birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Let's Call Her Abby

'm certain that there are legions of people who remember the first time they heard her voice, soft and precise, every syllable pronounced but with just the slightest trace of what they would never recognize as a Valley Girl drawl. "Hi, this is Mrs. X, IRS." Abby (not her real name) is a forensic accountant, auditor and pitbull for the Service, often the lone person facing an army of pricey accountants and legal teams for Koogle or Glamazon as they explain why free massages and fois gras for lunch in the company cafeteria should not be considered taxable compensation. She's often all that's standing between us and them, something obscure in 1860s law making her unexpected case.

She has a wide rectangle of a body, wide hips and legs, slightly square face with brown eyes often set behind the large, black O's of glasses these days. With those glasses and her bob of fine brown hair slicked back, her pointed chin becomes more prominent, and the high cheekbones come out of hiding. She's becoming more glamorous in her older age. Mostly, though she makes a point of looking businesslike in a bob and contacts, doesn't mind seeming nonthreatening, easy to dismiss. She often shows up as the slow-walking, matronly lady in the pant suit, and people look for the "real" accountant. Their first step into peril.

She thinks, in conversation. Pauses for long stretches, listens. It would be easy to take the silence for emptiness, some kind of slowness on her part. But then she'll laugh, pull out of her mind a detailed yarn from years ago, remembering every part of a conversation, the name of the book you were telling her about, the passage you kept quoting to her then, and how that guy you were dating had a tattoo that worried her, but she didn't mention it to you-and you got over him. (Her people in Scotland and Wales were bards, I'm certain.) You probably don't even remember the guy, but her mind is at least four-dimensional, like her lock on details, and her compassion. It's the laugh that somehow says everything you need to know about her, if you're lucky enough to hear it. Short and loud, not quite a bark but more HA than tee hee. Full-throated. Every part of her laughs. 

We met, in college, on a dormitory floor called the English House, roundly ridiculed because unlike Spanish House which required full immersion in a second language, English House had some hazy mission related to English. We ate a million cheese omelettes and had a million cups of coffee at IHOP. Suffered over grades, fell into depressions, kept pulling each other out. Moved into a basement apartment on the Hill with my brother and an army of cockroaches, where both of us went on crash diets to lose 20 pounds in 20 days and failed, failed, failed, fought over whose food was whose. We slept in too late for classes, came alive at night, read and wrote constantly, couldn't imagine what we'd be doing now. When I said I was hitchhiking to California one spring break, she said she'd drive. It was the season of the Hillside Strangler. She took me home to a crowded Redondo house with 4 siblings still at home, her beautiful eccentric mother and alcoholic father, the crashing waves just a few blocks away. 

She and I both pulled things together. She met one long-term boyfriend in AA, lost him to a failing liver, married a man who has her kindness and smarts and love of cats-they have five. Ask her anything and you are in for a story. Show any sign of suffering and she will take you in. Remember when you see her: you are meeting a queen.

Morning Papers

My Friend