April 30, 1905
Cephas and Lula Wilson’s House
I’m standing outside of Ceph’s house, in the front yard, looking up at the huge oak tree near the sidewalk. The tree has curtains of gray moss dangling, drifting with the soft wind. The sun’s set already, and it feels like rain. I close my eyes — and I hear the front door creak open, then close.
I look over my shoulder: Walter. He smiles at me, then come over to stand next to me. We both look up in the oak tree for a few minutes.
“You all right, son?”
I shake my head.
“It’s more than just what happened with Daniels. What else is going on?” Walter asks, kindly.
I hesitate; Walter sees it. I look at my friend. There’s no judgment in his expression; he really wants to understand this thing I’m feeling — so, I tell him the truth that I’ve not told anyone else:
“Living with Cephas and Lula. Living in Marianna. The mundane aspects of running the law firm. And everyone is always watching me: At home, in the office — everywhere I go. Everyone is in my business. They’re too close. And nothing happens around here, Walter. It’s always the same.”
I look at Walter: “I never thought it would be like this when I got out of school! All these things people said I would do, all the big plans I had in my mind, that my professors told me I could do, that I would do — and here, now, — it’s nothing. I want something different.”
Walter said nothing, but he nodded, still watching me.
“And I think a change of place would be the thing.”
Walter gives me a tight-lipped smile. He gestures to me over to the porch, where we sit on the top stoop.
“How do you picture yourself in five years?”
“You might laugh,” I say, hesitantly.
“You’ll notice I’m not laughing, and I’m serious,” Walter said. “I think that part of getting to where you want to be involves picturing it in your mind first. Don’t you have some kind of idea of where you want to be in five years or so?”
I smile at him ruefully, a little embarrassed. “Yes.”
“OK,” Walter said. “Do you think it is impossible to get there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Care to tell me some of it?“
“I want to be someone important. Someone like my grandfather. Respected. Important. Rich. Prominent. Ultimately, I want to be a judge, to be on the state supreme court, as Grandfather was — surrounded by books, writing opinions, studying decisions in other courts, talking about the finer points of jurisprudence with like minds…” I smile at Walter, who smiles back at me.
“People will be watching you, even more so than they are now, Emmett. They will still be in your business, even more so, the higher you climb in life, especially if you were still unmarried and as eligible a man as you are now.”
“I’m not that eligible,” I said. “I’m not self sufficient, and there’s no woman I’m interested in in Marianna. They’re all the same, too. Boring.”
I stretch my legs out in front of me on the steps; I lean forward, study the gravel walk in front of the stoop. The warm wind blows the leaves and branches gently; sounds of the family’s voices in the house behind us, muffled and faded as they walk about in different rooms.
“I just feel like… I’m in everyone’s shadow, and I’m never going to be on top, on my own effort, despite how hard I’ve been working. Ceph casts a long shadow in Marianna, and in West Florida, and I feel like I’m never going to be evaluated on my own merits, to prove myself capable. He even interfered with…” I stopped, hesitated.
“With what?” He glanced at me cautiously, a look of concern crossing his face.
I hesitated — then I told Walter about Pearl, how we had a close relationship, how Cephas had found out about it, and did some research on her family. Then, what happened at graduation. And how I resented Cephas.
“Cephas has managed my private and professional life for as long as I can remember — but finally, I have a chance to get out from under him.”
I nodded. “I have a friend in Illinois who graduated with me. He’s starting a law firm soon, and wants to partner with me.”
“Anyone I know?” Walter asks.
“Nicholas Van Sant.” I take Nick’s letter out of my pants pocket. I smooth the creases out of the envelope. “I wanted to keep this quiet — I didn’t want anyone to find this before I have a chance to tell Ceph and Lula about it myself.” I hand the document to Walter, who angles it towards the porch light so he can see the writing.
After a few minutes, Walter folds it and hands it back to me. “From what he says, mostly you’d run the law office — business and all — because he is opening a bank at the the same time. Ambitious.”
“He understands what I’m looking for, too. Nick and I both think this is a chance to help each other out.”
Walter looks out at the streets as a buggy passes by slowly.
“I think I understand what you want, Emmett. But this is a big move.”
“You don’t think I can do it?”
“You think you know what the benefits are to this new venture. What do you think the drawbacks would be, right off the bat?”
“Easy. Cephas thinks I still need to learn how to run a law office first, and slow down, take my time with the easy cases. And he says maybe in six months or a year, I’ll be able to handle our office and the bigger cases, and he’ll step back, spend more time running his bank. Six months. I think that’s too long, to be honest. I know I can do this with Van Sant. Walter, I tell you, I think I will go out of my mind if I remain here six months longer,” I said.”
Walter looks out at the street as he speaks. “Maybe you are just too close to family and everyone who has known you all your life. They may not be able to see you any differently than being Cephas’ little brother, and for whatever reason, they aren’t changing their point of view.”
“I can’t do that unless I get away from Marianna,” I said.
“You’ve talked about this with Ceph?”
“I haven’t said anything to him about Van Sant’s offer yet.”
Walter places his hand on my shoulder.
“Look, you’re still upset about the Daniels case. Take some time to think; hell, go out fishing on the sound for a few days, clear your mind, think carefully about how you want to proceed. Don’t make any rash decisions. Just think on it for a bit, OK?”
“All right,” I said.
Walter pats me on the shoulder. He stands up, climbs the porch stairs and goes back inside.
I walk towards the back of the house near the kitchen; I can see the household help milling around, gossiping, cleaning up after the dinner. I think: Everyone around me seems to have a defined place and a defined role to play in life. They know what they want to do. And I didn’t feel that. I hate feeling adrift, without direction. It makes me anxious, disordered, less-than….
And as I stand in the backyard, feeling the waves of discomfort in my mind, I realized that all I had to do to was make a choice, then and there.
Starting tonight, there would be no more waiting. There will be nothing more to “talk” about or think about regarding Nicholas Van Sant’s offer.
I would talk to Cephas tonight.
I walk back to the front of the house, to inform Cephas of my decision, with or without Walter in attendance.
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