Authors: Linda Peterson
And here we were, more than a year later, about to go sit on
the couch of shame in some touchy-feely Berkeley shrink's office, and I thought, “That really will be the second circle of hell.” And then my alarm went off.
Near the end of our first therapy session, I had two realizations: Michael, who could be one tough, judgmental guy about people who did what he perceived as vague things for a living, had decided he liked, or at least trusted, Dr. McQuist. Go figure. The other insight was that I didn't like her much at all. And that it was going to be oh so easy to morph her name from Dr. McQuist into Dr. Mephisto. Easy. And fun.
Just looking at Jessie McQuist made my head hurt. Black, black, black hair tipped with gold highlights, an embroidered hot pink vest, purple Lycra pants. Blue fingernails. I don't care how many initials she had after her name, I had a hard time taking a therapist seriously who had such a promiscuous relationship with color. The Craftsman bungalow that housed her office, lime-green cupola and all, should have tipped me off. Of course, I was having a hard time taking therapy seriously. Which became obvious in the first few minutes of our conversation.
“Michael, Margaret,” she said, sitting cross-legged in her big chair, in that annoying way show-offy limber people do. Okay, okay, I get it! You do yoga.
“How are you?”
“I'm fine,” said Michael.
“Me too,” I said.
“Weird to say, âfine,' if we're here for therapy,” I offered.
“Nothing's weird,” she said.
I wanted to say that a lime-green cupola and blue fingernails on someone past the training-bra stage seemed pretty weird to me. Instead, I said, “Oh, you know, it's like the Garrison Keillor joke about the Lutheran farmer who goes to the therapist every week, and the therapist asks how he is, and the farmer always says, âCan't complain.' And then they just sit there for fifty minutes.”
Michael sighed and not so surreptitiously sneaked a look at his watch.
“Are you Lutherans?” asked Dr. McQuist.
This was hopeless. “No,” I tried to explain, “we're SO not Lutherans, but the joke is that if he's not going to complain or something, why is he there? He doesn't get the point of therapy.”
“Is that why you're here?” asked Dr. McQuist. “To complain?” She took a sip from her big mug. At least it was black. Even from across the room, seated on her lavender, squishy couch, I could smell the tea. Musty, herbal, yuck. What's wrong with coffee, anyway?
“Maggie's here to complain,” said Michael. “I'm here because we had someâ¦problems last year, and they keep whack-a-moling back up.”
I could see we were going to need a UN simultaneous translator to talk to Dr. McQuist.
Michael gestured, as if he were mercilessly bringing a baseball bat on targets in front of him. “It's a game. You try to hit the mole with a mallet, and he keeps disappearing into his burrow or whatever you call it. You whack him, and he keeps popping up again.”
Dr. McQuist blinked. I could see the wheels turning. “Not that anyone does any hitting,” I said, hoping to whack-a-mole down a misguided line of inquiry about domestic violence.
“I don't know,” said Michael. “Josh popped Zach a pretty good one last night about whose turn it was to unload the dishwasher.”
“Our sons,” I explained. “They're eight and almost thirteen, and they don't usually hit each other.” I felt my fingers creeping toward my phone, in that irresistible maternal need to just see their faces. “They're very handsome,” I said. “I have photos, if you'd like to see them.”
A tiny line appeared between Dr. McQuist's eyes. “Another time, thanks.” No one spoke. “Okay,” she said. “Michael, why don't you tell me what you meant about theâI think you called
them âproblems'âlast year.”
Michael complied, providing a longish but very lawyerly summary of last year's events: my affair with Quentin Hart, Quentin's murder, my perseverance investigating the murder, the risks I'd created for our sons, and the
, which endangered my life.
Dr. McQuist listened. I thought I had explained all this on the phone, but oh well, I guess she can't be expected to keep all her philandering-wife/murder-investigation couples sorted out.
“Endangered,” I offered brightly. “But I'm still here. All's well that ends well. Plus, our au pair, Anya, met a very nice doctor at the emergency room where I ended up, and they're still dating.” I paused. “Off and on.”
Dr. McQuist blinked. “He's Indian,” I offered. I touched my forehead and then put two fingers up in back of my head, as Dr. Singh had done when he met me at the ER. “You know, âdots, not feathers,' Subcontinent Indian.” Dr. McQuist waited.
“I wonder if that's offensive,” I said. “Do you think it is, if an Indian person says it to you?”
Dr. McQuist blinked again, then turned to Michael.
“All's well? Is that how you'd sum things up, Michael?” she asked.
Michael shifted on the couch, putting just a touch more distance between us. He shrugged. “Not from my perspective. But I may not have as finely developed a sense of happy endings as Maggie does. Otherwiseâ¦”
“Otherwise?” prompted Dr. McQuist.
“Otherwise we wouldn't be here, spending time and money we don't really have to spare,” Michael snapped. The ice man was back. I glanced over at Michael, but he stared resolutely ahead. The warm, relaxed man I had married kept disappearing into someone aloof and detached. Some days I felt as if our marriage had turned into a businesslike partnership of convenience. I wanted to wave my hand, asking Teach for permission to speak, but she was refusing to catch my eye.
“Michael,” she began again, “you mentioned that things keep coming back up from those issues last year. Why don't you tell Maggie what those things are? Just forget I'm here.”
I could see Michael sizing up Dr. McQuist and the situation. This seemed gimmicky to him, I was willing to bet. On the other hand, this therapy had been his idea, he had scrupulously researched Dr. McQuist, and she had a number of very happy, unexpectedly effusive references among our own extended circle of pals. Straight, gay, happy, miserable, in transition, new relationships or old ones,
loved Dr. McQuist. That alone made me suspicious. But Michael was a careful consumer and he liked consensus. Plus, we were paying for the hour, so not giving her a chance felt like getting the plumber out to the house and then not inviting him to unclog the sink.
“Okay,” he said. “Just tell
“Right,” said Dr. McQuist. “Talk to Maggie.”
He settled back into the arm of the couch and faced me.
“After your shenanigans last year, I thought we had an agreement.”
“We did,” I said. “We do.”
“No interruptions,” said Dr. McQuist. “Listen to what Michael is saying.”
“Okay, okay,” I said meekly. “Sorry.”
Michael turned to look at Dr. McQuist with something like wonder and admiration.
“Thank you,” he said politely.
“Our agreement was, firstâ¦.” He raised a finger. “No more affairs. Not ever, ever. Ever. Second, you've taken on a full-time job, and you're stillâunless I missed somethingâa wife and mom, so no more investigating, no more poking your nose where it doesn't belong. Justâoh, Christâcut us some slack. Enjoy what you've got.”
He sat back.
“May I speak?” I asked Dr. McQuist.
“Michael, I don't know how many ways to say it. The affair was a dumb, dumb, stupid mistake. You don't have to worry it will ever happen again. Second, you're jumping to conclusions about this Death Row story. You're right, I've got a day job. And I like that job. I'm willing to go listen to the death-appeal mommies because I've done a story on them once, and maybe there's a follow-up.”
“Liar, liar, liar,” said Michael.
“I'm sorry,” Dr. McQuist said, “we have to end now.”
side from a childhood fascination with Susan Hayward's over-the-top performance in
I Want to Live!
, I'd never given much thought to the people who occupy Death Row. At the office, before I left to meet Eleanor and her Gasworks pal with the “innocent” client, I Googled up a little info.
The condemned make up quite a crowd in our country. There are 3,565 of them in the United States: 3,517 men and forty-eight women. Many are mentally ill; some have IQs that would make great golf scores but are lousy intellectual equipment for life. Some are just plain wicked. Most are guiltyâof one thing or another. But not every single one. Or at least that's what the movies would have you believeâand according to Eleanor, one of the innocent was represented by a Gasworks member.
I rang the doorbell at Eleanor's just before noon. The spring bulbs were already showing some promise of color in her front flowerbed. The sun was doing its best, but March in San Francisco is still coat-and-gloves weather, even in the warm neighborhoods. The Inskeeps lived in leafy Forest Hills, an elegant but chilly part of the city, where old money and newer tech fortunes existed side by side. The Inskeeps' elegance was somewhat compromised by the large bundle on the front steps awaiting diaper-recycling pickup.
Eleanor flung the door open and pulled me inside. “Maggie! It's great you're here. Come in and warm up.”
I followed her down the hall toward the living room, where I
could hear sounds of chamber music drifting through the doors. Inside was a fire in the fireplace and a tray of coffee and
pain au chocolat
on the table.
Eleanor steered me to the couch, where a woman dressed in head-to-toe red raised a mug in greeting. Eleanor said, “Maggie Fiori, meet Isabella Fuentes.” She gestured at the pot. “Help yourself. Peet's. Good and strong.”
I poured, stirred, and settled in. No one spoke for a moment. “This is such a wonderful room, Eleanor,” I said.
She grinned. “This is it. The one room free of baby clutter, work papers, and Edgar's Oakland A's paraphernalia. I just need one room that feels like this.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “It's the dining room in our house. Just one roomâ¦.” I glanced at Isabella. Eleanor laughed. “Isabella can't participate in this conversation. She's so tidy, so perfect, and a single mom, so there's no pile of
s or old sweatshirts hanging around.” Isabella did, indeed, look perfect. Snug red T-shirt, red jeans, red tennies. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head and skewered with a red pencil. The red was dramatic against her golden skin, glowing like a ripe Comice pear. She had the long limbs of a track star and Eurasian features. And while both Eleanor and I both had on lipstick, Isabella had what Calvin calls “twenty-minute” lips, carefully outlined in a darker color. She held a file on her lap, with not one messy spare piece of paper peeking out.
“Okay,” I said. “Isabella, Eleanor hasn't told me much. Why don't you tell me about your client?”
“How much do you know about death-penalty appeals?” she asked.
“Very little. Just what I read in the piece we did on you all for
. And what I've seen in the movies. I'm sorry. I should know more.”
“Don't apologize. Most people know just what you know. And frankly, we don't talk about our work all that much with outsiders.”
Isabella sighed. “Where do you think âthree strikes' legislation came from? Most people think our system coddles criminals.”
“In the Bay Area?”
“The Bay Area is more liberal,” said Eleanor. “But it's a finite piece of territory. Let's remember,” she added, “what killed Rose Bird's career on the California Supreme Court.”
“She was recalled, becauseâ¦” I began.
“Because people knew she opposed the death penaltyâand they didn't like it.”
“That's our reality,” said Isabella. “People don't like lawyers in general, but they especially don't like people like us. They think we're conscienceless, amoral hired guns defending the scum of the earth, and we're spending their money to do it.”
“Okay, that's a basic question,” I said. “Is it all taxpayer money funding your work? Don't private attorneys ever handle death-penalty appeals?”
“Maggie,” said Eleanor. “Get real. Death-penalty appeals take years and years. Virtually no one is rich enough to retain counsel in a capital case.”
“So it is taxpayer money funding what you do?”
“Because,” Isabella added, “if you're sentenced to death, you've got an automatic right to an appeal.”
“Because sometimes people are innocent?”
“Well, first it's the law. And second, you're right, sometimes people are innocent,” Eleanor said. “So it's because of that, and also it's because of the lousy counsel defendants sometimes getâthere are a couple guys on Death Row in Texas whose attorneys slept through much of their trials. So there's a small but persistent movement to reexamine the cases of people currently on Death Row.”