"Another Word for Hope" by Robyn Parnell

A lesser person might have been offended, Ginna reminded herself. It was a mistake for Dr. Ron to give her that book. However, it was a mistake Ginna relished (where a week earlier she might have merely “appreciated” it) in hindsight, and she remembered that she’d managed to swivel her lips into a smile when her employer presented her with Thirty Days to an Expanded Vocabulary.

“To Virginia Zeele, Secretary’s Day, 1998, with affection and approbation (see page 43!). Ronald P. Whitcapp, DDS.” Ginna reread the inscription on the title page and flipped through the book, searching for synonyms. Receptionist; scheduling assistant. No one at Dr. Whitcapp’s office had ever used the word “secretary,” not even during her job interview. Was she thus an appropriate recipient of a Secretary’s Day gift? What she wanted was a raise. What Dr. Whitcapp wanted, Ginna surmised, noting phrases in the book that had been circled in red ink, was for her to say, “We need to reorganize your engagement” and “Your procedure will be deferred until protective assurances have been received,” instead of “We bumped your appointment” and “No way we’ll schedule your crown refitting before we see your insurance’s guarantee of payment.”

Cheap SOB. No wonder he won’t even consider posting my bail.

“Botheration.” Ginna repeated the word, squirming on the ice-smooth, stainless steel bench in the women’s holding cell of the County Jail. The booking clerk had taken her wallet and keys but let her keep the vocabulary book. Why use words like “ado,” Ginna thought, when there are alternatives like “botheration?”

This whole mess is much botheration about nothing.

* * *

“Dr. Whitcapp didn’t refuse to post your bail. He doesn’t even know about your need for such a thing.” The frosty diction of Jillian Rimesberg, Dr. Whitcapp’s office manager, bounced off the brushed cement floor, blew between the cell bars and nipped at Ginna’s ears. “It was my call, not to relay your request to him. If you intend to keep your job you’ll thank me for that.”

“This is a surprise.” Ginna stood up and straightened her shirt collar. “Thanks for stopping by. They give you one phone call, just like in the movies. So, I thought…”

“What you do during your lunch hour is your business, Ginna, within limits. I’ve better things to do on mine.” Mrs. Rimesberg ground the spiky toe of her pump against the floor, as if pulverizing a cockroach. “I discarded the flyers you left in the waiting room. None of the other girls attended the rally; Dr. Whitcapp has them working through lunch so that we might all take an early Friday. Your little secret,” she snorted, “is safe with me. So far.”

Mrs. Rimesberg removed a handful of pamphlets from her suit coat pocket and thrust them through the cell bars. “These are from the clinical psychologist in suite D-3, next to the dental lab. He takes appointments through referrals.”

“That’s good to know.” Ginna suppressed a giggle as she glanced at the first two pamphlets, Basic Facts on Anger Management and Common Myths about Anxiety Disorders.

“Do not call the office again until this is straightened out. And don’t spin this into some noble cause.” Mrs. Rimesberg clutched the polka-dotted scarf that was knotted in the crevice between her second and third chins. She closed her eyes and tilted her head, her jowls beseeching the heavens. “I cannot even picture how you did…whatever you did.”

Mrs. Rimesberg turned sharply on her heels and marched down the hallway, her voice in synch with the martial clip-clop of her faux-suede pumps. “We’ll all understand if you take a few sick days next week.”

* * *

Although she’d been in the cell for not quite an hour, Ginna’s knees began to twitch. She had four hours until she had to pick up her boys from after school care. The edginess was understandable, but the loneliness took her by surprise. Ginna felt so lonely she’d have welcomed a return visit from that Dairy Queen of an office manager. The only other occupant of the women’s holding cell was curled up in the corner, snoring loudly next to the stainless steel toilet.

She’s been ignoring me since I got here, Ginna thought, eyeing her snoozing cellmate. At least Mrs. Rimesberg had made eye contact, which was more than Ginna could say for the imperious legal puppy who sauntered down the hall, his blasé face looking to the ceiling, to the floor, to the left and to the right, everywhere but toward what had to be his destination, seeing as how the hallway started at the booking clerk’s desk and ended at the women’s holding cell.

“Hey there!” Ginna stood up and extended her hand through the bars. The man ignored Ginna’s hand. Fixing his eyes on a spot just above his wristwatch, he identified himself as Public Defender Thomas. He said he’d been directed to the women’s holding cell to speak with a potential client who, as it turned out, had made bail two hours earlier.

P.D. Thomas disdainfully surveyed the cell: one comatose drunk in the corner, the other one, annoyingly awake. He agreed to speak with Ginna but refused to take her case. “You won’t qualify, trust me,” he mumbled, fiddling with the lock on his briefcase. “Not indigent enough.”

P.D. Thomas did not answer when Ginna wondered aloud what qualified a person as being “indigent enough.” He sullenly gazed the ceiling when Ginna asked if he’d be good enough to make a certain phone call for her. “Yes, I know the name,” he sighed.

Fifteen minutes later P.D. Thomas returned to the holding cell with a copy of Ginna’s admitting papers. He said he knew Ginna’s attorney, Kyle Sampson, from the local bar association softball team. P.D. Thomas agreed to stay at the jail until Mr. Sampson had arrived.

“He said he’d be right over. What the hell; my afternoon’s shot anyway. Damn secretaries screwed up the appointments again. And to think I sent ‘em all flowers today.” P.D. Thomas loosened his tie. “I got your papers from the booking clerk. As you may recall from your divorce, Kyle Sampson is a generalist. Family law, some civil; rarely criminal. If he can’t or won’t take your case he’ll refer you to…more appropriate counsel, shall I say.” The P.D. smirked as he read from the papers. “‘Disturbing the peace; indecent exposure; assault; sexual harassment.’ Counselor Sampson’s got his work cut out for him, even if it’s just deciding a referral.”

He tapped the documents against the cell bars. “I’ll meet Kyle by the entry and get him up to speed. Here’s a piece of advice that’s worth what you paid for it: don’t try to convince him that you were supporting the right to breastfeed in public, or that you were merely sticking up for the woman who did. I don’t think sexual harassment even begins to cover…” he folded the papers and shook his head, “chasing someone with a nipple?”

“Listen to yourself, Gary!”

“That’s Jerry.” P.D. Thomas adjusted the County Jail Visitors ID tag that was clipped to his collar. “Gerald Thomas, Metro Public Defenders. I prefer ‘Mr. Thomas.’ And I’m just reading your rap sheet, so to speak.”

“Chasing someone with a nipple?” Ginna pressed her face against the bars and cooed with Bambi-eyed innocence. “How, exactly, could I have done such a thing? This town is so…” she glanced back at the book that lay on the bench, “provincial. Anyway, thanks for your help, Ger — uh, Mr. Thomas. And please remind Kyle about the attorney-client privilege thing.” She batted her eyelashes. “James, my ex, would use any excuse to lower child support payments.”

* * *

News of the rally had spread via word of mouth — of which, Ginna noted, there’s plenty in a dentist’s office. Ginna heard about it from a patient of Dr. Whitcapp’s who bustled through the door Monday morning and left copies of a “Take Back the Nursing” flyer at the front desk and alongside the magazines on the waiting room table. There was going to be a “Nurse-In” outside the food court at the downtown mall on Friday, the patient announced. A few days earlier, a young mother eating lunch at Stavros’ House o’ Gyros had been asked to leave the café. Young Mom had been lunching on spanakopita while breastfeeding her infant, and a male customer had complained about her to the shop’s owner.

“I told every woman who came into the office about the rally. I told men, too — the ones who have kids. It took no convincing for me. I nursed both my boys ’til they were eighteen months old. They’ve never had an ear infection. Not one.” Ginna waved to her fellow jailbird, who had awakened but remained slumped on the floor in the far corner of the cell. “Do you have any kids?”

The woman slowly pushed herself up to stand, tugged at her greasy, chin length hair and clawed at her stomach. “I don’t know,” she moaned.

“Do you realize that we who were formula-fed involuntarily participated in the largest unsupervised experiment in the world? After World War II, formula companies gave out free samples and propaganda disguised as medical research. Really; it’s documented. Women who wanted to nurse were made to feel primitive. It was, ‘Do you want to be like a Ubangi in National Geographic? Ladies, you can drive and vote; it’s a new world — use a bottle!’”

“No, not me.” The woman rested her head in her hands and slurred through her fingers. “I’m just waitin’ on my P.D. I didn’t do no experiment.” She staggered to the cell door, pressed her head against the bars and yelled down the hall. “Can somebody make her shut up?”

* * *

“Thanks, Kyle. May I still call you Kyle? Mr. Thomas, your P.D. pal, wasn’t a first-name-basis kinda guy.” Ginna bit into her pastrami sandwich and looked around the county courthouse cafeteria. Most of the other tables were occupied by people sporting the distinctive orange Juror buttons on their shirts and blouses. “‘You may make one phone call.’ They actually say that. Then I find out my boss didn’t even get the chance to consider posting my bail, and then I find out, there isn’t any? How’d you manage that?”

“You’re welcome.” Kyle Sampson pointed at Ginna’s sandwich and deli cup. “I’ll put it on your tab.” He traced his finger around the black and red checkerboard squares on the laminate tabletop. “It’s good to see you again, despite the, ah…”

“Circumstances?” Ginna fingered the spine of the book that lay in her lap. “Situation? State of affairs?”

“I’ll take the first,” Kyle said.

“Don’t tell me — I’m supposed to take the fifth.” Ginna drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “That’s a legal joke, right? Put that on my tab.”

Kyle Sampson laughed warmly, tapping his thumb against the side of his head as if he were trying to pat down one of the reddish-brown curls that threatened to pop out from behind his earlobe. His hair is longer than before, Ginna noted.

“Virginia…”

“Ginna. No one calls me Virginia, except James.”

“One question, Ginna. Actually, several spring to mind.” Kyle reached for his Styrofoam coffee cup.

Ginna chewed a mouthful of macaroni salad and waved her hand, signaling him to continue.

“Tell me something. Why couldn’t the mother have fed her baby in the café’s bathroom?”

“Is this that devil’s advocate thing lawyers are trained to do?” Ginna wiped her mouth with a paper napkin. “She was having lunch. The baby was having lunch.”

“Yes; everyone was having lunch. But for privacy’s sake…”

“Look around us. Since when is lunch a private matter? And since when do people eat in restrooms? Restrooms are for ‘p’ things: peeing, pooping and primping.”

“You forgot puking.” Kyle leaned back in his chair, looking both triumphant and embarrassed, Ginna thought.

“You’d eat your lunch in a public toilet?” Ginna pointed toward the luminous orange Caution! Wet floor — Cuidado! Piso Mojado signboard in front of the door to the men’s restroom. “Be my guest.” She pushed her salad cup across the table.

“You’re not…” Kyle caught himself mid-exasperation. “It is nice to see you again. But you’re not listening. This kind of intractability is what got you here in the first place.”

“I wasn’t the only one arrested.”

“No, but you were the only one who…”

“You don’t get it.” Ginna licked a blob of mustard off her thumb. “None of you do.”

“You? As in, you lawyers?” Kyle tapped his coffee cup against the napkin dispenser.

“You want them to be yours, exclusively. On some level, you think that they’re yours.”

“All right, I’m a ‘you,’ for argument’s sake. But who’s ‘they’?” Kyle rubbed his eyes. “There are too many undeclared pronouns in this conversation.”

“Men. Specifically, Western Civilization-type men. They really think that breasts are for them. I know James did. Fact is,” Ginna patted her chest with both hands, “these gals are practical, not ornamental. And they are not for you. Sorry for the sweeping generalization, but as you figured out, as you surmised…” Ginna arched her eyebrow and resisted the urge to open her book, “for, ah, discussional purposes, you are Everyman. The Everyman who’d try to justify why any man is entitled to harass a nursing mother.”

Kyle Sampson knew he should attempt to steer the conversation into professionally useful territory. Still, hers was a beguiling amalgam: sarcasm, gusto, and a tinge of despair. How often had he fantasized about once again having an excuse to be across a table from Ginna Zeele?

“I’m certain I can get the charges dropped. Worst case scenario: you’d get community service, providing you show contrition.” Kyle removed a copy of the court docket from his suit pocket. “Judge Pattersly is not known for his sense of humor, but he is levelheaded, and very attuned to public opinion. The Assistant D.A. said the man you assaulted, the victim, is…”

“Alleged victim.” Ginna caressed the book which still lay, snug and secure, in her lap. “Alleged; supposedly; purportedly. The facts are not in evidence; burden of proof rests with the state. What’s wrong with this picture? Aren’t you the one who should be talking like a lawyer?”

“The alleged victim does not want to press charges. Frankly, he’s too embarrassed to testify, which means he also isn’t likely to want the attention that could come from pursuing a civil suit. Even so,” Kyle glanced at his wristwatch, “we’re up in twenty-five minutes. You understand I don’t agree with the charges, but in order to offer effective counsel as to your plea I must consider the state’s point of view. So, for the sake of another argument…”

“Of course that — what did you call him, ‘victim’? — won’t testify,” Ginna said. “No one has the right to be offended by a mammary gland. Breasts are for feeding infants and children; the rest of the planet knows this. Twentieth century Euro-men are the laughingstock of cultural anthropologists the world over.”

“There’s something to keep me up at night: the fear that one day I’ll run into a cultural anthropologist, who’ll recognize my Euroman-ness and humiliate me with his knowing laughter.”

“You never know.” Ginna leaned forward, elbows on the table, her chin resting in her cupped hands. “A group of ‘em might take over Open Mike Night at that comedy club on Division Street. ‘Cultural Anthropologists Night’ at the Laff Shak.” Ginna winked at Kyle. “Have your lawyers play group skip softball for one night and go for more intellectual entertainment.”

“I’ll be sure to bring that up at the next meeting.”

His laughter sounds forced. Was that me – did I wink at him?

“But really, Ginna, you should know that I’ve no problem with mothers feeding their babies whenever and wherever they need to. You nursed Charles during our first meeting, when I tried to refer you and James to mediation. Did I act as if I minded?”

“That was William.” Ginna stifled an urge to reach for the pictures she kept in her pocket. “I was nursing William; he’s the youngest. He started preschool this year. No, I didn’t get the impression that you minded, but you seemed a bit on edge. Charles kept trying to knock the paper clip holder off your desk.”

Kyle smiled down at his coffee cup.

He’s blushing. He’s pulling it together; no, definitely reddening. It’s creeping up his neck, the poor fellow. This was not the day for such a white guy to wear such a white shirt.

“I remember,” Kyle said. “James held Charles in his lap. I didn’t want to embarrass Charles by moving the clips away.”

“Charles is in Kindergarten this year.” Ginna cleared her throat. “James is in Utah.”

During the ensuing raw silence Ginna recalled an impression from time spent, only nine months yet already a lifetime ago, in an attorney’s office. Although Kyle Sampson had been referred to them by a friend of James’, after their first meeting Ginna dismissed her fear that a lawyer would automatically favor the one with whom he had a social connection or the one who controlled the money. Through the emotionally messiest to the most tedious, paper shuffling-est of appointments, Ginna knew that Kyle was on her side. He wasn’t supposed to be, of course, and the final dissolution agreement was more than fair to both parties. Even James said so.

“Ginna?” Kyle started to reach his hand across the table, then pulled his arm back and ran his fingers through his hair. “Would you please just tell me what happened?”

“It was a demonstration.” Ginna tempered the testiness of her voice in response to the tenderness in Kyle’s. “A rally. Some of the women were nursing their babies, most were not. Some didn’t bring kids…there were a few dads, too. Then this guy who started it, this nutcase, shows up and starts yelling at us.”

Ginna paused, her temperance short-lived as she recalled the incident. “He said he was offended. Poor schmuck; can’t stand in line at the grocery store without being offended. Have you seen the magazines at the checkout counter? Cleavage sells everything. But if we associate breasts with their natural purpose, that might take away from their amazing power to get men to buy drill bits and lite beer. If buxom babes drape themselves across Ferraris and guys think milk instead of titties, there goes capitalism! I can practically smell the panic on Madison Avenue.

“Anyway, I told him, ‘You are protesting seeing milk-producing organs encased in fat, because that’s what breasts are.’ Then, Mr. I-Am-So-Offended waved his arms and his shirt rode up, and we all had the lovely sight of a huge hunk of him blobbing over his belt. Now, he can expose his hairy, useless fat, but take a mound of it, add an areola and put the whole thing to its intended purpose, and we have privacy problems?! So I said, ‘See this?’ and lifted his shirt…”

“That’s when you assaulted him?”

“I did not assault him. I merely illustrated my point.”

“The arresting officer’s report says….”

“So maybe I accidentally touched a hunk of his hairy belly.”

“You then lifted your own shirt,” Kyle flipped through the report and cleared his throat, “and, uh, pulled down your brassiere…”

“Mr. Tough Guy shows up to yell at mommies?’ I said to him. ‘This is okay if it’s in a girlie magazine for you to ogle,’ and, yes, I pointed at my nipple, ‘but a little milk coming out…’”

“And you…squeezed it at him?” Kyle squinted, trying to decipher the police officer’s handwriting. His entire body felt flush, from the tips of his earlobes to the calluses on his toes.

“A better word might be palpated.” Ginna combed her eyebrows with her fingers, tugging at an unruly hair that needed tweezing. “That’s the medical term. We’re supposed to do that, you know, as part of a self-exam, for cancer. I realize,” she quickly added, motioning for Kyle to shut his open mouth, “I was not in a medical setting. And I admit, things got out of hand after that.”

“You chased him?” Kyle read from the report.

“Following him for a few yards is not ‘chasing.’ Besides, it was his fault. He ran.” Ginna crammed her napkin into her salad cup. “Spineless wimp, he practically left skid marks. ‘Oh, no, the attack of the lactating nipple women.’”

Kyle raised his hands in surrender. “I’m not going to touch that,” he chortled.

Ginna smiled ruefully. “After a while, neither would James.”

Once again Kyle felt his hands start to reach across the table for Ginna’s, and once again he willed them back. He sat straight and tall, hands clasped respectfully and professionally on top of the table. A shade came over Ginna’s face, surging from behind her eyes and spilling out onto her cheeks. Kyle thought back to when he’d first seen that look, during his initial consultation with James and Virginia Zeele. He remembered how Ginna had glared across the table at him when he’d offered her a tissue; he remembered that he’d looked closer and realized that her eyes were dry. It was weeping sans tears, as if aquifers of despair and anger percolated under her skin. Then Ginna’s dry eyes turned soft and grateful, and just when Kyle felt he might slip into their chasm of heartbreaking defiance, she’d reached out her hand. She folded the tissue, tucked it into the pocket of her jacket and nodded a silent thank-you. Her husband sat beside her, restless and oblivious.

Screw professional ethics. Kyle reached under the table. Ginna startled at his touch, then her fingers entwined with his and their hands rested atop the book in her lap.

“He never wanted them. My sweet, beautiful boys.” Ginna’s voice was flat. She stared at the salt shaker. “He demanded custody as a bluff, to lower my support request. I called his bluff. I’ll never forget the look on his face. I just hope Charles and William never remember it. He didn’t want them; I did. I called his bluff. That’s all it was.”

“I know.”

“Yes, you did.” Ginna looked up, smiling in trust and wonder. “You do. I remember.”

* * *

William wriggled in his mother’s lap. He grabbed her fork and banged it against her plate. Ginna raked her fingernails through William’s spiky brown hair and set him on the floor. “You may do some coloring after you take your dinner dishes over. You too, Charles.” She took her own dishes to the kitchen sink and returned to the table with her vocabulary book.

Charles grinned across the table at his mother. “You’re my happy Mom. Like in the pictures I draw. I cleared my plate. Do we get dessert?”

“Yep. You’re my lucky boys tonight.”

William squealed and raced out of the kitchen. He returned to the table with an armload of paper and felt pens. “I’m gonna draw a heart. A chocolate heart, your favorite!”

“You mean your favorite.” Ginna hummed softly to herself. “Hey, guys? Mr. Sampson is stopping by, in about twenty minutes. I invited him for dessert, to celebrate a victory, of sorts. I thought he’d help us finish off those cupcakes left over from the Kindergarten party. Do you remember Kyle Sampson?”

Charles nodded. “That man where we had to go to his office to have the sad and boring meetings with Dad. He had a shiny desk and chairs that spun around, and no stapler. And blue and red and green and orange paper clips! Not just the plain kind.”

Ginna smiled. “I noticed that, too.”

William returned to his mother’s lap. He reached for her book; she grabbed his marking pen-stained fingers. “Watch it! What do you want to see?” Ginna opened the book and turned a few pages.

“No pictures?” William whined.

“Nope.” Ginna shut the book. “It’s a book about words.”

“Silly Mom,” Charles said. “They’re all about words.”

“Sure, most books have words in them,” Ginna said. “But this book is different. Let’s say you’re thinking of the word ‘walk.’ You could look it up in this book and it would tell you that you could say, ‘I’m going for a stroll’ instead of ‘I’m going for a walk.’ It gives you choices; it gives suggestions for other words to use — better words, maybe.”

“I bet booger’s not in there,” Charles giggled. “No word could be better than booger.”

“Mom!” William howled with joyful indignation. “He did potty talk! He gets time out!”

“Booger is not potty talk,” Charles coolly mumbled. “You’re a baby stupid buttface.”

“Moo-ooom!”

“Uh-uh. Not tonight. No fighting, no name-calling, no time outs.” Ginna hugged William and blew a kiss to Charles. “Okay, my fine gentlemen: Trust? Wish? Anticipation?” She opened the book. “Hey, guys, what’s another word for hope?”

Robyn Parnell, though an author of essays, poetry and drama, primarily focuses on fiction. Her story “Coeur d’ Evelyn” was published in the recently-released book Peculiar Pilgrims (anthology, Hourglass Books), and she has stories published in the current or recent editions of the online literary journals Panamowa, The Externalist, and r.kv.r.y. A collection of her short fiction, This Here and Now, was published by Scrivenery Press.

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