About The Divorcer
The Divorcer: A Novel
Chapter 1: A Mutt and a Sphinx
“I’m thinking about your happiness.” He flashes a practiced smile, places a warm hand on the listener’s shoulder. “I’ve seen this a thousand times. All will be well.”
It only takes a moment for Cole Cavanaugh to reanimate a dribbling despondent into something resolute. And so it goes again. The resolute, Cole’s client, walks away with firm and free steps. Like a prisoner unshackled for the first time in years, ready to really witness a sunrise, to really breathe.
Selling futures. People futures. That was Cole’s job. The essence of it, anyway.
“Send the next one in, Clara.” One in, one out. All different and all the same. All that crap. People at the supposed nadir of their lives, whatever that life was or was meant to be.
“But maybe he’ll take me back,” the next one pleads.
“Oh, he’ll take you back, but the other girls, he’ll keep them. You deserve better. You’ve earned better.”
“My church frowns on divorce,” cries the following. Pedestrian. Always a workaround.
“Look, I’m not a member of the Cloth, but God doesn’t want you unhappy.”
He has become an institution of his own to the denizens of Fort Worth, Texas. Not that he pays a great deal of mind to their opinions. He’s been called a necessary evil, plain evil, an emotional war profiteer. Whatever.
“Isn’t it a valuable institution? Worth preserving?” asks another. The invocation of the word institution snaps him back. He’s been drifting. It can be monotonous at times.
One in, one out.
He watches another striding out of his office, scribbles a few notes, sits back in his chair. A look at the clock. It’s one of the only items on his desk. He doesn’t want people wasting time, getting distracted by a picture of him holding a fish or a keepsake from a dearly departed ancestor. Time is the regulating principle, the baseline for his business. He looks again. Almost five. A few minutes until the last consultation of the day. A moment to think. He tries not to. Overrated.
It was not always so. Fifteen years ago, Cavanaugh was fresh out of Harvard Law, wide-eyed, a champion of the downtrodden. He had a small criminal law practice, defending the innocent, protecting the rights of the proletariat from whatever overweening hand held sway. Bright, attractive, chest pushed out at the ills of society. Why not?
A woman. That’s why not.
The woman. Her name was Elise Bennett. Gorgeous, erudite, fun at parties, good with his friends. She walks down the street and guys stumble into oncoming traffic staring at her.
They date. Never an argument, never a disagreement on how many kids, where they’ll live, how big the ring should be. Nada. They get set for the big day. A marriage for the ages, to have and to hold a woman of his own.
Then it comes. He’s feeling proud. All his college buddies are patting him on the back, saying what a lucky boy he is, whispering not quite out of earshot how much they’d like to so on and so forth with her. He doesn’t mind. His thoughts are toward the altar, the launch pad into the perfect life. They walk out, a line of fresh-faced men, wait with nervous anticipation in front of eight hundred well-dressed attendees. Cole’s big brother Craig holds the ring in his sweaty hand, the trumpets blast out their march, and here she comes.
The dress is majestic. The veil is lifted. Beautiful as ever. She always will be. They come together, the preacher says whatever the preacher says: The Gospel of this, the Book of that. He can’t hear it. Then the perfect moment slows down. He says I do. Did she say I do? It’s starting to get weird. The gears of fate are grinding. She seems scared. Something stonier than mere nerves. A pall gathers over everything, from his shoulders to the balconies and right up into the vaulted ceiling. He clears his throat as moments becomes morass. To react or say anything at all would be an admission of defeat. Doesn’t matter. She never gives him the time.
Full sprint. Don’t know how much the dress cost but it’s ruined by the time she hits the door. He’s standing there, a frozen figure of fun. The consummate fool. Embarrassed isn’t the word. There is nothing in the lexicon for the utter disaster that is now his life.
Elise Bennett. The greatest thing to ever happen to him, turned Great Destroyer.
“Your last appointment is here, Mr. Cavanaugh.”
“Show him right in, Clara.”
He stands up, flattens his tie, makes the walk to the ten-foot teak double doors specially ordered from Costa Rica. Appearances. They greet. A particularly beleaguered man drags himself in. He’s short and sloppy, more than a bit off the mark. They’re always a shambles, but this guy’s raising the bar. Cole prides himself on his ability to read people from the jump. It’s a superfluous skill in this instance. The little mutt before him is in a world of pain and it doesn’t take a mind reader to figure it.
His suit is expensive, looks maybe like a Huntsman, but it’s as poorly maintained as the face sticking out the top. He’s probably not a horrible-looking fella, but he’s looking horrible right now. Older than his years. Cavanaugh almost wants to say something nice right off, but decides to stall. The guy’s not a client yet, after all.
“Why don’t we have a seat and you tell me what brought you here?”
“I’m getting divorced, that’s what. They say you’re the best. The people that know things. That’s how I heard.”
He’s been drinking. Ok. It happens.
“So you’ve talked to her about it? No going back? Because when I take a client it’s—”
“That’s the point. We can’t talk about it. Figure if the woman gave a damn, she might react when I mention splitting up. I’ve tried everything. She’s not there. A sphinx. Talking to a brick wall.”
“Sir, I’ve heard it all before. If you sign these documents we can make our relationship official and—”
“Just give me the damn papers.”
“Of course.” While the little man struggles to find the tabs, Cole takes a look at his planner. Finds the name. “Mr. Will Carson. Can I ask what line of work you’re in?”
“Oil. Like everybody else around here.”
Oil. Good. Carson, Carson. “Are you related to Grant Carson?”
“He’s my father. I’m the heir to the throne. A little prince. Yay.”
Yay indeed, Cole is thinking. Carson means serious cash. Big in crude. Now natural gas. Crumbling marriage or not, get a grip, buddy. Or don’t. Just sign right there.
“Ok, Mr. Carson. I’m going to get started on this immediately. You came to the right place. Couple more questions, then we can get you out of here. I understand this can be uncomfortable at first—my thought is to get the preliminaries done and dusted.”
“Let’s start with your family.”
“My dad, you’ve obviously heard of. Mom’s Amelia, they still live up in OKC.”
“Of course. I know it’s burdensome, but—”
“No. I just figured you knew who my sister was. Alice Carson-Petit. She’s on TV, magazines.”
“So—she’s an actress?”
“No. Alice is one of those people who’s famous for being famous. She gets married, people make a show, she gets divorced, she gets a new product line. Her husband recently died. European. It’s all quite disgusting.”
“Sounds as if it’s a pretty unique situation. She around these parts?”
“No. Overseas. Hope you’re better at law than pop culture.”
“I’m a good lawyer because I don’t pay attention to inanities. But let’s move on. Children?”
It takes Mr. Carson a moment. The reality of what he’s doing seems to sink in. “One. A daughter. She’s eleven. Almost twelve.”
“How pissed is your wife?”
“I don’t know. Who knows anything about her anymore?”
Cole’s just doing a little poking, trying to gauge how contentious the situation might be, maybe divine any escalations that could be coming down the road. It’s a money thing. Contentious means more money, escalation means even more. He’ll get back to that later. “I’m sorry to bring this up, but it seems you’re a man that cuts to it. How’s your relationship with your daughter?”
It’s the first time Mr. Carson bends another way. Cole notices a well of moisture in the eyes, a slight slumping of the shoulders. Classic heart-on-sleeve syndrome.
“Rosie. Rose.” He says the name like he’s speaking it in prayer, soft and with reverence. His eyes are looking through Cole and out into the clouds, like he half expects to see God out there giving him a thumbs-up sign past the rest of Fort Worth’s small time downtown high-rises.
The lawyer writes down the girl’s name and attempts to be unaffected. It’s not that hard. People gushing over children isn’t exactly headline news. But it does surprise Cole, maybe catches him off guard. Carson’s gruff nature and surly countenance don’t signal Dad of the Year, but people are never quite what you expect. Not quite.
Before it can get too sappy, the attorney stands up and snaps his fingers, a light clap of the hands. Tries to say we’re about done here without really saying it.
Carson notices, looks up at the handsome form of his new legal representative. The lawyer’s almost too perfect. Brown slicked back hair, somehow not oily. Lively, emerald eyes. Brawny through the shoulders but somehow lithe. Defined jawline, but not imposing. Slightly dimpled chin, semi-obscured by a layer of stubble that says I’d like to shave every day but I can’t be bothered to shave. You know, like your average lawyer. Carson can’t help but think he’s meeting with the floor model—the real guy should be cartoonish and spent, wearing suspenders, kept in the back with the hamsters and their wheels. Carson feels another light hand on his shoulder, much like the one when they met. He’s not sure if it’s a perfunctory act of comfort or one of genuine decency. The coming divorce has left him trusting nothing and no one. Including himself.
“One more thing,” Cole says. “Her name?”
“Call her what you will. But yes.”
“Elise,” Carson says. His mouth can barely form the shape of it; almost like he’s swallowed poison and he’s doing his best to soldier on. “Elise Bennett-Carson.”
Cole Cavanaugh sits back down. Did he just say Elise Bennett-Whatever? That’s most of the Great Destroyer’s name. Can’t be her. Has to be a coincidence.
It is not a coincidence. For so many reasons, it is not a coincidence.
Chapter 2: Dying of Cancer Grateful
There’s a time for everything. True enough. At the moment, it’s time to drink. As soon as the meeting with Carson is over, Cole loosens his tie, walks past inquisitive looks from Clara and the rest of his associates without so much as a wave or word.
Down the elevator, thirty-five flights to the lobby. A few stops, one person gets on, one gets off; he tries for stoicism but inside he’s a hurricane. He can’t help but feel the symbolism. The rotation of humanity entering his little space, different from before, same as before, all going down.
The doors open to the lobby, finally. He can’t hear his wingtips striking the shiny marble, can’t hear the cluttered conversations of the herd as they struggle for the doors. It’s Friday. Late afternoon. Young professionals, old professionals, all vying for the title of who can forget about work first. Cole Cavanaugh won’t be forgetting. He texts his brother, the one with the sweaty hands.
Meet me at THE BAR. Emergency.
He arrives and has a quick hello with the bartender. Her name is Jade and she’s a little too young for him, but he’s a good tipper and a better bullshitter, so there was that time or two. Not recently. She’s professional enough to be distantly polite. Pours him a double of opulent single-malt and offers a furtive smile.
It’s a dark scene. A place for people like him, a refuge of a place, down a rod-iron flight of stairs hidden away in an alley amongst the bustle of downtown Fort Worth. A few quiet conversations are underway when Craig walks in.
Craig sees his little brother and prepares for the worst. Normally he wouldn’t come, not with all the usual crap going on at home, but it must be bad. Cole isn’t exactly the reaching out type.
Craig plops down on the stool to Cole’s left, orders something less expensive, and listens to the facts.
“You’re joking, right? Dude. So sorry.” A pat on the back is all he can muster while a flood of memories come back. The event. The nonevent. Watching his little brother humiliated in front of grandma and pops and Aunt Liddie. Frigging ten on the kill-me-now scale. His own wife is forced to sit there through the disaster. It makes him grateful, in a sordid way. Hell, every person in there was grateful. There were people dying of cancer who were grateful. Cancer sucks, but public elation turned public rejection? I’ll take the cancer, please. That damn day. He tries not to make eye contact with his brother, makes a face at the preacher, waits for tears, an outpouring of sadness, the emotional outburst that Cole’s never made. Maybe it’ll come now. The text was urgent enough.
Eh. He should know better.
“Sorry for what?” Cole asks. “Raise your drink. This might be the greatest thing ever. God’s finally doing me a solid! Come on then, man.”
Their glasses clank and they drink their whiskey clean and fast, same as always. Craig’s not sure what they’re toasting but he goes along with it. “What exactly is your thinking on this? Are you after another chance with Elise? Just want to be sure I’m on the same page.”
Cole looks at him the same way he did when they were kids and Craig got the better present at Christmas. “What the h—no, shit’s sake. It’s my big opportunity. To ruin her life. The heavens have proclaimed it. I mean, what are the odds? Of all the asshole law firms in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine.”
Craig doesn’t get the “Casablanca” thing. Doesn’t really get his brother. Hasn’t for years. It occurs to him that though he’s surprised, he shouldn’t be. The guy has his face on billboards all over town, a big white smile and a big finger pointing to the word DIVORCE!
“I don’t think—and I’m not quite as learned as you—this is the sort of thing the heavens proclaim. Is it even legal, you know, with your history?” The elder Cavanaugh scratches his thinning hair. “And how did you not know she moved back here?”
Cole charges right through. Gives his bulky older brother a one-armed hug. Craig looks a lot like him. A little grayer, a bit less maintained. A few extra years and more than a few extra pounds. “I’ve checked the books. There’s nothing that says I can’t represent him. Elise and I never entered into any legal contract. C’mon, you big softie.” Cole’s on a roll but needs a big breath and another sip. “And why would I know she was back here? I’m a big deal, things to do. You get what my schedule’s like. It’s not as if I’ve been looking her up on Facebook.”
“Just seems weird. Not hearing about her being in the area. The Carsons are some rich-ass people. You move around all those society types.”
“They do get divorced a lot.”
“So wouldn’t it be in the tabloids or something?”
“What’s the difference, bro?” Cole can see his brother is overwhelmed by the news. Craig’s an honest dude with an honest face. In fairness, he’s dumping a lot at his feet at once. Cavanaugh slows down. “Who’s the richest person in the world?”
“Not sure,” Craig says, raising a finger for another. “I run a plumbing business.”
“A successful plumbing business. You plumb well.”
“Some years are better than others.”
“Whatever. Take a guess. Richest person.”
“Uh—Bill Gates, those Koch guys. I think there’s a Mexican in there somewhere.”
“Good enough. Can you tell me the name of one of their wives? I’ll take a girlfriend.”
“The Gates woman. It’s on the tip of my tongue—can’t remember.”
“How about the richest woman?”
“The Queen of England,” Craig says, only half-joking. Whether he was trying, it makes Cole smile.
“Let’s say it is. What’s the name of the guy married to the Queen?”
Craig raises his drink. He’s got no answer. His clever little brother’s already thought this through. As usual. But has he? “Ok. But the legal thing. And even if it is, this guy’s not gonna want you involved. He can’t know you used to bone his wife.”
“Eh. You’re really kinda killing me. I’ll figure it out. Convincing people is a specialty of mine, if you haven’t noticed.”
Cole’s not wrong about the last part. He is good. The big house and the fancy lifestyle don’t tell lies. But Craig’s almost immune to his charms. A lifetime of practice and all that.
Cole comes back easier, notes that Craig is still reticent to share in his elation. “Okay, whatever you’re feeling—totally get it. This particular situation wasn’t exactly on the Bar Exam. Admitted. You got me. But it’s kosher. And still badass news.” He slams a palm on the polished bar. A little too hard. “Jade. Two more of the same. And one for you. A great day. Drink with me, buddy.”
Jade can’t help but smile while she pours. Cole’s boyish good looks are more charming (and thus frustrating) attached to this new boyish personality. “What’s going on there, big shot? Win a case or something?”
Another clank of glasses. “No, but I get to destroy someone. Someone that truly sucks. Isn’t that great?”
She doesn’t answer. Craig looks uncomfortable. Sad even. Cole doesn’t notice or care. He is too engaged, convincing himself of his own happiness. Then a thought goes through the reluctant older brother—is he glad? Craig’s always played the bigger man, but honestly, what could be bad about Cole wielding the hammer that smashes Elise Bennett’s life to smithereens? Craig likes a little poetic justice as much as the next guy.
A moderately attractive professional woman sits down on the stool to Cole’s right. Freshly sprayed perfume wafts his way. She’ll say something to me, the lawyer thinks.
“We just had one,” Craig says. He’s not one to pull the reins while drinking. His belly is proof enough. But better to walk this minefield sober.
“Jade. Another. Round for the bar on me.” Cole makes violent circles with a high held arm, as if there are hundreds of patrons in close concert, chomping at the bit. Craig shares an embarrassed gesture with the bartender. There’s maybe four other people in the place.
Jade can tell Mr. Cavanaugh is in a rarified state but he doesn’t drive and she knows it and she needs the money. The others are half-looking at Cole. It’s not unusual. He’s almost perpetually the unwanted center of attention. Jade’s checking to see if he’s okay. Craig’s checking to see through the bullshit. The new lady is checking to see if there’s a chance.
The older brother decides to play his role. “You talk to Mom and Dad?”
“C’mon, dude. Enough of this show. You need to see her more. Give something.”
“I was there a week ago. It’s just—depressing. The weakness of it.”
There’s a lot Craig wants to say, a chewing-out miles long. It’s been coming for months. Maybe even a beating. Am I a coward? He’s my little brother. Eh, we’re adults. And on and on and nothing real ever gets laid bare. He lets out a fragment and sees what happens. “She’s not going away. It’s our little sister.”
“Is that who she is?” Cole doesn’t want to talk about the anti-ballast of the family right now. Never wants to, in truth. Deflect. Or get near enough to the subject to fool Craig into thinking they dealt with it. The lady on his right is starting to look better. The darkness and the drinks and all. The thought of Elise Bennett-Carson financially and spiritually pummeled. “How old is Della now?” Cole asks.
“Thirty. Don’t set me up.”
“I’m not setting you up.”
“Yes you are. You’re always setting me up. It’s what you do.”
“Yes you did. But I wasn’t setting you up. I was trying to make a point. One I’ve made a thousand ways a thousand times.”
“So you were setting me up.”
“I know how old she is. Bet I know more than the lot of you. Her record, chapter and verse. Exactly what’s she’s done. Yeah. You know too, you and your wife, but knowing is where it stops for y’all. I’m the one that’s had to deal with it.”
“So you’re a hero now?” Craig asks, longing for a reprieve.
“The hearings. Stacks of files. Hospital records, conversations with cops, haggling with the D.A. Think favors are easy to come by in this town? You all pat yourselves on the back like we did a good thing, but she lays around all day at that house instead of a prison cell because of me. Don’t shoot me the noble face when you’ve never had a real problem in your perfect little life.” It’s starting to get loud. The woman is starting to leave. Cole changes his countenance quickly and apologizes roundly to the bar. She settles back down, wishes she had pride enough not to.
“She’s our sister,” Craig says again, this time the fragment has a weight. He seems to as well. He’s a bit bigger, straighter in his seat. “And stop being such an asshole. It may work in your creepy circles, but I know who I’m talking to.” The elder stands up and finishes his drink. He thanks Jade with a polite nod. “Be better. Go see your family tomorrow. What else you got to do?”
Cole shrugs him off as Craig walks the floor to the exit stairs. Says something under his breath that sounds like dickhead and Craig tries to ignore it like always. This time he can’t. He’s toward his little brother quickly, carried by just enough liquor and quite enough had-it-up-to-here. Pulls him off the stool. Two quick punches. Cole throws one himself but it misses badly, instead connecting with a wooden column. The lawyer laughs, but he won’t be laughing in the morning.
“I’ll call your damn driver,” Craig says. He walks briskly away and up the stairs in case the cops come in. Damn mess, he says to himself.
He’s taken with regret. Instantly it’s gone. He hears Cole continuing the laughter as he reaches the door to the alley.
Chapter 3: Counselor’s Counsel
Mid-morning, the next day. Cole’s sitting at the top of some aluminum bleachers, sweating his khaki pants through, watching a little league game. Typically, he’s a vocal supporter. It’s a matter of killing two birds. Allows him an occasion to be unnecessarily demonstrative and support his nephews at same time. Craig and his wife Brooke have four kids in all, but the eldest two are boys, starting to get old enough to be interesting to watch. Thirteen and eleven, roughly the same age difference as him and his own brother. The boys are good hitters, natural athletes. Like they were.
It’s the fourth inning. Cole’s watching Ben, the eleven-year old. Striding up to the plate, digging in his cleats. He’s squinting from the hangover and the sun through Louis Vuitton sunglasses, clapping encouragement. Feels a slap on his thigh. It’s Brooke. “Come on, Ben! This pitcher’s a bum!” The shrillness is so unappealing to the senses, it nearly knocks Cole off the back of the bleachers.
“That necessary?” he asks.
“Heard my husband beat you up last night.” She pulls down his glasses and scans the damage. A cut above the nose. Swollen eye. Those two punches went a long way.
He doesn’t try to stop her. Truth is, Brooke’s one of his favorite people. When she’s not screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Craig feels bad.”
“He at Charlie’s game?”
“Yeah. But you knew that.”
Cole smiles. She’s right. Brooke’s too smart to get over on. “Figured he wouldn’t want to see me.”
He’s there to see Ben’s game, but there’s another game going on. Brooke knows it. Knows the brothers could have a handshake and a nod and their passed down Irish aversion to all things emotional would take care of the rest. He watches Ben foul the first pitch. The passion play of parents sounds off around them. A quick look at his brother’s wife. It’s a warm, humid day, typical spring weather for Texas. She’s wearing shorts that wouldn’t work if she didn’t work out, dirty blonde hair pulled up. Long, tan neck. He steals a glimpse but nothing weird. Maybe a little weird. She’s attractive, natural, always cute, always the girl next door. He’s glad for his brother. The one that punched him last night.
“So what’d you think? My brute was going to hop aboard your flight of fancy?” Brooke and her expressions.
“Not even sure what that means.” Cole’s chewing sunflower seeds, trying to spit them efficiently and keep an aloof air. It’s a difficult combination to master.
“Craig loves you, but he isn’t dumb enough or smart enough to understand sometimes. It’s a blessing I’ve counted. Nothing as stupid as a clever man.”
“So you understand?”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Indeed. Few people get him like she does.
“Don’t take the case, Cole. You want my permission, but there’s nothing there for you, my dear.”
“You could allow me some joy.” He pushes the sunglasses back up against his face to hide rolling eyes.
Ben makes solid contact, rounds first, slides into second. Safe. They stand and cheer. Mom and Uncle high-five. Mom texts Dad two-bagger. Ben doesn’t look to the bleachers for approval. He plays for himself and his team. Advice from Uncle Cole. Good boy.
The cheers die down and Cavanaugh hears Brooke tell him that’s your problem.
“What’s my problem? And don’t give me some canned line about being a grownup.”
She doesn’t say anything. She’s thinking about the days after Elise left him. Brooke and her were friends. They were. Two days after the wedding that never was. Brooke asks what the hell happened. They’re at Elise’s house. The former bride-to-be is packing, heading off to hide from inquiries like this. “Is it another guy?” No answer. “Did he do something wrong?” Nothing. Silence. They’re both in the bedroom. Dresser drawers are opened, clothes are hanging everywhere. It’s a mess. “Tell me something. He deserves—”
“Don’t start.” There’s fury in Elise’s eyes. “Don’t talk about deserves. Live your own goddamn life.”
It was the first time Brooke had ever heard her swear, first time to see her snap, last time they ever talked. Capricious bitch, she remembers thinking.
“It was a long time ago, Brolaw.” Sometimes Brooke calls him Brolaw. He’s still not sure whether it’s a reference to his profession or their familial relationship.
“I’m just gonna do my job. We’ll leave it at that.” He spits another seed, making a mess of it. “Might never even have to see her. Probably, I’ll just end up backing off the whole thing.”
“Oh, sweetie. What about the joy you want me to allow you?” Cole would have to be asleep to miss the mockery in her tone.
“Just an expression.”
“Expression my balls.”
Cole pats her on the back, looks proudly out at his nephew. “It’s why I come to you. You’re a font of wisdom and sober critical thinking. Few other things as well.”
“Remember when you weren’t an asshole?”
“I remember. Remember what happened? What was her name? Buddy of yours, if I recall.” He smiles his billboard smile. They both know the duel is over. He’s got her this time.
“Alright. Not like your life can get emptier. And go—”
“I know. I’ll go see my damn sister.”