Book: Ask the Right Question

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1

I had a big decision after lunch. Whether to read in the office or to stay in my living room and read.

It was one of those decisions that tell you about yourself, how much self-indulgence you allow. The room I live in is nicer than the office. The chair is softer, it’s a shorter walk for a glass of orange juice. On the other hand two o’clock is still business hours whether there is business or not. And should a client accidentally stumble through my door, it wouldn’t do to be dozing by the window in the back.

I made a virtuous choice. I took the pillow off my bed and carried it through to the squat rectangular light-green room I call my office. I put the pillow on the seat of my swivel chair and then I put me on the pillow. “Now I lay me down to sleep …”

And I commenced, for the eighth consecutive day, an afternoon read. Fourteen days into it, the October of 1970 was looking like the slowest month in my detecting history.

By half past four I was awake again and debating whether to move back to the living room. It was a day filled with such problems. Office hours were till five, but the afternoon movies start at four thirty.

But then the unusual happened. A client walked in.

I must have looked surprised, because she hesitated, clinging to the door. She raised an eyebrow and said, “Should I have knocked?” It was clear from the tone of her voice that she knew perfectly well that the outside door bore the words “Walk Right In.” When I first opened the office I was more buoyant than I have proved to be day in, day out. My water line has risen considerably.

“No, no,” I said. “Come in. Sit down.”

She paused over the dusty chair and then sat down gingerly. Indianapolis is one of the polluted cities; chairs get dusty very fast between clients.

She was young. Shoulder-length walnut hair. Violet-tinted glasses. A green jacket and pants, a suit-type thing.

I got my notebook out from the desk’s top drawer and I opened it.

“It smells in here,” she said.

I sighed. I prepared for rapid disenchantment. I flipped my notebook closed.

“Stop. Don’t do that. Please! I want you to find my biological father.”

In our few seconds’ acquaintance I hadn’t noticed the tension that had been gripping her, but now I felt positive relaxation passing through her body. A young body, budding with taste and moderation.

“Your what?” I asked mildly.

“My biological father!” A deep furrow split the tinted lenses. “You are the Albert Samson it says on the door, aren’t you?”

Her presumption did not excite me: that The Real Albert Samson trades uniquely in finding biological fathers. I patronized her.

“I am indeed Albert Samson, my dear. But won’t you find your biological father at home with your biological mother?” In bed? With the blinds drawn?

“No,” she said definitively. “That is precisely where I won’t find him. Will you take the job? Will you find my biological father for me?”

Physically she was squirming in her chair. Rubbing the dust in. And mentally she was race-horsing, moving ahead far faster than I wanted to. She looked, maybe, twenty. But her emotional control—lack of it—suggested a maiden of fewer summers.

Reopening my notebook, I said, “First things first. I’ll need your name and address.”

“I am Eloise Crystal. I live at 7019 North Jefferson Boulevard.”

I duly soiled a fresh page with these facts and the date. That made it official.

“And how old are you?”

She bristled slightly. “Is that usually the second question you ask your clients?” Either she was touchy about how old she was or she was a representative of the Women’s Age Liberation Movement. “I have money,” she continued. “I can pay you if that’s what you mean.”

“I’ll need to know your age,” I said.

“I’m sixteen.”

I’ll swear she looked older, but I guess such perceptions have passed me by.

“What time is it?” she asked.

I gestured to my cuckoo, behind her and next to the office door. It’s genuine Swiss, a leaf from my salad days. We read it together. 4:42.

“I have to go soon. Will you do it? Will you take the job?”

“Look, Miss Eloise Crystal of Jefferson Boulevard, how do you think these things work? Do you think you just walk in here and say, ‘Find my biological daddy,’ and then come back in a week to pick him up? From what you’ve told me just how the hell am I supposed to know whether I can find your so-called biological father or not?”

“You don’t have to swear,” she said prissily. She was upset. That was just as well. I’m not too keen on pushy people, and for pushy little girls I have a very low tolerance.

“Just what is it that you want me to try to do, and second, can you give me one good reason why I should do it?”

I was beginning to get through. She started crying.

She sobbed uncontrollably for three minutes, snuffled for two and caught her breath for about one and a half. I didn’t have much else to do besides watch her and the clock. And write in the notebook, “Client cried; may be crazy bananas.” And then feel a little bad about the whole thing. Part of it had to be my mistake. If I realized she was a kid from the start maybe I would have been more flexible. Kids don’t know much about dealing with people. For that matter, people don’t know that much about dealing with kids. So why don’t you hear her out, Albert? I told myself. She thinks you can help her with something. Maybe you can.

I almost went into the living room to get her a piece of paper towel to dry her eyes. But I didn’t, because I was afraid, a gut reaction, that if I left the office she might not be there when I got back.

As it turned out she had a handkerchief of her own. She pulled it out of a little purse I hadn’t noticed before.

When she was about dried out I said, “I’d like you to tell me about it.” It was my best offer.

She just took a breath in and blinked her eyes. Carefully she put the glasses on again. I guess she liked them on. Apparently you can’t cry without taking glasses off. They were prescription.

Trying to be gentle and fatherly (I am a father after all) I took a shot and said, “Did your parents wait until now to tell you something important?”

Add drivel and get instant fury. “They never told me anything! They say he is my father, I mean, they never said anything else. But I know he isn’t. I know it! I have proof.”

“Proof” is a word that grabs my attention. Proving things is nice. I like it. The problem is that so many things that people “prove” don’t stay proved.

“What sort of proof?”

“I have blood proof,” she said. “His type is B; my mother’s is O; and I have A. That means he can’t be my father. It’s not scientifically possible!” Her tone was plaintive. I was recording the information.

“Who can’t be your father?”

“He can’t. I mean, Leander Crystal can’t.”

“He is the man who lives with your mother?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s your mother’s name?”

“Fleur. Fleur Graham Crystal.”

“She’s married to Leander?”

“Yes.”

“They live with you? At”—I consulted my notes—“at 7019 Jefferson Boulevard?”

“That’s right.”

“How long have they been married?”

“For, I don’t know exactly, twenty or twenty-one years.”

“So they were married when you were born?”

“That’s right.”

“But you think Leander Crystal is not your father?”

“I know Leander Crystal is not my father. The blood types prove it.”

I looked at them again. I did flunk genetics in college once, but I know enough about elementary blood typing to have investigated my way through two paternity cases in the last seven years. For a kid to have A-type blood, there has to be some A in the parents. She had said the parents were B and O.

“Where did you get the blood types from?”

She smiled. The first smile in our acquaintance. A nice knowing smile. “I did them myself. In school. And I had Mr. Shubert—he’s my bio teacher—he checked it.”

She flushed slightly. What with the smiles and the flushing I figured the phony hard core had bit the dust. She was more relaxed, more girlie. I liked her.

“Well, actually I only typed my blood and my, well, Leander’s. I got Mummy’s when the doctor was at the house two weeks ago. She, Mummy, had a miscarriage. The doctor said he was afraid she would need a transfusion. “Shyly my client added, “They … it was twins.”

“Your parents must have been upset.”

She nodded vigorously. “Mummy especially. I would have liked twins.”

My cuckoo cheeped five times and Eloise started.

“Does that thing tell the right time?”

“More literally than most clocks,” I said. And then I said yes to answer the question I had been asked. In my business you get pretty fussy about things like that.

“I have to go.” She stood up, and I rose to face her. My pillow fell off the chair behind me but I had no regrets. “I came here from school and they’ll be worried if I’m not home soon. Are you going to do it for me? Will you find my biological father?”

“I can’t possibly tell you. The most I could say now is that I will try, and I can’t even say that until I know a lot more than you’ve told me.”

She opened her purse and pulled out a piece of money which she thrust at me.

“Here’s a hundred dollars. How much trying will that get?”

Business men have said things like that to me before, but I was astonished to hear it from Eloise Crystal. Maybe she was telling me something about the environmental father she’d grown up with.

“You just hang on to that for the moment. If you’re interested, I charge thirty-five dollars per eight-hour day, plus expenses.”

“Please take it. Please!” The hand holding the bill was wavering. “It’s mine. I didn’t steal it or anything. I have money. That’s not a problem.”

I took the bill and put it on my desk.

“I’ll keep it for you. But before I can even think about taking your case I’ve just got to have more information from you. What time do you get out of school tomorrow?”

“Oh, I don’t have to go to school,” she said.

I sighed. Some client problems are peculiar to minors. I said, “I have other things to do too. What time do you get out of school?”

“I can be here about four. I—I didn’t come straight up today. I wasn’t … sure. You know?”

“I know.”

We had reached a plateau. Our mutual understanding flowed like wine. I decided to sip a little.

“How did you get a blood sample from Leander?”

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But if you want something bad enough, there’s usually a way. See you tomorrow.”

She swept out of the office.

Whatever else she was, she was quick on her feet.

My quarters serve me admirably, but they are not in the right part of the building to let me watch a client leaving downstairs. My only window is in my living room and it fronts on Alabama Street. It gives me an eastern panorama over the White Star Diner and a Borden’s Ice Cream factory.

The front of my building is on Ohio Street. The office next to mine has two fine windows overlooking Ohio, and they are very convenient. The office is vacant and has been for the last three years. My landlord can’t find a sucker to pay twenty dollars a month more for a two-window northern exposure than I pay for my one shot to the east. He’s suggested on occasion that I become that sucker, but I fend him off. Not that I couldn’t afford the twenty dollars, usually. But I am versed enough in lock manipulations to be able to get in there whenever I want to. For a bath, say, or to look at a client from above. Besides, I wouldn’t want to look out my window every day and see the Wulsin Building right across the street. And my ivies grow better in an eastern window than they would to the north.

I didn’t know how fast Eloise Crystal would get down, so I hurried. I needn’t have. I’d been plopped on the windowsill for more than a minute when a prim little Miss Eloise appeared on the sidewalk below me and turned left. I opened the window and leaned gingerly out. She walked the three blocks to Meridian and there turned left again. Either she had conned me about having to go home or she had no car and was heading for a bus. If it was the bus I hoped she had something smaller than a hundred to give the driver.

I closed the window and got up off the sill. I retraced the footfalls to my office. I closed my outer door, bolted it, and ambled to the inner room of my private life.

But before I got settled I remembered my notebook. I went back to the office to get it. I also picked up the hundred-dollar bill and, for lack of a better place, I put it in my wallet. Then I went back to my living room.

You can see how much I must have saved in bus fares since I decided to move into the back room here.

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