You Have a Right to Remain Silent

by jkatejohnston

I forgot to mention that Rumpole of the Bailey’s agent passed on my book, so I sent it to Algonquin thinking I could somehow work into the query letter the fact that they rejected my diaries really nicely about twenty years ago. They liked the writing but couldn’t help noticing there was no story. I wanted to say something like, it’s still the same writing, but now there’s a story! But twenty years—well, it is a period, and I ended up not mentioning our previous Relationship.

I’ve been working on the next book—the one about poaching and caviar—and I’ve sort of caught the thread of it. The defendant is that rare creature who really can remain silent, though that ends up being a pain in the ass because she won’t talk to her defense team either. And then it turns out that remaining silent doesn’t do her any good because she’s charged with conspiracy, and her co-conspirators blab on and on, and it’s all used against them in court, fair enough, but also used against her in court, not fair enough, but the DA can do it because of the conspiracy charge. Ha!

I haven’t written any of that yet, and I have to read up on the evidence part, but here’s a scrap of the part I have written. As usual, there’s the problem of what to do with my essay-ish tendencies:

You have a right to remain silent, but almost nobody can do it. I don’t think I could. I’d want the cops to know exactly why I was remaining silent. And there are always mistakes in police reports. I’d want to point those out. And when someone speaks to you, there’s a powerful instinct to reply. Even babies do it.

Galina Oblonskaya said not one word. Not even “I want a lawyer.” Not even “No English.” Not even “Fuck you, I would say!” which we later learned was a favorite expression. She was made of stone.

Jill and I were in the attic watching this virtuoso display of silence on the interrogation video. My laptop was open on Jill’s empty sewing table, and we had two chairs pulled up. It was too warm for a fire but not warm enough to really be warm, so we were wrapped in quilts. There were three game wardens in the interrogation room sitting across from Oblonskaya, whom we still hadn’t met because she was out of custody, and she wouldn’t call me back.

“What is this?” said Jill, “Good cop/Bad cop/Medium cop?”

“Maybe everyone just wanted to be in the movie.” The game wardens went over their questions again. And again:

How long have you owned the À La Russe Market? Do you sell sturgeon? Do you sell caviar? Where do you make the caviar? Do you sell all the caviar in the store or distribute it wholesale? You know the word wholesale? Do you sell any caviar overseas? What about across state lines? Nevada? All those casinos up in Tahoe?

Then the game wardens left for a while. “I love this woman,” said Jill, “This never happens.” In the video, she sat and waited, and we sat and waited with her. Her hands looked a little grubby, or maybe just hard-working, and she folded them tightly on the table in front of her—a kind of two-handed fist. Her brown hair was very short, her small grey eyes were slightly slanted, and her face was wide across the cheekbones. There was something old-fashioned about her, but she wasn’t old—maybe in her mid-thirties. Time passed. We fast-forwarded, and in the speeded-up video the few movements that she made appeared jerky and fast. But mostly she just sat.

The game wardens came back a Russian interpreter, a woman I knew from several trials we’d been on together. So often people will warm up to someone from their own country, speaking their own language. Not Oblonskaya. They Mirandized her again, and the Russian interpretter gave the warnings in Russian. After a long string of questions in English and then Russian and no answers, the interpreter patted Oblonskaya’s folded-together hands and said something in Russian. She didn’t reply. One of the game wardens asked the interpreter what she’d just said.

“I said ‘Don’t worry. In America you don’t have to say anything.’ ”

“Yeah, I think she knows that,” he said, and the other two game wardens exchanged an eye-rolling glance: more foreigners moving here and using our freedoms against us. And stealing our fish.