“Stay off the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court building,” my older brother advises, lighting a cigarette directly under a No Smoking sign.
“Ain’t nothing good up here,” he replies, his cigarette ash falling on the paperwork declaring him my guardian. The clerk frowns at him while he signs, but he flashes her a dazzling smile when he hands the papers back to her. One look at his handsome face and all is forgiven.
“What’s a ward?” I ask, squinting at the paper.
“A dependent,” he replies, carefully writing out a check. “You are now my charge, my protégé, my apprentice, my pain in the ass. This paper officially makes you my problem.”
“So, if I’m your ward, does that make you my warden?”
“Sure. Why not? But instead of being in jail, you’ll sleep on the couch in my apartment. To be honest, jail might be a little more comfortable,” he mumbles, stubbing out his cigarette butt on the sole of his motorcycle boot. “Just do what I say. Promise me you’ll keep off the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court building, and we’ll get along fine. Remember, I’m your warden.”
“So then what are mom and dad?”
“Mom and dad are gone.”
“Are they dead?”
“I hope so.”
“What’s the difference between dependency and delinquency?” My older brother asks, holding a clipboard with JUVENILE COURT – 2ND FLOOR written in black Sharpie permanent marker on the back.
“You idiot,” I say, taking the clipboard out of his callused hands. “Just check the box for dependency. I haven’t been arrested.”
“Apparently, you are habitually truant. I can’t believe I had to miss work because you’ve been hauled in for skipping school. That’s close enough to being arrested, you little hell beast.”
“Have you been to middle school lately? I’m much safer practically anywhere else in the city.”
“Well, that’s where the truant officers found you. Anywhere else than where you should have been.”
“Trust me. I’m learning more outside of school than in school. I swear we spend half of our time testing and the other half preparing to be tested.”
“The educational system is a complete farce, I agree. But you can’t miss school anymore,” he says matter-of-factly, pulling out his vape mod, a new skull skin decal covering the device. My birthday present to him.
“I’ve only skipped school a couple of days . . . I still have straight A’s,” I protest.
“You’ve missed 16 days, and it’s not even the second quarter. You keep this up, and I’ll have to drag you up here to the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court building to pee in a cup. Drug testing is no joke, sis. And I don’t need any more fines or court-appointed mandatory counseling sessions on your behalf. Just get it together.”
“Say, bro. While we’re here on the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court building, should I ask the clerk to pull up your rap sheet? I’m sure the record of your arrests and prosecutions would make my few harmless excursions seem like field trips.”
“Listen, legal eagle. Rap sheets are confidential. Not everything is a public record.”
I key in a few words on my iPhone. I hold up the picture so he can see. “You mean public records like mugshots? I really like this one from 2018.”
“The charges were dropped—”
“And why are you smiling in this mugshot from 2019? This actually is better looking than your driver’s license.” I laugh when he winces.
“I think we’re done here,” he says, walking up with my paperwork to the clerk’s window. I trot after him, a puppy at his heels.
“Did you pick up my tampons?”
“I did, and I’m sure I got the wrong kind. There are twelve million kinds, you know.”
“Thanks,” I say, hugging him.
“No more skipping school. Promise?”
“I promise,” I reply.
He shakes his head. “I am not coming to the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court building with you ever again.”
“Why do you even need a passport?” my older brother complains. He takes out the checkbook again, carefully adding up the fees. He takes out a piece of Nicorette Gum.
“Because our class won the school district’s French contest, and we are going to Paris.”
“NEXT!” A clerk from the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court yells. We dutifully follow the line that snakes around the corridor. We get a ticket with our call number and sit in orange plastic chairs.
“How much is a passport going to cost?” he sighs.
“Nothing. Zéro dollar.”
“I promise! We have been fundraising all year. That reminds me—would you like to sell subpar candy at a ridiculous markup at your garage? I’m sure your fellow grease monkeys would love the grainy blandness of mass produced milk chocolate.”
“Nobody wants your trash candy. The candles you sold us last semester didn’t even have wicks!”
“Still, they were scented. A lovely pine and mimosa.”
“Now the garage smells like a forest on a Caribbean island.”
“We are selling wreaths next.”
“Christmas has been over for months!”
“Discount wreaths. They’ll sell. People buy Christmas shit all year long.”
“Agh! This line is going to take forever,” he moans. “Please tell me you have everything the bureaucracy needs to expedite your passport.”
“Of course I have everything. Remember when we were here for the evictions and a small claims filing? I had all of our proverbial ducks in a row. I got this. Don’t worry about it.”
“Worrying is all I do on the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court building.”
“They close at 3:30 p.m.,” my older brother warns me.
“We have an appointment at 3:00 p.m.,” I say somberly. “Everything will be fine.”
“It’s been three days, right? You’ve read the handbook and taken the course?”
“We did. It’s all set.”
“You know I hate the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court building.”
“You’ve been telling me that for a decade,” I smile. “It isn’t all bad up here.”
He reaches over and pats my hand.
“How much did the fees set you back?”
“Let’s see. The marriage application, oath, issuance, sealing and recording of license was $86.00. The solemnizing matrimony service is going to be $30.00. Cashier’s check only.”
My brother whistles. “That’s highway robbery. I don’t think either of my marriages cost that much.”
“They should have charged you by the hour. Neither of your marriages lasted that long.”
“Do you love him?”
“I do,” I say. “With all my heart.”
“Because the Domestic Relations – Dissolution of Marriage Department is on the 2nd floor of the Circuit Court Building, too. Just in case.”