Just a Ferryman by Dan Branch
September 1, 2016
People in his village named their children after saints, so I will give him a holy pseudonym—“Augustine.” His friends would call him “Auggie” or use the Yup’ik teasing name that his cousins gave him. He found destructive anger in bootleg whiskey bottles like other decent men I met while working as a lawyer at a legal aid office in Bethel. Auggie was married to Elizabeth, somehow beautiful despite years of drunken beatings.
Auggie was passed out drunk when I first met Elizabeth. It was three in the afternoon on a summer Friday, only ninety minutes before the court closed for the weekend. Mary, the office paralegal and Yup’ik translator greeted Elizabeth at the door with a sedate Yup’ik hello—“Cama-i.”
“Iitu,” Mary yelled in the direction of my bare plywood office, “Come, Big Eyes.” She had given me that Yup’ik nickname a year ago, right after I had moved to Bethel. While I dug out a pen and legal pad from the mess on my desk, Mary asked Elizabeth to sit on our dusty couch and then filled a kettle with water dipped from a 50-gallon drum. It was warming on a hot plate when I took a seat across from Elizabeth. Even before she spoke, I knew that she needed a court order to keep her safe. Deep purple bruises spread across her apple cheeks and circled one of her dark brown eyes. Swollen flesh had closed over the other one.
Elizabeth and I sat in silence while Mary plopped tea bags into three mugs and filled them with boiling water. Mary delivered the darkening tea, took a seat on the couch, and waited with me for Elizabeth to speak. In the Lower 48, I would have started with a question, but that constituted rudeness in this Yup’ik place. Hard at any time, keeping the expected silence of respect with a little more than an hour before the court closed was almost impossible.
Five years after I met Elizabeth, a victim of domestic violence would be able to obtain a protective order by appearing at an informal court hearing. She wouldn’t even need a lawyer. But that afternoon, Alaskan courts could only grant the order Elizabeth needed if she also filed for divorce. The time to draft and file a divorce complaint and a motion for a temporary restraining order ticked away as Elizabeth sipped her tea. She looked down at the chipped linoleum floor and whispered in Yup’ik, “Auggie scares me.”
Mary translated for me and then told Elizabeth in Yup’ik and English, “We could get you a paper from court to help, but you would have to leave Auggie, at least for a little bit.”
Several minutes later, Elizabeth said in English, “He catches fish and last fall brought home a moose.”
Mary said, “You could get welfare and food stamps, at least for a little bit.”
After another five minutes Elizabeth said, “He loves me when he’s sober, when there are no bootleggers.”
* * *
State law made bars and liquor stores illegal in Bethel, but people could still legally drink. Those who traveled to Anchorage brought booze back as luggage. Big liquor stores in Anchorage made a nice profit on orders phoned in from Bethel by those without money to travel. Their customers swamped the Bethel airport Friday nights to pick up ordered alcohol. Most carried away twin cases of beer that had been duct-taped together by the liquor store. Bootleggers grabbed cardboard boxes full of hard liquor. People drank their own beer, but bootleggers resold much of their whiskey for four times what they paid for it. When he had forty dollars and enough wild-caught food put by for the kids, Auggie bought bootlegged Canadian whiskey.
I never drank bootlegged booze but did make many trips by cab out to the airport to pick up duct-taped beer. My tendency to fall asleep halfway through my second can of brew kept it a recreational drug. Alcohol’s ability to draw violence from normally kind people, Native or not, tore up many families on the Kuskokwim River. Only a lawyer, I couldn’t stop the pain, only seek legal protection for the victim or defend in court the one who did the damage. I didn’t wield Excalibur or lift Diogenes’ lantern, only navigated clients through their court proceedings. I was Elizabeth’s legal boatman, not her guardian.
* * *
Elizabeth sat without speaking for five minutes before she finally asked for help and gave me the information I needed for the court paperwork. I called the courthouse and warned the judge that I would be over to file Elizabeth’s restraining order. He agreed to stay late. At a quarter to five, he signed an order that would make Auggie a criminal if he approached Elizabeth during the next ten days. With the help of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) social worker who was willing to bend the general assistance rules, Elizabeth checked into the Kusko Inn under a fake name. Her kids stayed with her sister. She had enough credit from the BIA for several days of meals at the hotel restaurant. Mary brought her a copy of the temporary restraining order (TRO) and a number to call the police dispatcher if Auggie came around. She also dropped off a copy of the order at the police station.
Back at the office, Mary, the eyes in her broad, round face half-closed in a smile, wished me a good weekend, as she had the previous Friday, when the most exciting event was the weekly visit of the man who emptied the bucket of human waste from the office restroom. Mary showed no fear of Auggie, even though she had kids at home and everyone knew that she worked in our office. I followed Mary’s lead and tried not to think about Auggie and Elizabeth until Monday.
Elizabeth spent the weekend marooned in a hotel room with dark-paneled walls too thin to block out the sounds of lovemaking in the adjacent rooms. Unlike her house, she had cable TV, no kids to distract her, and running water. She had a mirror in which she could study her damaged face.
On Monday, Mary saw Auggie walk up to the office and told me to meet him at the door. He smelled like old salmon scales and drinker’s sweat but appeared sober. I asked him to come have tea in the waiting room. He followed me, the TRO clutched in his right fist, then took a seat on the couch. As I filled the kettle with dip water, he shouted, “Give her back.” When I turned to face him, he tore up the TRO. “Give her back,” he shouted again as shreds of the order drifted to the dusty floor.
Even though Auggie had no gun, no weapon of any kind, just his fists, I was scared. I had been working in the office for two years but had never been around someone so angry unless they were drunk. Auggie was sober. His eyes watered as he broke off eye contact to study his hands. “Give her back,” he whispered, and then headed to the office door. Rather than relief that Auggie had left without hitting me, I felt guilty for causing him pain.
* * *
After arguing my first case before the Alaska Supreme Court earlier that year, I had stopped assuming that my legal work always benefited the families of my clients. During oral argument, one of the justices had asked if I really expected them to reverse the order terminating the parental rights of my client on a technicality. She had beaten her two-year-old child with a belt and burned him with a cigarette. The question did not stop me from arguing another technical appeal point.
That night, after the adrenaline rush had played out, I let myself wonder for the first time what I had done. If my clients lost, a loving family would adopt the child. If I helped them win, the kid might live for years in a series of foster homes. I had honored the lawyer’s code of ethics and zealously represented my client, had taken every permissible step to get her what she wanted. I did not fall asleep that night until I accepted the limitations of my power and responsibility. Without concern for any interest but hers, I had delivered my client’s best arguments to the court and guided her through court proceedings. We both had to wait on the bench for the court to decide whether she had lost her child. I passed the responsibility onto the legal system, the justices, and the lawyer who had argued the state’s case. If I won, the fault belonged to one who violated my client’s trial rights or failed to present the state’s case adequately.
The night after Auggie’s office visit, I stopped feeling guilty. He was the one who drank the booze and beat the woman he loved. I passed him the responsibility for the court order that had divided his family.
Elizabeth called on Thursday and said, “He loves me and won’t hit me again.”
I asked, “Are you home with him?
“Are you going to stay with him?”
“I’ll tell the judge.”
The next time Elizabeth asked for help, it took less time to write up a complaint and motion for a restraining order. I already had all the information I needed. It was harder to convince the social worker to pick up the tab for Elizabeth’s stay at the local hotel and to talk the judge into signing the TRO.
Two days after the judge signed the order, Elizabeth called to tell me, “Auggie loves me.”
The third time she came to the office, two blackened eyes convinced me again to protect Elizabeth from her husband.
Ignorant of what compelled Elizabeth to return to her cycle of violence, I vowed not to get her another protective order if she let Auggie back into her house. But the fear that showed in her eyes during a fourth office visit convinced me to seek another one.
I didn’t hear from either Elizabeth or Auggie again. Mary told me that they had moved to Anchorage.
Whether to live the kind of happy life that people enjoy in TV shows or to escape sadness and violence at home, many young people moved from the river to Anchorage. They settled in neighborhoods already home to earlier immigrants from Western Alaska. Since the ability to kill or skin a seal meant little in Anchorage, many returned home or joined the Anchorage homeless. Auggie and Elizabeth simply disappeared into the state’s largest village.
My client for the Alaska Supreme Court appeal may have lived in Anchorage while she waited to learn whether she would get back her then six-year-old son. It took four and a half years of trial court hearings and appeals before she would know. While she waited, the child learned language and love from a man and a woman he called “Dad” and “Mom.” I can only imagine the pain the boy and people he believed to be his parents would have felt if the court returned him to my client. But I never let those products of my imagination discourage me from doing my best for my client or the other parents that I represented in termination trials. For almost forty years, I followed the lawyer’s Rules of Professional Responsibility and worked hard within the law, to satisfy my clients. It didn’t matter if they wore a Yup’ik kuspuk, prison orange, or the business casual attire of a state worker.
Other battered women sought help during my five years of service in the legal aid office. Their cases generally followed the pattern set by Elizabeth. Then a woman new to Bethel, Martha Smith, walked in the door with an unblemished face. She looked out the window or at the office door as I conducted a Lower 48-style client interview.
“Did he assault you?”
“He hit me where no one could see the bruises.”
“Please point to where he struck you.”
After touching her breasts, genitals, stomach, and the patch of skin over her kidneys, she said, “Once, he slowly loaded bullets into the cylinder of his gun, pulled back the hammer, and said he’d shoot me if I didn’t apologize for talking back.”
“What did you do?”
“I told him what he wanted to hear.”
“Why did you leave him?”
Before she could answer I said, “I mean, how did you leave him?”
“One day, when he was visiting his mother in Billings, I packed up some clothes, cleaned out our bank account, and flew to Anchorage.”
“How did you end up in Bethel?
“Somebody in Anchorage told me they were looking for waitresses at the Kuskokwim Inn.”
“How did he find you?”
“I don’t know. One night, during the dinner shift, I found him sitting at a table. He followed me home. I just opened the door of my place and let him in.”
Martha asked for help on a Monday morning, and we were in court two days later. Her husband sat in the back of an otherwise empty courtroom while Martha and I sat at counsel table. I experienced some of the fear that Martha had felt every day since she had married the tall, hard man. From what she told me, her husband had come to Bethel to regain control of his wife, not to seek her forgiveness. As the black-robed judge entered the courtroom, I wondered if Martha would again yield to her bully.
The judge had to ask Martha to speak up several times during her testimony. She looked away from her husband when she described his fists striking her breasts, privates, back, and stomach and how he pointed the revolver at her. The husband leapt up and shouted, “Judge, she is lying. Martha, if you don’t stop lying, I am going to teach you the value of truth.” The judge told him to sit down until it was his turn to testify. I was encouraged by the look the judge gave him because it was the one he’d given me just before denying a recent motion. When Martha answered my final question, the judge asked her husband if he wanted to cross-examine. He stood up, nodded yes, then said to Martha, “Tell the judge what this is really about.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You go out of your way to piss me off. Sometimes, you hit me first.”
“Objection, Judge; he is testifying, not asking a question.”
“Sustained, Mr. Branch.”
The judge told Martha that she did not have to respond to her husband’s demand. She blushed and started to speak until I shook my head. Her husband didn’t testify after Martha left the witness stand. The judge told us he would sign the order without asking me for a closing argument.
Martha took refuge in an empty courtroom while her husband and I waited for the clerk to make copies of the restraining order. I could see the police station out the window and wondered how much damage he could do to me before someone responded to a 911 call from the clerk.
He broke while he read his copy of the order. Martha left the courtroom and walked up to her sobbing husband. He raised his face, blotched and snotty, to look at her.
“I’m sorry, Martha. Let me take you home.”
She had forgiven him before when he cried and said he was sorry. I expected her to comfort him to silence and ask me to get the order vacated. Then she would have been like all the clients who had returned to danger for love. I would have had no choice but to pass on her request for the court to vacate the hard-won order. That’s the lawyer’s charter – do the client’s bidding, even when honoring a self-destructive request. But she left her sobbing batterer, protective order in hand. I couldn’t pump my fist or even claim victory. I was only Martha’s ferryman, fighting legal currents to carry her to her chosen destination.
Dan Branch lives in Juneau, Alaska. He won two first prizes for poetry, one awarded by Charles Bukowski. Kestrel included one of his essays for their fall 2015 issue. Others have been accepted for publication byGravel, Concho Review Review, Metonym, Tahoma Literary Review, Punctuate, and Portland Magazine. He is a student in the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA program (creative nonfiction) and is a recipient of the program’s Jason Wenger prize for literary excellence. Blog: https://kwethluk.wordpress.com
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Mamterilleq
Disclaimer: The names and identifying information of all of the characters in this essay have been changed to preserve client confidentiality. For the same reason, the dialogues attributed to them are amalgams of statements of similar client interviews.