E. G. Fabricant
|From Matters Familiar. A top-dollar attorney complains about the bill and unwittingly becomes his plumber’s Zen pupil.
Jay Johanessen glanced at his diamond-inlaid Cartier. C’mon, man—let’s go! It’s just a leaky trap! He watched the gaunt haunches in Khaki coveralls jiggle from the torque being applied invisibly ahead. Well, that’s a plus, I guess—no butt crack. The gyrations stopped and two oxblood Red Wings glided backward, followed by an auburn ponytail that just cleared the sink cabinet’s top frame.
David DuPriest squatted, storing his tools deliberately. He finished wiping his hands, stood, and pressed into a languid stretch. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his retainer furiously drumming his fingertips against his face. “That ought to do it, Mr. Johanessen. Use it for a couple days and call me if there’s any further trouble. Oh, and you should have a carpenter check the sink base’s floor. That was a steady leak, so you’re probably looking at dry rot. I can give you a couple references, if—”
Jay had seized his arm. “I have a major meeting in fifteen minutes and it’s a twenty-minute drive!”
David looked at Jay’s hand until it fell off his bicep. “Give me a minute and I’ll make out your bill.” He fished intoa hip pocket and produced a well-worn, triple carbon invoice pad.
Jay shifted on his feet. “Can’t you just have your people bill me?”
David half smiled. “No ‘people’—just me.”
“Nope. ‘Sole proprietor.'” He toted up the charges with a flourish. “Here you are. A signature and a check would be appreciated.”
Jay snatched the sheet away and peered at it. His mouth fell open. “Two hundred sixty-eight dollars? For a balky trap? Jeezus! What’s that—twenty minutes’ work?”
David was stoic. “Plus the replacement J-bend.”
“Some racket, man. Goddamn. That works out to more an hour than I billed out as a senior associate at my firm.”
David turned half away, toolbox in hand. “That’s more than I billed out as a senior associate, as well.”
“Huh? Wait!” Jay lunged and caught David by the arm again, with the identical response.
“I assume you remember the hornbook definition of battery, from Torts class.”
Jay looked down at his offending fingers. “Uh…oh. Sorry. You’re a lawyer?”
“Was.” David set down his tools.
Jay brushed at his forelock. “And you gave it up to be up to your eyebrows in shit every day?”
David’s cheeks dimpled ever so slightly. “I regarded it a lateral move.”
“Why, for Christ’s sake?”
“Stress, mostly. Failing marriage. Responsibility for another life.”
“What do you mean?”
“’Another life.’ What? Somebody on the side?” Jay leered. A frosty stare obliterated his feeble attempt at camaraderie.
The muffled pounding of footfalls on carpeted stair treads accelerated into the clatter of stilettos on Italian foyer marble. A mid-teen Britney Spears replica—abdominal baby fat straining over distressed, low-rise jeans, pushed-up caricature of a bustline, and calculated makeup—burst into the kitchen.
“Daddy! Did you transfer five hundred dollars into my checking account, like you promised? If I don’t get that Moo Hoo bag by Friday night, I might as well die because I won’t dare leave my bedroom this summer.” She cocked an eyebrow, hands perched on her hip-folds; the sole of one of her expensive, impossibly pointed high heels marked time on the olive slate.
Jay had retreated to the counter and his knuckles grew whiter against the dark granite edge. “Why do you dress like that for a weekday? You look like a hooker.”
Her eyes narrowed and her Lancome-glossed lips parted. “I’m fifteen. If you knew anything, you’d know that everyone dresses like this. Besides, I’m hanging with my friends at the Galleria today.” She sneered. “You know? Friends? Like clients, except they actually like you?”
David could almost hear the bile and invective backing up behind her teeth. He cleared his throat.
They looked at him as if he’d just materialized. Jay extended an arm. “David DuPriest. Meet Skylar, my stepdaughter.”
“Oh—the plumber guy.” Dismissive filters slid through her eyes. “Nyztmeechoo.” She bored back into her stepfather. “Well?”
Jay sighed. “The money will be on deposit by Noon.”
“Cool. Ciao, everybody.” She whirled into motion. Clack-clack-clack-clack—
“It’s actually ‘Addio‘—Italian for ‘Good-bye.’ ‘Ciao‘ is ‘Hello.'” His pitch climbed. “We’ll talk later!”
Jay pulled at his face and regarded David wearily. “How old’s yours?”
“Lizzie—for Elizabeth—is sixteen.”
David looked slightly out of Jay’s gaze while he distilled the forming untruth. “Basically.”
“What’s she do?”
“No. I mean, is she interested in anything?”
“Oh. She draws; dances; plays the piano.” The image of her sunny face brought David a pleased smile. “Wants to be a fine artist. Or an astronaut.”
“Huh.” Jay searched for his reflections in his Allen Edmonds. “Mine’s already a professional malcontent. Takes after her mother. Neither one hears a word I say; Skylar never did, and Carol just sort of stopped, after the lust wore off.” Jay raised his eyes. “You happy?”
“I’m on the journey, yes—at least, since I took the other path.” David picked up the invoice Jay had abandoned and offered it again. “Keep the yellow; the original and pink are mine.”
“Two copies?” Jay cast into his breast pocket for his checkbook. “I thought it was just you.”
“One’s for the accountant—my wife, Sunny.”
Jay filled in the date. “What’s that short for?” He glanced at David’s queue. ‘”‘Sunshine?'”
“No, actually. It’s a corruption of ‘Shuang.’ She’s Chinese; her name means ‘bright, clear, and openhearted.’ It’s the best Lizzie could do when she was two—and she’d already mastered ‘sun.'”
Jay raised his pen and peered at the ticket. “What’s this, under your name?
“Is that Chinese?”
“Yes. Those two characters are ‘chan zong’—for ‘Zen Buddhism.'”
“So—you’re a Buddhist?”
“Sunny teaches and Lizzie and I study; we all attend temple. Yes.”
“No shit! What does that involve?”
“Deepest understanding of self and the pursuit of true enlightenment.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
Jay looked truly perplexed. “No, I mean, what’s the payoff? You know, you’re Jewish, you chair the temple Building Fund and plant trees in Israel. Catholics keep the Archbishop in silk and marble; Mormons tithe ten percent, minimum, and study their ancestors in caves. Protestants—well, protest, or whatever. What’s your angle?”
David folded his hands before him. “How do I explain this? Zen worships everything, and nothing. It is the pursuit of the ultimate truth. Professor Suzuki calls it ‘opening the mental eye to look into the very reason of existence.’ Buddhism is a ladder useful to reaching that truth. Zen is the tong for grasping it.”
“Wow.” Jay scribbled, stopped, and began rolling the capped end of the pen between his lips. “Does it help?”
“Understanding can bring peace, yes.”
Jay pointed the pen at David. “You think I could get some peace?”
“With total commitment, patience, and diligence? Of course.”
“What are you doing Thursday?”
David blinked. “Um…I don’t think I’m being clear, here…”
“I’ll make you a deal.” Jay shaped the offer with his hands. “Spend Thursday with me; audit a practice day, and show me some Zen techniques I can use to lower my emotional temperature. I’ll pay you my hourly rate. What do you say?”
David half-shook his head. “Listen, Mr. Johanessen—”
“Jay. Zen isn’t exactly like a day spa that takes drop-ins.”
“How about this? We do a day together, as outlined. If within a week I feel like you’ve helped me lower my general level of stress at least ten percent, I’ll double the retainer as a bonus. C’mon—at six hundred per, that works out to ninety-six hundred bucks. That’s a lot of backed-up toilets.”
“In all honesty, Jay, I can’t see how eight hours is going to help your situation that much.” This time, it was David who reached out to clasp Jay’s shoulder.
Jay smiled. “You really should have stuck with it, David, you know? With your negotiating skills, you’d be sitting where I am today. At least. Okay, final offer: six grand, flat, for eight hours, plus a match for the bonus. Twelve grand. Cash.” Jay stuck out his hand.
David stroked his chin and reached into his back pocket. “Let me check on Thursday.” He opened a small, spiral-bound notebook and flipped pages.
Jay guffawed. “God! Don’t you even have a BlackBerry? A PDA?”
“Oh, this model has all the latest features. Light; thin; indestructible. No batteries, never needs a ‘hard reset,’ and—” He tore out a page, crumpled it up, and shoved it into a front pocket. “—totally secure.” He took a stubby pencil with an eraser out of the wire and pushed it at Jay. “Handsome stylus, with built-in ‘Delete’ function. Infinitely-variable font size and style…”
Jay opened his hands in surrender, then re-offered his right. “Thursday?”
David took Jay’s hand. “Thursday’s okay. I’ve got a Net-Zero 690 filter replacement in Bel Air that I can move to Friday.” He raised the other index finger. “One codicil.”
“No warranties, express or implied. Failure of consideration is not an option.”
“Done. I’ll drive us to the firm.” Jay gave David a final once-over. “Dress appropriately.”
David retrieved his toolbox and gestured amiably. “I think I still have the Armani in the back of the closet. I hope the two-button front is acceptable; it’s a little dated…”
“Right.” David pivoted. “See you bright and early Thursday.”
“One last issue.”
“Don’t call me ‘Grasshopper.'”
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