The Nekkid Breakfast

The tele­phone rang. “Law offices. Oder.”

“Ken­ny, it’s Sue Ellen. You ain’t gonna believe what just hap­pened! Fred came to the break­fast table buck nekkid! Lar­ry and Grady were still in bed, thank you, Jesus! It’s a mir­a­cle they didn’t wake up and walk in the kitchen! Can you imag­ine the shock of my lit­tle boys seein’ their dad­dy nekkid as a jaybird?”

In her mid-twen­ties, short and slight with coal-black eyes and stringy brown hair, born-again Chris­t­ian, moth­er of two boys, and the unhap­py wife of a motor­cy­cle enthu­si­ast and ser­i­al sin­ner, Sue Ellen Defibaugh called me every day for three weeks. Each call went on for­ev­er; she rarely paused to take a breath; and I couldn’t jam a word in edgeways.

“Sue Ellen –”

“I told Fred to march right back in the bed­room and get dressed and he just sat at the table with his hands between his nekkid legs and his head hangin’ down and he start­ed cryin’ and he said Sue Ellen you gone crazy with Jesus and I can’t stand it and I want you to go back to the way you was and I said Jesus is my Lord and Sav­ior and you need to get straight with Him because I can’t live with a sin­ner who cuss­es and drinks whiskey and lis­tens to the devil’s music and comes to break­fast nekkid.”

Fred came to break­fast nekkid in the sum­mer of 1972. UVA had accept­ed my appli­ca­tion to law school the pre­vi­ous spring, and I gave notice to Albe­mar­le Coun­ty that I wouldn’t return in the fall for a fourth year of teach­ing high school. The news leaked out to my stu­dents. The father of one of them rec­om­mend­ed me to a Char­lottesville attor­ney, Richard Bell, who was look­ing for a sum­mer clerk. I sched­uled an interview.

Bell had con­vert­ed a two-sto­ry res­i­den­tial home on a tree-lined street near the cour­t­house into law offices. Five-feet-four with a round face, reced­ing chin, and lit­tle pot bel­ly, he sat at his desk in what was once a large par­lor and squint­ed at me through smudged, thick-lensed glasses.

“I haven’t even start­ed law school,” I told him. “I don’t know any­thing about the law.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “Your stu­dents say you’re a peo­ple per­son. I need a peo­ple per­son.” He hired me on the spot.

My first day on the job, Jody Sprouse, Bell’s office man­ag­er, a no-non­sense pit bull in her fifties with a bee-hive of blue hair, led me to a clos­et-sized win­dow­less room and plopped a stack of mani­la file fold­ers on a dusty desk jammed against the back wall. “Your job,” she said, “is to keep these peo­ple away from Mis­ter Bell.”

By the end of the day, I under­stood why Bell need­ed a peo­ple per­son. He made a small for­tune buy­ing run-down homes in dis­tressed neigh­bor­hoods and rent­ing them out to cov­er the mort­gage pay­ments. The bulk of his legal work involved these trans­ac­tions. While his acqui­si­tions cre­at­ed sub­stan­tial net worth, they didn’t gen­er­ate much cash flow, so he took on tra­di­tion­al legal work to pay the bills. And that was the rub. Social­ly inept, tac­i­turn, and sullen, he hat­ed client contact.

Bell’s three law clerks were no help to him on that score. They were each bril­liant UVA law stu­dents with the per­son­al­i­ty of a plas­tic bag. While they were great at legal research and doc­u­ment­ing com­plex trans­ac­tions, he couldn’t put them in a room with a client with­out los­ing the business.

That’s where I came in. The files Jody stacked on my desk spanned the spec­trum of a sole practitioner’s bread and but­ter – wills, trusts, con­tract dis­putes, debt col­lec­tion, divorce peti­tions. Each file con­tained Bell’s cryp­tic notes from an ini­tial client meet­ing and a list of infor­ma­tion he need­ed from them to com­plete their legal project.

My job was to meet with the clients, gath­er facts, fill in the blanks on form doc­u­ments, and hand them off to Bell for final revi­sion and court fil­ings. I made a hit with the clients right off the bat. Angry because they’d been neglect­ed, they imme­di­ate­ly warmed up when I told them their case was my top pri­or­i­ty. I was the peo­ple per­son; Bell was the lawyer; and every­thing went along smoothly.

Jim­my Swaggert

Until one morn­ing in July. Jody buzzed me. “Sue Ellen Defibaugh on line 2.”

I dug out a thin file labeled Defibaugh v. Defibaugh, con­tain­ing a sin­gle page of pen­cil-scrib­bled phras­es. “Preg­nant at 16. Mar­ried 17. Sec­ond child 18. Hus­band won’t go to church.” Not much to go on, but by then I’d learned to dance with­out music. “Put her through,” I told Jody.

“Be care­ful. This woman’s crazy as a shit­house rat.”

When I intro­duced myself, Sue Ellen cheered. At a revival ser­vice my dad preached in Free Union, she’d answered his altar call to ded­i­cate her life to Christ. “Thank you, Jesus, for sendin’ me Rev­erend Oder’s son in my time of need!” She launched into a full-throat­ed con­dem­na­tion of Fred for pres­sur­ing her to stop play­ing “Jesus records.” The Black­wood Broth­ers, Jim­my Swag­gart, Jim­my Pat­ton, The Inspi­ra­tions. Even Elvis and Aretha Franklin got into the act. “I cry every time that girl sings Amazin’ Grace.” After an hour with­out a pause, she hung up because she had to go to the toilet.

For three weeks, Sue Ellen buried me in an avalanche of phone calls. Fred wouldn’t go to church, drank beer, took the Lord’s name in vain, blas­phemed, looked at dirty mag­a­zines, played pok­er with his bud­dies. Worst of all, he pestered Sue Ellen con­stant­ly about sex, but after my dad’s revival ser­vice, she’d refused to let him touch her. “It’s a sin to lie down with a man who don’t love our Lord and Savior!”

The nekkid break­fast came along in August, and it went bad in a hurry.

“When I told Fred to go back in the bed­room and pull on his pants, he stood up and said Sue Ellen I miss you so much and he just stood there cryin’ with big ole tears streamin’ down his face and he walked back in the bed­room real sad and I called you cause I want Mis­ter Bell to get him outa my life unless he stops his sin­nin’ ways–”

In the back­ground I heard shout­ing and glass breaking.

I sat up straight. “Sue Ellen?!!”

“Sweet Jesus! Fred threw a chair through the win­dow, jumped out, and drove off on his Harley. He ain’t wearin’ no shirt, but at least he put on his pants. I just don’t know what to do.” She broke down, sobbing.

Relieved Sue Ellen hadn’t been hurt, I let out a long breath.

“Oh no!” She gasped. “Lar­ry and Grady is up. Mer­ci­ful Jesus, please give me the brains to know what to tell my sweet babies.” The line clicked.

I placed the phone in its cra­dle and stared at it. Fred’s frus­tra­tion was build­ing. Some­thing bad could hap­pen any day now, and I didn’t know how to stop it.

As Jody and Bell had made abun­dant­ly clear, my job was to keep the clients away from him, espe­cial­ly the aggra­vat­ing ones, and Sue Ellen was among the most aggra­vat­ing clients God and my dad had ever called to the altar. But I was just a glad-hand­ing peo­ple guy. She need­ed a lawyer.

Know­ing I’d like­ly lose my job, I marched past a star­tled Jody into Bell’s office unannounced.

He looked up from a plat map and scowled. “What do you want?”

Jody stormed in behind me. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t just barge in here—”

“I’m in over my head,” I said. “Sue Ellen Defibaugh’s safe­ty is at risk.” I recapped her 35 phone calls, con­clud­ing with the nekkid break­fast and the smashed-out window.

When I fin­ished, Bell stared at me silent­ly for a long time. I expect­ed the axe to fall at any moment.

Then Bell said, “Her hus­band called in here once. He told me he loved her. He cried. I felt sor­ry for him.” Bell put his hand to his reced­ing chin, looked out the win­dow, then looked at me. “The hus­band is unrep­re­sent­ed. Let’s call them in. I’ll meet with him while you meet with Mrs. Defibaugh. We’ll try to set­tle their differences.”

Her mouth hang­ing open, Jody looked like she might faint. I was shocked, too. The last thing either of us had expect­ed was for Bell to pro­pose meet­ing with a human being unre­lat­ed to his real estate business.

The next morn­ing, Jody led Fred, a tall, mus­cle-bound, skin­head in his 20’s, wear­ing a leather jack­et with a motor­cy­cle hel­met dan­gling from his hand, into Bell’s office.

I met with Sue Ellen in a con­fer­ence room down the hall. “Is there any way you and Fred can stay togeth­er?” I asked her.

Sweaty chest­nut-brown bangs stick­ing to her fore­head, dark cir­cles under her slight­ly crazed black eyes, she nod­ded eager­ly. “All I want is for Fred to give his life to Christ.”

“Sup­pose he won’t do that.”

“Then I want him gone.”

I tried to talk her off that hard line. She wouldn’t give an inch. I inter­rupt­ed Bell’s meet­ing with Fred and told them what she said. Fred asked to speak with Sue Ellen alone. She refused.

Bell met with Fred again while I wait­ed with Sue Ellen. Fred told Bell the nekkid break­fast was his des­per­ate attempt to res­ur­rect the wild sex­pot he’d fall­en in love with, and although it didn’t work, he still loved her. It took Bell more than an hour to con­vince him to let her go.

Fred agreed to move out that day before Sue Ellen got home. Sue Ellen and I watched him from the con­fer­ence room win­dow. Tears stream­ing down his stone-hard face, he put on his hel­met, strad­dled the Harley, and roared out of Bell’s park­ing lot.

“Good rid­dance,” Sue Ellen said, her eyes dry.

Lat­er that after­noon, Jody came to my office. “What did you do to Mis­ter Bell?” she said in a small voice.

“What do you mean?”

“When you were with Sue Ellen, he called me in his office to bring him a box a Kleenex. That big bald-head­ed boy was cryin’ like a baby and Mis­ter Bell was hug­gin’ him.” She took a deep breath. “And he had tears in his eyes. What did you do to him?”

“I didn’t do any­thing. I don’t under­stand it either.”

Over the next few weeks, Bell and I worked out a sep­a­ra­tion agree­ment between Sue Ellen and Fred, divid­ing their prop­er­ty and giv­ing him vis­i­ta­tion rights. Their divorce peti­tion was grant­ed the fol­low­ing summer.

I worked for Bell nights and week­ends through­out my law school days. Dur­ing that time, I came to under­stand him bet­ter. We were very dif­fer­ent peo­ple, but like-mind­ed in two ways: 1) after Defibaugh v. Defibaugh, we both vowed nev­er to come with­in a coun­try mile of anoth­er divorce case; and 2) although Bell worked hard to con­ceal it, he was a good peo­ple per­son. When it count­ed most, he lis­tened to his heart.