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Chapter 127: The Role I Play

May 25, 1906
Van Sant & Wilson
Sterling, Illinois

There are black circles under my eyes; a wrinkled red crease impressed on my cheek from my coat. I’d used it as a pillow, wadded up under my head, to sleep on my office sofa. I don’t remember doing that; hell. I don’t remember getting here last night anyway. 

I lean forward peering painfully at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, as I  gingerly touch a swelling on my forehead, under the hairline on the right side of my face. I don’t remember bumping my head.

I open the tap, run the water in the basin for a minute, and splash water on my face, wincing, as I am unsteady and nauseous. 

I take out the shaving kit I keep in the small cabinet behind the mirror, and attempt to razor my face — but I am so unsteady; my head is pounding and my hands are shaking so much that I give myself a few nicks here and there.

I survey my effort — it is all right except for the little cut above my lip — I frown at my reflection in the bathroom mirror: Pasty, a fine line of moisture on my forehead. Nothing I can do about the rest of my appearance for now.

I look like hell. I feel like hell, too.

Suddenly, the room tilts slightly — a massive wave of nausea washes over me — and I quickly bend to vomit into the toilet. It goes everywhere. My eyes water and my throat burns from the force and intensity of my retching. Automatically, I turn and wipe my mouth on my shirt sleeve —

Dammit. I don’t have another clean shirt stashed away in my desk drawer. 


I clean up as best I can, and wipe the toilet bowl and the tiles around the toilet with one of the linen towels on the rack. When I finish I looked around for a place to put the soiled linens; I shrug and simply throw them under the sink. The smell in the bathroom is overpowering; I opened the small window a bit, but I will have to close the door to keep the stench from invading my office. 

This is not the first time I’ve spent the night in my office. I’ve done it several times over the past two months. And, this is not the first time that I couldn’t recall how I got here. I close my eyes briefly, my hand on the door frame of my bathroom for support and to try to stop the spinning sensation in my head. No, I cannot remember what happened last night. 

I go back into the outer office. I unroll my still-wadded up suit coat, and I shake out the deep wrinkles the best I can. I pick up my overcoat from the floor — gingerly, so as not to bring on another wave of nausea as I move about — and hang it in the closet. Apparently, I’d used the coat as a blanket. 

I find my hat underneath the couch. I brush the dust off, and knock the bowler back into shape as best I could. There are some spots on it that looked like oil or grease — I hang it on the rack — then think better of it, and put it inside the closet on the shelf.

I do a quick survey of my clothing — stained and rumpled shirt and trousers — but nothing I can do about it. I’ll just keep my vest buttoned and my suit coat on all day. 

Suddenly, I remember my pocketbook! Panicked, I feel around my the pockets of my suit coat — then opened the closet and feel around in the overcoat pockets — I sigh with relief! It is there, along with my keys.

I open the pocketbook: My papers are still there, but the cash is gone. 

I feel my already weak stomach drop. Most of that was the firm’s money, too; paid out to me yesterday by a client for settling a lawsuit in Rock Falls. I’d lost $175 dollars between here and the saloons across the river. 

I remember being at a client’s office yesterday afternoon. And then, we had a few drinks in his office. There was talk of dinner — and that’s all I can remember. 

Surely I didn’t drink that much last night, I think. I’ll contact the client. He will be able to help me retrace my steps — but no. Perhaps I did something embarrassing —

And how did I get here, back in my office? 

The door.

I go over and open the outer office door. It was unlocked on the outside. I sigh. Someone could have followed me in, come in while I was asleep, and taken the money from my billfold.

My forehead — it hurts so much. I feel my eyes stinging. I have to figure this out — I can’t let on that I screwed something up again. Not to the client. Not to Nick. Not to anyone.

I have a role to play today, like I do every day. I have to get it together.

Ceph used to say that to be a good lawyer, you have to be a good actor. I think I’ve become a good actor over the past few months, pretending that I’m happy here in Sterling, that I am doing well and feeling confident. I’ve managed to fool a lot of people; but lately, the subterfuge seems to be catching up with me. I admit — I’m drinking more than I ever have before. And I need it. Otherwise, I’m always uncomfortable; I’m always feeling these odd, strange, and illogical feelings that are just getting in the way of my ambition. All I need is to silence that doubt in my head, and the feeling that I’m a fraud, and not ever going to be as good as Cephas — and that’s what it does for me. I’ll be able to stop once I make it to the top. I just have to get there, and then, everything will be fine.

But for now, I need to do something about the headache and jumpiness. I need a quick one — I glance over at my copies of Florida Reports on the shelf, where I hide my bottle of Scotch — and the clock on the outer office wall chimes.

Too risky. Miss Delp will be here any moment, and then, certainly, she’d smell it on me. But then, I realized I already smell like vomit, cigar smoke, and God knows what else from last night.

A Bromo-Seltzer bottle from early 1900s. Source: Ebay.

I go back to the bathroom and take the small blue bottle of Bromo-Seltzer out of my medicine cabinet. I mix it with water in the bathroom drinking glass, and quickly down it. 


The outer office door opens. Punctual Miss Delp.

Quickly, I go to my desk and sit down. I fumble with my tie, tucke it into my vest, and straighten my suit jacket. I sit up in my chair and move a few folders and papers around — the noise to give the impression that I am already immersed in my work. 

I hear her moving around at her desk as she settles in for the day — a pause — then, a courteous knock on my office door as it opens slightly.

“Mr. Wilson?”

“Yes, Miss Delp. Come in.”

I don’t look up at her, so I don’t have to see whatever expression of disdain she’d have for me this morning. 

“Good morning. I didn’t expect to see you in so early.” 

She doesn’t say anything else for a moment; I glance up and see her looking pointedly at the blue Bromo-Seltzer bottle and the empty glass on my desk. So much trying to avoid the disdain of Miss Delp.

Bromo-Seltzer was a well known treatment for hangovers. It included bromide, a tranquilizer that was withdrawn from US markets in 1975 for their toxicity. But the product had a sedative effect, which made it popular for hangover treatment during Emmett’s time. Source:

“Are you all right, Mr. Wilson?”

“Yes, thank you. But, if you would be so kind, please ask one of the porters from the restaurant across the street to send over a pot of coffee.” I reached into the top drawer of my desk and handed her a silver dollar.

“Yes, Mr. Wilson,” she said.

“Oh, and Miss Delp, if you don’t mind, I am going to be unavailable the rest of the day; I have another important case to work on that will be moving through the circuit within a few days, and would appreciate being left alone.” I nodded at the big mess of files and open legal books on my desk.

She nods, and closed the door. 

The phone rings in the outer office. I hear the muffled voice of Miss Delp, then, a knock on my door. 

“Come in.”

Miss Delp sticks her head around the door. “It’s Mr. Van Sant. Are you in?”

I look up at her before I answer. She peers at me from the cracked open door, an inscrutable expression on her face — it takes me aback for a moment because she never looks at me directly in the eyes.

“Of course,” I say, after a slight hesitation. “I’ll take it in here,” I say, as I pick up the extension, and take the receiver off the hook. I listen for Miss Delp to click off in the outer office.

“Emmett? It’s Nick.  How are you?”

“Fine. What can I do for you?”

“I’d like to get together to discuss some of our case load later today,” Nick said, briskly. “Is this afternoon good with you?”

“Well. Er….yes. That’s fine, Nick. Stop by anytime.”

And I hang up.

I then hear the outer office door open and close, as Miss Delp goes in search of a pot of coffee for me. Likely she waited until I was done speaking with Nick; listening, probably, at the door. I’d learned to keep my phone conversations as bland and uninformative as possible with Miss Delp around — 

God. I close my eyes, and rub my forehead. The pounding of my head is agonizing. The cut above my lip is bleeding again, too.

Nick must know something — I’m sure Miss Delp knows something, too. I don’t know what, exactly; I’m having trouble remembering things that happen only a short time ago.

Whatever it is, I can’t act my way out of it. If I hurry, while Miss Delp is out, I can have a quick drink to settle my head, at least.

It will be only one.

That’s it.

No more.

Categories: Addiction Book Congressman In Emmett's Words

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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