duced her to the partying scene and she discovered she had a knack for that too. While she clung to the strict Muslim prohibition against alcohol, and she really didn’t like the taste of any of it anyway, she was more receptive to other temptations, primarily fashion and sex. She was almost six feet tall and was often told how great she looked in tight jeans. Her first boyfriend happily taught her all about sex. Her second introduced her to recreational drugs. By the end of her junior year she silently and defiantly considered herself a nonpracticing Muslim, though her parents had no clue.
“Ho, ho, ho. I lasted ten miserable days and got the hell out. You?”
“Three days, then duty called and I came back to work. How’s Louie?”
“Still seriously indicted, still looking at real jail time. I should feel sorry for him but compassion runs thin for a guy who sleeps half the day and spends the other half on the sofa watching Judge Judy and bitching about his ankle monitor. My poor mom.”
“You’re pretty hard on him.”
“Not hard enough. That’s his problem. No one’s ever been hard on Louie. He got caught with pot when he was thirteen, blamed it on a friend, and of course my parents rushed to his defense. He’s never been held accountable. Until now.”
“Bummer, man. I can’t imagine having a brother in prison.”
“Yeah, it sucks. I just wish I could help him but there’s no way.”
“I won’t even ask about your dad.”
“Didn’t see him and didn’t hear from him. Not even a card. He’s fifty years old and the proud papa of a three-year-old, so I guess he played Santa Claus. Laid out a bunch of toys under the tree, smiled like an idiot when the kid came down the stairs squealing. What a rat.”
Two coeds walked to the bar and Todd left to serve them. Mark pulled out his phone and checked his messages.
When Todd returned, he asked, “Have you seen any grades yet?”
“No. Who cares? We’re all top students.” Grades at Foggy Bottom were a joke. It was imperative that the school’s graduates finish with sparkling résumés, and to that end the professors passed out As and Bs like cheap candy. No one flunked out of FBLS. So, of course, this had created a culture of rather listless studying, which, of course, killed any chance of competitive learning. A bunch of mediocre students became even more mediocre. No wonder the bar exam was such a challenge. Mark added, “And you really can’t expect a bunch of overpaid professors to grade exams during the holidays, can you?”
Todd took another sip, leaned even closer, and said, “We have a bigger problem.”
“I was afraid of that. I’ve texted and tried to call but his phone’s turned off. What’s going on?”
“It’s bad,” Todd said. “Evidently, he went home for Christmas and spent his time fighting with Brenda. She wants a big church wedding with a thousand people. Gordy doesn’t want to get married. Her mother has a lot to say. His mother is not speaking to her mother and the whole thing is blowing up.”
“They’re getting married May 15, Todd. As I recall, you and I signed on as groomsmen.”
“Well, don’t bet on it. He’s already back in town and off his meds. Zola stopped by this afternoon and gave me the heads-up.”
“It’s a long story.”
“He’s bipolar, Mark. Diagnosed a few years back.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Why would I kid about this? He’s bipolar and Zola says he’s off his medication.”
“Why wouldn’t he tell us?”
“I can’t answer that.”
Mark took a long drink of beer and shook his head. He asked, “Zola’s back already?”
“Yes, evidently she and Gordy hurried back for a few days of fun and games, though I’m not sure they’re having much fun. She thinks he quit his meds about a month ago when we were studying for finals. One day he’s manic and bouncing off the walls; then he’s in a stupor after sipping tequila and smoking weed. He’s talking crazy, says he wants to quit school and run off to Jamaica, with Zola of course. She thinks he might do something stupid and hurt himself.”
“Gordy is stupid. He’s engaged to his high school sweetheart, a real cutie who happens to have money, and now he’s shacking up with an African girl whose parents and brothers are in this country without the benefit of those immigration papers everyone is talking about. Yes, the boy is stupid.”
“Gordy’s in trouble, Mark. He’s been sliding for several weeks and he needs our help.”
Mark pushed his beer away, but only a few inches, and clasped his hands behind his head. “As if we don’t have enough to worry about. How, exactly, are we supposed to help?”
“You tell me. She’s trying to keep an eye on him and she wants us to come over tonight.”
Mark started laughing and took another sip.
“What’s so funny?” Todd asked.
“Nothing, but can you imagine the scandal in Martinsburg, West Virginia, if word got out that Gordon Tanner, whose father is a church deacon and whose fiancée is the daughter of a prominent doctor, lost his mind and quit law school to run off to Jamaica with an African Muslim?”
“I can almost see the humor.”
“Well, try harder. It’s a scream.” But the laughter had stopped. “Look, Todd, we can’t make him take his meds. If we tried to he’d kick both our asses.”
“He needs our help, Mark. I get off at nine tonight and we’re going over.”
A man in a nice suit sat at the bar and Todd walked over to take his order. Mark sipped his beer and sank into an even deeper funk.
Three years before Zola Maal was born, her parents fled Senegal. They resettled in a Johannesburg slum with their two young sons and found menial jobs scrubbing floors and digging ditches. After two years, they had saved enough for a boat ride. Using the services of a broker/trafficker, they paid for a miserable trip to Miami aboard a Liberian freighter, along with a dozen other Senegalese. When they were safely smuggled ashore, an uncle met them and drove them to his home in Newark, New Jersey, where they lived in a two-room apartment in a building filled with other folks from Senegal, not a single one of whom held a green card.
A year after they arrived in the U.S., Zola was born at Newark’s University Hospital and instantly became an American citizen. While her parents worked two and three jobs, all for cash at less than minimum wage, Zola and her brothers attended school and assimilated into the community. As devout Muslims, they practiced their religion, though at an early age Zola found herself attracted to Western ways. Her father was a strict man who insisted that their native tongues of Wolof and French be replaced with English. The boys absorbed the new language and helped their parents with it at home.
The family moved often around Newark, always to cramped apartments, each one slightly larger than the last, and always with other Senegalese close by. All of them lived in fear of being deported, but there was safety in numbers, or so they believed. Every knock on the door brought a brief shudder of fear. Staying out of trouble was imperative, and Zola and her brothers were taught to avoid anything that might attract the wrong kind of attention. Even though she had the right papers, she knew that her family was in jeopardy. She lived with the horror of her parents and brothers being arrested and sent back to Senegal.
When she was fifteen, she found her first job washing dishes in a diner, for cash of course, and not much of it. Her brothers worked too, and the entire family scrimped and saved as much as possible.
When Zola wasn’t working she was studying. She breezed through high school with good grades and enrolled in a community college as a part-time student. A small scholarship allowed her to become full-time and also landed her a job in the college library. But she still washed dishes, and cleaned houses with her mother, and babysat children for family friends with better jobs. Her oldest brother married an American girl who was not a Muslim, and though that meant an easier route to citizenship, it caused serious friction with her parents. The brother and his new wife moved to California to start another life.
At the age of twenty, Zola left home and enrolled as a junior at Montclair State. She lived in a dorm with two American girls, both of whom were also on tight budgets. She chose accounting as a major because she enjoyed working with numbers and had a knack for finance. She studied hard when time allowed, but the juggling of two and sometimes three jobs often interfered with the books. Her roommates intro
Her parents would soon have more serious problems. During the fall semester of her senior year, her father was arrested and jailed for two weeks before bail was arranged. At the time, he was working for a painting contractor, another Senegalese with proper documents. Evidently, his boss had underbid a union contractor for a job painting the interior of a large office complex in Newark. The union contractor notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and reported that illegals were being used. That was serious enough, but some office supplies were allegedly missing and fingers were being pointed. Zola’s father and four other undocumented workers were charged with grand larceny. He was served with a Notice to Appear in immigration court, along with a criminal indictment.
Zola hired a lawyer who claimed to specialize in such matters and the family forked over a retainer of $9,000, virtually all its savings. The lawyer was extremely busy and seldom returned their phone calls. With her parents and brother hiding in and around Newark, Zola was left to haggle with the lawyer. She grew to despise the man, a fast talker who liked to stretch the truth, and would have fired him had it not been for the retainer. There was no money to hire another. When he failed to appear in court, the judge kicked him off the case. Zola eventually convinced a legal aid lawyer to step in and the indictment was dismissed. The deportation, however, was not going away. The case dragged on and became so distracting that her grades suffered. After several court appearances and hearings, she became convinced that all lawyers were either lazy or stupid and that she could do a better job herself.
She fell for the scam that easy federal money could make law school possible for everyone, and took the first bold steps that would lead to Foggy Bottom. Now, halfway through her final year of law school, she owed more money than she could imagine. Both parents and Bo, her unmarried brother, were still facing deportation, though their cases were languishing in the backlogged immigration courts.
SHE LIVED ON Twenty-Third Street in a building not quite as dilapidated as the Coop but similar in many respects. It was packed with students crammed into small, cheaply furnished flats. Early in her third year, she had met Gordon Tanner, a handsome, athletic blond boy who lived directly across the hall. One thing quickly led to another, and they began an ill-fated affair, one that soon led to conversations about living together, to save money of course. Gordon finally nixed the idea because Brenda, his pretty fiancée from home, loved the big city and visited often.
Juggling two women proved too much for Gordy. He’d been engaged to Brenda for practically his entire life and now wanted desperately to avoid a marriage. Zola raised far different issues, and he had not convinced himself he was brave enough to run off with a black girl and never see his family and friends again. Add the strain of a soft or even nonexistent job market, suffocating debt, and the prospect of flunking the bar exam, and Gordy lost control. He had been diagnosed as bipolar five years earlier. Meds and psychotherapy worked well, and, with the exception of a frightening episode in college, his life had been pretty normal. That changed around Thanksgiving of his third year at Foggy Bottom, when he stopped taking his meds. Zola was shocked at the mood swings and finally confronted him. He admitted his condition and went back on the meds. The ups and downs leveled out for a couple of weeks.
They finished exams and went home for the holidays, though neither wanted to. Gordy was determined to provoke the final fight with Brenda and blow up the wedding. Zola did not want to spend time with her family. Even with his troubles, her father would find the need to unload lectures and tirades on her sinful Western lifestyle.
After a week they were back in D.C. with Gordy still engaged, the wedding still on for May 15. But he was off his meds and behaving erratically. For two days he never left his bedroom, sleeping for hours, then sitting with his chin on his knees, staring at the dark walls. Zola came and went, uncertain about what to do. He disappeared for three days while sending her text messages that he was on the train to New York, to “interview some people.” He was on the trail of a great conspiracy and had a lot of work to do. She was asleep in her apartment when he barged in at four in the morning, ripping off clothes and wanting sex. Later in the day he disappeared again, chasing bad guys and “digging for dirt.” When he returned he was still manic and spent hours with his laptop. He told her to stay away from his apartment because he had so much work to do.
Frightened and exasperated, Zola finally went to the Old Red Cat and talked to Todd.
She met them at the stoop in front of the building and they followed her up the stairs to her apartment on the second floor. When they were inside she closed the door and thanked them for coming. She was obviously worried, almost frantic.
“Where is he?” Mark asked.
“Over there,” Zola said, nodding toward the hall. “He won’t let me in and he won’t come out. I don’t think he’s slept much in the past two days. He’s up and down and right now he’s bouncing off the walls.”
“And no meds?” Todd asked.
“Evidently not, at least none from the pharmacy. I suspect there’s some self-medicating going on.”
They looked at one another, each waiting for someone to make the next move. Mark finally said, “Let’s go.” They stepped across the hall and Mark knocked on the door. “Gordy, it’s Mark. I’m here with Todd and Zola and we want to talk.”
Silence. Springsteen could barely be heard in the background.
Mark knocked again and repeated himself. The music died. A chair or a stool was kicked and fell over. More silence, then the doorknob clicked. A few seconds passed, and Mark opened the door.
Gordy was standing in the center of the cramped room, wearing nothing but an old pair of yellow Redskins gym shorts, the same pair they had seen a hundred times. He was staring at a wall and ignored them as they eased into the room. To their left, the kitchenette was a wreck with empty beer cans and liquor bottles left in the sink and strewn along the counters. The floor was littered with paper cups, used napkins, and sandwich wrappers. To their right, the small dining table was piled high with papers in random stacks around a laptop and printer. Under it, the floor was covered with papers and files and discarded magazine articles. The sofa, television, recliner, and coffee table had been shoved as tightly as possible into one corner, as if to clear everything away from the wall.
The wall was a maze of white poster boards and dozens of sheets of copy paper, all arranged in some crazed order and secured with colored pushpins and Scotch tape. With black, blue, and red markers, Gordy was in the process of piecing together a gigantic corporate puzzle, some grand conspiracy that led to the ominous faces of a few men at the top.
Gordy appeared to be staring at the faces. He was pale and emaciated and had obviously lost a lot of weight, something Mark and Todd had not noticed two weeks earlier during final exams. He was an athlete who loved the gym, but the toned muscles were gone. His thick blond hair, the source of immense vanity, was stringy and had not been washed in days. Sizing him up, and taking in the condition of his apartment, they knew instantly that their friend had gone over the edge. They were in the presence of a manic artist, secluded and deranged and hard at work on an enormous canvas.
“What’s the occasion?” Gordy asked as he turned and glared at them. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow, his beard a week old.
“We need to talk,” Mark said.
“Yes we do,” he said. “But I’m doing
the talking because I have a lot to say. I’ve got it all figured out now. I’ve caught the bastards and we have to move fast.”
Tentatively, Todd said, “Okay, Gordy. We’re here to listen. What’s up?”
Gordy pointed to the sofa and calmly said, “Please have a seat.”
“I’d rather stand, Gordy, if that’s okay,” Mark said.
“No!” he barked. “It’s not okay. Just do as I say and we’ll be fine. Now sit down.” He was snarling, suddenly angry, and seemed ready to throw a punch. Neither Mark nor Todd would last ten seconds in a fistfight with Gordy. They had seen two in their law school days, both quick knockouts in bars with Gordy still on his feet.
Todd and Zola sat on the sofa and Mark pulled a stool over from the snack bar. They stared at the wall in disbelief. It was a maze of flowcharts with arrows jutting in all directions and linking together dozens of companies, firms, names, and numbers. Like schoolchildren who’d just been admonished, they sat, waited, and absorbed the wall.
Gordy stepped to the dining table, where a half-empty fifth of tequila was in the works. He poured some into his favorite coffee cup and sipped it as if having tea.