On sentencing day, the Judge rises earlier
than usual for a morning run in order to clear
the cobwebs and dust bunnies from his head
so that he can approach the day with clarity
and focus. He stretches in the hallway while waiting for the elevator, clutching his back. The sofa was particularly uncomfortable last night. The elevator whisks him noiselessly from his eleventh-floor apartment to the thickly carpeted lobby where he jogs out heavy glass doors onto the sidewalk. He inhales deeply the fresh, moist morning air that clings sweat-like to his skin. He begins running in short, choppy steps as around him, the city slouches to life. Behind him in Apartment 11J, his wife still snores open-mouthed, sleeping her peaceful sleep, having denied him his.
In a few hours at 9:00 a.m. sharp, he will enter a packed, murmuring courtroom wearing the robes of justice. A gavel will sound, all will rise, and, like some beneficent host, he will invite everyone to please be seated. Then they will line up case by case behind a lectern, men and women who have stolen, stabbed, robbed, raped, maimed, murdered, and in every conceivable way, disrupted and destroyed the lives of their victims and their own; the feckless, the heartless, the clueless, miscreants and scofflaws all, their misdeeds neatly appended inside a manila file folder bearing a number. With glasses perched on his nose and furrowed brow, he will thumb through each file and nod appropriately as a prosecutor demands retribution, and defendants, alone or with counsel, beseech him for leniency. Through it all, he must be patient, he must be fair, he must be wise. When it is his turn to speak, he must exact society’s vengeance, yet be merciful, each sometimes within a breath of the other. Above all, he must act with malice toward no one. The Judge prides himself on his ability to be and do all these things. Was he not selected above all the others for his abundance of these very qualities?
Harry, face it. You’re just not a good administrator.
What? I run a good docket.
It’s more than the dockets, Harry. You know that. Have you forgotten the fiasco last year when you were Acting?
You can’t be doing this to me. I’ve waited ten years for this, Vince, ten fucking years. You can’t deny me now.
We already voted, Harry. It’s too late.
Who is it, then? Landis? It’s Landis, isn’t it?
That conniving little suck-up’s only been on the bench four years, and he gets to be Chief Judge? Unbelievable. Un-fucking believable.
The job’s a pain in the ass anyway, Harry. Who needs it? Don’t take it personal. We still love you.
Kiss it right here, Vince.
He is sure to arrive at the courthouse on sentencing day at least an hour before his staff and brew a pot of coffee to sip from a mug emblazoned in raised letters with the inscription, “World’s Greatest Judge” while he pores over the stack of files on his desk. He starts at the top and works his way down, laying each folder open before him, rifling through multi-colored sheets of paper. He will read each presentence investigation report. Sometimes he will make a note on a sticky and attach it to a page. Other times a mental note is all he needs. Some names will conjure up faces, usually frequent flyers, and the details of their crimes, past and present, appear as a detailed portrait in his mind. Other offenders are just names on a folder, and he won’t recognize them even when he sees them in the courtroom. No matter, his duty is to treat them all with a requisite amount of respect and dignity, even the worst of them, rendering judgment with measured cadence and an apparent bottomless reservoir of empathy.
$800 for a goddamn dress, Vivian? Really?
I went through the closet, Harry. I didn’t have a thing to wear for the dinner.
You’ve gotta have at least thirty dresses in there. Jesus!
I have to look nice, Harry, especially at my age. You want me to look nice, don’t you, Harry? And lower your voice, please.
What, they were fresh out of $500 ones?
I don’t need your sarcasm, Harry. I bought shoes, too. They’ll be on the American Express statement. $200.
Goddamn it, Vivian. We’re not rich, you know.
Whose fault is that, Harry?
There are moments in the courtroom, however, when, despite his best intentions, things veer into the personal, and dark clouds roil his placid demeanor. With red-faced fury, he will scold a defendant or his attorney, sometimes both. These moments are shocking and unpredictable, prompting a hush in the courtroom and causing counsel to stare down at their suddenly interesting shoes and cast sideways glances at each other, making mental note to address him with extra deference when they stand before him.
At the end of the day, alone in his chambers, he may be given to reflection over glass, perhaps two, of single-malt scotch poured from a bottle stashed in a bottom desk drawer. He may recline in his high-backed chair and consider how brittle a notion justice is, particularly when its administration rests in the hands of imperfect men. He might even regret any rash comments, chastise himself for any earlier surliness or loss of control which may have led him to impose a few extra months or years on a sentence or deny a request for probation. Then he will forgive himself for it hoping that God’s listening. Yet, he’ll remind himself, returning the bottle to its resting place, they come to him looking for justice, not he to them. And if they happen to get more of it than they’d reckoned, well, that’s what motions for reconsideration are for.
He runs eight blocks past Starbucks, Panera Bread, the deli, newspaper stalls and parked cars, past a slender young woman with a Rottweiler on a leash with a spiked collar. The dog snarls at him causing him to jump. “Hey, lady! Watch your goddamn dog,” he yells over his shoulder at her, once he’s safely out of harm’s way.
When he gets to the Shell station on 9th Avenue with its garish yellow lighting, he stops, breathing heavily. He jogs in place for a moment or two, then crosses the street for the run home.
He enters the lobby of his apartment building feeling sweaty yet invigorated. The morning run has been an elixir, a balm. He feels cleansed of the unpleasant residuum from the day before--his chat with Vince, the dress—as though it has escaped his pores and evaporated into the cool morning air. He slips the key into the lock and enters the cozy warmth of his apartment, walking past the sofa with its half-arranged sheet and blanket. In the bathroom, he strips naked leaving his clothes and shoes in an untidy pile on the floor. A hot shower is the final replenishment he needs.
“Yes, Harry,” comes his wife’s groggy voice.
“What about it?”
“There’s no water. I turned the faucet, and there’s no fucking water. None.”
“Oh, Harry, I meant to tell you. They’re fixing the pipes or something. Started at midnight. They’re supposed to be done by nine.”
He stands there naked with a dry washcloth in his hand, yelling at his wife’s voice.
“So you knew about this?”
“Sure, I did. We got the notice weeks ago. ”
“Well, did you think the Gravy Train might like to know a little detail like that?”
“I was going to remind you last night, Harry, but you were so upset about the dress. And you never came to bed.”
“What am I supposed to do, Vivian? I just went on a run. I stink. It’s sentencing day.”
“Don’t make such a fuss, Harry. Just wash up in your bathroom at work. What time is it anyway? I’m going back to sleep.”
He steps out of the shower enclosure and, completely forgetting the admonition of the installer – Now, Judge, you gotta remember when you close this thing, nice and easy -- slams the shower door causing frosted glass to shatter into a glittering spray of chunks and shards, one of which finds its way into his exposed calf sending first a dribble, then a stream of blood down the side of his leg.
“Harry, what did you do?” his wife calls out.
“The goddamn shower door broke.”
“That nice man told us not to…”
“That’s wonderful, Vivian. But, tell me, how is that little nugget of information of any possible use to me RIGHT NOW!”
“I’m not going to answer you, Harry, until you stop yelling at me.”
He goes to the sink to turn on the water to wet his washcloth with cold water and apply a compress to his bleeding leg. He turns the faucet.
~ ~ ~
Disheveled in musty running clothes, well past his usual departure time, The Honorable H. Wilson Slattery steers his BMW out of the underground parking of his luxury high-rise apartment into the sun-dappled street. Beside him sits a toiletry kit; in the backseat, a garment bag containing a suit, tie, shirt, etc. His leg aches beneath a Band-Aid strip hastily applied and already leaking. He has morning breath, and his hair is matted. White stubble sprouts from his ruddy cheeks. Dark fungus blooms in his soul.
In less than two hours he will zip the concealed zipper on his black robe and prepare to enter a crowded courtroom filled with the accused, hopeful and beyond hope, their sad-eyed relatives in the gallery, their victims, and their counsel. He will mount the short rise of steps, ready to open the door, and sit before them. Harry the Just, just Harry, lately himself victimized by backstabbing colleagues, a ruinous wife, and a felonious shower door. Not that anyone there cares. Why should they? The gathered throng just wants what they want, and he will gladly give it to them. As his hand grasps the doorknob, a familiar sense of contentment will warm him. On what other day than this can so many of the goddamn wrongs in this life be atoned for so perfectly by one man in a mere three hours’ time? The knowledge that he is that man, The Man, will cause his lips to curl into a tooth-baring smile not unlike that of a butcher enjoying the satisfying heft of a freshly sharpened knife.
All rise, it’s sentencing day, and justice will be served. Come and get it.