The Handmaiden

Peace statue, Atlantic Station, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker steps up to the door of Rosalind Duchard’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and rings the bell. She’s there to meet with Rosalind and her husband, Paul, about a request they made of her at a previous meeting. Leah is still undecided on what her answer will be, but Rosalind has promised to have a legal agreement drawn up to spell out everyone’s responsibilities and the legal consequences of everything.

She’s met at the door by Paul, a man in his fifties, somewhat overweight, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a madras shirt.

“Leah,” Paul says, with little enthusiasm. “You’re early. Rosalind isn’t back yet.” He makes no effort to invite her in.

“Can I come in anyway?” Leah says.

Paul considers it. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

He steps aside to allow her entry.

In the year since becoming Rosalind’s lab assistant, Leah has come to regard her as a mentor and friend, and Rosalind has successfully wrested from Leah’s aunt, Margaret, the title of “second most important” woman in Leah’s life. Around MIT, faculty, staff, and students recognize that talking to Leah is almost the same as having Rosalind’s ear, and some faculty members prefer Leah’s accessibility to wading through the sea of interpersonal issues they have to navigate to work with Rosalind. Leah and Rosalind spend most of the day together, and many evenings, depending on the time of year, or the grants Rosalind is managing. Their close working arrangement often draws the ire of Rosalind’s husband.

Leah has only had a few interactions with Paul Duchard, but they’ve been icy and uncomfortable. He always greets her with a stern look, and an over abundance of sighs and eye rolls. She’s found his reactions rarely change, regardless of how polite or friendly she tries to be around him. On the occasions they’ve been alone when she’s visiting, any interest she shows in getting to know him is met with monosyllabic responses, and it isn’t out of the ordinary for Paul to excuse himself whenever Leah and Rosalind are talking, even when they’re chatting and not discussing academic matters. Leah suspects Paul may have Asperger Syndrome, but whenever she’s broached the topic with Rosalind, she always dismisses Leah’s suspicions, telling Leah she just needs to get to know Paul better.

Paul leads Leah to the living room, where she sits on the couch. He takes a seat in an overstuffed chair that has a guitar leaning against it.

“You play guitar?” Leah asks.

“Yeah, picked it up when I was in high school,” he says. “Some of my colleagues in the Math department have a jazz band. We play at clubs around town.”

“Really? I never knew that,” Leah says.

“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, Leah,” Paul says. He folds his hands in front of him and glances at the clock. “Rosie should be here anytime now.”

They sit in awkward silence for several minutes.

“Can I ask you something, Paul?” she says. “I mean, since we have a little time.”

“What is it?” Paul asks.

“What exactly have I done to piss you off?” Leah says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul says without facing her.

“Like hell you don’t,” she says. “Almost from the moment I met you, all I’ve gotten is attitude. You’re short with me. You give me a hard time every time I call here for Rosie. I’d just like to know what’s behind it.”

Paul sighs. “There’s no big mystery, Leah. I don’t like you. No reason. You just rub me the wrong way.”

“Perfect,” she says. “Another one of those guys, eh?”

“Those guys?” Paul says. “What does that mean?”

“I’ve been dealing with guys like you my entire life,” Leah says. “You’ve got some kind of bug up your ass about strong women, or women in science, or whatever.”

“My feelings toward you have nothing to do with your being a woman in science,” Paul says. “Do you honestly think I could have married Rosalind Worthy if I’d had any reservations about that? If not for other factors, I’d probably be your champion.”

“What other factors might those be?” Leah says.

Paul stares at her, considering something. Finally, he says, “Your father is Paxton Walker isn’t he — the Walker behind Walker Development?”

“Yes, he is,” Leah says.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” Paul continues, “but after Rosie gave me a few more facts, I pretty well confirmed it.”

Leah shakes a finger at him. “You’re from Atlanta. Rosie never mentioned that.”

“She knows I went to Tech,” Paul says. “But she doesn’t know much about my early history. I’ve been a little mysterious about that, and she hasn’t really pressed me on it. It’s mutual. There’s quite a bit I don’t know about her past either.”

“Okay, spill it,” Leah says. “What’s your beef with my father?”

“You’re no doubt familiar with Dunkirk Estates?” Paul says.

“It was my father’s first major development deal. It made him a millionaire,” Leah says. “You lived in Dunkirk Estates?”

“No,” Paul replies. “My family and I lived in The Commons, which is what we called the neighborhood your father demolished in order to build Dunkirk Estates.”

“Wow, small world,” Leah says, mostly to herself.

“Yeah, too small, apparently,” he says. “We were sent packing, along with a community of over fifty families after Walker Development greased the palms of county commissioners to have them claim eminent domain on our homes.”

“So, call a lawyer,” she says. “If you had a valid claim to the property, you could have fought the county’s decision.”

“We couldn’t afford that,” he says. “Besides, the bulldozers were out there the following morning. We barely had time to finish packing.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?” Leah says. “I’m not my father. I was a child when he built that development.”

“No. But you benefited from it just the same, didn’t you?”

“For your information, my father and I had a parting of the ways before I started MIT,” Leah says. “He’s not paying for any of this.”

“What difference does it make if you’re being financed directly from him or through your trust fund?” Paul says. “You’ve still gotten all your advantages from his blood money. It’s what got you here.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she says, “the mastery of coursework and long hours of studying were hardly a factor. Do you even know what my GPA was at Wellesley? That’s not a walk in the park, you know. Plus, I was jointly enrolled here for my last two years.”

“I’m not discounting your intelligence or drive,” he says, “but you’ve had opportunities handed to you most people cannot imagine.”

“You don’t seem to be doing so bad, yourself, Paul,” Leah says. “Whatever your upbringing, you seem to have overcome it.”

“Was there ever any question where you’d go to school?” Paul says. “Any doubt you’d be able to finance it?”

Leah looks away. “No. Not really.”

“Well in my case, there was quite a bit,” he says. “My family couldn’t afford to send me to school. My mother and father both worked outside the home just to scrape together enough to keep a roof over our heads. I’ve had to work my ass off most of my life for opportunities you routinely take for granted. You’re right. I’m doing very well now, and I earned every damn penny of it.”

“What’s that they say about the sins of the father?” Leah says.

“Look, I don’t hold you personally accountable for the things your father did,” Paul says.

“Could have fooled me,” she replies.

“You need to understand,” he goes on, “there were lives connected to every dollar your father made and you benefited directly from all of it.”

Leah stares at him a long moment, then shakes her head and chuckles. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it, the role I may end up playing for you and Rosie.”

“That’s Rosie’s idea, not mine,” Paul says. “I told her I couldn’t care less if our children were Jewish. I haven’t set foot inside Temple since the day I watched them bulldoze the only home I’d ever known.”

“Then why me?” Leah says. “There are at least five Jews on her Wall of Stars. Esther Gershon outshines me in pretty much all her academic accomplishments. She’s not married yet.”

“Rosie insisted,” he says. “She has this criteria in her head; math and science; Jewish; you don’t want children of your own. You seem to meet all her requirements. She calls you her star student, or something like that.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Leah says.

“How should I know?” Paul says. “Rosie says all sorts of crazy stuff. I tried to tell her the edict to marry proper Jewish women was from Ezra, post-exile. It’s not even mentioned in Genesis, but she’s obsessed.”

“Yeah, I wondered about that,” Leah says. “I seem to recall Leviticus has provisions for men carrying on their family line — surprise, surprise — but I don’t recall it being very explicit about women. Well, there’s Ruth.”

“Also Second Temple period,” Paul says.

“Yeah. Whatever,” Leah says, waving her hand dismissively. “Look, I’m not terribly enamored with the idea of future offspring sharing your DNA either, though, granted, they’ll definitely kick ass academically. This isn’t about us, though. It’s about Rosie.”

“Agreed,” Paul says.

“It’s not like we’ll be otherwise bound to one another,” Leah says. “If Rosie comes through with the agreement I requested, I’m prepared to wash my hands of the whole affair once the donation is done.”

“I could get behind that,” Paul says. “Plus, I have to agree. Given your academic credentials, any offspring should definitely have a strong math and science foundation. You’re a scientist; your father was an engineer. What did his father do?”

“He was a grocer,” Leah says. “Walker Groceries in Georgia and the Carolinas.”

“Multi-generational privilege, what do you know?” Paul says. “A typical southern tale.”

He picks up his guitar and starts improvising a Jazz riff. “Are you musical?”

Leah shakes her head, with a chuckle. “In high school, I tried trumpet, violin, and saxophone, and was pretty horrible on each one. If I get enough wine in me, I can usually do a mean Blues harmonica, but I doubt Dylan or the Stones will be calling anytime soon. As far as singing, I can usually hold my own in a chorus, as long as there are enough other voices to drown me out.”

“Yeah, I don’t have much of a voice either,” he says. He improvises several more bars on the guitar.

“You’re pretty good at that,” she says. A thought comes to her. “Say, maybe you can explain something to me. What is Rosie’s deal with May 23rd?”

“What do you mean?” Paul asks.

“When I asked her to be my thesis advisor, she didn’t want to take me on without knowing me better,” she replies. “So, I suggested she could hire me as her lab assistant.”

“Right.”

“She was showing me some stuff afterward,” she says, “how she does her grading, what not. The subject of my birthday came up — it was a couple of days away — and when Rosie learned I was born May 23, 1969, she sort of freaked out. Well, as much as Rosie freaks out.”

“What did she do?” Paul says.

“She walked away from me, thinking,” Leah says. “Then she stared at me a long time and confirmed I was born May 23, 1969. After that, she said, ‘Isn’t that something?’ Then she told me she’d reconsidered and agreed to be my advisor after all.”

“That’s odd,” he says. “But, like I say, I don’t know much about Rosie’s past. She’s never mentioned anything about that date. Her birthday is in March, and we were married in June.”

The front door opens and closes.

“Guess that’s Rosie,” Leah says. “Looks like there’s no turning back now.”

“It’s looking that way,” he says.

They face the door, to await Rosalind’s entrance.

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