I am trying not to yawn.
A hell of a way to start a new life, yeah, I know. But that's what I'm doing. I'm trying not to yawn. And trying not to yawn is counterproductive, definitely making things worse. It's a psychological thing, I think. Something I'll have to look up on the Internet when I get back to my apartment. If I get back to my apartment. If this son of a bitch ever stops talking.
I scan the surface of the desk between us. Nothing interesting. It's too tidy. Way too tidy for a lawyer. My desk back in New York was a fucking mess. It was a lawyer's desk, covered in closed client files, calendars, bar journals, half-used legal pads, unpaid bills. A messy desk is a sign of genius. Someone told me that. Someone with a really messy desk.
From the looks of his desk, Jake Harper isn't too bright. His walls are pretty bare, too. I wonder if that means anything. There's a calendar marked sporadically with court appearances and a single birthday, that with a note that reads send card. There are no photographs or framed pictures. The furniture is utilitarian: an old, solid-oak desk; a battered, rusty filing cabinet; a couple of client chairs with worn upholstery, one of which I'm sitting in, digging into the torn arms with what's left of my chewed fingernails.
The furniture doesn't mesh with the freshly painted ivory-colored walls and new beige carpet. The furniture is more like Jake. Jake, who's giving me a goddamn history lesson on his life. Jake, the Irish Texan, who five years ago packed his bags and fled the Lone Star State for sunny California only to fail the bar exam three times. Jake, my soon-to-be office landlord here in downtown Honolulu.
I study his face, shocked that his lips are still moving. Jake's face is weathered, worn especially around the eyes. His nose is peppered with tiny gin blossoms, miniaturesize merit badges earned through the decades of hard drinking he's just told me about. He says he's sixty-six but he looks at least a dozen years older. His hair is thin, a shocking white with streaks of gray, his face as wrinkled as the aloha shirt on his back. He looks as though he might drop dead before he stops talking. It might be the only way.
Jake, whose ad for office space I discovered this morning on Craigslist, speaks slowly, as if to a child, as though calculating every word in his head before allowing it to escape his sun-chapped lips. He does convey trust, I'll give him that. Trust is undoubtedly what keeps him in clients here on the island. Certainly not competence, he conveys no such thing as that. Only trust. Right now I trust that he'll never close his trap.
We're thirty-three stories up and I contemplate throwing myself out the large bay window behind him. But the view of the azure Pacific in the distance reminds me why I'm here. To calm the fuck down. My shrink warned me that I couldn't escape myself but I'm determined to prove him wrong. So I take a deep breath, sit back in the ratty old client chair, and try to relax, letting Jake take me through the wilds of his seemingly endless career.
For more than thirty years, Jake was a lawyer in private practice in Houston, appointed by the courts to represent indigent defendants in capital murder cases.
"When people talk about the death penalty," Jake says, "they talk about Texas. Well, Harris County is the capital of capital punishment, son. It is the single most productive death row pipeline in the western world."
I nod politely. I've done so much nodding during the past forty-five minutes I feel like one of those bobblehead dolls they used to sell in the eighties. Maybe they still sell them, I don't know. Something else to check out on the Internet.
"The prosecutors are mean," he says, "and the judges are all former prosecutors, all of them mean as hell. They stand around the courthouse hallways joking about capital defendants, about the next inductees into what they call the Silver Needle Society. And what's more amazing is their follow-through. Punishment handed down is punishment carried out. It's a very efficient system, son. Execution dates are set by the courts. Appeals are streamlined. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is the most conservative in the country. The Fifth Circuit is so loath to reverse convictions that it even reinstated the death sentence of a fella whose attorney slept through half the trial. As a criminal lawyer in Houston you spend a good deal of time holding clients' hands on the way to the death chamber."
I suppose his passion against capital punishment and his empathy for his clients should sound refreshing to my cynical New York ears. And maybe it would have sounded so years ago. But now it's all static. White noise. He may as well be speaking Japanese. Actually, I may have an easier time with Japanese. At least there's a Complete Idiot's Guide to understanding it. In fact, I picked up a copy when I moved here to the island of Oahu two months ago.
I don't practice law for the clients or for any special cause. I practice law because I went to law school and because I borrowed $200,000 to pay for law school. Now I have to pay it back and the only way I know how is by taking money from desperate clients in return for helping them avoid their just deserts.
I don't like my clients and I don't care if they like me. We're each means to the other's ends. I lie to them when it suits me and they lie to me because it's all they know how to do. I don't make friends with them and I don't invite them to dinner. I don't even shake their hands when I can avoid it. Like my old boss Milt Cashman always said, clients ruin the practice of law.
"But it's the front line, son. You fight against something worth fighting against, like the machine in Texas, it makes your life worthwhile. You feel fulfilled at the end of the day, even when you lose."
I'm tired of the Texas twang, but I'm curious, and my curiosity often leads me to regrettable actions, such as when I ask Jake what brought him to the Hawaiian Islands.
"In a word, beauty. That and the bar exam here isn't state specific, so if you know the basics of the law, you have a fair chance of passing, unlike California. I'm not dumb and I'm not lazy. Just stubborn, I guess. I refuse to study for an exam I passed four decades ago."
A look of disgust is on Jake's face, as if the California bar exam were a living, breathing entity that set out to spoil his plans.
"Now that I'm here, I'm grateful things didn't work out in California. I mean that. From the moment I stepped out of Honolulu Airport and felt that sun on my face in the middle of February, I knew this was my home. Once you've been here awhile, son, your priorities change. Part of it's the warm, soothing weather and the serene atmosphere. But mostly, it's the people. They have a gentle spirit unfettered by all that mainland get-ahead bullshit. It's pleasant here, relaxing." He adds, "I didn't always talk this slow, you know."
With his cowboy boots resting on the desk between us, Jake leans so far back in his old leather swivel chair that I fear he'll tip over. He's as tranquil as a corpse on Valium, so completely free from agitation that it worries me, sends me into near panic. Hawaii seemed so appealing on the Internet, what with the palm trees and hammocks, the fruity cocktails with tiny umbrellas. And the pineapples. The pineapples really sold me. But now I feel as if I entered some bizarre Twilight Zone episode, where Honolulu is the mirror opposite of Manhattan, and Jake the mirror opposite of Milt. Nothing feels right here. Anxiety, the fuel on which my body runs, is in short supply here and I fear myself shutting down. I realize I may have made a terrible mistake. I don't even like pineapples.
Questioning is as instinctive for lawyers as lighting cigarettes is for smokers. And it's just as nasty a habit. I don't want to think like a lawyer, especially now. What I want is to get back to my apartment and beat myself up for giving away my New York law practice and moving here. But I can't help it. And although I know I'll get an answer that can be made into a seven-part HBO miniseries, I ask Jake why he left Houston.
"I was tired, son. Tired of fighting mean prosecutors with endless resources. Tired of compromising my independence to please judges so that I could continue getting appointments. But most of all, I was tired of hearing court-appointed lawyers being bashed. It made me sick. We worked our asses offfighting this death machine commissioned by the state and all we received in return was criticism. Criticism from the media, even from other defense lawyers who didn't have the balls to take the cases themselves. It turned our clients against us. You know as well as I do, you have a client who doesn't trust you, the state's gonna get a conviction. I'd had enough. So five years ago, after a surprising acquittal that epitomized the Texas system, I packed up my office and left. I've been practicing here just under three years."
There I have it. Jake Harper in a nutshell. A bleeding heart who spent his life fighting a losing battle against the Texas criminal justice system. Crusader. Defender. Landlord. It must be nice to have a passion but I know one thing's for certain. Passion doesn't pay the piper. And it doesn't pay off student loans.
Now that I'm here in Hawaii I have to make a fresh start. And this law suite seems as good a place as any to do just that. With Jake the only occupant, the suite is quiet compared to the hustle and bustle of the thirty-eight-lawyer space I shared in downtown Manhattan near the South Street Seaport. As I tear off the last of my thumbnail with my teeth, I think I feel a little calmer already.
"Jake, I'm impressed with the suite and I'm impressed with you. If it's all right with you, I'd like to rent the large office right across the hall from yours."
"It's yours, son. But we can talk business later. Tell me a little more about yourself."
Let's see. First off, I can't stand small talk. The only thing I hate worse than talking about myself is listening to someone else tell me about their life, as you, Jake, just did for well over an hour. But I don't say that. Because I'm so nice.
"Well, Jake, I practiced criminal law in Manhattan for six years. While I was in law school, I worked for Milt Cashman--"
"Wait a minute," Jake interrupts. " ‘Not Guilty Milty'? The high-profile lawyer that represented all those rappers? What were their names? Shaved Dog and Melted Ice?"
"Rabid Dawg," I say, "a solo artist who was falsely accused of rape, and Shave Ice from the hip-hop duo Death on the Rocks, who keeps getting framed for cocaine possession. Yeah, that's him, the one and only Not Guilty Milty. He was the reason I was able to open my own practice downtown the moment I was sworn in."
Jake removes from his desk drawer a silver flask and unscrews the top. "Hope you don't mind, son. It's time for my medicine." He winks, gives me a large Texas smile, and takes a pull. He offers me a sip and I pass. "Continue, son. But speak slower. We're in no rush."
Sitting back in the chair, feigning serenity, I tell Jake how Milt launched my career. While I was still a law student, Milt introduced me to attorneys all over the city. As soon as I hung out my shingle, those attorneys began sending me their overflow business, mostly misdemeanors they were too busy to handle. Thanks to Milt, I already knew my way around the courtroom and had established a good rapport with the assistant district attorneys and judges, and it paid off in handsome plea deals and light sentences for my clients. This impressed my clients, especially those familiar with the system. Clients began referring their friends and family members, and as luck would have it, their friends and family members were committing felonies. I started taking cases to trial and winning. I began raking it in and making a name for myself. Kevin Corvelli, "the Acquittal Kid."
After two years, I was sending my overflow business to other attorneys and collecting the referral fees. Then, about a year and a half ago, it came. My first press case.
Before my name hit the headlines I was like a little kid, admiring and envious of his big brothers. I wanted what they had. Not a later curfew, not a cigarette or a bottle of beer. I wanted a taste of fame. I wanted photographers and camera crews to wait for me outside the courthouse. I wanted to give interviews and sound bites. I wanted ex-girlfriends and old classmates to see my picture in the paper and call my office so that my secretary could tell them I was unavailable.
Sometimes that little kid wants it all too soon. And sometimes he gets it. Sometimes it's not all it's cracked up to be. And sometimes it just turns out dead wrong.
Excerpted from One Man's Paradise by .
Copyright 2010 by Douglas Corleone.
Published in May 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.