THOMAS ELSON - PAUL’S GHOST
The single ceiling light cast a shadow against the limestone wall. Wind hissed and battered against reinforced windows. Disembodied sounds rattled like verbal shrapnel. Effluviant stench rose as if from an underbelly and merged with sourness from men long isolated.
“This place’d gag a maggot. When Maryam takes office, I hope to hell she cleans this place up,” said Kevin as he walked next to Paul.
Kevin jammed his hands into his pockets, stomped his feet on the damp cement floor in a futile attempt for warmth. He usually walked with a vigor that belied his heart condition, but that night Kevin had to stop. He leaned against bars of an empty cell, struggled to take a few shallow breaths, then, despite the chill, wiped sweat from his forehead.
“Should’ve worn a coat,” he said to Paul.
Again, no response.
Back within the warmth of his ninth-floor chambers, Kevin spoke softly. “God, this is a lonely place at night.” Gone were the bailiffs, the clerks, the court reporters. No plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, jurors, witnesses. No spectators waiting. Only Kevin Grady, Paul Williams, and the consequences.
The phone rang.
“Okay, thanks. See you in a minute.” Kevin struggled to return the phone to its cradle, heard the clatter of receiver against stirrup, and shoved the phone toward the corner of his desk. He rubbed his hands together to lessen his tremor. “Maryann will be a little late. Guess she’s busy since she was elected Sheriff.”
Weeks earlier, after Paul’s funeral with eulogies by the state’s Chief Justice and Attorney-General, Kevin wrote to Maryann. He wanted to pour out his admiration for her father, but mustered only a feeble, “This will not be a good letter, Maryann. I feel too sad. I loved your father and pray for you.”
A couple of weeks later, Maryann called. “Kevin, I know you live a few blocks over, but could we meet in dad’s- your chambers?” She laughed with a slight self-consciousness. “I’ve got some questions.”
Kevin had known Paul’s oldest daughter since she was a chubby-cheeked little girl in the third grade. He attended her high school graduation as she stood on stage - tall, awkward, out of place; her college graduation when she strode across the stage confident with the world in front of her. He sat with the family during her wedding, and, when she filed for divorce, Paul assigned her case to Kevin’s division.
“Judge.” Maryann’s contralto voice was as familiar to Kevin as her red hair. “I see you’ve kept things pretty much the way dad did.”
Framed in the doorway, taller than her father by at least two inches, her swimmers’ shoulders and green eyes echoed her father’s confidence and determination. “He was always glad you were here. He’d be proud you took his place as Chief Judge.” She placed her briefcase next to the desk. “I used to leave my school books here. Dad was always telling me to get ‘em off the floor.”
She pointed to the photo of two smiling young men in tuxedos. “That’s new.”
“It’s of your dad and me when he was best man in my wedding,”
“You mean your first wedding.” She cocked her head, grinned.
“I mean all of ‘em.”
“You still have his robe.” She walked toward a wooden coat rack near the door to the courtroom. She stroked the shoulders, eased her hand down to the cuffs, pressed her face into the fabric. “It still smells like him. You know, he only had this one robe. In twenty-eight years, one robe.” She moved her fingers over the sleeve as if it were a relic on a cathedral’s side altar. “What are you going to do with it?”
Maryann tapped on the courtroom door. “Could we use his- this door? I’d like to see it one more time the way he did.” She picked up her briefcase and walked from the chambers into the courtroom.
Standing behind the judge’s bench, Maryann scanned the courtroom from court reporter’s nook to witness stand across to the jury box and spectator gallery. She touched her dad’s old bench, drew back, then pressed her hands against his leather chair. “I haven’t been up here in years. You know, sometimes I’d wait for him right over there.” She gestured toward the northwest corner of the courtroom, turned slowly toward Kevin. “So, tell me about my dad. And those jailhouse walks you two took. His last piece of advice to me was, ‘When you get elected, walk the jailhouse once a month with someone you trust.’”
The two men had come together four decades earlier on their first day in law school when Kevin was struggling to open an unwilling door.
“Open it from the side where the hinges aren’t.” The voice came from Paul – his panhandle-lean face without a trace of the jowls that came later. Kevin – his thinning hair on its genetic retreat, which, with his deep reservoir of denial, he kept hidden from himself for years.
Paul, orphaned at age six, was raised by his grandmother in a shotgun house on the outskirts of Guymon, Oklahoma. He worked his way through Panhandle A. & M.; married Alice during his senior year. Three years later, Maryann was born. He had served in the 101st Airborne when there were Czechoslovakian soldiers, Russian rifles, former French diplomats, American advisors, and “Dien Bien Phu” was a synonym for failure.
Kevin, eight years younger than Paul, was an only child, raised by a strong mother whose word was not merely the law, but also expected to be obeyed as if one of the commandments, a father who had no intentions of being one, and two grandfathers who rarely told him ‘no’. He would joke about his childhood, “It was a hard life. One Christmas, it didn’t snow.” And, at some point during their three years in law school, Paul became Kevin’s older brother maybe even a father substitute. “When I didn’t know what to do, I acted like you,” he told Paul years later.
After graduation, Paul’s multiple struggles to pass the bar exam limited his job prospects. His only offer was from a Delano lawyer who later lost his license. After that Paul worked for a fundamentalist lawyer who stole money from his client’s deposit accounts.
Kevin began his practice with Mr. Clarence, in Delano since 1913. Over many decades, this ailing, eighty-one-year-old had built a substantial divorce business and a reputation for burning through young lawyers.
Three years later, during a Monday morning docket call, Mr. Clarence’s private investigator walked into the courtroom his arms piled high with files. “Mr. Clarence died last night.” He leaned forward, extended his arms, and deposited the files into Kevin’s open attaché case. “These are yours.”
“You know, we could have done this at the office.”
“Not really. These are for today’s docket. When you’re done here, his widow wants to see you.”
Six hours and two signatures later, Mr. Clarence’s widow, the sole beneficiary of office buildings, substantial insurance proceeds, and multiple houses, said, “Kevin, I don’t know how you put up with that old man, but he seemed to like you. This damn place has been a royal pain my whole married life. It’s all yours. I don’t want anything here.” She slapped her office key on Mr. Clarence’s old ink blotter, pivoted, walked away.
Kevin Grady, an attorney for three years, wearing the same blue blazer and gray slacks he had in law school, was now the owner of one of the state’s largest divorce practices.
Old clients begat multitudes - all willing to pay for the freedom to pursue a life they knew their spouse had long-denied them. Kevin’s professional life became an assembly line of identical melodrama performed daily - mornings reciting the same lines in repetitious default divorces; afternoons and evenings dominated by clients with interchangeable crises of separation anxiety. Close your eyes, change the names, it was the same story.
Within a short time, Kevin’s personal life was transformed. His suits – no longer from J.C. Penny’s, now well-tailored. His car – no longer a well-used Volkswagen, now a white, twelve-cylinder Jaguar. His first wife – no longer tolerant of Kevin’s appetites, now divorced and collecting alimony.
As young lawyers, Kevin and Paul often spent Saturday evenings over Alice’s chili suppers. One evening when Kevin was leaving, Paul asked, “Can you meet at the courthouse for breakfast on Monday?”
As soon as Paul sat down in the cafeteria, he said, “Alice is pregnant. She’ll have to quit her job.” His eyes fixed on his oatmeal, two words followed, “Probably twins.”
Kevin did not hesitate. “How about practicing with me?”
Paul raised his head. “Really? What about your income?”
Kevin placed his right hand under his chin, raised his head as if gasping for air, said in a choked tone, “I’m drowning. If I don’t get some relief, I’ll-”. He interrupted himself, “Plus, I trust you.”
Their partnership was a continuance of their friendship; nevertheless, despite their revenue stream, the demands of their expanding business seemed to freeze their ledgers in the red. The revenue rarely kept pace with expenses that accelerated due to auxiliary staff, office space, and newly-acquired young lawyers always on a learning curve.
Paul, now the father of five daughters, began to echo Alice’s desire to break away from their life of rental houses, no savings, hand-me-downs, and “Have a proper home with good schools and nice clothes for our girls.” Kevin, with his social and ethical snowboarding, always a few months away from one cataclysm or another, skated on the edge of propriety.
One February afternoon, after Kevin’s full morning of default divorces and marital motions, his secretary walked into his office. “Kevin, your friend referred a Mr. Johnson. It’s about his son,” she said with her usual smirk about the friend Kevin met one afternoon when he rolled out of his Jaguar, raised his head, and saw a six-foot, mini-skirted, blond who occupied his time between marriages.
Mr. Johnson’s son, a sixteen-year-old high school junior and varsity high jumper with a B+ average, was T-boned by a Delano city truck. His second surgery was scheduled for the next day.
The case screamed big money; however, the city of Delano was known for retaining defense lawyers who employed numerous delaying tactics: multiple interrogatories, overlapping depositions, motions to resolve differences, continuances, inevitable appeals and retrials – all with the goals of increasing defense attorney fees and inching the case closer to the time Johnson’s son might die and the state’s wrongful death statute would kick-in. Overnight an injury once worth millions would be reduced to a few thousand dollars.
“Good case, but it’s gonna take years,” said Paul after Kevin handed him the file.
“But, it could be a way to get us out of this divorce mill,” said Kevin as he walked back to his office.
As their practice expanded, so did their time away from home. A devolution occurred as shifts and tilts of unvoiced avoidances corroded the well-practiced marital ebb and flow.
Never enough time. “We can talk when I return.”
Always an excuse. “It can wait. Not that important.”
One afternoon, Alice telephoned Kevin. “You have to help me with Paul. He’s never home. And he’s coming home drunk now. He never did that before.” Kevin didn’t need to hear anymore, Alice was right, and without saying it, she was correct about him too.
A few minutes later, he walked into Paul’s office. “I just got off the phone with Alice.”
Paul dropped his pen on a legal pad, exhaled, rubbed his temples. “Did she give you an ultimatum?
“Sure as hell sounded like it.”
“Probably the same one she’s been giving me.” Paul waited a moment, then said, “Let’s take a ride.”
Walking to the car, Kevin asked, “Why did Alice call me?”
“A couple of reasons. A week ago, I drove home at two in the morning.” As he continued his voice a staccato rhythm. “In the middle of the road. On the turnpike. Drunk. And I made the mistake of telling her.”
Once outside the parking garage, Paul said, “At this rate, I’m going to lose my family. My kids are growing up and I’m never there. I’m starting to feel the way I did when my parents died.”
He stopped his car at an intersection, and, as if weighing what to say next, waited a few moments. “You know, Alice is worried about you. She’s known you since law school and sees how you’ve changed. How both of us changed.” After a moment Paul added, “Plus, you’ve blown through two marriages, carrying alimony payments and you and I both know you’re one drink away from being a fall-down drunk.”
“Kevin, I love you, but you’ve already had blackouts. When’s that gonna hit you when you’re with a client or in court?”
Paul rested his head on the steering wheel, raised it. When the light changed, he turned left into an upscale neighborhood. “You know, the defense attorneys will continue to delay the Johnson case until the boy dies and the wrongful death limitation kicks in.” Paul’s voice assumed the resonant tone he used when laying a foundation to proffer trial exhibits. “We’ll never see a real payday from it.” He glanced at Kevin. “And the city council’s feeling the pressure from the publicity about depriving the Johnson kid of his just due.”
Paul slowed the car, veered right, parked in front of a Tudor-style house. “Their offer is still on the table-”
Kevin interrupted, “But, Johnson might be able to collect a hell of a lot more. Anyway, how would that help us?”
“They’ve sweetened their offer. Said we’d be appointed to those two judicial openings in January. The way they did six years ago with Judge Konig.” Paul gestured to the right. “That house would be yours as part of the agreement.” He nodded toward the two-story Tudor. “Mine will be about half a mile over. Both free and clear. Just like they did with Konig.” He added a phrase Kevin hadn’t thought of since law school, “Fee simple absolute.”
“Both houses in foreclosure?”
“How would they handle the judicial appointments?”
“It wasn’t difficult, since the governor makes the appointments, and we heavily supported the guy each time he ran. Not to mention the favors you did for him during his divorce. He thinks you’re a damn miracle worker,” said Paul.
“We could get in a lot of trouble over this. It’s illegal as hell.”
Paul sat silent as if waiting for Kevin to make an argument against accepting the offer. When Kevin said nothing, Paul continued. “Or, we could kill ourselves on this damn assembly line.” Paul’s eyes were red-veined. “Kevin, I’m losing my family.”
Judicial appointment. Instant status. New house. Built-in equity. No mortgage payments. No more assembly line work. Stability. Kevin was in for at least five of those benefits.
“Would all this be in writing?”
“No, but we’d sign the Johnson agreement after we’re sworn in as judges. They’d backdate it and get Judge Konig to seal the court records. Then, we’d get title and possession of the houses.” Paul grinned.” And, we could still sell our practice.”
“They’ve got this down to a science. But we’d have to convince the Johnson kid’s dad,” said Kevin. “They’d get a lot less money.”
“True, but he’d get a bundle of cash right away. I’ll convince him,” said Paul.
Inside her father’s old courtroom, Maryann asked Kevin again, “What’s the real story about those walks you two took?”
She leaned forward, opened her briefcase, pointed to a bottle of Johnny Black, raised her eyebrows, cocked her head. “Let’s talk in my dad’s- I mean your chambers,” she stood and led the way back.
Maryann set the drinks on the desk, pulled up a side chair, took a breath, repeated her question about the jailhouse walks.
After a moment she said, “He also said I should ask you about the Johnson case.”
Kevin hesitated. He thought, if ever asked, he would say their walks were to keep them grounded. Instead what came out was, “We walked the jailhouse because of the Johnson case. We both lived in fear of ending up in one of those cages.”
Maryann’s dark green eyes fastened onto Kevin. She took a sip of scotch and did not look away.
Maybe she would ask a child’s one-word question, maybe not. Maybe later. Maybe she already knew.
Within a year Kevin was no longer able to hide his deterioration and carried a cane on their jailhouse walks. He needed to retire, but then what – sit and wait for death. He could do that as a judge. He’d continue until some morning a janitor found him slumped lifeless in his chair.
During one of their jailhouse walks, Kevin said to Paul, “Maryann’s done a good job.”
There was no response.
The effluviant stench was gone. The floors were dry. Light filled the walkways and cells. Their walks were warmer since Maryann assumed office.
“Whatever she’s doing works.”
Again, no response.
Kevin saw a shadow, felt Maryann brush past. She turned her head slightly, then smiled. Kevin watched as Paul left his side and walked next to his daughter.
Kevin watched. After a moment, he knew it was time to return, once again, to his chambers to sit and wait for the morning.
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