Chapter Thirty-Nine

Early Friday I was sitting at my desk, happily going about my business as a lawyer/social worker, when Drake & Sweeney, in the person of Arthur Jacobs, suddenly appeared at my door. I greeted him pleasantly, and cautiously, and he sat in one of the maroon chairs. He didn't want coffee. He just wanted to talk.

Arthur was troubled. I was mesmerized as I listened to the old man.

The last few weeks had been the most difficult of his professional career--all fifty-six years of it. The settlement had given him little comfort. The firm was back on track after the slight bump in the road, but Arthur was finding sleep difficult. One of his partners had committed a terrible wrong, and as a result innocent people had died. Drake & Sweeney would be forever at fault for the deaths of Lontae and her four children, regardless of how much money it paid into the settlement. And Arthur doubted if he would ever get over it.

I was too surprised to say much, so I just listened. I wished Mordecai could hear him.

Arthur was suffering, and before long I felt sorry for him. He was eighty, had been contemplating retirement for a couple of years, but wasn't sure what to do now. He was tired of chasing money.

"I don't have a lot of years left," he admitted. I suspected Arthur would attend my funeral.

He was fascinated by our legal clinic, and I told him the story of how I'd stumbled into it. How long had it been there? he asked. How many people worked there? What was the source of funding? How did we operate it?

He gave me the opening, and I slipped in. Because I couldn't practice law for the next nine months, the clinic had decided that I should implement a new pro bono volunteer program using attorneys from the big firms in town. Since his firm happened to be the largest, I was thinking of starting there. The volunteers would work only a few hours a week, under my supervision, and we could reach thousands of homeless people.

Arthur was aware of such programs; vaguely aware. He hadn't performed free work in twenty years, he admitted sadly. It was normally for the younger associates. How well I remembered.

But he liked the idea. In fact, the longer we discussed it, the larger the program grew. After a few minutes, he was talking openly of requiring all four hundred of his D.C. lawyers to spend a few hours a week helping the poor. It seemed only fitting. "Can you handle four hundred lawyers?" he asked. "Of course," I said, without any idea as to how to even begin such a task. But my mind was racing. "I'll need some help, though," I said.

"What kind of help?" he asked.

"What if Drake & Sweeney had a full-time pro bono coordinator within the firm? This person would work closely with me on all aspects of homeless law. Frankly, with four hundred volunteers, we'll need someone on your end."

He pondered this. Everything was new, and everything was sounding good. I plowed ahead.

"And I know just the right person," I said. "He doesn't have to be a lawyer. A good paralegal can do it."

"Who?" he asked.

"Does the name Hector Palma ring a bell?"


"He's in the Chicago office, but he's from D.C. He worked under Braden Chance, and got pinched."

Arthur's eyes narrowed as he struggled to remember. I wasn't sure how much he knew, but I doubted if he would be dishonest. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his soul-cleansing.

"Pinched?" he asked.

"Yeah, pinched. He lived in Bethesda until three weeks ago when he suddenly moved in the middle of the night. A quickie transfer to Chicago. He knew everything about the evictions, and I suspect Chance wanted to hide him." I was careful. I was not about to break my confidential agreement with Hector.

I didn't have to. Arthur, as usual, was reading between lines.

"He's from D.C.?"

"Yes, and so is his wife. They have four kids. I'm sure he'd love to return."

"Does he have an interest in helping the homeless?" he asked.

"Why don't you ask him?" I said.

"I'll do that. It's an excellent idea."

If Arthur wanted Hector Palma back in D.C. to harness the firm's newly acquired passion for homeless law, it would be done within a week.

The program took shape before our eyes. Every Drake & Sweeney lawyer would be required to handle one case each week. The younger associates would do the intake, under my supervision, and once the cases arrived at the firm they would be assigned by Hector to the other lawyers. Some cases would take fifteen minutes, I explained to Arthur, others would take several hours a month. No problem, he said.

I almost felt sorry for the politicians and bureaucrats and office workers at the thought of four hundred Drake & Sweeney lawyers suddenly seized with a fervor to protect the rights of street people.

Arthur stayed almost two hours, and apologized when he realized he had taken so much of my time. But he was much happier when he left. He was going straight to his office with a new purpose, a man on a mission. I walked him to his car, then ran to tell Mordecai.

* * *

Megan's uncle owned a house on the Delaware shore, near Fenwick Island on the Maryland line. She described it as a quaint old house, two stories with a large porch that almost touched the ocean, three bedrooms, a perfect spot for a weekend getaway. It was the middle of March, still cold, and we could sit by the fire and read books.

She slightly stressed the part about three bedrooms, so there would be plenty of space for each of us to have privacy, without matters getting complicated. She knew I was limping away from my first marriage, and after two weeks of cautious flirting we had both come to realize that things would proceed slowly. But there was another reason for mentioning the three bedrooms.

We left Washington Friday afternoon. I drove. Megan navigated. And Ruby nibbled on oatmeal cookies in the backseat, wild-eyed at the prospect of spending a few days outside the city, off the streets, on the beach, clean and sober.

She had been clean Thursday night. Three nights with us in Delaware would make four. Monday afternoon we would check her into Easterwood, a small women's detox center off East Capitol. Mordecai had leaned heavily on someone there, and Ruby would have a small room with a warm bed for at least ninety days.

Before we left the city, she had showered at Naomi's and changed into new clothes. Megan had searched every inch of her clothing and bag looking for drugs. She found nothing. It was an invasion of privacy, but with addicts the rules are different.

We found the house at dusk. Megan used it once or twice a year. The key was under the front doormat.

I was assigned the downstairs bedroom, which Ruby thought odd. The other two bedrooms were upstairs, and Megan wanted to be near Ruby during the night.

* * *

It rained Saturday, a cold, blowing shower that came from the sea. I was alone on the front porch, rocking gently in a swing under a thick blanket, lost in a dream world, listening to the waves break below. The door closed, the screen slammed behind it, and Megan walked to the swing. She lifted the blanket and tucked herself next to me. I held her firmly; if not, she would've fallen onto the porch.

She was easy to hold.

"Where's our client?" I asked.

"Watching TV."

A strong gust threw mist in our faces, and we squeezed tighter. The chains holding the swing squeaked louder, then faded as we became almost still. We watched the clouds swirl above the water. Time was of no importance. "What are you thinking?" she asked softly. Everything and nothing. Away from the city, I could look back for the first time and try to make sense of it all. Thirty-two days earlier I had been married to someone else, living in a different apartment, working in a different firm, a complete stranger to the woman I was now holding. How could life change so drastically in a month?

I didn't dare think of the future; the past was still happening.

The End