The Tiniest Part of Me | Marc Elias Keller | The Piltdown Review

The Tiniest Part of Me

The Tiniest Part of Me

It was half past six on a muggy July morning when my long­time legal assistant Vera called me on my home number, jabbering frantically about her husband Miles being in jail. It was the first time she’d ever called me at home.

I’d just gotten out of the shower. Holding the phone with one hand, I pulled on my underwear with the other. “What’d he do?”

“I don’t even know! Nothing! But he said he’s hurt. His knee.”

I took down the information and drove to a police station in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, just north of the city proper. Vera was already waiting for me on the front steps. I told her I’d do everything I could, but she knew as well as I did that I was out of my bailiwick: in thirty years of practicing law, I’d never represented a client charged with a criminal offense. My specialty was securities traders suing for wrongful termination and breach of contract. What I was, really, was a professional negotiator.

But like everyone who watches TV, I had a basic familiarity with criminal justice procedures. So I approached the desk sergeant with my business card, said I represented Miles Williamson, and asked about the charges. The desk sergeant opened a manila folder. “Loitering, criminal trespass, public intoxication, and resisting arrest.”

I led Vera, who was trying to maintain her composure, to a dingy little waiting area and parked her on a folding chair. “Let me just see what’s going on,” I proposed. I understood she wanted to see Miles right now, but I said that that might agitate him and escalate the situation. She reluctantly agreed, gripping the edges of the metal chair. “And please, Vera, don’t say anything to anyone.”

Then I was ushered into a tiny, windowless room with a table and two metal chairs. “You’re on camera,” the officer told me, slamming the door shut to leave us alone.

Miles was wearing a filthy white T-shirt, black track shorts, and enormous black loafers with the laces removed. Vera didn’t talk much about her personal life: all I knew about her husband was that he was a Philly sports fanatic and had briefly played in the NFL. Now he worked downtown at a sporting goods store.

“I’m Nathan Becker,” I said, extending my hand, which was swallowed up by Miles’s. “Call me Nate.” He was big, football big, though more lanky than wide.

Miles kept his eyes on the table, his lips clamped into a smoldering scowl. “Where’s Vera?”

“She’s out there. I thought it’d be better if just you and I talk.” I took a legal pad from my briefcase and a pen from my shirt pocket.

Miles nodded, drumming four long fingers on the metal table. The sound was so loud it sounded like knocking on the door. On his wrists were red bracelets of raw skin.

“Are you hurt?”

“My knee,” he grunted. “Hit my bad knee.”

“We’ll go to a hospital as soon as we’re out of here.” Then I asked what had happened.

Miles ran a hand over his bald head. “I didn’t do a goddamned thing.”

I waited for him to continue but he just kept scowling at the table. “Something must have happened, Miles,” I said. “You didn’t just magically appear here.”

“No shit,” he muttered, glancing down. “Sorry.”

Finally Miles elaborated. He’d gone to work at The Red Zone, the sporting goods store where he was a shift manager, and he’d left a little early to take a short train ride from Center City to a suburb called Chestnut Hill. He got off at the St. Martins stop and walked to Chestnut Hill Academy, a private prep school, to interview for the position of Recreation Coordinator. The interview started out well: the Director of Student Life was impressed at Miles’s NFL experience, a season as free safety for the Jets before a career-ending knee injury. But as the discussion turned to the actual job responsibilities, the Director seemed unsure that Miles’s retail background would translate into managing intramural activities.

“She starts talking about school regulations, budgeting, strategic planning,” Miles recounted. “What I don’t understand is why call me in for the interview, if they knew my experience don’t match what they want? They saw my résumé. I didn’t lie about anything.”

I didn’t tell this to Miles, but I had a fair guess at that. My late wife had worked in the legal affairs office of Temple University. Whenever they filled a position, there were certain EEOC procedures to adhere to—and it was better for the university if at least one “candidate of color” was interviewed.

Miles’s interview ended about 5:30 and he lingered on the tony campus for a while, walking around the perfectly manicured athletic fields. He’d taken off his dress shirt and khakis, changing into black track shorts he’d brought along. “I can’t believe what these kids have,” he breathed. “A rock-climbing wall. A robotics center, for God’s sake.” Miles shook his head. “I went to school in North Philly. We barely had a damned toilet.”

Then he found a sandwich shop and had a bite to eat, finishing a little after seven o’clock. Walking to the train station, he came upon a bar. From the window Miles saw that the Phillies game was on. “I wanted something to take my mind off the interview.” Miles said he’d texted Vera that he’d be home a little later than expected. “She had book club, anyway, and Makayla can look after MJ for a couple hours.” The game went into extra innings and Miles stayed at the bar until it ended.

“How many drinks had you had by then?”

“Two scotches and a beer,” he answered. “I wasn’t drunk. Takes more than that.”

Then he’d walked to the train station. “The last train was supposed to be at ten fifty-two,” Miles said, but there was a posted notice about maintenance work altering the schedule, so the last train had come at 10:44. Miles didn’t want Vera to have to fetch him this late, so he called a taxi service. This was when Miles noticed his phone was on its last gasp. He called Vera and told her what had happened. “She wasn’t happy,” Miles said. “But I had to get off the phone real quick to save the battery. In case the taxi company called.”

Ten minutes later, the police showed up, probably on nightly rounds.

“Okay,” I said, leaning forward, “so the cops come on the platform and see you. What were you doing?”

“Nothing. I was just sitting there. Suddenly they’re asking for ID and frisking me.”

“Did you shove them, try to get away from them?”

The ropy muscles of Miles’s neck tautened like a pulled drawstring. “You think I’m crazy? I had my hands on the bulletin board. They didn’t believe I was waiting for a cab. I told them to look at my call log.”

“Did you reach for your phone?”

“No. The cop did. Took it out of my pocket. But by then the damn battery was dead, so he just sees a black screen. Says I’m messing with him and throws my phone down.” Miles paused. “All I did—all I did—was try to see where it went, so I could get it later. That’s when one of ’em hit my knee.” Miles recounted being kicked in the side and then the jolt of a Taser. “Next thing I know, I’m in a cop car. Then I’m here.”

I looked up at Miles. “You should have gotten here about midnight. But Vera didn’t call me until six in the morning.”

Miles said the night-duty officer hadn’t been trained to take fingerprints yet, so Miles was put in a holding cell and wasn’t formally booked until five in the morning. Then he was given his phone call.

I stopped writing. “Have you ever been arrested before?”

“No. Last time I even talked to a cop was a speeding ticket driving down the shore.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll go with you to your bail hearing. I doubt you’ll have to post anything. Then we’ll get your knee checked out.”

Miles nodded.

“Do you want me to ask if Vera can see you now?”

He said he didn’t want her coming into this room.

“She’ll meet us at the hospital, then,” I said, signaling for the guard, who took Miles away. I went to Vera, who leapt to her feet and wiped her eyes. “It’s fine,” I assured her. “Just bad luck.” Then I asked Vera to go to the office and reschedule my morning appointments.

“You have Buckstein,” she reminded me.

“Oh. Right. Well—just reschedule. Tell him any other time he wants.”

Vera thanked me and smiled, a real smile, rather than the professional one she’d greeted me and my clients with for almost a decade.

At the bail hearing, I argued to the magistrate that this was a flagrant example of false arrest and imprisonment of a man who’d done nothing more than miss a train and call a taxi, easily proven by the taxi company’s dispatch records. “This is a man with a wife and two children, a homeowner, a manager at a successful sporting goods store,” I proclaimed hotly. “He’s never been arrested in his life. Now he’s beaten and thrown in jail for waiting for a taxi.” I demanded all charges be dropped, the arrest record expunged, and the Philadelphia Police Department issue a formal apology.

The judge, a long-faced woman with straight brown hair, perused the police report, not especially overawed by my polemic. “Was your client drunk while waiting for that taxi?”

“Mr. Williamson had several drinks over the course of several hours while watching a Phillies game at Springside Tavern. He was not drunk. And he wasn’t operating a vehicle or causing a disturbance to anyone.” Before the judge could respond, I continued: “As far as trespassing, the St. Martins train station is part of a public transit system. And Mr. Williamson was not loitering—he’d missed the last train and was waiting for a taxi.”

The judge deliberated for barely a second and dismissed the charges of loitering, public intoxication, and trespass—but not resisting arrest.

“Your Honor—”

“Counselor, the police report states that your client shoved Officer Reed and reached for his service weapon while he was checking your client’s identification.”

“Mr. Williamson was clutching his knee, Your Honor, after being struck with a nightstick.”

The judge closed the manila folder. “The charge of resisting stands.” She cut off my protest. “However—since this is his first offense, I’ll release Mr. Williamson on his own recognizance until arraignment.” She looked over my shoulder. “Next.”

I concealed my amazement at the seemingly illogical ruling. “They have nothing on you,” I told Miles. “That’s why they’re clinging to the resisting charge. It’ll be dropped at arraignment.”

Miles limped out of the courthouse and I drove him to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, where Vera was waiting anxiously. He had a small fracture of the patella and his tendons were swollen, mostly from getting no medical attention overnight. His side was bruised, but his ribs weren’t broken. The doctor gave Miles an anti-inflammatory shot, taped his knee and put it in a brace, and said that once the fracture healed a few months of physical therapy was recommended, to minimize any recurrent pain or arthritis. Surgery was not required.

That evening, after rush hour, I drove to the St. Martins train station to see if there were security cameras that might have captured Miles’s arrest. I did see a camera, but it was angled toward the area where the yellow dimpled edge of the platform ended and the track began. The station was unmanned, and when I called the transit police to request footage of the incident, I was told, somewhat paradoxically, that the surveillance was managed by a private contractor and the only way to request access to the footage was writing to the legal department of the transit authority.

The next morning Vera was at her desk at the usual time, with her daily green tea and peach yogurt. Her hair was as straight and perfectly arranged as ever, her burgundy blouse as unwrinkled as humanly possible. She said that Miles was doing fine, physically, though he was still sullen and irritable about the incident. “He’s just laid up on the couch, watching sports.”

I reassured Vera that the resisting charge would be dropped at arraignment. “But if you want to hire a more experienced criminal attorney, I understand.”

Vera said she’d thought about this on her way to my office today. “We just want this to go away. And our savings was for Makayla.” That was the Williamsons’ oldest daughter, starting at Drexel University in September. “So—if you don’t mind—”

“Of course,” I answered. “If I get out of my depths, I’ll let you know. Until then, though, I’m happy to help.” And I was, given that she’d helped me build my solo practice after I’d left a large corporate law firm.

“You can lower my pay,” Vera offered.

I waved away this offer, clearing my throat. “I’d like you to do a couple things, though.”

Vera jostled her mouse to waken the computer, and I handed her a yellow legal tablet page with a forceful letter scribbled on it. “I don’t know how forthcoming they’ll be with the footage. But let’s at least get this sent, so we have a paper trail.”

She nodded and rested the paper on an angled prop-tray next to her monitor.

“And I think we should file suit for excessive force and wrongful arrest.”

Vera frowned. “You really want to get started with all that?”

“I’m not talking about a courtroom trial, Vera. Just a quiet settlement. And putting the city on the defensive will only help with the resisting charge.” When she still didn’t reply, I suggested that I discuss it with Miles. “Let me just present our options.”

Vera nodded. Then I went to prep for a meeting with Bob Buckstein, a middling trader bringing a wrongful termination suit against a hedge fund. But I’d only gotten a couple pages into Vera’s summary of the last deposition when the intercom buzzed.

“I have—it’s Miles,” Vera said. “I have him on the line. Should I come in too?”

“Why don’t you let just the two of us chat? If you don’t mind.”

“Of course.” Vera clicked off the line.

“Miles,” I said, briskly. “How you feeling?”

“I’ve done worse,” he answered. “Still hurts though. Guess I’m getting old.”

I told Miles about the security camera and my hope that we’d get access to the footage. “You’ve told me everything that happened at the station, right?”

There was a long silence. “I wasn’t doing anything when they came up to me, and I didn’t resist any arrest,” Miles huffed. “I mean, how’s the judge drop all charges, say I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong, and still get me on resisting?”

I checked the time on the lower corner of my computer screen. “I know, Miles. That’s why I think we should file suit ourselves. For excessive force. I was doing some research on it. It’s called a Section 1983 claim.”

“Sure,” Miles replied. “Get those assholes fired.”

“Well, it’s more about getting compensation for your injuries. Suits like this—”

Vera opened my office door and mouthed that Buckstein had arrived.

“Miles, I’m sorry—I have a client coming in now.” I suggested that I stop by their house that evening. “I can lay out our options and we’ll go from there.”

“Fine by me.”

The Williamsons owned a home in Mantua, a sliver of streets wedged between University City and North Philadelphia, overlooking the Schuylkill River. Their block was well-kept and safe, though Vera told me she didn’t let the children wander northward. Inside, the house was neat and tidy, with tasteful furnishings and an updated downstairs bathroom with gleaming silver faucets. Seeing the bathroom, I recalled the few mornings when Vera had come to work late because of meetings with contractors.

Vera introduced me to her children: Makayla, who had her father’s tall, lanky build, and Miles Jr., who everyone called MJ and was built more like Vera, compact and delicate. MJ was three years younger than his sister and was a sophomore in high school. “Go on upstairs,” Vera told them. “Mama and Dad have to talk to Mr. Becker.” As the kids tromped upstairs, Vera whispered that they thought I’d come over to discuss suing the transit authority for a faulty step on the train.

I laid out a strategy to sue the police officers, based on research I’d done that morning. “First we have to file an internal complaint with the PPD. Most likely, the officers will be exonerated. That means that the police will acknowledge that the incident occurred, but that the officers acted according to standard procedures. Then we can file the Section 1983 claim for excessive force and ask for the world. Half a million, maybe.”

Miles’s eyes widened.

“We won’t get that,” I clarified. “Your injury isn’t severe enough. But something in the range of a couple hundred is plausible. It’ll depend somewhat on the station footage.”

“Two hundred thousand?” Miles asked, leaning forward.

“You have a good claim,” I said. “You work in sports retail, so the injury impacts your job. You might have a limp for the rest of your life. And you’re a sympathetic defendant. You missed a train because the schedule got changed. That can happen to anyone. Let alone the racial implications of your arrest. I think the city would settle.”

Miles and Vera glanced at each other. “We wanted to keep this quiet,” he said. “Not have everyone up in our business.”

“Most settlements like this are handled under confidentiality agreements,” I replied. “It’s not like the city wants it advertised, either.”

Miles rubbed his head. “Let’s say we do it,” he said. “What happens to those cops?”

“If there’s a settlement,” I explained, “the cops won’t pay anything personally. They’ll be indemnified. The city, or probably an insurance company, would pay.”

“I’m not talking about who pays the money,” Miles answered, his expression darkening. “I mean, what happens to those cops if we win? They get fired?”

Before I could answer, Vera spoke up in a quiet, firm voice, directing her comment to Miles. “Nothing, baby. Nothing happens to them.”

Miles looked over at me with the same scowl I’d seen in the police station holding room. “She right?”

I sighed and lifted my glasses to rub my eyes. “Cops are very rarely fired,” I answered. “Even if you had died, Miles, there’s no guarantee they’d be fired. And the disciplinary process is slanted toward the cops. When you file a complaint, for example, you don’t have a right of appeal. But if the judgment goes against the cop, they can appeal. Multiple times. And their union will fight for them.” I saw Miles clench his big fist. “I know this is frustrating,” I added, quietly. “I wish it were different. I’m just advising you, as I would any client, about the best chance for recovery.”

Vera patted my hand. “We know, Nate. We’re really grateful.”

“If you do file suit for us,” Miles asked, “what do you charge?”

“Miles.” Vera’s tone was scolding.

“It’s a good question,” I said. “I’d ask for a quarter of any settlement. If you don’t get anything, you don’t pay me anything.”

Miles nodded. “Fair enough.”

“It’s very fair,” Vera said. She knew my standard contingency fee was forty percent. Working pro bono for the Williamsons wasn’t out of the question, but I didn’t want them to feel like a charity case, and I also wanted to be motivated to work for them as I would for any other client.

I suggested they think about it—“But not too long. The sooner we get the ball rolling, the better.”

Vera packed me up a few extra ginger-molasses cookies she’d baked and walked me to the stoop. “Careful down the steps, Nate,” she said, cracking a rare joke. “We don’t want a lawsuit on our hands.”

On the drive home I thought about the Williamsons’ palpable disappointment in the system—in me, too. I wasn’t encouraging them to fight the injustice of the arrest, but to try to cash in on it. Maybe they even thought I secretly thought they were lucky: a big chunk of cash just for a whack to the knee and a few hours in jail. But what I’d said about advising them on their best chances of recovery was perfectly true. That’s what they were paying me to do. It was no different than when I’d laid out a strategy to a broker or a trader.

Or—it was no different to me. To Miles and Vera, this whole predicament was a world away from the cases I’d handled for clients like Buckstein, who wanted only one thing—money, as much of it as I could wring from their former employers. In that world everything was simply a negotiation, and justice came in a settlement check. That was the world I lived in, the world I helped to create, the professional part of me, the biggest part of me. But tonight I felt a pang in another part, the tiniest part of me, that still knew the difference between justice and compensation, that understood that not everything is negotiable.

I pulled into my garage, turned the car off, and ran my hand through my bushy gray hair. I was just shy of sixty years old, and for the first time in my career, my clients wanted justice, real justice—and all I could do was urge them to settle for a check.

At Miles’s preliminary hearing, an assistant district attorney named Jacqueline Denard presented sworn statements from the two police officers about Miles attempting to either escape or grab Officer Reed’s weapon. No actual evidence of this was presented, but the magistrate bound the case over for trial.

“It’s fine,” I told Miles. “They’re playing tough because they want a plea bargain.”

Vera had, indeed, filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Police Department. Three weeks letter we received a letter saying that an internal investigation had determined that Officers Reed and Henderson had acted in accordance with PPD protocol, exonerating them from disciplinary action. I told Vera I wasn’t surprised.

“So what now?” she asked.

“Now we file suit,” I said. “I think it’s our best play.”

Vera still seemed unsure. “Miles wants to do it, to pay for Makayla’s college. But—I don’t know.”

“Don’t know about what?”

“Even if we get some money,” Vera said. “It’s not like any of this actually changes. Maybe the police’s insurance rates go up. And who pays for that, anyway? Our taxes, right?”

I acknowledged that she was probably correct in her analysis. “But what does not filing suit accomplish?”

“Nothing,” she answered with a sigh. “I know that. That’s why Miles wants to go for the settlement.” She toyed with a purple mug with MOM etched into the side. “And he’s right, I guess. You’re right. It’s the best of bad options. But it’s not right.”

I just stood next to her desk, silently.

“Well, it happened to Miles,” Vera said. “It’s his call. And he wants to file.”

That afternoon I started dictating our complaint for Vera to transcribe.

Two days before Miles’s formal arraignment, I met with Jacqueline Denard, in her office, without Miles. “What happened was unfortunate,” she said. “A lapse of judgment of otherwise outstanding officers.” She glanced down at the file. “The City of Philadelphia is willing to consider a reasonable settlement.” Ms. Denard looked at me sternly. “Half a million is not reasonable.”

I reminded her that Miles wasn’t a rowdy teenager, a drug dealer or gang member, not even a petty criminal caught shoplifting or vandalizing. “He’s a homeowner, a husband and father, a manager of a retail shop, who was arrested, beaten, electrocuted—”

She raised her eyebrows. “Electrocuted?”

“Mr. Williamson was shot with a military-grade Taser gun, charged at fifty thousand—”

Ms. Denard held up a hand and cleared her throat. “I have a busy afternoon, Mr. Becker.”

I leveled my eyes at her. “We haven’t taken Mr. Williamson’s story public because his family just wants to put this behind them. But if we’re not treated fairly, we will.”

Ms. Denard calmly reiterated that half a million dollars was not something the city was willing to consider. “Our offer is seventy-five thousand, with contingencies.”

“You should know,” I said, “that we’re in the process of getting the footage from the security camera at the train station.”

“This footage?” Ms. Denard swiveled her computer monitor toward me and pressed the space bar of her keyboard. Grainy black-and-white footage showed the platform, but neither Miles nor the cops were in the frame, and there was no audio. After a minute, a small object bounced on the platform: Miles’s phone. Then it was just an empty platform.

“That only corroborates my client’s story,” I asserted. “Mr. Williamson wasn’t reaching for a gun. He was looking to see where his phone got thrown.”

“The city of Philadelphia believes differently, Mr. Becker.”

I squared my jaw, glanced at a clock on the wall, and re-crossed my legs. “Two hundred.”

“One. With the contingencies.”

“Which are?”

Ms. Denard told me that Miles would have to sign two waivers: a strict confidentiality agreement and one that would absolve the precinct of all future suits or complaints. This didn’t surprise me, but the other contingency did: Miles would have to plead guilty to the resisting arrest charge.

Before I could protest furiously, Ms. Denard held up her hand. “I’m offering the lightest sentence possible. Ninety days probation and time already served. Not a day in jail and not a day in court. That’s a pretty good deal for your client.”

“Except that he’s saddled with a police record for a crime he didn’t commit.”

“Well,” she said briskly, “you can withdraw your suit, and we’ll drop the resisting charge. We’ll even expunge the arrest record. It’ll be like it never happened.”

“You’re endangering my client’s chances for future employment,” I replied, grateful that Miles wasn’t sitting next to me.

“Resisting is a misdemeanor,” Ms. Denard said. “Most job applications only ask about felonies. It’s not the end of the world.”

I pointed out that we could simply fight the resisting charge in court, get it dismissed, and then sue for excessive force.

“You’re willing to risk a trial when you could just give your client a check? You just said the family wants to move on.”

“Two hundred,” I answered, firmly. “Then you can move on, too, and spare the city a whole lot of—”

“One-twenty. Don’t push me, Mr. Becker. I’m not a bank.” Ms. Denard closed the manila folder. “Why don’t you discuss it with your client.”

That evening I drove over to the Williamsons’ house again. Makayla and MJ had been sent to a movie. When I explained the option of withdrawing the suit and having all the charges dropped, Vera’s interest seemed piqued, but Miles’s was not. “I’d rather have the money.” He looked at me. “What do you think?”

“I’d take the settlement, if I were in your place,” I replied, directing my answer toward Miles and ignoring Vera’s sigh. “Going to trial would be an ordeal, let alone that you might be found guilty. And given that you’re a law-abiding citizen, Makayla’s tuition is probably well worth ninety days probation.” For the sake of full disclosure, I did explain that the guilty plea was tantamount to a conviction. “That might have repercussions in the future. On job applications, for example.”

Miles chewed on his lip. “I got to check that box now?”

“Not if the application only asks about felonies,” I answered. “But if it includes misdemeanors—yes, you do. But you can explain the circumstance. And I’ll be happy to corroborate.”

They still seemed uncertain, so I told them to sleep on it. The next morning a bleary Vera told me to accept the settlement. Then she turned to her keyboard to type out a letter for the Buckstein case.

As we waited for Miles’s settlement to be processed and approved by the city council, I noticed a difference in Vera’s work. Research wasn’t done as thoroughly as I’d come to expect. Bills weren’t paid or sent as promptly as they’d always been. Letters had typos. And Vera’s demeanor was different. She’d never been gregarious, but now she was noticeably mumpish. Even the way she answered the phone changed. A pleasantly brisk “Law office of Nathan Becker” became a monotone “Nathan Becker’s office.”

I’d never seen Vera like this, so I tried to be patient. But one Tuesday afternoon, when Buckstein was coming in for a meeting, I looked on my desk for information I’d asked Vera to gather, about the profits of the hedge fund during the years Buckstein had been an employee. The reports weren’t there, and when I asked Vera about them, she thought for a moment and then said, “I forgot”—two words I’d never heard her say. “I’ll pull them right now.”

“Buckstein’s coming in five minutes, Vera.”

She glanced at her monitor. “Oh. I’m sorry, Nate.”

I didn’t even know how to go about disciplining Vera. I’d never done it. Then Buckstein arrived. When it came time to go over the information in those reports, I told him my assistant had been sick and I didn’t have them at hand.

Buckstein frowned. “Well, we can go on the computer right now and get most of that information.” The meeting was productive enough, but he wasn’t especially happy, and neither was I.

When Buckstein left, I called Vera into my office. “It’s not like you to forget something like that,” I said. “And you’ve been different lately overall. Is Miles doing all right?”

She nodded. “He’s back at the store.”

“What, then, Vera? Is it a problem with salary?”

Vera sat down in the other chair of my office and adjusted her skirt. “You pay me fine, Nate. I just haven’t been feeling good lately about all this.”

“All what?”

“The whole thing with Miles, the settlement,” Vera said. “It’s nothing against you, Nate. I guess I’m just a little tired of this kind of ‘law.’ ”

Her derision of my livelihood—and hers—stung, but I kept my composure. “I’m willing to give you some leeway because this has been a hard time,” I answered, glancing toward a small gold tray of my business cards. “But I do need you back on your toes.”

“I understand,” she said, softly. She checked her phone. “I have to get going. Makayla’s art show is tonight.”

“Just please think about what I said, Vera.”

One Tuesday morning I opened my mail and found the settlement check from the city. I took it to Vera and dropped it on top of her keyboard. “Deposit this, please. Then cut Miles a check for seventy-five percent of that.” I walked away, saying nothing more.

That Friday, when I came into the office, a formal resignation letter from Vera was already on my desk. I read it twice and then went to her. “It’s not that much money, Vera,” I joked, still not fully digesting her announcement.

She toyed with the string of her teabag and poked at her yogurt. “I’d just like to do other things with my time.”

I leaned against her desk and thought about how well she knew me and my practice, how time-consuming it’d be to train someone new. “That’s some appreciation, Vera, after all—”

“You don’t own me, Nate.”

I didn’t want the conversation to devolve further, so I went into my office and closed my door firmly. Shortly after, on a conference call with Buckstein and the general counsel of the hedge fund, I was so extraordinarily aggressive that I finally extracted a promise of a settlement offer. Buckstein was elated.

I ended up replacing Vera with an energetic twenty-six-year-old studying for the LSAT and interested in transactional law. I offered him sixty percent of what I’d been paying Vera, and he seemed pleased to get it. For a week Vera trained him, and I constantly reminded him to pay close attention. “Just do it exactly like she does,” I told him over and over.

On Vera’s last day I took her for lunch at a Greek restaurant she liked for their vegetarian options. She’d brought me a parting gift: a navy-blue ceramic mug, handmade by Makayla, with NATE, ESQ. etched into the side.

After we ordered appetizers of stuffed grape leaves and mixed olives, Vera told me that Miles had been almost dizzy with glee when she brought home the check. “You know,” she said, “when I deposited it, I thought about the times I’d walk through Penn campus, or Drexel, and think about parents that can just write tuition checks.” Vera nibbled at an olive. “Now we’re parents like that, too.” She smiled wistfully. “Sort of.”

I looked down at my plate and recalled the tuition checks I’d written for my own daughter, now a talent manager in Los Angeles and pregnant with my long-awaited first grandchild. “So—have you thought about what you’ll do now?”

Vera said she’d recently interviewed for a part-time program coordinator position at a West Philadelphia youth center. “And I’d like to spend more time with MJ. Catch up on some reading, start my garden. Maybe some volunteer work.”

“Sounds nice.”

After lunch, back at the office, as Vera packed her belongings, a courier dropped off Buckstein’s settlement offer. I scanned to the number: $1.4 million. We’d asked for three, but I’d told Buckstein anything in the seven figures would be a victory.

Vera peeked over my shoulder. “I guess he can pay for college, now, too,” she murmured.

I missed Vera’s serene presence in the office after she was gone, not to mention the fresh flowers she’d kept at reception, the scented candles she burned to neutralize the musty old law books, the breath mints she’d slip to me before client meetings. But my new assistant was energetic and good at the job, and his moneymaking ambitions felt comfortably familiar, if a little depressing. Occasionally we’d talk about life in a large corporate law firm—his target destination after law school despite my recounting of the vicious politicking and outrageously long hours.

“I missed a lot of time with my wife and daughter,” I said on the day that would have been my thirtieth wedding anniversary. “Time I can never get back.”

“But the more money I make and the faster I make it,” he countered, “the sooner I can retire and spend all the time I want with my family.”

If he’d been my own son or grandson, I’d have had more to say, but as it was I just smiled to myself and murmured that I hoped it worked out like that for him.

As the weeks without Vera passed, I did find myself thinking about Miles and the lawsuit, especially when I saw a news story about a police brutality case. At times I even wondered if I should devote the rest of my working years to civil justice cases, working pro bono, maybe joining a legal aid organization. But these ideas never really caught fire in me—they were like flames of a match lit outside on a breezy day.

What I did do was donate $100,000 to a smallish nonprofit called the West Philadelphia Legal Justice Center. I gave to a handful of other charities—a national cancer fund as tribute to my wife, my synagogue, an environmental group where my daughter was on the board—but this was my first gift to the WPLJC. The center’s director, Roger Cole, called me with gushing gratitude, wanting to honor my generosity at an upcoming awards dinner and offering me a slot as a keynote speaker. He also hinted that if I were willing to extend my donation into a five-year pledge of $500,000, there was a naming opportunity.

The Nathan Becker Legal Justice Center—I like the sound of that, though half a million seems a little steep. But maybe this Roger Cole is willing to play ball.  

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