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The Spectator

December 29, 2006

Fairfax Courthouse in my day had seventeen courtrooms, burnt orange wall-to-wall carpet, and a strong local bar. All the courtrooms but J&DR were in one building, so a lawyer could play four or five roles in one trip there, especially on motions day. Once I researched and argued two motions, submitted an uncontested order in a third courtroom, tried a lower court civil matter, and visited a court-appointed client in the county jail – all by 1:30.

Waiting for my cases to be called, I often saw one elderly neighbor smiling at me from a nearby bench. She was retired, and I was a young associate. Her pleasant, ever-present smile seemed to take in and accept all that I knew about myself: I had a low, fixed income (like her) and was living away from my family in a small efficiency in the Mosby Building (like her) a block from the courthouse. I was green but enthusiastic, and I showed promise. Her years permitted her to see my future, and she smiled at my future and me.

Her straight, silver hair, which always parted with a bright wave, seemed to complement my only gray suit, the one I wore on the first and last days of my jury trials.

I found that she often knew better than the court clerks what was playing. It came from experience. One morning, in the courthouse cafeteria over a bagel and cream cheese, she told me that, ever since she had moved to the Mosby, she had spent most of her weekdays watching jury trials and circuit court motion hearings.

One day when I was between acts, I took the advice she had given me a day earlier and caught a few minutes of a well-lawyered libel trial. When I walked in, she was smiling with the kind of a smile a spaniel might have on his lips with his head out a car window. I sat next to her; we were both only spectators now. When the court took a brief recess, she told me that the press was squeezed next door into courtroom 4C for a high-profile murder case, and that the juror voir dire was probably dragging on for hours in there. I laughed. Her smile tightened; she was staring beyond me at the empty witness chair.

I was sometimes able to help her understand a legal term or stratagem. Once I answered her question about a mistrial granted for violation of an in limine evidentiary order entered the week before the trial started. She seemed impressed with my answer. Sometimes, though, she showed up downstairs for traffic court on days I had some work in there. I felt ashamed for her to see me practice there, for some reason.

It was in traffic court that I first noticed the steel blue color of her eyes. Unsettled and expressive, her eyes seemed at odds with the rest of her face, with her dress and solicitude.

The following year, my firm added a paralegal, and my hours got more manageable. My work brought me some new acquaintances, and I went to some parties and relaxed a little. I didn’t see my neighbor around the courthouse much that year. It is possible that I was too busy to notice her, though.

It was summer a year or so later when I found her sitting in the lobby at the Mosby. She was staring as intently as she did in court, but she wasn’t looking at anything. Her smile seemed to cover some other expression, like you’d see on a clown you got too close to. She didn’t look at me when I passed her, either, so I stopped and said hello. She said hello but didn’t ask after my practice. In response to my inquiries, she said that it had been several weeks since she had been to court because of the heat. Soon she returned to the wall. She stared at it as if it were a cineplex screen.

One day a few years later, after I had made partner, the brief euphoria of a favorable jury verdict seemed to give me the space to ask a question that I had somehow never formulated during my lonely associate years: Why had the court chosen the hideous orange carpet for the courthouse anyway? I laughed out loud, and I thought of my neighbor for the first time since I had moved out of the Mosby. I wanted to ask her the question, and I realized then that I had lost touch with her. I don’t believe I’ve ever asked anyone about the carpet.

by Peter at slow reads

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  1. January 6, 2007 at 11:54 pm


  2. January 8, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    A wonderful story, Peter.

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