Small Talk

by Nola Garrett

I’m not good at organized small talk. I dread cocktail parties, church suppers, Christmas parties, big birthday parties, even poets’ wine receptions. I seem never to have anything to say face to face with half drunk strangers wearing name tags. Once at an apartment house cocktail party, I asked the landlord a too obvious question, and he evicted me. I find that my best party gambit is to drink ginger ale, find an empty seat at the farthest edge of the room, settle in, and observe. After a decent interval, I can thank the host and leave.

However, I do enjoy chance meetings and the small passing conversations those situations engender. I find I’m often asked for advice by younger shoppers in grocery stores. I like the tiny bits exchanged during the elevator rides in my condo. Once as I walked past a woman who had just alighted from a downtown bus, she began talking with me as if she were talking with her sister. She was almost as surprised as I was, but as we stood there chatting among her profuse embarrassment, it became evident that she had boarded that bus from Oakland to Downtown for no other reason than simple loneliness. At my suggestion, we adjourned to McDonald’s for ice cream cones, and then went our separate ways.

A week or so ago, I was sitting in the Allegheny Court House around the corner from the hallway outside the judge’s chambers where the judicial mediation for my divorce was being held. For a few minutes I conferred with my attorney, and then she went into the courtroom. I sat there oddly at peace, mostly because I trusted my attorney and because I felt I was nearly finished with this divorce that was not of my choosing. A few minutes later another woman about my age sat down a chair away from me. I smiled. She smiled back. We exchanged first names. Turned out Jan was dealing with a divorce similar to mine, though her divorce was finalized she was still attempting to reclaim monies her husband owed her.

Ten minutes later, my attorney returned, told me the judge had agreed with everything we had presented, and now all we had to do was wait to hear if my husband would accept the judge’s mediation findings. We could both hear from around the corner my husband’s angry disagreements with the judge and even with his own attorney’s advice.

Meanwhile, Jan’s attorney arrived and the two of them conferred. A few minutes later, her attorney went looking for her husband’s attorney. While we waited, my attorney chatted with me and lots of other passing attorneys and court personnel. Jan’s attorney returned, told her that her husband had not yet appeared. Promising to return in a half hour, Jan’s attorney left. Jan and I continued our small talk. As promised, Jan’s attorney returned to explain that her husband apparently would not appear nor would his attorney. Jan prepared to leave, but before she left she removed from her wrist one of her elastic bead bracelets, a green one interspersed with metal beads imprinted with the words, wish and hope, and placed it on my wrist. I had nothing with me other than my poet’s business cards, so I gave her one. We hugged and she left.

More than an hour later while my husband still was arguing with his attorney, my attorney approached his attorney to find out if any progress toward resolution had occurred. Turned out the real sticking point left for him was the escrow account. He demanded it all. The judge wanted the account to be evenly split. If both of us couldn’t come to an agreement, the divorce proceedings would continue for months or even years longer.

I looked down at the bead bracelet Jan had just given me, remembered her ongoing sense of hurt and injustice even though her divorce was finished, and I said to my attorney the small magic words that I have said several other times during my life, words I have never regretted: It’s only money.


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