Newly gay, Randall Goode stood on the street in front of the law firm—wait, let me be more precise: he was affixed to the sidewalk, as if he had a gummy epoxy beneath his freshly polished black wing tips, rendering him immobile—totally unprepared to enter the building, hire a lawyer, and begin the divorce. He hadn’t known what to expect when he drove downtown that morning, but somehow he envisioned a dark day with heavy clouds on the verge of a downpour. Think: wind gusts funneling through skyscraper canyons, humbled businessmen sprinting with inverted umbrellas, and hail, oh God yes, hail.
Randall was the fool.
Now, above him, the sky burst forth in Star-Spangled Banner blue. Small square islands of grass interrupted the sidewalk, with a contagion of live oaks sprouting leaves of neon green. A gentle breeze blew with barely the strength to rustle his blond hair. A high of eighty-two. The day couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement.
The address that Dan had given him over the phone matched the number on the building—211 Mercury—but in Randall’s mind this shouldn’t be the home of a mahogany-walled law firm. “It’s the kind of place you’ve passed a million times,” Dan said, half-apologetically, “but never noticed. You know, like a Korean nail salon. Or an abortion clinic.”
Randall stood before a strip-center storefront with five dark brown floors pancaked above. All the windows were drawn. The building had zero architectural integrity. The block of downtown he stood on was a joke. There was no traffic in front of the building, neither by foot or car, not even a homeless person hunched in a doorway to add a sense of life to the scene. No billboards with scantily clad models advertising Johnny Walker Red. No cowboys hawking red-boxed cigarettes. No crumpled cans, wadded paper bags, or gum-pocked sidewalks. There was nothing. If he disappeared from here, he knew there’d be no history he’d ever existed.
Randall suddenly questioned his decision to ask Dan for legal advice. What has he gotten me into? Yet Dan was the one person whom he trusted more than anyone, for no better reason than that he knew Dan wouldn’t judge.
“Dan, I’m getting a divorce.” Randall had started off the conversation without so much as a “hello.”
“Sorry to hear that, buddy,” said Dan.
“Rachel is having an affair with Marty.”
“There always is, man.”
Randall paused, blew loudly into the receiver, and waited till he’d expunged every last bit of air. “I’m gay,” he said.
“These things happen, man. How can I help?”
Their friendship had always been effortless, from college to now. They could talk just once a year and pick up the conversation like it was yesterday. In a way, they were like two islands connected by a bridge that only they knew was there. Nothing more, nothing less.
Dan’s was a multi-faceted existence; he was a money manager to cash clients as disparate as strippers at the Yellow Rose to prominent ears in the mayor’s mansion. Dan was the man with the plan—if anyone could recommend a lawyer he could.
“What can I get you?” Dan continued. “Drugs? You want drugs?”
“Want some pot?”
“I’m thirty-two,” said Randall, confused. “I have responsibilities—.”
“You’re getting a divorce, man. Cut yourself some slack.”
“Pot gives me asthma.”
“X? G? K? Coke? I know where the good shit is.”
“I need a lawyer.”
“You don’t have a lawyer?”
“I need one.”
“Grab all the money before Rachel gets hold of it.”
“Hang up. Now. Get your hands on as much cash as you can. Mucho dinero. You can’t skimp at a time like this, buddy. You don’t want some Buick lawyer, you need a fucking blinged-out Rolls Royce.”
“I don’t think–”
“That’s what she’s doing.”
“Trust me. I’ve been to that rodeo a few times.”
Randall acknowledged, yes, Dan had been to that rodeo two times already.
“WoodshedDivine,” said Dan.
“WoodshedDivine. The law firm. You want Woodshed.”
“A guy named Woodshed?”
“A woman. She’s a ball buster.”
“I want things simple.”
“Tell her Dan sent you. And don’t be alarmed.”
“The firm is a trip. But divorce ain’t a fucking holiday.”
Randall again compared the number he’d written down to the number above the double glass doors. Without giving himself a chance to back out, he charged through. The homogenized cleanliness from the street overflowed here as well. Polished cream linoleum gave the narrow lobby a manila folder aesthetic. The room was barren: no obligatory Ficus or outdated lobby furniture or overweight security guard behind a desk. Not even a grooved felt placard directing people to numbered offices on particular floors. The only sign of life came from a glowing, round button next to a silver elevator.
He reassured himself that he was simply performing a routine function that occurred every day. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, Randall had read. He was reluctantly relieved that the vast number meant he was not alone in his life-altering journey, yet he felt pathetic, too, for the sheer fact that the statistic was based upon failures not successes. Randall exhaled. A gay father with a cheating wife wants a simple divorce. So what? He was now a craggy crevice on the statistical landscape.
He brushed lint from his gray pants even though there was no lint. He checked his fly even though he always checked his fly. He pushed the elevator button.
The silver door responded and slid silently into the wall. His hard soles echoed in the lobby as he stepped into the muffled interior. Here his footfall fell. The elevator seemed to swallow everything: sound and soul. He rested his back against the wood paneling and saw that there was only one button to push. One button with no number. There was only one way to go.
He held his finger in front of the button as if he was pointing to his future.
He was struck with a crystalline acuity. Today, now, this very moment, was one of those moments where the course of one’s life was altered forever. A hyperbolic event: the most, the worst, the best, craziest, deadliest, whatever was going to transpire he would never forget. He paused. He could walk out and return another day. He could, he should, he would, he better, now, right now, this very instance.
Don’t think. Just push. He did. The door shut.
The next time this door opens I will be a different man.
That’s when he became aware of the bleach. The choking odor of bleach. In the lobby there had been no odor of significance, but here it was as if a cleaning woman had scrubbed the living life out of bacteria and left in its place a raw intensity. The elevator was a gas chamber.
Randall pushed the button again. He anticipated the tug of cables and the sinking sensation from the sudden change in altitude. Nothing. He pushed the button again. And again. He listened for an electrical hum from the wires and circuits buried within the walls. Nothing. His heart was in his ears beating at damaging decibels. The bleach fumes inflamed his lungs and stung his eyes in a way that made him believe that the elevator was the source of a chemical spring. His tear ducts responded savagely, salting his pupils. He thumbed the button hard, held it in.
“Enough already!” A parrot’s warble shot from a speaker above. “Who are you and what do you want?” It was a whiny, gum-chewing voice, distorted by cheap speakers and a mouth too close to the mic.
Randall rubbed his eyes and prayed to God the elevator would start.
“I’m looking for WoodshedDivine,” he said, blinking at the speaker. “It’s in this building, right?”
“Who wants to know?”
If he could’ve seen the speaker more clearly, he might’ve grimaced at it, thrown it some attitude, like who is this person.
“Randall Goode,” he said, his fists hard at work in his sockets. “I have an appointment.”
Tears stung flushed cheeks.
“Yes. Beatrice Woodshed. Ten am.”
“Let’s see…Goode…Goode…” She was smacking gum, he was sure of it. “Goode with a ‘G’?”
“Yes! Goode with a ‘G’!” He buried his eyes in the crook of his arm.
“Don’t get sassy,” she said.
The elevator jolted, vibrated, yawned. Randall descended. He was going into the bowels of the building. The basement? Jesus Christ. His desperation rose. He jabbed the button and then jabbed again.
Classical music now squawked from the speaker. Somber, dirge-like. A requiem. Jab. Jab. Jab. Jab.
He’d never been to a lawyer’s office. He’d never been divorced. He’d never been gay. He’d never worn this pair of underwear (new tighty-whities that were quickly becoming a maxi-pad of sweat). Doom had greeted him this morning and was wearing out its welcome. Today was the beginning of the end. Hiring a lawyer made this shit official, all this shit that had been gathering in piles at his feet. For a week he’d been living out of boxes in a sooty apartment. He wasn’t waking up in his old bed, with Rachel already in the shower, using the shampoos and soft soap that she preferred. He wasn’t taking his own shower and wrapping himself in an Egyptian cotton towel from Nordstrom’s. No longer did his colognes adorn the marble counter. No longer was his toothpaste a large tube. He was a travel-size man now.
He considered the apartment he’d taken. It contained two rooms, one with a queen size bed that, even after a week, still smelled like the plastic sheath it had been delivered in, and the other with a kitchen/alcove just big enough to fit two directors chairs, a borrowed coffee table from Dan, and a dinette set that he and Rachel had kept stored in the attic in the hope that it might be used in a future lake house. But there was no lake house; there was no future.
The elevator bumped to a stop. Requiem cut short. The door opened. Bloodshot and befuddled, Randall fumbled through the door and immediately noticed that the bleach odor didn’t exist here. A cool rush of air greeted him. It soothed, reassured. The elevator closed, humming loudly, and the mechanical noises floated up through the wall. He blinked away his tears, and as his eyes cleared and the noises began to fade the room took shape.
He was standing on cool marble in a tall, narrow entryway lit with indirect incandescence that exuded sophistication. Across from him, in an enormous gilded frame, loomed a painting the size of a highway billboard. It was like he was sitting in the front row of a movie theater, where everything was skewed skyward, distorted, too close to get a good perspective. Sheets of shades smothered him: magenta, indigo, puce. Then a shape materialized. The man—or woman (he couldn’t tell)—in the painting had a huge head with oblong eyes, a protuberant nose, and cartoon sized hands. Very Picasso. It was an odd decoration for a law firm, and odder still given the fact that after descending so far below the street he’d expected to arrive in a basement with a boiler, ducts, and grease.
To Randall’s right glass doors opened on a round room dominated by a round elevated desk, like a judge’s bench, made of the same cool marble as the floor. Behind it sat a black receptionist. The top of the desk was level with the top of his head so he had to stand on tiptoes to peer over the edge. Up close the woman had a horsy head that was suspended above her body by colorful beaded necklaces stacked collarbone to chin. A purple turban towered above her short waxy hair. Her attire appeared to reflect her African heritage. It was ethnic in nature, and perhaps political in statement. As with the painting Randall couldn’t reconcile her with the setting.
She blinked long and slow with eyelashes that fluttered and fanned. She raised a caterpillar eyebrow that demanded him to ask a question and simultaneously carried the weight of supremacy that dared him to do so.
“Is this WoodshedDivine?” he began. “I have a ten o’clock with Beatrice Woodshed.” He pointed weakly behind him. “I spoke with someone in the elevator.” The woman nodded for him to take a seat, her tall turban tilting precariously forward and back.
He chose a chair next to the magazines. He was reaching for People when he heard an abrasive rhythm, a heavy shuffling. The black receptionist was coming around the dais towards him. Except she didn’t step off the dais. She was simply that tall. Was she 7, 8, 9 feet? She wore a purple paisley dress that hugged her body and kissed the floor. Her overall effect—dress, necklaces, turban—was that of a purple cigarette. Her long arms struggled to carry a thick, leather binder, forcing her to take tiny shuffles across the room. Randall wanted to retrieve the binder, to lighten her burden, but her appearance confounded him.
She dropped the bulky binder in his lap, stealing his breath.
“You need to fill this out before Ms. Woodshed will see you,” she said.
She smacked her gum and blew a bubble. It was her whiny voice that had emitted from the elevator speaker. Like everything else about her it belied her appearance. Her voice lacked 100% African anything.
“This is your file,” she continued, chewing. “It’s confidential. Forms. Questions. So be honest. If you’re not honest, we’ll discover the truth. If you don’t give us the answers, then opposing council will ask the questions. It’s in your best interest to tell us first. It could be embarrassing and damaging for them to ask a question we know nothing about. Ms. Woodshed would not like that. Trust me on this.”
Randall tested the weight of the binder. “This will take hours,” he said.
“You’ve already wasted precious time talking to me.” The woman turned, and Randall realized he hadn’t gotten her name. She was asking him for answers and he was the one brimming with questions.
“Is the law firm…underground?” His voice echoed in the marbled room.
She stopped, pivoted, and bent at the waist, bringing her face close to his. “Mr. Goode, you could’ve spent that moment answering a question.”
“The floors above: what’s up there?”
“Don’t ask. Answer.” Her breath smelled of Juicy Fruit.
“Curiosity killed the cat, Mr. Goode.”
“Why is the firm underground?”
She shuffled away. “I’m ignoring you,” she said sing-songy.
His heart bounced and clawed in his chest. He considered himself foolish for being led into this mess and made a mental note to berate Dan as soon as he left here, but when would that be? He took a deep breath and quickly concluded that his nerves would not salve themselves anytime soon. This was all part of the divorce process. The best course of action was to simply power through the file. He directed his attention to the binder. Questions, single spaced, ran down the page. Name? Address? Spouse? Children? Soc. sec. #? Job title? Etc. He turned the page. More questions. Front and back. Hundreds of questions. Questions about him, his family, his divorce. Questions begging him to disclose a history that he’d barely thought about until now. Here, on the page, when put down in writing, his life seemed intangible, as if it was fiction, not autobiography. Someone else’s life in his very own handwriting.
He imagined the oversized family Bible his parents displayed in their house. The white leather-bound Bible in the center of the coffee table in the center of the living room. In its first pages on pre-printed lines a family tree had been filled out in his mother’s script. She’d written the names of grandparents, parents, children. Years later when Randall got married she added Rachel’s name, and, finally, not soon thereafter, in a slightly bigger, more florid script, she’d added Henry’s.
Now a binder of legal documents was to be his family Bible.
“Ms. Woodshed will see you now.” The receptionist stood over him.
His heart rattled. A-thump-and-a-whack-and-a-spew. How had she gotten there so quickly, so quietly?
She grabbed his arm with surprising force and pulled him from the chair. The binder thudded to the floor.
“The questions…” he said.
She shuffle-jerked him towards a mahogany door behind the dais before his legs found themselves and he was able to walk on his own. His head came to her breasts. He smelled the metallic powdery mixture of sweat and deodorant, but he couldn’t tell if it was coming from her or him.
“I thought I had to…”
“Don’t think Mr. Goode. That’s our job.”
She opened the door and thrust him through. Randall found himself at the top of a long descending hallway, alone.
“Where does this go?” he asked.
She smiled slowly, her lips stretched to the farthest reaches of her long face.