Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday Musings, 25 January 2014

Good morning,

Two cups of coffee haven't cleared my head.  The week slugged me, again and again, mostly at the office but also with the new, wild dizziness that no one has explained or cured.  Ah, middle age.  Its foibles drive me crazy; or perhaps I began life crazy, and find myself here in my fifties despite that fact.  I'm reminded of a  line from the BBC production of Robert Graves' "I, Claudius":  "Some say that I am half-witted.  Well, it might be so.  How is it then, that I have survived to middle-age with only half my wits, while thousands around me have died with all of theirs intact?  Evidently quality of wits is more important than quantity."

I spent half of the week working on a settlement in a sad, weighty custody case.  I don't know if it's settled, yet, but I accept that I've done what I can.  The makings of a settlement in this case heavy with tragedy have been meticulously nurtured, partly by others, partly by me with my client.  She sat in my office yesterday, tension evident on her face, in the set of her shoulders, in the glistening tears hovering on her lashes.  My career in metaphors: a tear suspended from the corner of one eye, waiting, waiting; a hand raised with beckoning fingers, reaching, reaching.    In a sudden flash, I find myself back on my mother's couch, decades ago, talking to my Uncle Bob.

When I was a first-year law student my contracts professor mercilessly hounded me, every day, peppering me with questions.  I asked him once why he always called on me, without fail, every class period.  "Because I know you will be ready," he explained.  "Great," I responded.  "I'm never doing the reading again, so you can stop now."  His face lit; the ends of his mouth curled, and he placed his hand on my arm.  "Now I will pick you for sure," he cautioned, and so he did.  But Contracts never daunted me.

My father's youngest brother carried their Father's bearing and title.  Both lawyers, both head of the John L. Corley Insurance Company, both quiet, strong men; or I  so understood.  My grandfather died before my parents married.  I had only my father's word for the comparisons.  Uncle Bob had divorced and spent a lot of time alone.  He came to my  parents' house on this particular Sunday for what he called "a good, home-cooked meal".   After dinner, he called me to come sit by him, tell me how life was treating me.  We talked about the practice of law.  He settled back on the cushions and described his world, the reviewing of documents, the drafting of agreements.

"Contracts are easy," he assured me.  "Elements of a contract:  Offer, acceptance, bargained-for exchanged, consideration, capacity to contract, lawfulness of purpose, and compliance with the Statute of Frauds."  I fixed my eyes on his face.  For a moment, only he and I existed.  My father reclined in his usual spot, paying us no mind.  Rattling noises drifted from the kitchen.  My uncle's gaze held mine.  I noticed we shared the same grey-blue eyes.  Fissures scored his face, the deep lines of living, or character, or grief; I never learned.

"So I should be a contracts lawyer," I asked.  He shook his head, and turned away.  His voice dropped, and I strained to hear him.  "Do what you love," he said, finally.  "Don't take the easy road.  Do what you love."  A shudder coursed through his body. He rose, and called to my mother that he had to leave.  She came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an apron, leaning forward for his brief embrace.  My father stood; they clasped hands, and then my uncle left.

I tried to find the date of my uncle's death online but could not.  I'm not sure when this Sunday dinner happened; I only know that I got an A in Contracts and positively killed the essay on the elements of a valid contract.  And now  I sit here, before this little tablet's docking station keyboard, and though far in time and place from that moment in my mother's living room, I see my uncle's face, his steady, haunted look.  We were told that my uncle died when his fragile heart gave way while he was lifting his motorcycle about to ride home, maybe from work, from the store, from a cocktail party -- I don't know.  My father hid his tears and would only  say, "My little brother died doing what he loved."  I close my work week with the memory of Robert Corley, and the clear conviction that I have followed his advice.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saturday Musings, 18 January 2014

Good morning,

I shocked my son yesterday. He learned that I had a secret stash of vinyl. True enough, my little horde heavily favors folk and classical, but in its midst he found three vintage Grateful Dead albums, one of which I agreed to let him give a friend as a going away present. I had no trouble parting with Skeletons from a Closet. The memories remain.

Mother in the breakfast room -- so named because the house also had a dining room, once, before the infinity Corleys (turn an 8 sideways) outgrew the little home -- balancing her checkbook. Kevin, Mark and I, in the living room, lounging on the wall-to-wall carpet (not wall-to-wall-to-wall, mind) listening to Workingman's Dead on our S&H Greenstamps stereo in its low-lying cabinet with sleek walnut veneer table-top. Mother standing in the doorway, admonishing us to "turn that down or find something useful to do". The three of us scattering, me to my endless books on ballerinas, the boys to their downstairs bedroom with its unswept concrete floors and cold, uninsulated walls. Fall of 1970. I was fifteen. Snow had not yet fallen. My father had not yet come back from his year in hiding. Music filled our home.

I turned the pages of a well-read biography of famous dancers. In my mind, I grew four inches and the muscles in my legs tightened. My feet developed the ability to raise on pointe. I wrenched myself from the grips of awkwardness that no one blamed on adolescence. The lights raised. I stood, poised, waiting for the curtains to rise.

I had grand illusions.

My mother steered me from the dance classes that I started begging to take as early as first grade. She enrolled me in Junior Achievement, volunteer tutoring programs, and Great Books Club. I learned to twist wires to make a trouble light, guide adults to the knowledge required for a GED, and missed class parties to sit in an empty classroom with five or six other geeky kids talking about Dickens.

But I never abandoned hope. Isadora Duncan beckoned from the frothy sheers stage-right. I yearned to take her hand and cross the boards, stretching to touch the fingers of the next partner whose arms would lift me and carry me to glory. Oddly, we danced not to Swan Lake but to the strains of Attics of My Life. The audience sat rapt, nonetheless, in my endless reveries. And in the front row, with the most devoted looks of all, sat my mother's dishwashers, Ann, Adrienne, Joyce, Kevin, Mark, Francis and Stephen, watching their clumsy shrimp of a sister soar.

Just before my son left last night, I found my handed-down copy of Wake of the Flood. I ran out onto the porch and waylaid Patrick's Kia. I showed him my discovery, dusty and possibly scratched, but probably rare and collectible. "I saw that," he said. "But I think I'll keep that one." He waved and pulled out of the driveway. I watched his tail lights until they disappeared in the distance. From a block away, he could have been any Corley boy, on any night, in any decade, and in the chilly air on the stone covered porch, I could have been any mother of a Corley son, going back inside, and turning on the porch light.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saturday Musings, 11 January 2014

Good morning,

I slow to a stop at the intersection of  47th and Broadway, on the first almost-warm day after the  polar vortex brought our city to a halt and caused the cancellation of ribbon-cuttings, spade-turnings, and the crowding of small children at corners waiting for yellow buses.  As my car idles, I glance across and see two men shoveling sidewalks.  I can't hear them speaking, but they gesture to each other, raising their arms, holding up one finger, pulling off a glove and signalling with a cold, raw hand.
 They work in harmony.  A small smile steals across my face.  The grey sky rises above the old buildings flanking Main Street, but my mind drifts back to a winter's day, long ago, in another town.

My two older brothers stand in our driveway.  The bare oak rises tall above us at the top of the small hill.  Our house sits in a swathe of land cut across the contours of an old farm, below a T-intersection of road built when the farmer sold and development came to Jennings.  The old tree bends slightly in the teasing January wind, which bites our cheeks and ruffles the icicles hanging from the eaves of the porch.

My brothers are trying to figure out what happens if you fill a plastic milk jug and freeze the water.  "Will it crack?" I ask, and Kevin shakes his head.  I can't be sure he knows but Kevin and Mark are four and two years older than me; they define my ten-year-old world and I am willing to accept his decision.  We turn the faucet on the side of the house and watch the cold water fall into the opaque bottle.  Then Kevin sets it on the ground, just under the tap, and carefully turns the handle, applying a pair of pliers.  None of us wants to pay whatever price might be extracted for leaving the water running.

We look at each other.  Mark and Kevin wear thin grey jackets zipped to their chins and worn, stretched stocking caps.   Their eyes water behind their thick glasses, and their noses have grown red.  I huddle in a coat two sizes too big for me that belongs to one of my sisters.  But we don't notice these things.  We see only the sparkle of conspiracy  in each other's eyes.

The little boys, seven and six, have gone inside, whining, complaining about the dirty snow that has frozen with the sudden drop in temperature.  But Kevin and Mark have been waiting for this cold.  The streets will freeze, and they can slide down our concrete driveway in their shoes, building speed on the slick surface, oblivious to the frigid air on their faces  and the burning in their feet.  They can wait until the sun sets, and roam the neighborhood, drawing pictures with the sharp edges of rocks in the thick ice not yet scraped from the neighbors' cars.

We don't speak as we go inside the house for dinner.

The three of us wash dishes without mentioning Kevin's plans for the milk jug under the kitchen window.  My father sits in the living room watching the six o'clock news and my mother knits in her small chair beside him.  They strike poses we have seen a hundred times and will see a thousand more.  They do not speak.  The little boys go to bed earlier than we do, still whining, still protesting, but soon the noises from the back bedroom fade as their small bodies succumb to fatigue.  I watch my older brothers shuffle homework, books, and binders, with the casual air of someone who wants to be perceived as busy.  Eventually, the three of us slink off to our bedrooms.
 I slip under the comforter in my clothes, and wait for the house to fall silent.

When I hear someone creeping out in the hallway, I open my door.  It is Kevin.  He raises one finger to his mouth and I nod.  Mark eases into his jacket, pulls on his red cap, and hands a pair of gloves to Kevin.  We walk single-file through the living room and soundlessly open the front door.  No one has a key to it; we will not get locked out.

In the dark, windless night, the frozen snow gleams.  A street light casts eerie shadows in the empty street.  We mince across the yard, trying not to crunch its frozen surface.  Finally we reach the side of the house.  We stand in a huddle and study the milk jug.  The water inside has hardened and the jug has held.  I feel the same curl of thrill that must be rising in my brothers' bellies.

 Kevin lifts the jug and I see from the small jerk of his arm that it is heavier than he expects.  He heads back the way we've come but keeps going, up the three concrete steps to the street.  I study the houses around us; darkness greets me from each window.  "Come on," Kevin urges Mark who has hung back, just briefly, watching the front door.  Mark takes a long stride and slides a few yards on the sole of his tennis shoes, away from Kevin, towards the north.  Kevin eases back, raises the jug, and brings his arm forward, sending the frozen orb in a long, perfect spiral into his brother's waiting arms while I stand on the edge of the yard dizzy and wild with admiration.

A horn honks.  I shake my head and realize that it is 2014.  I am on the Plaza, south of my office, in a dirty Saturn VUE with melting snow clouding my sight of the passing traffic.  I turn the wipers on, and watch the fluid streak the windshield as I continue northward to the life I have made far from home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saturday Musings, 04 January 2014

Good morning,

On New Year's Day, I reached into a cabinet at my father-in-law's house to get a storage container. "Which one do you want me to use," I asked. He groped for the word "Pyrex" and momentarily, neither of us could recall it. I thought of "Corning ware," and peered into the cupboard for something resembling the smooth, heavy pans. As I did, I found myself thinking about a set of Corning ware that I had, decades ago; and about the person to whom I gave the entire set in a random act of generosity that I instantly regretted.

I can see his face but I cannot recall his name. Little Rock, 1987. My first husband and I lived and worked in a small, tight circle: our house, his theatre, the road between them. We knew no one except the folks in the Arkansas Opera Theatre company; we socialized only in our living room or one of theirs; we traveled nowhere and did little, and wondered when the other shoe would drop.

Chester had taken the job in Arkansas in an act of unbridled petulance after being overlooked for a promotion in Kansas City. I had reluctantly moved, quitting my prosecutor's position with a half-hearted mental shrug. We found ourselves in a town where we knew no one, did not speak or understand the dialect, and experienced two break-ins within months of our arrival, one while we slept and the criminals pounded at the back door. I should have resisted the move with much more vigor; signs screamed at me. When I called the Pulaski County Sheriff's office ahead of our move to find out how to register Chester's guns, the drawled reply after a moment of stunned silence had been, "Lady, we like guns here. You can have all of 'em you want, we don't care."

Chester had moved in January. We married in March, in the hills of Newton County above the town of Jasper. I did not quit my job and follow him until June. I took the Bar exam in Little Rock in July. A month later, the attorney general who had promised me a job got himself indicted and I found myself working as a Kelly girl while I waited for the Bar exam results and wondered what in God's name I had been thinking.

I stumbled from day to day. I strained to form friendships but the Company had its own cliques and rules that I did not comprehend. The prop mistress had moved from Oregon and expected to return there to her boyfriend, so she and I became the resident outsiders. Still, a natural wall stood between us: She was theatre; I was not. She drank tea with me but kept her distance. And so I lived a lonely life.

Except for one person: the man to whom I gave my Corning ware. And I cannot remember his name. I cannot recall how I knew him, whether he held a position in the theatre where Chester worked, or drifted into my path through a Kansas City connection. I can picture him: Thin, wiry, with a tilted head and a keen gaze. I see him in his kitchen, reaching under a cupboard, withdrawing a white pot and wistfully mentioning that he really liked cooking with Corning ware but only had this one piece.

"I've got a whole set," I blurted out. "I never use it." A seam opened in the universe of souls, outside of which I had been existing for thirty-two years. Within its folds stood this man, holding a lid in one hand and a pot in the other, his eyes on my face, his heart exposed. I stepped through the breach. "Would you like it?" The gap closed and I found myself, suddenly, standing on the right side of heaven.

My husband lost that job a few months later, when a new general manager swept through with her own ideas and her own people. We moved to Newton County and rented a house with a large basement shop, on the banks of the Buffalo River next to City Hall. Winter gripped the area. Chester went on tour as technical director for a theatre company the name of which I cannot recall. Our pipes froze the day after he left, and I called my father, heavy with fear, loneliness, and regret. I never saw my friend again. I talked to him, though. His mother lived in the town to which Chester and I had moved, and I handled her placement in a nursing home. I visited her, bringing her small gifts, her mail, and the lace handkerchiefs she favored. I was not with her when she died, nor when she learned of her son's death, a few months before hers, from an infection secondary to AIDS.

Here in Kansas City, almost three decades later, the day drifts toward noon. Patrick reads in the living room and the dog sleeps in her bed on the floor behind me. My husband of this life, this decade, this last third of my existence, went off a few moments ago in his tennis clothes. Mac sleeps the unfettered sleep of the young, two days before his return to college life in Memphis. My coffee has grown cold, and I am already thinking about the cup of French press that I will order, later, when I meet my friend Penny for coffee.

Mugwumpishy tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.