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Orders of Protection

by Jenn Hollmeyer


When you accept the job, your friends say you’re selfless. Then they say you’re a fool. They laugh and tell stories about their bosses and buy you Manhattans at the Legal Bar, a place you’ll never afford on your salary, but you don’t mind. The cherries taste like bronchitis and the napkin feels like your mother’s hand.

~

On your first day, a coneflower of a woman walks into your office and asks who the hell you are. You say you’re her new attorney, and the petals of her dress wilt with disappointment. You look like a Girl Scout. When she sits down, she tells you about the man who beats her, that he looks like the nicest guy in the world, like he’d be your dentist or your mailman or your cousin, you know? You say you know.

~

At home that night you want to remember being a child, so you sit on the fire escape with a bag of candies that change flavor as you suck on them. Grape becomes strawberry, lime becomes orange, and banana becomes armpit. Then you realize the last one has always tasted this way, not just since you put it in your mouth but since twenty years ago. None of the flavors have ever tasted how they should, and nothing ever changes, not really. Your tongue feels like your cat’s. You drop the rest of the candies through the grate and wait for someone on the sidewalk to look up at you, but no one does.

~

You’re in the courtroom, waiting for the coneflower woman, when the judge starts to make small talk, which with him is never small. He says people only do what you do for three reasons. One, there aren’t any other jobs. Two, they’re religious. Or three, they can identify with their clients because they’ve had hard lives themselves. He doesn’t ask which reason applies to you, and you don’t say. Your client walks in the door, wearing a black dress and a black eye.

~

One of your friends calls and asks how it’s going, what it’s like to be selfless. You hear the word “selfish” and a spear of heat rises up your spine and fills your face. You’re afraid you’ve missed a voicemail or a birthday, and you say you’re sorry, you’re so sorry, and she laughs, thinking you’re being ironic, and you realize your mistake and you laugh, too. So, what is it like to be selfless, to lose yourself in your work? You try to think of an answer, but the silence says it for you.

~

A woman with a voice like wool calls and asks for an emergency order. You tell her to come in right away. An hour goes by. Then two, then three. The receptionist goes to lunch and comes back smelling like Saturday night. You call the wool woman and no one answers, so you think she’s on her way. Your stomach growls. At five o’clock a woman walks in and you ask if she’s the emergency, and she says yes. She twirls around and you look for blood or bruises, but all you see is layers of scarves and cardigans and price tags. I had to go shopping, she says. A little re-tail therapy. She says it like that, putting the emphasis on the tail, and you can’t help but look at her ass with the triple-digit figure. You ask if she’s sure she qualifies for your services, and she says of course she does. She needs help with a man. He mean, she says. You ask to hear the story, what he does, and how much evidence she has. She leans forward and says oh, I got evidence. He yell at me, he scream, he mean.

~

You were five the last time you called someone mean, and the someone was the person who was supposed to protect you. When you said the word she became the kind of mean the wool woman has never known. You think of faces changing shape, voices changing tone, hands changing intent and then going right back to what they were. You think of playrooms and toy chests and tree houses and all of that changing to nothing, and then a moment later someone saying again how lucky you are, how fortunate, how blessed. Even now you feel the price of those words, and you know you must get rid of anything that reminds you of how much you paid for it, even the handbag you got for five dollars and the plastic ring from the gumball machine. You spend the weekend sorting everything you own, and by Sunday night you’ve stuffed your life into seven garbage bags. You take them to Goodwill, and when you get back you give yourself a tour of the place that costs two-thirds of what you make every month. Here is the bedroom with the milk-crate nightstand. Here is the bathroom with the single toothbrush. Here is the living space with the secondhand couch and stale kitchenette. Even this is more than you need. You wonder if you should have donated your TV, your cat, your food. You stare at the contents of your refrigerator for so long you feel guilty for wasting energy, and you realize that you are the opposite of selfless, that who you are has taken hold of you, and what you need more than anything is an order of protection against yourself.

~

A woman dressed like an icicle is waiting in your office on Monday morning. She talks about property lines and tree limbs and loud parties and demands protection from her neighbor. You ask where she lives, and she gives an address on the side of town where they build houses like club sandwiches, stacked high and held together with weather vanes. But she is not rich. She has lost her job and her car and now her neighbor has stolen her garden shears, and she’s afraid she’ll wake up with a rose bush embedded in her chest. You ask if maybe the neighbor thought the garden shears were hers, or if she was just borrowing them for a while, or if maybe the icicle woman misplaced them and the neighbor didn’t take them after all. She stares at you. Whose side are you on? she asks. There is a property line marked with stones, and my side is on the right. I fear for my life, she says, and you can see this is somehow true. You want to tell her a story about real fear, about hearing a sound in the night and looking for safety and finding nothing but empty beds and unlocked doors and your dog bleeding in the street and so scared itself that every time you call, it runs farther away from you. This woman’s handbag and ring look like the ones you just gave away, and you think you must be imagining things, and you are. Still, you pretend they used to be yours, that you know nothing about dogs or blood or night, and finally you can feel those garden shears closing around your nipple, the one on the right, the blades cold and sticky with sap. You ask the icicle woman to tell you more.

~

Your friends say let me buy you a drink. Let me bring you a napkin. Let me tell you a story. They talk about a boy who moved into their neighborhood and how they stalked him to and from the coffee shop every morning for a week until a girl leaned out of his bedroom window and yelled, and they got embarrassed and ran away laughing and spilling five-dollar lattes down their hundred-dollar dresses. Then they ask how things are going with your job, whether you’re looking for something that pays more. You say no. But you tell them about the coneflower woman who left the courthouse yesterday with her arm around the man whose photograph you keep in a folder about her restraining order, which she has asked the court to dissolve because she loves him after all. Then you tell them about the wool woman and the icicle woman, and how you lost both cases, but the judge commended you for trying. Your clients don’t need to win; they just need someone to stand up for them. This is what you think and when the judge says the same thing out loud, you know he knows your reason for taking this job. Your friends laugh. They ask how you can spend so much time on things that don’t matter. You think of rich boys and jealous girls, and you think of garden shears, mean men, and the kind of concealer that will hide a black eye.

This time, you say, let me tell you a story about myself, and you make them listen.  

 

Jenn Hollmeyer lives in the Chicago area, where she teaches creative writing at a community resource center and writes for a marketing agency. She is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, Post Road, Salamander, Meridian, Etchings, and other journals. “Orders of Protection” is part of her story collection in progress. (7/2013)


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