The brick-paved plaza, all six acres of it, that surrounds Boston’s City Hall is a bleak and lifeless place—in winter wind-swept and dotted with clumps of dirty snow; in summer broiling hot because of the heat emanating from the sun-baked bricks. Yet since the plaza is the shortest route from a major subway station to the city’s business district, there are times each day when large numbers of people cross, at a diagonal, one corner of the plaza. That makes an area of the plaza near the subway station an ideal place for advocates of various causes to conduct their business.
The number of these advocates varies with the seasons (only the truly committed brave the harsh winter weather), but in the fall of 2000, the plaza regulars included a nun in a brown habit who sought donations to erect a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and near her, a scruffy-looking gnome who mumbled, mostly to himself, about the need to preserve the Amazon rain forest. They were usually joined by an elderly couple, both of whom wore sandwich boards and carried picket signs. For years the couple had been inveighing nonstop about a cabal of government officials who had evicted them from their home or stole their mail or eavesdropped on their conversations, the alleged violation changing as quickly as a shift in the wind direction. Across from the elderly couple was a vendor of hot pretzels whose lean, patrician features hinted at a possible tie to some moneyed Boston family that had fallen on hard times. In summer, when the tourist season was at its peak, the pretzel vendor wore a tri-cornered hat.
Newly arrived on the plaza that fall was a young woman—Gloria McDermott—who sought donations for a shelter for homeless women and also distributed literature for an organization that defended the right of women to have abortions. Gloria, short and somewhat overweight, had a crown of black hair that was supposed to be piled on top of her head but its tendency to slip and slide meant that she was always grabbing a hunk of it and trying, with a variety of clasps, to pin it back into place. Around her neck, encased in a plastic folder was a letter from the homeless shelter, authorizing her to solicit funds on its behalf, and from her right wrist hung a yellow plastic container, a bucket from a child’s toy set, in which people could deposit their donations to the homeless shelter. A canvas bag looped over her left shoulder held the pro-choice material.
While the weather was still mild, Gloria wore tee shirts and brightly-colored jumpers that hovered only inches above her sandal-clad feet. As the temperature began to drop, she added layers of sweaters and jerseys and replaced her sandals with black work boots. Finally, in early December, she began wearing a black cape that had a hood she pulled over her head on particularly cold days. The gray knit gloves Gloria wore had the fingers cut away so that she could more easily separate out the pro-choice flyers she distributed, including a bumper sticker that said, "If you're opposed to abortion, don't have one." Gloria was known to wave that bumper sticker in the face of any man who voiced an objection to abortion.
Most mornings when the weather was still mild, Gloria took a short break to have coffee with her uncle, Malcolm Norris, who crossed the plaza while on his way to his office at a large bank that was about to be swallowed up by an even larger bank. Malcolm, in his early sixties but quite fit, had been married to Gloria’s aunt Ellen for more than thirty years.
Malcolm and Gloria usually drank their coffee while seated on a brick-paved wall that ran along one edge of the subway station. That put them right opposite a coffee shop whose large windows afforded its patrons an unobstructed view of the plaza. One morning in mid-October, a customer in the coffee shop, a gentleman in his early sixties, was seated in a booth by the window, watching Gloria and Malcolm. The gentleman was Gloria’s father, Roger McDermott. By holding a newspaper in front of his face—but tipping one corner aside—Roger could see Gloria without any risk of her spotting him.
Roger was in the coffee shop because he had recently been told that Gloria, who hadn’t been in touch with her family for two years, was now spending her days on City Hall plaza. Roger had been relieved to learn of his daughter’s whereabouts, but he had no intention just then of communicating with her. He was more intrigued with the friendship that had sprung up between his daughter and a brother-in-law whom he never cared for.
Roger watched as Malcolm, somewhat animated, told Gloria a story that apparently had something to do with golf. Malcolm even got to his feet, and bending his knees slightly, putted an imaginary ball towards an imaginary hole. The putt must have gone in because Malcolm raised both arms in victory, and Gloria, in response, laughed and clapped her hands. A few minutes later, after wishing Gloria good-bye, Malcolm picked up his briefcase and headed off to work.
Once Malcolm was gone and Gloria had returned to her place near the entrance to the subway station, Roger left the coffee shop through its rear entrance. He then drove to the office of his trucking company, in an industrial district of South Boston. As soon as he got to his desk, he called his sister, Ellen. He was surprised, he told her, to see Malcolm having coffee with Gloria.
"And that’s supposed to mean what?" Ellen said.
"What? You tell me what."
"You know Malcolm," Ellen said, "he’s just naturally friendly. He runs into Gloria so he has coffee with her. If he ran into you, he’d have coffee with you, too. That’s Malcolm."
"Well, if he’s such a friendly guy, why didn’t he give me a call and let me know what’s going on."
"Roger, Malcolm has nothing to do with whatever took place between you and Gloria. Stop trying to make a big deal out of it."
"The big deal is that he should have told her what a goddamned fool she's making of herself, standing out there all day, like some beggar with that little bucket of hers. If he doesn't know enough to do that, then he's only encouraging her. Don't get me wrong, but neither of you should be taking sides in this thing."
"In other words, you don’t think we should take sides, as long as we shun Gloria and stick up for you."
Roger began to reply, but Ellen cut him off before he could get more than a few words out of his mouth.
"I think I've heard quite enough for today, thank you." And with that Ellen hung up the phone.
That night, when Ellen and Malcolm were having dinner, she asked him if he had seen Gloria that day.
"Yes, I did," Malcolm said. "and I can only repeat what I’ve said before. She’s such a great kid—so upbeat and so convinced she’s doing Gods work. But mention Roger and, bang, she turns to stone. I wish there were some way for either side to bend a bit."
"Don’t bother trying," Ellen said. "It would be easier getting the proverbial lion to lie down with the proverbial lamb, or vice versa."
"I still say it might be worth a try. It’s a damned shame—"
"Neither party is all right or all wrong," Ellen said, cutting Malcolm off. "And I hope she doesn't think, because you're so friendly with her, that we agree with everything she's done. That doesn't mean we sympathize with Roger, either. At this point, though, I’d rather not get caught in the crossfire."
Ellen hated herself for having acceded, even that slight bit, to Roger, but when hadn’t she chosen quiet discretion in dealing with Roger and her two brothers, particularly with regard to Malcolm? That was so from the day in l965, when she introduced Malcolm to her three brothers and each of them managed a smile, but only for as long as it took them to exchange a pro forma handshake with Ellen’s new boyfriend. Aside from that, they reluctantly, almost painfully, indulged in small talk that seemed always to run into a dead end. The brothers, all six feet or more in height and each with the bulky build of football linemen (which all three had been in high school) could not have spelled out more clearly how they felt about Malcolm had they donned helmets and pads and got down into a linemen’s crouch, ready to gang tackle him before he broke into the McDermott family circle.
Nothing about her brothers’ behavior that day was particularly surprising or unexpected to Ellen. Her brothers invariably acted with suspicion towards the men Ellen dated, doing their best to make it seem as if they were simply older brothers being protective of their young sister. Ellen knew better, of course. She understood from an early age that her brothers, cowed by a father who treated them as errand boys, remained juveniles vying for his approval. Consequently, they seemed to think they could gain favor with him by displaying a vigilance bordering on paranoia in guarding against the possibility of an outsider, i.e., whoever Ellen married, becoming a part of the McDermott family’s trucking business.
There was a time when Ellen could even find some amusement in her brothers acting as though they would never rest easy unless she chose to enter a convent. That changed, however, after her mother died and Ellen, then in her senior year at Simmons College, became her father’s indispensable companion and caretaker. Now, the brothers were uneasy, even edgy, at any evidence that Ellen’s influence over her father might be greater than theirs. Grim-faced men to begin with, the frowns on their faces were accentuated by their thick, black eyebrows, which seemed, the more they frowned, like a charcoal stripe drawn across their foreheads.
Then too, Ellen was well aware that with someone like Malcolm, her brothers were free to view him through the prism of their very strong attitudes concerning class and religion and social background. She could well imagine the three of them, among themselves, and even sometimes with their father (only being more careful when they included him) talking and even joking about having a brother-in-law who had attended a prep school favored by the rich, Groton, was a member of the golf team while at Dartmouth and had a great great uncle, on his mother’s side, who had been an Episcopal bishop.
At one point, Ellen had actually considered confronting her brothers about Malcolm. She would assure them that Malcolm—as he had already assured her—had no intention of giving up his career in banking to enter a business he knew nothing about. But she soon dropped that idea, partly because her brothers continued to treat Malcolm with such pigheaded indifference, and also, she had to admit, because she rather enjoyed watching her brothers worry about waking up one morning to find that Malcolm Norris was their business partner.
Malcolm himself even volunteered to meet with Ellen’s brothers—alone, he emphasized—so that they might all get to know each other better. Ellen disagreed, specifically she said that there was no reason for Malcolm to kowtow to people who lacked common courtesy. Malcolm, somewhat good naturedly argued back. It would do her brothers a world of good, he said, to learn that not everyone who went to Groton had a trust fund to fall back on. Most of all though, it was Malcolm’s firm belief—and here he was quite serious—that men of good will, meeting face to face, can always find a way to resolve their differences.
"That’s one more thing I love about you," Ellen said. "Not many people can say men of goodwill without sounding sarcastic. As for getting together with them, why bother? These are people whose minds are firmly closed to any opposing views."
Finally, it was James McDermott himself, tired of the snide remarks his sons were making about Malcolm and Ellen, who called them into his office one day to promulgate official McDermott family policy about the courtship of his daughter by Malcolm Norris.
"Okay, listen up," he said. "I notice you guys don’t seem to care too much for this Malcolm fellow your sister’s been seeing. To tell you the truth, I’m not his biggest fan either. But he’s crazy about her and she’s crazy about him, and who’s to say they’re wrong? I know one thing—there isn’t much to be gained by getting between two people who feel that way about each other."
The McDermott brothers stiffened and there was a noticeable intake of breath evident in the tightening of their mouths. Almost instantly, too, their pink faces took on a deeper hue.
"Hey, brighten up boys," James McDermott said. "I’m only saying that if your sister wants to marry this guy, that’s fine with me. But if it means anything to you—and obviously it does—I have no intention of letting Mister Malcolm anywhere near my business."
Grins broke out simultaneously on the faces of the McDermott brothers, and they seemed likewise quite content and at peace, six months later, when James McDermott escorted his daughter to the altar of St. Ignatius Church for a wedding ceremony performed by his good friend Cardinal Richard Cushing.
Two years later, when James McDermott died of a massive heart attack, his assets consisted primarily of his house and his business since he had always insisted on financing, almost entirely on his own, the expansion of his trucking fleet. The business he passed on to his sons, with Roger to serve as president while Michael and Peter became vice presidents. He also stipulated that Ellen should receive each year a share of the firm’s profits, which payment was to be arrived at by following a complex formula he himself had devised. Her father further compensated Ellen by bequeathing her his house, a rambling hodgepodge of brick and stone that stood on a knoll overlooking the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
None of the McDermotts stinted on mourning their father’s death, but the sons could barely conceal how pleased they were to be elevated at last from errand-boy status to owners of the family business. Ellen, likewise, didn’t let grief for her father interfere with her pleasure at moving into a house where the downstairs entry foyer alone was roomier than the living room of the apartment she and Malcolm had been living in in the Back Bay. Better still, Ellen’s yearly bonus check allowed the Norrises to blend in quite nicely with the corporate lawyers and prominent surgeons who were their neighbors in Chestnut Hill. Malcolm never rose above a midlevel loan officer, but the Norrises owned a second home—a ski lodge--in Vermont—sent their two daughters to prestigious private schools and made a practice each summer of taking their daughters to Europe to tour museums and other cultural attractions.
Ellen’s only complaint about her inheritance, and one she kept to herself, was Roger’s insistence that she visit his office each year to receive her payment. It was Roger’s contention that he couldn’t provide Ellen with a thorough report on the state of the family business unless he had at his fingertips various documents and reports. In reality, the check presentation ceremony gave Roger a chance to congratulate himself on his business acumen and to act as though his own generosity made possible the pay out Ellen received. By scheduling the meeting in mid-December, Roger also left Ellen feeling as though her bequest was something like a Christmas basket delivered to a family in need.
Nevertheless, each December, Ellen, dressed in a simple, but well-tailored tweed suit and with a red velvet headband holding back her hair, arrived promptly for her meeting with Roger, whose office was less than fifty feet away from an entrance ramp to the Southeast Expressway. Then, after a wait that established just how busy Roger was, Ellen would be led into Roger’s office by his secretary, a frizzy-haired matron who wore exceedingly tight clothing.
Ellen hoped each year that Malcolm’s report would be brief, but Roger, with half-moon glasses perched on the end of his nose, and running his finger down columns of figures, reviewed earnings and profits and recounted highlights of the past year, including new trucks purchased or the stepped-up schedule of preventive maintenance he had instituted. Roger also included in his presentation a forecast, invariably dire, of what the profit picture looked like for the year ahead.
Ellen tried her best to be attentive and sympathetic when Roger, his voice booming in order to be heard over the expressway traffic, lamented the hardships imposed on him by government regulations. She tsk-tsked on cue when he complained even more loudly about the terrible things done to him by the Teamsters Union, and she leaned forward, her brow appropriately furrowed, when Roger, lowering his voice, confided to her how difficult it was to run a business with two partners who were incompetent. Only after all that did Roger hand Ellen her check.
Several years running, Ellen hosted a yearly gathering the day after Christmas for her brothers and their wives and all their children, even though her brothers, boorish as ever, seemed to treat the get-togethers as their chance to check on whether Ellen and Malcolm were properly caring for the house they had inherited. One year, Malcolm found Roger and Michael hanging out a third-floor dormer, scrutinizing roof repairs that Malcolm had just told them about. On another visit, Michael called Malcolm down to the basement, pointed to a damp spot at the seam between the floor and foundation and then delivered a lecture on the deleterious effects a damp cellar had on property values.
Malcolm was initially amused by the shenanigans of the McDermott brothers. He didn’t think it funny, though, the year Peter—the one brother who was a heavy drinker—spent an entire afternoon trying to wheedle from him what the salary range was for loan officers at the First National Bank. From then on, Malcolm and Ellen and their two daughters (along with Malcolm’s parents) began spending Christmas at their ski lodge in Vermont. That meant the McDermotts and the Norrises met only when they ran into each other at weddings and funerals. The arrangement didn’t displease either Ellen or her brothers since that allowed them just enough time to ask after each other’s health and to express surprise at how much all their children had grown.
Ellen, of course, still had to endure that meeting with Roger each December, a meeting that became even more irksome to her when Roger, in the early seventies, began appending advice on how Ellen might invest her money. Ellen, as usual, pretended to be interested in Roger’s advice, but refrained from saying anything since she didn’t want him to know that she rarely had enough money left over from her annual payment to invest. One year, when Ellen was feeling fluish and wanted only to get home and go to bed, she stopped Roger just as he began explaining why he was so enamored of tax-free municipal bonds.
"Please," Ellen said, "Is this little speech necessary?"
Then, answering her own question, she said, "It isn’t advice I need or want. Furthermore, you always make it seem as if I’m not capable of making decisions like this on my own."
Roger insisted that he was only being helpful, but Ellen wouldn’t let him back away.
"I appreciate the money," she said. "Malcolm joins me in sending along his thanks, as do the girls. What more do you want us to do, kneel in front of Daddy’s portrait each night and say a prayer of thanks? Quite frankly, what I do with my money is none of your goddamned business."
Ellen then grabbed the envelope with the check off Roger’s desk and stormed out of his office. Her outburst had one desirable result. The next year, Roger, professing to be pressed for time, took all of 20 minutes to deliver his report before handing Ellen her check.
Roger’s presentation remained similarly brief for the next three years, but the year after that, without any warning, Ellen asked for an advance on her next year’s payment. Even before Roger could say the words, fiduciary responsibility, Ellen explained that the next year he could simply deduct from her check the amount he had already advanced her.
When Roger said he was opposed, in principle, to Ellen’s suggestion, Ellen countered with a concise explanation of her "cash flow" problem. That year there had been a confluence of expenses, she said. First, she and Malcolm were forced to replace an aging and outdated heating system. The heating contractor then talked them into installing central air conditioning. Other plumbing and electrical repairs were more costly than they had anticipated, and added to all this were the tuition payments and other expenses for her daughters, one still in college and the other just starting law school.
"Does Malcolm know about this?" Roger asked.
"Not that it should matter to you," she replied, "but he doesn’t. Back when this first began, Malcolm said to me, ‘It’s your money, it’s your business, and I see no reason why I should get involved in it.’"
"You expect me to believe that?" Roger said.
"I don’t care what you believe. I’d much rather that you deal with my request."
Roger then agreed to make out a new check for the amount Ellen had requested. Ellen couldn’t believe the fervor with which she thanked him.
Ellen asked Roger for advances the next year and the year after that, and each time Roger agreed. But the third year, when she still hadn’t paid down on the advances she had received, he said, "My accountant isn’t crazy about this."
"Does that mean you’re turning me down?"
"No, but if I listened to him, I would."
"Well, the trick is not to listen to him, at least not about this."
"I’m only looking out for your own good," Roger said. "Mikey and Peter would go bullshit if they knew about this."
"But since they don’t, it shouldn’t be a worry to you."
"I’m only wondering whether you really need all that you’re asking for."
"I’ll be the judge of that," Ellen said. Then, as if to soften what she had just said, she promised him that when both her daughters had finished law school, she would forego an entire year’s payment.
Two years later--Ellen had yet to repay her advances—she arrived at Roger’s office to find him wearing dark glasses. Before Ellen could ask him about the glasses, Roger said, "I need them for a few weeks. I’m on medication that makes my eyes sensitive to light."
The medication, it turned out, was a strong tranquilizer, although Roger described it as something to control his blood pressure. His health problems, according to Roger, could be attributed directly to the outrageous behavior of his youngest child, Gloria. At various times Roger had mentioned to Ellen the problems he and his wife were having with Gloria, but it came as a surprise to Ellen when Malcolm said Gloria had recently severed all ties with her family.
Ellen, uncertain about what she should say, offered up a bromide about how all young people needed to find some way to assert themselves.
"With this kid it’s more than asserting," Roger said. "She’s a rebel, one hundred percent of the time. In her book, Jennie and I are the enemies. She was still a teen-ager when she began telling Jennie that marriage is nothing but legalized prostitution. Now, isn’t that a nice way to tell your mother she’s a whore? And that’s mild compared to some of the things she’s called me."
"So where is she?" Ellen asked.
"A friend of a friend tells us that she’s in New Jersey, working as an escort at an abortion clinic. I don’t even want to imagine what else she’s up to."
Only a few weeks after Malcolm first met Gloria, he proposed to Ellen that they invite her to dinner. For various reasons—all of them put forth by Ellen—the dinner with Gloria had never taken place. But when neither of the Norris daughters could make it home for Thanksgiving, Ellen couldn’t very well say no to Malcolm’s suggestion that they ask Gloria and her friend, Leslie, to join them for Thanksgiving dinner.
When Gloria and Leslie arrived at the Norrises, it was the first time Ellen had seen Gloria in at least four years. She found her to be as cheerful and outgoing as Malcolm had said she was, but soon she began to feel that Gloria’s laugh, hearty and rollicking, was a bit forced. Leslie, tall and thin and with her flaming red hair cut close to her scalp, was a bit more reserved, except for the obvious feeling she showed when talking about her work with autistic children.
The time everyone spent greeting each other and then getting settled in front of the fire Malcolm had built in the living room fireplace were the only moments that day when Ellen was not perturbed in some way by her guests. Neither Gloria nor Leslie seemed the least bit interested when Ellen told them about her two daughters and how both of them, as associates at large law firms in New York, routinely worked l2-hour days and a good part of each weekend. Ellen disliked it even more when Gloria, after going off to use the bathroom, returned to ask Ellen if she and Malcolm had ever thought of renting out rooms they no longer used. Ellen hadn’t even replied when Gloria, turning abruptly towards Leslie—and talking as if neither Malcolm nor Ellen were present—said, "Four full baths, one half, and at least five bedrooms, not to mention more space in a converted attic."
Ellen still hadn’t fully processed what Gloria was saying when Leslie, a smirk on her face, said, "So what are you saying, Glo? That you could fit half a dozen homeless people into a place like this?"
"Good grief, girl. Watch your mouth. This is Chestnut Hill," Gloria said, mockingly admonishing Leslie.
"But think of it," Leslie said, "in just one house in this neighborhood, all these empty rooms. What about all the other houses out this way and all the empty rooms in them? And only a few miles away, there are people sleeping on heated grates."
Ellen had this sense that Gloria and Leslie dearly wanted her to object in some way to their suggestion so she said nothing. Not so Gloria and Leslie. Gloria, fed a set up line by Leslie, followed through quite smartly.
"Yes, but on the other hand," Gloria said, sounding slightly professorial. "there’s this to consider. Imagine how many people in Chestnut Hill would die of shock if they saw riff raff invading their neighborhood."
"Oh, come now," Malcolm said, "we aren’t all that bad out here in the ‘burbs." He then tried to steer the conversation on to a new subject by asking Leslie where she had grown up.
Phoenix had been her hometown, Leslie said, but that was only prelude to a long account of her rebellious youth in Phoenix and elsewhere. Leslie was obviously proud of having been expelled from three prep schools before she had turned sixteen. Not to be outdone, Gloria, with the practiced air of a vaudevillian going through an old routine, told of having been accepted, then rejected, by a small Catholic college in Maine after she was arrested for taking part in a demonstration outside Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston.
"You make it sound so harmless," Leslie said, handing Gloria a chance to elaborate on the demonstration.
"Well, it was," said Gloria, laughing. "All we did was pelt the Cardinal with condoms. What I liked, though, was that I managed to be the first person in the history of that rinky-dink college to get thrown out before I ever set foot in the place."
At that point, Ellen decided, somewhat abruptly, that it was time to serve the meal. A certain cheerfulness took over when everyone sat down to dinner and both Gloria and Leslie were complimentary of Ellen’s cooking, but not long into the meal there was a lull in the conversation. That’s when Malcolm, trying to fill the void, asked Leslie if her parents still lived in Phoenix.
No, Leslie said, her mother was deceased, and her father, whom she described as "a right-wing nut," lived in a retirement community in southern California.
"Every morning my father and a few of his buddies—all retired military guys—have a flag raising ceremony," she said, "complete with a tape-recorded ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ They even stand at attention, and salute as the flag goes up. They do the same thing at sundown."
Just then, Gloria chimed, saying, "I know a right-wing nut that would fit right in with them, only he lives in Hingham."
"Which, as the crow flies, is only 21 miles from here," said Malcolm.
Gloria and Leslie didn’t seem to understand right away what Malcolm was getting at, but Ellen realized right away exactly where Malcolm was heading.
"I’m not trying to be nosey," Malcolm told Gloria, "but with the holidays coming up, don’t you think it might be a good idea to pay your parents a visit?"
Rather than reply, Gloria pretended, quite conspicuously, to be fully involved in eating her meal. She first cut a piece of turkey meat very carefully, and then, when she finally put that in her mouth, she chewed it ever so slowly. She further delayed her response by taking time to drink some water. In the silence that enveloped the room, Gloria could even be heard humming a nameless tune as she began to cut another piece of turkey. That brought a grin to Leslie’s face.
Finally, Malcolm said, "I hope you don’t think what I’ve just said was out of line. I don’t."
Gloria took a few more seconds to swallow the turkey she was eating before she answered Malcolm. When she did, she said, "First of all, being so nosey, you are out of line, and secondly, not letting my parents know where I am is exactly the way I like it, holidays or no holidays."
"I’m not suggesting a close relationship," Malcolm said, "but as a general rule, I think it’s always wise to avoid all-out warfare if you can."
"Look," Gloria said, "I have very good reasons for staying away from my parents. Some battles are worth fighting, but others simply sap your strength. In a thousand years my parents will never understand who I am or what I do and why. And frankly, it might take me that long to understand them. Who has the time? Who cares?"
"People make a mistake if they think family feuds have to end up with someone winning and someone else losing," Malcolm said.
"I think you’re getting ahead of yourself," Ellen told Malcolm. "It doesn’t sound as if either party has any desire to change the existing situation."
"I agree," said Leslie.
"Malcolm, I appreciate your concern," Gloria said, reaching over and placing her hand on Malcolm’s forearm, "and I think you’re a great guy. But you must understand—my father’s a bully. He likes being in charge and he likes giving orders. That works just fine with my mother since she’s nice and compliant. The same goes for his employees. He yells. They jump. It works best of all with my two brothers. He’s groomed them to be bullies, too."
There was a pause when Gloria finished, a pause that she broke with an outburst of laughter. Her laughter caused her round cheeks to fill out so that they lifted slightly the small metal-rimmed glasses she wore.
"Well, you’re certainly good natured about it," Malcolm said.
"Why not?" Gloria said. "My policy is as follows: I don’t interfere with them, and I only ask that they return the favor. That way we get along just fine."
"The world might be a happier place if a lot more people felt the same way," Ellen said, hoping that might bring an end to the discussion. It did, except for one final comment from Gloria.
"Let me make myself clear," Gloria said, gesturing with the knife and fork she held in her hands. "If either one of you, just once, speaks to my parents about me, or if you use a third party to contact them about me, I’ll never talk to either of you again."
After that, a mix of chatter about the care of autistic children, the problems of homelessness and mergers, pending and completed, among large banks in Boston, allowed the Norrises and their guests to get through dinner. Ellen was not surprised when Gloria and Leslie, pleading fatigue, turned down the chance to linger over coffee and dessert.
As soon as Gloria and Leslie had left, Malcolm turned to Ellen and said, "Well, I guess I went farther than you thought I should."
"I wasn’t totally surprised," she said. "I just think you’re wasting your time, though. Poor Gloria, she thinks she’s so different from Roger, which is a laugh and a half. She’s every bit as stubborn as he is, if not more. And her friend seems to come from the same school."
"Lesson learned," Malcolm said. "As always, I should abide by your advice."
"Well, as for me, I’m sticking with what Gloria said—nothing makes more sense, I think, than her non-interference policy."
Two weeks later, Ellen’s annual visit to Roger’s office began with Roger’s secretary scolding her harshly for being late, even though Ellen was sure she had arrived on time. Ellen apologized first to the secretary and then to Roger. She also told Roger, right at the start of their meeting, that she wouldn’t be asking for an advance. That elicited a nod of approval from him, but nothing more since he was so intent on hurrying through his usual report. In less than l0 minutes, Roger handed Ellen her check, but as he did, he posed a question.
"So how’s Malcolm and the girls?" he said. "And is Malcolm still getting a kick out of his little talks with Gloria?"
"I’ll begin with the girls," Ellen said. "They’re fine. Julia spends more time on planes than in her office, which I don’t like. Ginny tells me that she might get married this year, but I’ll believe it when I see it. As for Malcolm, yes, he enjoys chatting with Gloria. He’s very impressed with the work she’s doing."
"They’re two of a kind," he said.
"I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that," Ellen replied.
"You heard me. Throw either one of them out a window and they’d float up."
Ellen rose to her feet and prepared to leave, but just before she put her coat on Roger said, "Was it Malcolm or you who decided to have her and that friend of hers at your place for Thanksgiving?"
"Jesus Christ," Ellen said. "Do you have someone spying on her—and anyone else who’s friendly towards her?"
"I told you when I saw Malcolm having coffee with her that I didn’t appreciate his taking sides. She treats us like shit while you guys are playing up to her, making her think she’s the next Mother Teresa."
"I’m sorry, but I have better things to do than to listen to you demean your own daughter," Ellen said, turning towards the door.
"I’m sure you do, but before you leave, I want to bring you up to date on your outstanding balance—and that has nothing to do with Malcolm and Gloria."
"Oh, not much it doesn’t," she said, stopping and turning back towards Roger.
"It doesn’t, except for this—in a few weeks Mikey’s son is joining us. And that means I’ll have someone else looking over my shoulder, maybe even asking questions. After all, what else do you do if you’ve got an MBA?"
"You’re threatening me, aren’t you?"
"Call it a threat if you want, but I’m only trying to keep the books in order."
"If you’re going to be a bully about it, the least you could do is not try to deny it."
Ellen then spun around and walked quickly from Roger’s office. She was going to slam the door as she left, but she managed to close it quietly behind her, just as she managed, as sweetly as possible, to wish Roger’s secretary a Merry Christmas.
As the new year began, Ellen kept telling herself that she wasn’t going to worry about Roger’s threat, but she took comfort in the terrible cycle of weather, periods of light snow, followed by drizzle and rain and then a plunge into freezing temperatures, all of which left the city encased in ice. Specifically, the footing on City Hall plaza was so treacherous that most pedestrians, including Malcolm, used the long way around rather than risk crossing the plaza itself. To Ellen, that meant Malcolm was not running into Gloria, and that, in her mind might be enough to mollify Roger.
Then, one day in early March—the weather was still miserable and City Hall plaza no more inviting—Roger called Ellen to say that he had bad news. Clem Farrington, an old friend of the McDermott family, had been killed in a freak auto accident while on vacation in Jamaica. Ellen and Roger chatted for a few moments about Clem Farrington and his tragic end, but just as she was about to hang up, Roger said, "Remember that other thing I told you about?"
"What other thing," Ellen said. "The private eye who keeps track of Gloria for you?"
"No," he said, "Mikey’s kid. He’s even worse than I thought. All these years, I’ve run this place well enough so everyone’s made a good living from it. But now I’ve got to deal with someone who thinks it’s his job to come up with new ideas."
"I’m sorry, but I’m not the least bit concerned with what goes on in your office."
"Well, you should be because if Mikey’s kid ever finds out what we’ve been up to you and I are going to be in a helluva fix."
"I have no idea what you mean by that."
"What I mean is quite simple: I used money from the business to give you an unsecured loan. There are laws against that kind of thing. This isn’t something my two partners are going to let me get away with."
"So, what are you telling me? That I should repay the money."
"That’s one solution."
"But not a very practical one."
"You’ve got a house that could bring—"
"All of this because Malcolm enjoys chatting with your daughter—and then had the audacity to invite her to Thanksgiving dinner?"
"A lot of people your age are beginning to see that moving to a little condo makes more sense than rattling around inside a big house."
"Never," said Ellen. "Malcolm and I love this house. My girls love this house. And my grandchildren will love this house because I intend to live here until I die. As for the money, you’ll get it sooner or later. I’m not about to run off and leave you holding the bag."
"Have it your way," said Roger, "but don’t be surprised if I’m forced into doing something that’s highly unpleasant."
Ellen was so angry that she stayed away from Clem Farrington’s funeral rather than run into Roger. But the more she thought about her dilemma the more she realized that Roger had no choice but to remain silent about the money she owed him. By making an issue out of it, Roger could embarrass her, but wouldn’t such a revelation cause his brothers to question his stewardship of the family business? And with Mikey’s son now elbowing his way into the business, might this disclosure lead to a battle for control of the company? On that basis, Ellen decided the wisest policy for her was to ignore Roger. She was amused that she and Gloria, for very different reasons, were in complete agreement on how to treat Roger.
Ellen’s strategy seemed to be working until one evening in early April, when three young toughs walked across City Hall plaza, heading towards the subway station. The nun and the protector of the rain forest had left, the pretzel vendor was closing up and Gloria herself, having counted the money in her bucket and put it in her purse, was moments away from going into the subway station. Then, as the toughs walked by, Gloria, more out of habit than anything else, held out her bucket and asked for a donation.
The young toughs wore black leather jackets and two of them had Apache haircuts while the third, even though he had shaved part of his head, had enough hair left over to bunch it into a pony tail. The first two passed by Gloria, but the one with the pony tail—and a long bushy goatee that seemed to counter balance his pony tail—reached out and grabbed Gloria’s bucket. When he saw that it was empty, he spit in it, and kept right on walking.
"Thanks a lot, you asshole," Gloria yelled at him.
The three toughs stopped, and one of them, speaking loudly enough so Gloria could hear, asked his companion, "Did that lady just say something?"
"That ain’t no lady," the companion replied. "She’s a dike."
Gloria defiantly raised her middle finger towards the toughs, and the one who had grabbed her bucket, now headed back towards her. That happened just as Malcolm, some distance away, began walking across the plaza. He could see that the toughs had formed a circle around Gloria and that the one standing behind her had reached down to lift the hem of her dress. Gloria, spinning around, tried to kick the tough, but he easily jumped out of the way.
Malcolm, moving more quickly now, was fifty feet or so away when he yelled out, "Hey guys, why don’t you move along."
The ponytailed tough, turning towards Malcolm, said, "Who the fuck asked you to butt in?"
"Move it," Malcolm said, with a little more force as he drew closer.
"Whaddya say you try moving me?" said the tough.
His two friends, somewhat playfully, tried to restrain the young man who had yelled at Malcolm, and for a moment, as the young toughs jostled with each other, Malcolm was able to ask Gloria if she was all right.
"Oh sure," she said. "They didn’t do anything."
Just then, the three toughs turned and headed towards Malcolm. He was able to fend off one attacker, but even though he jogged and worked out regularly, Malcolm was no match for the other two. One dove down to grab Malcolm’s knees, while the other one, tackling him at the waist, threw him to the ground. Gloria tried to rescue Malcolm, but she was held back by the one tough Malcolm had shoved aside. Malcolm, by kicking out with his legs and twisting to one side, managed to ward off only a few of the punches thrown his way.
The moment the toughs had turned on Malcolm, the pretzel vendor ran into the subway station and yelled at the women who sold tokens to call the police. At the same time, a passerby, seeing the altercation, ran to the corner near the coffee shop where, fortunately enough, a police cruiser was driving by. Responding to yells from the passerby, the cop at the wheel drove up over the curb and sped the short distance towards the subway entrance. The toughs, spotting the cruiser, ran into the subway station and vaulted over the turnstiles. One cop jumped from the cruiser and chased after them while the other one joined Gloria, who was on her knees, tending to Malcolm. Within a minute, the transit police, with sirens screeching, pulled up, and a few moments later, an ambulance arrived, followed by a news photographer.
While the emergency medical technicians dealt with Malcolm, Gloria was telling the police what had happened. One medic, using a thick gauze pad, was trying to stop the bleeding from Malcolm’s nose, while the other one tended to the bruises and welts on Malcolm's’ forehead. Suddenly, the pretzel vendor began applauding the policeman who emerged from the subway station with one young tough in handcuffs.
When the medical technicians put Malcolm into the ambulance, Gloria wanted to go with him, but Malcolm asked her instead to call Ellen.
"Tell her I’m all right," he said. "Mostly it’s my ribs. The little bastards did a job on them."
Gloria used a nearby pay phone to call Ellen, and when she was finished, she spoke to a reporter who had followed a news photographer to the plaza. In giving her account, Gloria told of how dangerous the plaza was once rush hour was over. It was just dark enough now for street lights to come on, which gave Gloria the chance to point out how few lights there were on the plaza.
The next day a tabloid newspaper ran a front page photo of the cop leading the young tough towards the police cruiser. The headline on the story said, "Banker Hero Saves Niece From Thugs." Inside the paper was a photo of Malcolm, in his hospital bed, with a bandage across the bridge of his nose and stitches at the top of his head, near his hair line. Along with the article was a photo of Gloria and the pretzel vendor standing in front of the subway station. Gloria’s robust criticism of City Hall plaza was given considerable prominence, and two days later both Boston papers carried editorials that called on the city to do whatever was needed in order to enliven the plaza.
Two days after Malcolm rescued Gloria, Ellen called Roger. She wasted no time on niceties or greetings of any sort.
"Are you happy now?" she said. "Or are you going to hold it against Malcolm because he got in your way?"
Roger didn’t seem to know what Ellen was driving at, not right away at least.
"I knew when you had people following her, that you might be capable of anything," she said, "but I thought there were certain lines you’d never cross."
"If you’re accusing me of what I think you’re accusing me of, you’re full of baloney."
"I’m supposed to believe that?" she said. "As any detective in any mystery novel would say, you had the means, you had the motive. And that’s enough, at least, to make you a suspect. All I can say is thank God Malcolm came along. Who knows what might have happened to her if he hadn’t?"
"I absolutely and unequivocally deny having anything to do with what happened."
"Deny it all you want," Ellen said, "but it strikes me that we have the makings of a deal here. Suppose the reporter who first wrote about this found out—from an unnamed source—that the attack on Gloria wasn’t a random event. Can you imagine what kind of story that reporter could write if he learned the thugs had been sent by her father to put a scare into Gloria, to stop her from begging on the plaza?"
"I should call your bluff," Roger said.
"Go right ahead," she said. "At the least, you’d have to deny to the press that you didn’t have anything to do with the guys who attacked your daughter."
"I never took you for a blackmailer."
"Maybe it’s something I picked up from you."
"One thing, though. You still owe me money. That hasn’t gone away."
"Exactly," she said, "but I think that we can deal with that next December, don’t you?"
And with that, Ellen hung up on Roger.