'I once ran out of a restaurant to avoid paying for dinner. My date thought I was in the bathroom, but I had my handbag with me. Silly man. Very sweet, but not my type. And the food was terrible.'
My face cracked. I knew that we should not be laughing in the court house, even in a separate side room, but they called us all in to deal with a case and I needed my laugh.
It was my first time on jury duty, and Loretta was helping to make the day bearable. At least thirty of us had to show up on a truly miserable Monday to 'do your civic duty as citizens of...' (I remember that notice; still have it somewhere). Rain and wind gave it to our soon to be broken umbrellas. I was so angry that I had to miss work that I came in early and imagined all of the excuses I'd give to get out of this (family duties for a family that did not exist; prejudices I did not have; mental incompetence - well, some validity there since I still bought lottery tickets), but I could tell that I was not alone in this. In the room they stuck us in, a bus driver complained loud enough for us to know that his wife was pregnant (try harder next time, I thought). A student found the whole thing 'absotively fascinating' (yeah, that's how he said it; damn colleges will take anyone). So, I stood for a moment and spotted a free seat far away from them and close to her.
Loretta was in her late 60s, retired, husband long dead, but she was taken care of 'on the financials' (I loved the way she said that). You could see that in her clothes and jewelry (not the typical old-lady look). It was all silks and silver and pearls on her, even with that umbrellas (she somehow kept it in one piece in the near-hurricane outside, and also she was not at all wet; still wonder how she did that). Yeah, she did not look the part. But there was something else.
Y'know, some people talk about body language and how it is more important than the words coming out of your mouth. If I did not know any better, I'd have sworn that she was studying me. Maybe I should say that she was studying all of us. She sat like royalty, even if she had to do so on a hard wooden bench like the rest of us potato-eaters.
'That kid.' She pointed her umbrella slightly at the kid I mentioned, a young guy in a too-colourful windbreaker and flat white Chuck Taylors with holes in its sides. He was trying to engage a clearly uninterested housewife in his theories about the law and juries. 'He will be the first one they kick out.'
'Maybe he wants to get out of this.'
'Oh, no.' She turned, stared at me with her warm blue eyes and toothy smile (was she wearing contacts?). 'He is not the bus driver. He thinks that this is all absotively fascinating, whatever that means.'
'Right.' I had almost forgotten that. 'I'm Robert.' I put out my hand.
'Charmed.' Her hand felt both strong and friendly.
At least I had made a friend.
We were in that room for almost half an hour. Loretta learned more about me than I could ever learn about her. Everything she shared with me seemed like pieces of a bigger story; something that could only be filled in if we continued to talk beyond the trial.
And did I feel attracted to her? Of course. She had over thirty years on me, but there was a light and a coiled bounce of energy in her that drew you in. And I could see there were others in the room who noticed it (that bus driver no longer seemed too concerned about his wife and the upcoming baby). And then I shared more secrets.
'I shoplifted when I was a kid. Thing was, it wasn't candy or chocolate I took. My idiot friends did stuff like that. I just went for magazines.'
Her right eyebrow misbehaved. 'Pornography, right?'
I swallowed and tried and failed to look away. 'Yup. Penthouse Forum. It was small enough to tuck into a newspaper without anyone noticed its weight, especially with all the extras in a Saturday paper.'
'Hmm. Clever, clever. You thought it through.' She was not judging me, just responding to what I said. 'My husband tried to hide that stuff from me, too. And it's size was ideal... But do continue.'
And I told her everything, how I would go out early on weekends to get a paper for the family (pretty much true) and how I would try to pick different shops where you could walk around the racks a bit without drawing any attention. I even told her how my brother tried to blackmail me when he found my stash, and how, during a grapple that would lead to a fight, I promised him that they would be found under his bed if he said anything to our parents. And finally how, with a little respect now clear in his eyes, we both enjoyed them until our mom found them, blamed us both, and we got grounded through an entire summer.
Her laughter was beautiful.
'It always ends badly with boys and their fantasies. I just learned to expect it and accept it. Expect and accept. Nothing goes wrong when you can do both.'
'Expect and accept.' I liked that. 'It is a good motto.'
'Yeah,' I smiled, wondering still why I had shared all of that. 'And what about you?'
'Well, I do have a story...'
And then she told me all about the worst date she had ever been on, ending with her failed escape attempt through a bathroom first and, when that did not work, the kitchen in front of some very confused line cooks and busboys. I laughed and let her continue.
'I still feel sad about that, but so what? I met my husband a few weeks later and life went on. My beloved Lou...'
I smiled. The rain had stopped, but the wind vibrated in the thick windows above our heads.
And I was curious about something.
'Wait. A date?'
'A first date?'
'Yes, my dear.'
Loretta caught some light in her eyes. She looked down at me. 'Why strange?'
'Well, if it was a date, why would he expect you to pay. Doesn't really make sense.'
She did not say anything that sounded like anger, but her whole body seemed to grow tense. It was like watching something set and become stone-hard. It was just for the briefest moment, but still...
'Dear,' she said, 'that man was so cheap I thought I'd have to empty my purse. You should have seen his suit. And his car. And anyway, he did get the message and that was all he needed. My husband knew the score, too. Oh, Frank...'
Was she going to cry? No, there were no tears, but I thought she might and it made me feel terrible. But she pulled it all back inside as a bailiff came to the door and called us in to the main courtroom. And then, I looked at her once again.
She was completely calm now. She smiled at me, picked up her purse and umbrella and followed the crowd.
I think of it now and that face... Like I said, there was some change there.
Something was set.
'Move to strike.'
Both sides of the case said other things, but those lines were the ones I remembered the most. For some reason, I forgot all about my plan to get out of serving. It was interesting to hear the lawyers talk about what we'd be exposed to: corruption at certain levels of government and industry; death and the bodies that accompanied it; money either changing hands too often or going missing too quickly; bribery; blackmail, etc. It just went on for longer than we expected (no one seemed to want to be left behind once the details were out). Also, we were to be sequestered and not mix with 'the general public' while this went on (the bus driver did get his wish). And even after all of that, I managed to stay in the pool
'I have no problem with...'
From both the defense and prosecution, no less. Great.
The only good thing about the time spent on this case would be seeing Loretta through all of this.
She did make it. Don't know why I thought she would be clever enough to escape. If anyone could have found a way out, it would be a lady like her. But no, she was in. And her exchange with the lawyers for both sides was quite interesting. She handled both teams quite well.
'Could you handle such material in court?'
'Dear boy, I am a woman of certain years and have seen and heard everything you could imagine. I am ready.'
The prosecution did not want to touch her. But there was a lawyer on the defense side who did not feel her charms were worth their time. It was another woman and I still wonder if that matters.
The interesting thing is that I can recall at least part of their exchange (did not really pay that much attention to my own grilling):
'You are retired, ma'am?'
'Why yes, I worked with my husband, handling the books. And after my poor Nelson passed...'
'Yes, I see. So you have time on your hands?'
'Of course. I'm retired.'
This young woman looked at Loretta's clothes, jewelry, hair and face without breaking her stare. It was very brief - a small moment - but she was clearly about to strike her from their list of jurors. Not sure why I knew this, but I could sense it. And before that could happen, Loretta saved her seat on the jury.
'My dear, I'm ideal for a case like this. I have loved and lost, been used and have used, lived and forgiven many people in my life. And I have all this time on my hands...'
No one said a thing for a moment, but Loretta did smile. And it was a dazzler, almost as good as her laugh. One of the older members of the defense team - they were all men - touched the young woman's arm, spoke quietly to her, and then...
'We have no problem with...'
I knew that certain people would be gone. Mr. 'Absotively' was too eager (Loretta called that); several housewives could not stomach the details that were not even shared yet; and that left us with eleven men...and Loretta.
Loretta smiled as we waited for final instructions and adjourned to the same room we met in. And I knew that she would soon be our foreman. Something made this clear. Something also told me that she would be the one who would pose any questions we had to the judge and lawyers. Something told me that she would be the one to lead us to our final decisions in the case...
And something told me that she wanted to be here; she needed to be here.
I saw it again; the look after I asked her about that date. I did not ask her about the obvious lies - Lou, Nelson or Frank - when I had a moment with her. All I said to her before it began for us was the following:
'You had to be on this jury.'
She was a little shaken that I had figured her out. That woman for the defense had caught it faster than I could . And now, here I was, finally pointing out the obvious.
It was not a question, but it needed an answer. And then, with the same hard look, I heard her lie to me with intent.
'My dear, it is a court case. We have a civic duty to help. I am just a part of our team. Now, let's wait and see what happens next. I have never had this much responsibility for anyone or anything.'
She looked at me one last time. The smile did not hide the dead look in her eyes.
'I am so glad to have the chance to do this with someone I can trust. We are going to really enjoy this trial.'