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September 24, 2014 Fiction


Alison Mccabe

Verdict photo

Wednesday morning, I grew a third eye, and no one had the basic human decency to look the other way. In the Jury Assembly Room, in FamilyFun Magazine, I read an article about eighty percent of Americans who suffer physical symptoms induced by stress. My third eye. A pimple I popped too soon. Twenty-nine and still breaking out.

I’d been waiting in the Jury Assembly Room for so many hours, time seemed to lap itself, and it got to the point where I couldn’t remember ever having been anywhere else but that very room, in that very row, staring at that very worn, very orange carpet under my feet. Four bathroom breaks. Two out of necessity, two because my legs started to do that bouncy thing they do after awhile, like they want to break away, like I hear them exclaim in stunning falsetto, “Come on, Hector, you wet blanket you, we just wanna dance!”.

I popped the pimple early Wednesday morning, before heading to Pima County Superior Court. There was no concealer in the house since last month when Maggie moved out, so I tried dabbing it with baby powder. Maybe it goes without saying that, since Maggie moved out, there’s no baby in the house either.

Some might say it’s fitting, then, how I run tech support for Little Hands Big Hearts, or how our nonprofit chose M.A.D.D. to share the proceeds of Thursday’s business luncheon. I’d say it has nothing to do with it. Nobody died that afternoon, lest we forget. It’s not like I killed anybody.

And did you notice how, the night Maggie left, she remembered her every-colored makeup in every compact or tube, but forgot to pack powder for our poor Charlie horse? 

In the Jury Assembly Room, a woman sitting beside me asked for the time, and I didn’t say a word, didn’t raise my head or turn, only shrugged. My third eye had left me feeling open, and not in any positive, self-actualized way. More splayed.

I had muscle tension like thirty percent of Americans according to FamilyFun, fatigue like fifty-one, reduced sex drive, upset stomach, nine to five, manila envelopes, lunch in a microwave safe container.

Except that afternoon it was, in theory, good, how jury duty got me out of the office. And Thursday’s luncheon was, in theory, good, how it would mix up the daily. The luncheon was a fundraiser. There were going to be M.others A.gainst D.runk D.riving, but I was hoping not just mothers. Or, if just mothers, maybe their husbands, lovers, baby’s daddies left them long ago. 

I closed FamilyFun Magazine, put it down on the orange, worn carpet under my seat, and picked at a spider bite behind my ear until time lapped itself again. Then came “Hector Jud.” A voice bellowed it and, instead of “here”, I called out “hallelujah”. I’ve never been great with numbers in a practical sense, like guess how many jelly beans are in a jar, but I knew there had to be at least three hundred of us in the Jury Assembly Room, three hundred easy, so the fact that they picked my name out of so many, when not many names were even picked, felt reason enough to thank the Lord. Anything to get me out of there, didn’t matter where I was headed. Waiting had to be the worst of it.

“Good luck,” the guy next to me said. He looked like my father in a photo circa 1975. Same thick-rimmed glasses, same flannel short-sleeve shirt. His hair was parted way over to one side, but it was a good head of hair, not even close to balding, so I didn’t see the point. “Bring that loser to justice,” he said.

“Yes sir, right away sir.” I knocked my heels together and raised my hand in mock salute.

“Loser,” the guy said again, and I wasn’t sure who he meant this time. Like my father alright, through and through.

So they picked twenty-one of us and were going to narrow it down to nine, but first they came at us with questions like what do you do for a living and have you ever been convicted of a crime?

No, I said, never.

And then there I was sitting in the jury stand, listening as the judge explained what he meant by admonition and the prosecutor’s burden. I’d never been in a courtroom before, and it got me thinking. Isn’t it unfair how Maggie treats me like a criminal? I mean, seeing as it could have happened to anybody. Thing is, I’m still serving time.

For one, it wasn’t night, no, but the sun was overhead and blinding, so in its own way it was impossible to see. And she’d driven my truck earlier that day since the AC quit on her Altima, and I’d offered, said, “honey, take mine,” but she changed the mirrors and left them, so it’s no wonder my visibility was lousy backing out of the garage. Plus why she let Charlie play on the gravel, licking dirt off her fingers in the middle of the driveway, I’ll never know. All I saw was Maggie out of the corner of my eye standing under the craggy mesquite, screaming her head off, but you must understand such behavior was not uncommon, so I didn’t think twice, or stop.

I was moving at a freaking crawl. And I didn’t touch her, not so much as nick a little toe, because she was so small and my Interco Super Swamper TSL Tires so awesomely big, the baby just slipped right under, right down the middle, didn’t even bump her little head on the exhaust pipe.

What’s the harm then? She came out the other side same as she started, cheeks pink, hair straight up like she’d seen a ghost. But that’s just how her hair always looked after we dried her off from a bath. That’s just Charlie.

Maggie gave me so much grief the day I bought those Super Swamper TSL Tires, but that afternoon I said to her, shaking, “those tires saved our baby’s life.” It was a miracle, I thought, evidence God had to be on our side. If the tires were any smaller, Charlie’s little head might have been cut clean off.

Maggie didn’t like that. “I’m taking you to the Days Inn,” she said.

“I’ll drive myself.”

“Not on my watch, you’re not driving anywhere.”

That’s how Maggie got when I got how I did. That time, though, I was only two beers in.

It was a mess. Is, I should say. Some days I still don’t answer Maggie’s calls. But knowing you’re dealing with a mess doesn’t make it any easier to put the pieces back in place. Somehow you stay broken.

The next witness was late, so the judge said we were going to take ten, but not to worry because he’d let us out on time, no later than quarter to five. He also said the case would go long and we’d need to report back tomorrow. There goes the M.A.D.D. luncheon, I thought, but was already over it, because I admittedly liked the jury duty business, how useful I might become.

We were led into another room, just for us, the jury. That was where we waited. There was an electric tea kettle on a shelf in the corner, but no mugs, no cups, no bags of tea. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other about the case until deliberation so, if not that to discuss, then what?

I thought about Charlie, the night before our last together, when Maggie went out for gelato with an old college friend, and the baby and I stayed home. Charlie and I didn’t do much—that’s just how Charlie was—but she must have felt the bond too because she kept gripping the tip of my thumb in her fist. I put Charlie to bed just like Maggie instructed, even sang Puff the Magic Dragon as her eyes closed. While Charlie slept, I made three packets of oatmeal and watched the Diamondbacks on mute so I could listen for the littlest whimper. Then, when she cried, I rushed to her crib, and we danced together until she turned into the prettiest sack of potatoes right there in my arms, asleep again. I felt drunk that night, that’s how good a mood I was in, like I could do anything that needing doing, like I was just the man for the job.

Maggie didn’t get back until two hours after she’d said she would, and the first thing she asked was if I remembered to rotate Charlie. At this, I slammed the bathroom door, took an extra long, extra hot shower, and flossed my teeth so hard my gums still ached by the time I finally made it to bed. Her asking really pissed me off, and I told her as much. I said yes, of course I rotated Charlie, who did she take me for?, how could I forget? Because we’d read an article earlier that week that said you want to reposition the baby’s head several times during the night, so their skulls, as they harden, don’t flatten more on one side than the other. We laughed at the idea then, of spinning babies to roast evenly on their spits. We contemplated Charlie with a hard, bitter, egghead life. If too hideous for this world, we’d raise her in the basement and then, when she was old enough, the Coney Island Sideshow would pay us a hefty lump sum. A bidding war, we imagined, between circus freaks, straw haired scientists drooling at her research potential, and plastic surgeons eager for the opportunity to set themselves above the rest. The way we saw it, however Charlie’s life went, someone would come out a winner.

So we laughed and laughed, but then we agreed, we promised, to rotate our baby just as the article said. Except I hadn’t actually remembered to the night I looked after Charlie, not once, and I assumed the damage had been done.

I know about the third eye, watched a special on TV. What do they say, that it’s all-knowing, a window to the soul? Not mine. I swept my hair across my forehead to cover the scab. There was real angst. No different from the journal entries I wrote at fourteen. But what have I learned since? What did I know then that I don’t now? Then it felt like epiphany.

I’ll tell you what’s it’s like. Once, in tenth grade, I borrowed my sister’s razor to shave the wiry black hairs that had sprouted from my chest, at the center and around what my four-year-old self had proudly dubbed my two pepperonis. The razor was a last resort; first I scrubbed with her loofa to see if the hairs would rub off, then made uneven cuts with kitchen scissors. I irritated the skin; my chest bled a little. When it came time to swim in Kim Marlow’s pool that weekend, I said I was sick in bed with strep throat.

It’s not that I didn’t dream of body hair like other kids my age, it just grew before I did. I felt like a clown dressed in clothes two sizes too big. No matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t fooling anybody.

You have to understand, then, why I went to the Days Inn that night, as Maggie demanded, without a fuss. And why I stayed for two nights after, long enough for Maggie to pack up and move out. You understand why I won’t fight her on the divorce, or on joint custody, why I won’t cushion the pockets of some lawyer when we both already know what is and is not rightfully ours. Why I keep this quiet. Why I told my mom that Maggie was in Houston for business, and Charlie fast asleep the last time she called. Why I didn’t say goodnight to Charlie before I left, why I never will again. My Charlie horse. 

A minute later, the bailiff stepped in. He was a round man whose suspenders actually served a purpose, which I don’t think you see often, and I appreciated this about him. He held up his hand and said, forget it, we could go home shortly, since the defendant announced he wants to plead guilty.

“What,” I snapped. “Are you kidding me?” The trial had only just started.

The bailiff said he saw it happen before.

I asked if I could serve on another case. Because truth is, this news didn’t sit right with me. I felt like I’d been cheated.

The bailiff rolled his eyes. “Get out of here,” he said.

Something must wear them down, courtroom procedures maybe, or all the talk of judgment, oaths, God.  It’s exhausting, enough to knock you right out, but still. The thing I want to know is what good does a confession do? Does guilty mean I’m sorry? Does I’m sorry save Charlie? From me? For me to try again?

image: Jac Jemc