The world of shattered romance might conceivably be a happier place if couples in the process of disengaging avoided lawyers. But one of the parties almost always feels the need to hire one. Contrary to his inclination, the man in this story is pretty much forced to do exactly that, putting him at an an immediate and potentially hazardous disadvantage. After all, although he has assets, he's practically penniless. But then again, he stumbled across a very different kind of lawyer.
The first sign was the four bottles of Dom Perignon sitting atop the refrigerator. But even if at the time I’d realized it for the omen it was, I wouldn’t have believed it would have put Sammy Runbridge back in my life. He was pretty far removed, deep in the forgotten past, after all.
“They’re from a customer,” Claire said. Those four bottles of champagne. She worked in a high-end fashion boutique and in addition to her pay and commission, people were always giving her stuff. She was a good talker and great complimentor, a human clothes rack of immense magnetism and persuasiveness. Armed with the facial essentials of a model, her boobs and butt were too big to play the runway, alas, but she could work the customers. Lord, she could work the customers. Jobbers would come in with boxes full of clothes. They’d often give her freebies to wear in the store which she could keep, knowing that she’d push the other material and sell it within a couple of days. More than once, she’d sold a sweater off her back or a bauble off her neck. She was a sales thoroughbred: flying the colors of Claire, she was her own breeding stable, track, jockey, and tote board. If Claire wore it, it was a winner. Her fans brought increasing numbers of personal gifts to the winner’s circle, which, in the case of the recent drinkables, was about two feet high, soon ensconced right between the top of the refrigerator and the cabinet above it.
The champagne, admittedly, was a new one. I’d only seen Dom Perignon in films. It certainly wasn’t stocked at Singh’s Corner Market.
Cracking open a bottle, we discussed the new customer, a well-heeled fellow who’d bought some clothes for a girl or two and who had an apparently bottomless wallet. I’m not a jealous guy. You couldn’t be if you lived with Claire. If you can’t handle other guys ogling your gal, I figured, get an ugly one. Easy enough to do. We were stopped at a crosswalk on the Avenues one day when we heard some barking right behind us. It wasn’t a dog, at least the four-legged kind. Instead, it was a middle aged guy wearing a trilby, with a paunch and a pencil-thin moustache, on his knees right behind her ass, barking like a dog. Right up until the time we got the “walk” signal. Of course, this was way before Sammy Runbridge got involved.
Claire and I had come to New York from California’s central coast. I’d left my job as a part-time art instructor at a private school to enroll in a formal art school and Claire, who I’d married a year earlier, loved the idea of getting out of Paso Robles. I’d met her at school in San Luis Obispo, where she studied philosophy, after coming to the United States from her home in France. She brought along Italian boobs from her mother set on the frame she acquired from her French father. What got us together were our aspirations for a broader culture than the beautiful central coast could offer. Paso Robles was too small to hold us.
Neither of us came from rich homes. Her dad drove a taxi, mine was a grocery clerk. We drove across country in a 1960 Volkswagen bus that I’d refitted with a 1600 engine, more powerful than the standard 1200. When we got to New York we sold it, and that gave us enough money for two months of food, utilities, and rent.
Our tiny new apartment overlooked a small park. Beautiful place, but too small for my easels and canvases. I soon found a small dump a few blocks away where I could work. It was, I would guess, an illegal workup that code enforcement had never seen. Right on the roof of a small commercial building. It came with a two burner stove, a jury-rigged toilet and shower, room enough for a single bed, a couple of easels, and a closet where I could stack some canvases. I had my studio.
Claire soon found work in a shop that sold beads, knick-knacks, and sewing notions. I started driving a cab part-time so we could afford rent on two places and dine out one night a week. Within a couple of months, as the snow started falling, she’d been hired away from the bead shop by a nearby and upscale boutique owner. “Honey,” said the proprietress, “You could sell sea-water to a sailor.” And as it turned out, she could.
Lots more high-end gifts came soon after the champagne first arrived. Same customer. At a party we attended, she asked if I wanted some cocaine. “Where’d you get that stuff,” I asked. “From a friend,” she said remotely. I never liked coke, she knew, didn’t like how it burned my nostrils. It was out of my price range anyway. In the ensuing weeks, she was a constant nose-blower and developed a new crabby personality. She began staying out way late at night, too. “Girls’ night,” she said. When she really meant “girls’ nights.”
And one evening, coming home to the apartment myself, later than usual, I saw stacks of tens, twenties, and hundreds laid out in neat rows on the coffee table, being counted by Claire, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth. “So what’s this,” I asked? “Oh, change from the store, I have to sort it out.” “You wouldn’t by chance be dealing coke, would you?” I said. That brought, initially, a very ugly stare, then an explosive tirade of denial, another nasty stare, and then the final explosion of the anvil-head atop the storm cloud. It ended with “Fuck you if you think you’re gonna fuck me!”
Over the next week, I talked to some people and asked a few questions. Her “big customer” was a coke dealer, and she was, in addition to holding her job at the boutique, dealing his drugs. Probably sleeping with him, too. Girls’ night out.
So I had some thinking to do. The month of May had arrived, school would be out soon, and we’d planned to return to California for part of the summer. Let’s get out of this mess, I thought to myself, and get life back in perspective. I shared that opinion with Claire. But she announced that she was going to stay in New York. Too much to do, she said. “Like what?” I asked. “Like living life,” she said, “California just doesn’t work for me anymore.” The discussion turned into an argument. “Maybe I don’t work for you,” I said. “Maybe you don’t,” she said.
The next day, she told me she wanted a divorce. “Drew” was his name.
Drew’d just gone and champagned and coked up my wife, bought her all sorts of toys and trinkets, gave her great gobs of money too, beyond what she was earning legitimately. She was moonlighting as his coke dealer. The only reason she stayed working in the boutique was that it gave her a storefront for selling blow and getting “personal” gifts. The owner didn’t give a crap one way or another. Claire was still selling the shit out of everything.
It was now mid-May. I stayed a couple weeks more, trying to see if she would listen to my “let’s stop swimming in this toilet and move back to California” argument. Her response was to move Drew into the apartment. I grabbed two boxes of my stuff and threw it into my studio, where I took up temporary residence.
We agreed to split up and divide common property. There wasn’t much, but we had collected art. In my few months in New York, I’d made a lot of friends, gone to a lot of shows, and bought some great pieces for a fraction of what they were ultimately, I thought, going to be worth. Claire and I didn’t have any money, but we did have a helluva art collection.
On the agreed date, Claire and I met while Drew was out, and split everything, easy agreement, right down the middle. “Fine,” I said, I’ll bring a friend’s truck tomorrow and load my stuff.” But when I came back the next day, she said we had to talk it over again. In retrospect, she thought she gave away too much, she said. OK, I said, wanting all this to end real fast, let’s make another agreement. And so we did. I came back the following day with the truck. And she broke the agreement a third time, wanted more. In addition, a fist had been thrown through a canvas. “You made Drew mad,” she said. I’d never, of course, actually spoken with him or met him.
In fact, it really didn’t make much difference on how many agreements we’d ever make. And it was apparent that whatever we agreed on, New Boyfriend Drew would discuss it with her, then talk her out of it. So I told her that she could either live by the agreement we’d made the day before or she could deal with me in California, because I wasn’t going to stay in New York another day. I’d already called mom & dad, asked for a two week vacation in my old bedroom. Told them I’d come with a story, but not to expect Claire. I’d see about getting another art teaching job for the fall. I wanted to forget about New York, art school, Claire, cocaine, and all the other horseshit.
I went home by Greyhound, coast to coast.
Now I suppose you’re wondering where Sammy Runbridge comes in. I want to tell you --- and people who’ve used his services state this pretty emphatically --- he’s really the world’s worst lawyer. Or to put it more exactly, he’s the world’s most inefficient one. He’s also inexpensive beyond belief, so his customers include all manner of folks wronged by the “system” and needing justice. And goodness, Sammy tries to get it for them. It just takes him a while to get it, that’s all.
Years before I’d ever met Claire, I’d hired Sammy to represent me and the small art gallery I owned, in a complaint against the town and an expensive parking assessment district they demanded I join. It did drag on and on and on. Yes, Sammy Runbridge had filed some documents, but he never responded to the town’s attorney directly, nor answered most of my phone calls, either. But Sammy, it turns out, was brilliant in his own peculiar and inefficiently unique way. My art gallery was barely making enough money to stay in business and having to pay to join the parking district was just going to kill it. But Sammy stalled and stalled and stalled, months and months of non-responses, obfuscations, and real or alleged misplaced paperwork. Sammy, bless him, had bought me enough time to make some good money and steer clear of paying into the parking district. Eventually, of course, I lost. But that was the next small business owner’s problem, because I was gone, taking a few months extra profits with me in the bargain. Thank you Sammy Runbridge.
Sammy Runbridge hadn’t joined the parking assessment district either, and that meant that he no longer had a formal walk-in office. So when I needed to pay him my final installment of $50, he said “drive you and your check on up to the house,” which was a trailer, up on blocks, down 15 miles of mountain road, way up in the hills. The driveway meandered for a quarter mile or so before it arrived at the house. The mailbox, at the junction of the highway and Sammy’s driveway, had two things written on it. His address and the word “DON’T.” In caps. Sammy, who lived there with a wife I never saw, greeted me from the trailer’s wooden porch, sitting next to one of two derelict toilet bowls that graced the veranda. This one was being used as a flower pot. That other one, he explained, was the ice bucket for parties. Sammy was in his own piece of paradise.
For me, life wasn’t luxury, but it wasn’t bad. I’d gotten back to California, set up a studio in mom & dad’s garage way out at the end of the yard, and had found a temp job to hold me over until I found a real one. And I could help out mom & dad with some rent in the meantime.
What about Claire. Mom yells from the house one day that Claire’s on the phone, and I walk down the driveway, thinking she’s finally going to honor that third agreement and send me my half of our goods. I grab the receiver and mom diplomatically goes back to pruning the rosebushes.
“You.” Claire says to me. “I’m getting a lawyer. I want a divorce, and I want it now.”
“Hey, hon, just send me my stuff and I’ll sign anything you want.”
“I don’t think so. And I refuse to talk to you about it anymore. From now on, you can talk to my lawyer.”
“Hey, lawyers are expensive. Our stuff isn’t worth that much. You’ll spend more on a lawyer than we spent on that art originally.”
“I don’t care. I’m not paying my lawyer, anyway. He’s an old customer of mine, too. And Drew’s paying him.”
There is a lot of vindictiveness in many divorces, whether fueled by cocaine addiction and conspicuous consumption or not. It was clear that Claire and her boyfriend were out to make my life as miserable as could be, in spite of the fact that I’d departed town and left them pretty much to themselves. Drew was one of these men that just so absolutely despises the old husband that he let it eat away at him to the point of destroying a very nice painting by a good friend. Of course, Claire was going to own that beauty now.
Now this particular telephone call that I’ve been discussing hadn’t ended yet. It was time for loverboy to get on the phone.
“Listen,” he says. “We really do want to make this easy. You see --- heh heh --- the there’s --- heh heh --- some wonderful news. Claire’s pregnant and going to have a baby. Heh heh. So, heh heh, you see, we want to get married, give the child a name, you know.”
“Well, now,” I said. “Isn’t that wonderful.” And indeed it was. I no longer had any feelings for Claire. I just wanted my stuff back.
“So I’ll tell you what, my friend,” I countered. “Send me my stuff, send me something to sign, and we’ll have it over right away.”
“It’s not as simple as that,” he responded. “She disagrees with the property split. She’s got a lawyer. So I suggest you do the same. Don’t bother calling her. She won’t talk to you. The only reason you’re gonna call her is to give us the name and number of your attorney. We’ll let them work it out.” Whereupon he hung up.
The most expensive asset Claire and I had was an old sedan that we’d bought used. There were twenty paintings. And that was it. Not worth paying a lawyer. And that’s when I remembered what a fine job Sammy Runbridge had done for me, back in the old days. He wasn’t, really, much of a lawyer, I remembered. But he was as much of a lawyer as I needed right now.
So I called him up and we had a little chat over coffee up at his trailer, right next to the toilet planter, now host to a fine rosebush. He told me he thought it was the kookiest divorce he’d ever worked on. There were really no assets. The man sitting next to him on his trailer porch, that would be me, didn’t have much money. So Sammy Runbridge, bless his heart, decided to take the case. He took a very small retainer.
“Listen,” he said. “I do have to be frank. I’m taking this on because you’re an old client. But I do have a number of current cases that do have my priority. I’m going to ask you, therefore, to be patient. Patient with me, patient with my paperwork, patient with whatever I may do in court, and patient with the U.S. mails, which are always slow. And in the case under discussion today, particularly slow to the East coast, since you don’t want to pay for Air Mail.”
“Well that’s just fine, Sammy, to tell you the truth. My wife, who now speaks through the mouth of her boyfriend, has informed me that the whole divorce business can just take forever and ever. In fact, Sammy, if I may confide in you, she tells me that the only reason she wants a divorce is so I can be free to marry when I choose. And that may not be for many, many years. So I just say take your time, enjoy life, and eventually, like a lazy cloud floating in front of the insistent sun, the day will be bright again for both of us, eventually.”
“That makes me feel better,” he said, “Because you won’t mind if papers don’t get filed exactly on time, will you.”
“Take your time, Sammy, take your time. Let me know if your bill gets over $150, and if it does, I’ll run you up a check.”
So Sammy invited me to have a quick beer with him, right from the toilet ice bucket, too. And I went home and slept the sleep of the just that night.
It was now September. I’d lined up a teaching job at a winery that wanted to offer art classes during afternoons. I supplemented the income by working on the bottling line. You had to be quick: rip open the box, throw the glass on the belt, run to the other end of the belt, make sure the hot glue had correctly sealed the filled and boxed bottles, throw the box on the pallet, then rush back to the front of the belt to do it all over again. I got a bottle of whatever I worked on that day. Took it home, invited a female guest out to my studio in the garage, said goodnight, painted a little, hit the hay, got up in the morning and did it all over again.
I must confess, I’d pretty much forgotten I’d ever had a wife named Claire or that we had some unfinished business.
The first inkling I had that something was amiss was a voicemail left on my phone. It happened a couple of months after I’d hired Sammy Runbridge.
“This is Drew. There seems to be a problem with your lawyer. He isn’t returning Claire’s lawyer’s phone calls. Would you help to clear this up?”
Funny, he sounded kind of desperate, not at all as combative and angry as he’d been during the call when he insisted I get a lawyer. Hmm, I thought, I’ll have to remember to give Sammy a call one of these days to follow up on this. Let’s see, I thought, she must be about three months into the pregnancy by now, give or take. And I did think --- just for a moment really --- that I hoped she’s no longer pumping all the coke and booze through her system. Heard it’s not good for fetuses.
A month or so later I was driving out in the hills to watch the big full moon crest over this gorgeous outcrop of rock, when I passed the mailbox that said “DON’T.” Geez, I thought, I never did call Sammy to find out how that divorce was coming. I of course was very concerned, as I wanted that new baby to have a good and proper name. So I resolved to call him the following Monday.
So I did: “Hi Sammy, just want to get an update on my divorce situation.”
“Yes, yes. I have those documents right here. It seems as though they don’t agree to what you want, in terms of property. I’ve been meaning to call you, but just got bogged down. And of course, until I talk to you, there’s no sense talking to her lawyer. Nothing to talk about, really.”
“Well, you’re quite right, Sammy,” I said, “And we don’t need those phone expenses to go up either, do we? By the way, have you ever talked to her lawyer?”
“No, but I did get a letter in the mail, along with that paperwork.”
“Well tell you what, Sammy. What with not wanting to run up long distance phone or Air Mail charges, how about if you just craft a response to the man, then send it by good old standard U.S. Mail. If regular mail is good enough for my mom & dad, it’s good enough for me.”
And to this day, I do believe Sammy really did mail that response.
About a month later, that full moon was out again. This time of year we get these Indian summers. I was polishing off a huge constructivist canvas one day that was barely going to fit out the door. We’d bottled a pretty good cabernet that morning, and a female grad student of mine had a date with me to drink the bottle, discuss Felicien Rops and what he meant to the art of Belgium, enjoy the moon and the warm evening breeze, and bless her heart, to help me to angle and edge that Constructivist monster out the garage door and onto my pickup. I’d bring it to the gallery in the morning.
The phone rang as I was wiping some residual paint off my hands. Mom and dad were out for a late dinner, so the phone was going through its customary ten rings before the machine would pick it up.
“Do you want me to answer it?” my student asked.
“Nobody important calls me at night,” I said. “Let the answering machine handle it.”
And it did, as I heard faintly from inside the house: “Listen man. You really gotta help us out. Claire is really really pregnant now, and is getting stressed because her lawyer still hasn’t heard from yours. She’s crying every night, man, and we’re worried about the baby. Please, man, answer the fucking phone will ya… will ya?!..OK, fuck you, asshole!!!” And he hung up.
“Tsk tsk,” I told my friend the student, “Such foul language. He obviously ain’t got no couth.”
Of course I had to tell her the whole story, about that cocaine snorting and dealing lifestyle that have resulted in the destruction of our marriage.
“So her dealer got her pregnant?” she said. “Now they’ll probably go ahead and have a bunch of little dealers.”
I suggested we deal with the more important things in life, and get that canvas out of the garage so we could clear some space around the bed.
Somewhere in the next month or so, Drew stopped trying to be the public relations agent. I suppose those two rocket scientists determined that I wasn’t going to return his calls, much less answer them in the first place, and that the only hope those two lovebirds had was to reconnect the line of communication that had been broken between Claire and I.
She did leave a frantic, sobbing voicemail message, but I was busy on the lawn swing watching the moon on New Year’s Eve, enjoying some cabernet that a girlfriend had brought, and discussing the merits of Henry Purcell’s ‘Come Ye Sons of Art’ and Baroque music in general.
Long about month eight of the dear girl’s pregnancy, I did get a call from Sammy Runbridge.
“You might want to come up to the house, something you should look at,” he said. “A document has arrived.”
“Well saints preserve us” (a paean to Claire, who was raised Catholic), I said, when I saw what was in the envelope. It was an offer to settle as well as a note to the effect that if the baby was born before the agreement was signed, the settlement wouldn’t be valid. “It looks, Sammy, like they’ve finally agreed to concur that my final property agreement will be in force in exchange for a signed agreement to divorce.”
“Yes, that’s the gist of it,” Sammy said. “Of course, the property had better be in escrow or nothing gets signed.”
“Well done, Sammy. Maybe it’s time to make a long distance call to her lawyer and get it wrapped up.”
He did that exact thing, right then and there from his dining room table, which hadn’t recently seen diners, truth be told, as legal documents covered virtually every open space. Buried under two stacks of legal briefs was the phone.
“Hello counselor, Sammy Runbridge here from the sunny state of California,” he began. “How are you this fine afternoon?”
“Mr. Runbridge, I confess that I’m in somewhat of a state of shock,” her lawyer said. “I really didn’t believe you existed.”
“Rumors of my demise have been exaggerated, my dear sir. And to prove it, my client is sitting right next to me now, and has agreed to immediately sign the divorce agreement in exchange for the items stipulated in your letter.”
The rest of the call was all dates, document numbers, and legal talk. In two weeks, the deed was done. And so was my marriage to Claire.
I don’t know whether she had a boy, girl, twins, or triplets. Maybe there never was a baby, after all, just some phantom timeframe that was related to his or her family, dictated by the necessity of a wedding by such and such a date. Whatever it was, there was certainly a lot of caterwauling in those past few months. First angry, then raging, then begging. I don’t know what was happening back East, but it sure didn’t seem it was as much fun as watching the moon come up over those luscious, vineyard-covered hills. It seemed to me --- when I bothered to think about it at all --- that it was a classic example of people thinking only of themselves. In the beginning, it was about “getting back” at yours truly, involving possessions whose value didn’t come near to approaching the money that the competing parties would eventually pay in total for their lawyers.
To be more precise, the significant sums paid to lawyers were essentially paid by only one party. And that wasn’t a party I attended.
Several months after all had been signed, sealed, and delivered, Sammy Runbridge was called again by Claire’s attorney. He was looking for some help on a matter that had some link to California’s central coast, and he asked Sammy if he’d mind taking on the work. I heard about it, sitting on Sammy’s porch one evening after delivering him his final $50 check. And Sammy told me the story:
he says to me, ‘Counselor, I like the way you do business. I tell you, I’ve
never been on the losing end of a divorce settlement quite like that between our
respective clients, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I advised my client early
on to make an agreement. The original one was fair. But she wanted everything.
So they spent thousands of dollars on nothing. Nothing. In the end, your client
got what he originally wanted. So because I’m interested in hiring you for a
small legal matter, I’d like to know one thing. How much did your client pay you
for your work? After all he won. And it did drag on forever.’
“He did ask me how I did it, how I’d succeeded on my client’s behalf for so little money, and I told him. ‘Listen, the client said make no long distance calls, no airmail, don’t answer their calls. I’m paying you to ignore them.’
“ ‘But god, man,’ he said, ‘At $200, how did you make any money?’
“And I told him, as gently and easily as I could: ‘Based on what I did --- or rather didn’t do --- for my client, I actually probably owe him some.’ ”
So Sammy and I watched the moon coming over the horizon for a bit, and he reached into the toilet and grabbed us a couple of beers. I raised mine to the moonlight, offered a toast, and he joined me. “To Claire,” we both said.