It was trial call this morning. Up Route 18 I went, gulping down a coffee as Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music blasted from the stereo, martial trumpets and froggy clarinets working out the rhythm that would have been played when King George III sailed down the River Thames. An hour in the traffic that covers the last ten miles between my home and the Superior Court of New Jersey for the Middlesex Vicinage and I was roving the streets of New Brunswick.
I was in the parking deck at 8:57 for my 9:00 trial call. Damn. Late for call. Being late for trial call, a process by which the courts organize the week’s cases (if organization can be said to come from a two-hundred year old system of a judge reading a case name and an attorney answering “Ready for your ears” or “a problem has arisen”), meant that I had to deal with the clerks in the Assignment Office. Dealing with the Assignment Office is an experience in how well one can stomach confusion and chaos.
I stood in the back of the Presiding Judge’s courtroom just a few minutes later, coming in right as the trial call started. I settled in amongst a gathering of the lawyers that filled the courtroom, most of whom were personal injury attorneys. I grumbled. I didn’t like listening on personal injury lawyers. Their conversations about the injuries of their clients seemed too flippant to me, as though they didn’t recognize that a “C-4 fracture of the vertebrae” meant excruciating pain for their clients, or perhaps even paralysis. My first two cases came up.
“Allan versus Barrow, Docket number CV-111-999-03A,” the Judge announced.
“Settled, plaintiff, Your Honor,” I answered for the first.
In her chair to the Judge’s left, the clerk scratched off the case name from the open docket.
“Charles versus Dalton, Docket number CVI-111-555-03B.”
“Ready, defendant,” an attorney announced from the side of the courtroom. Through the crowd, I couldn’t see who had spoken up.
“Ready, plaintiff, your honor. Mr. CO will be appearing,” I answered for the second.
The third case came.
“Edson v. ABC Corp., Docket number CV-111-123-03A, the ABC firm on behalf of the plaintiff, the XYZ firm on behalf of defendant, consolidated with ABC Corp. v. Edson, Flynn, and John Doe Defendants 1 through 99, Docket number CV-111-165-03A, this matter is listed as adjourned,” the judge announced.
I looked at my sheet. Doe v. ABC Corporation was listed as ready-hold, meaning that the attorney responsible for trying the case would be ready to try it this week, as soon as he finished up another case. I groaned. No, no, no, not a goddamn error. I need to be in the office today, I thought.
“I have that as ready-hold, your honor,” I announced.
No other attorney answered from the wings. Damn.
After waiting a beat for another attorney to answer, the judge looked at me, a sympathetic smile on her face.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to see me after class, counselor, so we can figure this out.”
A few lawyers in the courtroom chuckled at that.
“Thanks, your honor.”
An hour later, I found myself sitting in the Judge’s courtroom, along with six other attorneys, all of whom had personal injury cases. I slumped down low in one of the “pews” that lined the back of the courtroom, slid my briefcase forward, and propped my legs up on it.
“Poop,” I said to no one in particular. “Poop. Poop. Poop.”
One of the attorneys turned to me, a younger man who had a goatee much like mine.
“Should’ve been in the office?”
“An hour ago,” I answered.
“You know,” he began, “when I was in high school, I used to work on the boardwalk at one of the games of chance. Six dollars an hour. Best job I ever had,” he said.
I smiled. I knew this game.
“When I was in college, I worked as a park ranger for the state. Five eighty-five an hour,” I answered, “they actually paid me to backpack and canoe.”
Another attorney, an older man with a red comb-over and a ratty yellow tie, joined in.
“I bet you never worried about liability then,” he said.
I snorted. “Are you kidding me? I drove the State’s Econolines and F-150’s into trees, buildings, other trucks, with absolutely not a care in the world. At $5.85 an hour, who gives a shit about liability?”
We sighed, almost in unison. The older attorney with the red comb-over, who looked to be in his mid-fifties, tried to take the game to the next level.
“I told my son about Dave DeBusschere’s death last week,” he said. “He didn’t have a clue who he was. I told him he’d have to find out himself. Have to watch some footage or something.”
I smiled only slightly and shook my head. “Before my time, buddy.”
The other young attorney turned to me. “To think I went to Seton Hall for this.”
“I would have thought one went there for the scenery.” I answered. Seton Hall’s law school was in the heart of the Newark ghetto. I refuse to attend conferences there at night.
“No,” he laughed, “the reasonable tuition.”
“Oh god, I don’t want to think about student loans,” I moaned.
“How much you have left?”
“Under 20 k, but I had a drunk driver help me out with paying off a good part of it.” I answered. Two years ago, I sued a drunk driver for ramming into my car and shattering my collarbone and various muscles. The settlement check went straight to Sallie Mae.
“Nice. You weren’t at the Hall, were you? I don’t remember you.” The younger attorney was probing.
“No. I went to school down south.”
“I think I’ve heard of that school,” the young attorney answered.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I wish I had heard more about its tuition bill before I went there.”
“I got in there,” he said.
I started fumbling in my pocket, bored with the conversation. I wanted to read whatever news Avantgo had pulled onto my handheld.
“You did?” I asked absently.
“Oh yeah. Walked right in the main gate. Same thing at Harvard.” He answered, laughing at his own joke.
I smiled and laughed slightly.
“Man, let me tell you about that boardwalk job…” the young lawyer began, hoping to get back into the game. At the same time, my cell phone began vibrating.
I answered the phone as I held up a finger to the young attorney, hoping he would pause.
“What are you doing?” A voice asked from over the phone, “Aren’t you supposed to be at work, being ‘the Man’?”
I laughed. I recognized the voice as Zoya, Hugh’s … friend? Girlfriend? I didn’t know. I liked her though. She had a certain urbane persona about her that amused me. Plus, she recognized most of my sexual puns, finding them “salacious,” as she once put it. I nearly growled with pleasure when I heard that word. It was one of my favorites.
“Yeah, no, I’m actually stuck in court right now,” I answered.
“Wait, you’re answering this from a courtroom?”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Waiting for hell to freeze over, I think,” I answered. “No, I just have to work out scheduling on a case and the judge is in her chambers.”
“Can’t you get in trouble?”
“Um… I don’t know, actually. Maybe. So what’s up?”
“Nothing, I don’t want to break up your day---“
“Trust me,” I answered looking at the nearly empty courtroom. “You’re really not.”
“Okay, I just wanted to say I read your site---“
“Oh god no,” I laughed.
“No, it’s good, boy wonder. You’ll have to call me tonight. We’ll talk about it,” she said, laughing.
“Sounds like a plan.”
We finished the conversation. The other two attorneys had moved on to reading the sports sections of various newspapers left in the courtroom. I put my feet back on my briefcase and began to dose off.
It was 11:30 when I finally straightened out the confusion concerning the third case’s status. I wandered around the construction around the Courthouse until I made it to the parking deck, and headed back to the office.
I didn’t get in until five of noon, strolling past my boss’ office and to my secretary’s cubicle. The standard office noises were going on, mostly unheard by me. Rick was telling someone he wanted a dog. His secretary, Diane, the “den mother,” as I called her, asked me how court went. “Like slow death,” I answered. My secretary was busy hiding the fact that she was checking out bridal magazines.
“Any messages?” I asked her.
“No,” she said without looking up at me.
“Very well, then. As you were, soldier,” I said in a falsely authoritarian voice.
I leafed through the mail. Invitations to conferences. Binder catalogues. A memo regarding conflicts. A fax from an adversary regarding a settlement conference. I moved the fax into the “CC” pile, for my secretary to send off to the client, and threw out the rest. Time to get me some coffee, I thought. By the time I finish that, it’ll be just in time for lunch. Yum-a-dum-dum.
I walked back past Benjamin’s office.
“Where the hell were you?” he asked.
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t too much of a clusterfuck. Hey, I ran into one of our old adversaries.”
“That reminds me,” he began. “I need you to take care of this order.”
Benjamin began dictating the terms of a consent order we were going to file. I scribbled on a post-it note, frantically trying to keep up with him.
From behind me, I heard one of the paralegals call my name.
“Mm-hmm?” I said without looking up.
“Can you come here? Diane is sick.”
I didn’t notice the tone in the paralegal’s voice until then. I dropped the post-it note and turned around. Diane had her head on the desk. I came around the side of the cubicle, next to a secretary who was patting Diane’s shoulder. Diane’s face was red like raw meat.
“Move, please,” I said to the secretary who was patting her arm.”
“Diane?” I said, tentatively. “Diane, are you okay?”
Her head rolled back and forth as she rested it on the desk. My stomach twinged.
“Get Rick,” I said to my secretary, who was now clustering around the cubicle along with four or five other staffers. “Go away, please,” I said to them. Diane looked up. Her pupils were dilated. Shit. She either overdosed or she’s on the verge of a massive fucking coronary.
I turned to Rick, his eyes bugged out.
“Let’s move her to your couch.”
“No, no. Don’t move her.”
If she loses consciousness, I thought as I looked at the cluttered cubicle, there is no way we’re moving her.
My boss, Benjamin, looked on from his doorway. He was uncomfortable around sick people, he once told me. I grabbed Diane’s arm and told her I was going to help her lie down. She slowly got up, telling me in a whisper she was okay. I held her by her elbows, walking backwards as I led her to Rick's office. Rick had disappeared. Diane’s arms were heavy in mine. She was heavier than me by about 100 pounds, I guessed.
“Take the other side,” I could hear Benjamin say. He had stepped out from his office. He helped me lift Diane’s arms and slowly move her to the couch in Rick’s office. One of the office administrators arrived, a sphygmomanometer in her hand. As she went to take Diane’s blood pressure, I walked out of the office. Rick was at the desk of Benjamin’s secretary, talking to paramedics, I presumed.
“They just moved her, against my clear directions.” He was shaking.
I frowned and shook my head. It was a lawyer’s statement coming out of Rick’s mouth. One of the other secretaries mentioned that someone should call Diane’s husband. Our file clerk started going through Diane’s rolodex – Diane refused to use Outlook’s contacts – until she found her husband’s number. Benjamin remarked that Diane should have an emergency contact. I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I was hearing things, but they weren’t registering.
Back in Rick’s office, the office manager was joined by one of the senior supervisors, a former military man. Good, I thought. Someone who knows what he’s doing. I walked in and watched. DBL’s head lolled back and forth on the couch. Face is red, elevate the head, I thought, remembering the old rhyme from Boy Scouts. She was likely going into shock. As the office manager undid the Velcro of the sphygmomanometer’s cuff, I slipped my hand onto Diane’s wrist.
“It’s all okay,” I said. “Rick is going to take care of everything.”
I counted off the seconds as I felt Diane’s pulse throb beneath my forefinger. One, two, three… damn, this is going too fast.
I tried again, losing count after ten seconds. By six, that’s…. let’s see… I struggled with the arithmetic. It seemed like it was above 170 beats per minute. I looked at the office manager.
“It’s high,” she said to the senior staff supervisor of Diane’s blood pressure.
I returned to counting the beats. I was nervous, and was having a hard time differentiating between Diane’s pulse and mine. Diane’s eyes had rolled back in her head, but she continued to whisper, claiming she was fine.
Five minutes later, we had Diane on the floor. Her breathing had stopped, suddenly, in mid-sentence. The supervisor stood over her head, holding her nose and her chin. I straddled Diane’s stomach, searching for the gap between chest and sternum. The magic “v,” they called it in my ranger training. Find the magic “v.” I found the spot where the rib cage ended and the lower chest began. It felt indecent, touching Diane like that. I felt guilty. I placed my right hand slowly over her chest, still feeling for the edge of the rib cage, and curled my fingers inward. I checked her wrist again with my left hand. Nothing. Realigning my right hand, I slid my hand on top of it.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“Three to fifteen, right?” The supervisor asked.
“I think so.”
He bent down and began breathing into Diane’s mouth. Her chest rose.
“Two,” I said, as he breathed into her again, “and three.”
I leaned down and slowly did my first compression. I waited a second, afraid of hearing the sound of Diane’s ribs popping. Her chest was soft beneath me. I began the second compression, and then began pumping seamlessly. Four, five, six, seven, I tried to keep track, Oh god, my elbow hurts. Why did I go to the gym? I have bursitis. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I swung my body up, and felt dizzy for a second before I realized I had forgotten to breathe. I sucked in air as the supervisor checked Diane’s pulse and breathing. He furrowed his brow, and knelt down to her mouth.
“One, two, three,” I counted off.
I brought my hands up to Diane’s chest as the supervisor lifted up off of her. Her chest rose suddenly, and I looked at the supervisor, startled, before Diane weakly tried to bat us away from her.
Someone was pulling me away as I groaned in relief. A blue sweatshirt sleeve was in my face, and I could see a denim patch. I felt myself placed on the floor before I realized that the paramedics were there. I sat there and watched paramedics place ECG stickers on Diane’s leg and arms. I looked at the multi-colored wires that led up to a blue nylon pack on a gurney in the doorway. I slowly got up, pulling myself up by grabbing onto Rick’s bookshelf. A pile of compact disks fell to the floor. I moved past the paramedics, out the doorway, and past the gurney. The supervisor who had done CPR with me walked out and into his office. I stood at my secretary’s desk, staring at the Yankees clippings she had taped to a cabinet. Turning around, I could see the supervisor writing at his desk. I walked down to the lobby, and hit the elevator button. My arms were shaking.
Five minutes later, I was sitting in my car. I had turned on the CD player and selected Bach’s Wachet Auf Cantata.
“Sleepers, awake,” I translated, “the voice calls you on battlements, the watchmen yonder.”
I eased my seat back into a reclining position and closed my eyes.
“Wake up, city of Jerusalem! The bell calls out the midnight hour and full clear on high its voice is heard. Where are you now, you virgins wise?”
I squeezed my eyes, feeling them moisten in the corners. I sat there for an hour before coming back into the office. I stared at my calendar. I had to be in court tomorrow, and that meant I had to revise a statement. It was nearing two in the afternoon. I wanted lunch. I began to figure out how to get together all of the exhibits I needed as I searched through my desk drawers for enough change to get a soda.
updated 7/31/03: formatting, replaced initials with pseudonyms