Lawyer for the Dog by Lee Robinson tells the tale of Sally Baynard, a divorced public defender who's forced to look after Sherman, a miniature schnauzer (available July 7, 2015).
One of the sharpest attorneys in Charleston, S.C., Sally Baynard isn't your typical southern belle. She's certainly not what her mother hoped she'd grow up to be, especially since she divorced her husband, Family Court Judge Joe Baynard, and his historic family with their historic wealth and historic houses. Maybe Sally was never going to be a proper society lady, but her success as a public defender and family lawyer have been enough for her. She's represented murderers, burglars, drug dealers and lately has taken on some of the thorniest divorces, all cases closed with her Sally Bright Baynard wit, charm and brains.
Or have they? One case she's never successfully closed is her marriage. And when Judge Joe assigns her to one of his divorce cases by appointing her as the Lawyer for the Dog — Sherman, a miniature schnauzer— she's forced into close quarters with him again. Juggling the needs of the dog, the angry owners, her amorous but uncommunicative ex-husband, her aging, Alzheimer's-ridden mother, and the expectations of the court is more than Sally could have imagined. And as rascally Sherman digs his way into Sally's heart, he brings along his charming vet Tony, a man who makes Sally question her views on love and marriage.
The Brief of My Life
I’ve defended murderers, rapists, burglars, and drug dealers. In my public defender days I represented a woman who threw her baby off a bridge and an eighty-year-old granny who whacked her husband with a frying pan when he complained about her cooking. You name a heinous crime or a major human transgression, and I’ve defended it. Or imagine the worst marriage in the history of the world, and I’ve represented the worst half of it.
And now what?
* * *
“I need a big favor,” said Joe Baynard, judge of the Charleston County Family Court, when he called this morning. He’s forty-nine, just a couple of days younger than I am, but otherwise we are totally unalike, which is why, come to think of it, I fell in love with him, and also probably why he is now my ex.
“No more pro bonos,” I protested. I already had six or seven court-appointed cases on my plate, cases for which I would be paid next-to-nothing for God knows how many hours of work.
“Let me tell you about the case,” Joe said. We were on the telephone, but I knew from the tone of his voice that he was picking his fingernails and heard him slide open his desk drawer to deposit a sliver. He always picks his fingernails when he’s agitated.
“One of these days Betty’s going to find your stash,” I said. Betty is his secretary.
“All those fingernails.”
“I empty the drawer once a week now.”
“I guess even the most hardened criminals can be reformed,” I said.
I heard him close the drawer. “I really need your help, Sally.”
I hated it when he got like this. It brought back all the guilt. Why couldn’t I just despise him, like any normal ex-wife?
“But aside from doing me a favor, it’s a really fascinating case,” he continued.
“Last time I took one of your ‘fascinating’ cases, I had to borrow money to keep my practice going.” I’ll never forget that one: he’d appointed me to represent a nine-year-old in a custody battle that went on for two years—with motion hearing after motion hearing, a six-week trial—at the end of which the dad, who’d been ordered to pay my fees, disappeared.
“There’s plenty of money in this one,” Joe said. “I’m going to order some interim fees to whoever represents the dog.”
“He’s a schnauzer.”
“Are you kidding?”
I heard him shuffle some papers. “Yeah, that’s right. A miniature schnauzer.”
“Since when does a dog need a lawyer?”
“This dog needs one. I’ll have Betty copy the file for you, so you can get up to speed.”
“Joe,” I tried to sound firm, “I don’t represent dogs. I don’t even know why—”
“If I’m not mistaken, you’ve represented plenty of dogs in your time. Plenty.”
“And this particular dog is charming.”
“I don’t like dogs.”
“I have a picture right here … very cute dog. So, you’ll do it?”
“Explain why a schnauzer needs a lawyer.”
“Because he’s tying up the case, and the case is tying up my court. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it,” said Joe. His voice broke. “I feel like … like I’m losing control.”
“Are you okay?”
“Can we have lunch today?” he pleaded.
“I don’t think Susan would like that very much.” Susan is Joe’s wife.
“We can eat in my chambers.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“We’ve been divorced for eighteen years,” he said. “You think anyone cares if we have lunch together to talk about a case?”
“Believe me, Susan doesn’t care.” Was that bitterness in his voice, or was I imagining it? “I’ll ask Betty to order some takeout. You still a vegetarian?”
“Yes, but not vegan anymore.”
“Just tell me what you eat.”
“Vegetables. Cheese. Beans. No meat.”
“What about one of those Greek salads from Dino’s?”
“Fine. Dressing on the side.”
“It’s great that you’re still a vegetarian,” he said.
“You always thought it was an affectation.”
“But it’s good for the dog…”
“I mean for your relationship with the dog.”
“I don’t have relationships with dogs,” I said.
“I could argue with that.”
“Anyway, what difference would it make to the dog … my being a vegetarian?”
“It shows respect for animals,” Joe said. “I have my lunch break at one thirty. You’ll be here?”
“I’m preparing for a trial.”
He hadn’t said “please” that way since the day I left him.
* * *
My favorite law school professor used to say that the most important thing about a legal brief is that it be what it claims to be: brief. State the facts concisely, he’d say, without losing anything essential. Judges don’t have time for irrelevant information, no matter how interesting. Make your arguments in plain language. Nobody wants to wade through a swamp of “therefores” and “howevers” and twisted syntax.
“If you had only twenty-five words to state the facts of your life,” this professor used to say, “what would you write?”
Sarah Bright Baynard, b. Columbia, South Carolina
B.A. University of South Carolina, magna cum laude
J.D. University of South Carolina Law School
Married Joseph Henry Baynard, divorced after five years
True enough so far, but I’ve left out that afternoon when Joseph Henry Baynard took Sarah Bright, aka Sally, to his basement apartment near the law school, luring her with a plea for help with Constitutional Law, but mixing Constitutional Law with a little vodka and tonic and some Beatles on the boom box. Somehow Joe and Sally found themselves dancing and laughing, then falling exhausted onto Joe’s sofa (that threadbare thing he’d covered with a batik bedspread) and laughing some more, then kissing, both surprised at how good the kissing was.
In the Brief of My Life, doesn’t that afternoon matter as much as my birthplace, my degrees? My career?
Assistant Public Defender
Associate, Baynard, Baker, and Gibson, Charleston, South Carolina
Chief Public Defender, Charleston County
Solo practice, Sarah B. Baynard, LLC
And in the Brief of My Life, what about that morning in the ladies’ room of Baynard, Baker, and Gibson—Joe’s family firm, the venerable firm of his father and his grandfather—my head bent to my knees, the pain I’d been ignoring all morning grinding deeper in my pelvis? I hadn’t even been sure I was pregnant. I was doing my best that morning not to think about it, but this miscarriage was undeniable, and with it the other things I didn’t want to think about: my misery at the firm (“You never even tried to fit in,” said Joe) and my failure as a wife (“You never really wanted this marriage, did you?”).
What really matters in the Brief of Life, as I’m just now beginning to understand, is what you won’t read about yourself in the alumni news or your local newspaper—your loves, your joys, your losses, your grief. That grief that almost pulled you under, the quiet daily struggle just to stay sane.
If I died today, in this my forty-ninth year, you’d see my obituary in tomorrow’s Post and Courier. If you stopped to read it, perhaps you’d be impressed by a life so full of accomplishments. You’d have no clue, reading that Final Brief, what a mess I’ve made of it.
* * *
The file for Hart v. Hart is really a collection of files, enough to fill a cardboard box.
“Betty’s working on copies for you, but it may take a while,” Joe says. He’s already started on his chicken sandwich.
“I haven’t agreed to take the case.” Nevertheless I reach for the file labeled Pleadings.
“Eat your lunch while I give you a summary,” he says. The salad is drowning in dressing, but I’m hungry. “Mrs. Hart filed for divorce at the end of July—”
“Jesus. All that paper already?” I motion toward the files.
“I told you, the case is out of control.”
“Who represents the wife?”
“It would be improper for me to comment,” Joe says, winking.
“And the husband? Who’s the lucky lawyer?”
“She of the marvelous short skirts and low-cut blouses?”
“I never noticed.”
“She’s smart as hell,” he says.
“Smart enough to use that short-skirt-and-sweet-smile routine to throw you off guard until she opens her mouth and venom comes out.”
“That’s going a bit far,” says Joe.
“I said it, not you.”
“But so far,” I talk through a mouthful of salad, “you haven’t exactly won me over.”
“I never could win you over.” There’s a catch in his voice that makes me nervous.
“Anyway,” he continues, “Mrs. Hart alleges that her husband has committed adultery. He counterclaims habitual drunkenness. They’ve been married for almost forty years.”
“So, they must be at least in their sixties?”
Joe nods. “She’s living in their beach house, Sullivan’s Island. He’s in the house downtown … East Battery.”
“What about assets?”
“They won’t be starving anytime soon. The real estate alone is worth a fortune.”
“I don’t get it. This seems like your standard rich people’s divorce. Some boozing, some playing around, assets to be valued and divided—probably close to fifty-fifty—maybe some alimony, but no minor children, no custody battle. So what do you need me for?”
“It’s the dog, Sally. They’re fighting over the dog.”
“The dog is just personal property. No different, in the eyes of the law, than a car or a chair or a pair of candlesticks, right?”
“This dog is different,” he says. “He’s tying up the case. He has the potential to tie up my whole docket. This dog needs a lawyer.”
“I fail to see how throwing another lawyer into the mix is going to—”
“Actually, what I have in mind is a more like a guardian ad litem. Somebody to protect the interests of the dog, do an investigation, make a recommendation to the court, just like in a custody case. And somebody who just might shine the light of reason on the situation. I’m going to appoint you on my own motion, unless they object,” Joe says.
“This is ridiculous!”
“There’s a hearing Monday, ten a.m. You might want to do a little research beforehand. If this were your dog, wouldn’t you want the best for him?”
“I’ve never even … I mean, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a dog.”
“I remember. One of your cardinal rules for an uncomplicated life: no dogs. No houseplants. And no more husbands.” He smiles. Everything dear about him is in that smile. I stand up to go. I want to get away from the flush rising up my neck to my cheeks.
“But you do have a lot of common sense and a low tolerance for bullshit, which is why I need you on this case,” Joe continues. “By the way, how’s your mother?”
“She has Alzheimer’s.” My mother has lived with me since the diagnosis two years ago.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Give her my regards, would you?”
“And you give my best to Susan.”
“I would, except we’re separated.”
“Oh, Joe, I’m sorry. When?”
“A couple of weeks ago. It’s a long story. I won’t bore you with it.” I know him well enough to know he really means Please listen, but I can’t stay. After all this time I still feel our breakup like a sharp pain, an old wound that flares up just when I think I’m fully healed. “Thanks for doing this, Sally.”
“You take care of yourself,” I say. We shake hands, and I’m almost out of the door when he says, “His name is Sherman.”
“The dog’s name is Sherman.”
I don’t have children, but I’m not childless. My mother is my child.
Every morning I wake her and make her breakfast. I coax her into finishing her scrambled eggs, bribe her with the promise of a Milky Way if she’ll take her pills. On weekdays I settle her in front of the TV with the morning paper, which she pretends to read until Delores, the sitter, comes at eight. Delores is a cross between a saint and a drill sergeant, with infinite patience and a no-nonsense toughness that my mother respects. Without Delores, we’d be lost.
Even so, I call home two or three times a day to make sure things are going okay. After work I fix my mother’s dinner, rotating her old favorites: spaghetti and meatballs, baked chicken, pork chops. I don’t eat these things anymore, but I like having someone to cook for. Most of the time she has a good appetite, but every now and then she refuses to eat. “Don’t wait,” she says, pushing her plate toward me. She means, “Don’t waste.”
“I’m a vegetarian, remember?”
But of course she doesn’t remember. After dinner I help her into the shower, help her lower herself onto the plastic chair she uses so she won’t fall. I wait close by until she finishes, retrieve the soap when she drops it, make sure she washes thoroughly. After the shower I sit her on the end of her bed and help her work her arms through the sleeves of her nightgown, tuck her in, and then I read to her, her old favorites—Travels with Charley, The Wind in the Willows—until she falls asleep.
On weekends Delores is off, and though I sometimes use another sitter, my mother doesn’t like her, so I spend most of my time at home. If I have work to do—which is almost always—I put Mom in front of the TV or let her listen to Frank Sinatra with earphones.
Sometimes we sit on my little balcony overlooking Charleston harbor. The balcony is a blessing, which makes up for living in this otherwise charmless high-rise. I give my mother the binoculars, and she’ll watch the sailboats and the container ships go by while I work at my laptop.
She has good days and bad days. On her good days she can be talkative, even comprehensible, but this is a bad day and she is mostly silent, every now and then uttering a single word—“bird” or “flag” or “boat,”—and then I’ll look out at the water, too, grateful that her mind can still connect to an object and name it. Occasionally she’ll say something that seems to come from nowhere, like “Isn’t it a mystery?” or “Forgot my umbrella” and rather than confuse her with a query, I simply nod and say yes.
Most Sunday mornings I drive her to Grace Episcopal Church for the eleven o’clock service. We sit near the back in case she wants to leave before the service is over, but most of the time she can make it through the whole hour. She has trouble remembering the prayers and she can’t follow the words in the hymn book anymore, but sometimes I hear her humming along. I can’t tell how much of the sermon she understands but at least she seems soothed by the sound of the minister’s voice, or perhaps she’s pleased just to have her daughter sitting next to her in church.
Her doctor has warned me that these relatively peaceful days won’t last forever, that her “spells”—outbursts of agitation or anxiety in which she cries for no reason and paces back and forth in front of the TV, or wakes at night screaming—will come more often, and that she may stop eating.
“What will you do then?” Ellen asks. Ellen Sadler is my best friend, a prosecutor with a heart, as close to a well-balanced person as I’ve ever known.
“I guess I’ll have to buy those liquid supplements. I think she’d like the chocolate.”
“No,” says Ellen, “I mean, when you can’t keep her at home.”
“I can’t think that far ahead.” This isn’t true, because of course I’ve thought about it. The truth is that I hope my mother will die before I have to make that decision. I can hardly admit this to myself, much less to my friend. And it isn’t just that I want my mother to die for her sake—how many times did I hear her say she wouldn’t want to live if her mind were gone?—but I want her to die for my sake, because I’m not at all sure I’m capable of mothering my mother much longer, and I promised her I’d never put her in a nursing home.
“Well, you know I’m here for you,” says Ellen. And she is, of course, but even Ellen can’t put herself in my place, can’t imagine what it’s like. Nobody can, unless they’re living it. “Are you coming to the book club meeting?” she asks.
“I haven’t read the book.”
“Come anyway. You haven’t been in months,” she says. “Want me to pick you up?”
“I’d have to arrange for the night sitter…”
“You can’t just hole up every night with your mother,” Ellen says. “She wouldn’t want that for you.”
Ellen is right, of course. But then almost nothing about my life is what my mother wanted for me.
My mother wanted me to get just enough education to carry on an intelligent conversation, but not so much, God forbid, that anyone would ever mistake me for an “intellectual.” She wanted me to be able to earn a living, but only on a temporary basis while I supported a husband through law or medical school, or in case of dire emergency, such as sudden widowhood. “You’d make a wonderful administrative secretary,” she’d say, “or a teacher.” She’d gone back to teaching after my father died. But—though she never actually said this, I knew what she thought—it would be a bad idea for me to think about a career. “Those women can be so … oh, you know … men don’t like them.”
My mother wanted me to have children—two or three, more than that would be tacky—and do volunteer work with the Junior League and church committees and learn to play a civilized sport that would keep me from getting fat. Tennis or golf, maybe, with stylish outfits.
She wanted me to have a nice house, kept spotless by a maid who’d come no less than twice a week, and a big yard full of azaleas and camellias, tended to by a black man who knew to knock on the back door if he needed something but did not expect to be invited inside.
What she wanted for me was what she’d always wanted for herself.
* * *
The night before the first hearing in Hart v. Hart, Mom and I sit on the balcony at sundown. I do some research on my laptop while she watches a Navy cruiser head out toward the ocean. When it’s time to go inside she says, “Lost something.” She’s always losing things—the TV remote, her purse, her toothbrush—but this time she points to the photograph that has slipped out of the file and fallen to the floor.
I reach down to get it. “Want to see my newest client?” I ask her. “His name is Sherman.”
She studies the photo, runs her index finger over the dog’s face: lively dark eyes, long whiskers, pert black nose. Then she hands the photo to me. “I’m so sorry…” she says, her voice, as always these days, a little shaky.
“What, Mom? What are you sorry about?”
“We don’t have a dog.”
“That was a long time ago. Don’t worry about it. You thought you were doing the best thing for him.”
“He might … He might come back.”
“No, Mom. He won’t come back. You gave him away, remember?”
But of course she doesn’t remember.
Copyright © 2015 Lee Robinson.
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Lee Robinson practiced law for over 20 years in Charleston, S.C., where she served as executive director of a legal services agency and later worked in private practice, concentrating on family law. She was elected the first female president of the Charleston Bar Association and received the Bar Association's award for her work in public interest law. She lives on a small ranch in the Texas hill country. Lawyer for the Dog is her first novel for adults.