I like this courtroom. It’s not modern—one enclosed in glass, secured with metal fittings and detailed with sculpted plastic moldings that make impossible shapes look natural. No, it’s an old oak-clad room with a high ceiling, a square space wrapped in over-waxed wainscoting and decorated with heavy art deco furniture. The floor is granite, the aggregate of which, the size of Perry mason’s eyeballs. There are tall windows to my left letting through the sun. The light leaks through the shades and I can see dust particles dance in it and settle on the empty seats of the jury box. The atmosphere’s pleasant, tranquil if it wasn’t for the feeling of impending doom inside my stomach. The jury is in chambers deciding if I killed my mother for the right reasons—that same question still burns inside of me, but I’ve lost track where it is; it feels like it will never be resolved, lost in my veins.
It’s complicated. I’m a murderer, but my conscious is often clear. I see things simpler now since I took a look inside my mother’s denture-less mouth and saw the image of the woman she used to be crawling up from the darkness of her throat. I see strands of DNA in place of skin and bright colored steam emanate off the bodies of strangers. Goodness makes me cry. All is passing, all thoughts are fleeting, every moment for me feels like this is the end of my life. I could be calm while drowning and smile while choking. I could be found guilty and bow to the jury. I’ve accepted all the possible outcomes.
My lawyer, on the other hand, has not, and she tells me I’m emotionally compensating due to my current levels of stress and anxiety. She calls my enlightened state of being, monking, i.e. pretending to be all-knowing and unaffected by a reality I have no control over. She’s right, but for now, must be wrong; going Buddhist monk is working, at least I’ve convinced myself so. Regardless, it beats the hell out of trying to go Albert Camus/existentialist with it, my first phase of denial. In the end, becoming L’Étranger made me feel like an aging hipster bursting out of his leather pants while trying to shine his beetle boots in front of an impatient firing squad of twelve jurors.
Speaking of annoying, my lawyer has a nervous habit of giving me pep talks when she’s feeling pessimistic, like right now. Ironically, She’s also trying to convince herself that she’s in control of a situation beyond her grasp. She’s not monking, per se, but it’s still a form of compensation. She’s lecturing me about what’s REALLY going on, and how our case has a fair chance of success. I stopped listening to her ideas a couple minutes ago, instead, counting what words she repeats the most. Strong—as in a “strong indication,” “strong chance,” and a “strong possibility”—twelve times. Perhaps, eight times. Regardless, five times. And, Not the end of the road, four. I don’t mean to be rude, and it’s not her inability to realize her veiled doubt is subconsciously leaking into her language which bothers me (I mean, I’m pretty much fucked), it’s the fact she thinks she can convince me otherwise. I know she’s coming from a good place, that she’s trying to deal with her own stress and anxiety, but it’s not like there’s anything we can do now, and convincing ourselves we did enough, isn’t enough. It’s better to monk the situation than to over-analyze it or turn beatnik.
Tamar Chansis-Corbin is such a good name for a defense attorney—a speed reading, top-5 Harvard Law graduate, type-A attorney. She’s taller than me and rail-thin. Her hands are long, slick and purposeful like shellacked shoehorns. She has a dense afro parted down the middle, which she lets eclipse on the weekends. Come Saturday, Her glasses likely come off too. On weekdays, in court, she rocks a pantsuit or a pencil skirt and blazer. Pearls every other day. Small earrings, irregularly. Eye mascara like Nefertiti, calligraphy on deep golden skin.
Tamar wasn’t the first attorney to visit me, but she was the first visiting creature who exhibited human traits. She walked into my cell confidently, but vulnerable, which matched the state I was in after being grilled by two Seattle homicide detectives for 17 hours, and 48 hours deep into a beltless suicide watch and three ham sandwiches. I won’t lie, I was attracted to her, but that attraction let me trust her at a time and within a system where I trusted no one. Plus, we are from the same neighborhood in South Seattle, pre-gentrification days, so there’s a bond that comes with that. She was new—backed by her father, partner to a firm, a successful defense attorney letting out the line on his protégé—and I was new to this too. It might sound counterintuitive to want a young and inexperienced lawyer, but she had the resources, and she was working the case pro-bono. I don’t know what else to say besides it just felt right.
“You listening to me, idiot?” she says.
“Just the words.”
She looks away, up to the bench, and sighs before looking back.
“I don’t need this monk shit right now; I need you to listen to me.”
“Yeah, okay, but don’t you want to know what words I was listening to?”
“Fair,” I say.
“In the event you’re found guilty we can appeal.”
“I know you know, but I need to tell it to you again, so you don’t begin chanting Om instead of fighting your conviction because you’re one with the universe.”
“I can be one with the universe and also refuse to take it up the ass,” I say.
“How inspiring,” she says with zero affect.
“The title to my memoir.”
She disengages in refusal to admit she thinks I’m funny. She hates smiling more than Anthony Scalia’s ghost. I’ve tried really hard to crack her shell, but she’s tough and also smarter than me.
“You know what I should be found guilty for?” I say.
“This outfit. It’s fucking hideous.”
Like my high-school picture days, I’m wearing my older brother, Eligh’s clothes. A dated black blazer over a massive jade green silk shirt stuffed into a pair of pleated khakis, all resting on top a pair of black and white oxford saddle shoes. It’s honestly the weirdest outfit imaginable, but my suit went missing this morning and Eligh raced home in rush hour traffic to throw something together. He’s in the middle of moving and found them in a trash bag of old clothes that hadn’t been moved yet, or opened since 1998.
“Guilty of smelling like Value Village,” she says.
“Or, teen spirit.”
“That a Grunge joke?”
“Don’t be so Kurt.”
“Oh, god, please stop,” she sighs. “Like I said, the jury can come in at any moment. This is day three of deliberations, so time is on our side. —If they’d took only a couple hours, we’d be screwed.”
I continue to nod to Tamar, but I slightly turn my head to face Eligh. I mouth, “What the fuck?” to him while pointing to my outfit. He smiles and mouths back, “Sorry.” Tamar looks at him and smiles; I can’t fathom this.
Eligh’s nearly twelve years older than me, the last of mom’s first marriage. We look like brothers, but there are distinct differences. He has more hair, I have more common sense. He loves money, I love books. He can’t hold a relationship, I can’t be alone. Though only the difference in hair volume is likely genetic, I’d like to think they all are. I suppose that’s what we have in common though, the ability to believe whatever we want to for the sake of convincing others of whatever we need them to believe. I suppose that’s another form of control, a way of monking with the masses, a way to temporarily put insecurity aside and be the one that is in the know.
“You’re going home,” he mouths to me, after giving Tamar too long a look.
“Where is home?” I say.
He rolled his eyes.
“Not here, idiot,” he says.
“Seriously,” Tamar interjects, having read my lips. “You’re a published author and yet your proclivity to descend into cliché and melodrama makes me want to puke.”
“I blame my mother; that’s why I killed her,” I say.
“That’s not cool.”
“Mom would have said that was my Irish sense of humor talking. Although, I could never understand what that really meant.”
“You just um hmm’ed me; take it back,”
“Um hmm,” she repeats.
“Psst,” Eligh hisses. The press and other randos in the seats behind look over to us.
Tamar smiles, again.
Eligh points at his watch.
“What’s taking so long? I’ve got a WhatsApp date with Aja in an hour.”
Aja is our older sister. She lives in England and is married to a Morris dancer. They love Doctor Who and take travel pictures with a stuffed skunk. They’re dorks, but good people.
“My fate takes time,” I say.
“So does the freeway,” Eligh says.
“Don’t you dare smile at him again, Tamar.”
“Your brother’s cute,” she turns and whispers.
“But he looks forty.”
“If I lose this case I’m reporting you to the bar.”
I turn around and look at the empty bench in front of me. I imagine The Honorable Judge Maddox is in her chambers eating a salad, drinking a blood orange San Pellegrino, and already knowing the answer to my guilt or innocence. This whole fucking show is so Kafkaesque because the law has so many doors with so many ignorant guards; because it mirrors our broken society, but still operates with such a resolute and cold logic; because my name is Josef and I’m on trial.
Another hour goes by and Eligh is gone. I again look behind me and the diehards are still here. Pete Sorenson, the jack ass from the Seattle Times who wrote that I’m “the epitome of white privilege,” when ironically, he is. Tabatha O’Riordan, who wrote, “What if he’s a saint and not a villain?” which is in the running for the most painful cliché title of the year. My favorite diehard though is Omeed Faraz, a second-year Seattle University law student who asked my permission to sit in on the trail as part of his fieldwork for a class called: Ethics, Morality and the Law. I’ve let him interview me a couple times to hear my side of things. I can never tell if he’s shy or afraid of me. This gives me no sense of power, but of loss. To be branded guilty is one thing, but feared by good people, something else. Still, the most objectively I’ve been able to consider my situation is with him. He’s a good listener, and like Tamar, a lot smarter than me.
The last diehard is my father. He sits in the back seats either playing Sudoku, solving chess problems or reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. The two former are staving off the aging process, while the latter negates his hard work. However, I’ve never read them, only watched the first two seasons of the series, so I should shut my mouth.
He looks up from his work and stares at me, but only when he thinks I’m not aware of it. I think he’s trying to understand why I did what I did to my mother. How he should care about her death after being divorced for so long. Perhaps, he’s trying to figure out if he still loves me, or if he can love me? I suppose, if I’m convicted he’s all alone; in a way, surviving the figurative death of his only son. He’s meditating on the prospect of mourning. Lately, eye contact between us is rare because I think he wants to spare me the embarrassment. He sees that I’m distressed and so wants to let me be, like an injured animal in the woods. He can’t do anything to help me, so perhaps keeping a distance is the safest way to manage? I get that being the defendant in a high profile legal case is way too much attention for Leonard, what I don’t get is Game of Thrones.
“You didn’t like Game of Thrones?” Tamar asks, rhetorically. “You’re such a hipster.”
“Why does that make me a hipster?”
“You don’t like anything that’s popular in the mainstream unless if it’s enjoyed ironically.”
“That’s not true.”
It’s totally true.
She grabs her purse and pulls out a stick of lipstick and applies the crimson fudge to her lips in front of an open compact.
“That’s a nice color.”
“Shut up,” She says but flashes a coy smile.
Finally! But, my triumph makes me weepy, and I look away to regain my composure.
“What’s up?” she says.
“I’m going to live out my days surrounded by dangerous men.”
“Welcome to my world.”
I lay awake in my cell staring at the bright red exit lights above the door where the guards come and leave. I can smell pizza, hear the excitement attached to men speaking about football, and the listless turning of my neighboring inmates. I’ve been called a momma killer by a guy who killed his girlfriend. I’ve been high-fived by a janitor named Karl, who only listens to John Lee Hooker on his classic yellow Discman. I’ve had a guard named Obi say he thinks I’m a good man. Another guard named Tommy, who hopes I get the chair. I’ve lost weight, but sit-ups still kill my back. I can’t read because I stare at the page and ruminate about all the things I cannot control. Trivial things like what will I be fed tomorrow, or which guard stole my suit?
Eventually, the overwhelming things flood my thoughts. I think about my girlfriend, Shannon who might be my ex-girlfriend now—After all, she did say I was fucked up, said it was over and hasn’t been in to visit me in over two weeks. I think about my brother, Fran and imagine what he used to look like before being eaten alive. He has long hair, wears a Hawaiian shirt and is leaning on a golf club winking at me. I think about mom and the times we recited the rosary after passing a car wreck on the road.
Even though I don’t believe in it, I think about what hell might actually be like, and then I imagine being strapped naked to a wet couch watching Game of Thrones with Martha Stewart. She whispers the directions to every recipe she’s ever published in my ear and begins to scream at me for making her life miserable. Another sex scene to obfuscate the banality of exposition erupts on the screen and my cock gets hard. Ms. Stewart gets a great idea and pulls a razor-sharp carving knife from her purse.
“I have an idea,” she whispers into my ear while stroking my penis, “It’s a take on zucchini pasta (zoodles)—dick ribbons.”
I begin to scream but bubbles come out of my mouth and children come into the cold room to play. They scream at the sight before them and their parents rush into the room. They initially turn away in horror, but then usher their kids out and blame me for it all.
“You started this. You, started this mess,” A distressed mother screams, coving her eyes. Blood spills over my lap and runs down my legs.
“I build my recipes for the common housewife,” Martha says.
Luckily, I have other nights where I’m fine and think of movies I like and try to re-watch them in my head. I can replay Wayne’s World, Clue, and The Usual Suspects in their entirety. On these nights I know my love for my mother is true and that I did the right thing. Fran enters my cell wearing his long hair and a Hawaiian shirt, swings his gold club and winks.
“It’s going to be alright, otouto,” he says.
My father appears sitting on the edge of my bed, how I remember him when I still played Little League and asks if I’d like to do a chess problem together. The other inmates in my block yell good luck tomorrow from their bunks and promise me small gifts upon my release, like a taped mirror to look down the hall with, and a quality shank with fresh tape.
Most nights I’m an empty vessel, like that dancing bag in American Beauty, or Ryan Gossling. I can read for hours but remember nothing the next morning. I write, I think some of the best prose I’ve ever written with a crayon (suicide watch), but when I reread it, the paper looks something akin to what a parent of a toddler would put up on the fridge and say “That’s great!” about. On these nights, I believe I’m being inhabited by my former selves. It’s not a reasonable explanation, but one that mystifies the world and makes life less predictable; Scientific query and western demystification are not allies in here. I feel depressed when I use logic to address my actions because perfection is implicit in logic. Linear modes of inquiry are so lame. My ghosts try and communicate with me, but there is static between us and that is why I can hear them, but when I write down their wisdom it comes out looking like toddler drivel.
So, yeah, long story short, I’m monking it and Tamar is right, I’m an idiot. I’ll admit it, but it’s a form of manageable insanity that’s keeping me from becoming too co-dependent, obsessive, and dark. That’s what happened to me when I got divorced. That’s what happened when I was homesick and moved back to the US. Those were the ghosts of me who visited and are trying to save my life. They know I will lose my case and are preparing me for the worst. I have agency when I get to decide what affects me or not; it’s my last ring of defense, my safe room.
However, tomorrow is the day the jury will make a decision and that decision will be my biggest test, one I will likely fail, it holds too much weight. It’s funny that this whole thing started because of writer’s block.