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 law suit 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 DiNun zios 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-DownThe-Block" LoMonaco, "Pigeon" Tony Lucia, and Tony "Two Feet" Pensiera, which got shortened to "Feet," so even his nick name 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 gravdy. 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." Si mon'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-comer 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 o-IOP. 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&mdashJersey, 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 do nor. 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.
Feet shook his head. "They're bastards!"
"WHAT KINDA PEOPLE FIRE YOU BECAUSE YOU GOT A SICK KID? THEY SHOULD BURN IN HELL!"
Simon shook his head. "The irony is that OpenSpace wouldn't have had to pay another penny. CHOP worked with me and Aetna, and since I'm a Pennsylvania resident and the illness is life-threatening, I can use secondary insurance like the CAT fund and Medicaid. They cover the costs of the transplant, which is astronomical."
"How much does a bone marrow transplant cost?"
"A million bucks."
"Whoa, are you kidding?" Mary said, shocked.
"No, start to finish, it's almost a year-long process, and you can't imagine the expertise and care it takes."
"I bet." Mary got back on track. "Do you remember the comment your boss, Todd, made to you, about how much it was costing?"
"Yes, and I even have proof. I wrote down every time Todd said something to me about her bills. I didn't want to write it on my phone because it's company-issued." Simon reached into his sport jacket, pulled out a Moleskine notebook, and set it down. "I can show you right here, when and where."
"Great." Mary picked up the notebook, opened it, and glanced at Simon's characteristically neat writing, with dates and times noted. "Simon, what's your boss's full name?"
Mary made a note. "How long has he been your boss and what's his job title?"
"He's sales manager. I've reported to him for twelve years." Simon swallowed hard. "I thought we were friends. I know his ex-wife, Cheryl. They were both good to Ellen." Simon's voice trailed off, but Mary wanted to keep him on the case.
"So did Todd make the decision or did somebody else?" "He does. He makes a recommendation upstairs, to hire or fire, and it gets rubber-stamped by the president, Mike Bashir."
Mary made a note of the name.
"So is it legal, what they did?" Simon leaned over. "It seems so wrong to me. I understand that a transplant costs a lot, but they're going gangbusters and I worked for them for twelve years. Can they get away with this?"
"Not in my book. We can sue them for this, and we should, right away." Mary knew disability law as a result of her grow ing special-education practice and she was already drafting a complaint in her mind. She loved it when the law actually did justice, which happened less frequently than God intended.
"So it's illegal?" Simon leaned forward, newly urgent.
"Yes. There's a federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it prevents discrimination in employment based on disability or illness. So for example, you can't fire somebody because they have cancer—"
"But how does that apply to me? I'm not the one with cancer, Rachel is."
"I know, but the law has a special provision that applies here, though it's not well-known. In fact, there's very little case law on it, but it applies to us." Mary started searching online for the statute. "It's called the 'association provision' and it forbids employment discrimination on the basis of an illness contracted by people who are associated with the insured employee, like their family."
"Really?" Simon's eyes widened with hope.
"Yes, under the ADA, an employer is prohibited from"— Mary found the statute and started reading aloud—" 'excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.'"
"MARE, WE DON'T GET THE LEGALESE!"
Mary explained, "It means Simon is a qualified individual under the law and he is associated with Rachel. In other words, Simon's company can't fire him because she got sick and her medical expenses are going to cost them. I have to research the cases and get more facts from you, but I think we have an excellent case here."
"That's great!" Simon threw his hands in the air.
"Thank God!" Feet cheered, and Tony-From-Down-The Block, Pigeon Tony, and Mary's father burst into chatter, all at once. "BravissimaJ Maria!" "Way to go, Mare! Go get 'em!"
"MARE, I KNEW YOU'D KNOW WHAT TO DO! I'M SO PROUD A YOU!" Her father shuffled over and kissed the top of her head. "THANK GOD YOU'RE SO SMART! AND BEAUTIFUL!"
"Aw, Pop." Mary flushed, relieved. She couldn't have lived with herself if she couldn't help Simon and Rachel, fighting for her life. If there was any reason she had become a lawyer, this was it. To help families, children, and the community as a whole. She felt as if she had finally found her niche in specialeducation and disability law and lately she'd come to work happier than ever before.
Simon beamed. "Mary, that's so amazing. How does that work? Do you think I could get my job back? I really need to work."
"Okay, hold on." Mary put up her hand. "I have to study your notebook and do my research before I can answer any of these questions for sure. And the procedure under the law is that before we go to court, we have to file a complaint with the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, first. Then they give us a right-to-sue letter and we can go to court. As far as remedy, I don't know if you can get your job back, but why would you want it? Do you have an employment contract or a non-compete?"
"Yes, for two years, and it covers the mid-Atlantic states. So now I can't work in sales in the area but I can't move out of the area because of Rachel being at CHOP."
Mary saw his dilemma. "Okay, we'll see what we can do. We might be able to get a decent settlement, then you can stay home with Rachel during her treatment."
"But what about her medical expenses?"
"You buy COBRA with the settlement money. That covers you both for eighteen months and you'll find another job when you free up more."
"That would be best of all! I don't know how to thank you, Mary." Simon broke into a huge smile.
Her father grinned. "HOW MUCH CAN YOU GET HIM, MARE?"
Feet chimed in, "Yeah, how much?"
Mary waved them off. "Don't get ahead of yourselves. I need to know more before we make a settlement demand andI want to see the notebook, so I understand exactly what happened."
Simon nodded, excited. "So you'll take my case, Mary? Do you have the time?"
"Of course." Mary mentally cleared her calendar. She didn't have anything as pressing as this. This was for family.
"Thank you so much!" Simon squeezed her hand. "And I just want to say up front that I'm paying you for this. I'm not expecting you to represent me for free."
"YOUR MONEY'S NO GOOD HERE. YOU KNOW THAT."
"Simon, my father's right," Mary said, meaning it. She'd have to tell her partner, Bennie Rosato, but the days were over when she'd have to ask for permission.
"What do we do next?" Simon checked his watch. "I should get over to the hospital."
Feet nodded. "Simon sleeps there, and we trade off. We like to be there when she's up."
Tony-From-Down-The-Block added, "So she knows she's not alone."
"OF COURSE SHE'S NOT ALONE!" Mary's father said, and she saw his eyes begin to glisten, so she rose.
"Okay, then. Let me get started so we can get a demand letter out right away. See if we can get this settled without having to file suit."
"Think we can?" Simon stood up, his entire demeanor improved. He held his head higher and squared his shoulders.
"I can't guarantee it, but I feel good." Mary gave him a reassuring hug and gathered him, Feet, her father, the remaining Tonys, and the untouched pastry while they all exchanged "good-byes, "thank-yous," and "love-yous." Then she ushered them out of the conference room, down the hall, and into the elevator, giving her father one final hug.
"Mary, thanks so much!" Simon called to her.
"BYE, HONEY! LOVE YOU!"
"Love you, too!" Mary glimpsed her father's eyes begin to glisten as the elevator doors slid closed. Something was still bothering him, but she didn't know what or why. The doors had sealed shut and the elevator rattled downward, leaving her to her own thoughts. She felt so good that she could help him and Rachel, but so awful that the baby needed the transplant. Only four years old, and her young life had been a series of tests and chemo, needle pricks and IV ports. It couldn't be possible that children suffered so much, yet she knew it happened every day, in every hospital in the country.
The other elevator doors slid open, and inside was Bennie Rosato, whose appearance never failed to intimidate Mary. Maybe it was because Bennie was her former boss and a super lawyer with a national reputation, or the fact that Bennie was six feet tall and towered over Mary, or the fact that Bennie always wore a khaki power suit, or that her curly blonde hair was always in an unruly topknot, proof that she was far too sensible to care about anything as dumb as hair.
"Good morning," Mary said, as Bennie flashed a confident smile, which was the only kind she had.
"Hey, DiNunzio. I mean, Mary. What are you doing, standing here?"
"I just met with a new client," Mary answered, faking a smile. "Tough case? You look upset." Bennie strode toward the reception desk, and Mary fell in step beside her, telling herself not to be nervous around her own partner, for no reason. Or maybe for four reasons, as above.
"Yes, tough case." Mary was thinking of Rachel.
"Tough on the law?"
"No, it's just sad. On the law, it's a winner. A sales rep got fired because his daughter needs a bone marrow transplant." Mary summarized it like a legal headnote since Bennie was in a hurry.
"Ouch." Bennie grimaced as she walked. "Go get 'em, tiger."
"It's totally illegal under the association provision of the ADA. I'm hoping for a quick settlement."
"Who's the defendant?"
"Some cubicle manufacturer."
"Not OpenSpace." Bennie stopped, frowning under the gleaming Rosato & DiNunzio plaque.
"Yes, why? How did you know?"
"OpenSpace is the biggest cubicle manufacturer in the area, and you can't sue them. I represent their parent company."
"I don't understand." Mary's mouth went dry.
"You're conflicted out of the case, and I didn't hear what I just heard. Decline the representation."