.STEELE TIES DONT BREAK.
By Kelly Rourke
- "Juice?" the young woman said. "Or coffee?"
- He was scowling fiercely down at his hands and didn't
answer. Laura let the silence go on for a moment.
- "What about a Scotch on the rocks?" she asked,
but that got no response, either. Finally she looked up at the
flight attendant. "Bring us a Scotch on the rocks and two
coffees," she said, pulling out the price of the cocktail
and handing it over.
- She settled back and returned her gaze to the window.
The ocean was on the other side of the plane and there was little
of interest to see outside her own window. The bare desert landscape
far below slipped by with a monotonous regularity. Watching it
pass, she felt a sense of increasing discomfort, as if she'd
left something vital behind that she should have with her. She
understood exactly why she felt that way, however, and there
was nothing on either side of her window that would help with
- Still, she knew that Frances and Donald were wonderful
with Harry and she'd call him from the hotel before dinner to
say goodnight. After that, she reasoned, she'd feel just fine.
- "I'm sorry, did you say something?" His voice
was soft, as if it came from far away. She turned to him and
- "I did, but that was about five minutes ago. I ordered
you a cup of coffee and a Scotch on the rocks, because I didn't
know what you'd want."
- "Coffee and a Scotch? Good heavens," he said
mildly. "But I'm sure neither will go to waste, short as
the flight is, even."
- "How's it going?" she asked, fearing the question
alone would be upsetting. He sighed.
- "Not at all well, I'm afraid. I'm getting nowhere
at quite a brisk pace."
- "I don't understand the problem," she said with
an encouraging smile. "You've given hundreds of speeches
before. I've heard them. You've never had trouble addressing
- "Yes, but that was different. I wasn't talking about
anything I knew a thing about, so it didn't seem to matter what
I said, as long as I said it well. Because, to be fair, the people
I was talking to didn't usually know what I was talking about,
either." He stared in dismay at the index cards clutched
in his left hand. "That's not the case here. And what I
do, well, it's damn near impossible to put into words. I've never
been good at verbalizing what it is I do. I can write reports
'till I'm blue in the face and all the facts are right there.
But none of them really say precisely what happens in the therapy
room. I have no clue how to put that into words. I work with
the electively mute and words just don't seem to explain how
it all happens. Ironic, eh?"
- "Maybe we should get some you some white pancake
makeup and a beret and you can mime your way through it,"
she said and gave his forearm an encouraging squeeze. He managed
a small smile as the flight attendant brought their drinks.
- And that was the end of the conversation for the remainder
of the flight. When the 'fasten seatbelts' sign came on, he sighed
and tucked his notes and his pen into his pocket, looking as
unsettled and resigned to it as she felt herself.
- At least we're on the same page, she thought as they retrieved
their luggage from the endlessly slow carousel.
- The hotel was understatedly elegant, and check-in was
mercifully brief. They were given information about their room
and where to go to register for the conference. A bellboy tucked
their two small bags and one briefcase onto a ludicrously large
chrome dolly and escorted them to their room. She couldn't help
but notice the difficulty he seemed to have counting out bills
for the young man's tip. She'd almost expected one of his casual
flourishes as he dropped the money in the outstretched hand,
but it didn't happen.
- It wasn't the big changes that seemed to catch her unprepared,
it was the small ones. And there'd been many of those, she realized
as she unpacked her suitcase and laid out her dress for that
evening. It wasn't just the weight loss and the beard. It was
his almost obsessive need to finish his paperwork before retiring
for the night. The way he watched her and little Harry whenever
he was with them, as if fearing they'd vanish before his eyes.
How he paused before doing anything, seeming to gauge any possible
reaction before making a single move.
- She began to wonder if he'd ever be able to relax and
just accept his life now, without the fear that had seemed to
have folded around his edges like unwanted paper blown by a hard
- Maybe this weekend would help with that. If she could
make the cognitive leap he seemed to need of her. She showered
quickly and did her hair and makeup. When she emerged from the
bathroom in her slip, it was to see him staring grimly down at
his notecards once again. He'd finished his shower first and
had put on a clean, pressed suit; a cut above the one he usually
wore to work, but nothing like the flashy tuxedoes she was used
to seeing him in. She stepped into her grey crepe de chine cocktail
- "Hey," she said, pleased to see him react to
her voice immediately this time. "Is this going to be too
dressy for this evening, or not dressy enough? I don't know what
people will be wearing."
- He smiled at her, a genuine, shadow-free smile. "Laura,
you look stunning. You're perfect, just as you are. Don't change
a thing. Please." He stood and wrapped his arms around her.
"I think I could get through anything with someone as beautiful
as you on my arm tonight."
- "Well, then, you're in luck," she told him pertly.
"I don't happen to have any other arms worth dangling on,
so I'll just perch here on yours for the evening."
- "This is my lucky day," he said and stepped
out the door with her.
"Laura!" John Needham's voice seemed pleasantly surprised.
She turned to see him striding up behind her. "I'm so glad
you came!" He took her hand and held it briefly. "Don't
you look lovely tonight!"
- "Thank you," she said and realized how glad
she was to see his friendly face.
- "And you managed to get this idiot to the right place
at the right time. I knew I could count on you!" John slapped
his colleague on the back. Both men stepped away from the registration
table just outside the ballroom.
- "Um, John, I have an awkward question to pose,"
he said, fingering his nametag.
- "What's that, Harry?"
- "Chalmers? I know we've got people here from both
sides of the border, but
- "You're registered as Dr. Chalmers. Didn't you realize?"
- "Yes, I suppose, but what about the people here from
the States? Won't they be expecting Dr. Cathcart?"
- "What's in a name? Stop worrying so much. Relax and
enjoy the evening!"
- Someone tapped John on the shoulder then and he turned
away. Laura moved protectively closer. "He's right, you
know," she told him gently. "You really should just
relax and enjoy the evening."
- He snorted softly. "Easy for the two of you to say!
Well, let's take the plunge, shall we?" And placing his
hand comfortingly in the small of her back, he pulled open the
ballroom doors and they stepped inside.
- Sound hit them like a physical wall. Somehow, Laura hadn't
expected the sheer number of people clustered around the room.
But this was a national conference. International, really, as
many participants came from Canada as well as the US.
- "I don't suppose Pat will be here, anywhere?"
she said, leaning closer and raising her voice to be heard above
the crowd. He was looking around himself with an almost surprised
scowl on his face, however, and didn't answer. Several people
bumped into them from behind and they moved quickly away from
the door. As they moved, his head swept the room, seeming more
to listen than to look at anyone. She saw his hand slide into
the pocket of his suitcoat where his notecards were.
- But he removed it, empty, as two exceedingly polished-looking
and attractive women approached.
- "Harrison!" one practically purred. "It's
so good to see you again!" She had a slight accent and some
odd muscle along the back of Laura's neck sprang tight. Her name
tag read Dr. Vanessa Stripe. The tag on the second woman's blazer
read Dr. Ann Walsh.
- He smiled and took their well-manicured hands briefly.
"Dr. Stripe, Dr. Walsh, I'd like you to meet Laura Holt.
Laura, these ladies work at our clinic in Ottawa."
- Laura managed to smile and shake hands. It was Dr. Walsh
who spoke first. "We were based too far away to work directly
with Dr. Cathcart on any kind of regular basis, but we were on
the same conference calls so often it was almost like being next
door neighbors at times."
- "And then there were the odd symposiums and conferences,"
put in Dr. Stripe, "like this one, only much smaller. Still,"
she added, giving him an appraising glace that was entirely feminine
to Laura's jaundiced eye, "you've been sorely missed since
your assignment to the States. How've you been lately?"
- During the ensuing small talk, Laura realized she was
clenching her teeth and forced her jaw to relax. Ottawa. A good
distance away. And the cost of international phone rates probably
meant that the volume of conference calls would be much less
these days. Really, she must set a good example here. It was
time to relax and try to enjoy herself.
- She managed to focus on the conversation for a moment
and was preparing to put in a word here or there when Ann nudged
Vanessa and pointed toward the door. "Look who's made an
- Vanessa brightened. "Sheila! Let's see what dragged
her out from under her rock this time! Excuse us, won't you?"
- So the only contribution Laura managed to make to the
conversation was her insistence that it had been a pleasure meeting
them and they were gone, swallowed up in the shifting crowd.
- They had taken a few steps in what seemed a random direction
to Laura, when she felt him stiffen beside her.
- "Oh good Lord," he muttered, his eyes focused
on something in front of them. She looked and saw a bald man
with a broad smile coming toward them.
- "Dr. Chalmers! So good to see you! I've been looking
everywhere for you. Where have you been hiding?"
- "Our flight was delayed, Howard. We just got in an
hour ago ourselves. Ah, Dr. Howard Lasko, may I present Laura
Holt? Laura, Howard was my immediate supervisor in Canada."
- "Dr. Holt!" His grip was enthusiastic and his
handshaking technique more than muscular. The red flags that
were going up in Laura's head weren't just a reaction to that,
however. Something had been said about this man, but what?
- "It's Ms. Holt, actually," she said, retrieving
a hand she was sure would have aching knuckles in the morning.
- "So sorry! And such a pleasure to meet you, my dear."
His smile had turned slightly condescending. "Now, Harry,
tell me what Needham bribed you with to get you here. I've never
been able to drag you to one of these, no matter how persuasive
- He began to fiddle with his earlobe, something Laura knew
perfectly well meant his answer would be less than forthcoming
in some fashion. "He said 'please', if I recall correctly.
How've things been with you lately, Howard? I hear you may be
up for a directorship."
- He hated him! That was it. This was the Canadian supervisor
he had been so happy to be rid of. Now on her guard, Laura began
looking for a reasonably polite way to extricate both of them
from the situation. Nothing seemed immediately forthcoming, however.
- "Oh, you know what the rumor mill is like."
Lasko's self-deprecating laugh rang hollow, somehow. "There's
always talk. I put no stock in it myself. Still, if it happens,
I won't complain. But you? Leave us high and dry and suddenly
you're all the rage. Half the staff seem to be referring patients
to you all the way down here in the States. Tell me, what is
- "Oh, kickbacks, bribes, the odd stock option here
and there. You know. The usual." If she didn't do something
soon, she could tell that the muscle in his jaw would start to
- "Harry! Look!" she touched his elbow. "It's
Pat. And she's spotted me. I have to go talk to her. Please don't
make me do it alone. I can't face her. Really." She turned
to Lasko with an apologetic smile. "I'm so sorry to tear
him away, but it's an old college friend and we have a certain
history that makes it, well, difficult. You understand, I'm sure."
- "Of course, my dear. I'll catch up with you later,
Harry, eh?" Lasko's pat on her shoulder was unctuous, at
the very least, but it was preferable to his bone-crushing grip.
He stood watching them as they moved away.
- "Quick, find someone female that we can persuade
to be Pat for a few minutes!" she hissed. But he was ahead
of her, as always, and marched straight up to an attractive brunette.
- "Pat!" he said, not overly loudly, but with
enough volume so that anyone trying to listen in could hear.
The woman whose hand he clasped looked slightly confused and
he leaned in. "Help me out here, Claire. We're trying to
ditch Howard Lasko."
- "Now there's an endeavor I can wholly support!"
the woman said with a throaty laugh. Her welcoming smile was
genuine. Laura didn't dare risk a look behind. But Claire linked
arms with both of them and began walking away from where they'd
- "Claire works with our preadolescent at-risk program
in Los Angeles," he explained.
- "How do you know Dr. Lasko?" Laura couldn't
help asking. Sheila grimaced slightly.
- "Everyone who works for this organization has the
misfortune to know Dr. Lasko in some form or another," she
said. "Those of us who don't work directly under him get
down on our knees every night to thank God for our good fortune."
- "So you've never actually worked directly with him?"
- "Lord, no! Just conference calls where I can sit
and make faces to my heart's content." Claire said. Before
Laura could continue what was promising to be a fascinating conversation,
a young man interrupted them.
- "Dr. Chalmers? We're getting ready to begin seating
people for dinner. I've been sent to show you to your places."
- "Yes, of course. Claire, thank you so much for the
timely save. We'll talk later?" he said.
- "Of course. And I'm looking forward to your presentation
- His answering smile was a bit tense. "Wish I could
say the same." And then they were moving away, toward the
front of the room.
- They paused near the door and the young man indicated
the long table up front. "If you would take the seats just
to the right of the podium, Dr. Chalmers, dinner will be served
shortly. I have to find Dr. Terrance now." he said, and
- Laura stared at the head table, her mind whirling. "Laura?"
he said softly. "Something wrong?"
- "N-no. Not really. I just didn't realize. I mean--"
- He looked puzzled still.
- "It's nothing. I'm sorry. I'm probably just lagged
from the flight, I suppose." She pulled in a breath and
straightened her shoulders. "You ready for this?" she
said, trying to make her smile as optimistic as possible.
- Now he did pull his notecards out from his pocket and
fingered them briefly for a moment.
- "Laura, I need you to do something for me, if you
- "Of course. Anything."
- And with a suddenness that startled her, he ripped the
notecards in half and deposited them in a trashcan artfully concealed
behind a potted ficus.
- "Whatever happens when I'm up there, I need you to
act as if nothing is wrong. No matter what I do, or don't do,
just stay perfectly calm. Can you do that?"
- "I can do that," she said firmly, not entirely
sure if she could or not. They moved over to the table and took
their seats. As others came to join them, she leaned over and
touched his shoulder.
- "Um, you do realize I was joking about that mime
He was in place again at precisely the right hour. People seemed
to be coming in a steady stream. Of course she would choose a
place like this. Busy. Popular. Somewhere to be seen.
- He smiled in the dark. She would be seen. He would not
be. There would be no games tonight. He wouldn't be drawn in
like that again. He would wait here. Outside. A few hours, three
at the most, and she would return, carefree, laughing, certain
that she was mistress of all she surveyed, that nothing could
ever touch her.
- Her friends may walk her out as they had both nights previous
to this but, as he had observed, they would not walk her to her
car. This time, he would be ready. She had arrived shortly after
he had. And her car was parked in the perfect place. A large
hydrangea bush behind a bus stop provided shelter just a few
cars away from hers. His own car was parked right in front of
it. Following her would be simplicity itself.
- This time she would not slip away into the shadows, leaving
doppelgangers in her wake to confuse him. This time he would
face her in her own setting, but on his terms. She'd been making
a fool of him for months now, longer really. But tonight, it
would end. Tonight he would take back what was rightfully his.
- And all he had to do now was wait.
"Are you feeling all right, Laura?"
- The question startled her. "Of course. Why do you
- "Because you didn't touch your roast beef, rolled
a few vegetables around your plate and swallowed exactly two
mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. And now your chocolate-raspberry
mousse is about to be taken away from you without so much as
a spoon-dent in it. So I felt the question had some merit. I
still do, in fact. Are you all right? I mean, really. I could
understand my losing my appetite. But what's going on with you?"
- "Nothing! Honestly, I'm fine." She plunged her
spoon into her dessert and began shoveling it into herself.
- He sighed. "Well, at least dessert wasn't a total
loss, I suppose."
- Guiltily, she laid her spoon down. "I'm sorry. I'm
just a bit self-conscious, I suppose."
- "About what?"
- "I don't know, really. Sitting up here, with everyone
watching. It just feels odd."
- "Why? You've sat at head tables before. I know. I've
sat there with you. Why is this odd?"
- "I really don't know," she said, searching for
something, anything to offer. "It's just been awhile, I
guess. I haven't been to a formal dinner like this in years.
Since before Harry was born, really."
- "Come now, Laura. You have to do better than that.
Something's bothering you. I'd like to know what it is."
- "No, really. I'm just out of practice. That's all."
She tried giving him a clear-eyed, innocent look. But she could
see he wasn't buying it. "Oh, all right. Look, I'll make
you a deal. Let's get through the rest of this program, dinner,
what-have-you. Then maybe we can go for a walk and talk it through
before we turn in for the night. And I promise not to make excuses.
Just let's get through everything first, o.k.?"
- He didn't look entirely happy with the plan, but Dr. Terrance
had laid down his napkin and was rising from his chair. "All
right, Laura, but we're taking that walk and having that talk.
- She smiled and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. He sighed
and slipped his arm around her shoulder briefly as a waiter took
the last of their dishes away.
- "Good evening!"
- There was a brief squawk from the microphone.
- "Thank you all for coming. As most of you know, my
name is Dr. Michael Terrance and I'm the current chairman of
the North American Association of Psychiatrists and Psychologists.
This is the opening of our fifth annual conference and I'm pleased
to see such a large gathering tonight."
- As Dr. Terrance droned on, Laura let her mind wander a
bit. She had done a little research on the organization before
leaving Los Angeles, and knew that, with the rise in international
medical practices, organizations that spanned more than one country,
like this one, were springing up more often. What she hadn't
done was get hold of an agenda for the conference itself. Or
for the scheduled speakers for the opening dinner. Now she found
that to have been a serious omission on her part.
- "We've had many successes as a group over the past
few years and some members have distinguished themselves notably
and individually as well."
- She'd never gone to professional conferences when she'd
been training at Havenhurst and she'd avoided them after opening
her own agency. Somehow, she'd pictured men in silly hats chasing
women with plunging necklines all interspersed with dry lectures
backed by soft snoring.
- That may have been a bit simplistic, she now concluded.
Looking out at the faces in the room, she noted that serious
attention was being paid to Dr. Terrance. There were even small
bursts of applause here and there and she forced herself to pay
attention as he continued his list of some of the accomplishments
of various association members; awards won, papers published,
- "I must admit that, for the past several years since
I became chairman of this group, I have been trying to persuade
a certain colleague to give us the benefit of his experience
and, until this year, all my efforts had been in vain,"
Terrance was saying and suddenly Laura had no trouble focusing
on his words.
- "However, those of you fortunate enough to have worked
directly with Dr. Harrison Chalmers know him to be a generous
colleague and a thorough professional. You are also no doubt
aware of his stunning success rate in working with a historically
and notoriously difficult group - electively mute children. No
other clinical child psychologist of my acquaintance has come
anywhere close to his performance in this field and, while he's
written several well-received papers, he has never given a public
presentation on his methods or his practical philosophy of working
in this area."
- "This year, for the first time, I have managed to
arrange for him to host several panel discussions and to give
us a brief address on his work in the field. Therefore,"
he continued, "tonight it is my great pleasure to present
to you our keynote speaker for this year's conference. Please
welcome Dr. Harrison Chalmers!"
- As the applause rolled, he rose and took Dr. Terrance's
place at the podium. Laura watched him carefully as he slipped
his wristwatch off and laid it where he could see its face clearly.
And then he stood there. And said absolutely nothing.
- Remembering his words before they sat down, Laura carefully
schooled her face, hoping it looked bland and innocuous. Act
as if it's all perfectly normal, she told herself. The silence
stretched on. He didn't move a muscle.
- Finally, someone coughed. And someone else cleared their
throat. Several people shifted uneasily in their seats. Still
he stood, silent and motionless. Until at last a low murmur arose
from a table in the back of the room. He smiled and picked up
- "Almost six minutes. That's amazing and speaks well
for your professionalism. Most audiences wouldn't have lasted
two." He slipped his watch back onto his wrist and looked
out at the room.
- "What is it about silence that terrifies us so much?"
he asked. "Think about it. When we come home at night, for
many of us, the first thing we do is switch on the television.
We get into our cars and immediately turn on the radio or put
a tape in the deck and jack up the volume. We fall asleep to
a compact disk and wake up to a local radio station. We go to
ridiculous lengths to avoid spending any time in the presence
of silence. We fill every inch of our homes and our lives with
noise of one kind or another. I have a friend who can't write
a letter or read a book or pick up a broom unless he has a video
cassette playing at the same time. He calls it background noise.
He also calls it essential."
- "But why? What is it, hiding there in the silence,
that is so frightening? What is it we think can harm us so badly
that we avoid it at all costs? Is it the threat of our own thoughts
that we run from? Or is it the simple loneliness, the inherent
reminder that we all essentially live and die alone, no matter
what and who we surround ourselves with?"
- "Children are adaptive creatures, and instinctive
to a great extent. It isn't surprising, then, that even the youngest
of them can sense our deepest fears. And it isn't a great stretch
for them to sometimes realize that in silence lies great power
over the giants that otherwise control every waking moment of
- "The child who adopts silence gains the immediate
attention of the grownups around them, and sometimes even a measure
of control. This is seldom the main reason a child falls silent,
but it is often a beneficial side-effect for them. We are inherently
communicative creatures and the idea that we can't communicate
with our own children both frustrates and terrifies us. I can't
tell you how many parents literally beg me to wrest some kind
of words out of their child. What words don't seem to matter,
as long as there is some verbal sign that the child hasn't, in
some way, vanished for all time, leaving just a soundless body
behind to mark their place."
- "And yet, if we simply pay attention, the child isn't
truly silent or uncommunicative. In fact, these children are
constantly trying to communicate, desperately reaching out to
the adults in their lives. Silence is merely how they command
our attention. The rest, unfortunately, is up to us."
- "And that is our fundamental mistake in these situations.
We seem to consider silence an empty space, a void, filled with
nothing, containing nothing of interest or value. In fact, we
can sometimes see it as a vacuum, threatening to suck even more
out of our lives than we are prepared to give. But silence is
never truly empty. In fact, it's never truly silent at all, if
we bothered to simply listen."
- "Listen! Please, for the next few moments, let yourselves
be still. Let the silence, for want of a better term, exist without
protest. And listen, with all your attention, to what exists
within that silence that we so fear. Listen
- He fell silent himself and stood listening. The audience
followed suit. In a nearby kitchen area, there was a sound of
something crashing to the floor.
- "Someone's having a bad day," he said softly
with a small smile. The audience laughed, and he held up a hand.
- From the lobby area outside the ballroom, a woman's voice
could be indistinctly heard. The words were unintelligible, but
the tone was strident, angry. The answering voice was softer,