Page 24 of Ford County

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Mack, his forehead an even deeper shade of blue and the swelling still evident, couldn't resist the temptation of a final, glorious farewell. He skipped church, decided to neither shower nor shave, dressed himself in old jeans and a soiled sweatshirt, and for dramatic effect removed the white gauze that covered his wound so that the entire brunch would be ruined when all the Bunnings saw his gruesome stitches. He arrived just a few minutes late, but early enough to prevent the adults from enjoying a few preliminary rounds of excoriating chitchat. Lisa completely ignored him, as did almost everyone else. His daughters hid in the sunroom with their cousins, who, of course, had heard all about the scandal and wanted details about his crack-up.

At one point, just before they were seated at the table, Lisa brushed by him and through gritted teeth managed to utter, "Why don't you just leave?" To which Mack cheerfully responded, "Because I'm starving and I haven't had a burned casserole since the second Sunday of last month."

All were present, sixteen total, and after Lisa's father, still wearing his white shirt and tie from church, blessed the day with his standard petition to the Almighty, they passed the food and the meal began. As always, about thirty seconds passed before her father began discussing the price of cement. The women drifted off into little side pockets of gossip. Two of Mack's nephews across the table just stared at his stitches, unable to eat. Finally, Lisa's mother, the grandam, reached the inevitable point at which she could no longer hold her tongue. During a lull, she announced at full volume, "Mack, your poor head looks dreadful. That must be painful."

Mack, anticipating just such a salvo, shot back, "Can't feel a thing. I'm on some wonderful drugs."

"What happened?" The question came from the brother-in-law, the doctor, the only other person at the table with access to Mack's hospital records. There was little doubt the doctor had practically memorized Mack's charts, grilled the attending physicians, nurses, and orderlies, and knew more about Mack's condition than he did himself. As Mack made his plans to exit the legal profession, perhaps his only regret was that he'd never sued his brother-in-law for medical malpractice. Others certainly had, and collected.

"I'd been drinking," Mack said proudly. "Came home late, slipped on some ice, hit my head."

Spines stiffened in unison around the table from the fiercely teetotaling family.

Mack pressed on: "Don't tell me you guys haven't heard all the details. Lisa was an eyewitness. She's told everyone."

"Mack, please," Lisa said as she dropped her fork. All forks were suddenly still, except for Mack's. He plunged his into a pile of rubber chicken and stuffed it into his mouth.

"Please what?" he said, mouth full, chicken visible. "You've made sure that every person at this table knows your version of what happened." He was chewing, talking, and pointing his fork at his wife, who was at the other end of the table close to her father. "And you've probably told them all about our visit to the marriage counselor, right?"

"Oh my God," Lisa gasped.

"And Fm sleeping at the office, don't we all know that?" he said. "Can't go home anymore, because, well, hell, I might slip and fall again. Or whatever. I might get drunk and beat my kids. Who knows? Right, Lisa?"

"That's enough, Mack," her father said, the voice of authority.

"Yes, sir. Sorry. This chicken is practically raw. Who

cooked it?"

His mother-in-law bristled. Her spine stiffened even more. Her eyebrows arched. "Well, I did, Mack. Any more complaints about the food?"

"Oh, tons of complaints, but what the hell."

"Watch your language, Mack," her father-in-law said.

"See what I mean." Lisa leaned in low. "He's cracking up." Most of them nodded gravely. Helen, their younger daughter, began crying softly.

"You love to say that, don't you?" Mack yelled from his end. "You said the same thing to the marriage counselor. You've said it to everyone. Mack bumped his head, and now he's losing

his shit."

"Mack, I don't tolerate such language," her father said sternly. "Please leave the table."

"Sorry. I'll be happy to leave." He rose and kicked back his chair. "And you'll be delighted to know that I'll never be back. That'll give you all a thrill, won't it?"

The silence was thick as he left the table. The last thing he heard was Lisa saying, "I'm so sorry."

Monday, he walked around the square to the large and busy office of Harry Rex Vonner, a friend who was undoubtedly the nastiest divorce lawyer in Ford County. Harry Rex was a loud, burly brawler who chewed black cigars, growled at his secretaries, growled at the court clerks, controlled the dockets, intimidated the judges, and terrified every divorcing party on the other side. His office was a landfill, with boxes of files in the foyer, overflowing wastebaskets, stacks of old magazines in the racks, a thick layer of blue cigarette smoke just below the ceiling, another thick layer of dust on the furniture and bookshelves, and, always, a motley collection of clients waiting forlornly near the front door. The place was a zoo. Nothing ran on time. Someone was always yelling in the back. The phones rang constantly. The copier was always jammed. And so on. Mack had been there many times before on business and loved the chaos of the place.

"Heard you're crackin' up, boy," Harry Rex began as they met at his office door. The room was large, windowless, and situated at the back of the building, far away from the waiting clients. It was filled with bookshelves, storage boxes, trial exhibits, enlarged photos, and stacks of thick depositions, and the walls were covered with cheap matted photos, primarily of Harry Rex holding rifles and grinning over slain animals. Mack could not remember his last visit, but he was certain nothing had changed.

They sat down, Harry Rex behind a massive desk with sheets of paper falling off the sides, and Mack in a worn canvas chair that tottered back and forth.

"I just busted my head, that's all," Mack said.

"You look like hell."

"Thanks."

"Has she filed yet?"

"No. I just checked. She said she'll use some gal from Tupelo, can't trust anyone around here. I'm not fighting, Harry Rex. She can have everything - the girls, the house, and everything in it. I'm filing for bankruptcy, closing up shop, and moving away."

Harry Rex slowly cut the end off another black cigar, then shoved it into the corner of his mouth. "You are crackin' up, boy." Harry Rex was about fifty but seemed much older and wiser. To anyone younger, he habitually added the word "boy" as a term of affection.

"Let's call it a midlife crisis. I'm forty-two years old, and I'm fed up with being a lawyer. The marriage ain't working. Neither is the career. It's time for a change, some new scenery."

"Look, boy, I've had three marriages. Gettin' rid of a woman ain't no reason to tuck tail and run."

"I'm not here for career advice, Harry Rex. I'm hiring you to handle my divorce and my bankruptcy. I've already prepared the paperwork. Just get one of your flunkies to file everything and make sure I'm protected."

"Where you going?"

"Somewhere far away. I'm not sure right now, but I'll let you know when I get there. I'll come back when I'm needed. I'm still a father, you know?"

Harry Rex slumped in his chair. He exhaled and looked around at the piles of files stacked haphazardly on the floor around his desk. He looked at his phone with five red lights blinking.

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