Trial by Ordeal

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue

Paula Maguire sees Noam Levy as soon as she walks into the café. Her first impulse is to turn and leave. But she doesn’t.

This is the only place for coffee near the courthouse, and it’s trendy, though just barely: Prices are in colored chalk on a slate hung over the cash register from exposed rafters. Wrought-iron chairs surround long, low glass tables in the center. Taller tables stand against the walls. Noam is on a stool at one of these, his back to the door. He hasn’t seen her.

She carries her cup from the counter toward him. She has decided: She will do something she has never dared. Take the fight right to him.

When she sits down across from him, she sees that he fails, for a moment, to recognize her—odd, since he’s been glaring at her across the courtroom all morning, and indeed all this week. But she can guess what’s going on in his head: he never thought she’d be here, now.

His eyes widen with rage—or what appears to be rage. Her old contempt for him arises. He’s been pulling this act for years, for any and all audiences. It’s nothing to be afraid of.

“Noam.” Her voice is even.

His temples work; he’s clenching his teeth. She wouldn’t be surprised if he lashed out. Struck her, even. He’s easily twice her size. But at least there would be witnesses. This gives her courage.

To have something to do with her hands, she smooths the front of her white blouse. Over it, she’s wearing a jade green blazer, the same outfit she wears in her book jacket photos. It’s a silly superstition to imagine clothing giving one power, but this shade of green means a lot to her. She wore a similar color to defend her first dissertation a decade ago. This morning, she dressed for a different sort of defense.

Noam looks his normal slovenly self. Potato face, hooked nose, bags under his eyes. Cheap suit. He’s a decade younger than she, and looks a decade older.

“What do you want?” He has managed to calm himself—or to portray a man calming himself.


“Have your coffee at a different table.” There’s a warning in his tone, though his voice is low.

“I have just as much right as you to be in this café.” Her word choice is not accidental: the right is what she fights for. And she’s serious about her prerogative to stay. She came here after deciding against lunch; her stomach was in knots when the judge called midday recess. After this come final arguments, and then the jury begins deliberation. Her lawyer has told her she doesn’t need to be there, but she will stay.

Noam exhales heavily. “It’s going to go against you.”

“You can’t know that.”

“I do know it.”

She won’t let him provoke her. This isn’t a rational argument; claiming to know is not the same as knowing. “Your lawyers have been clever,” she concedes. “But it is categorically impossible for demonstrably true statements to be defamatory.”

He looks down at the table, playacting a struggle to hide his fury.

“I’m sure you’re anxious for good news, anyway,” she continues, piqued now, wanting to provoke him, which she nonetheless recognizes is not the adult thing. “Given how much money you hope to reap from all this.”

He looks up. “It isn’t about money.” He smiles, faint, grim. “Even if I win another settlement, I’ll never see a penny from you.”

This is indeed the third time he has sued her. Attempting to silence her. She is under no illusion that her First Amendment rights will be respected without a fight, so she fights; but, so far, he has managed to play the system against her.

Yet it isn’t about money—so he says. “I’m sure you’ve got plenty already.” She recrosses her legs on the stool. “Given whose payroll you’re on.” She leaves it at that. Mossad, maybe, or Soros—she has her suspicions, though she can’t prove them without evidence. Unlike some people, she never commits herself without proof.

He sighs. Violently, like a horse. “You’re just—” He shifts back on his stool, pitching his body away from her, chubby and loose-limbed in his tacky brown suit. “You know what you are? You’re a lunatic.”

“What a trenchant assessment.”

“You always keep saying truth this, rational that. But you’re batshit crazy. You know that’s what you are, right?”

She stirs the nutmeg-dusted cream in her coffee. “Truth and reason are what scare you. Admit it.”

He stares unblinking at her.

Something about that stare gets under her skin. “Who do you honestly think people should believe? A woman with two doctorates, or you? Why do you think so many respected researchers support my claims? Ph.D.’s in tenured positions. Versus you?”

“Versus me. Yeah. Tell me about me.”

“A paid actor.”

“You’re literally out of your mind. You literally believe your own horseshit.”

She rather dislikes invoking her degrees; there’s a thin line between using the social capital of such institutions responsibly and just making the appeal to authority—an informal fallacy. But he has goaded her into it, so it’s a distasteful necessity. To glean information from all sides and weigh the facts according to standards of logic is what her academic training was for. So bringing up the degrees is not irrelevant. “I realize it threatens a man like you to have your intellectual capabilities challenged by a woman.”

“I refuse,” he mutters, staring sullenly at the tabletop. “I refuse to be drawn into a shouting match.”

“You’re shouting already.”

He stares at her again. “What?”

She must hand it to him—he’s got to be a method actor, and a damned good one, so fully does he assume the role. It’s a tragedy that talented people like this could be so underserved by late-stage capitalism that they’d resort to doing literally anything to turn a buck. She sips her coffee; the small act helps steady her nerves.

He pulls open his shirt collar, roughly undoing the top button, and fishes out a chain he has around his neck. “You see this?”

“Spare me.”

On the cheap stainless steel chain hangs an emergency whistle, the electronic sort that elementary school children are made to carry by overprotective parents. Pull the pin when a stranger offers candy, and it shrieks. Noam holds it up, shakes it at her. His face is unutterably ugly. “It was Jacob’s. He was trying to pull it that day.” His lips begin to tremble. “He died trying to pull it.”

“Nobody died. There was no Jacob.”

“Nine children died.” Each syllable comes out a breathy growl.

She’s not impressed. He’s doing his job well, at least. “Nine closed caskets. Could have been full of bricks.”

His hand, the hand holding the emergency whistle, begins to waver. “Do you have any idea how… profane… you are?”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“You don’t, do you? You have no idea.”

She holds her coffee, neglecting to sip it, neglecting to set it down. “Why not drop the act, Noam? Or whatever your real name is when you break role.” She tries to pitch pity into her voice, though she’s not half the actor he is. “They can’t be paying you enough to keep this up.”

“You know, maybe you go, maybe look in the mirror sometime. Huh?” He’s not even listening. Naturally. You can’t reason with these people. Facts, truth, logic—all these things are fatal to their deceptions. And self-deceptions. She is peripherally aware Noam is drawing looks from other patrons in the café. He’s sputtering now. “Who’s the bad actor, huh? How can you keep a straight face and say you don’t bear any responsibility? For God’s sake, what about Baltimore?”

This barely rises to the level of discourse. And his lawyers tried the same ruse during the trial. The jury probably bought it, for all she knows. The so-called shooter in Baltimore had supposedly died carrying a copy of Slash the Puppet Strings, her book on ‘Noam’ and his fictional son. Highlighted and annotated. A clever trick, that—her book exposing a faked shooting conveniently shows up on the scene of another faked shooting. To a public raised on corporate news and deep-state propaganda, she’s discredited. And now they use lies based on lies to convict a truth-teller of defamation. Kafkaesque.

But Paula only stares at his mendacious face. She will not be cowed by him, by a man she can see right through.

So Noam turns it up a notch.

She raises an eyebrow. “Those are real tears, I take it?”

He doesn’t answer.


His voice is dramatically choked. “Dan Bernard ripped a hole in our lives. He took away our children. And you know what you do? You find that hole, and you needle it and you needle it.”

“You’re mixing metaphors, dear.”

“You’re a vampire—”

“Now that’s rich—

“—preying on people, for your little social media bullsh—”

“That is too rich coming fr—”

“Your little bullshit books and your—”

They’re talking over one another now. But she won’t let him shut her down. “You people—no, you listen to me. You listen to me.”

He stops.

“You people are the ones preying on average Americans’ fears.” She points at him, doing what she can to keep her hand steady. “You have no shame. You parade doctored images of children and you tell lies.”

He jerks his hand upward like he will slap the table, but doesn’t. Inwardly she chides herself for flinching.

She has every right to continue. “So I tell an inconvenient truth. Silence me. Go ahead. All it tells me is that I’m right. When whoever’s employing you has disarmed the gun nuts, you’ll be out of a job again, but me? I’ll have been right. I’ll have been right.” Her voice has risen. She doesn’t care. This feeling—it is something like a rock tumbling down a hillside, and it feels indescribably good to burst through these inhibitions and speak truth right to his face.

“You have a daughter, Paula.”

She goes icy cold. For a moment, she cannot find words. “How dare you threaten my family.” She should have seen this coming. Her throat tightens.

“This is not a threat.” His voice is low and quavery. In fact, it sounds nearly—kind. As if that were possible. “Your daughter is the age Jacob was. So I tell you what you do. You do this one thing for me. You just love your daughter every day.”

She can find no suitable retort.

“You look at her face in the morning, when she’s fresh out of bed and she’s still half-asleep and she just wants a hug from mommy. You just see her. You just look at her.” Another method-actor tear wanders down his stubbled cheek. “You do that.”

Paula truly can’t believe it—in a different world, he’d be winning Oscars.

Noam does a dramatic I cannot carry on gesture with his arms and rises, his stool squeaking loudly over the tile floor. He lumbers off toward the exit, his coffee forsaken on the tabletop.

People at other tables are glaring. An interracial couple in their twenties. A hairy college kid in drawstring pants. A couple of bourgie women with Macbooks. Typical, normal, café customer types. Paula decides she can’t enjoy her coffee, not here. She gets up and leaves too.

There’s no sign of Noam on the sidewalk outside, much to her relief. Just a homeless guy in a billowy yellow T-shirt sitting on the curb, a traffic cop chalking car tires, two teenage Asian girls holding hands as they walk past. Pear trees line this side of the street, their ribald odor lacing the noontime air. She longs for a cigarette, though of course that’s another American freedom slowly being chipped away. As if secondhand smoke outside ever killed anyone.

She feels exhausted. An ordeal. It was a harrowing ordeal. But she faced it. There’s a kind of washing out of the body, a purging of fears, of so much internal tension.

If only she’d cracked him, gotten him to break role. You’d think he’d drop the pretense to her, of all people—his personal debunker. In a bizarre sense, they share something. Knowledge of the truth.

But he did, after all, have an audience in there, and so he stuck to his script. Perversely, she admires his moxie. It’s no wonder the likes of him have duped so much of the world. But not her. Never her.

She draws a deep breath. Vindication. There is no other word for it—she feels vindicated.

Dale Stromberg

Dale Stromberg

Dale Stromberg grew up not far from Sacramento before moving to Tokyo, where he had a brief music career. Now he lives near Kuala Lumpur and makes his living as an editor and translator. His work has been published here and there.

Dale Stromberg grew up not far from Sacramento before moving to Tokyo, where he had a brief music career. Now he lives near Kuala Lumpur and makes his living as an editor and translator. His work has been published here and there.

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