by Luke Jackson
part 1 of 2
He groaned, his fat body splayed across the bed, throttled by a twisted sheet. He was twitchy, sweaty and weak, and it felt as if the gravity had been turned up overnight — the world weighed on him heavily, especially on his forehead.
He got up jerkily and eyed himself in the mirror. His small, wrinkled eyes were shot with blood; his pepper-grey pompadour had become some kind of punk-rock mohawk, sticking straight up. His pale flab, usually no beautiful sight, was even worse — it seemed drained of blood, losing its usual pinkish hue, now grey and dead.
Even with this invisible vise strapped to his forehead, spurts and glimmers of last night returned — and he wished they hadn’t. He remembered coming home last night, much too confident after a few too many drinks, thinking his wife Nancy would never smell the sweet stink of liquor on him. Of course she had, like she always did.
Strange images came to him: her protuberant brown eyes, veins sticking out in her neck, shrieks and screams, threats and insults, shattered glass. He pressed such unwanted thoughts down, drowning them in the black sea of subconscious, where they belonged.
He was getting too old for this.
He splashed aftershave and cologne on his protuberant neck to cover up any remaining stench, then put on his usual white shirt and spotted silk tie. Yanking on his cuffs, he eyed himself in the mirror, struggling through the nausea for a gregarious persona, flashing pained smiles to himself in the mirror, taking only a brief intermission to vomit violently in the toilet. In his younger years, he would have prayed to God that he would never drink again, if he just got past this last hangover. Now, he was too old to keep lying to himself, and knew the cravings would return on the heels of the nausea’s dissipation — sometime this afternoon, probably.
He briefly wondered where she was. He wished she would just let him drink. God, how he wished she would just let him drink.
* * *
He rested his bulk on one of the stained varnished benches in the courtroom hall, exhaling heavily. He had spent the morning in a conference with Judge Dick, always a pleasant experience. Judge Dick, who had become mean and shriveled as a result of his unfortunate last name, took every opportunity to heap derision on the lawyers in his court, most of whom made far more money than the judge. He had made an all-too-easy target for Dick this morning.
He was comfortable here, in the dimly lit halls. He’d been practicing law in Kern County for decades now, and the court had become more of a home to him than any of his constantly-changing residences had ever been. He knew the other attorneys and court employees passing him in the halls, and was careful to smile, nod, or exchange brief words with each of them.
“Hey Joe,” he said with seeming warmth, taking the hand of Joseph Connelly, another old lawyer who had been barred about the same time he had been. Joe was what you would call a ‘success story’ in law, having worked his way up the caste hierarchy of one of the larger local firms, developing contacts in the business community and eventually making partner. Like most attorneys who spent their time representing large corporations, it seemed like his shirt collar was too tight most days.
“Hey Bob,” came Joe’s delayed response, taking his hand as if he had to think on it first. “It’s been a while.” Corporate-type lawyers like Joe were rarely in court. Bob didn’t know what they did — probably spent their days with clients on lush, expansive golf courses, while Bob was meeting his clients in the nearby county jail.
“I met your new associate — what’s his name, Ken?” Bob said, mentioning a young kid who had been showing up at the program recently. Ken was a quiet type, sent to the program by the State Bar for a few D.U.I. convictions rather than through any desire to get sober.
Bob could tell that the kid was just going through the motions, but hadn’t been in the system long enough to say the necessary words and make the necessary connections to get his bar license. Ken couldn’t see how helpful the program could be in explaining away bad actions... yet.
“Seems like a good kid,” Bob said.
“I think so,” Joe replied hesitantly, his furtive, bespectacled eyes flashing left and right, checking out the other attorneys.
Imagine an attorney of twenty-five years not comfortable in court, Bob thought.
“Listen,” Joe said, “I’d like to chat, but I have a client appointment coming up at 11:00.” He glanced down at the expensive watch on his wrist. “You take care, Bob, you hear?” He grabbed Bob’s arm and gave him a straight look in the eye.
“You too,” Bob replied. In the small Bakersfield legal community, word traveled fast. Now even the old corporate lawyers like Joe knew he was a drunk, and had even more reason to look down at him. Bob felt momentarily tense and edgy, but that was probably just the liquor sweating itself out of him.
‘Might as well brand A.A. on my forehead,’ he thought to himself as he resumed his perch on the court bench.
* * *
The jury verdict in the Nguyen case came in early that afternoon, just as he thought it would. He strode confidently up to the defense table, his usual hunched posture now erect, and gave a reassuring grin and pat to Nguyen. It was important to emanate confidence, but he was surprised to note that he actually felt confident as well.
The Vietnamese kid Nguyen looked good: wearing glasses, his hair slicked, wearing a blue button-down shirt and khakis. The kid looked a lot better than when he had first seen him, battered and bruised, goateed and wearing the orange jail uniform.
Surprisingly, the stiff kid had been able to emote at trial. Nguyen had actually broken down and given him a few tears during testimony, explaining that the car chase and resisting arrest charge were only the result of misunderstanding and an incomplete grasp of English.
The prosecutor’s argument that the kid was some kind of joy-riding gangbanger had rung false; Nguyen had no priors, decent grades, was raised in a strictly Catholic home. The kid had done a good job; Bob hadn’t had a case this clear-cut in a long time. He looked forward to a few celebratory drinks after the verdict.
The jury was led in. It was a pretty good mix, for him; he had been able to get several minorities, including one Cambodian. Bob glanced over at the prosecutor, a young kid fresh out of law school trying one of his first few cases. Bob was pleased to note that the kid was nervous; his frozen face was a bit too tense, and his adam’s apple jumped erratically.
‘He should be nervous,’ Bob thought.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?” asked Judge Espinoza, going through the pro forma motions. Bob smiled, remembering how he had partied with the judge once, a long, long time ago — drinks over at Maria’s, if he remembered right.
“We have, Your Honor,” replied the foreman — or foreperson, one of the elderly ladies that the prosecutor had managed to squeak in.
“What say you?”
“We the jury find the defendant guilty...” began the foreperson.
His breath whooshed out, and he held on to the table for support, momentarily dizzy.
He was no kid, and he had lost his fair share of trials, bigger ones than this. But usually he could feel the loss coming on, a sense of impending failure as the jury gathered before him. Now, he had never been so sure of a win.
His knuckles were white on the defense table; he pulled them back before anyone could notice. He glanced quickly over at the kid prosecutor, who was looking back at him, giving him a tight smirk and a wink.
‘I’m losing it,’ he thought to himself, as the bailiff took custody of the sullen and staring Nguyen.
* * *
He was back on the hallway bench, numb to his surroundings. He felt an overpowering sense of wrongness; by all rights, he should have won that case. He was on top of his game, he had been gazing directly into the eyes of the jurors, he had been effusive and expansive, he had convinced the jurors, one-on-one, with the evidence. Or at least, he thought he had. The kid Vietnamese Nguyen had been great too. The neophyte prosecutor had been damn sloppy. What had gone wrong?
He felt the tractor beam of drink and thought of Maria’s, a Mexican bar-restaurant where the other attorneys gathered. But they would smell the stink of failure on him, and he would make an ugly drunk right now.
He stood up and began walking towards the court exits, thick with the familiar metal detectors and idling guards.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Luke Jackson