DECK LOVES A CHALLENGE, ESPECIALLY when it involves the gathering of dirt through hushed phone conversations with unnamed moles. I give him the bare details about Kelly and Cliff Riker, and in less than an hour he slips into my office with a proud grin.
He reads from his notes. "Kelly Riker was admitted to St. Peter's three days ago, at midnight I might add, with assorted injuries. The police had been called to her apartment by unidentified neighbors who reported a rather fierce domestic squabble. Cops found her beat to hell and lying on a sofa in the den. Cliff Riker was obviously intoxicated, highly agitated and initially wanted to give the cops some of what he'd been dishing out to his wife. He was wielding an aluminum softball bat, evidently his weapon of choice. He was quickly subdued, placed under arrest, charged with assault, taken away. She was transported by ambulance to the hospital. She gave a brief statement to the police, to the effect that he came home drunk after a softball game, some silly argument erupted, they fought,
he won. She said he struck her twice on the ankle with the bat, and twice in the face with his fist."
I lost sleep last night thinking about Kelly Riker and her brown eyes and tanned legs, and the thought of her being attacked in such a manner makes me sick. Deck's watching my reaction, so I try to keep a poker face. "Her wrists are bandaged," I say, and Deck proudly flips the page. He has another report from another source, this one buried deep in the files of Rescue, Memphis Fire Department. "Kind of sketchy on the wrists. At some point during the assault, he pinned her wrists to the floor and tried to force intercourse. Evidently, he was not in the mood he thought he was, probably too much beer. She was nude when the cops found her, covered only with a blanket. She couldn't run because her ankle was splintered."
"What happened to him?"
"Spent the night in jail. Bailed out by his family. Due in court in a week, but nothing will happen."
"Odds are she'll drop the charges, they'll kiss and make up, and she'll hold her breath until he does it again."
"How do you know-"
"Because it's happened before. Eight months ago, cops get the same call, same fight, same everything except she was luckier. Just a few bruises. Evidently, the bat was not handy. Cops separate them, do a little on-the-spot counseling, they're just kids, right, newlyweds, and they kiss and make up. Then, three months ago the bat is introduced into battle, and she spends a week at St. Peter's with broken ribs. The matter gets turned over to the Domestic Abuse Section of Memphis P.D., and they push hard for a severe punishment. But she loves the old boy, and refuses to testify against him. Everything's dropped. Happens all the time."
It takes a moment for this to sink in. I suspected trou-
ble at home, but nothing this horrible. How can a man take an aluminum bat and beat his wife with it? How can Cliff Riker punch such a beautiful face?
"Happens all the time," Deck repeats himself, perfectly reading my mind.
"Anything else?" I ask.
"No. Just don't get too close."
"Thanks," I say, feeling dizzy and weak. "Thanks."
He eases to his feet. "Don't mention it."
IT'S NO SURPRISE that Booker has been studying for the bar exam much more than I. And, typically, he's worried about me. He's scheduled a marathon review for this afternoon in a conference room at the Shankle firm.
I arrive, as instructed by Booker, promptly at noon. The offices are modern and busy, and the oddest thing about the place is that everyone is black. I've seen my share of law offices in the past month, and I can recall only one black secretary and no black lawyers. Here, there's not a white face to be seen.
Booker gives me a quick tour. Even though it's lunch, the place is hopping. Word processors, copiers, faxes, phones, voices-there's a veritable racket in the hallways. The secretaries eat hurriedly at their desks, desks invariably covered with tall stacks of pending work. The lawyers and paralegals are nice enough, but need to be on their way. And there's a strict dress code for everyone-dark suits, white shirts for the men, plain dresses for the women-no bright colors, no pants.
Comparisons with the firm of J. Lyman Stone race before my eyes, and I cut them off.
Booker explains that Marvin Shankle runs a tight ship. He dresses sharp, is thoroughly professional in all aspects, and maintains a wicked work schedule. He expects nothing less from his partners and staff.
The conference room is in a quiet corner. I'm in charge of lunch, and I unpack some sandwiches I picked up at Yogi's. Free sandwiches. We chat for five minutes at the most about family and law school friends. He asks a few questions about my job, but he knows to keep his distance. I've already told him everything. Almost everything. I prefer that he doesn't know about my new outpost at St. Peter's or my activities there.
Booker's become such a damned lawyer! He glances at his watch after the allotted time for small talk, then launches into the splendid afternoon he has planned for us. We'll work nonstop for six hours, taking coffee and rest room breaks only, and at 6 P.M. sharp we're outta here because someone else has reserved the room.
From twelve-fifteen to one-thirty we review federal income taxation. Booker does most of the talking because he's always had a better grasp for tax. We're working from bar review materials, and tax is as dense now as it was in the fall of last year.
At one-thirty he lets me use the rest room and get some coffee, and from then until two-thirty I take the ball and run with the federal rules of evidence. Thrilling stuff. Booker's high-octane vigor is contagious, and we blitz through some tedious material.
Flunking the bar exam is a nightmare for any young associate, but I sense that it would be especially disastrous for Booker. Frankly, it wouldn't be the end of the world for me. It would crush my ego, but I'd rally. I'd study harder and take it again in six months. Bruiser wouldn't care as long as I snare a few clients each month. One good burn case and Bruiser wouldn't expect me to take the exam again.
But Booker might be in trouble. I suspect Mr. Marvin Shankle would make his life miserable if he flunks it the first time. If he flunks it twice, he's probably history.
At precisely two-thirty, Marvin Shankle enters the conference room and Booker introduces me. He's in his early fifties, very fit and trim. His hair is slightly gray around the ears. His voice is soft but his eyes are intense. I think Marvin Shankle can see around corners. He's a legend in Southern legal circles, and it's an honor to meet him.
Booker has arranged a lecture. For almost an hour we listen intently as Shankle covers the basics of civil rights litigation and employment discrimination. We take notes, ask a few questions, but mainly we just listen.
Then he's off to a meeting, and we spend the next half hour by ourselves, blitzing through antitrust law and monopolies. At four, another lecture.
Our next speaker is Tyrone Kipler, a Harvard-educated partner whose speciality is the Constitution. He starts slow, and picks up some steam only after Booker jumps in and peppers him with questions. I catch myself lurking in the shrubbery at night, jumping out like a madman with a Ruthian-sized baseball bat and beating the hell out of Cliff Riker. To stay awake, I walk around the table, gulping coffee, trying to concentrate.
By the end of the hour, Kipler is animated and feisty, and we're drilling him with questions. He stops in mid-sentence, looks wildly at his watch and says he has to go. A judge is waiting somewhere. We thank him for his time, and he races away.
"We have one hour," Booker says. It's five minutes after five. "What shall we do?"
"Let's grab a beer."
"Sorry. It's real property law or ethics."
I need the ethics, but I'm tired and in no mood to be reminded of how grave my sins are. "Let's do property."
Booker bounces across the room and grabs the books.
D D D D
IT'S ALMOST EIGHT before I drag myself through the maze of corridors deep in the heart of St. Peter's and find, my favorite table occupied by a doctor and a nurse. I get coffee and sit nearby. The nurse is very attractive and quite distraught, and judging by their whispers I'd say the affair is on the rocks. He's sixty with hair transplants and a new chin. She's thirty, and evidently will not be elevated to the position of wife. Just mistress for now. Serious whispers.
I'm in no mood to study. I've had enough for one day, but I'm motivated only by the fact that Booker is still at the office, working and preparing for the exam.
The lovers abruptly leave after a few minutes. She's in tears. He's cold and heartless. I ease into my chair at my table and spread my notes, try to study.
And I wait.
Kelly arrives a few minutes after ten, but she has a new guy pushing her wheelchair. She glances coldly at me, and points to a table in the center of the room. He parks her there. I look at him. He looks at me.
I assume it's Cliff. He's about my height, no more than six-one; with a stocky frame and the beginnings of a beer belly. His shoulders are wide, though, and his biceps bulge through a tee shirt that's much too tight and worn specifically to flaunt his arms. Tight jeans. Hair that's brown and curly and too long to be stylish. Lots of growth on his forearms and face. Cliff was the kid who was shaving in the eighth grade.
He has greenish eyes and a handsome face that looks much older than nineteen. He steps around the ankle that he broke with a softball bat, and walks to the counter for drinks. She knows I'm staring at her. She very deliberately glances around the room, then at the last moment gives me a quick wink. I almost spill my coffee.
It doesn't take much of an imagination to hear the
words that have been passed between these two lately. Threats, apologies, pleas, more threats. It appears as though they're having a rough time of it tonight. Both faces are stern. They sip their drinks in silence. There's an occasional word or two, but they're like two puppy lovers in the midst of their weekly pouting session. A short sentence here, an even shorter reply there. They look at each other only when necessary, a lot of hard stares at the floor and the walls. I hide behind a book.
She's positioned herself so that she can glance at me without getting caught. His back is almost squarely to me. He looks around every now and then, but his movements are telegraphed. I can scratch my hair and pore over my studies long before he lays eyes on me.
After ten minutes of virtual silence, she says something that draws a hot response. I wish I could hear. He's suddenly shaking and snarling words at her. She dishes it right back. The volume increases and I quickly discern that they're discussing whether or not she'll testify against him in court. Seems she hasn't made up her mind. Seems this really bothers Cliff. He has a short fuse, no surprise for a macho redneck, and she's telling him not to yell. He glances around, and tries to lower his voice. I can't hear what he says.
After provoking him, she calms him, though he's still very unhappy. He simmers as they ignore each other for a spell.
Then she does it again. She mumbles something, and his back stiffens. His hands shake, his words are filled with foul language. They quarrel for a minute before she stops talking and ignores him. Cliff doesn't take to being ignored, so he gets louder. She tells him to be quiet, they're in public. He gets even louder, talking about what he'll do if she doesn't drop everything, and how he might go to jail, and on and on.
She says something I can't hear, and he suddenly slaps his tall cup and bolts to his feet. The soda flies across half the room, spraying carbonated foam on the other tables and the floor. It drenches her. She gasps, closes her eyes, starts crying. He can be heard stomping and cursing down the hall.
I instinctively get to my feet, but she is quick to shake her head. I sit down. The cashier has watched this and arrives with a hand towel. She gives it to Kelly, who wipes Coke from her face and arms.
"I'm sorry," she says to the cashier.
Her gown is soaked. She fights back tears as she wipes her cast and legs. I'm nearby but I can't help, I assume she's afraid he might return and catch us talking.
There are many places in this hospital where one can sit and have a Coke or a coffee, but she brought him here because she wanted me to see him. I'm almost certain she provoked him so I could witness his temper.
We look at each other for a long time as she methodically wipes her face and arms. Tears stream down her face, and she dabs at them. She possesses that inexplicable feminine ability to produce tears while appearing not to cry. She's not sobbing or bawling. Her lips are not quivering. Her hands are not shaking. She just sits there, in another world, staring at me with glazed eyes, touching her skin with a white towel.
Time passes, but I lose track of it. A crippled janitor arrives and mops around her. Three nurses rush in with loud talk and laughter until they see her, then they're suddenly quiet. They stare, whisper and occasionally look at me.
He's been gone long enough to assume he's not coming back, and the idea of being a gentleman is exciting. The nurses leave, and Kelly slowly wiggles an index finger at me. It's now okay for me to approach.
"I'm sorry," she says as I crouch near her.
And then she utters words I will never forget. "Will you take me to my room?"
In another setting, these words might have profound consequences, and for an instant my mind drifts away to an exotic beach where the two young lovers finally decide to have a go at it.
Her room, of course, is a semiprivate cubicle with a door that's subject to being opened by a multitude of people. Even lawyers can barge in.
I carefully weave Kelly and her wheelchair around the tables and into the hallway. "Fifth floor," she says over her shoulder. I'm in no hurry. I'm very proud of myself for being so chivalrous. I like the fact that men look twice at her as we roll along the corridor.
We're alone for a few seconds in the elevator. I kneel beside her. "Are you okay?" I ask.
She's not crying now. Her eyes are still moist and a shade red, but she's under control. She nods quickly and says, "Thanks." And then she takes my hand and squeezes it firmly. "Thanks so much."
The elevator jerks and stops. A doctor steps in, and she quickly lets go of my hand. I stand behind the wheelchair, like a devoted husband. I want to hold hands again.
It's almost eleven, according to the clock on the wall at the fifth floor. Except for a few nurses and orderlies, the hallway is quiet and deserted. A nurse at the station looks twice at me as we roll by. Mrs. Riker left with one man, and now she's back with another.
We make a left turn and she points to her door. To my surprise and delight, she has a private room with her own window and bath. The lights are on.
I'm not sure how mobile she really is, but at this moment she's completely helpless. "You have to help me,"
she says. And she says it only once. I carefully bend over her, and she wraps her arms around my neck. She squeezes and presses harder than necessary, but no complaints. The gown is stained with soda, but I'm not particularly concerned. She's a snug fit, up close to me, and I quickly discern that she's not wearing a bra. I squeeze her tighter to me.
I gently lift her from the chair, an easy task because she doesn't weigh more than a hundred and ten, cast and all. We maneuver up to the bed, taking as long as possible, making a fuss over her fragile leg, adjusting her just right as I very slowly ease her onto the bed. We reluctantly let go of each other. Our faces are just inches apart when the same nurse romps in, her rubber soles squishing on the tiled floor.
"What happened?" she exclaims, pointing at the stained gown.
We're still untangling and trying to separate. "Oh, that. Just an accident," Kelly explains.
The nurse never stops moving. She reaches into a drawer under the television and pulls out a folded gown. "Well, you need to change," she says, tossing it onto the bed beside Kelly. "And you need a sponge bath." She stops for a second, jerks her head toward me and says, "Get him to help you."
I take a deep breath and feel faint.
"I can do it," Kelly says, placing the gown on the table next to the bed.
"Visiting hours are over, hon," she says to me. "You kids need to wrap it up." She squishes out of the room. I close the door and return to the side of her bed. We study each other.
"Where's the sponge?" I ask, and we both laugh. She has big dimples that form perfectly at the corners of her smile.
"Sit up here," she says, patting the edge of the bed. I sit next to her with my feet hanging off. We are not touching. She pulls a white sheet up to her armpits, as if to hide the stains.
I'm quite aware of how this looks. A battered wife is a married woman until she gets a divorce. Or until she kills the bastard.
"So what do you think of Cliff?" she asks.
"You wanted me to see him, didn't you?"
"He should be shot."
"That's rather severe for a little tantrum, isn't it?"
I pause for a moment and look away. I've decided that I will not play games with her. Since we're talking, then we re going to be honest.
What am I doing here?
"No, Kelly, it's not severe. Any man who beats his wife with an aluminum bat needs to be shot." I watch her closely as I say this, and she doesn't flinch.
"How do you know?" she asks.
"The paper trail. Police reports, ambulance reports, hospital records. How long do you wait before he decides to hit you in the head with his bat? That could kill you, you know. Coupla good shots to the skull-"
"Stop it! Don't tell me how it feels." She looks at the wall, and when she looks back at me the tears have started again. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"Then tell me."
"If I wanted to discuss it, I would've brought it up. You have no right to go digging around in my life."
"File for divorce. I'll bring the papers tomorrow. Do it now, while you're in the hospital being treated for the last beating. What better proof? It'll sail through. In three months, you'll be a free woman."
She shakes her head as if I'm a total fool. I probably am.
"You don't understand."
"I'm sure I don't. But I can see the big picture. If you don't get rid of this jerk you might be dead in a month. I have the names and phone numbers of three support groups for abused women."
"Right. Abused. You're abused, Kelly. Don't you know that? That pin in your ankle means you're abused. That purple spot on your cheek is clear evidence that your husband beats you. You can get help. File for divorce and get help."
She thinks about this for a second. The room is quiet. "Divorce won't work. I've already tried it."
"A few months ago. You don't know? I'm sure there's a record of it in the courthouse. What happened to the paper trail?"
"What happened to the divorce?"
"I dismissed it."
"Because I got tired of getting slapped around. He was going to kill me if I didn't dismiss it. He says he loves me."
"That's very clear. Can I ask you something? Do you have a father or brother?"
"Because if my daughter got beat up by her husband, I'd break his neck."
"My father doesn't know. My parents are still seething over my pregnancy. They'll never get over it..They despised Cliff from the moment he set foot in our house, and when the scandal broke they went into seclusion. I haven't talked to them since I left home."
"No. No one to watch over me. Until now."
This hits hard, and it takes a while for me to absorb it. "Ill do whatever you want," I say. "But you have to file for divorce."
She wipes tears with her fingers, and I hand her a tissue from the table. "I can't file for divorce."
"He'll kill me. He tells me so all the time. See, when I filed before, I had this really rotten lawyer, found him in the yellow pages or someplace like that. I figured they were all the same. And he thought it would be cute to get the deputy to serve the divorce papers on Cliff while he was at work, in front of his little gang, his drinking buddies and softball team. Cliff, of course, was humiliated. That was my first visit to the hospital. I dismissed the divorce a week later, and he still threatens me all the time. He'll kill me."
The fear and terror are plainly visible in her eyes. She shifts slightly, frowning as if a sharp pain has hit her ankle. She groans, and says, "Can you put a pillow under it?"
I jump from the bed. "Sure." She points to two thick cushions in the chair.
"One of those," she says. This, of course, means that the sheet will be removed. I help with this.
She pauses for a second, looks around, says, "Hand me the gown too."
I take a jittery step to the table, and hand her the fresh gown. "Need some help?" I ask.
"No, just turn around." As she says this, she's already tugging at the old gown, pulling it over her head. I turn around very slowly.
She takes her time. Just for the hell of it, she tosses the stained gown onto the floor beside me. She's back there, less than five feet away, completely naked except for a
pair of panties and a plaster cast. I honestly believe I could turn around and stare at her, and she wouldn't mind. I'm dizzy with this thought.
I close my eyes and ask myself, What am I doing here?
"Rudy, would you get me the sponge?" she coos. "It's in the bathroom. Run some warm water over it. And a towel, please."
I turn around. She's sitting in the middle of the bed clutching the thin sheet to tier chest. The fresh gown has not been touched.
I can't help but stare. "In there," she nods. I take a few steps into the small bathroom, where I find the sponge. As I soak it in water, I watch her in the mirror above the sink. Through a crack in the door, I can see her back. All of it. The skin is smooth and tanned, but there's an ugly bruise between her shoulders.
I decide that I'll be in charge of this bath. She wants me to, I can tell. She's hurt and vulnerable. She likes to flirt, and she wants me to see her body. I'm all tingles and shakes.
Then, voices. The nurse is back. She's buzzing around the room when I reenter. She stops and grins at me, as if she almost caught us.
"Time's up," she says. "It's almost eleven-thirty. This isn't a hotel." She pulls the sponge from my hand. "I'll do this. Now you get out of here."
I just stand there, smiling at Kelly and dreaming of touching those legs. The nurse firmly grabs my elbow and ushers me to the door. "Now go on," she scolds in mock frustration.
AT THREE in the morning I sneak down to the hammock, where I rock absently in the still night, watching the stars flicker through the limbs and leaves, recalling
every delightful move she made, hearing her troubled voice, dreaming of those legs.
It has fallen upon me to protect her, there's no one else. She expects me to rescue her, then to put her back together. It's obvious to both of us what will happen then.
I can feel her clutching my neck, pressing close to me for those few precious seconds. I can feel the featherweight of her entire body resting naturally in my arms.
She wants me to see her, to rub her flesh with a warm sponge. I know she wants this. And, tonight, I intend to do it.
I watch the sun rise through the trees, then fall asleep counting the hours until I see her again.
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