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FICTION / Old Dogs / Mike Sutton

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“God dammit.”

Jim Sprinkle is on a roll this morning and the entire office can hear it.

“Sue, what the hell’s going on?”

“What are you talking about Jim?” Sue rolls her eyes from a cluttered cubicle. She’s not half-done with her second cup of coffee and she’s sure as hell not ready for this.

“This damn iPhone,” he sputters, “What the hell?”

Sue rises on two tired ankles that pop beneath her weight and edges toward Jim’s office.

“I don’t have an iPhone.” She says, adjusting her glasses. “Want me to call the Geeks?”

Jim sits behind a massive desk, a monstrosity of dark wood and textured leather. Plaques checker the walls in oblong shapes and colors like a hand-me-down quilt pieced together by some worm-eaten ancestor. He’s dressed in a neon orange t-shirt and gym shorts half soaked in sweat from his morning workout. He exercises three times a week, even has a personal trainer, but none of it puts a dent in years of booze and well cut red meat.

“It’s the new one,” he sputters. “The X or something.” He stabs at the slab in one hand, no rhyme or reason, just pokes at it. He rattles it, tosses it on the table, and looks to Sue in utter disgust.

“I just don’t know,” there’s almost a tinge of despair in his tone. “I just bought it and it’s broken.” His silver hair is slicked back, a few sprigs springing loose and dangle over his eyes.

“Well, Jim,” Sue purses her lips, “Might be time to get a youngin in here.”

“Never mind it,” he says, turning his high-back leather chair around to face his computer. “Have you finished the dictation from yesterday?”

“I put it in your chair at the end of the day,” she shifts her weight to the opposite ankle. “Should have been the first thing you saw this morning.”

“I’ve not seen it,” he blusters, like Christ himself is waiting on Jim Sprinkle’s letter, fingers tapping. “There’s just too much going on.”

Jim starts listing off all of the tasks he needs to accomplish, finger by finger. She stops listening and surveys his desk. She doesn’t have to guess what happened to that letter. The desk is piled fist deep in papers, manilas, and coffee stains. You could put everything in perfect order and Jim would come tearing through like a twister, tossing single-wides into the stratosphere.

He’s still chattering when Sue says, “I’ll get another copy.” She backs out of the doorway, her floral print dress swaying with each step. Jim doesn’t say a word.

He’s frazzled today and the world needs to know it. He’s been busy, which is good. He’s got an expensive taste for life and needs to bill those hours to keep it up. He sorts a few emails and swivels in his chair to find a copy of the New York Times. His right arm is strapped into a cast, which makes everything more complicated and Jim twice as agitated. The president’s orange glow shines from the front page as Jim licks a finger and starts skimming. He grunts and laughs as his eyes trace the pages.

The phone rings.

“Jim Sprinkle’s office,” Sue announces, using the sweet professionalvoice she saves for phone calls. “Mhmmm . . . Mhmmm . . . One moment please.”

She covers the receiver.

“Jim, I’ve got Sammy Daniels on the line for you!”

“Got it!” he all but clicks his heels as he picks up the receiver.

“Hey, hey Sammy!”

“Morning Jim. How’s life on the hill?”

“As good as ever. How’s Trish?”

“Fine, fine. You gonna make it to opening day this year?”

“Dove? Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Haven’t missed it in thirty years. Might be a little slow. I’ve got a cast on one hand,” he stretches his hand, wiggling his fingers. “Might need some help toting my cooler out.”

“We can manage it. Holding up?”

“The arm? Oh fine. It’s a little sore.”

“Good. Good. You talked to Carol?”

“Once a week at least, but it’s still . . . touchy.”

“That’s to be expected,” Sammy echoes over the phone. “You were married for ten years after all.”

“You’d a thought the third time would’ve been the charm,” Jim cracks the same old joke and waves it like it’s still got the new car smell.

The conversation carries on while Sue slips headphones over her ears and resumes typing Jim’s endless dictation. As crazy as Jim drives her, she’s half partial to him. Truth is, if Sue left, Jim would retire. She knows it. He does too, but won’t admit it. The man’s just shy of helpless. He’s a fine trial lawyer. Tried over a hundred cases in his time, but the world is changing, and old dogs don’t always follow smoothly.

She hears the phone click and watches as the red light on Jim’s hot dial goes dark.

“That’s just great,” Jim shouts. “One more thing!”

Sue rolls her eyes. There’s no pleasing him.

“Sue!”

“Yes?”

“Sammy wants me over for dinner. That’s the third dinner this week.”

“Is that right?”

“Says he’s got a lady he wants me to meet,” she can hear his smirk sitting in her cubicle. She can’t tell if he’s annoyed or if he’s happy. Hell, he probably hasn’t decided yet.

“That deposition starts in an hour,” she knows he’s already forgotten.

“Shit.”

Sue puts the headphones back to her ears and starts typing, ignoring everything that follows.

Jim knows it’ll be a boring affair. Depositions always are. At the end of the day, they’re nothing more than attorneys dragging each other into a conference room and torturing each other for a few hours, breaking for cold sandwiches and stale chips, then recommencing the torment until the court reporter starts yawning. That’s always the cue.

“Did you print those exhibits?” he shouts.

“They’re on your table!”

“I’ve not seen them!”

Her ankles pop as she hoists herself back out of the cubicle and into Jim’s office. Her eyes cut through the piles of papers like precision guided missiles. She locks on, lifts them high, and drops the stack right in front of him.

“There,” she says with a huff and shuffles out leaving a mushroom cloud in her wake.

Jim doesn’t respond. He licks a finger, unfixes the clip fastening the papers at the top, and starts skimming. Sue quit expecting “thank you’s” or high fives a long while back. That’s what the paychecks were for. Jim shuts his door and emerges minutes later in black jeans and a tangerine orange button down.

“I’ll be back after lunch!” He hollers as he glides out of his office and down the hall. Before long, he slides into his freshly waxed black Cadillac and heads out. Sue sighs heavy, rolls her chair to the end of the cubicle, and checks to make sure there’s no foot traffic. When she’s sure, she yanks a flask free of her cheetah-print purse and takes a nip of peppermint schnapps. Her lips smack as she shakes her head.

#

Jim’s doing something he normally doesn’t do. Working for free.

Some bank decided it wanted a little old lady’s land. Normally, that wasn’t anything Jim would shake a stick at, but this lady happened to be his sweet momma’s the best friend. Momma was long gone, but her voice still echoed in Jim’s head.

“You take care of Ethel now,” she says. “You make it right.”

He couldn’t stand the thought of watching Ms. Ethel Ruthbager losing her family land. Worse, he couldn’t stand the thought of his momma peeking over a silver-lined cloud and spying Jim doing nothing. Just couldn’t.

By the time Jim got involved, a handful of bank lawyers had poked around, pockets stuffed to the brim with the bank’s “good will,” and that little lady was facing an adverse possession action. She was well past one hundred, but still feisty.

The bank ponied up and brought Everett Elliot into the mix. That wasn’t half bad. He’d grown up in the same neighborhood that Jim raised his own kids. Hell, Everett spent many a night under Jim’s roof, playing well into the mornings with the kids.

Jim arrives at Everett’s office with a few minutes to spare. Ethel sits on a bench outside, wrapped in a pink knitted sweater, the wisps of her hair done up like she’s only stopped by on her way to Sunday service. Jim hops out of his Cadillac and hurries to her, giving her a peck on the cheek.

“Oh, Jim,” she says, her voice rattling. “Awful kind of you. Awful kind.”

She pats his cheek as crows’ feet spread wide, creases etched in paper-thin flesh.

“Proud to be here. Momma would have wanted it.”

“Sure do miss her.”

'Jim nods.

“Well, we better get in there,” Jim offers a hand. She takes it gently in her own spindly fingers.

Everett is all smiles and nods when the two enter. It’s a good start. Everett shows Jim and Ethel into a conference room where the middle-aged court reporter with long black hair is already seated, mouthpiece pressed to her lips, testing the recording. Everyone finds their places, introductions are made, and the clock starts ticking.

“I want to thank you for being here today, Ms. Ruthbager,” Everett starts, nice enough. “Have you ever been to a deposition before?”

She clears her throat and leans forward, “Yes sir, for a car wreck.”

“So you’re familiar with the procedure?”

“Well,” she rolls her tongue around in her a mouth. “It’s been . . . maybe . . . sixty years . . . Might need a refresher.” She smiles, pink lipstick smeared on her porcelain teeth.

Everett returns the smile, “I’d be happy to explain . . .”

Jim is already drifting. His mind wanders to Carol, to opening day of dove season, to other cases, the one’s that pay.

There’s the Clint file. What a headache. They’d bitch about the bill. Then they’d bitch about how Jim wasn’t doing enough to kill the case. God forbid Jim do more work because then they’d bitch about the bill again. Eventually, Jim gave up and billed the hell out of the file. If somebody was going home alone tonight, it sure as shit wouldn’t be Jim Sprinkle.

“And you own the property at 750 Maplevale Road?”

“Yes sir,” Ethel starts. “Me and my husband . . . bought it back in . . . 1952. We were married for sixty years before he passed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ms. Ruthbager.”

“The cancer got him . . . He was a good man.”

“I’m sure he was.”

Jim’s focus slips away again, dipping in and out. He’s sitting in a field, perched on a stool. He pops open a small cooler and pulls out a mason jar filled with brown juice, Bloody Bull. He pops off the top and takes a long gulp of the broth.

“You mentioned you were married.”

“Yes . . . sixty years. Reginald and I met in high school.”

“Any children?”

“No,” Ethel starts, her fingers fidgeting, “we were never blessed with children.”

Jim’s sitting at dinner, mere inches from the fine lady Sammy Daniels promised him. They’re clinking wine glasses together, laughing at a joke Jim just told off the cuff. The butter on the steak is still melting, he’s drunk on it all.

Everett flips through a pile of manila folders, selects one, and pulls a loose paper free. The sheet glides across the woodgrain, a subtle scraping noise lost on Jim’s old ears.

“I’m passing you a document that I’ll refer to as exhibit,” he pauses and checks a yellow legal pad, “seven.”

Ethel takes the paper and adjusts her beaded glasses.

“Please look it over.”

She nods. Jim gives it a side-eye glance, not comprehending a single character on the page. He’s already gone, standing in the well of a court room, arms spread wide, the jury dancing circles in the palm of his hand. Their eyes trace his every step, opposing counsel remains seated and dumbstruck, the smoking gun glows on a pedestal. The things Jim Sprinkle could do, a lifetime ago.

“Well, I’ve never!” Ethel recoils, like someone used the Lord’s name in vain.

Jim comes stumbling back to the present. He glances between Ethel and Everett. A shade of purple cascades across her face as the blood comes rushing up, like somebody smashed a jar of grape jelly and smeared it all over.

“There’s no call for that,” Jim says, still lost. “We’ve been more than cooperative . . .”

“You aren’t running this deposition,” Everett interrupts, “my client has a right to know.” His eyes are blazing.

“What are you talking about?” Jim glances at Ethel. Her arms are folded over her chest, her lips pursed, eyes as sharp as razorblades underneath sagging lids.

“Looks like Mister Ruthbager wasn’t so faithful.”

“Everett . . . I . . .” Jim takes the paper from Ethel, pulls it close and reads: “A Certificate of Live Birth – Reginald Ruthbager.” Jim’s eyes trace the beads to the title “Father.”

“Now, Ms. Ruthbager, did you know of your husband’s infidelity?”

“Everett!”

“Jim, I’m not a child. You’re not going to bully me . . .”

“There’s no need for this . . .”

“Do you ever shut your mouth?” Everett interrupts.

“Everett . . . I don’t understand. What’s . . .?”

“I asked you a question,” Everett nods his head as he spreads his shoulders wide and splays one hand flat on the table. “Do you,” he pauses, “ever shut your mouth?”

There’s silence. Jim taps a thumb on the table, staring right at Everett. Something’s coming loose. Something bubbling to the surface.

“Your father would be ashamed of you.”

The two lock eyes.

“And I fucked your mother,” Jim says, twisting the dagger. “Twice.”

The court reporter lowers the mouthpiece. Ethel sucks in a gasp.

Shouting follows, mingled with raised fists. A few of the other lawyers in the office come scurrying in and separate the two. After they’ve been escorted from the building, Jim tries to give Ethel a hug but she’s still recovering from the trauma of it all. She slides into her baby blue Lincoln and glides away, hardly a word between them. Jim tosses his thick stack of exhibits into the passenger seat of his Cadillac and peels out of the parking lot.

He thrums his fingers on the leather-padded steering wheel, eyes glued to the white stripes on the asphalt. His head swoons, lost in it all. Nothing went like he planned it, but deep down, he knows. He’s still got it.


Mike Sutton calls the rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas home, where he practices law and writes in his free time. Prior to entering the legal profession, Mike served in the U.S. Air Force as a military police officer and attended Ouachita Baptist University, where he studied History and English Literature. You can find Mike writing in one of Fayetteville’s local coffee shops or on the water, fishing pole in hand.