Three Womenby Marge Piercy
Suzanne Blume is not suffering from the empty-nest syndrome. Her life has never been more rewarding. The divorced mother of two grown daughters, she teaches law, has a thriving private practice, and, best of all, has been flirting online with a man she has never met. But her neat, buttoned-up life starts to unravel when her daughter Elena returns home, angry and unemployed, and her safe online boyfriend materializes on her doorstep. Then, the biggest challenge of all: Her independent mother, Beverly--still vital, still working, still involved with men and politics with equal passion--suffers a stroke and can no longer care for herself. This is the story of three women: Beverly, whose strong will is suddenly frustrated by a broken body; Elena, whose life was split in two at fifteen by a scandalous tragedy; and Suzanne, who must make peace with her mother, her daughters, and herself.
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Suzanne Blume finished up her day's lecture on the First Amendment in the cavernous auditorium and shook off the students who immediately surrounded her. She was the first woman ever to be permitted to teach constitutional law at the university, and she generally over-prepared, as she overprepared everything from occasional holiday suppers with her daughters to every case she had ever taken on. But today she had no time for the students, as she had to get to her office and change from her university outfit of trim slacks, silk blouse, and blazer to her navy court suit, same blouse. Like every woman litigator she knew, she had a whole wardrobe of navy suits, gray suits, one daring one in charcoal. She took sheer panty hose from her middle drawer where she kept makeup for court, scarves for court, and dumped her dangling earrings. She kicked off her high-heeled boots and put on her pumps. At five foot three, she was too small for her role in the world. In spite of the backaches they gave her, she always wore heels in public.
Now she ran in them down the hall and to the parking lot. She had given the keys to her Toyota to her assistant, Jaime, and he had the car waiting at the door. He drove. She sat in the back reading her notes as he headed for downtown Boston. She would get there a little early for the afternoon session, but she would need time to run over her presentation. It was important never to appear to falter before the judges, but always to sound confident and a little diffident at once-especially as a woman.
She loved appellate work, because it was nice and tidy and controllable. It didn't offer the punch and zing ofregular trial work, but she had started doing it when she still had the girls at home. It was scholarly, it was somehow soothing, points of law instead of Main Street at High Noon. It had its advantages and its drawbacks, but it wore less on her than trying cases. It demanded enormous meticulous preparation, which she customarily did in every case, but far less time in court: say, one morning as opposed to a month or several months. The power lines stood Out quite clearly: she usually faced several white male judges from an upper-middle-class background in their archaic robes, operating from a view of the world she did nor share but expected of them. The defendant was seldom present. Unless it was an exceptionally high-profile case, no reporters bothered.
"Can I come in to observe?" Jaime asked, breaking into her concentration.
"Park the car first." She thought for a moment. "Why not? It's good for you to observe. Just keep your mouth shut."
"Thanks, Suzanne. I'll never say a word."
He was a blend of American Black and Filipino, beautiful and wary, bright but overly sensitive. He was far from his family and had adopted Suzanne almost at once. She did not mind. She had only been teaching for the last twelve years, but in that time, she had acquired a hundred honorary offspring. Some fell in love with her, some were confrontational, some leaned, some whined, some flattered, but they all stayed in touch, and she remembered every one. Maybe she had done better with her academic children than with her blood children. Nowadays universities hired few lawyers with courtroom experience, but when she had been approached, she had already been involved with the university clinic-and the university was eager to hire a couple of women because of affirmative action.
She forgot Jaime as soon as she entered the courtroom. It was always that way: a case closed over her and she lived inside it. The appeal was on a murder conviction of a woman who had shot her ex-husband because she claimed he was abusing their daughter, of whom he had custody. He was a doctor. She was a laid-off librarian getting by on temporary office work. The question of the appeal of course was not whether she had shot her ex-husband, whether he had abused their daughter sexually, bur rather if she had received adequate representation from the court-appointed counsel. Suzanne had amassed two good precedents and argument from the transcript. The prosecutor was the same one who had obtained the original conviction. She knew him well from her years of practicing: good but a little overaggressive. She began to review her brief in the half-hour to forty-five minutes that would knock off the cases on the agenda before hers. At one point she noticed Jaime had slipped into a seat in the last row. What she remembered as she talked was the pale, drawn face of her client. She was taking this on pro bono. The woman had no money, and her family had exhausted its resources. She remembered too the girl Celia, terrified, placed in a foster home for the last year.
This was an appellate court and nowhere but in her mind would the faces of the convicted woman and her frightened daughter ever appear. Justice to Suzanne was about people, but here it was all about argument and precedent and the power of the judges. It was the law, questions of the law: these judges being male, like the lower court judge, should not be as much a problem as it had been in the original trial. It shouldn't bear so heavily upon the case that these judges would never willingly believe that a good professional man, a doctor of their own class, would discard his wife into poverty and make use of his own child sexually. No, she would only be arguing points of the law, but in her mind always she would know for whom she was fighting and why: the daughter, Celia; the mother, Phoebe, whom she had visited last Saturday at Framingham, the women's prison outside Boston. She could not make Phoebe understand that the judge would not hear arguments about whether her ex-husband had sexually abused her daughter, the act that had fractured Phoebe's world. Phoebe didn't understand, but it was not necessary that she should. Suzanne would win for her and get her back Celia. Ultimately Phoebe was right: that was the only thing that mattered. Suzanne was in her proper element, a legal fight, with the arguments marshaled in her memory like a row of soldiers ready to go into battle. The adrenaline sang in her muscles and in her mind. She remembered once taking her younger daughter Rachel to a presentation by a raptor specialist, when Rachel was eleven and impassioned by anything ecological. The woman had with her a hawk, hooded. As soon as everyone was settled, the lecturer removed the hood and the hawk gleamed into life, eyes glittering, looking for prey, eager for action. Fierce and utterly focused: that was what Suzanne felt like in court, that unhooded bird of prey. Finally it was her turn to rise and, in ten minutes, to present her case for appeal.
Meet the Author
Marge Piercy is the author of the memoir Sleeping with Cats and fifteen novels, including Three Women and Woman on the Edge of Time, as well as sixteen books of poetry, including Colors Passing Through Us, The Art of Blessing the Day, and Circles on the Water. She lives on Cape Cod, with her husband, Ira Wood, the novelist and publisher of Leapfrog Press.
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