I called in sick tuesday. "Probably the flu," I told polly, who, as she was trained to do, wanted specifics. Fever, sore throat, headaches? All of the above. Any and all, I didn't care. One had better be completely sick to miss work at the firm. She would do a form and send it to Rudolph. Anticipating his call, I left the apartment and wandered around Georgetown during the early morning. The snow was melting fast; the high would be in the fifties. I killed an hour loitering along Washington Harbor, sampling cappuccino from a number of vendors, watching the rowers freeze on the Potomac.
At ten, I left for the funeral.
* * *
The Sidewalk in front of the church was barricaded. Cops were standing around, their motorcycles parked on the street. Farther down were the television vails.
A large crowd was listening to a speaker yell into a microphone as I drove by, There were a few hastily painted placards held above heads, for the benefit of the cameras. I parked on a side street three blocks away, and hurried toward the church. I avoided the front by heading for a side door, which was being guarded by an elderly usher. I asked if there was a balcony. He asked if I was a reporter.
He took me inside, and pointed to a door. I thanked him and went through it, then up a flight of shaky stairs until I emerged on the balcony overlooking a beautiful sanctuary below. The carpet was burgundy, the pews dark wood, the windows stained and clean. It was a very handsome church, and for a second I could understand why the Reverend was reluctant to open it to the homeless.
I was alone, with my choice of seating. I walked quietly to a spot above the rear door, with a direct view down the center aisle to the pulpit. A choir began singing outside on the front steps, and I sat in the tranquillity of the empty church, the music drifting in.
The music stopped, the doors opened, the stampede began. The balcony floor shook as the mourners poured into the sanctuary. The choir took its place behind the pulpit. The Reverend directed traffic--the TV crews in one corner, the small family in the front pew, the activists and their homeless down the center section. Mordecai ambled in with two people I didn't know. A door to one side opened, and the prisoners marched out--Lontae's mother and two brothers, clad in blue prison garb, cuffed at the wrists and ankles, chained together and escorted by four armed guards. They were placed in the second pew, center aisle, behind the grandmother and some other relatives.
When things were still, the organ began, low and sad. There was a racket under me, and all heads turned around. The Reverend assumed the pulpit and instructed us to stand.
Ushers with white gloves rolled the wooden coffins down the aisle, and lined them end to end across the front of the church with Lontae's in the center. The baby's was tiny, less than three feet long. Ontario's, Alonzo's, and Dante's were midsized. It was an appalling sight, and the wailing began. The choir started to hum and sway.
The ushers arranged flowers around the caskets, and I thought for one horrifying second they were going to open them. I had never been to a black funeral before. I had no idea what to expect, but I had seen news clips from other funerals in which the casket was sometimes opened, the family kissing the corpse. The vultures with the cameras were ever ready.
But the caskets remained closed, and so the world didn't learn what I knew--that Ontario and family looked very much at peace.
We sat down, and the Reverend served up a lengthy prayer. Then a solo from sister somebody, then moments of silence. The Reverend read Scripture, and preached for a bit. He was followed by a homeless activist who delivered a scathing attack on a society and its leaders who allowed such a thing to happen. She blamed Congress, especially the Republicans, and she blamed the city for its lack of leadership, and the courts, and the bureaucracy. But she saved her harshest diatribe for the upper classes, those with money and power who didn't care for the poor and the sick. She was articulate and angry, very effective, I thought, but not exactly at home at a funeral.
They clapped for her when she finished. The Reverend then spent a very long time blasting everyone who wasn't of color and had money.
A solo, some more Scripture, then the choir launched into a soulful hymn that made me want to cry. A procession formed to lay hands upon the dead, but it quickly broke down as the mourners began wailing and rubbing the caskets. "Open them up," someone screamed, but the Reverend shook his head no. They bunched toward the pulpit, crowding around the caskets, yelling and sobbing as the choir cranked it up several notches. The grandmother was the loudest, and she was stroked and soothed by the others.
I couldn't believe it. Where were these people during the last months of Lontae's life? Those little bodies lying up there in boxes had never known so much love.
The cameras inched closer as more and more mourners broke down. It was more of a show than anything else.
The Reverend finally stepped in and restored order. He prayed again with organ music in the background. When he finished, a long dismissal began as the people paraded by the caskets one last time.
The service lasted an hour and a half. For two thousand bucks, it wasn't a bad production. I was proud of it.
They rallied again outside, and began a march in the general direction of Capitol Hill. Mordecai was in the middle of it, and as they disappeared around a corner, I wondered how many marches and demonstrations he had been in. Not enough, he would probably answer.
* * *
Rudolph Mayes had become a partner at Drake & Sweeney at the age of thirty, still a record. And if life continued as he planned, he would one day be the oldest working partner. The law was his life, as his three former wives could attest. Everything else he touched was disastrous, but Rudolph was the consummate bigfirm team player.
He was waiting for me at 6 P.M. in his office behind a pile of work. Polly and the secretaries were gone, as were most of the paralegals and clerks. The hall traffic slowed considerably after five-thirty.
I closed the door, sat down. "Thought you were sick," he said.
"I'm leaving, Rudolph," I said as boldly as I could, but my stomach was in knots.
He shoved books out of the way, and put the cap on his expensive pen. "I'm listening."
"I'm leaving the firm. I have an offer to work for a public interest firm."
"Don't be stupid, Michael."
"I'm not being stupid. I've made up my mind. And I want out of here with as little trouble as possible."
"You'll be a partner in three years."
"I've found a better deal than that."
He couldn't think of a response, so he rolled his eyes in frustration. "Come on, Mike. You can't crack up over one incident."
"I'm not cracking up, Rudolph. I'm simply moving into another field."
"None of the other eight hostages are doing this."
"Good for them. If they're happy, then I'm happy for them. Besides, they're in litigation, a strange breed."
"Where are you going?"
"A legal clinic near Logan Circle. It specializes in homeless law."
"How much are they paying you?"
"A bloody fortune. Wanna make a donation to the clinic?"
"You're losing your mind."
"Just a little crisis, Rudolph. I'm only thirty-two, too young for the midlife crazies. I figure I'll get mine over with early."
"Take a month off. Go work with the homeless, get it out of your system, then come back. This is a terrible time to leave, Mike. You know how far behind we are."
"Won't work, Rudolph. It's no fun if there's a safety net."
"Fun? You're doing this for fun?"
"Absolutely. Think how much fun it would be to work without looking at a time clock."
"What about Claire?" he asked, revealing the depths of his desperation. He hardly knew her, and he was the least qualified person in the firm to dispense marital advice.
"She's okay," I said. "I'd like to leave Friday."
He grunted in defeat. He closed his eyes, slowly shook his head. "I don't believe this."
"I'm sorry, Rudolph."
We shook hands and promised to meet for an early breakfast to discuss my unfinished work.
I didn't want Polly to hear it secondhand, so I went to my office and called her. She was at home in Arlington, cooking dinner. It ruined her week.
I picked up Thai food and took it home. I chilled some wine, fixed the table, and began rehearsing my lines.
* * *
If Claire suspected an ambush, it wasn't evident. Over the years we had developed the habit of simply ignoring each other, as opposed to fighting. Therefore, our tactics were unrefined.
But I liked the idea of a blindside, of being thoroughly prepared with the shock, then ready with the quips. I thought it would be nice and unfair, completely acceptable within the confines of a crumbling marriage.
It was almost ten; she had eaten on the run hours earlier, so we went straight to the den with glasses of wine. I stoked the fire and we settled into our favorite chairs. After a few minutes I said, "We need to talk."
"What is it?" she asked, completely unworried.
"I'm thinking of leaving Drake & Sweeney."
"Oh really." She took a drink. I admired her coolness. She either expected this or wanted to seem unconcerned.
"Yes. I can't go back there."
"I'm ready for a change. The corporate work is suddenly boring and unimportant, and I want to do something to help people."
"That's nice." She was already thinking about the money, and I was anxious to see how long it would take to get around to it. "In fact, that's very admirable, Michael."
"I told you about Mordecai Green. His clinic has offered me a job. I'm starting Monday."
"So you've made your decision already."
"Without any discussion with me. I have no say in the matter, is that right?"
"I can't go back to the firm, Claire. I told Rudolph today."
Another sip, a slight grinding of file teeth, a flash of anger but she let it pass. Her self-control was amazing.
We watched the fire, hypnotized by the orange flames. She spoke next. "Can I ask what this does for us financially?"
"It changes things."
"How much is the new salary?"
"Thirty thousand a year."
"Thirty thousand a year," she repeated. Then she said it again, somehow making it sound even lower. "That's less than what I make."
Her salary was thirty-one thousand, a figure that would increase dramatically in the years to come--serious money was not far away. For purposes of the discussion, I planned to have no sympathy for any whining about money.
"You don't do public interest law for the money," I said, trying not to sound pious. "As I recall, you didn't go to med school for the money."
Like every med student in the country, she had begun her studies vowing that money was not the attraction. She wanted to help humanity. Same for law students. We all lied.
She watched the fire and did the math. I guessed she was probably thinking about the rent. It was a very nice apartment; at twenty-four hundred a month it should've been even nicer. The furnishings were adequate. We were proud of where we lived--right address, beautiful rowhouse, swanky neighborhood--but we spent so little time there. And we seldom entertained. Moving would be an adjustment, but we could endure it.
We had always been open about our finances; nothing was hidden. She knew we had around fifty-one thousand dollars in mutual funds, and twelve thousand in the checking account. I was amazed at how little we'd saved in six years of marriage. When you're on the fast track at a big firm, the money seems endless.
"I guess we'll have to make adjustments, won't we?" she said, staring coldly at me. The word "adjustments" was dripping with connotations. "I suppose so."
"I'm tired," she said. She drained her glass, and went to the bedroom.
How pathetic, I thought. We couldn't even muster enough rancor to have a decent fight.
Of course, I fully realized my new status in life. I was a wonderful story--ambitious young lawyer transformed into an advocate for the poor; turns back on blue-chip firm to work for nothing. Even though she thought I was losing my mind, Claire had found it hard to criticize a saint.
I put a log on the fire, fixed another drink, and slept on the sofa.