She was my first real client. In her late sixties, she stood about six feet tall and was dressed in work pants and a work shirt. On her large feet, she wore polished leather work boots. I remember her hands were big and powerful. Her face was deeply tanned. Her hair was short. Her eyes were deep blue and, even indoors, she squinted as if she spent most of her time in the sun. Well-spoken, she had an aura of quiet authority befitting an owner of several irrigated farms.
After the Clerk of the local court had called to say that I had been appointed to represent the woman before the Dawson County Mental Health Board, I took a quick look at the statutes. The County Attorney would have to establish that she was a danger to herself or others before the Board could commit her to the Hastings Regional Center. I walked briskly over to the Sheriff’s office to confer with the woman. The time was short, I had only an hour or so to prepare.
I interviewed her in the Sheriff’s inner office. She sat at an oak table and I sat across from her. On the wall of his office, the Sheriff, Big John, had a peg board on which he displayed knives, guns and other tools of mayhem that he had come across in his work. That made me slightly nervous, but Big John told me my client was nice woman.
She was clearly oriented to time, place and person. I asked her why they picked her up. She told me that she had been married for the first time several years back to a much older man who was in his 80s. His son did not like her, and the man kidnapped her husband and took the old man to the son’s home. While it was true that she had parked a hatchet in the front door of the son’s home when they refused to let her in, she did so only to get their attention and then only to rescue her beloved husband.
The story was strange, but not crazy. I told her to leave it to me. We went into the hearing room–actually a conference room with another big oak table where the Board sat. The County Attorney was there, with the son. The Board consisted of a lawyer, a doctor, and the Clerk. After I told the Board that we contested the State’s request to commit, the hearing began. I made sure the woman had a legal pad and a pen to write me notes.
After the County Attorney got done, I was pretty hopeful. The son told a story that pretty much matched the story of my client. It was my turn to ask questions. After I had asked a few warm-ups, the woman began to get agitated. She whispered to me, “Ask him about the birthday chicken.” I ignored the suggestion. Then, out loud, and insistently, she ordered: “He stole my birthday chicken. Ask him about my birthday chicken!” And, so I did.
It was summer. Hot, very hot. You simply don’t know heat until you experience high plains heat. The son said he worried for his father. The woman and the old man liked to drive around the woman’s farms in the middle of the day. They drove her old Ford. One day, the son came upon the woman and the son’s father on a gravel road. They were parked across from one of her farms. They were watching the tenant run the center pivot sprinkler.
In the back of the old Ford was a plucked chicken, and it was rotting. It stunk to high heavens. When the son inquired about the chicken, the woman replied happily that they were going to cook and eat the chicken that night in celebration of her 69th birthday. The woman’s husband, the old man, just grinned. Anyway, it was later that day that the son drove out to the woman’s place, and removed the carcass of the decaying bird from the old Ford. After that, he snatched his father and took him to the son’s home. That’s when the woman came calling with her hatchet.
The Board quickly voted to commit. As Big John walked my client out to his Crown Victoria for the ride to the Regional Center, I gave her my brand new professional card. It was the good kind. When you ran your fingers over the card you could feel the raised lettering. It said that I was an attorney-at-law.
I assured the woman I would appeal if directed to do so. She took the card, and put it in her hip pocket. She looked at me, and said, “You’re a knuckle-head.” That’s the last time I saw her.
Some months later, I learned that the Regional Center had stabilized the woman. After that, she was released with a prescription. She returned to her home. The old man, her husband, was gone. Off to a care home, but she didn’t know where.
Soon thereafter, she took a 12-gauge, and blew her brains out. My professional card continued to say that I was an attorney-at-law, but I was not so sure.