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Jury duty in an Illinois prairie town. The county seat. Supposedly, an open-and-shut case. Drunk guy with a gun at a Halloween party. Helen tightened and retightened the clasp on her hair bun. She was having trouble concentrating on the testimony. Caw, caw, caw.
Black crows massed on the oaks outside the arched windows of the venerable courthouse. Caw, caw, caw. Low, afternoon sun illuminated the judge’s bench. The domed chamber resonated with gravitas, except for the crows and the blinking neon Royal DaySpa sign next door.
Helen, a middle-aged seamstress, was serving on her first jury. Finally, after all these years. Last to be chosen: a familiar situation. Jasper, her wiseacre, tow-truck driver husband, frequently joked that she must have been doing something to disqualify herself. Lifelong fears of a buried flaw. Last to get her license. Last to lose her virginity. All her friends had been called for jury duty, some more than once. But, as with those earlier thresholds, Helen explained it to herself as worth the wait. To more maturely appreciate the sacredness of the moment, and to dress appropriately. She fingered her great-grandmother’s brooch. Althea, the pioneer schoolteacher, would approve of this sober frock.
“Helen, are you coming to lunch?” asked the other female juror, a teller from the credit union.
“Where you all going?” Helen said.
“Over to Denny’s,” the bank teller said.
“Any better ideas?”
“Got an apple in my purse,” Helen said.
“Better ask the foreman for permission to stay.”
The foreman was a hunchback in a three-piece suit. Helen recognized him from the reference desk at the main library. He shrugged and tapped his watch. Whatever that meant. No one seemed too concerned by Helen’s immobility. Chairs creaked and scraped. Everyone went about their lunch business with a somnambulant resolve. The attorneys, the prosecutor, the defendant in his orange jumpsuit (too poor to bond), the smattering of relatives and aggrieved partygoers. And the esteemed judge, who Helen had voted for many times because of his patrician features that he used with closed-eye aplomb to ignore the trial while dozing.
Helen released the hold on her purse. She adjusted her dress and leaned back and breathed in the aura of the Law. She rubbed her neck and tried to imagine the look on Jasper’s face when she announced: “I stopped at Royal DaySpa on the way home and paid sixty bucks for a massage.” One lone figure, a woman wrapped in a ratty, black shawl, remained perched in the gallery. Her withered voice altered the silence.
“Like sitting in an empty church, ain’t it?” the woman croaked.
Helen offered no response. She tugged at her brooch.
“Hard to believe that when I was young, we girls still wanted to grow up to be nuns.”
Helen nodded ever so slightly and stifled a smile. Fearing a breach of courtroom etiquette.
“Instead I marry a dirt farmer and end up with a son who never could say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” the woman continued.
Too close for comfort. Helen’s son, Luke, had not called home for a month. And when he did call, it was mostly breathy silence. Luke was serving two years over in Terre Haute for illegally towing college students’ cars and extorting money to retrieve them. Helen sighed and closed her eyes, wishing she were at the restaurant with her peers.
“My boy done told his story honestly. Sat up there by the judge and bared his soul. All the ugly details. And nobody ended up hurt, remember. Except for his daddy who died of shame. That’s the punishment. That’s his cross to bear. The boy made a full confession and now he deserves a penance. You send him to prison and what happens to me?”
Clearly, Helen had made a mistake. Strayed from the flock and exposed herself to jury tampering. She coughed and reached again for her purse and pulled out a tissue. Helen jumped up and fled the chamber, coughing, pretending to some pulmonary distress.
She jaywalked across the street to Denny’s. Crow calls rained down upon her like jeers. Goddamn crows. She resolved to write a letter to the editor. Helen was known for her curt complaints on the opinion page. She began a draft in her head as she entered the restaurant. Thankfully, one space remained at the crowded banquette table in the corner at Denny’s. Afraid of being dismissed, Helen said nothing about the pathetic mother.
Helen accepted the bank teller’s offer of her leftover onion rings.
“What’s up?” the foreman asked.
“Checking in with my husband,” Helen said.
“You’re married to Jasper from the garage, right?” said the juror in blue sweatpants.
“How’s he doing? Used to be on my bowling team.”
“Jasper is Jasper.”
“That’s for sure. He wouldn’t put up with all this blather. Waste of our time. Don’t know why we had to listen to that punk kid incriminate himself all morning.”
The bank teller said, “Seemed that he wanted to get it off his chest. And if he’d pled guilty, wouldn’t have had the chance.”
“It’ll be over this afternoon,” the foreman said.
“Closing arguments could go on a while.”
“Nah, they’ve got other fish to fry.”
“Anybody want these chicken nuggets?”
All rise. Helen kept her eyes away from the gallery. She focused on the overweight teenage defendant. Sunlight splayed across the defense table. Bulbous head, small ears. A tattoo creeping up out of his collar at the side of his neck. The kid bit his fingers and glanced up repeatedly at his mother.
“A crime of passion is still a crime,” the prosecutor intoned.
The passion-defense did not fit this boy. More like a cataclysm of frustration, Helen thought. The judge issued instructions. The central charge: intimidation with a deadly weapon. Maximum sentence five years. Helen felt a hot flush on her cheeks. Chairs scraped again and a white-haired deputy led them single file to the deliberation room.
No windows. Bright overheads. Smell of cleaning products.
“Okay, let’s get this over with,” the guy in sweatpants said.
“How about ‘guilty as hell’?”
“Shouldn’t we review the testimony?” Helen spoke tentatively.
“You want to spend another day in this place?” said a bald juror, who laughed and sneezed.
And maybe he had a point. Maybe Helen didn’t want this experience to end just yet. Lord knows Jasper could make his own supper for once.
“We ought to give a little time to this, to show some respect for the process,” said the bank teller.
“The kid didn’t show no respect, especially to his daddy. Gave the man a heart attack.”
“Right, yes, that’s important. The defense was trying to argue that father and son were quite close and that the father’s death is punishment enough.”
Helen saw the threadbare shawl around the woman’s shoulders, and heard an echo of a stricken voice, citing a different kind of law.
“He just turned nineteen, barely an adult,” Helen said.
“We’re getting into some gray area here. Our job is simply to decide if he’s guilty of the charge, or not,” the foreman said.
“Can we at least review the events?”
A kegger at a fishing camp on the frozen river. A popular girl and a drinking game, involving dares to venture out on the ice. The defendant, who cannot swim, refuses. Bringing on shoves and taunts. The girl gives him some sympathy flirting. Which pisses off her boyfriend. Who pulls down the defendant’s pants and teases him about his weight. Defendant leaves the party, threatening revenge. Hitch-hikes home to get his father’s gun. Daddy, on oxygen, partially disabled from a tractor fall, tries to hide the weapon and calm his son. They argue. Mother is away, working a night shift at the Village Pantry. Defendant steals his father’s gun and his truck and returns to the party an hour later. Brakes and fishtails. The truck slides into a ditch. Daddy phones 911 to report the theft and complain of chest pains. Defendant crawls out of the truck with the gun. He brandishes it at the cabin, yelling, “Death to assholes!” Slips on the ice, falls. The gun discharges into a tree. Partygoers run out and sit on defendant until the police arrive. Daddy dies later in the ambulance.
“What’s going to happen to the boy’s mother?” Helen asked.
“That’s not our problem,” the foreman said.
“She’ll be all alone, trying to take care of those farm animals.”
“You can’t hang this jury because you’re worried about the mother.”
“Let’s get Jasper on the phone. He can talk some sense into Helen.”
“Can we could recommend a work-release sort of thing?” the teller asked.
The sweatpants guy said, “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“It isn’t supposed to be like this,” Helen muttered.
“Perhaps you should talk to someone, a priest.”
“Or write another letter to the editor.”
All rise. Caw, caw, caw. Tree limbs outside the windows teeming with shiny birds, as if they’ve assembled to hear the verdict. A murder of crows, indeed. The judge’s ramblings, very faint. Helen hears none of it. Or rather, she’s hearing her own judgment. Each of the myriad crows representing a felony against herself. Many of them over the decades, screeching at the farm girl who wanted to become a nurse, at the young woman who wanted to be a schoolteacher, like her pioneer forebear. Helen strokes her great-grandmother’s brooch. Inside her purse is the key to her husband’s gun cabinet. Helen knows what Jasper would do about the crows. What about Luke? What would he say? Helen hopes this trial will at least provide something to talk about with her son the next time he calls.
Ian Woollen lives to write in Bloomington, Indiana. His recent short fiction has appeared in Split Lip, Apeiron Review, and Fiction Southeast. His latest novel, MUIR WOODS OR BUST (Coffeetown Press) won a 2017 INDIES Prize (for Humor/Satire).