Her eyes first interested him. They were small, darting, and dulled with age. She had become matronly over the decades, her hair a strange reddish gray, and her hips had given her a base of solid imperialism to match her years of weighty service as a judge.
But the eyes most told the story. They never really connected with you, at least not for long. They were cast towards you for a few seconds, as one might do to avoid a collision while texting or changing a radio station.
Looking back, he realized this was her way of containing life. She was on the other side of life, as she might have been on the other side of the bench. She observed the dramas before her. The eyes expressed a detachment, but a nervous one. Did they dart, or was it just a frequent looking away? At some point, the eyes had shifted from the side of life to death. She was not lovable. He remembered walking up to give a hug after the end of an exhausting 15 hour settlement conference. She had accepted the gesture, as one might accept a perfectly awful Christmas present hardly worth the trouble of returning.
She said many things to him over the course of his last two trials with her. Mostly the words came down to this: “Mr. Gray, you aren’t listening to me, and you don’t get it.” A secondary message was that the noble practice of law was not to be impugned by the suggestion that corporate lawyers help their clients find plausibly legal ways to violate the law. “I take umbrage at the suggestion,” she said, her voice rising. He had touched a nerve, like digging thoughtlessly into a power line.
He reflected back to her in his calm and carefully articulated wording the points she believed he did not get. When she realized he understood, but did not adopt her reasoning, she concluded he was simply stupid.
She was rich, she played golf regularly with the best people. Early in her career, she defended the city against employee lawsuits. She sat on so many non-profit and corporate boards that she was something of a biological monument to bourgeois enterprise. It wasn’t that she could never find an injustice against the “little guy.” It was that she imposed a higher burden of proof. For her, the presumption of corporate innocence was like a castle wall to be scaled by the barbarians.
Now one of the barbarians was taking the hospital elevator to the 4th floor oncology unit. Jack Grodin was a civil rights lawyer who had appeared before Judge Marian McKnight on many hard occasions, navigating the barriers that separated his clients from this old jurist’s sympathies. Oh, true enough, Grodin understood at the end of the day that the law must be satisfied. But he also knew after decades of practice, the law is an elastic device that could accommodate every bias. He took his cases, and his judges, as they came. When he drew the Honorable Marian McKnight, he slept less, and prayed more.
When he entered her room, she was sleeping, the darting eyes quieted now, hidden beneath locked eyelids. He did not try to rouse her. Cards, flowers, stuffed animals, the usual regalia of token love surrounded her. Mostly, he sat in amazement at how the old warrior was humbled. Tubes and pumps, monitors and beeps were higher in the hierarchy than she. The rail now as at her bedside, not her courtroom, and he instantly pitied her. It came to this for us all. The game of life has one ending: you either lived well or poorly. There were no pretensions or diversions at the end.
He sat awhile, as he might sit in a quiet chapel, grateful the two of them were alone. It was their last case together that brought him here for this short vigil. He represented a dying man with a malignant brain tumor. He had rushed the case forward in a race with death. She had been assigned to be the judge. He claimed the corporate employer had fired his client on trumped up charges to hide their intent of discrimination because of his client’s cancer. That simple. Except it is never that simple. Judge Marian McKnight issued ruling after ruling cutting down his client’s case. She characterized his “evidence” as speculation, and his arguments as “illogical,” a nice word from the bench to mean “ridiculous.”
It was over now, for the case, and for her. Before she could rule on a motion to dismiss his case for lack of evidence, she collapsed on the bench, her body twitching and distorting violently. In one of the great theatrical ironies of life and law, she was later diagnosed with a highly aggressive brain tumor with little chance of recovery.
She opened her eyes. He was unaware she was looking at him for he staring out the window, watching the last sunlight of the day bounce off the glass high-rises in shades of red and orange. When he looked back at her, he saw a tear trailing down her cheek, followed by another from the other eye.
“Wanted to see how you were doing.”
“What? You want me to rule on a motion? Sorry. Court adjourned.”
“I think you’ll make it. Still got a sense of humor.”
“How would you know if I have a sense of humor.”
They looked at each other for a while. “You know, I think you’re one of the worst lawyers who ever came into my courtroom.”
“And I thought you were one of the worst judges.”
“So why you here?”
“Cause in some strange way, I understood you.”
“You think this little end of life drama will change things?”
“Why not? It’s an opportunity.”
“Mr. Grodin, not everything that slams into us results in a remedy.”
She coughed. “Could you hand me that orange juice?” He stood, moved her meal tray into position, and handed her the cup. She sipped, put the cup on the tray. “What do understand, Mr. Grodin?”
“You had a heart of gold, encased in lead.”
The eyes looked directly into his. “Where’s your evidence for that, counselor?”
“I was your foil. Most of your arguments were with yourself.”
“As I recall, you consistently lost.”
“Sometimes I won.”
“You’re weren’t always as obnoxious as I suggested.”
“You remember that case when you reamed the defense for hiding a key document?” he said.
“Any idiot could have won that one.”
“You were pissed,” he said.
“They deserved it.”
“After that case, I knew you were “OK,” he said.
“Finally won your affections did I?”
“Found you completely charming.”
Quiet again. She continued to look at him.
“How’s your client, Mr. Swaggart?”
“Strangely at peace.”
“I was ready to rule against him you know. The seizure saved you.”
“It was a hard case. The defense pretty well brought out all the guns,” he said.
“What did you expect?” the judge said.
“Maybe a little compassion, I think they turned the jury against them. Anyway, after the mistrial, they settled.”
“Good for you.” She paused. “Life is too short.”
An orderly brought in a plate of food, and set it on her tray, muttered something and left.
“I can’t eat this grap. You hungry?”
“Really? After that recommendation?”
He pulled out some almond macadamia nut cookies from his coat. She had told him once during a recess they were her one weaknesses. “Thought you might like these.”
“Grodin, you’re always challenging my dismal opinion of you.”
She opened the small carton of milk on her tray, and bit into a cookie. “I should have eaten a lot more of these when I had the chance.”
She wiped her mouth, pushed the remaining cookies away.
“I was too hard, wasn’t I Grodin?”
“You mean the case?”
“No, I mean l life. I mean the whole damn persona?”
He studied her a few seconds. “The ones who knew you, knew better.”
“But the ones who didn’t Grodin. The people off the street coming into my courtroom, like Mr. Swaggart.”
“You were always fair, judge.”
“But that wasn’t enough.”
He didn’t answer.
“This place. It’s like a courtroom.”
Grodin looked around. “Same decorator?”
“It distances people,” she said. “I feel like a slab of meat. Thing is, they’re good at what they do here.”
Her eyes were steady, softer than he remembered. “But it’s not enough,” she said.