July 1, 2010

Lit by Chicks


by Caroline Taylor

Sometimes the name they give you is all wrong. Mine’s Bonnie. Why they did it, I’ll never fathom. I don’t look like a Bonnie, and no one thinks I’m nice, let alone cheerful. Bonnie is so not me that some people can’t help snickering when they discover it really is my name.

Oh, I know what it means—even before looking it up in the dictionary, which said, “Attractive. Fair. Fine. Excellent.”

Maybe they were hoping I’d be all those things when they saddled me with the name. And maybe I despised it so much that I did everything in my power not to live up to it.

You could say I’m a real head-turner—if by that you mean that people tend to turn their heads away whenever they see me. I have mousy brown hair, as limp as a dirty dishrag and just about the same color. Only one eye matches my hair. The other decided to be yellow. And both of them are small and squinty and too close to my over-large nose, which makes those people who do look at me think I must be cross-eyed.

Of course, most of the time, they’re staring at my mouth. Not for me the plump, bee-stung lips of a budding starlet or fashion model. I was born with a harelip, and no amount of lipstick or makeup masks the scars from a botched attempt to make me look normal back when I was a kid.

So, forget attractive—or fair, in either sense of the word.

As for fine, I stopped trying to be fine back in grade school when Mrs. Hardesty put me in the retard class because of the way I looked. Which brings me to excellent.

Now that depends. Sometimes I think I’m excellent, but I’m also smart enough to know that hardly anyone would agree. You see, I’m a professional bitch. I get paid not to play fair. I write letters to businesses for nice, bonnie folks who’ve never had to be nasty to get someone’s attention. I’m successful at what I do, but I seldom get thanked—except monetarily, which is fine, considering how it’s just about the only expression of gratitude that you can be sure isn’t insincere.

So, yeah, Bonnie is a bit of a joke for most folks who require my services. I picture them, after I’ve been hired, high-fiving their Significant Other, both of them enjoying a laugh at my expense:

“Imagine a person with a name like that in her line of work.”

“You’re kidding, of course.”

“No way. That’s her name. Not Bonita either—which would be even funnier, considering her face could stop a clock.”

Then, of course, hypocrites that they are, they’ll reassure each other that they don’t really mean the things they’ve just said, that they’re such nice, fair-minded folk. The honest ones will pause momentarily before once again giving way to guffaws.

Well screw ’em. Sticks and stones, after all…

And screw Roger and Victoria too. They’re the ones who thought the stupid name would prevail over the reality of the child they’d adopted, sight unseen, from an orphanage in some godforsaken place they refused to name, except to assure me that I was much better off being an American.

The records are sealed, not that I have any interest in tracing my ancestry, let alone trying to track down my so-called “real” mother.

The only thing I care about right now is Gordon Addison.

Wait, that came out wrong. I do not care for the jerk in the sense of feeling any shred of emotion, especially affection, for the guy. No, I care that Gordon is wrecking my business. He’s trying to compete, and he’s a lawyer, which gives him a huge advantage.

I discovered his existence when one of my customers told me she didn’t think I could handle her problem with the cable company. Like most of the other problems I deal with, it began with her growing increasingly frustrated that she could not explain her particular situation to a human being over there. I gave her some tips on trying to get past the automated troll, but none of them worked. She kept getting recycled back through the system, rejecting each of the options it offered because they didn’t apply. She finally reached the limits of her sanity and ended up throwing the telephone across the room, where it shattered her brand-new flat screen HDTV. Now she wanted to collect damages from the cable company.

I told her a simple letter to the head of the company might solve her cable problem—a letter I could produce in about two clicks of the mouse, I’d written it so often. But when I cautioned her that she probably didn’t have much chance of collecting money to replace the TV, she said, “Okaaaaaay. I guess I’ll call Gordon Addison.”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“Somebody I heard about from my neighbor. He’s a lawyer, so he knows just how to approach these a— these unresponsive people.”

“So do I,” I reminded her.

“But you’re not a lawyer.”

I’m no math whiz, but I figured too many more calls like that one, and I’d be out on the streets.

I set the wheels in motion to assess Aggravating Addison’s weak points. Like, for example, why he wasn’t working for some high-end fancy shmancy law firm. Was there something he was hiding—something he’d done, perhaps just a smidge short of disbarment proceedings, but enough to have him toiling at the sewer end of the practice of law? Was he lazy?

Unfair, you say? I just told you that I may be Bonnie, but I’m most assuredly not fair. Besides, all is fair when it comes to survival.

Maybe Addison had some other problems—an unhealthy interest in young children, for example, or two or more wives, none of whom realized he was a bigamist. Or maybe he was just not very bright. It happens. Some of the dumbest people I know are Ph.D.’s.

I Googled him. If his mug shot could be believed, he, too, was no prize catch. His ears stuck out like silver dollars on either side of a long narrow face with a receding chin. He was wearing glasses that made his eyes appear to be bulging out of their sockets. Acne scars. The photo was grainy and washed out, but the light color of his thinning hair suggested it could be blond or gray. He was fifty-one. Graduated in 1984 from some mediocre law school in the Midwest.

The whole thing might have made me yawn except for it being a matter of life and death. I weighed my options carefully. If there was not a spec of dirt to be found and exploited, what would I do? Take him out?

What, you say? Surely I didn’t imagine I could seduce him. Or did I mean “take him out” as in murdering the guy?

Of course not. That would be stupid. After all, I would be a logical suspect as his only (I hope!) competitor. But there were other ways…

Which was why I checked him out so carefully. It’s far easier to expose the dirt in someone’s background than to invent it, if you get my drift.

I learned that Addison wasn’t married. If he was a con artist or a pedophile, those proclivities hadn’t yet been exposed. He had worked for a low-end ambulance-chasing law firm in Philly before he came here. But, as is typical of most businesses these days, they refused to divulge anything of interest, such as why he left and whether it was voluntary or not.

I discovered that his office was no better—and no worse—than mine. He too leased space in an over-the-hill professional building on the fringe of the downtown area, the only difference being that my building has a pharmacy on the ground floor. This got me thinking if drugs might be the ticket. What if he had a secret habit, and that’s why he ended up bottom-feeding?

He might have had a secretary, but I doubted it. The answering service at his number sounded just like the one I use—the kind that pretends to be your personal staff when, in fact, they service hundreds of sole proprietorships like mine—and Gordon Addison’s.

Not too long after the first of my customers defected, a couple of my other regulars—who tend to be older people who just aren’t comfortable on the Internet or punching numbers into a phone—said they’d heard great things about this new fellow, Gordon Addison, who’d successfully sued a cable outfit for damages incurred when an irate customer lost patience with the company’s automated phone service.

Ring a bell? I didn’t even need to check the court records to make sure that the rumors were true. The story was all over the morning paper, along with a head-and shoulders shot of a smiling Addison and, right next to him, my former client. This was definitely bad for business.

I thought about visiting the jerk, telling him that I had been there first and to keep his filthy paws off my customers, but I know what I’d do if somebody came whining to me with the same complaint.

Instead, I turned to the Internet, a truly marvelous invention. For reasons known only to the gods of cyberspace, people will believe anything you say on the Web. I posted a few thoughts about Addison and his secrets to some lawyer blogs and settled back to enjoy the show.

It took about three months for the stuff to grow to the magnitude that had other people in town beginning to whisper—and then talk—about Gordon Addison’s drug problem. A local columnist wrote a piece claiming that Addison had been kicked out of a law firm in Philly for attempting to bribe prosecutors in a drug trial—a charge that could never be proved and which he vehemently denied. Only nobody would listen, let alone believe him.

You see how it works? Try to prove you didn’t do something when everyone around you believes you did. Gordon Addison threatened to sue the paper for defamation, but I (and presumably the paper’s legal counsel) knew he couldn’t possibly afford it. He produced and posted to the Internet a letter written by a partner in the Philadelphia law firm where he’d worked, denying the “false and scurrilous rumors” and claiming that Mr. Addison had been a model associate defense counsel until he resigned due to a decision to relocate to our fine town.
Very cleverly worded, except whose decision was it? I couldn’t help thinking it ranked right up there next to resigning “to spend more time with my family.”

Soon enough, the blogosphere was full of “knowledgeable” claims (some drafted by moi under an alias) that the partner’s letter was a forgery. Gordon Addison was toast.

One by one, his clients showed their gratitude to him, their faith in his innocence, by returning to me. On their behalf, once again I wrote letters withholding payment on disputed invoices, castigating airlines for not forking over a decent amount of money when they had to bump passengers, pointing out to errant ex-spouses serious breaches in custody and support agreements, and—in one very involved case—demanding that the president of a large national home mortgage lender inform the three credit bureaus that the “past sixty days” notation on the mortgage in question was the fault of the lender, not the borrower. That one tested even my patience, I’ll confess.

All in all, I was back in business big time, as happy as someone in my situation can possibly be. Until Gordon Addison showed up. He’d Googled me, you see. Found my address, figured out I was in the same line of work, and came to offer his services.

Now he’s sitting here in my office. “I figured better to join ’em,” he says with a lopsided grin. He’s got a funny accent like he isn’t American, and I can’t help staring as a tiny trickle of drool creeps down his chin and his head lolls against the back of his wheelchair.

“You think I—”

“Let’s say I hope. Hope. I don’t suppose you’re making any more than I was before all those damned rumors about me got circulated. But maybe two can do better?”

Smothering a sigh, I lean back in my chair, but before I can open my mouth, he jumps in.

“I assure you I am completely functional. I do take drugs, though. I have to. Otherwise …” He shrugs with his eyebrows.

“I understand.” If only he knew. “It’s just that I—”

“Oh. You don’t have to worry about me being able to do the work. It’s all by voice-aided computer. Research. Typing. You name it, I can do it.”

Addison doesn’t have a clue. “You want a job? Here? With me?”

He’s laughing now, but not at my expense, more like a kid on a lark. “Why not?”

Normally at about this stage I’d be saying, “What’s in it for me?” or “You think I’m made of money?” Instead, I find myself woolgathering at the most inopportune time, wondering what color his eyes are, noticing that he hasn’t looked away from me once, castigating myself for thinking it might be because he can’t control the movement of his head. His eyes follow me as I come around the side of my desk and stand before him, arms crossed, so he can get a good hard look at just how bonnie Bonnie is.

“I can’t pay you.”

“I figured that might be the case.”

“Then why…?”

“I need the work.” He grins sheepishly. “All this gear is expensive to maintain, as you might expect. Of course, the settlement covers pretty much everything except—”

“Let me guess. Boredom.”

His head drops forward, which I interpret to be a nod. And that’s when I completely lose it. Is it pity that propels my decision? Of course not. I am a professional bitch.

I wind up offering him a partnership, fifty-fifty, as though that can ever begin to erase the blogs and their damage. We shake on it, which, under the circumstances, has me putting my right hand on top of his lifeless one and giving it a gentle squeeze.

That’s when I think I catch one gigantic eye winking behind the coke-bottle glasses, and he says, “There’s a bonnie lass.”

Caroline Taylor’s short stories have appeared in The Chick Lit Review, The Dan River Anthology 2009, The First Line, A Fly in Amber, The Greensilk Journal, Long Story Short, The Oddville Press, Orchard Press Mysteries, Strange Mysteries 2, and Workers Write! Her first novel, What Are Friends For?, is forthcoming from Five Star Mysteries in March 2011. Caroline can be reached via e-mail.