Cameron Kills Pretty Enemy LLP
Erma has come to very much admire her supervisor and to be sweetly puzzled by her cousin. What Cameron does all day on Wednesdays is listen to classical music on Minnesota Public Radio and read books, often crime fiction, and works of history. He wears soft brown moccasins and sips peppermint tea while eating the thin mint cookies sold by local Girl Scouts every spring. Most of the day he spends stretched out on the leather couch that is across from the picture window in his office, resting his bad knees. A star quilt covers his considerable frame and his reading glasses are halfway down the bridge of his nose. Cameron's long white hair falls loosely around his shoulders on his day off. He looks like a grandfather when he falls asleep with a novel on his chest. When he sleeps he snores. The door to his office is always open. Cameron can hear the calls that Dorothy takes, but he never says a word. Erma can feel him listening and refraining from jumping into the fray.

And only on Wednesdays does he have the photographs out on the credenza behind his expansive desk. They are a chronology of a boy from infancy to manhood. A dark-haired, white woman holds the infant that morphs into a toddler, schoolboy, college student, and, finally, a smiling man with his arm around Cameron. The photographs are never out on the days when Dorothy and Cameron call their sporadic, but required intern meetings. The mixed race boy looks like Cameron Kills Pretty Enemy, but he certainly is not the spitting image of him. Erma's heart beats faster when she glances through the doorway at the photographs. The man with his arm around Cameron is handsome. He is, Erma's private crush, her George Clooney. This is her secret. Cameron's office is full of secrets on Wednesdays.

On this particular Wednesday in the middle of May, Erma is alone in the reception area. Dorothy had a medical appointment after lunch and will not be returning to the office until Thursday. The phone has not been ringing, but if it does it will go to the answering machine. It is a good day for Dorothy to be away.

After updating the Kills Pretty Enemy LLP website calendars Erma adds a vast amount of figures to the Excel spreadsheets that Cameron keeps on reservation crimes across North America. She sighs. These numbers make her very sad. It is 4:00 pm. and she will leave in an hour. Erma turns away from her computer to write a thesis. Theses are held dear by Lutherans because of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five. Her thesis will explain to her father why she wants to leave Saint Olaf College and attend the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in the fall. She writes:

    Saint Olaf is an excellent college with a great faculty and students who are very polite to me. But unlike my years at Lakeville North High School I find that I have no close friends in Northfield. I think that it is fair for me to write this after four semesters there. I have given the school a good try, the old college try, so to speak. I know that it is I, and not the school that has the problem. I am a square peg trying to fit into a round hole and I am lonely, Dad, very lonely. When I took the Greyhound to visit the Mathematics Department of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee I felt at peace. I saw plenty of students who look like me all over the campus, groups of them. People said hello to me and gave me directions when I was looking for the math building.

Erma pauses because she is crying. She reaches for a Kleenex from the box on Dorothy's desk to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. Cameron walks out of his office, carrying a novel by Vince Flynn. Cameron loves Mitch Rapp, the main character in most of Flynn's novels.

"Erma, you're crying," Cameron says.

"I know Mr. Kills Pretty Enemy."

"Because . . . "

And then the telephone rings. Cameron raises his hand, stopping her explanation as the two of them listen to the three long rings that happen before the answering machine is activated. They stare at the phone. Erma reaches for the legal pad and a pen. A voice comes through the speaker.

"Good afternoon," a woman says. "I am leaving this message for Cameron Kills Pretty Enemy. Cameron, this is Iris Murphy."

Erma writes all of this down, ignoring Cameron.

The woman stops and makes the hiccupping sound that comes when a person is trying not to cry. Cameron puts down the Vince Flynn novel and sits in Dorothy's chair. He stares at the answering machine.

"The thing is Cameron I don't really care if your office manager hears this message so I will just say it. I am dying. The oncologist gives me two months. But our mutual friend, Paul, says that that is what all oncologists tell people in dire circumstances to motivate action. Needless to say it has motivated me. I want to ask you to continue to stay in contact with Miles and to call me at 402-341-2173. I want to say goodbye to you and I want to ask you 'Why?' Why do you refuse to communicate with me? That's what I have always wondered. Was it because I'm white? Was it my politics? Was it my religion? Did you love me at all? I love you. My dad said a person should end every conversation with love. I do . . . "

The answering machine stops every message at an ellipsis. Erma keeps transcribing. She finishes the transcription to the yellow pad from memory and then she begins to weep. Everyone, she thinks, works from the same broken heart. She looks up from the page. Cameron is crying. She pulls three Kleenexes from Dorothy's box and hands them to her cousin and then pulls three more for herself.

"Why don't you head home early, Erma," Cameron says, his red eyes looking away from her. "We'll still pay you for the last hour."

"You don't pay me, Mr. Kills Pretty Enemy."

"We don't?"

"No, I'm an unpaid intern "

"What about the other interns? The ones who carry my bags?"

"You don't pay them either "

"Oh."

"You need to call her," Erma tells him. "You need to do it right away. This is an emergency."

"Why were you crying, Erma?"

"Because I'm going to disappoint my dad. I'm going to move to Milwaukee to study at the University of Wisconsin because people look more like me there," Erma says this as she thinks "His name is Miles and his mother is dying" and she begins to cry again.

"Don't cry. Going to Milwaukee will be a good thing for you."

"But if a white man loved me and in loving him I became a better person I would marry him."

She blows her nose.

"It's never that simple."

Erma reaches for her backpack.

"Your dad loves you very much. He will always be proud of you."

"Do the right thing, Mr. Kills Pretty Enemy."

"I'll see you next week."

Erma nods her head.

"I'll pay you."

"You should pay all of your interns."

Cameron winces.

"Dorothy wouldn't approve of that."

On the drive back to Northfield, Erma replays the woman's message to Cameron over in her head and she wonders if Miles knows that his mother is dying and how Cameron came to know Iris Murphy and if he is still in love with her and why he won't speak to her. She recites the phone number aloud. Numbers are her true language. They soothe her busy mind and carry none of the burden of subjectivity. It is subjective to find herself sympathetic to Cameron's obvious grief and simultaneously angered by his refusal to comfort the sick.

When she reaches the Saint Olaf lot where she is permitted to park Erma pulls out her iPhone. She presses the ten digits into the keypad. Two seconds pass before she hears the phone ring.

"Hello," a woman's voice answers the phone after the second ring.

"Good afternoon, this is Erma Charging. I work as an intern in the law ofice of Cameron Kills Pretty Enemy and I am calling for Iris Murphy."

"This is Iris Murphy."

"Ms. Murphy, I think it is important for you to know that Mr. Kills Pretty Enemy never takes calls on Wednesday."

"Yes."

"But sometimes he listens to what comes over the answering machine."

"Yes."

"Mr. Kills Pretty Enemy listened to your message today."

"Will he be calling me?"

"Well, I cannot say for certain, but I think not ..."

Then Erma hears a stifled cry.

"However I would like to tell you that Mr. Kills Pretty Enemy did cry as he listened to your words and that he loves Miles very much. He keeps pictures of him in the office on Wednesdays."

"What did you say your name is?" "My name is Erma Charging."

"Ms. Charging, you do know that you could lose your job for calling me?"

"Ms. Murphy, I'm an unpaid intern. I wouldn't be losing very much and none of the other interns are interested in working on Excel spreadsheets or updating the website. They all want to be attorneys."

"What do you want to be, Ms. Charging?"

No one ever asks Erma this question. As a pastor's child her family life has been focused on other people's needs. Someone always needs her father or needs something as basic as food or shelter. Erma realizes that she has grown up on the good side of greater than. There is an implied frivolousness to admitting that she has wants in a world where so many people live with far less than what they need. Christ did not die on a cross for humanity's wants.

"I want to go to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to major in mathematics and then see what happens."

"You should do it."

"I will."

And Erma Charging knows now that she will.

"Thank you for calling me. I will tell no one about our conversation."

"You will be in my prayers, Ms. Murphy."

"And you in mine, Ms. Charging."

The conversation ends.

Erma begins to weep for this woman and her son, and for Milwaukee. Her tears fall in grief, joy, and relief. Her prayer is for grace for them all.

Students walk through the parking lot. Their eyes are on smart phones or behind sunglasses. Classes are over. Tomorrow is Reading Day. It is the season of beginnings. They are good children of kind people, but they do not see Erma Charging who is sobbing against her steering wheel. And they never will.

--- From The Enigma of Iris Murphy
Maureen Millea Smith
©2016 Livingston Press at
The University of West Alabama
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