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Mason gave Gail a day to cool down. And in that day he realized he was close to losing her altogether. As much as he felt threatened by her possessiveness, he found that he still did not want to be entirely without her. He liked talking to her, he liked her spirit, plus her support and admiration, and he liked making love to her. If he could keep that much, he resolved to try to give her a little more of what she wanted from him, although he had no specific concessions in mind. It did occur to him to offer her another vacation somewhere but he remembered that the last time he had done that – the cabin in the woods – it had not been well received.
He was worried too about Officer Borst. The man must be deranged, Mason decided, and was probably capable of worse things than trying to get Mason framed on a drug charge. One of Mason’s guns, received from some client long forgotten, was a small .32 automatic. After the police searched his house, Mason went that same day to a sporting goods store and bought a box of .32 caliber ammunition. He loaded the little pistol, fired one test round into a tree in his back yard, and put the weapon in his pocket, resolving to carry it with him constantly for at least a few days. When Borst learned that his scheme had backfired, his behavior might become more extreme.
Mason phoned Mrs. Borstikyan to resign from her case and warn her about Borst, although he attempted to do that without revealing the sordid details of his own circumstances.
“What do you mean, resign? What about my hearing?” she asked.
“Resign means to withdraw completely from any involvement with your case. I won’t be going to the hearing. I know several other very good attorneys who could take over for you. But I won’t be able to do it. I’ll be filing my withdrawal within the next day or so. I can also file a request for a continuance at that time, if you like. I’m sure that the court would grant it in order to give your new attorney an opportunity to become acquainted with the case.”
“What new attorney? I don’t want a new attorney. What’s going on here, Mr. Prewitt? What are you talking about?”
“I have to withdraw from your case, Mrs. Borstikyan. because of some urgent personal matters.”
“Your ex-husband is a dangerous man, Mrs. Borstikyan.”
“You’re damned right he is,” she said proudly. “Ohhh. Now I get it. You’re afraid of him, aren’t you?”
“Of course not.”
“Not that I blame you. He broke a guy’s arm once. That I know about.”
“Why would he do that?” Mason had not heard the broken arm story.
“It was just some jerk that he was arresting. He claimed that the guy was resisting. There was a departmental investigation, and they cleared him, but I think that’s what they always did when there was a complaint against an officer. They protect their own, like most of us I suppose.”
“Mrs. Borstikyan, I want to caution you that your ex-husband seems to be unreasonably upset over your attempts to collect back support.”
“Sure he is, the sonuvabitch. That’s the point, isn’t it?”
“No, ma’am. That is not the point. The point is to use the strength of the law to compel your ex-husband to pay his child support in the amount that the court has already decided was a fair amount. That’s the point.”
“Hah! Fair?! Who can decide that? The judges are men, and men think think they know everything. They order this and they order that. And everything is supposed to be alright afterwards. Except I’m not getting anything, not one penny.”
“Our judicial system is not perfect but it’s what we’ve got, Mrs. Borstikyan.”
“Not perfect! I’ll say it’s not!”
“Look, it’s the only alternative to trying to do something on your own.”
“You mean like shoot the bastard?” She asked bitterly, “Are you saying I should be grateful for what I get? Well it looks like all I’m gonna get is the satisfaction of seeing that bastard squirm. I’ll take that, but I still want the money too.”
Mason was about to give up. He was not making any progress in his effort to comfort Mrs. Borstikyan. “Ma’am, I want to give you some advice. This has nothing to do with the law. It’s just based on my practical experience. You’re wasting your money on legal fees if you take action that has no hope of getting Mr. Borst to pay.”
“It builds a record. You told me that a long time ago.”
He cursed his compulsion to educate his clients.
She continued her argument by quoting herself. “It builds a record. Listen to me. I’m even starting to talk like you now. This law stuff is like a rash. You get a little on you and then it sort of takes over. The problem with you lawyers is that you get too involved with all the game playing. You lose sight of the principles involved.”
“People want revenge, Mr. Prewitt. That why they file legal action. And even though you try to dress it up and call it justice, that’s only so you lawyers won’t have to lie awake at night worrying about how sullied you might become from all the base instincts you come up against. Do you think if I liked my ex-husband I would ever have called you in the first place?”
“We’re not getting anywhere, Mrs. Borstikyan.”
“Hah! That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said so far. I want that hearing. Give me the names of those other lawyers. I’ll call them.”
He gladly give her the names and phone numbers of three other attorneys. He thought to himself, let them take a little of the heat.
“Tell me this,” she said. “What happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“That made you withdraw. You owe me that.”
“Nothing. Believe me. Just urgent personal business.”
“Sure.” She clearly did not believe him. “Urgent personal business. Sounds like a description of my life.” Her speech became noticeably broken, as though she had started to cry. “You wouldn’t want to know, Mr. Prewitt. I’ll say that. You wouldn’t want to know.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Listen,” she said, sounding defeated. “I’m sorry it worked out like this. I appreciate what you did. Maybe to you it’s a waste of time. That’s only because you haven’t seen it all through my eyes.”
He wished her good luck and got off the phone feeling as though he had passed through a forest of thorns. Her bitterness had grown in the time that he had represented her, either that or she had become less inclined to try to conceal it. But if the law and her involvement with it had turned her to stone, then what good had he accomplished for her? Beyond that, what good did he accomplish for any of his clients except getting them a little money occasionally or preserving some of their own assets that someone else was trying to take.
Mason had recently begun to see most of the plaintiffs he represented as inveterate “gimmees”, the people who were always the first to complain about being deprived of their “rights” or not getting their full share. Their real problem was that they did not like to acquiesce to a world that was determined to ignore them. The defendants were no better – irresponsible sheep who seemed to believe that their problems were always somebody else’s fault.
Had he encouraged people to hold attitudes he should have warned them were unrealistic? Was it his job to sort out the truly deserving from the “gimmees”? How was he to distinguish injured people who were so pure of motive that they did not complain, from the others who did not seem so deserving? He didn’t like what his career in The Law had become – nothing like what he had imagined while in law school.
“Damn you, Borst,” Mason muttered.
He frittered away the rest of the afternoon, scarcely able to concentrate on an eviction that would gain him access to the swimming pool of the most expensive high rise condominiums in town. A tenant had not paid his $1,200 monthly installment for three months, and the managing corporation wanted him gone. Mason had only the name of a tenant and did not know what excuses he might offer for his failure to pay. All indications were that he had already moved out. Mason had requested that management provide him with a complete set of keys, on the pretext that it would be necessary for him to check the apartment for damage. The managing corporation readily provided the keys, and Mason had concluded that other tenants would not complain about him using the pool, probably assuming he lived there.
As Mason finished the paper work, his phone rang. He hesitated, realizing that it might be Borst or Gail or his first wife, Jane, or a disgruntled client, none of whom he felt like talking to at that moment. While he waited for his answering machine to kick in, he remembered Mrs. Borstikyan’s rant about Borst and her credible claim that he could be violent. Mason felt humiliated by his hesitancy to answer his own phone. He snatched it up. It was Mr. Jadrow from Testimonial Finance. Mason asked him what he wanted.
“It’s about the boat, Mr. Prewitt.”
It had been months since Mason had been inside his sailboat. Over the winter it had been too cold to try to entertain himself or any female with the fantasy of sailing. Anyway, the charm had worn off. The sailboat no longer represented a pristine corner of privacy. There didn’t seem to be any such place for him anymore. The boat had become only another declining aspect of his rapidly settling fortunes. The tires on the trailer had been flat for weeks. He had never put the boat in water, had never moved it, and had accepted the possibility that he never would.
“What boat?” Mason asked.
“The boat that Mr. Dobbins tells us he gave to you and that we have observed in your yard. He had no right to do that, Mr. Prewitt. At that time, he still owed us over $6,000 on that boat.”
“The boat was my fee for putting him through bankruptcy,” Mason said.
“We will have to repossess it. As an attorney you must recognize that.”
“You don’t have the right to come onto my property to get it, not like you could with Dobbins. That’s what I recognize.” Mason felt his spirits lifted as he slipped into negotiating mode.
Mr. Jadrow cleared his throat. “We’re aware of that, Mr. Prewitt. We actually thought that you might be taking the boat out some day. We had our man checking on weekends. We did that for a long time.”
“Sorry to have put you to that trouble. I just use it in my yard. It has never left there.”
“We want the boat, Mr. Prewitt. We are prepared to compensate you for permitting us to come onto your property to remove it.”
“Oh? About how much compensation were you thinking of?”
“We were thinking of $800.”
“Sorry. That boat represents my entire fee for Mr. Dobbins bankruptcy. I don’t do bankruptcies for $800. That boat’s worth about ten thousand anyway, according to Dobbins.”
“It was worth that much new. That was the price tag when he bought it. It’s worth substantially less than that today.”
Mason felt distracted from the instincts that would ordinarily have pushed him toward a better deal. He didn’t really care anymore about losing the boat or even about his fee for Mr. Dobbins’ bankruptcy. He was tiring of the whole negotiating game.
“I’ll take fifteen hundred,” Mason said.
“Can’t do it,” Mr. Jadrow said. “How about one thousand?”
Mason took a deep breath, glad that it was over and the boat would be gone. “Done,” he said.
Mr. Jadrow agreed to bring the check to the house that evening, along with a formal release. He was as eager as debt collectors were supposed to be. Mason respected that.
By the next day, Mason still had not heard from Gail. Jadrow had been by and left a check and said that he would have the boat retrieved within the next few days, as soon as he found some replacement trailer tires of the correct size. George had not yet convinced Tina to take him back, so he went out with a girl whom he met in a singles bar. Mason had watched a movie on his video player that night and waited for the phone to ring, hoping to hear from Gail. Locked in his office the next morning, he decided it was time for him to make his own call.
He phoned her job first, anticipating that he would have to leave a message for her to call him when she came back in from her efforts to sell shock absorbers. But she was not there that day. She had called in sick. It was still only two days after the abortion, but it hadn’t occurred to him that she might not be feeling comfortable enough to return to work. He wondered if it was physical or psychological. He felt equally guilty at the possibility of either kind of distress. He dialed the number of her condominium.
“Hello,” she said, and he felt an immediate rush of good feeling starting to replace the bad. But his brain had already analyzed her one word answer, and he could not help wondering if she was a little tired or was just experiencing a trace of weakness. He instantly imagined having to call an ambulance for her and then racing to get there before it did.
“Do you feel all right?” he asked hesitantly.
“Oh, it’s you. Of course I don’t feel all right. Two days ago I had an abortion and yesterday morning I was caught in a police raid by a bunch of cops who thought you were a drug dealer. Which you tried to explain by telling them, with me sitting there, that you had been balling one of your students. And you want to know if I feel all right. Mason, why did you call me?”
“Gail, I was concerned about you. About us. That’s why I called.” He was launching himself earnestly into apologizing, something at which he felt skilled. “I made a bad mistake. I screwed up.” He immediately winced at his inappropriate choice of words, but he rolled on. “That girl meant nothing to me. If I hadn’t been drunk and if she hadn’t been trying so hard to plant some dope on me, it never would have happened.”
He heard Gail take a deep breath. “Look, Mason, I’ve heard this kind of stuff before from other guys. The apology sounds very nice while it’s being offered, but then nothing ever changes. I wanted to go away and make a new life with you but I can see that you’re not interested in that sort of thing.”
He had heard the phrase “make a new life” before, maybe on TV. But she was right – he didn’t want to go through the kind of change she prescribed. And he didn’t know how he could both have her and maintain his current life.
When he did not speak she added, “See what I mean?”
He was wondering if he should propose marriage. Instead he decided to offer her another vacation.
“Look, I can understand that you want to get away to someplace new and different. I do too. So why don’t we go to the Caribbean or someplace where it’s sunny and we could just lie around and pick up nice tans.”
“Mason, you’re such an asshole. You think you can always bribe me out of wanting to get married. Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe I’ve let you do it too often. But I’m not going to put up with it anymore. It’s too much of a strain. I’ve had a couple days to do nothing but think. That’s the one thing I can thank you for. Now I know what I want. And it’s not what you can offer me.”
She was sounding more serious than usual. His negotiating instincts directed him to sweeten the pot a little. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. I thought you liked those trips. You always seemed to before. But that’s OK. I’ll just give you a check for the give thousand dollars you needed and you can spend it however you like.” He swallowed hard, pained by what he’d had to offer and hoping she would decline.
“Mason, forget the five thousand dollars. I don’t want it anymore. In fact, I never really wanted the money. It was just something that somebody suggested and that I thought might work for me. But I can see now that if I took it you’d never let me forget about it. You would have bought yourself a perpetual shack job. I want a husband and kids and you’re never going to give me that. You can’t. You don’t have it in you.”
Was she insulting his masculinity? “What do you mean by that?”
She sighed. “See. That’s all you’re concerned about – yourself. You’re a real con man, Mason. I mean you had me fooled. But besides that, I think you’ve got yourself fooled. Why don’t you admit it, you’ve just been using me. I’m just somebody that makes you feel good sometimes. Like a… like a Jacuzzi.” She knew that he loved Jacuzzis. “I’m just like a whirlpool bath to you, that’s all.”
He thought her remark a strange thing to say. For a moment he wondered if the abortion had temporarily affected her sanity.
“Look,” he said. “I’ll just make up a check for the five thousand. It’s the least I can do for what you’ve been through. I could bring it around tonight and maybe take you out to dinner or something.”
“You’re not listening to me, Mason. I don’t want the money. And I don’t want to see you. That’s real simple. I’ve had it. I’m going to find someone else. All you’re after is somebody who’ll act like they want you. There’s plenty of people around who’ll do that, I’m sure. Maybe you can even find another student from one of your classes.” He winced. “But I’ve got needs of my own and you’re not doing anything for them except giving me a lot of frustration.”
“Just take the check. We’ll talk about it later. I’ll get better. I promise.”
She shouted into the phone, “I don’t want your goddamned money! And I don’t want you anymore either. Just leave me alone!” There was a loud clunk as she slammed the receiver down.
He looked at the receiver in his own hand, puzzled. She had never been so resolute. And most ominously, she had refused the money. It was not like her. He wondered who she had been talking to this time. He replaced the receiver on its cradle but continued to stare at it as though it held the answer to his bewilderment. What did she mean, that he only wanted someone to want him? All men desired affection, but that wasn’t all that motivated him. Didn’t she understand that? He felt that he had been misjudged.
He frittered away the rest of the afternoon, distracted by his conversation with Gail. He had difficulty concentrating on the student papers he corrected and thought afterwards that he may have made mistakes on some of the grades, but he didn’t care enough to check them. He was morose. He was not yet willing to accept that his relationship with Gail had disintegrated, despite his efforts. Still, he remained uncertain about the future. That surprised him, because in the past he usually had assumed he would deal with the future when he got there.
When he left his office that afternoon he dropped into the departmental office and spoke to the secretary, a happy, overweight girl named Joy. He had neglected to check his inbox there for the last three days. She kidded him about it and handed him a small accumulation of mail and memos.
“Dean Farquard stopped in today,” she said. She leaned forward to impart critical information. “He held your letters up to the light. That was after he asked me if many people came to see you who didn’t look like students.”
“He wants to know if I’m making money from a private law practice. He hasn’t got anything better to do.”
Joy remained offended by the Dean’s behavior. “Then why doesn’t he just ask you?”
“He has. I never seem to get around to answering him. What did you tell him?”
She shrugged. “I told him I didn’t know. I said that none of the students actually looked like students anymore, with so many foreigners and older people attending classes. He just harrumphed and left.”
Mason saw that for some reason not clear she was expressing loyalty to him. He thanked her and left. He had hardly noticed Joy before, but now he wondered what her private life was like, what kind of men she knew, how often she had sex, whether she was as happy as she always appeared to be or was secretly lonely. It only occurred to him because in his present mood he couldn’t help wondering how other people progressed from one day to the next, managing lives that apparently were much less complicated than his own. Which only led him back to where he had begun, why was he the person that he was?
When he steered the Jaguar into his drive, he saw immediately that the boat was gone. There was only a bare place in the yard to show where it had been parked all those months. Even though he had not sat in the boat for many weeks, he thought that this would have been a good night to have done so. He regretted that it was gone. He wondered momentarily what divine scheme might be at work to cause so many unpleasant things to torment him over such a narrow period of time.
When George got home he asked what had happened to the boat. Mason told him that the finance company had gotten it, even though that explanation seemed to Mason to be only part of the answer.
George could see that Mason was troubled, and at dinner he tried to cheer him up with the story of a female dental patient that George said had tried to seduce him. Mason’s lack of response was not encouraging. When Mason declined George’s offer to go out for a beer, George reluctantly left alone.
‘”Are you gonna be OK?” George had asked before leaving.
“Yeah. I’m just tired. I’ve been having problems with Gail. I think I’ll just watch a little TV and go to bed.”
“Remember,” George began and Mason joined him in reciting, “there will always be another bus along.”
With George gone, Mason felt like a stranger in his house, walking softly, closing things gently. He realized after awhile that the telephone was exerting a powerful influence over him. It was intimidating, sitting there silently, poised with the potential to surprise him with the ring that he wanted to hear. But it didn’t happen.
At eleven o’clock he turned on the TV news and sat with a beer, watching but not absorbing.
He had slept with another woman and he had admitted it. He had little choice after the police had been turned loose on him by Elaine Bettendorff, secret campus narc, paying her tuition with the information she sold. No wonder she had been so cynical.
He had always in the past made the same kind of admission when accused. He did it in this instance not just because it helped clear him with the police, but because it was too much effort to lie and because he harbored a theory that to admit sex was to diminish its significance, at least in his own mind. Besides, to lie would only compound the guilt; there was enough of that from the act itself without adding a lie.
He was distracted by the questions he posed to himself, some of which Gail had spoken to him at various times in her anger. Why are you unfaithful? Why do you let a woman believe that she might be the most important person in your life and then make love to someone else who is almost a stranger? What are you looking for? Companionship? Sex? Reaffirmation of the ability to get it up? Power over women? Or maybe even the most difficult of all to comprehend – a dose of guilt. He could have asked to speak to the police detective alone about Elaine Bettendorff, but he had chosen to do it with Gail there.
He had been faithful to his first wife. It had been Jane who had finally left for another lover. But it had only been after years of him ignoring her, treating her with contempt, ridiculing her. He had forced her to make a decision that he had not wanted to make himself. He could have given her happiness. For the first time, he realized that he could have made that marriage something altogether different. There had been a choice, but not a clear one that was presented at some single moment in their relationship in the cold rational form of words, words that everyone could agree meant certain things. Commitment. Compromise. Reliance. Those words rarely appeared in the midst of any discontent. But still, he saw now that there had been a choice and he had picked wrong as much as any man who had ever chosen his route simply by putting one foot in front of the other. It was a path from which one could not return.
He could have made her happy. And she would have loved him and made him happy, at least in a steady, relatively unexciting way. There it was, as clear as though it had happened. It would have required a little sacrifice, a little tolerance, a little compromise on his part, but the rewards would have been almost as certain as the guilt that accompanied the route he had elected to follow. He had wanted happiness; he strove even now to achieve it, more than twenty years after he got married the first time. And yet when it was at hand he turned away, in a manner so subtle that he had deceived himself about it for all those years. He had made the woman reject him.
He had done it with Jane, with his second wife Terri, and with so many others after those that he could not begin to remember them all. Gail was only the latest. Certainly he had never suspected in his coupling with Elaine Bettendorff that she would be the one who callously would manage to reveal to Gail the full extent of his self-determination, but he saw now that she had always been his agent. He must have known that his involvement with her would become known to Gail, or if not Elaine Bettendorff then someone else in the same role.
On the TV news a reporter told how burglars had beaten a Laotian woman to death in a southeast neighborhood and how her despondent husband had hung himself the next day in a city park. Mason wondered at the passion and sense of responsibility and their attendant shame and grief that the man possessed relative to his wife. Mason felt vulnerable to women. He didn’t trust them. They could make a man kill himself. Worse that that, they could make a man agree with them in a way that robbed him of his strength. They were Delilahs, waiting to cut his hair.
When he was a child, his mother had been the first to cut his hair. And when he had become old enough to feel shame for the cute style she insisted upon, he refused to let her cut it, stole some money from her purse and went alone to a barber shop. He returned with a crew cut and she cried until he too had cried and apologized. But he never let her cut his hair again.
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