Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Day 6 in my novel-in-a-month effort

Chapter 6: Homeland

 The Secretary shall establish a federally funded research and development center to be known as the “Homeland Security Institute” (in this section referred to as the “Institute”). The duties of the Institute shall be determined by the Secretary, and may include the following:

(4) Identification of instances when common standards and protocols could improve the interoperability and effective utilization of tools developed for field operators and first responders.

—Title 6, United States Code, Domestic Security, Science and Technology in Support of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Institute

In finding one’s life mission, a few dimensions must align, or else the seeker is on a fool’s errand.

The mission requires an almost cruelly difficult intersection of place, time and openness to opportunity. That requirement dooms most human beings to toil at work they dislike, in relationships that hurt, and with their truest interests, intentions and abilities hidden from themselves. They may be hidden behind layers of doubt, discouragement and ignorance. They may be cemented in like Grand Canyon sediment, or they may lie temptingly close to the surface, separated from recognition by a thin layer of the soil of self knowledge. And all of it can be and often is impenetrable to the majority of people.

Ted Castro had already had a glimmer of recognition that week in the lobby of Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine. That gave him the chance to peer more clearly into the goals of his own life mission.

But he suspected that, like Saul on the road to Tarsus, his being knocked off the mule was only his first step in a longer journey. And could the next step be taken at the Arizona State Fair? Something – a memory – told him it could.

For Ted Castro, that next step could be taken on the north end of the Fair’s Exhibition Hall. He was drawn there by his wife Sylvia. More particularly, by the memory of the handiwork his wife had done for decades, and that had been displayed in this hall.

Before Sylvia’s death five years ago, she had created the most intricate birdhouses her husband had ever seen. The powers that be at the 4-H usually agreed, resulting in years’ worth of blue ribbons for the artistic carpenter.

Ted hadn’t been back to the Fair since Sylvia died. Truth be told, he was not entirely whether sure why he had steered his car west rather than north at the end of the work day today. And as he strolled into the Fair grounds, probably the only attendee in a pin striped suit, his misgivings increased even more.

Walking through the animal barns as soon as he entered did much to calm his nerves. He had been raised in rural Arizona, near many family farms. The cows, pigs and even the pigeons communicated to him that he was on the right path. He chuckled at the farm display indicating that “Goats = Fun” right next to a poster describing how to cook goat for your family’s table. He guessed that fun is all about whether you sit around the dining table, or on it. As he turned to leave the barn, a black goat’s brown eyes met his, and he was more positive than ever that he was in the right place tonight.

Strolling the midway, he knew that he looked as overdressed as Daddy Warbucks, but he decided that wouldn’t stop him from enjoying a corn dog. Young children who didn’t blink an eye at the most outrageous parade of humanity that night stopped in their tracks to stare at him, mustard on his chin and on his silk tie. He smiled and waved, and the kids hurried off.

So calm was he amid the hubbub that it took him awhile to understand that he was looking at someone he knew. As he walked south from the midway, he suddenly thought he recognized his newest partner, Sarah Fujii. She was with some young girls, and they all looked like they were having a great time.

As he recalled, Sarah had called the office today saying she was sick. Good for her, he thought to himself with a smile. Taking your kids to the Fair should always come before time at the office.

The last thing Ted wanted to do was interrupt Sarah and her kids. So he hurried off, confident he hadn’t been seen.

Which took him directly into the Exhibition Hall. He supposed that his feet knew from the beginning where he would end up, and yet he was still surprised.

Like an automaton, he walked directly to the cases that had once held Sylvia’s bird houses. To his surprise, they now displayed lace tablecloths. But a perambulation of the hall quickly located what he sought.

The woodworking section had always been one of his favorites, and now he remembered why. The artists’ choice of simple and straightforward subjects—bird houses, house numbers and the like—masked a complexity of skill that amazed anyone who took the time to look. He had expected to be disappointed in the showing now that Sylvia’s work was no longer there, but he was still dumbstruck.

Not long after, though, Ted realized that he had looked over all the work, and still wasn’t sure why he had come.

He turned to leave, but another aisle caught his eye. He walked over, and saw in the display cases miniature mockups of houses and house interiors. Immediately, he was transfixed.

There were Tudors, and Brooklyn brownstones. There were pueblos, and log cabins, and castles. He gazed at doll houses and dog houses, all created in painstaking detail. There was even a vintage teardrop RV trailer, doors open and rigged for a camping trip. In all the works, furniture and furnishings had been created from scratch by the same artists and were made visible by false backs to the homes, and the most developed even were wired with electricity, and contained lighting appropriate to the period they represented.

He was amazed. But one thing that Ted Castro didn’t see was a representation of a modern home. That was a shame, he thought, for a detail oriented artist could work great magic on the beauty that is a more contemporary abode.

And then he recalled that Sylvia had left behind all of her equipment, in perfect working order, right there in their Paradise Valley home. He smiled, understanding why he had come this year to the Arizona State Fair. 

CHAPTER 7 is next.

Day 5 in my novel-in-a-month effort

Chapter 5: Small Entities

When any rule is promulgated which will have a significant … impact on a substantial number of small entities, the head of the agency promulgating the rule or the official of the agency with stautory responsibility for the promulgation of the rule shall assure that small entities have been given an opportunity to participate in the rulemaking for the rule through the reasonable use of techniques.

—Title 5, United States Code, Government Organization and Employees, The Agencies Generally, The Analysis of Regulatory Functions, Procedures for Gathering Comments

Sarah had been going to the Arizona State Fair for 11 years now, and she also found herself surprised at how much she ultimately enjoyed it, despite herself.

In fact, she found that the exact same things that usually would startle her or make her recoil elsewhere were the things that brought a smile to her face as she strolled through the Fair.

The heaps of what she hoped was farm animals’ poop? Charming at the Fair. The overpriced and probably rigged games lining the midway? Fun with a capital F. The remarkable variety of ways cholesterol could be solidified and sold on a stick? Delicious, and a flavor that would stay with you for days. The toothless and perhaps felonious carnies? Well, some aspects still made her recoil.

The Friday afternoon at the Fair had been beautiful. It was still a little warm for early November, but largely overcast, so it turned out to be a pretty perfect Arizona day. It was getting toward early evening, and the lights on the rides and on the midway were beginning to flicker on, transforming the negative aspects even more from Loserville to magical place.

This trip to the fair was exactly what Sarah needed after a pretty tough week at Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine (she had told herself the first day she would never call it the Dedrick law firm). The short of it was, she wasn’t entirely sure she had made the right choice to join this odd band of attorneys. And when her daughter Olive reminded her that the Fair was ending this weekend, she made an executive level decision to call in sick and come to the world of corn dogs and cotton candy.

It was a good thing. She and her daughter hadn’t missed a Fair since Olive was three. And until Olive was seven, Sarah, Olive and her former husband would enjoy the event together. Since Olive turned eight, though, it had been Sarah and Olive alone—a definite improvement over the sarcastic and unremittingly negative presence her ex represented. When Tom had been along for the ride, it definitely had been Loserville.

The past five years, though, had been a complete pleasure. The two personalities of mother and daughter were strong ones, but they discovered that they had similar tastes in perilous, poorly constructed, death defying amusement rides. They also were pretty daring in what they ate, routinely opting to share the newest odd fried food. Two years ago, they had enjoyed one of their best nine hour conversations as they sat in the St. Joe’s Hospital emergency room, suffering from food poisoning. The Fair really had been a great experience for Sarah and Olive.

This year had a new twist, though. For the first time, the twosome had become a foursome, after Olive begged her mom to let her invite Katie and Haley. Sarah had been surprised but readily agreed, understanding that she should be pleased that Olive still wanted to have her mom come along at all.

Well, “along” was a relative term. The three eighth graders had arrived at the Fair with Sarah, but they were nowhere to be seen now. The four of them had gone on one ride together—the log ride, Sarah’s favorite—but then Olive had asked if they could go on some rides on their own. Sarah agreed with a sigh. Now, she sat on one of the Fair’s scarce red benches and felt the evening chill come on, while she regretted her decision to ride the water slide so late in the day.

“Your feet look soaked,” a voice behind her said.

She turned and scanned the thickening crowd. And then she saw a familiar face.

“You’re the fax guy from the office,” she said, searching for a name she had never learned.

“And you’re the Oriental delivery girl,” said her colleague.

Sarah was stunned, but then noticed the smile that he was unable to conceal any longer.

“Sorry,” he said. “Not funny. But I overheard your first meeting with Justice Dedrick. That was a disaster if I ever heard one.”

Now Sarah laughed, too, and winced. For she was both horrified by and embarrassed for her new managing partner. It was earlier this week when she had spotted him across the lobby and moved toward him, hand extended. He looked up from papers he was reading, barely registering her, and said, “There must be some mistake. We don’t have any meetings or catering today. And I thought I had told people we would never be ordering Oriental food anyway.”

Tom Paine, happening by, was able to retrieve an interaction that was awkward for all involved. He introduced Sarah to Claude, who was immediately polite, acting as if he had not just undermined a relationship and set back civil rights history.

Sarah told herself that someday she’d be able to laugh about it, but expected it would be many years hence. But now at the Fair, only days later, she was laughing about the event with a man she had just met.

“But let me be serious for a moment,” said the man holding a corn dog, as serious as a man holding a corn dog can be. “Ever since you started, I’ve meant to tell you that the opinion you wrote in State v. Kitterer was just terrific. It was an entirely new way of looking at the confrontation clause.”

“Our fax guy has an interest in the confrontation clause?” asked Sarah, thinking she was entitled to a touch of snark.

“Actually, not particularly,” he said. “More constitutional law generally. And the title, by the way, is not ‘fax guy.’ It’s ‘Director of the Dedrick Law Firm Facsimile Center.’” He was still smiling.

“Besides,” he continued. “It’s a long story, but I am … was … a lawyer. Recovering lawyer, I think they call us. And the firm is lucky to have you.”

“Thanks,” Sarah said, “but I doubt it. I’m not sure what I’m doing there. And besides, they already are thick as thieves with law firm partners.”

He laughed at what appeared to be her deliberately mixed metaphor. “Isn’t that redundant?”

“Nicely put,” she said. “But be careful with the Dedrick law firm jokes. I could have sworn I saw another partner strolling around here.”

“Which one?”

“Ted Castro. I think I saw him near the exposition hall.”

“He’s a funny guy,” he said. “And from what I’ve seen, I like him.”

“Me too,” said Sarah. “But you were saying the firm was lucky to have me?”

He laughed. “Right back to the point, eh, your Honor? Anyway, I wasn’t referring to your considerable legal skills, or the fact that you were one of the finest writers on the supreme court, or even that you wear the nicest shoes at the firm. I meant that you appear not to be a loon. Now, loons we’ve got plenty of.”

“You like my shoes?” She could smile too.

“Focus, I like that,” he said, reassessing by the moment this law firm partner. “And yes, I do like them. But don’t get a swelled head: Your competition is pretty weak – though I do enjoy Duckworth’s massive brogans.”

She didn’t recall the last time she had enjoyed the midway quite this much. “Thanks for the writing compliment, by the way.”

She paused and looked upward, vaguely toward the tallest Ferris wheel.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Oh, I was just wondering if I made a mistake coming to the firm. I wonder if I have any interesting writing left ahead of me.”

“You haven’t been here long.”

“I know, but — “


She decided to ask, all in a rush.

“Do you ever feel like a small entity who has no input on the direction of your own life?”

“Only every day,” he laughed.

“I’m serious. Sometimes I feel like I’m the character in a novel.”

“And the novelist is just making it up as he goes along,” he said.

“Or she,” Sarah said.

“OK, maybe she,” he agreed. “But most of my days are so royally loused up that only a man could have planned so poorly.”

“Planned?” she said. “You think there’s a plan?”

“I hope so, but I suspect otherwise.”

She continued.

“It’s like I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen in my life or in this firm. So far, I’ve had virtually no involvement in anything that happens. It’s almost like it is whathe calls it—the Dedrick law firm. I wonder if I’ll have any significant role to play at all.”

“Don’t I know it?” he said. “At least I’ve heard a partner speak to you—even if he thought you were a delivery girl.”

For the second time, she caught that “girl” reference, and appreciated it.

He said, “I don’t even think anyone in the firm knows my name yet.”

“Well, I’d like to know your name,” Sarah said.

“It’s Sam, Sam Adams. Very nice to meet you.”

“Like the beer,” she said, shaking his hand.

“Something like that,” he agreed.

It may have been the evening coming on, or the chill caused by the log ride, but his handshake felt especially warm to Sarah.

“And I think we should be optimistic,” he said. “We’ll get into the story. If there is some novelist writing our story, how could he omit such great characters as ourselves? We’ve got color, verve, dynamism, and probably a really cool back story.”

“Back story, really?” she said, eyes widening. “Do tell.”

“Well, Sarah, that’s probably for another chapter,” he said.

“Planning!” she laughed. “I like it. So what brings you to the Fair? A man alone with no kids at the State Fair, who is not hawking overpriced stuffed animals or selling food – that’s a little worrying.”

“Actually, I’m here with two kids. I took my neighbors’. They’re both out of work, so I offered to bring them today. They’re running wild somewhere.”

“Excellent parenting, Mr. Adams!”

“Actually, it’s excellent neighboring,” Sam countered.

She smiled and turned to look at the growing crowd, more at home on the bench than she had been twenty minutes ago. They both sat in contentment as fairgoers streamed by.

“Caught you looking at my ta-tas,” she suddenly intoned evenly.

“What?” he said, startled. “I was not. I was looking at, um, the carousel.”

“Actually,” she answered, glad in the deepening evening that he couldn’t see her blushing,” I was reading that lady’s T-shirt.”

Sure enough, directly in front of them, stood a woman whom Sam estimated to be 400 years old. There, emblazoned in day-glo green on a black background were the words that begged passers-by to make them come true.

The woman smiled broadly at Sam, who had to laugh. He raised his corn dog, toasting her temerity.

Just then, three teenaged girls raced up to their bench. One appeared to be devouring what appeared to be a deep-fried human head.

“Hi, mom,” one girl said. “We’re just checking in.”

“Hi, Olive,” said Sarah. “Having a good time?”

“The best, mom. We’ve been on, like, every ride? But there’s a lot more to do. Can we stay longer?”

“Sure, Olive. Let’s meet again in another hour. Call me on my cell.”

“OK, mom.”

“Before you leave, Olive, I’d like you to meet someone I work with. This is Sam Adams.”

“Like the beer?” said Olive.

As the girls disappeared into the crowd, Sarah said, “Now, that worries me.”

“She seems like a good kid,” said Sam. “Are they all yours?”

“No,” Sarah exclaimed. “Just the one. We just finished a week with a pretend baby, so we both deserved a break.”

“And her papa?”

“Divorced. You?”

“The same. But no kids.”

Sarah paused before plunging in.

“And I suppose she was awful?”

“No,” said Sam. “And yes, depending on the day. We were both focused on our own careers, and became nothing but pretty good roommates after awhile. When she finally started to want to talk about the relationship, I lawyered up. It’s funny how a profession dedicated to blowing hot air can grow so reticent on important matters – no offense.”

“None taken … counselor,” she said. “Do you two still keep in touch?”

“Not really. She’s a doc, and took a job in DC. Apparently, some patients there were in need of more complete malpractice.”

“Bitter much?”

“Only when I’m awake,” he laughed. “Otherwise, it’s all good.”

It occurred to Sarah that she should start sending – or receiving – more faxes.

“Shall we get something to eat?” she asked. “I think I saw a stand around here selling deep fried octopus sushi.”

He licked his lips with relish. “With peanut butter glaze, I hope.”

CHAPTER 6 is next.