Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The coffeepot was buzzing. It wasn’t that Thomas found the metallic rattling all that bothersome on its own – it was just that the coffeepot had been buzzing every Tuesday night for the past six months. The industrial stainless steel percolator sat, as it always had, on the edge of a table, slowly dripping lukewarm decaf into a dirty styrofoam cup placed specifically to catch the errant drops. Thomas could see the source of the noise from across the room – a small gap at the top of the machine showed that the screw which held the machine’s cover on securely had come loose – but why nobody had thought to tighten the screw in six months nagged at him. It would be such a small task to fix the coffeepot, but perhaps even that minor effort was beyond the ability of the people here.
Glancing around the circle of brown metal folding chairs in the ill-lit room, he admitted to himself that the people in the group had more important things to worry about than the maintenance of a worn coffeepot, and, for that matter, so did he. The group meeting had started.
Just once, Thomas thought, I’d like to attend a group meeting that isn’t so depressing. People didn’t usually attend meetings like this unless they had reached the end of their own resources, and it seemed a bit unfair to make the setting so powerfully reinforce the sense of hopelessness and despair. The broken coffeepot, the cold metal folding chairs that showed decades of wear, racks of torn and tattered costumes brought out year after tired year, the stained and dreary carpet, the stale smell of sweat and smoke so old that the odors had seeped into every fiber of the room, and even the faint funereal organ music coming from up above all added to a general feeling of being at the bottom of the barrel. Church basements are all the same, he thought.
Left alone in such a place, the mind might find ways of dreaming itself to more cheery climes, but unfortunately, the whole point of a group therapy session involved there being a group present. No matter the reverie Thomas might be able to summon, he was positive that someone would find a way to break it and pull him back down to the bottom of the well to wallow in another person’s misery.
Thomas uncomfortably glanced around the circle to his immediate left, where Jonathan sat, shifting in his chair. Jonathan had terminal colon cancer and was supposed to have died three months ago according to his doctors. For the six months that Thomas had been coming to group therapy sessions, Jonathan had chosen to sit beside him in the circle. Even on the one occasion when Thomas had purposefully sat in a different chair, Jonathan had followed like a diligent puppy, attempting to stay close at its master’s heels. Of course, Jonathan wasn’t a truly unpleasant man to talk to, but the dark smell of human excrement hung faintly in the air about him – a miasma which resulted from the colostomy bag hidden under his bulky clothing. Raising his cup of tepid coffee to his lips, Thomas tried to concentrate on the smell of coffee instead, but to no avail. With even the tiniest movement in his chair, Jonathan would compulsively reach down to touch the half-hidden bulge under his clothing self-consciously – a fact which called attention to his condition all the more.
Thomas knew he should feel sympathy and compassion, but that well had run dry. Thirty-two years spent counseling the dying and bereaved as a chaplain at Landon Hospitial and he used to greet each new day with renewed vigor, telling himself that he would bring peace to a lost soul, help the confused through their turmoil, and soothe the bitter and the angry. He'd had a natural gift for comforting those in need, and by stripping away his psychological armor, and truly immersing himself in their anguish, resentment, and pain, he could pull himself above the fray, with his charges in tow.
That was then. Now, the thoughts and images of the dying simply washed over him; the feeling of sympathy that had once been so powerful now was replaced with revulsion and apathy.
Ruefully, Thomas ran his fingers through his closely trimmed beard. Isn’t that exactly me? At no time in my life has my calling been stronger. These people have a need for my guidance and counsel. They need to be comforted, relieved, and brought back from the brink of a despair that shadows them with every step in these last few months of life. And it is precisely at this time when I can’t bring myself to tell them that I have no guidance and counsel for them – no hope to promise – nothing of myself left to give.
Halfway across the circle, a woman was quietly sobbing into her hands while the psychologist tried to comfort her. Thomas hadn’t really been paying attention to her story. He vaguely recalled her from a previous meeting, but couldn't remember the specifics of her condition. Whatever it was, she was here for the same reason that they all were here. She was dying and had nowhere else to turn.
His life hadn’t always been so bleak, Thomas mused, waiting for his turn to speak. Six months ago, when he’d finally been persuaded by his wife, Kari, to see a doctor about his persistent cough, he’d been positive that the visit was simply a waste of time and money. After all, even though he’d quit smoking when their daughter, Natalie, had been born fifteen years ago, he’d still smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better part of three decades. A cough was just part of what he’d expected. He hadn’t been prepared to face his death. No man ever was. Doctor Spiretti himself, the best oncologist in the state had confirmed it to Thomas personally: lung cancer - and quite advanced. That had been a long time ago, though, and it seemed like remembering someone else’s life. There was just so much that the other, half-remembered Thomas didn’t yet know about his future. About his life. About Kari.
Even thinking her name made Thomas feel the flush of new tears creep across this face. He blinked the flush away, awash in anger and self-pity. It had been so perfect…
“Tom? Tom, are you outside?” she called.
“Yeah, Kar'. I’m out here.”
Thomas sat alone on the wooden bench in the shaded arbor, watching the cool summer breeze dance through the young maples at the edge of the garden. He’d planted them just a few years ago to provide a mild windscreen to keep Kari’s garden a little safer, and despite the agony from his arthritis flare-ups and a wicked looking bruise putting them in, days like this renewed Thomas’s love of nature and the artist who sublimely wielded her. The leafy tips of the trees pirouetted and swayed, as if in time to music that only they could hear, and that he could only dimly and jealously feel in the caress of the air as it flowed through the arbor’s ivied overhang.
“There you are,” Kari said, rounding the corner and stepping into the shade. “Doctor Richards called for you earlier. He said it wasn’t urgent, and I promised him that you’d call him back later.” Kari was wearing her pale blue sundress, and the Oklahoma sun was weaving shimmering highlights through her auburn hair.
“Care to join me, Kari? I came out here to enjoy the weather while it lasts.”
“And the Beaujolais, I see,” said Kari, raising one eyebrow impishly. “Anything left in that bottle?”
“I might be able to find something for you,” winked Thomas, reaching under the bench and pulling out the dark green bottle and his glass. “It’s the new one, and I’ve only had a taste.” Kari made her way to the bench and snuggled into Thomas, while he poured some of the fragrant red wine into the glass. Thomas’s arm slipping around her shoulders, Kari laid her head on his chest as her delicate fingers curled around the stem of the wine glass. Thomas ran his fingers through her silken tresses, and rested his cheek against head, inhaling deeply and luxuriating in the feel and smell of her. It had been twenty-nine years - no, twenty-nine blissful years - of marriage and he still couldn’t believe his luck.
“Mmmm. You must have used that lilac scented soap I bought you for your birthday,” Thomas sighed approvingly, inhaling again. “Do you remember all those lilac bushes on campus when we met?” Thomas had been finishing his divinity doctorate, and Kari had been studying English literature. He’d been sitting beside a row of lilac bushes at dusk, thinking about his doctoral dissertation, when a strange girl walked up to him, sat down, and simply asked him whether he might be willing to walk her to the other side of campus as it grew dark. Who’d have known then that her sparkling green eyes would be playfully staring up into his serious brown ones thirty-five years later under the boughs of an old oak that graced their back garden?
“Of course I do. I walked past those bushes a dozen times without you looking up from your battered copy of 'I and Thou'.' Giggling, Kari imperiously stabbed a finger into Thomas's chest. "How you could find stuffy German philosophers more engrossing than your surroundings, I could only guess."
"Austrian, Kari. The author was Austrian and Israeli. And in my defense, I was using part of his work for my dissertation," Thomas protested.
Kari stuck her tongue out and wiggled it at Thomas. "That's not what I remember," she continued. "I remember you being so caught up in your book that you made me do all the work in asking you for a date."
"Now, hold on a second," Thomas corrected, amused at his wife's version of their meeting. "As I recall, after walking you back to the house you lived in, I was the one who asked you whether you would mind accompanying me to the next production at the student theater."
Kari sniffed, dismissively. "Yes, but it was my idea. It took you forever to get around to asking me, too. You were so nervous that I thought I might have to change our destination on the walk home another time or two. I'd already had you walk me almost a mile past my house to another friend's home. If it'd taken you much longer to get around to it, I might have had to think up a friend that lived in another city."
"You little she-devil!" Thomas laughed. "I wondered why you 'moved' to a new house closer to campus only a week afterwards. I just thought it was a coincidence." After a few minutes of quietly chuckling while his wife nursed her glass of wine, Thomas remarked, "It's good though, that you remember those lilac bushes, even if your memory of the event is a little different than mine. Sitting by those bushes in the warm sunshine with you was one of the happiest moments of my academic career."
"I not only remember sitting beside the bushes when we met,” Kari said, mischievously, “I also remember all the times we were under those bushes for other activities.” She archly raised an eyebrow. “Oh yes, I remember those bushes.”
Thomas blushed as Kari’s silvery laugh pealed through the arbor.
When her mirth had quieted, Thomas took her hand and half-whispered, “God, Kari. I love you. I really and truly do.”
“Well then, you romantic old rogue,” she said, putting down the wine glass down onto the grass, “whatever could we do about that?”
Thomas kissed her. Running her hands through his sandy hair, she winked at him and pulled him closer. The sparkles in her green eyes pirouetted and swayed, as if in time to music only they could hear. Thomas gave up his reason and gave in to the melody.
Forgotten, the bottle of wine spilled into the grass, and the world smelled like lilacs.
A fresh wave of his mind-clogging odor washed over Thomas as Jonathan shifted uncomfortably in his metal folding chair. Excusing himself, Thomas slipped away from the circle of folding chairs and made his way over to the table where the coffee machine quietly rattled to itself. If nothing else, I’m a bit farther from the smell. As the dark liquid filled his small paper cup, Thomas bit his lip, trying to hold his memories at bay. I can almost smell the lilacs.
Returning to his chair, Thomas settled in and only half listened to the psychologist who was there to help them cope with their illnesses. The man was explaining to the group that pain management techniques could largely give them the quality of life that the group members desired.
Managed? What does this man know of medicine? Or of pain, for that matter? Some pains aren't that easy to deal with...
“It won’t be for very long, Kari,” Thomas said, selecting a sturdy pair of brown dress shoes from their closet. Holding out several neckties, he turned to where she sat trembling on their bed. “Which tie goes best with this shirt? The blue one or the green one?”
“The blue one,” answered Kari. “I just don’t understand why it has to be you. I thought we were finished with this.”
“I have to go where I am needed most, Kari,” said Thomas, easing himself down on the bed beside her. “Right now, there are people who need me to help them find their source of hope, and I can’t ignore their call.” Slipping his arm around her shoulders, he wiped away a tear that was running down her cheek and hugged her close.
“I know, it’s just...” she hesitated.
“Just nothing,” Thomas said. Standing up from the bed, Thomas put his hand out and tousled his wife’s hair. “Don’t worry, Kari. I’ll only be gone for a couple months, and before you know it, I’ll be back home. When I volunteered for missions work in Ecuador, we knew that there were some risks involved. I’m not even going to be near any dangerous parts of the country, Kari. I’m only going to be training other missions workers from a church just outside of Quito.”
“That's what Ron thought, though. The only reason that the diocese called you in is because your predecessor was killed, Tom. I know that you'll probably be safe, but all of the ‘what if’ scenarios keep running through my head. I love you, Tom. I don’t think I could bear to see you hurt,” she half-whispered, tears again sliding silently down her cheeks.
“Come on,” Thomas joked. “There’s nothing anybody could do to further ugly up this mug, and you know it.”
“There’s my girl. It’ll all be okay. I know it doesn’t feel that way to you right now – hell, it doesn’t feel that way to me, right now – but I’m a man of faith. My path isn’t always my choice, but I’m always richer for the journey.” Thomas stood in front of her, took her hands in his, and gently kissed her forehead.
“Put your trust in my words, my beloved,” he whispered. “I’ll come back to you. I will.”
With a final hug to his disheveled wife, Thomas picked up his suitcase, and walked out of his house.
“Sir! Sir, you can’t go in there!” Someone was yelling at him. He heard the voice, but ignored the words. Whatever that was about, it wasn’t as important as getting inside… as finding her.
Suddenly there were strong arms holding him back. Thomas struggled against the powerful grip of the person restraining him.
“Let go of me!”“You can’t go inside, sir. This area is off limits unless you are part of the investigation,” the voice repeated.
“I have to!” Thomas screamed, tearing away from the grasping hands and rushing toward the yellow police cordon. “That’s my house!”
He ran. Across the lawn. Past the garden shed. Around a tree. To the flagstone path leading up to the porch. I’m almost there, Kari, he shrieked inwardly. Hold on. I’m coming back. I said I would, and I am. Hold on.
The world spun, wildly. There was blood running out of his nose, and somehow he was facedown on the stairs of the porch. There was a blinding pain in his side. He tried to move, but couldn’t seem to get his feet underneath him. No time.
Only a few more feet. No time.
Then the strong arms were pulling him backwards, and everything faded in a blinding flash of black sparkling darkness.
“Reverend Huxley? You waking up?”
Thomas blinked his eyes, disoriented. “Jorge?”
In his still swimming vision, he saw Jorge Alvarez, one of the doctors that worked with him at Landon. Doctor Alvarez was in his early-forties, had transferred to Landon Hospital from a hospital in Arizona almost a decade ago, and quickly found a kindred spirit in the person of Thomas Huxley. Thomas enjoyed finding that Jorge had a quick mind, was deeply religious and well-versed in theology, and enjoyed engaging in philosophical and theological sparring over lunch in the Hospital cafeteria. As the years passed, their daily discussions blossomed into a healthy friendship. For the past two years, Jorge and his wife, Angela, had been regular guests to Thomas’s home, but why would the Jorge have come with him to the airport?
The airport. I’m not at the airport. He’d just finished checking his luggage when he’d gotten the phone call from a neighbor on his cell phone. He couldn’t even remember all of the details. A house fire… Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances... Flashing lights and sirens...
“Jorge? What happened?”
“The cop that brought you in said you’d taken a nasty tumble. Looks like you fractured a couple ribs on your right side and broke your ankle. We put you under and patched you up while you were unconscious, but you’re going to have to take it easy on that leg for a little while.” As he spoke, Doctor Alvarez paced around the hospital room, steadfastly refusing to meet Thomas’s gaze. Slowly, he forced himself to look into Thomas’s eyes, and as he did so, he gently lowered himself into a chair by the window. Something was troubling him. After a moment of silence, he spoke haltingly, his hands shaking.
“You’ve known me for seven years now, Thomas. I’m a decent enough doctor – not one of the best, but good enough – and I’ve always relied on you to help me in situations where I needed to inform a patient of bad news. I’m just not good at handling the personal side of medicine, and for that, I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry that I have to be the one to tell you what I very much do not want to tell you, because a better man – a man like yourself – in my situation would have something inspiring to say. You’re a good man, and you’ve always been honest and compassionate with me.”
Jorge took a deep breath and the words came tumbling out, as if he could not bear to keep them silent any longer.
“I’m so sorry, Reverend. We did everything that we could. Kari died in the ambulance en route to Landon. The ambulance crew did everything that they could have done – I talked to them myself – but…” At this, Jorge’s buried his face in his hands and shook, silently.
Thomas lay quietly in his bed, listening to the chatter of the nurses in the hallway outside, a voice paging a doctor over the hospital intercom, and Jorge Alvarez’s discomposure. It didn't feel real yet. They were just words. Just words.
“I’m so sorry, Reverend,” Jorge mumbled, “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you, Jorge,” Thomas whispered at last, his voice heavy and wooden. A moment later, Thomas whispered continued, “I… Can I see her?”
Doctor Alvarez softly shook his head. “You can, but I’m not sure that you should. It might be better for you to remember her how she was.” Thomas nodded, quietly. It felt like he was drowning.
“Thank you, again, Jorge. I.. I think I’d like to be alone for a while.”
“I understand, Thomas,” Jorge said, rising from his chair and stepping toward the hallway. “I’ll send a nurse in about a half hour to see if you need anything, but I’ll be back later today.”
Standing up, Dr. Alvaraz headed toward the door. As he crossed the threshhold, Jorge made the sign of the cross on himself, and whispered, “God and the saints protect his warrior,” and quietly shut the door.
Alone, Thomas gazed out the window at the flat brick wall that was his only view in the dim gray light that filtered down from above - not that the view mattered to him. I didn’t come in time, Kari. I didn’t come in time. Forgive me.
Alone with his thoughts, he wept.
The group meeting was over. He hadn't gotten a chance to speak before their two hours was up. He'd simply sat in silence, listening, and waiting. As he stepped out of the doors of St. David's church into the cool night air, he knew that he was ready. He knew what he was going to do. He'd made the arrangements. There was no sense in putting it off. Staring up into the night sky, a tear slipped down his cheek.
I'm coming, Kari.
The black car had slipped quietly through the streets. The overhead glow of a streetlamp had lent the night a surreal aura; the trees borrowing strange shadows - dancing in the dark as they flew by. It felt like the kind of night where anything could happen - and if you were unlucky or unwatchful, it just might.
The October damp hung heavily against the Earth, clinging to the shadowy form on the sidewalk up ahead. Her faded black sneakers scuffed back and forth along the cracked cement, breaking dry leaves and grinding used cigarette butts into the gutter. The man could see her shivering - could almost taste her discomfort on the wind. He slowed to a stop and beckoned her over.
“Need a lift?”
“Oh, hey! It’s you,” she replied. “Nice wheels. When’d you get the convertible?”
“Pretty recently,” he said. “You heading back to your place?”
Smiling at him in the half-dark, she raised an eyebrow and asked, “could we make it yours?”
He smiled, and she got in. Without a word, he pressed on the gas. The tires squealed, spinning in the loose gravel at the side of the road, and kicking up a spray of grit. Gaining traction, the convertible lurched forward, and raced away. The car sped on through the night.
It was all so fast. So good. So right. He could barely remember arriving home, taking her inside, or their frenzied passion. There were brief flashes of a hand pressed into the small of her naked back, his breath hot on her neck, and her arching response. He could only just barely recall his hand sliding under the pillow, reaching for her gift. The only thing he could remember clearly was the beautiful widening of her eyes and sharp intake of breath as the blade of the knife slid silently between her ribs. She was terrified, gasping, and it was heady. Intoxicating. Beautiful.
As she struggled feebly under his weight, her blood slowly pooling under them, he knew that that night, it would finally be right. That night, it would feel right. And it did.
Thinking back to it, he shuddered in barely repressed pleasure, reliving every sensation. He could recall her beating uselessly against his back, her hoarse gasps growing hoarser and weaker, and the vibrancy of her green eyes growing dimmer and dimmer. Nothing had ever compared to the act of passion, the hurried intimacy of the affair, and the closeness that he could feel to them as they took him into them and gave him their last passion. He had to relish it. Live it. Savor it. It was special.
He couldn’t permit himself the luxury of such enjoyments very often. It interfered too strongly with his work… his project. It had been too long, though. He needed to share his gift. Was it time again to allow himself the experience? Slipping on his overcoat, he left his apartment and started walking down the street. In the growing gloom of dusk, nobody saw him go. He was just another anonymous face in a sea of humanity. It was a new city. New places to discover. New sights to see. New people to meet. New loves to be had.
In the distance, he could see a girl leaning against a lamppost. He paused under a tree, pretending to tie his shoelace. Glancing up, he watched her. Was she the one? As if in answer to his unspoken question, the chill breath of the Earth raced through her, slicing through her every defense, leaving her shivering. Exposed. Vulnerable. Alone.
From the shadows under the trees, he shivered with anticipation. She looked like she could use a friend.
It would be a good night.
Saturday, March 8, 2008
The Necessity of Rule-Following:
A normative exploration of the interplay between justice and process in the writings of Walter Mosley and James Lee Burke
Class Thesis, Law in Literature
Washburn University, School of Law
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”
Mankind has always been preoccupied by the question of how we ought to live. Our libraries and histories are filled with texts of philosophy and theology which assign to people obligations and rights. Our history is replete with legends and myths which provide examples and cautionary tales, advising us to walk carefully the fine line between correct and incorrect conduct.
Fundamentally, our preoccupation with morality is a preoccupation with justice. Justice is commonly defined in the relevant philosophical literature as being a state in which the benefits and burdens of life are arranged among individuals according to their desert. This concept seems to be ingrained into individuals at a young age, and many of our moral intuitions as children support this conception of justice. The idea that good things should happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people can be seen in every child who, being wrongly punished for the act of another, protests “It’s not fair!”
It has been said that those who hear clearly the call of their own consciences most clearly hear the call of justice. This sentiment, once expressed by a Nobel Laureate in literature, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, reveals a fundamental truth regarding the nature of justice itself. Justice is intimately tied to our own moral intuitions. These intuitions, while taking marginally different forms in some situations across cultures, are largely uniform and biologically determined. It is this broad cross-cultural agreement that allowed that Nobel Laureate to further explain his point: “Justice is conscience – not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity.” By placing the dictates of justice beyond personal moral judgment, and into the realm of the objectively true, Solzhenitsyn recognized the twin inherent difficulties involved in mankind’s shared attempts to create and do justice. First, as finite creatures bound in our own realms of subjective experience, humans lack access to the objective normative content which would determine the just outcome to any situation. Secondly, all too often, people have denied the existence of the first difficulty, leading to the repeated conflation of personal subjective and impersonal objective moral judgment.
While the preceding material may be abstract, the material on which such concepts operate is all around us. Everyday interactions between people provide the backdrop against which these two difficulties play. Unfortunately for humankind, these two difficulties create the potential for disaster in any attempt to operate outside of lawfulness. It is the purpose of this essay to examine the relationship between the rules of society and our desire to do justice, and the havoc in potentia which exists when we allow the latter to dominate our actions.
The end result of this examination will be the decision that in a vast majority of cases, violating established law to do justice is too dangerous a precedent to set, even if it achieves greater justice in the short-term. The analysis will include a discussion of the writings of James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley, the views of justice espoused by the main characters in the writings analyzed, and will conclude with a normative evaluation of these views in light of the civil disobedience movement, John Rawls’ “Theory of Justice,” and Plato’s “Crito.”
II JUSTICE IN THE EYES OF DETECTIVE DAVE ROBICHEAUX
This section will analyze what justice means to the fictional character of Detective Dave Robicheaux and his partner “Clete” – creations from the pen of James Lee Burke. Dave Robicheaux is the protagonist of Burke’s novels, and the good detective solves various mysterious crimes throughout the books, and Clete is his right-hand man who does the dirty work that Dave wants him to. Their relevance to our discussion on the relationship between process and justice is shown through his treatment of individuals they investigate or interrogate. This essay will examine Dave Robicheaux’s and Clete’s unique style of detective-work in the books “The Neon Rain,” “Sunset Limited,” and “A Stained White Radiance.”
Fundamentally, Dave Robicheaux might be described as being an advocate of ‘cowboy justice.’ By this term, this essay hopes to indicate both the independent nature of his particular brand of law-enforcement as well as a certain romanticism concerning the dispensation of justice to evildoers and good people alike. The independence can be seen by utilizing examples from the three works by James Lee Burke in which Robicheaux acts as prosecutor, judge, and executioner; and the romanticism, while able to be inferred throughout the novels through the actions of Dave Robicheaux, is best placed in context with a brief discussion of this subject in “A Stained White Radiance.”
Dave Robicheaux is the cause of a substantial number of deaths throughout the novels, but after each one, the reader is left with a slightly self-indulgent sense that justice has been done. An example of this might be an encounter with a local criminal, Julio Segura. Dave Robicheaux and his partner “Clete” stop Segura’s vehicle and attempt to pressure him into giving them information on the location of some other criminals about whom Robicheaux is interested more deeply. Rather than following standard police procedures, Robicheaux and Clete engage in maverick interrogation of the inhabitants of the vehicle, going so far as to provoke the individuals in the vehicle into an armed battle from which Clete and Robicheaux emerge unscathed, but from which the ‘bad guys’ in the car do not.
Robicheaux and Clete have no formal cause to detain and question the people inside the vehicle – a fact admitted by omission. At first, Robicheaux merely desires to question Julio Segura regarding a murder victim Robicheaux is investigating. However, once the vehicle is stopped, Robicheaux declines to question Segura about the deceased young girl he is investigating. Instead, Robicheaux asks about the whereabouts of three other criminals, and delivers a small speech in which he morally condemns Segura for the death of the girl (without evidence). This speech nicely sums up the complete independence from law that epitomizes Dave Robicheaux’s approach to dealing with ‘bad guys,’ and is partially excerpted below:
“Lovelace Deshotels [the murder victim] was a little black girl from the country who had big aspirations for herself and her family. She thought she’d made the big score, but you don’t like broads that slop down your booze and throw up in your pool, so you eighty-sixed her back to the geek circuit. Except you had a badass black girl on your hands that wouldn’t eighty-six… So what does a macho guy like you do when one of his whores gets in his face? He has a couple of his lowlifes take her out on a boat and launch her into the next world with the same stuff she’d already sold her soul for.”
Following this highly prosecutorial speech, Robicheaux proceeds to threaten Seguro, saying that even if he doesn’t go down for the murder of the dead girl, Robicheaux will see to it that a search of Seguro’s car turns up enough drugs to warrant punishing Seguro harshly. Almost triumphantly, Robicheaux announces his conclusion in a judicial manner. “Any way you cut it, your ass is busted.” Immediately thereafter commences the gunfight in which Segura and another occupant of his car are killed.
That this conclusion was foreordained by Robicheaux when he set out to ‘question’ Segura is uncertain, but strong arguments can be made that such was the intended outcome all along. Robicheaux announces his reason for wanting to meet Segura again, but fails to try to accomplish that end while talking with Segura. Robicheaux recognizes that he has no particular authority to talk to Segura anyway, since Segura (and the homicide Robicheaux is investigating) is out of Robicheaux’s jurisdiction. When Clete asks how Robicheaux would like to have the encounter go, Dave Robicheaux responds that the plan is to “run up the black flag.” Finally, although Robicheaux and Clete only see a single weapon in the vehicle, and despite the fact that the weapon is in the hands of someone other than Segura, and despite the fact that Clete kills the man who pulled the gun immediately, Clete and Robicheaux continue to fire shots into the vehicle at an unarmed and clearly frightened Segura. These types of encounters are far from uncommon for Dave Robicheaux, who calmly explains to his boss that these incidents aren’t his fault, and that “he didn’t deal the play.”
Clete is much worse than Dave Robicheaux in terms of his violence, but rarely shows the initiative to use it without having Robicheaux tell him to take ‘care of things’ – given Robicheaux’s knowledge of Clete’s violent tendencies, assigning a task to Clete is an open invitation to use violence. In a scene from “Sunset Limited,” Robicheaux has asked Clete to deal with a criminal Dave Robicheaux identifies as a “small player in [the murder investigation Robicheaux is conducting].” As per his usual habit, Clete ‘deals’ with the man (Scarlotti) with violence so brutal that it should warrant a warning label.
In the encounter, Scarlotti and his associate are eating a meal in a restaurant. Clete approaches them, and then proceeds to dump a plate full of scalding chipped beef into the associate’s face without provocation. As Scarlotti rises in anger from his seat, Clete continues to beat Scarlotti’s companion, smashing an iron skillet into his face. Scarlotti attempts to yell something at Clete, but Clete grabs Scarlotti by the front of his trousers and places vice clamps on Scarlotti’s testicles. One might think that placing vice clamps on the genitals of an alleged criminal in a public restaurant would be the culmination of the encounter, but that line of thinking seriously underestimates the sheer capacity for lawless action undertaken by Clete in the name of good.
Clete drags Scarlotti, nearly mute with pain and rage, through the restaurant and down the sidewalk toward the flower shop owned by Scarlotti’s mother, pausing only long enough to hit Scarlotti in the face a few times, and throw him to the ground. Finally, Burke’s narration explains that Clete – yes, Clete – reaches his breaking point and “los[es] it.” Clete then smashes Scarlotti’s head repeatedly into a metal parking meter, while Scarlotti’s elderly mother watches from a few feet away, screaming.
Nothing in law can justify what Clete did with tacit consent from Dave Robicheaux. But both Clete and Dave Robicheaux appear to operate under a more intuitionist approach to doing moral justice. Waiting for the legal system to charge Scarlotti with a crime, prove that he committed a crime in a court to a judge and jury, and be sentenced by a competent authority puts a delay on the administration of justice, and in Clete and Robicheaux’s defense, justice delayed is justice denied. Justice is, after all, the spirit of the law, and as Earl Warren once noted, “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.” Dave and Clete appear to be operating under the idea that justice should be done immediately. The difficulty with this is in their understanding of what justice is. They do appear to be using the common definition as formulated in Part I, above, and are evaluating an individual’s level of desert by their personal measure of whether the person is a ‘bad’ person. Given that evidence is rarely (if ever) provided to assert the guilt of individuals, whether the reader will feel that justice is done will depend on whether the reader accepts the blanket assertions of guilt offered by Robicheaux and his partner, Clete.
The independence from law exhibited by Robicheaux and Clete is not reserved for the guilty only. People Robicheaux feels are ‘good’ people tend to get free passes from him, even if they have done something wrong. In “A Stained White Radiance,” Dave Robicheaux is attempting to solve a mystery involving the family of Robicheaux’s ex-girlfriend. Dave, who still feels a profound sense of pity and goodwill for his ex-girlfriend, is put into a delicate position when she files a false police report. The woman, Drew Sonnier, is afraid that Dave Robicheaux will discover that her brother is involved in some shady dealings, so purposefully injures herself and frames a well-known and infamous criminal. The criminal is taken to jail, and nearly poisoned to death by his cellmates while there, which serves to make the knowingly false report by Drew that he had hurt her substantially more serious.
If Robicheaux were committed to law instead of his sense of justice, we should expect Dave Robicheaux to follow the rules and have her sent to be charged for her false report. As the reader will have come to expect, since Drew is a ‘good’ woman (just caught in a desperate situation), she will likely be simply forgiven for this transgression – a position reaffirmed explicitly by Dave Robicheaux, when he informs Drew that “If [she] and [her brother] weren’t [his] friends, both of [them] would have been in jail a long time ago for obstruction of justice.”
More than simply not seriously investigating his ex-girlfriend’s false allegations, when he discovers that the allegations are clearly false, he advises her on how to cover her tracks so as to avoid prosecution. He tells her to quietly drop the charges she made against the local criminal, say nothing to the police without a lawyer with her, and to not even talk to him while he gives her this advice unless she wants what she says to be able to be used against her in court. After essentially absolving her of her crime and telling her what to do to avoid being prosecuted for it, Robicheaux quietly ruminates on the difficulties of his job as he laments that he serves a “vast, insensate legal authority that seem[s] determined to further impair the lives of the feckless and vulnerable while the long-ball hitters toast each other safely at home plate.”
Robicheaux’s desire to keep ‘good’ people from harm and cause ‘bad’ people to suffer can be seen in more than his ignoring the crimes of his ex-girlfriend. In some instances, Robicheaux and Clete plant evidence that leads to the downfall of some of the people they see as ‘bad.’ Further, Dave Robicheaux feels no difficulty admitting this practice to his wife, if not to his superiors at the stationhouse. When his wife asks him what he has done to deserve a cryptic phone call from Clete, Robicheaux responds, “Back at the First District, we used to call it ‘salting the mine shaft’... The wiseguys have expensive lawyers. Sometimes cops fix it so two and two add up to five.”
When the Sheriff angrily questions Dave regarding his ‘salting the mine shaft’ (which amounted to having Clete plant a the severed head of a dead man in the trunk of a criminal’s car and then inform the local police about the location of the head), Dave confidently asserts that the man in whose car the severed head was planted was guilty anyway. Dave Robicheaux baldly contends, “The evidence was found on the right person, sheriff. There’s no way around that conclusion. You have my word on that.” That the evidence was tampered with, and that the authorities will remain silent while a man is charged for a crime based solely on the faith of Detective Robicheaux is correct in his personal assessment of guilt is a difficult pill to swallow, but the act perfectly encapsulates the approach to justice shown in James Lee Burke’s novels.
Trusting his own personal moral intuitions more than evidence, Robicheaux (and his partner Clete) founder on both of the twin difficulties identified by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in Part I. Robicheaux does not have access to the objective guilt or innocence of the parties on whom he trains his personal sense of justice, but continues to attempt to do justice nonetheless. Further, he falls neatly into the second difficulty, believing that his personal moral intuitions are identical with the call of justice.
This particular view of justice is easily romanticized, despite its obvious difficulties. After solving the mystery of the novel, Robicheaux comments on his disappointment at being unable to pin a series of crimes on a particularly bad man (a politician who has strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan) – a man by the name of Bobby Earl. Robicheaux yearns for a simpler view of justice, and exposes the deep romantic understanding of the world that neatly divides people into a colossal battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ “I had been determined to prove that Bobby Earl was fronting points for Joey Gouza, or that he was connected with arms an dope trafficking in the tropics. I was guilty of that age-old presumption that the origins of social evil can be traced to villainous individuals, that we just need to identify them, lock them in cages, or even march them to the executioner’s wall, and this time, yes this time, we’ll catch a fresh breeze in our sails and set ourselves on a true course.” It is this concept – the simple and, therefore, beautiful idea that justice is easier to accomplish than we really know it is – that is so seductive. The concept itself is well-known and has a fairly well-documented history. People desire to make changes in the world (to do justice), but do not enjoy the prospect of accidentally doing injustice because they make the kinds of mistakes that Solzhenitsyn identified in Part I, above. Therefore, they submit themselves to simpler views of the world and instead seek to abandon the complexities of their lives in an effort to embrace the simplicity that would make them heroes. Dave Robicheaux exemplifies this type of thinking, and it is this type of view of the world that is upheld in James Lee Burke’s novels as being appropriate for heroes.
III JUSTICE IN THE EYES OF EASY RAWLINS
The novels of Walter Mosley reveal an understanding of justice substantially different from that of James Lee Burke. This section will examine the concept of justice used in three of Mosley’s works: “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “A Little Yellow Dog,” and “Little Scarlet.” Mosley’s novels follow the life of a private citizen named Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. Contrary to justice as practiced by James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, Mosley’s Easy Rawlins has ‘justice’ practiced upon him. To put it bluntly, Easy is the type of ‘shady character’ on whom Dave Robicheaux or others like him might try to have justice done. As a young, black man during the 1940’s-1960’s, Easy experiences firsthand the difficulties that accompany the actions of independent justice-seeking police officers.
A reader’s first understanding of Mosley’s concept of justice is found in “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Easy Rawlins, desperately needing money to make payments on his mortgage, accepts an offer to make a substantial sum of money by finding a missing woman (missing by choice) for an unscrupulous character named DeWitt Albright. After expressing some hesitation to take the job offered, Easy Rawlins has a candid conversation with Mr. Albright regarding the nature of justice.
Easy feels uncomfortable about whether finding the girl in question will get him mixed up with police officers and the sentiments which motivate them. DeWitt Albright replies that the system and all of its faults “is made by the rich people so that the poor people can’t get ahead” – a sentiment with which Easy Rawlins readily agrees. Easy, still unable to shake his suspicion that he’s getting into something over his head, makes his particular difficulty even more clear. “It’s just that I’d hade to find her and then have some cop come up to me with some shit like I was the last one seen around her – before she disappeared,” Easy remarks. In both an excuse and a thinly veiled bodily threat, Mr. Albright replies that “[t]hings happen every day,” and that “[p]eople with everything to live for… had it all planned out what they’d be doing this weekend, but that didn’t stop them from dying.” The idea that Easy is getting involved in something that might end up with the woman he’s sent to find being another statistic on the morning newspaper headlines doesn’t deter him from finally accepting the job, and he gratefully takes the stack of bills offered by DeWitt Albright to seal their deal.
Although Easy sets aside his personal reservations and fears about what he might be getting involved in, a plausible argument can be made to suggest that Easy, in his carelessness, put himself in a prime spotlight to get himself involved with police officers who want to see ‘evil’ people pay for crimes just as much as did Dave Robicheaux. Unfortunately for Easy, the police officers’ views of who is good and who is evil is guided by their moral intuitions (just as were those of Detective Robicheaux). Needless to say, the moral intuitions of white police officers in the late 1940’s are different from the moral intuitions of Dave Robicheaux, but the difference – the overtly racist undertones and attitudes of the officers in Mosley’s works but absent in Burke’s novels – is a difference that highlights one of the prime difficulties with placing justice-doing authority in individuals rather than in the law: our moral intuitions can be colored by the environments in which we are raised.
The police officers are rarely friendly toward Easy during their frequent interactions, and Easy’s friends do not appear to fare better with the police. The racism involved in such episodes clearly motivates the manner in which officers treat Easy and his peers. Easy’s first interaction with the police in “Devil in a Blue Dress” is a good representation of the habitual treatment that Easy has received for much of his life.
After the girlfriend of one of Easy’s friends is found beaten to death (a night after Easy consummated an adulterous affair with her), Easy is approached at his home as he prepares to enter the front door. The two officers who are there to talk to Easy order him to follow them, but won’t tell him where they are going. They refuse to tell Easy whether he’s being arrested. When Easy protests that he has the right know where he is being taken, the officer makes his belief about Easy’s innocence absolutely clear when the officer states, “You got a right to fall down and break your face, nigger. You got a right to die.” The officer then proceeds to beat Easy into submission before placing handcuffs on him.
When Easy writhes uncomfortably in the back of the police cruiser as a result of the beating, one of the officers warns him that if Easy vomits in the police car, the officers will make him eat it off the floor. Easy understood how to play the standard game that police officers played with black people – the officers would leave black people in the local holding cells for a while to sweat some fear into them, then would interrogate them to try to find out if they’d done anything bad. In this encounter, though, Easy worries that they aren’t sweating him as a fishing expedition.
Easy narrates his internal monologue and explains why he’s likely to be a victim of police independence and ‘justice-seeking.’ “I was worried because [the officers] didn’t follow the routine… I would try to look innocent while I denied what they said. It’s hard acting innocent when you are but the cops know that you aren’t. They figure that you did something because that’s just the way cops think, and you telling them that you’re innocent just proves to them that you have something to hide. But that wasn’t the game that we were playing that day. They knew my name and they didn’t need to scare me with any holding tank; they didn’t need to take my fingerprints. I didn’t know why they had me, but I did know that it didn’t matter as long as they thought they were right.”
Despite Mr. Rawlins absolute cooperation with the police, their independent judgment that he must be lying allowed the officers to engage in brutal interrogation tactics clearly outside the scope of legal questioning. When Easy asks for clarification about what day the police are asking about when they question him regarding whether he has an alibi, an officer kicks Easy in the chest so hard that Easy (and the chair he is sitting in) are bowled over backwards. When Easy tells them where he was and what he was doing, providing the alibi the police had requested, an officer punches Easy on the side of his face.
As a supreme threat of violence (after already showing that they were more than capable and willing to use violence against Easy), the officers threaten that Easy is in so much trouble that they might just “take [his] black ass out behind the station and put a bullet in [his] head.” When Easy begins to tell the officers anything about his life that he can think of, hoping that he’ll stumble across whatever the officers want from him, one of the officers flies into a rage, screaming racial epithets. The officer, still in the grip of his rage, begins to beat Easy with abandon. Luckily for Easy, Easy manages to grapple with the officer and pin him to the floor. Unfortunately for Easy, the other officer in the room then trains his pistol on Easy and orders the two combatants to part. To top things off, when the officers finally release Easy, he is left with no way to get back to his home without walking the distance across the city.
Easy repeatedly has run-ins with the police in which these scenes of violence are repeated or referenced. The unjustified violence and law-breaking behavior of the police officers results in frequently tragic consequences for Easy and his friends. Following the same murder of the girlfriend of Easy’s friend, Dupree, Dupree is taken to the police station and interrogated roughly. When Easy sees him, Easy recognizes that Dupree has been beaten just as savagely as was Easy himself.
Easy recognizes that he has a history with the police and because of this history, has no particular interest in experiencing ‘justice’ at the hands of police officers in the future. In his mind, Easy comments about that history and his reluctance to engage people who might involve him in criminal activity. “But I wasn’t feeling honest. I had a long history with the police – and it wasn’t pleasant.”
That unpleasant history continues in Mosley’s “Yellow Dog.” In “Yellow Dog,” Easy is suspected of being involved in several murders when bodies start showing up at the school in which he works as a janitor. The police attempt to interrogate Easy in his office in the school during school hours. Easy arouses their suspicions further when he declines to tell the police the whole truth about certain conversations he’s had with a friend who’s gone missing.
Easy complains that “[c]ops don’t mind pushing around men like me. That kind of pushing was part of their job.” In a slow change from the moral intuitions of the justice-seeking officers of the 1940’s and ‘50’s showcased in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the officers in “Yellow Dog” show themselves to be less concerned with race than their predecessors decades before, once again highlighting the fact that moral intuitions can shift depending on the times. Easy continues to describe the police officers tactics against him by pointing out this very change by saying, “It didn’t matter that [I] wasn’t a white man. Cops is a race all its own. Its members have their own language and their own creed.”
Even though race might not play as big a role in the police independence as it had a few decades prior, the police depicted in Mosley’s “Yellow Dog” were still willing to place their own views of what constituted justice above the laws. When Easy is pulled into a police lineup and the witness fails to identify Easy, the police still were willing to finger Easy for the murders under investigation and send him to the holding cells. The cops even took the time to point out to Easy that the holding cell he’d be staying in held a vicious criminal who was currently being held for an especially violent offense.
Rounding out a historical progression of Mosley’s views on racism, “Little Scarlet” involves several more interactions with the local law enforcement authorities, but unlike prior encounters, this time the police officers need Easy to help them solve a crime, and can’t risk appearing to let racial politics enter into their actions for fear of setting off a serious race-riot. While the police officers clearly don’t like having to rely on Easy Rawlins to do their work for them, the situation demands that they do so. The police still don’t like having to cooperate with Easy, and refuse to tell him where he is going, what he’s going to be doing, and who’s involved in the investigation when they first pick him up, despite his repeated requests for that information at the time. Bolstered in confidence by his newfound status, even if it is only a temporary boost caused by circumstance, Easy Rawlins goes so far as to tease a police officer by taking a preferred chair in a conference room. Easy immediately recognizes that he’s gone too far, and is only saved by the harsh voice of the offended officer’s superior ordering the man to sit down so that they could start the meeting. Easy soberly reflects that “[i]f we were alone he would have drawn his pistol, I’m sure.”
Fundamentally, there is little difference between the methodology of the police involved in Mosley’s stories and that of Detective Dave Robicheaux – both follow their intuitions instead of the law in an effort to do what they see as good. Each ends up causing bad consequences for those they deem as ‘bad,’ and allows frequent latitude with those whom they deem to be ‘good.’ The only real difference between the police in Mosley’s works and the protagonists in Burke’s works is that Burke’s detective has moral intuitions more in tune with a majority of modern readers’ upbringing.
IV PLATO, RAWLS, AND RESOLUTION
The question then faces the reader:
When faced with a situation in which a violation of the law may produce justice, ought one to violate the law?
Clearly, American history provides examples which serve to suggest that the answer is a clear ‘yes.’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly violated the law, and urged violation of the law, in support of following a higher, moral law – a law that would ensure justice. Nonetheless, significant argument with substantial history behind them have been offered against this position.
Many of these arguments come from social contract theory. Social contract theory has many incarnations. Social contract theory posits that individuals must do as their sovereign bids them because the individuals have consented to receiving the benefits of living in their society. This attitude is seen quite explicitly in the analysis given by the character of Socrates in Plato’s Crito. In Crito, the character of Socrates has just been unjustly convicted by an Athenian tribunal for heresy and corrupting the youths of Athens with his ideas. As the dialogue unfolds, Socrates is found sitting in his cell awaiting his execution. His friends, under the guise of visiting their doomed companion, reveal that they have planned an elaborate escape for Socrates that will save his life by smuggling him into exile. If Socrates follows their plan, he will end his days living in a Greek City-State far to the north of Athens, but if he declines their plan, he will pour hemlock into his ear as decreed by the Athenian court.
Socrates chose the latter, claiming that he is bound to the will of his government, under a most sacred duty, because he had consented to all actions taken by his government that benefited him, even when those actions had harmed the individual interests of some other citizen. How, without being supremely selfish, could Socrates ever decry the actions of his government?
The view that it is always, or nearly always, wrong to violate established law, even to do something you think is right, has adherents outside of the ancient Greeks.
Provided that laws were arrived at in a fair manner, political-philosopher John Rawls argues that individuals must submit to law. “It will be recalled that this principle [fairness/justice] holds that a person is under an obligation to do his part as specified by the rules of an institution whenever he has voluntarily accepted the benefits of the scheme or has taken advantage of the opportunities it offers to advance his interests…”
In reality, the view that law should be violated to serve a higher goal is a dangerous precedent. Because humankind does not have access to objectivity to make our own moral decisions, and because we frequently confuse our own moral intuitions with the objective ‘good,’ allowing individuals to supplant law with their view of justice is like leaving the fox to guard the henhouse. The potential for tyrannical abuse is great, particularly when it may be tinged with hatred, jealousy, greed, racial animus, or any number of other damaging influences created by the times in which the moral actor lives. Permitting such deviations from law sets an ugly precedent that can be used to accomplish all manner of abuses in the name of justice. In the end, we must reject the idea that doing justice in the short term is a laudatory goal. Only by following the law, and not our own personal conceptions of justice, can society move away from anarchy and toward the common good.
 JOHN RAWLS, A THEORY OF JUSTICE 3 (1999)
 See, John Arthur, Equality, Entitlements, and the Distribution of Income, in MORAL PHILOSOPHY 705 (George Sher, ed., 1996).
 Id. Desert is the philosophical concept that refers to the degree to which an entity deserves some outcome.
 Jone Johnson Lewis, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn Justice Quote (2006), at http://www.wisdomquotes.com/000467.html.
 See generally , MATT RIDLEY, THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE (1998), and DAVID GAUTHIER, MORALS BY AGREEMENT (2006).
 See, Lewis, note 4, supra.
 JAMES LEE BURKE, THE NEON RAIN (1987).
 JAMES LEE BURKE, SUNSET LIMITED (1998).
 JAMES LEE BURKE, A STAINED WHITE RADIANCE (1992).
 See, BURKE, supra, note 7, at 83-85.
 Id., at 86.
 Id., at 87.
 Id., at 81.
 Id., at 85.
 Id., at 85-86.
 Id., at 85-86.
 Id., at 86.
 Id., at 81.
 Id., at 83.
 Id., at 87.
 Id., at 91.
 See, BURKE, supra, note 8, at 169.
 Id., at 166.
 Id., at 187.
 Jone Johnson Lewis, Earl Warren Justice Quote (2006), at http://www.wisdomquotes.com/000467.html.
 See, Part I, supra. Justice is defined as the state in which the benefits and burdens of life are arranged according to an individual’s desert.
 See, BURKE, supra, note 9, at 210.
 Id., at 211-13.
 Id., at 210.
 Id., at 212.
 Id., at 213.
 Id., at 269.
 Id., at 302.
 See generally, ERICH FROMM, ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM (1941).
 WALTER MOSLEY, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (2002).
 WALTER MOSLEY, A LITTLE YELLOW DOG (1996).
 WALTER MOSLEY, LITTLE SCARLET (2004).
 See, MOSLEY, supra, note 43, at 62-68.
 Id., at 64.
 Id., at 65.
 Id., at 65-66.
 Id., at 113.
 Id., at 114.
 Id., at 115.
 Id., at 117.
 See, MOSLEY, supra, note 44, at 24.
 Id., at 71.
 Id., at 73.
 Id., at 142.
 Id., at 153.
 Id., at 153-54.
 Id., at 154.
 See, MOSLEY, supra, note 45, at 9-20.
 Id., at 12-13.
 Id., at 21-22.
 Id., at 22.
 Nobel Prize Foundation, Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1972), at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-bio.html
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, in The Basic Political Writings 144 (Donald A.
Cress ed. 1988); John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (Richard Cox ed., Croft Classics, 1982); Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (A.P. Martinich ed., Broadview Literary Texts, 2002); Plato, Crito, in The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues 43 (Shane Weller ed. 1992).
 See, RAWLS, supra, note 1, at 301.
Friday, February 22, 2008
I’ve always been sort of an outsider, I guess you could say. My parents moved around a lot when I was a child. I don’t blame them for it; transferring to new jobs that paid better meant being able to provide a better life for my brother and I, but still… even though I laud their motives and know I’d probably make the same choice if put in their position, I never really got used to being forcibly ripped away from all of the things that I found comforting, time and time again.
It’s hard, when you are a kid, to come to a new town, a new neighborhood, or a new school, and it gets you from both sides. Not only do you have to say goodbye to old friends whom you’ll likely never see again, and say goodbye to the places where you made happy memories together, but it also sucker-punches you upon arrival. You’re ‘the new kid.’ You speak a little differently. You dress a little differently. You don’t get the inside jokes that have been circulating in your classes for years. You are smarter, or dumber, or different in so many tiny ways that might be imperceptible to adults – but not to children.
Children notice, and until you become one of them through assimilation, children hurt.
I suppose I started turning away from social situations and away from making friends at a younger age, and as a result of trying to escape children’s relentless mocking, I turned my mind inward. While other children played tetherball, four-square, or wall-ball, I sat against the edge of the building and made up my own games in my head. It wasn’t as fulfilling as playing with other kids, but at least it was safer.
Fast-forward some eighteen-odd years. I’m intelligent – graduated with honors from my doctoral program and completed some post-doctoral education too. I’m successful – I own my own business. I’m working on building the life that I always pictured in my head – I’m writing my novel, continuing my torrid love-affair with completing additional college credits, and feeling more healthy and fit that I have in years. But I’m also desperately lonely and have the vast majority of my conversations silently inside my head. The bulk of my non-internal social interaction comes from my one-sided conversations with my pet cockatiels, half of whom are still so afraid of me after six months that they flee to the opposite side of their enclosure when I approach unless I’m holding treats in my hands. I don’t have any long-term friends, and a recent move across the country to a new home has only isolated me more. I’m 27, and I’m alone.
I like myself. I’m talented, imaginative, polite, urbane, educated, and mentally stable. I don’t condone or engage in violence, show compassion for those weaker than myself, and regularly engage in volunteer service. I have a marvelous singing voice that a music teacher once told me could be the basis for a solid career in classical vocal music, and I like to think that I have a certain ‘voice’ of my own when writing. I am a fair hand at both interior decorating and flower arrangement, and because of my broad education I like to think I have something intelligent to say on almost every issue. Heck, I’ve even saved a life (even if you don’t count my regular trips to the blood bank). I’m stylish, even if conservative in my apparel – and always ensure that I look nice, even if I feel empty inside. Despite liking myself and almost every aspect of my life, other people don’t relate well to me.
Social interactions seem to follow a pattern. From what I read and seen, many young kids in high school have experimented with sex. Sometime in college they start having meaningful relationships, and shortly after college, they get married, and start families. Some move faster; some move slower - but the timeline doesn't usually budge more than a half-dozen years or so. Most of my acquaintances from high school and college have already gone down this path, or are in the process of doing so. They have wives, husbands, and young children. I want to do this... to have this, too. I stayed in college for an extra year, entered a graduate program, and even attained some post-doctoral education all hoping to stumble across the woman who makes me feel truly alive. I’ve never found her. I’ve never known a woman to flirt with me, or even have a ‘schoolyard crush’ on me. I’ve only had one relationship that lasted for six months, and I gladly accepted her ‘trust’ issues without complaint, because she was at least a woman who was willing to spend time talking to me. It was only after four months of dating that she trusted me enough to hold my hand. When I shyly tried to kiss her cheek one night after a date, she broke up with me, saying I was moving too fast for her. I’m 27, and I’ve never kissed a woman.
My only real joy is found inside my head. When I sleep, my mind gives me what life has not. She’s always different in the brief bits that I can remember. Sometimes she’s tall, sometimes short. She’s blond, brunette, raven-haired, or red-headed. She has freckles and green eyes, or maybe they are clear baby-blues. Once they were even lavender. I don’t ever know her name, but when I'm there, in that nonexistent place, I don't need to. All that matters is how she acts and how that makes me feel. She’s playful, sweet, and accepting, and when she turns her eyes on me, it’s like she’s making a secret joke that only the two of us understand. Her smile is overpowering. When she looks at me, laughs with me, hugs me, and tells me that she’ll always be there for me… with me… there’s a rushing sensation, lightheadedness, and strange sort of feeling – almost as if you were falling from a great height down, down into her eyes. And you can’t look away – even if you wanted to.
Sometimes, she forsakes things for our love – family, money, power. Sometimes I leave everything behind to revel in pure unbridled joy of being near something so… adorable. Sometimes we marry. Other times we simply sit together beside a fire, have dinner in a restaurant, or lie on a couch talking while she rests her head on my chest and I stroke her hair.
And then I wake up. I should be thinking of putting on my suit and tie, driving down to my office, pasting a fake smile on my face, and immersing myself in my work. Instead, I’m lying alone in my bed, in my rented room, with the silvery sound of her giggles still echoing in my ears, and tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, and in the shadow of my rapidly receding dream memories, the world seems a little colder and a little greyer.
I’m left wondering if somewhere out there, she’s having the same dreams. She looks forward to our next meeting, even though she can’t quite see me clearly. She wants to know where we’re going on our next date, what we’ll talk about, and whether I’ll finally find a way to let my subconscious kiss her.
I’m 27, and I just want to be happy.
Happy, like I am in my dreams.