It's not real unless you say it out loud. At least that's what my mother always said. She usually meant it for bad things, like a spouse's infidelity or a child's worsening cancer. She wasn't duping herself, just adding some distance between herself and the tears.
But I think it's also true for good news. The cessation of war or an avowal of love has no potency until you say it out loud. Then it becomes real, etched into someone else's memory like initials carved into a tree. Then it has weight and substance.
What my mother didn't tell me is that not everything you say out loud is true. That sometimes, whether out of self-preservation or self-delusion, whole worlds can be built on the breath of a lie.
Half past six and you could already feel the heat. Summer mornings in Arizona hit like a telegraphed punch, and this one felt like it was going to be a knockout. I stripped off the U of A T-shirt and headed for the shower. Turning the water temperature from hell to limbo in recognition of the already hot day, I lathered with a sliver of soap and shaved my legs with a razor blade long past its expiration date. Who cares. Nobody would know but me.
At thirty-three I hadn't exactly come to terms with my body; rather, I'd decided to ignore it. I still had the strong, heavy-muscled build my grandparents had carried with them from northern Italy. My grandmother used to say, "Calla, you're not much for pretty, but you're sure good for strong." She thought it was a compliment. She counseled me to be a PE teacher, but I knew that wasn't the career for me. I admired the Australians in the '92 Summer Olympics who'd won gold medals in all the events you could enter sitting down.
In the last few years I had developed a fullness and roundness to my breasts and belly that I tried to disguise with long jackets and loose pants. It was as effective a disguise as the exaggerated sideburns on the face of a man losing his hair.
I threw open the closet doors and grabbed three hangers without looking for a match. I hadn't bought anything new for a long time, and my clothes were all the colors of a bleak desert landscape: a field of sand and shadow and quartz. Like the evolution of female birds, I had learned to soften my sounds and my colors for survival.
I used to wear bright blue and vermilion, buttery yellow and hot orange. Now I dressed in mouse colors. I didn't glance in the mirror even once.
I stuffed the last of the notebooks and tapes into my briefcase and headed out the door. Last night's focus groups confirmed my original thinking on jury selection. I just had to write a summary of the group's discussion and put the finishing touches on my analysis for the Rondo case. Mr. Rondo was suing his employer because the combine machine that picked and cleaned Pima County's premier cotton crop did not have a safety guard next to the whirling blade, and he had lost most of his right arm. His lawyers had asked us to help select jurors for his trial: jurors who might look past some of Mr. Rondo's own peccadilloes, especially his drinking and neglecting to wear his prescription glasses when operating the machine.
I had conducted focus groups with typical Tucson jurors and realized listening to the participants that this case was riddled with hot-button issues: alcoholism, product liability, physical disability, and personal responsibility versus corporate indifference. It wouldn't be a matter of helping Mr. Rondo select the perfect jurors-it would be deselecting those who could do the most damage to the case.
I prayed for the Jeep to start without the aid of jumper cables from a neighbor. The car was over ten years old, but it was all I could afford. In a kind of minor miracle, it started at the first turn of the key, the radio already tuned to an old-fashioned Spanish-language station that featured the baladas rancheras and corridos I remembered my mother and stepfather singing to each other when I was a child. I didn't know the words to this one, but hummed along at the chorus and imagined a story of separated lovers and long hard days of work under a blazing blue sky. The rancheras always sounded sad to me. Aunt Giulia said that was why country music and rancheras would both be around two hundred years from now. "There will always be sad people."
I felt good about what we had learned in the focus groups but wondered why we had taken the Rondo case in the first place. Marley and Partners Trial Consultants almost always worked for the defense, both in criminal and civil litigation, and Mr. Rondo was the plaintiff in this suit.
It's not that my boss, Jessica Marley, thought one side was more righteous than the other, it was just where she had her strings of influence and friendship: big-ticket defense attorneys and businesses with deep pockets.
But the trial consulting business was slow this year, slower than the usual hundred-degree malaise that hit the industry every June here in the desert Southwest, and Jessica seemed to be accepting smaller, less credible jobs than I had seen her take before.
Rondo was a case in point. I usually tried to keep an open mind about each client, but I was having trouble with this one. Yes, Mr. Rondo had lost most of his arm, but I couldn't help feeling that it was his own fault and now he was trying to get somebody else to pay for it.
In any case, Jessica would make money on the Rondo work, and that would help cover some of the bills piling up. If it went to trial and they secured a hefty verdict against Mr. Rondo's employer and Thayer Combine, the success could generate more business for us from other plaintiffs in civil trials. Anything that would help keep my job secure sounded good to me. My own bills were doing more than piling up; they were claiming squatter's rights and making a home for themselves.
I turned east on Speedway, passed the redbrick structures of the University of Arizona, and headed to the office. Decades ago, a Life magazine article called Speedway "the ugliest street in America," with its run-down strip malls, parched desert landscaping, and faded billboards. Tucsonans took that comment to heart, not wanting to be the ugliest anything in America, and spent years sprucing up the route. Now fewer billboards sprouted on the roadside, and there were paloverde trees and beavertail prickly pear cactus planted in the medians. But Speedway was still the ugliest street in the city, if not the country.
After fifteen minutes of squinting into the rising sun, I turned north on Wilmot and pulled into the parking lot for the Redrock Bank complex. I hoped that if I arrived this early I'd be able to find a space with afternoon shade for the car, but everybody else seemed to have the same idea. I steered the Jeep into a slot at the end of a shadeless aisle and left the side windows cracked open.
I grimaced at the unmade-up face in the rearview mirror. Horn-rimmed glasses framing eyes that couldn't measure up in a staring contest. Skin too familiar with the Arizona sun, and hair too disarrayed to even be called a style. I considered making time for a trim but decided that I had let it go so long now that the ends actually stayed behind my ears like they were supposed to. See? Six dollars saved on the trim right there. I stopped at the little coffee shack in the parking lot that used to house a one-hour photo business and ordered a latte to go.
Redrock Bank took up the first two floors of the building. Marley and Partners shared the third floor with a real estate office and a temp agency. We were on close terms with the temp agency, since Jessica's tantrums ensured that our receptionists only lasted a few months. I waved at the latest receptionist, Alice, a veteran of almost seven weeks, and headed toward Jessica's office. Alice hissed once and waved me back to the lobby.
"Don't go in there, Calla. She's on a holy tear this morning."
I hesitated at Jessica's door.
"I think it's the staff vacation time that did it. Watch yourself."
I nodded and opened Jessica's door. She prowled and paced the length of her office, her sun-streaked hair frozen upright, like the mane of a charging lion.
Before I could say good morning, Jessica launched into her complaint. "How could she do this to me? How could she decide to have her baby three weeks early? Doesn't she know I don't have anyone to cover for her?"
I dropped into the guest chair across from her desk, pried the lid off my coffee, and hoped to ride out the storm with polite conversation. I took a tentative sip.
"Susan's having the baby already? I hope everything's okay. She wasn't due for another couple of weeks."
"I know she wasn't due for another couple of weeks," she pouted. "She certainly wasn't scheduled for maternity leave until then."
In Jessica's world work was the first priority, nail salon appointments were second, and family or life-threatening illness came in a distant third. Her idea of "balance" had more to do with a monthly review of her bank accounts than setting life goals.
"We've got a big new assignment from Whitcomb, Merchant & Dryer, and there's nobody to put on it. God, if we can get the inside track at their place, we'll have it made." She clicked her nails against the polished wooden desk and chewed on the end of a pen, mulling over her options.
Ours was a small office, six of us altogether, including the receptionist. With Susan taking early maternity leave, it left Jessica and three consultants to handle the business. And one of the three didn't really count, since he only handled trial graphics, the audiovisual presentation of evidence for the courtroom. That left Jessica plus two.
"What's the case?" I asked. "It's a criminal defense. Sexual assault and first-degree murder. You probably know the name from the news- Cates. His family has owned half the rangeland down in the south part of the state around Patagonia for almost a century. Big money. And they want the whole menu: jury selection, strategy testing, community attitudes, trial graphics. Even survey research in case we need a change of venue. Oh, God," she said, holding her head in both hands, "we can't screw this up."
I imagined visions of end-of-month bank balances dancing in her head. "This isn't the guy who killed the woman he picked up in a bar, is it?" Rape and murder? No way I could get close to that. The distaste I felt could be heard in my voice, but Jessica didn't seem to notice.
"That's the one. Gideon Merchant himself is handling the defense, so we can expect fireworks. This one won't be a slam dunk for the prosecution." She pawed through a stack of papers on the desk, looking for the information the law firm had sent over. I saw the ragged edge of the Santa Catalina Mountains out the window behind her. The monsoon clouds were massing earlier than usual today, leaving ominous purple footprints across the hillsides.
"You could handle it," Jessica said, as if all her problems had just been resolved. "Aren't you just about done with Rondo?"
"I'll have the pretrial Rondo work finished this morning." I wished I still had stacks of analysis to complete. I wished I had a stronger backbone. I wished I had learned how to say no like I really meant it. "But you know I don't do criminal defense work. We agreed to that."
More than half of our assignments were civil cases, so six years ago when I joined the firm, Jessica thought that was an easy gimme in negotiating my deal. And my performance since then had been good for Marley and Partners; the research skills I learned from years in advertising had paid off. I may have cut my teeth on target audience psychographics for buyers of low-calorie beer and kids' cereal, but those skills translated into solid recommendations of potential jurors and strategies for our legal clients. And I loved using those skills on something more important than choosing a long-distance phone company.
Our arrangement wasn't a formal contract, just a verbal understanding that I wouldn't be asked to work on the criminal cases in the office. Up till now Jessica had never tried to breach that agreement.
"I wouldn't ask you if I didn't have to. But Tim is handling the job in Phoenix for at least another six weeks, and I'm in the middle of that pit bull thing." The pit bull case involved two Mexican nationals whose fight-trained dogs had killed a six-year-old neighborhood boy. Our clients were trying to get the case moved to Flagstaff, where there wasn't as much publicity, but the county attorney's office insisted that Tucson jurors could be just as fair in their deliberations. The Pima County prosecutors didn't want to lose the control or the limelight of the case.
I saw how this was shaping up. We were now down to one option for handling the murder case.
"I don't do criminal-defense work," I repeated like a mantra and rose abruptly from my chair. I threw the remains of the coffee into the trash and headed across the hall to my office with Jessica close at my heels. Silence reigned in the lobby; Alice had quit typing to hear our argument.
"I know you'd rather not," Jessica said, standing in the doorway to my small office, "but I really need you to cover this, at least until I can get done with the dogs. If you just go meet with the defense team today for a briefing, they'll feel like we're on top of this case and we won't lose them. Please."
That final word told me how desperate the office finances must be. Jessica never said please. But she still didn't sound like she meant it.
"Jessica, I don't do criminal-defense work. I don't like this kind of case," I repeated. She hovered over my desk, and I scooted my chair back two feet to maintain a perimeter of privacy.
"What is it with you?" She looked around my office for the answer and fingered her hair back into a casual arc. "Is there some reason you can't represent Mr. Cates?"
"Rape and murder? I won't do it." I straightened a nonexistent mess on my desk. "I don't even like to be around criminal defendants, and that means I probably wouldn't do a good job for him." I couldn't meet her eyes.
I hadn't ever told Jessica why I wouldn't defend someone in a criminal trial, especially one like this. Perhaps she thought it was squeamishness on my part. Perhaps she was right. Squeamishness combined with terror.
It was all because of Amaryllis-Amy, as my childhood pronunciation had abbreviated it. It had been seven years since my sister was attacked and left for dead, but seven years wasn't long enough to push it out of my nightmares.
"Well, get over it," Jessica said, slamming the office door back against the wall. "Business hasn't been so good that we can afford to be choosy about our clients. If there's no genuine conflict of interest here, then this is part of the job description, Calla. And if you can't do this job, I can always find someone who can." It seemed that our agreement had evaporated into thin air. The sound of typing started up again from the lobby.
She hadn't attached a "please" this time. The real Jessica had returned.
"Hey, wait a minute!" I said as she crossed the lobby. "What about our deal?"
"What deal?" she tossed over her shoulder. As usual, Jessica was looking out for Number One. And Number Two was so far behind you couldn't even see if I was raising any dust.
Damn it. I needed the money from this job. When I left the advertising industry six years ago, it was mostly because I could earn more doing trial consulting. In advertising, the folks making the real money are in the creative department. The lowly researchers don't get much, and I needed the extra income for Amy's care. It also didn't hurt that trial consulting felt more real-more necessary-than anything I'd done in advertising.
If Jessica had just honored her promise to keep me away from criminal litigation, I would have been fine. Sure, I'd still be scraping for every nickel to take care of Amy, but I would have been okay.
"Get over it," Jessica had said. Easier said than done. I let out a long breath. Well, if I had to attend one meeting with a criminal-defense attorney, then so be it. For all I knew, this guy, Cates, could be cherubic, soft-spoken, and innocent.
I took another deep breath and turned to the recommendations for the Rondo case, hoping to push the upcoming meeting with Mr. Cates's attorney out of my mind. I didn't think it would stay gone for long.
© Louise Ure, 2005
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