December, 1985 + Augusta, Maine
It was an awfully cold winter day. Cars and trucks were getting jump started everywhere and frozen tongues stuck to frozen poles all over town (well, maybe not ALL over town). You could get frost bite right next to the stove. OK, enough's ,enough. It was Maine, after all. I was doing legal work for a lawyer by the name of John Monroe. For some reason other lawyers referred to him as John Quelled, JQ for short. He was a perfect pettifogger/hack.
Pettifogger: A petty, quibbling, unscrupulous lawyer.
Hack: A broken-down horse for hire; banal, routine, commercial.
I was continuing to sink into ever deeper depression. I was losing self esteem by the hour. I hit a bottom of sorts at the office of good old JQ. He was so angular a lawyer at this early stage of my legal career that he belonged in a category with, say, one of Dostoevsky's clerks. These and he were characters who trudges to dusty, hidden cells of useless industry to spend day after day poring over ancient documents.
These dreamers endlessly hoped to find a diamond among the musty clutter of decades and decades of deeds, springing interests, and perpetuities violators. The parties named were long dead and buried anyway.
"A Ha", I half expected him to yell out on a rainy day, "I have found Czarina Alexandra's diamond brooch at last". No, of course not, just more dust and older and older documents which gave way to parchment which gave way to papyrus as you plunged deeper into piles, which were everywhere. It was not like the piles had any conceivable order, like 'Letters' or 'Deeds'. This was what most people called--A MESS. How does he keep track of anything? I wondered.
His secret was no so secret at all. JQ kept her closeted, like well-meaning folk used to do with a cripple in the family. Miss Bottlebey was his perfect factotum: an ancient woman who may have been young once; it was real hard to tell. Or even married. Miss Bottlebey lived and breath OLDNESS, in much the same way JQ did PETTIFOGGERY. I couldn't imagine both being other than they were or doing other than they did or where they did it. They had simply settled in and stayed, like bats in an old barn.
They were decent folk; they treated me alright. They both dressed as if the sixties had never happened. He was rumpled and wrinkled on the best of days. He stood around 5'6, was about 50 years old, and weighed about 165 pounds. He was not fat, exactly, but he could have lost 20 pounds for his own good. His clothes didn't seem to care at all. They were just on him, hanging for no seeming purpose other than to hide his nudity.
He had low-budget collections business; those are the people who now call you at 3:00 AM from Rangoon wanting the $1.75 you owe.
He also had a real estate business, so called. JQ tried to get fourth generation family homes and farms from folk down on their luck. He would either buy the property outright for pennies on the dollar or cut someone with cash in on the deal. He would (almost literally) scrape something off the bottom for himself. JQ wanted me to pretend I had done a title search and sign some parchment so he could limit his exposure. Yeah, it was a nasty business. Like I said, I was near the bottom of the swamp. I had to get out of there, no matter what.
On this freezing day that frantic mothers and fathers tried to get Juniors' tongues off the pole, JQ left early to shake down the Salvation Army people with their bells and hanging pots of nickels and dimes for the poor consumptive kids in Chicago. Bottlebey and I were left alone. She may have been old but that didn't keep her from being exceptionally thin and frail. She was about 5'5 and couldn't have weighed more than 100 pounds. Her skin looked stretched across her face, as if her face bones remained the same while her skin shrunk around them. Her eyes had that haunting look of great depth, as if they had receded from their sockets for fifty years, one thousandth of an inch per year. She was my way down the ramp.
Oh, yes, the ramp. I arrived at the dust bowl one Monday to find a ramp from my garret to the world outside. This low-budget wooden masterwork took one around the corner of the building sharply to the left, and on down at a percipitious angle to the ground.
The cheapest materials were on display. There were no handrails, no non-skid surface, no protection from snow and ice, almost no bracing, and no thought tied up in this slalom of a ramp. Only Bottlebey was left to get me safely to terra firma. The weather was getting worse, what with new snow covering old ice.
"Now shit", I fumed, "Why always me?" The answer was way too deep to get at just then. She opened the door hesitatingly, as if she were fighting an urge to run. She muttered in her tones of the voice from the crypt, "Don't worry, I can do this". She sounded confident enough. I was deathly afraid. With that, out we went.
Lady Bottlebey's first step seemed OK, though we hadn't gotten to the ice, the turn, or the ski jump decline yet. Her second step was very shaky. Her control was waning. But I was still sitting up. Step three was a disaster. My front tires hit the ice and started to skid. She completely lost control. I looked back in panic. Her hands were outstretched beseechingly, as if she were praying and trying to reach someone headed out to deep waters, caught in a riptide. She hit the ice, went down on one knee, and let out a combination cry for help and moan of despair. By the time I was well onto the ice, and racing without hope into the hairpin--I was doomed.
I struggled mightily. I never had a chance.
The hairpin did me in. I careened straight through it, off the ramp right wheels first, and down into the new snow, cheek by jowl. Now what? Good Olde Mistress Bottlebey, who had her own problems, could do little more than stare in disbelief. Eventually, she painfully uttered, "Oh, my, Oh, my, Oh, my". She limped back and forth and back and forth, wringing her parrot-like hands, in a loss as to what to do.
I lay there freezing, face down, and struggling not to inhale that lovely, clean new snow. I could barely speak, like the dirt bike rider face down in a couple of inches of new mud. Right about then things sucked something awful. "Get Help", I begged, spitting snow. "Oh, yes, yes, of course" As she hobbled out to the front of the building, I felt sorry for her. For an instant, that is. I heard her as from a distance, working hard to get her rather pathetic message across to passers by. "He's really quite a nice young man who's in a wheelchair tipped over on the side here".
Eventually she convinced several highly suspicious men to at least take a look. These guys were a little wary at first, then speechless, then helpful. There I was, in my chair on the snow on my face, shivering like you'd expect.
The rest of the story, much like the others, is a huge anticlimax. I was set right side up, handed a towel of sorts, and pushed to the front sidewalk. I was lavish in my gratitude. I didn't want to look Miss B. in her eyes. I was sure she felt horribly sorry for me and blamed herself. I did look at her, however, and happily so. The initial wordless look between us settled everything. Her relief was palpable.
Bottlebey was a kind soul, you know,
though she worked for that old hack Monroe,
on a very cold day,
as we went on our way
I wound up face down in the snow.