THERE’S ONE BANKRUPTCY I think I’ll remember for a long time. Nobody at my office could understand why the man bobbed his head in at first. It was about a year or so ago. Most clients schedule an appointment. But this man just knocked on the door wearing his round felt hat. He was much older than most of my clients and had a solemn voice. He took off his hat and asked my secretary Kathleen to speak with a “straight-talking lawyer.”
Well, Kathleen disliked anything betokening disorder, and the man had no appointment. But she seated him in an armchair. The man looked full of worried thoughts so Kathleen figured she’d study him a moment. The man had a military bearing, almost like an officer from former days. He sat upright with brilliantly shined shoes and white collar. It was only the bluish pallor of his face which betrayed how troubled he felt. He placed his hat on our magazine-table and produced a handkerchief to sneeze in. Kathleen offered him a chocolate which he refused, but he did accept a black coffee.
Somehow the look of the man won Kathleen over so she gave him our intake form. In the meantime, she instructed me I’d be having an extra appointment that day. I’ve learned over the years to obey my secretaries so I offered no resistance to this. So in about ten minutes I went to our reception room to greet the man. I saw at once that he had a sharp, intelligent face. The tips of his ten fingers he had placed together and was in thought. His eyes appeared fixed on some imaginary horizon.
We shook hands and I ushered him back to my office. I remember he walked with a long, sturdy stride. My office looked like a little circus that morning because I had court-exhibits strewn about everywhere, and was preparing for a trial. I wasn’t expecting any clients so early. By and by, I asked the man his story. He seemed hesitant to begin. But I felt impelled to remain silent. His gaze rested for a few moments on the volumes of Federal Reporter which stood on a shelf along my wall. His tuffs of gray hair and pitch-black eyebrows gave him dignity as he prepared to speak.
Then he began. He explained that he had lately buried his wife. He had been proud and happy when she was alive, proud of her grace. She had contracted cancer of the lungs. He showed me a picture of her. Her skin was stretched tight over her bones, and her temples black and hollow. But the man only saw his young bride in these pictures. In the meantime, he had fallen heavily into debt because of the medical bills. He said the creditors started harassing him before he could even finish grieving.
But he paid them almost all he had. He also had a granddaughter whose college he paid for. The man had worked since he was sixteen. He had always paid his debts as a matter of honor. But now the creditors threatened to sue him. They threatened to garnish his bank account. Once or twice he pulled out his sleeve from his blazer as he was speaking, and then he became extraordinarily moved. As the proud man spoke tears began to roll down his eyes. Sometimes people who live alone find it a relief to tell their story to someone they don’t know. The man really unburdened his heart. He told me everything.
But legally, his problem wasn’t too difficult. I explained to him that filing a bankruptcy petition could discharge his debts and ease his financial distress. I told him that he would have one hearing to go to which lasted about fifteen minutes. That there were two short classes he would need to take online. The man didn’t have very much property, so I explained that nothing would be distributed to his creditors, and that he could keep his house. Truth be told, I felt pretty light-hearted and optimistic that I could help him. A bankruptcy would ease his worries. My tongue must have rambled on.
But he listened to me perfectly silent. He appeared very thoughtful, and went on looking all about the room and at my bookshelves. He also kept a careful and keen watch on my eyes. Then he spoke very slowly, choosing his words. He asked me: But is it honorable?
I was a tad unprepared for this. Most clients worry whether they qualify for a discharge or not. Here was a man troubled by a point of honor. He kept his eyes very fixed on me. I actually got up from my desk. I could see this man didn’t want to besmirch his name or act ignobly. I could see telling him that bankruptcy was a legal remedy, authorized by federal law, wouldn’t be a true answer to his question. Then I needed to bend my head a moment upon my pile of papers. Was bankruptcy an honorable thing to do? The question upset my equipoise.
Well, I thought back on all the bankruptcies I had prepared. Some of the memories about the properties involved were confused in my mind, but I remembered all the people. I recounted how often unforeseen contingencies had brought many people into debt and ruination. People came to me after losing their jobs, stumbling in the dark, or even being hit on the head by a plank falling from a roof. Many souls have come to my office, worn out by tribulations, on some pretty cold and rainy nights. The middle of the room was occupied by a large clock and I stared at its gold bells for a minute. Was bankruptcy an honorable thing to do?
Only very seldom do clients pose such questions to me. I normally enjoyed thinking about the answers. All was silent now in my office. The phones ringing in the other offices grew quieter too. Meanwhile there was a laugh from the man. It must have bemused him that he set me into a deep thought. He said: “Now I know you’re doing your duty!” Then he grinned and shook his head. Then he yawned a bit and rose and opened my window. For the first time I noticed elegant blue veins near his eyes, which usually betoken deep kindness.
At last, I answered: “Bankruptcy is a humble asking for help. It is honorable when a man can do no more. It is honorable when a man has fought all he can and needs rest. And not asking for help, isn’t that in itself a kind of vanity? This is what I think.”
This answer seemed to satisfy the man. He thought for another moment. Then he raised his eyebrow in an approving manner, smiled, and said: “You’re treading on delicate ground!” Then he turned slightly aside, put his hand in his left trouser pocket, took out a pen, and asked how to begin. I called Kathleen in, and had her bring the man our Bankruptcy Questionnaire which he undertook to complete and return as promptly as possible. He next read our Fee Agreement line by line, asked for a clarification or two, and signed it with one gallant stroke of pen.
Over the coming weeks the man was punctilious in providing all the documentation we needed to file his Voluntary Petition under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. He listed all his assets right down to the last teacup. And when I explained that he didn’t need to itemize his assets quite that specifically, he angrily barked that this was the only way he could be sure of disclosing absolutely everything. Sometimes he would even call our office asking how he should value an asset like an old screwdriver, or record-player. This was quite endearing, and we all looked forward to his calls. But once, he even sent our office a delightful basket of wild strawberries just for the sake of it. These, Kathleen and I gobbled up. We envisaged the man picking them along the spongy earth of some river bank, or treading alone in some pretty clump of woods.
At his 341 Meeting of Creditors, he came faultlessly dressed and I daresay everyone, at first, thought he was an attorney. He was unassuming, and answered the Bankruptcy’s Trustee’s questions very exactly. He sat very nobly poised and his proud shoulders lent a peculiar elegance to his profile. Some of my clients have showed up to the hearing chewing gum, so all this was very pleasing to me. In short, everything was carried off perfectly. He bore the ordeal with composure. After the hearing he rose, not without dignity, and shook the Trustee’s hand cordially. But his head did seem to be swimming just a little. Probably he was unaccustomed to finding himself in a crowded room with so many people arriving and dispersing in different directions.
About a month after the 341 Meeting of Creditors the man arrived at our office unannounced. He had in his hand a Discharge from the Court. I explained to him that this meant that he was cleared of his debts, and could now carry on with a fresh start. He seemed mostly pleased by this news, but didn’t show too much open joy. He gave a little cough. For him, it was a solemn occasion, not something to act overly happy about. Indeed he maintained a formidable politeness along with his natural stateliness. But at last a broad smile did spread over his features, and before he entered the elevator, I noticed that he flipped on his hat with a kind of youthful lightness.
The Chronicles of Mr. Mantel will have new articles periodically published. Check back next month for the next article!
Stories from The Chronicles of Mr. Mantel are fictional and do not depict an actual person or event . This article does not constitute legal advice.