Authors: Michael Nava
I had moved here reluctantly seven years earlier because Josh had wanted to be near his parents. I had known very few people and the prospect of starting up a new law practice had been daunting. Chris was a judge by then. I’d read it in our law school alumni magazine, because after what had happened in San Francisco, I lost all contact with him, and even Bay had stopped writing except for Christmas cards. At the time I hadn’t thought much of it, because I was busily descending into the final stages of alcoholism; the place where I needed a couple of drinks in the morning just to get out of the house and judges were beginning to hold me in contempt because I forgot to show up for trials. That’s another story. By the time I had arrived in Los Angeles, I’d been sober for a couple of years. I was trying to get my practice up and running, and I’d sent around announcements of the opening of my office. Chris called and asked me to drop by his courtroom. We hadn’t talked to each other since we’d stood together in Judge Angeloni’s courtroom and Chris had entered a plea of guilty to a reduced charge in his lewd conduct case. Neither of us mentioned it on the phone. One morning, after I finished an arraignment at the Municipal Court Building, I decided to look in on him.
He was off the bench. A small, dusty plastic Christmas tree decorated the clerk’s desk in a cubicle adjacent to the bench. The clerk, a chubby black woman with bleached blonde hair, wearing a green sweater embroidered with a reindeer, regarded me suspiciously when I asked to speak to Chris. She finally agreed to let him know I was there, picked up her phone, whispered into it, listened, hung up and said, “Come through here.”
She held open the swinging door that led into her cubicle and directed me to a door behind her that opened to a corridor. I passed through. The corridor was lined with bookshelves that held dusty volumes of the California Reporter, First Series, a collection of judicial opinions reaching back to the 1850s. There were doors at either end of the hall.
“To your right,” she said.
I went down to the door with Chris’s name engraved on a brass nameplate. The door was half open. I peered in and saw Chris at his desk looking back at me.
“Henry,” he said, rising. “Come in.”
“Hello, Chris,” I said, entering the room.
“Shut the door behind you.”
His chambers were modest. Built-in bookshelves held more recent volumes of the California Reporter and other legal treatises. A wan ficus stood limply in the corner. A door opened to a small, tiled bathroom. Thin muddy-colored carpeting covered the floor. The windows framed the criminal courts building across the street. His desk was plain and solid, identifiably the product of a prison woodshop.
“I expected something more lavish,” I said, settling into a hard, wooden chair of the same style as his desk.
He grinned and said, “So did I. I was used to my corner office on the partner’s floor over at Joe Kimball’s firm.”
“How low the great have fallen,” I murmured.
“The interior decoration isn’t the worst of it,” he said. “The courthouse is a security nightmare. It was built in the fifties by the same firm that built a couple of the local state colleges. I don’t think they understood the difference between a dormitory and a courthouse. There are so many ways in and out of this place that a couple of my colleagues carry guns. Since I was elected presiding judge, I’ve been trying to discourage that habit. It doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the judicial system.”
“I don’t understand what they’d be afraid of. You don’t try criminal cases in this building.”
“You’re new to the city,” he said. “This is not a good neighborhood. There was a rape in the stairwell not six months ago.” He dug into his shirt pocket and pulled out a stick of gum. “Nicotine gum,” he said. “I’ve been trying to quit. You look great, Henry, but what happened to your hair? It’s all gray.”
“The same as happened to yours,” I said. “Time.”
He touched the receding line of his hair. “Yeah, well I’d rather have your problem than mine.”
His face was heavier and more set than when I’d last seen him, and he was bulkier. A man’s face, a man’s body.
“It suits you,” I said.
“I was really surprised to get your announcement. I figured you’d never leave the Bay Area.”
“I figured the same thing,” I replied, “until I fell in love with someone who lives down here.”
“Ah, that’s great. Another lawyer?”
“No. Josh is a student at UCLA.”
He raised an eyebrow. “A student?”
“He’s twenty-three, Chris, well past the age of consent.”
“Of course it’s none of my business,” he said.
“Of course,” I agreed.
“The last time I heard anything about you on the Stanford grapevine it didn’t sound like you were doing too well.”
“I wasn’t,” I said. “I was a drunk. I’ve been sober two years now.”
“Congratulations,” he replied, meaning it. “Bay’s sober, too, you know, or probably you don’t know. It’s been four years now. I don’t think our marriage really began until she stopped drinking.”
“Good for her,” I said. “I remember we both hit the bottle pretty hard when we were at school.”
“I know she’d love to hear from you,” he said.
I nodded. “Maybe I’ll give her a call.”
“Maybe?” he said, chewing his gum. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t want to lie to her,” I said.
“Lie to her?”
“I assume you never told her about Buena Vista Park,” I said. “She never mentioned it in any of her Christmas cards.”
“God, this stuff is vile,” Chris said, spitting the gum into a wastebasket. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray. He lit a cigarette and inhaled. His face relaxed. “It’s humiliating, isn’t it? Being hooked on anything?”
“When you asked me to drop by,” I said, “you specified your court. Why not invite me home to dinner, Chris? Were you afraid I’d say something?”
He dragged on his cigarette. “Let me ask you something, Henry,” he said. “If someone’s an alcoholic but he manages to stay off the bottle for a couple of years, don’t you say that he’s a recovering alcoholic?”
He put his cigarette out and slipped the pack and the ashtray into his desk. “Well,” he said, “you might say I’m a recovering homosexual. I haven’t cheated on Bay since that weekend. I’ve been a good father and a good husband, better than I was before. So you see, there’s nothing to tell her.”
“Because you’re cured.”
His mouth tightened, then he asked, “This guy you’re with, Josh? How long have you been together?”
“Over a year.”
“Do his parents know?”
“What is this, a deposition? Of course his parents know. Everyone knows. We’re not hiding anything here. That’s never been my style.”
“I remember. Back at school you were always expounding on the virtues of being out of the closet, and I’d say, let’s talk in twenty years. Well, here we are, coming on twenty years and you’re a recovering alcoholic with a kid for a boyfriend. I can see what you mean about being out. It’s so much better.”
My face burned. “If that’s what you have to think about me to make yourself feel better about deceiving everyone in your life, you’re even more pathetic than I thought you were.”
We glared at each other, and then Chris looked down and shuffled some papers.
“I see you’re on the nine-eighty-seven panel,” he said, referring to the criminal defense lawyers the county hired to defend indigent defendants. “I’ll make sure you start getting appointments.”
“Is this a bribe?”
“You always did see things in the worst possible light,” he said. “No, it’s not a bribe. I checked out your references. I understand you’re a very fine lawyer when you’re sober, and since that isn’t a problem any more we can use your talent.”
I looked away from him, past the smeared window to the balmy December day and thought about the uncertain state of Josh’s health and how neither one of us had health insurance.
“I don’t want your help,” I said.
“You won’t need it for long,” he said. “Pretty soon you’ll have more business than you can handle and we’ll be even.”
I looked back at him. “What are you talking about?”
“You helped me once, remember? You saved my career and possibly my family. I’m paying you back.”
“And that’s why you wanted to see me alone, to pay me back a debt you never told anyone you owed?”
“I’m trying to wipe the slate clean, Henry, so that we can be friends again.”
“What about Bay?” I said. “Is that slate clean?”
“I would never do anything to hurt Bay or Joey. Would you?”
I took the 987 appointments he threw my way and I called Bay and we resumed our friendship and I kept Chris’s secrets which, after a time, seemed less like secrets than youthful indiscretions. As I turned off Sunset onto King’s Road, I suddenly understood that the reason he had not told me about Zack or leaving Bay was because of how hard he had worked to convince me that he had changed. He was a “recovering homosexual.” It would have been as humiliating for him to admit to me he was involved with Zack as it would have been for a recovering alcoholic to admit he’d started drinking again. But maybe if he had told me, I could’ve helped him and he might still be alive.
I followed the winding roads up the hill, past low walls overgrown with bougainvillea, until I came to the address that Bligh had given me and parked at the end of his dead-end street. I walked back to the house, which was at the end of a driveway behind a locked gate set into a brick wall. I buzzed the intercom in the wall. A staticky voice, not Bligh’s, said, “Hello.”
“It’s Henry Rios,” I said. “I have an appointment to see Mr. Bligh.”
The intercom clicked off and for a moment nothing happened. Then the front door opened and someone began walking toward me, a tall boy in a pair of faded gym shorts. He was blond and his skin was a deep golden brown. There was not an ounce of spare fat on his perfectly proportioned body. From a distance, he looked barely out of his teens, but when he came to the gate I saw he was much older, but in an undefinable way; his face showing not age, but wear. There was a touch of leatheriness to the skin and his mouth was bracketed by deep lines. Puffiness showed beneath his eyes, as if he had just awakened, and his eyes were narrow blue slits. His hair, I now realized, was bleached and the dark roots had begun to grow out. If his body belonged on a beach, his face would have been more at home in a bar, where the darkness would have erased its flaws and he could have passed for twenty-three. In the sunshine, with his mop of improbable hair, he looked a hard decade older.
“Mr. Rios,” he said, in a soft, faintly southern drawl. “We weren’t expecting you till later.”
“I take it you’re not Sam Bligh.”
He showed me a mouthful of expensive orthodonture. “I’m Tommy Callen,” he said. “Sam’s assistant.”
“My meeting finished early,” I said, “and I was in the neighborhood. It seems pointless for me to drive home and then come back. Can I see Mr. Bligh?”
“He’s in the middle of something just now.”
“I won’t keep him,” I said.
His smile turned slightly feral. “It’s really not a good time.”
A voice crackled over the intercom. “Tommy?”
“I need you in here,” Bligh said.
“Mr. Bligh,” I said. “I’m trying to explain to your assistant here that I only need a minute of your time.”
“Who is that?” Bligh demanded.
“Henry Rios,” I said. I looked at Tommy, who now wore a guilty grin. “Didn’t Tommy tell you I was here?”
“What the hell’s going on out there?” Bligh said.
“I’ll take care of it, Sam,” Tommy said, unlatching the gate. “Come on. I’ll take you to him.”
As we walked up the driveway to the house, I asked, “Why didn’t you tell him it was me at the gate?”
“You’ll see,” he said, opening the door to let me pass.
There were mirrored walls in the small entrance hall that reflected a miniature of Michelangelo’s David on a black marble plinth. Beyond that was a large, sun-filled room furnished in white. I could see through glass doors a terrace and a pool. The terrace was landscaped with potted palms and exotic flowers. The pool was an irregular circle, rimmed with porous stone. At the far end of the terrace, beneath a vine-laden gazebo, there was a sunken hot tub. It took me a moment, but I recognized the pool as the set in
“Over here,” Tommy said, walking ahead of me, through the white room.
I followed him into a smaller room dominated by an oversized TV on which a soundless video was running, showing half a dozen men having sex on board a boat. In the center of a room, watching the film, was a tall, powerfully built old man grasping the railings of a wooden platform, his legs encased in metal braces. Beside the platform was a motorized wheelchair. The platform was arranged at an angle so that I saw him in profile. He wore a red-and-white striped shirt and white slacks pulled tight by the straps of the braces around his wasted legs. He was bald, except for a fringe of long white hair, and he sported a goatee.
He craned his neck to face me. He was round-faced and ruddy. Beneath wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes were bright blue and he might have passed for a department-store Santa Claus but for the hooded intelligence in those eyes; they were the eyes of a bird of prey.
“Mr. Rios,” he said, in his deep, booming voice. “You’re early.” He reached for a remote control on the railing and switched the TV off. “Get me down, Tommy.”
Tommy Callen unstrapped him and helped him into the wheelchair. When he was settled, he said, “Sit down, Mr. Rios. Tommy, bring us some coffee.”
I sank into an overstuffed chair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude on your physical therapy.”
“What, that?” he said, glancing at the platform. “It’s not really therapy. It helps the circulation in my legs and it feels good to be upright for a while, but it doesn’t improve my condition.”
“How long have you been in a chair?”
“Ten years,” he said. “Industrial accident. I’ll spare you the details, but the settlement bought me this house and helped me start up my production company. So I suppose it was a fair trade.” His eyes beamed irony. “Though I might have been asked first.”