by Jere Matlock
“Ray, sit up straight!” his stepmother barked. “What is that on your cheek? Food?”
The judge opened his chamber door and motioned for the boy to come in. Ray handed his book to his dad and hopped down off the waiting room chair. His stepmother pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket, spat on it and briskly wiped the smudge off his cheek. He submitted stoically to the process, then walked quickly inside: they had driven for three hours to get to this courthouse, it was late enough to be dark, and he wanted this to be over with.
The judge closed the door to his chambers solidly behind them. “So, son, how old are you?” He was smiling, rather gruffly, but still making an effort to put the youngster at ease.
“Eight,” Ray said, adding a belated, “sir.”
The judge seated himself and waved the boy to a chair next to his large desk. “Eight. Well, that’s a good age, to the best of my recollection. So what grade are you in, then, the second?”
“No, sir. Third. I skipped the second.”
“Well. You must be pretty bright.” He picked up his cup of coffee, took a sip and noticed the boy was following his every movement. “You want a coke or some iced tea or anything?”
“Well, all right then, let’s get started.” He settled back in his chair and relaxed, hoping it would wear off on the boy. He cupped his hands around the coffee mug and looked over it to where Ray sat, alert, very stiff, and obviously scared. “Now, we have some important things to talk about here tonight. Will you promise to tell me the truth about what I’m going to ask you?”
The boy’s eyes got a bit bigger, “You mean like they say on TV, ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God’”?
The judge smiled, “Exactly like that. But here in Texas we have another saying, ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil.’ Do you know what that one means?”
The boy shook his head, no.
“It means to tell the truth no matter what, even if it might hurt someone, because sometimes you just can’t make everybody happy. Lying about it will only make things worse, so the truth is what we’re after here. And whatever you say stays here with me, it’s our secret. So is it a deal? You tell me the hard truth and I make the best decision I can?”
Ray nodded his head. The judge leaned over and offered a big hand. “Then let’s shake on it.”
The boy cracked a hint of a smile, took the hand and shook it one firm shake. “Deal!”
“Done. Now, first off, do you have any questions for me?”
“Did your dad tell you why you’re here?”
What might have been a smile evaporated instantly. “Yes, sir.”
“What did he tell you?”
The boy’s head sunk slightly. “That you are going to give him sole custody of me if everything goes right, instead of him having me for only six months a year.”
The judge took another sip of coffee, leaned back and put his embossed boots up on his desk. “Well, that may be and it may not. You know what custody is, right?
“Who I have to live with?”
“That’s right. If I give your dad sole custody, it means you live year-round with your dad, and your mom will only get to visit you when I say.” He let that sink in. “That could make your mom pretty unhappy.”
The boy’s head sunk down, his chin almost touching the thin stripes of his shirt.
“I take it that you love your mom, then?”
Ray could hardly speak. In a choked voice, barely audible, “Yes, sir.”
“This next one is a hard question, son. Do you love her as much as you love your dad?”
Long silence. The judge just sipped and waited. Finally, the small voice said, “About the same, I guess, just different.”
“Your dad said he couldn’t find her to serve the papers on her. Do you know where she is?”
“I don’t know… Oregon, I think.”
“When’s the last time you saw her?”
“Last summer. Labor Day.”
“Where was that?”
The small voice again. “At my dad’s trailer in Dalhart. She came by to pick me up and…”
“They got in a big fight.”
“Were they yelling at each other?”
“Hitting each other?”
“Do you know what that was about?”
The boy’s chin sunk down onto his chest, and his eyes were tightly closed. “It was her turn to have me for six months. But he wouldn’t let me go with her to Oregon.” Tears plopped down onto his chest. “He called her a drunken whore, a Jezebel.”
The judge said nothing, handed him a tissue, let him wipe. “Your dad told me she’s always drinking. Is that true?”
Ray squirmed a bit, then, “I don’t know.”
“Have you ever seen her drunk?”
Another long lag. “Yes, sir. She gets pretty lovey-dovey when she’s had a few.”
The judge suppressed a snigger, careful to keep it out of his voice. “How many times have you seen her that way?”
“Just once or twice.”
“Oh.” He picked up the box of tissues and offered Ray another one. Ray took one and blew his nose. He was alert again, looking around the unfamiliar office at the pictures, certificates, and the many shelves of law books. Suddenly Ray’s jaw dropped, “You’ve read all of those books?”
The judge laughed aloud at the innocent, unexpected question. “No, just bits and pieces of most of them. What’s that book I saw you reading out in the waiting room?”
“That is ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel DeFoe.”
“Oh. A good book, as I recall. I read it in, oh, let’s see, about the ninth grade… Isn’t it a bit steep for you?”
“No, sir. I just have to look up some of the words. In the dictionary.”
“Hmm. Well, I’d say that’s a good idea. Keep that up.” He took a moment to let the boy settle back in his chair. “Now, just a few more questions. You do love your dad?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy smiled. No lag there.
“What about your stepmother?”
His expression didn’t change, but to the judge it looked like stark terror in the boy’s eyes for an instant. He tried to hide it by looking away, still trying not to change expression. He must have had a lot of practice at that. A long lag, looking down at his cowboy boots. “No, sir.”
Another lag. The boy lifted his head, stuck his chin out a bit. “You’re not going to tell her?”
“Of course not, we have a deal, remember.”
Ray heaved a sigh. “Well, then, no, sir, I don’t love her and I never will!”
“Well, okay. There’s no law says you have to.” The boy’s natural bright expression flooded back. “Well, that ought to just about cover it. Anything else you want to tell me to help me make up my mind?”
Ray leaned his head onto his hand and sat, brow furrowed, the very picture of deep thought on his young face. Then he straightened suddenly and the words came barreling out. “I just about can’t stand it sometimes being away from my dad when I’m with my mom, but then I feel the same way about her when I’m with him. My dad says he wants custody so he can have me all the time, but now he’s talking about putting me in a military academy or a boy’s ranch and I wouldn’t see him at all, except for the holidays. This six-month thing is a pretty crummy deal, but I can’t think of anything better, with them fighting the way they do when they see each other.” He stuck his chin up at a defiant angle. “And I don’t want to be in the Army. It’s a crummy deal, but I think it’s the best one I’m going to get.” He looked directly at the judge. “I can live with it.”
“Thanks, son. I appreciate you being honest with me, living up to your end of our deal.” The judge stood up and motioned him toward the door.” Now it’s my turn. Wait outside for a minute while I talk with your parents.”
As the door opened his father stood and looked toward them hopefully. He handed Ray his book.
His stepmother said, “What are those spots on your shirt?” She turned to his father and said, “I swear, sometimes, this boy is a child of the devil for all the mischief he gets into.” Then to Ray, “Sit down there and behave yourself.”
The judge took in the tableau, then motioned the parents inside, “Will you both come in my chambers for a moment?” He held the door open and let them in, then closed it most of the way, stuck his head back out, looked Ray squarely in the eye and winked.
# — #
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