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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Out the Door, Mike Perkins

This is how it ended. You would think that a marriage three years old that had started in Kansas and ended in Missouri would have some kind of message to convey or at least bring a sense of finality. Instead, it ended just about like that last walk when I go through a rented hotel room before leaving. You do that last inspection just before you walk out of the room for the last time because you want to make sure you did not leave something valuable behind. At the same time you are anxious to be on your way, and sorry to be leaving too. Something did happen, finally, at the end but it was so vague the telling of it is like ripping out the last chapter of a murder mystery leaving the affair unsolved.

It seems reasonable that a person would take the day off and not end their marriage on just the thin margins of whatever else is going on in their life. Instead I got divorced on my lunch hour having told nobody except that I might be a little late in coming back since I had some personal business to attend to. It was a lonely and private affair.

I had been in county courthouses before and after the divorce. I have visited courthouses professionally to testify on behalf and against people, as well as to cover news stories as a photojournalist. The courthouses are all the same with their imposing entryways, high ceilings, marble floors, and a sort of forced grandeur deemed appropriate for those temples of fiscal responsibility and civic duty. They are cold places with no warmth or humanity in them. As a rule good things seldom happen in a courthouse.

As usual in any courthouse there were people around but they were like props or mere functionaries. Somehow I managed to find the courtroom where the divorce was scheduled and was permitted to enter to wait until my case was called. The courtroom was sparsely decorated and attended. Of course there was the judge, my soon to be ex-wife Glenda, and her lawyer. There were also two or three other couples waiting their turn to put a bullet in the head of their own marriages, and they were all young like us. This was not the place were marriages came to die, it was the place where they were executed. The surreal nature of the proceedings was highlighted by the fact that everyone was sort of bland, uncomfortable, and solemn all at the same time like we were attending a funeral.

In the courtroom you felt guilty not because of what you had done, but because of the consequences like when you were hauled before the principle for some infraction you were not awfully sorry for. In such a place, it seemed appropriate to keep your head bowed somewhat while sitting and waiting at the edge of your seat on the courtroom benches which were exactly like those of a church. The marriage had begun with hard wooden bench seating and would end with it as well.

The judge was a middle-aged women with long bright red hair in the customary black robe. She was older than the rest of us. I had a chance to watch her in action as the couple before us finished up with their day in court. She was neither friendly nor rude. She was brisk and efficient with the file of cases yet to be heard at her right hand and the completed ones at her left. She had a system. There were certain technical questions she asked from a mental list she kept in her head, and she made notes and signed papers as she went along. She seemed only professionally curious and I imagined that except for the occasional hysterical or violent break down in decorum requiring some kind of effort to regain control, by her or possibly even the bailiff, it was an assembly line process to be endured. She asked questions of the people appearing before her but they were almost all answered instead by their attorney like a parent answering for a child who is somewhat unreliable in providing answers when it really counts. The couple ahead of us were finished. There was not even a drop of the gavel, it just ended and they stood there for a moment as if asking themselves if this was all there was. It was. Then it was our turn.

The judge noted that I did not have an attorney. My wife, for the next few minutes barring some kind of unforeseen event, was suing me for divorce and I had just showed up for the formalities. The judge looked at me and asked me if this was all okay.

"He's stipulated to the conditions your honor." That was Glenda's attorney.

The attorney was about the same age as Glenda and I. He could not have been long out of law school. Equipped with a receding hairline he was dressed in a light colored suit and tie with a white shirt and shined shoes. Those were his work clothes. He had the shiny pallor of someone who works inside too much and was thin. He seemed anxious, and I imagined that if he was new to the practice of law he was hoping that this easy payday was not going to be ruined by some unexpected difficulty involving some kind of lawyerly intervention requiring him to think on his feet.

Her eyes remained on me. I guess the judge did that sometimes when some answer actually required a response from the individual to satisfy her.

"Yes it is." I nodded and that was that. My great courtroom oratory was finished.

There were no children, there was certainly no property, and we had already divided up things completely to our mutual satisfaction. If there ever was a divorce free of legal complications this was it.

Glenda was standing on the other side of the lawyer she had hired and the judge asked her some question and was completely satisfied not only with the answer but that the lawyer had replied for her. Linda had dressed up, but at the time she was working in retail and I had no idea if she had dressed up for court or work. As usual she seemed a bit stern and introspective, and I do not recall her saying a single word until after we walked out of the courtroom.

It was over in five minutes but it was a long five minutes. When we were done, just like the couple before us, we stood there expecting some kind of ending. There really was no ending to speak of. There was no final hymn or prayer, no congratulations nor condolences, nothing but a process and a marriage that had run their respective courses and it was time for everyone just to move on.

The lawyer disappeared. Out of habit, and perhaps other reasons as well, Glenda and I walked out of the courtroom together even though we were now divorced and had not seen, nor spoken, to each other for months. We continued to walk together down the stairs, then out the hallway, and then out the front door. Without warning, as soon as we were outside, Glenda began to cry.

She had waited to cry until we were out the door. She had also been the one to file for divorce although I was none too sorry for that. Yet, despite everything, she had found something she needed to cry about. There we were, standing together divorced, two people who may or may not have ever been in love but two people who had certainly shared the most intimate of times together. We were alone, and she was alone except for me. I did not know what to do.

Then she said the oddest thing. "I'm sorry."

Was she talking to me or herself, and what was she sorry for?

I looked at her expecting some kind of clue as to what she wanted from me. Despite everything I felt sorry for her.

"Glenda there is nothing for you to be sorry for. This whole thing is mostly my fault."

We had continued to walk awhile but then stopped a distance outside the courthouse door on the sidewalk. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day full of sad things.

Before I could move toward her, which I was reluctant to do for many reasons but sorry to see her suffer alone with nobody else to comfort her, she put her hands straight down to her side

drawing on some kind of inner resolve. She stopped crying and got a hard look and from experience I knew that I was being tuned out and all communication had ceased. That was her way of saying no.

Those were the last words we ever spoke to one another and I never heard from her again. There were a few rumors from friends, and one time she tried to reach me through my parents. She called a few years after the divorce, and told them she was back in Kansas, but wanted to get in touch with me to see if I would help her by cooperating to secure an annulment for our late marriage. She was engaged to marry some farmer, who was Catholic, and in order to get married in the Catholic Church she would have to get an annulment. Nothing ever came of that either.

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