Monday, December 13, 2004

The Unsinkable Molly Williams: A River Tale

Scioto County Courthouse

Some years ago, in the Fall following her summer stint as an intern for the Judge, the young woman who would later be known as the Unsinkable Molly Williams was back teaching social science at the high school. She was afraid she was pregnant, but she couldn’t be sure because her menstrual cycle had often been irregular. A doctor had even warned her she might not be able to have children. So she waited two months, and by then she was fairly certain she was pregnant, but she waited a third month before she finally told the Judge. Too embarrassed to face him in person, she called him at his office on the phone

“Are you sure?” he asked guardedly when she told him.

“Yes,” she replied in a troubled voice.

“How can you be sure?” he asked. “Have you been to a doctor?”

“No,” she said.

“I’ll make an appointment for you to see my brother.” The Judge’s brother was a prominent doctor in the city and the favorite gynecologist of women on the Hill.

“What will I tell him?” she asked.

“Don’t worry,” the Judge said. “He won’t ask embarrassing questions.”
Molly wondered how much the Judge’s brother or anyone else in his family would know about what had happened. She had heard her preacher father say more than once there was a streak of deviltry in the people on the Hill, and especially in the Judge’s influential and quirky family. “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion and who feel secure on the mountain,” Molly’s father would say, quoting Amos, the prophet he was named after. But Molly’s father, nicknamed “Amos Hollerer,” had been an old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone preacher. Growing up, she had been embarrassed by him and hadn’t put much stock in anything he said.

The Judge's brother confirmed to Molly that she was pregnant. “I foresee no complications,” he told her. He was speaking medically, of course, because in every other way Molly could see nothing but complications.

On the following chilly weekend she took a walk on the river embankment. Stopping for a minute, she stared across the river at the leafless hills on the other side. Her back was turned on the river city where she had grown up, with its church spires and the courthouse rising above the old commercial warehouses and stores, a number of which were empty and becoming dilapidated. She knew what some women would do in her situation, but she refused to consider that option. She wanted a baby, just not this way.

When she returned to her apartment, not far from the courthouse, she sat in a chair by the window and cried, something she had done often in the past few months. Her father used to tell her to turn to the good book for guidance in time of trouble, which she had never done before, partly because she didn’t believe in it and partly because she had never been in serious trouble. As a teenager, she had smoked for several years, wore her hair like a boy, and lost her virginity at sixteen, and occasionally cussed like a sailor, but she got through those experiences without feeling any need to turn to the good book. Now things were different. Picking up her father’s old Bible, she was not sure where to start, so she turned to the Book of Amos. Instead of pacifying her, the prophet's anger revived her own. “But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood . . .”

The following Thursday, she got a call from the Judge, who told her to come over to the courthouse the following evening at five thirty. Molly understood everyone would be gone by then. She didn’t want to be alone with him, especially in his office, after hours, because that had been her downfall, but she felt she had no choice. She was three months pregnant and had to do something.

At five-thirty Friday, the lights were off in the probate offices, where many thousands of records were deposited in row after row of green metal file cabinets — the births, the marriages the deaths — the most important events in everyone’s life. She could make out the shadow of the tall thin figure inside, who had been waiting for her in the darkness, like an impatient spider, between the rows of file cabinets. He quietly opened the glass door. Nervously, she followed him into his office, where he sat down at his large desk. It was cleared, except for a big black book. She sat in the same chair in which she had sat in June, when he had interviewed her for a summer internship.

“Miss Hollister,” he addressed her matter-of-factly, as he had in the June interview, “I need some information.”

“Information?” she asked.

“For a marriage license.”

“A what?”

“You’ll need one – and a husband. I think a soldier makes the most sense. That way I can waive the three-day waiting period and you can get married tomorrow, up in the capital, and he could leave for overseas on Monday and be killed in action somewhere in a month or two.”

She sat silently, trying to take in what he had just so matter-of-factly said. She was finding it hard to believe any of it was real – the courthouse, the summer internship, the sex in his office, the pregnancy, and now the “marriage.”

“Yes, I’ll put down ‘soldier’ as his occupation, and I’ll list his place of birth as New York City,” the Judge said. “He’ll be one of six million.” He paused, tilting his head, studying his penmanship. “Now, we’ve got to choose a last name.” He put his hand on the thick black book, as if about to swear on the Bible. “It’s all in here, however unreliable it may be. Data from the last census, including the most common names.” He put down the pen and opened the book. “We should give him a common name, to make it harder for anyone trying to track him down.”

“Who would track down somebody who doesn’t exist?” she asked, not sure she wasn’t just imagining it all, not sure she wasn’t losing her mind, like her mother had.

“You never know. Someday somebody might be snooping around,” the Judge said. He thumbed his way into the book. “Smith’s the most common name. Trouble is it’s too common, too suspicious sounding, under the circumstances. The same thing with the next one, Johnson. I suggest we use the third—Williams . . .” He paused, waiting for her to say something, but when she didn’t, he picked up the pen. “Yes, let’s name him Williams. There are probably a thousand Williamses in the state, and even more in New York City . . . What do you say?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” she stammered, confused. Brides don’t usually get to choose the name of their husbands.

He wrote down the name Williams on the license. “Now, what would you like for his first name? Let’s see . . .” He ran his finger down another list in the black book. “James is the most common first name. Yes, let’s call him James. If it’s a boy, you can name him James Williams, Jr., after his father.”

She protested, “But you’re the father!”

“I know, I know,” he acknowledged. “but we can’t name the baby after me, can we.”

The first name she thought of was her father's. “Amos?” she suggested.

Frowning, the Judge ran his finger down a list. “Amos. It’s pretty rare,” he explained, tapping the name on the list with his index finger. “It’s the 496th most common name. I don’t think we want to go with that.”

She summoned up what little resolution she had. “If I have a husband, I want him to be named Amos. And if I have a son, I’ll name him Amos.”

“Amos?” The Judge repeated the name, unhappily. “Amos. It will look peculiar on the license, your husband and father both having such an unusual name.”

“Amos was a prophet,” she reminded him. “It wouldn’t be an unusual name in a religious family.”

“Is your husband also a Preacher’s Kid?” the Judge quipped sardonically. She found nothing amusing in his remark, and he saw he was not going to change her mind. “’Amos’ will have to do,” he said. He glanced at his watch. Molly imagined his wife waiting for him at home. She was developing a resentment as deep as the Grand Canyon for his wife, and everyone else on the Hill.

“Now,” he continued, “let’s come up with names for your in-laws.” The Judge consulted the book, and, while she looked on incredulously, he created in-laws for her and even a fictitious minister who would perform the imaginary ceremony the next day up in the capital.

“And the Judge begat James and James’s father John and James’s mother Mary, and the Judge begat the minister, the Reverend Michael,” she mumbled as he wrote.

“What? he asked, looking up from the license.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Would you sign for the minister, here,” he said, pushing the license across the desk. “Try to change your handwriting,” he said, “as I did for your husband’s signature.” Within fifteen minutes, the last “t” was crossed and the last “i” dotted, and her imaginary marriage was documented.

“In ten days I’ll deposit this in one of the file cabinets and nobody will be the wiser.”

“I can’t believe it,” Molly said.

‘What?”

“Is this how people on the Hill deal with problems?” she asked.

“If you look at the history of any family, you wouldn’t believe how much alteration of the official record there is from one generation to the next. People wouldn’t believe how much false information is out there in those files. If you could know everything about your own family for a couple of generations back, you might be very surprised.”

“The past is all lies?”

“Not all of it. Only what needs to be, which is much more than people would like to think,” he said.

She took the license from him and stared at the forged document. At that moment it occurred to her that he had not only made her pregnant, he was making her an accomplice in a crime, thus guaranteeing her cooperation. Holding the license in her hand, she could have quickly torn it up, which is what she wanted to do, but then what would she do, being three months pregnant? She handed it back to him.

“Drive up to the capital tomorrow,” he said, taking money out of his billfold. “Just as if you’re going to get married. Take in a movie or museum.” She kept her fists clenched. Taking money from him was even harder than giving him back the license.

“I’m going to help you and the child in any way I can,” he promised.

“Can you forge me a court order to that effect?” she asked bitterly.

The Judge winced. “Molly, you’ve got to accept some responsibility for the situation we’re in.”

Half his age and with none of his influence and authority, she was infuriated by what she saw as his attempt to make her a co-conspirator. “What you and the other hypocrites on the Hill are doing is screwing people like me. That’s how you get to be on the Hill and that’s how you stay on the Hill. Screwing people like me.”

“Please, Molly. Don’t indulge in this self-righteousness. You’ve got to consider what’s best for the child,” he added. He waited for her to regain her composure before offering her the money again. Under the circumstances, seeing no way out, she took it, crumpling it in her hand. Then he told her, “It would be better if you left first.”

Though it was cold and dark as she walked away from the courthouse, she felt that she could see clearly for the first time. She agreed with the Judge about one thing. She had been na├»ve, but tears had washed away her blindness. In spite of the difficulties she saw looming ahead, she was determined not to give up her job or flee from the city. She would bear the child and the shame, under the documented cover story the Judge had concocted. But having seen what she had seen, and learned what she had learned, she was no longer the person she had been. She felt reborn, and she resolved she would not let them get away with it. She walked away from the courthouse with her father’s favorite passage from the Book of Amos echoing in her head. In the future, it would become her mantra. Surprising an old woman waiting for a bus under a streetlamp, Molly stopped and shouted it aloud, as if she wanted to be heard all the way up on the Hill. “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion and who feel secure on the mountain . . .” The old woman looked around uneasily. Molly nodded, to reassure her she was not crazy, and marched resolutely homeward.

From that day onward, Molly became the hair shirt and the self-appointed conscience, the Amos and the Jeremiah, of the community. Because she believed the local Daily Bugle was nothing but a publishing prostitute for the people on the Hill, she founded an alternative weekly, The Clarion, for which she and her daughter dug up all the news that the Bugle would not have printed even if its reporters had been capable of digging it up. “The records in the Probate court are the Gospel compared to the stories printed in the Bugle,” Molly would say, but she would say no more than that. The over-privileged people on the Hill said she was a crazy, slanderous witch, and a cocaine-sniffing lesbian to boot, but she stuck to her guns and brought down a number of crooked politicians and public officials. She never said a word about the Judge, and he went to his death, years later, without more than a couple of people knowing what role he had played in the career of the woman the underprivileged, underemployed, barely literate, but very grateful people of the city nicknamed the Unsinkable Molly Williams.