They filed into Judge Eleanor Merced’s chambers; yet another fractured family seeking an equitable child support settlement. The children—plump triplets, happy boys—sat with mom. One of them smiled surreptitiously and waved to dad who sat at the adjacent table.

Judge Eleanor had seen it many times: children manipulated like pawns in their parents’ game of emotional chess. And the offspring were used precisely like pawns: sacrificed to ease the passage of the Queen or King. “Mister Torrey,” said Judge Eleanor, “I’ve reviewed the case, but I find it is helpful—sometimes even therapeutic—for the litigants to state the case from their own points-of-view. Mister Torrey?”

“In these financial times,” said Raymond, “and given the success of my restaurant, I don’t think Janie’s request of two thousand dollars a month is unreasonable.” He coughed. “I’ve given her the house and I agree to the terms of support. It’s fair, and will make life easier for her and my sons.”

“Why then,” said Judge Eleanor, “am I here?”

“It’s the ‘Damages’ settlement that I object to, Judge.”

“Ms. Torrey?” said the Judge.

Janie Torrey stood, managing to touch all three boys for emotional support. She gnawed on her bottom lip. “Yes, Judge?”

Judge Eleanor pointed at Eleanor. “Why are you pursuing a damage settlement of ten-thousand dollars, above and beyond this monthly settlement?” The Judge stared, out of curiosity, at Janie Torrey. She really was interested in the answer.

That’s when Janie burst into tears.

Judge Eleanor always thought that the money she spent yearly on Kleenex should be tax deductible. A teepee of soggy tissue had accumulated in front of Janie. No matter how she phrased the question: “Why are you suing? Pursuing damages? Settling a grudge? S eeking recompense?” the Judge was answered with weeping. Raymond sat composed; three minutes away from having his ex-wife’s suit for damages tossed out of court.

Then, suddenly, the waterworks stopped. Janie sat up and said, “It was their eighth birthday party—they’re triplets, you know?”

Judge Eleanor nodded; she’d had the boys removed from chambers, a move to allow the parents to speak more freely.

“That’s an age when they’re feeling grown up. They don’t want to be treated as babies anymore.” She smiled, “Even though they are.”

The Judge nodded again.

“Raymond and I had a terrible fight. I insisted it was time; it was healthy, for the boys to establish individual identities. He still liked to parade them around in matching outfits; same colored bicycles; identical haircuts. But I was firm.”

Raymond said, “Firm?”

“I was insistent and unyielding and stubborn; but I was right. So I bought all new clothes and shoes—non-matching—for the boys. Raymond has always been a wonderful provider and I thank him for that but—”

“It wasn’t the extravagance, Janie. They’re triplets. It was cute.”

“It was good for your business. Judge, he’d dress them up seasonally: Three Elves, three Pilgrims, three Uncle Sams and parade them through the restaurant, handing out mints. It was the principle that I took a stand on. They are our boys: Nathan, Jimbo, Smiley Riley. They are not a food service marketing tool. Their eighth birthday was the end to their being identically dressed triplets.”

“Why,” said the Judge, “ten-thousand dollars?”

“For emotional damages,” said Janie.

“But what did he do to you?” asked Judge Eleanor.

“For the boys,” sobbed Janie. “The boys.”

After the bailiff had delivered another box of tissues, Janie continued, “For the party I had three cakes made. One said Jimbo, one Riley, one NATHAN. All different: Angel food, chocolate, lemon; their favorites.”

“I still don’t see any emotional damages, Ms. Torrey.”

“After they’d blown out the candles and were opening presents, Raymond announced, in front of our children’s guests, our family and the neighbors: ‘Each of them gets a cake? Next thing she’ll be having me build houses of straw, wood, and brick for those three little pigs.’”

“Is this true, Mister Torrey?” asked the Judge. “You called your sons pigs?”

“I’m not proud of it, but I called them pigs.”

“Judge, the boys are husky. I’m not a skinny woman. Before he started dating that waitress Raymond was a sturdy man. But to call our children Pigs, as a joke or not, is just wrong.”

The Torreys sat. Judge Eleanor summoned the bailiff, and whispered instructions. The bailiff exited and returned ten minutes later, breaking the nervous silence. He handed a scrap of paper to the Judge, who read it and dialed her cell phone—local number—and asked three precise questions. She clicked the phone shut and doodled some figures on a yellow pad. “Mister and Ms. Torrey, approach the bench.”

They did.

“Ms. Torrey, although calling young children names of any sort is reprehensible, I cannot legally allow a settlement for damages. It would be difficult to ascertain, through hearsay, what was said, if the boys heard, and so on.”

Janie nodded.

“Mister Torrey, I must commend you on providing a house and support for your ex-wife and children. I know there will be no problem with non-payment.”

“There will not.”

“But this case isn’t quite settled for you.”

“But we’ve agreed to terms.”

“That was my butcher I just called. He quoted pork loin at six-nineteen a pound. Does that sound right to you?”

“Yes,” said Raymond. “That’s about what we pay at the restaurant.”

“Good. Because my bailiff weighed the boys and their combined weight is three-hundred and twenty-eight pounds. And six-nineteen a pound times three-hundred and twenty-eight, equals approximately the two-thousand you pay monthly for child support. Right?”

“Yes, Judge,” said Raymond.

“Good, we’re settled. Ms. Torrey, a year from now you will return to my chambers and have my bailiff weigh your sons. Mister Torrey you will pay the combined weight of the boys times the current price of pork loin—adjusted yearly, every year—until your so-called Three Little Pigs turn eighteen.”

Judge Eleanor pounded the gavel once. “Case dismissed.”

Rob Loughran’s novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. Check out his joke books at\rloughranjokes. He lives in Windsor, CA.

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