I felt a sharp bite of fall air on my skin as I reached down to get the newspaper from the porch. The white cat slipped passed me into the house, casting a brief, indignant glance in my direction. I am to be blamed, I suppose, for getting married late in life to a man whose cat allergy necessitates her nocturnal banishment in all but the most inclement weather. Her indignation does not deceive me; I know she shares my love of the beautiful porch, and sleeps quite comfortably on the orange cushions of the metal furniture on our gorgeous new deck.
I spent the week in trial. Ten hour days, missed meals, a tension headache that defies all efforts to soothe. I found a new aching spot each time I shifted in my seat at court yesterday. Years of practice enabled me to keep the plasticine smile in place. Towards the middle of the afternoon, I nearly lost my composure listening to my client's ex-wife testify that she routinely spent $600.00 per month at the beauty salon. Appearing pro se to try to induce the court to increase my client's maintenance of her from $600.00 per month to some unspecified number north of there, this woman, who receives maintenance, disability, and works part-time, screeched at the judge that she thought the fact that she drives a Mercedes to be not relevant, not relevant, not relevant. The judge overruled her objection, and, with a rare show of impatience, told her, I think the fact that you drive a Mercedes-Benz is very relevant to the issues before the Court. Indeed.
As I cross-examined her -- bearing in mind that she fell into the "crazy like a fox" category -- I trod with careful feet on the issue of the beauty salon. I did not wish to suggest any racially motivated criticism to the woman, who sat in the witness box with what I mistakenly took to be long extensions. She corrected me, explaining that she has a weave. A weave, I repeated. I have to admit that I was not even sure what that meant. She placed a delicate hand on the side of her head, caressing the locks. I have to maintain my looks, she fussed. I'm very grey. If I don't get a color and a weave every month, it really looks bad.
My client is not wealthy. He has made his way up the pay scale at the Postal Service, and has a comfortable salary. But he took custody of their daughter at the time of the original divorce, and that daughter is now in college. He also took the home, the mortgage, all of the credit card debt, and the loan against his Thrift Savings Plan. During their marriage, she worked part-time, did volunteer work, and hung out with her girl friends -- which I know from her own testimony at the divorce trial. She also, to be fair, spiraled into periods of depression, and I think it is also fair to say that the records did support her disability claim. She's fairly taxed with only part-time work ability, based upon those records, and my client could not afford to have me investigate her current mental state. But I also know that the land-line she used for court proceedings from her home in Phoenix is listed in a man's name at the same address, and if I had unlimited funds, I am sure my investigator would bring me information that she avoids the trigger of termination of alimony by re-marriage in name only.
As I drove from court, muttering to myself to help me recall the details that I intend to put in my proposed judgment, my mind drifted to a time, decades before now, when I volunteered at a program that prepared adults to take their G.E.D. testing. At fifteen, with idealism in my heart, I found validation in the person of my first student, a working single mother in her thirties named Janet LeSeur. Each week, we bent over the training documents, she and I, my long brown hair falling forward, hers cropped tight against her skull in the way of serious black women of the day. We hammered at the materials, week upon week. I rode to the center with a carload of girls from my parish and the parish north of mine. She came by city bus. She never missed a week. Had I been tempted to skip a night, her diligence would have shamed me, and so I did not.
At the end of the school year, my participation in the program also ended. I spent the summer working, and in the fall, our project had changed its focus. We were now helping children at a center downtown. I did not see Janet again.
One evening that winter, the phone rang in our home. My father answered and I saw him standing, puzzled, beside the wall phone. Finally, he rested the receiver on the top of the phone and said to me, Do you know a woman named Janet LeSeur, as though it seemed inconceivable that his fifteen-year-old daughter might have such an acquaintance. I do, I assured him. I took up the phone, and listened to her excited voice. I can't believe I found you! she told me. I called every "Corley" in the phone book, asking if you lived there! She told me that our having a city exchange tricked her into thinking it couldn't be right, so she tried our number last. I thought you lived in Jennings, she said, and I explained that I did, but that years before, we had gotten a city exchange for reasons that I no longer remember.
At any rate, I found you, she said. And the reason I'm calling is to tell you that I got my G.E.D.!! I couldn't have done it without your help. In fact, I would have quit that program after a couple of weeks except that I couldn't stand the thought of disappointing you. If you hadn't been there, week after week, I would have stopped coming.
Other than having served as bolster for each other's best intentions, Janet LeSeur and I had nothing in common. We talked for a few minutes, and then said our goodbyes, and I have not seen or thought of her in forty years.
But during a break in yesterday's proceedings, the judge asked me to try to reach an agreement with my client's ex-wife, and so, I stood, talking to her, and in the course of that conversation she asked me, Why should I have to support myself when I was married to him for nineteen years? Suddenly, the face of Janet LeSeur popped into my mind, and I saw again the concentration on her smooth brown face, the focus which imprinted itself on the fatigue beneath it, and I heard again the triumph in her voice when she called to tell me that she had attained the first goal on her path to success.
Last evening, my husband, our youngest son Mac, and I went to dinner. The two of them let me babble about my day. After I had amused them with a high-pitched account of the hair salon testimony, Mac asked me why a woman would be entitled to get money from her husband after they were divorced. I tried to explain the history of alimony, the variance in standards for the grant of it as our society evolved, and the philosophy behind its award. My explanation sounded bogus even to me. And then there is the case of Janet LeSeur, a woman determined to be accomplished and independent, making her way one step at a time towards collecting the arsenal needed to attain her victory. In the final analysis, I cannot defend the system, and after a few minutes, I stopped trying.
Someone asked me a long time ago why I prefer to represent men. Although not all of my clients are husbands and fathers, many of them are. I formulated my response then, and have given it often. Most women ask me two questions: Can I make the bastard suffer, and How much money can I get? Most men, on the other hand, ask me two different questions: How much time can I get with my kids, and Can I make this as painless as possible for everybody?
Picking my clients by the measure of which set of questions they ask is easy. I do not discriminate by race, gender, religion, or political persuasion. I have my own litmus test.
It's 7:30 and the house has not yet stirred. On the other hand, the dog has fallen back to sleep and the white cat has stopped yowling. I think I will take a fresh cup of coffee out onto the porch, and have my morning session of yelling at the newspaper. Life has many simple pleasures, and that's one of mine.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- 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.
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