I’ll admit from the outset that I never was a conventional woman. Even as I child, I was not one to play with dolls or dress up in high heels with my mother’s lipstick smeared all over my face. From an early age, I knew that I was going to be a lawyer – a tough, no-nonsense, and successful lawyer.
I argued every point with everyone. Even I knew some of those points were weak or moot, but I argued them, anyway. Admittedly, it cost me a few friends along the way. More importantly, it prepared me to take first place in every debate I entered in both high school and college. It taught me to speak extemporaneously. It taught me to think on my feet. That, in turn, enabled me to talk my way into law school.
Once there, I was able to hold my own against the males, who thought women had no business in law. Actually, I did better than hold my own. I left them in the dust as I worked my way to a perfect 4.0 grade point average. I won’t tell you where I went to law school. Suffice it to say that it had a big name, big enough so that, with my high grades and a year as editor of the law review, I emerged with a clerkship in the noted Washington firm of Pemberton, McCardle, and Kane. You, no doubt, remember Senators Pemberton and McCardle and former Vice President Winston Kane.
My sister insists that Washington and I were well suited to one another. After all, we both were down and dirty. My sister never did have anything nice to say about me, but you know what they say: Nice guys finish last. So do nice girls. I did not intend to finish last, not even in second place.
I arrived in DC on a cool, rainy day in late-June. It was one of those years when it seemed that summertime never would arrive. The temperature had not risen above fifty-five degrees all year. Still, the central boiler was providing steam to the radiators in the quaint apartment I rented in one of the old buildings that line Connecticut Avenue.
The walls were painted antique white, the floors were hardwood and recently refinished. The small kitchen had been refurbished, as well, with new pecan cabinets and stainless steel appliances. It never had occurred to me that the apartment had lost its charm when the old aluminum-edged countertops and authentic linoleum flooring had been removed. Those things did not bother me. I was a Washington lawyer!
After leaving my luggage, I drove downtown. Using my new-graduate’s credit card, I picked out furniture for my new apartment. Over the next few days, I shopped in Georgetown for paintings to on my walls and bowls and vases to display on my new tables.
The next day, I bought career suits at not-quite-discount prices. They bore designer labels but had small flaws. I made certain those flaws were not visible. I also bought shoes and purses to go with my suits. Through it all, I spared no expense. I was a Washington lawyer! I did not have to buy a briefcase; my ex-boyfriend had given me one for graduation. Yes, ex-boyfriend. More about him, later.
On my way home, I stopped off to have my nails done and my brows waxed. I wouldn’t worry about my hair; I would pin it up, which I always did, anyway. Next door was a sidewalk vendor. I stopped and bought a dozen roses to display in the vase I had bought for the hall table. My last stop was to pick up something to eat for dinner. I would have to remember to go to the grocery store the next day. After all, work would begin the day after that, and I wouldn’t have time for such domestic matters. After all, I was a Washington lawyer.
“You’re being a fool!” my sister told me. Yes, the sister who never had had a nice word to say about me. “Spending money before you report for work and complete the tax papers is asking for trouble.”
“Nothing will go wrong,” I retorted and hung up.
How many times had I written the words "Esperanza A. Cervantes, Attorney at Law" in the margins of my notebooks? Hundreds, at least. The sight of those words had kept me going when a lack of sleep, demanding professors, and my snippy fellow students had seemed to want me to give up. I had to keep going. I was not going to give up or fall short of my goal.
Now, it seemed that I had reached that goal. I had taken my diploma, received a prestigious position, and was ready to show the world just who I was. My hair was pinned up in a flawless French braid. My new gray suit fit me perfectly. There was not so much as a speck of dust on my new, black shoes. I was ready to face the world, and I showed it as I strode purposefully into the offices of Pemberton, McCardle & Kane on K Street.
My bubble burst with but one sentence spoken by the human resources lady: “You will begin as a junior clerk, Miss Cervantes.”
Her speech did not improve. “After all, no one is allowed to practice law until he or she has successfully passed each and every portion of the bar exam. When you do, you will receive a performance appraisal. If the partners agree that your performance at Pemberton, McCardle & Kane has been up to our high standards, you will receive a promotion to senior clerk. If, after a year…,”
Yaddah, yaddah… On and on she went. The bottom line was that the firm did not have legal secretaries; paralegals filled that role. The clerks, therefore, filled the role of paralegal. Their law degrees granted them no more than a better title. In short, I had to prove that I was worthy of being a lawyer before the firm would allow me to be a lawyer.
Excuse me, but what have the past three years been about, years of spending night after night in the library stacks, poring over cases that dated back two centuries? I could have taken a correspondence course in paralegal studies and done this work.
Wisely, I did not voice my opinion. That was something new, yet it was something essential, according to the voice of my mentor at the law review: “Pick and choose your battles carefully” and “keep your own counsel” rang in my ears as the stone-faced woman, who sat supremely behind her desk, continued her spiel.
“I will tell you up front that only ten percent of those who come to work here remain after they pass their bar exam.”
Something told me she was not exaggerating. Something also told me that Pemberton, McCardle & Kane was one of those firms where one did one’s time in order to have the big name on a resume before venturing out into the real world. Well, that was okay. I could do that, too, if need be. Something told me that need would be.
“As a junior clerk, this will be your salary,” the HR woman went on as she slid a slip of paper in my direction.
The sum written upon it was miniscule. I had been led to believe I would receive twice as much. I told her so.
“That will come at the end of the first year – if you are still here. Now, in addition to your salary, you will receive health insurance, life insurance, and disability. You will not become eligible for our 401-K retirement program until you have successfully completed your first year. You will not receive paid parking; however, there is a Metro stop only two blocks away at either Farragut West or Farragut North.”
At least the Metro ran close to where I lived. In fact, it would be a very short ride, only a half-dozen stops to Farragut North. Still, it wasn’t the lifestyle I had envisioned. I found myself wondering why I had bought a car. Making the payments on it was not going to be easy on the salary this woman was quoting me.
The news did not get any better when the great stone face took me to meet my supervisor. She, too, was a stone face, only older and stonier.
“This is your new junior clerk, Miss Cervantes.”
“Oh. Another one,” Stone Face II said in a dull, monotone voice that told me Stone Face I had been telling the truth when she said very few people survived at Pemberton, McCardle & Kane.
Nor did the news improve when my sister called that night to see how my first day had gone.
“I told you Washington was down and dirty! What did you expect, a tea party?”
“Shut up, Amelia. You sound like that icy HR bitch!”
“Careful or you’ll become just like them,” Amelia warned me.
A chill ran down my spine at the idea that I could become just like the two women I had met that day. Yet, a sensation in the back of my mind told me that becoming just like them would be the only way to survive among them. I went to bed that night shivering in fear.
My office was a shared cubicle that afforded me six feet of desk space, a three-foot shelf for books, and one file drawer. On the writing surface were one legal pad, one note pad, and a list of office rules, all written in the negative.
· NEVER keep office files in your cubicle.
· NEVER take supplies from the supply room. Give Miss Dunlevy a list of what you believe you need; she will fill your order as she can.
· NEVER eat or drink at your desk. Use the break room during your appointed break times.
· NEVER smoke within the office. If you must smoke, go outside during your appointed break times.
The list continued for three pages. By the time I had read the first page, I was sure there would be an item denying me the right to use the restroom except during my appointed break times. Sure enough, I was to let someone know where I was going before I used the restroom. I felt as though I had returned to the first grade. An image passed through my mind of twenty six-year-olds holding onto a rope as they made their way along.
“Do people really abide by these rules?” I asked my cubicle mate in a whisper.
“Only those who still work here,” she whispered back.
“How long have you been here?”
She did not answer me. I wasn’t surprised. After all, one of the items on the list was “NEVER engage in idle conversation with another member of the staff.”
As Stone Face II walked past, I mentally gave her the “Heil, Hitler” salute.
My “task” that morning was to proofread letters, which the paralegals had typed from transcription. I put the mini-tape in the recorder, put on the earphones, and played the tape. Of course, the typed letter was perfect. I initialed the routing slip, put the letter aside, and moved to the next one.
The most challenging part was proofing a property description. Property descriptions can be tricky: “Beginning in the southeast corner of the southeast quadrant and proceeding in a southerly direction 127.45 feet to a point and turning 45 degrees, 30 minutes…” Even so, the paralegal had made no mistakes. Something told me the paralegal would have been out on her ear had she made one.
At eleven o’clock, my telephone rang. I answered it to hear Stone Face II’s voice informing me that it was my appointed break time and that I would have fifteen minutes away from my desk. I replied with a simple “thank you” and dashed to the restroom.
Life became more difficult that afternoon. Then, one of the partners came by to welcome me. Of course, Stone Face II was with him.
“And how do you like our little corner of the world?” he asked me.
I lied. “Oh, I think this is going to be wonderfully challenging and stimulating.”
He knew I was lying and cleared his throat and said, “Uh, yes,” even as he moved on.
Suddenly, I remembered item 37 on the list: “NEVER lie to a principal.”
What was I supposed to do, tell him I thought his firm was…? Well, you know what I mean without my saying it.
I returned to my task, proofreading two long and complicated reciprocal wills. Reciprocal wills are written by a husband and wife to ensure that each provides for the other and to establish who shall be deemed to have survived the longer in the event that both die in a common occurrence. Thus, if the couple die in a car crash, the reciprocal will determines whether the proceeds will pass to her and her heirs or to him and his heirs based on who the couple decide shall have died last.
Life looked up. The wills were interesting, for the couple had accumulated valuable heirlooms from around the world and were heavily invested in such fascinating areas as oil and gas, commercial real estate, and entertainment. They even lived in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in the Washington area, Potomac, Maryland. Their 12,000 square foot home would pass to the survivor with the funds necessary to pay it off in entirety. Even the wealthy have to provide for such things, it seemed.
I found two mistakes. One was a clerical error. The other was a legal error. I did not know how it would be received when a junior clerk pointed out that one will said the couple owned the mansion as tenants in common, while the other will said they were joint tenants. On a hunch, I re-read both wills in search of similar errors but found none. Noting the two errors on the routing slip, I passed the wills forward.
I received the answer to my question the next morning, when I found a red carnation in a bud vase on my desk. The accompanying note read simply, “Good catch. Keep up the good work.” I had no idea who had sent it.
Had I really made a good catch, or it been a test to see whether I was paying attention? I never received the answer to that question.
Of course, not all of life was work. At least, it ceased to be at the end of my first week at Pemberton, McCardle & Kane. As I waited for the elevator at the end of the day on Friday, two of the senior clerks walked up.
“Let us give you some advice, Cárdenas,” one said.
“Cervantes,” I corrected him.
“Oh! Cervantes! Like the writer?” the other asked.
“Right. No relation,” I quickly informed him.
At least, I assumed there was no relationship between me and the sixteenth-century Spanish author. But how many people can trace their families back that far – at least in America. Not many. My family certainly could not.
“You have me at a disadvantage. I don’t know your names,” I told them as we stepped onto the elevator and began our descent.
“I’m Paul Wilkins,” one told me.
“Dennis Chapman,” the other added. “We’re senior clerks.”
“So, you came last year?”
“Last year, yes,” Paul affirmed.
“Do you plan to stay?”
“Why not? They doubled my salary. The work is starting to get interesting. People are impressed when I tell them I work with a former vice president.”
Dennis nodded. “Even though we’ve never seen him.”
“So, they really do give you that promised salary at the end of the first year?” I asked.
“If you’re still on board. Most fall by the wayside.”
“A few have hung themselves or OD’d on something,” Dennis added.
I winced. No way would I allow the situation to get that bad. I’d go home and clerk in old Mr. Ortega’s firm first.
“We’re going to Georgetown. Why don’t you come with us?” Paul suggested.
“I don’t know. I…”
“Come on. We’ll have dinner at the bistro. Maybe listen to some music at the…”
“The bistro’s real good,” Dennis added, cutting Paul off. “Sort of country French – French without the heavy sauces.”
“Definitely not Cordon Bleu, but good,” Paul affirmed.
I realized then just how hungry I was. After all, lunch break was but thirty minutes, and I had lost ten of those minutes in the restroom. I’d barely finished my sandwich and never had gotten around to eating my apple.
You guessed it: Stone Face II called me to her office as I was on my way to my afternoon break. She told me I was being transferred to another section the following week. I would have a three-month rotation in Criminal Law.
“You’re going to Criminal, already?” Paul asked.
“Yes. Why?” I asked.
“Most of us didn’t rotate out of Wills and Probate for three months. If you’re rotating, you must be pretty good,” Dennis said.
“Or else, they’re short-handed in Criminal,” I suggested.
The men shook their heads. “It doesn’t work that way, Cervantes. You have to prove yourself before they let you rotate to a new division.”
We had reached the street. Now, Dennis hailed a cab, and we piled in.
“M Street, Georgetown,” he told the driver.
“Okay. Your name’s Esperanza,” Paul said as the cab crept slowly forward in the rush-hour traffic, “but what do people call you?”
“Esperanza,” I replied.
“Oh, come on. No one is called Esperanza. What do your friends call you? Essie? Espy? Ranzi?”
I gave him a disdainful look. “What do they call you? Pablo? Paulo?”
“Okay. Point taken.”
“I stopped being Denny when I was twelve years old,” Dennis said in a vague way that told me he was thinking aloud. “Actually, I never cared for my name. Dennis the Menace and all.”
“So, go by your middle name,” I suggested.
He shook his head. “It’s my mother’s maiden name. Samuelson.”
“Sam works,” Paul told him.
“Please, don ‘t,” Dennis insisted.
“Dennis, it is, then,” I said as the cab pulled up before The Bistro. Yes, it was a trade name, not a generic one, as I had assumed.
The Bistro did not occupy a storefront. Rather, it was located upstairs, above a secondhand bookshop. Something about it seemed Bohemian, as though its owner were trying to make his French leanings blend with the Hippie style of the day.
“It’s pre-Hippie, actually,” Dennis told me. “Think Beatnik, French coffee houses, that sort of thing. But don’t worry. It runs only skin deep – just to appeal to the clientele. Francois cooks to suit himself.”
“And he does it well,” Paul added.
“Ah! Mes amis!” a joyous voice exclaimed as the maitre d’ rushed forward to greet us. Truthfully, he looked French.
“Basque French,” Paul would tell me later. “Jean Pierre left the region during the war and never looked back.”
“He left home to escape a wicked stepfather,” Dennis added with a grin.
“No. We decided that he must have left home to escape a wicked stepfather,” Paul reminded him. “Of course, we had tied on a few when we made up that story.”
I had to grin at the men, even though I shuddered inwardly to think of the tales they might make up about me. Soon, I was too caught up in dinner to worry about those things.
“Francois is doing creatures tonight,” the waiter informed us. His name was Jacques.
“Creatures?” I asked when Jacques had presented the day’s specials and departed.
“They’re not critters,” Dennis told me. “New creations. Jacques calls them creatures.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. A moment later, I declined the suggestion that I try the escargot (snails), which, for all their good reviews, fall in the category of critters, not creations, for me. I chose, instead, the pompano en papillote. I had enjoyed it in New Orleans and was curious to see how Francois created it.
“It’s not a new dish, though. It’s been around forever,” I said.
“Francois is creating a new way of making it,” Dennis informed me. “Usually, his new ways are very successful.”
“Is a fish a critter?” Paul asked.
“It is if its eyes bulge,” Dennis replied before I could think of a snappy rejoinder.
“There! What Dennis said,” I told Paul.
Paul laughed merrily. “You two suit each other.”
“Down, boy,” Dennis retorted. To me, he added, “Hank and Ben at school called Paul ‘Marrying Sam.’”
“I thought Sam was your name,” I teased him.
Paul’s laughter became raucous. Dennis gave me an appraising eye.
“It appears that there is more to Miss Cervantes than we first thought, Pablo,” he said.
“Actually, Hank called me ‘Marrying Sam.’ Ben called me an old maid aunt,” Paul confessed.
“Are you an old maid aunt?” I asked him.
“I know when two people look good together. You two look good together.”
“Can’t we just have dinner together?” I asked.
“We’re just having dinner together, Pablo,” Dennis affirmed.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Paul said as he arose.
“Going somewhere?” I asked his retreating figure.
“He sees a girl at the bar that he wants to meet,” Dennis explained. “It’s a new one every night for him.”
Presently, Dennis excused himself and walked to the restroom. No sooner had he left than a man approached the table. I looked up to see the principal I had met at work earlier that week.
“Do you remember me, Miss Cervantes? I am Barton Hammonds,” he said.
“Yes, I do. How are you, Mr. Hammonds?”
“Please, call me Bart. May I sit down?”
The man lowered his frame into the chair that Paul had vacated and looked directly at me. Clearly, he was here with a purpose not likely to be social in nature.
“I couldn’t help but see that you are having dinner with two of our senior clerks, Mr. Chapman and Mr. Wilkins.”
“Yes. We ran into each other as we left the office and thought it might be nice to come here for dinner,” I replied. I took pains to sound bright and cheerful, even though I felt my defenses rising.
“Of course, you realize, you are far above either of them in terms of ability. Set your sights higher, Miss Cervantes.”
“I didn’t realize I was setting my sights, at all, except not to be rude to two colleagues.”
“That is why we discourage friendships at the firm. That way, you do not have to be drawn into the company of lesser individuals in order not to be rude.”
Lesser individuals. The term sounded sharp, harsh, even. I looked at the man beside me. Before I could speak, he did.
“I’m sure you have personal friends, whose company would be much more suitable than the company of these men.”
“I have very special friends, yes.”
“Of course, you do. The next time either of these men approaches you, why don’t you make a point of having other plans? Hm? You will be glad you did, I promise you.”
“Very well,” I allowed. What else could I say?
The man arose and departed as suddenly as he had appeared. Well, it seemed only natural for me to remain. After all, I had told Paul and Dennis that I would have dinner with them that night, and our dinner had been ordered. In fact, it would be served soon.
Paul returned then. “What did Hammonds want?”
“He didn’t seem to think it appropriate for colleagues to have dinner together,” I told him.
“Oh? How do you feel about it?”
“I’m not sure I know how to feel about it. I’ve never worked for such a company before. Always, the emphasis has been on establishing interpersonal relationships with colleagues. Teamwork. Everyone throws in a few dollars to order in something for lunch – at least, on Fridays.”
Paul nodded. As Dennis returned, he looked up at him and said, “Hammonds was here.”
“Sheesh! Do those people follow us everywhere we go?” Dennis retorted as anger flooded his face.
“So, it would appear. I say, we finish our dinner and leave,” I said.
“Separately, I assume you mean,” Dennis said.
I nodded. “What choice do we have? The rent’s due each and every month, after all.”
“Yeah. The rent,” Dennis echoed as he looked helplessly about.
By the time I reached my apartment, I had decided to call Tomás. He and I had gone through college and law school together. Now, he worked at a prominent firm in Los Angeles. He would be able to tell me whether this anti-fraternity attitude was normal in the legal profession.
“Not that I’ve ever heard about,” Tom told me. “In fact, we get together for lunch or dinner quite often. They followed you to a restaurant and told you not to have dinner with your colleagues?”
“Yes. Or, if he didn’t follow us there, he happened to be there, himself, but he did tell me in the form of a politely worded request, not to go out with my colleagues – Paul and Dennis or anyone else.”
“Hm… Maybe they’re planning to let them go?” Tom suggested.
“Except that they just promoted them to senior clerks and gave them raises.”
“Odd. Very odd. Well, do your time. Get the experience and their name on your resume. Then, come out here. It’s much friendlier, and I doubt whether you’ll stay any busier than you already are.”
“That’s another thing that’s strange. We put in a strict eight-hour day. I came prepared to burn the midnight oil.”
“I do burn the midnight oil. Are you sure that’s a law firm and not a kindergarten?” he asked me.
“Interesting. On my very first day there, I likened having to get permission to use the restroom to a line of first graders, who must hold onto a rope as the class makes its way along.”
“Stifling, at best. Well, it’s up to you, of course. Every firm is going to have ways you don’t like. But, no. I’ve never heard of a firm that operated that way.”
The rules remained the same in Criminal Law. There, my cubicle was identical to the one I had occupied in Wills and Probate. My duties were the same. I began by proofreading correspondence, then moved up to proofreading legal documents. Now, of course, I had a better idea of what to look for – consistency and accuracy, as well as typos, additions, and omissions. Weeks would pass before I would find anything substantive to report. That was good for the firm, but it was boring for me.
I began to worry that the boredom would cause me to drift off and miss something. It did. As I had expected, I was called onto the carpet for it. I did the only thing I could: I apologized and promised to be more careful in the future. I also asked to be allowed to drink a cup of coffee at my desk. My request was denied.
That night, Paul and Dennis dropped by my apartment. I was startled to hear the doorman tell me they were there, but I was desperate for someone to talk to, so I invited them up. At this point, I wasn’t so sure being fired wouldn’t be a blessing.
“Don’t tell me. You heard through the grapevine that I’m out on my ear as soon as Mr. Hodges returns from the West Coast,” I greeted them.
“No. Are you?” Dennis asked with grave concern.
“No, but I wish I were. What brings you two here?”
“What kind of mistake did you make?” Paul wanted to know.
“I missed a statement that a videotape was documentary evidence when, in fact, the defense team intends to use it as demonstrative evidence.”
The tape was a re-enactment of the crime, created by the defense team to show how the crime might have happened. So, of course, it was demonstrative. Only if the tape showed the actual crime being committed would it be documentary.
“Oh, I remember that one! I nearly missed it, myself,” Dennis said.
“That one?” I asked in disbelief. “Do you mean we aren’t editing actual documents?”
“They were actual documents five or ten years ago,” Paul said.
“They’re testing us,” Dennis added.
“That’s all we’re doing? We’re not contributing to the firm’s case load?” I asked.
I could feel my temper flaring. I was about to go on the warpath. Against whom was a matter of conjecture at that point. In reality, I could go up against no one, unless, of course, I fancied myself living on the sidewalk.
“That’s when I started drinking,” Dennis said. “Nearly made a wreck of myself before I woke up. Don’t start drinking, please.”
“That’s when I started cruising chicks at the bar every night,” Paul added.
“No, thank you, Paul. I have no desire to cruise chicks,” I told him.
He chuckled. “Well, there are men there, too, you realize.”
“Most of whom look like Stone Face’s son,” I snarled.
“They might be,” Dennis offered.
“Nah! Who would have her?” Paul laughed. “No, Miss Cervantes, the answer is not turning to drink or sex. Now, tell us: What is your nickname?”
“I told you: My name is Esperanza.”
Paul shook his head to let me know he did not believe me. “With a name like Esperanza, you surely have picked up a nickname along the way.”
“I have a better idea. Why don’t you tell me how to stay awake and alert as we proofread document after document.”
Paul removed a small bottle of pills from his pocket and poured them into his hand. “Better than coffee. If you’re interested, I can give you the name of the doctor who prescribes them.”
“Meaning they’re illegal?”
“Or just plain dangerous when taken everyday,” Dennis added.
“Nah! I’m fine!” Paul declared. “Just don’t mix it with caffeine or else you’ll turn into a nervous wreck.”
“Let me think about it,” I told him.
In all honesty, I was thinking seriously of resigning and going home. After all, I could practice law anywhere – and I would have to pass the bar exam in any state – or the District of Columbia.
Home was in Texas, in a small town in cattle country between Dallas and the Oklahoma line. My mother had taught the third grade since she had finished college. My dad had been a lawyer, which is why I first had been attracted to the law. He had been killed in a terrible pile-up on I-35 when I was seven years old.
If I went home, I could get a job with a firm that specialized in real-estate law. Each spring, the farmers came to town to refinance their land in order to be able to afford to grow their crops. Usually, those crops were milo, hay, and other things they could feed their cattle through the winter months. It would not be an exciting practice, but it would include enough nasty divorces, people buying their first homes, and hopeful partners wanting to incorporate a new business to make life interesting.
And I could hope to get on with such a firm. Mac Dyson, a descendent of the town’s founder and my dad’s former partner, had told me to call him if I decided to come back home.
I took up the receiver and dialed his number. It was ten o’clock in Washington but only nine o’clock in Texas. Sure enough, he sounded like he was awake, and a television set was playing in the background.
“Mac, this is Sperry. Do you think I could come home?”
“Absolutely, Sperry. Let me know when your flight’s getting in, and I’ll meet your flight.”
Despite Mac’s offer to meet my flight, I drove home. I was not alone. My mom flew in to help me close my apartment and ride with me. It was summer, and she was on hiatus from school. I’m glad she came. I needed my mother terribly.
“Sperry,” she said when I told her about the firm, “There are two kinds of people in this world – those who like people and want to help them and those who like power and wealth and using them against other people. You will find those two types of people in every profession and every location in the world. Perhaps, more of the power and wealth people congregate in big cities, but I’ve known plenty at home, too. They live out by the country club. I wouldn’t live there even if I could afford to.”
I nodded. “Mac once said he lives in his family’s home so he can avoid the country-club set.”
“That’s right! It’s his way of keeping some distance between himself and the power-and-wealth set. Mac has money, but he is not like those people. He gives generously to church and charity, is on the board of deacons at church, and is liked by everyone who meets him, whether they are his wealthiest client or the man who services his car. You have nothing to feel badly about in leaving your job. You’ve simply decided that you are a people person and that you want your practice of law to help people survive, not help them wring other people dry. Your daddy felt the same way. If he hadn’t, I couldn’t have loved him.”
“Thank you, Momma.”
She gave me a tight hug, and I had a peaceful night’s sleep. The next day, we set out for home. No, I wasn’t taking my furniture. I had sold most of it to Paul and Dennis; I had donated the rest of it to a shelter in southeast DC.
Lesson Learned: Don’t spend money to put down roots until you know you want to stay there.
I didn’t have money to get my own apartment, so I lived with Momma. It would not be a permanent arrangement – we both agreed on that – only a stopgap measure while I earned enough money to move out, on my own. It turned out to be a welcome arrangement, for I needed time without money worries, and I needed my mother’s wise counsel. Odd, but the rebellion of my teenage years had departed, and I welcomed her advice.
Mac gave me a small room in the corner of the office and told me to fix it up to suit myself. He even sent me to the office supply store to buy a new chair, since the old one was off its casters and wobbly. It had been old Mr. Ellis’ chair, and he had been a very heavy man. I hung a picture from my apartment on one wall and my diplomas on another wall. The third and fourth walls were taken up by the door and window, which were large in the old First National Bank Building, where I worked.
At noon, we locked the office and took an hour for lunch. Mac was off to meet someone about his philanthropic work. I went home and ate with Momma.
That afternoon, Mac brought in a case file and handed it to me. “Don Acona was stopped for driving under the influence,” he told me. “He’s not disputing the charge, but he’ll need someone to make sure his interests are represented. Take a look at the police report and see what you think. We’re going to court tomorrow morning.”
“Does he have a previous arrest record?” I asked.
“It’s all in the file,” Mac told me as he looked around to see who had just come in the door. “Yes? May I help you?”
“Is Miss Cervantes in?”
“Yes. May I tell her who wishes to see her?” Mac asked.
“Barton Hammonds,” the voice replied.
I nearly dropped the file folder when I heard the name. I was scrambling to recover the folder when Mac turned to me. I looked up at him and nodded.
“She will be right with you, Mr. Hammonds,” Mac said as he walked toward his office.
I did not rush out to the reception area. Instead, I took a few moments to gather my wits about me and decide how I wanted to respond to the man's presence. Only when I had convinced myself that I would not allow him to upset me did I leave my office. Barton Hammonds arose as he saw me.
“Might I have a word?” he asked wearing the insincere smile I had seen too often.
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “Please come back.”
He followed me into my office and glanced about. “Very nice. I like the personal touch you’ve given it.”
“What is on your mind, Mr. Hammonds?” I asked without thanking him for the compliment.
“First of all, I did not follow you out here. I’m in Dallas this week on a case. While in the area, I thought I would drive up and ask why you left so soon and so suddenly.”
“I didn’t like the way I was treated at the firm, Mr. Barton, being told when I can use the restroom, being led to believe I’m doing valuable work when, in fact, I am proofreading five-year-old material. Shall I continue?”
“That is our training program, Miss Cervantes.”
“Well, it’s not for me. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to prepare to represent a man in court tomorrow.”
“Yes, I heard. DUI. Don’t you deserve better than DUI?”
“Is there better than trying to save a man from himself? Two years ago, his wife died of cancer. Last year, his daughter ran away with her boyfriend. The man has lost everyone near and dear to him and has turned to alcohol. If I can befriend him and possibly make a difference in his life, then I would like to do so.”
Hammonds studied her. “It appears we misjudged you. We thought you were tougher than that.”
“You didn’t misjudge me. I thought I was a tough old buzzard, too, and that I wanted to be one. I was wrong.”
“Tough old buzzard,” Hammonds mused, chuckling wryly. “Well, yes. This is Texas, isn’t it? May I know what caused you to change your mind?”
“Seeing how tough old buzzards treat each other,” I told him. “I went to the firm ready to be a team player, a member. I was lied to before I even accepted the job. I was treated like a kindergarten child. I was threatened with dismissal for making a single mistake. Where are the rewards for being a tough old buzzard?”
“They come later, after you have proven yourself.”
“Promotions come after one proves himself. Human decency should not have to be earned. Now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do, and you have a case in Dallas that surely must need your attention.”
I arose, walked him through the office, and showed him out the door. As I returned to my office, I caught a wink from Mac.
“Now, there’s Ben Cervantes’ daughter! Tough when need be but not too busy being tough to do the right thing,” he said.
I leaned in the doorway to his office and nodded. “I think that’s what it needs to be about.”
“That’s exactly what it needs to be about. Well, you read through that file. Then, we’ll put our heads together and see what we can do for the old boy.”
“I was thinking of community service,” I said when Mac and I got together to discuss the DUI case. “We don’t want to give Don back his driver’s license so he can go back out and cause a fatal accident. We do want him to stay sober long enough to think about which way he’s headed.”
“Community service can be very effective if the defendant wants it to be. You’ll need to discuss it with Don, though.”
“I can do that. In fact, I think I’ll walk over to the jail and have a talk with him. Maybe try and get him into Recovering Alcoholics, as well,” I mused as I turned to leave.
“I’ll see you when you get back,” Mac said with an approving twinkle in his eye.
(c) Virginia Tolles, 2008