By Tony Hoagland
Featured Image: Deer from Momoyogusa-Flowers of a Hundred Generations (1909) by Kamisaka Sekka
Set in the large public hallway and various spaces of a courtroom building. Drinking fountain, a pay phone on the wall, various benches where people eat their lunch or sit, and a few nooks and crannies where they stand and speak. The play is a sequence of monologues from alternate sides of the stage. All the speakers are connected to the trial, but nothing of the trial itself is ever shown.
(professional woman wearing glasses, reading from a clipboard, her voice bu- reaucratic and oracular)
Unicom officials denied knowledge of the events of June ’95. Somehow an entire forest had disappeared.
Those erasures were committed, they said, by an irresponsible subsidiary
who didn’t know the right way to make a jungle disappear.
Righteous hysteria in the voice of the executive on trial; a perfectly innocent businessman
caught up in this witch-hunting tribunal.
And in Houston the wind was wet from the south bearing the aroma of old petrochemistry
from the landfills of our fathers, and their fathers—
pushing great sarcomas, great lymphomas of cumulonebulae through the sky.
Of course first thing they do is break out pictures of the family—the three kids, the dog, the summer house in Aspen; the charity work of the wife; the wife her- self, who is like something out of the blonde decency catalogue; the character testimony of the family minister—the generous contribution of the defendant to the scholarship fund, to the home for troubled boys . . .
Finally, the big spread about the daughter with Down syndrome; Down syndrome!—As if that had something to do with corporate conspiracy: (mim- icking) “I’m sorry! Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t even have time for inter- national pillaging of Third World resources! I have a daughter with — Down syndrome!”
(wearing jogging costume, sunglasses, telephone clipped in ear)
Everything in the trial is on track, going great. We know we’re going to win. There’s no way they can prove explicit intention.
—Then, in October my youngest boy, Cody, gets busted for putting a skate- board through a ten-thousand-dollar glass window downtown. See, he and his friends—no, they are not a posse — they like to skateboard down in the bank parking lot at night—it’s a big open place, an acre of smooth concrete, it’s got good lighting, a few flights of steps, some railings, there’s actually some rise and fall to the ground. He and his friends set up some ramps, figure out a course, have their little dogboy Olympics—
And ten p.m. one night Cody is just coming out of a dactylic purple tsunami, when the board squirts out from under his feet and flies like an ICBM straight into the thirty-foot-long lobby wall of First National. Bam. Sirens, bells, bank squad response team there in four point five minutes—and I’m getting a call from downtown. The skateboard is sticking out of this black glass wall like Excalibur stuck in the rock, Cody is trying to pull it out of the window— looking like a Martian anarchist—mohawk, tattoos, piercing—they all look like that now . . .
Meanwhile all of this public relations is killing time. Nine o’clock on Sunday morning, we’re trying to find the judge to sign the fucking subpoena. Meanwhile, documents are being shredded. You can hear it in the air — the subsonic sound of evidence destruction. File clerks are pushing dollies full of incriminating correspondence down hallways on the 68th floor. The bosses are hand-feeding it into threshing machines, making coleslaw out of crimes against humanity. It’s driving us crazy. We know the paper trail is being destroyed hour by hour. But we can’t get to it.
When we finally got the order, the good stuff, by which I mean the bad stuff, was all gone. However, we did get some decent video footage: men in dark suits and sunglasses — FBI-lookalikes—carrying cardboard boxes out of the company offices; loading them into black SUVs. News at six and ten. Not what we wanted, exactly, but at least it looked incriminating.
About the American justice system, I can say, there are zero cute guys here. I guess the good-looking ones went to medical school. The characters on the jury—pathetic—they all look like retired pest exterminators. Then I guess it was around the third week of the case, I start getting a little crush on Mr. Defense Attorney. Not that cute, but a good dresser. Relaxed, but professional. Big plus, he has a sense of humor, which is not all that common in this crowd. I start to fantasize about meeting him in the hallway by accident, I start writing him letters, saying maybe we could meet after the trial.
So. Turns out Cody is “borrowing” his mom’s big blue pain relievers, and retailing them to his friends. We find out from the guidance counselor, who is working with the school security team. Under duress, he confesses. “Son,” I say. “Don’t you know your Mom needs those pills for her imaginary headaches, and the way they interact with martinis? Why do you want to make her suffer like that? There’s not enough for everyone. Scarcity of resources!” I say. “Didn’t you read the Communist Manifesto in Civics class?”
Actually I don’t say any of that. I control the irony. Only he claims that these older guys found out and have started hijacking the pills from him.
So, not only is he stealing from us, his parents, and trafficking controlled substances, he’s getting robbed at the same time; cheated really, though I sup- pose it’s splitting hairs, to expect honor among thieves. It seems he himself is something of a victim.
That, I tell him, is simply not permissible. I take his car keys. And his learner’s permit. Mister, you are so grounded!
(speaking to a wall, making moderate hand gestures, as if practicing addressing a jury)
Ladies and gentlemen, I like to think of the law as a pair of glasses. It straightens things out. It helps you separate a story into its parts. It excludes the inessential, and it frames the essential. You put these glasses on and you realize that your vision has been, in fact, terrible—that all this time, what you’d been seeing was a blur; a smear, a hairball of facts. A baseball game with no bases. You’ve been squinting and guessing. You’ve been seeing the truth through cataracts.
But when lawyers do a good job, this room, this room of reality, is ordered; the most important facts are in the middle of the room like a sofa, or a table, and the less important facts are arranged in circles outward toward the edges. You can see the sequence of events, what causes what, of how they came to be there. And no matter what the room looks like, even if it’s very ugly, you’re grateful to see it clearly, to see how it worked. Forensic—the science of causes. Justice. The process of improving vision. Optometry.
(dirty sweaty face, wearing dirty construction helmet and overalls)
You go into a place like that—fucking hot, full of diseases, different language you don’t understand, it’s like fighting a war. You get a government contract, you get a lot of machinery ready, you get soldiers, you tear shit down and you try to get your equipment up and producing.
The men you get to work for you there, mostly they are not nice men. Roughnecks, tough, hard fellows, a long way from home, hard workers, but they want three things besides their paycheck—they want booze, porno, and whores. So wherever you go, you pretty much bring hell with you. You clear land, you change the way of life for awhile.
But this job was way out there, in the jungle. We got legal right to be there, but the people who live there don’t know anything about that. You get a transla- tor, talk to the chief, give him a bunch of presents, tell him they got a new place, a better place, thirty miles away. Meanwhile the wives are turning into whores, the men are learning about Jack Daniels, and the mosquitoes, the insects are killing us. So we get some planes to put down some pesticide, it’s worked before, it knocks ‘em out long enough to give you some peace, but it turns out here that these big green lizards eat the bugs. The bugs are full of poison, so the lizards are full of poison.
Then it turns out that the people eat the lizards.
JUDGE (in robes)
During recess, I like to have a cigarette and watch the work on the construction site next door. It’s right there next to the courthouse, I have a terrific view of the hole from my chambers—I’m on the third floor, the hole is another three-four stories deep—and they’re down there, all these figures in their jumpsuits and yellow construction helmets, they’re down in what is going to be the basement, laying pipe out for the electrical and the plumbing—
It’s still all flat, but it’s broken up into grids, so it’s just like looking at a blueprint; and you can see exactly how the rooms are going to be laid out. Offices, corridors, elevators. The precision of planning is amazing! Those fellows down there working, they don’t know what the building is for, they don’t know what it is going to look like in the end—but every man of them knows exactly what his job is that day, and he does his job, and, one layer at a time, this building arises!
In October, when I see a puff piece in the Chronicle about the defense’s necktie collection—I know that I’m in trouble. About how each time he travels, he buys a tie; how his wife has a favorite, how he owns over one thousand ties, has a fetish for novelty items—Godzilla; Yankees; Mount Rushmore—and how he wears a different one every day. Yadda yadda. Some reporter noticed and now he’s done a whole human interest angle on it.
That’s when I realize what I’m up against. For-get-ful-ness. A.D.D. Ameri- can attention span. The United States of Amnesia. Gilligan’s Island reruns which are competing for space with reports of genocide. Victoria’s Secret commercials are locking up prime real estate in the frontal lobe. The jury can’t even retain the name of the country we’re talking about. They can’t imagine this place—which was probably not a paradise to begin with—which doesn’t exist anymore.
So Monday morning I bring in blown-up color photographs of butterflies and screen them in court. I play tape recordings of birdcalls of birds that are ex- tinct. I show aerial photographs before and after the company got there. I show pictures of the people who lived in that area before their government leased it to Unicom. Little fellows. Bones through the nose, tattoos—but nevertheless, quite possibly happy. I try to convey the history of the region. It existed! If I could make them smell the dirt, if I could get them to take an IMAX ride in a dugout canoe, I would. I try to make them remember.
Here is one thing I’ve learned from twenty-five years in law: evil is always divided. One person thinks of something he wants; he’s not sure how to get it, but the outcome is desirable. He tells someone else. That guy says, well, we could do this horrible thing. That guy picks up a phone and calls headquarters. They say, Okay, go ahead. Then that same guy calls some motherfucker three hundred or two thousand miles away and says, Do this. That guy says, sure, we can do that! Then they go out and do it. They bulldoze down a town, and they rape the women and throw the men out of speeding trucks. They dump their load of commercial sewage or their chemical waste sixty miles offshore, in the middle of the night where no one is watching, or the rules don’t apply. They give the Indians a bunch of whiskey and tell them to move thirty miles west. But who did the terrible thing? The first group of guys didn’t actually do the horrible thing. They never even see it. The second group of guys didn’t think of it, it wasn’t their idea, and they’re mostly morons anyway.
So you can never catch the evil all in one place. You can almost never punish in a way that feels satisfying. It’s not like some poor black kid on TV holding a gun over a bleeding body. It’s not like catching Hitler in his bunker. It’s like going after cockroaches. But you can’t fumigate a whole corporation. Can you?
(maybe in Texas accent; sound of jackhammers in the background; speaking loudly)
This project is something we are all going to be very proud of in the future. That’s what I know for sure. One of the finest concert auditoriums in this part of the country. Cutting-edge acoustical engineering. Funded by one of our most upstanding Hebraic families. Dedicated to victims of persecution everywhere. Breaking of ground in June. First performance—Mote-zart’s Requiem—something—scheduled for next fall.
Imagine our surprise when we started turning up bones in that good black dirt. Yes, that’s right, human bones—which doesn’t necessarily mean Native American, doesn’t mean it was a cemetery; well, we don’t know whose they were. But don’t tell me that was not an ironical—don’t tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humor!
What happened to those people, I’m not saying it wasn’t horrible. Imagine your whole town, just erased by some corporation. But that’s what history is, isn’t it? The record of when things disappear? History is the set of dates which record when things disappeared. That place is gone now. I have trouble getting emotional about it. It seems like history.
Finally, I tell the client, Bob? Bob, I know things might look a little dark from where you’re sitting. I know your accounts are frozen; I know the coverage is bad. But Bob, what we’re going to do, see, is cut the blame up into pieces. It’s like responsibility is a pizza.
First we’ll draw a little line between you and the foreign branch of the company. Then we’ll cut those two halves into halves, then we’ll have eighths and sixteenths. We keep going, and one day not too far away, the blame is going to be so small, it’s gone. It will have evaporated. You won’t even be able to see it anymore. Crumb-size! You can take it with a glass of water.
But anyway, the whole thing is already under way, gosh darn it. A project of this size, it’s like an ocean liner. The ship has left the harbor. It has a lot of momentum. To try and stop now, it would be like turning around the Queen Mary. Like the workers are already here, from three states—Mexicans, Indians, rednecks—they are ready to go! The bulldozers are dozing, the zoning is perfect, we are poised. “Bones?” I say. I look around to see if anyone is listening, and I tell him, “What bones?”
Bam bam bam from next door all day long. You have a headache; you have to go to the restroom; even when you can’t hear it, you can feel the jackhammers vibrate right up the chair legs into your butt. They expect you to listen to people talk for eight hours a day, to add and subtract this from that—like going to school. And you do. You want justice. You want compensation and punishment for terrible actions. You don’t think about your sister who has cancer. You don’t think about your boss who is not paying you for lost time, who might fire you for taking five months to be on jury duty. But you need some aspirin.
(leaning against window frame, looking out and down; points, chuckles)
That pile driver is really something. Reminds me of a lawyer I used to see in here. He was a simple-minded motherfucker. Cheap serge suit, went to some boonie law school—Doohicky State—probably finished at the bottom of his class. But this chap would come up with a phrase, and he would just repeat himself over and over! He was so relentless that eventually people would just get exhausted, get out of his way, and he would win.
To make it worse, the trial is dragging on. Stressful. Then in March I start having trouble in the sack; I know what the problem is: anxiety—it’s happened before, it will pass; but the wife takes it personally, she’s upset. Says I no longer find her attractive, which might have a limited amount of truth to it—but that would be inadmissible evidence, I can’t say that.
So I tell her, This is only supposed to happen to defense attorneys—not to prosecutors! But she doesn’t laugh. So I take a different strategy. I do “hurt pride”: I tell her, you think I feel good about it? It’s humiliating! You think I don’t want to fuck you? Do you know how much pressure is on me? I have to keep my hard-on in the courtroom all day long! . . . Then, after I throw my little hissy fit, I tell her everything is going to be all right. I tell her to lie back down. There, in the dark, I start touching her the way she likes. I go down on her. I really pay attention. She gets wet.
In April—do you believe it? I get another call from the school. Turns out Cody has a website on which he is committing virtual executions of some of the people at school—somehow the guidance counselor was one of them. The school authorities call it “objectionable content”—and I have to say, as a professional I love that kind of verbal discretion. But this time they also have to call in the police.
His friends have got him in trouble again. Turns out all of his friends have websites; all of them are swimming in objectionable content. They call each other nigga, they talk about doing girls they know, they’re kids, they brag, they imitate rappers—it’s youth, it’s America! They have to push the limit.
But, for me, it’s also trouble. It requires some serious making of phone calls to people with pull. Also, I need to see this website. Is it creative? If it is, maybe we can call it art!
While they’re happening, these long trials are horrible. But I have to admit, when they end, you wish they could go on forever. I wish that trial could have gone on forever. I almost thought it would. It became a kind of world—with weather, and seasons—that we lived in together. We stood in the drizzle of the spring, we stirred restlessly in the long days of summer, we put on our galoshes together to struggle through the snowdrifts of winter. We stood turning nostalgic like oak trees in the autumn, feeling the squirrels run along our branches.
I knew the faces of that jury—the housewife, the roofer, the veterinarian. I loved and hated them; our relationships went through many phases; I saw their pity and suspiciousness and their dimwittedness, their boredom and their appetite for justice. We were like an army on the march, going somewhere.
So what he does is to take some of those capsules and empty out the Vicodin, and he puts in some baking soda with just a smidge of rat poison. And guess what? It works. The guys who are bothering him and his friends, well, they stop just like that. They go to the emergency room. Then they go into organ failure.
But, eventually, whether you want it to or not, the trial ends. A mixed verdict is like mixed feelings—they happen all the time. Big fines for the company, but— this is how it works—they agree to pay twenty million, but make no admission of wrongdoing. How do you like that? No wonder people hate lawyers.
A month later, I can already see the memory evaporating from the atmosphere. People are forgetting that other country, the pillage, the ecological devastation; the trial, the headlines, the verdict, the principles at stake. It’s business as usual. All those words, that suffering, those stories, that passion, all that paper—its molecules are filtering back into time. Which is nowhere.
I remember the first time I got a really good pair of sunglasses. I was a few years out of school, we were doing okay, we only had the one kid then, so I splurge. I figure, it’s a professional expenditure. And I swear, they made me look like Steve McQueen. Like a cross between a racecar driver and an FBI agent. Menacing, and sexy. But it’s not just what they look like, it’s how they work—like a goddamn X-ray machine. Like LSD. You look up at the sky, and you don’t see clouds, you see clouds—you see the slow, loafing, constantly permutating, elephantine majesty of clouds—you see the shadowed clefts and crevices turning in on each other, and the pillars and columns and Greek statues, like ocean liners—every detail! Then you look at the street, and you see the street in Technicolor; like it’s a movie; shadows by Edward Hopper, the breeze blowing through the hair on a Spanish girl’s arm. The smoke rising from a diplomat’s cigarette, the incredible green of the rubber plant beside the service entrance.
Driving home, you can see a puddle by the side of the road, and it looks like a puddle of diamond midnight, a puddle of developing fluid. Refined petroleum. Some kind of art that accidentally fell out of a museum truck.
You wear a pair of glasses like that for awhile, and then take them off around five o’clock, to wipe your face or something—take a look around you? You know what the world looks like after wearing a pair of those? Ugly. Gray as a bucket of mopwater. Drab as an old woman in a nursing home—the sky is grayish-brown. The strip of grass by the sidewalk is dying from the car exhaust. The girl bringing you coffee, the one with the Madonna complexion? Now she’s puffy, and pale, you can see she doesn’t eat right, that she’s getting a zit, that she’s gonna be the size of a cow in about two years.
Now, what are you going to do? Look at the world like it really is? Or put those glasses back on?
They say a comedy ends with a wedding and sex, and a tragedy ends with a funeral and speeches. A trial ends with the sound of snapping briefcases, and another trial.
We had some setbacks. We’re considering various next options. Meanwhile, I have a life again. This afternoon the wife and I are going to a funeral for some high school kids. Then we’re going to hear Paul Simon at the new concert hall. My wife says you have to let go, that there are limits to responsibility. Liability, deniability. She has my best interests at heart.
Anyway, the new civic center is opening. Thank god this town is getting some real culture at last.
Originally Published in NOR 11, Spring 2012.