William Pruitt is a fiction writer, storyteller and poet, and an Assistant Editor with Narrative Magazine. He has published in Ploughshares, Anderbo.com and Cottonwood and in recent issues of Off Course, Otis Nebula, Stone Boat and Literary Juice; two chapbooks with White Pine and FootHills; and self-published Walking Home from the Eastman House. He has told stories in various places in Rochester and upstate New York, including the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Most recently, he has performed his original story, “Two Kinds of Fear,” a completely documented telling about the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass during their time in Rochester. His short stories appear in recent issues of Crack of the Spine Literary Magazine and Midway; and in upcoming issues of Indiana Voice Journal, Hypertext and Sick Lit.
In the Civic Center, people summoned for jury duty stood around or sat and waited to be called. Sometimes we read or checked our cell phones, but when we stood, it was clear there were invisible lines that we could not cross, postures we could not take, expressions we could not wear, feelings we could not feign. We were in a building where law was paramount: enforcement, interpretation, punishment. We had been relieved of our guns and our outdoor minds.
We were shown a movie of how it used to be, in the days when you proved you were innocent by drowning when they tied you to a rock. It’s not that way now, they told us, if we accept our responsibility as citizens.
A teen age boy was accused of date rape. It was at a party. The judge was articulate and reasonable. We were called up one by one. Each side took its turn. Have you ever been sexually assaulted? Do you know any policemen? Do you have preconceived ideas?
We missed the ways of counting off the afternoon, the beloved lengthening of shadows, the chores that made history, the trimmings of being alive. Each time someone was called, those of us who were still sitting breathed a little sigh.
Some were excused after they respectfully acknowledged requirements they could not fulfill, or when either side respectfully requested a dismissal based on clear and cited reasons.
Sometimes the judge joined the exchanges. His urbane interjections helped to clarify and relax us in an otherwise cold and forbidding place. We even laughed occasionally. There must have been sixty of us.
When the number of people sitting in the jurors’ box reached twenty-five, the judge sent them into a little room with the prosecuting attorney, the defendant’s lawyer and the bailiff. It was 3:30. The rest of us twiddled our thumbs. Some of us calculated. They only need twelve jurors, a couple of extras, the rest of us ought to be able to go home today.
It would be wrong to say there was any real difference between the people who had gone into the little room and those still waiting to be questioned. Except that some of us outside, delivered into calculating, still hoped to go home, had stopped caring about the girl who was raped and the boy who raped her. Some of us could no more tolerate being in this building than we could stand to be in a cell, putting off being alive indefinitely, a living death, with no crime to atone for.
The door opened at a quarter to five and the bailiff announced, “We have completed this round of questioning and we have nine jurors for trial.”
Among those of us waiting to be called, one man uttered a loud groan.
The judge turned his attention from the bailiff to our group. He was not affable. His face was red. “I will have no outbursts!” he said angrily. “It is a privilege to be a juror.” Then his voice became a deep growl. “Any more disrespect to the decorum of the court will not go unpunished.”
The man had broken decorum, but the judge had shifted tone. He was not smiling. We were afraid of him. He was looking at us, all of us. We had done something very bad.
Yet we were not of the law, we did not belong to the law, and we did not understand why decorum was so important to the law. But we understood that when the bailiff said, “All rise!” and we rose, that was only the beginning.
Note: An incorrect version of this story was posted this morning entitled “A Decorum”; the piece has since then been corrected and republished.