(…continued from Part 3…)
At eleven o’clock, I retired for the night. At one o’clock I was tossing in frustration. By half-past two, I was in the kitchen, sitting at the little pinewood table, a large yellow-paged book before me. Tea water was heating in the kettle.
John came in, complaining that among civilized folk, “tomorrow” usually meant sometime after sunrise. He swirled some of the hot water around in the teapot, dumped it, added tea leaves, and poured more water to start the brew.
Earl Grey. I could smell the bergamot.
As he fussed with arranging teapot and cups on a tray, he asked a question.
“If she’s a lawyer,” I said, “she’ll be listed in the yellow pages. There can’t be that many lawyers in Seattle.”
He chuckled and described me as “refreshing.”
He was right. There can be that many lawyers in Seattle. And more besides.
They went on for page after yellow page. Business lawyers, family lawyers, tax attorneys, defense attorneys, sharks, slicks, high-powered and low-powered. It was a sea of counselors that stretched from the Cascades down to the Sound.
My guest sat down across from me and made an observation.
“What do you mean, not all?” I asked.
Sir John pointed out that Elin might not be in private practice. She might be working for a large firm as an associate, not yet a partner. Or she might be a legal counsel for a corporation. Or for the state.
He poured tea and let his words sink in.
I looked at the thick book before me on the table. USWest Yellow Pages; Seattle. Then I looked over at the other yellow-paged books stacked beneath the telephone. GTE Yellow Pages. Independent Yellow Pages. Banana Pages. North Seattle. East Side. King County.
I looked at Sir John.
He raised his teacup in salute and winked.
I sighed. I started with the A’s.
Somewhere in the F’s, I groaned. Sir John looked up from his acrostic.
“No,” I answered. “I have not had enough.”
He said that he had and was heading back to bed, but before his shuffling slippers took him back toward what I imagined was a dark-paneled bedroom, he stopped beside me and gave me a pat on the shoulder. That little touch, a kindly gesture of support despite his wee-hour curmudgeonliness, bolstered my failing resolve.
Thankfully, most Seattle lawyers feel it is important to list their full first name. Only a tenth or so listed only their first initial and, by the time I hit the G’s, I’d found no “E.” first names, but neither was there an “Elin” or anyone with the last name of Abington.
I worked onward through the alphabet. The number of large firms I passed along the way began to weigh on me. I found listings for dozens of huge, faceless conglomerates in high-rise addresses undoubtedly filled with struggling associates working invisibly behind partnered names. She was there, back in the tall grass of legal incorporation. I could hear the stalks rustle as she moved, could glimpse the twisting curve of horn, but she continued to elude me.
As the sun hinted at a morning comeback, I finished the USWest book and turned to the A’s in the tome provided by GTE. In this book, the columns of neatly ordered names were replaced by large ads expressing concern over my loss, extolling virtues of their firm, and offering help and wise counsel for a reasonable fee.
Staring at the large-print and strings of comma-linked names before me, my mind went numb. I looked at the page but saw only the futility of the task I’d set for myself. I sighed, blinked my tired, red-rimmed eyes, and saw a large, red-bordered ad with a halftone photo.
The picture showed the firm’s staff standing on the steps outside their building, all smiling their smudgy grey smiles. One smile in particular…third row back, second from the left.
Boxes tumbled from the storage closet—one, two, three—the fourth one gave up the prize: a hot pink, 9×12, hardbound yearbook bulging with programs and photos and old letters, all bound up with twine. I brought it back to the kitchen, swore at the knotted string and reached for a knife. The book flopped open, and I thumbed through the thick, glossy pages until I found what I wanted.
Elin Abington smiled out from her place at the top of the alphabet. Faces of other high-school comrades grinned from behind scribbled farewells, but Elin’s smile was unmarred. By the time the yearbooks arrived, she had already flown.
Sir John came back in, complaining of the racket. I put the yearbook next to the yellow pages and pointed at the photos. He peered over my shoulder and mumbled.
“No, it’s not a very good picture,” I admitted. “But look. Same eyes. Same smile. Hair is longer, yes, but what do you think? Could it be her?”
We looked at the two faces for a long while, squinting, leaning close, pulling back, comparing them, evaluating the possibility. Finally, Sir John gave his opinion. It concurred with mine.
I tore the ad out of the phone book and looked at the clock. I’d have to call the firm from work.
As I rode the bus into town, the morning sun fired the mountains across the Sound with long red lances. I tried to decide what I would say when I called. The trick, I figured, was to inquire after someone whose last name I did not know without sounding like a crackpot or a stalker. Why didn’t I know her last name? What excuse could I give? High school reunion committee? We met at a social function? It would have to be clever. Even her own brother didn’t know exactly where she was. As far as I knew, she might have standing orders at reception to deflect any callers searching for an “Elin Something-or-other.”
My anxiety ratcheted up as I imagined Elin’s paranoia. She’d dropped out of sight, leaving colleagues, family, long-time friends with no word and for twenty years had been lost to us all. Did I really think I could penetrate such a wall of privacy with a single phone call?
I let my stop at Stewart Street pass by the window and continued on to the downtown core. I called in sick from a Starbucks, had an Americano (no cream), and then stepped out into the African bush.
The sidewalk was filled with herds of men and women trekking single-mindedly from gym to office. Gaggles of early-bird tourists milled along the curbside, looking for sights to see. They were all nothing to me, no more than a cloud of gnats before my hunter’s vision. I waved them away. I was after bigger game.
Across the street, rising high up into the morning sun, was a ruddy-faced building of brick-colored stone. It laughed at its neighbors and their glass and metal; its stone spoke of solidity, eternity. Its tenants were not ad agencies or dot-com whiz-kids. Its halls were home to lawyers and investors, power and money. It stood, permanent and strong amongst a forest of spun-sugar edifices, and offered no apology. It was a good building.
I crossed the busy street and walked up the brickwork steps where the ad’s photo had been taken. I passed through the revolving door and into the dark interior. The scent of leather hung in the lobby like faint cologne. My footsteps echoed across marble tiles as I walked through to an atrium that cut upward through several floors. A man on my left, wearing a blue shirt with a stitched shield on the shoulder, eyed me warily. I did not belong here. I was not part of this place, backpack instead of briefcase, dungarees instead of Brooks Brothers. To my right was a walnut-framed board with etched glass panels naming the various tenants and floors. The firm in the ad had the whole of the ninth to itself.
I took the elevator.
A discreet ding, the doors slid open, and I stepped out and into a monastery of the blond burl-wood, grey carpet, and interior walls of frosted glass. A hush wrapped itself around me, admonishing my thoughts for being too loud.
“May I help you?” The voice was soft, warm, pleasant, almost comforting. The woman behind the desk was young and pretty, with an eager-to-be-of-service smile. I realized that all my subterfuge, all my rehearsal had been for a phone call, not face-to-face contact. I had no clever story to spin here to lure my quarry—hidden for twenty years—from its book-lined lair. Stuck, panicked, I acted on the only idea my seized-up brain could muster.
“I’m looking for her.” I pointed to the face circled on the yellow-page ad, the smudged smile that I hoped was the friend I sought. I cringed at my too-loud words, knowing I sounded just like—probably looked just like—both a crackpot and a stalker.
The pleasant smile did not waver. She lifted the phone and punched four numbers.
“Someone to see you, Ms. Randolph.” Beat. Beat. The phone went down. “She’ll be right out.”
“Thank you,” I managed.
Then came the longest ninety seconds I can remember.
Several thoughts presented themselves. Foremost was the question put to me, only hours before, by my knighted guest: why was I compelled to seek her out? It was obvious she wanted no contact with old friends. Was it my ego, still bruised by her long ago rejection? Could she possibly give me an explanation that I’d find satisfactory? And why did I feel I had the right to tear aside the veil she’d fashioned so completely, separating her past from her present? Did the memory of our friendship mean so little that I would crash into her private world, uninvited?
I considered escape, but a shape appeared at one of the frosted glass doors. I considered running, but remembered the wait at the elevator just steps away, not to mention the security guard at the lobby.
And then she was there, the woman who smiled from the ad, third row back, second from the left. She looked at me, eyes sad, hair the color of wheat.
“Yes? You wanted to see me?”
A moment passed.
“My apologies,” I said. “I’ve made a mistake. I thought you were someone else.”
I turned, leaving befuddlement in my wake.
I had changed a lot, physically, in twenty years. Adjectives like rail-thin, fresh-faced, and bespectacled no longer described me. I was chubby, bearded, and wore contacts.
It could be that Elin didn’t recognize me or, if you prefer, it could be that it wasn’t her at all. Choose the latter, and mark me down as chagrined but wiser for my journey. Choose the former, and call my exit the last gift from an old friend.
Either way, the woman with the sad eyes and wheat-colored hair went on with her life, undisturbed by my overzealous curiosity. Likewise, I, too, went on my way. With a nod to Sir John, I hold the friends I do have a bit more dear.
There is nothing so remarkable as friendship. For friends, we often do things with no expectation of return.