New fiction by Nan Cuba (fiction, ’89) appears online at Fictionaut:
Gerald’s law practice wasn’t new. He’d worked on the law review and finished near the top of his class thirty years ago. After earning his J.D., he’d gotten a master of law in taxation. His favorite cases required researching legal precedents, and he enjoyed debating theory and legal history with friends. At $150 an hour, he should’ve been able to pay bills and still take home a comfortable profit. In fact, it would’ve been more than he needed—he preferred smaller, makeshift, secondhand—and enough to impress Harriet. Instead, he always ran on empty, scrambling when a bill was due, using quarters from his change jar for gas, reluctant even to take Harriet to a restaurant or movie, “Because,” he’d say, “we probably shouldn’t be spending that money right now.” Most of his former classmates were rich. Why, Harriet asked, couldn’t he make enough to cover everything? She worried that everyone else wondered that, too.
Every week day, Gerald read contracts, making copious notes. He took clients’ phone calls, explaining his progress, calming fears about the IRS, postponing document revisions and research until the weekends when, instead of fly fishing, he could work uninterrupted. He had only a part-time receptionist, a recent high school graduate he hoped he could train to file and fill out forms. His office was a single room in the back of an old house that needed paint. No air conditioning or heat, but the rent cost less than his phone. Although his suits were professionally cleaned and pressed, his cuffs were frayed. He used spot remover on his ties and shirt fronts. A dent creased the right side of his car; the side-view mirror hung from two blue wires and swayed whenever he turned a corner.
Once, a prospective client pointed outside the receptionist’s office window at a maroon Dodge that rattled into the parking lot. “I’m glad that’s not my lawyer,” he said. Later in the waiting room, the receptionist introduced him to its driver, Gerald, who was handling the case. When Gerald got home that evening, he found Harriet in her personal office. After sharing the receptionist’s story, he laughed.
“That’s not funny,” Harriet said. She sat at her desk where she’d been checking housing statistics on her computer. “What’s the matter with you?” She took off her glasses, slumped in her ergonomic chair. Her right hip felt like a nail had been shoved into its joint. “It’s embarrassing.” She didn’t care if she sounded critical. She couldn’t stand him being the butt of a joke. “We’ve got to get you a different car.”
“Yeah, right after our trip to Europe.” He’d wanted her to laugh, but as soon as he said it, he cringed. He fiddled with unopened mail on the glass-top table next to her desk.
“You know what? I’m tired, Gerald.” Her chin quivered as she raised it higher. “I kill myself in an impossible market, impossible, but whatever I bring home evaporates.”
“I know, I know,” he mumbled. What could he ever do to repay her? he wondered. He still couldn’t believe that she’d married him. Sometimes, though, her disappointment felt like a dreaded day in court. “Please stick by me just a little while longer,” he said.