Authors: J. F. Freedman
Against the Wind
To my father—one terrific lawyer
Y ARM IS KILLING ME.
I force open my eyes enough of a slit to admit light. The shades are up, I neglected to pull them last night, the sun blasts through the windows, through my encrusted eyelids right through the retina into the back of my brain. Jesus that hurts, I’m a pathetic ball of pain this morning. I broke my newly self-imposed rule last night and went bar-hopping, that much I remember, but subsequent events are vague, to put it mildly. They’re so damn vague they’re a blank page. Getting drunk and hitting on women I’ve never met, whose sexual history is suspect at best, could and has turned out to be detrimental to my health. The last time I ventured out like that, two weeks ago Saturday night, I got the shit kicked out of me. Had to show up in court that Monday morning with a butterfly bandage over my right eye, my face an unsightly mass of lumps, bruises and contusions. My client, a devout pacifist, freaked; I was forced to ask for a continuance. Fred Hite, one of my partners, took her over, mollified her, but the incident didn’t make me any new friends in or out of court.
I’m going to open my eyes and sit up and there’s going to be a soft explosion in the back of my head like a watermelon being dropped off a third-story roof from all that house whiskey I undoubtedly drank and have no memory of and I deserve it for being such a dumb self-pitying ass and my arm is still killing me.
Maybe I broke it. Maybe I’m in the hospital. That would tear it.
Her hair is brown, but the roots are gray. It’s a tangled mat, like balled-up baling wire, and about the same consistency, as if she’d given herself a home permanent and got talking on the phone too long. She snores gently, her head resting on my shoulder like a bowling ball. Dear God tell me I didn’t. This one is major coyote arm, the only way I get out of here alive is to chew it off while she’s still sleeping. In my own apartment yet.
“You got coffee?”
“Coffee. Just tell me where you keep it. I’ll make it.” She’s staring at me like you look through the bars in a zoo. Her eyes are bloodshot, bright red, unnaturally so, cartoonish.
I wave my free arm. “Above the sink.” She blinks, hoists herself to her feet, pads stark-naked towards the kitchen. I look at her receding back, her sagging ass. I know I was drunk but was I blind too? Jesus what else happened last night? For all I know I committed three ax murders. I’m dead in this town if anyone I know saw us together.
She’s in the bathroom. I listen to her doing her toilet. I roll over, grab her purse off the floor, rifle the wallet for her driver’s license. Doris Mae Rivera. From Truchas. Forty-six years old. Patricia (Mrs. Alexander numero uno) and I didn’t have any money, we were too new out of law school and then we had Claudia; but Holly and I, that was the society page. Successful lawyer and his attractive, devoted wife (okay, the second marriage for him and third for her, but who’s counting?), active in community affairs, we were Mr. and Mrs. Hot Shit: the ranchette north of town, the twin BMWs, the Taos ski condo. Now I’m lying on sweat-soaked sheets I haven’t changed in weeks in a rented condo a welfare mother would turn her nose up at, going through the wallet of Doris Mae Rivera (acquired last name, obviously, no Hispanic woman would be christened Doris Mae), a forty-six-year-old currently unmarried woman who probably lives in a house without plumbing; Truchas is famous for the view from its outhouses.
She flushes and I drop the wallet back into the purse. She emerges wearing my velour robe, the midnight-blue number Holly got me last Christmas from the Sharper Image catalogue for a mere two-seventy-five. One of that year’s minor gifts. Her hair’s wrapped in a towel; she must’ve looked in the mirror.
“How do you like your eggs?” she calls, rummaging in the refrigerator. Coming to the bedroom door, smiling coyly, almost shyly. Maybe we got married last night, anything’s possible.
“I don’t.” I untangle my pants from the pile on the floor, pull them on, stumble through the living room to the kitchen area; it’s all one big room, a mess. I’ve got to get a cleaning lady in here or I’ll turn into something out of Kafka. I’m close enough already: this is a sign.
“Get dressed.” I brush past her, take the O.J. from the refrigerator, drink it straight from the carton. She turns to me, her mouth a small oval. Her hand involuntarily drops, cracking the egg in the fry-pan. I reach over and turn off the gas. She looks at me, her expression pained. One drunken encounter and she’s already proprietary.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath. I shouldn’t ask but I have to know.
“Did I … ?” I choke on my own tongue.
She smiles. “With all your heart,” she rhapsodizes, actually closing her eyes. “You have the most sensual mouth. I can still feel it all over my …”
“Thank you.” I cut her off, turning away from her eager, treacly smile.
She misses the point.
“Oh God. I know exactly what you’re thinking.”
I turn back. No you don’t. Unless you’re a mind-reader. She is kind of dark; maybe she’s part-Indian, a spirit woman.
“I’m completely clean,” she swears hastily. “No AIDS, herpes, nothing like that.” She smiles, having cleared everything up. “I’d never do that to you, or any man.” She pauses. “I don’t get that many offers that I don’t (very softly now, almost a whisper) appreciate it.”
“You have to go. Now.”
“But … what about breakfast? Coffee? I could make you a jalapeno and jack omelet.” Spatula in one hand, Melitta pot in the other. I’m a lucky man; New Mexico’s answer to Julia Child is standing in my very own kitchen.
“There’s a McDonald’s two blocks down. They serve up a mean Egg McMuffin.” I’m back in the bedroom, scooping up her clothes, undergarments, shoes, purse. Dropping it all on the living room couch. “You’re out of here. Get your clothes on.”
She starts crying. Not a put-on like the numbers Holly used to run on me, this is real: big round tears, shuddering sobs. I grasp my head in my hands, hold on tightly.
“Hey, I’m sorry. Really. But I’ve got to get to work, I’m already late. Don’t you have a job you have to get to?”
“I’m on unemployment,” she sobs. The towel’s off her head, she’s buried her face in it, her hair hangs wet and stringy. “I’ve been laid off fourteen weeks.”
Very careful now. Sit her down on the couch. Take off the robe. Slide her panties up her legs, up over her ass. Slip the dress on. No chance with the bra and pantyhose, they go in her purse. Put her shoes on.
“Can I use your bathroom?” she asks weakly. “I don’t want to walk out of here looking like this.” She turns, looks straight at me. It’s unnerving. “Believe it or not, I do have my pride left,” she adds in an attempt at self-respect.
“Sure.” I’m discombobulated. “Take your time. I’ll make the coffee.”
“I knew you weren’t all that mean,” she says, sliding back into romance-novel coyness as she sashays into the bathroom. From behind, with her clothes on, she’s not that bad. I catch myself; I’m becoming a master of sublimation. You fucked up, man. Don’t compound it.
She comes out a few minutes later, having put on her bra and hose and makeup, brushed out her thick hair. Better; still no beauty, but I don’t have to flagellate myself all day: in a dark bar she’d have a certain low-down easy charm. She puts a folded piece of paper on the kitchen counter.
“My phone number,” she tells me. “In case you reconsider and feel like calling.”
I nod. “Sure.” But don’t give up your day gig to wait by the phone, I’m thinking. Then I remember: she’s unemployed. She can baby-sit the phone all day if she’s of a mind to.
She starts to leave, quickly turns back catching me off-guard, kissing me full on the lips, open-mouthed, grinding up against me. She’s good at it; somehow I’m not surprised. I linger with it longer than I want to before I break it.
“Too bad you were so drunk,” she says, standing in the open doorway, “we were actually good together. A shame you don’t at least have a nice memory of it like I do.”
THEY HIT ME WITH
the good news before I get to my first cup of coffee.
“Come on in the conference room. We’ve got to talk.” This is Andy Portillo, my other partner; from one of the old northern New Mexico land-grant families. Big, husky fellow, a couple years older than me, looks like a picker you see sitting on the tailgate of a ’52 Chevy half-ton eating burritos off the roach-coach. Looks, of course, can be deceiving: his plain dime-store black frame diplomas read Oberlin College and Columbia Law School, along with dozens of prestigious awards and honors. He’s our corporate guy, the back-room genius. Fred handles the civil stuff. I’m criminal law, a couple years back one of the heavyweight law journals came out with a survey of the best criminal lawyers in the country, state by state. I was one of a handful from New Mexico. When I get rolling in a courtroom I can be pretty impressive; some of my jury summations are local legends.
“You’re fucking up, Will,” Fred informs me without preamble.
“I know. But I can handle it.” The best defense is a good offense. “Come on guys, what is this shit, I haven’t even had my first cup of coffee.” I flash the famous Alexander rogue smile, the courtroom closer, the one people tell me reminds them of Jack Nicholson. It ought to; I copped it from watching him.
They’re not buying it; they’ve known me too long.
“Do you remember Mrs. Taliaferro?” Andy asks rhetorically. “Mrs. Ralph Taliaferro, that sweet little old lady from Pueblo who has this firm on a thirty-five-thousand-dollar yearly retainer just so we’ll be there in case she needs us?”
I groan. Susan comes in with my coffee. I scald my lips, spill some on the mahogany. She wipes it up, leaves as fast as she can: the thunderheads in the room are low and sinking.
“What time was the meeting?” I’m having a difficult time retaining these days, I’m burning gray cells by the thousands daily. I glance at the wall clock: 10:45.
“Eight-thirty,” Fred answers. “It’s been on your calendar for two weeks.” His hand drops to my shoulder. It’s not an altogether friendly gesture. “She flew in for a partners’ meeting, in her own private Lear. All the partners, and since it’s a criminal matter, her idiot son having gotten his tit caught in the wringer dealing to a DEA agent, she was especially interested in talking to our criminal law specialist. Unfortunately, he was indisposed.”
“I’ll talk to her. I’ll fly up this afternoon.” Hell, I’ll fuck her if I have to, I’m getting to be an old hand with the geriatric set.
Andy shakes his head. “She dropped us. Dixon’s firm called fifteen minutes ago. They’re sending a messenger over for her files.” He turns away, looking out the window at the statehouse across the street.
“I’ll fix it,” I promise him hastily. My gut’s churning. “Dixon’s a hack, she’s a smart lady even if she did mother a tribe of morons, she’ll smell him out in a week.”
The room is quiet. Fred snaps a pencil between his fingers. It sounds like a gunshot; despite the grim news I’m still fighting this hangover, I’m going to need a pot of coffee before lunch.
“Sit down, Will,” Fred commands. “Come on, man, we’ve got to talk,” he continues, softer. He looks drawn; they both do. We’re all close friends, we’ve been in practice together almost ten years, we were the coming firm that actually arrived.
“It’s gotten out of hand … I’m talking about your behavior.”
“I know what you’re talking about,” I tell him. I’m testy, I don’t like being lectured, especially when I deserve it.
“This isn’t the first time, Will,” Andy says. “Or the second. You’re out of control, man. You’re …” He hesitates. “You’re not doing yourself much good these days. Or anyone else.”
“Andy and I’ve talked about it,” Fred jumps in, a shade too quickly. “With the associates, too, they’re part of this, but ultimately it’s got to be our decision. The partners. The three of us.”
I drink half a cup. It helps.