Maestro Keys — Chapter 30
Unlike Arnold, who couldn’t because he was a man, Linda cried after the police called. She cried for her son, who was still a baby. Cried for the woman he hit. Cried for the woman’s dog. Cried for Arnold, whose life was on the upswing only to have this happen. And cried for herself, the one responsible for it all.
It wasn’t that she’d done anything. But she might have if Sterling Nesta had been in the living room that morning, and intention counted for everything. The catechistic guilt she long believed part of her past roared back to life when Arnold hung up the phone and, in a voice devoid of affect, relayed what the police told him. She had indulged her erotomania too long. It had caused her to miss the million signs that something was wrong with her son — the sullenness, the detachment, the bad grades — until he literally spun out of control. It wasn’t fair that she carried the burden of her family’s well-being, but as burdens went it was much lighter than most people’s, especially most women’s. Now many besides her were suffering for her selfishness, her privilege, her failure.
On the way to the county jail Arnold coped with his emotions — or avoided them — by being a lawyer. Rudy would be charged with some form of criminal negligence. If he was intoxicated or on drugs, that would add to the charge, Arnold would have to check the Penal Code to know exactly what. They could go to a bail bondsman and get Rudy out tonight, but they’d save money if they waited until morning and used their own funds.
Linda’s crying, which had subsided, rose anew at Arnold’s hint they leave Rudy in jail. She knew what happened in jails. She knew her son would kill himself if anything like that happened to him. “We’re getting him out as soon as possible and not a second later,” she insisted, dabbing her cheeks with a tissue.
Arnold didn’t argue. “There’ll be a civil suit,” he continued dully, as if sedated. “I don’t do personal injury law, but if memory serves, it’s the vehicle owner’s insurance that covers. I assume Ramesh’s family owns the car. And I assume Rudy was a permissive driver. If that’s the case, we would look to their insurance. But it depends on what the policy says. What the exclusions are. And the insurance company might subrogate against us.” He exhaled until all the air left his lungs, then breathed heavily. “We may really be in for it, Babe.”
She’d already concluded as much. Goodbye house. Goodbye aerobics classes. Goodbye luscious mochas and croissants after. She would have to go to work again, and between her age and lack of recent experience what kind of job was she going to find? Linda felt herself tumbling down a steep slope, a human avalanche. She didn’t know how much farther down she had to go. All she knew was that there wasn’t any going up.
Rudy spent the night in jail anyway. Arnold forgot that a magistrate had to set bail before it could be paid. The correctional officers weren’t going to allow them to see Rudy until Arnold flashed his bar association card and told them he was acting as his son’s counsel. They offered to bring Rudy to a visiting room first thing in the morning. “Not acceptable,” said Arnold sternly. That was one thing Linda loved about him: in the crunch, the lawyer in him refused to be intimidated.
After making her and Arnold wait another hour, a couple of bored officers escorted them to a stuffy visiting room with filthy, peeling walls and a warping linoleum floor. Seeing Rudy in an orange jumpsuit, hands bound at his waist, was too much. Linda knew how important it was to be strong, but she couldn’t help herself and held a fist to her mouth to smother a wail. She would have collapsed had Arnold not guided her into a wobbly plastic chair.
She wanted to envelop Rudy and assure him everything would be all right. As soon as the guard uncuffed him and left the three of them alone, she leaped from the chair. Rudy limply endured her hug. She wished he would cry. It would be so much healthier. But she understood he might still be in shock, so she wept for them all while hollowly repeating, “It’ll be okay.”
Arnold’s voice was small. “Tell us what happened, and don’t spare us the hard parts.”
Rudy recounted the experience without looking at them, so quietly they could hear the buzz of the fluorescent light on the ceiling. He hadn’t seen the stop sign in time. When he did see it, he must have still been high because he got confused and thought it was a traffic light and tried to beat it by speeding up. He never saw the woman and the dog. Until he stopped the car, got out, and looked.
He glanced down as if the ceiling light were blinding him. His body jerked as if he was having a seizure. Then he let out a single stifled sob. Linda went to him and cradled his head.
She didn’t sleep that night for thinking about him. Before he was born she wanted to name him Newton, after her favorite uncle, but Arnold objected because he was going to law school and didn’t want his fellow students (or professors), who already thought him unusual because he was older, to think he named his kid for the Speaker of the House. In the end she reluctantly accepted Rodolfo because she thought a father had the right to name his son — and it was better than his other choice, Leporello. She also got Arnold to agree that if they had another kid, she would do the naming.
Rudy had been a breach birth, or rather a breach almost-birth; the obstetrician went in and got him before he tore her up completely. They warned that having another baby would be dangerous, but after seven hours of hard labor she didn’t need their admonitions. Linda would have rather had every bone in her body broken than go through childbirth again.
During those early years she’d watch her only child innocently play and sleep and she’d fear that someday something terrible would happen to him. Now that day had come. Part of her still refused to believe it, even after seeing him in jail. But another part was relieved his fate had finally been revealed and it wasn’t any worse. He could’ve been murdered or paralyzed or lured into a cult. She felt guilty about responding to such a calamity with gratitude. That was probably sinful too, especially in light of the damage he’d done to other lives.
She sought expiation from her husband and found him sitting in the study’s reclining chair, not listening to music, not reviewing his score of Lieutenant Kije, just sitting. She knew because for the first time in his life he left the door open. She wondered whether that was an invitation to go in. There was only one way to find out.
He scooched over so she could sit on the arm of the chair and lean against him. Though there was no one to overhear, they whispered wistful, rueful recollections of their son’s childhood. Then they went to the kitchen for coffee and fussed over Figaro, who seemed every bit as confused and worried as they were. After several minutes of silence petting the dog and marveling at the sunrise, Arnold confided that yes, bad as it was, he too was glad it wasn’t worse.
At seven a.m. Arnold left to bail out Rudy. She went to bed and fell into a fitful slumber full of disjointed dreams whose details she couldn’t remember, only their pervasive sense of frustration. But the nap cleared her head enough to realize she had an obligation, and she had better get it done in the brief time she could.
Arnold had taken the Camry, so after putting Figaro in the backyard a few minutes so he could do his business she dressed in a gray top and black pant suit and walked downhill to BART. She was expecting Japanese subway-like crowds, but it was Saturday so the car was half empty. She took a window seat and stared absently at the low-slung residential neighborhoods until the train screeched and clattered its way underground at the Berkeley city line. The train didn’t resurface until just before Oakland Children’s Hospital, the sight of which got her crying again; when Rudy was four he experienced a sudden shortness of breath and they’d rushed him there. He was fine — a bad flu, no permanent damage — but for a while she thought that might have been the tragedy she dreaded. By the time she got off the train she’d stopped crying over the memory; once on the street she examined her face in her compact mirror and used a tissue to wipe away the mascara trails.
Most trauma cases were taken to Highland Hospital, but in what Linda took to be a hopeful sign Rudy’s victim had been transported to the hospital on Pill Hill, just north of downtown Oakland. Linda hated hospitals. No matter how hard they tried to look cheerful with murals and carpet and plants they failed, because even the best ones reeked of saline solution, excrement, and misery. But for the sake of her soul she needed to do this, so despite the repellent atmosphere she marched herself to the reception desk.
The woman Rudy hit was in intensive care and visitors weren’t allowed, but Linda snuck up there anyway. She found the woman’s family in the lounge, which was outfitted in gray and maroon décor suited to an airport gate, only shabbier. A couple of tow-headed siblings, not quite adolescents, presumably grandkids, worked noiselessly at a jigsaw puzzle on a low glass table. The balding son (or son-in-law) dozed on a couch too short for him by a foot. The daughter (or daughter-in-law), a bit plump just like her, sat in an armchair knitting a sweater.
Linda introduced herself. The woman identified herself as Meg, the victim’s daughter. She got up, shook Linda’s hand, and introduced her husband and kids. Linda promptly forgot their names because she was trying to remember the words she’d rehearsed on the train but couldn’t summon now that the moment had come. Shit. She’d just have to do the best she could, which wouldn’t be good enough — but then, what would be?
“I came because I know that once the lawyers get involved we won’t be able to talk,” she said. “My husband’s a lawyer. He’d probably kill me if he knew I was doing this.”
Tiredly but kindly, they laughed.
This was no time for chitchat. She went straight to the point. “I want you to know that whatever gets said, I’m terribly — ” she started to cry “ — terribly sorry for what happened. And so is my husband. And so is my son. He’s not a bad kid. He doesn’t have a bad heart. But he made a terrible mistake, and I’m so, so — ” she choked and had to stop for a moment “ — sorry for all of you, though your mom the most, of course.”
The husband wrung his hands, then looked her in the eye. “Don’t get me wrong. We’re really mad at your son. But we’re Christians. We forgive him. And we know you didn’t ask for this either.” He took a deep, troubled breath and shook his head. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think we’ve screwed up the whole world and the kids are paying the price, and they visit it back on us with stuff like this.”
“Seems like everything’s going to hell,” Linda agreed.
She asked about Meg’s mom’s prognosis. More surgeries, then months of physical and occupational therapy. She reiterated her sorrow at the family’s misfortune. Meg thanked her for coming, then smiled feebly and said, “Well, see you in court, I guess.”
Linda wanted to hug her, but a sudden stiffness in Meg’s demeanor told her she’d done what she’d come to do and it was time to leave.
© 2023 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.