Court of Common Pleas
Dionne Custer Edwards
Reading Time: 3 minutes
"Court of Common Pleas" originally appeared in Issue 14 of Tahoma Literary Review.
This essay is a perfect example of how effective flash can be. In a few honed words, Dionne Custer Edwards brings a huge, gut-punch of significance to the surface. There are worlds of human emotion to unpack from the title alone. Family dynamics are unwieldy, unpredictable, anything but common. How can the actions taken in family court ever be described as common? Read this gorgeous, heart-tug of nonfiction flash.
The carpet on the fourth floor of the courthouse building spits a stench of bitterness, stale air full of a kind of fragile ache and wicked concoction of rips and slivers, ashes and fragments, broken lives. The elevator pours us out the double doors, the suits and casuals. Like mice, we scatter in the light, hands full of folders full of affidavits—people negotiating freedom, financial support, holidays and weekends, so many troubles and bodies in one big room.
In domestic court there are few families intact. We are blood and samples, sad stories, temporary orders, people on opposite sides. Stuck in a system that serves law and wounds the same careless seasoning of obstacles and disregard. We are children, parents, caregivers, reduced to edicts and orders, and a magistrate in a hurry to move on to the next shutter and bone.
We are all waiting for judgment. For someone to see you missing another day of work. Pleading with the judge to see you for more than just conflicts and thorns. We are plaintiffs and defendants, whispers and screams. Piles of paternity, custody, child support cases on the court docket, plenty of rope to hang us all. Our messy lives plucked and hung for the public to consume, each of us stuck, foolish, or toting a bit of chagrin.
I was all three of those things. He was drunk the night I met him (and on some mornings in court). Idle and alone, he leaned on the barstool in the corner, watched me move about the crowded room. I ignored him until he found a way to meet me. He had a sloppy charm—wrote some pleading nonsense on a paper napkin. I had a list of objections—just enough pity and politeness, and not enough will. I was ready to leave, alone, and I did—but not without giving him a way to reach me. He was bold, persistent, and sad—like fruit skin, bruised, and worm-holed. I knew better then, and now.
Until you make choices, color your own messy life, you do not know the bow in the rope, how low it hangs, how heavy it bends towards the floor—how desperate it feels to love someone so much you tug on their small limbs. How your life is a dripping faucet of court dates, hours away from work, fees, spar and differing. How we are two strangers who have a son together. How neither of us discusses the soiled details with him or each other. How together and separate, we both try to protect him from our decisions, the back and forth of storms.
After more than ten years in court, on and off and a few breaks in between, we stand in front of this bench mapping our mistakes. We are on either side of a desperate line between fear and enabling, a crooked bend in the air between us. He wants reassurance, and control. I want freedom, and control. We both want time with our son. We want in contrast, some of the same things at the same time. We sing our plea of blame and equal. The judge entertained by our urgency and conflict, by our desire to be needed or left alone. In court, we exhaust all the ways to file judgments and motions that explain how much we both love our son—but there is no way to love him here.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Custer Edwards had this to say about "Court of Common Pleas":
The original working title for this piece was “Family Court,” which is an informal term used to describe the domestic division of the Court of Common Pleas, a place that divides families into pieces and procedures. This piece is a note on the human experience: on grievances, regrets, love, and longing; on messiness and second chances.
Find this Ohio girl (lifeandwrite.com, @dcusteredwards) living in a house with four guys (three kids and a spouse), trying to find time to write.