Maestro Keys — Chapter 35
As a student at UC Berkeley it took Linda forever to declare a major. Unlike most of her fellow undergraduates, she arrived without a career goal or intellectual obsession. She was curious about everything but didn’t feel the need to become an authority on anything — a generalist in a specialist’s paradise. Had she not met Arnold, she probably would have agreed with her mother that she’d have been better off at a less competitive school.
When she could delay choosing a major no longer she opted for psychology. There was nothing especially inspiring about the lower level psych courses she took as a freshman and sophomore. What led her to declare the major was a question her family and social life caused her to continually ponder: why was it that so many people with serious physical and cultural disadvantages engaged the world cheerfully and productively, while so many people with abundant physical and cultural capital turned minor obstacles into major dramas and were miserable and useless?
She wrote her senior thesis on the topic. Her work sufficiently impressed her faculty adviser that he raised the possibility of grad school, which flattered and tempted her. But the main thing she’d learned about psychology was what shaky ground its premises stood upon, and for all the breadth and rigor of her senior thesis, her personal conclusion was that regardless of circumstance (and assuming no neuropathology), people were as happy as they made up their minds to be. So she said no to grad school and yes to Arnold.
Did she still believe people were as happy as they made up their minds to be? If so, why was she moping in the living room day after day, absently petting Figaro while binge-watching Three’s Company? Yes, her problems were real. After Rudy’s accident her perpetual horniness vanished, leaving a gap in her inner life she filled with dread of her son turning into a full-fledged agoraphobic zombie. The further Rudy withdrew, the more helpless she felt, until all she could do was cry. She cried at least twice a day, triggered by the littlest things; Figaro’s curling in her lap had done it this morning.
It was another sign menopause had arrived. Unless something happened fast, this would be the second straight period she’d miss and the fifth since the start of the year. Hot flashes were becoming common. She’d sweat as if she’d been through an hour of aerobics, then freeze. She couldn’t stand to cuddle with Arnold more than a few minutes because his body heat lit her own furnace. She explained that it was a symptom of menopause and not a reflection on their relationship, and so far he’d accepted that, but she feared for the day he grew skeptical, and sometimes endured the contact to reassure him even though it made her want to scream.
Her gynecologist offered to start her on hormone replacement therapy. Linda had qualms about putting herself at the mercy of the pharmaceutical industry for the rest of her life. So did the doctor, who admitted there was little evidence HRT was beneficial over the long term except in the worst cases, which hers wasn’t, and that it carried multiple risks. Linda weighed the side effects against her fear of chin hair and decided against HRT. She could always have electrolysis.
It was comforting to know there was a physiological basis for her distress, but hormones be damned, this was no time to wallow. Someone had to snap the funk that had settled over them and model resilience. If Rudy and Arnold wouldn’t do it, she would (as usual). She knew putting on a happy face and pretending nothing was wrong wouldn’t work. But she could let go of her self-pity, deal head-on with the consequences of lost youth (something all three of them were going through, each in their own way), and encourage Rudy and Arnold to follow her lead.
For that reason, along with curiosity, she went with them to the decrepit downtown Oakland building that housed the law offices of Toni Lefferts. The tiny, lurching elevator opened to an ill-lit hallway, redolent of ammonia, that could have served as the set for a Depression-era private eye movie. Once their pupils adjusted to the gloom Arnold led them to a transomed wooden door inset with clouded glass. Toni Lefferts, Attorney at Law its black letters read.
They entered a cluttered, elongated reception area blocked off by a secretary’s desk. A young Asian man with a rakish haircut looked up from his computer monitor. “Ah-nuld! I never thought I’d see you again. Wassup, old man?”
“Wilson Liu? What are you doing here?” Arnold asked.
“Making a few extra bucks while going to law school,” he grinned. “Toni’s a better teacher than some of my profs. I don’t know how I’d have gotten through torts class without her. Is this your family?”
Linda stepped forward and introduced herself, shaking Liu’s hand. Rudy did the same, but more bashfully.
“Let me see.” Liu craned his neck and peered through the translucent glass behind him into his boss’s office. “Doesn’t look like she’s on the phone, so go right in,” he said. “I’ll bring an extra chair.”
Toni Lefferts’ office was even more cluttered than the main room. Shelves ringing every available inch of wall space were loaded with books and boxes and papers. Even so, there were so many additional piles on the floor that Linda and Arnold had to pick paths to their seats, and Liu needed a minute to figure out where to put the chair for Rudy. Lawyers were such creatures of paper! If the digital age didn’t change that, nothing would.
Toni Lefferts was stockily built and barely more than five feet tall. She looked about ten years older than Linda, maybe more. Her gray hair was in an inch-high mohawk that tapered into a long pair of rat tails at the back of her neck. She wore a shapeless, vertically-striped brown and white top straight off a thrift store rack and a baggy pair of jeans. Cat earrings were her only adornment; no rouge touched her cheeks, no lipstick her mouth, no bracelet her wrist.
“Surprised, Arnold?” Toni beamed, her pale blue eyes atwinkle. “I bet you assumed I had a staff and office plush as yours.”
“Your secretary’s competent, so you actually have more than me,” he harrumphed.
“All my staff are law students or clients working off their fees. They come and go, so I’m constantly training, and I doubt very much they’re as competent as steady employees. You don’t want to know what this place was like preparing for the Williams trial. I still say if I had the resources of a big firm I’d have kicked your ass, publicity stunts notwithstanding.”
Linda could tell Arnold wanted to bust her right back. But to his credit he went the conciliatory route. “Maybe you would have,” he granted.
“So now that you’re the one trying to keep the old lady out of her house, have you gotten any death threats?”
“Nope. Although Donalson did send some nitwits to picket my office.”
“Small potatoes,” she scoffed. “Hell, a couple of times I came to my office in the morning and found ticking packages outside my door.”
“How come you never said anything about it?”
“Never feed creeps and trolls. Just report them to the police and hope the cops deign to arrest them.” She sighed. “That’s the main reason I switched specialties. It’s a lot safer defending criminals than tenants. Easier, too. Criminals have more rights.”
She winked at Linda and Rudy. “Sorry, folks. Hard to give up the old battles.” She cleared her throat and grabbed a sheaf of papers off her desk. “I’ve read through the accident report and the other documents you sent me. You did hit that woman, Rudy, didn’t you? And you were high at the time?”
Startled by the direct questions, Rudy nodded meekly.
“And the vehicle inspection indicates there weren’t any mechanical problems. So basically, you’re guilty.”
What a crude, abrasive woman, to taunt Arnold and then stick Rudy’s guilt in his face! Are we paying for this? Linda was a second from stomping out of the office (she didn’t care what she stepped on as long as she didn’t trip) and demanding Arnold find another attorney.
Toni sensed her anger. “I always get that out of the way up front,” she soothed. “A lot of lawyers don’t care whether their client tells the truth or not. I find it saves a lot of headaches if I get the straight scoop from the start. That way there are no nasty surprises when my client’s cross-examined.”
She glanced through the papers she was holding. “I don’t mean to sound cynical, but two things. First, you couldn’t have hit that woman with a better vehicle. You realize that if you’d hit her with an SUV instead of that little Boxster she’d be dead and you’d be looking at vehicular manslaughter, right?” She barely paused for Rudy to answer. “Second, you couldn’t have done this at a better time. The county budget is in such bad shape the DA is laying off staff. The average prosecutor in Alameda County is working an eighty hour week.”
Arnold shook his head. “That’s unbelievable. It’s not like they bill hours.”
“Scandalous, isn’t it? That’s what I love about the people in this county. They want criminals prosecuted and imprisoned, but they don’t want to pay taxes for prosecutors or prisons. But hey, it works to our advantage. When a prosecutor’s working on a murder one, a couple of lesser homicides, rape, robbery, narcotics, you name it, you think he wants to go to trial on a twenty-three one fifty-three?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not a lawyer. What is that number?” Linda queried. She also wanted to remind Toni that she wasn’t just talking to Arnold.
“That’s the vehicle code section under which Rudy’s been charged. Driving under the influence and causing bodily injury to someone other than yourself. It’s what we call a wobbler, chargeable as either a felony or misdemeanor. Given how badly hurt the victim was, I think you should presume they’ll push for a felony conviction. Up to four years in jail plus a fine up to five thousand dollars. And, of course, your license is suspended. But my guess is you’re going to have a much bigger problem on the civil side than the criminal. Like I said, the prosecutor doesn’t want to go to trial. I can almost guarantee he’ll let us bargain down to a twenty-three one oh-four, reckless driving that causes bodily injury. Believe it or not that’s only a misdemeanor. With a lesser penalty.
“We’ll probably be able to keep you out of jail, too. For one thing, the prisons are overcrowded. For another, the DA’s office is laying off attorneys on a last-in, first-out basis, which means the prosecutors still around are white men who’ve been there twenty years. They’ll take one look at you and say, I have a son that age myself. And you know damn well they wouldn’t want their own son going to the pen for a foolish mistake. So you’ll get two or three years’ probation and a thousand dollar fine. A couple of years ago they’d have also put you in a rehab program, but they cut those in the last budget go-round.”
At the sound of the magic words — no jail — Linda revised her opinion of Toni Lefferts. Abrasive, yes. But also a woman who knew the score, didn’t back down (even from Arnold), and used every advantage to drive a tough bargain. Not someone who let disadvantages — like her client’s beyond-reasonable-doubt guilt — get in her way.
“Are you willing to plead guilty to the lesser charge of reckless driving?” Toni asked Rudy.
“I guess so. What other options do I have?”
“I’ll tell you right now, if you force the prosecutor to take this case to trial, and that’s what you risk if you don’t cop a plea, he’s going to push for the maximum sentence. And unless we find the holy grail of facts, we’re not getting an acquittal. People who drive under the influence are extremely unpopular. I have yet to run into a jury sympathetic to a DUI.”
And then Rudy did the most touching thing: he looked to his father for guidance.
Arnold gave a slight nod.
“If you were innocent we’d fight this,” Toni added. “I don’t believe an innocent person should compromise with the authorities. But you admit you’re guilty. So let’s keep you out of jail and give you a chance to rebuild your life, okay?”
“Okay,” said Rudy with a crack in his voice. He was getting his hope back.
And so was Linda.
© 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.