Winter 2022 - Creative Nonfiction

Allison S. Kingsley

I Hear You

 

Running a now abandoned road, carved into the mountains a century ago by miners, words spill out between breaths and you slow because the story you're telling throttles your heart even when standing still. As a dilapidated tram station with thick twisted cables and walls of rusting metal falling like a banana peel comes into view, your friend says, “Would he have said that if you were a man?”

Impossible to answer. Irresponsible not to ask. And when she speaks it out loud, you wonder why, in all these months, you hadn’t asked it yourself.

 

*

Most of the land in your town was once owned by John Wayne.

Before him, it was owned by prospectors who followed sparkling sediments to the valley.

Before the prospectors, Native Americans came to the rose-emerald peaks for hundreds of summers until they were forcibly relocated to make way for a bustling mining town. The earth excavated. Trams slicing the mountains. A valley packed with hotels, saloons, blacksmiths.

Think Wild West. Think John Wayne.

 

*

In high school, U.S. history was one of your favorite classes and what you remember most is the life-sized cutout of Clint Eastwood from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly stationed in the front corner of the classroom. In those days, you wore a Nike t-shirt that said, “Level the playing field.” You loved that shirt and thought level was attainable because on cinder tracks and dirt trails you could run faster than most boys and your mom never let you forget how different it was for her. No Title IX. No sports. Look how far we’ve come.

 

*

While mining towns flourished out west, law firms hopped in bed with barons of business back east. Known as white-shoe firms, these corporations were ruled by white men plucked from Ivy League campuses (where they’d worn white buckskin shoes).

Paul Cravath created the model for white-shoe firms by recruiting men straight from law school—Harvard, Columbia and Yale that is—and training them under a system, in which a senior lawyer broke a case into parts and young lawyers handled the parts. In other words, the senior lawyer stood on the backs of young lawyers. A pyramid of white men.

 

*

It was your legs, specifically their speed, that paid for most of college.

The man who recruited you wore cowboy boots to every practice and after he pinched your teammate’s ass and said, “I want that gone,” you ate more carrots and less bread because you didn’t want him to do the same to you.

 

*

At the dinner table, you rarely challenged your dad because he was comfortable in opinions with loose facts in a way you never were. You’ve never liked confrontation. You’re methodical and researched. But despite that, or because of it, you wanted to be a lawyer since sixth grade. You wanted to be Matlock.

After graduating with honors from Columbia, you accepted a job with Cravath where a white man stood on your back for two years before you leapt to another white-shoe firm.

A good lawyer is something you rarely call yourself but your father will and you don’t remember what you were talking about when he said, “You just need to own it.” But it’s stuck with you because it’s one of the hardest things to do.

 

*

Back in the day of miners, your town was governed by General Assembly, which meant every man voted on every town action. A direct democracy. If you don’t count the women.

You don’t know if it worked then, but a century later, the system seems broken. People live in your town because they can be autonomous and close to the mountains while keeping a foot in society, which is just a short drive away. You’re a collection of two hundred suburban hillbillies and less than ten show up to the monthly meetings where decisions are made. You stay away until a neighbor invites you to join the Planning and Zoning Committee on a day you need a break from the nebulous work of writing and agree because you miss checklists and concrete questions with concrete answers.

When you tell your grandmother, she says, “There’s a P&Z Committee there?” And you laugh because it’s true. But you’re a good woman. You like to fix things. It’s why you spent so many years with the wrong sort of man.

 

*

White-shoe lawyers were evaluated by how many hours they billed and when you read women routinely underbilled while men did the opposite, you weren’t surprised. You always downgraded your hours. Always.

 

*

There’s one full-time employee in your town, the Town Manager. Let’s call him Ned.

Ned is scattered, overwhelmed and talks a lot about how much work he has to do. He’s the bottleneck at every meeting and so you offer to do the work he never gets to. You get it done and at the next meeting, you’re surprised when he starts presenting your work as his own. So surprised you don’t say anything.

Surely, he won’t do that again.

He does it again.

 

*

During your first year at the second white-shoe firm, you learned a group of men, including a client, were meeting to run at six o’clock each morning. The women met at seven. You showed up at six and from then on, the client wanted you on every bank investigation.

You thought you’d cracked the system. And maybe that’s why when female colleagues complained about how partners overlooked them or chastised them for the sort of aggressive behavior men got away with all the time, you just nodded, bit into your martini and said something like, “I hear you.”  

 

*

When the P&Z needs legal advice on something you’ve researched, you suggest you talk to the Town Lawyer. The P&Z members agree. But Ned says no, he’ll do it.

You ask again at the next meeting because he hasn’t done it. No, Ned says again.

It’s unclear why he has any authority to say no, but you can’t really go to his supervisor because he’s employed by those two hundred suburban hillbillies who rarely show up to the General Assembly.

When he finally agrees, you send two questions with a summary of your research to the lawyer, and then, Ned lectures you on how to talk to a lawyer. “You must be very clear,” he says. And you nod even though you’ve never seen an email written by Ned that’s clear and you’re certain you are the one well-versed in talking to lawyers.

 

*

At those white-shoe firms, you were known for “keeping the trains running,” which just meant you were really organized and good at making sure everyone did the jobs they were assigned. And though you were flattered, you also knew that “running the trains” was a task most often ascribed to women, no matter their seniority.

Men grew out of organizing. Women never did.

 

*

It’s your husband who first tells you to stop putting up with Ned’s chauvinistic bullshit after you complain he presented the work you’d done like his own, again.

Specifically, he throws your words at you: “He’s taking advantage,” your husband says, “And everything you write is about standing up to that, so stand up.”

You’re angry. You explain it’s different. Unlike the coach or the lawyers you worked with, Ned holds no power over you. “It’s all coming from a place of insecurity,” you say.

“And that makes it okay?” he asks.

You know the answer but say nothing.

 

*

Standing next to the lobby’s water feature, you answered a call from a partner at the second white-shoe firm. He told you the client requested you on the case again and then said, “He must have a crush on you or something.”

You said, “Doubtful. He’s gay.”

“Impossible! Why else would he want you on the case so bad?”

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a good lawyer,” you said.

“Well of course you’re a good lawyer,” he said.

 

*

An ordinance you wrote needs legal sign off and Ned says he must review it first but doesn’t and then, Ned forgets to send it to the town lawyer until a few days before the deadline. The lawyer directs his annoyance at you and though he only makes minor mark-ups, he sends it back with a lecture about the importance of legal review. Only he can improve the language. Only he can prevent “Don Quixote” moments.

The lawyer did nothing to improve the language and you don’t see how Don Quixote has anything to do with being a lawyer. Swallowing back anger and mustering up womanly pleasantry, you remind him you too are a lawyer and then ask for clarification on a procedural question.

He doesn’t respond.

 

*

One of your favorite wedding photos is from the rehearsal. You stand in the mountains before family and friends, arms splayed, notes in hand, directing.

Bossy. That’s what your little sister called you and she was right, you never stopped telling her what to do. But it’d be hard to find a sister who wanted to be more like her big sister than she did and in that way, it was flattering. Years later, you’re grateful it was her, not a boy who said it because it’s why you keep the trains running.

 

*

Seven months into trying to help your town, Ned is still saying no, still refusing to give you information, still talking over you at meetings and still telling you how to do a job he doesn’t know how to do. It’s hard to put words around why it feels so wrong and you tell the Mayor because she’s a friend and a woman and you think she will help.

“I hear you,” she says.

 

*

Despite what you once thought, you hadn’t really cracked the system and the day your first nephew was born was also the day you knew you didn’t want to be a partner at a white-shoe firm because when you looked at him, you saw what he saw—possibility.

After you decided to quit, you kept it quiet for nine months while you saw a therapist because you were so disappointed in yourself for opting out. If every woman left, nothing would change had long been your refrain and it didn’t matter that staying wasn’t the answer either.

The day you finally gave notice, a male partner who’d never talked to you before came to your office and begged you to reconsider. You were one of the women they were going to make partner next year. They were counting on you to keep the trains running.

You didn’t reconsider.

 

*

As P&Z Chair, residents keep bringing issues to your attention and like a good lawyer, you research and try to repair what’s broken. Dwindling water supply. Unclear code language. No mechanism for code enforcement. Pollutants from too much road traffic. These issues are important and so you keep trying but another month passes and you’re not sleeping. Something has crept inside and filled your veins with high voltage currencies while your stomach swims with nerves because you still don’t like confrontation and Ned is opposing everything you do.

And then, the Town Clerk quits because she’s tired of Ned’s condescending and disparaging behavior and after you learn he’s calling you a “know-it-all” like a sixth-grade boy and dismissing your work and insulting other women volunteering for the town, you ask the Mayor for help again.

“I hear you,” she says, again.

 

*

When you visit your now six-year-old nephew, he wants to give you a manicure and carries a bowl of warm, soapy water with both hands, deliberate and slow, eyes focused as you sit cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom next to the snow-capped mountains you painted on his wall when he was three. He scrubs your fingers with a brush and you tell him how Bop—his grandfather, your father—painted your fingernails when you were a little girl. He also did your hair before every dance recital. You don’t tell your nephew it was one of the reasons you believed in the fairytale of a level playing field.

When your nephew smiles and scrubs harder and asks how he’s doing, you tell him he’s doing great and feel the prick of tears because to him, you’re what you became after he was a born. His face is a living reminder change is possible.

 

*

Resigning from Planning and Zoning happens the same way you’ve left every man you couldn’t fix. The decision is swift and bags are packed within hours because you knew for months it was wrong. You opted out again but don’t need therapy this time. Or maybe you do because you can’t understand why your husband saw the mistreatment when you didn’t. Are you so programmed to accept the unacceptable?

 

*

On the last visit with your nephew, he raced you on his bike and you didn’t let him win, you ran faster than he pedaled. After the race, standing in your best friend’s kitchen, you ask for advice because she’s a mom and also, it’s what you’ve done since high school days on dirt trails. You say, “I don’t think I should let him win anymore.”

“Absolutely not. Moms and aunts shouldn’t let the kids win.” And then, she lifts the knife from the cutting board and says, “The problem is there are so many books now for girls that teach them how to be powerful, but not enough that teach boys to be empathetic and sensitive and caring. Where are the books teaching boys to appreciate and respect powerful women?”

There isn’t an answer. You decide never to let your nephew win again.

 

*

After the resignation, there’s an outpouring of support: “Ned had similar issues at other jobs,” one woman says; “Between me and you, he needs to go,” another woman says; “No more of this, ‘I’m the man you do what I say’ bullshit,” a male P&Z member says, and so on.

A meeting is soon called because residents want to know why you and the Town Clerk quit. Despite the outpouring of support, you’ve never been more nervous. Not when defending a client before the Department of Justice. Not when giving a speech to a packed room. Not when leading a meeting of over one hundred lawyers. Those nerves were nothing compared to the dread induced by having to explain why you resigned to the thirty suburban hillbillies who show up at Town Hall, sitting among the historic photographs from the mining days.

And you’re right to be nervous because most of the people who lamented about Ned in private sit silent at the public meeting. Others don’t even show. Too polite or too afraid, you wonder, and does it even matter?

After the Town Clerk and you give example after example about how he insulted women who volunteered for the town, a neighbor raises her hand and says, “You’re the ones insulting him. You’re saying he’s a chauvinist.”

“No,” you say. “His behavior is chauvinistic.”

“It’s not that I’m not honoring your experience,” she says, “but he can’t be a chauvinist. He’s a really nice guy.”

That prick of tears returns, but this time, it isn’t change you see. And maybe you should’ve told her honoring your experience sounds a lot like language long used to dismiss women’s stories, or explained that nice and chauvinistic aren’t mutually exclusive, or told her if Ned were a woman, you doubt she’d be standing up, but instead, you question whether you should have said chauvinistic at all because it’s made the meeting so uncomfortable. And you wonder what else we’re too afraid to say.

You keep questioning until hours later, when the meeting is long over and you get a text from the woman who’d told you in private Ned had similar challenges in prior jobs, but at the meeting, only shared things in support of him. Her text says, “I want you to know, I hear you,” and what you’ll know for sure is that just hearing will never be enough to change anything.

 

*

Running again, this time alone, you follow an old mule trail, passing aspens splayed like toothpicks by an avalanche, then switch-backing up, up, up where you cross an old mining dump and are propelled higher until you reach an opening where there’s a lichen-splotched boulder you like to sit on. From there, town looks like a collection of miniature dollhouses and you can see six more mine dumps—excavated rusty blond earth spilling down the emerald fabric of the mountainside.

You go there to breath, to let go, but today the only thing you can think about is this: Can a place ever really be anything other than what it once was?

 


 Allison S. Kingsley is a writer living in southwest Colorado. Her short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Litro Online, Another Chicago Magazine, New York Times (Modern Love) and Trail Runner. To learn more visit www.allisonskingsley.com.


 

 blue arrow curving left

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

Illinois Arts Council Logo

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.