Triage

(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.

“Dirty, sir.”

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…”

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!”

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!”

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.

Jury Dookie

(A piece of short fiction)

“Oh. My. GAWD!”

 

For the first time in several hours, Juror Number 2 put down her cell phone. By this point, I had served on this jury with her for 8 days, six hours, and 15 minutes. I and 11 others had spent the past three days around the conference table in the jury deliberation room discussing the case. My seat was directly across from hers. Watching her chest heave against the flimsy straps of her tank top had kept me entertained for…maybe 20 minutes of those three days? Once the thrill faded, I had found myself with plenty of time to notice Juror Number 2’s less redeeming traits. As my fellow jurors traded ideas about the case, her desire to fit in would cool her desire to tap on her phone. She would then put the phone in her lap, in her bra strap (never have I so envied a cell phone!), or maybe in her purse, but her fingers always lingered over the phone, as though they were promising the phone a swift return.

 

Neela! Her name was Neela!

 

This time, Neela slammed her phone onto the table, sending a rhinestone flying from the phone’s outer case to skid across the dusty blue nylon carpet. Her arms folded and her hands hid beneath her arms in solidarity with what I knew was her wounded pride.

 

“I can’t BUH-LEEVE you people!” Thankfully for those of us enjoying our complementary courthouse water, waxed Iron Man Dixie cups do not shatter on high notes. “I have spent a whole goddamn week here, listening to this stupid case, and one of you have the NERVE to talk shit?”

 

Her eyes darted from face to face, sniffing for the scent of treason. Don’t laugh. Oh God, don’t laugh. Oh no! The corners of my mouth betrayed me. Neela’s eyes narrowed into burning slits before I could remake my Very Serious Juror Face.

 

“You! You creeper! Where do you get off?!”

 

Moi? I turned toward our fearless leader, Juror #12, Dr. Important Dentist D.D.S. I opened my eyes wider and tilted a single eyebrow – What is she on about? At least that’s what I imagined my face was saying to the man who had nominated and elected himself jury foreperson before his 11 disinterested subjects.

 

Dr. Dentist laid 12 index cards on the table. He closed his eyes, whisked himself away to his happy place for just a moment, and leveled his glare at Neela. “Neela,” he tiptoed, “what exactly is bothering you?”
Neela opened her lips, but not her teeth. She could have fried an egg against my forehead with her eyes. “Creeper over there just…just…just cyber-bullied me!”

 

“What is that? Cyber-bullied?” I had known Juror #3 for 8 days, along with everyone else. During jury selection, the judge had made everyone answer a handful of basic life questions. Juror #3 was named Harvinder, and she was a retired nurse who lived in one of the indistinguishable suburbs that blanketed most of the county. Aside from that, she had a warm smile for anyone and everyone…especially when she wasn’t sure what was going on.

 

“All right, look,” Dr. Dentist said as he picked up the 12 index cards again and laid them one by one on the table, “We have been here for three days bickering about this case.” Dr. Dentist plucked the two of the index cards that read “not guilty” and held them at eye level. “Two of you are still not convinced that the defendant is guilty, and no one gets to go home until we all agree, one way or the other.”

 

“Whoa whoa whoa whoa, you need to check yourself right now,” Juror #1 said, folding his arms and spinning his ball cap backwards to make eye contact with Dr. Dentist. “I’m not changing my vote just so you can get back to tightening braces.” I had forgotten Juror #1’s name, and as far as I knew, he owned no clothing other than the Metal Mulisha t-shirt that he had worn to court every day of the trial.

 

“Well if you had a job yourself, and employees who depend on you, maybe you’d be less keen on coming back Monday. My employees don’t get paid until I get back to ‘tightening braces’ as you put it.” Dr. Dentist put his index finger against the conference table, as though his unpaid employees were under there at that very moment hoping for table scraps to fall.

 

“If you were that worried, you could just pay them anyway,” Juror #1 said, meeting Dr. Dentist’s eyes while swiveling his chair in semi-circles. Dr. Dentist snorted in disbelief at Juror #1’s suggestion and then turned to me. “Wei-Wei, is it? What exactly are you doing to Neela?”

 

“Walter. You can call me Walter. I said that before and you can still call me Walter.” The judge had called me Wei-Wei because that’s what my driver’s license and my mom call me. But after 8 days I was still Wei-Wei, the unmarried computer engineering major at Sequoia State University. “And we aren’t even supposed to be Tweeting about the trial until it’s over. I was paying attention when the judge talked.”

 

“Ah ha,” Neela said, “How did you know it happened on Twitter unless you were the one harassing me?”

 

“Twitter?” Harvinder the retired nurse smiled at Neela, expectantly.

 

“Twitter is a website where you can post short little messages. And someone posted this!” She picked up her phone from the table and passed it to Dr. Dentist. Dr. Dentist held the phone like a dead plague rat that might infect his dignity and read:

 

“I wish the judge would tell the hot kindergarten teacher to stop tweeting about the trial. Her sparkly phone is blocking my view. #nicerack #jurydookie”

 

Dr. Dentist spoke the word “hashtag” like some nasty swear word he had just learned in a foreign language.

 

“See? I came up with the hashtag ‘jurydookie’ first! And then I clicked on it to see if anyone else had thought of it and JUST NOW I saw this message with the same hashtag.”

 

“So…” I began, “not only have you been Tweeting about the trial, even though the judge told us specifically not to do that, you also came up with this hashtag that you thought was sooooooo clever that you clicked on it to see if anyone else started using it?” Of course that was what she had done. I had known she would do that. That was the point of using her own hashtag.

 

“All right, enough! None of you are even supposed to be posting on the internet until we get this thing done, and that is never going to happen at this rate.” Dr. Dentist handed the phone back to Neela. “Besides, the person who posted this calls himself LOL underscore DONGS, and his profile picture is one of those mustache masks that the Occupy Wall Street people wear. You don’t know it was Mr. Khek.”

 

Ah. I had been promoted to “Mister Khek.”

 

“Well who else was it? Her?!” Neela pointed her thumb toward Harvinder. Juror #3’s eyes widened, and turned to the rest of us. “But it was not me!” She pleaded to Neela with her eyes while putting a hand on her shoulder.” It was. Not. Me!”

 

“But Neela has a point.” Juror #10 was named Yuri, and his last name had lots of consonants put together: a married engineer with two kids. His accent had become much less noticible since the first day of jury selection, when the judge ignored Yuri’s claim that he was not fluent enough in English to sit as a juror. “How did you know that Neela was upset about something that had happened on Twitter before she even said it happened on Twitter?” Juror #10 folded his arms. His belly strained against the buttons of his plaid shirt. His hairless noggin shone in the flurescent light. For 3 days, Juror #10 had not interacted with us for longer than it took to write the word “guilty” on his index card every time Dr. Dentist called for a vote. And now he decides to chime in?

 

Neela, Harvinder, and 2 other jurors nodded at Yuri and then turned to me. Time to think fast.

 

“I assumed it was Twitter because clearly no one is taking Instagram photos and only my parents and their friends use Facebook.” Was that too scoffing? Or just enough scoffing to deflect attention away from me?

 

Either way, I was not convincing enough for Patty Sanchez, Juror #11, who turned one lip up in disgust at me. “That is so incredibly rude. And oppressive to women. This is supposed to be a place where everyone is safe to share their thoughts and you just violated all of the trust in this room.” Neela, Harvinder, Yuri, and the other two nodded. That was 6 of them. Six jurors up in my shit.

 

“Well if Neela has been Tweeting about this trial, she has already violated the trust in this room.” Maybe Dr. Dentist didn’t care about sexual harassment. Maybe Dr. Dentist was sick of Patty’s constant “not guilty” votes. Either way, he was done. “None of you need to be talking or Tweeting or blogging or anything to anyone else not in this room.”

 

” ‘None of you need to be talking?’ You sound like a frickin’ middle school yard duty.” Yes! Metal Mulisha was starting a mutiny. Ten jurors smirked and held back laughter. I didn’t bother holding back.

 

Patty turned to Neela. “One time my friend posted pictures from her trip to Curacao on her Instagram. She was going to go to Aruba but thought it was too touristy. And then that girl disappeared and got killed by that rich boy from Holland. So she went to Curacao instead. Anyway, she posted pictures and some guy made a comment on her bikini and she was all like ‘I bet I know who this is – there’s this guy in my O-chem class who keeps staring at me in discussion section.’ And we both had a class with this guy in the afternoon, so when we all sat down in the lecture hall, she tried to sign into Instagram as him. But she didn’t know the password. So she clicked the button that sends a new password to your phone. And right when she did that, the guy got a text and looked at his phone, and so we knew it was him.”

 

Fire shone in Neela’s eyes as she picked up her phone. Her nails clacked madly against her phone. Crap. My hand snuck under the table to my phone to disable the text notification settings on my phone before its vibration could give me away.

 

Bzzzzzzzzt.

 

Too late. Neela’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates.

 

“Just a dang minute here,” Dr. Dentist pounced on Patty. “Besides this guy being a jerk,” the doctor’s thumb primed toward Metal Mulisha, “the whole reason we are still here is because you don’t think that the defendant was the one who threatened the victim on Facebook before he got shot dead in his driveway.”

 

“Because that’s totally different!” Ten jurors scowled at Patty. Neela’s death gaze never left me. I pretended not to notice. “The defendant said that he kept his Facebook open on his computer, and he lived with his brother, and his brother had threatened the victim too. One time my little brother broke into my Facebook and talked all kinds of shit on my friends’ Facebook walls. And I had to call them all and say it wasn’t me, it was my brother, and…”

 

Dr. Dentist spoke without taking his eyes from the ceiling. “Did your little brother have an ankle monitor that pinged within 10 yards of your computer at the same time as he posted the comments? Because you know that the defendant had one of those. It pinged 10 yards from the scene of murder 15 minutes before the murder.”

 

The light went on in Patty’s mind. “Oh yeah…..” Silence. Meanwhile, Neela’s eyes had not moved. I remembered a story that my U.S. history teacher had told me about how the CIA killed an Iranian diplomat by seating him behind a tube that shot radiation right into the back of his head.

 

“Maybe….I guess he did it.”

 

“OF COURSE he did it,” Neela said to Patty.

 

“No…the defendant. I guess he did do it after all.”

 

“Well, this game is no fun if I’m the only one playing it.” Metal Mulisha grabbed a new index card from the stack in the center of the conference table. He scrawled the word “GUILTY” in big spikey letters. The jurors began to shift in their seats as though they had all been defrosted at the same time. The clouds parted from Dr. Dentist’s eyes.

 

“So…,” Dr. Dentist begin, weighing each of us for signs of dissent, “does that mean we all agree?”

 

A wave of grateful nods circled the table. Dr. Dentist sprang from his chair and knocked on the door of the deliberation room. The bailiff answered, and Dr. Dentist told him that “his” jury had reached a verdict. No one could care less about me anymore.

 

We filed into the courtroom and took our seats in the jury box a half-hour later. Although we were about to deep-six his client, I still had to admire the defense lawyer for leaving everyone on the jury while the prosecutor had tried to kick as many of us off as possible. Using chaos to hide a man’s crime was black-belt level trolling. I had much to learn.