Read Wildcat Wine Online

Authors: Claire Matturro

Wildcat Wine (7 page)

Chapter 10

On my oral argument D day,
I woke early, did a double dose of visualizations, a double dose of coffee just in case I wasn't jittery enough, threw up the coffee, redid the visualization, drank more coffee, and showered a second time because, air-conditioning or not, I was sweating like a pig.

At 5:30
., Bearess started barking at the front door.

Dressed in my lucky oral-argument slip and in the middle of my warrior visualization, I tiptoed to the door to look out the peephole, under the general assumption that my new grandmom next door was spying on me or bringing me muffins, or that Bearess was hallucinating. Gandhi and some skinny woman with spiked white hair, and who was totally overcrystalized, stood there. Whoa, didn't she know those crystal things were so very eighties?

Too stunned not to, I let them in, but with the opening admonition that Gandhi was not going with me to Lakeland to the oral argument.

Gandhi introduced the skinny woman, who wore crystal earrings, crystal necklaces one on top of the other, and a crystal charm bracelet, as Keisha.

Crystal Girl and I nodded at each other.

Keisha, Gandhi explained, was his girlfriend. And she had generously come to help me get centered by laying crystals on my meridians and manipulating my chakras and otherwise doing hokum-pocus stuff.

“Don't have the time,” I snapped.

“I insist, and I'm the client,” Gandhi said. “You are not well centered. Your aura is not right.”

Glancing at the wall clock, I did a quick calculation, allowing for the possibility of another throw up and another shower, and said, “Ten minutes, but I'm billing you for this.”

Keisha made me lie down, and she did whatever it was she did, including something with hot rocks, and Bearess kept whining as if somebody was blowing one of those whistles that only dogs hear. Then it was over. Keisha mercifully left, and Gandhi said he would drive us to the courthouse in Lakeland in his car as he didn't trust my car, and until then, he would wait outside, and by the way, I looked very nice in my slip.

In my anxiety, I had forgotten that I wasn't dressed.

That should have been a clue as to how my appellate argument was going to go.

Chapter 11

Driving the back roads
from Sarasota to Lakeland was like taking the road through the Florida that used to be. In spots, that is. Small orange groves and tomato fields and pastures with long-horned cattle grazing among the palmetto scrubs, and little towns like Duette and Fort Lonesome, with tin-roofed cracker houses, and long, straight, worn-out roads traveled by people in old pickups who waved at you when you passed them. In the early spring, when the orange trees were blooming, I particularly loved this drive through the dense groves of Hardee County, where the orange-blossom perfume would permeate my car and cling to my hair for hours.

Some mornings I had driven through these blooming orange groves with the sun coming up behind the bright green trees and thought that God might be a Florida cracker who lived in an orange grove and ate fresh mullet and homegrown tomatoes.

But this morning, with Gandhi driving and me frantically reviewing my typed and indexed and color-coded notes, to my horror I saw that the Hardee County grove I loved the most had been plowed down, and a “Coming Soon, Orange Blossom Plaza” sign stood in a field of mud and stumps where just two months ago thick green trees with rich orange fruit had been living. The sign had what looked to me like a big peach painted on it. Damn Yankee developers didn't even know a peach from an orange. That set me off on a verbal rant about mall warts and developers. Gandhi patted my leg.

About the time I stopped hyperventilating over the plowed-up oranges, we hit bone valley, the phosphate-rich region in central Florida, and I heard Gandhi gasp as he slowed his car to look.

“What is it?” he said, staring out the windows as a strange fog rolled in over the scarred, moonscape world of phosphate strip mining.

“Phosphate mines,” I said. “Be careful, there are a lot of phosphate trucks hauling ass on these roads.”

Even as I warned him, a rock-hopper loomed suddenly out of the fog in the plundered landscape, riding our bumper, honking, and then hurling past us, passing blind in the morning fog; there was a touch of the netherworld about it.

Shivering, I stopped looking at my notes and looked about me at the gray, gouged-out pathos of these holes, these ruined scrublands, desolate even before the miners were done, pockmarked with holes and studded with earthen dams full of radioactive phosphate-gypsum slime, slime that leached its poisons into the meager remaining groundwaters.

Yeah, definitely, God gave up on Florida and left.

Why not? He gave us paradise, complete with dolphins and manatees and palms and oranges, and plenty of water, a subtropical wonder of rich soil, sunlight, and rain, where you could plant a stick in the dirt and it would grow into a tree, and look what we had done to it. Pink condos, malls and strip malls, Disney and phosphate, tourists and people who came here to die. We'd messed it up so bad it wouldn't even rain anymore, the concrete earth and the high buildings having blocked the flow of the clouds and the moisture-heavy Gulf breezes and disturbed the natural processes that had once given us steady summer-afternoon showers.

Rather than stop building and paving and mining, the state just built desalinization plants so we could drink the Gulf of Mexico and then dump the waste brine back into the Gulf in an experiment to see how long it would take to kill the Gulf of Mexico.

Maybe when we were down to the last orange grove, Disney would buy it and charge admission. Maybe when we were down to the last fish and the last glass of water, the carpetbaggers would quit and leave.

Naturally, pondering these things, I was good and pissed off by the time we got to the courthouse in Lakeland. Better than coffee to keep one alert after only three hours of sleep.

After signing in, I milled around, tried to fake out the other attorneys who were milling around and trying to fake me out. Then we went into the courtroom and waited.

The bailiff stood up just as I had finished explaining to Gandhi that the judges would not rule today, but would discuss the case post–oral argument. After reaching a decision, one of them would write a formal opinion of the court, which would be mailed to me. It could be anywhere from two weeks to two months, or longer, before I got a copy of the decision from the court.

Gandhi nodded and I reiterated that he was to sit still and under no circumstances say a word to anyone about anything. As my stomach lurched, the bailiff did her “May God save this honorable court,” and I wiped my hands. When the case of the Nut Lady Alien Abductee versus the Fake Indian Guru was called, I proudly went and took my place at the counsel table, my face to the judges, my back to my client.

My opposing counsel, who had arrived without his client, and judging from his visible disarray, without having had his chakras manipulated, argued first, as he represented the party seeking the appeal. Hair awhirl and tie askew, Nut Lady's attorney stood behind the podium and began the time-honored plea, “May it please the court . . .”

Pen poised for jotting down any good rebuttal points his argument might inspire, I studiously listened. According to the man with the crooked tie, his client, the very nice and not at all wacky lady from Longboat Key, had in good faith hired my client, the evil and wholly inept defendant, to help her recover from the emotional trauma of having been kidnapped by space aliens.

The good lawyer in his disarrayed gray said this with a steady voice.

But my client, the lawyer continued, far from helping his client, had in fact made things worse through a series of unrecognized and unprofessional techniques involving past-life regressions, deep hypnosis, submersion therapy, crystal acupuncture, and drum circles, all of which had led this woman to ultimately believe, whether falsely or truly, that she herself was a space alien, left behind in another life and therefore homeless (though she lived in a mansion on the Gulf of Mexico), and now she was out all of that money, and was worse off than ever. And I, evil defense lawyer that I was, unfairly and sinfully and unethically and probably through other undiscovered skullduggery had convinced the very old and totally ignorant trial judge to grant Fake Indian Counselor a summary judgment, depriving Miss Not-a-Nut of her fair and constitutional day before a jury of her peers. Blah, blah, blah, blah.

Okay, standard plaintiff's-attorney stuff. Boiled down to let the lady have her crapshoot with a jury.

Not one of the three-judge panel asked him a single question.

Good, I thought, a cold bench. I can recite my speech, while looking earnest and pert, and go home, no worse for the wear.

This was pretty naive from a woman who had answered her front door in her slip at 5:30
., and then ridden through the fog-and-phosphate netherworld with a man in a yellow dress over his khakis.

I moved forward slowly, projecting a confidence I didn't feel but had learned to fake nicely, and gliding behind the podium, I adjusted my notes, smiled at the bailiff to let her know to start the clock running on my twenty minutes, and I said, “May it please the court, I am Lillian Cleary, with the law firm of Smith, O'Leary, and—”

From behind me, I heard the sound of movement, and Gandhi said, “And Your Honors, I am Gandhi Singh.”

Whirling around, I glared at him. “Please do not speak.” I said this with my eyes glinted down and my lips stretched wide and thin, a look Jackson had taught me, one that says, “I
hurt you.”

I turned back to the judges, transforming my face back to earnest and pert.

“I am here this morning,” I began again, “on behalf of my client—”

“Is it true, Ms. Cleary,” the presiding chief judge interrupted, “that your sole legal argument before the trial judge was that this case was just, let's see, what was your quote from the hearing, ‘just plain silly.' I believe that's what the transcript revealed.”

“Your Honor, as the record reflects, I filed an extensive memorandum of law with the trial judge before that hearing, in support of our position that there simply is no standard of care in this type of situation as a matter of law, and without a set medical protocol or an established standard to deviate from, there can be no deviation from the established standard of care, which is, as you know, the predicate for a malpractice lawsuit, and—”

From behind me, I heard movement, and Gandhi whispered to me, “Tell them about that Oregon doctor. He used practically the same techniques I did, and—”

I whipped around and said, “Be quiet, Mr. Singh.” With my back to the panel of judges and my hands hidden from their sight, I made a fist and fake-punched the air at the height of Gandhi's stomach.

When I turned back to the three judges, the presiding chief judge glared over his glasses and asked, “Are you arguing that because there are no other therapists who provide this particular service, that is, helping people who believe they have been abducted by aliens, that the plaintiff has no cause of action because a jury cannot determine if malpractice occurred, as there is nothing to measure the defendant's actions against?”

Well, boiled down, yes, though he made it sound less attractive than I had in my brief. But I smelled a trap and was trying to sidestep it, when behind me, I heard movement, and Gandhi rose up again and said, “Your Honors, it is not true that there are no other counselors who provide assistance to those who have been kidnapped by aliens. In Sarasota alone, there is at least one other, and in Oregon, there are—”

“Shut up, Gandhi,” I hissed, whirling around to face him, and preparing to give full voice to a threat. This time my hand, still hidden from the judges, made like a pistol, one that I was firing at Gandhi's stomach.

“Is that so, Ms. Cleary?” the judge asked.

Whirling back around to the bench, I felt myself begin to redden.

“Is that so?” the judge repeated.

Yes, but I didn't want to admit to a fact that would hurt my argument, a fact that my opposing counsel had failed to establish at the trial level.

“Your Honor, the record does not reflect that information.” Lawyer talk for appellate cover-up.

“But is it true? Do you know?”

“Your Honor, the record does not reflect that fact, and I am not allowed to testify before this court.” Lawyer admission for yes.

“Very well, continue.”

“May I testify?” Gandhi asked.

“No,” I spun back toward him and shouted. “Sit down this minute. And do not say another word.”

“One does not testify before an appellate court, young man,” the presiding judge said. “Receiving testimony is a trial-court function. An appellate court reviews the record of the proceedings from the trial court to be certain no reversible error occurred.”

Oh, as if I hadn't explained that to Gandhi about five thousand dollars' worth of times.

“But if you have a statement you would like to make,” the judge continued, to my horror, “and opposing counsel has no objection, I will permit it.”

Opposing counsel, no doubt enjoying the circus, jumped up and said, “No objection.”

Gandhi began to walk up toward the podium.

“I object,” I said.

“Lilly, it will be all right,” Gandhi said, and smiled. He looked both ridiculous and oddly benign in his fake tan and yellow dress, and I wanted to kick him hard enough to make his face turn purple.

“This is all about my client's cat.”

Okay, Gandhi was not a linear thinker, that I knew, but what did a cat have to do with it?

“We were making great strides toward understanding and forgiving when her cat disappeared. My other specialty is that I am a pet psychic, and after a long trance, I was able to channel this cat, who had been picked up by a neighbor. The cat was well fed, but he wanted to come home.”

“Your Honor, I do object,” I said, but without spirit. Everybody ignored me.

“When my client went to this neighbor, the one who had taken the cat, he naturally denied stealing the cat, and there was an altercation of sorts, and as a result, bad feelings. I believe the neighbor called the police. My client blames me for this, as the cat came home on its own the next day, but the neighbor is still angry.”

“But she didn't sue you for . . . cat . . . ?” Even as intelligent a jurist as the presiding judge was, he couldn't figure out what the cat cause of action would be.

“Any count for fraud?” asked the judge on the left.

“No, Your Honor,” I said, jumping in. I shoved Gandhi aside, and was fully hopeful of regaining the moment and making at least some valid point on Gandhi's behalf. “As I was saying, there being no established standard—”

The judge on the right asked, “Any reason we shouldn't remand and let the plaintiff amend her complaint to plead fraud?”

Oh, a hundred reasons, primarily that I might possibly lose a fraud lawsuit, but no reasons that were legally cognizable at this time popped into my head.

“I am not a fraud,” Gandhi proclaimed.

“Isn't that a classic question of fact for the jury?” the judge on the left asked.

“Your Honor,” I started, “there is nothing in the plaintiff's complaint even vaguely suggestive of a fraud count.” Stamp, stamp went my one foot. “The plaintiff did not plead fraud in her complaint. This case is not about fraud.”

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