We heard the sirens about twenty minutes after Gail walked out. First a single cop car, then another, and a moment later, an ambulance. I was facing the window as I usually did so I saw each vehicle go by. Such events weren’t unheard of in our little downtown, but the wailing did cause Millie to turn around to witness the ambulance. And then we returned to the matters at hand.
We had just raised our cups, Millie and I, in a mock toast to the decision the three of us had finally made, only half an hour ago.
They knew us well at Jerry’s, and earlier, as soon as the bells jingled to announce our arrival, they were cranking up Millie’s Americano, Gail’s Vanilla Latte and my large hot chocolate (no whip).
We met once a week for a month, then another, then a third, always here. It wasn’t just for the beverages, though Millie and Gail were serious about it, while I stuck to my drink of preference (you can have a decent beard, or you can drink hot chocolate with whipped cream). It wasn’t even the croissants, though we always bought two, cutting them in thirds so each of us enjoyed two bites. It was about us, the three of us, and how we saw our futures. Our futures together.
Millie practiced family law, that joyous world of divorce, custody battles, and all-too-frequent in-home violence. She had worked for an older attorney for five years and was ready to go out on her own, as the saying went, as he was encouraging her to do so. He was also getting set to retire, too, so it made sense for both of them. Millie, Millicent Jollivette to the judges, and etched on her business card, had quickly become a highly-regarded member of our local bar scene. Bar, in this case, referring to lawyering, not drinking. If we did decide to do this mad thing, join forces and hang out a three-sided shingle, she would be our leader. It would be, if it really happened, Jollivette, Buchignani, and Talavera, Attorneys at Law. That’s why we met, to talk it through. There was no doubt that Millie was our captain, our number one, and I was happy to come in third.
She hadn’t been number one in her class at her East Coast law school, but she’d been close, and she’d done Law Review and all kinds of things like that. Already, and she wasn’t even thirty, she was mentoring other lawyers, and had attained Specialist status in Family Law. She was good. More, she was kind and calm, and made everyone around her – especially her clients, but also judges, opposing counsel, court reporters, clerks, stenographers, bailiffs – everyone, feel respected, attended to, and part of the human race. That last thing wasn’t so easy, especially for her clients, who were experiencing the worst days and months of their lives. But she did it.
Unless we were still stuck in some courtroom (I was the most likely culprit for that) we’d arrive each Thursday at four o’clock – lawyers can be accused of a lot of things, but we are proudly punctual. Judges encourage it. Four was a quiet time for Jerry’s, too, so it worked well for us.
Now it was pushing five-thirty and Gail still wasn’t back.
Millie once told me that Jerry had asked her if she were “seeing someone,” and if not, would she care to go for a stroll with him sometime, maybe along the river walk when the buckeye trees were blooming. She smiled, she said, and told him that while she might enjoy such a walk, it was best he knew she “played for the other team,” and in fact was in a long-standing relationship with a beautiful woman. “I said to him, ‘you must be the last person in town to know that about me.’”
I laughed when she told me that story. I did not tell her that, no, Jerry wasn’t the last to know. People harp on the importance of eyewitness testimony, and it is crucial in my line of work, but I know that I would not be a reliable one. There are so many things I just don’t see. Ask me what Millie was wearing that day, or almost any day. Or Gail. Or, to be honest, me.
Today, Gail had been fifteen minutes late. That was unusual. I’d known Millie longer than I’d known Gail, yet while we were waiting we almost had trouble finding things to talk about. We were accustomed, at that table, anyway, to working as a trio. Imagine a three-piece band without the bass player. Truth to tell, when Gail did arrive, she had to order a new Latte because her first, prepared when Millie and I had arrived, had morphed into something drab and unappealing.
Gail apologized. “I know it’s weird but I forgot today was Thursday! I mean, I knew what day it was most of the day, but when I got back from Department 12 – oh, Mango and company were a hoot today – I just went into my garden and watered. The gladiolas are going nuts. That’s supposed to be a ‘Tuesday’ task, but there I was.”
We forgave her, and she us, too, for the fact that there was almost no croissant left. We even paid for her coffee, both cups. Gail Buchignani, at 40 or so, was the oldest of the three of us. She shared an office in the strip mall near our public library, shared it with two other attorneys, neither of whose company she enjoyed. “They aren’t evil,” she liked to say, “just crude, and money-grubbing, and rude, too, if that’s any different than crude.” She’d been thinking of either finding a small place of her own “which I can’t afford unless it’s in an even worse strip mall” or trying to work from home. The latter was an option, but not a good one. You want clients to think you’re a real professional and an office in your home just doesn’t do it.
She did Estate Planning. She wrote Wills, and Trusts, and other boring stuff like that. I knew it was important work but back in my law school days, I’d slept through most of “Trusts and Estates 101,” or whatever they called it. It was required, so I took it. But she liked it, and I did see the value of it, for people who thought about their futures. And their presents, too, I suppose. Presents are nice.
She’d practiced in her home state of Tennessee for a few years before moving here after a divorce. Our state, as most do, welcomed her warmly with an invitation – mandatory — to sign up for and pay big money, too, to take our bar exam, which she did, and passed on the first go-round. She was no dummy.
No dummy, except that today, not only had she almost forgot about Millie and me, she’d also left her purse in her car, which is why we were once again waiting for her.
And then there was me: el hombre in the crowd.As Johnny Talavera, I’d been a decent high school baseball player (shortstop, and a little pitching) a non-scholarship and ultimately non-playing college baseball player, and, in a surprise move to most of the teachers and professors I’d ever had, and, in truth, me, too, a pretty decent law student. No one had ever heard of my law school, but it was real, and accredited, and I passed the bar on the first try. Not everyone does. My year, I believe only 40% did the deed. So, I also wasn’t a dummy, though a few of my baseball coaches might have argued the point.
Back in high school, in the Central Valley, I’d had plenty of friends who went sideways: did not pass go, did not collect $200.00, went directly into juvenile hall, then county jail, then prison. Following their stories, but not their path, I knew I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. I just wanted to help where I could, and I knew there were plenty of stops along the way between “guilty as sin” — and locked up for years and years — and “innocent” (that one wasn’t too common) or even “not-completely-guilty.” Call me a dreamer – go ahead, and I’ll embrace the idea, and you, too, if you’re not careful — but I believed in justice and that if we all played by the rules in that playground called “court,” we could achieve something close to it. Not every time, maybe, but most of the time. Some of the time, justice. You couldn’t give up.
I’d been an “adjunct member” of the public defender’s office for two years but the county budget wasn’t looking good for a permanent spot. Also, the office was a bit crowded for my tastes. I did the numbers, too (with Gail’s help) and if I went private I’d very likely snag enough court-appointed cases to fill my days and my financial needs. I wouldn’t get rich, but that wasn’t the point. I did not like the business end of the business, so if someone else – like the county – handled most of the money stuff, I’d be happy. I knew Millie, and later Gail, from a weekly salsa class at the YMCA. Wasn’t that the way all great law partnerships were formed?
So there we had been, the three of us, sipping and discussing how it might be. We had a lead on a vacant office, just a block away from the café. It looked both sufficient and affordable, with plenty of windows, and built-in shelving for Gail’s plants and the occasional law book, and the landlord already knew of, and respected, Millie. It was good having her on the team, that’s for sure. She would have the large office and Gail and I would have identical smaller ones. We thought we could hire a secretary, too, and possibly a receptionist.
We had really made the decision, and were about to march r to the landlord and sign the papers, when Gail stood up, almost knocking the little table – and everything on it — into my lap. “Oh, Jesus,” she said, “it’s a good thing you guys bought, ‘cuz I left my purse in the car. Around the corner, and I bet it’s unlocked, too.”
“I can get it,” I suggested, and stood. And bowed. “You know me, playing the ‘gentleman card’ whenever I can.”
They both laughed. Gail almost snorted her coffee, saying “God, those juries must adore you, how could they not?”
”Actually,” I said, “at my last trial, that forgery case that lasted forever, remember that one? Well, after my client hugged me and walked out a free man, two of the jurors came up and said I reminded them of Peter Falk in Colombo, which was either a compliment or, more likely, a comment on my, ahem, sartorial choices.”
I have to confess, too, that as Gail was almost losing her coffee, that she looked awfully cute. Again, my ability to see what’s right in front of me, well, it’s lacking something.
“When in doubt, assume it’s a compliment,” Gail advised. “Though you could try taking your shirts to a dry cleaner. It’s not just the cleaning, you know, they iron, too. Gracias, Sir Galahad, but I’m the one who left it, I’m the one to get it. Besides, I need a smoke, Back in ten.”
She left, leaving Millie and me where we’d started, occupying two of the three chairs, a couple of notepads with scribbled numbers in front of us.
Despite my criminal work, very few of my cases emanated from our little town. The county seat, twenty miles to the south, that’s where the action was. But this day was different, though we wouldn’t know it for another hour.
It went down like this, according to Lieutenant Koeffler, who had viewed surveillance video shot from outside the new apartment complex on Market. Gail, cigarette in hand, was just getting to her car when she stopped short. Sitting on the passenger seat was a tall pale man with long stringy blonde hair. The video didn’t pick up sound but it appeared she said something – possibly screamed something – and the guy jumped out, shoved her into the driver’s seat and sat next to her. He pointed something at her, probably a .45, and the car slowly drove away.
The next thing, according to a Bank of America camera two blocks away, Gail pulled up to the drive-thru ATM at the corner of Market and Miller. Records show she withdrew two hundred, the maximum.
“We found the car,” Koeffler said, “with Gail’s body draped over the steering wheel. I said it was probably a .45 – it was. The horn was blaring, that’s why our officer stopped to check. It was only a few minutes after she was shot, but she was gone.”
They quickly found the perp, one Matthew McCauley Smith, his pockets filled with twenties, the gun in his backpack.
It happened in thirty minutes. Millie and I hadn’t budged from our table.
Smith was booked for PC 187, murder in the first. As the DA said, and headline crowed, it was an open and shut case, thanks especially to the video work. Smith quickly pled out, to avoid the death penalty. He’s probably wishing he’d gotten it.
Millie and I never did get an office together. It was hard enough to be in the same room. The two hours in the funeral parlor was the last time for almost six months.
I did not represent Smith. In fact, I quit doing homicides for awhile, but eventually got back in the saddle, maybe a year later. It’s part of what I do.
Five years later, Millie was named a judge. She works the family law calendar so our professional paths don’t cross. I did go to her wedding, and she and her wife now have two sweet kids. I go to their place for dinner sometimes, usually alone, occasionally with a lady friend. I am still single, still play softball in a Rec. Center league that tries hard to be both fun and not too competitive. Mostly it finds that sweet spot and I’m grateful for it. I don’t salsa much anymore but I’m thinking about piano lessons.
I’m again a regular at Jerry’s. I ended up getting an office of my own on Market, a few blocks farther west, toward the river, but my money’s no longer in that bank. I broke down and had somebody make me a simple Will, and once a month I visit Gail out at Aspen Grove. I bring a gladiola, or tend the ones that are already there, but only on Tuesdays.
Tony Press tries to pay attention and there are moments when he does. His story collection, Crossing the Lines, was published by Big Table and is available directly from him, indy bookstores, from Big Table, and from that other place. He claims 2 Pushcart nominations, 12 years in a single high school classroom, and 25 criminal trials. Daily, he enjoys – from his window – the San Francisco Bay. He has enjoyed Halfway Down the Stairs since 2012.
© 2022, Tony Press