* * *
With all the cell phones Claire and I owned--pocket, purse, and car, not to mention a couple of pagers--communication should've been a simple matter. But nothing was simple with our marriage. We hooked up around nine. She was exhausted from another one of her days, which were inevitably more fatiguing than anything I could possibly have done. It was a game we shamelessly played--my job is more important because I'm a doctor/lawyer.
I was tiring of the games. I could tell she was pleased that my brush with death had produced aftershocks, that I'd left the office to wander the streets. No doubt her day had been far more productive than mine.
Her goal was to become the greatest female neurosurgeon in the country, a brain surgeon even males would turn to when all hope was lost. She was a brilliant student, fiercely determined, blessed with enormous stamina. She would bury the men, just as she was slowly burying me, a well-seasoned marathon man from the halls of Drake & Sweeney. The race was getting old.
She drove a Miata sports car, no four-wheel drive, and I was worried about her in the bad weather. She would be through in an hour, and it would take that long for me to drive to Georgetown Hospital. I would pick her up there, and we would try to find a restaurant. If not, it would be Chinese carry-out, our standard fare.
I began arranging papers and objects on my desk, careful to ignore the neat row of my ten most current files. I kept only ten on my desk, a method I'd learned from Rudolph, and I spent time with each file every day. Billing was a factor. My top ten invariably included the wealthiest clients, regardless of how presshag their legal problems. Another trick from Rudolph.
I was expected to bill twenty-five hundred hours a year. That's fifty hours a week, fifty weeks a year. My average billing rate was three hundred dollars an hour, so I would gross for my beloved firm a total of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They paid me a hundred and twenty thousand of this, plus another thirty for benefits, and assigned two hundred thousand to overhead. The partners kept the rest, divided annually by some horrendously complex formula that usually caused fistfights.
It was rare for one of our partners to earn less than a million a year, and some earned over two. And once I became a partner, I would be a partner for life. So if I made it when I was thirty-five, which happened to be the fast track I was on, then I could expect thirty years of glorious earnings and immense wealth.
That was the dream that kept us at our desks at all hours of the day and night.
I was scribbling these numbers, something I did all the time and something I suspect every lawyer in our firm did, when the phone rang. It was Mordecai Green.
"Mr. Brock," he said politely, his voice clearly audible but competing with a din in the background.
"Yes. Please call me Michael."
"Very well. Look, I made some calls, and you have nothing to worry about. The blood test was negative."
"Don't mention it."
"Just thought you'd want to know as soon as possible."
"Thanks," I said again, as the racket rose behind him. "Where are you?"
"At a homeless shelter. A big snow brings 'em in faster than we can feed them, so it takes all of us to keep up. Gotta run."
* * *
The desk was old mahogany, the rug was Persian, the chairs were a rich crimson leather, the technology was state-of-the-art, and as I studied my finely appointed office, I wondered, for the first time in many years there, how much all of it cost. Weren't we just chasing money? Why did we work so hard; to buy a richer rug, an older desk?
There in the warmth and coziness of my beautiful room, I thought of Mordecai Green, who at that moment was volunteering his time in a busy shelter, serving food to the cold and hungry, no doubt with a warm smile and a pleasant word.
Both of us had law degrees, both of us had passed the same bar exam, both of us were fluent in the tongue of legalese. We were kindred to some degree. I helped my clients swallow up competitors so they could add more zeros to the bottom line, and for this I would become rich. He helped his clients eat and find a warm bed.
I looked at the scratchings on my legal pad--the earnings and the years and the path to wealth--and I was saddened by them. Such blatant and unashamed greed.
The phone startled me.
"Why are you at the office?" Claire asked, each word spoken slowly because each word was covered with ice.
I looked in disbelief at my watch. "I, uh, well, a client called from the West Coast. It's not snowing out there."
I think it was a lie I'd used before. It didn't matter.
"I am waiting, Michael. Should I walk?"
"No. I'll be there as fast as I can."
I'd kept her waiting before. It was part of the game--we were much too busy to be prompt.
I ran from the building, into the storm, not really too concerned that another night had been ruined.
The snow had finally stopped. Claire and I sipped our coffee by the kitchen window. I was reading the paper by the light of a brilliant morning sun. They had managed to keep National Airport open.
"Let's go to Florida," I said. "Now."
She gave me a withering look. "Florida?"
"Okay, the Bahamas. We can be there by early afternoon."
"There's no way."
"Sure there is. I'm not going to work for a few days, and--"
"Because I'm cracking up, and around the firm if you crack up, then you get a few days off."
"You are cracking up."
"I know. It's kinda dim, really. People give you space, treat you with velvet gloves, kiss your ass. Might as well make the most of it." The tight face returned, and she said, "I can't." And that was the end of that. It was a whim, and I knew she had too many obligations. It was a cruel thing to do, I decided as I returned to the paper, but I didn't feel bad about it. She wouldn't have gone with me under any circumstances.
She was suddenly in a hurry--appointments, classes, rounds, the life of an ambitious young surgical resident. She showered and changed and was ready to go. I drove her to the hospital.
We didn't talk as we inched through the snow-filled streets.
"I'm going to Memphis for a couple of days," I said matter-of-factly when we arrived at the hospital entrance on Reservoir Street. "Oh really," she said, with no discernible reaction. "I need to see my parents. It's been almost a year. I figure this is a good time. I don't do well in snow, and I'm not in the mood for work. Cracking up, you know."
"Well, call me," she said, opening her door. Then she shut it--no kiss, no good-bye, no concern. I watched her hurry down the sidewalk and disappear into the building.
It was over. And I hated to tell my mother.
* * *
My parents were in their early sixties, both healthy and trying gamely to enjoy forced retirement. Dad was an airline pilot for thirty years. Mom had been a bank manager. They worked hard, saved well, and provided a comfortable upper-middle-class home for us. My two brothers and I had the best private schools we could get into.
They were solid people, conservative, patriotic, free of bad habits, fiercely devoted to each other. They went to church on Sundays, the parade on July the Fourth, Rotary Club once a week, and they traveled whenever they wanted.
They were still grieving over my brother Warner's divorce three years earlier. He was an attorney in Atlanta who married his college sweetheart, a Memphis girl from a family we knew. After two kids, the marriage went sour. His wife got custody and moved to Portland. My parents got to see the grandkids once a year, if all went well. It was a subject I never brought up.