Ironically, I was watching the movie Inherit the Wind when I got the phone call.
Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized account of the Scopes, "monkey trial," where Clarence Darrow -- perhaps the last lawyer in America to be admired and respected -- defended a teacher charged with the crime of explaining evolution to his 1920s high school class. Darrow lost the case despite some heavy oratory. That's because there's no defense against orthodoxy; by definition, too many people believe in it.
Today, evolution is part of our orthodoxy. But I managed to find out the hard way what its modern equivalent is. I managed to find the one idea that, despite volumes of supporting evidence and testimony, even a modern-day Darrow couldn't comfortably advocate. And unfortunately, I'm no orator; natural selection bred that quality out of lawyers to make room for creative billing.
I'd been perfecting my double-billing skills for the last year, working for a firm specializing in high tech, especially multimedia law. The job sounded hip; that's why I took it (and also because I'd been unemployed for the previous half year). But to the low woman on the totem pole it meant a lot of copyright-infringement, unfair-competition, and breach-of-contract suits. It meant way too much time in conference rooms with techie lawyers.
These shouldn't be confused with stereotypical nerds of either the geek or cyberpunk variety. Lawyers have huge, spun-glass egos, so having the best equipment (computer equipment, that is) isn't just a way of mainlining more data, it's a way of putting their claw marks higher up the tree. And with plenty of money to waste, lawyers can afford a little bark under their nails.
After almost a year of hearing three lawyers, two paralegals, and four secretaries lust after technology that was "almost there" -- that is, almost equal to their transcendental or business purposes -- I was sick to death of computers. Even my stereo seemed offensively digital. All I wanted to do was get away, go someplace where suits weren't required and hardware wasn't deified. I was longing for the tech-free simplicity of my hippie youth; I was looking for one of those cabin-with-no-phone kinds of vacations. Instead, I got the call from Fred Hershey.
I was comfortably cocooned in bed watching Inherit the Wind when the phone rang. In the ordinary course of things, I'd have let my answering machine pick up. But in my hooray-I'm-free-for-three-weeks bliss, I'd unplugged it.
So along about the sixth or seventh ring, I became groggily concerned. What if my father was sick? What if my mother, the world's oldest Yippie, had broken her vow to stop getting herself arrested?
I staggered out of bed, cursing my inconvenient Ludditism, and picked up.
Fred Hershey said, "Willa Jansson, time for you to return the favor you owe me."
I would later learn that Fred can be pathologically blunt, an odd trait in a psychiatrist, and one that natural selection will, perhaps, eventually eliminate from the breed. This night, it surprised me. I'd spent only a few hours with Fred last year, just long enough for his brother, my old boyfriend, to put me deeply into Fred's debt.
I said, "Who is this?" But I suppose I knew. Being generally cranky and antisocial, there are few people to whom I owe phone calls, much less favors.
"Fred Hershey. I need you to come down to Santa Cruz first thing tomorrow morning."
"I'm leaving to go on vacation."
"Perfect. You'll enjoy the weather here."
Fred's brother, Edward, had driven me crazy years ago when we lived together. And he'd made himself a pain in the butt several times since. Now it seemed to be Fred's turn. I could only wish their mother hadn't spared the rod.
On the other hand, Fred and Edward had helped me hide out a friend. But for them, he'd be in prison now. I might be there, too.
"Willa, listen. A patient of mine is about to be arrested for vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run. I need you to represent him."
"I'm a business lawyer," I protested. In the five years since graduating from law school, I'd also been a labor lawyer, a corporate lawyer, and a federal judge's clerk. Lest Fred think me versatile, I added, "And I'm on vacation."
"You're the only lawyer I know who's crazy enough to take this case."
"Thanks a -- "
"And you're the only one who owes me a favor."
The evening chill penetrated my sweat clothes. I hugged myself. I remembered Fred in therapist mode, his voice as modulated and mellow as an FM deejay's. I'd also seen him under stress, swearing and barking out cross orders. But I hadn't spent enough time with him to recall the details of his face; I kept visualizing Edward's, which engendered a Pavlovian impulse to bicker.
"Why don't you get him a local lawyer, a criminal lawyer? That's what he needs, not a -- "
"I'll explain when you get here. Can you make it by lunchtime?"
"Who did your patient hit?" I could just see myself representing some jerk who'd sped off after mowing down a nun.
"They say his car went over a cliff and landed on the highway."
"What do you mean, 'They say'? Did it or didn't it?"
"It landed on top of another car, yes. The driver was crushed."
"And your patient drove away?"
"No. He wasn't in the car."
"So who was driving?"
"It went over by itself? He didn't set the hand brake?"
Fred didn't answer immediately. "It's a lot more complicated than that, I'm afraid. But I think you should hear it from Miller."
"Miller being the guy who wasn't in the car when it killed someone?" Shades of Stephen King's Christine.
"Where does he say he was? Does he have an alibi?"
"That's the part that gets a little sticky. That's why I need YOU."
Why oh why didn't I ignore the ringing phone? Why didn't I leave for vacation just a half day sooner?
There was no getting around it; I did owe Fred Hershey a favor, a great big one.
"Yeah, okay, I can be there by lunchtime."
I went back to watching Inherit the Wind, little realizing I was about to be transformed from a thirty-seven-year-old, slightly graying, too-short blonde with an uninspiring résumé. I was about to hobble a strange, modern mile in Clarence Darrow's shoes: Willa Jansson, heretic lawyer, counsel for the infidel.
Copyright © 1997 by Lia Matera