A Brush with Kindness

"You sure you want to stay? I can always get a taxi back home if you want to head out now." The rubber tips of my fatherís half crutches made a faint scraping sound on the low loop carpet outside the law office of Wexler, Lukin and Carlson, and he paused briefly for me to open the heavy oak door.

"Iím fine," I assured him, though my reply sounded more like ĎIíb fide," low and congested from the cold Iíd been developing since the evening before.

Dadís mouth quirked briefly into a smile that was as much concerned as wry, used to my stoicism after years of living with my winter, spring, summer and fall allergies (anything and everything, from cats and house dust to ragweed and, most remarkably, facial tissue, could trigger an attack), but, mercifully, said nothing to me. Instead, he swung forward on his crutches, stopping in front of a long, dark wooden desk which had clearly been chosen for its capacity to impress and intimidate.

"Can I help you?" The receptionist, an attractive young woman who appeared to be my age, looked up at my father from her computer screen, pressing a button on the keyboard before giving him her full attention.

"Iím Robert Marshall. David Carlson is expecting me at eleven."

The woman glanced briefly at an antique clock that perched in a crowded bookshelf, between a stack of books and a flowering African violet. "Please have a seat -- Iíll tell him youíre here." She gestured toward a series of leather-upholstered couches, then picked up the handset of her desk phone. "Mr. Carlson? Mr. Marshall is here to see you." The words had a faintly scripted quality to them, as if she had been trained in an entirely different field and had been conscripted into reception at the last minute.

"Heíll be just a moment." After my father and I had settled on one of the couches opposite a large framed print of Monetís "The Artistís Garden at Giverny," she asked politely, "Can I get either of you something to drink?"

I shook my head, and my father responded for both of us. "No, thank you."

The persistent tickle that had been building ever since Iíd walked into the door of the law office escalated abruptly, and I scrubbed at my nose with the back of my hand in a futile attempt to subdue it. Although I tended to maintain an indifferent facade toward my allergies, sneezing in public embarrassed me to no end, and I tried everything to avoid it, a tactic which had prompted scolding from my father on more than one occasion.

"Youíre going to give yourself a nosebleed if you keep stifling it like that," heíd admonished years ago, in the same tone parents used to say, "Donít run with scissors" and "Your face will freeze that way if youíre not careful." Today, however, he merely touched my shoulder with his fingertips, eyes narrowed in silent warning.

"Huh-hmm," I breathed out, the itching receding slightly. A moment later, however, it returned with a vengeance, and I pinched my nose hard with one hand, tugging a neatly folded blue bandanna from my jacket pocket. "Ah..." I inhaled sharply, cupping the cloth to my nose a moment before sneezing three times in a row, loud, wet sneezes that echoed in the small, expensively decorated waiting room. "Haa-chmph! Hih-choo! Ah--ah--chmmm!"

"Bless you." My fatherís voice mingled with another, lighter, distinctly feminine tone, and I hazarded a glance upward to see the pretty receptionist watching me bemusedly, an undecipherable little smile on her face.

"Sorry," I muttered, blowing my nose hard into the bandanna in an attempt to get it to stop itching so badly.

Just as I was in the process of refolding the cloth, a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman appeared in the doorway to my left. "Bob?"

Dad levered himself up from the couch, and I placed a hand at his back to steady him. Two weeks of physical therapy had improved his ability to maneuver on only one leg, but getting up from the couch would have been a chore for anyone, as it had given comfortably under our combined weights.

"David. Iíd like you to meet my son, Cory." I jumped up at the mention of my name, pasting on the best polite, ĎIím happy to meet youí smile I could muster.

"Nice to meet you, sir." I stood there awkwardly, hesitant to shake hands with him given the fact that mine were likely teeming with germs. He seemed to understand my reticence, and merely nodded in reply.

"Our meeting may take an hour or so -- please ask Lynn if you need anything." He pointed to the receptionist, who shifted uncomfortably under his attention. "Shall we?" He escorted my father down a long, narrow hallway, leaving me alone in the small waiting room with Lynn.

I glanced briefly over the assortment of magazines that had been strewn over one side table: Architecture Digest, Yachting World, Forbes. Obviously, most of the clients of Wexler, Lukin and Carlson were well-to-do, and had far more expensive tastes than I ever imagined Iíd have the money for. Instead of consulting one of the glossy dream books, I flipped open my copy of JAMA, trying to catch up on the latest advances in heart valve repair and H1 antagonists for peptic ulcers.

Five minutes later, I was thoroughly absorbed in an editorial on the uses of AZT in third world countries, and didnít notice when a particularly forceful sneeze began to build up, tickling insidiously. Before I could even raise a hand to muffle it, I sneezed again, the same sort of horribly loud, wet sneeze which had plagued me all morning. Tiredly, I fished out my bandanna and swiped at my nose, crumpling the cloth into a damp ball.

"Bless you." From across the room, I heard the same light, comforting voice, the woman I now knew as Lynn regarding me with luminous green eyes.

"Darliní," I joked with more zest than I really felt, "if you keep saying that every time I sneeze, your tongueís gonna wear out." My parents had long since abandoned the term, using it only in public when other people might think it rude to ignore my -- to them -- obvious distress.

"Oh." She offered the same shy, bemused smile, as if she was enjoying a small, private joke. "Well, okay." She went back to reading a large book that was propped up on a corner of her desk, but I noticed that every few moments, sheíd cast a furtive glance in my direction, as if to assure herself that I was going to be fine.

I was through the editorial, which I agreed with, and in the midst of perusing a study on the efficacy of, ironically, a new, non-sedating antihistamine, when the familiar pressure began to build again. Oh, boy, I muttered to myself, knowing this next round was going to be the worst yet. And, indeed, it was, a series of eleven fast, embarrassingly wet sneezes, a staccato burst of evenly spaced sound only slightly muffled within the folds of my handkerchief.

"Ghesundheit!" Lynn jumped in surprize at the force and length of the attack, regarding me with amazement.

My nose was, by this time, running like the American Falls of Niagara, and I rummaged around in my jacket for a tissue, coming up empty handed. Finally, out of sheer necessity, my ears and cheeks burning with chagrin, I rose from the welcoming embrace of the couch and approached the desk.

"Uhb, could I borr -- ah," I turned away from Lynn abruptly, sneezing into a fist with a distinct "huh-choo!"

Wordlessly, she grabbed the box of tissues from the corner of her desk and pulled out a handful, pressing them into my outstretched palm.

"Thags," I managed, congested to the point that my speech was nearly unintelligible. I turned away from her again, blowing my nose as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, but true to my luck, the tissues triggered my allergy, and I sneezed again into the sodden mess of refined paper pulp.

"Here." Lynn held out the box, adding, "Keep it."

I had to grin at her understated humor, and it felt good, the first time all day that Iíd been able to smile at anything. "Sorry. Kleenex makes me sneeze."

She appeared completely nonplussed by my comment, rolling her desk chair back a foot to assess me. "Youíre kidding, right?" I saw a flicker of astonishment pass through her eyes, followed by keen, sympathetic interest.

"Gods, I wish I were. One thing you should know about me," I added, not even understanding why I was revealing so much of myself to her. "Iím allergic to a lot of things."

She took my apparent non sequitur in stride. "Iíll keep that in mind, uhm --"

"Cory," I offered. "Cory Marshall."

"Lynn Carlson."

When I heard her last name, I gulped hard, looking instinctively toward the back of the room, where my father and David Carlson had disappeared down the hallway.

"Oh, donít let that intimidate you." She shook her head slightly, rustling the cascade of fiery curls that draped over one shoulder. "Iím just filling in for Dadís regular receptionist for a while -- she took maternity leave three months ago."

"Howís the b -- huuuh . . . " A rush of histamines flooded into my sinuses, and I grabbed the edge of the desk with my left hand. "Ihhh, huuuh." The sneeze came before I could turn away from Lynn or even cover my mouth, and it doubled me over with its force. "Huuh-chooo!"

"Bless you."

I attempted a thank-you, but cut myself off with another barely muffled sneeze.

"Good heavens." Lynn pondered me a moment, then held up a hand. "Wait right here." She stepped back from the desk, then walked toward the hallway at the back of the office, leaving me alone in the reception area.

In her absence, I took the tissue box from the desk and pulled one out, swiping at my streaming eyes, then walked back to my perch on the couch. From there, I could hear Lynn rap lightly on a door, then ask, "Could I borrow...? Thanks." She pivoted on the ball of one pump-encased foot, and it was only then I had the opportunity to notice her formal business suit, the way it complemented her pale complexion and hugged her lean yet curvy frame in an intimate way that Iíd though suits were designed to avoid. A brightly patterned silk scarf flowed from the breast pocket of her blazer, contradicting the somewhat masculine lines of the suit.

When she caught me watching her, she ran a hand over her long red hair, self-consciously smoothing it into place. The wild mass of curls belied her borrowed air of professionalism, and I thought that she must be a drama or advertising major in college, the way she presented herself with such artistic flair. Long, shining silver spirals dangled from her ears, twinkling with each step.

"I thought perhaps you could use this." Lynn uncurled her hand to reveal a white cotton handkerchief, and I blushed in chagrin to think of her asking my father for it as if she was tending a relcitrant three-year old.

"Uhb, well..." I hesitated, pinching my nose and sniffing hard. "Oh, no."

"What?" Lynn snapped open the cloth, and was leaning forward to give it to me when I shook my head, sneezing uncontrollably.

"Huuuh-shooo. Ihh-tchoo! Hmpt-shhhh!" I gulped in a quick breath, letting it out with a loud "Heh-shhh!"

"Here." I felt, rather than saw, Lynn reach over, cupping the handkerchief to my face as I sneezed into it.

"Iíb sorry," I choked out a moment later, leaning back against the couch. "Idís dot usually this bad." I sniffled wetly, and Lynn proferred the handkerchief. "Uhb, could you grab be a kleedex?" I asked, loathe to blow my nose into the cloth.

"Sure." If Lynn took my request as odd, she didnít comment, merely brought the box over from the desk.

"Could I get you a cup of coffee? Tea? Water?"

"Tea, please," I said, offering her my best apologetic smile. "Iíb sorry to be such a bother."

"You arenít a bother," she assured. "Iíll be right back."

As soon as sheíd disappeared down the same long hallway, I took the opportunity to tuck the sodden handkerchief into my jacket pocket, then pulled more tissues out of the box at my feet and blew my nose. Again, the tissues made my nose itch more, and I was attempting to stifle a sneeze when Lynn came back, mug in hand.

"I hope cammomileís okay -- thatís all we have in the break room."

"Cabb- uh, cabbobileís f-- fide," I managed, my eyes watering with the effort to not sneeze. "By favorid."

"Youíre sure youíre okay?" She placed the steaming mug of tea on the end table beside me, anticipating another barrage of sneezing.

"Yeh -- uhb, Iíb just -- it feels like Iíb goig to --" I pressed my fingers against my upper lip as hard as I could, momentarily quelling the urge. "Uhhh."

"Cory, if you need to sneeze, then sneeze." She placed a special emphasis on the word, as if she was waiting herself.

"Iíb try---" I inhaled sharply, but the need abated suddenly, teasing me. "Huuh. Idís gode -- doh, wait, I thig, ah, ihhh." I gasped three times, then expelled my breath in a loud, "Har-chmmph, chmm, chiih, heh-chuuuh!"

"Bless you." This time, the words came from a deeper masculine voice than Iíd heard before, and when I looked up, I saw my father and David Carlson both staring at me in concern. The lawyer took a small step forward, and seemed to be contemplating the merit of offering me his own handkerchief.

"Thank you." I reached into my jacket pocket and tugged out the blue bandanna Iíd used earlier, crumpled but still serviceable. With three people watching me, I felt awkward, and tried a line from one of my favorite old-time television shows to dispel the tension. "What? Havenít you ever seen anyone sneeze before?"

Mr. Carlson laughed at that one, reaching over to pat me lightly on the shoulder. "Bob," he said, addressing my father, "Iíll be in touch about the deposition."

"Fair enough." Dad let one crutch hang from his forearm, exchanging a firm handshake with Carlson.

"Take care of that cold." Lynn smiled at me, the silent gesture communicating volumes, and I was as reluctant to leave, just then, as I had been eager to flee when weíd first entered the law office.

"Iíll do that," I told her, holding the door open for my father, then following him out of the office.