“Two Lawyers”

Peter Orner

August 6, 2019 
The following is a story from Peter Orner's collection Maggie Brown & Others. Peter Orner, a two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize, is the author of five previous books, including the collection Esther Stories, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Granta, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. Winner of the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Orner teaches at Dartmouth College.

A couple of lawyers talking, Chicago, 1982. It’s February. They’re sharing a small table at a crowded deli across the street from the circuit court at Twenty-Sixth and California. Dave Pfeiffer and Arthur Blau. “And so maybe ten minutes before the sentencing,” Arthur says, “the guy turns to me and says, ‘I’m going to run over to the deli to grab a turkey sandwich.’”

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“Right,” Dave says. “Must have been pretty hungry. What was he looking at?”

“Worst case,” Arthur says, “five to seven. Possession with intent, plus a twink of a weapons charge. There was a penknife on his key chain.”

“You knew?” Dave says.

“Yes and no,” Arthur says.

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“Right,” Dave says. “How could you know for absolute certain what’s in another man’s mind. Even a client, especially a—”

“Exactly,” Arthur says.

“How long’s it been?” Dave says.

“Four months,” Arthur says.

“Hear anything?” Dave says.

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“Not a peep,” Arthur says.

“Who’s the judge?”


“What’d she say?”

“Threw a fit. ‘Absconded? Your client absconded?’ Like he was the first fugitive in the history of llinois.”

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“Married?” Dave says.

“Indeed,” Arthur says.


“Wife says last time she saw him was the morning of the hearing.”

“Believe her?”

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“She’s more pissed than the judge,” Arthur says.

Both men laugh, slurp their coffee. As usual the place is jammed with attorneys, clerks, cops. The sandwich guys are roaring. I got a BLT up! Turkey club, no lettuce! A lone judge, Collier, sits in a corner munching a bagel, the Sun-Times open before him like the Holy Word. But his eyes are closed as he chews, as if he’s listening to music only he can hear. Judges are isolated figures, planets around which lawyers revolve.

“Who’s the bondsman?” Dave says.

“Nelson Junior,” Arthur says.

“Nelson can’t find his ass with both hands. You think he’ll make it?”

“Don’t know. Maybe. Quiet guy, never said much. When he did talk, he whispered. Polite to me, to the judge, to everybody. Seemed like he was taking the whole deal on the chin. I could have gotten him a year and a half with probation. Fucking penknife.”

“Tricky,” Dave says.

“Right,” Arthur says.

“Whole new life.”


They were lawyers. Not great lawyers, decent lawyers. They got paid.

Dave and Arthur. Old friends for years, but the kind of friends who knew each other only through work. Weeks might go by without their running into each other. Yet when they did, they’d always fall right into talking. And their talk amounted to one long conversation about the peculiar nature of practicing law in a world with so little sense of order. The phrase “practicing law” itself was comical. Like it was violin or piano. Aside from the court calendar, chaos knows few boundaries. Not that either of them especially craved order. It was inside the cracks in the havoc that they honed their craft. Neither Dave nor Arthur could ever remember the other’s wife’s name or the names of the kids they each knew, vaguely, the other had. They weren’t that kind of friends, and maybe this is why it was such a relief when they saw each other. No outside chitchat required. No unnecessary entanglements. No shared sorrows. They were a couple of soldiers in suits, reconnoitering during a pause in the action.

“You hear Kowalski’s not on the take anymore?” Dave says.

“He got religion?” Arthur says.

“Word is he’s so rich now he can’t be bought.”

“Maybe that’s how you get religion.”

Old friends, loyal friends, criminal defense attorneys of the solo practitioner breed. They’d never been part of a firm. They were like similarly overweight leopards hunting alone—the image doesn’t quite work, but the point is they were solitary predators—and yet, when one of them couldn’t make a pretrial hearing, the other filled in. If Dave was heading to the jail and Arthur had a client there, too, Dave would deliver Arthur’s message. Attorney Blau says sit tight, he’s coming to see you Thursday. In the meantime, don’t tell your life story to your cellmates because any one of them might have grown state’s ears, okay?

Both lawyers had spent the good part of two decades doing midlevel stuff. Drunk driving, assault, drugs, drugs, drugs. Occasionally either Dave or Arthur would take a murder or a rape case to trial, and when that happened the other would hold down his friend’s calendar until he got out from under the trial.

Dave and Arthur were considered by their peers, and the judges they appeared before daily, as solid, if somewhat interchangeable, professionals on a small scale. They were lawyers. Not great lawyers, decent lawyers. They got paid. You could do a lot worse than Dave Pfeiffer or Arthur Blau. You want it free, call the public defenders.

In June of the year the client took off like an eagle for a turkey sandwich in the sky, Arthur dropped dead of a coronary while jogging along the lakefront in Evanston. He’d just turned forty-nine. Dave couldn’t help but think it goes to show you about exercise. Arthur’s wife called Dave’s office from the hospital.

“What can I say?” said a voice.

“Pardon me?” Dave said.

“What can I say?”

“Who is this?”

“Liz. Arthur Blau’s wife.”

“Is something wrong?”

“I’ll say.”

At the hospital Dave took Liz aside and told her he’d  take all  of Arthur’s pending cases and explain the situation to his clients. “I’ll hold down the fort, collect all the fees, and take as many cases as I can. I’ll petition a judge to reassign the others, which under the circumstances shouldn’t—” She was tall, taller than Dave, and had a kind, bewildered face. High cheekbones. Dave had a sudden notion, where it came from he wasn’t exactly sure, that although she was especially bewildered at that moment, for her, bewilderment itself was a near-continual state. If ever there was something he understood. She wasn’t looking him in the eyes. It was as if she’d  chosen to focus exclusively on his left ear in this difficult moment. Dave completely forgot whatever it was he was trying to say. He remembered that Arthur had once mentioned, offhand, that his wife was a therapist and that to her all defendants were innocent because whatever they’d been driven to do could be explained by the damage done to them in their childhoods. What had Arthur said she’d said? Fewer jails, more… what was it? Ice-skating rinks?

There are people who are alive, and there are people who aren’t, and at no time in his life had this dividing line been so starkly defined.

“What are your plans?” Dave asked.

“Plans?” she said.

“I mean with the body.”

“Oh. Yes,” she said. “The body. Years ago, Art said he’d rather  be cremated than stuffed in a hole in Skokie.”

She stopped. They stood in the crowded hall looking at each other. Nurses hustled by in sensible shoes. And Dave thought, There are people who are alive, and there are people who aren’t, and at no time in his life had this dividing line been so starkly defined.

“Did he have it attested?” Dave asked. “What attested?” she said.

“His desire to be cremated. Did he have it—”

“He said it under his breath at my mother’s funeral.”

“There’s no will?”

“Not that I know of,” she said. “How do I—”

“I’ll check with the county clerk. Who’s the attorney?”

“You. Arthur said you were—”



She was clearly making this up, which struck Dave as—no other word for it, inappropriate as it was under the circumstances—joyous.

“Is it what you want?” Dave asked.

“What?” she said.

“For him to be cremated.”

“You’re asking me? I last saw the man at breakfast. He said the coffee tastes like plastic. He thought something might be wrong with the coffee maker. I said the coffee always tastes like plastic, you’re just noticing it now?”

She looked at him differently this time. Her eyes opened slightly wider, and somewhere in there, he could have sworn, she was laughing, not happy laughing, but Jesus H. Christ laughing—

“Cremated,” she said.

“I’ll take care of it,” Dave said.

“Do they have viewings at such places? I mean before? The children will want to see him.”

“Oh, the funeral home will—”

“Yes, a funeral home. I’ve got to call a—I feel a little woozy.”

“No! Consider it . . . ” Resisting a gallant urge, he just trailed off.


He thought of her—nearly a year he thought of her. He avoided the deli out of loyalty, as if the bellowing sandwich makers could see into the pit of his soul. But you stare at a phone enough, for that many mornings, that many afternoons, at a certain point you pick it up.



“It’s Dave Pfeiffer.”


“Attorney Dave—Arthur’s friend.”

“Oh, Arthur’s friend.”

“Right,” Dave said. “I just wanted to follow up. Check in. If there’s anything you need. Any loose ends I can attend to?”

She was silent for what felt to Dave like a long time. He cupped his palm over the phone so she wouldn’t hear his breathing, which was now panting. He listened to her not answer. This was familiar turf. He’d always trusted silence. Hours could go by at home and he wouldn’t say a word. To his family he’d become a piece of furniture. At work, he spent much of his day listening to people. There are, Dave often told himself, glib lawyers and quiet lawyers. If there was any secret to Dave Pfeiffer’s limited success it had to do with his knowing when to keep his mouth shut. Judges rewarded him for it. And it instilled confidence in clients. When confronted with his placid face, they often spilled out the one thing they’d been holding back, the one thing he needed to know.

“No,” she said. “I can’t think of anything I need.”

So much for that. Dave, obliterating any semblance of strategy, shouted into the receiver: “Liz! I want to take you to dinner! Liz!”

A beat, then two. She said she wasn’t in the mood to go out, but “Yes, dinner.” She hung up.

A few baffled minutes later he called her back. “When?”

“Tonight,” she said, and hung up again.


His old friend had lived out in Evanston. He’d known this, of course, but he was unprepared for the opulence of the house. A large yellow-brick near mansion, big yawning windows. Only old money lived this close to the lake. Arthur never gave that off. Maybe it was hers? And hadn’t she had that look in the hospital? What look? Like she’d never lacked for anything, but since she had no idea what she wanted, the not-lacking had never been especially a boon. Dave remained motionless, rooted to the front walk. From every window there was a light. He wanted to turn and run the hell back to his car.

It couldn’t have happened any other way, as if the two of them were enacting some strange and perfect ritual of grief.

The front door opened. “Oh,” she called out. “Flowers.”

“Flowers?” He said it like the word made no sense. As if he wasn’t holding a cellophane-wrapped bouquet from the Do-minick’s. He watched her watching him and thought of his flab, his rumpledness, his guilt, his unhappiness—his atrophied love for his wife, Ellen, who at this moment was probably at home reading, as she often did this time of day, near dusk, with the light off in the family room. Twilight, she called it. Dave would come into the room and try to turn on the lights.

How can you see to read?

The dark hasn’t caught up to my eyes. You always say that.

Just let me be, Dave, would you?

Helpless, he stood on the walk holding flowers. And yet later, after dinner, as she held the same hand that had held the flowers and gently led him up the carpeted stairs, it wasn’t just that it made sense, it was that it couldn’t have happened any other way, as if the two of them were enacting some strange and perfect ritual of grief. Each time she passed a light switch, she swatted it off. Room by room the house darkened. At dinner, they’d hardly spoken.

“And the kids?” Dave asked.

“Sleepovers,” she said.

The bedroom was large as a hotel suite. Her fingers were slightly damp in his palm. They stood there, and that’s when she began to talk to him. About where she was from, about how she’d met Arthur, about their years together, happy years, dull years, about how after his death she tried to immerse herself in work, how she took on more clients, how every day, for hours, she listened to people talk and talk.

“Everyone’s so bottled up, you know? I’ll be sitting there in  my office and listening to someone going on and on about their relationships—that’s mostly what people talk to me about, of course, their relationships. Such a ding-dong word. Why ‘ships’? Why not just ‘relations’? And I’ll think, It’s the talk that’s weighing them down. That if they could for once just get out from under it, they’d be cured—cured of what, who really knows—but at least they’d be a little lighter on their feet. The talk, though, just breeds more talk. I know I sound ridiculous. I’ve been doing this—what?—nearly twenty years? And suddenly, I think, it works, the talking, it works. Or at least it could work. If it weren’t so inexhaustible.”

She sat on the bed and took her socks off.

“Shouldn’t there be a point where you could truly drain yourself of it? But maybe talk is the only truly inexhaustible resource there is. And I get paid to—I’m giddy. Come closer. But you know, your clients, they must talk a blue—”

“Yes and no. My clients don’t talk so much about their relationships.”

“Is something wrong?” she said.

“I’m worried I’m crushing you.”

“I’m not glass.”

“Liz,” he said. “Liz.”

“Don’t think I didn’t love him.”

“Never would I think—”

“Not all the time,” she said.

“Who could?” And he heard himself groan with such unexpected pleasure that he apologized.

“Don’t—” she said.

Eventually, they slept. But it wasn’t really sleep. It was groggy murmuring, incoherent conversation, and squeezing. When Dave did get up, an hour before dawn, and groped around for his things, he could find only one shoe. Liz, he whispered, as if her name alone could help him find a renegade shoe in the pale dark.


Excerpted from Maggie Brown & Others: Stories. Copyright © 2019. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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