By Kathleen Glassburn
Judith rips open an envelope from the county and pulls out a pink paper. It’s not a photographed traffic violation. She received one of those last year and paid a 240-dollar fine. It didn’t go on her record, but it’s made her even more careful. In all her forty-five years, this is her first ever summons for jury duty.
We’ll have barely gotten back! she moans to herself, tossing the paper onto the kitchen table. Judith and her husband are going to Provence for a much-needed getaway. When she returns, her mother will need more attention than ever…and always the shop. There’ll be so much to do with the upcoming sale. This is the worst time ever for a trip and jury duty on top of it.
“Buck up. This is my responsibility,” Judith says to the empty room. She flips the paper over. The summons is for a civil trial. Only three days. Maybe she’ll be dismissed. If not, she’ll have to figure out ways to fit in time for her mother. She imagines a pitiful voice. “I missed you so much…with your brother gone…and now your father.”Because of the sale at the women’s clothing store she now co-owns with her mother, who retired when Judith’s father got sick, there’ll be more paperwork. Judith left her long-time librarian position at the university in order to take over the shop several years ago. She’ll need to go in at night…that is if there’s still a shop to worry about. Maybe the sale will help the bottom line.
* * *
Monday morning after her return from Provence, Judith arrives promptly at ten o’clock to the Clarence County Courthouse in Mowbray, Washington, a town fifteen miles north of Seattle. She’s jetlagged but brimming with happy memories from the trip. Placing her purse and a colorful canvas tote bag purchased at the Vaison-la-Romaine market in a security bin, she steps forward. The bag pictures one of the Roman ruins in this town.
A metal detector buzzer blasts, startling her.
“Sorry, you have to be re-checked,” says a cheerful balding man in uniform. “It’s probably the trim on your boots.”
Judith moves back into line. He looks kind of like Dad used to look. Her father has lived in an Alzheimer’s facility for the past eighteen months. She unzips her Gucci boots and places them in another bin. Going through the check a second time, the buzzer remains still. She puts the knee-high black boots on and enters a large room where about fifty other prospective jurors quietly wait.
Usually punctual to a fault—her parents always insisted on this—Judith is surprised to see all these people ahead of her. Then, No seats!
A young woman in trendy ripped denims points to a stack of folding chairs.
Judith nods a thank-you and lifts one. There’s nowhere to put it, so she sticks the chair in front of all these people. Feeling color rush to her face, she tries to tamp down feelings of embarrassment. No one looks Judith’s way, but the helpful young woman pulls a chair up next to hers.
A few deep breaths later, she reaches for her iPhone and finds a game of gin
rummy. A touch of wistfulness envelops her. Judith’s older brother Nate taught her how to play this game with real cards when they were teenagers. He used to let her win. He also helped her with remedial math. She hasn’t thought about Nate in a long time. Halfway through her first game, a video comes on the screen in back of Judith. She turns sideways. A woman’s voice, along with graphics, explains the upcoming process for those chosen to serve.
When the video ends, the young woman next to her says, “Got that!”
Judith agrees and continues her game. In between each round she wonders about the case she’ll be on and sneaks peeks at other people in the room. Considering the amount of time they’ve been sitting there, she wonders why it’s so quiet. Most of them are reading paperbacks or e-books. A few snooze. One elderly African American man rustles a newspaper. A young Latino woman knits.
Judith wins three times and closes with a Big Gin—over 350 points. Nate would have been proud of her.
“I like to play that game. Passes the time,” the young woman says. “I heard this might be a drunk driving case.”
“That sounds serious.” Judith tenses.
The young woman looks concerned too. She puts hands over her pink knees that poke out of the legs of her jeans.
At eleven, a skinny woman dressed in a long brown skirt and baggy blue top enters the room and says, “You are excused for lunch. Return by one.”
Enough time to call Mother.
Judith hurries to the village, where she stops by their shop—Luminous. Her mother named it when she first opened. Judith was twenty-five and, back then, stayed away. A crowd of women sort through stacks of sweaters and racks of pants and skirts. She hasn’t ever seen this many customers in the shop at once.
“All well?” she asks Jessica, the manager.
“Everything’s okay. Don’t worry. I can handle it.” She flips a mound of auburn hair out of her shirt collar.
Judith hopes these women are doing more than merely browsing. If numbers don’t improve she’ll be forced to close. She’s already laid off two sales clerks.
Next, she heads across the street from the traffic circle and goes into a deli where she buys a tuna salad sandwich and a cup of herbal tea. It’s too cold for eating outside, so she sits at a counter and watches the motley foot traffic go by. Several women pass by the window carrying shiny pink bags from Luminous. This makes her smile. Maybe things are looking up.
A bearded man with shoulder-length gray hair covering his eyes stumbles into the deli’s doorway.
Judith’s smile fades. Nate used to wander the streets of Seattle and sleep in doorways. Usually this distressing image is pushed to the back of her mind.
The disheveled man shouts at passersby about too many cars and accidents. He shoves his hands in the pockets of a dusty-looking overcoat and shivers for a minute or two. After warming them, he waves his arms in the air and resumes his tirade.
Judith goes in the restroom to call her mother. The last thing she wants to do is watch the homeless man.
“You got home from Provence last night,” her mother says. “Why didn’t you get out of
“I couldn’t do that in good faith, Mom.”
“Well, what about me? You’ve been gone three weeks. Your father didn’t even recognize me this morning.”
“I’m sorry. How else have you been?”
“About the same. How was your trip?”
“Really fun. We enjoyed the time away.”
“That’s just great.” She doesn’t say away from me, but her tone implies this. “How’s jury duty?”
“Nothing’s happened yet.”
“That’s how it was when I served.”
“What kind of trial?”
“A contract dispute.”
“I need to go now. I’ll call again tomorrow, and I’ll see you as soon as possible.”
“Can’t you come by tonight?”
“I have to go into the shop. Paperwork from the sale.”
“Oh sure…the shop.” Her mother doesn’t offer to help.
* * *
Ten minutes before one, Judith huddles with a smaller group of prospective jurors outside the courthouse’s locked doors. Chilled, she crosses her arms over her Burberry coat and stomps her feet. A short while later the long-skirted woman opens the doors. Judith removes her boots and stacks them in a bin. The friendly, uniformed man immediately checks her through without the shrieking buzzer. If only Dad could still smile like he does. Near the front of the line, Judith finds a padded chair beside a side wall. The rest of the prospective jurors meander in. No one speaks.
She sorts through her Provence bag and is annoyed to discover that a new state-of-the-art water bottle has leaked. A soaked paperback mystery, blank notebook, and napkin-wrapped crackers clump together. Hesitant to leave her seat, she’s glad the heavy canvas keeps in the moisture. Grabbing a seldom-used Kindle from her purse, she finds a forgotten book about mental illness, stalled at 15 percent complete. Judith studies it for over an hour.
At two-fifteen the same woman returns. “Hurry up to wait,” she says. She gives twenty of them, Judith included, badges with numbers. She is number nine. They form a queue and the woman ushers them into the courtroom.
Numbers one through seven sit in the jury box. The rest sit on a bench that looks like a church pew. Number eight, the gray-haired African American man, is on Judith’s left.
The judge, a man of about forty, quietly enters and sits at an elevated desk in front. He wears a typical flowing black robe, but no white wig like the judges in British crime programs Judith watches. His dark hair and dark eyes gleam under the lights as if he’s a beacon for them all.
“This is a criminal case and will take longer than the three days noted on your summons,” he starts.
A felony in my little town? Judith expected a low-key case like the one her mother participated in.
The defendant enters and sits on the right side of a table facing Judith and the others on the church pew-like bench. Disturbingly familiar, he appears to be in his twenties, with neat brown hair, a navy blue shirt and red tie, khaki trousers, and brown shoes. He calmly folds his hands on the table. Looking straight at Judith, his bland face remains expressionless.
He looks like Nate. Her handsome, well-groomed, superstar brother had a car accident, while driving drunk, when he was a senior in high school. Judith wonders if this is a drunk driving citation and if there were damages to property, injuries, or even deaths.
The defense attorney rushes in. A woman of about five feet, two inches, not long out of law school, she has dingy brown hair that looks as if it wasn’t combed that morning. A tight orange top and skirt do nothing to hide her bulges. Beige pumps are scuffed, and her broadly spaced nostrils flare.
The prosecuting attorney joins the others. He’s a tall, Scandinavian-looking man twice the age of the defense attorney, attired in a well-pressed gray business suit.
These officials so rapidly introduce themselves that Judith misses their names. She gleans from the judge’s limited remarks that this is a drunk driving case.
Cringing, she recalls how Nate ended up in a seventeen-day coma after his accident. This was when all the comforting of her parents began.
He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in his early twenties. By then, he’d lost his calm, easygoing demeanor, and she searched for ways to help him, as well as her mother and father.
“Please do not take it personally if you are told to leave,” the judge says. “There are many reasons for dismissal.”
Judith calls or visits her mother every day, to give reassurances that they did all they could do. Alcohol helps her mother to forget.
The judge questions different people who checked boxes which might excuse them. Each one says this was an error.
That’s awfully careless.
He asks for additional information that might make a person unable to perform as a juror.
After years of institutions, both mental and penal, Nate committed suicide at age twenty-eight.
Should I tell the judge about him? That was a long time ago. And Judith wants to be a part of this young man’s trial.
A woman has a highway patrolman son.
The judge immediately dismisses her and orders, “Number eight to the jury box.”
The African American man fills her place.
A balding man confesses to a DUI—many years before, implying he’d been young and reckless. The underlying message: He is now a fine, law-abiding citizen.
The judge makes notes.
Nate had gone off his meds when carbon dioxide claimed him. Their parents, after so many years trying to help him, were numb and confused. So Judith stepped up again.
She decides to omit information about Nate, but will tell the judge about her own automobile accident.
He acknowledges her raised hand.
“My car was rear-ended by a disoriented man on prescription medicine. I did not sustain any injuries, but my brand-new Mercedes received significant damage.”
“The end of last August.” Seven months ago.
The judge makes a note and continues with his questions for the group, asking if they have information about this particular case, or if they are familiar with anyone in the room.
Two men, already in the jury box, know each other. The younger one looks at the older one to his left and says, “He’s my wife’s boss.”
“Are you friendly with each other?” the judge asks.
They grin and nod.
“How often do you see each other?”
“Once a year,” the older man says.
The judge makes another note.
The attorneys begin to question and eliminate possibilities. Their task is to have six jurors and one alternate for the case.
If this is really serious, wouldn’t there be twelve? Maybe Judith has watched too much crime television. She doesn’t want this to be anything too serious—for the young man’s sake.
The defense attorney turns to her. “Do you think an automobile driver should never drink alcohol?” Her words come out loud. “Or take drugs of any kind?”
“Well, ideally, yes,” Judith answers. “Realistically, most people can have a glass of wine and drive safely.”
“What about Benadryl?” the defense attorney presses. “Should a person take Benadryl and drive?”
“Some people can take Benadryl and drive safely. It depends upon the individual.”
“Given the accident last summer, can you be an impartial juror?” she asks.
“I consider myself to be fair.”
“I didn’t say fair. Can you be impartial?”
Judith sighs and shrugs. What does she want from me? “I’m often the designated driver.” That was a dumb thing to say. Judith is relieved when the questioning stops and she’s released from the hot seat.
The prosecuting attorney stands, buttons his suit jacket, and questions a young blond guy who looks like he could have been one of the friends in Nate’s car at the time of his accident. They all walked away.
Why focus on him?
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m an aeronautical engineer for Boeing.”
“You spend a lot of time on the computer crunching numbers, right?”
“Yes. I crunch numbers.”
The prosecuting attorney dismisses him.
What’s wrong with crunching numbers? Judith’s been doing plenty of this lately with the struggling shop.
“Number nine, go to the jury box,” the judge says.
Judith picks up the damp Provence bag along with her purse and heavy coat. She stumbles by several people already in the box, excusing herself along the way as if she’s going through a crowded theater row. A buckle on her boot catches against a woman’s slacks.
“Sorry,” Judith whispers, and plops into the vacated spot.
She tries to find a comfortable position with her belongings bunched around her feet.
“Number nine, you are excused,” the defense attorney says before Judith gets settled.
She falters back out of the jury box, trying not to step on anyone’s feet or snag anyone’s clothing. The man who was boss to the younger man’s wife gives her a surreptitious thumbs-up. He probably liked her remark about being a designated driver.
The Nate lookalike defendant gazes at Judith with eyebrows and shoulders rising, then falling, as if he has not a clue where this is all headed.
She gives him an encouraging smile.
Expecting the court experience to be time-consuming but easy, Judith didn’t think memories of Nate would surface.
She wonders, What will become of this young man?
* * *
That night, she tallies receipts at Luminous. Not bad.
The next day she takes a break from reading accumulated mail and doing laundry to hunt through a box of papers in the attic. Eventually, she locates a memorial card. It’s been packed away for almost two decades. Reading about Nate’s short life, her chest feels as full and heavy as it did while sitting in the mortuary’s chapel all those years ago. She’d done the planning for that service since her parents, overcome with grief, couldn’t help.
The next morning, Judith puts everything on hold. She visits the cemetery for the first time since her brother died.
Fresh yellow carnations fill a vase below his headstone. Mom must come here before going to see Dad. Her mother used to ask Judith to go with her, but Judith always found an excuse.
To Nate, she says, “I’m sorry I didn’t properly remember you.” Then, “I’m sorry I blamed you for Mom and Dad’s unhappiness. It wasn’t your fault.” She places a pack of playing cards on top of his tombstone. “You did the best you could.”
Kneeling on the cold, damp grass, she murmurs, “Good-bye, Nate. I have missed you. I always will.”