Last Call

Janey wanted a friend, but Susan only wanted to be her divorce lawyer. But friendship might be just what Susan needs.

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The first time my sister called, I was waiting in the downtown courthouse, the big one where Britney was freed, and I didn’t answer. I knew I should have. But next to me in the crowded gallery, my client Janey looked pale, maybe hungover, and was trying so hard to keep it together that it didn’t feel right to leave her alone. Janey was about to lose her spousal support unless she could prove to the judge that she’d gotten a job. And Janey had, well, not bothered.

When the bailiff’s back was turned, Janey shoved a homemade pillar candle in my face, a gnarly thing that reeked of lavender and Ivory soap. “This one’s for the judge,” she said. Her voice was bright and optimistic in spite of her nerves, and I wasn’t buying it. “You wouldn’t believe how easy these are to make.”

I wanted to throw that candle across the courtroom. For months, I had sent Janey job listings. I had set up appointments for her with employment counselors and life coaches, all of which she’d ignored. Instead, she’d brainstormed with her friends who had started vanity businesses after their own divorces. Costume jewelry lines were big. Forays into personalized fragrances. Organic, dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan treats loaded with marijuana. Now Janey was doing hand-poured candles in her kitchen. She called herself a chandler and the business Chandler, and her accountant had registered an LLC called Chandler, but as far as I could tell, the whole operation consisted of Janey and her housekeeper experimenting with different things to melt in Janey’s very expensive (and now presumably ruined) French copper cookware.

I figured the judge would want to hurl any candle too. Janey had been getting $88,000 a month from her ex-husband. She lived what she called a comfortable life and I called amazing. She had a house in the hills of Bel Air with a stable of the candy-colored muscle cars she loved, and she regularly traveled to places I couldn’t pronounce. The judge had given Janey the better part of a year to find a real job, and secretly, I was glad. I thought Janey needed to at least try to contribute, even if I couldn’t tell her that. In my book, no one deserved a free ride.

I checked my phone in my lap, discreetly, I hoped. My sister hadn’t left a message. Janey tapped the screen with a blue-manicured fingernail to get my attention. “Candles are way better than some lame job at Bloomingdales, right?”

I knew Janey expected me to agree, but indulging her all the time was exhausting. I walked a fine line between keeping the totality of my opinion to myself and flat out lying. Plus, it was my job to prepare her for the most likely outcome under the law. I couldn’t do that if I just told her everything she wanted to hear. “Madonna,” I said, reaching for a factoid I’d read up on exactly for this purpose, “worked at Dunkin’ Donuts. Oprah worked at a grocery store.”

“That’s so funny,” Janey said and stomped her feet a couple times in her seat, trying to shake off some anxiety I guessed. “I just want this over already.”

It didn’t matter what I said; a part of Janey would always believe the hearing would work out in her favor. Janey was one of those stunningly beautiful women who could get away with things someone like me never considered. She had on leather pants and a velvet blazer with high strappy heels. Even on our way into the courthouse earlier that morning, the power-tripping security guard had just checked out her ass and waved her through the metal detector as she beeped.

He stopped me, of course. I had worn my usual, one of three gray pantsuits I rotated, with the black loafers I reordered online once a year. The first Christmas she was my client, Janey tried to get me to swap out my loafers for boots. She sent me a beautiful pair, hand-stitched designer somethings with a low heel I could just about walk in. They were a solid take on what a sophisticated version of me might wear, and I was impressed she’d noticed me like that. Other clients sent a bottle of wine or a restaurant gift card for the holidays, impersonal things you could give anyone.

But I still listed the boots right on eBay. From the profits, I stocked up on loafers for the next four years.

* * *

When my sister called a second time, I told Janey I was running to the little snack bar in the courthouse for some almonds. I probably could have mentioned the call, but clients were tricky. They were used to the intimacy in our relationship being one-sided, focused on them, and sharing anything from my own life could be interpreted as competition. From then on, no matter what happened, they’d blame me for being distracted on their case.

“You’ll be right back?” Janey said, panicking already. She grabbed my hand.

“Janey,” I said, firmly, a warning. At a senior partner’s suggestion, I’d started setting boundaries with her. She still called my cell at least once a day just to talk. But now I turned my phone off at 10 p.m. and didn’t turn it back on until 7 the next morning.

She looked disappointed but let go of my hand. Then she unfurled both of her own, as if she were graciously, generously sending me off. I stepped out into the hallway and called my sister back.

“It’s Dad,” my sister said plainly.

I hadn’t heard my sister’s voice in so long that it startled me. When we weren’t talking, it was easy enough to pretend we didn’t have time for each other. She had three kids and a husband, her church group, her baking group, book club, walking club, and she volunteered at the local food bank. I still billed more than 200 hours each month even while other lawyers my age were looking ahead at retirement and phoning it in. Now that she was on the phone, though, I was flooded with feelings. A vague kind of guilt maybe. Resentment.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Susan,” she said slowly, deliberately. “He’s 86.”

It still didn’t make sense to me. Our father suffered from nothing but arthritis and eczema. Even after our mother died and his second marriage failed, he’d stayed healthy and independent. He had an old dog that kept him walking at a tolerable pace, his ball games on television, a freezer stocked with microwaveable Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches and Stouffers lasagna. Another five or even ten years hadn’t seemed impossible.

But my sister said it’d been a stroke. I froze. I didn’t know what to say.

“Susan?”

“How long?” I finally said, mostly to put something in the air between us.

“Like doctors know.” They had told us two years for our mother when the breast cancer spread, and in the end we got four.

“Yeah,” I said, “but I like how they undersell it.” Doctors were like lawyers that way. They didn’t guarantee anything. They gave out a range shorted in their own favor. It was better than the other way around, to expect more time and then lose the promise of that too.

My sister laughed. Just a little but it was nice to hear.

“You ever wonder if they bet on it?” I said. When we were kids, I used to say all kinds of stupid things to make her laugh. “Like The Price Is Right?”

“Who can get closest without going over,” she said.

Janey poked her head out of the courtroom, looking for me. “Aw hell,” I said.

“You okay?” my sister said.

“It’s this clingy client.” I walked farther down the hall, away from Janey. I knew that our bailiff would come find me when the judge was ready for us.

“Remember when Dad tried to get you on that ball club?” my sister said. “What were you? Ten? Eleven?”

I’d wanted to play ball my whole life, but Little League was only for boys and there was no girls youth softball in 1960s Girard, Ohio. I stayed out in the street playing with the neighborhood kids, and I was a difficult child for my father all around. I didn’t do dresses or dolls or tea parties. I was nothing like my popular, easygoing sister. My father didn’t know what to do with me, and so he mostly ignored me. But one day, he pointed to our Plymouth and drove me to the field.

“That coach crapped his pants,” my sister said.

“Who told you that?”

“Dad, years ago,” she said. “He was so proud of you for smoking the best players.”

That part of the story was true, and I didn’t have the heart to correct my sister on the rest. Our father did convince the Little League coach to let me throw a few pitches from the mound. I think the coach was curious more than anything. None of his guys could hit off me. The coach came over to congratulate me on the arm, and then he walked away, back to his players, and that was that.

My father headed in the opposite direction toward our car. I threw my glove at his back. I shouted at him to say something, do anything.

He kept walking. “I’ll get you an ice cream on the way home.”

I didn’t understand it. He had brought me to the field. He had told me to pitch for the coach, to show him everything I had. And I’d done my part.

“I barely remember any of it,” I told my sister on the phone, but leaving the field that afternoon was the sharpest memory I had of my father.

* * *

In her 20s, Janey had been a dead ringer for Debbie Harry. She’d snuck backstage at a club one night to meet Bobby Nichols, her favorite singer and guitarist. As she told me in my office decades later, she knew right away Bobby was the one but let the band fight over her. Years later, when the band broke up, Bobby turned to jingle writing. He hit it even bigger with a commercial for a car dealership. It was still played on TV and radio and brought in a fortune in royalties.

It seemed to me that Bobby and Janey were two good-looking, maybe mildly talented people who got lucky. I’d had to work all my life. I’d waited tables and pumped gas and cleaned out the mold in a Dairy Queen soft-serve machine. I’d sold insurance and magazines and even tried bill collecting when I thought my own financial misery justified wading into other people’s. I’d worked my way through state college and law school in Ohio, taken out loans I was still paying off, and I’d busted my ass to get to where I was now — senior counsel at a reputable boutique family law firm in Century City. I was known for working hard because I couldn’t wing it on looks or charm like Janey. No one had ever lined up to take care of me.

So when Janey started to shout down the hall, and I turned to see her throw something at Bobby — probably a candle, though I was too far away to make it out — I hung right up on my sister.

Disloyal piece of shit!” Janey yelled as I huffed and puffed my way over. “Fucking selfish asshole!” She had nothing left to throw and was pounding her fists on Bobby’s chest.

“All right,” I said. “We’ll deal with it in court.” I was trying to keep calm, but I was shocked. In the seven years I’d represented Janey, I’d never heard her raise her voice to Bobby, and nothing had been physical.

Bobby’s skinny puma of an attorney, Sadie Harper, was trying to pull him away from Janey and pull down her mini dress at the same time. “Always a pleasure, Susan,” Sadie said sarcastically.

All lawyering was half bravado, and I had to match Sadie’s tone. “I wouldn’t miss this,” I said. I yanked Janey in the opposite direction, but she just kept lunging for Bobby.

“Careful, darling,” Bobby called back, cool and calm, knowing it pissed Janey off more. “There’s not enough Botox in the world to fix a frown like that.”

Janey tried to shake me off, but I had 30 pounds on her. She had to settle then for spitting. As far as she could in Bobby’s general direction.

I shoved her onto a bench. “What the hell, Janey?” I said.

“Me? I just thought … ”

“You’d talk to him? You’d charm him? You’d get him to remember everything he used to feel about you?”

“You’re making fun of me?” Janey said. “My lawyer.”

“No, of course not,” I said. Though maybe I was a little. She was acting right from a page in a pretty girl’s playbook. Bobby could see it. She was desperate. She was falling apart.

A bailiff poked his head outside the nearest courtroom. “Is there a problem here?”

“You’re a little late,” I said. I hated the way they always showed up after the fact, even when they were right there. He shrugged, smug, indifferent, and went back inside.

Janey sank down against the wall. “I had this picture in my head of our whole life,” she said. Then she listed off what it had been like being with Bobby — tour buses and private planes and penthouse suites and concert venues and Grammy pre- and after-parties — and I knew I was listening to a eulogy. She had been half of the great Bobby Nichols and now she was just Janey.

I took her hand. I really just wanted to end the conversation.

“What did you want your life to look like, Susan?” she said, surprising me. She hardly ever asked questions about me, and this was a big one.

“I didn’t think about it much,” I said. I was almost 60, far too old to talk like this, like we were teenagers fantasizing about the future.

“Bullshit.”

“It’s ridiculous,” I said. “Just kid stuff.”

“You know everything about me and you never tell me anything.”

She was right. I just thought she hadn’t noticed or cared. “I wanted to be a pitcher,” I said hesitantly. Embarrassed. “In the major leagues. I was going to be the first woman to play, and the best.”

“Susan,” Janey said and really looked at me.

“Stupid, right?”

“I think that’s so brave.”

I felt like a dope but I was touched. When she asked me to tell her more, I did. I couldn’t help myself. We sat together on that cold stone bench and I told her about not being able to play in Girard and about my father the one time he’d tried and failed to get me on a team. I told her too how I’d had to wait for high school to even play softball, and how I’d coached after college to give young girls like me options I’d never had.

“You must have felt so alone,” Janey said.

“I don’t know,” I said, but I did. When my dreams of baseball fizzled, no one had looked at me to join another sport or group. They just stopped looking.

Janey put her head on my shoulder, like we were friends instead of lawyer and client. “I hate that feeling too,” she said.

* * *

I had just called my sister back when the bailiff stepped out from our courtroom. “Marriage of Nichols,” he said.

“I’m sure they’ll reschedule,” my sister said on the phone. “It’s an emergency.”

My sister expected me on the next flight and I didn’t blame her. But she was giving both the L.A. Superior Court and Janey too much credit. The courthouse was one big machine that never stopped, and Janey had already used up her share of excuses and delays early on in the divorce proceedings when she refused to show up for any court hearing Bobby initiated. The judge finally threatened to put her in jail. Now Janey couldn’t reschedule any hearing, for any reason. The only choice I had was to go in with Janey as she fought to keep her spousal support or to make her go in there alone.

I looked at Janey, who was watching me expectantly. “I’m sorry,” I told my sister.

She was quiet on the other end of the line, and then finally I heard her snort. “You know, I didn’t even want to call you.”

I did know. I was sure her husband or her kids had pushed her.

Janey narrowed her eyes at me and then took the phone from my hand. “Susan’s sister? Yeah, she’ll be on the next plane.”

“Wait, what?” I said.

But Janey had already hung up and was shooting off texts from her own phone. “I’ll have my driver out front for you,” she said, more poised and authoritative than I’d ever heard her. She started walking down the hall. “My assistant will handle your flight while you’re in the car.”

I thought of my father lying in a hospital bed and my sister and her husband crowded around him with their own children. I thought of the neighbors and church families who would show up on the front porch for weeks with casseroles. And I thought of Janey, home alone like me but soon in a house she wouldn’t be able to afford. I followed her toward the courtroom.

She spun around. “Go,” she said. “It’s okay.” I recognized the forced smile, the unnatural calm. Maybe she knew it was lost with the judge already. Maybe it was no big sacrifice. Or maybe Janey needed to do one good thing for someone else whether her whole world went ass up or not.

The bailiff yelled out again. “Nichols. Last call.”

I stared at Janey but didn’t move. We stood there, just two women in the middle of the busy hallway, dozens of other lawyers and clients hurrying around us, knowing exactly where they wanted to go.

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Comments

  1. Honestly brilliant. The writing is amazing. I love the social elements of the candle making and the rockstar making jingles. The depth of both characters. The way the father links in as both a plot point and also forming the protagonist. First class. Such a moving, funny, and current story. Thank you!

  2. A different kind of story to be sure, Ms. Sutton. I agree Susan needs friends with all that’s going on in her life, but Janey is not one of them. She’s a toxic person (unfortunately) that’s best to avoid whenever possible.

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