Chapter Thirteen

The partners had a private dining room on the eighth floor, and it was supposed to be an honor for an associate to eat there. Rudolph was the sort of klutz who would think that a bowl of Irish oatmeal at 7 A.M. in their special room would help return me to my senses. How could I turn my back on a future filled with power breakfasts?

He had exciting news. He'd spoken with Arthur late the night before and there was in the works a proposal to grant me a twelve-month sabbatical. The firm would supplement whatever salary the clinic paid. It was a worthy cause, they should do more to protect the rights of the poor. I would be treated as the firm's designated pro bono boy for an entire year, and they could all feel good about themselves. I would return with my batteries recharged, my other interests quelled, my talents once again directed to the glory of Drake & Sweeney.

I was impressed and touched by the idea, and I could not simply dismiss it. I promised him I would think about it, and quickly. He cautioned that it would have to be approved by the executive committee since I was not a partner. The firm had never considered such a leave for an associate.

Rudolph was desperate for me to stay, and it had little to do with friendship. Our antitrust division was logjammed with work, and we needed at least two more senior associates with my experience. It was a terrible time for me to leave, but I didn't care. The firm had eight hundred lawyers. They would find the bodies they needed.

The year before I had billed just under seven hundred fifty thousand dollars. That was why I was eating breakfast in their fancy little room, and listening to their urgent plans to keep me. It also made sense to take my annual salary, throw it at the homeless or any charity I wished, for that matter, then entice me back after one year.

Once he finished with the idea of the sabbatical, we proceeded to review the most pressing matters in my office. We were listing things to do when Braden Chance sat at a table not far from ours. He didn't see me at first. There were a dozen or so partners eating, most alone, most deep in the morning papers. I tried to ignore him, but I finally looked over and caught him glaring at me.

"Good morning, Braden," I said loudly, startling him and causing Rudolph to jerk around to see who it was. Chance nodded, said nothing, and suddenly became involved with some toast. "You know him?" Rudolph asked, under his breath. "We've met," I said. During our brief encounter in his office, Chance had demanded the name of my supervising partner. I'd given him Rudolph's name. It was obvious he had not lodged any complaints.

"An ass," Rudolph said, barely audible. It was unanimous. He flipped a page, immediately forgot about Chance, and plowed ahead. There was a lot of unfinished work in my office.

I found myself thinking of Chance and the eviction file. He had a soft look, with pale skin, delicate features, a fragile manner. I could not imagine him in the streets, examining abandoned warehouses filled with squatters, actually getting his hands dirty to make sure his work was thorough. Of course he never did that; he had paralegals. Chance sat at his desk and supervised the paperwork, billing several hundred an hour while the Hector Palmas of the firm took care of the nasty details. Chance had lunch and played golf with the executives of RiverOaks; that was his role as a partner.

He probably didn't know the names of the people evicted from the RiverOaks/TAG warehouse, and why should he? They were just squatters, nameless, faceless, homeless. he wasn't there with the cops when they were dragged from their little dwellings and thrown into the streets. But Hector Palma probably saw it happen.

And if Chance didn't know the names of Lontae Burton and family, then he couldn't make the connection between the eviction and their deaths. Or maybe he did know now. Maybe someone had told him.

These questions would have to be answered by Hector Palma, and soon. It was Wednesday. I was leaving on Friday.

Rudolph wrapped up our breakfast at eight, just in time for another meeting in his office with some very important people. I went to my desk and read the Post. There was a gut-wrenching photo of the five unopened caskets in the sanctuary, and a thorough review of the service and the march afterward.

There was also an editorial, a well-written challenge to all of us with food and roofs to stop and think about the Lontae Burtons of our city. They were not going away. They could not be swept from the streets and deposited in some hidden place so we didn't have to see them. They were living in cars, squatting in shacks, freezing in makeshift tents, sleeping on park benches, waiting for beds in crowded and sometimes dangerous shelters. We shared the same city; they were a part of our society. If we didn't help them, they would multiply in numbers. And they would continue to die in our streets.

I cut the editorial from the paper, folded it, and placed it in my wallet.

* * *

Through the paralegal network, I made contact with Hector Palma. It would not be wise to approach him directly; Chance was probably lurking nearby.

We met in the main library on the third floor, between stacks of books, away from security cameras and anybody else. He was extremely nervous.

"Did you put that file on my desk?" I asked him point-blank. There was little time for games.

"What file?" he asked, cutting his eyes around as if gunmen were tracking us.

"The RiverOaks/TAG eviction. You handled it, right?"

He didn't know how much I knew, or how little. "Yeah," he said.

"Where's the file?"

He pulled a book off the shelf and acted as though he were deep in research. "Chance keeps all the files."

"In his office?"

"Yes. Locked in a file cabinet." We were practically whispering. I had not been nervous about the meeting, but I caught myself glancing around. Anybody watching would have immediately known that we were up to something.

"What's in the file?" I asked.

"Bad stuff."

"Tell me."

"I have a wife and four kids. I'm not about to get fired."

"You have my word."

"You're leaving. What do you care?"

Word traveled fast, but I was not surprised. I often wondered who gossiped more, the lawyers or their secretaries. Probably the paralegals.

"Why did you put that file on my desk?" I asked.

He reached for another book, his right hand literally shaking. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He flipped a few pages, then walked to the end of the' row. I followed along, certain no one was anywhere near us. He stopped and found another book; he still wanted to talk.

"I need that file," I said.

"I don't have it."

"Then how can I get it?"

"You'll have to steal it."

"Fine. Where do I get a key?"

He studied my face for a moment, trying to decide how serious I was. "I don't have a key," he said.

"How'd you get the list of evictees?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes you do. You put it on my desk."

"You're as crazy as hell," he said, and walked away. I waited for him to stop, but he kept going, past the rows of shelves, past the stacked tiers, past the front desk, and out of the library.

* * *

I had no intention of busting my ass my last three days at the firm, regardless of what I'd led Rudolph to believe. Instead, I covered my desk with antitrust litter, shut the door, stared at the walls, and smiled at all the things I was leaving behind. The pressure was lifting with every breath. No more labor with a time clock wrapped around my throat. No more eighty-hour weeks because my ambitious colleagues might be doing eighty-five. No more brown-nosing those above me. No more nightmares about getting the partnership door slammed in my face.

I called Mordecai and formally accepted the job. He laughed, and joked about finding a way to pay me. I would start Monday, but he wanted me to stop by earlier for a brief orientation. I pictured the interior of the 14th Street Legal Clinic, and wondered which of the empty, cluttered offices I would be assigned. As if it mattered.

By late afternoon, I was spending most of my time accepting grave farewells from friends and colleagues convinced I had truly lost my mind.

I took it well. After all, I was approaching sainthood.

* * *

Meanwhile, my wife was visiting a divorce hater, a female one with the reputation of being a merciless ball-squeezer.

Claire was waiting for me when I arrived home at six, rather early. The kitchen table was covered with notes and computer spreadsheets. A calculator sat ready. She was icy, and well prepared. This time, I walked into the ambush.

"I suggest we get a divorce, on the grounds of unreconcilable differences," she began pleasantly. "We don't fight. We don't point fingers. We admit what we have been unable to say--the marriage is over."

She stopped and waited for me to say something. I couldn't act surprised. Her mind was made up; what good would it do to object? I had to seem as coldblooded as she. "Sure," I said, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. There was an element of relief in finally being honest. But it did bother me that she wanted the divorce more than I did.

To keep the upper hand, she then mentioned her meeting with Jacqueline Hume, her new divorce lawyer, dropping the name as if it were a mortar round, then relaying for my benefit the self-serving opinions her mouthpiece had delivered.

"Why did you hire a lawyer?" I asked, interrupting.

"I want to make sure I'm protected."

"And you think I would take advantage of you?"

"You're a lawyer. I want a lawyer. It's that simple."

"You could've saved a lot of money by not hiring her," I said, trying to be a little contentious. After all, this was a divorce.

"But I feel much better now that I have."

She handed me Exhibit A, a worksheet of our assets and liabilities. Exhibit B was a proposed split of these. Not surprisingly, she intended to get the majority. We had cash of twelve thousand dollars, and she wanted to use half of it to pay off the bank loan on her car. I would get twenty-five hundred of the remainder. No mention of paying off the sixteen thousand owed on my Lexus. She wanted forty thousand of the fifty-one thousand dollars we had in mutual funds. I got to keep my 401K.

"Not exactly an even split," I said.

"It's not going to be equal," she said with all the confidence of one who had just hired a pit bull.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not the one going through a midlife crisis."

"So it's my fault?"

"We're not assigning fault. We're dividing the assets. For reasons known only to you, you've decided to take a cut in pay of ninety thousand dollars a year. Why should I suffer the consequences? My lawyer is confident she can convince a judge that your actions have wrecked us financially. You want to go crazy, fine. But don't expect me to starve."

"Small chance of that."

"I'm not going to bicker."

"I wouldn't either if I were getting everything." I felt compelled to cause some measure of trouble. We couldn't scream and throw things. We damned sure weren't going to cry. We couldn't make nasty accusations about affairs or chemical addictions. What kind of divorce was this?

A very sterile one. She ignored me and continued down her list of notes, one no doubt prepared by the mouthpiece. "The aparunent lease is up June thirtieth, and I'll stay here until then. That's ten thousand in rent."

"When would you like me to leave?"

"As soon as you'd like."

"Fine." If she wanted me out, I wasn't about to beg to stay. It was an exercise in one-upsmanship. Which side of the table could show more disdain than the other?

I almost said something stupid, like, "You got someone else moving in?" I wanted to rattle her, to watch her do an instant thaw.

Instead, I kept my cool. "I'll be gone by the weekend," I said. She had no response, but she didn't frown.

"Why do you think you're entitled to eighty percent of the mutual funds?" I asked.

"I'm not getting eighty percent. I'll spend ten thousand in rent, another three thousand in utilities, two thousand to pay off our joint credit cards, and we'll owe about six thousand in taxes incurred together. That's a total of twenty-one thousand."

Exhibit C was a thorough list of the personal property, beginning with the den and ending in the empty bedroom. Neither of us would dare fall into a squabble over pots and pans, so the division was quite amicable. "Take what you want," I said several times, especially when addressing items such as towels and bed linens. We traded a few things, doing it with finesse. My position on several assets was driven more by a reluctance to physically move them than by any pride of ownership.

I wanted a television and some dishes. Bachelorhood had been sprung suddenly upon me, and I had trouble contemplating the furnishing of a new place. She, on the other hand, had spent hours living in the future.

But she was fair. We finished the drudgery of Exhibit C, and declared ourselves to be equitably divided. We would sign a separation agreement, wait six months, then go to court together and legally dissolve our union.

Neither of us wanted any postgame chat. I found my overcoat, and went for a long walk through the streets of Georgetown, wondering how life had changed so dramatically.

The erosion of the marriage had been slow, but certain. The change in careers had hit like a bullet. Things were moving much too fast, but I was unable to stop them.