By Mort Laitner
Eastern sunlight streams into the café. Hot beams of light flood the room. Beads of sweat trickle down my face. As I attempt to read my Writer’s Digest, out of the corner of my vision, I observe dark quivering lines of steam shadows dancing on the white spaces of the magazine page. I pick up the coffee cup disturbing my darting dancers. The rich Arabica flavor leaves a slight bitterness on my tongue. I place the mug in the same spot on the table so the steam floats above black-ink brew and is struck by the rays. The shadows magically reappear. Crescent-moons bounce on and off the table.
The reflections, like shadows on a cave wall, cause me to ponder their meaning. People, like these shadows, make brief appearances: seconds, minutes, hours, a day in our lives. One of these shadowy people appeared thirty-three years ago in mine. He only appeared for one hour but I will never forget him.
In my first year of practice, I worked for the Legal Aid Society of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One of my clients, a middle-aged white woman, wore clothes that reeked of tobacco. Her facial architecture displayed years of hard drinking, smoking and living. She curled her lips and exhaled smoke rings in my direction as if she was trying to lasso my nose.
“My ex-husband is a worthless lump of coal. All the bum does is drink all day long. I don’t know the last time he held a job.”
I asked,” Did you bring your divorce decree?”
She opened her purse, shuffled through the bag and whipped out the final judgment.
“Here it is,” she said as she handed the papers to me.
“I see the judge awarded you ten dollars a week in alimony.”
“Yup,” she replied. “And he hasn’t paid me in thirteen weeks. That son of a six shooter owes me a $130. The ten bucks a week allows me to buy two cartons of Marlboros. If he doesn’t pay me, I want him jailed. I want him to stay there until he knows the names of every cockroach in his cell.”
“Miss, I’ll draw up the contempt of court motion, and we should be in court next week. We’ll teach you ex a lesson he won’t forget.”
My client puckers her lips, blows another perfect circle in my direction; the smoke magically dissipates before my eyes. She gives me that look of “I can’t wait to see what happens in court.”
The week passed quickly. At 9:00 am the bailiff called the case. My heart beat faster than a tom-tom drum. I had never jailed anyone before. I called the ex to the witness stand, and he was sworn in. He looked haggard like a man who had been stepped on throughout his life. He carried the demeanor of a frightened man who would give anything for a drink. He was barely 50 going on 80.
Before I opened my mouth, a smile grew across my face. I made the realization that all my hard work and money to get a degree and a license had culminated in my efforts to imprison an alcoholic so that his ex-wife could purchase enough cigarettes to take her down the lung cancer highway.
After the preliminary questions I asked:
Lawyer: Sir, do you drink alcoholic beverages?
Defendant: Yes sir.
Lawyer: What type of alcoholic beverages do you drink?
Lawyer: How much beer do you consume on a daily basis?
Defendant (looking into judge’s eyes): Your honor, in the morning I open a can of Budweiser. I drink half the can, and I put the rest back into the fridge. Later in the day, I finish that can of Bud.
I watched as the judge’s face darkened. The judge being a drinking man didn’t like this sworn witness to lie into his face.
Judge: Sir, I think I’ve heard enough. I think your testimony has been less than forthright. I’m going to order that you be jailed until you pay your ex-wife the $130 of alimony you owe her.
He hammered his gavel ending the case.
As the bailiff handcuffed the ex and walked him towards the jailhouse, I noticed tears glistening down his face. I felt terrible. A man was losing his freedom because of my actions. My client was jubilant and gave me a bear hug of gratitude.
Proximately five hours later, I received a call from the ex’s brother. He told me he had the $130 and begged me to get his brother out of jail. I advised him to bring the cash to my office, and I would do my best to get his brother out that night. I succeeded in getting the judge to sign an order releasing the ex. By 7:00 pm he was out of jail, and my burden lifted like the smoke from my client’s cigarettes.
I only heard from my client one more time. She called sobbing and said, “My man is dead. My ex, the day after he was released from the jail died of a heart attack.”
My chest tightened with the knowledge that a man that I helped imprison died in less than 24 hours after his release.
As I sit in the café looking at the tiny reflections floating on pages of the magazine, I ponder how people come in and out of our lives for short periods of time but some leave indelible tattoos on our soul.