Spoilers: Through 3x19 for Community
Word Count: 2,640 (of 18,470)
Disclaimer/Notes: See Prologue for disclaimer and general notes.
Part I: James K. Polk Elementary School
In which Jeff gets advice from a lawyer
Frank Charles had been eating lunch at his desk when his secretary Julie had buzzed him and announced that a Jeff Winger was in her office asking to see him. He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed it slowly as he turned the name over in his head. He swallowed and said, "The name's vaguely familiar, but I can't place it. He's not a client, is he?"
"No, sir," Julie said, her voice tinny over the intercom. "He says his mother was a client…"
Frank snapped his fingers. "Right, got it! Doreen Winger, divorce case, what, two years ago?"
He heard the clacking of a keyboard over the intercom before Julie replied, "Yes, that's what your database says."
Frank took another bite of his sandwich and tried to picture Jeff Winger in his head. He sort of remembered the kid, but not well. "Did he say what he wants?"
"No, just that it's a personal matter."
"How does he look? Any visible bruises or scars? Does he look like he's in pain?" He didn't think Doreen was the kind of parent who would hit her kid—quite the opposite, actually—but you never knew.
"Not that I can see, but he's wearing long sleeves. Do you have time to see him?"
Frank glanced at his calendar. He had to appear for a client in traffic court that afternoon, but the courthouse was literally across the street and he only needed to read one slim file to prepare for that. And if the kid needed serious help… "Yeah, why not. I wanna finish my lunch first, though, so tell him to sit tight, and I'll be down in a few minutes."
He went over in his head what he remembered about the Winger case as he continued to eat. The husband, he'd been a real piece of work. An inveterate gambler and penny-ante con artist who would disappear for weeks at a time, leaving Doreen to raise their kid alone. She had been pretty much the sole breadwinner for the family; her husband occasionally came home with a few bucks, but like most gamblers, he tended to lose most of his money.
Frank stood up from his desk and walked over to the filing cabinet where he kept his closed case files. Each one contained a short summary of the case and an inventory of related documents that had been moved to long-term storage. He scanned the summary as he continued to eat. It turned out he'd actually had some one-on-one time with the kid, to get his impressions of his dad and to size him up as a potential witness. In the end, though, he hadn't had to testify; they'd managed to come to a settlement agreement out of court. It had been a close thing, though; tempers had been short on both sides of the table, and the negotiations had come perilously close to spiraling out of control many times, over the kid, the house, the car, the comic book collection, and a dozen other things, but finally they'd managed to hammer it all out in the conference room. Nevertheless, the experience hadn't been a pleasant one. They rarely were, which is why he so rarely took family law cases.
But it wasn't like he was hurting for business without a steady stream of divorce cases. Being in the county seat meant there was plenty of work for a sole practitioner like him, and being in Greendale County meant there weren't a bunch of large firms sucking up most of the business, nor hundreds of other ham-and-eggers fighting for the scraps, as was the case in Denver and Colorado Springs. He'd built a nice little practice here, and made a very comfortable living helping everyday folks with their everyday problems: wills, small claims, traffic offenses, minor criminal cases, a tort here and there. It wasn't glamorous, but he loved his work.
He popped the last bite of his sandwich in his mouth as he stood to return the Winger folder to the file cabinet. He looked around his office and, satisfied it was presentable, he headed down the hall to Julie's office.
Julie was a freelance legal secretary, working not just for Frank but also for two other lawyers in the same building, and her office was on the other side of the building from his, which wasn't tremendously convenient but was quite a lot cheaper than hiring his own full-time secretary. She received a flat monthly fee from each of them for receptionist duties—answering phones, greeting clients, sorting mail, and the like—and charged an hourly rate on top of that for any work she did specifically for any one of them.
Frank entered Julie's office and found her typing on her computer and chatting with a young man with spiky hair and an anxious expression. He extended his hand to the boy, and said, "Hello, Jeff, good to see you again."
Jeff's anxious expression melted into one of profound relief, and he gave the lawyer a grateful smile. "Hi, Mr. Charles. I wasn't sure you'd remember me…"
"Of course I remember you," Frank said, though in fact he wouldn't have remembered or recognized him if Julie hadn't told him his name over the intercom and he hadn't been the only other person in the office. "Come on down to my office. How's your mom's doing?"
"She's OK," Jeff said. "She got a new job, and I think it's harder than her last one, because she's really tired when she comes home. And it's pretty far away, so we might have to move. But I guess it pays a lot better? So…"
Frank studied Jeff as they walked down the hall together. He detected no obvious signs of abuse or mistreatment: the boy looked well-fed; his clothes were in good shape; he wasn't limping or showing any other indication he was in pain; he wasn't unwilling to talk. That was a relief, but now Frank had even less of an idea why he'd dropped by. Maybe he'd done something illegal and needed to confess it to someone? But he wasn't acting guilty either.
When they reached his office, Frank directed Jeff to have a seat at the small conference table in the corner of the room while he went to his desk to get a legal pad. "Do you want something to drink? I've got water, tea, Refreshing Cola…"
Frank grabbed a can of pop out of his mini-fridge, poured himself a cup of coffee, and joined Jeff at the table. "Jeff, I don't believe in beating around the bush. Why are you here?"
Jeff fidgeted in his chair. "Well…" There was a long pause, during which Jeff opened and closed his mouth several times without speaking. Finally, he blurted out, "How do you not care?"
Frank blinked in surprise. Whatever he'd been expecting Jeff to say, it certainly hadn't been anything like that. "I… I'm not sure I understand what you mean. How do I not care about what?"
"Back when my mom got divorced, everyone was unhappy and miserable and exhausted, except you. You walked out the courthouse like you were a king or something. You didn't care about any of it. And I want to know how you did it."
Frank leaned back in his seat, more than a little dumbfounded by what Jeff was asking him. "Well, I wouldn't say I didn't care," he said. "If you don't care, you can't do a good job for your client.
"But I know what you mean. I didn't care about it the same way you and your mom did. You cared emotionally, but I cared professionally. I wanted your mom to keep the house and get custody of you, because that's what she wanted, and she was paying me to make that happen. But if she'd lost the house, or you'd gone to live with your dad? I would've been disappointed that I hadn't done my job better, but otherwise it wouldn't have mattered to me. No offense," he added, taking note of the grimace that had come over Jeff's face.
"In my experience," Frank continued, "allowing yourself to become emotionally invested in a case is dangerous. You need to be able to leave your emotions at the courtroom door."
Jeff nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah. I need to know how to do that. Can you teach me?"
Frank leaned forward. "I'll consider it," he said, fixing Jeff with the penetrating gaze he liked to use on reluctant witnesses, "if you tell me why you think you need to know."
Jeff shifted uneasily in his seat. "I—"
"That's the deal, take it or leave it."
"Well…" And to Frank's satisfaction, Jeff launched into a bizarre story about a humiliating experience he'd recently suffered at the day camp run by the east side recreation center. He painted a vivid picture, and Frank had no trouble understanding the boy's interest in controlling his emotions.
By the time Jeff had finished his tale of woe, his head was bowed in shame, and Frank couldn't help but feel sorry for him. (Though he had to admit, "tinkle town" was a clever turn of phrase.) "OK." Jeff's head snapped up. "I'll help you out."
"You are so awesome!" Jeff said with a wide grin. "Thank you so much!" Suddenly his face fell. "I, uh, I don't know how much you charge, but…"
Frank waved his hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it. Help me out with a few things around the office and we'll call it even."
"Yeah, of course, whatever you want!" Jeff said eagerly. "When can we start?"
"Well, let's take a look at my planner…"
As the summer went on, they settled into a pattern. Jeff spent his mornings in a half-day program at a rec center on the other side of town, then showed up at the law office in the afternoon. Frank quickly came to look forward to his arrival. The boy was good company, and surprisingly helpful to have around; he had a sharp mind, and was a natural when it came to courtroom strategy. Frank's tutelage soon moved beyond just emotional compartmentalization to the law in general, and Jeff proved to be a quick study.
As the summer progressed, Frank began to notice a change taking place in the boy's demeanor. The voluble young man he had met that first day was becoming more reserved, less willing to talk about his life and interests outside the law office. He thought it might be due in part to his spending so much time around adults, but part of him worried that Jeff was getting too good at keeping his emotions in check.
Those worries intensified when Jeff told Frank he'd be starting a new school in the fall. Frank had encouraged him to try to talk his mother into letting him take advantage of Greendale County's open enrollment program, which would allow him to get away from the kids who were familiar with the Tinkle Town incident, but the boy had been reluctant, because doing so would have forced him to discuss the incident with her. Luckily, Jeff's mom had rendered that advice unnecessary by selling her house and moving to a condo in Camden Point, a suburb closer to her job.
"Starting a new school can be scary," Frank said. "But you're probably excited about the chance to make new friends."
Jeff shrugged. "I guess. I might try that 'friendly acquaintance' thing you do with the bailiffs and the woman in the office next door who smells like my grandmother's house. I don't know how smart it'd be to get too close, you know?"
On the Friday afternoon before Jeff was due to return to school, he showed up at the office with his mom in tow. She hugged Frank and thanked him effusively for what he'd done for Jeff that summer. "You were a real life saver. I didn't know what I was going to do after he said he was never going back to the rec center." She leaned a little closer and lowered her voice. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to fill me in on the story behind that?"
"Sorry, Doreen," Frank said, loud enough for Jeff to hear, "attorney-client privilege. And it was my pleasure. I've enjoyed having him around. You've done a great job with him."
"Thanks. But I've never been able to do what you've done for him this summer," she said. "Other than Spider-Man and Star Wars, I've never seen him so enthusiastic about anything. I hope that carries over to his schoolwork for a change."
"School is boring," Jeff said. "Law is interesting."
"I've got bad news for you, kid, you've got a lot more school to get through before you can be an attorney," Frank said.
Jeff scoffed. "I've seen plenty of lawyers this summer that I could beat in court right now."
"Probably!" Frank said, laughing. "But no law school, no license." Turning to Doreen, he said, "Would you mind stepping into the hallway for a moment? I have a private matter to discuss with Jeff." Doreen looked bemused by the request, but complied. Once they were alone, he gestured Jeff toward the small table at which they'd had their first meeting weeks earlier. "So, Jeff, tell me, do you think you learned what you wanted to know this summer?"
Jeff nodded. "I think so. I mean, I always used to be pretty nervous around people I didn't know, but it's a lot easier now that I can, like, detach myself. I don't think anyone at my new school will be able to get to me like Big Cheddar did."
Frank paused to consider how to phrase what he wanted to say. "Here's my last piece of advice. You ready?" Jeff nodded again. "I want you to take everything you've learned about compartmentalization and pretend I never taught it to you." Jeff's mouth dropped open. "You've got a bright future in law, I can tell that already, and when the time comes, take what I taught you and run with it, and I guarantee you, you'll be one of the greats.
"But remember what I said that first day, about how you need to leave your emotions at the courtroom door? Well, take a look around you, Jeff," he continued, sweeping his arm in a wide arc around the office. "This isn't a courtroom. Out here, emotions are what make life worth living."
"Emotions are what get you a one-way ticket to Tinkle Town."
"I know Big Cheddar hurt you, but please, don't be so afraid of being hurt that you close yourself off from the people around you. That's no way to go through life." Jeff still looked very dubious, so Frank added, "Look, whatever you decide to do about your new classmates, I want you to know you'll always have a friend in me. Anything you need, all you need to do is ask. And if you want to do this again next summer, you just let me know, OK?"
Jeff gave him a genuine smile at that, and he allowed Frank to hug him and tousle his hair before he left.
Once the new school year started, Jeff was able to visit only rarely, and by the end of the year, Frank was no longer around to receive him. He had moved to Chicago after his wife was promoted and transferred. Unexcited by the prospect of trying to build a practice in a new city, he took a job teaching at the Kent College of Law, where for the rest of his career he would tell his One-Ls the story of his first law student.
Prologue | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Epilogue