(Writers @ Work Contest Winner, selected by Mat Johnson)
Maggie can’t make up her mind, but Zach says the boy’s guilty, fry the son-of-a-bitch. Maggie finishes drawing on her lipstick, blots her lips on a tissue and says you can’t jump to conclusions like that, so much of the evidence is circumstantial. She glances in the mirror at Zach, who stands at the foot of the bed pulling on his pants. She drops the lipstick tube into her purse and snaps it shut, then appraises herself in the mirror, turning her head from side to side and fluffing up her hair.
Zach says the guy has guilt written all over him and he’d personally flip the switch himself, and she swivels on the vanity bench to face him. I wish you wouldn’t be that way, she says, we haven’t heard all the evidence yet. I like you better when you’re not so mean. Which is not exactly true, she kind of likes that brutish thing about him, that gruffness. Like the way he growls sometimes, not necessarily at her but sometimes at inanimate objects, such as an unruly room key or a menu that doesn’t have what he wants to order.
He has moved to the bed, where he sits in his undershirt and pants tugging on his socks. Watching him from the vanity bench, she notices this, the rough way he stabs his feet into his socks. Not the way Roger does, by first rolling them up, then unrolling them over his ankles, the way women used to put on their nylons. But that’s Roger, not exactly feminine, but finicky.
They’re not supposed to talk about the trial until all the evidence is in – which should be tomorrow, and she doesn’t know how she feels about that, about the trial moving so swiftly toward the day she has to go home to Roger – but then they’re probably not supposed to be sleeping together either, although no one explicitly said not to.
She frowns at Zach just to show him she’s her own person. He smiles up at her from the bed, a big open smile intended to convey that he doesn’t believe one tiny wrinkle about that frown, and she wilts a little. She loves it when he smiles like that. She likes his smile even more than she likes his bark.
You go on ahead, he says. I’ll catch up to you downstairs. It’s best we’re not seen together anyway. He stands and begins buttoning up his shirt.
Waiting for the elevator, Maggie thinks about what she has started, and started is precisely the right word, because she has no desire to end it yet. She doesn’t know how long it will last, but she wants it to run its course. Yes, run its course, she thinks, picturing a river winding gently, lovingly, toward some glorious destination, a tropical lagoon maybe, or a bay with whitecaps crashing on huge, black rocks. She doesn’t feel guilty about it. Or does she? At least she doesn’t feel she feels guilty about it.
And then she has to ask herself about Roger, whom she has always said she loves, but now wonders about that word love, if she has any idea what it means. What impressed her about Roger when they first met, all those years ago, was how honest and considerate he was, the way he always opened the door for her and pulled out her chair in restaurants. Gallant, she thought then. Now, she sometimes thinks of him as just an over-aged Boy Scout. Anyway, Zach provides something Roger doesn’t, probably can’t. Zach lives in a much simpler world, a world without . . . nuance? . . . now there was a word, where on earth had she learned it? Not from the girls at the bank, that’s for sure. But nope, no nuances in Zach’s world, everything black and white, like in those old John Wayne westerns, and there’s something attractive about that, something uncomplicated and easy to deal with.
And maybe he was right about the kid. There was that issue of the knife they found in his satchel. Same size and type as the murder weapon, the forensics guy said. And the two witnesses Zach kept harping about, although one did owe the kid money. And she regrets, just a little, having broken the rules by discussing the trial. But you wait your whole life for an encounter like this, and what would it be like if you didn’t speak your mind? It’s all about intimacy.
Zach has never asked her about Roger, and she has never asked Zach about his wife and kids, although she sometimes thinks about them and wonders if Zach ever thinks about Roger. Probably not. She doesn’t have any kids for Zach to think about, but he probably wouldn’t think about them if she did.
The elevator doors slide open, and she enters. She smiles at the only other occupant, a distinguished-looking man in a gray suit carrying a briefcase. He has the look of a diplomat, or a high-level executive, someone important. The man returns her smile – approvingly, she thinks – revealing an array of perfectly straight teeth. Wow.
She has brought her nicest clothes to the hotel, and she is pretty sure she looks good in her blue dress and matching heels. So far she has been able to wear a different outfit each day, but soon she will have to begin wearing one or two outfits a second time. Which is okay, but if the trial drags on she may have to find a way to ‘mix and match’ to avoid wearing the same outfit yet a third time.
Maggie exits the elevator on the second floor and heads for the conference room where the jurors assemble each morning for breakfast before boarding the minibus for the courthouse.
The conference room receives her graciously in a sheen of white linen and a glitter of goblets, lacking only a bowing attendant on either side of the door to complete a picture of perfect gentility. My, you have to be impressed with the job they are doing, the buffet laid out with gleaming stainless steel servers so neatly spaced on perfectly white table cloths, the diners’ tables each with a centerpiece of fresh flowers and chrome carafes of coffee. And the way the napkins – real linen napkins – protrude like white flowers from those tall, sparkling goblets. Everything so clean and elegant she wishes the girls at the bank could see it. It just goes to show that the hotel appreciates them, understands the importance of their task.
Most of the other jurors are already there when Maggie enters, milling about the buffet or seated at one of the tables. George Daniels says, Good morning, Maggie, as he passes her with a plate heaped high with pancakes and bacon, and Millie Wilson, who is kind of a strange bird, leans over a serving bowl, spooning a few grapefruit wedges onto her plate. All Millie ever eats is about three wedges of grapefruit and a single slice of wheat toast.
Harold Brodsky, the foreman, nods at Maggie and checks her off the list on his clipboard. Zach volunteered for the foremanship, but the jurors elected Brodsky, a tax attorney, and Maggie has to admit he does a good job, making everybody feel necessary, creating a real team atmosphere, while at the same time reminding them not to talk about the evidence. And now Harold wanders over to Millie Wilson – who is just standing there like a fawn lost in the forest, with her three wedges of grapefruit covering about one percent of the space on her plate – and says, How are you this morning, Millie?
Just trying to keep an open mind, Millie says in that mousy way of hers, and Maggie thinks, Millie, your mind is so open everything has fallen out of it.
When all those hands shot up for Brodsky and Zach’s face fell, just dropped like a windsock in a sudden calm, Maggie felt bad for him. Afterwards, during their break, she meandered over and told him she was sorry he hadn’t won, and that it should have been done by secret ballot. Zach said yeah, he didn’t understand why the show of hands, some of the jurors might have felt intimidated, and did she want to have lunch with him. And that’s how it all started.
Maggie realizes she’s famished – amazing what sex can do for your appetite, ha-ha – and packs her plate with scrambled eggs and hash browns, then wonders if it looks tacky, her plate heaped up almost as high as George Daniels’, and scoops off a clump of hash browns and plops it back into the server. She sits down across from Ana Martinez and fills her coffee cup from one of the carafes on the table. Ana smiles at her, and Maggie thinks she catches Ana glancing down at her (Maggie’s) plate.
Maggie sometimes gets the feeling that because Ana is a social worker, she thinks she has some special qualifications that the other jurors do not. Maggie also suspects some of the jurors are leery of Ana because she is of the same affiliation as the defendant, Benito Santiago.
Marilyn Zimmerman, a divorcee about Maggie’s age, slides into the chair next to Maggie, which is fine because Maggie and Zach have already decided not to sit next to each other to avoid suspicion.
When Zach finally arrives and lifts a plate from the stack at the buffet table, Maggie makes a conscious effort not to look at him. She smiles at Ana Martinez and says, Did you sleep well? then mentally slaps herself for asking such a humdrum question.
Like a baby, says Ana, with no accent whatsoever, sounding just like any other American, which Maggie finds amazing. She thinks the same thing whenever a Chinese person, or Japanese, one of those Asians, obviously Asian with those slanted eyes and black hair and all that, comes to her window at the bank and talks just like any other American, which doesn’t happen often, but it does sometimes, and anyway, it gives her a good feeling, like we really are all the same under the skin, aren’t we?
Zach sits down at the other table, next to Harold Brodsky, who hands him a stack of lunch menus before he’s even picked up his napkin and asks him to pass them on. Brodsky hands another stack to George Daniels, who is seated to his left, then stands and reminds everyone to make their lunch selections and return them to him before they board the minibus for the courthouse. He asks if anyone has any questions then says, okay, fine, I don’t want to rush you, but we’ve only got ten minutes.
The low din of voices rumbling through the courtroom dwindles to a hush as the jurors file into the jury box. Like actors on a stage, they are the object of all eyes in the house, a sea of upturned faces studying them. Feeling adventurous, Maggie has finagled a place in the line directly behind Zach in order to sit beside him in the box. Once seated, she smooths her skirt, bumps her knee against Zach’s, and he frowns at her. Among the field of spectators, Maggie recognizes the families of both the victims and the defendant, Benito Santiago, in the first row. In the next row sit mostly reporters, who are conspicuous by the press badges hanging from their necks and the clipboards in their laps.
Maggie likes the courtroom, its formality, the shiny wood railing separating the spectators from the participants, the judge in his black robe presiding from his elevated dais – king of his kingdom – which actually has steps he has to climb, lifting his robe so he doesn’t trip. She could just picture that, oh my, the judge stepping on the hem of his robe and lurching forward, arms flailing, like Jerry Lewis.
But just now he’s a picture of solemnity, peering down at his subjects over the rim of his spectacles. Bailiff, would you close the doors, and, click, click, the doors are closed. He pushes his glasses up on his nose and looks over the papers the bailiff has placed on his desk, nodding sagely. He is educated and wise, in possession of inscrutable knowledge. Knowledge that will ultimately determine the fate of Benito Santiago if the jury finds him guilty. Pronounce sentence on that poor kid like God’s own finger knifing down through the clouds.
You get goose bumps just thinking about it.
Santiago, a timid, wide-eyed boy, is called to the witness chair and shuffles forward like a pupil to the front of the class. Perched on the chair with his hands in his lap, he has the baffled look of a puppy stranded on an ice floe. The judge asks him to raise his right hand, and he just stares in open-mouthed bewilderment until the translator repeats the request in Spanish. Then his right arm shoots up like a jack-in-the-box.
The testimony is confusing to Maggie, since they have to wait for each question and Santiago’s answer to be translated. Often by the time she hears the English translation of his response, she has forgotten the prosecutor’s question. She is able to sift out that Santiago admitted to arguing with the victim, Julio Moreno, but denied threatening him. He denied the argument had anything to do with the woman, who was also murdered, but claimed it was over a shirt that somehow found its way from Santiago’s pile of clothes at the Laundromat into Moreno’s laundry bag.
In the jury room they find their lunches waiting for them, spaced around the table in small white bags. Stapled to the top of each bag is a juror’s name and the name of his or her selection. Maggie finds the bag labeled Margaret Forrester, Tuna Salad, and sits down.
She opens the bag and withdraws the sandwich, but her mind is stuck on the shirt in the wrong laundry bag, on how easy that could happen while separating clothes on one of those long tables in a public Laundromat. Wouldn’t just everybody recognize that as an honest mistake? Even a suspicious person like Zach wouldn’t get all in a huff over it. Would he? Surely Benito Santiago didn’t kill two people over an old shirt. She’s dying to talk to the others about it, but of course she can’t. Can she?
Maggie wants to get this right. Never in her life has she felt such a weight of responsibility. A person’s life in her hands! Well, not only her hands, of course, but still it’s something to . . .
It would be terrible to think you’d convicted an innocent man. Just terrible. But then, when you think about it, it would be just as terrible to know that a killer was on the loose because you let your hand go up with the others when the foreman took the “not guilty” vote. You simply had to get it right. If Benito Santiago is guilty, he has to pay his debt to society, even if he is only seventeen, and even if the judge determines that the debt is his life.
She peers into the bag looking for the pickle – she likes the pickle they always drop in there wrapped in deli paper, twisted at both ends like a sausage – and spots it half covered by a paper plate cupped into the bottom of the bag.
Maggie takes a bite of her sandwich and glances around the table at the other jurors. Zach is chatting with George Daniels – probably talking baseball, he’s a big Phillies fan – and Marilyn Zimmerman, seated to Maggie’s left, is forking up something over rice that reeks of garlic. Maggie turns her head away but resists the urge to bat away the smell with a swipe of her hand. Her gaze falls on Millie Wilson who is poking at her salad with a plastic fork, just turning over the leaves and cherry tomatoes and stabbing gently at the slices of cucumber. She does this with one hand, her other folded in her lap, her head cocked slightly – dreamily? – to the side.
Fumes from Marilyn Zimmerman’s garlic-ridden dish swarm up Maggie’s nostrils forcing her to take a deep breath without using her nose, and wow, that really doesn’t blend well with the tuna fish in her stomach, but it’s all part of learning to tolerate other people’s peculiarities. The world is not all white gloves and perfect manners.
At the thought of manners, she dabs at her mouth with her napkin just in case there’s a wisp of mayonnaise wedged in a corner. It’s a good practice, she thinks, when in public, to wipe your mouth after each bite.
They still have twenty minutes when Ana Martinez rises and leaves for the ladies’ room. Maggie drops her napkin in her plate and follows Ana. There are two stalls in the ladies’ room, and Maggie watches Ana take the far stall, the one against the back wall, then steps into the other. She doesn’t have to pee – she didn’t drink anything – so she just sits listening to the trickle of Ana’s urine and then the flush of the toilet. She flushes her toilet and steps out of the stall. Ana is washing her hands at one of the basins. The faucets are the kind that turn on automatically when you put your hands under them – and gee, it’s amazing the marvels these days – so Maggie sticks both hands under the faucet next to Ana and triggers a sudden blast of warm water. Glancing at her face in the mirror, she’s about to say isn’t this trial interesting, just to get Ana talking about it, when she spots a speck of something, just a little dot high on her cheek beneath her right eye that must be a wayward fleck of eyeliner. With her little finger, she carefully flicks away the speck then says, so what do you think, Ana? and Ana says, heart-wrenching, just heart-wrenching.
Well, of course it’s heart-wrenching, but that’s not really an answer. That’s not any information at all. She watches Ana blot her lipstick with a tissue and says I just don’t know what to think, I’ve got so many questions. Ana smiles at her and says, well we haven’t heard all the evidence yet.
Well, okay, little Miss Goody Latina Twoshoes. Who wants your opinion anyway?
On the last day of testimony, the prosecution shows a video of the crime scene. Again, Maggie sits beside Zach in the jury box. The judge scans the jury to be sure they are all seated and ready – clip boards put away, noses blown, hands in their laps and quiet as church mice – then remarks that he feels obligated to warn them that some of the video may be disturbing. He nods his stately head to the prosecutor, Mr. Ainge, who is fiddling with the two remotes that lower the video screen and dim the lights. As the screen comes down, Mr. Ainge explains that a lot of what they are about to see might seem irrelevant because the investigators always film everything connected to the crime scene without regard to its importance. What is important is decided later by the detectives and, ultimately, by the jury, which is why they are showing the entire tape, not just selected segments. Mr. Ainge has a friendly, fatherly demeanor that makes Maggie want to trust him, which probably doesn’t work in Santiago’s favor.
Benito Santiago sits next to his attorney with the same baffled look he has worn throughout the trial, not understanding a word of the prosecutor’s explanation. Maggie catches a last glimpse of his face, with those pitiful puppy eyes, just before the room goes dark and a date, in white, appears on the black screen. The video flickers to a shot of a mobile home on concrete blocks in a trailer park, a small aluminum building with rusted edges and a metal awning over the door. It’s dark outside, and cicadas can be heard rattling in the trees. A small crucifix dangles from a chain in one of the jalousie windows.
The camera pans the kitchen area – a countertop cluttered with half-open cans, an open carton of milk, a breakfast bowl with a spoon and a thin residue of milk still inside, a few dirty dishes, an old, slanting stove with a sauce pan on one burner and an ancient refrigerator with rounded edges and a box of Ritz crackers on top, all of which is just too sad . . . or maybe disgusting, Maggie can’t decide which, although she knows some people – Zach, for example, and maybe some others, but definitely Zach – would lean toward disgusting, claiming that all that clutter and mess just goes to show what kind of riffraff we’re dealing with.
The camera sweeps slowly over a living area of toppled furniture – chairs, lamps and odds and ends scattered all over the place. A coffee table with a broken leg slopes like a ramp to the stained, threadbare carpet, and the television, knocked from its stand, lies on its side on the floor. A trail of dark spots that, oh yuck, must be blood leads into the bedroom, and the camera, thank God, lifts them over this gruesome stretch and through the open doorway, where they see the disheveled bed with a pair of blue jeans tossed in among the rumpled sheets. Oh boy, blood just everywhere here, a bloom of it on the far wall and – a chorus of startled oh’s shoots up behind Maggie in the jury box – a man, right there on the floor, a dead man, lying face up, staring at the ceiling with vacant eyes, his neck and bare chest red with blood. He is barefoot, wearing only a pair of baggy shorts. Although his chest is covered with blood, you can see a number of dark slits where the knife pierced the flesh.
In the bathroom they find the woman, a small, thin figure crumpled between the toilet and the bathtub, her bloody nightdress swirled up to her crotch, revealing her sex. It is impossible to judge her age. At the sight of the woman, Maggie gasps and clutches Zach’s thigh.
The jury room is hushed following the video, all eyes lowered, gazing at their hands on the table or their legal pads. Maggie figures everyone is either thinking about what they have just seen or trying not to think about it. George Daniels sits leaning back in his chair, legs crossed and his pad on his knee, doodling, and Marilyn Zimmerman splays her fingers on the edge of the table and inspects her nails. Finally, Brodsky stands and says, well, let’s take things one at a time.
Brodsky asks if anybody wants to comment on the video they just saw, which prompts them to look at one another, everybody waiting for somebody else to talk. But nobody says anything, which makes perfectly good sense to Maggie because what can you say about two dead bodies in a trailer? She wants to know what the others think about the knife and the witnesses and all that.
Brodsky summarizes the prosecution’s version of events, that Santiago surprised the couple in bed, that Sonia Calderon fled to the bathroom while Moreno was being stabbed, and that when Santiago finished with Moreno, he went into the bathroom and killed Calderon. Anybody have any problems with this?
Zach says, well, it doesn’t explain the mess in the living room and the blue jeans on the bed, I mean you’d think they’d take the clothes off the bed before they . . . but then I don’t know the habits of these people, and Ana Martinez shoots Zach a look of naked disdain.
The point is, continues Zach, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if things happened the way the prosecution says or not. Maybe he burst in on them watching television, maybe they had dinner together, who cares?
Brodsky asks some of the others their opinions, and Maggie can see he’s trying to get everyone involved. He’s good that way. Then, oh boy, next in his sights is Millie Wilson, and he says, Millie, what do you think?
Millie looks up, then immediately drops her head and speaks, almost whispers, into her hands, which are busy in her lap working on the fabric of her dress. Oh, I don’t know, she says.
But you saw the film, Millie, what about the blue jeans on the bed? Millie shrinks further into herself and confesses that she didn’t watch the video, kept her eyes closed the whole time, and Brodsky says, oh Millie, you’re going to have to see it, it’s part of the evidence.
But I can’t, she says, I just can’t. I can’t do this.
Everybody stares at Millie, and Maggie tries to read their expressions. Is it sympathy or simple disbelief? If Millie drops out, they’ve got a hung jury, and the trial is over, and Maggie doesn’t know how she feels about that. It sure would make seeing Zach less convenient, without the hotel and all.
Millie shakes her head and says okay, okay, and a collective sigh wafts through the room.
Maggie glances up at the clock on the wall, notes the time, 4:01, and the thin, red second hand sweeping slowly around the face, and thinks right now Roger is probably leaving the office – he always leaves early on Fridays. She can just picture him slipping on his jacket and stepping out of his little cubicle on the fourth floor with his briefcase, whose contents are a real mystery, since he never opens it once he gets home.
She hears Ana and Zach arguing about the witness who claimed to see Santiago lurking around the trailer, but she’s thinking about Roger’s briefcase, which would sit beside the foyer table under the mirror unopened all night, until he picked it up in the morning. What you got in there, anyway, she sometimes teased, girlie pictures? She supposes the briefcase is just a habit, a kind of crutch that once might have had a purpose but is now just an accessory, a sort of security blanket. Like a lot of things. Like their marriage.
Zach brings up the knife found in Santiago’s satchel. Same size and type as the murder weapon, he says.
Same size and type does not mean same knife, George Daniels says, and Ana Martinez is quick to concur. Right, she says.
Poor Roger, he’d die if he knew about Zach. But he isn’t going to know about Zach, she will see to that. That is one kind of protection she can give him. She isn’t cruel, and even though she questions this whole concept of love, at least love with Roger, she still cares about him and will not do anything to hurt him.
I still think he’s guilty, Zach says. He had the motive, the opportunity and the knife, and that alibi is so weak . . . He is pulling things out of his pockets and placing them on the dresser, wallet, car keys, coins, cell phone. Watching TV with his sister, my ass.
I don’t know, says Maggie. You think she would lie for him? She goes into the bathroom and talks through the open doorway while checking her hair and makeup in the mirror. She pulls a square of toilet paper from the roll and dabs at the makeup under her eyes. Their stories matched up pretty well, she says, consistent, even though Ainge tried to trip them up. She lifts a tiny bottle from her purse and tips it upside down on her fingertip, then dabs her finger behind each ear, turning her head from side to side.
She comes out of the bathroom, kicks off her shoes, takes both of Zach’s hands, lightly, with just her fingers, and kisses him. He has already removed his shoes and shirt and stands in his stocking feet. You smell nice, he says.
I picked it up in the gift shop downstairs. I put it on for you.
She turns around and asks him to unzip her. She likes it when he unzips her dress, the unseen hand at her back, the whisper of the zipper sliding open, emulating the quiver rippling down her spine.
I still say fry the son-of-a-bitch, Zach says.
She steps out of her dress, slithers up to him and places both hands on his chest, caressing the short dark hairs between her fingers as if they were fine silk. She feels his hands drop to her hips and glances up to see the back of him in the mirror. Just his bare back and dark head, and her own eyes looking over his shoulder. In the mirror her eyes glisten, like cat eyes, but no one would know they belong to her; she is hidden behind the shield of his body. They are just two eyes, locked in an unknown face.
Guilty as sin, Zach says.
She lifts her face and smiles her most sultry smile. Let’s don’t talk about that now.