(Any proper names I use in this piece have been changed)
Once upon a time I graduated from college with a degree in drama that said that I could correctly apply old-age makeup, a skill which gets less useful with each passing year. I also learned how to get a laugh, build a flat and fall down dead during a fatal sword fight without hurting my self.
After graduation, I needed a job for the summer. So my mother who was a legal secretary for the County of Onondaga in Syracuse got me a job as a file clerk in Family Court. Filing is no fun, but the County Courthouse is a fascinating place to work, especially if you’re interested in drama.
The Family Court hearings were closed, but the criminal trials on the second floor were open to the public and quite entertaining. When I couldn’t find an excuse to sneak upstairs and watch some prosecuting or defense attorney holding forth, I did my work: filing and re-filing the cream-colored folders as they were returned to our office from court.
In the process, I got an education quite different from the one I’d acquired in school. Although the hearings were closed, the files weren’t—not to me anyway. I often had to read from them to caseworkers, lawyers, or policemen over the phone. I read divorce decrees, protection orders, bench warrants, witness statements, and gradually learned not to be too shocked by what I read.
One hot August morning—a Friday—the phone rang soon after I sat down at my desk. A caseworker asked me to pull the file on Rice, William J. and Catherine W. I put the caller on hold, pulled the file, and opened it on my desk.
The first thing I saw was a color snapshot, obviously taken at a wedding. A pretty young woman in a gorgeous white wedding gown and veil was smiling up at a dark-haired young man in a silver tuxedo. They were Cinderella and Prince Charming and appeared to be delighted with each other as they cut an exquisite wedding cake with a gold-handled knife.
I was gazing at the lovely couple in the photo as I heard the caseworker telling me that William was in the county jail. She wanted to know if there was a protection order issued from Family Court. I thought that there couldn’t be, not with these two lovebirds, but there was: “Respondent is ordered to stay away from Petitioner’s home and place of work,” it read. “He is not to talk to her, phone her, or come anywhere near her.”
There was also an emergency room report attached to the protection order, dated eleven months earlier: “Patient got hit Saturday night on left side of face. Feels nauseated. Has headache. Both ears bothering her. Would not press charges.”
I put the wedding photo next to the judge’s order and marveled. This photo was provided by the woman, Catherine, so police could identify her husband. On the back of it someone had written: “If you love me, how can you hit me?”
After the caseworker hung up, I put the Rice file away and walked around the office for a while. I felt really anxious because I thought if it could happen to Cinderella, why couldn’t it happen to me?
The following Friday, Judge Gingold’s secretary, Dorothy, came to the big outer office where the files were kept and invited all the staff to a wedding in the judge’s chambers at 3 o’clock that afternoon. The couple, originally from China, would have no family there except for the groom’s mother. Two of the clerks had volunteered to be witnesses.
At 3:00 we crowded into the Judge’s chambers and arranged ourselves around the furniture. There were seven of us. Two Asian women, one very young and the other older, stood by the desk. The young woman wore a red dress with a gold design and a mandarin collar. The older woman introduced herself as Mrs. Chang and the bride as Li Wen. She said her son, Brian, was on a special errand but would be here shortly. We waited. After awhile we began whispering among ourselves about the apparent no-show. Li was agitated and looked as though she might cry. She and Mrs. Chang were talking rapidly in low tones. We couldn’t understand the Chinese words, but the panic behind them was understood by all.
Mrs. Chang turned to us and smiled. “To one who waits,” she said, “a moment seems like a year”.
At 3:30 Brian finally appeared in the doorway sweating and disheveled. He walked directly to his bride as we all silently cheered his arrival. Li became perfectly still when she saw him, all signs of distress vanished.
Mrs. Chang motioned to us to gather around the judge‘s desk to see the weird thing Brian took from his pocket: it was a tiny cage with a bug in it. The cage was made of green stone—jade—with a carved silver top. Mrs. Chang told us the cage contained a male “Kim Chung” or Golden Bell cricket, imported from China and prized in that country for its melodious song. It’s considered very good luck to have one singing at your wedding.
But it wasn’t singing. As we watched, Brian took another small cage from his pocket, which held another cricket, a female, we were told. He put the female cricket into the cage next to the male cricket. In an instant, the Golden Bell began to sing, making a sound like tiny tinkling bells, shimmering on a breeze.
The bride was overjoyed with this wedding gift and we all caught her happiness. Judge Gingold arrived in his black robe and the ceremony took place to the sound of those enchanted wedding bells.
Afterwards, Brian gave each of us a piece of wrapped candy. He called it “Sweetheart Candy”—hard cherry outside with a soft lemon center. It was often given at weddings to remind young people that even the happiest couples have their bitter moments.
Brian and Li were posing for photos. We all got to be in one with the wedding couple and Judge Gingold. Then I put the a candy in my mouth and returned to work. When I got to my desk, the sour taste of lemon exploded on my tongue. At once I remembered the wedding photo I’d seen in the files: “If you love me, how can you hit me?”
I saw and heard many hard things while I worked in Family Court, but on that day, the day the cricket sang at the wedding, there was joy and, even more remarkable, hope.