He was so enthralled by the memory that he had to brake hard to avoid plowing into the end of the long line of cars. Impatience heated his face as he craned to see whether it was a fender bender or something more serious delaying his progress. When the traffic inched forward enough that he was able to see the roadblock, panic twitched his fingers. He dug blunt manicured nails into the leather-bound steering wheel to steady himself.
Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. As he scanned the road between himself and the barricade of traffic cones and squad cars, he imagined the humiliation that was in store for him. Why had he agreed to surrender his license?
He had had a couple of accidents, lately, yes; but nobody had been hurt. Hardly any damage to anyone's car except for that ridiculous midge or mini or whatever that little car was called. The damn thing was a glorified matchbox car. That had cost him some money.
Damn Ronnie, damn him. The judge cursed his eldest son who had organized the family intervention that had forced him to surrender his license. He studied the rearview mirror. The cars behind him stretched out of sight. Perspiration prickled the shaved skin at his collar.
To the left, just before the roadblock was a small cinderblock church, a Pentecostal church, the judge recalled. Maybe he could turn around there. He watched as a silver minivan proceeded to do exactly as he planned. As soon as it pulled back onto the road, one of the cruisers idling farther down the shoulder swerved into motion, siren wailing. As the minivan sailed past him, the judge saw the desperate eyes of the woman driving. In the rearview mirror, he watched the van and the cruiser pull to the side of the road.
Grinding his teeth in frustration, he searched for another avenue of escape. On the right, there was only a driveway leading to a dingy shingle-sided farmhouse, a reminder that upscale subdivisions and strip malls had not always covered every square foot of the county. As he approached the entrance to the driveway, he rehearsed his speech. He would say that he had car trouble and ask to use the phone. The cops couldn't pull him over on private property without cause.
The line crept forward until he was even with the driveway. His heart pounded. Maybe he should go on and take his chances. He'd just say he forgot his license. They might not check the registration. But if they did, it was still his car. That would link up with the license. Damn computers.
A gap was widening between him and the car ahead. The driver behind him tapped his horn. After another moment of indecision, the judge yanked the steering wheel and the Jaguar plunged onto the rutted driveway. Gravel rattled against the undercarriage as he followed the drive around to the back of the house where he was dismayed to see eight or 10 vehicles parked at all angles in the yard. He counted two Camrys, a Honda Accord, a Jeep 4X4, a vintage Beetle, two Ford pickups one old and dented and one so new it still had temporary plates, and a boxy GM model the judge could not identify.
The haphazard vehicles alarmed him. He scanned the yard, but saw no one. I'll just sit here until the cops go, he decided. He slid his seat back with the touch of a button and adjusted the volume on the stereo. After a moment, the shabbiness of the yard and the helter-skelter cars began to irritate his eyes. He reached for his briefcase and started to pull out a file.
Suddenly, the back door of the house opened and a short black woman leaned out and gestured for him to come. He dismissed her with a noncommittal wave. Gesturing more fiercely, she mouthed "come here" and pointed down to the stoop to show exactly where she meant.
It was a struggle to suppress his indignation as he stalked towards her. By the time he reached the stoop, he had composed what he thought was a polite, but satisfyingly acid, introduction.
"A hundred dollars," she said, not giving him the opportunity to even open his mouth. He stared for a moment not comprehending. She squinted at him, her eyes, skin and hair all the same flinty shades of gray and brown.
"One hundred dollars," she repeated, enunciating each syllable as if she thought he was a little slow. "You can come in for a hundred. I've got sandwiches. Otherwise, get off my property." He flinched.
"Now see here, Madame," he began. Blood pounded in his ears and tiny pricks of black sprinkled across his vision. Swaying, he groped at the thin iron railing to steady himself.
"Lord love a duck. Kevin, get up out of that chair right now." The woman grabbed the judge by the elbow and steered him through the door. A chubby teenager in a light blue jersey got up from the table and the woman planted the judge down in the seat. Instinctively, he bent over and took deep breaths until he had gained a measure of composure.
"A hundred dollars," she said again when he finally looked up. The kitchen was full of people who all waited for him to answer. Sitting across the table a heavyset blond woman in her 20s whispered to the even heavier man beside her.
"Fifty doesn't seem like such a bad deal after all."
"Try twenty." He flashed her a smug grin and took a huge bite of a sandwich. The young woman's mouth snapped shut and she glared at her hostess.
"To whom much is given, of him will much be required. Luke 12, verse 48," the black woman said, glaring back. The blond woman ducked her chin and pouted.
"I'm Regina Mays. You all hear my name?" the hostess said in a loud voice as she filled a plastic cup from a pitcher and set it in front of the judge. "M-A-Y-S. You got a complaint about me, we'll call the police in here and let them settle it." She returned the pitcher to the counter with a thump. Nobody said a word.
Looking up, the judge found he could not focus on the wavering faces of the people around him. The edges of his vision began to curdle and he took a gulp from the cup to ward off whatever spell was threatening to overtake him. Red Kool-Aid rushed over his tongue, unleashing a strange cascade of memories.
He suddenly recalled the thrumming vibration of his red and silver tricycle as he raced over the hard-packed dirt of his grandparents' lane when he was 4 or 5. The smells of the school cafeteria swelled in his nostrils. A cartoon about two crows popped into his head, and then the guilt and grief of losing his dog, Chester, when he accidentally left open the back gate squeezed at his chest. He was startled to feel tears in his eyes when Mrs. Mays shook his shoulder.
"Do not tell me that you are crying over a measly one hundred dollars," she said. "You can't drive up here in that fancy-pants car and cry over a hundred dollars."
The judge looked up at her and then at the boy, Kevin, and the blond woman and the other people around the kitchen. A redheaded woman with a redheaded baby boy on her hip gave him a sympathetic smile and a bony man in a mechanic's uniform who appeared to be in his 50s shrugged and looked away embarrassed. Slowly the judge gathered the present circumstances into his understanding.
He pulled out his money clip, hiding it in his palm as best he could. His indignation at Mrs. Mays' unscrupulous behavior flared as he hunched over to prevent her and her other hostages from seeing the smooth wafer of five one hundred-dollar bills that it held. As he handed her one bill, he did his best to catch her eye with a shaming stare, but she didn't seem to notice.
Satisfied, Mrs. Mays crumpled the money into the pocket of her apron and offered him a sandwich off a tray on the counter. As soon as the tray hovered in front of him his indignation vanished, his vision dimmed and fresh perspiration broke out across his forehead. I must be starving, he thought, grabbing one of the sandwiches in his shaking hand.
Biting into the bread, he marveled at the salty tangle of peanut butter and margarine. Not since law school, he decided, as he washed down the food with another gulp of Kool-Aid. He grinned, imagining his kids' reaction if they knew he was eating peanut butter. He was so tired of broiled this-and-that and squirts of lemon juice, and steamed and raw everything else. He took another bite.
As he chewed, he ignored the chatter of the other roadblock refugees who were comparing their tales of expired county stickers, suspended licenses and outstanding warrants for check kiting. His mind drifted again, lighting here and there in the landscape of his childhood until it landed on the satisfying hiss of Eudora's iron as he ate his after-school cookie in the kitchen on Hanover Avenue.
The smell of the starch and the hot fabric was comforting. He could see his name in careful block letters on the brown paper cover of his geography book and hear the pulse, pulse, pulse of the iron. He sneaked a glance at Mrs. Mays busy at her sink and achy happiness blossomed in his chest.
The sudden crunching of tires on gravel announced the arrival of another victim in the back yard. Putting down her dishrag, Mrs. Mays opened the door and waited with crossed arms as a man in khakis and a purple golf shirt approached the house from a red Taurus sedan.
"Hello, ma'am," he began as he stepped into the kitchen.
"Twenty dollars," she said cutting off the rest of his greeting. Everyone watched as he reached into his back pocket, but instead of a wallet, he flipped open a badge. The collective gasp of the people around him pulled the judge back from the other kitchen. Even in his confusion, he recognized Detective Brogan who had testified in his courtroom on many occasions. Mike, he thought. No, Mick. Mike? He glanced around and saw the look of panic in Mrs. Mays' eyes. Across the table, the blond woman and the fat man stared at their hands.
"Detective Brogan." The judge rose from his chair and, knees shaking, extended his hand. "Judge Freeman, Juvenile and Domestic Relations. Welcome. I didn't realize that an officer was coming to our neighborhood watch meeting."
"Watch meeting?" Disbelief or confusion, the judge wasn't sure what he heard in the detective's voice.
"As you can see, we are fund raising this month." The judge fought to keep his teeth from chattering. He stood, smiling at the detective and gripping the back of his chair to keep himself from falling. Around the kitchen, several people nodded sheepishly and muttered that they didn't know a policeman was coming to the meeting either.
"OK, then." The detective pulled a small notebook from his pocket. He explained that he was not there for a meeting and that he was canvassing the neighborhood about a juvenile who had disappeared from a nearby detention facility.
"Well, of course we will do whatever we can to help. This is exactly the kind of thing we were discussing isn't it? " The judge looked around the room for confirmation.
"Exactly," the redheaded mother said.
"Yeah, helping law enforcement," a man wearing an ill-fitting brown suit and a purple and yellow tie chimed in. A terrible suit, the judge thought. Detective Brogan cleared his throat with a polite cough. The judge raised a hand to quiet the group and then nodded to the detective to continue.
"Male Caucasian. Sixteen. Five five, 118 pounds. Brown hair. Last seen wearing gray sweat pants and a dark blue T-shirt. Absent from the facility since approximately 6:30 a.m." Detective Brogan read from the notebook. Everyone appeared to listen earnestly to his recitation.
"No sir." the man in the terrible suit spoke as soon as the detective looked up. "Haven't seen a thing."
"Nothing. Nobody. No. Not a thing." Everybody chimed in at once. After a moment, the detective raised his hand and the babble trailed off. The judge felt his knees faltering but held fast to the chair.
"Sorry we couldn't be of more help, Detective Brogan," he said. "Maybe next month you could come back and give our group pointers on crime prevention."
"Yes, sir, Judge Freeman, thank you for your help. Sorry for interrupting."
"Not at all." The judge's words were faint, but the policeman who was already on his way out the door didn't seem to notice. Everyone held their breath until they heard the slam of the car door. Then whoops of amazement and laughter erupted in the kitchen.
"Some close call!" someone shouted.
"A judge. A real judge. We got a judge." More laughter.
The judge dropped back into his chair exhausted. He noticed a spatter of Kool-Aid on his white cuff. Everyone seemed to rush forward down a long tunnel to shake his hand and clap him on the back. His pulse throbbed in his temple. He glanced at the boy, Kevin, who gave him a shy smile.
"Whew, you saved my ass," the little mechanic said. "Oh, sorry, I mean soul or something."
The judge didn't hear him. His vision was peppered with specks of black again and his ears were ringing. He felt as if he might suffocate in the press of people. When Mrs. Mays made her way forward to thank him, her eyes bright with relief, she tried to push the wadded $100 bill into his palm. He clutched at her hand. It was damp and warm. He held it tight. "No, no, Eudora," he whispered, folding her fingers over the money. "It's for you." S
About the Writer
Mary Mullins started her career as a Southern writer by first being a Southern reader. She read every book in the library of her elementary school in Austin, Texas. When her family moved to Jackson, Miss., after she graduated high school, she got active as the arts editor for The Capital Reporter, a radical publication.
She spent her college years in the cooler climate of Minnesota with William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Walker Percy as reminders of the warmer life. With stops in Massachusetts and Florida, Mullins has, over the years, been inspired by her locations. "Place is intensely important to me," she says. "Place sustained me."
Now her place is Richmond, where Mullins, 48, has freelanced for both Style and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She spends her days writing and raising two daughters and a service dog. This is her first piece of published fiction, and on writing, she says: "Read your work out loud. Take a class from a good teacher. Welcome criticism." Brandon Reynolds
The Fiction Contest winners...