Sitting back in her apartment, Alessandra was preoccupied thinking of her meeting with Nandini and seeing how Balancing worked on Sharon Quinn. Throughout the week she kept looking for signs of things she should be doing to keep the scales of justice in balance, but she wasn’t seeing any signs.
Nandini had informed her that things would be slow at first, to help ease Alessandra into things as smoothly as possible. Alessandra was excited and eager, and was trying not to be impatient. She felt like she was doing something truly good, and the exhilaration of it was intoxicating. It was definitely nice seeing nasty people get what was coming to them, but Alessandra found herself enjoying even more the acts of rewarding those who had done good for others.
As the second semester was starting to wind down, Alessandra knew that final exams would soon be coming. She wasn’t too concerned. She had studied her subjects thoroughly and she felt prepared. What stuck more in her mind was the fact that with the school year coming to an end, she would need to find some sort of summer work to keep her busy. She thought perhaps an internship of some kind with one of the NYPD precincts would be interesting, if there even was such a thing.
She considered the possibility of going home to be with her father through the summer. Papa was home alone now, at a time when Daphne normally would have been there with him. She hated that Daphne was gone. The winter had seemed especially long, cold, and bitter. The hole in her heart wasn’t getting any smaller. It was still so hard whenever she thought of Daphne. She didn’t know if it would ever get easier.
A single thought brought her shoulders back down, and pressed a heavy sigh from her chest. Daphne was no longer in pain. Alessandra had to keep telling herself that. Was this the way to pass through her grief? Is this what people meant when they said it would get easier, but that Alessandra would have to come to accept her sister’s decision?
She thought about her father being alone all summer with similar thoughts, similar pain. Alessandra came to a decision that it would be best for her to go home and stay with him. She could rent out the Hell’s Kitchen apartment for a couple of months, then return when it was time to begin the fall semester.
She considered contacting the Wayne Police Department to see if they had any opportunities for an internship or some sort of training. She thought it might be better to talk to them when she was available to come to their station, and decided to wait until she was back home to make the call. Alessandra took out her phone, called Brady’s number, and got his voice mail.
“Hey, babe. I was just tossing around some ideas in my head. I think it would really help Papa if I came home for a month or two this summer to spend time with him. He is all alone there, and nothing is keeping me tied here to the city until school starts back up. How about a date some night this week? Give me a call when you get a chance.”
She hung up and set the phone on the small white table next to her chair. She knew she needed to study for her finals, but she was just not feeling it. She kept running the experience with Sharon Quinn through her mind, replaying the events and thinking about what Nandini had said. Each Balancer had a different person they spoke to at Blockhouse One? Who was Nicholas, then? Was he a real person? She was able to shake his hand, so he must have been real, right? Was he some sort of amalgam of people she had known throughout her life? Was he just a random entity? She was inexplicably comforted by his presence. Even just thinking of him made her feel more at ease, like slipping into bed and loving the perfect weight and warmth of a favorite quilt. When her phone rang, she jumped a little. It was Brady.
“Hey, babe, did you get my message?”
“Yes,” he replied coldly. “I thought you and I were in a different place than that.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, taken by surprise at both his comment and his tone. He sounded annoyed, perhaps worse. Brady rarely got angry, and you could almost hardly tell when he did. He was under control at all times, but subtleties in his tone and expressions sometimes betrayed how he truly felt. When they first started dating, Alessandra sometimes had difficulty reading him. She felt it was like dating a professional poker player. However, once she had begun to learn his tells, she could figure out what he was thinking or feeling.
After a pause he said, “You said there was no reason for you to stay in the city. Am I not enough of a reason? I know my father’s disruption of our date upset you, but that wasn’t my fault. Am I missing something here?”
“No, that’s not what I said. I don’t think that’s what I said, at least. I thought I said something about ties keeping me here. I meant a job or school or things like that. I didn’t mean to imply you and I were having any sort of problems. I wasn’t thinking of you, I was only thinking of Papa.”
Brady’s tone leaned toward a more stern reply, “I know you weren’t thinking of me. That tells me a lot about where you think we are in our relationship.”
There was a moment of tense silence, and a knot formed in Alessandra’s stomach. Was this the calm before a storm? Were they on the precipice where a simple misunderstanding could turn into a not-so-simple fight? Brady’s disembodied voice cracked through the phone, breaking the silence.
“I’m sorry. I know Papa is important to you, as he should be. I don’t know what you and your family are going through with, um, you know, your sister.”
“It’s difficult to explain, Brady. I know you don’t know, but please believe me when I tell you our family is tightly knit. Family is everything, and losing Daphne has been really hard on all of us. Tony is deployed with the 13th out in California. That just leaves me. I don’t want you to think you aren’t important to me. You are, but I think my father needs me more right now.”
There came another pause, this one much less tense than the first. Brady audibly sighed, then much more calmly, responded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I know your family is important to you. Do what you need to do. I’ll talk to you later. Good luck with your finals.” Brady hung up without waiting for a response.
Alessandra took the phone from her ear and stared at it, puzzled.
Brady had apologized, but Alessandra felt something about his tone didn’t seem like the apology was very sincere. She knew Brady wasn’t all that close with his father, especially after his parents divorced. Mr. Wexford was cold, manipulative, and disdainful of anyone who didn’t have money. His mother Carol wasn’t much better. To both of them, money was the only thing which indicated value and worth.
Alessandra was convinced that anyone who didn’t have a “summer home” somewhere exotic was worthless to the Wexford clan. She couldn’t wrap her brain around that mentality. She didn’t see why, to the Wexford family, money was so much more important than the qualities of a person.
Alessandra’s phone rang again, this time displaying Restricted as the caller ID. She heaved a heavy sigh, positive this was yet another machine calling her to try and sell an extended auto warranty to someone who didn’t own a car. She answered in a cartoonishly friendly tone, “Good afternoon, Garbanzo’s Hotel and Spa for Chipmunks.”
“Ah, yes, I’d like to schedule a full cheek massage, plus the Nuts and Berries spa treatment please,” came the familiar voice on the line.
“Gabrielle? Why are you hiding your caller ID? I almost sent you to voice mail,” Alessandra said with a chuckle. “What’s new with you? How have you been? I haven’t seen any Balancer signs lately. Is there a reason why? How often should I be expecting to see them?”
Gabrielle responded, “So many questions! Well, it depends. You might not be seeing signs lately if you have important things coming up in your life, such as your final exams. It could also be because Balancers have to first maintain balance in their own lives before they can balance for others. You know, not trying to take a mote out of someone else’s eye when there is a huge two by four in your own? If you find you are not having opportunities, it might be because your divine conduit has become blocked from you. Make sure you are on your own right and proper path. Then, the opportunities to balance for others will come. At least, that’s what I have found to be the case.”
“My divine conduit?” Alessandra asked. “Do you mean the person I talk to in Blockhouse One?”
“Yep. That’s what I call them anyway,” Gabrielle said, “mostly for lack of a better word. Whenever things weren’t right with me in my own life, my key wouldn’t appear for me. At first, I thought for a while I had been somehow cut off from the Balancers. But, once I got my own act together, the key returned and the signs would start again.”
“I see. I guess with finals coming up, and things with Brady being a little weird, plus there are the thoughts I’m struggling with about what to do this summer…”
“What about summer are you struggling with? Summers in New York City can be a bit oppressive, for sure. People sometimes forget it’s coastal and the weather can get really humid. Are you thinking of getting out?” Gabrielle asked.
“My Papa is spending this year alone for the first time since before we were born. Daphne would have at least been there with him for a couple more years before she finished high school. Summer was always a fun family time for us, so it might be better to leave the city and go back to Wayne for a month or two.”
“I’m sure your Papa would love to have you there. When my children left the nest, I definitely had some lonely moments. Adjusting to that kind of change takes time.”
“Children? Gabrielle, you never told me you had kids. How come you never mentioned them before?” Alessandra asked.
“Well, there wasn’t ever a reason to bring them up. None of our conversations ever went in that direction. I have two sons, both born in the late 1960’s. I had moved to San Francisco from my hometown in Columbia, Missouri. My oldest is Jack, who I named after Jack Kerouac. My youngest is Buzz, though he insists on going by his middle name of Arlo. I tell people he was named after the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, but just between you and me, it probably had more to do with a state of being my husband and I frequently found ourselves in at the time.”
Utterly amused by the revelation that her Balancer friend was a former hippie with a family, Alessandra said, “That’s so cool. You were actually living in San Francisco in the 60’s, during the hippie days?”
“Oh yes,” Gabrielle replied with a nostalgic smile in her voice. “It was a pretty amazing time. We lived on Grove Street, near the Haight, and we took part in a few protests and rallies here and there. We were part of The Love Pageant Rally in ‘66, and were part of a street theatre group called the Diggers.
“We loved music and theatre and art and altered states and just anything creative we could be a part of. I’m pretty sure Jack was conceived at the Monterey Pop Festival. If we had known Woodstock was going to be such a huge event, we definitely would have driven across the country to be there. Alas, we missed it.”
“Wow. Were you a Balancer then?” Alessandra asked.
“Yes, I was. I was even younger than you are now when I joined. I had witnessed a tremendous amount of injustice in my hometown in Missouri. My parents were strict authoritarians, and weren’t very kind. I’ll just say that much about them, and leave it at that. I ran away to San Francisco in 1964, when I was sixteen.”
“Sixteen? How did you manage? Where did you live? Did you know anyone? That’s both amazing and terrifying!”
Gabrielle laughed a little. “Yes, when I look back on that, it’s hard to believe I had the guts to run away like that. I guess I felt like I didn’t have any other option. I certainly didn’t know any better at the time. In the end, thankfully, things turned out okay. I was sleeping in a park for the first few nights, but some hippies saw me there and offered to let me crash with them. They were incredibly kind. They never took advantage of me, and I’m truly grateful for that. I can only imagine how many young women find themselves in similar situations and wind up in a much worse place.”
“Seriously. You’re lucky you didn’t just disappear entirely,” Alessandra said, thinking about how much worse things are now. She doubted a similarly positive outcome would be likely these days.
“Yes, I was lucky. What’s more is, I was befriended by one of the other women in the house. It was pretty much a commune, and she was something of a matriarch. We called her Mama Renée. She seemed so old and so worldly to me at the time, which is funny now because I’m pretty sure she was only in her late twenties. Mama Renée saw my heart, and she saw how much I wanted for there to be justice in the world. After a few months, she revealed the Balancers to me and took me to the place in San Francisco where our divine conduits lived.”
“Oh! I didn’t even think about that,” Alessandra said. “I’m not sure why I assumed they all lived in Blockhouse One.”
“No, sweetheart, that wouldn’t be very practical. We had a beaten up old historic windmill near the western end of Golden Gate Park, near the ocean. You could hear the waves crashing outside while you were inside the windmill. It was so peaceful. We’d access the interior with our special key and walk up the steep, narrow wooden stairs to the third level. I can still remember the distinct smell of the old cogs and oil, mixed with the aroma of old wood and hints of salt water air. It was there where I was introduced to Charlie, my particular divine conduit.”
“What’s Charlie look like?”
“Well, he isn’t anyone specific I know from my life, but there is just something about him which has always made him feel oddly familiar to me.”
“I get the same thing with Nicholas. Even the mangy mutt next to him is somehow familiar to me.” Alessandra said.
“Yours has a dog? Wow. I’ve never heard of any of them having a dog,” Gabrielle said. “Anyway, Charlie looks like one of those guys from the movie Grease, with a leather jacket and oily hair. He doesn’t look anything like John Travolta or any of those guys. If I had to try and compare him with someone, I guess I’d say he looks like what would happen if James Marsden dyed his hair jet black and joined a motorcycle gang.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Well, I certainly didn’t mind the way he looked when I was a younger woman. But, Charlie doesn’t age. He doesn’t change. It can be a little off-putting after a while. You think they are going to grow older along with you, but they don’t.”
Alessandra could hear Gabrielle sigh through the phone. She sounded tired.
“I’ve been doing this for a long, long time, Alessandra. I’ve changed so much, but Charlie hasn’t. He doesn’t really talk about topical events, so it doesn’t seem like he’s stuck in any sort of specific time. But, he simply doesn’t change. The job hasn’t changed much either. So many years, seeing so many people doing so many awful things. There will always be evil people in the world, no matter how much we try to keep things in balance. It’s relentless, and it’s easy to become discouraged.”
“But haven’t you seen a lot of good people doing good things, too?” Alessandra replied, switching the phone to her other ear.
“Yes, and frankly that is what keeps me going, but sometimes I wonder if it’s time for me to give it all up. Well, if there is such a thing as retiring from this. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to discourage you. I am so happy you’ve become a Balancer, and I’m even more happy that you’re going home to be with your family this summer. That will be good for both you and for your father.”
“Thanks, I’ll head back to Wayne to spend time with him once finals are over.”
“Oh, that’s right! You have finals coming up. I really should let you get back to your studies. I’m sure you’ll do well on them.”
“Thanks, Gabrielle, I appreciate that. It was so nice to chat with you, and I hope I’ll get to meet Jack and Buzz someday.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Well, if you do, I suggest you call him Arlo. He hasn’t gone by Buzz since he was about seven years old. Take care of yourself, sweetheart.”
“You too,” Alessandra said, and ended the call. She got up from the chair, sat at her table in front of a stack of books and papers, and worked on her studies for the upcoming exams. She tapped her pen on a notepad while juggling her thoughts. Retiring from Balancing? Can someone retire from something that isn’t actually a job? What would Gabrielle do then? What does Gabrielle do now? It occurred to Alessandra that she had no idea how Gabrielle made a living.
I’d better get back to how I’m going to make a living, she thought, and redoubled her focus.