. The Santa Claus parade was due to kick off at ten and the best sidewalk vantage points went fast. That was one reason I was pleased to see a comely young female parked outside my office in a vintage Pontiac Trans Am that evidenced a history of battery rivaling her own. Sure enough, I had no sooner unlocked the door and flipped on the lights and heat than I heard the front door behind me scrape and groan against the sill. I turned from the thermostat to behold Heart Robbins herself, expectantly offering her delicate right hand in greeting.

May I speak frankly? The first two things I noticed about Heart were her breasts. She was hired before she could so much as hand me her résumé.

“Mr. Galeer?” she inquired.

“Congratulations,” I replied rapid-fire. “You got the job. When can you start? By the way, can you type? If not, don’t worry about it; I do all my own typing.” Big ones, D-cups at least, belying her slender frame and cherubic face. She was at least as tall as I am and looked me confidently in the eye as she spoke.

“You have a terrific telephone voice,” I went on. “If the phone rings just pick it up and say ‘law office.’ Think you can handle that?” My arms may have been at my sides, but both my wrists were cocked with impudent anticipation, fingers anxiously twiddling, already cradling the weight of those breasts in my mind’s eye. I should have called my sponsor right then, but I remembered he had no phone and no permanent address most of the time.

“I’m your gal, Mister Galeer,” Heart said. For some reason those four words made me think of black and white movies on the late late show with dames and guns, passion and betrayal. The feeling lasted only for a moment and then it was gone. “But I can also type and use a word processor,” she went on. “Draft pleadings and documents. Heavy on the client contact. All that good stuff. And I can start right away if you need me to.”

“I need you to. As a matter of fact, Heart—may I call you Heart?”

She nodded eagerly. So did they.

“I’m due elsewhere for a previous commitment, so why don’t you take your coat off and make yourself at home for about an hour, familiarize yourself with the place, answer the phone if it rings. I’ll be back before you know it to talk about boring things like salary and benefits package. How’s that sound?”

“That sounds like a swell idea. And can I handle the Ameche? You bet I can.”

“Uh, right.” As I think back to that day, I remember telling myself that young people’s slang was starting to make me feel like a dinosaur. Moving for the door, I watched Heart slipping her coat off. That’s when those ding dong bells began playing me a tune in the key of D. I did the pistol-popping thing with thumb and forefinger and said, “Catch you on the rebound.” I hadn’t used that expression since college and it had sounded dumb even back then.

My Diane was waiting for me along the parade route across from the fountain, which had been drained, covered for winter and decorated with Santa’s house, elves and candy canes, and for today only was equipped with a gallows-height review stand. She was dressed in her white parka, the one that made her look like a Christmas snow bunny. To complete the picture, her nose was pink from the cold, and moist when I kissed her. Our younger daughter Tatiana, witnessing our public display of affection, faked self-induced vomiting until Diane told her to stop. Our sons Nick and Wolf stood staring down West Main like they were waiting for a bus.

“How’s my favorite antique dealer?”

“Freezing, if you must know. And starving. The smell of those donuts is driving me absolutely crazy.” The icy air for a block in either direction was redolent with the scents emanating from Ye Olde Donut Shoppe across the street.

“Try and content yourself with the observation that you’ve never looked lovelier.” It was true: my Diane had succeeded in losing forty pounds over the last six months thanks to a military regimen of Pilates, regular trips to the health club and rigorous dieting.

“How’d the meeting go?”

“You know I can’t discuss confidential matters like that,” I said. “That’s why they call it anonymous.”

“Just keeping you honest. I know they don’t take attendance or anything.”

“If it’s meetings you’re after, there’s always the ladies’ auxiliary.” COSI COSA, speaking of acronyms, which stands for Chapter of Southern Illinois Codependents of Sex Addicts, met every other Wednesday, proving once again the old adage: Wednesday’s child is full of woe.

“Too many sad stories,” Diane said.

“See how lucky you are?”

She slipped her mittened hands into the crook of my arm and leaned against me where I stood on the windward side. “They would have to pick the coldest day of the year,” she said. “Poor Anna will freeze in that little skirt, even with the cold weather tights they fitted the squad with.”

“She likes the cold; it’s the Russian blood in her.”

Diane stamped her feet against the cold. “Wish I could get some of this Russian blood to circulate down into my toes.”

“That’s why they invented vodka,” I offered.

Diane was not amused, given my history. “Not even in jest,” she said, staring me directly in the face. The howl of a police siren saved me, heralding the parade’s beginning. There were Optimist and Kiwanis floats with fat high school girls dressed like plus-sized elves throwing fistfuls of candy into the crowd, then a brace of mounted policemen, their horses bridling and snorting mist in the cold air. There was a Belleville fire truck and a Swansea fire truck, both “decked out in holiday finery,” as the local paper would later report, followed by a fleet of emergency vehicles from nearby communities. There were drum and bugle corps from two different state juvenile correctional facilities attended on either side by solemn “juvenile justice specialists” with slack pockmarked jailor faces and black nightsticks dangling from their gun belts: gun belts that holstered forty-five automatic sidearms. It made me wonder how many pee wee league murderers they had playing in the flugelhorn section.

Diane and I applauded when Anna’s dance troop passed the review stand on the square and went into their flash routine. Diane video’d the whole thing on her cell phone. Pro that she is, our Anna didn’t look into the camera even once. After that, everything was anticlimactic, at least for me. Even our kids seemed to sense the letdown; with Diane’s permission they took their leave of us to warm up with the free cocoa being served at the YMCA.

There were the usual local dignitaries riding past in closed cars coasting along in first gear, and, after a gap, the Marching Maroons—the high school marching band. There were restored flivvers with big aa-oo-gah horns blaring, and Shriner clowns trick-driving go-carts in figure eights. Dwarfing Santa’s eight tiny reindeer was a hitch of eight Budweiser Clydesdales towing the familiar red white and gold beer wagon, always the penultimate entry in the annual parade. Two impassive Dalmatian dogs flanked the driver and the guy riding shotgun.

Everyone leaned over the curb and gawked down Main Street looking for the Santa Claus float that heralded the end of the parade and blessed relief from the arctic weather. The big guy’s sleigh rounded the corner a block away. In the middle distance, like Santa Claus’s advance man, a lone figure approached, trudging down the street clad in a trench coat, waving to the crowd. The closer he came, the more familiar he seemed. Parade Marshal? St. Louis media guest celebrity?

“Isn’t that your sponsor?” Diane asked me.

Kevin, striding along the center line of the parade route like the mayor himself, nodded left and right at the crowds lining the street, hands raised as though acknowledging applause and cheers. Then once he was even with Diane and me, he faced the parade stand and whipped open his trench coat to reveal no pants, no undershorts, only cut-off trick pant legs held up with rubber bands at his thighs, his exposed penis dangling free like a rubber chicken. “Merry Christmas to all,” he called out, hands on his hips, “and to all a good night!”

“Oh my word!” Diane exclaimed.

Nestled in my sponsor’s brillo pubic hair was a single sprig of mistletoe.

“Holy Smoke! Sinkers!” Heart greeted me upon my return. She had efficiently organized the front desk as her personal workstation and now sat behind it, her form-fitting cable-knit sweater exhibiting more curves than the space-time continuum. On her blotter I placed the box of fresh donuts I had picked up on my way back to the office.

“Now there’s an old-fashioned expression. A pair of them, actually,” I remarked, focusing on an altogether different pair.

“I’m an old-fashioned gal.”

“An old-fashioned woman. Ever since law school I’ve been struggling to call every woman Ms. and to avoid using diminutive pronouns when referring to the fair sex. I’m getting pretty good at it, if I do say so myself.”

“How was the parade?” Heart asked.

“Memorable. And my compliments on your discernment. I don’t recall mentioning where I was going.”

“You look like a man who’s spent the past hour standing out in the cold. Plus, you have four kids, right? And the oldest is in the dance troop? And Ye Olde Donut Shoppe where you bought these fattening temptations is just off the square? Doesn’t take much intuition to put two and two together, now, does it?”

“You’ve done your homework,” I said, frankly admiring her twin fattening temptations. She didn’t seem to notice. Or to mind the attention.

“I confess; I Googled you while I was waiting. Am I fired?”

“Not at all. Initiative deserves to be rewarded. Remind me to Google you in return. One good Google deserves another.”

“Be my guest. I’ve nothing to hide.”

“But I do. And if you Googled me, you may have run across a few other, shall we say, unsavory details?”

“You’re a man with a past. Big deal. It is all in the past, right?”

“One day at a time is my motto.”

“Oh, and there was a new call; I almost forgot.”

“Somehow I would have doubted anyone as perfect as you could forget anything, Heart.”

She rolled her eyes and smiled sheepishly. “You might be surprised at some of the things I’ve had to forget.”

“I’d love to discuss it with you. Shall we compare ouches over coffee and fattening temptations?”

She smiled more broadly, acknowledging the flirtation. “Anyway, she and I had a nice long conversation. I don’t know your preferences yet, whether you want the office help discussing legal issues with prospective clients or not, but you weren’t here and she seemed very nice. She reminded me quite a bit of my own mother, as a matter of fact. I hope you can help her.”

“What’s her problem?”

“It’s not her; it’s her daughter. The daughter’s up in Dwight doing a fourteen-year stretch for kiddie porn.”


“No, wait, listen. She says it wasn’t her daughter doing it; it was the daughter’s husband. The daughter got a bad rap, is all. A Mitchell county judge wanted to single her out and punish her simply for being a woman, to make an example of her, even though they couldn’t prove she did anything wrong. It was all guilt by association. She wants you to appeal the conviction.”

“The thing is, Heart, the thrust of my practice is child advocacy. If I were to take on a case involving a charge as unsavory as this—”

“She specifically made mention of twenty thousand dollars.”

That stopped me short. For the past two years I had been limping along on less than fifty thousand per, gross. Not to mention my overhead was too high and was about to go even higher as soon as Heart and I reached an understanding about salary and benefits. Twenty would allow me to afford her for maybe a year with what BAWD was promising to throw in. I could do a lot in a year. I sat down on the edge of Heart’s desk.

“Tell me more.”

“To start with,” Heart began, her hazel eyes holding mine without referring to her notes, “her name is Beatrice. Beatrice Russell. The mother’s name is Ruth Holstein.”

“Black or white?”

Heart paused. “Why on earth should it matter?”

“Good point. I’m just trying to visualize the clients, form a mental picture.”

“Do you always color your pictures even before the lines are drawn in?”

I started to form a mental picture of those perfect tits stalking out the door in civil-righteous indignation when the phone rang. Heart answered. For all I knew, she had been romantically involved with black men her whole adult life, preferred the company of black men. That fleeting thought made her somehow more exotic to me, so after she put the call on hold I said, “Don’t get me wrong, Heart; probably half my clientele is black.” That would be the BAWD half, the steady-paying work that sustained me. I could have bought a new house for the uncollectible court-approved guardian ad litem fees I had billed the other half over the past two years.

Without breaking eye contact Heart said, “Your wife on line one.”

I jumped to attention and took the call standing behind Heart’s desk.

“Hi Babe.”

“Who’s that answering the phone?”

“Why didn’t you ask her that question yourself? I thought it was the boss’s wife’s prerogative to inquire.”

“Because it would have been rude. I always hate it when anybody asks me ‘who’s this?’ over the telephone. It’s an ignorant thing to do.”

“Well, then, Hon, allow me to introduce you to Heart Robbins, the new BAWD hire. I’d put her back on the line but at the moment she’s busy making herself indispensable.”

“Tell her hi for me.”

“Diane says hi.”

Heart said ‘Hi” and held up her right hand in a tiny wave. I loved the way she had her legs and ankles crossed. Gorgeous legs that seemed to go on forever, creamy and flawless even without pantyhose. There was a delicate gold bracelet clinging to her left ankle. And those viewmaster breasts so close I could have reached out and touched them. I pictured myself standing behind Heart in the days and weeks to come, massaging those generous breasts with the phone cradled under one ear as I casually conversed with my unsuspecting wife.

“Do you have me on speaker?”


“Tell her she has a cute name,” Diane added. “Rhymes with tart.”

“Darling, perhaps you and I might amuse ourselves composing dirty limericks over dinner.” This last for Heart’s benefit, a little Nick and Nora Charles banter from the charming new employer.

“Diane says you have a cute name,” I said to Heart. “How did you get it, by the way?”

“From my mother.”

“Ask a silly question,” I said.

“Am I to assume from your eager, show-off tone of voice that she’s young and attractive?” Diane asked. “And that on the sole basis of her looks you’ve arrived at the rash and impulsive decision to hire her without availing yourself of my tempering input? My advice and consent, as it were?”

You could always tell Diane was getting steamed at me when she started trying to talk like a lawyer.

“Can’t say right now,” I said.

“I know you don’t have me on speaker; there’s no echo. So tell me, how would you rate her on a scale of one to ten? Be honest, I won’t get mad.”

“Hadn’t thought about it.”

“Bullshit.” More lawyer talk.

“You know what? There’s a new call I have to return. Criminal appeal. It’s a little out of my bailiwick but low five figure retainer.”

“What? What’d they do, kill somebody?”

“Nothing that rash or impulsive.”

“And you haven’t succeeded in changing the subject, Richard.”

“Actually the party in question is protesting their innocence of the charges.”

“Isn’t that rather to be expected?”

“It’s just that I need to return the call before the party under discussion lets their fingers do the walking to one of my myriad competitors. As you know, Darling, I have many competitors but no peers.” That last one might have done Hammett proud, I thought.

“Watch yourself, Ricky. Watch yourself.” Diane hung up without saying goodbye.



I headed back into my private office, saying, “Heart, get this Ruth person back on the line.”

“Ruth Holstein?”

“That’s the one.”

She punched in the number from memory. After a moment she called out, “Shall I leave her a message?”

“Shit, shit, shit! Isn’t she answering the phone?” I took a deep breath and picked up just as I heard the beep. Lowering my voice an interval and trying to sound calm, caring and professional I spoke into the receiver, expressing my deep concern and my willingness to discuss the particulars of her daughter’s case at her earliest convenience. And collect the twenty k retainer.

Before I had finished, she picked up and said, “Mr. Galeer?”

“Yes. Speaking. Is this Ms. Holstein?”

“Thank you so much for promptly returning my call.” A cultured middle-aged woman’s voice, an art instructor or a music teacher, perhaps. The kind of woman who would pronounce the word fellatio in the Italianate before bestowing a treasured and unforgettable experience.

“Ruth Holstein, Mr. Galeer.”

“Ricky, please, Ms. Holstein. Mr. Galeer was my father.” And an asshole he was indeed, but more on that later.

“Then by all means call me Ruth, Ricky. All my friends do.”

“Well that’s fine, Ruth.”

“My friends know me to be a woman who believes in coming directly to the point, Ricky, so I’ll do so now: can you help my daughter or can’t you?”

“You are direct, I’ll give you that. First I’ll need to hear a few more facts. Your daughter was convicted in Mitchell County?”

“Yes. More than four months ago.”

“And she’s in Dwight?” Easily a four-hour drive each way with the meter running and Heart riding shotgun, close enough to reach out and touch.

“Yes. A hideous institution, although to the casual observer at first glance I imagine in physical appearance it rather resembles a public school.”

“I take it the devil’s in the details.”

“That’s where he habitually lurks, yes. Are you a religious man, Ricky?”

I was the kind of religious man who hated talking religion, who underwent a sudden visceral reaction whenever a client brought up the subject in an initial interview.

“We’re Eastern Orthodox,” I said.

“I see.”

“Getting back to your daughter’s case—”

“Don’t you find it rather idolatrous? Kissing those dreadful icons? And all that pomp?”

Here we go. An argument before we’d even dispensed with the preliminaries. But never underestimate the ecumenical power of twenty thousand dollars to tantalize the human soul.

“These are the things of men,” she went on. “Not scriptural. Contrary to scripture, in fact. We have no such things at Kingdom Hall.” It was beginning to sound like a blow job wasn’t in the cards.

“I’d love to discuss it with you, Ruth. Perhaps once I’ve had an opportunity to more fully consider the merits of your daughter’s appeal.”

“Of course. As you may have surmised, the Appellate Defender’s office is currently handling the case. Mishandling it might be a more precise characterization. Oh, a notice of appeal was timely filed, technically preserving Beatrice’s rights. However, I am not at all impressed with either the capabilities or, quite frankly, the zeal of the attorney assigned to the case. He’s quite young, for one thing. Wet behind the ears, as the saying goes. Not only that, but he makes no effort to conceal his settled albeit mistaken belief that my daughter is in fact guilty as charged.”

“They generally do a good job, public defenders,” I said, giving her my standard line, a left-handed compliment intended to damn by faint praise, “but they’re incredibly busy.”

“I know he has no time he feels willing to spare for me. Or for my daughter. Do you know he has made no attempt whatsoever to visit her since her incarceration? In fact, at our latest, and what I hope will prove to be our last, meeting, he flatly stated that he has no intention of ever doing so.”

“Is that right?” I exhaled into the phone for her, meaning it to sound like the expelled breath of a quietly exasperated man who knows more than he’s willing to tell.

“How can an attorney be expected to do a competent job when he’s never met his client or done so much as speak with her face to face? It’s like a doctor diagnosing a patient on paper without even performing a physical examination of her.”

I debated telling her that’s what insurance company and social security doctors did every day. Instead I said, “I can certainly understand why you’re concerned, Ruth; it does sound as though you have every right to be.”

“May I say I’m gratified by your concern, Ricky. Gratified and encouraged for the first time since this whole unthinkable nightmare began.”

“I do want to help you, Ruth. You and your daughter. I understand the charges against her involved, well, child pornography in plain words?”

“That’s correct. Intent to disseminate. But it was all the fault of that worthless husband of hers. Russell.”

“What’s his first name?”

“Russell.” I absently wrote it on a legal pad. “And his last?”

“I already told you. Russell.”

“Russell Russell?”

“Russell Russell, if you can believe it. Same Christian name and surname: a double name like the child molester’s in that smirking sex novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Even worse, Russell R. Russell. No need to guess at his middle name, is there?”

“My, my, my.”

“Will parents never learn to leave their sense of whimsy aside when selecting names for their children? Does no one anticipate the latent psychological damage that can result when one imposes a joke name on a child?”

“What could they have been thinking? Russell R. Russell?” The tickling repetition of the name connoted the rustling of crinoline petticoats, a blasphemous trinity of murmured obscenities.

“Having met the parties responsible, I could explain, but the explanation would in all probability exceed the reasonable length of a telephone conversation with a professional man such as yourself.” It was clear to me that Ruth Holstein wanted desperately to come in, park her ass in my office and pour out her tale of woe. And there were twenty thousand reasons why I liked that idea. But even I have enough integrity to turn down a worthless appeal, so I inquired further.

“What did they prove against your daughter at trial, Ruth?”

“Nothing, really. This Russell was the bad apple; the forty-five year sentence in Menard was too good for him. Investigators found a prodigious collection of truly despicable photographs on his computer hard drive, meticulously catalogued and cross-indexed by age and perverse practice.”

“I can imagine.”

“Can you, Ricky? I truly thought I had seen everything until confronted with those vile photos. One found oneself seized with the near-irresistible urge to tear one’s eyes out like a latter-day Oedipus at the mere sight of them. The depths of human depravity captured in those pictures far exceeded even the diabolical imagination of a Hieronymus Bosch.”

“Do you teach art by any chance, Ruth?”

“Why yes. How astute of you to notice.”

“Not at all. Do Beatrice and this Russell have any children between them?”

“One daughter, age seven. Little Eve. The light of my life. After both parents were arrested I obtained letters of office to serve as her guardian. Do you know the court has forbidden any visits between Eve and Beatrice until Eve is of age? Isn’t that cruel and unusual punishment?”

“Eighth Amendment appeals rarely succeed.”

“May I inquire, what is your success rate overall on appeal?”

I’d won one and lost one, so rather than take the question head-on I said, “An attorney’s success rate, as you call it, depends on whether he has the guts to take on the tough cases. I’m not afraid of a fight.”

“That’s precisely what I wanted to hear you say, Ricky.”

“Tell me, Ruth, was Beatrice herself visible in any of these pictures?”

“Of course not,” she huffed. Had she been present in the office I would have followed with a sustained stare meant to draw out the truth. Apparently telephone silence worked just as well, because after a countdown of twenty she sighed and added, “There was another computer. There were several, in fact.”

“Go on.”

“Russell R. Russell, despite his gag name and apparent total dearth of ambition, turned out in certain respects at least to be quite the little entrepreneur. It developed at trial that for some time past he had been exploiting Beatrice in what one might characterize as a cottage Internet business of his own devising.”

“What kind of business?”

“Must I say it aloud? A business fueled by the lusts of men. A corrupting business. Yes, there were pictures of Beatrice. And those disgraceful videos.” She paused and may have sobbed before protesting, “But never with a child. You see, Ricky, my Beatrice was a teacher. She attained her master’s degree in elementary education at the age of twenty-two and went on to teach third grade in Mitchell county schools before taking a leave of absence when little Eve came along. She was absolutely devoted to little children in general and to Eve in particular. She called them her kiddoes.”

“So I take it in your opinion Beatrice had no knowledge of Russell’s pictures of children?”

“It’s not a matter of opinion; it is a proven fact she had no knowledge whatsoever.”

“The court apparently disagreed with you.”

“Oh, that stupid, stupid public defender! It was he who convinced Beatrice to waive a jury and agree to a joint bench trial with Russell. He said they’d have no chance otherwise, that any jury would vote to convict as soon as they saw the pictures. Beatrice had intended to divorce Russell after the arrests, you see, but the public defender advised her to remain married at least throughout the course of the trial so she couldn’t be forced to testify against her husband. Interspousal privilege or whatever it’s called. What he didn’t count on was the judge in that county finding Beatrice guilty solely because of her profession.”

“Her profession?”

“Beatrice was convicted for one reason and one reason alone: because she was a teacher of children. A teacher who’d gotten herself mixed up in…that other business.”

“Russell’s internet porn game?”

“Thank you. Yes, that.”

“What exactly was he up to besides the things he was convicted for?”

“He abused Beatrice. Abused and photographed her. Abused her by photographing her in, shall we say, disgraceful pursuits.”

“Such as?”

“You’re a very direct man, Ricky, I must admit. A very direct man indeed. Much like myself in that regard.”

“Then answer my question, Ruth. These are things I need to know.” Actually I wanted to indulge my own prurient interest while at the same time causing her discomfort, making her violate her own standards of delicacy by verbalizing everything in detail to a strange man. And I’m one of the strangest.

“As one particularly dreadful example, he took explicit videos of Beatrice parading around nude in a public park restroom while she delivered a scatological monologue spoken directly into the camera in what was obviously intended to be a come-hither seductive manner, inviting all the men to watch her urinate, which she in fact proceeded to do, in extreme close-up and high fidelity digital sound. Does that description adequately gratify your male curiosity, Ricky?”

Busted. “Sounds awful,” I said, “but hardly arousing, at least to a normal man.”

“Speaking as a mother who has diapered two daughters, believe me when I tell you what a truly unsettling experience it can be to witness a video played to a packed courtroom depicting one of those daughters as a grown woman being forced to exhibit her natural functions in such appallingly compromising circumstances.”

“She was forced?”

“Of course she was forced. Beatrice is and always has been a shy girl by nature, very diffident, quiet and decent, with a pronounced sense of personal modesty. She would have been incapable of participating in the video travesty I have just described, as well as others which I refuse to describe to any man, without some singularly extortionate means of persuasion.”

“Such as?”

“To this day, Beatrice adamantly refuses to tell me that. But a mother knows her daughters.”

“You mentioned another daughter.”

“Yes. She quite recently joined your employ, in fact. Tell me, how is Heart working out so far?”

I glanced out the open door of my office to the receptionist area, where Heart sat gazing out the front window pretending nonchalance, a pen poised provocatively in her mouth like Ida Lupino with a cigarette holder.

Heart Robbins. In that instant I knew I would accept the challenge of her. I would insinuate myself into her life and the lives of her family, successfully represent Beatrice Russell and rescue her from the penitentiary, thereby becoming locally famous for my professional abilities and wresting myself and my law practice from this prison of tedious custody disputes, guardian ad litem reports, social service patronage, judges who thought themselves funny, unpaid statements for professional services rendered and too many good years wasted.

And I knew as well that what had been for me a long season of fidelity was about to come to a close. I would make it my job to seduce Heart Robbins; of that much I was certain. But first there were a couple of other matters I had to accomplish. One in particular had been preying on my mind.

In twelve-step groups we acknowledge a phenomenon known as telescoping. It is usually observed in alcoholics after long periods of sobriety but is also present in every other form of compulsive misbehavior. Telescoping means essentially that when you fall off whichever wagon you’ve been riding on, you fall back into the very same gutter you crawled out of in the first place. You pick up right where you left off, in other words. And in my particular case, that’s a pretty depraved place to start.

I passed the call back to Heart to schedule the appointment for her mother. Pulling the door closed, I searched my office for my specially designed cushion shim, which had fallen into long disuse. There it was in the back of a built-in storage drawer behind some closed files. After swatted the dust off it, I carefully positioned the terrycloth-lined device with the thick side facing me under the cushion of the client chair to my right. Practically undetectable to the person seated, the intended effect was to transform the chair into a bucket seat, elevating the thighs and encouraging them to part along my line of sight.

I called it my beaver wedge.

Next it was time to place a long-overdue telephone call. Using the fax line, which Heart could not eavesdrop on, I dialed it from memory. A familiar woman’s harried voice answered, “Grab n’ Go.”

Suddenly nervous as a schoolboy, I almost hung up at that point, as I had innumerable times in the past after punching in star sixty-seven to avoid detection before calling that same number. She repeated a little louder, “Grab n’ Go.”

“Hi, is this Kendra?”

“You got her. Who’s this?”

“Ricky Galeer, from the meeting this morning? I thought I’d check in with you, see how you were doing.”

I was afraid she might get suspicious, or mad. Instead, her tone turned all down-home folksy and hearty. “Well, ain’t you sweet? That’s about the nicest thing anybody’s said to me all morning.”

Line one rang. Heart got it on the first ring.

“How are you holding up, Kendra? How’s work treating you?”

“You know me, Ricky. I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.”

“I hear you, Kendra.”

“My friends call me Drey these days. You like it?”

“Yeah. Sounds sexy. Very sexy in fact. It suits you to a T, Drey.”

“Now, see? You’re gonna give me the big head you keep handin’ out all them nice compliments. Came up with it myself, made it up out of the last part of my name. Thought it sounded kinda exotic or whatever, instead a some dumb ol’ hoosier handle like Kendra. Pump six, you’re authorized. When you’re done come see me inside.”

“You sound busy, Drey.” Playing the name over my lips and tongue like a lovesick boy. Maybe if I handled my cards right she’d let me videotape her.

“Hell, I’m always busy, Hon. Keeps me outta trouble. Like last weekend for instance, wish I’d worked a double. Otherwise I’m double trouble.”

Heart buzzed me on the intercom. Covering the receiver I yelled, “Take a message.”

“I was just wondering, Drey, whether you ever take a break from all that work, maybe a lunch break where you and I could get together and talk, say?”

“All’s they gimme’s a dinner break and that don’t get here ‘til five-thirty. I’m free five-thirty to six, then my evening shift starts up.”

“Wow! That’s a lot of hours.”

“You ain’t just a shittin’ that’s a lotta hours, Ricky. I told ya, this gal’s gotta keep her mind off other things.”

“What kind of things, Drey?” Had I used too seductive a voice for that last, hesitated a moment too long before speaking?

Instead, Drey’s voice lowered to match mine. “You know the kind a things I mean, Stud.”

“So you think we could get together maybe?”

A long sigh. A nervous cough over the distorted high-pitched chatter of a cash register. “That’s thirty-five eleven with the Marlboros. Outta forty. Woops-e-daisy!” A clatter of coins at her end. “Fumble-fingers me. And four’s forty. Thanks, Darlin’. Come back and see us. Still there, Ricky?”

I tried it. “My first rule is, never hang up the phone when there’s a beautiful woman at the other end, Drey.”

“Whoo! You’re steady workin’ wonders for my ego, you know that?”

“Now see? That’s the nicest thing anybody’s said to me all morning. Maybe we should start a mutual admiration society, just the two of us.”

A tap at my door. After a brief hesitation, Heart tentatively opened it a crack and peeked in. My hand darted away from between my legs not a moment too soon.

“New call. Divorce,” she said, whispering the last with Victorian propriety, holding a pink message memo in her hand.

“Give me just a minute, Heart,” I said. “And pull the door closed behind you, if you would, please.” After she had complied, I said, “Sorry about the interruption.”

“These chips yours too? Sorry. Hang on, okay Hon?”

“Sure, Drey.” I listened to the convenience store give-and-take, fantasizing what would come next: working out with a practice woman, a fuck-buddy sparring partner before the main event with Heart Robbins. A moment later line one rang again. Heart’s voice out in the reception area sounded stressed but I couldn’t make out a word she was saying. Whatever it was, she sounded like she was dealing with it.

“I was thinkin’ about droppin’ in to see you anyhoo,” Drey said after she got back on the line. “This whole dealie with Tyranno has me buffaloed.”

“I’d love to discuss it with you.”

“I mean professionally.”

“That too.”

“What if he goes ahead and does what he said he’s fixin’ to? I don’t need my face plastered all over the Internet. No fun intended.”

How long had she been going around saying no fun intended? I would have figured you needed a woman like Drey to make a Russell R. Russell video. It surprised me she claimed to be camera shy that night at Tyranno’s. I wondered if she were truly as bashful as she professed to be or if it was merely a sop to her ego. That, and a means of enticing men like me into photographing her in new and tantalizing ways.

Drey. Ah-nna. It was a season for new names. We’d given Anna a big cumbersome videocam two years ago last Christmas after buying it used. She didn’t like it. All her friends had the latest iPhones. Other than a few tapings of her dance troop, it had sat abandoned on the floor of her closet keeping company with the dust bunnies and blank VHS tapes. She’d probably never miss it. Diane and the kids had most likely gone shopping and wouldn’t be home for hours. I could sneak home and retrieve it, charge it up, grab a couple of Anna’s unused tapes, and Drey and I could find a public restroom this afternoon where we could play.

Fun intended.

“So you wanna take me out to supper? Is that what’s on your mind, Ricky?” Not a single mention of Diane or my kids. This woman was a true find, a confirmed slut in denial.

“I was really hoping we wouldn’t have to wait that long, Drey. Of course if you have to work—”

“I s’pose I could call Chandralee in early; tell her some shit or other how I have to see my lawyer and that.”

“How soon?”

“How soon you want me?”

“You kidding? Right this minute, Drey. I can hardly wait to see you. But what would you say to two hours from now?”

“I’d say name the place.”

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