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Authors: Carolyn Wheat

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BOOK: Dead Man's Thoughts
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Di Anci nodded. The woman stood up, smoothed her skirt, and looked expectantly at the judge.

“What is your name, madam?” he asked, in a calming voice.

“Gloria Vinci, Your Honor,” she said nervously. “I'm Joey's mother, and I'm also Paulie's aunt.”

Watching Di Anci talk to the woman, I relaxed. He asked about her family, where they lived, what part of Italy they came from.

“You'll see to it that they both come to court?” Di Anci finally asked. Gloria Vinci nodded vigorously.

“All right. Paculo and Vinci are released on their own recognizance. Dennehy, bail twenty-five hundred dollars bond, one thousand cash. March twenty-fourth, AP4. Next case.”

“Wait a minute, Judge. I need at least two 18-b attorneys.” I told Di Anci I'd keep Paculo; we'd need non-Legal Aid lawyers appointed for the other two to avoid a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile the cousins were being reunited with the family. The motherly woman held up her arms to the boys as if to embrace them in a warm Italian hug. Then she slapped her son across the face so loud it resounded through the courtroom. She was shouting something in Italian that sounded dirty as hell. She turned on the nephew, but the rest of the family was gesturing, shouting, trying to remove her from the courtroom before the court officers did.

Di Anci was loving it. He laughed till the tears ran down his face. “Maybe I should've set bail after all. I think those boys'd get more protection in the slammer.”

Morrie, the court reporter, spoke up. “And that's just the mother, Judge,” he said eagerly. “Their old man'll put a steel-toed boot to their ass.” He cackled in a high-pitched voice, then looked at the judge, expecting a laugh.

He didn't get it. In another sudden change of mood, Di Anci's face had gone rigid. He was lost in a private, bitter memory.

I wondered why. I knew Di Anci's father was a judge on the Appellate Division, which was why people called him Di Anci the Younger or Di Anci Junior. Or, since the elder Di Anci was reputed to have the brains in the family, Di Anci the Stupid. Maybe that was it, I thought. The man must get tired of overhearing people say he wasn't the lawyer his father was.

The last cases before dinner break were the girls. They were brought out in a string by the pross cop, a huge black dude with an earring and a black T-shirt with silver glitter letters that read
IN THE SYSTEM
. The girls matched his flamboyant, ironically pimpy chic with their hot pants, platinum wigs, white boots, and other working clothes. They stood in a row in varying poses of defiance.

I hate prosses. Not the girls, but the system. As Judge Diadona says, any judge collecting fines on a pross is just a pimp for the City of New York. How the hell do other judges think those fines get paid?

All the girls pleaded guilty except one. Honey Macomb, stunning in red wig and silver lamé gown. Six feet three, with size twelve silver pumps and long fingernails painted purple. True name Harold Melvin.

He had warrants. Most transvestites do; they don't have obliging pimps to pay their fines and keep them in business. Di Anci, barely glancing up from his paperwork, executed sentence. Forty-five days all told. Honey would do the time rather than pay the money for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that he/she could earn a few bucks in Riker's. Typical case, even down to the black eye and the cut on Honey's head. I put his injuries on the record just for the hell of it. I knew it made no difference to anyone except me.

The court officers and the cops went into their usual bag of he/she jokes and sniggers as the pross cop led Honey back into the pens. It would have been no big deal except for the little D.A. cheerfully remarking, “Looks like your client fell down the precinct steps, doesn't it, Counselor?” She had a conspirator's smile on her face.

“Yeah, it's funny how Officer Perkins's defendants fall down the stairs so often. What makes me really sick, though, is D.A.'s who get off on it.” Full of self-righteousness, I stalked away and headed for the Legal Aid table, where Nathan waited to go to dinner with me.

“A little hard on her, weren't you?” he asked mildly.

“Did you see her face?” I was still furious. “That little bitch thought it was cute that the cops beat that guy up.”

“She hasn't been in the D.A.'s office very long, Cass. Maybe it's just a defense mechanism. ‘See, I'm in the system. I know what goes on.' That's all she's saying, really.”

“Oh, Christ! Sometimes you kill me, Nathan, you really do. Psychoanalyzing the D.A.'s. I don't
care
why she said it. All I know is I'm hungry. I need a break. I don't want to be kind and understanding anymore.”

But that, of course, was the difference between Nathan and me. For him, kind and understanding was a way of life. For me, it was a job. One I needed a break from every so often.

T
WO

T
he only thing to be said for the Kings County Criminal Court is that it's about three blocks from Atlantic Avenue. Every time the Middle East hits the news, some enterprising TV correspondent takes a minicam there to sample local Arab opinion. Personally, I'd rather sample the food.

Nathan and I walked from the courthouse to the restaurant in silence. A companionable silence, the kind you only have with someone you know very well. A silence so rich, so full of meaning, that if I had those few minutes to live over again, this time knowing we were on our way to the last meal we'd ever share, knowing that in two days Nathan would be murdered, I wouldn't wish for talk. I'd stick with the silence.

We'd been colleagues at Legal Aid for four years, lovers for about two. He was older than most of us, forty-eight, with graying Brillo hair and a face that somehow, despite the crags and wrinkles, belied his years. About two inches taller than my five-five. Not exactly the tall, blond, all-American boyfriend I'd dreamed about back in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. But then I was a long way from Chagrin Falls in more ways than one. For now, Nathan was what I wanted, a cozy old-shoe affair. Maybe not passionate but safe and comfortable.

He'd been a successful criminal lawyer in Manhattan for about fifteen years. Name in the papers, heavy cases. Drug dealers. Black Panthers. Then he'd had a nervous breakdown. Quit practicing law. When he was ready to take it up again, he came to Legal Aid.

His cases were legendary. Like the time he crumpled his client's written confession into a ball and kicked it around the courtroom to show the jury how worthless it was. Or the time he compared the People's witness, an informer, to Barabbas—which meant his client was Jesus. He was one hell of a lawyer. Maybe in some ways I was dissatisfied with myself because I compared myself to him. I didn't have what he had. What it took.

We turned from Court Street onto Atlantic Avenue and went into a place called The Casbah. Indian-print wall hangings, tin lamps with cutout holes for the light to flash through, spicy smells, and high-pitched, oddly soothing music. It wasn't crowded; Monday night at nine o'clock isn't exactly prime time in Brooklyn. I ordered a glass of white wine; Nathan raised his bushy eyebrows at me but said nothing.

“I can't take this anymore, Nathan.” I tried to say it matter-of-factly, but a certain shrillness crept in. “All this game-playing with people's lives. I'm burning out.”

“Why do I have the feeling I've heard this before?” He said it with a smile, but there was a hint of weariness too. He was right; I'd been complaining to him far too often lately.

“I got sick of law once myself,” he said. “You probably heard I quit for a while.”

I nodded. He was speaking casually, yet for all our closeness he had never mentioned his breakdown before.

“One reason why was an arson case I had. An abandoned building. A derelict died from smoke inhalation. My client, the owner, collected a bundle in insurance. I'd represented some pretty nasty people in my time, but this case got to me.” His brown eyes were locked with mine. His voice was low but full of a passion I'd never heard before.

“When I was a kid, about ten or so, we were burned out of a building. In Brownsville. Nobody was hurt, but we lost everything. I can remember my mother crying into her apron. Over the lost photograph albums of her family. She said it was as if they'd been put in the gas ovens all over again.” He cleared his throat. “For the first time in my life, I was face to face with the kind of work I was really doing. And I hated myself for doing it.”

“What did you do?”

“Won the case,” he said simply. “Then I threw up in the toilet and left the job for a while. I was pretty messed up. Started doing some crazy things—” he trailed off. I had the feeling he wanted to say more, to tell me something even more personal. But I could only wait until he was ready.

The hummos arrived. Nathan tore a piece of chewy pita and dipped it, stirring the orange-colored oil into the paste and lifting the bread to his mouth. Hungry as I was, I didn't follow his example. Instead I sat back expectantly, waiting for him to finish his thought.

“I came back,” he told me, “when I realized that it really doesn't matter so much what you do in life as how you do it.”

“What do you mean?”

“There's a Zen story,” he began.

“Oh, no. Not another Zen story, Nathan, please,” I begged. Zen stories are the Oriental version of Christian parables, only more obscure. “You're plucking my last
nerve,”
I joked, quoting Lily, Nathan's secretary, whose last nerve was plucked at least once a week.

“There's a Zen story,” he repeated insistently, but with a smile. “However, I'll skip the details and go straight to the punch line. The point is that you must bring two things to whatever task you set out to do in life—concentration and compassion. Concentration on the thing you're doing and compassion for the people whose lives you affect by doing it. That's what it's all about, for me anyway. Doing my job the best way I know how but never losing sight of the fact that I'm dealing with people, not just cases.”

“What if you don't want to
do
that job?”

“But that's the whole point, Cass,” he answered. “You can't go through life picking and choosing: I'll walk through this part of life, but I'll give myself heart and soul to that part. You either give all you've got to whatever you're doing at the moment, or you'll find you have nothing left to give when the ‘right' thing comes along.”

“That's crazy!” I retorted. “You mean in order to be a good photographer I have to be involved in law?”

“Involved is involved,” he shrugged. “Do you realize you'd be one hell of a lawyer if you ever decided to stop holding back and go for it?”

The waitress brought our main dishes. I started eating my lamb stew, partly because I was hungry and partly to forestall further conversation. It didn't work. Nathan asked me a question.

“Why did you go to law school?” He asked it conversationally, like a guy coming on in a singles bar. Then, before I could answer, he said, “Because you wanted to save the whales, end the war, and stop pollution, all in your first year of practice?”

“Something like that.” I smiled in spite of myself; it had been exactly like that. “After the shootings at Kent, which the legal system did nothing but cover up, I decided to learn the language, get my union card, and do what I could.”

“Funny,” he said. “You went to law school to be a more effective rebel. I went to law school to get respectable. My old man was a Communist. Really,” he added, as I gave him a skeptical look. “Guys in long black cars followed us around. He took me to party meetings all the time. Even as a kid I could see that half the people there were poor deluded schmucks and the other half were FBI agents. It made me sore, what a schlemiel he was, believing in the glorious revolution. I went to law school to get away from that, to get into something normal.”

“You're saying that's a better reason?” I challenged.

“I'm saying it set up fewer expectations,” he replied. “When I came back to law after my hiatus, I could set limited goals for myself. I couldn't save the world, but I could get, maybe, one kid into a program and on the right track. I try to do what I can and forget about what I can't.”

“What's this got to do with my becoming a photographer?” I asked.

“Same thing,” he said. “I get the feeling photography for you is an escape. Taking pictures at block fairs on weekends. But nobody makes a living doing that. Can you accept the idea of becoming a working photographer—the kind who does weddings and takes high school graduation pictures?” He smiled. “Or is it Ansel Adams or bust?”

I smiled back, a little ruefully. “Berenice Abbott or bust.” Then I sighed. “I get the point, Nathan. I don't like it, but I get it.”

“Sorry for the lecture, Cass,” he said, though he didn't look sorry. “I just hate to see you putting yourself through this. If you could work things out, I think you'd be a lot happier.” He took my hand. “And I'd like to see you happy.”

Then he looked at his watch. “Back to the salt mines.”

“Are you kidding?” I asked. “Salt mining is a clean, wholesome occupation next to being a Legal Aid lawyer.”

We walked along State Street in silence. In spite of the damp cold, there were kids hanging out in front of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys. The stars that seemed to twinkle in the pavement were really hundreds of shards of broken glass. In the distance, the red hands of the clock on the Williamsburg Savings Bank pointed to ten o'clock. Three more hours of night court. My stomach knotted up, and I shivered, not entirely from the cold.

T
HREE

“H
ey, lady, you my Legal Aid?” the kid with the huge Afro demanded.

“Ain't you got my name on one of them files?” his buddy asked, pointing to the stack I was carrying.

BOOK: Dead Man's Thoughts
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