Nylon and Steel

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By Jay Reeves

(Winner NC State Bar Journal Fiction Contest)

When I tell people I once practiced law – without ever attending a day of law school or being sworn into any Bar – they are usually surprised.

They know me as the old guy who sits on the bench outside all day. Sometimes with my guitar and sometimes my book of crossword puzzles. Sometimes with nothing but memories.

Then when I tell them my law career lasted exactly two days, they are skeptical.

What kind of lawyer never goes to school and practices just 48 hours?

And by the time I start explaining how I won the only case I handled, they are all wearing the same funny smile.

He’s crazy, they’re thinking. Loony, senile, loco.

And why wouldn’t they? The only thing they’ve ever seen me win is the right to keep sitting on my bench after grumpy old Hardwick complained to the cops about me acting like I owned the thing and not letting anyone else use it. Thank god for Officer Vasquez and his short pants and bicycle helmet for putting old Hardwick in his place. Oh leave him alone, said Officer Vasquez, he’s not hurting anything and besides, I like his guitar playing.

So I sit on my bench and tell my little story and people walk off smiling funny and shaking their heads. But it’s me who has the last laugh because I know every word I said was true. Though I don’t really laugh because every time I tell the story I think of my brother Tom, which always makes me feel hollow inside.

Part One: We Are Born
We were identical twins. We looked so much alike that even Mama sometimes got us confused. But in every other way we could not have been more different.

Tom had the brains. Even as a little boy he could figure things out. Like how to get through the wire fence into the Granderson’s yard and how to make invisible ink and how to sneak into the Anderson Theater without paying.

I could not figure much of anything out. All I could do was play guitar. One of Mama’s special friends had left behind a beat-up Washburn that I picked up one day and started playing. Which is how these things usually start.

- He sounds real good don’t he, said Mama to a new special friend who had started coming around.

- Maybe, said this latest fellow, with his shiny bald head and tiny hands. But isn’t that thing supposed to have six strings?

And so the next day Tom figured out how to pinch a pair of strings from Mickey’s Music Box, only they were nylon strings unlike the four steel ones that were already on the Washburn. Which did not bother me. I liked the way they sounded together, nylon and steel. And other people liked it too. It’s what got me in my first band, the unusual sound.

- Distinctive, said Wally our lead singer, though for the life of me I cannot remember what that first band was named.

Tom with his brains graduated from high school and then figured out how to get into the University of North Carolina where he studied history.

Meanwhile I quit school after ninth grade because I was too busy playing music. By then I was in two bands. Hank and the Folded Hands was a gospel group and the Boll Weevils were a lively string band. Then I got a sunburst Silvertone and a Fender amp and joined a third outfit called Rick and the Poor Richards. It was the 1950s and rock and roll had arrived, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s when things really started to happen.

By then Tom and his brains were in law school, and he was all proud and braggy.

- I’ll be riding high while you’re still scrounging for tips, he’d say to me.

And I’d just grin because Tom was not only my brother but my identical twin, and I loved him.

Part Two: Our Futures Arrive
They say rock and roll is a rollercoaster and that is the truth.

For a while there, Rick and the Poor Richards had it going. We played clubs all up and down the coast, from Fort Fredericka up to Virginia Beach. Summers we were the house band at the Pro Club on Pawleys Island. I got a fuzz box and a cry baby and played Dick Dale and Duane Eddy and Wipe Out and such.

Oh we had it going. Good hair and sparkly shirts. We even had a manager, who said any minute now our ship was coming in, just wait.

And I waited because I was not the one with the brains, that was Tom.

He got his law license and joined Gaskins, Butters and Bent in Greenville before opening his own office in Wilson.

He married a woman with bleached hair piled high named Dolores and that lasted about six months. Then he took up with a nineteen year old in a tube top whose name I cannot recall, and that lasted about six weeks.

But Tom was riding high.

- I was born for the courtroom, he said.

His business card said he was a trial lawyer. He had a pinky ring and a Buick LeSabre. He said he would not even take your call for less than a thousand dollars.

Part Three: The Ship Takes on Water
They say it is wine, women and song but for me personally it was cocaine. Oh there was plenty of the other two but we all have different tastes. Different vices.

This was the early seventies and everyone was doing it. Cocaine and everything else. By then we had shortened our name to Poor Richard and signed with Capricorn Records. We spent a month in the studio high every day but made very little music. Then our bass player overdosed and was never again right in the head and our drummer joined the navy. Followed by our manager running off with the PA and what little money was left. Though I cannot say I blame him.

A rollercoaster, like they say, it can mess you up.

But Tom was soaring.

Every time we got together he had a new girl and a bigger car. He said practicing law was like printing money. According to him there were only two rules. Number one, get paid up front and number two, get paid up front.

- Who would ever have imagined, he said, shaking his head.

He was drinking scotch from a bottle that came in a velvet pouch.

- Nobody, I said, and it was the truth.

Part Four: A Miracle Happens
On Memorial Day I woke up on the floor of a trailer on the Santee River. I had no idea where I was or how I got there. This was 1979 and Jimmy Carter was President. I walked outside and was nearly blinded. The way the sun was shining on the water made it look like the river was on fire. I had to cover my eyes.

I had been living the rock and roll lifestyle so long I was lost in my own shadow. But that morning all I could see was the light.

Well that was that.

I moved all the way out to Pocatello Idaho and got a job at the Union Pacific yard. Rented a little duplex by the tracks. From my window I could see the mountains. There was snow on the peaks even in July, beautiful. At night I could hear the big cars banging together, the whistle-whine of the overnighter from Yellow River.

- Iowa?

Tom could not believe it.

- Not Iowa, I said. Idaho.

- Same thing.

It was Christmas. By then it had been some years since we had gotten together. Tom was married again, this time to a woman with four children, one of which had a learning disability and kept setting things on fire.

- How’s your law practice?

Tom made a face.

- Fine except for clients. And judges. And everything else.

And in truth he did not look good. There were stains on his necktie and bags under his eyes and he was puffy like he had been pumped full of air.

- Here, he said, leaning my way with the bottle of champagne, it being the holiday season and all. Drink up.

- No thanks.

I was drinking sweet tea.

- What? Too good to have a drink with your own brother?

- No no, I said. Not that at all.

But then his new wife was yelling.

- Tom!

And Tom hopped up because we could both smell the smoke coming from the other room.

Part Five: A Visit From A Stranger
The boys at the train yard called me Lipton because that’s all I would drink while they passed around the paper sack and smoked their reefer. I did not blame them. Railroading can be harsh.

- Say Lipton, one of them said. You’re pretty good on that thing.

I had picked up a battered old Guild acoustic that had a nice tone to it. Some days I would bring it out to the yard while we were sitting around waiting for Layton or Twin Falls to come in.

This was 2001 and the mountains were green and blue and it felt good to be strumming again.

- Yeah, said another of the boys. You ought to join a band.

I just grinned and kept playing.

But when I got back to my place there was a dust-covered Taurus with North Carolina plates in the driveway and Tom was sitting on the front steps.

- Why didn’t you tell me it was this far?

He looked terrible. Slits for eyes and a big belly and hands that would not stop trembling. It looked like he had not changed clothes in a week. We went inside and sat at the kitchen table. He reeked.

- Two solid days of driving, he said, and took a shaky sip from a Coke can that smelled of bourbon. Only stopped for gas. Man. I was thinking it was Iowa.

It was a new century and everything was different.

- Tom, I said. You don’t look good.

He gave a bitter laugh.

- Tell me about it.

I asked if he was hungry and he said no. Coffee? No. For a long time we just sat there.

- I came to ask you a favor, he said.

- Okay.

He said he wanted me to bury him next to Mama.

- What?

- Promise you’ll do that.

- Tom, I said. Is there something I need to know?

He gave that laugh that was not really a laugh.

- No. I’ve got no immediate plans. But when the time comes will you do it?

- Yes. Of course.

- Well, he said, crumpling his empty can and standing up. I better be going.

- Tom, I said, and stood too.

But he waved me off and said he was fine, just tired from the long drive, and that he had gotten a room overnight at the Sho-Ban Motor Lodge and would head back in the morning.

- Meet for breakfast?

- Sounds good, said Tom.

I walked out with him and we stood on the stoop. The dusky light lay over the Portneuf notch like a red and gold blanket. You could see the geese flying.

- It’s a pretty sight, said Tom.

I said I agreed.

- You know, he said. You always were the smart one.

And though I did not know it, that would be the last time I ever hugged my brother, or saw him alive.

Part Six: My Legal Career
We never did have that breakfast. Next morning we found Tom dead in bed at the Sho-Ban Motor Lodge, in his pajamas with the blankets pulled up to his chin. They said he died peacefully. Though I do not understand how they could possibly have known that.

I did like I promised and brought him back to Tabor City and buried him next to Mama in Waccamaw Memorial Gardens. The handful of people who came to the service kept looking over at me like they were looking at a ghost. And I wondered if even Mama would be able to tell which one of us was laying there beside her.

It turned out Tom was renting a house in Lumberton. I drove up there to clear out his things. He was single again and had little to show for all his years in the fast lane. I got a box and put a framed picture of me and him and Mama in it, a pair of ruby cufflinks. The certificate saying he was a Juris Doctor.

His law office, if you could call it that, was in a spare bedroom. There was a desk and a telephone and a few folders stamped Closed. The window shade was pulled all the way down.

A file cabinet in the corner said Benson – Wrongful Death, but when I opened the drawer it looked like it had not been touched in a long time.

I was fixing to leave when the phone rang.

- Mr. Rawlins?

Without thinking I said yes. And before I could clarify things the man was talking.

- I’m with Old South Accident and Casualty Insurance Company, he said. I’m calling to make an offer in the Benson case.

He said his company was being sold and he needed to wrap up all pending matters. Which apparently included the Benson case.

- This is a one-time proposal, the insurance man said. Two hundred and fifty.

- Two hundred and fifty.

- Two hundred and fifty. Take it or leave it. There won’t be any more offers.

- I guess that’ll be fine, I said.

Silence on the other end. Then, Well okay then. I’ll get the paperwork started.

I spent the night in Tom’s house. The next day a delivery girl in a brown ballcap knocked on the front door with an envelope from Old South Accident and Casualty Insurance Company. I signed for it but did not look inside.

Instead I went to the file cabinet and found an address for a Rosa Benson. She lived way out in the county past the water treatment plant. I rattled down a long dirt road until I reached Bethel Temple of the Blessed Redeemer, with its broken shutters and a hole in the roof, and right next to the church was a double-wide mobile home. It had no skirting and sat on cinderblocks. But the yard was tidy, with beds of daffodils bordered by scalloped truck tires painted white.

Rosa Benson came out to meet me. She was a wiry old black lady, had to be deep into her eighties or even older, clomping along in her walker. But her eyes were bright and her voice was strong.

- Well, she said. Look who shows up after forever.

She thought I was Tom of course and I did not bother correcting her.

- I brought you this, I said, and handed her the envelope.

- Oh, she said, with a little salt. I suppose I won the lottery.

I just stood there as she opened the envelope. Then her eyes grew wide.

- The man said that was all they had, I said.

- That’s all?

- Yes ma’am.

She pulled back a bit, narrowed her eyes.

- And how much of this do you want?

- None of it.

- None of it?

She looked at me funny.

- I didn’t really do anything.

For a long time it was just us and the wind blowing the flowers and the squirrels chittering in the tall oaks.

- You know how much this is?

- The man said two hundred fifty dollars.

- Two hundred fifty dollars?

- Yes ma’am.

She showed me the check. It was two hundred fifty thousand dollars.

- Well, I said.

- So. Like I said. How much of this do you say is yours?

- None. Like I said. I didn’t do anything.

She leaned closer and studied my face. And I knew then she realized I was not Tom. Though who she thought I was only God knows.

- You know what this insurance money is for?

I said nothing. She said it was for the death of her husband, who had been the pastor at the falling-down Bethel church before he got run over by a propane truck. She said that’s what the money was for. And I thought she was going to start crying but she did not.

- Well, I said after a respectful moment. I guess that’s it.

So I signed the papers Thomas Rawlins. And it did not feel at all peculiar to be signing my brother’s name, it felt exactly right. Though when I got to the car I had a sudden thought.

- Ma’am, I said, turning. About that money. I do have one request.

Part Seven: Brothers
The following spring I went back to North Carolina and again drove way out into Robeson County, past the treatment plant and down the bumpy road. But this time Bethel Temple of the Blessed Redeemer was sparkling. It had a patched roof and a fresh coat of paint, a new sign out front.

And on the east side of the church, lit up by the rising sun, was a brass plaque that said: Dedicated to the memory of Thomas Jacob Rawlins. A loyal son, brother and lawyer.

So there it is, my little story.

Though I never get to the end of it, the part about the plaque. The people have walked off by then, smiling funny at the crazy old man.

And I suppose they are right. But I have my bench and my crossword puzzles, my Guild guitar. I’ve strung it in an unusual manner, with four steel strings and two nylon ones. I like how it sounds that way. Distinctive.

Old Hardwick still complains now and then but Officer Vasquez shoos him off. Officer Vasquez likes to hear me play. The other day I played him a new one, the first song I’ve written in years. I starts off on E-minor, which I think is the prettiest of all chords, sweet and sad all at once.

I call it Brothers.

But here, let me play it for you. It goes like this.

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Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. During the course of his 37-year career, he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, Lawyers Weekly Legal Editor, Legal Aid attorney, insurance Vice President, risk manager, coffeeshop owner, softball coach and father of four. He is the founder of Your Law Life, where he and his team help lawyers take their practice to the next level.

 

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