On Our Way Home: Chapter One

Anthony Zych

Staying up late sucks.

When I was a little kid, staying up late was a bonus, a luxury. A treat. There was an unpredictability to it. That made it even more exciting when it actually happened. 

Most of the time, Baby Michael and I would get a “no.” Not even a “no,” just that look from Mom or Dad. Usually Dad. The one that made it crystal clear we shouldn’t even bother to finish asking the question.

Bedtime was an obligation that applied even when there wasn’t anything to get up for, because our house was too small for parents to properly sleep (or periodically not go to sleep right away) if their two young boys wrestled and argued and argued and wrestled deep into the night. Not that we ever made a lot of noise when we got to stay up late. Neither of us were all that smart, but we were bright enough to know that breaking glass or smashing furniture after midnight would result in fewer chances to ever do it again.

I don’t remember much about the things Baby Michael and I actually did when we stayed up late, because I’d quit thinking about those nights. I’d quit thinking about those nights, because I’d quit thinking about Baby Michael. I’d quit thinking about Baby Michael, because I’d become extremely and permanently pissed off at Grown-up Michael.

For Grown-up John, staying up late is the exact opposite of bonus, luxury, or treat. I need my sleep. And there’s nothing fun about being awake after eleven o’clock. Not anymore.

Staying up that late now means I’ve got a trial starting soon, or I’m in the middle of one. It also means no sleeping in on the other side of staying up. I never did sleep deprivation well. I’ve gradually learned how to live with it. It’s a debt that eventually gets paid off, at some point when life gets back to normal.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever fully reconciled those deficits. Maybe I’ll finally balance out the ledger when I’m in the old folk’s home, when there will be nothing else to do other than smear pudding on your bib or dump crap in your pants. Or both. Maybe at the same time. Maybe that’s when I’ll finally pay off that sleep debt. Just in time to go to sleep for good.

The accounts payable had spiked again lately, thanks to the double whammy of a trial coming to an end on Friday and Christmas Eve landing two days later. With three kids—fifteen, twelve, five—things that as of the morning of December 22 I didn’t even know had been bought by my wife would have to be some-assembly-required in that sliver of time between the lights going out upstairs and the youngest one springing awake to a non-stop, jabbering frenzy of activity. To make things worse, Macy (whose full-and-complete-assembly-required bike was hidden in a large cardboard box under the workbench in the garage) had already begun hounding Linda about going to midnight mass, a legitimate occasion to stay up late even though the girl would transform into a sweaty clump of eye boogers well before I heard the term from Isaiah 9:6 that never made much sense to me.

Wonder-Counselor. 

Whatever it meant, it was what I needed to be that morning. The trial had started on Monday. The lawyers representing the company had asked for a delay on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I’d given the maximum contribution to the judge’s two campaigns exactly for times like this. They’re not supposed to know who gives what and how much, but the full list of donations becomes public record, and it’s way too easy to give in to the temptation to check. So I gave to the limit, Linda gave to the limit, her parents gave to the limit, and mine would have given to the limit, too, if they both hadn’t been gone for more than two decades.

We all gave to the limit so that, for example, a random collection of local residents would get to decide two days before Christmas Eve whether one of their own had her rights violated by a rich, powerful, and faceless corporation. Sure, the company provides jobs for hundreds in the area. It also fires people from those jobs without regard to the law. And it sucks tens of millions of dollars in raw profit out of the state, every month. 

The idea of handing a wrongful termination case to a jury on the 22nd of December sounded very good, in theory. I’d always wanted to do it, but I could never get the dominoes to fall the right way. When the judge held a scheduling conference sixteen months earlier, I could see the other dates and deadlines for the litigation were pointing toward the end of the year. I suggested with deliberate nonchalance December 18 for trial. The low-level, billable-hours-churning, fresh-from-law-school underling who’d been given the lead partner’s calendar didn’t realize that starting a trial on that day would result in the jury getting the case dangerously close to Christmas, and that I’d then spend the entire week clanging a bell next to a red kettle, a Robin Hood who had swapped his green hat for a red cap trimmed in white.

I know how that sounds. I do. But that’s the way it works. Good lawyers secure every possible edge for their clients. If there was any way I could nudge the process toward the jury returning a big verdict in the matter of Matherson vs. U-Sav-Plentee, Inc. et al. so close to Christmas, I wouldn’t have been representing my client the right way if I hadn’t at least tried to do it.

I’d succeeded. I got the date, and I fought off the motion for a continuance. I probably was a little too much of a jerk when pointing out that if Mr. Anderson had planned to go out of town for the holidays on December 20, he shouldn’t have allowed his junior associate to agree to start the trial that week—or maybe he should have participated in the scheduling conference himself. But here’s the thing. Proper representation of a client in litigation requires being a little too much of a jerk, pretty much all the time.

So that’s how it went. In the months before the trial started, I questioned thirteen U-Sav-Plentee employees in the conference room of my law office. The company’s lawyers produced more than fourteen thousand documents for me to review, since they always bury a handful of needles as deep in the haystack as they can. They eventually filed what’s known as a motion for summary judgment. It forced me to put together a twenty-page legal brief that turned over just enough of my cards to show there was more than enough evidence of wrongdoing to support a jury verdict for Sandy Matherson. Along the way, we attended a court-ordered mediation session that made no progress at all toward a settlement because the manager of the local store barely had the power to go to the bathroom without first calling corporate headquarters for permission. After all of that, the case went to trial as scheduled.

Being at trial can be exhilarating. Getting ready for trial blows. It takes hours and hours and hours of focused effort, usually at night and on weekends because the rest of your practice doesn’t take a hiatus. Trial prep requires focus, resilience, perseverance. It needs a careful eye, scanning every relevant piece of information, over and over and over again for anything that can be used to support the arguments being made on behalf of the client, and to avoid a sawed-off shotgun of attacks being fired by the other side. It’s much more than knowing how to present your own case; it’s about understanding how their case will unfold, while also being ready to swing at any and all curve balls that may or may not be heading directly for your temple. 

They might dig up dirt on your client from years before she even got the job. They might pull a key document out of nowhere, after hiding it from you for months. One of the jurors could bow out, because a kid suddenly has the flu. In comes the alternate juror, and the whole dynamic of the group changes. 

I had to be ready for anything and everything, all the time. I had to have a plan for dealing with any and all wrinkles. If I didn’t have a plan, I had to come up with one. If I couldn’t come up with one, I had to act like I had one. And I had to do it all while staying up late and getting up early, night after night after night.

Why was I still doing this? I started off working for a big law firm that represented employers. I became a partner. Impressive title. More money. I didn’t care. I wanted to handle cases I believed in. Lawyers who work at big firms have to handle the cases that get filed against their clients, no matter how good or bad those cases may be. 

For me, more often than not, they were bad. I didn’t believe in them. So I’d work on the case until the time was right to explain to the client why the case should be settled. That alone was an art. Telling the client that it needs to write a check to make a case go away too early in the process comes off as weakness. Waiting too long invites questions like, “Why didn’t you tell us this sooner?”

The business creates an incentive to keep a case alive as long as possible. Lawyers who represent corporations get paid for their time. If a case goes way too quickly, there’s much less time to be spent and, as a result, much less money to be made. The goal, even with a stinker of a case, is to let enough of the litigation play out before telling the client the time had come to broker a deal. Legal fees fully earned, problem fully solved, justice fully done. Or whatever. Regardless, I got no pleasure from handling dying-dog cases that, sooner or later, would be put out of their misery, and mine.

Now that I hung a shingle and practiced alone, I got to screen the cases. Pick the cases I believed in. Accept the cases that felt like they were rooted in truth and righteousness. The cases also had to carry a good chance of kicking out some cash. Practicing law is still a for-profit enterprise. Fighting for principle never kept the lights on or the kids fed. The cases I took needed to include rights that were violated, financial losses that were real, and a defendant that could pay without blinking an eye. Otherwise, it just wasn’t worth the time, the effort, or the money required to get a case ready for trial. 

In Matherson vs. U-Sav-Plentee, Inc. et al., the numbers made sense. U-Sav-Plentee was one of the biggest companies in the world. It had billions on the balance sheet. It made millions more every day.

For the company, this case was a one-winged gnat, not even rising to the level of gently mild annoyance. Whatever the verdict might be, it’d fall far short of the interest earned in a single day on the loose cash the company kept in its worldwide bank accounts. But U-Sav-Plentee still fought Sandy Matherson aggressively and zealously, because that’s what companies like that do. If they didn’t, every employee with any complaint of any kind would line up for their own chance at what the company viewed as a lottery prize, and not as fair compensation for the misbehavior of its poorly-trained, randomly-supervised, and/or badly-intentioned local managers.

At trial, I had to show that U-Sav-Plentee fired Sandy Matherson not because she had a habit of clocking in more than fifteen minutes late (she did, but plenty of others at her store did, too, and none of them got fired), but because she’d been targeted after complaining about the store manager having an affair with one of the other employees. That person was receiving favorable treatment, such as better shifts and more pay than her colleagues. Predictably, the manager denied everything. His mistress denied everything, too. The company paraded a stream of witnesses into court. They all testified under oath they’d never seen anything, never heard anything, never suspected anything. I cross-examined each one with questions that made it clear how much they liked their jobs, needed their jobs, hoped to keep their jobs. That they wanted to get promotions and raises and other benefits, and that toeing the company line wouldn’t hurt those prospects, at all.

I couldn’t just turn to the jury and say, “Trust me, folks, this is how they do it.” I had to weave together evidence that would help lay the foundation for a closing argument where I tied everything together. I had to show other employees had been late or had broken other rules and hadn’t been fired. I had to hope the jury found my client believable and, more importantly, likable. At the end of the day, it wasn’t enough for the jury to generally want to rob from the rich and give to the poor. It had to want to rob from the rich and give specifically to my poor client.

Again, that’s how it goes. In every single case like this. Even if the evidence proved that the company had blatantly violated the legal rights of the employee, the jury wouldn’t give a penny to someone it just didn’t find appealing, or deserving.

Judges tell juries over and over again to not make any decisions until they hear all the evidence. But jurors start making decisions from the second the lawyers open their mouths during jury selection. Heck, jurors start making decisions from the instant they see the people sitting at either of the two tables, plaintiff and defendant and the lawyers for each side. The jurors have to like the plaintiff, to root for her. They also have to like me, or to at least think I’m not too much of the asshole that, frankly, I am. On one hand, I want them to think they’d want me fighting for them or their spouses or their children or their siblings or whoever they cared about. On the other, if enough of them decide they don’t like the client or the lawyer at some point after the trial begins, the rest of the case is a waste of everyone’s time, especially mine.  

No one knows whether a case has already been lost before the closing arguments begin. I had to hope enough of the jurors saw things my way. It was my job to load the believers up with the nuggets and explanations they would use to sell the case to the others. It would help to appeal straight to the jurors I thought were most likely to become the foreperson, because the opinions of the juror who gets elected team captain quite often become the opinions of the entire group.

That was my challenge on the morning of December 22. Mine and only mine. Alone on a high wire. Without a net. I had to bring it all home. To get the ones already on my side ready to sell the case to the others. To put enough doubt in the minds of the ones who were leaning against Sandy Matherson’s cause. 

I had to talk to them in plain and simple terms. No big words. No legalese. No mumbo. No jumbo. 

I had to make them choose to dress up like Santa Claus for one afternoon, and to slide down the chimney with a big, fat sack of someone else’s money and a tag tied to the bow that said Sandy.

I’d slow-played the trial just enough to nudge the closing arguments to Friday. The judge would start the day by reading pages and pages of convoluted and boring instructions to the jury. Then, I’d make the first part of my closing argument. Next, the lawyer for U-Sav-Plentee would do his entire presentation. I’d get the last word, with whatever time was left from the sixty total minutes I’d been given.

The final chunk of the closing argument would be critical. It was my last chance. I had to get them on my side. I had to get them revved up and ready to get to work on concluding that my client had been wronged. So that they’d begin crunching the numbers for her lost wages, for the emotional distress my client experienced after losing a job she’d had for more than eleven years. Then came the up-or-down, yes-or-no question of whether the mega-company with a strategically folksy lawyer should pay extra money as punishment for what it had done—and as a warning to other companies to not do ordinary citizens of our quiet, God-fearing, law-abiding county this way.

All of this rattled through my brain that morning as I forced myself awake after the fifth straight night of barely four hours of sleep. The shower didn’t snap me out of the gray haze carved by the dull knife of fatigue. I reminded myself that I was forty-five years old. I wondered how much longer I’d be able to fight these battles on my own, against the small army of lawyers that companies like U-Sav-Plentee assigned to the cases filed against it. I loved feeling like David versus Goliath. I wondered whether it was actually Don Quixote versus windmill.

The lack of sleep pressed hard against the curves along the inside of my eyes. I blinked into the mirror to focus on getting ready. Truth-tellers have a face that’s properly shaved. Truth-tellers have hair that’s properly combed. Truth-tellers have a suit that properly fits. Truth-tellers have a tie that’s properly tied. Truth-tellers with active sweat glands also wear a moisture-wicking T-shirt under the dress shirt to prevent soaked and stained armpits in the suit jacket.

It was during the drive to the office that I remembered I’d forgotten to put on the damn T-shirt. I cursed. I tried not to think about the clanking radiators in the old building, how the steam heat would combine with my stress and anxiety and a frame carrying about twenty-five more pounds than it should have. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard of the car. I didn’t have time to turn around and go home to put on the T-shirt.

What I saw when I looked up made me forget all about the T-shirt.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Two

Anthony Zych

Cars whizzed along each of the four lanes connecting the suburbs to town, two moving in each direction. Three inches of snow from a week or so earlier had melted, and the ground had mostly dried. Up ahead, an old, oversized Chevy sat crooked on the shoulder. The tip of its back left corner stuck out into the right lane. A small figure in a flappy brown overcoat hunched over the open trunk. I could see both of his arms trembling their way toward getting whatever it was he was trying to remove.

I noticed the front end of the Chevy sinking into the gravel berm. The car had a flat tire. The man standing at the rear end of the vehicle was too old to be changing it by himself. A sigh started deep in my lungs and blew past my lips. I pulled behind the Chevy with my flashers on so that other cars would move to the left lane or at least not plow into the protruding corner of a chrome bumper attached to the kind of sharp-angled steel body the folks in Detroit hadn’t made in decades.

I checked the mirrors. Another car sped by, sustained horn blast letting both of us know the driver didn’t appreciate the impediment along the path to wherever he was going. Coast now clear, I got out and headed for the old man. He continued to fumble around inside the trunk. The lid was opened wide, looking like the unhinged mouth of a hippo.  

“Having a little trouble?” I said.

“Having a lot of trouble,” the old man said without turning around.

“Flat tire?”

“She blew out on me. I have a spare. I just need to get her out of here and on there.”

“Do you have triple-A or anything like that? They’ll come out here and take care of you.”

The old man’s arms stopped moving. He steadied himself on the opening of the trunk with his right hand and turned around. He had deep grooves running down his cheeks, one on each side. Flaps of skin hung from his jaw, swollen rivers of dried wax from a squat candle that someone had forgotten to blow out before going to bed. His skull carried glasses with wide black frames. Gray eyes studied me through the haze of thick lenses. The brim of a charcoal fedora cast shadows over a nose that had one curly white hair spindling from its tip.

“Why do I need any of that when I have you?”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m late. For court. I have a trial.”

“What, did you get in trouble?”

I shook my head, slight grin stretching against a face that tried to resist it. 

“No. I’m a lawyer.”

He turned to look at my Subaru. Blew air through his nose. The wind caught a droplet of snot and threw it back against his overcoat. 

“Not much of a car for a lawyer,” he said.

I didn’t have the time or desire for banter, even though the old man was holding his own nicely. I started back toward the car.

“Was it something I said?” he asked.

“I’m getting my phone.”

“You have a phone in your automobile?” 

I turned back toward the old man, opening my mouth before deciding to just grab the phone and get this over with. I plucked it from the passenger seat and returned, scrolling through my contacts for Lou Rizzoli. 

“That thing-a-ma-jig is a telephone?”

“Yes,” I said without looking up at him. His confusion sparked my curiosity, but the goal at this point was to bring the interaction to an end and get to court. I could already feel the sweat collecting in armpits not lined with a moisture-wicking T-shirt.

I found Lou’s name and pressed my thumb onto his number. I held the phone against my ear.

“I guess it is a telephone,” the old man said as I waited. I grinned as politely as I could.

“Lou,” I said when he answered. “I’m out here on Route 32, about a half mile from the Main Street exit. . . . There’s a man with a flat tire. Can you have your cousin come out and change it for him? He can bill me. . . . It’s an old Chevy. Light blue. . . . The model doesn’t matter. It’s the only old light blue Chevy on any stretch of Route 32 today, I can promise you that. . . . OK, thanks.”

I ended the call and wrapped my fingers around the phone. Cars continued to zip past us every few seconds. Nearly all of them had moved to the left lane. I worried that it would continue after I drove away.

“You should put your hazard lights on,” I said to the man.

“It’s a 1977 Impala.”

“Excuse me?”

“The car. It’s a Chevy Impala. 1977. Lou, that man you called, he wanted to know. You could have just asked me.”

“His cousin’s coming,” I said. “He’ll find you. But you need to get inside the car and wait. You should put your hazard lights on, so the other cars will see you here. Do you need me to help you find them?”

“I was hoping you’d help me change my tire.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that. Someone is coming.”

“You’re already here.”

“I know. But I really have to go.”

“Can’t you wait with us until he gets here? Now that you mention those other cars, it would be nice to have yours back there. If someone hits it, maybe you can get something nicer with the insurance money.”

A short burst of laughter escaped my mouth, even though I could otherwise feel my mood turning more sour as I felt the precious minutes and seconds ticking away. 

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Do you need me to help you turn on your hazard lights?”

“I know where the button for my flashers is.”

“OK then,” I said, waiting for the man to return to the car. I went to the trunk and began to close it for him, hopeful he would get the hint.

“You need to push it down good,” he said. “It doesn’t want to latch.”

I put my left palm on the lid and gave it a firm shove. It snapped into place fairly easily. The old man’s bushy white eyebrows raised and the corners of his mouth curled down. 

“You’re stronger than you look,” he said.

I laughed again, and I kept waiting for him to go back to the Chevy and climb inside, or at least try to.

“Do you need help getting in your car?” I said.

“I need help changing my tire.”

“He’ll be here soon. I promise. I have to go now. I wish I could stay.”

He looked at me as I said it. 

“You don’t mean that.”

“Excuse me?”

“You said you wish you could stay,” he said. “You don’t mean it. Why would you say something you don’t mean?”

“Really, sir, I have to go. I’ve tried to help. I’ve done everything I can. I just have to go.”

“You have that telephone, you know.”

“Excuse me?”

“That telephone. You called the man to tell him to have his cousin come fix the tire. You could call whoever you’re supposed to go see, the judge I suppose, and tell him you’re going to be a little late.”

I lifted my right hand toward my face and pondered the phone. 

“Yeah, I could. But I don’t want to. I want to be on time.”

“He’d probably understand. You’re being a good Samaritan.”

“Sir, I am. I’m paying for someone to come out here and fix your tire.”

“But you’re not staying until he gets here.”

At this rate, I thought, he’ll be here before I leave.

“Like I said, I’m sorry. That part I definitely mean. You need to get in the car, put the flashers on, and wait.” I turned away from him and went back toward my car.

“Do you want to see her?”

“Her who?” I said without stopping.

“My wife. She’s in the car. She’ll be upset that she didn’t get a chance to thank you for not changing our tire.”

I laughed again. 

“Tell her I’m sorry. And turn on those flashers. The truck will be here before you know it.”

“I wish you would say hello to her. She doesn’t get to see many people.”

“Please tell her hello from me. And tell her I said Merry Christmas. Where are you heading, anyway?”

He smiled at me for the first time, flashing a hint of dentures that were carried just a little too loosely in his mouth. 

“We’re on our way home,” he said.

I got inside the Subaru and watched the old man shuffle back to the Chevy. Once he finally got inside—it crossed my mind that he was intentionally dragging his feet to annoy me—I turned on the engine, waited for an opening in the flow of traffic, and pulled away. I turned off my own flashers once clear of the Chevy. I could see in the rearview mirror two heads, sticking up barely above the dashboard. I noticed the outline of the old man’s fedora.

I pressed my foot onto the accelerator, glided onto an exit ramp, and began making my way through town. I drove as fast as I could under the circumstances, which included just enough other cars to require the kind of zigging and zagging I didn’t want to do, not with the police station adjacent to the courthouse. I found a parking spot on the street, grabbed my briefcase from the back seat, scooped up my phone—my telephone—and hustled toward the main doors, once again forgetting to drop a few quarters into the parking meter.

I would have jogged and possibly even run, if I’d known the inevitable perspiration would have been sucked away from my softly jiggling upper body by the magic of modern sportswear technology. I opted for modified race-walking, the kind of aggressively brisk movement that possibly cries out “asshole” to anyone in the immediate vicinity who is moving at a more socially acceptable pace. I realized a bit too late that one of the people who seemed to react to me that way was one of the jurors in my trial. I cringed when I noticed I’d potentially pissed off someone who would be deciding Sandy Matherson’s case later that day. 

I wondered why that person was moving so slowly. If I was late, he was late, too. Why wasn’t he in a hurry, like me?

I pulled my phone out and pressed the button to check the clock. I turned it off and on again, to confirm the time it was showing. I tried to do the math in my head. I’d wasted at least ten minutes on the side of the road with the old man. It didn’t add up.

I should have been late. Somehow, I wasn’t.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Three

Anthony Zych

I sat at the rectangular wooden table, next to Sandy Matherson. I fought the temptation to review the twenty-seven pages of large-font notes I’d printed and three-hole punched and placed into the black binder in front of me on the mahogany surface covered with a half-inch of smoked, tempered glass. It was more important to act as if I were listening intently to the judge reciting the instructions to the jury, even though I already knew what every single word would be. To nod at the right times. To steal glances in an effort to figure out which jurors were paying attention, which ones were just pretending to do it, and which ones seemed to be thinking about something else, like everything they had to do that weekend, given that Christmas was coming on Monday. 

Prior to the start of any trial, the lawyers give to the judge dueling versions of the various specific legal explanations that cover every point of law relevant to the case. After the jury hears all the evidence, the lawyers stick around in a half-lit courtroom for two or three hours and haggle over a Frankenstein monster of paragraphs and principles to be placed in logical order and read to the jury, with the expectation that any of it will truly register with them. Little of it ever does.

Plenty of judges, including the Honorable Donald T. Robertson, refuse to send a copy of the instructions with the jury as they deliberate. This raises the stakes. But it also gives the lawyer an extra opportunity to build credibility. By explaining in plain and simple terms what they’d just heard, the lawyer becomes part of the process of educating the jurors. By setting out the sometimes complex concepts in a way that makes sense and seems reasonable and believable, I could build a stack of chips that would come in handy when trying to get the jury to accept my version of the many conflicting and confusing facts they’d heard. What was important, what wasn’t important. What they should listen to. What they should ignore. 

I’d have forty minutes to make my initial presentation. Gunther Anderson III, an older man with homespun charm and a voice not quite as deep as Sam Elliott’s but every bit as pleasing to the ear, would speak for up to an hour, if Anderson chose to use every minute of the time he had. I’d then have twenty minutes to get the last word.

I didn’t like overwhelming the jury with technology. Lawyers paid by the hour love to use projectors and slickly produced video clips and computer-generated charts and graphs. I’d tell the jury this was all a way to try to distract them from the truth, of impressing them with bright, shiny objects instead of the dull, stubborn reality of cold, hard facts. For me, it was important to make a personal connection with each of the six jurors (only criminal cases use twelve), and to speak to each one of them as if I was in their living room, or as if they were in mine. Bells and whistles that interrupted this connection would make it harder to re-establish it.

That didn’t mean I relied only on the words that came out of my mouth. I had a whiteboard on an easel. Old school. I’d write key words on there, just two or three at a time. I’d leave them up there so they’d sink in while I talked more about them, and I’d wipe them clean when moving on to the next point I was trying to make. I’d converted some of the most important documents into large cardboard posters that I’d prop onto the fold-out hooks of another easel when discussing how U-Sav-Plentee’s own paperwork helped show that the company had screwed Sandy Matherson.

Proving that an employer fired a worker in violation of applicable state laws becomes a little bit of a magic trick. The lawyer representing the fired former employee needs to systematically peel away every plausible reason the company has thrown at the wall for making its decision. When they’re all gone, there’s only one explanation left. The company actually fired the employee for an illegal reason, even though none of the company’s witnesses would ever admit it.

It gets tricky. The lawyer representing the company will argue it’s impossible that each and every one of those fine, hard-working people got on the witness stand and committed perjury when they supported the company’s version. That’s when I’d explain it’s not about deliberately choosing to lie under oath. It’s about locking into a story months before coming to trial, and sticking to that version, no matter what. That the lie is never made up on the witness stand. That the tall tale gets spun when the decision get made, and from that point forward the lie keeps getting repeated and repeated and repeated until it feels like it’s the truth. 

Those thoughts popped around inside my brain, exploding kernels of ideas and reminders causing the perspiration to begin to gather in my armpits and along the top of my back well before I had to stand up and perform. I knew the structure and the flow of the instructions well enough to realize the judge was nearing the end. His voice had become more raspy as the week went on. He mentioned at one point he’d been developing a cold. I spotted him from time to time unwrapping lozenges and discreetly popping them into his mouth. As he worked through the instructions, his voice was getting more hoarse than it had been.

He was explaining how to calculate Sandy Matherson’s financial damages, if any. The other lawyer had managed to work a few extra if anys into the instructions, and I found myself wondering whether Judge Robertson was pausing on purpose before saying if any as a way to stick it to me, subtly. The campaign checks had long been cashed, and he had six years left on his term. He could get away with something that would be impossible to ever prove, something I could never accuse him of actually doing without potentially screwing up every other case of mine he’d handle. Or maybe it was just the cold he was catching. I couldn’t tell, no matter how hard I tried.

I then tried even harder to push those ideas out of my brain. None of it would help me deliver the kind of closing argument I’d need to take advantage of the possibility that the four men and two women of the jury would be inclined to grant a tie to the runner, in the spirit of the season. Or maybe even to give Sandy the benefit of the doubt on a close call. Either way, it was time to roll out that red kettle and start clanging away with the bell. 

“Are the lawyers prepared to make their closing arguments?” Judge Robertson’s words rumbled through what remained of his voice. He seemed relieved to be finished speaking. He’d have not much more to say, unless squabbles occurred during closing arguments. And that becomes a very high-risk proposition. If a lawyer interrupts the opponent’s closing argument with an objection, the arrow had better hit the center of the target. Otherwise, it looks like the lawyer who made the objection was trying to keep the jury from hearing something extremely important to the point the other lawyer was trying to make.

I pressed my hands against the glass top of the table. It was cool to the touch. I wished I had panels of that same glass taped against my chest, my back, and my armpits. I looked down at the binder. For the longest time, I wanted to have enough confidence in my knowledge of a case to pitch the notes. I’d always be in awe of lawyers who could deliver their remarks without this crutch, to touch on every point that needed to be made from memory alone. I’d told myself that, one of these days, I’d be able to do it. 

I don’t know why or how I did it, but I decided then and there that today was one of these days. I picked up the binder, and I stuck it down on my chair. I pushed the chair back under the table. It all made me think of the time I found my dad taking the training wheels from my first bike and throwing them in the garbage can. 

“You know how to ride this damn thing,” he’d said to me. “Now, just go ride it.”

I knew I might have been making a mistake. But something pushed me forward. I’d never been much for deliberately self-destructive behavior; I preferred digging my holes without realizing it. It felt as if I was floating over myself, peering down at what I was doing and urging myself not to risk coming off as a babbling idiot in the most critical juncture of a case on which I’d spent so many hours and so much money. But I couldn’t stop myself. I’d left the old man and his wife alone out on the highway. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I suppose I was inflicting a punishment, making myself feel the way I’d made them feel, unprotected and alone and exposed to whatever may happen next.

I could sense Judge Robertson shifting in his robe from the perch above the rest of the courtroom. I knew he was about to say something along the lines of, “Mr. Persepio, are you ready to proceed?” I also could see Sandy Matherson fidgeting in the chair next to me as she surely wondered whether she should have listened to her husband and hired the guy with the TV commercials who morphs into a poorly-generated computer animation of a Rottweiler, and then calls himself a bulldog.

I noticed a trash can tucked to the side of the table just in time. I bent down and scooped it up just as the Frosted Flakes and cup of coffee with two packs of Equal and a splash of the same two-percent milk I’d poured into the bowl of cereal escaped quickly and violently from my stomach.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Four

Anthony Zych

Upper lip lined in sweat and lower lip coated in something else entirely, my mouth continued to hover over the opening to the can. I braced for a second wave. Judge Robertson instructed the bailiff to take the jury back to their room. I tried to ignore the sounds filling my ears, first the gasps and then the guffaws. They came from every direction. Opposing counsel. A smattering of onlookers. Maybe even some of the jurors. My main concern continued to be preparing for the next blast, if there was going to be one.

There wouldn’t be, at least not yet. After the jury exited through the door to the right of the bench and the bailiff pushed it shut with something close to a slam, the next phase of the trial—an unexpected one—began almost instantly.

Already on his feet, Anderson started to speak, without being invited by the judge to do so. 

“Your Honor, this is highly irregular,” Anderson said. “Mr. Persepio clearly is not well. Under the circumstances, my only option on behalf of my clients is to request a mistrial. Without prejudice, of course.”

“Mistrial?” I said, jerking my head up from the plastic tub I now enveloped in my arms like Pooh with a honeypot. “He wants to pull the plug and start this thing from scratch? I’m fine. I’ll be ready to go in a minute.”

Judge Robertson tilted his head and stared at me from over his reading glasses. I finally became conscious of the fact that I had a trash can hovering under my head. A giant feedbag. In reverse.

“Mr. Persepio, you’ve got a little something on your chin,” he rasped under flaring eyebrows.

I felt blood pulse and flow even more strongly through and across the flesh of my cheeks. Sandy Matherson, God love her, held out a napkin she’d been toting around in her purse. It smelled like stale cigarettes. I rubbed it over and along my jawline. I placed the trash can full of my puke back onto the tile floor, dropping the napkin atop a mess that was already sending stray hints of a foul stink into the air.

“Thank you, Your Honor. And I truly appreciate Mr. Anderson’s concern. But I’m fine.”

“You didn’t seem fine two minutes ago,” the judge said.

“Well, yes. I know. I’m sorry. It happened. But I’m fine now.”

Anderson seized the opening. 

“Your Honor, if I may. We can’t expect the jury to focus appropriately and completely on Mr. Persepio’s presentation if they are in constant fear that he may vomit on them.”

“Again,” I said, “I truly appreciate Mr. Anderson’s concern. Although I’m not sure why he’d want the jury to be focusing appropriately and completely on my presentation. As I see it, that would help his clients, if the jury isn’t listening to me. Of course, it would help his clients even more if they could avoid having this case go to a verdict three days before Christmas.”

“Let’s close the record for now,” Judge Robertson said, glancing at his court reporter in a signal to turn off the audio recording and to stop pressing the nondescript keys that generated a series of letters and spaces making no sense whatsoever to the untrained eye. “I’d like to see the lawyers in my chambers in twenty minutes, sharp. Mr. Persepio, I suggest you take advantage of this opportunity to get yourself some fresh air. I prefer that the receptacle in my office remain filled only with paper.”

I had nothing else to say. I steadied myself against the table as Judge Robertson exited through the door directly behind his seat. I turned to Sandy Matherson, who seemed confused and horrified, but also genuinely concerned.

“Honey, are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” I told her. I turned to her husband. He sat in the front row of the gallery, arms crossed tightly against a red flannel shirt that had dried egg yolk or something that looked like it on the left side of the collar. “I’m fine.”

Earl Matherson worked as a coal miner. I avoided his grip whenever I could, since he always seemed to save a little extra squeeze just for me, a possible reminder that he wanted Sandy to hire someone else to handle her case. Then and there, I wished she’d listened to him.

“What’s happening?” Sandy said to me.

“I’m not sure. We’ll talk to the judge and figure out how to proceed. They want a mistrial. That means they want to start over again, from scratch.”

“Well, I don’t want to do that,” she said. The twisting expression on Earl’s face made it clear he didn’t want to do that, either.

“That won’t happen,” I said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen.”

“So what’s going to happen?” she said, genuinely curious and without a hint of frustration or impatience.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I told Sandy, loud enough for Earl to hear, that I’d take Judge Robertson’s advice and get some fresh air. I didn’t think I needed it, but nothing would be happening for another twenty minutes (eighteen and a half, at this point), so I decided to take a quick walk.

I opted for the steps instead of the elevator, just to get my juices (other than gastric) flowing a little bit. The staircase was wide; if I got woozy, I could just collapse sideways. Maybe just roll down to the next landing.

Fortunately for me, and for the two or three people who were climbing the stairs across from me, I didn’t wipe out on the way from the third floor to ground level. I turned toward the light coming through the opening at the front of the courthouse, a deep and sweeping revolving door with traditional rectangular glass entrances on each side. I pushed my way through the spinning exit, hoping to make it outside before the security guards who may have heard about what had happened could say anything to me.

The weather continued to be far better than seasonal. Global warming or whatever, I didn’t mind not having to traipse around in puddles and piles of gray slush during the final days of the calendar year. I took a left and began to stroll down Main Street. It felt good to hear my heels clicking against the concrete. With nearly all of the storefronts long since vacated, I was mostly alone with my thoughts and the Christmas decorations lining the street, along with the tinny chimes of Silver Bells coming through small speakers mounted on the street lamps. I remembered being eleven years old and singing in a deliberately irritating voice “silver bells, my butt smells” in order to get a rise out of my parents, along with a laugh out of my brother.

I breathed the town’s still and open air deep into my lungs. It was clean for the most part, thanks to the relative lack of cars rolling down the one-way street pointing back toward the courthouse. I felt better already. I’d overcome whatever it was that had caused me to surrender my breakfast at an extremely inopportune moment. I wanted to get back to the courtroom, to deliver my closing argument to the jury. To get Sandy Matherson the justice she deserved. And to secure for myself the thirty-three-percent chunk of the verdict as the fee.

I checked my phone. I needed to get back to Judge Robertson’s chambers in eleven minutes. I kept moving farther down the long blocks of the largely deserted downtown, happy that none of the random folks who saw me realized I’d just endured the biggest embarrassment of my professional life. Still, I wanted to immediately face those who had seen (and heard) me throw up in open court. I wanted to get back on that horse, to commence a closing argument that would soon have them forgetting that Sandy Matherson’s lawyer had puked in their presence. Maybe they’d view me heroically, like Michael Jordan in that game where he supposedly had the flu, but actually had either food poisoning or a hangover.

The fact that I already felt fine made the incident seem even more confusing. Was something wrong with me? I resolved to get a physical after the holidays. A good one, not from the guy I’d call whenever I needed a no-questions-asked prescription to be filled over the phone but a real, honest-to-goodness, needle-in-the-arm, finger-up-the-keister examination. I reminded myself that I was fewer than five years from fifty, the birthday that provided the ultimate line of demarcation between “my God, he was so young” and “well, I guess he had a pretty full life.” I think I heard a comedian say that before. I’m half of a decade away from not finding it very funny.

I pivoted on the concrete sidewalk with eight minutes left until it was time to plead with Judge Robertson to let me continue. The wind started to blow against my face on the way back to the courthouse. It buffeted my cheeks, tickled my nose. It kept me alert and sharp. I’d need it, especially with Anderson already pushing for a mistrial. The thought of doing this all over again from scratch would have made me nauseous, if I hadn’t already rid myself of anything that could be ejected from the upper reaches of my digestive system.

I tried to clear my head as I moved, preparing for whatever may happen. Steeling myself for whatever tack I may need to take in order to persuade the judge that, no, I won’t spray bits of last night’s mostly digested chicken all over the front row of the jury box. I’d worked too hard to get the dimpled ball perfectly situated on the tee, and I’d already missed it and fallen down with my first swing. I had every intention to ease back into position and pound it three hundred and twenty-five yards, straight and true.

As I approached the main doors, I noticed my car parked on the street along the far side of the building. I hadn’t dropped any coins in the parking meter, and I wondered whether I’d already gotten yet another ticket that would end up in the glove box until I remembered to get them all paid. That’s when I spotted a dull orange contraption had become attached to the right front wheel. A clamp. A Denver boot. Well, screw you Colorado. This was the last thing I needed to see.

I broke into a light jog, for no real reason. The boot clung to the rim, inseparable from the structure. It was going nowhere, like that facehugging spider or whatever it was that planted the original alien that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach. (Baby Michael and I had watched that movie late one night, and we both couldn’t sleep right for a week.) As I got closer, I noticed another car parked crookedly in front of mine. It was the same blue Chevy from the highway.

The old man stood there, his back to the rear bumper of his car. He was studying the Subaru, for some reason. I called out to him.

“Sir?” I said. “Mister? I see you got your tire fixed.”

He kept his eyes on the front end of my car.

“I think I may have run into you a little bit when I was parking. Just a little bit.”

I entered the space between the two cars, getting a little too close to the old man, but it was the only way I could see what was going on. I checked the Subaru. Everything seemed to be in order.

“Did you hit it? I don’t see any marks.”

“I think so. I don’t know. I heard a sound when I was backing up. Maybe my wife broke wind. She does that sometimes. She thinks just because she’s hard of hearing I am, too.”

“I think that probably sounds a little different from running into a car.”

“Well, you haven’t had her cooking.”

I remembered that I needed to get back to Judge Robertson’s chambers. I decided to worry about the bumper and the boot later. 

“I need to go,” I said to him.

His eyes absorbed my face from behind the milky lenses of his glasses. 

“You’re always in a hurry. Why is that?”

“It’s a busy day. I told you before, I need to be in court.”

“Why aren’t you in there, then?”

“I’m on my way back in,” I said. “It’s a long story. But I’m glad you got your tire fixed.”

“Did you see you’ve got something on your wheel? I don’t know what that thing is. I think I have a screwdriver in the trunk. I can try to pop it off for you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” I said to him, fighting off a smile. “But I do need to go.”

He motioned toward the car. 

“Do you want to see her? I told her I saw you.”

“I have to go,” I said, and I started toward the front door to the courthouse. “I really am glad your tire is fixed. I thought you said you were on your way home.”

“We are,” he said. I could feel him watching me as I spun around and made my way back inside.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Five

Getty Images

I passed through the metal detector at the entrance to the courthouse. Two older men in burgundy jackets, white dress shirts, black slacks, and black ties saw me. They exchanged glances. 

“Hey, Ralph,” one said to the other, “it’s Chuck.”

“What’s up, Chuck?” Ralph said. They both cackled.

I performed an exaggerated bow for their continued amusement. 

“You should have been there,” I said. “It was the most memorable moment that courtroom has seen in years.”

“Sounds like the best thing since the time Jerry Branson’s wife found love letters from his girlfriend in the bottom of the closet,” Ralph said. “Mrs. Branson showed up during a trial and started whacking him against the head with an umbrella, right when he was questioning a witness. I was the bailiff then. I seen it happen.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“I enjoyed the show. I figured if I tried to get in the middle of that, she’d start whacking me, too.”

“I bet old Reggie didn’t try to get between your face and that trash can today,” said the other guard, whose name was either Paul or Phil. I could never remember which one it was, and it was far too late to ask.

“Will you be starting up again?” Ralph said.

“I’m about to find out. We’re meeting with the judge. I need to get up there.”

I started for the steps back to the courtroom. Ralph called out to me. 

“Hey!” he said, and then he waited until I had twisted back in their direction. “Bye, Chuck.” Their raucous laughter echoed into the entrance to the stairwell.

I checked my phone, expecting to be right on time or maybe even a minute or two behind schedule. It showed I was five minutes early. I shook my head and dropped the thing back in my pocket.

Once on the third floor, I made my way through the hallway leading to the entrance to Judge Robertson’s private office. Anderson stood there, tugging with his hands at the lapels of a tailored suit that was expensive enough to not seem expensive at all.

“Feeling better, Counselor?” Anderson said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve been fine. It was a fluke thing.”

“Well, fluke things happen. When you’ve done this as long as I have, you see everything. After today, I guess I can now say I truly have seen it all.”

“I’m glad I could help you finish up your bucket list,” I said.

“And I’m not even the one who needed the bucket today.”

I held my tongue, because I didn’t have a particularly good response. Which meant there was a decent chance my next comment would have included a profane remark or two. The last thing I needed after puking in court was to start an obscenity-laced shouting match with the opposing lawyer on the threshold of Judge Robertson’s chambers, three days before Christmas.

“Should we let him know we’re ready?” I said.

“He stepped out. I saw him go. He said something about running down to get the title renewed on his truck, since he had a few unexpected minutes.”

I tried not to let myself get paranoid over whatever else Anderson and Judge Robertson may have discussed. The rules prohibit direct communications between the judge and one of the lawyers about any case. But what would have stopped Judge Robertson from making a sarcastic remark about my performance that morning? Even if it had nothing to do with the actual trial itself, the thought of becoming a shared punchline among my peers made me feel queasy all over again.

We heard Judge Robertson approaching before we saw him. He was talking on his phone, giving someone instructions with that raspy voice about where to be and what to bring for whatever it was he’d be hosting that night, maybe a Christmas party. If so, my family’s contributions to his campaigns weren’t sufficiently robust to secure an invitation. Not that we would have gone. Linda had cajoled me into having a party of our own that night. I’d forgotten all about it. I wished I hadn’t remembered.

“Gentlemen,” Judge Robertson said, nodding once in the general direction of both of us. “Follow me.”

He led the way. Anderson followed. I stopped at the threshold, holding the doorknob.

“Would you like me to close this?” I asked.

“Ordinarily, yes,” the judge said. “But if you think you may need to be making a mad dash to the bathroom, perhaps we should leave it open.”

My eyes shot toward Anderson, who didn’t make a sound but who had a self-satisfied grin pushing the thickened flesh of late middle age away from the corners of his mouth.

“I guess I’ll leave it open, just in case,” I said.

Judge Robertson walked behind a large desk, full of impeccably polished dark wood. Not a scuff or a smudge anywhere on it. He had piles of paper in different heights neatly stacked on the surface, six or seven of them. I assumed each corresponded to one of his most active cases. He sat down. The lawyers continued to stand.

“Take a load off,” he said, motioning to a long table in his office with several chairs positioned around it. The largest of the seats pressed snugly into the space under one end. Anderson and I both knew that one belonged to the judge, regardless of whether he currently chose to use it. I took a spot on the side closest to Anderson and me. He moseyed toward the other, easing his imported suit that looked not-imported into a space directly across from where I sat. At least if I threw up again, it would be aimed right at him.

“Your honor,” Anderson said, once again leveraging his age and experience to speak without express invitation to do so, “I must renew my request for a mistrial. This is highly unusual. Mr. Persepio is clearly not feeling well. And given the looming holidays, the idea of having these jurors set the evidence and the instructions aside for two weeks and then start up again after the first of the year would be unfairly prejudicial to my clients.”

“I don’t know how many different ways I have to say I’m fine,” I said, speaking directly to Anderson. “It’s been a half hour. We can start the closings, take a lunch break, and the jury can deliberate after that.”

“What if they haven’t reached a decision by five o’clock?” Anderson said, ignoring me and directing his words to the judge. “When would they return? The day after Christmas? The day after that? They should be allowed to enjoy their holiday without the burdens of unresolved legal business.”

“He has a point, Mr. Persepio,” the judge said. “I never know how long a jury will be out in any of these cases. I was already a little nervous about giving it to them this morning. And it’s not fair to either side if they rush to a decision because they want to put this behind them. I thought they’d start deliberating yesterday afternoon. If I recall correctly, Mr. Persepio, you told me on Monday you fully expected that to be the situation.”

“I was,” I said. “I mean, I did. I thought that would happen.” The implication of his remarks put me on the defensive, especially since it was accurate. Without thinking, I blurted out a lie.  “I didn’t want them to get it today.”

“Of course you did,” Anderson said. “You were hoping for an early Christmas gift from the jury. We’re all adults, John. We know what you were trying to do.”

“Well, if you’d handle the scheduling conferences for your cases directly and not assign someone fresh out of law school to grind the file while you’re off golfing with Senator Jacobson, this week wouldn’t have been picked for the trial.”

“That’ll be fine, Mr. Persepio,” Judge Robertson said. “I know how difficult the week of trial can be, especially when you’re practicing alone. No sleep. Constant activity. It’s exhausting. It’s stressful. But I still expect the lawyers to treat each other with respect, no matter how out of sorts they may be feeling.”

“I apologize, Your Honor,” I said. “For everything. Yes, I wanted to try the case this week. Who wouldn’t? And we did. And the jury is here and we’re here. And we should go ahead and finish this up right now.”

“And I renew my motion for a mistrial,” Anderson said, “without prejudice.”

Anderson and I glared at each other, neither saying another word. Judge Robertson remained silent, pensive. I was holding my breath without realizing I was holding my breath. That’s all I needed. To hyperventilate and then get sick all over again.

“Here’s what we’re doing,” Judge Robertson said. “We’re reconvening on Tuesday, January 2. I’ll read the instructions again, and then you’ll make your closing arguments.”

“What?” I blurted out with a tone that was involuntarily petulant. “Are you joking? You seriously expect these people to remember all of this eleven days from now?”

“Mr. Persepio, I’d prefer not to commence the proceedings on the second of January with a contempt hearing. I assume you’ll agree with me on that?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, sensing the smugness ooze from the pores on Anderson’s oversized nose. “I note my objection.”

“We’ll do this on the record in the courtroom,” the judge said, “and you can note your objection there. If you hope to pursue an appeal because I pulled the plug for a week and a half after you expelled into a trash can at the outset of closing arguments, well, I suspect the parties’ legal briefs will provide me with some significant entertainment value.”

I had nothing more to say, lest I actually end up in jail for Christmas morning. Anderson had nothing to say for different reasons. He hadn’t gotten what he’d asked for, but he probably asked for a mistrial in the hopes of getting exactly what he got.

The judge stood and motioned for us to do the same. 

“Let’s bring the jury back in and I’ll explain it to them. Then we can send everyone home for the holidays.”

Anderson and I pushed out of our seats as well. He started for the open door. I waited for him to move toward the exit before following. I heard someone talking to me in a low voice. It was the judge.

“Mr. Persepio,” he said, “are you sure you’re OK?”

“I feel fine. Why?”

“During the break, I was downstairs. I saw you out on the street, by your car.”

“The boot,” I said. “I’ve had some parking tickets. I need to get them paid.”

“Not that. It looked like you were—I don’t know how to put it—talking to yourself.”

“There was another man out there, next to me. He’d backed his car into my bumper. We were checking for any damage.”

“Well,” Judge Roberston said, “I didn’t notice any other man. And I definitely didn’t notice any other car.”

On Our Way Home: Chapter Six

Anthony Zych

I couldn’t tell whether the jury received the news with relief or disappointment. Sandy Matherson wasn’t happy to learn she wouldn’t be having her own December to remember, but she stifled her reaction, since both she and I knew Earl would be pissed enough for both of them. I talked to her about the situation after the bailiff had once again led the jury out of the courtroom so that they could start their very extended break in the trial. Earl’s face already had developed a shade of red that nearly matched his flannel shirt. He pressed his forearms so hard against his torso that with one good squeeze his head would have been launched into low orbit.

I fiddled with the contents of one of the boxes of paperwork that would stay in the courtroom until we resumed. The judge had said no other business would be conducted there during the week of Christmas, so we could leave everything where it was. I moved slowly while pretending to organize the files in the hopes that Sandy and Earl would leave. They didn’t. Meanwhile, Anderson and his minions had packed up the gadgets they planned to use during their presentation and embarked on a long weekend that wouldn’t entail licking six-, seven-, or maybe even eight-figure wounds. I tried not to think about the possibility of a verdict that large, especially since it would have been tied up for months on appeal. Still, having a major award tied up on appeal is a lot better than not having one at all.

Soon, three people remained in the courtroom: Sandy, Earl, and me. Sandy checked once more to her left and to her right to confirm we were alone. She nevertheless whispered. 

“Was there any talk in there about, you know, settling this?”

“Nothing more than before,” I said. “They’ve been pretty firm in their position. It makes it a lot easier to go forward when we know we don’t have that bird in the hand.”

“What was it before?” She knew the answer. I could tell she wanted me to say it in front of Earl, that maybe he didn’t believe her.

“They offered ten thousand dollars before trial,” I said. “That’s nothing. It’s peanuts. It wouldn’t even cover my costs.” 

“Now, what does that mean?” Again, she already knew the answer to the question. Maybe if we won she should go to law school. After first going to college. She was definitely sharp enough to do it, if Earl would simply allow her to.

“I’ve paid for everything so far. I get that money back from whatever we recover. That’s money I’ve paid out of pocket, money that’s not coming back if we lose.”

“And we don’t pay you that if we don’t win, right? Because that’s not what that letter you sent says.”

“I know,” I said, eyeing Earl carefully since he was actually the one asking these questions. “Technically, I can’t say in advance that you won’t owe me the money. But if we get nothing, I’m not going to ask you for a dime. I took this case to try to make things better for you. The last thing I’m going to do is make things worse.”

That’s when Earl could no longer help himself, even though he’d likely been told by his wife to not say anything to me. 

“You sure ain’t made nothing better yet,” he said. “You said we was getting an answer on this today. We expected an answer on all of this before Christmas. Now that there judge is saying we gotta come back after New Year’s Day? Well, that sure don’t seem fair to me.”

“I don’t disagree with you, Earl.”

“The way I see it, you’re the one that’s supposed to keep unfair shit from happening to my wife.”

Sandy’s eyes flashed at him. 

“Earl, he’s trying the best he can.”

“Well, then he should have been trying not to puke all over himself.” 

I tried my best to stay calm. I wanted to lash out at anyone and anything over what had happened that morning. I had real skin in the game, just like they did. More than they did. I’d spent more money than I wanted to calculate chasing U-Sav-Plentee on this one, and it was as good of a case as I was ever going to take to trial against a company that big. The truly strong claims settle, because the lawyers don’t want to have their names attached to a horrible outcome at trial. So they make the plaintiffs an offer they can’t refuse. To get the planets to line up just right for a massive verdict, the company and the lawyers had to think they had a clear winner. Most of the time, they did. Once in a while, they found out the hard way they didn’t. 

The best thing going for Sandy, Earl, and me in this case was that we wanted the jury to take what would amount to pocket change from a beast that swallowed up money on money on money, especially when their stores were at maximum earning capacity during the holidays. Already that morning, three days before Christmas, U-Sav-Plentee’s worldwide operations likely had cleared in profit more than a hundred times the amount we would have won, even if I’d been allowed to ply the jury with tequila and cocaine during their deliberations. My ace in the hole, the proximity of the deliberations to Christmas Day, would dissolve into dust by January 2. And it had happened because, for whatever reason, I had a rapid bout of nausea that had resolved itself faster than I could even realize it was happening.

“Folks, I’m sorry about this. I’ve said all along we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt. That’s really all we can do at this point.”

“Why don’t you call that other lawyer and see if they want to settle?” Earl said. “He sure seems smart.”

I was smart enough to pick up on the implication. I kept fighting to not take the bait.

“That won’t work at this point. They’ll sense weakness. They’ll refuse. If they didn’t do it before this morning, they’re definitely not going to do it before we come back.”

“Well, I hope you and your family have a nice Christmas. And I hope you’ll be thinking about the kind of Christmas my family will have because of this.”

Sandy continued to glare at him. The fact that she hadn’t stopped him told me, deep down, she felt the same way. It also told me, no matter how many times I’d explained it in plain terms to Sandy, they didn’t fully realize they wouldn’t have been presented with a giant ceremonial check by the CEO of the company that same day, if we’d won.

“I ain’t asked you for nothing through all of this,” he said. “But I’m asking for one thing. And I ain’t really asking. I want you to come to our house on Tuesday. I want you to pretend I’m that jury. I want you to tell me exactly what you would’ve said to convince them to make this right, if you would’ve got up there and done it today.”

That was the last thing I wanted to do, the last thing I planned to do. At that point, however, I just wanted to get out of there. So I agreed to do it. I’d figure out later how to get out of it. Not that I’d have a lot of time in the coming weekend to devise a plan that would have a chance of working.

I told them, given Earl’s request, I needed to gather a few things to bring with me on Tuesday, which prompted them to finally go. After they did, I went back to the table, pulled out the chair, and sat in it for a long time. I stared at the seats where the jurors had been sitting all week. Ready to hear my closing argument. Perhaps ready to change Sandy’s life and mine, just by writing a number in a box on a sheet of white paper. And now, just like that, the moment was gone forever. 

Ho ho ho. Merry Freaking Christmas.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Seven

Anthony Zych

After I finished feeling sorry for myself, or whatever I was doing in that seat for so long, I pulled the phone out of my pocket. I’d placed it on do not disturb. A few calls had come from the office. Curiosity undoubtedly was getting the better of Barb, who served as my receptionist and paralegal and whatever else was needed to help me with the constant plate-spinning of a one-lawyer practice. I didn’t feel like explaining to her any of what had happened. But I had to at least let her know the trial wouldn’t be concluded until after the holidays. I decided to tell her by text message that the case had been delayed until January 2. 

I didn’t offer an explanation. She didn’t ask for one. That told me she’d likely heard all about it from someone she knew at the courthouse. Regardless, I’d already given her the full week of Christmas off. By the time she returned, I’d be back in court trying to clean up a mess that literally lingered in the bin to my left.

I had a stream of texts from Linda, too. At some point, I’d have to tell her about the unexpected misadventures that had squandered my supposedly golden opportunity, and that had been reduced to whatever was still gurgling on the floor beside me. I definitely didn’t feel like explaining to her any of what had happened, since the news would have been met with a machine gun of questions flowing from the thinly-veiled premise of “I told you so.” At least I wouldn’t get any second-guessing about why I’d taken the case in the first place or how I’d gone about trying to gather evidence or why I didn’t dump so-and-so from the jury or why I did or didn’t say or do whatever I had or hadn’t said or done in court that led to the result. This would be more along the lines of “you need more sleep” or “you should get more exercise” or “you eat too fast” or “you eat too much” or “why didn’t you check the date on the milk?” or “why didn’t you excuse yourself?” or “why didn’t you convince the judge to let you keep going?” I’d bristle at the inquisition, she’d say she was just trying to help, and I’d reply that there was nothing actually helpful about any of it. 

I remembered again that she’d insisted on having a party that night.

It was my own fault for not getting her to do it on a different day, or to not do it at all. But I’d allowed myself to get caught up in the all-in bet I’d made, by the confidence/delusion it would fall together just right, that the Spirit of Christmas would intervene and give us the kind of outcome I’d been chasing for years, battling through the infield singles and ground-rule doubles, all in the hopes of eventually circling the bases triumphantly after hitting a walk-off grand slam.

Facing Linda, Barb, and anyone else would have been much easier if I’d just lost the damn case. That had already happened to me, more than a few times. Any lawyer who boasted about never losing at trial hadn’t tried many cases, because the best that ever can be hoped for when a trial actually makes it all the way to verdict is a fifty-fifty track record. Too much changes from the time it all begins until the jury completes the verdict form and knocks loudly on that door. It was a sound that used to fill me with wonder but now mostly conjured only dread, no matter the outcome. Still, win some or lose some, not many lawyers can claim they managed to turn a potentially huge victory into an inevitable failure because they’d puked in front of the jury as they were getting ready to deliver a closing argument.

Linda also would insist I get checked out. That’s something I already planned to do. The fact that she would push me to do it would make me not want to. It was stupid, it was juvenile. But if I hadn’t changed by the time I was halfway to ninety years old, when was I ever going to?

I noticed at the bottom of Linda’s messages a request to stop on my way home from court and get some things she needed for the party. As if I’d want to interrupt my euphoria or emerge from my despair to push a cart up and down and around the aisles of a grocery store. Fortunately, the purgatory into which I’d plunged put me in the right frame of mind to want to accomplish something tangible, even if it was as simple as making sure I got everything on a list of items ranging from four types of soda to a large package of paper towels (not the cheap ones) to long-nose lighters for igniting the wicks of the red and green candles that littered the first floor of the house to three boxes of different kinds of crackers to a tray featuring the finest processed meats and cheeses that the mother of one of my former clients (I’d gotten him a good settlement, so she didn’t hate me) slapped together on a Styrofoam rectangle and covered snugly in plastic wrap.  

I responded with a simple OK to Linda’s request and deferred any further discussion until later. Hopefully, much later.

Then there was the matter of the large iron clamp affixed to the wheel of my car. I managed to slink out of the courthouse largely unnoticed (I got a hearty “Merry Christmas, Chuck!” from Ralph as I sped through the revolving door), and I stopped at the car to collect the various unpaid tickets from the glove compartment. I plucked the newest one from beneath the wiper.

I headed for the city building, two blocks away from the county courthouse, and I suffered through the slurred attitude of Doris Evans, who’d been enjoying her last workday of the year with a little Christmas cheer, one of the privileges of holding a job for more than thirty orbits around the sun and having a much younger supervisor who was physically, mentally, and emotionally afraid of her. For most people, a little nip or two made them happier. Doris, in that regard and many others, wasn’t most people.

She huffed at having to work on the final workday before Christmas, to count up the amount I owed and to calculate the interest. She actually asked to see my driver’s license so that she could take down the information, as if I were going to settle up my debt by passing a bad check. She said there might not be anyone available to remove the boot until the following week. I reminded her if someone had been on duty that day to apply the thing, there surely was someone on duty that day to take it off. She narrowed her right eye into a look that conveyed the two-word message she was not yet tipsy enough to say out loud without fear of discipline, even for her.

I smiled at her restraint, and I waited until I saw her make the call and heard her convey the order to remove the boot from a white Subaru with the numbers from my license plate. I nodded to her, thanked her far too effusively for it to be genuine, and called out loudly into the otherwise empty room, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

I didn’t rush back to the car, assuming the guy whom Doris had phoned would take his sweet time in taking off the boot. To my surprise, a man in a city-issued gray work uniform was hunched by the wheel, unlocking the face of the immobilizer and scooping it from the ground. I didn’t recognize him, but he seemed to know me.

“Well, well,” he said. “It’s Mr. Lawyer.”

“Thanks for doing this so quickly.”

“Not a problem, Mr. Lawyer. I wanted to be sure you could get home. I heard you had a big day.”

“Excuse me?”

“Gary Galloway is my brother-in-law,” the man said, swinging the clamp into the bed of  a white pickup truck littered with dents and chips and other imperfections reflecting the reality that no one who used it owned it. “You know, he’s the guy you sued when you sued his company.”

“Sorry, pal,” I said. “We all have a job to do.” It was a small town; awkward exchanges like that happened from time to time. I didn’t feel like explaining to this guy what he already should have known—I didn’t sue his brother-in-law in order to get money from him but because I needed a resident of the state to be named as a defendant in order to keep the case from getting sucked into federal court, where it would have been much, much harder to win. (Like I said before, I know how that sounds. Like I also said before, that’s how it always works.)

The guy closed the tailgate before turning back to me. He then crossed his arms and leaned against it.

“My sister is worried sick about this. She may leave him over it.”

“It would be that way even if I didn’t sue him personally,” I said, moving to inspect the wheel before getting in the car. “It’s just the way it is.”

The guy’s casual demeanor didn’t match his words or his tone. He probably assumed a courthouse security camera attached to a building or a light pole was capturing our movements. 

“You play games with people’s lives,” he said.

“Actually, I try to help improve things for people whose lives have been played games with.”

“That don’t make no sense.”

I matched his nonchalance. It was sort of fun to trade verbal hostilities without getting in someone’s face, and without having someone get in mine. 

“Your brother-in-law was sleeping with one of his employees. My client found out about it. She complained. Then they fired her for it.”

“That’s not how I hear it.”

I stepped toward him, curious to see whether he’d do the same. I had an urge to invite a punch in the face, if it meant he’d be fired. After considering how a black eye or a broken nose would look in the Christmas pictures, I crossed the front of the Subaru and leaned over to open the door on the driver’s side. 

“Of course that’s not how you hear it,” I said.

He pushed himself from the truck and put his hands on his hips.

“The company’s lawyer says you filed a frivolous lawsuit.”

“Do you know what a frivolous lawsuit is?” I said. “It’s every lawsuit filed against the person who calls it frivolous.”

“Well,” he said as he climbed into the truck, “you’ll find out just how frivolous this one is when that jury makes its decision. I just hope my sister can hold up. It would be a real shame if she couldn’t. It would be a real shame if someone had to do something about that.”

He slammed the door and drove away, giving the accelerator a hard push so that the truck threw a dark cloud of exhaust in my direction. The smoke lingered amid the fumes of the vague threat he’d just made. It hadn’t been the first time someone had made a comment like that to me, but I’d never had any actual problems. It probably was just a matter of time before something like that happened. For now, I had plenty of other things to worry about.

It didn’t stop me from giving him the finger as he rolled out of sight.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Eight

Anthony Zych

I thought about stopping at the Super U-Sav-Plentee on my way home to buy the items from Linda’s list. I’d rarely set foot in there since I started representing former employees of the company’s local mega-store. Some of the workers regarded me as a hero. Most of them, swallowing the Kool-Aid so many of the managers and co-managers and assistant managers had an active role in mixing up and scooping out, loathed me. I didn’t care. The naysayers would change their tune abruptly, if they ever got fired. Plenty of them had, plenty more surely would.

I tried to force myself to whistle a Christmas song as I lugged my two-sizes-too-big frame from the Subaru to the sliding doors of the grocery store where I had no known friends or foes, other than my former client’s mother who worked in the deli. (The workers there were unionized; if anyone got fired, they couldn’t sue the company in court.) I couldn’t settle on one specific tune. I started with three or four notes of Jingle Bells followed by a few bars of Rudolph before it all melted into You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.

The automatic glass doors slid open with a familiar hiss. I walked inside. The activity within the corrugated-steel box created a level of noise much greater than it was during my usual visits. The clamor of everything happening, from happy, harried people talking to other happy, harried people to carts rolling toward their destinations to grocery baggers bagging groceries, drowned out the holiday music leaking from speakers in the ceiling tiles. That was good, because I could hear just enough to know it was some post-modern bubble-gum bastardization of a classic that was perfectly fine when it was coming from the vocal cords of someone like Perry Como.

I started toward the collection of steel cages on rickety wheels. I stood, patiently as I could, while customers who were oblivious to the fact that others might need to get a cart of their own took their sweet time removing, pushing, and going away. Given that it was so close to Christmas, I tried not to roll my eyes too conspicuously or to sigh too loudly. I may or may not have succeeded. 

I waited for an opening to grab a cart and get started. Too many people were taking up too much space. I tried to tell myself it was fine. The longer I spent at the store, the longer it would be before I would possibly have to share with Linda a story I never dreamed I’d tell, and she surely never dreamed she’d hear.

As some of the other customers moved away, I noticed a man struggling to pull a cart from the rest of them. I recognized the size, the shape, the coat. The fedora. Even before he turned, I knew it was him. Again.

I yanked one away for him, ripping it free with a grunt. 

“They can be a little stubborn,” he said, showing no surprise at running into me for the third time that day. “I was wondering when you’d get here.”

I doubted whether I’d heard what I thought I heard, but I didn’t want to get into a discussion with him over whether he’d said what I thought he said. 

“My wife wants me to pick up some things for tonight,” I explained.

“Sounds like someone is having a party,” he said as he fought to twist his cart in the direction he hoped to guide it. I gave it a nudge with my hip to get it moving.

“Someone is having a party. But not me. My wife. For her colleagues. I’m just there to make sure everything works out.”

“An innocent bystander,” the old man said, “who’d rather be standing by innocently elsewhere.”

I laughed not only at the turn of phrase but at the accuracy of the observation. It was the last place I wanted to be that night. It was the only place I could go. Long gone were the days of heading to a bar and getting a few beers with the guys. At this point in my life, I wouldn’t even know where to find the right bar. I also wasn’t sure who the guys would be. Every adult male I knew had a wife and a family and would be spending their time with them two nights before Christmas Eve.

“Do you shop here regularly?” I said to the old man, following him as he kept struggling to get the cart moving the right way.

“I’m not shopping. I know what I need.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“People who shop don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said. “I know exactly what I’m looking for.”

“Do you have your list?”

He stopped and turned toward me. A crooked index finger with a nail that could use a trimming tapped against his temple. 

“It’s all in here.”

I held up my phone. 

“I’m not that lucky. I’ve got mine right here.”

“Your telephone?” the old man said. “You’re going to call someone and they’re going to tell you what to buy?”

“No. It does more than—never mind. Yes, I’m going to call someone. My wife.”

“You should have called your wife more often.”

“Excuse me?”

“Did you not understand what I said?”

“I do, I just think it’s a little, well, it’s a strange thing to say,” I said. “And it’s a strange way to say it.”

“What’s strange is for a man to not call his wife as much as he should.”

I twisted my neck to the left and right, searching for the camera crew that was about to tell me I’d been the victim of some sort of all-day practical joke.

“I’m going to get my things,” I said to the man, pushing away from the slow shuffling that barely moved his cart toward the produce section at the front of the store. I stopped and turned back to him. “By the way, I thought you said you were on your way home.”

“We are,” he said, with a smile softly brightening that tired and wrinkled face dominated by two rectangular slats of blurred prescription glass. “We’re on our way home.”

“Well, travel safely,” I said with a nod.

I turned my attention to collecting the items from Linda’s list. I heard the old man say one more thing to me. 

“Do you want to see her? She asked about you again.”

I felt my shoulders slump with guilt, not for anything I’d done but for what I was about to do. I pivoted again. I stared at the cloudy lenses covering his eyes. 

“You’ve asked me that three times now. I haven’t said yes once. That probably tells you something.”

“I suppose it tells me you don’t want to see her.”

“It’s nothing personal,” I said. “I’ve got a lot going on. It hasn’t been a good day, and it’s not getting any better. So, again, give her my regards. I’m sure you’re a lovely couple. I wish you nothing but the best. I hope you have a Merry Christmas.”

“Until we meet again,” he said as I moved forward with determination to the deli, for the finest collection of meats and cheeses money could buy in a place that wasn’t an actual deli.

I thought I heard him faintly repeat himself, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t stop to listen.

“Until we meet again.”

I forced away, as best I could, any lingering thoughts of the old man and his wife who wanted to meet me. I had things of my own to buy (not shop for, apparently), and I hoped to time my return to the house so that Linda would be distracted just enough with party preparations to not grill me the way she ordinarily would about what had happened in court. Maybe, if I got lucky, I could delay it all the way through and beyond Christmas Day. Maybe I could manage to fend off the firing squad of doubt-riddled questions until after the trial resumed and I inevitably lost.

I made my way up and down the aisles, bracing myself from time to time for yet another encounter with the old man. Maybe he’d have a bad wheel on his cart, or maybe he’d need me to get something he couldn’t reach from the top shelf. Or maybe he’d pester me again about meeting his wife.

I didn’t see him. I couldn’t tell whether I wanted to. I sort of did. There was a strange comfort in those exchanges, probably because they had become the lone constant during one of the most upside-down days I’d experienced in years.

I checked the list on the phone, ensuring I’d gotten everything that Linda had included in her various messages. Once I thought I had it all, I made my way to one of the checkout lines. I loaded everything onto the conveyor belt, crammed a plastic card into the square machine, punched the numbers, thanked the cashier and the bagger, and began wheeling the cart toward the car. 

As I approached the Subaru, my eyes scanned the parking lot for the old Chevy. Its size and age would have made it stand out. If it was there, I didn’t see it. As much as I didn’t want to ever see that car again, part of me wanted to.

It distracted me just enough to keep me from realizing I’d forgotten to grab a large package of paper towels.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Nine

Anthony Zych

From the instant the metal door landed on the concrete pad in the garage, I found myself already fighting the urge that I’d rather be anywhere else. I could hear Joseph yelling at Mark. I could hear Mark shouting at Macy. I could hear the dog barking at the commotion. As soon as I opened the door into the house the cat would make his escape from it all, bolting past me and finding the familiar empty corner in back of the second row of the metal shelves screwed into the cinderblock wall, next to a box of old football cards I’d saved for my sons if they ever showed any interest in them. They never did.

I hollered for help with the groceries. Not that I had very many. But I had this thing about them not getting soft, so I put the boys to work whenever I could. It could be one of the reasons why they didn’t seem to have much use for me, except when they wanted something.

Only Macy arrived at the door, gazing up from behind black frames correcting extreme nearsightedness. I thought it looked ridiculous for a five-year-old to wear Coke-bottle lenses, but Linda said Macy was too young for contacts. I told Linda that Macy wasn’t too young to forever be stigmatized by her peers as the kid with the goofy-ass glasses.

“Hi Daddy. Can I help you with the bagsth? I want to make sure I sthtay on the nicthe listht.”

I looked at her, not obsessing for a change over the lisp I’d repeatedly told Linda we needed to get fixed before the other kids pounced on that, too. I focused on her glasses. They reminded me of the old man.

“Earth to Daddy,” she said.

“Sure,” I said. “Where are your brothers?”

“I can do it,” she said, breezing past me and heading for the trunk of the Subaru. The curled pieces of light brown hair running around the back of her head bounced as she moved. “If they’re on the naughty listht, more for me. Didn’t you sthay that’sth how it worksth?”

“What’s that, Honey?”

She turned, throwing tiny little fists onto her hips. 

“You sthaid that in a housthe with more than one kid, if one is nicthe and the restht are naughty, the one who’s nicthe gets more to make up for the ones who are naughty.”

“That’s right, Macy,” I said, letting her lead me to the back of the car. She popped the button, pushed up the lid, and inspected the contents.

“Not too much here,” she said. “I’ll grab these.” She picked up one bag in each hand and began making her way inside.

I leaned over the trunk. It dawned on me that I’d forgotten the paper towels. I cursed.

“I heard that,” Macy said, pleased with herself. “That’sth a dollar for the sthwear jar.”

I lifted the other bags, pushing the thin, flimsy plastic handles up my right arm in order to get as much as I could without making a second trip. I scooped the rest of them with my left hand and used my elbow to shove the trunk shut.

Joseph and Mark started up again as soon as I entered the house. I noticed only slightly less clutter than what I’d stepped over that morning. 

“You kids need to be cleaning up,” I called out to no one in particular. “Your mother can’t do everything.”

“And your father can’t do anything.” Linda’s voice came from the left, in the kitchen where she worked on the last of the cookies for the party. The smell gave me a moment of comfort, one that was gone as fast as it had arrived. “Weren’t you going to add that part?”

“I stopped at the store. And I’m home. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do.”

“After you sleep for the next three hours.”

“What’s that old song? I’ll sleep when I’m dead?”

“You and me both,” she said. She had oven mitts on each hand. Trays of sugar cookies that Macy would clamor to help frostht were cooling. Linda’s hair, still a rich and natural auburn, was pulled up in a bun, keeping it out of the way. A few random strands had escaped.

She looked great, and I was starting to look like I should be living under a bridge. She’d still spend more time than necessary to get herself ready for the party. Really, she wasn’t much different than when we’d met in college. Three kids later, she still had her figure and I was the one carrying the baby weight. That’s what happens when they don’t finish their chicken nuggets and fries at the fast-food shop masquerading as an actual restaurant and their dad decides to have one or two or as the case may be every last morsel they didn’t eat, munching through the echoes of the relentless message from childhood that no scrap of food should ever be wasted.

“I got everything you wanted,” I said, raising my arms to display the bags in addition to the ones Macy had dropped onto the marble island top before skittering away to whatever had caught her attention. “But I forgot the paper towels.”

“Then you didn’t get everything I wanted,” she said, without turning her face toward me.

“I can go back.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’ll have Kathy bring some.”

“No, I’ll go.”

She finally spun around. 

“I said it’s fine.”

“And I said I’ll go. I just forgot. I don’t mind going back. It’s my fault.”

“We’ve got four rolls. For now, at least. With the kids, four rolls can quickly become no rolls.”

I could sense she was frustrated. She probably thought I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the list, or whatever. I wasn’t, but at least I had a decent reason. I preferred to avoid addressing it, of course. Maybe it was good that I forgot the paper towels. I’d rather she be disappointed in me for forgetting the paper towels than for doing in open court one of the things paper towels are used to clean up. I placed the other bags on top of the island and began removing the items without saying anything else.

“How’d it go today?” she eventually said. “I don’t see a bottle of champagne in those bags. Maybe that’s the answer.”

“You seem to be awfully nonchalant about the possibility I had my rear end handed to me.”

“I don’t really have the luxury of worrying about it right now. I’ve got a lot more to do before tonight.”

Next came another one of those lapses, when the filter between my brain and my vocal cords betrayed me. Actually, they happened far too often to count as lapses. 

“You’re the one who had to do this tonight, not me,” I said.

Her green eyes flashed in my direction. 

“Really?” she said. “That’s where you’re going? You had plenty of chances to tell me not to do this tonight. I asked you fifty times. You said, every single time, it’s fine. Go ahead. It’s fine.”

“I wasn’t really thinking.”

“That’s the problem, John. You’re never really thinking. You’re never really paying attention. You’re so caught up in everything but what’s going on around here.”

“Well, you know, it’s not like I’m not occupied by things aimed at helping to pump more money into what’s going on around here.”

She threw off the oven mitts, looking like a hockey player spoiling for a fistfight. 

“Here we go again. That’s your excuse for everything. You’re trying to make more money. More money. More money. How much money did you make this year, John?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Enough.”

“Enough isn’t good enough. I know enough about those cases you take. You love chasing ghosts. You believe whatever bullshit those people feed you when they’re looking for a lawyer.”

Macy’s voice shot into the kitchen. 

“Sthwear jar!”

“I’m trying to help those people get justice,” I said.

“Please,” Linda said, waving a hand carrying the diamond ring I’d given her on the same day I’d received my law school diploma. “You get so drunk on the possibility of getting a huge verdict that you lose sight of whether your clients actually deserve it. Most of them got what they should have gotten, John. Haven’t you ever realized that? These companies don’t fire the employees they value. They get rid of the ones who shouldn’t be there. They’re not stupid.”

“That’s not how it works. You know that.”

“I know that in some years you barely make enough to keep the bills paid at your office,” she said as she pulled from the refrigerator two cans of frosting. “And that if I wasn’t working, we’d have trouble keeping the bills paid here.”

“That’s not fair. I make more money than you do.”

“Not per hour. I work seven hours a day at school and then I’m home. I’m home at night. I’m home on the weekends. I’m home all summer. I do everything here because you’re constantly pursuing what you call justice for people who just want cash. You’re trying to win the lottery, and you just keep buying one shitty ticket after another.”

“Sthwear! Jar!”

I became keenly aware that everyone in the house was listening to this. Macy, Joseph, Mark. The dog. Everyone but the cat, whose presence in his safe space in the garage proved he was the most evolved organism in the house.

“I can only take the cases that come my way.”

“Maybe you should do a better job of getting cases. Did you hear about the settlement Frank Williams got last week from that truck crash out on Route 32? Why can’t you get a case like that?”

“Because I don’t want to put my name and my face on those stupid commercials he does.”

“Those stupid commercials are making him the kind of money you keep trying to make.”

“Just let me do it my way. My way is working.”

“It’s not working well enough. If it was, you would have bought a bottle of champagne at the store. Or maybe six of them.”

“The case isn’t over yet,” I said, and I turned to leave the kitchen.

“What do you mean the case isn’t over yet? John?”

I kept walking. It was another bad decision. 

“John? I’m asking you a question. What do you mean the case isn’t over yet?”

I wanted to keep going, but the tone and the volume told me I couldn’t abandon the argument just yet. I turned around, stumbled over the haphazard collection of Lego blocks Macy had slapped together and dropped on the ground in her rush to help me with the groceries. I stifled a four-letter word or two while gathering myself. I could feel a poisonous expression taking over my face. 

“The case isn’t over, OK? We go back on January second to finish it.”

The curiosity caused her to soften, just a bit. 

“Well, that’s strange. Closing arguments were supposed to be today. The case was supposed to be over. Why didn’t you get a verdict?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Sounds like a long story you don’t want to tell. Because length of story never stopped you before, not when it was something you felt like telling me about.”

“It’s complicated. We can talk about it later.”

She smiled at that. Not a happy smile. A smug, knowing smile. A smile that told me she knew that, whatever had happened, it was my fault. I wasn’t exactly in a position to dispute that.

“Sure, John. We can talk about it later. There’s actually plenty of things we need to talk about later.”

“What does that mean?”

She kept smiling. 

“We can talk about it later. For now, I’ve got to get ready for tonight.”

“I told you I can help.”

“I didn’t expect any help. Just let me handle it. Go do whatever you need to do. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.”

“Why are you making this harder than it needs to be?”

She sighed deeply. Her expression became something I hadn’t seen before, or maybe I’d just never noticed it before. 

“You like asking me that question,” she said. “Maybe just once you should ask yourself that question.”

I stood there for a while, waiting for something more. But she’d slipped back into party-prep mode. It was like I wasn’t even there.

For the first time in eighteen years of marriage, I wondered whether she actually wanted me to be.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Ten

Anthony Zych

I pushed open the door to our bedroom. The suite on the second floor had become the temporary storage facility for all the stuff that had to be tucked out of sight during the party. All the stuff that otherwise cluttered our day-to-day lives. All the stuff that became part of the permanent landscape of the interior of our home. All the stuff that needed to be removed completely from view whenever company came to the house. As if we had to pretend we didn’t actually live there, that it was ready for an open house. Ready to be sold. Ready for a new family to take possession, as long as no one went into our bedroom, or opened any of the closets or drawers.

I tried not to focus on the things Linda had dragged into the room in the hours since I’d left for court. Macy’s giant plastic kitchen set. The exercise bike we kept in the TV room because it was close enough to the wireless router so that Linda could compete against cyclists from anywhere in the world, as long as they were close enough to a wireless router, too. I wondered how she got it up the stairs. The boys must have carried it. They were getting to the age where they could do pretty much anything and everything I did. Maybe she really didn’t need me anymore.

I decided not to take full inventory of the rest of the stuff before peeling off my courtroom uniform. I put on a T-shirt and shorts. I pulled back the covers on our bed. She’d already given me permission to do it. Even if she didn’t mean it, I was too tired and too frustrated and too emotionally and physically drained to pretend it wasn’t real. I climbed onto the mattress where two of the three kids had been conceived. I pulled the covers completely over my head. Buried my cheek into the pillow, weird wrinkle growing next to my nose be damned. I slept. I escaped.

It was temporary, as it always is. The act of falling asleep is the only minute or two of true relaxation. It melts into dreams influenced by that patchwork of fleeting thoughts and random interactions before it all abruptly ends. Whether interrupted by an alarm going off or a prostate screaming for relief or some random noise, the sleep experience is overrated. 

Fall asleep. Wake up. Back to reality.

Reality came back three hours after I fell asleep. I hadn’t set an alarm, and none of the periodic ruckuses from downstairs had pierced through the slumber. Not after a full week in trial. Well, most of a week. I checked my phone. It was half past five. People would start showing up in an hour. All I could really do at that point was to get myself ready and stay out of the way.

I slogged through the darkness of the room. I flipped the switch for the lights over the double sink in the master bathroom. The combination of pressure and time had left my scalp badly in need of a reset. I showered, shampooed, dried my hair. I probably should have shaved again, but I didn’t want to risk cutting my face. The light bulbs above my head made the collection of gray hairs more noticeable. Linda had told me to consider using a little dye to hold things in place. I didn’t want to play that game, because it always ends only one way—an old man with ridiculously dark hair until he admits what everyone else knows, drops the facade, and looks like he aged a quarter of a century overnight. Nope, I had already decided to take the grays as they came, in a slow-moving parade that would allow me to sink gradually into the quicksand of old age and whatever lurked beneath it.

Linda blew into the room like a heat wave, or maybe the opposite. She was talking to herself as she often did, telling herself everything she needed to do and interspersing various grievances and complaints, parsed out with passive-aggressive expertise. She used to do it with the kids, when they were too small to understand what she was saying. Sometimes, she’d do it with the dog or the cat. When all else failed, Linda talked to Linda. Most of the time, her messages were meant for me.

“They’re bringing the trays of pasta soon,” she said to no one. “I need to get myself dressed and make one last pass through the house because God knows whether someone made a mess since the last time I cleaned everything up.”

I kept my mouth shut and my head low, working my way to the ever-shrinking portion of the walk-in closet where some of my clothes were haphazardly arranged on hangers of various size, structure, and age. Other items had landed in my assigned drawer of the dresser. Still others were loosely folded into uneven piles on the floor of the closet, where my shoes should have been but they were strewn with the rest of the family’s footwear like the aftermath of a Picway earthquake on the floor of the garage, just to the left of the entrance to the house.

“What should I wear?” I said to her from inside the closet.

“Why are you asking me?”

“Because if I choose something on my own, you’ll say to me, ‘You’re wearing that?’”

“And you’ll still wear it anyway.”

I walked back out to the bedroom. She was moving toward the bathroom, for makeup and whatever else she did in there. Even after all these years, I didn’t know the full routine. I just knew to avoid it.

“I’m trying to cooperate,” I said to her. “You tell me what to wear, and I’ll wear it.”

She shrugged as she moved. 

“Wear something nice. It’s not like we’ll be shoulder to shoulder.”

“Well,” I said, “we are hosting this thing.”

She stopped and locked eyes with mine. 

“No, John. I’m hosting this thing. You’re spectating. The minute enough people show up to give you cover, you’ll be shooting pool in the basement.”

“I’ll have at least three of our other guests down there with me,” I said, as if I’d accidentally solved a Rubik’s cube with my eyes closed. I raised a finger in victory. “Entertaining them.”

She rolled her eyes at that. I hated when she rolled her eyes at me. But I didn’t say anything, because whenever I got a good eye roll, I almost always deserved it.

“Just wear whatever you want to wear,” she said. “I’m late. And I still have plenty of things to do.”

I paused. Held my breath. Sounded out in my mind a couple of potential options for what to say next.

“What can I do to help?”

“They’re delivering the food soon. You can be on the lookout for the van. I’ve already paid them.”

“Do I need to tip them?”

“I said I already paid them, John. Do you ever listen to me?”

I disengaged at that point. Found a pair of black jeans, still fairly new and not all that faded. Pulled a maroon sweater from the floor of the closet. It was big enough to conceal the majority of my paunch, at least from most angles. I didn’t look in the mirror because I told myself I didn’t care. (The truth was I didn’t want to be depressed by what I’d see.) Besides, I didn’t need any further reminders of what I’d become. Soft, lumpy, wrinkled, graying. With each fresh December pulling me another year closer and closer and closer to whatever I’d ultimately become. 

I thought of the old man. Do I really want that? Frail and shrunken and withered? There’s something to be said for going to sleep at around seventy and not waking up. I told myself I’d probably feel differently about that in twenty-five years.  Maybe eighty. No older than eighty. Eighty and out.

My own parents didn’t come close to eighty, or even seventy. Mom had cancer, fought it for five years. Died at fifty-four. Dad had bypass surgery a year later, seemed fine, then dropped dead. He was sixty. They’d both been gone more than twenty years. I’d met Linda by then, and I’d embarked on my own life. It made it easier to move on, but there was never anything easy about it. Linda still had her parents. She had no idea what it was like, and nothing I told her about it would make her understand. It had to be experienced, the permanent shift in existence that happens when your parents are gone forever. Nothing, not one thing, can prepare you for how it feels when it actually takes place.

Linda’s parents had a small house just a few miles from us. The best part about the arrangement was they never, ever spent the night. Not that I didn’t love them or respect them. But no parents ever completely and fully surrender a daughter to some guy they didn’t hand pick for her. I already knew I’d be the same way with Macy.

I went to find Macy and the boys, to make sure they weren’t undoing any of the things Linda had done to get ready for the party. I wasn’t angling for credit. I was hoping to avoid blame. Once I exited the bedroom for the rest of the house, anything that happened anywhere on the premises could and would be used against me.

When I made it down the steps, I soaked in the atmosphere. Linda had outdone herself, as she often did. The place was immaculate, the decorations sparkled. The candles threw flashes of light in a way that made the place cozy and inviting.

It instantly became neither when I vomited onto the floor of the TV room, just off the kitchen. I stood there, stunned by the speed and intensity of it all, especially since I hadn’t eaten anything since losing everything I’d previously eaten, earlier that day. No one heard me, which was both a relief and a surprise, since it sounded like a freight train with rusty wheels had roared out of my gullet. I went to find the paper towels, a precious commodity that would hopefully be replenished by my sister-in-law since I’d forgotten to get more of them at the store. Regardless, the only other options were to use actual towels or to leave the mess where it was. I made an executive decision that Linda would approve of neither of those outcomes.

I hustled to collect the goop I’d deposited, stunned by the fact I even had anything in there to spill onto a wooden floor that needed a good refinishing that I lacked the skill or desire to apply. Only a bit of it had gotten onto the area rug that framed the space between the black leather couch and the sixty-five-inch flatscreen TV, a one-time luxury purchase that now could be had at any U-Sav-Plentee for relative peanuts. I tried my best to get it all and to blot the orangey stain on the tassels of the plush rectangle we had unfurled in that exact spot when we bought the house. I managed this three-ring circus of digestive shame as best I could, thankful the boys weren’t in sight (the video games were in the basement) and Linda had yet to descend the stairs. 

The doorbell rang. I ran with the last of the paper towels to the trash can in the kitchen, making a mental note to change out the bag after the food had been put in place. I wondered exactly where the trays were supposed to go. Just as the thought crossed my mind, I heard Linda coming down the steps to get the door.

“What’s that smell?” she said with a crinkled nose as she breezed past me to the main entrance to the house, a large, thick door painted white on the inside and red on the outside.

“I think it’s the candles,” I said. “Or something else. I’m not sure.”

She gave me a look suggesting both confusion and suspicion before the doorbell rang again, snapping her out of it and forcing her to focus on the delivery of the meal for our party. Her party.

She had the kids from the restaurant take the trays to the island in the kitchen. They followed every command without hesitation. She must have tipped them well. I stood out of the way, marveling at the efficiency of it all. I didn’t know much in that moment, but I knew Linda wouldn’t have puked in court that morning.

I scanned the floor and other surroundings to make sure I’d gotten it all. I remembered I needed to change out the trash can. I cared less about the mess I’d made and more about facing a stream of questions that possibly would have had me in the emergency room after the last straggler left the house that night. I’d resolved to get checked out following round one. After having it happen again fewer than twelve hours later, getting an appointment with a real doctor would be the first order of business for the morning after Christmas.

If you live that long.

My head jerked as the thought invaded my brain. I wanted to ignore the possibility that it was anything that serious. On a day that already had been anything but calm and bright and peaceful on earth and every other tired old lyric from every Christmas song that ever had been or ever would be written, I couldn’t let myself entertain the possibility of dropping dead before December 26, especially when we were about to entertain a houseful of people I didn’t really want in my home. Really, the absolute last thing I wanted to do for the balance of the night was to deal with our guests, who would be arriving soon.

“John,” Linda said, “let’s go. Our guests will be arriving soon.”

On Our Way Home: Chapter Eleven

Anthony Zych

The procession to the makeshift pool room in the partially-finished basement began without me, after Artie Phillips and Trent Utz asked if I wanted to play, which of course meant they wanted to play. I told them to go ahead, that I’d meet them down there. I half-smiled when I noticed a couple of other guys slinking toward the doorway to the lowest level of the house before slipping from view. The faint sound of the clacking balls warmed my heart, even if it didn’t pull me down there.

I just didn’t feel like playing. I also didn’t feel like not playing. I basically didn’t feel like doing anything. I went through the motions, pretending to be the supportive spouse of the hostess as she welcomed her many friends from the grade school where she taught. When you work alone like I did, and when you spend your entire professional time fighting with other lawyers, opportunities for the creation of meaningful relationships don’t come along very often. You eventually get to the point where you don’t want them to.

Linda would have been pleased, if she’d been paying attention. I was helpful. Talkative. Almost charming. Even if I felt disconnected from all of it, making stupid little chitter-chatter while also delighted that everyone I encountered was sufficiently absorbed in their own lives (as I was in mine) that they didn’t know or care that my opportunity to catch the U-Sav-Plentee tiger by the tail had been delayed by a very unforeseen development. I played the game of asking broad, open-ended questions. It didn’t require me to access specific memories about past conversations with the same people. I listened (even if I wasn’t listening) to boasts and complaints and concerns and whatever else flowed from vocal cords gradually lubricated by the various bottles of screw-top wine and twist-top beer and bargain-basement bourbon that Linda had purchased during a recent trip to the liquor store, while I was dealing with preparing for the next day of trial.

I became the unofficial greeter as more and more of Linda’s friends and their spouses or whoever they were arrived. A hearty welcome, with a may-I-take-your-coat? flourish. They entered cheerfully, and I hoped more than a few of them would mention to Linda that she’d found herself a good man. Even if I knew deep down I wasn’t nearly as good as I needed to be, for her or for the kids or really for anyone. Except maybe the cat, because all the cat needed was a can of food once per day, a reasonably clean litter box, and then just get out of the way and let me do my own thing.

I often found myself envying that damn cat.

I heard the doorbell again. I politely and gracefully disengaged from someone named Martha or Marty or maybe Marianne and went to welcome the next mini-wave of would-be holiday revelers.

I heard the hinges creak more loudly than usual, a screeching whine that caused me to pull my head back to see if a piece of metal had perhaps become loose or broken. When I turned back to the entrance, I felt a shudder and a shake. 

There he was again. And this time he wasn’t alone.

“Are we late?” the old man said from under his fedora and behind those large, smoky lenses.

“I—well, I guess you’re right on time.”

He nodded and smiled, sparking a flood of wrinkles around his mouth and up his cheeks and beyond.

“She said we were late and I told her we weren’t. Maybe fashionably late. Isn’t that what they call it?”

“I suppose they do,” I said, pulling the door wider. The old man took a shaky step with his left leg across the threshold.

“Thank you for the invitation,” he said, although I couldn’t remember inviting him. Maybe I had. I definitely didn’t remember giving him the address. 

I saw her standing behind him. The one who had stayed in the car the three prior times I’d seen him that day. She was small and thin and even more frail than he was. A malnourished bird who lacked the energy to fly south for the winter. Her white hair glistened under the light above our stoop. Her face was much smoother than her husband’s, not nearly as weathered and worn. She also had glasses, not as large as his but just as thick where it mattered, creating clouds behind which I could faintly catch a glimpse of dancing eyes.

“It’s you,” she said to me. “I told him I wanted to see you. Did he not tell you I wanted to see you?”

The old man turned toward her. 

“I told you that I told him. Did you think I was lying to you?”

“He can be a little forgetful,” she said to me as if he wasn’t standing right there, and she extended a hand in less of a greeting and more of an unspoken request for assistance. I felt something when she gripped my palm tightly.

“Welcome to our home,” I said to her. It was the only phrase I could muster through the confusion.

“I told him I didn’t want to impose, but he insisted.”

“It’s not an imposition at all,” I told her. “Please, come in.”

She held onto my hand longer than she needed to, but it didn’t bother me. Her grip was cool but also warm, if that makes any sense. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time, and I didn’t try to figure it out.

I offered to take their coats. They declined. She said they couldn’t stay long. He reminded me they were on their way home. I accepted his explanation without asking questions or even having any sprout from my brain. I was both dumbfounded and in a strange way happy they were there. I led them over to the couch in the TV room. It was empty amid the conversations among the guests and the staccato sounds of cutlery on plates (Linda hated using disposable plastic dishes, no matter how many people were present) and the rest of the noises flowing naturally from the very unnatural presence of so many people throughout the first floor of the house. 

“You have a very nice home,” the old woman said to me. “Very nice. I’m proud.”

“Thank you,” I said, accepting what she said without asking myself or her or him why she would say that. I offered to get them some food. I thought they would decline that, too, but the old man said he was starving. That was my cue.

I twisted my way through the crowd with determination, smiling and nodding and saying “excuse me” when necessary in order to get to the kitchen. I fetched a pair of plates and arranged a little of everything on them from the trays of food. I could feel against my face stray wisps of warmth rising from it all. I got them small pieces of lasagna, tiny mounds of pasta with small chunks of chicken scattered throughout (if they wanted seconds, so be it), and a spoonful or two of mixed vegetables. I checked the presentation before collecting two forks and commencing the trek back to the couch. 

“Hungry?” Linda said as I began to move away from the island.

I looked down at the plates and then back at her.

“It’s not for me. It’s for a couple of our guests.”

“The idea was that the guests would get their own food. That’s what everyone else is doing.”

“I’m just trying to be helpful. They’re elderly. I didn’t want them to have to work their way through the crowd.”

“Elderly?” Her nose crinkled again. “I don’t think I invited Mrs. Tolliver. She retired last year.”

“It’s not her,” I said. “It’s someone else.”

“Who is it then?”

“Well, I mean, I’m not really sure. But they’re here. I wanted to take care of them.”

She seemed surprised, perhaps more by my willingness to help than by the presence of two people she didn’t recall asking to come. 

“That’s fine,” she said. “It’s less that you and the kids will be eating this weekend, I suppose.”

A conversation between a pair of Linda’s colleagues caught her attention and she spun away to join them. I seized the opportunity to make my way back toward my guests, technically. It was a slightly more challenging journey, given that I was gripping a plate in each hand with a fork perched gingerly atop each one.

I made it back to the couch without incident. They were sitting there, not talking. Just looking around at the conversations and the activity. I handed the first plate to the woman, easing it toward a pair of open palms that hovered over her lap. The old man snatched his from my other hand at the same time.

“This looks good,” he said to me. “Did you cook it?”

“We ordered in.”

“Ordered in? How fancy. Maybe that’s why you don’t have a nicer car.”

I laughed at him, and before I could respond he was working the fork toward his mouth faster than I’d seen him move all day.

“My goodness,” the woman said to him. “You act like you’ve never eaten before.”

“Sorry, but you don’t cook food like this,” he said to her.  

“Well, not anymore.” She inspected her plate far more carefully than her husband had.

“Ain’t that the truth,” he said through a full mouth.

“Dear,” she said to me, “do you have a napkin?”

I realized I’d forgotten them. I made my way back to the kitchen, once again moving carefully and respectfully around people who seemed to be having a far better time than me.

“Back for more?” I heard Linda say as I scanned the spread for the basket of napkins. I spotted it, grabbed two, and started back.

“I forgot these,” I said to her with a wink that was supposed to be playful, but I’m not quite sure how it came off because, well, I was never very playful. She shook her head and went back to talking about whatever it was she and the others had been so fervently discussing. It occurred to me that, even if none of the people present had said anything to me about what had happened that morning, one or more of them may have said something to Linda. I felt something stir in my stomach at the thought of her hearing about it from someone other than me. I prayed I wouldn’t throw up again, at least not until everyone was gone.

When I got back, I saw that the old man had eaten most of his food. The woman was waiting for her napkin before starting. I handed one to each of them. She smiled at the gesture. The old man snatched his, regarding it as an interruption more than anything else.

“Would you like some more?” I said to him.

“Not yet. I’ll let round one digest a little bit.”

“He doesn’t need any more,” she said. “He needs to leave some for the others.”

“There’s plenty,” I said, but the old man seemed to defer to her. I noticed him watching to see whether she’d start eating. Maybe he planned to finish whatever she didn’t.

Eventually, she began to lift small amounts delicately toward her mouth. She seemed to be studying every bite. Or perhaps savoring it.

“It’s very good,” she said. “But there’s always something different about a home-cooked meal.”

“There is,” I said, smiling as I watched her tentative movements. It was almost as if she moved the her fork to the food and the fork to her mouth robotically. “Linda will be cooking our meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.” I felt a bit defensive while saying it. I didn’t want them to think we never made our own food.

The old man belched, without making any effort to cover his mouth.

“My goodness,” the woman said. “I do apologize for my husband. He’s not used to eating in the presence of others.”

“It’s a compliment to the chef,” he said. “Whoever he is.”

I smiled and nodded. They delighted me, these strangers who entered my life on this strangest of days. I watched the woman eat, slowly and deliberately with those same mechanical movements. She abruptly stopped.

“I think I’m full,” she said. “I hate to waste the rest.”

“It’s fine,” I told her. “Eat what you can.” I thought the old man would volunteer to finish it off, but he didn’t. He instead requested a drink of water, mentioning that he’d prefer a belt of something stronger but that he knew he shouldn’t. I nodded at him, and I said once again that I’d be back.

I started another path toward the kitchen, eventually retrieving a glass from the assembly Linda had placed near the wine. I felt a little dizzy but pushed through it. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since morning, but I didn’t want to press my luck. Not with so many who would potentially witness what would have been the third expulsion of the contents of my stomach that day. I focused on getting three cubes of ice into the glass. I found a bottle of the fancy water Linda bought for herself and the kids in the refrigerator. I removed the cap and poured until the glass was nearly full. I started back. I could feel Linda’s eyes on me, but I avoided saying anything to her.

When I returned to the couch, they were gone. I jerked my head in all directions, looking for their tiny bodies amid the others. I peered through the gaps in the arms and heads and torsos, searching for them. 

“Where did they go?” I said. 

I went toward the steps and strained my eyes into the darkness of the second floor. I knew that, wherever they were, they couldn’t have made the climb so quickly. I turned back around, scanning for any sign of the couple. I waited there for a while, sipping the water and hoping I’d see them. Eventually, I casually strode to the front door, opened it, stepped outside. There was no sign of them out there, either. I shrugged. I went back inside, carrying the glass of water through the TV room and into the kitchen and to the dining room beyond it, wondering if I’d see them in there but knowing deep down I wouldn’t.

One of Linda’s friends approached me and asked how things were going with the practice. I told her everything was fine. She told me about a friend of hers who was having trouble at work and she’d tell him to call me next week. I forced myself to focus on the conversation, to feign interest in the situation before saying, yes, the person should call and, sure, I’d figure out whether anything could be done about whatever it was. I resumed my prior role, running out the clock until the time came to gather coats, two at a time, as our guests began to leave. I wondered whether, as the throng thinned, the old man and his wife possibly would emerge from wherever they’d wandered off to. Even though I knew in my heart I wouldn’t see them again that night.

Before long, the last of the stragglers had left, with Linda taking them to the door and conversing about whatever it was that I wasn’t paying attention to. Linda seemed lively and happy, with the demeanor of someone deeply pleased with how the evening had gone. I kept sipping on the water until the ice had mostly melted. I sucked on one of the shrunken cubes as Linda said farewell to the last of the guests.

“Well, that was fun,” she said to me.

“It went well.”

“You seemed to enjoy it.”

“I did. Did you think I wouldn’t?”

“You never do.”

“Well, tonight I did. A little bit, at least.”

“Did you ever figure out who those people were?”

“Who?” I said.

“The ones you got the food for.”

“I don’t know who there were.”

“Did they enjoy themselves?”

“I think they did. They just sort of left, I think.”

“What do you mean you think?”

“They were here, and then they weren’t.”

“Did you offend them or something?”

“Offend them?” I said. “I was very nice to them. They left.”

She began to wander through the first floor. It seemed deserted and hollow, with everyone gone. 

“Where are the kids?” she said.

“In the basement, I think. I’m sure the boys are playing that video game, whatever it is. Macy’s probably watching something on her tablet. And Buster is probably right by her side. You know how he gets when a lot of people are around.”

“Help me put the food away,” she said. “I’ll clean everything else up in the morning.”

I watched as she moved to the kitchen. She stopped and turned her head toward the couch. She walked over there, and she pointed at the coffee table in front of it.

“Didn’t they eat?”

“What do you mean?” I said, tracking my eyes from her finger to glass surface, where two plates sat. They both had a full collection of food on them.

“Aren’t those the dishes I saw you fix?”

I shook my head. 

“Yes, but they ate. I watched them.”

“Well, unless two other people got plates of food and brought them to this table and put them down and didn’t eat, that looks exactly like what I saw you carry out of the kitchen.”

I stumbled toward the table and peered down at it. Sure enough, that was what I had prepared. With a fork perched on top of each pile of food. And a pair of napkins was sitting there, next to the plates.

“I saw them eat,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A lot of people were here. Just dump them into the disposal, I guess.”

She went to the kitchen. I stayed there, studying the plates. I recognized my handiwork. I felt woozy. I sat on the couch, still staring at the dishes. 

“I saw them eat,” I said.

“What’s that?” she said from the kitchen.

“Nothing,” I said. And then I picked up one of the plates and began to consume food for the first time since that morning.

(On Our Way Home continues on Monday, December 5, with Chapter Twelve. It’s being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for something, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Through December 11, you’ll get a free, personalized bookplate.)

On Our Way Home: Chapter Twelve

Anthony Zych

I devoured the contents of both plates, maybe because I thought if the food was gone it would mean they had actually been there. But they actually had been there. I’d seen them. I’d spoken to them. As far as I knew, no one had reported to Linda that her husband seemed to be talking to himself near the couch.

Sleep came very easily, despite my long, late-afternoon nap. Exhaustion from a week in trial and days spent before that in every-waking-moment preparation had taken a toll, in more ways that one, apparently. I slumbered without dreaming, or at least without remembering any of my dreams. The next day, there wouldn’t be much time to reflect on them.

Saturday morning. Two days to Christmas. The house would carry that rare, temporary buzz. The party had helped. Even without it, it was time for things to begin to feel festive and merry. As long as I didn’t think about everything that had happened the day before, and as long as I avoided talking about it to Linda.

So far, so good.

She’d rolled out from her side of the bed while I was still asleep. I stayed warm under the covers and was relieved I hadn’t gotten sick in the middle of the night. Sometimes it just feels good to lay there, still and awake and fully conscious of the feel of the sheets on the bottom and the quilt on top, the one my mother had knitted at least thirty years earlier. Beneath the thing it had taken her weeks to make, it still felt like she was pulling me in for a hug I didn’t really want but didn’t realize how badly I needed.

I heard yelling from the first floor. Joseph was calling for me. Apparently, I’d promised to take him to basketball practice that morning. I had no reason to doubt I’d told him I’d take him, even if I didn’t remember doing it. And, as he usually did, he’d ignored the creeping of the minutes toward ten o’clock sharp, when practice was due to begin.

I stumbled from the cocoon, feeling more like caterpillar than butterfly. The toothbrush beckoned, but I knew from the urgency in Joseph’s voice that I didn’t have time for the luxuries of personal hygiene. When he needed to go, he needed to go. And he didn’t bother to say he needed to go until the exact instant he definitely needed to go.

I pulled a pair of jeans that seemed to be getting more snug with each passing weekend over legs that were starting to sprout random white hairs. I found a baggy sweatshirt. Or at least a sweatshirt that used to be baggy. Maybe I’d need to bump up a size, in order to have enough extra material to conceal a spare tire that was becoming more and more inflated.

I began fumbling for my keys and wallet, rifling through the pockets of the black jeans I’d worn the night before and then realizing they were still in the suit pants I’d worn to court. I pulled my phone from the surface of the dresser. Sandy Matherson had called. Or maybe it was her husband. I didn’t feel like talking to either of them. Maybe I’d return the call after dropping Joseph off at the gym. Or maybe I wouldn’t.

Joseph kept calling my name, even after I’d made it clear I was coming. I nearly tripped and fell down the steps. He stood there at the bottom, wearing only shorts and a Packers jacket over his sleeveless T-shirt. He carried a bag that held a pair of the same Jordans he was wearing on his feet, laces untied. He’d convinced Linda to buy two sets of the identical shoe. One to wear only when playing, the other to wear when not playing. She didn’t include me in the decision-making process, because she knew what I’d say about that.

“You ready or what?” he said with impatience that danced on the line of disrespect, noticing my arrival without looking up from his screen.

“Let’s go,” I said. “Why’d you wait so long to get me up?”

“We had time.”

I flew past him and presumed he was following. 

“We had time,” I said. “Key word. Had. We don’t have much time now.”

“Why are you so bent out of shape? I’m the one who’ll have to run if I’m late.”

“Persepio is Italian for we always show up on time.”

Joseph shook his head and rolled. 

“That wasn’t even funny the first time you ever said it.”

I kept moving, through the TV room and into the kitchen and toward the door to the garage. The dog rushed over to me and jumped up, pressing one paw into my stomach and the other right into my crotch. I let out a loud noise that became muffled a bit as I bent over, bracing for that inevitable rush of pain coming from somewhere deep in my intestines. The dog acknowledged the tip of my nose by depositing a thick layer of concentrated saliva across it.

“Well, that’s one way for him to get your attention,” Linda said from the other side of the island. She and Macy were making eggs. Macy laughed at me, in a happy and innocent way.

“Why didn’t you get me up earlier?” I said to Linda.

“I figured you set your alarm.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Maybe you should have been the lawyer,” I said.

“It’s a simple question.”

“I didn’t realize I needed to be up.”

“Who’s fault is that?” she said it with a smile. I either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

“Shit, Linda, are we really going to do this now?”

“Sthwear jar!” Macy yelled, and she ran toward the other room to fetch it. 

“Honey, I don’t have any cash on me,” I called out to her. “I’ll get it later.” 

I turned back to Linda. The smile was gone.

“Real nice, John.”

“What?” I said, before realizing Joseph had slipped past me and climbed into the Subaru. He pressed hard onto the horn.

“Damn it!” I yelled.

“Sthwear! Jar! Again!”

“Just go,” Linda said. “You find a way to ruin every good mood we ever have.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Macy still seemed to be in a pretty good mood, especially after picking up an IOU for two free dollars to go with all the rest. I looked at Linda, considered my options, and decided to leave before Joseph shoved his hands onto the face of the steering wheel again.

I half-limped toward the car, still feeling the effects of Buster’s greeting. Before I reached the handle, Joseph pressed the button on the visor, sending the door up and a blast of wintry air inside. It struck my face and neck. I hurried to get inside the car.

“It’s about time,” he said as I fell into the seat, straining the leather that was threatening to tear open after three-plus years of my increasingly oversized butt lumbering into the cockpit. 

“The dog got me right in the balls. I had to gather myself.”

He smiled as I slipped the Subaru into gear and backed out of the driveway. 

“The old Buster nut buster.”

“Is that what you call it?”

“He does it all the time. You need to turn to the side. You’re just figuring that out now?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I checked the clock on the dashboard. We had five minutes to make a seven-minute drive.

“Can you step on it a little?”

“I should go slow just so you’re late. It’ll teach you a lesson about waiting until the last minute to let me know you need to go.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, Dad.”

I pressed down on the pedal. I’d get him there on time. As much as I wanted to be an ass about it, I couldn’t do that to him. 

“Just get me up a few minutes earlier next time, OK?”

By then, he already had his nose back in his screen. 

“What’s that?”

“Nothing,” I said. I focused on getting the car to the school on time. It was nice to have nothing else to think about, even for five minutes.  

I pulled up near the two steel doors leading into the gym, stopping long enough for Joseph to get out without saying anything. I had no idea how long practice would last. I’d learned from experience that, with this particular coach, practice lasted as long as it lasted. Sometimes, forty-five minutes. Other times, more than two hours. I pulled the car between a set of parallel yellow lines in the parking lot and waited for Joseph, knowing that if I went home the practice would end quickly and that if I stayed I’d be sitting and waiting longer than I wanted to.

But I didn’t have anything else I needed to do, and Linda was already pissed at me. Not that I didn’t deserve it.

Yes, she got mad at me pretty often. Sometimes, it wasn’t my fault. Most of the time, it was. And most of the time that it was, I knew damn well that I was about to make her mad, and I did it anyway.

I checked my phone, looking at the list of calls I’d missed during the past couple of days of focusing entirely on the trial. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I knew that feeling all too well. It was the post-trial rut. After days of adrenaline and caffeine and raw terror from constantly performing on a high wire without a net before those who would decide my client’s fate, it was a long fall back to normalcy. 

It felt worse this time, because the trial wasn’t over. It had all slipped into a week or so of limbo, with the chances of a good outcome far slimmer than they’d been the day before. I replayed the events in my mind. The unexpected escape of my breakfast. Did I know it was coming? Could I have done anything about it? How different things may have been if I’d just performed the closing argument and the jury had delivered a verdict for Sandy.

I could feel my insides rumbling again at the thought of what had happened, and I started to scan the parking lot for a suitable place to deposit whatever was left in my stomach from the two plates of food the old couple hadn’t eaten but I had. There was a row of shrubs along the back of the school, about twenty feet across the asphalt lot from where I’d parked. I could make a beeline for the bush line and let nature take its ugly, smelly course.

I turned back from my effort to formulate a vomit contingency plan. I noticed something off to my left. My head jerked.

There he was. Fedora and glasses and the same coat he’d worn every time I’d seen him on Friday. As best I could tell, he was wearing the same clothes under it.

I pressed the button that powered down the window. He watched it glide.

“Fancy shmancy,” he said, admiring the speed and silence with which the window zipped into the opening in the door.

“Where’d you come from?”

“Did no one ever explain the birds and the bees to you?”

“I mean—never mind. Where’s your car?”

He motioned with his right hand behind the Subaru. I craned my head around and saw the oversized Chevy. It looked like it should have a mizzen mast instead of a steering wheel. I noticed the top of the woman’s head in the passenger seat. She was sitting there still and serene.

“What happened to you last night?” I said.

“She wanted to go. She gave me the rush act. I told her we should wait. But marriage isn’t a democracy. Especially when there’s only two votes.”

“Where are you heading?”

“We’re on our way home.” He said it just as earnestly and honestly as he had a day earlier. I laughed openly, but I was careful not to mock him.

“What’s so funny?” he said “You don’t believe me?”

“I believe you. I just think you may be lost.”

“I don’t think so. I know precisely who I am and where I am and what I am.” He paused and dipped his head, peering at me with naked eyes over the top of the frames of his glasses. “Do you?”

His words stunned me. They struck me deeply. Not with pain, but with the vague sense of wonder that comes from opening a gift and moving the tissue paper out of the way and finding something unexpected and special and meaningful inside. I became self-conscious of the tears that were suddenly clouding my vision.

“I don’t know,” I said to him. “Sometimes, I don’t know.”

“That would seem to be fairly important information. But what do I know?”

I wiped a thick drop from the edge of an emerging crow’s foot with the top of my left hand.

“I guess I’m just confused. You keep saying you’re on your way home. But you don’t seem to be making any progress.”

He nodded, in a way that almost seemed deliberately condescending. 

“I think we are. Some journeys take a little longer than others.”

“But you haven’t gone anywhere. Yesterday, you were on your way out of town. You got your tire fixed, and then you didn’t leave.”

“Are we not welcome here?”

“No. I mean, yes. You are. You just don’t seem like you’re actually on your way home.”

“All I can tell you is that we are.”

“Is it just the two of you going home?”

He turned back to the car, raising a weathered and leathery hand to wave to his wife. Then he looked at me again.

“That depends,” he said.

“Depends? Depends on what?”

“It just depends,” he said. “Hey, can you loan me some money?”

I coughed at the request. 

“Money? Like cash? I don’t have any cash.”

“Who doesn’t have cash?”

“Apparently, you don’t.”

“I didn’t say I don’t have cash. I just asked if you would loan me some of yours.”

“I’d give you anything I had,” I told him. “But I don’t carry cash.” I fished the wallet out of my front pocket and removed the green plastic bank card. “I use this. Everywhere I go. It’s easier than cash.”

“Well, give me that then.”

“You can’t use this. Only I can.”

“So it’s not really cash. Cash is cash. That’s like a credit card. I used to have a credit card.”

“It’s a credit card and it’s cash. It comes right out of your bank account. Do you really not have one?”

He produced a wad of bills, licked his thumb, and started rifling through them. They made a popping sound as he did an impromptu count. 

“I have cash. Bills. Paper. That’s all that matters.”

“Maybe I should be the one asking you for some money.”

“You want some? Apparently, you need it.”

“I’m fine,” I said, chuckling. “You should be careful with how you flash that around. If the wrong person sees it, they may try to take it.”

“Why would they try to take it?”

“You know, steal it. People take money from other people.”

“Anyone who’d steal money from a broken down old man must need it more than I do.”

It got quiet for a few seconds.

“Who are you?” I said.

“Who am I?”

“Yeah. Who are you? That was my question.”

A smile sprouted and spread. Wrinkles danced along the bottom of his face. White eyebrows snuck out from behind the top of his frames.

“That was my answer,” he said, and then he turned and shuffled back toward the Chevy.

I sat there, dumbfounded. After he was gone, I realized I hadn’t wished him a Merry Christmas. I had a feeling I’d still have more chances to do it.

On Our Way Home: Chapter Thirteen

Anthony Zych

I sat there, waiting for Joseph. A feeling of confusion and serenity wrestled within me, one never quite able to pin the other against the mat. I didn’t try to sort them out, didn’t try to prioritize one. I just existed in those minutes. I wasn’t sure how many elapsed. I pulled up the holiday station on the satellite radio and allowed the music to envelop me. 

I thought of Christmases gone by. The years with my parents and Baby Michael. I sifted through the memories of the wonder and the anticipation. The days of believing in a magic that made the month of December distinctly different from the other eleven. The hours of watching and hoping and the comfort and the feelings of safety and security and a sense that, at the time they had fully taken over, they would never end. 

I didn’t think of my parents as much as I used to. I never thought of my brother. I remember realizing for the first time as a kid that my parents someday would be gone. I never imagined Baby Michael would join them in whatever or wherever or however things went once it all ended here. I was still mad at him for leaving. It was the kind of grudge that never would be resolved, because he wasn’t around for us to argue or or cuss or fight our way through it. The only way I could express my frustration was to ignore his memory.

It all had happened so fast. Somewhere beneath my own selfish sense of loss I felt something. Was it guilt? Regret? I didn’t know. He’d never shared with me the feelings and the fears and the sickness and whatever else it was that had caused him to do to himself what he did. I remained grateful my parents didn’t have to endure the despair I’d experienced when we buried their youngest child.

I didn’t want to go to his funeral. I was too angry with him for doing it. But I had no choice. I was the only one left. With my parents gone, it all fell to me. All of it. The arrangements, the conversations with the employees of the funeral home who had developed an annoyingly polished routine for dealing with those who were dealing with unimaginable loss. They acted like they knew, but they really had no idea. 

The selection of the plot, right across from my parents. I hadn’t visited the place since the day they lowered his coffin into the ground. I had no desire to return. I wished I’d picked a different cemetery for him. I didn’t know that the torment of seeing his headstone would keep me from ever seeing theirs again. From standing there, reflecting and contemplating and praying or whatever I would do while standing over the spot where they’d forever rest. I considered making the trip that very day, a hundred miles from where I continued to go on while the three of them permanently did not.

I tried to remember where I’d put the old photo album. The one I couldn’t bring myself to open and peruse. The one that would supplement so many memories of the three of them. I resolved to find it as soon as I got home. Just as quickly, I decided not to do it–and definitely not to go to their graves–not with Christmas so close. I needed to be present for my own family. Nothing good would come from wallowing in days gone by, days that would never return. I needed to make memories my own children would be able to access years from now. I wanted them to remember me in a way that filled them not with mixed messages but with a consistent atmosphere of warmth and love and safety and everything else I tried so hard to give them.

Was I doing that? I considered the question carefully. I worked too hard, just like my own father had done. I wanted to set an example that would carry them deep into their own lives. I hoped I was crafting the right one. I doubted whether I actually was.

My mind returned to the past two days, the strange series of events that had been complicated by the old man and woman who had entered my life without warning and who kept showing up, to the point where I was now expecting it. Where would I see them next? I didn’t know, but I knew I would.

The songs played, one after another. The songs that bridged a stream of holiday seasons spanning forty long years. It was one hell of a time to have a midlife crisis. I always assumed I’d just buy a fast car before settling into that slow march toward the end. I hated these emotions, but I also embraced them. I had a feeling the next few days would go a long way toward shaping whatever would come next for me. This unexpected, baffling development that I struggled in futility to comprehend. What path had I suddenly found myself on? I didn’t know, and I didn’t think I’d have much say in where it would take me from here.

I saw some of Joseph’s friends beginning to filter out of the gym and migrate to the various other cars that had arrived to take them home. I realized I’d been crying again. I became self-conscious of it. I tried to pull myself together. Joseph emerged from the doors to the gym, face hypnotized by his screen, buds dangling from his ears. He glanced my way long enough to see where I’d parked. I hurried to rub away the lingering tears and turned off the radio. As he opened the door, I felt the cold air rush inside the car. He sat across from me. He didn’t seem to notice anything was wrong before I started the car and drove.

He said nothing. I said nothing. I tried to push aside everything that I’d been feeling and thinking, to bring myself back to the present. Back to this Christmas, and to this Christmas only.

The trip home continued in silence. I focused on the road. I eventually could feel him looking at me, as his attention somehow broke from whatever it was he and the rest of his generation did on their phones. I pretended not to notice.

“Dad,” he said, “is everything OK?”

“It’s fine,” I said, forcing a smile. “Everything is fine. It’s great. It’s Christmas.”

“Well, not for two more days.”

“You’re right,” I said, hoping my voice wouldn’t crack and my face wouldn’t quiver. “Two more days.”

“Did you get something for Mom?”

Shit, I hadn’t. I hadn’t even thought of it. I struggled every year to come up with something that would be sufficient, that would be memorable, that would reflect my appreciation for everything she did. And there was still time for me to avoid the annual rush to get something at the last minute, usually with minimal thought or effort. 

This fresh notion of this forgotten obligation gave me something that hopefully would let me turn the page on the past couple of days, a project that would require effort and creativity and an amount of cash that wouldn’t blow the household budget to smithereens. That was the basic reality of buying gifts for a spouse. The money came from one pot, the same shared dollars that otherwise ensured all bills would be paid on a timely basis.

I embraced the previously neglected challenge of coming up with the right gift for Linda, since it would carry me through the rest of that day and maybe some of the next one, dragging me away from these twists and turns that had me digging up memories that were better left unremembered.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said to him. “It’ll be from all of us.”

“Make sure it’s something nice.”

I told him I would, that she’d be happy with it. I hoped I would be able to accomplish that. Even if, deep down, I doubted that I actually could.

(On Our Way Home continues on Wednesday, December 7, with Chapter Fourteen. It’s being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for something, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Through December 11, you’ll get a free, personalized bookplate.)