At first, I am numb, writing down the name my father spits at me over the phone lines. He is angry at me, as if what this judge did today was somehow my doing. As if I could have, and should have, stopped it all from happening. Simply by believing what I’ve been told. And if I can’t manage do that, for God’s sake, I could at least have the decency to feel the same way he does. Betrayed by the justice system. Incensed, wronged by this judge who had the nerve to sentence my brother for a crime he did not commit.
But I don’t feel the same indignation. Instead, a strange calm fills me. It’s not appropriate for the situation, I know. Miles away and protected by cell satellites, I carefully write down “Judge Buth”. I am already crafting the thank you letter in my head while my father rages on. I’m glad he can’t know how good it feels to hear this news. I feel closer to this stranger than I do to the man on the phone.
My father’s words are like cars in rush-hour traffic- no space for anyone to enter, no on-ramp for conversation. I have years of practice, hours of holding the phone near me, uttering appropriate interjections at the correct time. He doesn’t notice. My father, the lawyer, is caught up in disbelief that the legal system has failed him, failed his son. His own profession turned on him. At least he knows what is right and wrong, he rants, which is more than he can say for those lousy, factory-educated mush-mouths they are turning out for the bench these days in those sub-par law schools. Not like when he went to University. Not when quality mattered. To hear my father tell it, he is the last good lawyer left on this earth. I began to question this verdict years ago. His current anger at justice served has solidified my judgment.
Judge Buth’s legal opinion of my brother draws new lines around my life. I can go home now, safely. If I wanted. Better yet, I don’t have to worry any more about my father’s welfare. About his finances, his credit cards. But Dad’s anger crashes into my elation. I push down my feelings, like always. I realize I am going over and over this judge’s name with my pen, the words dark and solid. My Dad roars on.
In my wildest dreams, I never pictured my brother actually getting caught for his many crimes. When he was deep into selling drugs on the streets of our neat little suburban town, my parents gave him money to run away to California. They refused to believe that he was running from people who wanted to kill him for the rip-offs he dealt on the streets. Perhaps the bullet hole in their picture window should have alerted them to what was going on. But they simply could not- or would not- connect the right dots. They chalked the wrecked glass to the violence creeping in from the bad part of town. Blamed it on the good-for-nothings without jobs, then turned up Fox News to verify their opinions.
When he robbed them, stole my mother’s family silver and brandished a story about people who broke into the house, my mother and father changed the locks on their doors. Felt sorry for my brother. Gave him money to fix the car they bought for him so he could find new friends. Welcomed him back into their house, gave him their basement. And complete access to their bank accounts.
I left home as soon as I graduated from high school. At first, I came home some, short visits at the house where empty spaces yawned their tired messages. Bare spots on dining room shelves where my mother’s favorite silver tea pot used to live; the gaping hole in the garage door where “someone” had broken in; the inevitable missing checkbook, wallet, credit card. I kept my own wallet clutched tightly to my side when I did go back. I never slept in the house, either, always staying close by with high school friends. Another slight against my family.
Filling all those empty spaces were the stories my family told to protect the truth. Cobwebbed tales of people who were always after my brother, keeping him from getting ahead. My parents built truths of gangs and criminals who for some reason, targeted only their house on their quiet suburban street. No other homes in their neighborhood were broken into, no other car windows smashed with baseball bats. Still, my mom and dad left the vacant spots on the shelves, waiting. They gave the police photos of heirlooms, demanded that they check the local pawn shops. As if everything could be erased by a recovered piece of silver.
For years, he lived in their basement, sometimes with one woman, sometimes with a different one but there was always one constant- the stealing from my parents- underlining what had happened to my family. Blind hope laced with too much trust built my brother into some kind of a god.
“Your brother is very intelligent,” my father would tell me over the phone, when one of John’s schemes- or brilliant story-telling of a scheme- had hooked my father, reeling him into a make-believe world of success. A jeweled egg of promise, my brother riding high, soon to be rich, moving out, making his move up the ladder to become the head of the company. And this they believed. And then each short-term job would break apart, too fragile a fantasy to hold true, the stories crashing in on them, so broken even the three of them could pretend no longer. My brother retreating back into the basement with their wallets and his new schemes like a dark drain.
I stayed away. My parents saw it as oppositional, as being too good for them. “You just stay out there, then. You enjoy your time away.” When I challenged them about my brother’s behavior, hinted that there might be wrongdoing, mentioned the word “danger”, they defended him. Abruptly, I’d hear the dial-tone heavy in my ears.
When my mother died of congestive heart failure, my father found all the receipts for the money she was funneling to my brother. Her own heart suffocated her, like the trail of truth, heavy and constrictor-like. There were no amazing jobs, no managerial offers or rising promise in any company. He was living on my mother’s inheritance, buoyed by choice items from the house. But never dangerous; never a criminal.
My father forgave my brother. Blamed my mom for her weakness, for coddling him. Gave him another chance. And many more after that. Through occasional phone calls, I gathered parts of the stories and tried to put the truth together. Why did he continue to let him tear his home and his world to pieces?
And then this news. My father’s anger covers up his devastation, I know; his oldest child, the heir apparent, the last male carrying the family name. Torn from a father’s grasp by a judge who fails to see the truth. A son who could make it. Who just needs another chance. My father skips over the details of this current conviction; apparently the truth is not that important. A knife, a woman’s accusation (“she’s not the kind of girl who is worth much, I’ll tell you!”), the mention of “force” that my father writes off as a woman hell-bent for pleasure, a black eye my father explains away (“she got that from those derelict people she lives with”). As if my brother doesn’t fit that description.
My father’s tone turns almost begging now. He needs me to agree with him. And if I don’t, I’ve judged him. Judged them all.
At my desk, the scrap holds Judge Buth’s name in a paper island. The letters are dark and real to me. A familiar feeling rises- relief, edged by shame. I’m glad my father can’t see that I’ve always been a traitor, a disbeliever. Or maybe he can. Maybe that’s why he talks on and on, trying to convince me of something I should already know. Something I should believe if I loved him. Except I do believe. I trace this judge’s name, over and over again.
Ann Fisher is the co-founder and facilitator of the Bristol Writer’s Community group, and has led the Middlebury Branch of the Burlington Writers Workshop since 2015. Her creative nonfiction piece, “Long Trail Home”, recently appeared in ZigZag Lit Mag. “Judge” is part of a longer memoir work-in-progress. She lives in Lincoln, VT.