An Extra Six Days
A Short Story
By Eugene Stovall
An Extra Six Days
A Short Story
By Eugene Stovall
When a Black man stands up for children, his wife and his own children are penalized by a legal system that is manipulated by a corrupt lawyer
Zack Mitchell knows that he shouldn’t get too excited but he can’t help himself. Art Edzrooni sounded so positive on the telephone. Zack believes that everything is about to fall into place. Throughout their year-long ordeal, Susan had maintained her confidence in her husband. Now her confidence will be rewarded, Zack tells himself. Without Susan’s support, their family wouldn’t have survived. His wife may not have the patience of Job, Zack smiles to himself, but she certainly has the strength of Ruth.
Outside Art Edzrooni’s waterfront office, Zack sees flowers budding and hears the birds chirping. The breeze blowing off the San Francisco bay feels warm and invigorating. It’s a beautiful spring day in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Mediterranean-type climate that makes Oakland a very desirable place to live. And a day like this rekindles Zack’s interest in vacationing on the French Riviera or cruising the Greek Islands. Susan often talked about them taking a Mediterranean vacation. Now it might be possible. Such are Zack’s thoughts on this magical spring day in Oakland California. But when he enters his lawyer’s swank and expensive office suite, Zack refocuses his thoughts on his legal case against the Oakland Public School District. Zack is suing the Oakland schools for the wrongful termination of his employment.
“Hi there, Zack!” Art calls out from behind a stack papers piled high on a conference room table. Art Edzrooni was a former Democratic Party candidate for whom Zack had campaigned. Zack had absolute confidence in Art Edzrooni. He should. The attorney was charging Zack almost his entire life’s savings for representing him ___ nearly forty thousand dollars. “How are you doing?”
“Fine! Fine!” Zack replies, grasping Art’s outstretched hand. “How’s Carole?”
“She’s doing great. Did I tell you that she’s teaching Yoga at a Buddhist Center?” Though already in his mid-seventies, Art recently married Carole Chan, a woman twenty-five years his junior.
“Yes, you mentioned that she was taking the job the last time I saw you,” Zack replied.
Short and squat with a barrel chest, Art Edzrooni is covered with hair ___ below his ears, all over his arms and even popping from under his shirt up onto his neck ___ everywhere except where white hairy wisps fly about his otherwise bald head. Art’s face is masked with a permanent ‘five o’clock’ shadow and his eyebrows are so thick that they form a nearly unbroken line across his face. As hairy as he was, Art might have seemed a
sinister figure if his mouth weren’t frozen in a permanent grin and if his black eyes
weren’t always darting about in cherubic innocence. Art Edzrooni was naturally gregarious. In a profession like law, where there is a great deal of personal interaction, Edzrooni used his personality to get his clients to overlook his lack of legal aptitude ____ or integrity.
Normally they meet at the Alameda County Law Library. But today they meet in a conference room of one of Edzrooni’s former law partners; Edzrooni doesn’t have an office of his own which is why Edzrooni’s friends refer to him as ‘the nomad’; others, who are less charitable, call ‘the mooch.’ Nevertheless Zack considers himself lucky to find a lawyer willing to represent him against the Oakland schools. Even Faith Guiton, his long-time family attorney, had refused to handle his case.
“I can’t get involved in something like this,” Faith snapped at him. “You brought this on yourself. You knew better than to blow the whistle on the superintendent. Now you’ve got to suffer the consequences.” Faith’s husband plans to run for the school board and she can’t afford offending the mayor’s political machine.
Zack got the same message, more or less, from all the other attorneys he approached. Some rejected his case outright; others charged an initial interview fee before they rejected him. The democrats were riding high. Oakland voters had just elected a former governor of California as their mayor and approved a charter amendment giving him total control over all city administration. And, as if this were not enough power for one man, the voters, influenced by corporate campaign contributions from all over the country, gave the mayor the authority to appoint four members to Oakland’s elected school board. By packing the board, the mayor had absolute control over Oakland’s public education and, more importantly, Oakland’s education budget. In an economically depressed community like Oakland, where political patronage determines who works and who doesn’t, no one ___ especially in the legal profession ___ dare offend Oakland’s strong mayor. The mayor had with a well-deserved reputation for vindictiveness that he earned during his overly long public career. So when Zack coaxed Art Edzrooni into accepting his case, he believed he had found that rare attorney willing to fight city hall.
“How’s the family?” Edzrooni asks, settling back into the leather-backed conference chair.
“Susan and the kids are doing well,” Zack replies.
“Is she still working?”
“Yes, she’s still at the mail processing center near the airport.”
“She works for the Post Office?” the attorney asks his voice edged with surprise.
“No,” Zack replies. “The mail center processes billing for several different corporations and then delivers the bulk mailing to the Post Office.”
“I see.” Art’s accent betrays his Armenian heritage. His parents escaped the great Armenian massacre and after the Great War immigrated to America. “Are you still working?”
Zack hesitates. This is not at all what he expected in this meeting. Edzrooni knows my circumstances, Zack tells himself. All this information and more came out in the nearly five days of depositions that the school district attorneys conducted two months ago.
During the depositions, every aspect of Zack Mitchell’s personal and professional life
was examined. Edzrooni took two days to prepare Zack for the questions. After the deposition, he and his lawyer carefully reviewed all twelve hundred pages of transcripts.
“Remember we can correct the record now,” Edzrooni cautioned Zack, “but when we go to trial, it will be too late to change anything. Make certain that you can stand by everything that is in your deposition.” This took another three days. So Zack knows that Edzrooni is familiar with his personal circumstances. Staring at his attorney, Zack says, “Why are you asking these questions? Nothing has changed since I saw you last. I’m still that sixty-one year old sales clerk working at Radio Shack that you’ve been representing these last ten months.”
Edzrooni swivels his chair away from his client to stare out of the conference room’s glass wall providing a view of the law firm’s reception area. The lawyer seems to be wrestling with a decision. Then, swiveling back to look at Zack, he says, “The only reason I’m asking these questions is that, given your economic situation, I think that it would be better for you if I withdraw from the case.”
If Edzrooni had slapped him across the face with some brass knuckles, Zack could not have been more shocked. It takes a minute or two before he can respond.
“Up until now,” Edzrooni says, assuming a professional air, “I have done all I can to keep your costs down, but I can’t continue like this if we go to trial.”
“What do you mean?” Zack says. “You’ve been paid for your work.” A lump rises in Zack’s throat and his stomach is feeling queasy. Zack’s decision to use his retirement savings to fight his termination has been an ongoing source of friction between he and his wife. More than once, Susan calls Zack a fool for throwing good money after bad and risking the loss of their home.
“What about ‘you brought this on yourself’ don’t you understand?” Susan asks him. “Like Faith said, ‘first you ignore the superintendent’s warnings not to interfere and now you think you can beat him and his friend the mayor’. Faith tried to warn you, but you wouldn’t listen.”
“If I don’t stand up for what is right, who will?” Zack replies. “You and everyone else talk about how the schools are failing our children. The Oakland schools are so bad that you even refused to allow Chris and Jasmine attend them. But now, when there is a chance to make things better, you’re intimidated. Don’t you know it’s these same greedy corporations, who bought the election, that are now bent on ripping off the schools?”
“Its those greedy corporations that are calling the shots,” Susan responds. “You must bend with the breeze or you’ll be broken.”
“Do you want to allow the corporations to steal your tax dollars,” Zack asks. From the past two elections, the voters gave the school district $500M and then increased the bond measure by $300M. This treasure trove of $800M attracted corporate salesmen like hogs to slop. So when the superintendent awarded an illegal multi-million dollar no-bid technology contract to a telecom consortium formed to loot the district, Zack took a stand and lost his job. Susan remembered it how Zack’s termination came about.
“The assistant director of purchasing paid me a visit today,” Zack had told her.
“That fellow from Nigeria who wants you to buy computers from his cronies?” Susan asks.
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“What did he want?” Susan sees that Zack is agitated.
“The superintendent doesn’t want his new network proposal to go out for bid.”
“Is that legal?” Susan asks.
“No,” Zack shakes his head, “but even so, the purchasing department is going to handle the superintendent’s request on a no-bid basis, whether I’m there or not.”
“He told you to break the law,” Susan asks, “just like that?”
“Just like that.” Zack assumes an air of indifference ____ as if the threat came from some low level functionary instead of the superintendent of schools.
“Do you think the superintendent actually sent him?” Susan asks. Zack just shrugs.
“What are you going to do?”
“What can I do?” Zack says. “This is not just a case of the superintendent selecting one brand of computer over another for a kickback. The superintendent wants to buy twenty two million dollars worth of equipment that’s going to get stored away just like the thousands of computers and other electronic gear squirreled away in every school in the district. This is bigger than Hawthorne school roof purchase.”
One of Oakland School District’s more blatant scandals was a three hundred thousand dollar no-bid contract for a new roof on Hawthorne school’s main building one month prior to the school’s demolition. No roofer was ever seen at the site. For weeks the district was abuzz with rumors about high-level payoffs, but, in the end, nothing was done.
“The superintendent is planning to buy three ATM network switches,” Zack continues. “Can you believe that, three ATM switches. The entire network for the State of California with its several million telephone lines uses only five ATM switches.”
“I hope you don’t do anything foolish,” Susan advised her husband. But she knows her words were just so much wasted air. Zack doesn’t respond. Susan continues her caution. “The laws protecting ‘whistleblowers’ are seldom enforced.”
“I’m not a whistle blower,” Zack says. “ I’m not going to make any complaints against the superintendent.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to do my job and insist on a public bid,” Zack says. “The law says that all private contractors must be given the opportunity to bid on any purchase over five thousand dollars made by public schools. They don’t dare fire me; else they’d have to justify their no-bid contract in a court of law. Technology Services must take a stand this time. Possibly some other department will take a stand as well. Who knows? We might even start a movement demanding that the kids get the education that they deserve.”
Zack was right. The superintendent did not fire him. The superintendent got the board to eliminate his position. In a way, Susan blames herself. Its God’s way of punishing me for marrying someone who should have been a priest, she tells herself ___ referring to the fact that Zack is an ex-seminarian. But the trace of regret quickly passes when Susan reminds herself that despite his ‘Crusader Rabbit’ mentality, Zack had given her a pretty good life. She recalls when Zack worked three jobs so that she could stay home with the kids. Not until Chris and Jasmine had graduated from high school did Susan consider going back to work. Susan’s supervisory position with the mail distributor at the Port of Oakland paid a living wage. The only drawback was that Susan worked the midnight to eight shift. Now he was sitting in the conference room, listening to the lawyer to whom he had given his entire retirement tell him that he was resigning from the case. Zack steeled himself against the anxiety rising inside.
“I don’t understand why you want to resign,” Zack’s says hoping that betrayal was not the reason.
“I’m just thinking of you ___ and your family,” Art replies. His voice which normally crackles with joviality, is now hushed and his words come out in a stage whisper, as if Edzrooni is afraid of being overheard. “I’m not leaving you stranded. I’ll prepare everything that you need to present to the court. But if you appear in court representing yourself, you will save a bundle in attorney’s fees. The school’s attorneys know that you have a strong case; they can’t beat you in court. They’re going to try to make you waste your money. I’m just trying to look ahead.” Etzrooni’s eyes widen in innocence. “Trust me,” he says.
Zack decides to trust Edzrooni ___ at least for now. What choice does he have? Edzrooni’s logic seems reasonable. The lawsuit has been costly, far more than what Edzrooni originally estimated. With the approaching trial, these fees cannot help but escalate. Zack agrees to accept this new strategy. In the long run, Zack told himself, Edzrooni’s proposal might save him some money and he could still prevail in court. And, goodness knows, Zack needs the money. He had two kids in college, the roof needed fixing and the water heater needed replacing. And he begins to wonder what it will be like to represent, himself in court.
Two months passes since Edzrooni’s withdrawal. Now summer breezes blow hot and humid off of the San Francisco bay. On the other side of the Oakland hills, temperatures in the suburbs reach the century mark. Today Zack squeezes his jalopy through the Caldecott Tunnel traffic down the winding freeway into Walnut Creek’s hundred-degree heat. Zack was bound for the law offices of Jeffery Gruenfeld.
“If you want me to represent you in court tomorrow, I must see you this
afternoon,” Jeff Gruenfeld’s message said. “Have my secretary schedule a meeting for two o’clock.”
Zack is late. It’s already one forty-five and the drive from Oakland to Walnut Creek takes a half hour. But it can’t be helped. His attorney left the message at ten o’clock that morning and his store manager keeps Zack on the floor until the other two Radio Shack clerks return from lunch.
After Edzrooni prepared Zack’s court documents, he had cut off all further communication returning few of Zack’s telephone calls and refusing to meet with him, at all. Even when Zack needs Edzrooni to review a court summons, the attorney refuses and Zack must answer the court summons alone.
“In the matter of Mitchell v. Oakland Schools, has the plaintiff arrived yet?” the Judge bawls out into the microphone.
“Yes, Your Honor,” Zack replies rising from his seat.
“And you are?” the judge asks.
“I am the plaintiff, Zack Mitchell.”
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell,” the judge says reviewing a file handed to him by the court
clerk, “I see that you have discharged your attorney, Arthur Edzrooni, without prejudice, and are representing yourself. Is that correct, sir?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Have you any legal experience or training, Mr. Mitchell?”
“No, Your Honor.”
“Well, even though this court tries to be tolerant with those plaintiffs who represent themselves, we will not tolerate any disrespect. And, in this court, arriving late is a sign of disrespect. Is that clear Mr. Mitchell?”
“Yes Your Honor,” Zack stammers. Zack decides not to mention that the change in court location caused Zack to be late.
“Now Mr. Mitchell, do you know why we are here today?”
“I believe so, Your Honor,” Zack replies.
“I do not believe you do, Mr. Mitchell,” the judge replies. “If you did, you would realize that your attorney did you no favor by withdrawing from this case.” Staring at the plaintiff, the judge allows Zack to absorb the full import of his words before continuing. “Mr. Mitchell, the defendant is asking for an immediate ruling. But I am putting this matter over for a month to give you time to find competent legal representation. I
suggest that you use this time wisely. So Ordered!” With that the judge slams down his gavel.
Zack does not think of himself as a stupid person. Not only has he received his undergraduate degree in public administration with honors from the University of California, he has a solid twenty years of technology experience with the Air Force and the telecommunications giant, AT&T. When the Oakland schools recruited him, Zack was told, “We need someone with your background to bring this district’s technology systems into the twenty-first century. You’ll have the support of the school board as well as the superintendent’s office.”
With the approval of the board and the superintendent, Zack upgrades the schools’ technology infrastructure, revamps the network and saves the schools a million dollars in annual telephone usage charges. Under Zack‘s administration, the technology services department enhances support for teachers and administrators. Zack’s transformation of the district’s technology networks gives him a reputation as an innovator and brings him frequent speaking requests. Zack testifies before California’s Public Utility Commission and comments on the need for technology support in public education before the Federal Communications Commission in Washington DC.. French television sends a crew to film a special program on Zack’s innovations at Oakland’s schools. Six years, two new superintendents and a school board packed with cronies of Oakland’s strong mayor, later, technology services is no longer a tool for educational achievement, rather it becomes a ‘barrel’ where corporate giants grab their share of ‘pork’.
Though Zack Mitchell is not stupid, even at sixty-one, he is still incredibly naïve. Zack believes that publicly exposing the theft of millions, will mean that the guilty will be punished and he will receive the heartfelt appreciation of Oakland’s taxpayers. His hubris and his failure to heed his wife’s advice costs Zack his life savings. The judge’s stern advice is like a roulette table operator’s warning, “No more bets!” and then the little white ball falls into the double zero slot. The house wins! Zack should have known that the house always wins and gambling with his family’s future was dumb. Zack took the judge’s advice and, contracting with a pre-paid legal service, secured the services of Jeffery Gruenfeld, attorney at law.
“Well, Mr. Mitchell,” Jeffery Gruenfeld, says at their initial meeting, “it seems that you’ve made quite a mess of things and now you want me to pull your chestnuts out of the fire.” Zack notes a picture of Ed Meese, the former United States attorney general under Ronald Reagan, hanging on the lawyer’s wall. Jeffery Gruenfeld resembles Ted Kennedy with his square jaw and broad, intelligent forehead. In his mid-thirties, the young attorney, exuding the attitude of someone who plans to get to the top and is in a hurry to get there, adopts a no-nonsense attitude, but listens attentively as Zack pours out his story.
“I know that it looks bad, but I’d appreciate whatever you can do for me,” Zack says, in conclusion.
“Have you brought all your files?” The lawyer asks. He ruffles through Zack’s folder of original court filings. “There’s not very much here.”
“I have two boxes of documents in the car,” Zack says.
“Good!” Gruenfeld replies. “If I decide to take you’re your case, it will save time if all your documents available.” The attorney fiddles with a letter opener on his desk and looks out the sliding glass door opening onto a patio. After a couple of minutes, Gruenfeld swivels his leather chair back to face Zack.
“It will cost you three thousand dollars for me to look at your case and then I’ll let you know where we go from there.”
“Okay,” Zack agrees.
“You can pay my secretary when you bring in the rest of your files.” With that the
attorney dismisses Zack with a wave and picks of his telephone.
This morning is the first time Zack has heard from Jeff Gruenfeld since their initial meeting.
“Ah, Mr. Mitchell, ” Gruenfeld greets Zack when he enters the lawyer’s office. “I’m please that you could make it.” The attorney searches through the files in a basket on his desk. “I think I have good news for you.”
“You have!” Zack responds with a combination of excitement and relief.
“Yes, indeed,” the young attorney says. “The school’s attorneys planned to kill off your suit in the hearing tomorrow. They petitioned the judge to have you show cause.
At which point the judge has the discretion to dismiss your suit without comment.”
“So have I provided you enough evidence to prove that my suit has merit?” Zack asks.
“Actually no you haven’t,” the young attorney smiles. “But, like most cases, you will prevail in court not because of the merits of your case but because of a technicality.”
“A technicality?” Zack holds his breath. “What kind of technicality?”
“You see, Mr. Mitchell,” Gruenfeld beams, “opposing counsel can request the judge to find that your case lacks merit, but they only have 90 days to file their motion.”
“And?” Zack replies.
“The school’s counsel took 96 days to file their motion,” Jeff Gruenfeld laughs. “They filed six days too late for the judge to dismiss your suit.”
“Does this mean that they will have to go to trial?” Zack asks.
“From what I have seen of your documents, there will be no trial,” Gruenfeld replies. “The schools will not want your information discussed in open court.”
“So what happens now?”
“They’ll make you some kind of deal,” Gruenfeld says. “And from all that you’ve given me, it will be a pretty good one ___ several hundred thousand at least.”
“Plus attorney’s fees?”
“Plus attorney’s fees.”
On the drive home, Zack thinks only about when and how to break the news to Susan. At first he decides to tell her not to go to work and they will just stay home and enjoy themselves. But then, remembering the difficulties of the past two years, Zack resolves that a celebration is more in order. Chez Panisse! That’s where we’ll go, Zack decides. Chez Panisse of Berkeley is an upscale restaurant with a reputation for good-tasting, organically and locally grown food. I’ll make reservations for their next open date. Susan will like that. Then, over dinner, we’ll plan where to go for a vacation. It’ll be like a second honeymoon.
Zack and Susan never even had a first honeymoon. They had planned one, but he was in the middle of the big project on his job that meant a promotion. Then one thing led to another, first came the kids and the house and then Susan got cancer, then her father came to live with them after her mother died. Their planned honeymoon continued getting pushed down to the bottom of an ever-growing list of life’s priorities. But after tomorrow everything will change, Zack muses driving back through the Caldecott Tunnel. After tomorrow, we can reclaim our lives.
“What’s the occasion? Susan asks. “Aren’t you going to work.”
Normally, Zack leaves for work before Susan gets home. Finding him still at home disconcerts her. Zack sees the little lines that tug at the side of Susan’s mouth when she starts to worry.
“You didn’t quit your job did you,” she asks. “I know how unhappy you’ve been at Radio Shack and ___.”
“No!” Zack smiles. “Don’t worry; I haven’t quit my job ___ at least not yet.” His
brown eyes twinkle and it’s all he can do to keep from blurting out the good news.
“Then what is it?” Susan asks. “Where are the kids?”
“They both had morning classes,” Zack replies. “And neither of them are coming home tonight,” he adds.
“Why?” Susan frowns. “What’s going on?”
“Chris says that he’s staying in San Francisco tonight so that he doesn’t have to get up so early tomorrow.” On Saturdays and Sundays, their son, Chris, works at a shoe boutique in Palo Alto’s Stanford Shopping Center and likes to stay in the dorms with friends over weekends so that he doesn’t have to come back across the bay.
“Chris is just using his job as an excuse to stay out,” Susan says. “What about Jasmine?”
“She’s spending the night with a friend,” Zack says.
“What friend?” Susan asks. “This is the second night this week she’s stayed out. I wish you would have a talk with her.”
“You sound tired,” Zack replies, ignoring his wife’s concerns. Like Susan, Zack worries about his daughter, but what can he do? Jasmine was so quiet and studious in high school. Now, in her first year of college, his daughter lacks all interest in her studies. All she talks about is boys. Ever since Susan started working, their family seems to be disintegrating. What was their dream home is now just a place where the kids keep their clothes, take showers and eat. But Zack tells himself, All this will sort itself out once
Susan quits her job. Escorting Susan to the kitchen table, he says, “Look, I’ve fixed
you some breakfast before I leave for work.”
“That’s sweet of you,” Susan says, sitting down to the kitchen table. But after a couple of sips of her peppermint tea, she starts to nod.
“I see that you’re ready to jump in the bed,” Zack says. “Rough night?”
“We had a special mailing, a rush job,” Susan yawns. “When I left work, the day shift was still trying to get it out. Some of my crew stayed for the overtime, but all I wanted to do was to come home and get in bed.”
“Then that’s what you should do,” Zack says. “And I’d better get out of here before I’m late.”
“Okay, honey,” Susan says as Zack reaches over and gives her a kiss.
Jeffery Gruenfeld is making the court appearance on Zack’s behalf. The hearing is set for ten o’clock and his attorney promises to call Zack as soon as he leaves the courthouse. All morning, Zack tries to control his nerves. The store manager and his fellow workers notice that Zack seems distracted. Though Radio Shack employees are paid a commission, Zack punches the other clerks’ sales code on all of his sales. No one says anything. Time drags. Zack is glad that he didn’t tell Susan about hearing. She needed her rest, Zack decides. He knows that, had she known about the extra six days that the school attorneys took to file their motion, his wife would have been calling him every five minutes to find out the outcome of the court hearing.
Eleven o’clock passes and then its twelve noon. Still no call from Gruenfeld. Zack remains calm; he is convinced that, in the end, everything will turn out, as it should. It’s
after one o’clock, when Jeff Gruenfeld finally calls. “I’m afraid that I have some bad
news for you Mr. Mitchell.”
Zack feels his heart in his throat. “Yes,” he manages to stammer while trying to remain as calm as possible.
“I can tell you now, but I would prefer that you come into the office so that we can discuss how to handle this matter.”
“Can’t you just tell me what happened and then I will make an appointment to discuss it in person?”
“Yes, I suppose that would be best,“ the attorney admits. Zack clears his throat but says nothing waiting for the shoe to fall. “You remember that the school district’s attorneys exceeded the time allowed for them to file this motion?” Gruenfeld says.
“Yes,” Zack responds.
“Well the judge accepted their motion.”
“Why did he do that?” Zack asks.
“Your attorney, Art Edzrooni, granted them an extra six days to file it.”
In their next meeting, Jeff Gruenfeld explains that he won a continuance from the judge and directs his para-legal to assist with Zack’s defense against the school district’s motion. The attorney and Zack agree that Zack should continue to represent himself.
“Preparation for your hearing will be costly enough without the additional attorney’s fee for my appearance,” Gruenfeld says. Both the attorney and client know that they are just going through the motions. In his final court appearance, the judge dismisses Zack’s suit against the Oakland schools as lacking merit.
Six months later, the State of California appoints a trustee to take control of the Oakland schools. The state trustee discharges the district’s top administrators including its superintendent.