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Her Father's House
by Belva Plain
His name was Donald Wolfe, Donald J., for James, and he was twenty-five years old when he joined the stream of eager youth that from every corner of the country, every year, pours into the churning human sea called New York. If it is ever possible, or even makes any sense to say that someone's geographic origin can be visible on his person, then it made sense to say that Donald looked like just the man to have come from healthy small-town or farming people in some cold place like North Dakota--which is exactly where he had come from.
He was tall, brown-haired, and large-boned; his brown eyes were thoughtful and calm. On the streets of New York during those first months, he walked with slow deliberation through the impatient crowd, taking his time to estimate the height of a building or pausing to wonder at the heaped-up splendors in the shop windows. Untempted, he merely wandered.
Once only was he tempted. In a bookstore's window lay the Writings of Thomas Jefferson, bound in dark red leather. It was expensive, yet the price did not faze him too much, for he hoped to build a library and he also felt that he owed himself one treat, so he bought it.
Never in his life had he had so much money at his command. Having graduated second in his class at law school, he had been hired as an associate in the New York office of an international law firm. Although others in the firm complained that the city, with its high rents, expensive restaurants and entertainments, left them beggared, he, because he did not go to expensive restaurants and always bought standing room or the cheapest seats at theaters, felt rich. His clean, two-room apartment on the fifth floor of a nineteenth century walk-up building, with an interesting view of the lively street, was satisfying to him.
Sometimes in window glass he would catch a reflection of himself on his way to work, wearing his correct dark suit with his briefcase at his side.
"I can't believe what's happened to me," he would cry out to himself, and then be amused at his own simplemindedness. Who do you think you are, anyway, Donald Wolfe? Why, there are dozens of young men just like you in any one of these towering buildings along the avenue.
Yet they were not all quite like him. Senior partners were surely known to be sparing of praise; still, before the year had passed, he had already received a good deal of it. One of the seniors, a punctilious, middle-aged man whom a few of the younger people in the office had secretly labeled "typically white shoe," took a liking to him. But even if Augustus Pratt had not taken that liking, Donald never would have scoffed at "white shoe"; to begin with, he was not exactly sure what it meant, but if it did mean what he thought--a certain old-fashioned, formal courtesy--he would have found no fault with that.
One evening at the conclusion of Aida, Donald came upon Mr. Pratt in the lobby of the opera house. He was accompanied by a woman, obviously his wife, with their three half-grown children.
"Why hello, Donald. I never knew you cared about opera."
"I do, although I still don't know much about it."
"It's never too late and seldom too early to learn. If I'd known you were here," he said as they walked out together, "we could have had some refreshments. Where were you sitting?"
"On top. As high as you can go."
"Oh. It was worth it, I'm sure, in spite of the seat."
"Yes, sir, it was."
"Well, see you in the morning. Good night, Donald."
More than once when in a later time he reflected on the chain of events that had moved him through the years, Donald wondered how differently things might have turned out if he had not met Augustus Pratt that night at the opera.
Was it the fact that I shared his tastes that impressed him enough to present me with two good seats for the rest of the season? Had that led to those informal conversations which, in their turn, had led to more swift assignments and promotions, and that, in a roundabout way had led in the end to Lillian, to marriage, and the deadly ruin that came after it?
Pratt had grown up in a small town in northern Maine. His father, like Donald's late mother, had been a teacher. He too had left for law school, borrowed and worked his way through it, and never returned to the small town. It was this familiar background that made Donald feel particularly comfortable in his presence.
"Yes," Pratt said in one of those conversations, "Dakota sounds much like Maine. A hot July and August, then a long winter. My brothers and I worked all day in the potato fields. We worked so late sometimes that our mother brought our dinner to us in a pail. You, too, I suppose?"
"Except that I had no brothers or sisters, either. Mom had a summer job when school was out. When I got back from the farm where I worked, I'd make supper. If she got home first, she'd make it."
"You don't mention your father. Or am I intruding with the question?"
"Not at all. He died in France in 1944. I was a year old."
"To have a son, and never see him grow up," Pratt murmured, then gave Donald a penetrating look.
"You would have pleased him, Donald. Our profession, despite the abuses of some lawyers, still demands the highest honor and trust. You are going to be an honored name within it."
Donald was to remember another day, two years later.
"How would you like to go with me to Singapore next month? There's a bank matter there that's come to life again. We'd thought it was nicely settled, but it isn't."
"Like it, Mr. Pratt? Until I came to New York, I'd never been farther than the state capital. Oh yes, I'd like it!"
Pratt had smiled. Donald never forgot that smile, a little pleased, a little amused, and even perhaps a little bit--well, fatherly.
"You'll see a lot more than Singapore in your time, Donald."
There was so much that he needed to see, and do, and learn! The world was a thousand times larger and fuller than he could have imagined. In the courtroom as part of a team accompanying a senior partner, he saw the human tragedy and the human comedy as he had never seen them. The variety of people! The poverty and the riches! The astonishing evil and the innocence! And above it all was the majestic quest for justice.
At his desk he sat and studied the postmarks on foreign correspondence. The very names on them lured him. London and Paris evoked grand boulevards; Surinam, Bombay, or Malaysia evoked wet heat, dim rubber forests, or red-and-gold bazaars. The firm's clients had profits, losses, and myriad problems all over the world. Here were complicated puzzles with much at stake--not to mention his own job if he were to err in a report to his superiors. . .
The bright years rolled one into the other. In the fifth year, he was approaching the time when a young lawyer either "makes partner" or knows that he never will.
"I can't talk about it yet, but I assume you have a pretty good idea," said Augustus Pratt, and changed the subject. "Do you ever think of marrying?"
Donald was startled. They were five miles above the Atlantic, flying home. And they had just been talking about the Federal Reserve. Anyway, the question was more personal than one would generally expect from Mr. Pratt.
"No," he said, stumbling over his reply. "I'm in no hurry."
"Well, you've been with us going on six years. And you haven't met anyone? I thought maybe that English girl you always see when we're in London. She seemed quite lovely that time I met her."
"You liked her," Donald said mischievously, "because she looks like Mrs. Pratt."
"Ah yes, maybe she does, a little. We'll be married twenty years next month." A soft expression crossed Pratt's face. It was remarkable to see that softness appear on features usually so firm as to have been carved. "Yes, yes, Donald, a sound, loving marriage is a man's blessing. Someplace right now there's a young woman who is going to give you great joy in life. And let me add that she will be one lucky woman."
"Well, we'll see," said Donald, wanting to end the subject. "But up till now, I haven't ever felt about anyone that I'd want to spend the rest of my life with her. Without that I certainly wouldn't marry her."
Scattered among New York's stone towers are a number of small, green oases, with seats in the shade or in the sun, depending on one's choice. Throughout the day, people come to them to read or eat a sandwich lunch, or simply to sit.
About half-past four on a warm afternoon late in April, Donald sat down in one of these oases and opened the newspaper. He was unusually tired; he had been in the office until midnight the night before and had then spent the greater part of the day in court. Debating within himself whether he ought to go back to the office or whether, it being Friday, he could afford to go straight home, take off his shoes, and stretch out, he put the paper down and shut his eyes against the lowering sun. His mood was mingled; there was the satisfaction that came of having skillfully presented a convincing argument before the court; also there was the pity that he could not help but feel for the poor guilty devil who by now must be sitting in jail, quivering as he waited the term of his punishment.
A bright, girlish voice woke him from his thoughts. "Your briefcase is about to fall and spill out all your papers."
So it was. He had placed it carelessly on the very edge of his knees. Now, in haste, he retrieved it and mumbled his thanks.
"Very nice of you. I should have known better."
Directly in his line of vision sat the owner of the voice, the owner also of two very large and very blue eyes. He smiled appropriately, returned to his newspaper, and read a column. When he looked up as he turned the page, there she was again, a smart young woman wearing black and white; her skin was also very white against her black, upswept hair. About twenty-five, he guessed, and went back to the newspaper.
The next time he looked, she was eating an orange. She had placed it upon a magazine, and with a tiny knife--mother-of-pearl handle, he thought--was cutting it into sections. These she ate with unusual delicacy, and with the same delicacy, having wrapped the peel in a paper napkin, dropped it into the trash can at the rear of the little park.
Elegance. The word flashed into his head as he watched her. She was small, but not undersized. She was erect and graceful, as if she were dancing. When she sat down, her ankles were crossed so that her pretty shoes hugged each other.
He looked away, but not before he had caught her glance, which then made it necessary to say something.
"I certainly appreciate your noticing my briefcase. The last thing I need is to have any of these papers blow away."
"Legal documents, oh yes. One of the people in my firm lost some last week in the subway, and it was pretty awful."
"Your firm? You're a lawyer?"
"Heavens, no. Just a secretary, a legal secretary to Mr. Buzley. Buzley of Anaheim, Roman and Roman."
"You shouldn't say 'just' a secretary. We could hardly work without secretaries."
"Well, true enough. By the way, I'm Lillian Morris."
"Donald Wolfe. I'm with Orton and Pratt."
She smiled. "A far cry from Mr. Buzley. Pop singers and movie stars, versus international strategies. But Mr. Buzley's very nice to me, and I shouldn't say that, should I?"
"No, you shouldn't. But I won't quote you."
She laughed. Her laugh was a real one, not the affected giggle he so often heard. There was something about her that delighted him. He suddenly had the feeling that in another minute she would get up and leave. Surely there must be something he could say to detain her.
"It feels like an early spring. I mean, it will be if this keeps up," he said, and was at once ashamed of his dull remark.
"Yes, it does," she agreed.
For the life of him, he could think of nothing more to say. But then when she actually did stand up, opening her mouth perhaps to bid good-bye, he thought of something.
"I'm walking east. Is that your way, too?"
When she replied that it was, he berated himself for his stupidity. What if she had said west? How then would he have been able to accompany her?
They crossed Park Avenue. "I always wondered," said Lillian, "What those apartments are like inside. The doorways with the awnings and the doormen look so impressive. I've heard that some apartments have twelve or fifteen rooms, or even more."
Augustus Pratt's apartment had fourteen rooms. Donald could have told her about the mahogany library there, or the long dining table under the brilliant chandelier. But the subject did not seem important enough to take his mind from the thought that on Lexington Avenue, only a few steps away, there was a little place with tables on the sidewalk and wonderful pizza, or--
"Are you by any chance hungry?" he inquired.
"Yes, to tell the truth, I've only had breakfast this morning and that orange just now."
"How about keeping me company? I'm starved."
"I would love it."
Having had a large lunch with a group of lawyers between court sessions, he was hardly hungry. But at the table on the sidewalk, he managed to eat a fair-sized piece of an excellent pizza. The ordering of food, the discussion of choices, and the comparisons among various recipes and restaurants, followed by a brief selection of a sorbet relieved him of the need to make good conversation. He did not remember ever, before now, having struggled to "make" conversation! Words had always come easily to him. Was a lawyer not, after all, a wordsmith?
Lillian was making comments on the passing scene: an unfamiliar foreign car, a woman wearing a fashionable suit, and a man leading a pair of handsome standard poodles. She spoke vivaciously, but not too much so; hearing her, he only half heard; he was observing her instead.
She made small, expressive gestures with her hands. He disliked women of whom he often thought that if their hands were ever tied, they would be unable to talk. But now he watched those hands, the long fingers and the pale, oval nails. Raising his eyes, he saw a necklace of small pearls lying between the rise of round breasts under a fine white blouse. He saw a firm chin and full lips that, for some odd reason, recalled the taste of warm raspberries. The nose was a trifle too short. The cheekbones were perhaps too high, although it was said, was it not, that high cheekbones were to be desired? So then they were not too high! And the eyes, lake blue, lake deep! And the dark, thick hair piled high, the crown on a proud, proud head.
Excerpted from Her Father's House
by Belva Plain.
Copyright © 2002 by Belva Plain. All rights reserved.
Excerpted by permission of Delacorte, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing
from the publisher.