A Night on the Scales
by Michael A. Ferro
As he sat contented upon his reclined chair he could sense the man’s anguish through the solid steel door nearby. With his feet up on the wood desk, he sucked on the pit of a peach that had been so exceptionally ripe he’d used an entire sheet of paper towel to dry his hands and clean his mustache. He took the pit out of his mouth and set it with a tiny clink onto a little white porcelain plate upon the desk and licked his teeth.
“Ain’t no fuckin’ peaches in there, is there?” he said toward the steel door.
This was a man who prized his job. All night long he got to sit and read the newspaper within a large municipal-looking room overspread with bright florescent light. On quiet nights like this one, when there was only a single man within one of the three adjacent cells, he would watch some of his favorite television shows on a tablet that he kept hidden within a bottom drawer of the desk. He knew this particular man on the opposite side of the steel door would be silent throughout the night this time—he would make sure of it.
Near the top of the steel door was a small window with more steel in the form of thick bars. The door itself was new as they had recently replaced it after long-awaited funds from the state came through. His chair had also been swapped and he particularly appreciated that this one could recline. He threw the yellow-stained paper towel into a wastebasket at his side and eyed the door again.
“What? No big drama show tonight? Not gonna yell ‘n’ scream your head off like last time?”
There was no sound from the room.
“Don’t even think about banging yer head against somethin’ in there again,” he said to the door. “I got no time fer that shit.”
Satisfied with the silence that filled the room, the man reached for the handle on the bottom drawer of the desk when through the main entryway came the judge. At first, the man sitting in the chair wasn’t certain that it was him; he’d rarely seen the judge without his immodest black judicial robe flowing down off his large shoulders, but his short cropped silvery hair and square jaw were unmistakable. He walked with a slight limp into the large room and wore a heavy woolen sweater over a snow-white dress shirt with too-long khaki slacks.
“Judge Anderson, Your Honour,” said the man swiftly rising from his reclining position, “What brings you here?”
The judge smiled courteously and came to the opposite end of the jailer’s desk. He placed his big knuckles onto a stack of papers.
“Evening’, Dan,” said Judge Anderson. “Good to see you again.”
“Yeah, only been a few hours, mm?”
The two stood there while the judge watched the cell door.
“Something I can do for you, Your Honour?”
The judge rapped his knuckles upon the desk.
“Need a favour, Dan. It might sound unusual.”
“How can I help?”
“I need you to let me into his cell.”
The judge slightly furrowed his brow.
“I mean, what d’you have planned, Your Honour?” asked the jailer.
“Listen, Dan, I know it’s an unusual request, but I can assure you that everything’s in order. I spoke with Chief Jailer Ramirez. He’s aware.”
“Just so you’re aware,” said Judge Anderson, “I plan to spend the night in the cell with him.”
The jailer realized that this meant his world of solitude and privacy would be shattered for the night—there would be no chance to watch his shows.
“I see… well I’m sure y’know what yer doing,” said the jailer. He looked over toward the steel door. “He kin prob’ly hear us right now.”
“That’s fine,” replied the judge.
“Well,” said the jailer turning toward the steel door. “Let’s get to it, Your Honour. Into the jail cell y’go.”
He smiled as he said this and peered back at the judge, but the judge wore no visible emotion.
The door to the cell closed with a violent thud; not because of any particular force the jailer had used to close it, but rather due to the very nature of these thick, heavy doors. It was impossible to close them without a sound of finality in the air, a gavel’s crash.
The judge stood by the door for a few moments and watched over the man lying upon the cot. The man had his back turned to him with his body snug close to the wall in the fetal position and one arm under his head. The man was breathing softly. If he had been sleeping, the judge was sure that the noise had woke him.
The light sound of the judge’s shoes against the cement floor surprised the man. He’d been awake since the jailer yelled out to him earlier and was now unsure about what to make of the judge being inside his cell. Though he could not see him, for his face was turned toward the wall, the man fully expected the judge to be wearing his antediluvian robe, freshly shined black dress shoes, and whatever else it was that a judge wore underneath their vestments. But upon the judge now stepping over toward the opposite cot, the man could clearly hear the patter of soft shoes hitting the floor in an uneven rhythm.
“You wearin’ sneakers, judge?” the man said casually to the wall.
The judge let out a small chuckle.
“I am, Joe,” said Judge Anderson.
The room was dusky and still, akin to a small basement closet.
“We on a first name basis now, judge?”
“We can be, if you like,” the judge said as he rested his forearms upon his thighs and sat forward.
“Don’t want me to call you ‘Your Honour’ no more?”
The judge realized at that moment how accustomed he had become to watching the man’s facial gestures in his courtroom as they spoke.
“You can call me whatever it is that you like right now, in here.”
“I don’t remember your first name. Sure it was printed on one of all those papers I saw but I don’t remember it now.”
“My name is Ronald, or Ron for short.”
“Ronald,” said the man.
There was a long pause.
“I’ll just call you judge.”
Judge Anderson gazed around at the cast of shadows within the cell. Some of the only other times he had been in one were when he took part in walkthroughs of the facility in prior years before minor upgrades. Each time though, the tiny enclosed space had left a profound impression upon him. At night, home lying upon his own bed, he often thought about the shadows in the cells.
“Okay, I’ll bite. Whatchu doin’ here, judge?”
“I’d just like to talk, if you don’t mind.”
“Talk ‘bout what?”
“We can talk about whatever you like.”
At this, the man spun with a quick motion and sat up abruptly, though his left arm fell limp to his side. He expected the judge to recoil but the judge hadn’t flinched. Instead, he merely locked eyes with the man as he sat squarely across from him. The man pursed his lips.
“Alright, just what the hell is this!?” barked the man. He waited for a response. He could see that the judge was looking at his arm now, so the man took his left forearm in his right hand and placed it in his lap.
“You know, I was also in the military, Joe.”
The man analyzed this statement and his eyebrows slowly turned upward from their center, relaxing his expression to one of slight puzzlement.
“I was. Marines. Before law school I did two tours in Vietnam.”
The man scratched his head.
“You Marines had them 13-month tours then, right?”
“Most of us did,” replied the judge with a smile. “We wanted those extra 30 days of free R&R to go anywhere we wanted.”
“Yeah,” said the man, cracking a smile for the first time.
“Of course, it was hardly a free vacation, right?”
The man’s smile faded.
The judge moved closer toward the edge of the bed and his impressively well-maintained bulk forced a whine from the cot’s wire springs.
“You did two tours over in Iraq yourself about a decade ago, didn’t you, Joe?”
“I read in your report that you had some trouble in Ramadi then. That’s where the incident happened that caused the damage to your arm.”
“Yes it was.”
“An IED, right?”
“Yeah,” said the man resting his right arm upon his left, “But what the hell does that matter now? Shit happens. Now I’m stuck in the can for the night.”
“You know that my putting you in here for the night was the right decision, Joe. When they brought you in, you’d been a mess out there, out in the streets. You threw that bottle right through that window and cussed at the patrolman.”
“Yeah, but the building was empty! Abandoned or whatnot. The fuckin’ pane of glass wasn’t even there! Bottle landed on some sheets and didn’t even break nothin’.”
“I know it,” said the judge. “But still—can’t allow you to be doing that kind of stuff.”
The man leaned against the cement wall behind him.
“Yeah, well, I know it, too.”
Judge Anderson relaxed and leaned back.
“This is your third time in here, right?”
“Third time by your ruling, Your Honour, but I got put away twice before over in Harrison County, too.”
“Those were longer stints, too.”
“Same crime though. P.I.”
The man looked at the fingernails of his right hand while the judge studied him intently.
“So how do you decide how long to put the person away for, judge?”
The judge sat up and tilted his head to the side in contemplation. He brought his hand up and ran it through his cropped, snowy hair.
“Well, first thing I do is review the case against the person and look at their history. Then I assess the crime and hear their defence in court. After so many years you begin to see patterns.”
“You start to see the same people committing the same crimes. Sometimes it can be difficult to make sure you’re looking at each individual for who and what they are. Every now and then, a judge of the court needs to stop and take a step back in order to take a closer look at each defendant that comes before them.”
“Oh yeah?” asked the man through a slight chortle.
“It’s true,” said the judge as he leaned forward and gripped the edges of the cot with both hands. “And seeing you in my courtroom for the third time, it made me realize I needed to stop and do just that: take a closer look.”
“You did, did you?”
“And?” asked the man.
“I knew when I handed down your sentence that I was going to come in here tonight and do this. I was looking over your history while I was rendering my judgement and saw someone that I wanted to get to know.”
“Is that a fact?”
“It is, Joe.”
The man began to nod emphatically and fixed an exaggerated grin on his face.
“Well, here I am, judge! An ex-military, one-armed boozer. Put ‘er there!” he said using his right hand to hold up his disabled left arm.
“I’m pleased that we’re talking here. I really am.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“Would you like to know why I entered the Marines, Joe?”
The man shrugged.
“I originally joined to pay for my education.”
“It seemed like a sound plan,” said the judge, nodding. “But obviously, things can happen that can change those plans. No matter what we had in store for after we got back home.”
“Yeah, no shit,” said the man nodding to his arm. “Try gettin’ a job or findin’ a girl, or going to law school for that matter with one dead arm.”
At this, the judge slowly rose while his back audibly cracked as he put one arm behind his spine to straighten it. With a timid glint in his eyes, the man watched as the judge methodically stepped over to his cot and sat down on the thin mattress next to him. After a moment, the judge took the man’s right hand in his own.
“Make a fist,” said the judge.
The man complied and formed his fingers into a tight fist. The judge then took the man’s hand and brought it down to his leg and rapped the man’s knuckles onto his shin through his pants. To the man’s surprise, rather than hearing the dull thud of a bare fist upon another man’s flesh—a sound that he had come to know quite well—he heard the distinct noise of his own bony fingers rapping against an unyielding metal prosthesis. The judge let go of his hand and the man looked up at him before he promptly looked away.
“Listen, Joe,” the judge began. “Here’s what I’ve come to say to you: I know it isn’t easy. God knows we all have our setbacks and you with a fair share more than others. I wasn’t literally there with you in Iraq when you hit the IED, just as you weren’t literally there with me in Khe Sanh when a VC shell fell from the sky and took my leg, nor were you even born yet, but that doesn’t matter—what does matter is we caught the shit.”
After hearing him curse for the first time, the man looked over at the judge who was staring at him with a concentrated sincerity.
“Yeah, we caught the shit and it felt like the end of our world. But let me tell you something, Joe, and I know you’ve heard it before but let me tell it to you again right here and right now: it isn’t the end of anything. You lost the use of your arm and I lost a leg, but whatever we lose the mind compensates for tenfold. Yes, it takes time. Sometimes it takes longer for some than for others. When I got back to the States, I drank quite a bit. A lot of the guys I went over with got into some heavier stuff when they got back, but let me tell you: booze will take you down just as fast as anything else on earth if you got the mind for it. You and I? We both got the mind for it. It can be part of the price we pay to defend our country.”
The judge leaned in toward Joe and put his arm upon his shoulder. “It was my dad that got me to quit drinking. A cop who was sympathetic to us returning vets took me home one night rather than to the jailhouse after a bender and told my dad what went down that night. My dad was a line worker at the assembly plant. He wasn’t born with ten pounds of brains but he had a heart the size of a Buick and let me tell you, son, he set me straight. I didn’t know if I had one ounce of intellect in my head anymore and once I lost the leg I figured that was that—no good even for the line, I thought. But he reminded me of one of the reasons why I went overseas in the first place: I had greater goals. You can’t buy brains or your future, but your actions can acquire you justice, meaning—something over nothing.”
Joe lowered his head and the judge tightened his grip on his shoulder.
“I understand your dad passed away while you were over in Iraq.”
Joe nodded and sniffed quietly.
“I’m sorry, son,” said the judge. “Like I said, though, you’ve got a fair share more to set you back than others, but all that really means is you got that much more potential ahead of you. Much more than me and that’s the straightforward truth.”
The judge looked around the room and gestured widely with his hand.
“This—this place around you right now—this is just a stepping stone. The best places worth getting to are harder to reach than others and they require these things. You step out of here in the morning and all this becomes nothing more than just some stepping stone; you’ve been in worse places, you’ve been in better places. Some places were made just for finding new places. You’ve got a few misdemeanors on your record but you’ve also got a wartime record that I happened to take a look at and let me tell you, that’s the record people are going to remember. You’re a hero, son, and I don’t say that lightly to anyone. The good we do isn’t just written down in some history book, it lives off the page, people breathe it—they soak in it like a sunray, Joe.”
Joe looked away from Judge Anderson though the judge had seen Joe’s eyes begin to water.
“If you can make it through war, son, you got what it takes to make it here at home.”
The judge gave Joe another hearty pat on the back.
“You got anything you want to say, Joe?”
Joe turned his face toward Judge Anderson and sniffed loudly, discreetly wiping at the corner of his eye. He wore a cautious smile.
“So that peg leg is what’s been under that big black robe all that time?”
The judge leaned back and let out a tremendous guffaw, startling the jailer eavesdropping just outside the cell. AQ