The Disposition, the Estonian Girl, the Trainee Woodchuck, and the Smoke
The young fellow, Tim’s Molly’s boyfriend, so Cola said, spotted the lawyer right from the beginning, from before he let on that he had. He spotted him, he knew him, and he had a plan. He was playing the lawyer, he was smoking him, from the start, Cola said. He was smoking him, and the foreign girl, there, was helping him.
Stan doubted it. He didn’t think Leo, the young fellow, was much of a planner. And anyway:
“Ex-boyfriend,” said Stan.
“Say what?” Cola asked him.
“He’s her ex, Molly’s.”
“He is, now.”
“Is that right? Got his walking papers, did he?” asked Cola.
“Oh, yes,” said Stan. “That Molly’s going places, wouldn’t you say?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
“Going places,” said Stan. “What’s she want with somebody like Leo? What’s she want with a . . . what? A trainee woodchuck. You know?”
“What do you mean, a trainee woodchuck?” Cola asked him.
“You know,” said Stan. “A trainee . . . woodchuck. A baby. A plebe.”
“Leo’s all right.”
“Did I say he wasn’t?”
“Ask me if he ain’t all right,” said Cola. “Ask Elspeth. God, yes, he’s all right.”
“Elspeth?” said Stan. “Oh, that’s right, too: somebody said you’re off the hook.”
“I am,” said Cola.
“We both are,” said Cola. “Mr. Gentry came down right.”
“He had good advice,” I said.
“We can thank Leo for that,” said Cola.
“Well, but, with Molly, though,” said Stan. “It’s just, it’s just Molly’s still looking. Tim says. She’s looking to move up, though, not sideways. She wanted Leo to go back down to Boston with her, find something down there, like she did. He wouldn’t go.”
“No,” said Cola. “Kid don’t have the drive.”
“He don’t have the brains,” said Stan. “I never did see quite how he and Molly went together. Going places, like she is? I didn’t see it. Neither did Tim. What’s the appeal?”
“The appeal of Leo?” said Cola.
“What’s the appeal? What’s he got? For Molly?”
“Well, he ain’t a bad-looking kid.”
“Not that good-looking, though,” said Stan. “That’s not it. And he ain’t rich.”
“How do you know he ain’t?”
“He’s working for you.”
“Maybe it’s like a hobby for him.”
“A hobby grease monkey?” Stan asked. “A gentleman oil-changer? Believe that?” he asked me.
“Probably not,” I said.
“Where is Leo, anyway?” Stan asked.
“Off,” said Cola. “He’s got Friday off.”
“Is this Friday?”
“I hope so,” said Cola. “And so, if he ain’t handsome, and he ain’t rich, then it must be he’s dynamite in the rack. You think?”
“Don’t know,” said Stan. “I didn’t like to ask Tim about that part. His daughter, and all.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t,” said Cola. “I don’t know, though,” he went on. “You say he’s so dumb, but he played that lawyer. At that thing here, that time, my disposition. He smoked that lawyer. He had the brains for that.”
“My disposition,” said Cola. “He smoked him that time.”
“He didn’t smoke him,” Stan said.
“He did so smoke him,” said Cola. “I was there.”
“So was I,” I said.
“Well, then, did he smoke him?” Stan asked me.
“He might have,” I said.
“Kid’s a moron, ” said Stan. “Near enough. If he aced that lawyer, it’s because he lucked out.”
“We all did, then,” said Cola.
Cola is a nice old guy. He knows how to do a valve job. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to run his garage so it breaks even. He is limited. He is not versatile. He can’t pivot to face what’s coming at him from the off side. For example, the law. Cola didn’t know how to be a defendant. You hire your own lawyer, then you shut up and wait. Cola wouldn’t.
Stan told him to get a lawyer. Tim told him to. I told him to. Cola thought about it, he said, but, “You know what that guy gets an hour?” he asked. “Hundred and ten bucks. And miles. And phone calls. He won’t even make a goddamned phone call for you: it all goes on the ticket. I thought I put it to everybody pretty good for fixing cars. I had no idea.”
“So what?” Stan asked him. “You don’t pay him. Your insurance company does. You’ve got insurance for that, don’t you?”
“Well, not exactly,” said Cola.
“Oh, no,” said Stan.
“You know what one of those policies costs?” Cola asked him.
Cola doesn’t make the garage break even by spending money. He is cheap. So when he got served by Mr. Gentry’s Brattleboro lawyer, Cola said,“Fuck him. I’ll be my own lawyer.”
“Oh, no,” said Stan.
And then a little later, when the Brattleboro lawyer advised him he’d be getting a visit from a member of a New York firm that Gentry had brought in, Cola said, “Fuck him, too. Fuck the both of them.”
“Oh, no,” said Stan.
Leo had been working at Cola’s for a year at that time. He wasn’t a mechanic, but he could do an oil change, fix a flat, drive the wrecker. Cola and I could hear him in the back banging away on something with a hammer, making an awful racket, when there pulled up in front of Cola’s a silver Mercedes with New York tags and three riders: a man and a young woman in front, the man driving, and a second man in back. They parked in front of the bay doors.
“Here we go,” said Cola.
The two men got out of the car. They both wore dark suits, and the one driving had on a long trench coat with a belt that he had buckled behind his back as though he thought he was somebody in an old movie. They shut their doors. The young woman stayed in the car. She had blonde hair, and Cola and I watched through the window as she fluffed her hair with her hand, rearranged herself in her seat, and lit a cigarette.
The two men advanced on the garage, the driver in the lead. His trench coat flared and flapped around his ankles as he walked.
“The one’s Gentry’s lawyer from Bratt,” said Cola.
“The one without the army coat,” said Cola. “You don’t have to stay, you know,” he went on. “There’s no need. Go on ahead.”
“I’ll stick around,” I said. “I like lawyers.”
Cola snorted. “Me, too,” he said.
In Cola’s office the lawyer from Brattleboro shook hands with Cola and introduced his friend as Mr. Thompson or Thomas—or some such—from New York, who was acting for Mr. Gentry, their client, the plaintiff. The trench-coat lawyer shook Cola’s hand. He looked around the office, then went to Cola’s desk, dusted Cola’s chair off with his coattail, and sat himself down. He opened a leather briefcase and took out a file folder. He started paging through the papers in the folder. Cola and me and the other lawyer he ignored while you might have counted to fifty. He laid out his papers on Cola’s desk. Cola watched him.
“We got a pot of coffee going,” said Cola. “Anybody want coffee?”
“Thanks,” said the Brattleboro lawyer, but the other one, the trench-coat lawyer, frowned and shook his head. He snapped shut his case and set it on the floor beside his chair.
“No coffee,” he said. “No coffee, no cookies. No cakes. This is not a social call, Mr. Prentiss. Do you understand that?”
“Sure,” said Cola.
“Do you know what it is?”
“Sure,” said Cola.
“What is it, then?”
“It’s a what-do-you-call-it,” said Cola. “A disposition.”
“Deposition,” said the Brattleboro lawyer.
“Deposition,” said the trench-coat lawyer. “It’s where we take your statement of the facts in the matter of Milton Gentry.”
“Deposition,” said Cola.
“In the matter of my client, Milton Gentry,” said the trench-coat lawyer, “and the Robinson lot—”
“It ain’t the Robinson lot anymore,” Cola interrupted. “It’s Elspeth’s. It’s her home.”
“My client,” the trench-coat lawyer went on, “and the Robinson lot, and certain intemperate remarks alleged to have been made by you.”
“It’s her home,” Cola said again.
Trench Coat gave him a thin smile. “We’ll see about that,” he said.
“We will,” said Cola. “Sure you won’t have coffee?”
Trench Coat looked at him. He shook his head.
“You won’t mind if we have a cup, though, will you?” asked Cola. He nodded at me.
The trench-coat lawyer seemed to see me for the first time. “You are?” he asked.
“He’s just stopping by,” said Cola.
“Are you advising Mr. Prentiss?” Trench Coat asked me.
“Never,” I said.
“Mr. Prentiss is acting pro se,” said the Brattleboro lawyer.
“Is that right?” Trench Coat asked Cola. “Are you acting pro se?”
“What’s pro se?” asked Cola.
“You represent yourself,” said the Brattleboro lawyer. “You don’t have an attorney.”
“I guess that’s right, then,” said Cola.
“It’s not a good idea,” the Brattleboro lawyer said. “For several reasons—”
But Trench Coat cut him off. “All right, Bill, it’s Mr. Prentiss’s right to act for himself. He’s an adult, isn’t he? He’s a citizen, isn’t he? Of course he is. We have no problem.” To Cola he said, “Go get your coffee.”
“Much obliged,” said Cola. He went to the coffeepot. The Brattleboro lawyer took a seat near the door, and his partner went back to his papers. I wandered over to the office window and looked out over the front lot.
Leo was out there talking to the young woman who had been left by the lawyers to wait in the car. Seeing him out front, I realized we hadn’t heard him pounding in the back for a little while. Leo had knocked off. He’d laid down his hammer and taken a break. It wasn’t hard to see why.
“I heard she was something,” said Stan.
“I’d say so,” said Cola.
“I heard she was wearing, like, a see-through,” said Stan.
“She was not,” said Cola.
“She didn’t need to,” I said.
“Listen to him,” said Stan.
“Must be he’s in love,” said Cola.
“Not me,” I said. “That would be Leo.”
The young woman had gotten out of the car and stood leaning back against it, talking to Leo. From where I was, she looked to be, say, twenty, tall, with short hair of that very pale blonde, almost white color, almost the color of straw, that you don’t see often—or I don’t. She wore a short, light summer dress that left bare her knees, her arms, and her shoulders. Seen through a dirty plate glass window and across thirty feet of gravel yard, as I was watching her, she looked like the cure for cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, gout, old age, and every other painful thing; Leo, right in front of her, must have been getting the full benefit. I wondered how he kept on his legs. He did, though. He and the girl were getting on like a brushfire. Leo said something, and she laughed. She was holding a fresh cigarette, and I watched as Leo lit a match for her and she put her hand on his to help him light it. Leo said something else. She threw back her head and laughed some more.
“Your statement,” the trench-coat lawyer was saying to Cola. “Your statement is that you were acting on the part of Elspeth Taft.”
“I don’t know on the part,” said Cola. “I was helping her.”
“You were helping her. Elspeth Taft is a friend of yours?”
“She’s my aunt. Great aunt, I guess she is.”
“You were helping her, why?”
“She’s old. She don’t know how to work something like this.”
“This, meaning the property in dispute,” said Trench Coat.
“Elspeth’s place,” said Cola.
“The Robinson lot. The disputed property.”
“There’s no dispute.”
“My client thinks there is.”
“You mean Gentry?” said Cola. “Yes, he does. That’s why I’m helping Elspeth. That’s her home.”
“Sure. She can prove it is.”
Trench Coat chuckled at that. He shook his head. He picked up one of the papers spread before him on Cola’s desk, held it by a corner, and looked up and down it with distaste, as though it were a dirty photo. “There’s no will,” he said. “There are no instructions. There is a tax lien. There is a bank lien. You say it’s her home. You say she can prove it’s her home. No. Prove it is exactly what she can’t do, Mr. Prentiss. If she could, we wouldn’t be here. Would we?”
I turned back to the window. Leo and the lawyer’s girl were still flirting away like fury out in front. She put her hand on his arm for a second and leaned a little toward him, smiling, to tell him something. Leo laughed.
“It’s her home,” Cola was saying.
“And she’s had an offer of good and sufficient consideration concerning it,” said Trench Coat. He looked over another of the papers on Cola’s desk. “More than good and sufficient consideration,” he said.
“The hell she has,” said Cola.
“You mean you don’t think so.”
Cola shrugged. “Nobody does,” he said. “Except Gentry. It’s her home.”
“And our position is that it’s not,” said Trench Coat. “That’s neither here nor there for us today, however. This isn’t a case about property today, is it?”
“What is it, then?” Cola asked him.
“It’s a libel case,” said Trench Coat.
I looked back out the window again. Leo and the girl weren’t there. They must have gone into the bay where Leo had been working. Probably he was showing her his hammer. Leo moved pretty fast, it looked like. I wouldn’t have thought it of him. Leo’s a nice enough young fellow, but he’s nobody’s idea of your stud horse. He’s a little wide-eyed, a little bit of a gosh-golly-gee-whiz kind of guy. Cola finally had to take Leo off the wrecker because he kept on forgetting to charge for tows. Some people think Leo’s a bit slow.
He wasn’t from the valley. He wasn’t from the state at all.
“What’s he doing up here, anyway?” Stan asked.
“Came along with Molly, one time, didn’t he?” Cola said.
“How does he know her?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Cola. “School? College?”
“College?” said Stan. “Leo?”
“Why not?” Cola asked him. Stan shook his head.
“Leo’s from New York, somewhere,” said Cola.
“New York City?” said Stan. “Leo?”
“Not the city. Somewhere in the suburbs. I don’t know. He said. Belmont?”
“That’s Boston,” I said.
“Some name like that, though,” said Cola.
“How do you know that?” Stan asked him.
“Well, that’s what he said. At the disposition. Ain’t it?” Cola asked me.
“That’s right,” I said.
I left the window and took a seat next to Cola. He and the trench-coat lawyer were getting down to it now. The lawyer must have decided he’d done what was needed to show Cola how badly overmatched he was here. Now he’d about scared Cola to death, it was time to put him out of his misery and wind the business up.
“Did you call Milton Gentry a crook?” Trench Coat asked Cola.
“I don’t recall that,” said Cola. “I called him a goddamned thief. I recall that.”
“You admit to calling my client a thief,” said Trench Coat.
“Sure,” said Cola. “That’s what he is.”
Trench Coat took out a paper from the file and read it over. “Those were your words,” he said.
“A goddamned thief,” said Trench Coat. “Those were the words you used.”
“That’s what I just told you.”
“How many times?” Trench Coat asked Cola.
“How many times, what?”
“How many times did you call Mr. Gentry a goddamned thief?”
“I don’t know.” Cola turned to me. “I called him one to you, didn’t I?”
“More than once,” I said.
“Say ten, twenty times,” said Cola to Trench Coat.
“Ten or twenty times,” said Trench Coat. He said it as though the necessity for saying it filled him with regret. “Do you know what a libel is, in the law, Mr. Prentiss?” he asked Cola, and Cola had opened his mouth to answer him when the door to the work bays swung open, and in came Leo, leading the girl by the hand, and saying, “Hey, hi, everybody. This is Tatiana. She’s from Estonia.”
The four of us looked at them. Trench Coat wasn’t happy at their arrival. “Goddamn it,” he said to the girl. “I told you to wait in the car.”
The girl, smiling, shook her head. “Comment?” she said.
“Didn’t I tell her to wait in the car?” Trench Coat asked the Brattleboro lawyer.
“She probably didn’t understand,” said the other. He was looking at the girl. “You say she doesn’t speak English.”
Trench Coat pointed to the outside door. He raised his voice. “Wait in the car,” he told the girl. “Outside. In the car. The automobile. Go.”
Trench Coat didn’t like this. It was killing his moment. He was going to have to start all over again scaring Cola to death. Trench Coat didn’t like this. No, he did not. But he was going to like what was about to happen even less. Leo had been looking closely at Trench Coat during the little fight with the girl, and now he stepped toward the lawyer and held out his hand.
“Oh, hey. Hi, Mr. Tombaugh,” said Leo. “How are you doing, Mr. Tombaugh? You know me? Sure, you do. It’s Leo. Leo Mason, from Bedford?”
Trench Coat ignored Leo’s hand. “Who?” he said.
“Leo Mason. Ted and Patty’s son. You know. Gunstock Road? Boy, it’s great to see you, Mr. Tombaugh. Boy, what a surprise, you know? To see you up here? Wow.”
While Leo went on, Trench Coat stared at him. He looked from Leo to the girl and back to Leo. He swallowed hard. Trench Coat was turning colors like a shop window at Christmas: red, white, green.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Hello.”
“Yeah, great,” said Leo. “Great. Wow. How’s Mrs. Tombaugh? How’s Courtney? How’s—I forget your son’s name?”
“Winston,” said Trench Coat.
“How are they?” Leo demanded.
“Fine,” said Trench Coat. “They’re fine.”
“What a surprise, you know?”
“Yes,” said Trench Coat.
“I’m up here, now,” said Leo. “I’m living up here.”
“Yes,” said Trench Coat.
“Boy, will my mom and dad be surprised when I tell them I saw you,” said Leo.
“Yes,” said Trench Coat.
“You and Tatiana,” said Leo.
Trench Coat got to his feet. He pointed to Leo. “Come with me,” he said, and started toward the door. His partner stood and got ready to follow them, but Trench Coat stopped him.
“Wait here, Bill,” he said. “We need a word.” He beckoned to Leo.
“Sure, Mr. Tombaugh,” said Leo. “Whatever you say.” He and the lawyer left by the outside door.
Cola, the Brattleboro lawyer, the blonde girl, and I waited together. “You want a cup of coffee?” Cola asked the girl. He pointed to the pot. “Coffee?” he asked her again.
“Yes, if you please,” said the girl. She had an accent, but what kind you couldn’t tell.
“I thought you didn’t speak English,” Cola said as he poured her coffee.
The girl smiled. She raised her right hand with the thumb and forefinger held an inch apart. “A very tiny little,” she said.
“But enough,” said the Brattleboro lawyer.
“Enough?” Cola asked him.
“More than enough, I’d say,” said the lawyer. “I’ll have some coffee, too, now, if there’s any left.”
“Plenty,” said Cola.
“Where is he today?” Stan asked Cola.
“I told you,” said Cola. “He’s off, Fridays.”
“Probably getting it on with that blondie,” said Stan. “I heard she was something.”
“She’s long gone,” said Cola. “By this time probably all the way back to—where?” he asked me.
“You mean Estonia?” I said.
“Back to Estonia,” said Cola.
“I forget where that is,” said Stan.
“It’s like Russia,” said Cola. “U.S.S.R. went down the tubes, and now they’re all businessmen. Now they’re all for making money. They come over here and peddle their ass. It’s free enterprise, ain’t it?”
“I don’t know,” said Stan. “What I heard, that one didn’t look like she’d be free.”
“Not to you, anyway,” said Cola.
“I know it,” said Stan. “I couldn’t do the sticker on a rig like that.”
“You ain’t a lawyer,” said Cola. “The ladies from Estonia specialize in lawyers. Everybody knows that. You want that action, you should be a lawyer.”
“We all should,” said Stan.
“The Brattleboro man wasn’t so bad,” I said.
“No,” said Cola. “But I’d lose him if I could lose his friend.”
The trench-coat lawyer came back into Cola’s office, alone. He went to Cola’s desk, picked up the files and papers he’d laid out there, and started shoving them into his leather case.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Move.”
The blonde girl started for the door. The lawyer from Brattleboro set his coffee cup on the floor, and stood.
“What the hell is the matter with you people up here?” Trench Coat asked him. He waved one of the papers he was putting into his case. “This thing is a fucking train wreck. A fucking chimp could win this thing. You’re wasting my time here.”
“I’m not wasting anything,” said the Brattleboro lawyer. “You’re the one who wanted to drive up yourself.”
Trench Coat snapped his case shut. He came around Cola’s desk on his way to the door.
“You remember,” said the Brattleboro lawyer. “You wanted to drive up. From New York. Take the weekend. With your young friend.”
Trench Coat reached the door ahead of the girl. He turned and glared at Cola. “This isn’t over,” he said. “Don’t think this is over.” He went out the door. The Brattleboro lawyer held the door for the girl and let her go ahead of him. Going out the door after them, he looked back at Cola. He winked.
Cola and I went to the window. We watched the two men and the girl get into their Mercedes, start up, and drive away. No sign of Leo, but in a minute we began to hear him hammering away in the bays, louder than before.
“What in the world is he doing back there?” I asked Cola.
“I couldn’t say. Working on a rim? Don’t know.”
“What a racket. Can’t you get him to lay off?”
“Not me,” said Cola. “Not today. Today, he does what he wants.”
Stan refused to believe that Leo had made a plan to smoke the New York lawyer.
“No,” said Stan. “He knew the lawyer from wherever it is they both come from, knew his wife, knew his family, he said hello, and the lawyer saw what it was—with the twenty-year-old girlfriend along for the ride. Who is she? Who does he say she is? He can’t quite say she’s his secretary, can he? Her not speaking English like she doesn’t? Lawyer saw where he was, looked at the downside, and took himself out.”
“Wrong,” said Cola. “Leo smoked him. He and the girl worked it.”
“Or, what might have happened,” said Stan. “You say the lawyer and Leo stepped outside and had a word?”
“That’s right,” said Cola.
“Okay, then. They’re outside. They’re alone. Leo offers to beat the shit out of the guy unless he gives up on you and Elspeth and goes home. That, he might have done.”
“It don’t sound like Leo,” said Cola. “Does it to you?” he asked me.
“It doesn’t,” I said.
“Well, what did he have in mind, then?” Stan asked.
“We’ll never know,” said Cola.
“Why won’t we?” I asked him. “Put it to Leo.”
“He ain’t here,” said Cola.
“Well, when he is,” said Stan.
“I don’t think so,” said Cola. “What do I care? What does it matter? Leo’s all right. I might even give him a raise—not too much. Keep him happy as a . . . what did you call it, just now?” he asked Stan.
“What did I call what?”
“A trainee woodchuck,” I said.
“Just keep him happy as a trainee woodchuck,” Cola said.
“That won’t work forever, though,” I said.
“Why won’t it?” asked Cola.
“Well,” I said. “He’ll be moving on, someday.”
“Chasing that Molly, you mean?” Stan said. “Good luck to him on that. Molly’s going places. Tim said that—”
“Chasing somebody, anyway,” I said.
“I hope you’re wrong,” said Cola. “Leo takes off, what am I supposed to do next time I have to have a dispossession?”
“Disposition,” said Stan.
“Deposition,” I said.
“Deposition,” said Cola.