It’s Thursday morning, a few minutes before 6. The Mayor has made his way down to our house and is outside under my window, crowing and clucking and raising Cain. For the first time, one of the hens has brought her chicks out of the barn—11 small birds, starting to get some dark feathers in all the white and yellow, the lot of them skittering along in a knot behind their mother. Lilly the dog is drowsy and doesn’t stir; she’s seen hens and baby chicks before and isn’t interested, and she’s afraid of the Mayor. He sailed into her—about a year ago—with his feet and beak and spurs the first time he had the chance.
This is usually when I write. I wrote The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living in about four years, on weekends, holidays, and in the mornings. Prior to Monday, I’d been on the road for eight days promoting my novel—the “Death of a Salesman” tour, I like to call it. This morning, instead of writing, I’ll catch up on files and paperwork for my day job. And, to answer the questions that everyone asks me: 1) I contacted the Virginia Supreme Court some time ago and had them cut my pay while I am traveling with my book. 2) The book has very little to do with mobile home living. It’s a book about faith and redemption, with romance, a murder trial, a treasure hunt, and twice-stolen money all in the plot. 3) Despite the fact that the book seems to be doing well, I have no plans to stop working as a judge. I started this job at age 33 and enjoy the work immeasurably. Obviously, I consider the things I do from 9 to 5 far more important than fiction-writing and selling novels.
The files I brought home last night are predominantly divorce cases. I don’t know if there are in fact more marital separations in my area now than in the past, but I genuinely think that I am seeing an increase. I have a theory as to one of the reasons this is happening.
Over the course of the last few years, this area, with its textile-driven economy, has been devastated by plant closings. DuPont, Tultex, Sara Lee, and several others—thousands of jobs gone, factories shut. We have the highest unemployment rate in the state in Henry County—I’ve seen the figure stated in print as low as 20 percent and as high as 30 percent. Thanks to NAFTA, good people, folks who worked at the same machine, standing on the same hard concrete floor from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for 20 years, now have no way to earn a living. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives … whole families have been laid off simultaneously and left with bills and children and medical needs. Proud people, hard-working people. Understandably, these souls have grown frustrated, and that’s the variable, you see, that never shows up in the economists’ numbers and the politicians’ spiels—the frustration, the disappointment, the edge and rancor that start to spill into the conversations between men and women, parents and children, all of them reeling from this abrupt jolt that has jarred and reset the world at a cocked angle.
So here I sit with a divorce that I’m betting has its genesis in a padlocked chain run between two door handles and a pension that simply disappeared, just evaporated. There are a lot of things I do not know, haven’t experienced, but this is something that I know a little bit about on both ends of the equation. I’ve seen the sorry aftermath of these shutdowns make it’s way through my court—theft, divorce, assaults, too much to drink—and I knew a few of these folks when things were different for them. I used to work at the rubber thread plant (in fact, I’ve done just about every job in this area from grinding feed to construction work), and I can vouch for the decency and the diligence of these people, their desire to work honestly and retire at age 60.
It’s not often that we in this part of the world are presented with such a splendid stage on which to make our case. Henry County, Va., is blessed with an eager collection of men and women who have put in full, productive hours for years and would like to continue to do so. So here it goes … who knows, it’s like tossing a bottle into the sea or sending in the sweepstakes entry. Perhaps some captain of industry or e-wizard will see this and take the county up on its offer of free industrial land.
I note in the second file I open that the husband used to work at DuPont. They were the first to leave, and someone told me the company has decided to tear down its old plant here, completely raze it.
All the information contained in these entries is available from court files and public records. Nothing confidential or privileged is revealed herein. Any case mentioned is a concluded case, no longer before Judge Clark. While those familiar with the facts of various cases will recognize the individuals involved, fictitious names will be used throughout this journal.