"You can sit there and damn well feel the tears welling up in your eyes." --Prince George's Circuit Court Judge James H. Taylor, during a recess of the trial.

Mary Alice Stokes was 34 years old when she died last April 8 in Bellflower, Calif. The cause of her death was serum hepatitis related to drug abuse. Mary Stokes left behind a set of furniture in storage, a refund on her 1980 income taxes and a 7-year-old daughter, Mary Elizabeth Stokes, called Beth by her family. Beth wants to be a cowgirl when she grows up.

The day before Mary Stokes died, her mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and John Hartley, arrived at her bedside. The Hartleys held a small memorial service for Mary Stokes on Friday evening, April 10, at the funeral home. By the time Mary Stokes was buried on April 11, the Hartleys were back home in their two- bedroom apartment in Prince George's County. With them was their granddaughter Beth.

It wasn't until July that Larrie Lee Stokes, Beth's father, learned that his ex-wife had died. Since their 1976 divorce, Stokes, who lives in suburban Los Angeles, had seen Beth only 10 times, but, now that Mary Stokes was dead, he assumed he was entitled to custody. Unable to reach the Hartleys, who have an unlisted phone number, Stokes eventually called the Seat Pleasant, Md., police and asked their help in returning Beth. The police told Stokes to get a Maryland lawyer.

Eight months later, Beth Stokes, enrolled in second grade, was the center of a bitter three-day custody battle pitting the Hartleys against Larrie Stokes.

Although child custody fights between grandparents and a natural father are rare, the decision in Hartley vs. Stokes will not make legal history. The lawyers (Joseph Niland for the Hartleys and Edward Skeens for Stokes) were not partners in blue-chip firms. Instead, they were both sole practitioners with small offices in Prince George's County. The parties in the case, too, were ordinary people, who perhaps had endured more than their share of life's disappointments.

When Prince George's Circuit Court Judge James H. Taylor finally rendered his verdict late on Friday afternoon, Dec. 4, sitting in Courtroom 15 were six adults who cared passionately about the fate of Beth Stokes. In addition to the Hartleys and Stokes, there were Christine Delaney, Elizabeth Hartley's only surviving daughter; Frances Simpson, the sister of Larrie Stokes; and Angela Koscki, Stokes' fianc,ee and the mother of his second child.

All six had testified during the trial, reliving painful memories and unveiling the tangled lives of two families. During the recesses in the trial, all six paced the corridors outside the courtroom, and all but Angela Koscki chain-smoked. Elizabeth Hartley and Larrie Stokes, whose mutual dislike dated back to 1963, traded angry charges in the courtroom, and each broke into tears on the witness stand.

Ordinary civil cases like Hartley vs. Stokes rarely make the newspapers. When they do, it is generally because a reporter is examining a larger subject such as child custody laws. This is a worthy endeavor. But that is not my purpose in recounting this case, known as DR 81-1837.

Hartley vs. Stokes provides a window on real life. Sitting in the courtroom, one could hear witnesses discuss a total of five failed marriages, two premarital pregnancies, two children born out of wedlock and one drug-related death. One case like this, filled with well-intentioned people with flawed lives, tells far more about the state of modern marriage and the American family than a year of Phil Donahue interviews or a shelf full of the latest self-help best sellers. All the names in this story are real. All the events laid out here, except when noted otherwise, were recounted in sworn testimony in the courtroom. All the characters in this drama, including the judge and the two lawyers, were strangers to me until the trial began. All the witnesses in this trial voluntarily waived their normal rights to privacy to tell their stories to the court.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The first day of the trial was devoted to a lengthy wrangle over home-field advantage: that is, which state had jurisdiction over Beth Stokes? Was it Maryland, where she was living with her grandparents, or California, the home of her father and the state in which she was born?

The rules governing legal jurisdiction are complex, and theoretically the case might have been heard in either Maryland or California. But there was no litigation pending in California, and both parties were sitting in Prince George's County Circuit Court prepared to go to trial. After four hours of legal debate and testimony by Stokes and the Hartleys, Judge Taylor ruled that Maryland, according to the rules of the Uniform Child Custody Act, was "the least inconvenient forum" to try the case.

The first day's arguments over preliminary motions made clear that both sides could bring only limited resources to their quest for justice. Later in the trial, Larrie Stokes would testify that he had spent $2,600 on travel and legal fees. There are custody cases where that much is spent on transcripts.

Interviews with both lawyers after the trial provided more details on the size of their legal fees. Joseph Niland said he billed the Hartleys for "total fees in the vicinity of $3,000 ... That's pretty much rock bottom in this kind of case."

Edward Skeens told Larrie Stokes that he should expect to pay $120 per hour in court or $960 for a one-day trial plus pretrial costs. Although the case stretched over three days, Skeens said, "I only charged him for one day. The other two days were free because I gave him an estimate. I was really the big loser in the case. But the guy (Stokes) didn't have the money." Skeens billed Stokes $300 for taking a pretrial deposition from Elizabeth Hartley.

The legal skirmishes over jurisdiction were like the opening chapters of a well-crafted novel, introducing the principal characters and setting the tone for the drama that would unfold during the three-day trial.

At first glance, Larrie Lee Stokes, 36 and stocky, was hard to place. With a thatch of brown hair hanging over his right eye, a droopy mustache, thick sideburns, an elaborate turquoise watchband and a brown polyester European-cut suit, Stokes looked like the standard southern California contestant on a TV game show. But his accent, the way he was cradling a cigarette in his right hand and his obvious discomfort with jacket and tie all added up to North Carolina good ol' boy.

In truth, Larrie Stokes was part country boy and part California dreamer. According to testimony, Stokes was born in North Carolina, the son of a dirt farmer; he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work full time. He moved to Prince George's County when he was 17.

The migration to California came in 1969, six years after he and Mary Stokes were married. In 1978, while working as a warehouseman for a firm that rents equipment to oil companies, Stokes injured his back. He hasn't worked since then, and his only income is $700 a month in worker's compensation benefits.

During his initial testimony, Stokes spent most of his time explaining the extenuating factors behind his infrequent contacts with Beth and his failure to pay more than a fraction of his child support.

Stokes estimated that he had seen his daughter maybe 10 times since his divorce, even though a California court in 1977 had awarded him visitation rights. According to Stokes' testimony, the reason was Wally Brosz, his ex-wife's live-in boyfriend.

"Every time I'd go to see my daughter," Stokes said on the stand, "Wally would come out of the house screaming and hollering." Stokes claimed that whenever he'd visit Be when noted otherwise, were th and pay some child support, Mary Stokes and Wally Brosz would move, and it would take him months to find Beth again.

Wally Brosz was not a witness in the case. But in a telephone interview after the trial, Brosz responded to a description of Larrie Stokes' testimony.

"Mary and I decided that it was best for Beth not to see Larrie," Brosz recalled. "It wasn't that we were being mean. It would have been different if Larrie had been a civil human being."

Eventually, Stokes resorted to intermediaries to try to contact his daughter. Last July, he sent his mother to the home of Mary Brosz, Wally's mother, with a belated birthday present for Beth. It was then that he learned Mary Stokes was dead and Beth was in Maryland.

Asked on the witness stand why he wanted custody of Beth, Larrie Stokes said in a flat toneless voice, "I'm her natural father, and I love her."

GRANDMOTHER

During her first day of testimony, Beth's grandmother, Elizabeth Hartley, a small dark-haired woman, was nervous, hunching her shoulders, clutching a Styrofoam cup of water and answering many of her lawyer's questions with a laconic, "Yes, sir."

The most distinctive thing about the 54-year-old Hartley was her voice--a smoky, raspy voice reminiscent of veteran character actress Nancy Walker playing a harried waitress in a paper-towel commercial. For 18 years, until late 1980, Elizabeth Hartley worked at the Tune Inn Bar on Capitol Hill, the kind of down- home place that featured Tammy Wynette on the jukebox back in the days when country wasn't cool.

John Hartley, whose short, scraggly white beard makes him look older than his 47 years, stayed in the background for most of the trial. His initial testimony was terse: He has worked for Hertz for the last 19 years, taking home $212 a week from his current job renting trucks in Landover; the Hartleys were married in 1965, a second marriage for both; in the early 1960s, John Hartley lost a custody battle with his first wife and has not had any contact with his own two children in years.

That first day there seemed to be pain and bitterness in Elizabeth Hartley's voice as she testified about flying to California because "my daughter was dying." Beth had been staying with Wally Brosz's mother, and Elizabeth Hartley explained that she brought Beth back to Maryland after the memorial service "because I could not locate her father, because I did not know where he was, because he had not seen her or taken care of her."

Under cross-examination Elizabeth Hartley said she did not try to find Larrie Stokes while she was in California. "I was following my daughter's wishes. She stated them more than once. She had said that we should take Beth if anything ever happened to her."

Child-snatching was never an issue in the case, as Judge Taylor made clear several times during the trial.

After testifying, an emotionally exhausted Elizabeth Hartley took her seat and promptly knocked over a pitcher while trying to pour herself a glass of water. Hartley was on the verge of tears when the judge peered over the bench and said, "There are some napkins in front of you, Mrs. Hartley. Don't be upset about it."

BETH

The object of all this emotional tension, Beth Stokes, spent the first morning of the trial in the corridor outside the courtroom, being looked after by her aunt, Christine Delaney, or a family friend, Leah Weber. During a recess I watched as this 7-year- old child, with short blond hair, a white blouse, plaid skirt and knee socks, hopped gaily from one black square to another on the checkered linoleum floor.

When the trial broke for lunch, Leah Weber was the first to emerge through the courtroom door. Beth ran up to her and asked anxiously, "Where's Grandma?"

Weber said in a friendly tone, "Beth, you know you can't go into the courtroom until the judge says it's okay."

That first morning Larrie Stokes walked over and tried to talk with his daughter. There were two sets of conflicting accounn noted otherwise, were ts in testimony about what happened during that brief encounter between father and daughter.

According to Christine Delaney, Larrie Stokes walked over and said, "Hello, Beth, how are you?" Beth then asked, "Aunt Chrissy, who is that?" Stokes tried again: "Beth, will you give your daddy a kiss?" Beth backed away.

Angela Koscki, who lives with Larrie Stokes, remembered the incident a little differently: "There were no words out of the child's mouth ... She knew who Larrie was. She looked him square in the eye."

There was agreement during the trial that Beth's years in California were not the sort of idealized childhood depicted on "Father Knows Best." Until she came to live with the Hartleys, Beth had spent her days watching television instead of attending school and did not know the alphabet. Beth had grown up calling her mother's boyfriend, Wally Brosz, "Daddy." She referred to her father as "Larrie."

By all accounts, Beth adapted quickly to her life with the Hartleys. The financial adjustment was eased by a monthly check for $245 that Social Security provides for Beth's care. Her grades on her most recent report card included an A in behavior and a B in reading. The Hartleys were sending Beth to catechism class at a local Catholic church, and the family attended mass regularly.

Her grandmother said, "The biggest thing in our lives is going out to dinner once or twice a month." Beth was included in these expeditions, along with trips to the Montgomery County Fair and a vacation to visit relatives in Iowa. John Hartley taught Beth to ride a bicycle and was trying to instruct her in the intricacies of dominoes.

Christine Delaney, 30, testified that she separated from her own husband at the end of 1980. She now lives in the same apartment complex as her mother and has a special place in Beth's world.

Delaney is a GS 8 administrative assistant at the Securities and Exchange Commission, but her abiding passion is horses. She owns a registered quarter horse and competes in women's events under the auspices of the American Rodeo Association. On weekends, she regularly took Beth for pony rides or to rodeos.

A 7-year-old is considered too young for her preferences to have much weight in a custody battle. But with the approval of both lawyers, Judge Taylor arranged to talk with Beth in his chambers before the third and last day of the trial. A stenographer's transcript of the conversation was read in open court.

The judge's questions were gentle, but often Beth answered by merely saying, "Uh, huh." Nonetheless, she was adamant about her desire to continue to live with her grandparents. When the judge asked her why, Beth said, "Because they're very nice."

Her responses made clear that Beth's images of her father were negative. Asked about whether she wanted to get to know her father, Beth said, "I don't want to know him at all because he beat up my mom." At another point she said, "I don't want to see him because he's too mean."

As the court clerk read the transcript, the judge looked alternately grave and wistful. Afterward, Larrie Stokes' lawyer told the court that legally "the child's preferences are virtually meaningless."

MARRIAGE PORTRAIT

For much of the trial, Beth faded into the background. At center stage was the tangled tale of the 13-year marriage of Larrie and Mary Stokes. The passions and the enmity that brought this case before Judge Taylor had their roots in the history of this troubled union.

Like all narratives unveiled in a courtroom, this story was told in fits and starts during the trial, mostly through the testimony of Larrie Stokes, Elizabeth Hartley and Christine Delaney, and at the end the character and personality of Mary Stokes remained shadowy and ill defined. But then in real life--unlike the movies or a novel--there are always gaps, unexplained incidents and unfathomable characters.

The year was 1963. John Kennedy was president, Larrie Stokes was 18, Elizabeth Hartley was separated from her first husband, and her daughter Mary was in 10th grade. It is unclear how Larrie Stokes met Mary, but he testified during the trial that sexual relations began "right away." As Stokes told it, Elizabeth Hartley would go to work at the Tune Inn and "she'd leave Mary and the other two children at home while she worked. I'd go over there and we'd have dating."

Mary became pregnant that year, and the couple decided to get married. Because she was 16, Mary needed parental permission and got her father to sign the consent form. Only after they were married did the newlyweds break the news to Mary's mother.

By all accounts, Elizabeth Hartley was upset. Larrie Stokes testified that Elizabeth Hartley said: "She wanted Mary to have an abortion and the marriage annulled." When asked on the witness stand whether she ever counseled her daughter to get an abortion, Hartley, her whole body quivering with rage, shouted, "I deny that. I never discussed that with you, Larrie."

Now with 18 years' hindsight, Elizabeth Hartley said, "If I had been consulted before the marriage, I can't honestly say what I'd have done. But I was not consulted. It was heartbreaking. I was worried how two young people could get along."

The baby was stillborn. The couple lived in Prince George's County for six years. Larrie worked in gas stations and on construction projects. Married life was not always tranquil. Stokes admitted under questioning that he had slapped his wife on five different occasions when he was a teen-ager. Mary Stokes separated from her husband for two weeks while they were living in Prince George's County.

Then there was an auto accident and Larrie Stokes' near brush with death. In the early hours of a January 1967 morning, coming back from Chesapeake Beach, Stokes was a passenger in a car that swerved off a highway in Calvert County and hit a guardrail and some trees. The driver and his girlfriend, sitting in the front seat, were killed. Stokes survived largely because he was stretched out in the back seat at the time of the accident.

In 1969, southern California beckoned. "My mother moved out there," Stokes said, "and she told me about the opportunities out there."

Larrie's first opportunity was a job in a gas station, but the Vietnam War was raging and he quickly got another job making hand grenades and ammunition for a defense contractor. The couple's finances had improved enough by 1972 that they could afford to buy a house in Long Beach for $22,000. About that time, Mary lost another baby through a tubal pregnancy.

The new house became the center of Larrie Stokes' life, at least until Beth was born on May 7, 1974. He worked nights and weekends for two years remodeling the house, spending about $3,500 in the process. But as the house began looking better, the marriage started looking worse. Money was part of the problem, but so was Mary's involvement with drugs.

Most of this account comes from Larrie Stokes' testimony, and the details are a bit hazy. Somee time after Beth was born, Mary hurt her neck at her job as a tester for a firm that makes control valves for water heaters. With Larrie the only one working, the family couldn't keep up with the mortgage payments. They were forced to rent their newly remodeled house and, for awhile, moved in with Larrie's mother.

It probably began with painkillers for her injury, but Mary Stokes began to grow dependent on pills. One day Larrie returned home to find his wife passed out on the couch, Beth asleep in the back room and a frying pan filled with grease on fire on the kitchen stove.

Larrie Stokes never understood the drug culture of the '70s; he was part of a long tradition of drinking beer on Saturday night. Stokes stated several times during the trial that he has never used drugs in his life. At one point in the trial, when asked by the judge about Mary's later drug use, he said, "Your honor, I've never been around people who took drugs. ... I'd see my ex-wife, and her eyes were bigger than they used to be and she seemed to be real thin ... Drugs were one of the reasons I left my wife."

Unpaid bills were another reason. "I trusted my wife to pay the bills," Stokes said on the witness stand, "but I found out that when the bills came she'd hide them." By mid- 1976, the couple owed $3,000 and were seriously behind on payments for their mortgage and their pick-up truck.

Larrie's relations with the Hartleys were never good, but he nurtured a friendship with Christine Delaney, Mary's younger sister, and her husband. Stokes himself said during the trial, "I've always thought the world of Chris." It was not surprising, then, that in the middle of a bitter late- night argument with his wife, Larrie would try to find solace with a long-distance call to his sister-in-law in Virginia.

In her testimony, Christine Delaney described an anguished Larrie Stokes telling her on the phone that "my sister had ruined him financially and he was going to kill her and himself." Larrie also told Christine that he wanted her to take care of Beth. "My sister then got on the phone," Delaney recalled, "and she said that Larrie had been drinking and don't pay any attention to him."

When questioned about this conversation, Stokes admitted making the call after "I had a few beers that night." But he added, "I don't remember saying I would kill myself, but I was pretty upset ... I left that night."

In late 1976, Larrie and Mary Stokes were granted a California divorce. They sold the house in Long Beach for $36,000 and, after their debts were paid, each collected $1,800.

One other incident completes this narrative. Larrie Stokes testified that in 1978 he met with his ex-wife in a park and she "said it was time for her to grow up and start letting Beth see her daddy."

A few days later Larrie took Beth to a family picnic in the truck he used at work. "I had a few beers," Stokes recalled, "and I was maybe 15 minutes late in getting Beth back home." Mary was waiting on the front porch and, Stokes said, "she started attacking me. She was a crazy woman. She started pulling my hair and scratching me."

Larrie claimed that in the midst of this fight he managed to put Beth back in the cab of the truck. Then, he testified, after his ex-wife again started scratching him, "I slapped her. That's when she fell--not because I slapped her but because she lost her footing."

Again there was a long-distance call to Christine Delaney. In Delaney's version, Stokes told her on the phone that "my sister jumped on his face and he had no recourse but to slap her down."

Everyone agrees that 4-year-old Beth Stokes saw the entire fight between her parents from the cab of the company truck.

THE TURNING POINT

Throughout the trial, the burden of proof was on the Hartleys to show why Larrie Stokes should not get custody. No one disputed that the Hartleys loved Beth or that her eight months with her grandparents had been the only stable environment she had ever known.

But the Hartleys were not Beth's parents. Child custody laws reflect a strong bias in favor of a natural parent such as Larrie Stokes. However, the rights of a father are not absolute; if they were, there would have been no need for a three-day trial. The Hartleys could win custody if they convinced the judge that reuniting Beth with a father she hardly knew wasn't in her best interests.

As Hartley vs. Stokes reached its climax, there were moments when it seemed as if Larrie Stokes himself was on trial. It was his character, his behavior, his troubled marital history that were on display.

There were also the issues raised by his current life. Could Larrie Stokes, who was living with a woman who was not his wife, provide a suitable home life for his daughter? That was the central question hanging over Courtroom 15 as Angela Koscki took the witness stand on the last morning of the trial.

Until then, Koscki, a small- boned 26-year-old woman with shoulder-length blond hair, had been an almost invisible figure in the courtroom, sitting placidly next to Frances Simpson, her future sister-in-law. Her self-effacing manner during the first two days of the trial contrasted sharply with her poised and confident delivery as she began testifying.

Angela Koscki and Larrie Stokes met in the hallway of the apartment complex where they both lived in early 1980, she testified. At the time of their meeting, Stokes was recuperating from his back injury and living on worker's compensation checks. He had married again in 1978 and had gotten his second divorce the same year.

Angela Koscki was working as chief teller at the Home Savings of America, where she is now training to be an operations officer. Koscki, the oldest of 11 children, had originally studied to be a marriage counselor but left the California state college system 36 credits shy of a degree. She has never been married, but has a small daughter, Natasha, who is now 3. Koscki testified that since Natasha was born, she has had no contact with the child's father.

Stokes and Koscki moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the complex during the summer of 1980. On March 10, 1981, Larrie Lee Stokes II was born. These days, Larrie Stokes is almost ready to return to work, but for the last two years he has been a de facto house-husband, changing diapers and caring for the two children, both of whom call him "Daddy."

Asked why she and Stokes hadn't married, Koscki said, "We haven't had the money. I want a nice wedding in a Catholic Church."

But they have plans, which are all contingent on Stokes' receiving a lump-sum settlement for his back injury. The tool company has offered him $25,000, but he is holding out for $45,000.

Once he marries Angela Koscki, Stokes plans to formally adopt Natasha. The couple is talking about moving 500 miles north, to the countryside beyond Sacramento, near where Koscki's mother lives.

Then there's Beth. Koscki testified that she encountered Beth and Christine Delaney in the courthouse bathroom that morning. "Beth was scared," she said. "She stayed right by her aunt." But Koscki said she told the 7-year-old, "Beth, you don't have to be afraid of me. I would never hurt you."

THE FINAL MOMENTS

It wasn't until a recess on the last day of the trial that I first talked to Larrie Stokes. There was something about his dark eyes, his brooding intensity that had caused me to hold back. But now we were standing face-to-face outside the courtroom, and he was saying, "Even if I lose Beth, she could never come to me as an adult and say that I didn't want her. She could look up the court records here and in California."

In the same conversation Stokes said, "I think the grandmother (Elizabeth Hartley) did what she thought best."

A few minutes later, Stokes was back on the witness stand enduring cross-examination. Asked why he was pressing for custody of Beth, a child he had only seen 10 times since his divorce, Stokes began crying as he stomee ruggled to get out his words: "Because I love my daughter ... I've been fighting to get my daughter ... She's my blood."

After the formal testimony was over, Judge Taylor called the lawyers to the bench before the final arguments. The Hartleys were sitting at a table in the front of the courtroom staring straight ahead. In the middle of the conference with the judge, Edward Skeens turned halfway around and winked broadly at Stokes.

Meanwhile, Frances Simpson was sitting a row ahead of Christine Delaney, her former sister-in-law, on the hard wooden benches reserved for spectators. They had known each other since 1963 and had been in the same courtroom together for three days without exchanging a word. But suddenly Simpson whirled around and said, "Chris, no matter what happens, let's try to be friends." Both women scribbled their phone numbers on tiny scraps of paper.

Joseph Niland went first with his closing argument on behalf of the Hartleys. He spoke for 45 minutes, but a few extracts convey the flavor of his advocacy: "I think the child would be devastated if Mr. Stokes were to get custody now ... We don't need psychiatrists or psychologists to come in here. All we need to do is to apply a little common sense ... If Mr. Stokes got custody, we'd be thrusting Beth into a life with total strangers."

In his speech to the judge, Niland also took a few potshots at the relationship between Larrie Stokes and Angela Koscki: "I don't think I'm a prude ... but I think the excuses put forward by Mr. Stokes and Miss Koscki about why they don't get married are among the lamest I've ever heard ... I don't know whether it's California-style living or what."

Hearing those words, Angela Koscki shook her head in apparent disgust.

Another recess. Each side was clustered around the benches directly outside the courtroom door, the Hartleys and Niland on the right and Stokes, his sister, his fianc,ee and his attorney, Edward Skeens, on the left. Christine Delaney had gone downstairs to feed the parking meter.

Stokes and Koscki were visibly upset by Niland's statements about their failure to get married. "A commitment is here," Stokes said, pounding his chest, "not what a piece of paper says." In a calmer mood, just moments later, he added, "Angie wants a nice wedding. What's wrong with that? I'm getting a little tired of these two-bit weddings myself." For her part, Koscki kept repeating, "It really ticked me off when he talked about California life styles."

The Hartleys were just sitting on their bench smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, inside the courtroom, the bailiff, the clerk and the court reporter were having an intense discussion of their own. The subject? Aluminum sidings and downspouts.

THE VERDICT

Right after the trial was over, Edward Skeens, Larrie Stokes' lawyer, who has been practicing in this area since the 1950s, would say that Hartley vs. Stokes was his last child custody case. The tension, the pressure, the emotions were just too much. He explained, "It'll take me over a week to unwind from this one."

(Later Skeens would reluctantly agree to take another child custody case. In this new case, which will be tried in March in La Plata, Skeens will be representing a pair of grandparents.)

In his brief closing argument in Hartley vs. Stokes, Skeens, trying to cover all the bases, changed moods as often as a race-car driver shifts gears.

He waxed philosophical for the benefit of the judge: "What we're trying to do is to get these people together." He glowingly painted the two-bedroom apartment that Stokes shares with Koscki and her two children as "a beautiful home." He offered an olive branch to the Hartleys. If his client won custody, Skeens said, Beth would be allowed to visit her grandparents for six weeks in the summer and six days at Christmas--all at Larrie Stokes' expense.

Then it was over, save for the verdict.

For 15 seconds Judge Taylor sat motionless, his chin resting on his right hand, Rodin's "Thinker" in black judicial robes, pondering his decision. The only sounds in the courtroom were shallow breathing and the steady hum of the heating system. Then the judge slowly began dictating, a phrase at a time, hoarding each syllable until he was certain that his sentence would parse.

"Understandably," he began, "this is one of the most difficult types of cases with which the court has to deal ... I believe that Mr. and Mrs. Hartley did the appropriate thing when they brought Beth to this community.... There is no evidence of unfitness regarding Mr. Stokes ... Yes, indeed, he does live out of wedlock with Miss Koscki ..."

Everyone in the courtroom weighted each word looking for some clue as to the final verdict. When the judge said that there was no reason to doubt the "presumption that the best interests of the child lay with the natural parent," Christine Delaney's whole body began to shake as she fought back the tears.

The final ruling seemed fair and reasonable. Larrie Stokes would receive custody of Beth at the end of her school semester in late January, giving the child two more months with the Hartleys to prepare for the transition. A California social services agency would oversee Beth's welfare until Stokes and Angela Koscki were married. Beth would visit the Hartleys twice a year, for six weeks during the summer and one week during either Christmas or Easter vacation. Each side would pay for one of these cross-country trips, and these visits would not include Christmas Day.

After DR 81-1837 ended with a plea from Judge Taylor for reconciliation between the two parties ("nothing has been said in this case which causes an unbridgeable chasm"), I had a few last glimpses of the six people with whom I shared three intense days.

John Hartley strode up to Larrie Stokes, extended his right hand in friendship and said, "Congratulations, Larrie."

Christine Delaney and Fran Simpson, who had bridged their own personal chasm, grabbed hands and murmured words like "I'm sorry, Chris," and "Fran, we've got to sit down and talk."

Angela Koscki said softly, "She'll be happy. Beth will be happy."

A triumphant Larrie Stokes said, "I feel great. I thought I'd lose it. I think the father's got the right to a child."

And Elizabeth Hartley said nothing.

As I left the world of DR 81- 1837, the Hartleys were still sitting alone on the wooden bench outside Courtroom 15, holding hands and occasionally embracing to ward off the emotional chill.