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The Waiting Room
About the Author: Kathleen Ford has published in Yankee, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, The Virginia Quarterly, The Southern Review , The North American Review, Sewanee, Antioch and New Rivers Press. Two of her stories have won PEN awards for Syndicated Fiction. “Man on the Run,” a story first published in The New England Review, was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2012. Her first novel was published by St. Martin’s Press.

The clerk with a big Adam’s apple led me to the waiting room. When he nodded to the sofa I fell onto it and pulled my purse into my lap.

Adam’s Apple gave a quick sniff. “As I already told you, Mrs. Malloy,” he said through razor thin lips, “the judge may be able to see you later today, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Thank you very kindly,” I said. Old cigar smoke was burning my throat but I stifled a cough until Adam’s Apple strutted back to his office.

A three-foot high railing—identical to the altar rail in Saint Michael’s Church—divided the waiting room in two. If there’d been a cushion on the floor I might have knelt down on it to pray. At the end of the room were two doors. A plain wooden door was on my side of the room and a glass-topped door with gold lettering was on the other side. The lettering said, “The Honorable Raymond Wordell.”

I knew I wouldn’t have gotten as far as the waiting room if my employer hadn’t written a letter of introduction, and Mrs. Patterson wouldn’t have written the letter at all if she hadn’t been in the same garden club as the judge’s sister. However it happened, I was now just twenty feet from the judge’s chambers, and nothing would stop me now.

I hadn’t seen Raymond Wordell in twenty-three years, and with my married name and white hair he probably wouldn’t recognize me. But there was no question I’d recognize him. Everyone who picked up a newspaper saw his mug with the big dark mustache that hung from his lip like the wings of a crow. In every photograph, whether he was congratulating the officers of the Police Beneficial Association, or greeting the owners of a new textile mill, the dead bird was there. The newspaper stories were there to show what a respected man he was. They were there to show how he was admired by everyone.

I didn’t care about that. I wasn’t interested in his fame or riches. I’d had both fame and riches myself—for a short while anyway—and neither had done me one whit of good. My riches quickly passed through my fingers and into Mick Malloy’s bullying fists. My fame lasted only as long as the murder trial that brought it about. No, what I wanted—what I needed if I was to go on living—was my son, and the only way I could get him was with the help of Judge Wordell.

I knew the judge wouldn’t care that the prison guards had beaten my Tom until his face was as bloody as a fighter’s dragged from the ring. The judge wouldn’t care about the lying and conniving that kept the Irish with no one to give them decent work either. Really, the only thing the windbag judge might care about was his reputation. It was a reputation built on deceit. The judge’s pride in his own prominence was the only thing I had to count on.

Last week, before I learned about Tom’s arrest, the newspapers had a story that quoted the Judge as saying, “I live for the law, and for applying its sanctions to those who disobey it.” The pronouncement was enough to make me gag, but later I read it again and found that the Windbag’s own words were what gave me hope.

It was nine o’clock when Adam’s Apple left me and half past eleven when I stretched my legs the second time. I stopped pacing and ran back to the sofa the moment two men in suits and shiny shoes came through the wooden door. They nodded, passed through the gate railing and disappeared into the judge’s chambers. After leaving the judge, they barked with laughter and slapped each other’s backs. The bald man propped his foot on a chair to retie his laces.

Lawyers. I became familiar with lawyers twenty-three years ago when I testified at the inquest and the preliminary hearing, and of course, at the murder trial itself. I guess you could say I became as familiar with lawyers as anyone would care to be. It would also be fair to say that anyone interested in the murder trial—which was just about everyone in the country—knew that aside from Lizzie Borden, Bridget Sullivan was the most important witness in the case.

“You’re the most important witness, Bridget, and we want you to tell the truth,” the lawyers told me dozens of times. As the only person left alive in the house on the morning of the murders I came to understand my importance. though I didn’t understand it right away. In the very beginning, I didn’t understand anything. I was in what people call “shock,” and no matter how many times the police told me I had to answer their questions, I couldn’t speak.

After the funeral, when I came back to myself, I realized that my silence hadn’t led to anything terrible. Nothing too bad had happened to me and that’s what made me understand that nothing terrible would happen if I stayed quiet.

This story appears in our FEB 2024 Issue
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