(More short fiction)
From his seat in courtroom 110, the Honorable Quentin Castro felt thousands of tiny fingers around his neck. If he took both hands away from his pen, away from his files, away from his notes and made a show of kneading an imaginary knot, the feeling went away long enough for his pulse to drop down back to normal. This trick had worked for most of the morning, but at 11:35 a.m. Quentin Castro could not pretend anymore.
“Mr. Andrade,” the judge told the defendant who had been rambling about not being able to make his urine test because he lost his bus pass, “let’s just pretend that losing your bus pass is actually a good reason to not give a sample to your probation officer…”
Quentin saw Denise Rothbach, Mr. Andrade’s public defender, raise her hand as though to speak, and then thought better of it.
“…If I were to order you to submit to testing today, right after court, would you test clean or dirty.”
Ms. Rothbach leaned toward her client and said “Don’t lie” just loud enough to be picked up by the microphone at counsel table.
Judge Castro rubbed the back of his head with all ten knuckles. “Thank you, sir, for being honest with me. You’ve been coming to reviews in my court for about…four years now? I’m glad you know better than to feed me a line of b.s. Your next review is in 6 weeks, and I want no dirty tests after today’s. Am I clear?”
“Yes your honor” from both lawyer and her client.
Judge Ana Cordova held the door open behind her as she slipped into the back of the courtroom. In that damned pencil skirt.
“Just to let counsel know, I am not feeling very well right now.” Quentin had a knack for professional understatement. “It is very likely that Judge Zuniga will be handling my afternoon calendar in courtroom 92. Thank you.” Quentin left the bench as quickly as would not be noticed and closed the door to his chambers behind him. He heard the social workers and probation officers wish him better from back In the courtroom.
He pulled the chain to the light in his chambers’ tiny washroom. At least I don’t look like I’m dying he thought to himself. Up until 5 days ago, the years had been extraordinarily kind to Quentin Castro. Aging had done little to his looks except to dust his hair with salt-and-pepper. He was no longer the leanest or least sweaty man at his club, but he had always taken care of himself.
“Inoperable,” had been his doctor’s word, and Judge Castro repeated it into the mirror. He reminded himself that there was no way he would actually be feeling the cancer interlacing with his blood vessels, the way his doctor had said it was doing. He had dreamt about feeling it in last night’s nightmare, and now he was feeling it while awake.
I guess it’s time to tell Ana. Fortunately, Quentin decided this just as Ana walked into his chambers without knocking. She stared without blinking into Quentin’s reflection in the mirror. “Is this really the only way to talk to you now? Do I have to chase you down after court like some … groupie?”
Ana squared off with Quentin at the entrance to the washroom. The hurt in her voice, her long dark hair and long dark lashes made Quentin ache. “I….. I have always, always said that you deserved better than me.”
“Don’t you fucking dare with that shit right now Quentin!” Ana knew how to feel without raising her voice. “No calls. No texts. Is your wife making you give her your phone password again? Or are you finally just done with me?”
Ana bore a hole into Quentin’s desk with her eyes. She held back a sob. “You know what the worst thing is?” Her sob broke through. “I actually believed you! I let myself think that you were serious with the stay-together-until-your-kids-go-to-college bullshit.”
Ana’s hands dug into her elbows.
“I might die. I might. Die. Soon.”
Quentin choked on a lump in his throat.
“I might die very soon.”
Ana took 2 steps away, but let Quentin catch up to her. She wrapped her arms around him and cried into his shoulder. He told her about the second opinion and everything that Quentin knew about how long he was going live, which wasn’t much, but that it might not be very long.
“Quentin.” Ana’s voice hardened to ice. “You’ve known this for 5 days?” Ana pulled away and squared her shoulders. “And when were you going to tell me?!” Her jaw tightened. “When would you have told me if I hadn’t come here and chased you down?!”
Quentin felt a squeeze behind his ears. Ana had to go. “Ana. Ana, I have spent the last…five….five days explaining this to my family.”
“Which I’m not.” Ana knew it was true. She had practiced not caring, knowing the day would come when Quentin would chose his family over her. It hurt anyway. Like a hot poker to the heart, it hurt anyway. Ana turned to leave.
Ana stopped. She loved it when he needed her.
“Ana…there is a real chance that sometime soon, I decide I want to live my last days…happy. Happy. With you. Would you take me?”
A fire went out in Ana’s eyes. She knew that she would, and she hated him for it.
“I should tell you something. I’ve always been meaning to tell you, but since you’re dying now, I feel like telling you right now. Remember when you were my supervisor in the Narco unit?” Quentin remembered being a supervising attorney at the district attorney’s office and then wished she would just answer his question. “I used to come to you for advice on my cases and whenever I would want prison terms, you’d always ask me why I hadn’t offered the defendants rehab or drug counseling instead.”
“Yes Ana, I remember…”
“And then I started coming to you with ideas for creative sentences, residential treatment, the whole thing. On my performance eval for that year, you noted that I had shown ‘huge improvements in empathy and compassion.'”
“Ana, please tell me…”
“I never cared. I never ever actually cared. I just wanted to impress you.”
Quentin somehow felt less alone when Ana finally left. 5 minutes until his wife came to take him to his doctor’s appointment.
Madison Castro hated her drug case. The black pleather sunglass case held her vaporizer, her dimebag, her “dry herb” vaporizer attachment mouthpiece, medical marijuana card, and a small metal pick. But inside the case was also her old plastic grinder with the crack down the center, a Men’s Health magazine subscription card folded down the middle into a weed funnel, and small brown flakes of vaporized pot. Her drug case was too dirty. Audrey Hepburn would never have carried this drug case.
Madison stowed the case under her car seat as Quentin left through the staff entrance to the Hall of Justice. Quentin said hi as he slid into the passenger seat. They traded looks that agreed not to try to kiss each other because they probably weren’t going to anyway and so they might as well not agonize over not doing it before not doing it.
And then Madison looked at the rest of him. “You should really consider taking the afternoon off.” “I’m going to try,” Quentin said. Was he shivering? “Judge Zuniga said he might be able to cover the mental health calendar this afternoon.”
Madison tucked a straight blonde lock behind her ear and eyed her husband again, and turned back to the windshield as she pulled out of the court’s parking garage. “You really must not be feeling well,” she said to no one in particular. Quentin waited for Madison to remind him of their daughter’s college tuition, their other daughter’s high school tuition, and the job at her father’s lobbying firm that he had turned down when the county’s presiding judge had asked him to pioneer the county’s first court calendar for mentally ill offenders. Town after town whizzed by on the freeway toward Stanford Hospital, and Madison’s usual barbs never came.
“I will still need you to drop me off at court afterward, in case Judge Zuniga can’t cover my calendar.”
“Okay,” Madison said to no one in particular.
“Thank you for this, Maddie.”
Madison looked at him and turned down the car radio. “Why are you thanking me for this?”
“Not for this.”
“Then for what?”
Silence. Madison realized that she had been biting the inside of her cheek. “I never needed you to thank me, Quentin. Not when I quit my job to freelance part-time and raise our daughters. Not when I spent our nights lying next to you listening to you fret about the sad sacks that you had sent to jail that day.” The leather steering wheel creaked under her grip. “Not when I promised not to tell our family about Ana, or any of the others.”
Quentin rested his head against the window and read the sign – 2 more miles until the exit. “I’ll never be able to repay you for that Maddie.”
“If you somehow make it out of this alive, then I’ll figure out how you can maybe even begin to pay me back for that. Or else…” Madison drew a deep breath. Her mouth twisted. “If the girls can’t have a living father they can still have a dead hero.”
Was that the kindest or the meanest thing she has ever said to me, Quentin asked himself. Madison hit her turn signal to take the exit. Her Mini outmaneuvered an Escalade and snatched a parking spot near the walkway to the hospital. They sat in silence for what felt like minutes until Madison reached into Quentin’s lap and took his hand.
“I told you when we were dating that I didn’t want to be like my friends who dated a person for, like, 6 or 7 years without getting married. Whether we like it or not,” Madison squeezed his hand, “we’re family. We’re still family.” Quentin squeezed back, and Madison opened her car door.
He’s not going to make me care again, Madison promised herself. He’s not going to make me care again and then die on me.
Ana watched the coffee cart guy foaming the milk for her cappuccino. His bulging forearms and ironic waxed moustache made him look like an old-timey circus strong man. His Smiths t-shirt broke the illusion and made him look bored and mopey.
Ana looked around at the streams of people passing the outdoor coffee cart as they came and went from the courthouse. The coffee cart guy lifted his eyes for whoever had just walked up behind her.
“Just coffee,” the woman’s voice said.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but we stop brewing coffee at 10:00.”
Ana stepped out of line to grab a lid for her cup. She looked at the disappointed blonde woman behind her. She was the same woman who smiled beside Quentin in so many of the pictures in his chambers. Ana turned down toward her cup and made a show of trying to get the lid on her drink.
“I can make you an Americano,” the coffee cart guy offered.
Madison’s eyes lingered over the steel tank at the side of the cart as though she could make coffee magically appear inside. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
Ana pretended to check her phone as Madison waited for her drink. Grinds and gurgles came from the espresso machine and a flume of steam shot from the cup as it filled with hot water. Madison passed the cream-and-sugar station without a glance.
What am I doing, Ana asked herself as she matched Madison’s pace toward the nearby parking lot. What do I think I’m going to say? “Excuse me,” Ana called. Madison turned and Ana saw her own face in the reflection of Madison’s sunglasses.
“Oh hell no,” Madison muttered. She gripped her car keys in her free hand and her shoes continued to clack toward the parking lot.
“Wait. Just wait, please. I’m…”
“I know exactly who you are,” Madison spat as she stopped and turned toward Ana, “And I remember telling you never to speak to me again.”
Ana remembered the text message that she had gotten from Quentin’s phone, written by Madison. She took a breath. “You told me never to speak to Quentin again…”
Madison clenched her jaw. “Fucking lawyers. Fine. What exactly do you want from me?”
“You have every right to be hostile…”
“I’m not hostile. I’m honest. People confuse that for being hostile.”
You asked for this, Ana thought, now what are you going to say?
“I just want you to know that…that I’m not going to stand between Quentin and his family.”
Madison’s tongue pressed against the inside of her cheek, and then she sneered. “Oh. Okay. Good.” Pause. “Do you feel better now that you’ve said that?” Ana guessed that there was nothing to say afterall. Madison turned toward the parking lot, and then turned back. “I told Quentin to do one thing for me if he ever started fucking someone else – don’t tell me just because it makes you feel better. Don’t pour your sins out for me because its been weighing on you sooooooo badly and you feel sooooooo guilty. But I guess neither of you can help yourselves, can you?” She tucked a blonde wisp of hair behind her ear. “Let me give you something that I had to learn the hard way. At some point in every relationship, you say things to each other that you can’t take back. Not ever. Ever ever. Because when you try to, you realize that you meant them.” Madison wiped a finger under her sunglasses. “And that’s what hurts. Not the words, but the fact that you meant them. And taking them back doesn’t fix the hurt. Enjoy yourself before that happens. But do it with someone else.”
Ana stood frozen as Madison’s heels stabbed the pavement on the way to the parking lot.
“Are you sure about this Quentin?” Judge Zuniga eyed Quentin warily as Quentin zipped up his judge’s robe.
“I’m sure, Sal.” Maybe I can be good to someone before the day is over. I may not have that many left. “All rise,” the court bailiff called as Quentin walked toward the bench from the back hallway.