Jack Melton carried his coffee mug down the hallway at Melton, Norville, Jennings & Johnson toward Bill Norville’s office. Norville was the managing partner, and had buzzed Melton that he wanted him to join a meeting urgently. Bill had disconnected the call before Jack could ask why.
As he neared the closed door to Norville’s office, he was intercepted by Jenny Jackson, Bill’s paralegal, who handed him a folder containing what appeared to be computer printouts.
"Bill wants you to bring this to him," she said.
"What is it?"
"He said he’d tell you."
Melton knocked and was told to come in. As he entered, he saw another partner, Rebecca Johnson, seated at one of the chairs in front of Bill’s desk. Becky Johnson headed the Firm’s three-lawyer, two paralegal Family Law Department. She was 42, short, pretty with dark bobbed hair, and today as always immaculately turned out in a Navy blue suit, skirt exactly the correct length, and cream blouse.
Norville faced her, his back to the window with the view of the North Carolina Blue Ridge. He was also dressed typically, in a dark pinstripe suit and a yellow silk tie. Melton felt a bit informal in contrast. He had no court or major appointments, so there he was in an open-necked oxford blue shirt, Navy blazer, and khakis.
Norville held out his hand for the folder. "What’s up?" Jack asked as he handed it across the desk and took the other chair.
"Becky is creating a problem," Norville clipped through terse lips.
"I am not!" Johnson barked back.
Melton leaned forward in his chair. "Will one of you please tell me just what the hell is going on?"
"Becky wants to withdraw from Will’s divorce," Norville growled.
Will Sweetsen was the senior member of an accounting firm that was one of Norville, Melton’s biggest referral sources, and also its primary resource for business valuation, revenue loss, and payroll expert testimony. He was also Melton’s personal friend. Melton’s wife, Libby, was a partner in the same accounting firm. Their daughter Samantha and Sweetsen’s daughter Amanda were roommates at college.
"Not the firm!" Becky snapped. And in a lower voice, "Just me."
Norville shook his head. "That won’t work."
"Jerry can handle it," she insisted. Jerry was a senior associate in her department.
Norville shook his head. "We don’t know the client will accept it. Even if he does, it will be embarrassing. It’ll look as though the client ran off his lawyer – a woman, at that."
"It would be embarrassing to me," Jack said, thinking of Libby and Samantha. "What I haven’t heard is why you’re doing it. What did Will do?"
"That TV interview. Sylvia says she’ll ask me to resign from the Committee if I continue to handle his case."
Jack’s eyebrows puckered. "What committee?"
"The God-damned Brainerd County Democrat Committee!" Norville answered for her, throwing himself back in his chair in visible agitation.
Jack turned toward Becky. So that was it. Will Sweetsen was running for the state senate as a Republican. His wife Barbara was a Democrat, and when she wrote columns for the regional magazine, Around the Carolina Mountains, her political opinions were distinctively liberal. Her political differences with her husband had never been much of an issue in their marriage, though.
Until Sweetsen decided to run for office, and went public with his opinions. She moved out, found a lawyer who practiced in the next county, and filed for divorce.
The Sweetsen divorce was uncomfortable for Melton, Norville, Jennings and Johnson. Martintown, N.C. wasn’t a big city. Most of the partners knew Barbara Allenby Sweetsen – Babs, as she was called – as well as Will. Becky shared Babs’ politics, although small-l libertarian Jack did not, and committed Republican Norville most certainly did not.
Yet Becky Johnson wasn’t really close to Babs, Will was a good client and his firm a good "partner" for the law firm. So she’d been okay with taking the case.
Except now she wasn’t any more. The Party was working on her.
"Which interview are you talking about?" Jack’s tone was calm, measured.
Becky sighed. "The one on Channel 12 when he talked about abortion."
Jack recalled the interview. "He didn’t sound radical to me. He said he was opposed to third trimester abortions. I thought you were, too, Becky."
"I don’t personally approve of them. But they shouldn’t be illegal. You can’t make choices like that for women."
Norville snorted. "I see. You don’t want to kill babies. You just want the right to kill them if you want to."
"That’s ri-" Becky began, and then bridled. "Just a damn’ minute, Bill Norville, don’t you put words in my mouth. This isn’t cross examination."
"Isn’t it?" Norville countered.
Jack decided he’d better interrupt. "Becky, what I don’t understand is, why now? That interview was ten days ago…It’s all Sylvia, isn’t it?"
He knew it was before the answer. Sylvia Sonenberg was independently wealthy, a lumber company heiress, a coupon clipper. And she was a professional clubwoman – the Country Club, the Martintown Woman’s Club, the Downtown Club. And she was Democratic County Chairwoman. Sylvia was passionately liberal and wildly partisan.
But Becky was in all of these clubs, too. For reasons Melton didn’t quite understand (his private name for Sylvia was "the Sea Hag"), she was Sylvia’s friend. And Babs Sweetsen was in the same clubs, too, he realized.
Becky admitted it. "Yes."
"Who is Sylvia, that all our swine defend her?" Jack misquoted, earning a glare from Becky.
Norville couldn’t contain himself. "Becky, look at these." He opened the file folder Jack had brought him and started passing papers across the table.
"Look," he said through clinched teeth, "this is the list of our cases referred by Will’s firm over the last five years, with the name of the partner and the revenue. Both of your names are on it. A lot."
He passed another stack across the table. "This one is a list of employment cases in which Will has testified for us as an expert."
More stapled pages followed. "And this is a list of the business cases, Jack, in which he’s testified."
Then another stack. "And Becky, here is a list of the divorce cases where Will has testified for you."
Norville sank back in his chair again. "Now are you going to put all of that in jeopardy by embarrassing Will Sweetsen by bailing on his case, Becky? Are you really?"
"I still think you are exaggerating. I can come up with some reason he’ll accept."
Bill and Becky started talking about what they could tell Sweetsen and how the firm could staff his case. Jack’s mind wandered back a few days to his last visit with Will, in his home….
Will Sweetsen – called "Sweet William" by the lawyers who commissioned his expert testimony – sat at the wet bar in the Melton home, knocking a bigger dent in Jack’s Scotch than he really ought if he expected to drive home, sometimes silent while Jack and Libby looked on in sympathy, sometimes talking.
The conversation was disconnected. Will would ramble about cases past, present and future. He would talk about Mandy, his daughter. But the conversation always wound itself back to Babs. Beautiful, brilliant Babs, her tawny hair long and layered, her tall figure always immaculately turned out, her mind sharp, her manner sweet and endearing.
"The hell of it is, I’m still in love with her," he said more than once. "I don’t understand this. We’ve always agreed to disagree, and to disagree without being disagreeable."
"Why don’t you withdraw from the race?" Libby asked softly.
"I can’t do that. I promised people who raised money for me that I’d stick to it. And…and…and I have to keep some self respect. If Babs gets to have her opinions, so do I." He paused, and almost shouted, "So do I!"
He sipped more Scotch, and turned his eyes toward Libby. She and Babs had been friends. "Have you talked with her?"
Libby shook her head. "You know I haven’t. She won’t talk with me." This was somewhat surprising. Libby was not apolitical, but she was a confirmed Independent, unlike Jack, who was no Bill Norville, but still a self-identified mostly conservative Republican. "Maybe she thinks that since I’m your accounting partner, she shouldn’t."
"Someone is influencing her," Will insisted. "This isn’t her. It’s not."
"What are her grounds for divorce?" Jack wanted to know.
"Inappropriate spousal conduct. That could be anything." Will got up and pulled his jacket off the back of the chair, stretching to his full six feet two, and ran his hand through his graying hair. "I’ve taken up too much of your time."
Libby walked in front of him and put a hand on his chest. "Just a minute, mister. You’re going nowhere until you’ve had coffee and a sandwich. Don’t argue."
He didn’t. The last words he said before he left were, "I still love her."
Jack realized he hadn’t heard a word of what Bill and Becky had been saying. But the way they were glaring at each other, nothing had been decided.
"Look, Becky, what’s going on in the divorce right now?" Norville was asking.
"Pretty much nothing. We’ve got a temporary support order down. The case isn’t set for trial. No depositions scheduled yet."
"So don’t do anything yet. Give it a couple of weeks. Something may happen."
"One week." Then she repeated, "One week."
Norville shrugged. "Something still may happen."
Something did, and sooner than anyone would have thought.
All three left Norville’s office together, Jack and Becky to return to their offices and Norville in search of the coffee pot. On their way out, Jenny Jackson met them, clutching a magazine with her thumb marking a place. It was the latest Around the Carolina Mountains.
"I thought you all would want to see this," Jenny said.
She opened the magazine to place she had marked with her thumb. It was Babs Sweetsen’s monthly column. They took the magazine to a nearby paralegal work table, and read –
Why I can’t Agree (With my Own Party)
There has been much controversy all around the country this year over what restrooms and locker rooms should be open to transgendered persons. There has been more in North Carolina than in most places, due to the new state law that says you must use the restroom for the gender on your birth certificate. Most my liberal friends, including most of the Democrats I know, are outraged by the law. They think it is bigoted.
But I can’t agree. If someone is transgendered because they’ve had a surgical sex change operation, they’ve changed their birth certificate. But if someone is a biological male and wants to be treated like a woman just because he says he has decided to be one, I don’t think he is a woman at all. And I don’t see him as a member of an oppressed minority, like African Americans before the Civil Rights Acts were passed.
There was more in the same vein, and then the piece concluded:
I’m not a doctor. I can’t say if medical science can really make a male into a female with surgery and hormone treatments. But I don’t see someone who has been altered that way as a danger to little girls in a restroom. But I can sure see a functioning male as potentially dangerous.
I’m as liberal as anyone. I have always despised discrimination. But I don’t see how refusing to deny reality is bigotry. I really can’t. So I can’t go along with my friends, or my party. Not this time.
Norville whistled. "I wonder how Sylvia will react to that."
Becky opened her mouth, closed it, and walked down the hall in silence.
Jack murmured, more to himself than anyone, quoting accurately this time, "’My true love died for me today. I’ll die for him tomorrow.’"
But it didn’t take until the next day.
Jack was detained at the office that evening, and texted Libby he’d be home a little late. She responded immediately: "Come as soon as you can. We’ll have company."
Jack saw Will’s car in the driveway when he arrived home right after 7:00. No surprise. Will had dropped by frequently recently. Jack went immediately to the family room. Libby was behind the wet bar opening a bottle of wine, smiling brilliantly.
Jack looked across the room to the sofa. There was Will. And there was Babs. Holding hands.
"She’d coming home," Will exulted. "She’s dropping the case."
Babs leaned into her husband’s shoulder.
"I had a real wake-up call this morning," she said. "It was from Sylvia. She was screaming. I was a traitor, she said. I was a bigot. I won’t be welcome any more in the Democratic Party, she said.
"Well, we’ll see about that. I don’t think I’m alone in what I think. But sometimes you have to get slapped in the face to wake up. I am not going to leave the man I love just to make her happy."
Babs lifted her face for a quick, chaste kiss from Will. Then she flashed her husband a broad smile.
"I may not vote for you, you right-wing turkey. But I do love you."