Thursday, March 24, 2011

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: What More is There to Say?

My Dear Teresa,

I am chilled and feverish and I have a thick congestion burning in my chest.

I write with the hope and prayer that you will come at once. And that you will bring with you the herbs that SeƱora Ramos uses so effectively for lung congestion. A doctor came to see me and he mumbled something about pleurisy.

All I know is that I am shivering and sweating and when I start to cough I cannot stop and when I breathe I wheeze and I cannot catch my breath.

When you come I will tell you about the trial -- Teresa, let me just say that DeLuria has made such a profound mess of things -- worse than I ever thought possible -- that I have almost begun to pity him.

Almost.

DeLuria has turned out to be more of a fool than even I dreamed he could be. So astonishing is his incompetence that if I had the funds to hire a real attorney, I would probably have little difficulty getting this charade of a trial overturned on appeal.

His defense?

Teresa, he strode in front of the jury and delivered one of the most implausible opening statements imaginable. He made a statement that was so outrageous that I could see the jurors smirking and shifting uncomfortably in their chairs.

I could feel them staring at me. I saw one or two shaking their heads.

He began by standing and approaching the jury and with great flourish, directing the jury's attention my way. He was wearing what I have come to call his silly shirt, a powder blue affair with satin-edged ruffles at the chest. When he walked his boots made a loud clatter on the wooden floor. His hair was pomaded and his mustache freshly waxed and twirled and all of that made him look even sillier.

He started with a question.

"When you gaze at the nun sitting over there in the sunlight, what do you see?"

Immediately he answered: "You see a young woman with a face that is the picture of innocence. You see a slight woman with wispy hair, and a sweet, quiet expression. You see her hands folded so delicately and resting on the table."

He pivoted on the heel of one black boot and with his hands behind his back, he passed slowly in front of the men waiting to pass judgement on me.

Then he stopped and faced the judge. "But there is something you do not see!"

He paused and then directed their attention back to me by pointing a finger in my direction.

His voice dropped into practically a whisper. His eyes grew large and then, Teresa, I swear, he went...crazy.

"My friends, I want you to look again at this innocent young woman. Because what you see is not really what you see. The woman sitting before you is afflicted by a devilish disorder of the mind. You may never have heard of this disorder before, because it is only in recent years that it has been observed."

My heart started slamming against my chest. I was so frightened to hear the rest of what this imbecile was about to say that I couldn't look at him. I closed my eyes and held my breath and that's when I felt the first burning sensation in my chest!

"Members of the jury, it is my job to explain to you, to prove to you, that this young woman who sits before you may answer to the name Sister Renata, and she may indeed be a devoted nun of the Dominican order. But my friends, there is more to this woman than meets the eye."

Pause. Silence. Shock.

Me still holding my breath. All I could hear was the clock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

He went on.

"Even though it appears that you are seeing just one person sitting here, one innocent-looking nun, that is not the case. The nun sitting here suffers from a frightening disorder, a most troubling disorder."

He swirled around and pointed one hand -- finger extended -- at me, and the other hand -- finger extended -- across the room at the jury. For a moment it looked as if he was going to twirl across the courtroom floor, or worse, perform some kind of bizarre dance in front of the judge.

"It may be difficult to imagine," he said in his most theatrical voice, "but what we have here is a woman who has two separate identities, two separate selves, and these selves are pulling her apart." He looked up toward the ceiling and started shouting. "You must understand that through no fault of her own, and because of a deep malady from which she suffers, this poor nun is not just one person. Friends of the jury, Sister Renata has a double personality!"

He walked over now and stood before me. I shrunk back, away from him. He raised his hands heavenward and brought them together and slowly down in front of him, as if symbolically, he was slicing me in two! Then he turned to the jury, his tone pleading, as if he was in desperate need for them to believe what he was saying.

"My dear friends, I hope I will be able to convince you that this poor woman has two individual selves living inside her body! And one of them is trying to destroy the God-fearing self you see here today."

Yes, Teresa, DeLuria's defense was that I suffer from some kind of malady that gives me a multiple personality -- this notion is something he apparently read about in a magazine somewhere!

I covered my face in utter horror. I wanted to stand up and scream, "PLEASE STOP. Please, no more, you're only making matters worse!"

Fortunately, the prosecutor, Phillip Jackson, did it for me. A portly man with a head of silver hair, Jackson practically knocked over his chair standing up.

"Objection, your Honor!" He crowed. "Mr. DeLuria has not presented us with any exhibit or any doctor or expert list of any kind, he has nothing on record, no one qualified who would attest to this ... this preposterous idea of a personality disorder. I move that his opening statement be stricken from the record."

The Judge agreed and instructed the jury to disregard DeLuria's statement.

At which point, DeLuria was, literally, speechless. The judge adjourned the trial and there was no immediate word as to when it might resume.

I must tell you Teresa, but at the moment DeLuria gathered up his papers and left the courtroom wearing those foolish ruffles, and that hair of his hair all slicked and pomaded, I felt sorry for him. Oh, yes, I felt fury to my depths as well. But he was such a miserable sight I actually found myself feeling a might sorry for the man!

How could DeLuria deceive me like this? How could he fail me so miserably?

I am so weary. I sit here with a cup of tea. That woman from the cafe has started bringing me food. She is a good woman. How she convinced the jailer to let her in, I'm not sure. When I asked, she just nodded and smiled and said, "I'll take care of it."

I am here Teresa. Waiting for you. And praying you will come soon.

Monday, March 7, 2011

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: Standing Trial

RENATA'S DIARY
Old Vallejo Jail
November 13, 1883


The jailer slams his keys against the bars of the cell to wake me up the next morning. The sky is black outside the window and I can see only a crisp white curve of moon.

I sit up. "What..what time is it?" I ask, thinking it must be the middle of the night.

"It's time for you to get up," he says. "You got ten minutes before we go." He hobbles away before I can ask him where we are going.

Soon enough, I find out. He leads me in handcuffs out of the jail to the tiny blue house I've stared at for so many weeks. It sits low and tidy across the dusty courtyard and it has an inviting front porch.

When we get closer, I read a sign over the door: "Kitty's Corner Cafe." The door has a large window covered in a lace curtain and a brass bell beside it, and now the jailer rings the bell.

Even standing out here on the porch, I can smell breakfast cooking inside. Bacon. Toast.

The sky above my head is lightening up. Overhead it is turning a sugary blue.

A young woman -- her hair pulled tightly away from her face -- moves aside the lace curtain and peers out the window. She unlocks the door and without a word, the jailer, whose name is Jimmy Bean, leads me inside. The smell of food is so powerful that it makes me a little dizzy.

"Mornin' Kitty pole," the jailer says.

"Mornin' Jimmy." She points to a table in the corner by the window.

"No, now we don't want to be attractin' no public attention," he says. He leads me to the back corner and we sit down at a table with a crisp white tablecloth.

He smells of tobacco and whiskey. I smell of so many things.

The young woman has large dark eyes and she wears a starched white apron. "What will it be Jimmy?"

"Bring the coffee right away and then fix up some eggs and bacon, toast. Please be quick about it."

She nods and glances at me quickly and then leaves the room through a curtained door. She returns in a moment with two mugs of coffee. She sets one down in front of me. I stare into the cup. Suddenly I feel tears gathering behind my eyes. I realize that this is the first cup of coffee I've had -- or even smelled -- since September 13th, the day they whisked me out of the convent and into that hellish cell.

"Why are you doing this?" I whisper. Tears are falling onto the tablecloth but I am unable to wipe my eyes.

The jailer is putting a teaspoon of sugar into his coffee. "Warn't my idea ma'am. The judge's instructions. Told me to get you a decent breakfast before the trial this mornin'. No more of your fancy fainting tricks." He snorts in derision.

I sniffle.

"Well, unless you plan to feed me, Jimmy, I cannot do a thing with these on," I say, nodding to the handcuffs on my wrists in my lap.

He fumbles for the key and unlocks the handcuffs. I sit with my hands limp on the table. I feel like I am unable to move. But then the coffee reaches up to me.

The woman is back with two plates, heaped with food. She sets the plate before me. Scrambled eggs. Crisp bacon. Potatoes. Toast.

"Anything else you need Jimmy?" she asks.

"Yep," He scratches his stubbly jaw. "I want some chile sauce if ya don't mind. That kind you serve at lunch."

"Sure."

I stare at the plate. The food looks so good it doesn't seem real.

"Get eatin while the gettin's good," he says. "We gotta be outta here before the breakfast crowd appears."

I lift my fork and take a small bite of the eggs. They are fluffy and light. I pick up the bacon. In the old days I would never have eaten with my fingers, especially being so dirty.

But now I am indifferent to the filth. I place a bit of the bacon on my tongue, and leave it there. I swear I'm dreaming.

The young woman brings the chili sauce back. It's green as pea soup. "You OK?" she asks me.

I am about to say that I can't suddenly eat a full breakfast after weeks of what I've been used to. Grey gruel. Slop. Greasy stew.

"You are a wonderful cook," I whisper. "It...it tastes...heavenly."

She looks at me with those dark eyes. Nods. "Glad," she says. And then she disappears through the curtain.

I eat most of the scrambled eggs and all of the bacon. But there isn't time for me to finish the toast. The young woman wraps it in a napkin for me. The potatoes stay behind.

She hands me the toast folded neatly into the napkin. "Thank you," I say. The jailer reaches over and snatches the toast away.

"I'll be takin that if ya don't mind," he says.

Kitty turns to me. "I am...happy you came," she says. And then she nods and stares at me with those large dark eyes. "And I hope the day... goes your way."

As the jailer replaces the handcuffs and leads me outside into the courtyard, a shaft of sunlight shines straight into the window of the restaurant. I glance back. Kitty is standing beside the window staring at me.

Jimmy leads me back to my cell and I am greeted by the smell of the foul pail. After the delightful breakfast odors at Kitty's, the pail's stench is almost unbearable. The pail is full and like always I have to yell at Jimmy to take it away.

A few minutes before nine a.m., the Sheriff is there, and the two of them lead me to the courtroom. Deluria greets me and we take our seats. At nine sharp the judge appears. We stand and the first thing he asks is if I'm "fit to stand trial today."

For a moment I think it's me he wants to hear from. But then Deluria answers. "She is indeed, your honor," he replies.

"Well, good thing, because we need to get on with it," he says.

The jury traipses in and I stare at a motley group of twelve men -- one of them exceedingly plump, and one exceedingly short -- who file slowly into the courtroom. They do not look at me, at least not at first.

But I look at them, and then the worst fear comes over me. How can I possibly get a fair trial from this group? And how is it that these men constitute a jury of my peers? How is it that a jury of my peers has not a single woman?

After some preliminaries, the attorneys approach the bench and ask the judge some questions.

The judge keeps removing his spectacles and wiping them.

After some preliminaries, the attorneys approach the bench and ask the judge some questions. Finally, the attorneys leave the bench and the judge asks the prosecutor and Deluria to make their opening statements.

I hate the fact that Deluria represents me. I tried my best to fire him because he is such a fool and a coward. But that first day in court, the judge infuriated me when he told me I wouldn't be allowed to represent myself.

As the prosecutor launches into his statement, his voice booms. He lays out the crime I am accused of committing. He apologizes that he has to shock the courtroom with the gory details of Antonie's murder.

I've heard it all before. Or should I say, I've read it all before. The story of the murder that my cousin wrote. Practically verbatim, it comes spewing from the prosecutor's mouth.

And then he dabbles in my misdeeds and alleged scandals. My Spanish dancing. The visits to my cousin's hacienda, and the seductive way in which I would I supposedly shave my cousin's face.

He dramatizes his silly speeches by lifting one arm and jabbing his long finger in my direction. I keep looking away.

I sit there, trying not to think about coffee and scrambled eggs and bacon. And praying that Deluria will surprise me and find a way to present the truth of my case to the jury.