The Court of Common Pleas: A Novel

The Court of Common Pleas: A Novel

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by Alexandra Marshall

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Marshall has the essential novelist’s gift, the creation of vivid characters,” said the New York Times. In her new novel, she has again created a cast both real and vibrant.
At sixty-three, Judge Gregory Brennan is on the brink of retirement. With his youngest daughter headed for college, he envisions traveling abroad, basking in a repose that his…  See more details below


Marshall has the essential novelist’s gift, the creation of vivid characters,” said the New York Times. In her new novel, she has again created a cast both real and vibrant.
At sixty-three, Judge Gregory Brennan is on the brink of retirement. With his youngest daughter headed for college, he envisions traveling abroad, basking in a repose that his demanding career has not allowed, with his wife, Audrey, at his side. But Audrey has other ambitions. At forty-nine, she sees the mythic empty nest as an opportunity to explore her own potential — as a medical student. When Audrey reveals her plans, Greg-ory is overwhelmed, and he emotionally retreats, causing a rift that neither one of them ever anticipated.
Marshall has been praised for her insight into the complexities of modern marriage, capturing it as “an institution about competing needs and shifting wants” (Baltimore Sun). In THE COURT OF COMMOM PLEAS, marriage is not unlike the general trial court where Gregory presides. But the ruling in Gregory and Audrey’s own case remains to be seen. Can their disparate life plans be mediated and their differences reconciled? Marshall offers a nuanced portrait of a marriage in the throes of a midlife crisis and reveals, with an encompassing kindness, the tenderness, frustration, bewilderment, and ultimately the joy of a marriage willed to endure.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
A sensitive portrait of a contented marriage suddenly in crisis.
Arizona Daily Star
Marshall, whose skill in depicting modern marriage has been widely praised, scores again.
Kirkus Reviews
Marshall's fifth novel subtly examines the fault-lines of a 20-year-old marriage. As in her previous work (Something Borrowed, 1997, etc.), the author emphasizes character more than plot; the most hectic thing that actually happens to Audrey Brennan, a 49-year-old Cleveland nurse, occurs in the first chapter when she's accepted into medical school—a milestone that provokes nothing but resentment from her family. Her mother blames Audrey's audacity on '60s feminism, while her two daughters—one a college student, the other a high-school junior—scoff at her decision as a "midlife crisis." Worst of all, Audrey's husband Gregory, 14 years her elder and ready to retire from a long, distinguished career as a judge, interprets Audrey's surprise announcement as the revelation of a deliberate deceit. With his wife just verging on middle age, Gregory is ready to leave it; while he's "already seen everything, some of it twice," she is yearning for more experience. Added to the fray is Gregory's crippling grief over the death of his protégé, Judge Robert Wallace, and his longing to be a father figure to Wallace's young sons. One of the story's more interesting themes is the legacy of feminism: Gregory came of age before it, Audrey during it (she was at Kent State in 1970), and for the first time in their long marriage this discrepancy begins to affect the relationship. Marshall, a keen observer of generational difference, creates ample sympathy for her people and their small concerns. The Court of Common Pleas will likely appeal to readers with lives similar to Audrey's and Gregory's, but for everyone else the effects are rather too subtle: even with suchwell-drawn characters inhabiting it, the plot remains thin. Intelligent but unsatisfying. Author tour

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Part One

The sky brightened into shades of gray and, from Overlook
Road in Cleveland Heights, silver-plated Lake Erie. The steel skin of
a small airplane caught the daylight and turned to chrome, pressing
like a fender against the air above that horizon. Nearer, in the
middle distance of the back yard, the branches of a forsythia looked
like feathers rubbed the wrong way. Straight as a tent pole the
buckeye tree stood its ground, prompted by an early spring to veil
its poisonous young shoots in gauzy spires of colorless bloom.
In the foreground, Audrey was reflected in the kitchen
window. She had wakened as usual without the aid of an alarm,
slipping from the mystery of a dream that was enthralling if only
because, custom made, the dream meant what it meant to her alone.
Already the dream had given over to dread, vanishing from
consciousness like some amazingly intricate insect whose whole life
cycle takes no longer than a headache and leaves even less of a
trace. She hadn’t known dread could come in three equivalent
dimensions, nor that the deepest could have been the most easily
prevented. It wasn’t within her control to be accepted to medical
school, and neither was it possible to know whether, if she was
admitted, it would eventually turn out to be the right decision to
have made. But she’d chosen not to tell Gregory of her application,
and, standing at the kitchen counter they’d shared for the twenty
years of their marriage, as she watched the first light infuse itself
into their view, she was afraid that her good reasons for not telling
him weren’t good enough.
In their bed he was still asleep, embracing his king-size
pillows, laboring through dreams that, like his work in the court
system, always had elaborate plot lines. Travel-brochure dreams was
what he called these journeys beyond the wonders of the world. In
them, every now and then he traveled solo, but the more elaborate
they were, the more essential to them was Audrey, who couldn’t speak
any of the languages = whereas he could speak them all = but whose
first-aid kit kept them safe from every disaster. He’d never tell
Audrey this because, as he’d be the first to admit, it was all
plagiarized material.
Sleeping, he escaped the nightmare of being awake to
contemplate the senseless death of Rob Wallace, a younger judge with
more promise than one person was ever given to contain, of a heart
attack at forty-one. Every time he thought about Rob, Gregory felt a
sharp heat behind his eyes. Rob’s reputation for genuine wisdom went
not just beyond his years but beyond even the legal code. Oh sure,
every lawyer was expected to exercise judgment informed by the mind
and the heart, but in Rob it was like watching instinct and learning
in a fusion made stunning by its seeming effortlessness. Gregory
wasn’t often persuaded by hyperbole, but he’d believed Rob was a
genius. The violation of his sudden early death = might over right =
offended Gregory’s entire belief system, but more, it pained him
horribly, personally. Not even Audrey fully understood it made him
want to quit altogether. At sixty-three he’d already seen everything,
some of it twice.
The trouble was, her own future was coming toward Audrey like
too good a pitch not to take a swing at. She had always wondered why
it was considered better to believe in a “half-full” glass when
a “half-empty” glass creates a greater urgency to make it full. By
this logic her life felt invitingly half empty. She was more ready
for this upcoming birthday than for any previous milestone, because
this time she’d given herself the gift of believing in fifty = fifty -
fifty = as half of adulthood. What better opportunity could there be
than the convergence of plain ambition and the mythic empty nest? The
intervention of Rob’s death was a tragedy, certainly, but it was also
an instance of ordinary bad timing, because it coincided with
Audrey’s application deadline, which, although perhaps mistakenly,
she’d decided not to miss. Louise Schneider, the physician in charge
of the MetroHealth Clinic, where Audrey worked, had convinced Audrey
that the best thing she had going for her was that few veteran nurses
ever voluntarily jumped overboard into shark-infested waters. Who
could resist sending a rescue boat to bring her in alive?
The sky was taking on color, a comfortingly pale pink like
the inside of an infant’s mouth, and Lake Erie had become, all the
way to the border with Canada beyond the horizon, the shiny, smooth
metallic rose of those American sedans driven by elderly women. In
the middle of this continuum Audrey felt a combined gratitude and
hope that made her feel both lucky and unfulfilled. Now she could see
in the back yard that the grass needed to be cut, and with equal
light outside and in, she could no longer see her reflection in the
kitchen window. Anyway, she’d switched from the nuisance of
eyeglasses to the ease of her contact lenses, transparent slices of
perfect vision unrestricted by frames. And since Overlook Road rode
the hip of the hill above Case Western Reserve University, the
medical school was practically already within her view, even if only
literally. Her question was, what else was she overlooking?
This nicely sited Colonial had been their starter house
because, by the time Gregory married, he was already a judge elected
to the same Common Pleas Court as, by now, he’d spent his entirely
contented career. But since the court isn’t officially in session
without the judge present in the courtroom, she’d been the one to
accommodate her work schedule to the needs of their daughters, so
that, for example, she’d never missed a weekday lacrosse game.
Today’s was conveniently at Magnificat and, for a change, she
wouldn’t have to rush all the way across the city to get from Metro
to the game. Her note to Gregory told him she and Sally would stop
after the game for the makings of a special dinner. It went without
saying that she’d choose a favorite of his in order to try to cheer
him up a little, no matter that, ever since Rob, nothing much could.
It was just as well, then, that they’d postponed their
anniversary trip to Paris, settling instead for one overnight at the
Ritz-Carlton above the Cuyahoga River with a dinner of Dover sole
slid away from the bone by their white-gloved waiter. Twenty years
before, they’d spent that same March night there too, but the next
evening, that time, they’d used their tickets to Paris. Gregory had
known from the start that, unlike himself, his new wife loved
surprises, so they’d flown into their marriage on Air France,
Première Classe, and, because he’d retrieved his good French with a
fresh round of lessons, all the flight attendants complimented his
accent while offering them endless amounts of the best champagne
onboard. For their tenth anniversary they’d returned to Paris for
those intimate interiors of restaurants and museums, and a deep hotel
bed that was half the size of their own at home.
Audrey shivered as she shut the door behind her, trading the
kitchen’s relative heat for the chilly, damp garage. Even in March
she had twice experienced Paris as both the City of Light and of
Warmth, and for this revisit she’d imagined their extended
conversations in compassionate detail. The one about medical school
would have gone well because it could be continued from morning to
night to morning, until Gregory agreed with Louise Schneider that,
unless Audrey gave herself the option of applying, the possibility of
her ever becoming a physician would remain an opportunity missed by
the feeble excuse of an unasked question. Any actual encounter here
at home, in the context of Rob’s death and their own lives, could
only by definition go far less well. This anticipation alone almost
made Audrey wish she would be rejected.

When the walk-in clinic opened up every day, patients who’d been able
to wait through the night arrived promptly, lining up for diagnosis.
It was her job to be ready for anything, and Audrey found she liked
this methodical problem-solving aspect of the work, verifying her
powers of observation, expanding her caring skills.
“Any day now, I hear,” Louise confided obliquely, not wanting
to divulge the contents of a letter that was already in the mail. She
couldn’t imagine herself beginning medical school again, but no doubt
this was because she knew all it entailed. Similarly, Audrey had said
she couldn’t think of having another baby at this point in her life,
notwithstanding that she was perhaps still biologically capable. And
yet, if Louise were to ask Audrey’s advice about whether or not to
have a baby at her age, no doubt Audrey would be encouraging. Just as
nobody could argue against a prospective mother who was both eager
and mature, in Louise’s opinion the medical profession should require
all doctors to be nurses first. Audrey was going to be a far better
physician than most, because she knew how to handle, hands on,
someone who wasn’t feeling very well.
Audrey asked, “And?” But she didn’t let Louise say anything
more. “No, never mind, don’t say anything. You can’t be sure until =”
Louise laughed and said, “Until you open the envelope?”
“Some call this the scientific method, but its other name
is =”
“Pessimism.” Audrey handed Louise a folder and said, now
gravely, “Just as in the examining room right now we have either a
terrible fall or a serious case of child abuse.” All too often the
women were also abused, but they rarely brought themselves in.
This was the worst part of the job, so Louise displayed an
appropriate reluctance, hesitating at the door. “How will we ever get
our women to come in preventively? Can you answer me that?”
“Not yet.” But in fact this was the very question motivating
Audrey’s medical school application.
Out in the waiting room there was a chronically asthmatic
family of six, none of whom had slept through the previous night. A
third-grader had a sprained foot and was glad for the borrowed
crutches but very disappointed not to have a bone fracture requiring
a cast. A regular customer read the paper in her usual seat, needing
the company of this room in addition to the proven benefits of
medication and psychiatric social work. Audrey was acutely aware of
the burden it was to provide solutions to real problems, but never
more than now, when Louise had practically just told her, by a sly
wink, what she seemed to know for a fact: all of this would one day
be hers.
They were more or less the same age, so Louise represented
not only the current goal but the alternative opportunity Audrey
might have had in the first place. That is, if she hadn’t had two
older brothers setting the vocational tone, maybe the decision-making
would have ended up differently in her own case. But as it was,
Johnny and Neil went directly into the family business = Morrow’s
Pharmacy, the last independent not to sell out to the Rite-Aid chain
= so it didn’t occur to their parents to reinvent the wheel. It was
only after their father’s death nine years ago that Neil moved to New
York, asserting his own wish to teach grade school and live with a
partner of the same sex.
Audrey was at Kent State that deadly spring of 1970 when Ohio
college students were fired upon, ending the era when it was still
possible to expect a daughter to want a life not unlike her
mother’s. “You’ll want to choose something you can go back to once
your kids are in school” had been her father’s kind-intentioned
advice. This was in their one and only conversation about what Audrey
wanted to be when she grew up, when they’d sat at the kitchen table
one Sunday afternoon.
In those days it was a diner-style booth built into a corner,
and Audrey remembered leaning against the wall. Her father had been
working his crossword puzzle, his glasses resting low in a bifocal
She’d responded, “You mean, like a teacher?” and he’d
said, “Yes, sure, or maybe a nurse. Your good grades in math and
science qualify you, I bet.”
And that was all there was, and all there ever was, to it.
Audrey’s mother, Celia, had entered the Flora Stone Mather College
for Women on Euclid Avenue, but she had never finished. No woman on
either side of the family had ever gone to graduate school, so when
Audrey continued on for her M.S.N., she’d had no reason to think this
degree wouldn’t be enough. And in one sense her father was correct,
even prescient, in knowing that once her kids were in school =
although of course he’d meant elementary school, not college = she’d
return to the fulfillment of her own ambitions. Where he was wrong
was in not knowing that all her life, Audrey, his youngest child and
only daughter, wanted just one thing she’d never had: to be the one
in charge.
But on the wards, ironically, the nurses were the ones “in
charge.” Although the doctors gave the orders, they took advice from
the nurses, who were there on the scene and could observe either
progress or decline. It was more of a partnership, before two things
happened to change the relationship between doctors and nurses,
malpractice suits and managed care, each of which forced doctors and
nurses into opposite corners. And if it was less rewarding to be a
nurse these days, it had also become more challenging to be a
physician required to become more collaborative while being the
bottom-line decision-maker.
“Doctor, can you please tell me how much longer it will be
before I can be seen?” The woman never made eye contact with Audrey,
so there was no point in Audrey’s correcting her to say she was still
just a nurse. “Sure, Helena” was Audrey’s ever-tolerant reply, every
day, “just let me check.” She picked up the phone to dial the
extension for the office a few doors down the corridor. “They can
take you right away,” she said, knowing as did her counterpart in
counseling that Helena would need another few hours.
But this is just what Audrey meant. Instead of being the one,
or one of the ones, who shuffled Helena from place to place while
supplying comfort along the way, she would rather provide the cure.
She wanted Helena healed once and for all, so the poor woman could
spend her life somewhere other than in this windowless room, hour
after hour, day after day. There had to be some discovery out there,
but not yet made, that in Helena’s situation would make all the
difference. Yes, Audrey was admittedly foolishly overambitious, given
that the psychiatric social worker in charge was doing the best he
could. And yet Audrey needed to try, just as Helena obviously needed
the help.
“Don’t let him get away!” was her father’s only other direct
advice to her, to marry Gregory Brennan. Gregory was nine years older
than her brother Johnny, but because he’d poured his heart into the
justice system he’d become forty-three and unmarried. Audrey was
already twenty-nine at the time, so from her father’s point of view
it was practically too late. Needless to say, Audrey and Gregory had
had their kids immediately, which turned out to be a good thing,
because Jack Morrow had only ten more years to get to know his
Audrey watched Helena settle down again with the newspaper,
and she found herself wishing that her father were alive so she could
tell him he’d been right, twice.

Gregory sometimes allowed himself a “snooze” bonus, knowing that only
one, at most, was his limit. Taking best advantage of these nine
extra minutes, he would take inventory, performing a checklist worthy
of bench science. These days his inquiry concerned mortality, and the
question he asked himself was whether or not any progress had been
made on why senseless death still occurred.
There was Rob’s in particular, although of course this didn’t
mean he was incapable of caring about natural disasters wiping out
whole populations, not to mention countless innocents in war zones.
For the greater good there was one who should have been spared,
because Rob Wallace’s rare intelligence was organic, manifested with
the giant ease of a tree making oxygen from daylight. Rob’s
imagination was so large with promise, the size of his absence was
increasing every day instead of diminishing. Missing Rob was like
discovering, item by item, how much more than you reported at the
time the thief actually made off with.
The alarm sounded again, to signal the end of this nine-
minute opportunity to feel worse about the morning than when it had
first interrupted sleep’s unconscious balancing of plus and minus.
This time there was no proof of the possibility of self-improvement,
just the destructive power of a cheap plastic box the size of a
hardball. Now he was required to rouse his daughter Sally, who’d roll
into another school day of this senior year rendered utterly
untroubled four months ago by Early Decision. Sally’s immediate
future at Virginia was by now so thoroughly imagined, the prolonged
anticlimax seemed to make her restless all over again, as she
admitted to envying those classmates who were just learning what
options they had, or not.
Still, Gregory got out of bed and went down the short hall
to his daughter’s closed door. “Sally? Honey?” He always announced
himself, no matter that while he was sleeping his younger child had
turned eighteen’s corner into adulthood. He opened her bedroom door
and, because there was nothing subtle about Sally, shook her. “Sally?
Honey?” The expression on her face was so unpleasant it was almost
He hated this, the one part of the job he wouldn’t miss when
Sally went off to college. “Get up!” he said like a tyrant, which he
also hated, although nothing less had ever proved effective. Good
luck to her roommate, he told himself as he returned to the sanctuary
of his bedroom, and that went for everybody including, one day, he
hoped, her future husband. Gregory caught himself hoping he’d still
be alive for that day.
But if you did the math, it wasn’t altogether self-pity that
caused Gregory not to take another decade for granted. Even without
the shadow of Rob’s depressing death, it was a fact that he was born
during the Great Depression. If you asked him, the impact was obvious.
And yet, more like a man with everything going his way, he
showered and dressed in one of the European tailored suits he always
wore even though only ten inches of trouser showed beneath his robes.
He matched his tie to the thin blue of the sky, pretending to
optimism. Downstairs, he could see that the Plain Dealer was in its
plastic bag at their door ahead of the New York Times, and he took
this as a good sign, validating his decision, at the time unheard-of,
to leave a major Wall Street firm for a hometown practice. Wait. This
choice had been corroborated so thoroughly, so long ago, why did it
even come to mind?
“Hey, Dad,” Sally allowed in her morning monotone, slumping
into the kitchen so gracelessly it seemed impossible to believe she
was the star of her own lacrosse video, prized by college recruiters
with outsized budgets, who’d flattered her with such overblown
promises she thought they could only be false.
“Hi, champ.”
She never said anything more, nor did he, usually. But he
said, “Good luck.”
“Today’s game.”
She squinted at the refrigerator door. “Magnificat,” she read
from the athletic schedule posted there.
In this undefeated season he knew better than to ask which
was the better team, so Gregory merely repeated, “Good luck.” His own
West Side alma mater, St. Ignatius, currently had the best high
school football team in the nation, but he was more invested in
Sally’s games.
“Okay,” she said, but with an expression that could be the
ancestor of a smile. At least something gave her pleasure, even if
winning was always, by definition, at someone else’s expense.
This generation of kids had everything going for it. Above
the garage, to attract their first daughter in off the road once Val
got her driver’s license, a storage area had been outfitted with soft
furniture, a mini-kitchen, and music, including a fairly decent drum
set. Now that Val’s friends in her band, String of Pearls, were off
in their first year of college = including Val, whose precise
destination had been unresolved until late summer = Sally and her own
friends used the soundproof room for the sports channel or MTV,
taking utterly for granted the privilege it represented. Yes, he knew
how old he sounded. Well? He felt old.
He knew too much, so for instance he couldn’t simply drive
down Euclid Avenue on an early April Wednesday morning without noting
like a guidebook that it started out an Indian trail, which then
became a stagecoach route. Streetcar tracks ran down the center of
the street as once, before World War II, a hundred kinds of cars were
manufactured here in Cleveland, where the steering wheel and the
attached horn and windshield wipers were invented. The corner of
Euclid and the street named for the city’s distinguished former mayor
Carl Stokes = Euclid and Stokes = was the site of the country’s first
hand-operated traffic signal, a device invented by another African-
American Clevelander named Garrett Morgan. One block over, stretching
along Carnegie for sixteen blocks, was the fourth-
best hospital in the world, the Cleveland Clinic, which was the
city’s largest single private employer, of more than eight
thousand. “Thank you, Moses Cleaveland, our fine city’s esteemed
founder,” his girls teased him when in their opinion he sounded like
the Chamber of Commerce.
“Seriously, look around you,” he’d refute them, without
having to mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Every now and then
he wished he had some out-of-town relatives to show around and show
the place off to: “First there was the Indian trail, and now there’s
the World Series champion baseball team of the same name.”
So by the time he got downtown, Judge Gregory Brennan had
cheered himself up considerably with the honest history of this city
where he’d been born and had outlived a lot, not the least his own
stubborn fears. Now his chambers were located in the modern Justice
Center, across the street from the original Cuyahoga County Court
House he would always prefer. There was no thrill equal to the
experience of climbing those front steps each morning between the
paired seated statues of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and
then, inside, gaining reinforcement from no less than Aristotle,
whose words were carved into the marble = “and the rule of the law is
preferable to any individual” = for none to avoid. Here in the
Justice Center, uplift took the mundane form of elevators.
“Good morning, Judge,” Marjorie McCarthy greeted him from her
secure place behind her massive oak desk. When he responded, as
always, “Good morning, Marge,” she corrected him, “Call me Esquire
from now on,” to which Gregory could only ask, “Pardon me?”
“I’ve decided I’m going to become a lawyer too.” But she had
to look away from him so she wouldn’t ruin her own joke.
Gregory stared at the brass nameplate on her desk, as if to
attempt to conjure the adjustment. The old courthouse was being
restored so faithfully it was difficult to believe anything beautiful
had the power to change. The dense terracotta paint was being mixed
according to the original formula, and the brown leather on the
padded swinging doors, though new, was identical to what it replaced.
By the door to his chambers, and by each judge’s, had stood the
ribcage-high nameplate that looked like a miniature gas pump dressed
up with brass flourishes, including back-to-back C’s signifying
Cuyahoga County, or as Audrey teased him = though never Marjorie =
Coco Chanel. He’d had to leave all that behind, moving into the
twenty-four-story granite cube of the new Justice Center. No, he
couldn’t begin to imagine losing Marjorie too, on top of Rob.
He was unable to meet her eyes because = now she would be as
shocked as he was = his eyes were filling with tears. If she ever
quit, so would he. And now he saw he was serious. Still, he had to
come up with something to answer, so he told her the truth: “I’m
sorry to have to tell you how very sorry I am to hear that,” which
caused Marjorie to chime, “April Fool!” Her own day had begun with a
series of fake disaster calls from her nephews, so this seemed tame.
Gregory sat in the armchair beside her desk and broke the
rules for a second by taking her hand in his own. “As you know,” he
told her, “I’ve always thought you would have made an excellent
lawyer. But don’t ever leave me, please,” he begged her. “Promise?”
Marjorie said, “Only on a stretcher.” This she regretted as
well, since it was the awful way Judge Wallace left, when he left.
Before Gregory could respond, she said, “But Judge Wallace’s
wife = widow = called already this morning to thank you for inviting
her boys to do something with you on Saturday morning. She said to
say that they’d love to, and you only need to tell her what time.”
Her approval was evident in her sweet smile. “What time shall I tell
her for you?”
“Nine? Ten?”
“Nine. My nephews would already have been up for hours.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Gregory pushed against the arms of the oak
chair and stood over Marjorie. “You see how much I need you, Marge,
don’t you?”
At his own desk Gregory turned his back on the present and,
like the restoration project, returned to the past to take guidance.
Maybe it was time to retire. His own mentor, Judge Osborne, had taken
cases on assignment from the Ohio Supreme Court until his death at
eighty, but Gregory’s own expectation had been that he’d run for one
more six-year term and call it quits. Now he wondered about forgoing
that last term. Swiveling in his leather chair, he looked out his
window and over the roof of the old courthouse to the Burke Lakefront
Airport and a little plane climbing into the air like a squirrel up a
tree. The future provided inspiration far better than the past: why
not make that postponed trip to Paris to celebrate Audrey’s fiftieth
birthday? Or why not take her off in a new direction = to Martinique,
say = or, like Gauguin, who stopped in Martinique for five months,
keep on going all the way to Tahiti? Maybe he could take up painting
too and, like Gauguin, suppress the third dimension. For this recent
canceled trip to Paris, he’d once again renovated his French. Why not
Gregory and Audrey often compared their work, law and
medicine both being self-contained worlds = with hierarchies, yes,
but this wasn’t the point = that existed for only one purpose. People
passed through the systems of medicine and law to get help, and it
was a privilege, as he and Audrey would agree even on their worst
days, to provide it. They were like Noah and his wife, transporting
the survivors.
But his hands were shaking, so he held each with the other as
his pulse jumped. That he might retire early was an idea he’d never
had, except in relation to other people. There was Judge Osborne’s
powerful example, never to quit entirely, but then there was his own
father, who’d hit a tree at such a high speed it wasn’t termed an
accident. The night of the crash, the police spared the widow and her
two boys the most telling detail = no skid marks on the road = when
delivering the news. Gregory then became the obsessively studious son
of a father who had been a failure at everything but his own death,
who died too young to set him any example but the wrong one.

“Please approach the bench,” Gregory instructed both attorneys as,
off the record, he accused the defense of stalling. “Am I clear?”
“Yes, Your Honor.” They sounded like identical twins.
Jury selection was moving so slowly even Gregory had trouble
staying with it. To the young lawyers he counseled, he often compared
being a judge with his having been a catcher as a boy: if you lost
your concentration behind the plate, you were to blame for any
subsequent error. It could happen in the courtroom as out on the
baseball diamond, and now he wished he could tell the jurors that, if
they were bored, it wasn’t their fault.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, rotating in his chair to
address them, “I’ve asked counsel to refrain from needless and
bothersome interruptions, so we will proceed with the jury selection
process and begin the trial after the recess. You have been
exceedingly patient with our sometimes tedious justice system.” He
turned back and ordered, “Proceed,” which obliged counsel to
reply, “Thank you, Your Honor.”
But when court resumed, the first witness to be called by the
state seemed to be missing from those gathered in the hall outside
the courtroom. Gregory extended his arm and pointed it at the defense
as if holding a zigzag bolt of lightning. Both lawyers stepped
forward again, the one insisting it was a simple misunderstanding,
whereas the prosecutor argued that while there were indeed other
witnesses to be called, the girlfriend was crucial. The vehicular
homicide case against her boyfriend was based on her grand jury
testimony, where she’d described driving the defendant’s car when he
grabbed the steering wheel during an argument, causing her to lose
control. There was no point in the judge’s saying “Find her. Get her
in here,” but it seemed to Gregory that he had no other real option.
In a baseball game there could be a rain delay, when both players and
spectators would have to wait, often hours, while it was decided
whether or not to call the game. To the jurors he made this analogy
as a way to let them know the case would continue. The large modern
windows with their panoramic lake views were sealed against any and
all weather, but you could see freighters make their way from one
destination to the next, the way he himself always had.
During the lunch break, this being Wednesday, Gregory went as
usual to get his shoes polished. Joe Ricci was a guy who’d also
worked the marble courthouse halls his whole career. A dedicated
Indians fan = “But who isn’t these days,” he’d say, “when it’s easy”
= he made shoes shine like new cars in a showroom. Some of the
younger ones out there relied on paper shields to protect the socks
= “Would you believe what people will pay for socks these days?” =
but Joe was old school, a real pro. His brother Frank ran the barber
shop = “From top to bottom, right, Judge?” = because they knew that
the justice system remained the kind of workplace = “One of the few
left, am I right?” = where people would still attempt to look as good
as they could. Where they had to. Where their lives depended on it.
“You’re looking good, Judge.”
“You too, Joe.” Or, “You too, Frank.”
“How’s everything?”
“Good. And you?”
“Good too.”
Their talk never got more personal than that, except the week
Joe and Frank’s mother passed away and each of them mentioned the
fact, as then Gregory did around the time his mother died. And when
they talked about = while avoiding = the death of Judge Wallace.
Today was a little different, because Gregory was more tired
than usual. As he sat impassively and watched Joe Ricci labor over
his shoes, he felt like the professional loser he’d already been, in
personal terms, when he arrived at work this morning and missed
Marjorie’s April Fools’ Day joke on him. At least he’d had the idea
of bringing Rob’s boys in on Saturday morning for haircuts. But this
was an exception to the day’s lapses. It was almost as if, in the
absence of testimony by the key witness, the jury could find against
him instead. For insufficient everything.
But he’d never liked being taken by surprise, so he was
frustrated that the prosecutor appeared to have been manipulated by a
witness who had suddenly become reluctant. She’d told the grand jury
that the defendant, her boyfriend, had been screaming at her when he
grabbed the wheel, causing her to swerve into the oncoming car, in
which the driver had been killed. Clearly, her version of the events
was crucial in order for a charge of vehicular homicide to be brought
against the defendant. Gregory shifted in his seat, knowing how hard
it was to ascribe state of mind. This much he knew from his personal
experience, having spent fifty years trying to imagine what his
father’s thoughts might have been as he flew off the rainy road at a
high speed.
At least he and Audrey spoke up when something was bothering
them. He’d had to learn how to do this, but she’d made it easy for
him because, for his fiftieth birthday, she’d organized a surprise
party, telling him one lie after another in order to fool him into
thinking she would never, ever do that. Then of course he’d walked
into a room and nearly had a heart attack from the shock of
encountering a parade of faces he’d hoped to have left far behind.

Copyright © 2001 by Alexandra Marshall

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Meet the Author

Alexandra Marshall is the author of Tender Offer, The Brass Bed, and Still Waters. She lives in Boston with her husband, the writer James Carroll, and their two children.

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5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful read that does a terrific job of presenting the nuances of a marriage between two people whose chronological ages put them at different stages in their lives separately and together. Ms. Marshall has a true gift with dialogue, recreating moments in a household that resonate with the reader's own life (that is, if you are in your late forties and up...). Highly recommended for mid-life women and older.