[about the author]
i actually like speaking in front of large crowds. freakish,
i work crossword puzzles in ink.
i am the american nigella lawson. or maybe the american eddie
izzard. can't decide, really.
i would be a really good mom, but i'm cool with being a really
i am sometimes more perceptive than i would like to be.
i am fiercely loyal. sometimes, stupidly so.
i never play dumb. never.
i am way too hard on myself.
i am a change agent.
i sometimes cross that fine line between assertive and aggressive.
i am not afraid to tell people that i love them.
i am militantly pro-choice.
i am pro-adoption.
i know a little bit about alot of things.
i typically enjoy the company of men more than women.
i am capable of being really mean and nasty, but i fight it.
i am a lifelong cubs fan. do not laugh.
i have been known to hold a grudge.
i have hips.
i am not my sister.
i am lousy at forgiving myself.
i am an indoor kind of gal.
i am a bargain shopper. to the point of obsession.
i am 32 flavors. and then some.
an offer i couldn't refuse
it was the end of august. a long, hot and humid summer of unemployment after my first taste of corporate downsizing. actually, my company was so downsized that it ceased to exist. we were mostly young and single, so we conspired to live off of our unemployment checks for the summer, getting drunk and getting tan.
like all things too good to be true, it had to come to an end.
and, so it was that i came to work at the attorney general’s office. i submitted a resume to fill a legal assistant position. i’d done that sort of thing before, and the idea of government holidays appealed to me in the most profound way.
i remember how surprised i was that i was to be interviewed by the attorney general himself. i waited patiently in his office.
the door swung wide in what would later become an all-too-familiar ritual. he stormed into the room, a small entourage in tow, blustering about something or other. he was a formidable man, with a headful of thick white hair. his voice had a deep, booming timbre that you could feel in your stomach like a bass drum in a marching band.
he carried on, ranting and raving, for about ten minutes, finally dismissing the others and turning his attention to me.
the standard-issue cursory questions came next.
where had i worked prior to this?
why had i left?
where did i see myself professionally in three years?
“what political party are you registered with?”
“are you married?”
“so, do you go to church?”
i’d always thought such questions were illegal. but, surely, i was mistaken. if the attorney general was asking them, then i must be mistaken.
“i consider myself a liberal, sir.”
“no, sir, i am not married.”
“well, i consider myself a spiritual person…”
“don’t you dodge my question, young lady,” he bellowed. “we do important work in these halls! important work. the work of the people. god’s work. not just anyone is qualified to do the work we do here.”
i left the interview shaking, convinced it couldn’t have gone any worse. i stopped off to have a few drinks, and arrived home hours later to find three messages on my answering machine.
i was hired.
according to the chief of staff, the attorney general had taken a liking to me. thought i was “spirited.” as such, i would be working exclusively for him– and no one else in the office. research, writing…important work.
they gave me a swell office in the rotunda of the capitol building, and i settled in nicely.
about two weeks later, the door to my office swung open. i noticed after a while that the attorney general never simply opened a door. there was nothing grand in the gesture of simply opening a door. if he was to come through a door, it would be flung open. wide.
and, now, here he was, standing in my doorway, his hair disheveled. and he was speaking german.
after a few moments, i interrupted him as politely as i could. after all, he might be telling me about important work that needed done. and i had absolutely no idea what he was saying.
“excuse me, sir? you may recall, i mean, we did discuss this a couple of times last week, and actually, it may have come up during my interview as well,” i began.
he was in my office now, pacing back and forth in front of my desk, his imposing stature made even more so by the shock of hair and the booming voice which was echoing impressively off the marble columns just outside my office door. he was still ranting. still in german.
“sir? i don’t speak german. spanish, sure. some french, and probably could manage some italian…i mean, written italian. probably not spoken italian. but definitely not german, sir.”
it was as though i was talking to the stapler.
after a few moments, i gave up trying to explain to him that i couldn’t understand a damn word he was saying. i figured that, if he stopped and turned to me, i would simply say, with all the enthusiasm i could muster, “eich bein ein berliner.”
but, before i had the chance to proclaim that i was a jelly donut, the attorney general abruptly stopped pacing and turned to me. it was as if he had been in a trance. as though he had no idea how he had gotten into my office, or even who i was. which, actually, would have been just fine with me at that point.
“julia. come with me.”
“yessir…um, do i need a pen? my purse? sir?”
but, he was already out the door and striding purposefully back toward his office.
once in his office, he motioned for me to take a seat. even though i had only been there a few weeks, i had been summoned here dozens of times. a captive audience. i had listened for two hours one afternoon as he waxed poetic about his mother, explaining to me that she and i shared the same name, and what a great burden that was to have placed upon my shoulders. how i should endeavor every day to be worthy of such a noble name.
this was the way of things.
everyone knew it. no one talked about it. and no one had the decency to warn me before i took the job. he loved to hear himself talk. his mind knew no linear track. the attorney general knew things. lots of things. mostly historical things. the kind of stuff so obscure that the people over at the civilization channel don’t even know about it. and he loved to hear himself talk about these things.
his monologues would often last upwards of forty minutes. and all you could do was sit there, stock still. waiting. praying for it to end. he always shouted out to his secretary before one of these sessions, “martha! no interruptions!” as if he found some perverse pleasure in stripping you of the faint hope that you might find salvation in a phone call or a knock at the door.
but, there would be no rescue.
the topic on this particular day was loyalty. i don’t remember everything we covered, but i know we took detours through both the ancient greek and the ancient roman histories. then, we veered sharply into union politics. then, off we went into the machinations of the two-party political system in modern times.
i was dizzy. but, at least it was all in english.
suddenly, he opened his desk drawer. he reached in, and pulled out a book which he threw down on the conference table in front of me.
it was mario puzo’s the godfather.
it was a paperback copy and had clearly seen better days. its front cover was bent, and one corner was missing entirely.
i noticed two post-it notes peeking out from the yellowed pages.
“julia, friendship is everything. friendship is more than talent. it is more than government. it is almost the equal of family. never forget that."
“um. yessir. i see.”
"a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."
“of course, sir.”
“julia, do you see those two yellow tabs in that book?”
“yes sir, i see them.”
“i need you to translate those pages into latin.”
“you mean the two pages with the post-it notes on them?”
“no. the pages between the post-it notes.”
“yes, latin. the mother of all languages, the lingua franca of all mankind, the….”
i have no idea what he said after that. there was a screaming chorus of voices in my head drowning him out. latin? it’s not like anyone even spoke latin. not romans. not even latin americans. no one spoke latin. it’s a dead language. surely he had caught that on the history channel at some point.
but, even more loud than the voices droning on about latin being a dead language was the refrain of “why?”
with every fiber of my being, with every ounce of strength i had, i fought them. for i knew better than to ask. i had heard the stories about those foolish souls who had dared to ask that question.
everyone knew the inevitable response to the inquiry. it was always swift, always delivered in the same booming voice, with the same withering glare: “because i. am. the. attorney. general. that iswhy.”
and, so, off i went with the dogeared paperback in my hand and my heart in my throat.
i headed off to the archives, located in the dark, dank basement of a nearby building. i introduced myself to the reference librarian and asked him for help.
“a latin dictionary, huh? lemme guess…the attorney general’s office, right?”
“how did you know? i’m working for him, and he asked me….”
“working for him? what, directly for him?” he laughed. “well, make yourself at home. i imagine you and i will get to be fast friends. hell, i’ll even set up a desk for you if you want. you’re gonna be spending a lot of time over here.”
the latin dictionary was a behemoth. and dusty. i had no conjugation information, no syntax or grammatical structure information. i was fucked.
by the time i was summoned back to the office, i had managed to come up with exactly half a page of what i’m sure would have translated to absolute gibberish.
i remember the long walk back to my office across the capitol grounds. my head hung low. i brightened momentarily when i remembered how much i had enjoyed my summer of unemployment, but my spirits sank quickly as i recalled that the first hint of fall was in the air. it would be a long, cold unemployed winter.
i sat down in his office. he was turned toward the window with his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. in his hands was some massive atlas that he appeared to be studying with great solemnity. i entertained myself for the next ten minutes trying to decide if i should quit or wait to be fired.
finally, he turned to me.
i decided to take the bull by the horns. show some of that infamous spirit that had landed me here in the first place.
“sir, this is all i have. i’m sorry, sir, but i’m afraid i just didn’t get this finished, and what i did do, well, i just don’t think it’s actually translated properly. i’m sorry, sir.”
he looked at me as though he had never seen me before.
“the latin, sir. the godfather?”
“the godfather…yes, of course. a fine, fine piece of work. i’ve called you here because i have an assignment for you, julia.”
what the hell?
“back in 1928, then-president calvin coolidge called upon…”
it was as though i had been transported to another dimension. was he serious? had i spent the entire morning poring over that moldy dictionary, drenched in flop sweat, my head throbbing with each passing second only for him to act as though he had never asked me to do anything at all? the screaming chorus of voices came back, this time demanding an explanation.
but, again, i sat silent.
“…he asked him how much it would cost to outright buy the west virginia legislature…and i need to know what that figure was.”
when i arrived back at the archives, my new friend was waiting with a smile on his face.
“what is it now?”
“well, i’m supposed to find out how much this guy,” i said, sliding the scrap of paper across the desk, “said it would cost to buy the west virginia legislature back in 1928. at first, i thought this would be even tougher than the godfather – some wild goose chase that turned out to be. but, as luck would have it, i understand that someone wrote a biography of this guy.”
he read the name on the scrap of paper. “oh, yeah…it’s your lucky day. i know exactly where this is. follow me.”
we went further down into the archives basement than i even imagined you could go. he led me to a dark corner, and pointed to the top shelf.
“there you go,” he smiled.
“all of them. his biography is fifteen volumes.”
his laughter echoed in my head long after he had gone.
as i pulled the first volume from the shelf and set it on the small wooden desk in the corner, a thick cloud of dust enveloped my head. it smelled like my great-grandmother’s photo albums, and i could taste it in the back of my throat.
i stared at the book for a few moments, then took out my pen and scribbled, “$55,000” on the legal pad i had brought with me.
i reshelved the book and sat undisturbed for hours until the call came to summon me back with my treasure.
“that is fine work, julia,” he said, setting the paper aside with barely a glance.
“now, i need to know how many tiles make up the ceiling of the supreme court chamber.”
“would that be the west virginia supreme court, sir, or the united states supreme court?”
“why, julia, that is a very fine question. i’m glad to see someone around here has an eye for detail.”
“thank you, sir. it’s important work we do here, sir.”
“yes, julia. yes, it is.”
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