Better Than Starbucks
Poetry and Fiction Journal
. . . if you love diversity and creative writing in any and every form, then you’re in the right place . . .
Vol VI No III
February, May, August,
Waiting for the Noun
by Paul García
Joe walks past the grey-painted cinder block walls and numbered steel doors to introduce himself. The young corrections officer staring at video screens ignores him, finally looks up. “Yes?”
Joe speaks slowly, to not need to repeat himself. “Joe Martínez. Interpreter. Here for a U.S. Probation interview. Prisoner’s name is Arturo Luna-Baez. Defense Attorney’s Mike Howell. Probation Officer’s Jim Hayes. He probably entered the back way, through the garage.”
“Okay, sir. Nobody’s here yet.”
“I’ll sit and wait.”
Joe stows his coat, money, and metal in a locker, pockets the key, and takes a plastic chair. He puts on reading glasses and works on his clipboard’s invoice until Mike Howell arrives. “Hey, Joe! How ya doin’?” Howell is a big man bundled up for this below zero spell with the earflaps of his fur-lined ushanka tied up at the crown. He pulls it off, exposing a shaved head, and bites off his mittens. “Cold enough for ya?”
Joe looks over his reading glasses, stands, shakes hands. “Mike. It is chilly.” He nods toward the corrections officer. “Told ’em we’d be here.”
Mike says, “And I called. Let’s see.”
Joe sits back down.
Mike, still in his overcoat, approaches the guard. “My name’s Michael Howell. I’m here to see Arturo Luna-Baez.”
“And you are?”
“Why don’t you have a seat.”
They sit and wait. A C.O. comes through with two inmates happy to be heading outside to shovel snow. Joe and Mike make small talk. Howell is a golfer. “Had my clubs regripped.”
Joe only nods.
“Some have it done every winter.”
Joe knows miniature golf, when his daughter Lucy was little, summers, years ago. “You must miss golf.”
“I’ll hit a few on Florida courses soon. Haven’t seen cold like this for ages.”
“Good for splitting firewood. Tap it with the axe, splits like a diamond.”
Mike looks as if he has a bad taste in his mouth. “Haven’t burned wood in years.”
“Sometimes, below zero like this, you just show it the axe, and it splits.”
Mike says nothing.
For a while, Joe’d been wary of skinheads but Mike, if anything, was even a little too deferential, was simply a nice guy without that guarded, frozen anger like permafrost, and Joe’s caution eased. He asks, “Why do you shave your head?”
“Lotta guys doin’ it. Low maintenance. Shave while I drive.”
Joe nods. They’re killing time. “I’d get shaving cream everywhere.”
Mike smiles with his eyes. “Beamer has a dispenser.”
“Makes sense, I guess. Jim from Probation shaves his head.”
“As does my client, Mister Baez.”
They make light talk about matters unrelated to the case, but neither is good at idly hanging around a county jail. Joe gestures toward the wall clock. “Been sitting here a while. Hayes might already be in there with your guy.”
“Let me see.” Mike approaches the C.O. at his desk, stands there a moment. “We’ve been waiting quite a —”
“You’re the lawyer looking for the one with the foreign name? We can’t find anyone named Mártinez.”
“Mister Martínez is the interpreter. The inmate’s last name is Baez.”
Joe stares at the wall, doesn’t bother pointing out the prisoner’s surname is Luna. After five minutes, the guard calls out. “Mister Howell?”
“Baez, the prisoner you want, is with Federal Probation.”
Howell lets a beat pass. “That’s why we’re here. They’re waiting for us.”
“Okay. You can go in now.”
The steel door’s innards clank and Joe pulls it open. They enter a cinder block corridor with heavy Plexiglas on either side. The door slams behind them. They stand in the corridor. Howell mutters, “You’d think they’d keep track of prisoners.” A tin speaker announces, “Lawyer and translator to fourteen.” The steel door’s interior mechanism clanks, and Mike pulls it open on a small area of grey steel tables and stools anchored in the cement floor where they meet —
“Jim Hayes, U.S. Probation.”
“Mike Howell, Defense Counsel.”
“How you doin’, Joe?”
Joe shakes hands and regards Jim’s glowing pate. “Fine. Good to see you.”
Howell greets the prisoner. “How are you today?”
Joe stares at the Defendant’s shaved head and begins work. “¿Cómo está hoy?”
As they arrange themselves around the steel table, Joe glances again at Hayes’s pattern baldness stubble. Luna and Mike at the Initial Appearance were no big deal, but here, three of them! He’d always tried to conform; just speaking another language can look too ethnic for popular taste, a liability. Growing up in Manhattan’s cultural soup, he made conscious effort to lose any accent. A chameleon, he dressed conservatively, got haircuts, knew he had to be squeakier and cleaner. But there are limits to fitting in. Sitting with the three glossy domes gleaming under fluorescents, Joe feels like a cast member of Hair.
Howell tells Luna, “Mister Hayes will interview you and write a report for the sentencing judge, which he’ll submit with recommendations. I’m here to protect your interests by advising you not to answer certain questions, if necessary.”
Joe renders that. Luna nods. “Está bien.”
Hayes has waivers for the prisoner to sign. “These are to allow my access to records about you.”
Luna signs. Hayes begins with pre-arrest questions: when and how he’d entered the States, through what Port of Entry, place and date of birth, parents’ and siblings’ names, and so on. Routine biography. Then he brings out a sheaf of police reports, Immigration and Homeland Security forms, Court Orders, a fingerprint card. . . “You were arrested in Texas in 2010 for a stolen car?”
Howell interrupts. “Wait a minute. Where’d you get this?”
“U.S. Attorney. You didn’t get Discoveries?”
Howell doesn’t answer, advises Luna, “You don’t have to talk about any of this right now, though it will come out.”
Luna says, “No, no hay problema. Está bien.”
“No problem; it’s okay.”
Howell nods. Hayes proceeds. “Police report alleges a blood alcohol level of point one two, that they found crack cocaine in the stolen car you crashed into a Highway Patrol cruiser.”
Joe renders that, and Luna waves an index finger back and forth. Joe puts it into English, “Oh, no, what really happened. . .” The prisoner shares the same story, but with spin, with embellishment, ameliorating each criminal felony point. “I was drunk, three sheets to the wind, but the crack wasn’t mine.” Luna weaves a long explanation of its source and vague true owner, followed by a solemn oath sworn on the Divine Trinity and his own dead mother’s soul that he would never ingest such a substance. “A friend lent me the car. Being indocumentado, he was intimidated. When the police came to his house, he claimed the car stolen.”
Luna runs on at a good clip, but Joe has no trouble keeping up; it’s nothing adversarial, just Probation and prisoner. And interesting, more interesting than a lot of cases. Pero hay algo que no cuadra . . . But something doesn’t add up. It’s too interesting, doesn’t fit neatly into either drug or immigration, one or the other. This prisoner’s too smart for illegal entry. . . But there’s no time for thinking like a lawyer or detective with interpreting.
A lot might be at stake, but Howell doesn’t cut in to protect his client, who did give his okay. Postponing the interview till he has Discoveries after the time it took to schedule wouldn’t be a welcome delay. Probation’s under the gun to get this Pre-Sentence Interview report done for the judge and, after all, it’s mostly just the taking of personal history. Records Probation now has signed permission to obtain and will fill gaps with details. Hayes never interrupts Luna. In an hour, they are done.
Howell has another prisoner to see, so Joe exits with Hayes through the main entrance. Crossing the parking lot, Joe comments, “Interesting story.”
Hayes chuckles. “Depends on how much is true.”
Joe thinks about that. “I’m so busy with meaning, I can’t consider truth. That’s others’ responsibility.” He gives Hayes a sharp sidelong glance.
Jim snorts. “I know. Lot of ’em spin a good yarn.”
“Defendants?” Joe stops at his car.
“Yeah. Some are pathological.”
Joe gives him a wave. “Stay warm.”
He drives across Bangor to the new Judicial Center’s brushed steel elevators. There are hand sanitizer dispensers along the sunny fourth floor hallway for lawyers’ unavoidable handshaking with everyone. Courtroom 402 opens. Big security guy, six-four, 250, takes up pretty much the whole double doorway in his blue blazer, gray slacks, soft-soled shoes. “Good mawnin. You aw here faw. . .?”
Joe picks up on the accent. “López.”
Joe flashes on the now defunct technique of determining origin by accent, regards this towering gorilla with the rugby player’s nose and yet another shaved head, says, “I can usually tell where someone’s from by their accent. Sometimes, with only a few words.”
Big guy sizes him up with a scowl. “Oh, yah? Go ahead.”
Joe deliberates, is only 90% sure. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
Big guy’s eyes open wide, then he giggles like a baby being tickled. “Very gut! I was bawn in Breslau! But I left when I was a kit!”
Joe’s made a friend with the Bailiff. In the courtroom, the case is a marielito named López found guilty and facing jail time for threatening a Sheriff’s deputy. Defense says, “Your Honor, this has all been an unfortunate misunderstanding,” and begins to laud his client. Joe grabs his clipboard, jotting down the laundry list of adjectives. His visual link with the presiding magistrate intensifies, the Judge’s glance now a concerned stare asking Why have you stopped interpreting for Defendant?
Joe has no way of answering Waiting for the noun, Your Honor, just nods and hand-gestures assurance that all is fine, under control. Defense Counsel reaches his noun and Joe softly reads the list of laudatory adjectives from his clipboard to López’s left ear, “. . .franco, sin dobleces, trabajador, religioso, honrado, sensible, un hombre muy unido a su familia en Cuba.”
Defense asks for postponement of sentencing so that his client can put home and work affairs in order. The Judge seems amenable and asks the Defendant, “Is there anything you’d like to say to the Court?”
Allocution is a crucial moment; all can turn on a dime. At the colloquy defense counsel often wear expressions running the gamut from curiosity (young lawyers) to trepidation (the experienced). No one wants surprises. Girding, Joe asks, “¿Algo que le gustaría decir al tribunal?”
Angry, without any thoughtful pause, the Defendant yells expletives straight at the bench. Nothing fitting courtroom decorum and not anything Joe wants to tell a judge, yet, automatically, ethics and training compel him to call out at the same level and tone, for the record, loud enough to be heard over the rant, an accurate rendering, “You’re just another racist son of a bitch who wants to put Blacks in jail! In Cuba, at least the judges were honest . . .” The usual subliminal courtroom murmur of conversations in undertone ceases. Joe has to yell to be heard above López’s railing. The Breslau giant, alert, on the ready, stares, a slight grin of admiration saying Ballsy little guy, dis Spahnish trahnslatah. Joe has the attention of lawyers and defendants awaiting hearings, of two State Troopers, one so young he doesn’t look old enough to drive. Joe feels pinpricks of sweat on his brow as he berates the bench and heaps condemnation on the American justice system.
When López is done, the judge asks, “Anything else?”
The guy is pissed, looks away, ignores the Judge.
The magistrate says, “No stay of execution. Deputies, take the Defendant into custody; he’ll begin his sentence today,” and moves on to the next case.
Joe rises and shakes hands with Defense counsel. “It was going well for a while.” As he heads for the door, the judge calls out to him, “Mister Martínez?”
Joe nods — ”You’re welcome, sir.” — and heads out thinking about how judges want full understanding, without coloring, without adding or deleting. Disinterest helps, but earned that little bag of nickels.
When Mike Howell emails the Pre-Sentence Investigation report, Joe returns the twelve-page translation overnight and, the next week, drives to meet with Mike and Luna at the jail. After twenty years, Joe is familiar with attorneys’ particular styles of verbal expression. Mike uses idioms, the non-literal ideas that don’t meaningfully translate as words. Thinks in pictures. Always a good workout. See what he comes up with today.
Meeting with Luna, Mike’s not happy with Probation’s PSI report. “We could have done better. Wish I’d known about — but that’s all water under the bridge.”
Joe renders that first idiom. “Eso ya pasó a la historia.”
Howell goes on. “Arturo, Probation’s uncovered damaging facts: a previous deportation, prior arrests for offenses in California and Arizona. You’ve had a chance to read the translated report; if any of it’s not true, you should let me know.”
Luna doesn’t respond. He stares at the floor, at his hands. The three sit silent, their knees almost touching in the tiny cell. Luna mutters, “Esto es un chiste de mierda . . .”
“This is a fucking joke. They’re out to get me. They want to keep me locked in this tomb the rest of my life . . .” Luna goes on in this vein for a while, repeating himself, venting.
When he’s done, Howell asks, “Are the allegations true?”
“¿Son ciertas las acusaciones?”
Luna doesn’t answer. They wait.
Joe’s only concern with the report was word count. He doesn’t — as Mike would say — ‘have a dog in this fight.’ Howell wants to win the case for his client. U.S. Attorney wants Luna to get all the time due him. Joe, working for the Court, is disinterested.
Luna stares at the floor like a catatonic. Howell asks, “Are the allegations true?”
“¿Son ciertas las acusaciones?”
Because he’s the only one speaking their language, defendants often turn to Joe as to an advocate, address him, instead of their lawyer, preface everything with ‘tell him.’ Luna looks into Joe’s eyes. “Dile que no, que no son la verdad . . .”
“No, tell him they’re not true.”
Howell mulls this over. “That’s a different kettle of fish.”
Joe repeats the idiom aloud to himself, “Kettle of fish.”
Howell, trying to be helpful, compounding it, says, “That’s a horse of a different color.”
Before Howell can throw another species into the kettle of fish and multicolored horses, Joe quickly comes up with, “Bueno, esto es harina de otro costal.”
Luna merely nods.
Howell probes. “What specifically is inaccurate?”
Luna holds up and waves the translated documents. “Todo, todo es mentira . . .”
“All of it; it’s all lies.”
Luna goes on. “Hasta, ésto—no sé cómo se llaman estas hojas . . .”
“Even this — I don’t know what you call these pages . . .”
Howell asks, “The Complaint?”
“Sí. Todo esto está mal.”
“Yes. This is all wrong.”
“Okay. It’s old stuff; I wanted to deal with the Probation report, but . . .” Howell reads through the ICE Agent’s probable cause affidavit, “. . . defendant knowingly possessed and used what appear to be identification documents of the United States knowing that such documents were produced without lawful authority, namely: United States Department of Justice — Immigration and Naturalization Service Resident Alien Card (I-551) in the name of Arturo Luna-Baez . . .”
After they review the Complaint, Howell asks, “Is anything not true here?”
Luna squirms. “It’s all wrong.”
Nothing is said. Luna’s eyes implore, Do something.
Joe gazes at Mike, whose eyes ask, What’s going on?
Joe looks from one to the other. Without spoken words, he’s at the center of a bridge, between these two people on opposite banks of a cold, grey river.
Luna says, “Dile que no vine a este país . . .”
“Tell him I didn’t come to this country to become a criminal. All I wanted was to send money to my family . . .” The litany that over the years has become familiar, almost cliché. “. . . I’m not selling drugs. I’m not stealing or killing people. I just came here to work, to send money back home to my loved ones.”
When Luna finishes, Howell asks, “Is anything not true in the Complaint?”
Luna gazes at Joe. “Les ruego . . .”
“I beg you, do what you can to send me back to my country, to my family that needs me.”
All heard many times before. Howell sets the Complaint aside, tries another tack. “Probation’s report reveals important information, arrests in Texas, California, Arizona, a failure to appear, and an outstanding warrant, which — well, tell him that much.”
Joe renders Luna’s response, “These charges are going to add time to my sentence.”
Mike says, “That’s correct. Even the fraudulent id cards are felonies. We could fight it if it’s not true.”
Luna is silent.
Is Howell leaning into a trial, planting a seed of hope? Joe studies their eyes. We could fight it if it’s not true.
Mike goes on. “I wish I could send you home. That would be ideal. You’d be with your family, taxpayers wouldn’t have to feed and house you — for the two hundred bucks a day it costs to jail you, you could stay at the Ritz-Carlton. Strike that. Fact is, you have to pass through the justice system for these infractions, and the outstanding warrants won’t just go away. The only way you can get off is by telling your story to a jury.”
Luna says nothing.
“Anything you tell me is confidential. Neither I nor Mister Martínez can repeat what you say to any third party.”
Luna studies Mike but says nothing.
Mike gathers up his folders. “You haven’t been telling me much, Arturo. I shouldn’t be learning about your criminal history through Discoveries and Probation reports. My job is to help you, but I can’t work in the dark. You’ll have time to think. Consider being more open with me, otherwise they’re going to hang you by the . . . Well, strike that last.”
Luna sits pensive.
With a look and a nod, Joe signals to the C.O. that they are done.
On the drive back from the jail, the dashboard temperature reads single digits. As soon as he’s home, routinely, first thing, he banks the woodstove’s buried, still hot coals, grabs bits of kindling stacked nearby. He blows a breath onto shavings and splintered shards of wood. Tiny flames spread through the framework of split red oak, a hot, long-burning fire perfect for this weather.
His wife left a note on the kitchen table.
I’m in yoga until seven — will you make dinner?
“No problem.” Joe surveys the fridge contents. Pork tenderloin, veggies for a stir fry with brown rice. He glances at the clock. “Seven? Piece of cake. Mangó bajito.” He puts on a CD, that Enigma thing, then some Keb Mo’ while making dinner. Loud. Music Beatriz would not like. He grins, remembering her complaint: “How can you, almost sixty years old, listen to this, this kids’ music? And so loud?” Love tolerates a lot. He listens to his ‘rock music’ and makes dinner, never once thinking of the Luna federal matter or any of today’s courtroom drama.
The CD ends. He hears Beatriz pull into the driveway. The rice done and everything ready, he turns off heat to the wok. Beatriz comes in. “Smells good.”
They kiss. She insists on being ‘fully present for a proper greeting’ since her surgery. Joe looks into her eyes. “Stir fry.”
“Good. I’m hungry. Do I have time for a shower?”
“Sure. Take your time; I’ve got to adjust the woodstove.”
He sets the table. The woodstove has a good blaze. He places bigger pieces, stares at the flames as they build and grow, feels fire’s heat on his face. He can hear Beatriz singing in the shower. She didn’t want to be seen naked after the mastectomy, was even more shy. He’d pretended he never saw the maroon scar in the bureau mirror. She didn’t know. A boy’s chest, the nipple gone. That indelible badge, a waxy discolored arc above her ribcage, that vulnerability, made her dearer to him. After the operation, adjusting took time. Her crying. “No longer a woman,” she’d said. When she mentioned an implant, he said, “You don’t need anything.” Relieved — she didn’t want to carry around a silicone breast. There’d been nothing to say. He held her hand a lot. It took time. He’s just glad she’s alive. Indirectly, he shows he cares a thousand ways. He won’t say ‘love ya’ the way some do, but he shows it. Touching her when passing within arm’s length . . . She knows. His imperfect Beatriz. He loves her, the beauty of the girl he married and, now, every grey hair, varicose vein, wrinkle, and scar of her. He’s come to know the growl of her stomach, the way her bones click and clack. It’s not her outside appearance that’s kept him by her side all these years, but the person she is. Maybe he could say that to her. Some day.
Joe closes the woodstove and adjusts the damper until it sounds like a rough running motor made to idle smooth. He puts on some Tony Bennett. Soft.
Beatriz comes down in her big bathrobe. “It’s cozy with a fire.”
“Maybe I’m hoping to get lucky tonight.”
She laughs — ”Maybe you will.” — and brushes against him as though the dining room were crowded.
The scent of fragrance in her hair, the heat of her just from the shower, his member swelling, his love for his wife cresting, momentarily confuse him. But only momentarily. Maybe tonight, with the lights off.
In the morning, Joe eases from the warm bed without waking Beatriz, turns up the furnace, makes coffee, and showers, then quietly closes his daughter’s bedroom door behind him to meditate in Lucy’s Aeron. Routine. The best time of day, for the clarity. Beatriz had trouble meditating — ”My mind’s too jumpy. Can’t control it.” Stilling the mind can be tough. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna was reluctant to enter battle though both sides stood ready to fight. Krishna told him about meditating, about posture, about not letting attention stray. Arjuna complained, made excuses. ‘How do I find the time? The mind is restless in its nature. Like controlling the wind.’
Joe closes his eyes and sighs. When a lot’s going on, the mind wanders. Like training a puppy to sit. But we have control. Of ourselves. If only for a moment. Krishna asked Arjuna to be yogi and a warrior, a Sanyasi. Dear God-of-so-many-names, help me stay on my path and do right for all. With that prayer, Joe abandons thoughts.
Later, he can hear Beatriz singing softly in the kitchen. They share breakfast, then head into their separate workdays. Driving to a jury selection, Joe reflects on monks’ renunciation, how hiding out in monasteries resembles running away from life. Evading. Unaware of the larger world — he quickly brakes, lightly, to keep control — like this oblivious kamikaze pulling out without looking. He loosens his shoulders. Survival instincts, faster than thought, are still a good thing. Holy men fear the animal drives to immerse in life, to taste its pleasures and pains. Easier for monks, hidden away. Out here, it’s real work. A fighting man in the material world has to stay balanced yet move into life, keep the ego trim, not fat, not take all the air in a room. About moderation, self-restraint. To exit that endless cycle of desire / dissatisfaction. Rolling Stones. Satisfaction. Material pursuits. Desire leads to suffering . . .
At the jury selection he meets the attorneys and defendant at a county Superior Court. In vetting potential jurors, the lawyers question these random, dressed-come-as-you-are citizens, for many their first time in a courthouse. After a couple of drawn-out hours, the Judge calls a recess and — All rise! — withdraws. Bailiff takes the Defendant back to a holding room of prisoners. Defense leaves to deal with messages. Joe remains in the empty courtroom to write a letter to Lucy. Last visit, she’d complained about a client. On and on. As though presenting a legal brief to a neutral party. As if Joe could be impartial toward his own daughter. Hadn’t Lucy known that he had a father’s bias? He’d asked her, “Want advice?”
And she had said flatly, “No, I don’t want advice.”
And went on.
Over the years, if you’re paying attention, you learn things, can offer wisdom. He didn’t react to that seemingly disrespectful ‘No, I don’t want advice.’ He let Lucy use him as a sounding board and laughed off her venting. Boundaries. He cares but also has to trust. Not his strong suit; with kids, however much grown they may be, our heart is on the outside.
The voir dire stalled by recess, at the Defense table in this empty nineteenth century courtroom, Joe writes to his daughter:
. . . Adversity gives us more opportunity to grow than do comfort or success. I don’t think suffering is to no purpose. If we accept difficulties and pain without self-pity and resentment, we grow spiritually.
There. I’ll get off my soapbox.
Well, all is fine here at home. Mom and I talk about you, the old days, beach trips, things like that. We look forward to your next visit.
Joe remote-checks messages. Mike Howell: “Joe, regarding Mister Luna. Something’s come up. I need to talk with him. How soon can we meet?” They agree on a jail meeting for that afternoon. Superior has its Jury and Alternates by three. Driving to the Howell and Luna conference, Joe resumes earlier thoughts on self-restraint, how he liked Lent as a kid, gave up candy for forty days of ‘fasting.’ Later, quitting anything for good, saying ‘This I will not do,’ would come to mean more. Not-doing became part of his everyday practice. Dropping things like alcohol and tobacco streamlined his life. Choice and the self-discipline of saying ‘no’ yielded integrity.
Of the three big renunciations, the first is attachment, to decide between being ‘right’ or being content. Not having to assert strong opinions. As though it might matter. Challenges threaten the ego when we identify too much with our rigid, infallible convictions. That time Beatriz called him “sweetly reasonable.” Compliment from his complement. There are no more ‘ego-shattering’ blows. An ego like putty is not so brittle. He’ll stand by beliefs yet still be open to new lessons. Joe hasn’t abandoned the importance of truth, just has no need to sell it, to change others. No missionary. No salesman. No attorney. Poor Luz. Well, let her lawyer. Hard cue ball of ego. No flex at all. Part of youth, being center of the universe. I’ll quietly live my truths, maybe even share some. Hopefully, without self-righteousness. Ego renunciation.
He sighs, blends into northbound traffic on I-95. The second renunciation is ethnocentric, that ‘my tribe good, other tribe bad’ thing. Cultural bias. Being unaware. Before Sentencing, judges get Probation Reports. Rest of the world profiles. Without knowing you. Maybe I’m sensitized by a lifetime of condescension. Thank You, uh, I think . . .
Afternoon winter sun has slowly fallen below the horizon of western mountains. The second renunciation, going beyond superficial appearances, is also about leaving the tribe behind. Joe knows he’s at its threshold under starry skies. Einstein wrote, ‘. . . to free myself from the chains of the merely personal.’ Look it up later. Well, here’s the jail. Almost dark. Plenty of parking this time of day. Cloudless. Clear sky. Maybe watch that meteor shower tonight . . .
Mike Howell wears a long face. “This guy’s in deep doodoo.”
Joe says nothing, stows his coat, car keys, and pocket change in a locker. They walk through the magnetometer. A C.O. lets them into the conference cell. “This’ll have to be a short visit; almost their dinnertime.”
Joe arranges the cheap plastic chairs so he’ll sit between the two. When they bring in Luna, without greeting or handshaking, Mike gets right to the point. “There’s an arrest warrant for murder. A Manuel Arteaga.”
Luna nods. “La pelea.”
“Tell me about this fight.”
Luna has a hard look in his eyes; apparently, he had known this might surface. “Estuvimos borrachos . . .”
“We were drunk. It was a Friday night. We’d been out of work, drinking for days. Manuel was crazy from booze, and who knows what else. He attacked me with a knife in the kitchen.”
Mike asks, “Anyone else there?”
“We shared an apartment with four others, but none of them were there —”
“You and the victim shared an apartment?”
Luna blows off the question, “No tan víctima . . .”
“Not so much a victim. Manuel attacked me with a kitchen knife. I tried to take it from him, tried to reason with him, but he was crazy. Manuel was strong. I had to defend myself. It was either him or me.”
Mike speaks as if to himself, “A knife fight only six months ago. The other guy dies. What other skeletons do you have in your closet?”
Joe, like a practiced second baseman, grabs the idiom, a line drive past the pitcher’s ear, and tosses it to first. “¿Qué otros trapos sucios esconde?”
Luna stares at his hands.
Joe sees that Luna’s hands are not the stubby, calloused fingers of a field worker.
Mike says, “I’m going to need the truth. I can’t be much help if the Government knows more about you than I do. I can’t work in the dark.”
Luna looks up at Joe. “¿De cuánto tiempo estamos hablando?”
“How much time are we talking about?”
Mike shakes his head. “We’ll have to see what they come at us with. Ballpark? Fifteen to life.”
Luna says nothing.
Mike goes on, “And it depends on how you want to run with it, what deals I can hammer out with the Government. Homicide’s not a simple matter.”
Luna looks at the floor.
Mike adds, “It won’t be a slap on the wrist.”
Able utility infielder, Joe runs in and snatches the idiom, taking funny hops. He throws to first. “No va a ser ningún mero tirón de oreja.”
Luna nods, and tells his story. “Manuel fell to the kitchen floor. I panicked and took the bus to Boston, hoping to hide there. I found work washing dishes and bought new identification. Boston Police detained me once, but the id worked; no one made any connection. After a few months I got cocky, took a bus trip to Maine to see an old girlfriend.”
Mike says, “Cherchez la femme.”
Joe’s brain locks up. Seized. Languages, like eyes, yield two perspectives. A third disorients, is not ‘either / or.’ French. He studies Mike’s altar boy innocent face. The curse of making work look easy. With this morning’s voir dire, been a long day . . . A C.O. comes to the door — “We’re feedin’ ’em. Five minutes.” — and relatches it shut.
Joe sighs, turns to Luna. “Cherchez la femme. Busque a la mujer.”
“Strike that, go on.”
“Borre eso, que siga.”
“Entonces, andábamos en el auto de ella . . .”
“So, we were riding in her car. The ICE roadblock surprised us. I told her to turn around. That really drew their attention. They stopped us. The papers I bought in Boston, well, you know the rest.”
Mike says, “And that brings us to the present. Without details. No witnesses. In some ways, that’s good; it’s our word against crime scene speculation. The Government will never get illegals to testify. Did the victim — and get used to him being called that — have family?”
“La madre, una hermana.”
“Mother, a sister.”
“We can count on Prosecution bringing them in. Judges are swayed by victims’ family, especially criers.”
“Clarification on ‘criers’?”
“Yeah. Women and children who flood the courtroom with tears, have juries sniffling and grabbing tissues.”
“. . . lágrimas de mujeres y niños pueden influenciar al Jurado.”
Mike continues, “So there will be that. For now, though, the priority is all the unexplained elements.”
Luna says, “Fue un caso de autodefensa.”
“It was a matter of self-defense.”
Mike snorts. “Okay, Arturo, let’s talk about how the law sees self-defense, how the eyes of a judge will view it.”
Luna looks back and forth between Mike and Joe. He senses they have somehow shifted gears but doesn’t know in what way. Joe’s been here before, just waits, sees Mike’s mood improving; attorneys giving clients a survey on the American justice system enjoy returning to moot court, to the abstract theorizing of student days. Time for Law class.
“Suppose a man comes at you with a baseball bat. You struggle and get the bat away from him. If you throw the bat away, that’s fine. However, if, instead, you begin hammering him over the head with it, that’s where self-defense ends. The use of force is justified when it’s needed for self-defense. And no more force than necessary. In other words, lethal force is justified only if you reasonably believe that it’s needed to prevent your own death. In a mutual combat, both parties are aggressors. If one is killed, it’s considered manslaughter. Unless. Unless the survivor can prove two things: first, that before the mortal stroke was dealt he’d refused any further combat, had retreated as far as possible with safety —”
“¿Debía de haber huido?”
“I should have fled?”
“Well, no; you’re not required to flee your own home. But in a case like this it would be nice to show an attempt to retreat or escape before using force enough to cause death to the aggressor. And second is that you had to kill your rival to avoid your own destruction. Self-defense is protecting yourself from bodily harm. We’d have to justify reasonable force to prevent impending injury. Only as much as needed to repel the attack.”
Luna does not respond.
The C.O. begins unlocking the cell door.
Mike tells Luna, “We’re out of time. We’ll meet again. Soon. Be ready to tell me all you can about this knife fight. With details. As it stands now, we don’t have a justified self-defense, so think about whether you want to plead or go to trial.”
Luna rises to leave. Mike tells him, “Don’t talk with anyone at the jail about your case. Remember: one slip of the tongue.”
“Que no se vaya de la lengua.”
A C.O. lets them out and escorts Luna to dinner. Driving home in the dark, Joe returns to thinking of the three renunciations, envisions concentric circles expanding outward. Egocentric. Ethnocentric. And what? Worldcentric? A way of transcending the superficial. What they call ‘manifest realm’. . .
At home, he makes dinner listening to Glenn Gould, the pianist audibly humming along with the Bach Italian Concerto’s soft adagio opening. Waiting for Beatriz, Joe looks up the Einstein.
. . . the religious paradise of youth was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out there was this huge world, existing independently of us human beings, standing before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.
Einstein’s crisis of conscience. The third renunciation. Leaving the tribe behind. Being a Jew in that society, not fitting in, kept him from becoming too comfortable. His search — mathematical — helped waive self-centered will. In the ‘merely personal,’ Joe sees the parallels: how we don’t get Nature’s ‘logic,’ Einstein’s mistrust of religions, how a lifetime of frustrated acceptance into the dominant majority culture helps one grasp being part of a whole greater than any petty ethnos . . .
Beatriz arrives, and they eat.
“You’re a good cook, Joe.”
“Thanks.” He tastes a forkful. Fresh cod with thyme and garlic. “Trick’s not to overcook scrod filets; they dry out so easily. Want to hear a joke?”
“Even if it’s a linguistics joke?”
She deliberates. “I want to hear a joke.”
“So, a college kid, English major, drives taxi at night in Boston. Guy gets into his cab and asks to be taken to the airport. He was in town for business, and he’s leaving but tells the kid, ‘I was kinda busy this trip — where do you suppose I could have got scrod around here?’
The English major answers, ‘You know, I’ve been driving cab for a year now and must have heard that question a thousand times, but that’s the first time anyone’s asked it in the passive pluperfect subjunctive.’”
Joe checks. Yep, she’s fighting a grin.
He gestures out the kitchen window. “There’s a clear sky. I’m going to try to catch the meteor shower.”
“Cold, but maybe I’ll join you.”
“Both of us on the picnic table?”
“Sure; we can fit.”
Why, after all these years, is Beatriz suddenly interested in shooting stars? Is it this empty nest thing? “Okay. This’ll be a first.”
“Couples are supposed to share things.”
He nods. “Okay. I’ll go soon; want to be out there before moonrise.”
So after dinner, he puts some blankets over the picnic table for Beatriz. This is something he usually does alone, without blankets. After Joe’s been there a while, Beatriz comes out carrying a big pillow. “Scrunch up next to you?”
“Sure, scrunch up.” Joe tries to shut down his brain’s linguistics department. Scrunch. Colloquial. De acurrucarse, to cuddle . . .
“Oooh, it’s warm in here!”
A faint meteor flits over the house, like a grey hair. Beatriz, still accommodating herself, hasn’t seen it. She nestles in his arm like a small bird. “This is comfy.” Beatriz clamps his thigh between her knees. “Goin’ ta muckle right onta ya.”
Muckle. Downeast regionalism. To grab onto, aferrarse, agarrar . . .
Joe’s eyes widen. A large meteor strikes the atmosphere at a steep angle with an impressive blue-green splash, as though hitting water. Beatriz misses it and continues fidgeting. “Even your hands are warm! Boy, you’d make a good doctor.”
Joe breathes in her familiar scent, brushes strands of her hair from his eyes, and stares at the sky in awe. Bright enough to make shadows . . .
“I was on the phone with Lucy . . .” And she talks. The way women talk with women and, sometimes, with their male partners. Joe lets her be a girl. He watches the sky and half-listens to Beatriz. He hugs her affectionately, draws her close, and she becomes quiet, but only for a while.
“Takes time for your eyes to adjust. Moon’s not up for a —”
“Dark. And scary.”
Joe says nothing.
“Don’t you get scared out here?”
“Not with you next to me.”
“I’m like a teddy bear?”
They are quiet for maybe a minute.
“I want to see a shooting star.”
“You have to be very still.”
Joe smiles privately in the dark. “They won’t come out if they hear you.”
She pokes him in the ribs.
His eyes are tearing. Is it the cold? Or loving his comical wife? He makes a promise he cannot keep. “Soon. There’ll be one soon.”
They are quiet. To warm herself, Beatriz tries to capture his body heat. She’s growing impatient. “I’m getting cold. I want to see a shooting star so I can go inside to sleep.” Just then, from behind them, stretching to the zenith, a pale white meteor flares and extinguishes.
“Wow. Okay, it’s cold; I’m going in.”
She kisses him and goes into the house.
Joe lies there watching the sky. Thank You, for her being here. And for her going. With blankets, it isn’t cold enough to let go of this blue-black sky full of stars, despite the hint of a luminous haze in the east. This watching reaches deep. Spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder. This is like church to me. I feel closer to You when seeing so much of — a meteor flashes blue-green and zips an arc across the sky — creation. It’s almost like You talk, sometimes. Laconic, but not mute. Yeah, this is wonder. Not knowing. Respect. A huge world out there, independent of human beings. A great, eternal riddle.
He hears an owl then, farther off, the yipping of a coyote.
He hears steps breaking snow crust. Many. Coming out of the woods. He listens, tilts his head slightly and sees deer, a doe, two yearlings, and a buck, tentatively stepping out of the trees. Can’t see me. Long as I don’t move. Those big ears. Like antennae. Pick up any slightest . . .
The buck looks his way, then follows the others out of sight beyond the house. The eastern glow brightens, and the full moon rises through immense tangerine to blue cheese. Then, impressed, cold, carrying the blankets inside, Joe startles the deer, who bound off in a rush. More than four! Six, seven. Eating salty grass. Good night, deer. Good night, moon.
Paul García has had stories published in Crosscut, North American Review, SNReview, Overtime Review, Euphony Journal, and Spindrift.
Archive of Fiction by issue:
May 2021 February 2021 September 2020 July 2020 May 2020 March 2020
January 2020 November 2019 September 2019 July 2019 May 2019 March 2019 January 2019
November 2018 September 2018 July 2018 June 2018 May 2018 April 2018 March 2018
February 2018 January 2018 December 2017 November 2017 October 2017 September 2017
August 2017 July 2017 June 2017 May 2017 April 2017 March 2017 February 2017 January 2017
December 2016 November 2016 October 2016 September 2016 August 2016 June 2016 May 2016
Archive of More Fiction by issue
March 2020 January 2020 November 2018 September 2018
July 2018 June 2018 May 2018 April 2018 March 2018 February 2018 January 2018 December 2017
Archive of Flash Fiction by issue
May 2021 February 2021 September 2020 July 2019 May 2020 March 2020 January 2020
November 2019 September 2019 July 2019 May 2019 March 2019 July 2018 June 2018
More Flash & Micro Fiction
Archive of Better Than Fiction by issue
May 2021 February 2021 September 2020 July 2020
May 2020 March 2020 January 2020 November 2019 September 2019 July 2019
May 2019 March 2019 January 2019 November 2018 September 2018 July 2018 June 2018
May 2018 April 2018 March 2018 February 2018 January 2018 December 2017 November 2017
October 2017 September 2017 August 2017 July 2017 June 2017 May 2017 April 2017