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Tuesday, October 12, 2010
I grabbed for the phone. I'd already turned off the lights and was heading out the door when it rang. The office phone. Not my cell. Deb, my receptionist, waited out in the parking lot.
She'd say I should've let the phone ring. And maybe she was right. But I had a thing about phones. If it rang, someone on the other end needed me for something.
I had to find out who. And what.
I had a thing about pencils, too, but at the moment, I wasn't craving one. Deb and I were going to skate the eighteen-mile converted-railroad skate path outside town.
"Kelly Chapman's office." I'd answered Deb's phone.
"Kelly?" I didn't recognize the voice, and because we'd inherited the ancient phone and intercom system with the office suite, I didn't have caller display to help me out.
"This is Erin Morgan from Temple, Michigan." Oh, right. The defense attorney. She'd found me in the expert witness directory the year beforeI'd been able to help her with a case.
"Hi, Erin, what's up?" I couldn't take any out-of-town jobs just now. I had a new foster daughter at home, a girl I hoped to adopt.
Fourteen was a tough age for any kid. And even more so for one who'd lost her virginity and her mother all in the same month.
"Have you got a minute?"
As Erin asked the question, Deb came in to see what was keeping me, and I motioned for her to go on without me. "Sure," I said into the phone. I hadn't felt good about going out after work, anyway. "Let me get the door."
Setting the phone down, I went back and locked up behind Deb.
Maggie had said to go ahead and skate, to keep up with my usual routine. She claimed she'd be fineand that she'd make supper so it would be ready when I got home. And because I was still feeling my way, still trying to find some bridge between being a therapist and being a mother, I'd agreed, thinking Maggie needed some time in the house by herself. Time to explore unobserved. To make the place her own. To bond with Camymy very spoiled and bossy toy poodle.
But my instincts had been screaming at me all day to go straight home after work. I just couldn't tell if they were shrink instincts or some completely unused maternal ones.
"I'm here," I said, picking up the phone again as I scooted my Lycra-clad backside onto Deb's desk, facing the door. "What do you need?"
"I'm probably not going to convince you that I just called to say hi, am I?"
"Not likely," I said. Not with an opening line like that. "It's been, what, a year?"
"So how've you been?" I liked Erin. And prevarication wasn't her style.
Choosing a pen from the box of new ones in Deb's top drawerput there expressly for meI flipped to a clean page in my receptionist's open notepad.
"I've been good. Great. Got my AV rating this year."
The Martindale-Hubbel National Peer Review Rating of ethics and legal ability. A national coup in the legal field. She'd met some pretty high standards. "Congratulations."
She's stalling. I jotted it down. Merely an observation, but I thought better when I was writing.
"Listen, I have a favor to ask." As opposed to a job? Interesting.
Asking for favors wasn't something that came easily to independents like Erin. I knew because I was one, too.
"Shoot." As long as it didn't involve leaving town, I'd do it. If I could.
"Well, not a favor, really. I just Look, I need someone to talk to. Someone not from around here. Someone no one'll ever know I spoke to."
"A therapist, you mean?"
"I guess. Maybe."
"For you or another person?"
Erin just lied to me. The words appeared on the page.
"You want a referral?"
"No. I don't think so. Maybe. I really just wanted to get your opinion. If I could. Not like a session or anything. Though I'd be happy to compensate you."
For someone who'd appeared to be as organized and methodical as they came, Erin Morgan hadn't thought this through very well.
"Of course you don't need to compensate me. I told you to call me anytime, and I meant it."
That had been a year ago. On the last day of a highly emotional murder trial involving a mentally handicapped defendant who'd been accused of killing her newborn baby. In my opinion, the teenager hadn't even realized she'd given birth. She'd been exonerated on the grounds of mental incompetence and committed to a home where they'd be able to safeguard her.
I'd assumed, in the heat of the moment, that Erin and I would remain in touch.
If not as friends, then as professional peers.
"You having problems with a case?" I asked as silence hung on the line. Could be she didn't have the budget for expert witness fees this time around.
"No, it's nothing like that. I This friend of mine, he's really struggling and Oh come on, I can't believe I'm being so inane. I'm struggling, Kelly, and not finding answers and I thought of you."
"I'm glad you did," I told her honestly. "What's the issue?"
"You got your AV rating." I reminded her of what I'd just been told.
"Yeah." The sigh on the other end didn't convey the elation I'd expected. "I'm good at what I do," the thirty-one-year-old attorney continued. "Hell, I should be, it's all I do."
"And that's a problem?" Possible relationship. I circled the sentence.
"No. I love being a lawyer. I love the law."
"I'm not sure I love me."
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Because I'm a risk to society." Whoa. I scribbled it a second time for good measure. Whoa.
"How so?" I asked.
"Cops put dangerous people behind bars and I set them free."
Not the woman I knew. Erin was particular about her cases. She took on only the ones she believed in, clients she was convinced were innocent.
Which was why I'd bonded with her to the point of thinking we'd stay in touch.
"I thought you helped innocent victims. That you considered yourself part of the checks and balances to protect against police and prosecutorial mistakes." I repeated what Erin had told me over a glass of wine the night I'd spent in Temple the year before.
"I thought so, too. But I'm full of crap." Searching. Vulnerable ?
"I That's just it," Erin said, the strength in her voice, the conviction, never wavering. "I don't know."
Gotta love it. A person who was confident even in her struggles.
"Are you lying to yourself?" I asked.
She sighed. "I don't know."
"Do you want to be a risk to society?"
"Of course not!"
"Why do you go to work each day?"
"To do my job."
"Why in a bigger sense?" The words rolled off my tongue. I was working. Always working. Just like Erin Morgan.
"Because I want to help people."
"That's why you started doing what you do. What about now?"
"What other reason would there be?"
"It feels good to win a case," she admitted.
"And the money?"
"I like it, but it's never been my motivation. That hasn't changed." I believed her.
"And the AV rating, the security it gives you, that felt good, too, I'll bet."
"Not as good as winning a case."
"So it's all about winning."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"Because if it's all about winning, then I've lost myself. I've lost sight of why I'm in this business. I've lost sight of right and wrong and everything I stand for."
I've lost myself. We were at the crux of the matter. And it had taken less than ten minutes. Erin was a lot more together than she thought.
"Are you sure about that, or afraid of it?" I asked.
"If I knew, I wouldn't be calling you."
"What makes you think you might have changed?"
"My last case, for one thing."
"Tell me about it." I didn't need the old floral chintz couch in my office. Or the new and luscious leather chairs opposite it that I now used with clients. Or office hours or checks in the bank, either.
They weren't what my life was about. Helping people. That's why I got up in the morning.
And I'd bet my shinglethe one I loved because the city council bought it for me as a thank-you for chairing the committee to beautify Main Streetthat my reason for getting up in the morning was Erin Morgan's reason, too.
I got writer's cramp taking notes as Erin told me about the young man who'd had his driver's license for barely a year when he'd skidded on wet pavement, losing control of his caran accident that had ended up involving three other cars and an SUV, killing a thirty-two-year-old man and seventeen-year-old twin girls.
The young man had been driving a brand-new Corvette, purchased for him by his parents, and he'd been drinking and was subsequently slapped with three charges of vehicular homicide with aggravators, meaning he could be facing twenty or more years in prison.
"The police took one look at that Corvette and the kid never had a chance," Erin said.
I heard doubt in her voice.
"I take it his parents called you?"
"Yeah. They were beside themselves with grief and guilt. They blamed themselves for buying him a car that was far too powerful for his limited driving skills. They'd only wanted to reward him for being such a good kid. He was an A student. Worked for his father's company. Played sports. Dated a girl from church, which he attended regularly."
Kid too good to be true, I scribbled sideways in the margin. It wasn't about Erin. It didn't really go on her page.
"So you took the case."
"I met the kid first."
"And did he seem to be everything his parents said he was?"
"He seemed spoiled and egotistical, but I put that down to a case of bravado due to fear."
Lying to self? That went on Erin's page.
"And you took the case."
"I'd done some checking. The arresting officer, the one who administered the only drunk-driving test, wasn't qualified to administer it."
"His parents were right on that one. The kid hadn't had a fair chance."
Sometimes the obvious was just too.obvious. "And?"
"The case was highly publicized. If he was found guilty, the kid would be getting the maximum sentence. His life was going to be ruined."
As were three other lives. Permanently ruined. I kept the words to myself. My personal opinion meant nothing here.
"I knew I could win."
"So that's why you took the case?"
"I don't know. It seemed to me it wasn't the kid's fault his parents had given him a false sense of himself. He hadn't meant to hurt anyone. As a matter of fact, he volunteered as a senior youth leader at his church."
"So you believed in him and wanted to help him."
"I guess so. He had his whole life in front of him. His parents' eyes were wide-open and they had the resources to fix the damage they'd done, to get him into counseling or whatever it took."
"The deaths of three innocent people wasn't enough to smarten him up?"
"I thought it was." Erin's voice dropped and I could hardly hear what she'd said.
"Past tense?" I asked, drawing a tiny star on the rubber sole of my tennis shoe.
"He was acquitted of everything except the traffic ticket for failure to yield. The only price he paid was a fine and points on his license."
"Which is what you expected, right?"
"Yeah, well, what I didn't expect was that afterward, when he turned to me, there was no thank-you, nor any sign of relief. He called me a loser bitch under his breath because of the points. And just then I looked up" Erin's voice broke "and into the eyes of the young mother who'd lost her husband in the accident. Standing behind her were the parents of the twins who'd also died. Their expressions were the same. Stricken. Shocked. And filled with more questions than I could ever answer. They'd already lost so much and I'd just robbed them of their chance for a small measure of peace."
I took a deep breath. Read over my notes, though I'm not sure I needed them. Or really saw them. Life wasn't always easy. The way wasn't always clear.
Sometimes there were no right and wrong answers. Or even palatable ones.
And that was part of the process of living, too. Living with the untenable, the inexplicable. Living with the fact that sometimes life just didn't make sense.
And the attorney on the other end of the line didn't need to hear any of that.
"So, when you win, what do you like about it?" I asked her.
"Being good enough to win."
"So I know that when people rely on me, their trust isn't misplaced. In most cases, my clients' lives are at stake. I have to know that if I take their cases, I'm capable of giving them their best chance." I could relate to that.
"So what about this case? Did the win feel good?"
"I felt like I did my job."
"And if you had it to do over again, would you still take the case?"
"If I knew only what I knew then?"
"Of course. Unless you've got some kind of crystal ball that's going to help you see the future."
"Nope. If I had that, I wouldn't be where I am now."
Out of the mouths of babes. And defense attorneys.
"So would you still take the case?"
"And knowing that doesn't help at all, does it?"
"I don't know. Do you have some technique for figuring out if I've lost sight of the bigger picture in my quest to do my job well?"
"Yeah." I doodled on my shoe some more.
"What is it?"
Silence fell between us. And then Erin said, "Okay, I'm listening. What is it?"
"That was it. Listen. Listen to your instincts. To the things that keep you awake at night. You're on the right track. You're looking at yourself, trying to be honest with yourself. our conscience is talking to you. Listen to it and you'll have your answers." I could've talked to her in abstract termsabout cognitive dissonance or the gain loss theory of interpersonal attraction.