Sunday, November 27, 2011

CHAPTER FIVE: A Circus Without Elephants



I’VE NEVER WON AN argument against Rob.

Which is not to say I’ve never gotten my own way, it just means I’ve never bested him verbally. If someone rated us on our oral confrontations, Rob would come off as a powerful William Jennings Bryant . . . whereas I, dogged and emotional and trying not to whine, would get a rating about equal to Marge Simpson. He uses words that cut like a scalpel. I fight back with timeworn clichés that are off the mark and slice no deeper than a hurled marshmallow.

I’m smarter now; I no longer do what I can’t win at, and instead I take Rob on in ways that aren’t so obvious.

But in 1953, when he was in his final year of law school, I hadn’t yet seen him operate in any arena larger than our kitchen; I didn’t know what he was capable of.

I soon found out.

DURING ROB’S Third year, a group of young California lawyers calling themselves the Junior Barristers, created a hypothetical legal case known as Roger Blackgold vs. U.R. Dutybound. This complex, at times humorous, petroleum conservation lawsuit was designed for the California law schools’ moot court competition, meaning eight schools employed the same case.

As I recall the facts, Rob was defending U.R. Dutybound, maintaining staunchly that Blackgold had no right to be slurping oil sidewise by slant drilling under Dutybound’s land. But let’s be honest; the real issue, at first, was whether Rob and his UCLA partner, Daren Johnson, could out-argue two law students from Loyola.

The opposing teams met in Los Angeles—-in a real courtroom before three real judges. Except for a bit of histrionics from Johnson (which even I knew was rarely seen in actual trials), and leaving out the Loyola man who referred to “my worthy opponents,” in sneering overtones, the competition was breathtaking only to the wives.

To our huge delight, Rob and Darren won.

FOR THE NEXT MONTH it was rumored around UCLA that their opponents from the University of Southern California Law School, were “out to get” UCLA in the second round. Somehow Johnson and Wills didn’t take these rumors as seriously as their rivals hoped.

When the teams finally met in court, Johnson spoke first. Throughout his argument he kept raising his palms as though in supplication to heaven, and he also pointed, shrugged, and alternated between looks of pain and surprise, a performance worthy of a review in Variety.

Then came the first S.C. man, who strutted about like a legal peacock and decisively shredded every argument Johnson had made.

When it was Rob’s turn, he ignored what everyone else had done and merely offered an uncluttered line of logic. With his arguments still ringing in my ears, the last S.C. man could have been accusing U.R. Dutybound of soliciting oilfield orgies and I wouldn’t have noticed.

It seemed unreasonable, later, that a simple meal could transform two overbearing lawyers from U.S.C. into a couple of slim, eager boys who were actually likeable.

After dinner the judges spoke of “excellent arguments on both sides.” And they gave the vote to UCLA!

Rob and I didn’t drive home that night--we floated!

Far in the future, sometime after the Bar Exam, Wills and Johnson would argue the last round of the Moot Court Competition against the winners from all the law schools in Northern California. This time the argument would be held at The Bar Convention in Monterey--but it was a distant thing, and too much lay before them to think about it.

ON THE FIFTH OF September, our third little boy, Eric, was born. After viewing him in the nursery, Rob came to my hospital room and said warmly, “We have a pretty good mold, Babe, I wouldn’t change a thing. He looks just like the others, but of course he’s pretty small--only nine pounds, six ounces,” which made me laugh. Our oldest, Bobby, had been eleven-two, and our second boy, Chris, only ten, and we seemed to be losing several ounces of baby with each go-around.

On October 1, three weeks after Eric’s birth, Rob packed a suitcase to go take the bar exam. He had the dazed look of a man who is being led to the gas chamber and no longer cares. He seemed beyond discussing it.

“I’ll be at the Mayflower Hotel, Babe, if you need me,” and he scooped up Bobby for a hug, patted Chris, and left us to go downtown for three days--just as someone turned up the thermostat in central Los Angeles.

On October Second, the temperature in L. A. was ninety-seven, the next day, ninety-eight. In those days air-conditioning wasn’t the norm, and the temperature in the Embassy Auditorium, where the bar exams were held, soared into the mid-nineties. Not only was the room filled with perspiring men (and a few women), but almost everyone had a portable typewriter of the old-fashioned, tap-tapping variety, so that the room was at once both redolent of nervous sweat and noisier than a 40’s newsroom.

For three days I pictured Rob roasting and flunking.

I needn’t have worried.

He came home the third night in a state of euphoria, and far from being exhausted he was buoyed by adrenaline and elated at the brilliance of the questions. When I asked about the heat he said, “Heat? That was the least of our worries. We were typing so fast we didn’t even notice it!”

His mother, Ruth, who happened to be there, said, “Gracious, Rob!” and clacked her tongue sympathetically.

Rob described the Bar exam, full of essay questions that literally crawled with issues, and his perception of the intense heat fading away each day, while the din of typewriters rose to a hellish clatter.

And then he abruptly changed the subject and brought up a topic that neither of us had really thought about in months. “Did I tell you that the Moot Court finals take place the day after tomorrow?”

“No!” cried Ruth, who now, in her older years, could turn tragic on a dime. “You’re NOT going from one terrible ordeal to another!”

“Yep,” said Rob, cheerfully. “That’s exactly what I’m doing, Mother. It’ll be hell, but I’m going.”

Which is why we prepared to leave late the next afternoon to drive to Monterey, a distance of 350 miles . . though Rob’s mother rolled her eyes and seemed ready to weep. “Don’t do it,” she cried. “You’re killing yourself, Rob! That’s what you’re doing--destroying yourself!”

Rob grinned and said he was still operating on excess adrenaline and could probably go on indefinitely.

Since Ruth’s advice to her son during his first grueling year of Law School had been, “Don’t let them do this to you, Rob! You just show them--and quit!” neither of us was inclined to pay much heed to her admonishments.

Now Rob rolled down the window of our old green Nash, The Turtle, and waved goodbye. Ruth stood in the driveway with three-year-old Bobby on one side and eighteen-month-old Chris clinging to her skirt. “Don’t overdo!” she called out one last time. “You hear?”

“I’ll probably collapse from the strain,” he yelled back, making a long face just to torture her. “See you in a couple of days--if I’m not dead.”

Still, I wondered why we were going. That morning Rob had announced matter-of-factly, “You realize, Babe, this moot court thing is pretty much a lost cause. The Respondents were winners in both the Northern and Southern law schools, and since we can’t all argue the same side of the case, someone had to switch sides. Johnson and I lost the toss.”

“Then why are we doing this, Rob?” I probably sounded like his mother.

He just looked at me and grinned. “Because I’m a masochist—-why else?”

The news that day continued to spiral downward. Before noon, Daren Johnson called to tell us officiously that the rules had just been changed and there would now be a single winner from among the four contestants--winner take all. (“All” in this case being five hundred dollars worth of law books.) “I’m getting an early start,” said Daren, laughing evilly. “Bringing along a trailer to haul back the books.”

I looked at Rob. “You offered to kill him, right?”

“We’ll just see what he puts in that trailer.”

With tiny Eric in the backseat (he had to go because I was nursing), Rob and I started off cheerfully. Still high from the Bar exam, he drove while I read him the facts on Roger Blackgold vs. U.R. Dutybound--though before we’d traveled ten miles he had begun abandoning his old friend, Dutybound, in a search for redeeming features in Blackgold. “This is amazing,” he said. “There really ARE two sides to this case!”

Clouds scampered along overhead, and there was the feeling in our little car that we were merely pleasure-jaunting up the coast--until abruptly Rob’s adrenaline gave out.

Then the sun went down, and from the rear seat Eric started howling, so I had to bring him up front for supper.

Rob had not finished studying. Somehow he had to keep gathering facts about the wrong side of the case.

With Eric quiet again, I took over the driving and Rob felt around in the glove compartment for some kind of a light. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing anywhere. Wouldn’t you know?”

When he spoke again his cheery mood had vanished. “No gambler would put money on this contest. When I got up this morning the odds of winning were two out of four. Now they’re one out of four.”

“I know,” I said. “So why are we going?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking about turning back.”

“We could, you know.”

I said it, but I knew he wouldn’t. Not him. Turning back wasn’t his style. This was the man who stuck with a madcap truck driver barreling down the grapevine, and later, three bumbling contractors who wouldn’t have done well building outhouses, and he never spoke of quitting. Instead he would grumble and swear and predict ultimate failure and make me wish I’d stayed home.

“One way or another,” he said, “I’ve got to study.” But the only interior light was a dim bulb UNDER the glove compartment which stayed lit only when the car door was open, as he discovered when he tentatively pushed his door open a crack. The light flickered on, but then the door slammed shut and out went the bulb.

Anyone else would have resigned himself to darkness. Instead, Rob rooted under the front seat and suddenly said, “Ah-ha!” and held up an old Arden milk bottle, replete with ancient smudges of dried milk. “By gum, it’ll stay open now.” He pushed against the door and wedged the glass bottle into the crack, and the ten-watt bulb under the glove-compartment glowed faintly. With the wind hissing through the opening, Rob cork-screwed himself down under the dash, grabbed his sheaf of papers, and slowly gathered a case for his once enemy, now devoted friend, Roger Blackgold.

In such a posture, he rode the rest of the way to Monterey.

It was ten-thirty at night when we arrived--so tired that we paid scant attention when we ran into Daren Johnson at the hotel and he informed us, rather too cheerfully, that we’d missed dinner at the hotel and now all the restaurants were closed. He was still unbelievably upbeat--effervescing like Alka Seltzer. “Well, Rob, are you all ready for tomorrow?” he asked, and I swear he rubbed his hands together like Scrooge contemplating his next nickel.

His wife gave me a thin, sideways smile, indicating she wasn’t ready at all.

Johnson started for the stairs. “See you down there bright and early, Rob. I’ll have my trailer parked out front.” He grinned wickedly and pulled his wife along. “Come on, Carmen.” Laughing, they disappeared.

Rob studied until midnight, and then we turned out the light, planning to get up at seven.

About one a.m. Eric began to howl. And also at two and four, indicating a basic natal distrust common to Wills babies about being forced to sleep in strange places.

Dawn arrived at five-thirty and we might have slept right through it, except that somebody decided right then to attack the street under our window with a jackhammer. In disbelief we listened to the repetitive pounding of metal on concrete. But Eric, who apparently found jackhammers soothing, slept like the baby he was. From under the pillows, where Rob and I had burrowed to escape the noise, it seemed unthinkable that in just a few hours he’d be addressing the entire California State Bar Convention.

It seemed unlikely he’d be able to speak at all.

Lying rigid as broom handles, we harbored separate grim thoughts of dumping water on the man in the street--except that would have meant getting out of bed. Rob said later he’d considered going home right after breakfast, and I thought he sounded serious, while I admitted to fantasies of pounding nails in the tires of Johnson’s trailer.

With all hope of sleep finished, Rob and I lay in bed, stupefied, waiting for something else to happen—-which, around seven, turned out to be the baby chiming in like a chorus with the jackhammer.

Rob wrenched himself to his feet. His face was ashen and his eyes rimmed with dark circles; he looked about fifty. “Oh boy,” he muttered. “I’m sick. I’m nauseated.”

One glance at his fierce expression made it clear there were no wifely words I could risk uttering.

Before I’d finished bathing Eric in the bathroom sink, Rob was telling me I’d better hurry and get downstairs to order breakfast or we wouldn’t have any. I rushed out, leaving Rob shaving and the baby on the bed.

The waitress in the hotel dining room meandered between tables with a relaxed air. But she wasn’t as slow as Rob, who apparently was NEVER going to show up. I kept looking at my watch and looking at his bacon and eggs and looking toward the stairs, while the time got to be thirty, then twenty, then seventeen minutes to eight.

At fifteen minutes to the hour he showed up looking wretched. “The baby’s been screaming the whole time you’ve been gone. I had to call a sitter. The manager sent someone up, and now Eric’s quiet.”

Oh, thank God. “You’d better eat,” I said softly. “You need something.”

“Eat? I can’t POSSIBLY eat! I feel sick.” He glanced at the fried eggs and said, “Ugh!”

Quickly he paid the bill and we were off--off to make Rob’s grand debut before half the lawyers and judges in California, in the final and most impressive round of the Moot Court Competition.

WHEN WE ARRIVED, THE crowd was all seated and the three other contestants and five judges were sitting on an open stage in front of the audience, though luckily they hadn’t begun.

Rob joined the men on stage and I found a seat in the audience. Only a minute later the first participant stood up.

The other two men were from the University of San Francisco, having prevailed over Stanford, Cal Berkeley, Santa Clara, and Hastings. Somehow I expected them to look ferocious, or at least overbearing—-they had, after all, been steady winners. To my surprise they just looked like boys. Daren Johnson seemed as formidable as any; his skills were obvious and he was no longer part of our team.

After awhile my mind wandered from the speeches, and I began thinking about our circumstances and how Rob had had no breakfast--and for that matter, no dinner the night before. And of course no sleep either. Obviously all those judges and lawyers would never know any of this, but physically he could not have been in worse shape.

When it was Rob’s turn, I could hardly bear to watch. He began speaking in a voice of deadly calm, so deliberative that I was shocked. His words seemed to be coming through some kind of modulating screen, and frankly, I’d never heard him talk like that before.

The truth was, I thought he was going to faint, and I began sending him silent messages: Don’t fall down, Rob. Don’t keel over in front of all these people. Just finish. Stay on your feet. It’ll be over in a minute. Keep standing--you can do it.

As I watched, I saw that he seemed unaware of his audience and of the other contestants, or even of himself. Calmly, very slowly, he directed his argument to the judges. To me it was the voice of a quiet, ponderous stranger--a hungry, over-worked, dog-tired, near-fainting stranger.

When he finally came to his conclusion, still speaking in that tone of lethal calm, I realized I hadn’t actually heard a word of his argument. Only two things seemed important: he had finished. And he was still standing.

Now that he hadn’t disgraced himself, we could go home happy. I couldn’t wait to go fetch the baby and get out of there.

After the last speaker returned to his seat, and we’d all stood while the five judges left the stage, I wiped clammy hands across my gabardine skirt and turned to the lady next to me, because I simply had to speak to someone. “Oh God, I’m glad that’s over!”

She smiled sympathetically.

The audience chatted in subdued voices for a few minutes and presently the judges returned. I was paying them only half attention until one of them stepped to the front of the stage and in a matter-of-fact voice made an incredible announcement: “The winner for the best oral argument is Robert Wills!”

I gasped. He’d won it all. An astonished squeal took me by surprise and I clapped my hand over my mouth. It wasn’t possible!

I whispered to myself, “I don’t believe it!” And then I turned to the lady next to me and said, “I don’t believe it!” and she smiled again, but still I kept saying those words over and over in my head. It simply couldn’t have happened. Not to Rob. Not today.

People around me were smiling and clapping.

I stared at him up there on the stage, looking so pleased, shaking hands with all the judges, courteous and gracious and almost matter-of-fact, as though it were someone else’s victory.

Rob was now the Moot Court Champion for the State of California. And no one could take that away.

Presently he came down from the stage and when we left the hall it was as though we were propelled by feet not our own. Voices not our own said Thank you, and Yes, we’re very happy, and I’m glad you liked it. We couldn’t have known that this triumph would exceed even the joy of passing the bar.

Later we were invited to the assembly luncheon as guests of the convention, where we took our baby, and once again ate almost nothing, as people were exclaiming over the infant and over Rob’s performance, and we were smiling, smiling with pleasure. It’s hard to stuff food into the middle of a smile.

By now food no longer seemed necessary.

And then we were heading home again in The Turtle, its sagging rear made worse with some forty volumes of West’s California Digest and other legal tomes. Never, not once, had we pictured ourselves returning this way.

“Well, Rob,” I said, “you outmaneuvered them all--the baby, the jackhammers and Daren Johnson’s trailer.”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “Pretty nice, huh Babe?”

Very nice, I thought, except for one thing: there goes my last hope of ever winning an argument from you!

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