Alexandra Marshall


The Court of Common Pleas

The sky brightened into shades of gray and, from Overlook Road in Cleveland Heights, silver-plated Lake Erie. The steel skin of a small airplane caught the daylight and turned to chrome, pressing like a fender against the air above that horizon. Nearer, in the middle distance of the back yard, the branches of a forsythia looked like feathers rubbed the wrong way. Straight as a tent pole the buckeye tree stood its ground, prompted by an early spring to veil its poisonous young shoots in gauzy spires of colorless bloom.

In the foreground, Audrey was reflected in the kitchen window. She had wakened as usual without the aid of an alarm, slipping from the mystery of a dream that was enthralling if only because, custom made, the dream meant what it meant to her alone. Already the dream had given over to dread, vanishing from consciousness like some amazingly intricate insect whose whole life cycle takes no longer than a headache and leaves even less of a trace. She hadn't known dread could come in three equivalent dimensions, nor that the deepest could have been the most easily prevented. It wasn't within her control to be accepted to medical school, and neither was it possible to know whether, if she was admitted, it would eventually turn out to be the right decision to have made. But she'd chosen not to tell Gregory of her application, and, standing at the kitchen counter they'd shared for the twenty years of their marriage, as she watched the first light infuse itself into their view, she was afraid that her good reasons for not telling him weren't good enough.

In their bed he was still asleep, embracing his king-size pillows, laboring through dreams that, like his work in the court system, always had elaborate plot lines. Travel-brochure dreams was what he called these journeys beyond the wonders of the world. In them, every now and then he traveled solo, but the more elaborate they were, the more essential to them was Audrey, who couldn't speak any of the languages—whereas he could speak them all—but whose first-aid kit kept them safe from every disaster. He'd never tell Audrey any of this because, as he'd be the first to admit, it was all plagiarized material.

Sleeping, he escaped the nightmare of being awake to contemplate the senseless death of Rob Wallace, a younger judge with more promise than one person was ever given to contain, of a heart attack at forty-one. Every time he thought about Rob, Gregory felt a sharp heat behind his eyes. Rob's reputation for genuine wisdom went not just beyond his years but beyond even the legal code. Oh sure, every lawyer was expected to exercise judgment informed by the mind and the heart, but in Rob it was like watching instinct and learning in a fusion made stunning by its seeming effortlessness. Gregory wasn't often persuaded by hyperbole, but he'd believed Rob was a genius. The violation of his sudden early death—might over right—offended Gregory's entire belief system, but more, it pained him horribly, personally. Not even Audrey understood it made him want to quit altogether. At sixty-three he'd already seen everything, some of it twice.

The trouble was, her own future was coming toward Audrey like too good a pitch not to take a swing. She had always wondered why it was considered better to believe in a "half-full" glass when a "half-empty" glass creates a greater urgency to make it full. By this logic her life felt invitingly half-empty. She was more ready for this upcoming birthday than for any previous milestone, because this time she'd given herself the gift of believing in fifty—fifty:fifty—as half of adulthood. What better opportunity could there be than the convergence of plain ambition and the mythic empty nest? The intervention of Rob's early death was a tragedy, certainly, but it was also an instance of ordinary bad timing, because it coincided with Audrey's application deadline, which, although perhaps mistakenly, she'd decided not to miss. Louise Schneider, the physician in charge of the MetroHealth Clinic, where Audrey worked, had convinced Audrey that the best thing she had going for her was that few veteran nurses ever voluntarily jumped overboard into shark-infested waters. Who could resist sending a rescue boat to bring her in alive?

The sky was taking on color, a comfortingly pale pink like the inside of an infant's mouth, and Lake Erie had become, all the way to the border with Canada beyond the horizon, the shiny, smooth metallic rose of those American sedans driven by elderly women. In the middle of this continuum Audrey felt a combined gratitude and hope that made her feel both lucky and unfulfilled. Now she could see in the back yard that the grass needed to be cut, and with equal light outside and in, she could no longer see her reflection in the kitchen window. Anyway, she'd switched from the nuisance of eyeglasses to the ease of her contact lenses, transparent slices of vision unrestricted by frames. And since Overlook Road rode the hip of the hill above Case Western Reserve University, the medical school was practically already within her view, even if only literally. Her question was, what else was she overlooking?

This nicely sited Colonial had been their starter house because, by the time Gregory married, he was already a judge elected to the same Common Pleas Court as, by now, he'd spent his entirely contented career. But since the court isn't officially in session without the judge present in the courtroom, she'd been the one to accommodate her work schedule to the needs of their daughters, so that, for example, she'd never missed a weekday lacrosse game. Today's was conveniently at Magnificat and, for a change, she wouldn't have to rush all the way across the city to get from Metro to the game. Her note to Gregory told him she and Sally would stop after the game for the makings of a special dinner. It went without saying that she'd choose a favorite of his in order to try to cheer him up a little, no matter that, ever since Rob, nothing much could.