Dr. Stenwick's confident smile should have reminded them of a used car salesman, but neither of them could see it. For one thing, Kirk Walters was himself a salesman, which paradoxically made him more susceptible to the incantations of salesmanship. And for another, Trisha Walters was a technician in a chemical laboratory, for which she was perfectly suited. Her forte was formulas and numbers, not reading people.
But all things considered, it would not have affected their decision. They wanted to believe. And they certainly weren't going to deny their son every advantage for his future.
"Will it increase Lenny's IQ?" she asked.
The doctor leaned back as if dispensing his expertise to a congregation. "IQ is a contentious category. There are actually different kinds of intelligence. It's been shown that a high standard IQ does not guarantee success in climbing the ladder of life. A person needs something more. Political skills, well-to-do parents, even good looks improve a person's chances in life. But the biggest factor for attaining the American dream is competitiveness, that inner drive, the insistence on not accepting second place."
Kirk nodded. "That's exactly what our sales manager told us at our last meeting."
"Does it leave a scar?" she asked.
"Only a tiny one," the doctor replied. "Age four is the optimum time in a child's life, both psychologically and physically. It's the time he'll begin to learn about social interaction, and when the skin still rejuvenates well. The hole in the skull will be a mere quarter-inch, and after implantation, we fill it in with powdered bone material. We only need to make a small incision in the scalp. Once the skin grows together, it's almost impossible to see."
The Walters were following the path of many affluent couples who took advantage of brain implants. It was their parental obligation to prepare their children for successful careers with all the associated perks. College? That was just a start, all about the diploma – a kind of career visa that allowed workers to pretend they weren't migrant workers picking paychecks in some absentee landlord's fields. However, the overseers in the upstairs offices looked for something more, that suit-and-tie aggressiveness that distinguished their best from the rest of the herd.
"What is the lifetime of the chip?" Kirk asked.
"They last at least 20 years, but the chip only directs the growth of neuronal connections. Once those structures are established – about age 18 – the chip itself is no longer needed."
"One more question. Why this particular model? I've heard some good things about the Juggernaut 7 and the Einstein 4F."
Dr. Stenwick's smile broadened as he leaned forward. "The Einstein 4F is an older design, focused purely on abstract intelligence. Children who were implanted with it are now starting their careers. They've all chosen nerdy professions." He instantly regretted his word choice. He looked directly at Trisha. "Forgive the term, but I'm sure you want what every parent wants – to have your children do better than yourselves."
She paused, before snapping, "Of course."
Stenwick continued. "To answer your question, Mr. Walters, the lifetime earnings of children implanted with the Einstein 4F will be very decent, but hardly spectacular. And given the price of the procedure, I'm sure you want to weigh the return on your investment."
"Exactly what I tell my own clients," Kirk replied.
"The Juggernaut 7 is a good product, but in my estimation, does not quite equal the Viper 3000. For one thing, its level of aggressiveness is 12 percent less than the Viper. And the Viper 3000 is the only brain implant endorsed by the American Wrestling Foundation. Given the cost of the medical procedure and hospitalization and the fact that insurance companies won't cover it, you might as well spend a little more to get the best."
"Well, that makes sense." Kirk looked at his wife. "You want to discuss it at home?"
"I don't think that's necessary." Her voice still had an edge.
Dr. Stenwick smiled, relaxed as a gambler whose horse just crossed the finish line. "You won't regret it. One more thing. I suggest you start calling him Leonard, rather than Lenny. It will improve his self-image. Now let's see when we can schedule this..."
Some 20 years later, Leonard Walters joined Valhalla Yacht Corporation. Of course, his co-workers also had implants, most of them the identical Viper 3000 model. Like the de rigeur $4000 suit and the $800 briefcase, it both identified the upcoming sales champions and evened the odds between them.
As with all the other Viper 3000 alumni, the spouse had to be carefully evaluated. Leonard didn't bother with dating coaches but instead utilized the services of Sandra Knowles, a career consultant. "Another Viper 3000 would not be a good fit. Think of it as a musical chord. The notes are in harmony, but different. Besides, today's corporate managers are accustomed to subordinates' aggressive spouses. They automatically discount their flattery and supposed fealty to the company. If you want a spouse who stands out, I suggest aiming for someone who projects friendliness, who appears welcoming, rather than tactical or conniving. My advice is to seek a spouse with either a DoorKey-R or GladHand 4.3 implant."
"What do they do?"
"The DoorKey increases the impulse to form mutual alliances with others. It was derived from the Accomplice 1.0, which was discontinued because it created a tendency to join in criminal conspiracies. The GladHand provides its owner with the skills and inclination to be pleasant, and put others at ease, even in the most strained social circumstances."
Leonard's search on the LadderClimbers dating site netted three potential candidates. He dated them all over a period of two months, but none of them seemed suitable. One needed plastic surgery to match the photoshopping of her online image, and the others did not appeal to him personally.
Then Sandra Knowles called. "This morning, I met with a couple who want their daughter to marry into money. She's well-schooled and totally charming. And one more thing. She has a GladHand implant."
And that's how Leonard met and married Cecilia Vandershan. She had been raised for the upper crust via private schools, tutors, and Vassar College. Though reasonably attractive, her frame was a bit too short and muscular to qualify for trophy-wife status. However, her face was lovely and always displayed a smile, her side-swept hair was elegant, and she had an ability to seamlessly dovetail her interests into his.
There was one hiccup at the beginning of their marriage, some discord over their new home. Narrowly focused, he had worked with the architect without consulting her.
"Really? You want our house to look like a boat?" Her hands were on her hips, for her an unusually inelegant posture.
"Not just a boat. A yacht. It will be a great marketing tool. Everyone will ask about it. Neighbors and visitors will consider buying boats. It's the perfect advertisement."
"You want to ruin the design for a few sales?"
"You don't understand how success works. It will be a good conversation starter. More important, it will impress the boss."
She eventually calmed down, her habitual smile returned, and she gracefully acquiesced, though she did draw the line at putting the company logo on the front door.
He did have to coach her a bit on impressing his boss, Benton Collier. For instance, at parties, she was something of a queen bee. By default, that role should have gone to Benton's wife, Kyrie. But Kyrie's assertive interruptions – always with a stick-on smile – could only temporarily disperse the crowd surrounding Cecilia.
Leonard finally had to say something. "Honey, you need to avoid drawing too much attention to yourself."
"Drawing attention? I'm only being a good host."
"You do the same at others' houses. It's irritating to Kyrie."
"Kyrie is just jealous. She's also...I hate to say it, but she bores people. That's why people talk with me. Why does it matter?"
"Remember, she massages Benton's balls, and he's holding mine."
She winced at his crude metaphor, then immediately smiled. "I understand, but dear, I can't tell people not to talk with me. It would be rude. I certainly never try to exclude her. She's just… boring."
"Then keep close to her."
"Close? Like, snuggling up to an iceberg?"
"That iceberg can sink our ship. Don't forget that. We can't afford her resentment. Share the center with her."
"Very well." She paused for several seconds. "You know, Leonard, your friends are probably saying the same thing to their spouses. 'Don't hang around Cecilia. You need to pretend you're interested in Kyrie.'"
"Not probably – absolutely certain. And they're not my friends."
"Sorry. Your coworkers."
"No. My rivals. Remember – every month our sales get compared. Even coming in second turns into a slap across the face. And third and below? A kick in the butt."
"What about the lowest?"
"Oh, they get fired, of course."
She opened her mouth but was silent for several seconds. "Fired? Really? Good God, Leonard. What kind of a company does that?"
"A profitable one. And, I might mention, a high-paying one."
"Leonard, that's a horrible way to live. I don't understand how you can spend day after day holding those kinds of feelings inside."
"I could go to work for a less dynamic company, but my earnings would drop. And frankly, I enjoy the competition, the kick-ass pressure. Keeps me on my toes. Besides, I'm in line to replace Benton when he moves up."
More than Leonard realized, more than Cecilia would admit, she was unnerved by his comment about earnings. Her parents had drained most of their inheritance cultivating her like a bonsai, shaping her for the upper crust. Despite her conscious evasions, her stomach tightened at any reminder of her life's dependence on wealth. No – not exactly her life; her lifestyle, which had swallowed her identity. She was gracious, smoothly pleasant, welcoming even to boors – not only an effect of her implant but also because of her station in life, equally implanted by years of habituation. And despite the trite narratives of both rich and poor, deep within, she knew the truth. Her and her husband's circle, even her sense of self, was a sandstone arch held aloft by tall green columns. Without that, who would she be?
A week later, Leonard sat in Benton Collier's office, pretending to listen to the boss reciting the previous month's sales figures. He wondered if he had miscalculated. 'Perhaps not a Viper 3000. He's too easygoing. Or perhaps he's just good at faking it. The Pacino 9?'
Benton finished reading the figures and dismissively tossed the papers on his cluttered desk. "I'm disappointed, Leonard. You dropped from first to third in one month, behind both Laura and David. Can you explain it?"
Leonard had prepared himself for the reprimand. "No, I cannot. And you should not want me to."
Benton leaned his chair back, a smile barely visible. "And why is that?"
"Because it would sound too much like an excuse. I don't make excuses. The truth is, I've examined every encounter that did not turn into a sale – at least, not yet – and I've asked myself what I might have done with each to improve the chances of bringing it to home plate."
"And your conclusion?"
"As you know, Benton, I've been in this business for years. I know what mistakes to avoid. In these self-reviews, I found not a single flaw in my approaches, my presentations, or my closing scripts. I've decided that I have to push on the price more intensively."
"The next time a sale seems in peril, I'd like to offer an extra discount, and take half of it out of my commission."
"An admirable sacrifice, Leonard, but where would we get the other half?"
Leonard attempted to make his smile appear sincere. "The company will make a profit on the sale. It seems only fair that we each share the burden equally."
Benton didn't bother appearing sincere. With a reptilian smile, he said, "Laura and David didn't require any sacrifice from the company."
"So, you're suggesting the entire discount should come out of my commission?"
"I'm not suggesting anything, Leonard. You were suggesting. Any side deal you work out with our clients is entirely between you and them. You just need to get your numbers up."
"Okay, Benton. Will do."
After Leonard had departed, Benton considered their interchange. If Leonard regained first place in sales, Benton could pressure others to copy him, kicking back part of their commissions. Sales would increase without cost to the company. In effect, it would be the same as lowering commissions, but he could still attract replacement salespeople with the official commission rate. Benton's reptilian smile widened.
Though Leonard lacked insight into such subtleties, he realized he'd been rolled. But how? 'Maybe I should have signed up for that college night course. What was it? Oh yeah – Office Acting 207.' He speculated about Benton, 'No, not a Pacino 9. More likely an Alpha Z3.'
However, he was wrong. Benton had a Viper 3000, just like Leonard. However, he had taken a course in MacroGolem's executive training program, Outthink 7. Outthink used shock therapy to train inductees to be cool under pressure, and to think several moves ahead in any negotiation. As his instructor had said, "Life is always about negotiation. Even love and romance are negotiations."
It took a lot of effort, but within two months, Leonard was once again king of the hill.
"You seem to be in a good mood," Cecilia observed during dinner.
"Made top salesman for the month."
Yep. The $10,000 bonus will come in handy. And I'm sure the Garth sale will probably close next week."
"That should be a feather in your cap."
"You should have seen his face when I told him Langston Parson had bought the same model. Garth practically drooled."
"Parson? The billionaire?"
"Yeah. My background in psych research indicated that Garth was the perfect target for keeping up with the Joneses. I'm sure it's straining his finances, the reason he's not going for the hyperturbo. That would have been an extra five grand commission. But then, when I told him..."
Cecilia's GladHand 4.3 allowed her to listen with perfect equanimity to another insufferable dinnertime conversation – a victorious sale; an ardent hope for a deal; the background research and psychological profile of this or that client. At company parties, the conversation between the Valhalla people was similar. Like Knights of the Round Table, they recounted adventures in heroic salesmanship, both their recent and past glories jousting with clients. Crystal glasses replaced tankards, and martinis replaced mead, but the epic tales suffused the air with the same vapor of heroism with the same existential validations as a medieval epic. She found it unsurprising that in a roomful of boring braggers, men and women gravitated to her. It was more than her pleasant smile, always welcoming or her soothing voice. She understood what they did not – they were bored with themselves, with their narrow reality that carried outward marks of success, marks that masked for them the transience of their existence. She was the tranquil port in the storm, the one place of solace in the room, the one dependable smile, the one visage that held the most convincing appearance of sincerity.
But was it sincere? From time to time, she pondered the question. She made no effort to smile, to appear sympathetic. Didn't that make it sincere? On the other hand, that curve of the mouth, that warm twinkle in her eye did not reflect her feelings. They were merely the autonomic artfulness wired within by the GladHand 4.3.
Social graces made their wives more tolerable. It took longer for Cecilia to realize they too were medieval, though in a different way. Their shields were custom clothes by some exclusive design house, and their squires were a multitude of valets, clothing fitters, and restaurant servers. Squires and ladies all performed their minuet.
"By the way, you all missed a fantastic poetry reading last Saturday," Gwyneth said, as she took another bite of her salad.
"Don't tell me you got tickets to the Beau Zorchinsky reading?" Francine said.
"I did. Frank knows somebody who knows somebody. Zorchinsky has such a way of enchanting his audience."
"Oh, I know," Moira Linnon said. "I met him at one of his early readings before he was famous."
Gwyneth put her fork down. "He comes on stage and just stands there until the applause tapers off. Then he pulls the mike close, and in a deep voice he slowly says – get this..." At this point, she lowered her voice and leaned in. "...'Fuuuck Youuu.'"
"Oh my gosh!" Moira said with delight.
"And the whole place goes wild. Everyone's cheering. Well, everyone except a couple of people who walked out."
"Philistines," Patricia Taylor remarked. "They don't understand the first thing about art. Always hanging around. If they don't like his poetry, why do they go?"
"By the way, this fourchu lobster is delicious," declared Moira. "It's a perfect match to the prawn curry sauce."
"Everything here is delicious, though the sommelier at Kori's is better," remarked Patricia. "He knows my palate. I have lunch there often. It's just down the block from Merci's."
Alisa nodded. "Yes, Merci's. I go there a few times a year. Their pantsuits are fabulous. But I prefer Forenci's for shoes. They have the best selection in Italian wear."
"That reminds me," Gwyneth said. "I'll need a new pair for the Habitat For Humanity charity event."
"I've never been to that one. Maybe I should go. When is it?"
"The 26th of next month. I could introduce you to Willard Yolter, their president. He's a personal friend."
They all had special personal friends, along with personal nutritionists, personal auto repairmen, and a zoo-full of personal trainers for yoga and swimming and painting and the rest of their vanity list. And Cecilia was part of that existence too. What else was there to do with one's life?
However, one day a stray notion floated into her mind. Years later, she would ponder its source. Had someone's passing remark planted a seed that finally flowered into consciousness? Had the voice of a spirit guide spoken, or an inner anguish broken through? Her only certitude was that the source was not her implant. Instead of money, she would give her time to various community service organizations. It was at one of the Children's Tutoring Network events that she met Congresswoman Nancy Johanson. They immediately became friends.
Three days later, Cecilia received a call. "I'm going to be in the district Tuesday. Can we do lunch?"
"I'd love to, Nancy. Why don't you come to my place?"
"Oh, I wouldn't want to impose..."
"No imposition. I like to cook. It breaks up the day. Here's the address..."
On the following Tuesday, about a half-hour into the meal, Nancy said, "The reason I wanted to meet is to ask a favor. I need a business liaison in the district – someone to handle constituent's problems and complaints."
"But don't you already have a local office with a staff?"
"A couple of part-time volunteers, who are dedicated and friendly, but don't have the political or organizational skills. Mary Stettler is the full-timer, and she's very good for constituents' personal needs – food stamps, VA benefits, and so forth. And I have a staff in my DC offices to schedule events and handle fund-raising. What I need is someone at the middle level, someone who can take care of the needs of small businesses. You would smooth their path for things like permits and small business loans. You have the social skills and seem to be business savvy. What do you say?"
"Actually, I'd like something like that. Housewife-plus-maid is not an exciting life. And lunches with other company wives is a chore. So yes, I think I'd enjoy the work, but it would have to be part-time. My husband's social and company events have to take precedence. He's the breadwinner."
"Of course. Your schedule will be flexible, and it would be a paying position. We have money in our staff budget.
"Then it's a definite yes."
Nancy's eyes seemed distant for a few seconds. "You'd be the...how about Local Business Consultant?" She looked at Cecilia. "LBC. Government people love their acronyms. Learning them would be your very first assignment."
Cecilia nodded. "Like returning to childhood, learning my ABCs again."
Leonard held up his fingers. "Not one, but three – count them – three yachts. And not the bottom lines either. Two Bluejacks and one Xanadu." Between bites of his dinner, he described in agonizing detail his manipulation of each customer, how he had led them to spend more than they had intended. "I'll tell you, Benton will be impressed. When I called in, I didn't give him the full picture. I want to see his face when I hand him the orders. And here's the thing. Not only am I certain to tag another top-salesman bonus for the month, but I'm sure Benton will recommend me to take his place when he moves up to corporate next year."
"That's incredible," Cecilia said. "How was Barbados? I've heard the shoreline is magnificent."
"Yeah. It's nice enough, but I didn't spend my time just lounging around. The thing is, before boarding, I bought this book in the airport, Ripping Them Off, by Lance Daly. It was a how-to book, and I was able to apply two of the techniques by the time I'd landed."
She smiled. "You always were a quick study."
"Daly's got some other books out. I plan to get every one of them."
"Sounds like you have a lot of homework to do. More pie?"
"Nope. It's delicious, but keeping a trim waistline is important. Image and all that."
"You have wonderful discipline."
"So, what did you do this week?"
"Well, I met Congresswoman Nancy Johanson at the tutoring school. She offered me a job."
Leonard took a sip of wine. "Oh? Doing what?"
"I'll be the LBC – Local Business Consultant. I'll be helping small businesses navigate the bureaucracy."
"That's good. Probably doesn't pay much, but maybe some of them will want a yacht? I'll give you some cards to pass around. Maybe some brochures, too."
"Actually, I think that might not be legal."
"Hmm. Maybe not, but you could have them just sitting on your desk. You wouldn't have to actually hand them out. Besides, who would complain?"
She smiled, imagining herself trashing them. Years earlier, she had learned how to circumvent his arm-twisting salesmanship.
As LBC, Cecilia's first clients were Renee Unger and Lois Breem.
"Lorca Placement Services?" Cecilia said with raised eyebrows. "Named after the poet?"
Lois nodded. "Yes. It was intended to convey a sense of art, but few of our clients ever heard of him."
They needed a small business loan for expansion. Cecilia, who had been the LBC for all of three hours, assured them she would look into the matter. After they had left, she quickly researched the small-business loan process. Then she called Nancy.
"Anything else I should look into?"
"You know, Cecilia, the state legislature passed a bill a month or two ago. What was it…. Oh yes, something about matching federal loans. Google that, and if that doesn't work, you can always search for state Senator Dershon plus business loans."
"I'm sorry to trouble you, Nancy, but I'm so unfamiliar with all this."
"Of course you are. It's to be expected. But you'll learn, and you're saving my staff the time of doing the actual web searches and meeting the constituents. Don't hesitate to call anytime you run into a roadblock. You're doing fine."
Two days later, Cecilia visited Lorca and presented the women with the information and forms as well as directions for applying for the loans.
They insisted on taking her to lunch. It was a lively conversation. They spent little time discussing business, but a lot talking about their kids, about local playhouses, about the different experiences of live plays compared to movies. They ended with a date to see a local stage production in a theater of modest size.
Driving home that evening, Cecilia pondered her encounter with the two women. For some reason, she remembered a scene from her childhood. As her mother was driving her to school, she noticed a stream of kids entering a schoolyard. Unlike her, they were all dressed in different kinds of clothes. None of them wore a uniform.
"Mommy, what kind of school is this?"
"That's a public school, dear." She paused. "It's not as good as your school."
Cecilia realized that Renee and Lois probably went to similar schools. Perhaps one of them was among the crowd of children she had seen that day.
The following week, she met Martin Carnahan, whose business involved creating and maintaining interiorscapes – the plants and fountains inside large business buildings. She researched the requirements and made a few calls to expedite his path through the bureaucracy at the EPA. A week later, he picked up the form and information packet. As a thank you, he treated her to lunch. Their conversation sparkled. He talked about his interest in photography, which led to her first insights into the art of Bresson and Weston. She asked about the buildings his business serviced, and he offered her a tour of some of his interiorscapes for the following week. This time, she treated him to lunch. A couple of weeks later, he invited her to a special exhibition at the local museum. It displayed old photographs of their city. He described several of the buildings, criticizing the architecture of some and praising others. She was not familiar with any of them.
"Would you like to see my house? I'm certain you will find it unusual." She was surprised by her own impulse.
As he followed her in his car, her recklessness became clearer. He seemed decent, very responsible, but what had she been thinking? How would he take the invitation? How had she intended it?
They arrived while it was still light. Martin paused for a few seconds before walking around to the side of the house. "Huh. Interesting." He nodded. "Unusual."
She led him inside, then gradually, from room to room. "Well, what do you think?"
"The furnishings are lovely. You have great taste."
"And the house?"
"It's certainly unusual. I've never seen anything quite like it."
She spoke more slowly. "Martin, what do you think of it as architecture? And please be honest."
He looked at her, considering his response. "Okay. It, uh, seems a bit too literal."
She had to ponder his meaning. She often had to ponder his meanings, one of the things that made him interesting. "Too literal?"
"The museum at Bilbao is designed to remind us of a ship. But it isn't a model of a ship, just reminiscent of one. There are aspects of it that I think are overdone, but what separates good art from bad is whether it can evoke a sense of something, without reproducing it." He paused, looking around. "Not actually bad, but not terribly artful."
"I don't know about this Bilbao, but I agree with you. You must have an artist chip." To his confused expression, she elaborated, "Your implant?"
"Me? No, no. My parents could never afford an implant."
"Oh, sorry. I had no idea. I just assumed everyone had one." After a few seconds, she remarked, "That's a shame."
"I don't think so. You have one, and you're not happy."
The statement caught her off guard. She recovered her smile. "Why...why would you say that?"
"I'm not psychic. It's just that during lunch, your smile was different, and also, today in the museum. From the moment we entered your home, your smile has been merely pleasant. And also, you said your husband sells boats, so the exterior had to be his idea, but the furnishings are Queen Anne, and the wallpaper themes are nature. It's a very different esthetic, so I figured those were your own choices." He paused before adding, "And frankly, Cecilia, the two don't go together."
It took several seconds for her smile to reappear.
"I've made you sad," he said. "I'm sorry."
"That's okay. I'm just tired from a long day. I want to thank you for being my museum guide. I've enjoyed the day immensely."
"And I've enjoyed it too." He looked at her directly. "I hope we can do lunch again sometime."
"Yes," she said, and reconsidering, "Yes, absolutely. I'd like that."
Most of the business owners she helped were not as interesting as Martin and the Lorca women, but the occasional sparkler made her job interesting. There was Jay Endicott, owner of Blue Jay's Cakes, who also operated a small soap bar business with his wife, Wendy, from their home. At his invitation, the couple spent an hour showing her the process and telling her about natural fragrances, the way they were gathered and processed.
"How many bars can you produce per week?"
"Oh, heck," Jay said, "it's a small operation. We just enjoy creating them. Each batch is unique."
Wendy chuckled, "At the end of the month, we probably average a dollar or two an hour. But they're pretty, and other people also find pleasure in them."
Over coffee, Wendy enthused about raising tulips in her spare time. As Cecilia was leaving, they gave her a couple of multi-colored bars.
Another businessman, Bill Sutherland, recounted his year spent in a Japanese home. He leaned forward, enthusiastically describing the arrangement of rooms, the details of the furnishings, modern versus traditional – particulars that her vacations in Japan, with their hotel accommodations, had missed.
The next time she attended a play with Renee and Lois, they took her backstage after the performance. "It's okay. They know us. Craig, the guy who plays professor Wobbly? He's a friend."
Cecilia watched with delight as the crew scurried about, removing makeup, putting away costumes, combing out their hair, chattering like a windstorm, helping stagehands put away props. It was chaos. And in a flash, she realized that was the context that made it so wonderful. Suddenly, she felt what the troupe felt – the play's joy included all this hidden turbulence whose flower was the semblance of life displayed onstage. It had nothing to do with status, certainly not money. It was like Jay and Wendy transforming colors and scents into something intrinsically beautiful. And for Martin, a building was more than a building; its design held mysterious, essential meanings. And without warning, inexplicably, she felt like a child again, and though she could not help maintaining her smile, tears began running down her cheeks. She was happy. Actually happy, not just appearing so.
Renee spotted her first. "Cecilia! What's wrong?"
Cecilia opened her mouth but had trouble speaking. "I...I'm not sure...but...I think I feel happy."
Renee wrinkled her brow. "What? Then why…?"
Lois ran up. "What's the matter?"
"I don't know," Renee said.
"Talk to us," Lois said.
"I...don't know either. I'm not sure I understand, but all these people, they work so hard, and...for little or no pay, and they're so...connected and alive."
Lois looked at Renee, who looked back, equally puzzled.
Craig arrived with a box of tissues. "What's going on?"
"We're not sure," Lois said as she grabbed a tissue and began dabbing Cecilia's cheeks.
They led her to a chair. After several seconds, Cecilia said, "My whole life hasn't been mine. I've married well and I have all these luxuries and a rich husband – a rich boring husband with all his boring friends who aren't friends, and all their insufferable chatter and their rich zombie wives." As she spoke, her tone had become increasingly emphatic. She collected herself. "Please don't take it wrong. It's not a 'poor little rich girl' thing. But ever since I started working in Nancy's office…" her voice began to squeak, "…I've met a few people, people like you, and I've caught a glimpse of what it's like to be a real person."
Lois grabbed her hand. "Oh Cecilia, we love you too."
Craig grabbed her other hand. "And I do too...and I'm gay."
Cecilia laughed, leading the other two women to crack up.
Renee slapped his shoulder. "It was your bad acting that upset her."
"No," Cecilia said, "not at all. Your character was great. I'd love to do this again."
It took her a second to realize how risible was her statement. Everyone roared with laughter.
When they had settled down, Craig said, "Would you like one of us to take you home?"
Cecilia inhaled deeply. "No, but thanks. That's most kind of you. I'll be fine tomorrow."
"What's tomorrow?" Lois asked.
"Tomorrow I will tell my husband I'm divorcing him."
The other three came to a full, brick-wall stop. After a long pause, Renee said, "Really? You want a divorce?"
With an intensity Renee had not witnessed in her before, Cecilia said, "No. Not want. Tell."
Lois's gaze lost its focus. "Wow." She looked at the other two, then back at Cecilia. "How do you think he'll react?"
"I don't have to think. I know. He'll work a sales pitch. Then he'll remind me of the prenup, that I'll only get to keep the money I had when we married, while he gets everything else."
"Nothing about love?" Renee said.
"Maybe the usual cliché dribbled in there somewhere, like a second-rate script."
"He sounds callous," Craig said.
"Don't pity me." She looked at each of them. "I'm alive. I'm alive."