I stood in the sally port until the steel door lurched back with a clang and then stepped into the jail. A sign ordered prisoners to proceed no further; an emphatic STOP was scrawled beneath the printed message. I looked up at the mirror above the sign where I saw a slender, olive-skinned, dark-haired man in a wrinkled seersucker suit. I adjusted the knot in my tie. A television camera recorded the gesture in the booking room where a bank of screens monitored every quarter of the jail.
It was six-thirty a.m., but in the windowless labyrinth of cells and offices in the basement of Linden’s City Hall, perpetually lit with buzzing fluorescent lights, it could have been midnight. Only mealtimes and the change of guards communicated the passage of time to the inmates. I had often thought the hardest part of doing time was that time stood still; serving a sentence must feel like scaling a mountain made of glass.
I stepped out of the way of a trustie who raced by carrying trays of food. Breakfast that morning, the first Monday of June, 1982, was oatmeal, canned fruit cocktail, toast, milk
and Sanka—inmates were not allowed caffeine because it was a stimulant. Ironic considering the other stimulants that made their way into the jail; you could get almost any drug here. Jones stepped into the hall from the kitchen and acknowledged me with an abrupt nod. He had done his hair up in cornrows and his apron was splattered with oatmeal. On the outside, Jones was a short-order cook and a low level drug dealer. I’d represented him after his last bust. In exchange for snitching on some higher ups, I got him a plea, a reduced sentence and a guarantee he could serve it in county jail instead of state prison where his life expectancy would have been about that of a soap bubble. Unlike the prisons, the jail population was either transient or made up of inmates serving short sentences for relatively minor offenses. The deputy sheriffs who ran the place weren’t as tightly wound as prison guards and you didn’t see inmates sleeping in the halls or six to a cell because of overcrowding. Jail was easy time compared to the hard time at places like Folsom or San Quentin and a lot safer for a snitch like Jones. Still, county had the familiar institutional stink of all places of incarceration, a complex odor of ammonia, unwashed bodies, latrines, dirty linen and cigarette smoke compounded by bad ventilation and mingled with a sexual musk, a distinctive genital smell. The walls were painted in listless pastels, faded greens and washed-out blues like a depressed child’s coloring book, and were grimy and scuffed. The linoleum floor, however, was spotless. The trusties mopped it at all hours of the day and night. Busy work, I suppose.
Everyone in the Public Defender’s office had to take the jail rotation. Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t mind it. If, as my law school teachers had insisted, the law was a temple, it was a temple built on human misery and jails were the cornerstones. It was salutary to have to encounter the misery on a regular basis because otherwise it became too easy to believe that trials were a contest between lawyers to see who was the craftiest. It was good to be reminded that when I lost a case someone paid a price beyond my wounded pride. Not that I was in particular need of that memo at the moment.
A few months earlier, I’d lost a death penalty case where, rara avis, my client was innocent. Not generally innocent, of course—he had been in an out of juvie hall, jails and prison since he was 15—but innocent of the murder charge. After the jury returned its guilty verdict, I snapped. When the judge asked the usual, “Would you like to have the jury polled, Mr. Rios?” I jumped to my feet and shouted, “This isn’t a jury, it’s a lynch mob.” He warned me, “Sit down, counsel, or I’ll find you in contempt.” I unloaded on him. “You could never hold me in more contempt than I hold you, you reactionary hack. You’ve been biased against my client from day one . . .” I continued in that vein until the bailiff dragged me out of the courtroom and into the holding cell. Eventually, I was released, lectured, held in contempt, fined a thousand dollars, and relieved as my client’s lawyer. When word got around the criminal defense bar about my rampage, I received congratulatory calls but not from my boss, the Public Defender himself.
A death penalty trial is really two trials, the guilt phase where the jury decides whether the defendant committed the charged murder, and the penalty phase where the same jury decides whether to sentence him to death or life without parole. My outburst came at the end of the guilt phase. This meant another deputy public defender would have to be appointed to the case, get up to speed, and argue for my client’s life in front of the same jury I’d called a lynch mob.
“I should just fucking fire you,” Mike Burton told me, savagely rubbing his temples. The PD was a big man, an ex-cop in fact who had his own awakening about the criminal law system after he watched his partner beat a confession out of a suspect in the days before Miranda. “The only reason I’m not is that if Eloy does get death, at least you’ve handed us grounds for appeal.” He glared at me. “Ineffective assistance of counsel.”
I squinted at him, my head throbbing with a hangover headache. “What do you want me to say, Mike? I screwed up.”
“You’ve been ten years on the job, Henry, and you’re a damn good lawyer. What the fuck, kid?”
I shrugged like a surly teenager. “Eloy’s innocent. The jury didn’t care, they wanted blood. It got to me.”
“It gets to me every fucking day of every fucking week,” he snapped. “But when I want to go off on someone, I remind myself, oh, yeah, it’s not about me. It’s about the client, first, last and always. That’s the golden fucking rule around here and you broke it. You got some hard thinking to do, too, my friend. You can do it in Linden. I’m transferring you.”
Linden. A sleepy suburb thirty minutes south of San Francisco that owed its existence to the great university of the same name where I’d been both an undergrad and a law student. I still lived in the town, in the same apartment I’d moved into when I was studying for the bar exam. I’d worked briefly at the PD’s Linden office while waiting for the bar results, but as soon as I passed I had transferred to the main office in San Jose where the action was. The big cases, the best lawyers. Linden was the PD’s Siberia, where errant lawyers were exiled and broken down veterans put out to pasture. Not exactly the homecoming I had had in mind when I’d set out ten years earlier to change the hard heart of the world.
I’d been at the Linden office for ten months and, as ordered, I’d done a lot of thinking. My courtroom outburst had been the culmination of years of frustration with the criminal law system of justice but that was only part of it. The other part? That had come out of some deeper place, an empty place where my life should have been. I was a lawyer and, like Mike said, a good one. I gave a hundred and ten percent to my clients. For a long time, that was enough to keep me out of my head. At some point, though, after I turned thirty, the disturbing feelings and intrusive memories I had avoided since I’d left home for college had begun to surface in my mind like bloated corpses rising to the surface of a lake. Flashes of anger, moments of heart-pounding anxiety, a loneliness that clawed at my chest accompanied memories of my raging father, of a childhood that felt like imprisonment and of the boy whose friendship tortured me because I wanted to be more than his friend. These things tugged at me constantly, demanding some kind of resolution. I thought I had long since resolved them when I left home and came out as a gay man. I had no other answers except to work harder and drink more but they would not be silenced by work or drowned by alcohol. I had reached a point of quiet but persistent desperation. Something in my life had to change, that much I knew, but I didn’t know what or how or where it would come from. In the meantime, I sucked it up and went about my daily routines.
My jailhouse office was a small room with gray walls tucked away at the end of a corridor, furnished with a prison table and chairs. I picked up the arrest reports and booking sheets from the previous night. Vagrants, drunk drivers, bar fights—Linden was not Al Capone’s Chicago. The only potential felony was an auto burglary. The two suspects had been caught breaking into cars in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant on El Camino, the town’s main drag. They were Chicanos in their early twenties with just enough by way of rap sheets to appeal to a judge’s hanging instinct. I gathered the papers together and went into the booking office where Deputy Novack was reading the sports page from the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Good morning, Henry,” he drawled. Novack was pale, pudgy and baby-faced. Recently, he’d grown a wispy little moustache that floated apologetically above a mouth set in a perpetual smirk. He treated me with the same lazy contempt with which he treated all civilians, not holding the fact that I was a lawyer against me. This made us almost friends.
“Deputy,” I replied. “What’s the good word?”
“We had ourselves a little bit of excitement here last night,” he said, folding his paper. “Los Altos brought in a drunk—that’s what they thought he was, anyway—and it took three of us to subdue him.”
“What was he on?”
“Found a couple of sherms on him when we finally got him stripped and housed, so I’m guessing PCP.”
“I didn’t see an arrest report for him.”
“We couldn’t book him until he came down enough to talk.”
“Where’s he at now?”
“In the queens’ tank. Guy’s a fag.”
I bridled but said neutrally, “Been ten years since the Legislature repealed the sodomy law.”
“Yeah, and now the buttfuckers parade down Market Street,” he said. He handed me the arrest and booking reports. “Here’s the guy’s paperwork.”
The suspect’s name was Hugh Paris; five-foot eight, blond hair, blue eyes, 26 years old. New York license. He declined to give a local address or answer questions about his employment or his family. No rap sheet. I studied his booking photo. His hair was like a coxcomb, his eyes were dazed and he was ghostly white. Blond, white boys are not my usual type but Hugh Paris was beautiful. I closed the file before Novack could notice how intently I was looking at the photo.
“How do you know he’s gay?” I asked.
“They picked him up outside of that fag bar in Cupertino.”
I nodded. The bar was called The Office and its matchbooks were inscribed, “If anyone asks, tell them you were at The Office.” It drew a mixed crowd of gay guys, but was more preppy than anything else, not the kind of place where you’d expect to find someone high on a poor folks’ drug like PCP. Nor did Hugh Paris look like a typical PCP user; I’d have guessed white wine and maybe a little pot on the weekend.
“Charged with being under the influence of PCP, possession of PCP, resisting arrest and battery on an officer. Geez, did the arresting officer go through the penal code at random?”
Novack shrugged. “If that’s what it says, that’s what he did.”
“Any officers injured?”
“By that cream puff?”
“Doctor take a look at him to see if he was under the influence?”
“Did he submit to a urine test?”
“So all you’ve really got is possession.”
"Well,” Novack said, “I guess that’s between you and the DA Are you going to want to see the guy?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but first I’ll want to talk to these two,” and I read him the names of the burglars.
My burglars were bored but cooperative. Repeat offenders were the easiest to deal with, treating their lawyers with something akin to professional courtesy. All these guys wanted was a deal, a short jail stint and, as one of them said, “to get back to work.” I knew he wasn’t talking about his dishwashing job. When I told people I was a criminal defense lawyer, I often got a variant of “But how can you help let criminals back on the street?” in response. To which, depending on my mood and level of intoxication, I might give a serious answer or blow them off with “Repeat offenders keep me in business.” I did enjoy yanking the chain of the respectable; respectability being, in my mind, vastly overrated.
After I finished with them, I walked back to the booking office and poured myself a cup of Novack’s vile, but caffeinated, brew. I flipped him a quarter and asked to see Hugh Paris.
The deputy brought him into my office in handcuffs and a pair of oversized jail blues that fell from his shoulders and covered the tops of his bare feet. My first thought was, five-eight. Not likely. He was five-six, maybe five-seven in shoes. His eyes were focused and his color had returned, but his hair still stuck out from the top and sides of his head. The deputy shoved him into the chair across from me and left the room.
“Mr. Paris,” I said. “I’m Henry Rios, from the Public Defender’s office. How are you feeling this morning?”
He frowned, as if how he felt should be obvious. He raised his cuffed hands.
“Are these really necessary?” His voice was soft and slightly sibilant.
“Security measure. The deputies insist.”
“You’re bigger than me,” he pointed out. “I couldn’t hurt you if I wanted to. Which,” he added with a small smile, “I don’t. I just want to get out of here.”
I summoned the deputy and told him to remove the handcuffs.
“Better?” I asked, after the deputy left us.
“Much,” he said.
He rubbed his wrists and smoothed his hair, buttoned the top buttons of the jail jumpsuit and pulled himself up in the chair. He smiled, revealing a set of expensively maintained teeth. The small gestures restored his dignity and turned him back into a person instead of a prisoner; a really attractive person.
“What am I doing here?” he asked conversationally.
“You were arrested last night at The Office,” I replied. I read him the charges.
“Gee, I had some kind of night, didn’t I?” he said. “Too bad I don’t remember it. I can tell you though, Henry, I didn’t do any drugs.”
I’d been called many things by the men who’d sat in Hugh’s chair, but never by my first name as if we were a couple of pals chatting over a drink. That showed a level of self-assurance I associated with the rich boys I’d gone to school with. That and his nice teeth made me wonder, who is this guy?
“You sure about that?”
He shrugged. “I split a joint in the parking lot with a friend. After that, it all gets kind of cloudy.”
“What’s the last thing you do remember?”
“I was at the bar having a drink,” he said. “I must have gone outside because I remember street lights. And then I woke up here. Where are my shoes, by the way?”
“What about the sherms the cops found on you?”
“You don’t know what a sherm is?”
He frowned. “If you’d told me there was going to be a quiz, I would’ve studied. No, I don’t know what a sherm is.”
“Sherman’s is a brand of cigarettes that are dipped into PCP. That’s usually how it’s sold.”
He shook his head. “I don’t smoke at all and I’ve never used PCP.”
“You said you split a joint with someone before you went into the bar. Who was he?”
He appraised me for a moment before he answered. “He was a trick, Henry. He said his name was Brad.”
“Did you meet him at the Office?”
He shook his head. “We hooked up at a bathhouse in the city last week and he called me out the blue and asked me to meet him at the bar. I had a good enough time with him to make the drive.”
“Do you have a way of reaching this guy?”
“I might have his number somewhere,” he said, then asked, lightly, “How much trouble am I in?”
“You’re looking at misdemeanor use and possession. Not too serious unless you’ve got a record somewhere else. Do you?”
“Opiate possession in New York,” he said. “Oh, and a couple of solicitation arrests but no convictions. Don’t look so shocked, Henry. I can’t be your first junkie whore.”
“They’re not usually white and male,” I said.
“What can I say, darling,” he replied with hard haughtiness. “I’m an overachiever.”
He looked like a trust fund baby and sounded like a street queen; Hugh Paris had me flummoxed.
“I’m not a current user, Henry,” he said, reverting to his soft tone. “I’ve been clean for nine months. That’s why I told you no drugs. Well, pot, but that doesn’t really count, does it?” He gave me a dazzling smile. “I mean, I bet even upstanding lawyers smoke a joint now and then.”
And now he was flirting with me. I pushed his booking photo across the table. “You were high on more than pot last night.”
He studied the photo. “God, I look terrible.” He raised his head, his blue eyes wide and sincere. “Honestly, Henry, I didn’t touch anything last night but grass and a glass of bad chardonnay.”
“The joint could have been dipped in PCP without you knowing,” I said.
“Why would Brad do that?” he said. “He didn’t have to drug me to get laid, I was ready to give it up.” He jerked back in the chair and said, “Oh, fuck.”
“Nothing,” he said, but it was clear something disturbing had occurred to him.
“You remember something about last night. What is it?”
“I think I was set up.”
“Are you saying this guy, Brad, drugged you intentionally and planted the PCP on you? I thought he was just a guy you’d tricked with.”
He looked scared, then angry, but said nothing.
“Hugh? What’s going on?”
“I need to make a call,” he said.
“When we’re done,” I said. “Are you going to tell me what happened last night?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said, regretfully.
“If you don’t talk to me, you’ll sit in jail until they arraign you this afternoon. Since you refused to give a local address, you’ll probably be remanded and rot here until they remember to give you a trial. Is that what you want?”
“Don’t worry about me, darling,” he said, lightly. “I’ve been in worse scamps. I just need to make that call to fix it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Have it your way. I guess we’re done here.”
“Wait,” he said. His eyes locked into mine, searching, it seemed, and then having found what he was looking for, he said, “You’re gay.”
“That’s not relevant,” I replied.
“I suspected you might be when I started talking about bathhouses and tricks and you didn’t look like you wanted to retch, like a straight guy would, but then you don’t sound or act like one of us. Except when you look at me.”
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” I said, abashed.
He laughed. “Uncomfortable? You didn’t notice I’m looking back? If we were anywhere else I would’ve jumped you ten minutes ago.”
I grinned. “Good thing the camera in this room doesn’t record sound, too.”
“I’ve never met a gay lawyer before,” he said. “Are you in the closet at work?”
I could have ended the interview but his tone suggested more than mere curiosity. I recognized that tone; it was a signal from one lonely traveler to another. We moved through a world so inescapably and aggressively straight that coming across another gay man in an unexpected circumstance was like stumbling into a refuge where, for a moment, it was possible to lower our shields and breathe.
“I’m out to my employers,” I said, “but not my clients.”
“Why not tell them?”
“It’s not necessary for me to do my job and some of them might have a problem with it. I need for them to trust me.”
“By lying about who you are?”
“I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you how complicated being gay can be.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry. Are there a lot of gay lawyers?”
“Hard to say. I assume most of us are still in the closet, but there’s a small group up in the city that started a gay and lesbian bar association. I’ve been to a couple of their meetings, but I’m not much of a joiner.”
“Do you have anyone, Henry?” he asked after a moment.
“You mean, like a boyfriend? No.”
He grinned. “That’s hard to believe.”
“My job keeps me busy,” I said. It was my automatic response.
“And alone,” he said quietly.
The words seemed to echo in the little, gray-walled room. It was just talk, I told myself. He hadn’t meant anything much by it, certainly he couldn’t have known how deeply those words cut at the moment.
“Do you have anyone, Hugh?”
He shook his head. “God, no. Who’d have me?”
“You’re from New York?”
“From here originally,” he said. “I came back to take care of some things. Family things.”
“I see,” I said. “I wish you luck.”
We caught each other’s eyes again and then he said, “You think when you come out, your life will be less lonely, but it isn’t. You can find guys for sex. That’s easy. Sex is how gay guys shake hands. Don’t get me wrong, Henry, I’m not knocking sex. But it costs so much to come out, you’d think there’d be something more at the end of it than another guy’s dick. My problem is, I never figured out what that something more is.”
“To be loved?” I suggested.
Hugh said, “I’m not sure anyone could love me. I’ve been such a fuck-up. I’m trying to put my life back together. I got off junk. That’s a start.”
“Until last night,” I said.
“I told you, Henry, that wasn’t intentional. I was set up.”
“I’d like to get you out of here if I can. Tell me what happened and let me help you.”
“I appreciate that,” he said. “I really do. But last night was part of a long, long story. You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”
He shook his head. “I wish we hadn’t met like this.”
I took my business card out of my pocket, turned it over, wrote my home phone. “Here. Call me anytime.”
He took the card, looked at it. “For legal advice?”
“For whatever you need,” I replied.
After that, there was nothing left to say but neither of us moved or looked away. His lips were slightly parted. A blue vein beat in his pale neck. The hard overhead light picked out the darker strands of gold in his pale hair. Something about this soft-voiced, mysterious, pretty little man slipped past my defenses and reminded me that desire was the uncomplicated moment when two people look into each other’s eyes and each one thinks, “Yes, you.” I saw the assent in his eyes and I knew he saw it in mine, but we were sitting in a gray room in a jail on opposite sides of a table that separated lawyer from inmate. He had refused the only help I could offer and now he was on his own. Still, I could not restrain myself from reaching across the table and taking his hand. He was startled, but then he threaded his delicate fingers into mine and we sat there for a moment holding hands.
“You’re sweet,” he said, tightening his grip.
“Not usually,” I replied.
Then I remembered the camera in the corner, and Novack sitting in the booking office, and let go of him.
“Last chance,” I said. “Let me help you, Hugh.”
“You have,” he replied.
I shrugged and called the guard in to take him back to his cell and went off to see about getting him his phone call.
from Lay Your Sleeping Head
© Michael Nava, 2016