She let go of the husband, the friends, the house, the tennis club, and rented a poolside apartment in one of those identical buildings sitting shoulder to shoulder on a hillside, a place with a dark lobby and putting-green carpet in the halls. Her groceries were delivered, as were her make-up, clothes, pillows, and slippers. Her books and music were shipped or downloaded. She spoke to no one unnecessarily. When the couple next door came knocking and invited her over for a glass of wine, Julie declined. It was easy, she realized, closing the door on their disappointed faces, to keep the world at bay. Draw a tight circle around your small life and don’t step over the line.
Five days a week she worked in Dr. Hu’s office, watching one current of beings flow in through the office door while a parallel current flowed in the opposite direction, dazed by anesthesia, each bleary-eyed patient with an elbow cupped in the hand of a designated driver. She liked the repetitious music in the reception area, the same questions and answers exchanged across the marble counter, the unvarying post-operative instruction speech, the little white appointment cards. This was her life. Then, one day, a notice came in the mail to report to the Civic Center for jury duty.
“Hey,” a woman, gold-bangled and jasmine-scented, rasped as she lowered herself into a chair on the aisle to the left of Julie in the back row. After a quick glance in the newcomer’s direction, and a visual sweep of the room to confirm that there were empty seats everywhere, Julie turned back to her book and kept her head down.
Across the aisle, on the other side of Julie’s new neighbor who smelled like a garden, a man sat in profile at a desk, one hand holding his forehead, the other pressing a receiver to his ear.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, “I heard you…you have difficulty walking and when you make it to church, you have to sit in the front row with your leg up on a stool; you take care of two little grandbabies every day. I’m telling you all you need to do is get a doctor’s note explaining that you cannot serve and you will be excused…now, how much time do you think you need to get that note to me?”
Silence. The man on the phone lifted his polyester tie and let it fall back.
“I’ll give you an extension, Mrs. Beasley. You have ten days to get that doctor’s note to me – understood? Okay. Okay, real good. Thank you…no thank you, Mrs. Beasley.
“Lord, I shoulda made up some story about bein’ crippled and havin’ grandbabies. I got no time for this,” the woman next to Julie muttered in a sandpaper voice, “I got to get to work. They got to let me go.”
She cast a shadow across Julie’s book with her extended hand.
“Name’s Louella,” she said, “after Louella Parsons.”
Julie studied the hand with its cracked, split, yellowed nails. The knuckles held deep, bruised-looking crevices. Surprised by the coolness of her own hand, Julie pressed the rough warm fingers.
“Julie,” she said, turning back to her book.
“Who you named for?”
Julie hooked a finger in the book before closing the cover and turned to Louella.
“Newmar or Andrews. Not sure which.”
She reopened the book and settled it on her lap.
“Both of us named after Hollywood people,” Louella observed. “My daddy was gardener to Mr. Frank Sinatra. Before I was born, Daddy was up there one afternoon, cuttin’ back the ivy on a stone pillar when Miss Parsons got there. Oh, she was sassy with the movie stars. She wore a big hat with grapes and daisies. My daddy say she bustled on down that stone path at Mr. Sinatra’s house, clickety clack, caught a stiletto in some cracked grout and wham! Down she go, purse flyin’, hat catchin’ a wind and sailin’ across the lawn.
“Daddy got her up – she a big woman, too. He got her up and they hobble into his little cottage next to the house where the tools, lawn mower, all that stay. He sit her down, run outside and get her hat and purse and bring it to her. He wipe the dirt from her face and help her brush her hair, put the hat back on. He glued the heel back on the shoe.
“Miss Louella say to him, ‘Mr. Cook, you have been very kind. I will not forget you and your generosity.’ That woman dig in her purse and come up with a hunerd dollar bill. A hunerd dollar! She give it to Daddy. ‘If I can ever be of service to you, Mr. Cook,’ she say, ‘please do be in touch.’ And she give him her card.
“Then she sail right into Mr. Sinatra’s house as if nothin’ happen. I imagine Daddy asked Momma and she look at that hunerd dollar bill and say, “Sure, Charlie, Louella’s a fine name.”
Louella beamed at the air.
“When I was little, Daddy took me up there with him. I’d swim in Mr. Sinatra’s pool while Daddy cut the grass. Mr. Sinatra always say to me, ‘Good morning, Miss Louella, how are you today?’ Asked when I was gonna start writin’ my column…”
Julie slid her book into her purse and folded her arms across her chest.
“Good morning,” a woman in tan pants with a badge on her blue shirt said into a microphone at the front of the room.
“Would you please take your jury summons,” she waved a letter in the air, “and open it – like this.”
She tore a narrow strip away from its perforated joint slowly and with exaggerated deliberateness, turning from one side of the room to the other so that everyone could get a look.
“Now, slide a finger into the narrow channel there, on the side…”
“She think we’re stupid or what.” Louella mumbled. “She think we don’t know how to open the damn thing. I got to get to work, I’m telling you. I don’t have time for this. I was on a jury in Reno once, took two, three months. Got unemployment then, ‘cause I worked for the public school and the trial was in the summer. But I work at the Catholic school now. It’s private. I make breakfast and lunch and there ain’t no check if there ain’t no work.”
Potential jurors stared at cell phone screens. One man, a box of Crayolas in his lap, bent over a coloring book, filling in the cape of a superhero with brilliant carmine.
The civil servant left the room after dimming lights, lowering a screen, and clicking on a patriotic film that featured real life jurors, each of whom had found serving their country in the courtroom a meaningful experience.
Louella dug into a giant vinyl bag on her lap, where items clunked boulder-like. Julie tried to peer sideways into the bag’s dark depths.
“…We get there first thing in the morning and we put out the breakfast: oatmeal, bacon, sausage patties, scones, muffins, donuts – them Catholic kids eat good – toast, English muffins, orange juice, apple juice, coffee, tea. We make eggs to order. We feed all them kids in about an hour and a half – the teachers, too. You know how much tuition is there? Seventeen thousand dollars. That’s for one year. Seventeen thousand dollars.”
The rooting ceased. A pack of gum emerged. Louella stuck a piece of gum in front of Julie, who unwrapped it and dropped its strawberry sweetness into her mouth. Louella did the same, cracking and popping the gum anxiously.
“We get all that served and cleaned up and then we got a twenty minute break before it’s time to start on the lunches.”
“Do you get to eat?”
“There ain’t nothin’ left when they through. Nothin’ left. Them Catholic kids eat good,” she whispered, chewing rapidly. The scent of imitation strawberry collided with imitation jasmine.
“No, we sit, have some coffee. I’m the only one there don’t speak Spanish.”
“Are you learning Spanish there?”
Louella leaned back, pulled her round chin into her neck and stared at Julie.
“Are you crazy?” she said loudly.
“Shhhhh…” the man at the desk whispered, gathering a stack of paper and rising to leave the room.
Louella gave him a defiant look. “No I don’t speak no damn Spanish. I just sit there and listen to them jabber away. Mexicans talk too fast. You couldn’t learn no damn Spanish from them folks if you tried.”
A faraway look passed over her face.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a foreign country.”
“You work with the Mexicans?”
“No, I work for an oral surgeon.”
“He speak English?”
“Why you feel like you’re in a foreign country, then? What you feelin’ blue about?”
Julie pulled a tissue from her purse and wadded up the gum. She freed a Tramadol tablet from its sealed packaging and popped it into her mouth. Louella followed the package with her eyes.
“I’m not blue.”
“Yes you are. I seen you from across the room, starin’ at the same page a’ that book there for the longest time. You didn’t move, look like a statue. Anybody can see that. You blue all right. Heart’s gone out of you, girl.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Julie said heatedly, “where’s your heart? Listen to yourself talk about Mexicans.”
“Oh, honey.” Louella waved her hand in the air, releasing the chiming bangles once again. “They okay. I know that. I set with them at that table every day.”
“Why don’t you learn to talk to them?”
“Why don’t they learn to talk to me? Why don’t they learn no English?”
“They don’t need English, Louella, they have each other. Who do you have?”
Louella turned her head away and clamped her mouth shut in a straight line. The movie was over. The woman in tan slacks clicked a button on her remote control. Lights went on. The screen rolled into the ceiling.
“Louella,” Julie whispered, resting a hand over Louella’s.
“Shhh,” Louella whispered back, “let the lady talk now.”
“My colleagues will be passing out forms and pencils,” she said, waving a paper in the air with one hand, brandishing a pencil in the other. “Please complete every line…”
Louella pulled her hands out from under Julie’s to take the offered pencils and forms.
“Here ya go.” She passed a form and a Ticonderoga No. 2 to Julie before gnawing on her own pencil and frowning at her form. Sunlight had reached the lower levels of the windows on the wall. Louella’s hair glinted with the feathery softness of a gray dandelion.
Louella nudged her. “How you spell ‘cafeteria’?”
“C A F E T E R I A. Cafeteria.”
“You smart, Julie. Why you workin’ in a dentist’s office?”
“Oral surgeon,” Julie said, “I work for an oral surgeon – not a dentist.”
“Still. You could do better.”
Louella turned back to her form, her bangles rushing to her fat wrist as she wrote slowly in a large, loopy hand. Her forehead glistened with the effort, her knuckles stayed taut around the pencil. She bit her lower lip and worked in silence.
Across the room, the man with the coloring book ignored the form and pencil on the floor next to his desk and filled in his superhero’s purple-black hair.
The woman in tan pants began collecting the forms at the front of the room while a man with a badge started halfway back doing the same.
Louella wrote doggedly up to the last second when the man with the badge tugged the form from beneath her hand.
“Lord,” Louella grunted, falling back into her chair, sliding her shoes off her feet with two clunks, closing her eyes, hugging her plastic bag to her belly, “I expect I won’t get no work today,” she said, letting out a hearty sigh.
The sun climbed higher in the windows and dust motes swirled in the air. The light brushed across Louella’s face as she snored softly. Julie watched her chest rise and fall, her shoulders moving together in the same rhythm. She watched her features smooth out across her face in repose.
“I forgot to put the belt over Lily’s car seat,” she whispered.
Louella’s snoring paused while her eyes stayed closed. She reached over, finding Julie’s hand and dropping her own on top.
“There, there,” she whispered, “it’s over and done with, now, ain’t it? World’s full of accidents. You got to look outside yourself. See all the people in this room? They all got things, bad things in their heads and hearts. They in bad shape, too. It ain’t just you and me. You got to move on now. Join the human race again.”
They sat together silently until the woman with the tan slacks reappeared at the front of the room and began calling out numbers.
“Those of you whose numbers I’ve called, please follow me. The rest of you may go. Thank you for your service.”
“Damn,” Louella whispered.
She sat up and shoved her feet back into her shoes.
In the hallway, a rope line separated the chosen from the dismissed and Louella shuffled toward the court floor elevator, while Julie stood holding on to the rope, watching her lumber in line. Two bailiffs, one on each side of the line, herded the group along. Louella stopped and turned around, finding Julie with her eyes.
“Stop takin’ pills,” she said loudly, “get on with it. Go on. Get.”
The bailiff at her side waved Louella through.
“Keep moving,” he said.
Louella pulled her chin into her neck, staring at the uniformed man, who grabbed his belt with two hands and shifted it uneasily.
“Do you mind?” she growled. “I got to say good-bye to my friend there. Let the others go around me.”
The stream parted at Louella and the bailiff before converging again at the elevator door.
“Don’t you settle for life in a foreign country, girl,” she said before turning back to the elevator, the last to enter except for the bailiff.
Julie stood and watched until Louella was inside the elevator and had turned to face her again. She watched Louella disappear behind the closing doors. Alone in the empty lobby, Julie held on to the rope. For the life of her, she couldn’t let go.
Great story. I love jury duty as a setting. The most unexpected contacts form in courthouses because they keep you waiting so long. I liked the plotting and how you made the two women completely believable. And, of course, the subtle presentation of every mother’s worst nightmare. Thank you.
Thank you Nancy. Gentle , powerful and very thoughtful…
When I reached the line about the car seat, I gasped. What an elegant writer you are.
This is a really good story, with the information about the car seat inserted so softly and gently. And educational too: about reaching across the aisle about other things than politics. Thank you Nancy Smith Harris.