Mary DiNunzio stepped off the elevator, worried. Her father and his friends looked over from the reception area, their lined faces stricken. They'd called her to say they needed a lawyer but until now, she hadn't been overly concerned. Their last lawsuit was against the Frank Sinatra Social Society of South Philly on behalf of the Dean Martin Fan Club of South Philly. Luckily Mary had been able to settle the matter without involving Tony Bennett.
"Hi, Pop." Mary crossed the lobby, which was otherwise empty. Marshall, their receptionist, wasn't at her desk, though she must've already gotten in. The aroma of fresh coffee filled the air, since Marshall knew that Mary's father and his fellow octogenarians ran on caffeine and Coumadin.
"HIYA, HONEY!" her father shouted, despite his hearing aids. Everyone was used to Mariano "Matty" DiNunzio talking loudly, which came off as enthusiastic rather than angry. On the table next to him sat a white box of pastries, as the DiNunzios didn't go anywhere empty-handed, even to a law firm. The box hadn't been opened, so whatever was bothering him was something even saturated fats couldn't cure.
"Hey, Mare!" "Hi, Mary!" "Buongiorno, Maria!" said his friends The Three Tonys, like a Greek — or more accurately Roman — chorus. They got up to greet her, rising slowly on replacement knees, like hammers on a piano with sticky keys. Her father had grown up with The Tonys; Tony "From-Down-The-Block" LoMonaco, "Pigeon" Tony Lucia, and Tony "Two Feet" Pensiera, which got shortened to "Feet," so even his nickname had a nickname. It went without saying that naming traditions in South Philly were sui generis, which was Latin for completely insane. The Tonys went everywhere with her father and sometimes helped her on her cases, which was like having a secret weapon or a traveling nightmare.
"Good morning, Pop." Mary reached her father and gave him a big hug. He smelled the way he always did, of hard soap from a morning shave and the mothballs that clung to his clothes. He and The Tonys were dressed in basically the same outfit — a white short-sleeved shirt, baggy Bermuda shorts, and black-socks-with-sandals — like a barbershop quartet gone horribly wrong.
"THANKS FOR SEEIN' US, HONEY." Her father hugged her back, and Mary loved the solidity of his chubby belly. She would move mountains for him, but it still wouldn't be enough to thank him for being such a wonderful father. Both of her parents loved her to the marrow, though her mother could be as protective as a mother bear, if not a mother Tyrannosaurus rex.
"No problem." Mary released him, but he looked away, which was unlike him. "You okay, Pop?"
"SURE, SURE." Her father waved her off with an arthritic hand, but Mary was concerned. His eyes were a milky brown behind his bifocals, but troubled.
"What is it?"
"YOU'LL SEE. YOUR MOTHER SAYS HI."
Just then Feet raised his slack arms, pulled Mary close to his chest, and hugged her so hard that he jostled his Mr. Potatohead glasses. He, too, seemed agitated, if affectionate. "Mare, thank you for making the time for us."
"Of course, I'm happy to see you."
"I appreciate it. You're such a good kid." Feet righted his thick trifocals, repaired with Scotch tape at one corner. His round eyes were hooded, his nose was bulbous, and he was completely bald, with worry lines that began at his eyebrows and looked more worried than usual.
"Mary!" Tony-From-Down-The-Block reached for her with typical vigor, the youngest of the group, at eighty-three. He worked out, doing a chair-exercise class at the senior center, and was dating again, as evidenced by his hair's suspicious shade of reddish-brown, like oxblood shoe polish. He gave her a hug, and Mary breathed in his Paco Rabanne and BenGay, a surprisingly fragrant combination.
"Good to see you." Mary let him go and moved on to hug Pigeon Tony, an Italian immigrant with a stringy neck, who not only raised homing pigeons but looked like one. Pigeon Tony was barely five feet tall and bird-thin, with a smooth bald head and round brown-black eyes divided by a nose shaped like a beak. In other words, adorable.
"Come stai, Maria?" Pigeon Tony released her with a sad smile, and Mary tried to remember her Italian.
"Va bene, grazie. E tu?"
"Cosi, cosi," Pigeon Tony answered, though he'd never before said anything but bene. You didn't have to speak Italian to know there was a problem, and Mary turned to address the foursome.
"So what's going on, guys? How can I help you?" "IT'S NOT ABOUT US," her father answered gravely.
Feet nodded, downcast. "It's about Simon."
"Oh no, what's up?" Mary loved Feet's son Simon, who was her unofficial cousin, since The Tonys were her unofficial uncles.
"He's not so good."
"What's the matter? Is it Rachel?" Mary felt a pang of fear. Simon's wife, Ellen, died four years ago of an aneurysm, and Simon had become a single father of an infant, Rachel. When Rachel turned three, she was diagnosed with leukemia but was in remission.
"Simon will explain it. Oh, here he comes now!" Feet turned to the elevator just as the doors opened and Simon stepped out, looking around to orient himself.
"Hey, honey!" Mary called to him, hiding her dismay. He looked tired, with premature gray threaded through his dark curly hair, and though he had his father's stocky build, he'd lost weight. His navy sport jacket hung on him and his jeans were too big. She hadn't seen him in a while, since he was busy with Rachel, though they'd kept in touch by email.
"Hi, Mary!" Simon strode toward her, and Mary reached him with a hug, since she could only imagine what he'd been going through, not only with the baby, but losing Ellen. Mary herself had been widowed young, after the murder of her first husband, Mike. Even though she was happily remarried, Mike was a part of her and always would be, which suited her and her new husband, Anthony, just fine.
"It's so good to see you, honey." Mary released him, and Simon brightened.
"This office is so nice, with your name on the sign."
"Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are." Mary could see Simon was happy for her and felt a new rush of affection for him. "How's the baby?"
"I'll fill you in later." Simon's smile stiffened. "I just moved her to CHOP."
Mary wondered why Rachel had been moved, but it wasn't the time to ask. CHOP was the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the best in the country. Mary's heart went out to him. "I'm praying for her, and so is my mother. She's got the novenas on overdrive."
"I know, and she sends me Mass cards, God bless her." Simon's smile returned. "I tell our rabbi, I'll take all the help I can get."
"Exactly. She prayed for me to make partner."
"Ha! Anyway, thanks for seeing me on such short notice. Are you sure you have the time?"
"Totally. My first appointment isn't until ten thirty." Mary motioned him out of the reception area. "Let's go to the conference room."
"Okay." Simon fell into step beside her, followed by her father, The Tonys, and the pastry box, which gave Mary pause. Simon was a potential client, and she wouldn't ordinarily have a client consultation with an audience, blood-related or not.
"Simon, did you want to talk alone?" she asked him, stopping in the hallway. "What we say is confidential, and it's your call whether your dad or anybody else comes in with us. They can wait in —"
Feet interrupted, "No, I wanna be there, Mare. I know what he's gonna tell you, we all do."
Tony-From-Down-The-Block snorted. "Of course we'll be there. Feet's his father, and I taught him how to ride a bike."
"I CHANGED HIS DIAPERS!"
Mary looked over, skeptically. "When, Pop?" "THAT ONE TIME, I FORGET." Her father held up the pastry box by its cotton string. "PLUS I GOT BREAKFAST."
Pigeon Tony kept his own counsel, his dark gaze darting from Simon to Mary, and she suspected that he understood more than he let on, regardless of the language.
Simon smiled crookedly. "Mary, you didn't think we were going to shake them, did you? It's okay. They can come with us."
"THIS WAY, I KNOW WHERE IT IS!" Her father lumbered off, down the hallway.
"Of course, we're all going!" Feet said, at his heels. "We're family. We're all family!"
"Andiamo!" said Pigeon Tony.
Mary led them down the hallway and into the conference room, where Thomas Eakins's rowing prints lined the warm white walls and fresh coffee had been set up on the credenza. The far side of the room was glass, showing an impressive view of the Philadelphia skyline thick with humidity. July was a bad-hair month in Philly, and Mary was already damp under her linen dress.
She closed the conference-room door, glancing at Simon, who perched unhappily on the edge of his chair. He'd always been one of the smartest and nicest kids in the neighborhood, affable enough to make friends even though he was one of the few who didn't go to parochial school. He'd gone to Central High, and the Pensieras were Italian Jews, but the religious distinction made no difference as far as the neighborhood was concerned. The common denominator was homemade tomato sauce.
"Simon, would you like coffee?" Mary set down her purse and messenger bag while her father and The Tonys surged to the credenza.
"No, thanks. Let's get started." Simon sat down catty-corner to the head of the table.
"Agree." Mary took the seat, slid her laptop from her bag, and powered it up while her father and The Tonys yakked away, pouring coffee and digging into the pastry box.
"MARE, YOU TWO START WITHOUT US. DON'T WAIT ON US."
Mary pulled her laptop from her bag, fired it up, and opened a file, turning to Simon. "So, tell me what's going on."
"Okay." Simon paused, collecting his thoughts. "Well, you remember, I'm in sales at OpenSpace, and we make office cubicles. We have different designs and price points, though we also customize. We did $9 million in sales last fiscal year and we have forty-five employees, including manufacturing and administrative, in Horsham."
"How long have you worked for them, again?"
"Twelve years, almost since I graduated Temple, and —" Simon flushed, licking lips that had gone suddenly dry. "Well, I just got fired."
"Oh, no," Mary said, surprised. Simon was smart and hardworking, a success from the get-go. "When did this happen?" "Two days ago, Tuesday. July 11."
"Why?" Mary caught Feet's stricken expression, and her father and the others had gone quiet.
"They said it was my performance. But I don't think that's the real reason."
"What do you think?" Mary's mind was already flipping through the possible illegal reasons, which weren't many. Pennsylvania was a right-to-work state, which meant that an employee could be fired at will, for any or no reason, as long as it wasn't discriminatory.
"Honestly, my performance is great. I'm one of the top reps. I've gotten great reviews and bonuses for years. Things started to go south after Rachel was diagnosed. The final straw for them was —" Simon hesitated, and Feet came over and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Son, the baby's going to be fine. We're all praying, and she's got good doctors. Great doctors."
"Thanks, Dad." Simon returned his attention to Mary, her gaze newly agonized. "I didn't let people know, but Rachel relapsed and she has to have a bone marrow transplant. That's why she got moved to CHOP."
"Oh no, I'm sorry to hear that." Mary felt her chest tighten with emotion, but she didn't want to open any floodgates, especially with Feet, her father, and the others. Now she understood why they'd been so upset. Simon was in dire straits, with Rachel so ill and now him out of a job.
"Obviously, I wish the chemo had worked, but I feel great about the BMT Team at CHOP. They specialize in ALL." Simon caught himself. "Sorry about the lingo. BMT stands for Blood and Marrow Transplant Team and ALL is acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is what she has."
"I can't imagine how hard this is to go through, for all of you."
"We're doing the best we can. My dad's there all the time, so it helps when I have to work." Simon managed a shaky smile. "It's just that as a father, you feel so helpless. I mean, it sounds cliché, but it's true. I know, I live it. You have hope, but no control. None at all. Well, you get it. You know, you see. She has to be okay."
"She will be," Feet said quietly, and Mary's father, Pigeon Tony, and Tony-From-Down-The-Block walked over, their lined faces masks of sorrow and fear. They stood motionless behind him, having forgotten about the coffee and pastries.
"SIMON, WE'LL HELP ANY WAY WE CAN. WON'T WE, MARE?"
"Yes, we will," Mary answered, meaning it. She patted Simon's hand again.
Tony-From-Down-The-Block chimed in, "We're going to get through this together." He gestured at Pigeon Tony. "He's gonna make some baked ziti for you, Simon. He's an excellent cook, like, gourmet. All you gotta do is put it in the microwave."
"Thanks, guys." Simon turned around, then faced Mary. "Anyway, I think that's the reason why they fired me."
Mary blinked. "How so?"
"Well, when Rachel was first diagnosed, my boss, Todd, was really nice about it. I have decent benefits and they covered Rachel. I took out a second mortgage to cover what it doesn't. The meds are astronomical." Simon leaned over, urgent. "But OpenSpace is self-insured up to $250,000, which means that their insurance policy doesn't reimburse them until their employee medical expenses reach that amount. They have to pay out of pocket until then."
"Understood. It's like a deductible." Mary knew the basics of employment benefits.
"Exactly." Simon nodded. "But Rachel's bills alone are so high that the insurance company was going to raise the premiums."
"I see, and are the premiums going up?"
"I don't know, but I'm getting ahead of myself. After Rachel's first round of chemo, my boss, Todd, kept asking me how Rachel was. I thought he was interested, like, being nice. He has a ten-year-old daughter. But then he made comments about the bills when I submitted them. And then when the first bills for chemo came in, for seven grand, he reduced my territory from three states — Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware — to just Delaware."
Mary didn't understand something. "What does it matter that your territory was reduced?"
"A reduction in my territory means I can't make my sales quotas. Not only that, but the territory he gave me was more residential and had less businesses, so there was no way I could ever make quota." Simon flushed. "I tried, but no matter what I did, I was only selling a fraction of the units. For the first time in twelve years, I didn't make quota."
Mary put it together. "So your sales go down and your performance suffers."
"Right." Simon nodded. "Todd was trying to force me out, hoping that I would quit, but I didn't. I love my accounts, my reps, and my job, and I need the job."
"So when Rachel's pediatric oncologist told me she needed the transplant and referred me to CHOP, I told Todd and he asked how much it was going to cost. At the time, I didn't know the costs of the transplant, but the donor search alone cost like $60,000 to $100,000, and I told him that."
"To search for a match? Why does that cost so much? It didn't cost that much when we tried before, did it?" Mary was referring to a previous time, when Rachel had been considered for a bone marrow transplant and they had all registered as donors, by giving cheek swabs to collect DNA. None of them had been matches.
"It's not the costs of donating, it's the costs of finding a donor. The hospital has to contact the Bone Marrow Donor Registry to get a list of potential matches, but they have to test at least six potential donors to get one that's a perfect match. Each test costs six to nine grand. It adds up fast."
"Oh, man." Mary hadn't realized.
"Luckily, CHOP found us a match, changed Rachel's chemo protocol, and got her into remission. You have to be in remission to do the transplant."
"That's sounds like a Catch-22."
"I know, but it isn't. I'll fill you in another time. Anyway, when I told Todd that Rachel needed the transplant, he fired me the next week, supposedly because I didn't make quota — for one month. The first time in twelve years."
"So it was a pretext because they didn't want to pay for Rachel's expenses? And they didn't want their premiums to go up?"
"I think so."
"That's heartless." Mary felt a surge of anger, the kind she always felt when somebody had been wronged. But here, it had happened to someone she knew and loved. Simon. And Rachel.