All In Jest – Chapter 4

All In Jest


After the deposition, Sybil felt depressed.

Her attorney, her friends, and her family all reassured her, told her not to be overly concerned.

They might have been telling her to grow tall or to develop fins.

She knew that what they were saying was logical, objective, and right.

It was her attorney’s job to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous procedural attacks. Her friends buoyed her up with the wholly sanguine observations that Bel Geddes was just a sexist of the worst order, that he was just trying to get her nanny, and that she could rid herself of that particular demon of the patriarchy by throwing herself into her work and into the cause.

Her family importuned her for more of her time, more of her enthusiasm, more of her old self.

They meant entirely well, and for her benefit; and Sybil knew that she had in the past neglected and was now neglecting the people who mattered most in favor of the jealous mistress, neurosurgery.

To avoid ruminating about the death of Brendan McNeely, about the law suit and the inexorably approaching trial, and about the attack on her character–the offensive against her medical soul–that the malpractice suit represented, Sybil forced herself to see more and more patients, to do more frequent and more difficult operations, and to advance her standing in the professional organizations–the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

She was indefatigable, driving herself every day until she fell in bed exhausted, too tired to think or dream.

To all outside appearances, Sybil Norcroft was the quintessence of the driven professional in full command of her mind, her life, and her career.

To herself and her family and her close friends she was troubled and depressed, merely avoiding the thoughts of the malpractice trial, not coping.

Sybil rubbed her sleep deprived eyes.

They felt as if emery powder had been poured in them after a marathon day of seeing the ‘crocks’, as she described them, in her office clinic.

Thirty-one patients had come through.

Twelve were follow-ups after surgery and took about five minutes each.

The rest were the walking wounded of the world–the workman’s comp victims, the blaring hypochondriacs, the lonely old women with an assortment of rheumatic aches and pains, and the oddballs with pains, twitches, and perversions of sensation that defied the logic of the neurological examination and of all medical knowledge and experience.

It was seven p.m. She saw the last patient out the door and wearily typed in the meager office progress note on her PC.

She gave her tired eyes a good rub before she forced herself to go see the stack of hospital consults that had accumulated during the day.

The first hospital consultation patient of that marathon day had been Renee Thollier, a middle aged African American woman.

Sybil was asked to see her about her terrible leg pain.

The history gave Sybil almost everything she needed to know.

The woman had thrombophlebitis, and the calf of her leg was swollen to the point that the skin was stretched taut and shiny.

The woman’s calf muscles were exquisitely tender, and she had a flagrant Homan’s sign. Even though Sybil tested for the sign very carefully and gently by slowly bending her foot towards the swollen shin, the poor woman shrieked in unexaggerated agony.

What Sybil could not be certain about, and the technical reason that she was consulted by the woman’s family physician, was that the pain extended all the way up her thigh, even though the thigh did not participate in the phlebitic swelling and tenderness.

The neurological exam was unhelpful because the woman was in so much pain that she could not cooperate.

Repeated sensory testings gave differing results, nothing was definite.

Sybil longed for a straight forward, simple ruptured disc patient that she could operate upon and cure and be looked upon as the heroine.

She sighed and wrote her note.

Sybil told the referring physician that she would have to return the following day and re-examine Mrs. Thollier.

She did not feel that neurosurgical imaging tests were indicated that night, and agreed with the ongoing anticoagulation treatment.

At any rate, an operation was out of the question at the moment because of the danger of subjecting a patient to surgery who could not clot her blood and who had the imminent danger of sloughing off a blood clot from her leg to her lungs.

It was late afternoon the next day before Sybil arrived back on Mrs. Thollier’s ward.

She picked up the woman’s chart and headed directly to her two bed room.

Mrs. Thollier’s roommate, a massively obese, Henna dyed hair septuagenarian lay whimpering in her bed.

Mrs. Thollier’s bed was empty.

“What happened, Mrs. Poletti?” Sybil asked, worried at the old woman’s obvious distress.

“Died,” she snuffled.

“Whole night long.

They was in here hurtin’ her chest, putting things in her.

I could tell they wasn’t goin’ to do no good.

She was blue when they got here. I rang the bell half a dozen times.

Took their sweet time gettin’ in here, too.”

Sybil made an acute about face and walked swiftly to the nurses’ desk.

“What happened in 302?” she asked.

“You mean the thrombophlebitis?” the weary LPN asked by way of response.

Sybil nodded.

“She threw an embolus.

Everybody got there right away, but there wasn’t a thing they could do.

Happened right at the end of shift, maybe two hours ago.

Took ‘till half an hour ago to clean up, big mess…everybody had to stay overtime.”

She went back to her task based charting.

Sybil was sorry for the patient and for her doctors.

She thanked her lucky stars that she had not tried to operate on the patient, or the pulmonary embolism and the death would have happened on her watch.

She forgot about Mrs. Thollier.


On the weekend, Sybil indulged herself in a rare luxury and slept in.

Her husband, Charles Daniels, leaned on his elbow and looked down at his wife’s serene face.

She felt his eyes on her and partially waked up, prepared to be a shrew.

“What?” she asked when she saw his impish smile.

“What’s so funny in the middle of the night?”

“First of all, it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday,” he grinned at his witty allusion to the song from the last century that was still popular.

“And second of all, in case you hadn’t remembered, I did. Happy birthday!”

Sybil looked puzzled, like she was forcing her sleep drugged mind to do arithmetic.

“That’s right,” she said sheepishly.

“I entirely forgot.

I knew there must have been some reason for me to sleep in.

Now leave me alone. I don’t have to be at the hospital until noon, and I don’t plan to waste a minute of the time between now and then being awake.”

She made as if to turn on her side.

“You’ll miss your great present, then,” Charles said enticingly.

He knew she would not be able to resist his blandishments.

For all her acquisitions, feminism, professional objectivism, and protestations that she was beyond all that, Sybil Norcroft, M.D., PhD, F.A.C.S. loved surprises and presents.

“Tell me, then I can get back to sleep,” she ordered in her drill sergeant’s voice, the one she used when she was trying to get something from the lab or a floor nurse when they were too busy.

“Nope,” Charles whispered in her ear, “this is a sight thing.

You have to come with me.”

“Where to?” Sybil asked.

She had one eye open now.

“You have to come with me, or you can’t see it and can’t know how great it is,” Charles wheedled.

He laughed when he saw the struggle going on in her mind as mirrored in her expressionate face.

She opened both eyes now and worked up a scowl.

“Might as well, can’t get any rest anyway.”

An affectionate smile broke through her attempted glower.

“Put on old stuff, cowboy shirt, Levis, and kickers. Let’s get a move on!”

Sybil hated natural early risers. Although she got up early every morning, it was drudgery for her.

She felt like one of her old drunk patients whom she remembered saying, “Can’t see how anybody anyplace can get up before ten. Myself, I don’t stop throwin’ up until noon.”

They drove out into the country, about five miles out of town on the farm road system. Sybil had forgotten how much she liked doing this, being free of the office and the hospital, being with her husband, just feeling happy.

She was afraid it would weaken her.

They pulled into a rutted dirt roadway that led down a tree lined drive towards a decrepit old Dutch Colonial house that had once been quite lovely, Sybil imagined.

On either side of the drive were fallow fields with remnants of fences.

There were no animals, old machinery, or sounds that hinted of the life that must once have thrived there.

Charles wheeled around a circular driveway in front of the house.

The drive had been neglected for so long that weeds were growing in its center.

A mildewed fountain statue of a nymph stood as a forlorn sentinel in front of the house. Sybil raised a quizzical eyebrow at her husband.

A broad grin spread across his face involving his lips, teeth, cheeks, and eyes. Sybil remembered that she loved Charles’ face.

It was middle-aged and etched with smile lines, hinting of laughter and jokes just beneath the surface.

She knew that she had been neglecting that face and had a twinge of repentance.

“Well, do you like it?” he asked.

He beamed.

“Like what?” she asked dully.

Was the man telling her that he had bought her this decaying old barn of a house?


Charles swept his hand in an expansive 360 degree arc.

Sybil took the time to survey ‘this’.

At first she saw the weeds and decaying boards, the dead limbs of the trees, and the cratered road.

Then, giving in to his enthusiasm, she let herself see the road as a straight beige ribbon, neat and smooth passing under a canopy of arching green trees, the house gleaming white with a blue grey roof and shutters.

“Tell me about it, Charles.

What is this?

What am I supposed to think about all this?”

He grew serious for a moment.

“Sybil, I feel like I’ve lost you.

I used to be jealous of medicine and all it entailed, but it never worried me.

Since that SOB lawyer launched that suit, you have moved away from me, somewhere inside of you where I am not allowed to follow.

I want you back.

Someday you’ll beat that conniving little rat, and your career will get back to its proper perspective.

I don’t want to wait that long.

I want you now, or as near to now as possible.

This present, given with the greatest of thought and my true love, is for the healing of your soul.

You’ll never go to a shrink about your depression and your agitated response to it. So how about a consuming project, a hobby, if you will?

This was once a fine horse ranch.

It can be again.

It’s yours to build.

I’ll just kibitz from the sidelines.”

Sybil could see the mended fences, gleaming white in the noonday sun, the rye grass fields nourishing thoroughbreds.

She suspended her doubting pragmatic nature and let herself feel it.

“It is wonderful, Charles, I…I don’t know how to thank you.

I can not imagine how I will be able to do any of it, but it is good therapy just to contemplate it.”

“I know a way,” Charles ventured, the merriment back in his voice and on his face.

“Way to do what?” she asked, being purposefully slow-witted.

He ignored her bit of theatrical obtuseness.

“The way to thank me,” he said.

She turned coquettish.

“The usual old way?” she queried with a mischievous smile of her own.

“Um-hmm,” he hummed and laughed richly.

“It’s only ten, we can make it if we really try before I lose you to your patients for the rest of the day.”

They jumped in the car, Charles drove, risking a speeding ticket at every speed trap along the county road system.

The two of them raced each other up the stairs of their Georgian house leaving a trail of odds and ends of clothing that any Boy Scout could follow.

It was the best day Sybil had had since Bel Geddes had sent her the intent to sue letter three years ago.

She threw herself into the job of planning a grandiose horse farm and began to heal.

She began to have more ‘best days’ with Charles.

A month later, she took her husband to the ranch with a set of landscape architectural plans in hand, and they sat on the decrepit verandah of the old house until the sun set, dappling its light through the trees along the approach road.

Life began to look good to Sybil again.

The following morning Carter Tarkington received a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter and Sybil received a ninety day, intent to file suit, letter from their mutual nemesis, Paul Bel Geddes, alleging severe negligence in the care of Renee Thollier.


Dear Colleague in the Opposition:

It is with deep regret that I inform you that yet another unfortunate who suffered “care” at the hands of neurosurgeon, Sybil Norcroft, has found her way to my office seeking rightful redress. Specifically, the family of one, Renee Thollier, deceased, has come to me to begin an entirely meritorious action against your client. Dr. Norcroft neglected Ms Thollier to death, a death that was foreseeable and entirely preventable. I ask you, Carter, when will the members of the medical profession begin to police themselves? Until then, it will be up to attorneys such as you and me.

At any rate, I have sent a ninety-day letter to the nefarious doctor. I expect you will be receiving a telephone call from her or from DIPC any moment. Perhaps, in the interest of collegiality, we can have an early settlement conference between the two of us and save everyone a great deal of trouble. It is a simple res ipsa loquitur case, a fact that I am sure will be evident to you as soon as you review the record.

I await your call. Until then,

I remain, your fellow advocate,

Paul Bel Geddes, Esq.


Dear Dr. Norcroft:

Please be informed that my clients, Alphonse and Sophronia Thollier, aunt and uncle of Renee Thollier, deceased, intend to commence a legal action from wrongful death against you related to your care, or more specifically, your neglect of Ms. Thollier while she was under your responsibility.

In short, Dr. Norcroft, in ninety days you will be sued for egregious failure to provide a proper diagnosis or appropriate or timely care for this woman who depended on you. You would be well advised to inform your insurance company and your attorney of this official intent to sue letter.

Sincerely yours,

Paul Bel Geddes, Esq.

Attorney at Law


Sybil called Carter Tarkington while she still held the ninety day letter in her hand.


The smug joviality of Bel Geddes’s facial expression started up Sybil’s poorly damped down hostilities, even before he asked his first question in the court room cross examination in the McNeely case.

“Dr. Norcroft, how large was your surgical fee for the treatment of Brendan McNeely?”

She consulted her notes.

“Including pre and post-operative care, my office billed a total of $22,000.”

“Is that with a professional discount?”

“Yes. Ten percent.”

“And how long did you spend in the care of this young man all told–office time, in hospital care, and the operation?”

Sybil flipped through the computer print-outs from her office.

Tarkington had warned her to expect detailed questions about her fees.

“Twenty-one hours and thirty minutes.”

“Or about a thousand dollars an hour. Isn’t that about right?”


“Not bad pay.

Lucky for you the fee wasn’t based on outcome,” Bel Geddes added malevolently.

“Objection!” called out Carter Tarkington.

Bel Geddes had paused in his delivery of questions knowing that the objection would be automatic.

“Sustained,” said Judge Kendricks looking down from her raised bench.

“Withdrawn,” said Bel Geddes perfunctorily, but he gave the jury a slow meaningful look. “I understand that you are a pretty hard worker, Dr. Norcroft, would that be a fair statement?”

“Yes, depending on your definitions.”

“Let’s flesh in the definition with a few details, since you brought it up, Doctor.

You testified here that you are on committees of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the American Association of Neurosurgeons, the Woman’s Caucus of Neurosurgery, and the AMA Working Committee for Change for Women in Medicine.

I presume that each of these organizations require some of your time?


“You see roughly 100 patients in a three day office week?”

“I think that’s about right.”

“And operate three days a week?”

“Yes, on the average.”

“That occupies some eight to ten hours on each of those operating days?”

“About that.”

“And see consultations in the hospital every day?”

“Just about.”

“And take call three nights a week?”


“And give lectures all around the country for the Professional Women’s Feminist League and the Group for Rational Change in the Feminist Approach at least twice a month?”


“Let me see, Dr. Norcroft, did I read somewhere that you have a husband?”


“So I guess you have to tear yourself away from your important activities and throw him a crumb now and again?”

“I have a family life, yes Sir.”

“Oh, do you have children, Dr. Norcroft?”


“I should think not,” Bel Geddes said with a cruel twist to his smile.

“Objection. Uncalled for.”

“I agree. Sustained.”

“Withdrawn. So you make a lot of money practicing a lot of medicine, make yourself important in professional committees, and make yourself famous on the feminist lecture circuit. Do you make yourself pretty tired with all of that making, Dr. Norcroft.”

“Like everyone else.”

“Hardly. It makes me tired just hearing the description of your schedule.”

Sybil waited and watched Bel Geddes’s face, unwilling to look away and give him the satisfaction of scoring even a little point.

“Objection. Counsel is editorializing.

I don’t recall hearing a question.”

“Sustained. Let’s get on with it, Counselor.”

“You were called into the hospital to see three consults after nine o’clock on the evening before you operated on Brendan McNeely. That was after a twelve hour long operating day. Somehow you were able to make two runs to your office to see patients that your office girls wedged in.

Tell me, Dr. Norcroft, how tired were you when you started that operation on Brendan McNeely?”

Finally, the punch line.

“No more than usual. I work hard most of the time. I am acclimated to it.”

“No foggy mind from lack of sleep, no shaky hand from over-tiredness, no diverted attention from all of those things you do to make money, to develop your standing in the organized neurosurgical community, to make your name into a household word by your public persona as a feminist?”


Sybil turned to the jury to give an answer.

On their expressionless faces she read doubt and incredulity.

She knew she was just being paranoid.

She hoped so, anyway.

“Let’s turn to another area,” Bel Geddes announced before Sybil could come back from the previous series of questions fully.

She was off-balance and knew that was exactly Bel Geddes’s plan.

She fought to regain her internal gyroscope.

“Dr. Norcroft, is it true that you have a nameplate on your desk that reads, ‘GOD’?”

“Yes. My office staff gave it to me as a little joke.”

“Um-hmm. What was it about you that made that an appropriate little joke?”

“I can be something of a hard taskmistress at times, I suppose.”

“And a little inclined to arrogance?” he asked it so innocently.

“Well, I suppose all professional people are perceived that way at times.”

“I see.

Could it be some of that arrogance that prevented you from using ENT specialists to open the surgical field in transsphenoidal cases or even to be included as assistants?

I understand that is a common practice, perhaps so common as to be considered the rule.”

“I do not need an M.D. assistant.”

Sybil could have kicked herself for her answer. She sought wildly for a cushioning parenthetical addition.

“Thank you.”

“I have found the nurses to be excellent and very experienced assistants, and it is far less expensive for the patient to use them.”

“We are well aware of your magnanimity for the patients–a thousand dollars a minute wasn’t it?” the plaintiffs’ attorney asked sarcastically taking full advantage of her discomfiture.

“It would have been worse if an M.D. had been the assistant,” Sybil responded lamely.

She should have said more costly. She would have to watch herself.

“You had a great deal of difficulty during the operation, did you not?”


“You needed an ENT specialist’s help, did you not?”

“I wanted a neurosurgeon.

I finally had Dr. Hankin from ENT come in and assist.”

“Too proud to ask for what the patient needed, too proud to admit that you were in that kind and level of trouble, isn’t that so Dr. Norcroft?”

His face was a mask of hate.

It was personal, and his expression exceeded even the bounds of his overtly hostile questions.

“Not at all. I asked for the most competent help I could get as early in the problem as my judgment indicated the need.”

“A need that would not have arisen had you had a physician as an assistant on a routine basis.

Is that not the sum and substance of that operative disaster and the cause of this unfortunate boy’s death?

Your huge ego got in the way of good judgment, and this boy paid the ultimate price?”

The courtroom had grown quiet as the spectators looked on fascinated at the deadly verbal joust.

Now there was silence.

Sybil’s worst personal fears lay in that question.

Had she failed Brendan? For the wrong reasons?

“An assistant would have made no difference.

There was an anomalous artery in the dura.

It would have been cut, no matter who did the operation and no matter who might have been helping.

The only way Brendan could have been saved was to have the magic viewpoint of being able to see into the future and to have canceled the operation before it was started.

I am only a mortal, and not a clairvoyant one at that.

I do not possess such vision.”

“Not God?”

“Certainly not.”

Court adjourned for the noon break.

Tarkington made sure that they sat alone in an obscure cafe a few blocks from the row of restaurants frequented by court people.

“You are doing fine.

All of this is old hat.

We have laid the groundwork of defense against all of his attacks.

Don’t worry.

The jury is not being sucked into his innuendoes, and his evidence is weak.

Hang in there.”

“Have you noticed that this has turned into a kind of personal crusade on Bel Geddes’s part?

He seems to be insulting and attacking for no other purpose than to express his dislike for me.

It’s almost scary.

I’m glad all the trappings of the courtroom are there to buffer against his personal animosity,” Sybil observed, still smarting from her morning on the witness stand.

“Don’t let him wear you down.

It’s just tactics.

Once this is over, he will be his usual jolly and affable self, a complete phony.”

The afternoon continued in the same caustic vein.

Sybil’s intentions were all twisted towards Bel Geddes’s cynical spin on them–the inconclusive lab data, the hackneyed rehash of the arteriogram issue, the suggestion that she was too tired, too preoccupied with her own career, and too arrogant to give Brendan a fair and full and careful effort during the operation.

They adjourned at six o’clock that evening because the judge was becoming concerned at the duration of the trial.

She wanted to convey a message to the opposing attorneys to move along more briskly or face long days in court, a specter that was not part of lawyers’ congenital makeup.

Sybil’s old ennui had returned when she finally dropped into bed that night.

She was unable to see any brightness on the horizon.

Charles was disturbed by the change in his wife wrought by her day in court facing the weasly creep of an attorney.

She seemed to have lost the spark that had been lit by her enthusiasm for the horse ranch, El Caballo Suave Ranchero, he had given her almost three years ago.

Charles fretted as his wife slept fitfully.


The first question in the courtroom the following morning was fired on the dot of nine o’clock.

“Did you declare Brendan McNeely dead prematurely; so, you could get the evidence of your spectacular failure out of public scrutiny, Dr. Norcroft?”

“No, Sir. I most certainly did not.”

She was indignant, her face in high color.

She glared at Bel Geddes.

“The head nurse of the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit, a very highly trained and experienced professional, says you did.

How do you respond to her accusation?”

“Heather Larkin disliked me then, and for some reason that is unclear to me, now hates me and treats me as a personal enemy.

That clouded her judgment and resulted in her efforts over the years to discredit me.

This case is only one example.

The examination I performed, along with Dr. Blackman Schwartz, was standard, thorough, and complete in every regard.

I might add that Dr. Schwartz was the neurosurgeon selected by Mr. McNeely’s family to monitor my treatment of their son.

Brendan McNeely was dead, brain dead, which is the same thing.

Heather Larkin was just upset about losing a nice young man who worked with her, and she could not handle it.

She sought someone to blame and fixated on me.”

“Why did you try to cover up your mistake, to bury the evidence, as it were, by asking the Medical Examiner’s office to refrain from doing their routine autopsy?

You recall that Douglas Stringham, the ME Aide testified as much in this very courtroom, do you not, Doctor?”

Sybil’s hackles were up, and her teeth were bared.

“Oh, you bet I do remember that testimony.

It was a fabric of lies from beginning to end.

Angie Church, the floor nurse, witnessed the entire conversation and confirmed that it was a pack of lies.

I asked…I begged for an autopsy.

It was in the interests of good medicine, and it was in my own best interests to demonstrate what had happened.

I am sure that we would have found an anomalous artery that could not have been avoided and would have exonerated me had we done a post on him.

When I hung up the phone, I was of the understanding that an autopsy was going to be done.

I was disturbed to learn later when it was too late that one had not been done.

Even at this moment, I would be willing to let my fate in this case depend on an autopsy done on his body.

He could be exhumed and examined, if the court wanted to pursue this question that far.”

“You will have to admit, though, Doctor, that it all worked out pretty conveniently. The evidence got buried…”

“Objection! Objection!”

For the first time in the trial, Tarkington was on his feet.


The jury will disregard and the statement by the plaintiff’s attorney will be stricken.

I don’t want to have any more of this, understood, gentlemen? Keep it civil and within the etiquette of the courtroom or face contempt charges.

Any clarification required?”

The judge’s nerves were becoming as frayed as everyone else’s.

The opposing attorneys each replied, “No, Ma’am.”

“Proceed,” Judge Hendricks directed.

“The plaintiff has no further questions for this witness, your honor.”

Tarkington stood and announced, “The defense rests.”


Carter Tarkington requested, for the sake of continuity, and in the spirit of the contest, that he be assigned to handle Dr. Norcroft’s second malpractice action, the Renee Thollier case, as well as the first.

DIPC was entirely amenable, they liked ongoing physician-client relationships.

They knew that malpractice suits were part and parcel of the modern practice of medicine, and physicians performed better in the legal arena when they were represented by someone with whom they had established a bond of trust, at least as much of a bond as was possible between physicians and attorneys, as precarious a union as that between lamb and wolf. Sybil agreed readily since the pretrial phase of the McNeely case seemed to be progressing as well as could be expected, and she had no reason to complain about Tarkington’s work thus far. She had studiously avoided knowing attorneys as a matter of principle, consequently, she had no particular reason to consider another choice.

They met over lunch in the Walter Raleigh Hotel, and Carter gave Sybil two reassurances.

“Dr. Norcroft, I know this is a huge hassle, being sued.

But believe me, it comes as part of the turf.

Neurosurgeons get sued all the time–more than any other specialty.

I am here to take the heat as much as possible.

Don’t take this too personally.

Try to think of it as part of business, distasteful, but necessary.”

“Easy for you to say,” she countered. “It’s nothing personal to you lawyers, just business. Where would you be if there were no disputes or suits?

I think Paul Bel Geddes views it as a game, and gets his kicks out of making doctors squirm and worry.

I remember Aristotle’s quote: ‘Little boys throw rocks at frogs in jest, but frogs die in earnest.’

It is not quite as easy for me as it is for you given the difference in our perspectives.”

Tarkington reached for the ketchup for his French fries.

“Great invention,” he mused. “Best thing ever happened to food.” He laughed. “Permit me to give you a couple of practical reassurances.”

“I’d like that,” she said and put down her Rueben sandwich to give him her whole attention. “It would be refreshing to think that there was anything reassuring about being sued by this Renee Thollier with whom I scarcely had any interaction, and against whom I did no wrong.”

“The first thing is that I really think this thing will go away by itself.

Paul is just being Paul, just testing the waters to see if he can get a fish to bite.

My bet is that he won’t think it’s worth the cost to pursue you once he is certain that the company is not going to throw him a few thousand just to keep him off their backs.

Be patient.”

“And the second reassurance?”

“The McNeely case won’t come to trial in anything less than two years.

You have given your deposition.

There is nothing more for you to do until the time of trial.

A lot of water can pass under the bridge between now and then.

Who knows what will happen?

My advice, and I know that I am becoming repetitious, is for you to relax.

I have broad shoulders, let me carry it until trial, then, you can re-engage.

How about it?”

“I’ll do my best. I’ll tell you, though, this second malpractice suit makes me mad.

I look like some sort of quack.

My reputation is going to suffer; the fact that I have done nothing improper is a matter of indifference to my critics and to the community.

No one will bother to look at facts.

If there’s smoke, there must be fire, will be the prevailing sentiment, I reckon.”

The conversation spoiled her appetite, Tarkington’s reassurances notwithstanding.


Despite Sybil Norcroft’s and her husband, Charles Daniels’s considerable assets, Sybil delayed the major building on the ranch until she could find people who would do the construction for something less than a fortune.

After more than a year, she had not been able to do so.

Often, in the evening, she sat on the dilapidated porch steps and looked longingly in the direction of neighboring vegetable farms and fruit orchards with their gangs of immigrant planters and pickers toiling away in the neat rows that bespoke long and careful cultivation.

The fences and buildings on those farms were well maintained, even attractive; and the farmers who owned the properties were hard pragmatists, good agri-business people.

Sybil knew they could compete in a fine margin industry, and they were nothing of gentry farmers like her.

All she wanted was not to squander away the family fortune on her hobby.

Her husband had given her a loving gift and had attached no strings.

But Sybil felt a dogged determination that she could not let his gift become a drain on them.

As she enjoyed the glow of the late afternoon sun and the peacefulness of her musing, she saw, in the distance, a small group of people–men, women, and children–clamber over the fences that separated her place from the adjoining huge peach and pear orchards.

At that distance, they all appeared about half an inch tall.

She was curious, not enough to rouse herself to get up, but interested.

When the troupe became an inch high, Sybil turned to watch their progress.

They were heading directly towards her, evidently working their way across her ragged pastures in the direction of her road.

When they were two inches high, by squinting, she could tell that they were Hispanics, presumably Mexicans.

Their clothing had that look.

The three men wore gaudily colored and patterned serapes that stood out in the last rays of the dying sun.

The three women were clothed in long pastel dresses that rippled and flowed in the changeable light breezes of the afternoon and swayed with the movements of their supple hips. Five or six scampering children ran alongside and around their elders, evoking an occasional gesticulation from one or another of the adults.

By the time the Mexicans were six inches high, Sybil could see the deep bronze of their skin, the good, albeit rough, quality of their clothing, and the wide brimmed straw sombreros that spoke of their relative prosperity and of their origins.

She could also hear the shrill noises made by the children, and in the background, what sounded like the crying of one or more of the women.

She was right.

When the small band of Mexicans, obviously three small families, drew abreast of her position on the porch, it was evident that the women were crying.

When they saw her, the three women turned their faces and wiped away tears, pretending that they were merely removing the accumulation of perspiration from their stroll.

Buenas tardes, Señora,” called out the eldest of the three men.

Buenas tardes, amigos,” Sybil replied, demonstrating the full extent of her Spanish. “Do you speak English?”

The families stopped, glad for a respite from the sun.

Sybil got up and walked towards them, and they all backed into the shade of the tall oak that stood majestically in Sybil’s side yard.

Asi, asi…some,” said the spokesman.

“You look thirsty and tired. Would you like to rest? I have some Cokes.”

For some reason, Sybil had brought a large cooler of soft drinks out.

They kept cool for days in the efficient cooler.

“No, gracias,” said the spokesman, acting shy. “We are fine. Thank you for your kindness.”

“Please. I have plenty.

You don’t need to feel shy.

It looks like we’re neighbors.”

The Mexicans looked at Sybil with curiosity to see if she was sincere or taunting. Deciding that it was the former, they looked questioningly at each other.

Tal vez, we share a bottle, if that would not be too much,” the woman with the self-appointed spokesman said.

“Thank you, lady.”

Sybil passed out sugary Coca Colas to each of the adults and seeing their ill-concealed delight and the yearning in the faces of the children, she said,” Would it be all right for the little ones to have a can or two to share. I don’t have any cups or anything.”

“Yes, mil gracias, Doña,” said the mother of four of the smallest children.

She was obviously unused to generous treatment and was curious more than anything to see what this was about.

The adults sat together on the unsafe and creaking porch drinking their sodas as the sun sank behind the horizon.

Sybil could detect a tension developing among the Mexicans.

They held short conversations in Spanish.

She knew that the men were urging the women that it was time to go.

The women looked profoundly dispirited, and when they looked back in the direction of the adjacent ranch or spoke with head nods in that direction, the men appeared angry and agitated.

They began to get up.

“We must go, now. Thank you for your kindness, lady. We have not seen much of that today,” the spokesman announced.

“Pardon me, but I do not know your names. Mine is Sybil. Sybil Norcroft.”

She enunciated and emphasized the unfamiliar sounds to the Mexicans.

Perdón, Doña, I am Pancho Rodriquez, and this is my wife Carlita. These are my friends Jose and Maria Innocenta Pomposo-Alvarez, and Marcos and Viviana Hernandez.”

Each of the men and women gave a small bow as his or her name was introduced.

Sybil studied their faces for a moment, then repeated the names: “Pancho and Carlita Rodriquez, Jose and Maria Innocenta Pomposo-Juarez, and Marcos and Viviana Hernandez.”

They looked pleased and impressed.

“Escuse me, Doña, I am Maria Innocenta Pomposo-Alvarez.”

She looked down shyly, embarrassed at having the temerity to correct the Doña.

Her brown face was laid open for a rebuke.

Sybil was sure the young woman had heard many such in her short life.

“Thank you.

I think I have your names now.

Please forgive me, amigos, but I could not help but see that you looked sad, maybe angry when you arrived.

It is not my business, but is there anything I could do to help?” Sybil asked.

Now it was her turn to look down with shyness.

She was afraid that she had overstepped and was intruding.

The Mexicans looked hurriedly at one another.

They were reluctant to comment, but the women were expressing their needs.

The word niños came up repeatedly.

After a minute long pause, Pancho Rodriquez shrugged his shoulders, and Carlita timidly spoke, evidently expressing the thoughts and wishes of the group.

Perdón Doña, we are sorry to say it, pero we have no place to stay this night. We have no money.”

“Could you stay here? This house is old and in bad condition, but it is cover.”

“That would be most kind, Doña, for the one night. Gracias.”

“I am afraid that the little ones will get cold. I have blankets at my own house. Would one of you come with me? We can get some… Please, it’s all right,” Sybil said.

Carlita walked back to talk to the rest of the Mexicans who had now distanced themselves a dozen feet from Sybil.

There was a brief discussion. Carlita returned and said, “Si, y muchas gracias por todo

In her nervousness she forgot to use English.

“Will you come with me?”

“I will,” Carlita said.

They drove out along the approach drive and onto the county highway.

The closeness of the two women opened a flood gate of emotion in the stoical Mexicana. She began to cry softly.

“What’s wrong, Carlita? Have I done something to offend you?” Asked Sybil.

“No, no, Doña, nunca. I am embarrass.

We are like beggars, like gypsies.

We are not like that.

All of us are hard workers. It is not our fault.

We work for what we have.

We are embarrass because now we cannot.

It is a bad thing to have to depend on the kindness of strangers. Can you understand?”

“Of course, please…tell me about it.”

“The patrón, Señor Mac Donal, he did not pay us.

We work for two meses, all of us work.

He laugh at us, say we lazy, and he no pay us.

That is not the veras, Doña, we are hard workers.

Not like the Norteamericanos.”

Sybil hoped that she was regarded as the exception.

“Now, we have to go. Find another place to work. I worry. The niños.

“He can’t just not pay you, Carlita. There are laws.”

“Not for us. He say he send for the migros, the immigrations. You entiendes?

Sybil was not sure of the word, but the meaning was clear.

She understood.

These people had been cheated, treated like slaves, threatened and turned out.

It made her furious.

Carlita filled Sybil in on the details as they drove.

Sybil collected bedding and stopped by a fried chicken fast food restaurant and bought enough food for two meals for the families.

“What if I go to McDonald and talk to him about getting you your money?” she asked Carlita.

“Don’t do that, Doña, por favor.

We do not have green cards.

We will have to go back.

It is very hard for us there.

And the immigrations will put us in jail.

There is a new law now for ten years.

They don’ just send us back.

We will be separate from the niños. Por favor.”

Sybil recognized the realities.

The mood in the country was to turn the illegals in to the law and to prosecute them. Relations with Mexico had deteriorated to the level of diplomatic formality over the question. Since the death of NAFTA during the Preston administration that had seen the reversal of almost all of the socialistic and liberal policies of the Clinton and the Gore administrations, the Mexicans had publicly and loudly proclaimed that the Norteamericanos had betrayed them once again.

The borders were much more effectively sealed, and the steam escape valve that the border had once provided the pressure cooker of poverty and corruption to the south was no longer efficacious.

Things were indeed very hard down there.

Sybil was sympathetic and assured Carlita that she would not interfere.

The two women drove the rest of the way back to Sybil’s ranch in silence.

Sybil was germinating a thought.

After the food was distributed and the blankets laid for the meager night’s rest they would afford, Sybil approached Carlita and Pancho with her idea.

“I have a business proposition to make to you, to all of you.”

The couple put down their food so as to avoid the discourtesy of talking with food in their mouths.

Si?” asked Pancho. “We are listening, please.”

“My ranch is falling apart, and not much work has been done on it for many years as you can see.”

They nodded.

“I thought you could come and work with me, work for me, and we could build a good place together.

I will pay you honest pay for honest work.

I will not cheat you or report you.

I ask you only to work well for me.

What do you think?” she asked them in a business voice.

She was not offering charity, and wanted that to be clear.

It was the dignity of work and business.

They were taken aback.

It was too much good fortune in one day for them not to be suspicious.

They were used to being cheated by the farmers and ranchers who employed them, and had to wonder whether this time would be any different.

“We must talk about this,” responded Pancho.

There followed a lengthy conversation, sometimes with raised voices and shaking heads.

“We will start out with honesty, Doña.

We have no place else to go.

It would hurt us bad for you to cheat us.

We ask that you think of us as people, like yourself.

Please do well by us, and we will work most hardly for you.

We agree to work.

Please not to let immigrations know,” Pancho said.

He was a man of dignity, and it pained him deeply to seem to be begging.

“I give you my promise, Pancho.

I will come back tomorrow, and you can help me with what we need to do to get started. The first thing I can see is the need to get you all into decent places to stay.”

The arrangement worked nearly perfectly.

The Mexicans were grateful and demonstrated their appreciation by working as only Hispanics and Chinese can do.

The first weeks were spent in building simple cottages for the workers.

The Mexicans marveled that they were being paid to build their own habitations.

And Sybil was as good as her word.

She paid each adult a regular bi-weekly wage in cash.

In a few months painted white fences grew, the old house was torn down, and the approach road became smooth.

Sybil began to feel that she was getting the best of the bargain.


Carter Tarkington was accurate in his prediction.

Paul Bel Geddes made an offer to settle the Thollier case for $40,000, about his costs to date.

When Tarkington sent a terse negative reply, Bel Geddes wrote:


Dear Carter,

You win. I lose. Send the dismissal and waiver papers for the Thollier case. I’ll get you next time; the McNeely case is mine!

As always,



Sybil was at once pleased at the result and annoyed at the effrontery of the trial attorney.

It was apparent that it was all a game to him, something about winning and losing. Sybil took it personally, the latest installment merely increased her growing odium for the man.


Two years later, as the McNeely trial loomed with reality on the horizon, the patience of the judge for Bel Geddes’s continuations nearly exhausted, Sybil began to study the case from every aspect with the zeal of a missionary.

The approaching trial made her nervous and irritable.

Her husband, Charles, and El Caballo Suave Ranchero provided the only effective solace for her.

Charles was a rock, a listener, a friend.

The ranch now had a row of attractive cottages, the framework of a rambler house, and her two Tennessee Walking Horses, the first breeding stock.

The day of the trial, itself, was a melancholy one, a rift in the fabric of Sybil’s life that had otherwise become so harmonious and satisfying.

She dreaded the trial, but most of all, she had to steel herself for that eventual day when the findings of the jury would either absolve her or condemn her.


Judge Kendricks let the jury go early after Tarkington rested the defense case, and the two attorneys had presented their summations.

Kendricks wanted them to be morning fresh to be able to concentrate on his delivery.

She took her instructions very seriously and expected everyone else to do so.

Her parting words to the attorneys were, “Meet me in chambers in an hour.

We will hammer out the jury instructions if it takes all night.

I want to give them the instructions bright and early tomorrow and have them in deliberation no later than ten.”

For all the work that had gone into the instructions, they seemed obvious, simple, and concrete to Sybil.

She was not sure what all of the fuss had been about.

Her main, in fact, her only concern, was getting the jury out to their deliberations and their returning with a verdict.

When she finished, Judge Kendricks thanked the jury for their efforts, for doing their collective duty thus far, and sent them to the jury room.

Sybil had never been a religious person, it was hard for neurosurgeons to believe in powers greater than themselves both from the standpoint of arrogating good results to their own efforts and of consigning their bad results to the agency of outside malign forces, and to their near universal faith in learnable science.

At the moment the jury left to deliberate, however, Sybil Norcroft knew why the old expression, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ had such enduring currency.

She gave an awkward little prayer for herself unsure whether to address Father or Mother in Heaven.


I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.