LorGerald settled into an old chair at a rickety table next to family court for his regular Tuesday volunteer work. He said he was “giving back” after retirement, and though he had been a mediator for only a year, he felt his experience at the bank gave him a professional presence in a process generally seen as uncomfortable: Gerald was to persuade warring spouses to agree on child-support payments.
Gerald stirred his small bowl of sugarless gum and mints, a nice touch, he thought. Some couples arrived hefting thick folders charting years of discord. Gerald was unsuccessful with many of these cases and had to refer such failures to the higher authority of a judge.
Secretly, he hoped for cases in skinny files; these had a better chance for an agreement.
Ferris and Tina arrived late one August morning, she marching, he meandering into the windowless room. “I don’t know if I can get me some money, but I’d sure like it if I could,” she began, ambitiously. “The welfare won’t give me nothin’ ‘til I bring him to court so’s to get some of his,” she said, rolling her eyes towards the burley young man who settled into the scraped chair across from the mediator.
“I ain’t got no money,” Ferris said, folding his arms and looking to the ceiling, “so don’t ask me. She ain’t gonna get a dime.”
Gerald recalled his training: a bit of banter often relieves initial hostile feelings. “I see the paperwork refers to your boy Ferris as a ‘junior’.”
“That’s right. That’s our son together,” explained Tina.
Gerald scanned the court forms. “But his father here is Ferris II. Wouldn’t that make your son Ferris III?
“Used to be. Not no more,” instructed Tina. “His grandfather died, so we had to redo the numbers.”
Gerald paused. “Would either of you like gum or perhaps a mint?” he smiled. Ferris declined the extended bowl and Tina flashed a pod of spearmint between clenched teeth to signal her negative. Gerald moved on. “Maybe if we could think of some way to compromise,” he intoned in his low, practiced voice, fingering the couple’s thin file and hoping for an early lunch. “After all, in these situations, no one gets everything they want.”
“Whole damned thang’s her fault,” Ferris complained. “She had to go start up a rumor on my job, and the boss had a hissy fit. Yelled I shoulda kep my home life separate, and he fired me.
Got no money.” A firm breath warmed the room.
“So how do you support yourself?” the mediator asked, leaning forward, inadvertently nudging the table’s unsteady legs.
“I live with my mother,” Ferris quickly replied.
“No, he lives with me,” Tina countered. “His mother lives downstairs.”
“Shoot, I’m downstairs most of the time,” he said.
“Not when you come upstairs for me,” she shot back.
Gerald chose not to react. Sometimes venting, as his mediation trainer had termed it, helped clarify opposing positions.
“Why do I have to support a kid when I get to know nothin’ about him?” Ferris wanted to know.
“Like what?” Gerald asked.
“She wo’t even show me a report card, f’nstance,” said Ferris with a nod of satisfaction.
“You don’t need no report card,” replied Tina. I’ll tell you when somethin’ goes wrong in the school.”
“See what I mean? said Ferris, leaning back, victorious.
“How long have you two been separated?” the mediator wanted to know.
“We’re not separated,” she said.
Gerald paused. “So... um... you’re living as man and wife?”
“Hell, no,” she said. “We was never married.”
“What I meant by husband and wi...” he began...
“Yeah,” said Ferris, grinning.
“Are you, I mean do you two...?”
“Yeah,” repeated Ferris. “We do it regular...” he said with finality, as Tina flicked her hair from the side of her face.
Gerald now noticed the purple smudge below Tina’s earlobe. “So... is there any way, let’s say, when you do get work, sir...?” he began, ignoring the love patch and looking to Ferris with fresh regard.
“No way. Long’s she’s a bitch, she gets nothin’.”
“Shit, how you spect me to pay all the spenses with this kid?” Tina exploded.
“Tell me that!”
“I don’t think we’re going to get very far if you insist on such language...” Gerald began, in his most earnest tone.
“You stay outta this. We talk like this alla time. Either I get some fuckin’ money for the kid, or...” Tina was losing her breath.
“Look, you little shit, you don’t need to be swishin’ your ass in the chair when you talk to me.”
“Fuck you,” she growled, drawing her hands quickly and roughly this time, through her hair.
The couple’s voices rose as the shouted verbs grew anatomically more precise. The mediator wondered if court officers, a zealous presence even in quiet times, might be drawn to the commotion. He held a steady expression, because he knew he was a trained professional; the books called it role-distance.
“Your dimpled ass oughta be in the slammer, not a court,” she said.
“No cunt’s gonna tell me where my ass oughta sit,” shouted Ferris, a fresh flush on his cheeks. Now both were out of breath and standing, he bent at the waist.
The mediator recognized that the judge would be needed for this case. He also had to act quickly, as he rose from his sticky chair, spread his hands on the table and leaned forward to demand decorum. He saw the couple had ended foreplay and he feared the wobbly table would not bear the weight of their resolve.