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The Witness Stand

THE WITNESS STAND

Natalie was no longer called Birdie but she had been gazing with sad longing at Toby all morning. It was not the kind of reunion she, Toby, or the other three had been talking about all those months ago but all of them were in the same place once again. This time it was a courtroom in St. Albans to testify in the trial of Graham Wright. They were witnesses for the prosecution.

Natalie missed Toby but as she’d feared, he’d moved on to another girlfriend at Cornell. She herself had been through three boyfriends already during the fall semester at the University of Vermont. Now she was only a few weeks into her second semester; late February of 1961. After what Natalie had experienced with the boys at UVM, she realized just how special Toby had been. And now a pretty little red-haired girl had accompanied her ex from Ithaca to sit with him in the courtroom.

She sighed and looked at the judge, a thin, sixty-ish man with a bald head and a gaunt face above the black robe. Natalie decided she’d break up with her current boyfriend, a distracted and nervous guy named Eddie who never paid quite enough attention to her anyway.

Sam, the boyfriend before Eddie, had lost her favorite purple pumps by dropping them in a lake. That’s why she’d dumped him. If it hadn’t been for Sam’s carelessness, Natalie could’ve been wearing those nice shoes today instead of…

Sharon sobbed from the witness stand, startling Natalie and making her look in that direction. She hadn’t been paying attention to Sharon’s testimony but the girl had become emotional describing how she’d been the first to see Ashley lying dead on the floor. Natalie wondered if she’d cry during her own testimony.

She glanced at the jury box and took in the view of eight men and four women sitting there. They all looked old enough to be her parents.

“The state calls Natalie Dvorak to the stand,” the assistant state’s attorney announced after Sharon had been sent back to her seat behind the hand-carved railing.

Natalie looked to her right and caught Tom’s eye. He gave her an encouraging smile and nod.

Feeling anxious, Natalie made her way to the aisle and went up towards the witness stand. A white-haired bailiff swung open the door in the railing to admit her.

Natalie couldn’t help looking at the defense table where Graham was sitting with his attorney. The young man was dressed in a dark suit and his hair was cut shorter than it had been the last time Natalie had seen it in July. He glowered at her and she looked away.

The clerk, an elderly man with black, horn-rimmed glasses, held up a leather-bound Bible. Because she was left-handed, Natalie made a conscious choice to place her right hand on the book and solemnly swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help her God.

“State your name, Miss,” the judge said.

“Natalie Dvorak.”

“Age and occupation.”

“Eighteen. I’m a student at the University of Vermont.”

“Full-time student?”

“Yes, sir.”

The clerk whispered: “Say ‘your honor’.”

“Yes, your honor.”

“You live in Burlington?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Is that your college residence or your permanent residence?”

“Both, your honor.”

The judge nodded and looked at the assistant state’s attorney.

“Your witness, counselor.”

“Miss Dvorak,” the prosecutor said with a smile; she was grateful that he was young and handsome; “we need to go over the events of July 29th, 1960, as you experienced them.”

Natalie responded with a monologue covering what happened from when she’d woken up that morning, not mentioning that Toby had slept with her. It wasn’t relevant, Natalie reckoned, and with her father at the back of the courtroom, it would’ve been embarrassing. It had been bad enough when word came out that Tom’s parents hadn’t chaperoned the trip as promised.

Natalie went on without interruption from either the prosecution or the defense all the way through the moment she’d seen Ashley’s corpse.

At that point, the young prosecutor asked Natalie to confirm the position of Ashley’s body.

“And it was Graham Wright’s belt around Miss Vickers’s neck?”

Natalie swallowed before answering: “Tom said it was Graham’s belt.”

“But you didn’t recognize the belt?”

“No. I don’t pay attention to belts unless I’m the one wearing them.”

Or unless I’m taking a belt off someone else, Natalie thought wickedly but managed to stifle a giggle.

“I guess Tom knew it was Graham’s belt,” she added.

“Objection,” the defense attorney said; he was a corpulent yet well-dressed man in his late thirties, a partner in a Burlington law firm. “Are we to accept guesses from witnesses?”

“Sustained,” the judge said; then, turning to Natalie, “Miss Dvorak, you must be certain of anything you tell us on the stand.”

“Yes, your honor. I’m sorry.”

“Miss Dvorak,” the prosecutor said, “what is your general impression of the defendant, Graham Wright?”

“Objection. I understood the witness has been instructed to confine her remarks to facts.”

“Goes to the character of the defendant, your honor.”

“I’ll allow the question but let’s keep it to observable behavior and not personal feelings. Do you understand, Miss Dvorak?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Again, Miss,” the prosecutor asked, “what is your impression of the defendant?”

“Uh…”

“I can tell you’re trying to be objective,” the prosecutor said. “The court surely appreciates that. Let me put it this way. Was Mr. Wright a close friend of yours?”

“No, sir. I really didn’t know him well. Before the trip, I saw him only a few times before.”

“How few?”

“I can think of three times for sure.”

“When, specifically?”

“At a party that Tom and Ashley threw in March. That’s when I met Graham the first time. Then he showed up at a touch football game Tom was playing in. That would’ve been May, I think. Then at our graduation in June.”

“Did you like him?”

“Not particularly.”

“Did you dislike him?”

“No.”

“Did you tend to avoid him?”

“Yes.”

“Can you say why?”

“He struck me as a little strange.”

“Did the others in your circle of friends feel the same way?”

“Objection! Hearsay, your honor.”

“Sustained.”

“Did you and your friends talk about Graham Wright?”

“Yes.”

“Objection. Relevance?”

“I am seeking to establish that the defendant was an outcast among the other six people who went to the cabin.”

“Then the prosecutor should ask each witness individually, not ask one of them to speak for the entire group.”

“Objection sustained. From what the court has heard thus far, Miss Dvorak was uncomfortable around Mr. Wright for reasons that are intangible. Would that be correct, Miss Dvorak?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Thank you, Miss Dvorak. Does the prosecution have any further questions for this witness?”

“No, your honor.”

“May I cross examine?”

“Yes, counselor.”

“Miss Dvorak, on the afternoon of July 28th, is it true that you and the other members of the group were playing volleyball?”

“Yes.”

“Who was playing the game?”

“All of us.”

“All of you, including my client?”

“Yes.”

“So Mr. Wright was not such an outcast, as the prosecution suggests, that he was excluded from playing volleyball?”

“No.”

“And was there a specific occurrence during the game involving you and Mr. Wright?”

“Occurrence?”

“I think you know what I mean, Miss Dvorak.”

“Graham spiked the ball right into my face.”

“He spiked the ball into your face?”

“Yes.”

“And it hurt you?”

“Of course it hurt!”

“Were you angry with Mr. Wright?”

“Yes.”

“Did you bear a grudge against him thereafter because he caused you pain?”

“No.”

“No grudge?”

“It was an accident and he apologized. He was clumsy, not out to hurt me.”

“No grudge?” The attorney’s tone was sarcastically bewildered.

“Objection. Asked and answered.”

“Sustained. Move on, counselor.”

“I am suggesting that my client was in fact an outcast among his cousin’s friends but not in the sense of being a misfit hostile to Thomas Wright and Thomas Wright’s friends. But he was in fact an outsider. An outsider to be blamed for Miss Vickers’s death. Miss Dvorak had her reason. I’m sure that each of the others had their reasons, as well.”

“Your honor, does the defense counsel intend to rehearse his closing argument during this witness’s testimony?”

“Mr. Corey, do you have another question for Miss Dvorak?”

“Yes, your honor. Miss Dvorak, was there an agreement among you? A pact with Thomas Wright, Richard Gresham, Sharon Parker, Tobias Hughes, and yourself to cover up a tragic incident leading to the death of Ashley Vickers? An incident in which one of you five committed something like involuntary manslaughter?”

“No, that’s crazy!”

“Your honor…”

“That whoever did it was a good friend whose future the rest of you wanted to protect…”

“Your honor!”

“…whereas my client deserved no such protection?”

The gavel banged down.

“Gentleman, please!”

“There were six potential suspects but Graham Wright was the only one arrested, the only one charged, the only one indicted. All because the other five have sworn to alibi each other. Anyone of them could have done it!”

“Your honor…”

Natalie shivered with outrage, feeling that she was on the verge of shouting at the fat lawyer herself.

“…let the jury see for themselves. Surely, Miss Dvorak could hardly have strangled the life out of the victim. She’s obviously small and delicate…”

“But she could be covering for someone else! Even for the late Miss Vickers, if this was in fact a suicide…”

“Objection!”

The gavel smashed down again.

“For the record,” the judge said, addressing Natalie, “and because I fear your previous response was lost in all this rancor, Miss Dvorak, are you in fact denying any conspiracy to blame Graham Wright for the death of Ashley Vickers?”

“Yes, your honor!” Natalie replied, looking at the round face of Graham’s attorney as she spoke.

“Thank you, Miss Dvorak. Any further questions, Mr. Corey?”

“No, your honor.”

“Mr. Ford?”

“Redirect, your honor.”

“Go ahead.”

“Miss Dvorak, you would not stand by and allow an innocent man be charged or convicted for murder if you knew for a fact that he was innocent, regardless of your personal opinion of that man?”

“I would not.”

“Thank you, Miss Dvorak. No further questions.”

“You may step down, Miss Dvorak,” the judge said, “with the court’s thanks.”

Nearly four months later, Natalie was sitting in a wicker chair on the back porch of her family residence in Burlington. It was just past two in the afternoon and there was a light rain falling on the lush lawn that needed mowing, something Natalie would not be doing herself. Whenever her father needed help with yard work, he summoned Natalie’s brother. The only chores Natalie ever did were to help her mother with the housework.

Inside the house, the phone started to ring. Natalie stayed where she was, assuming that her mother would answer it. Four rings sounded and a moment later, Natalie heard the screen door behind hear creak open.

“Call for you, sweetheart.”

“Who is it?” Natalie asked, looking over her shoulder at Beatrice Dvorak, a woman no taller than she was; otherwise Mrs. Dvorak was chubby and had dark blond hair.

“Toby,” Beatrice said with a smile.

Natalie’s mood shifted suddenly and she scrambled off the chair and across the porch to the nearest telephone extension in the kitchen. Beatrice quietly left the room and softly hung up the other phone in her art studio.

“How do you feel about the verdict?” Toby asked after the initial exchange of greetings.

“Verdict?”

“Graham’s trial! Haven’t you heard?”

“Toby, the day I walked out of that courtroom was the last I heard about it. I haven’t been following that damn trial. I was hoping I could forget about it.”

“Well, I guess you can forget about it now. They found him guilty.”

“That’s what the prosecutor said would happen. What, are you surprised?”

“Not really. But Graham was convicted of second degree murder. They say that he might get out of prison after twenty or thirty years. They’ll sentence him in a week or two.”

“Thanks. Don’t bother telling me how many years he gets. I don’t care. We’ll never see him again.”

“I hope not.”

Neither said anything for a few seconds.

“Birdie?”

“Don’t call me that anymore.”

“Natalie.”

“What?”

“Why’d you walk out of the courthouse that day? I never got to talk with you.”

“I didn’t want to make your new girlfriend jealous,” Natalie said bitterly.

Another pause followed.

“No, I’m sorry,” Natalie sighed. “I assumed you wouldn’t want to talk to me since you were there with her. But why I left so fast… Well, after what that jerk lawyer said to me, I just had to get away. He didn’t ask Sharon questions like that.”

“Probably because Sharon was blubbering away up there. He probably didn’t want to look mean in front of the jury.”

“Oh, really?”

“Really. If you’d stayed in the courtroom you would’ve heard that lawyer ask me and Rick the same thing about us having some kind of pact. Course we said the same thing back to him that you did. He really went after Tom, though.”

“He did?”

“Yeah. Practically accused Tom of killing Ashley. Tom got really mad and said our side could just as well accuse Graham of trying to rape Ashley and then strangling her when she wouldn’t give in to him.”

“No! Did Tom say that?”

“He damn well did. I thought the judge would bust that gavel the way he was smacking it down on his desk.”

“There wasn’t any evidence Ashley was hurt that way, though.”

“No. But I guess Tom’s point was there wasn’t any evidence that he’d killed his girlfriend, either. Remember, the only fingerprints on that belt belonged to Graham. Yeah, Tom even pulled out that engagement ring and showed it to the jury.”

“I’ll bet Graham’s lawyer objected to that,” Natalie said, sitting down at the kitchen table.

“He called it a stunt and the judge told the jury to ignore what Tom did.”

Natalie smiled.

“You can’t not see what you already saw,” she said.

“Right.”

“So it’s all over,” Natalie said with a sigh. “No need to talk about it anymore.”

“Have you heard from anyone since February?”

“You’re the first.”

“I haven’t seen anyone but I did talk with Tom on the phone after the verdict came in. I think he’s in touch with Rick and Sharon.”

“How’s it going with that red-head? Picked out an engagement ring for her yet?”

“Oh… Come on, Natalie. No.”

“You still seeing her, though?”

“Yes.”

“So, what’s her name then?”

“Betsy.”

“You must be on summer break from Cornell, right?”

“Yes.”

“Are you back in Bennington?”

“No, I’m staying on here in Ithaca.”

“With Betsy?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Serious, then.”

“I guess so. No ring, maybe, but serious.”

“My brother’s getting married at the end of the month.”

“Wow, that’s great!”

“She’s an exchange student from England. Now she won’t have to go back.”

Another pause.

“Are you seeing anyone?” Toby asked.

“Who, me? Nah. I can’t keep a boyfriend longer than six weeks.”

“You kept me for almost a year.”

Natalie closed her eyes.

“Toby, please.”

“Sorry.”

“Maybe I’ll take a bus out to Ithaca and see you sometime this summer. If Betsy wouldn’t mind.”

“She wouldn’t.”

But maybe I would, Natalie thought.

They dragged out the conversation for another few minutes. When she finally hung up the phone, Natalie realized there would be no summer trip to Ithaca for her.

As it turned out, she was right about that.

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