“More than half of what you’re going to hear in there is a lie, you hear me? I need you to know that going in. Now, I’m not perfect. I never said that I was, but these people, they lie and they exaggerate and they stretch the truth to get you to think I’m a lot worse than I really am. I need you to remember that so when we come out of there, you don’t have the wrong idea about me. We clear Charlie?”
I gave my dad a nod. It was all I could manage. He’d spent the last hour limping back and forth outside the courtroom, muttering to himself. Three different times he pulled a crushed cigarette out of his pocket and put it in his mouth before he remembered that the guard at the metal detector was holding his Zippo. The bench I was sitting on was made of scuffed wood, with no padding. I had to shift my weight every ten minutes to keep my butt from bruising. I had a book with me, a copy of Speaker for the Dead my dad grabbed on our way out the door. I tried to distract myself with it, but a few pages in I realized that it was a sequel to a book I’d never read. I tried sitting on it, but that was worse than the bench.
“They’ve got nothing. Nothing but lies and stories. I’ll be fine son, don’t you worry.”
“I’m not worried,” I said.
“What?” he asked, turning to look at me for the first time since we got there.
“I said I’m not worried. You didn’t do it. They don’t put innocent people in jail, right?”
The door to the courtroom opened and a man in a brown uniform came out.
“Mr. Tenacki?” he called, as if there were more than just the two of us sitting in the hall.
“Right here,” my dad said.
We followed him through the door. I expected the courtroom to be like the ones you see on TV, the massive kind that look like churches with rows of polished wooden benches and a robed judge looking down from on high, the way you picture God. I expected lawyers in expensive suits, rows of onlookers, news crews berating us with questions. I’d practiced saying ‘no comment’ in a way that sounded simultaneously friendly, innocent and firm. Instead it was more like a classroom. The floors were covered in a short blue carpet that smelled a little burnt, like it’d just been vacuumed. A dozen steel foldout chairs were clumped in isles all facing the judge, an elderly man with thin, freckled skin and a bandage covering a third of his bald scalp. Aside from my father and the judge, there were only five other people in the room. The man in the brown uniform, my Uncle Teddy, who was also dad’s lawyer, a woman sitting in the corner behind a laptop, the prosecutor and my mom. She was wearing a dress, which was weird. I could only remember a handful of other time’s I’d seen her in one. Her face was scrunched up like she was trying to force herself to smile at me but the muscles in her cheeks were fighting her. She kept her eyes locked on me. She gestured for me to come and sit next to her but dad put his arm around my shoulder and led me to a chair beside him and Uncle Teddy.
The judge cleared his throat before speaking. “The court will now preside over case 12714, the state of California against Jacob Tenacki, who is charged with the crimes of breaking and entering and grand theft. How do you plead?”
Dad shifted his weight in the chair. He looked like he was going to be sick, sweat dripping down into his collar. His hand groped for comfort at the bulge in his pocket where the cigarettes were tucked.
I never saw him this nervous before. Even when I was eight and we got stuck in that hotel elevator when the power went out. It was just him, me and some strange lady sitting in the dark for three hours. The lady cried. She started talking about how she didn’t want to die. I actually wet myself, something I hadn’t done for a few years by then. Dad told jokes, bad ones. Why did the chicken cross the road kind of jokes. We didn’t laugh but he just kept telling them, right up until the power came back. Then he took me back up to the room and told me to grab a shower. We took the stairs back down and went out to dinner. He never mentioned it again.
Uncle Teddy whispered something into dads ear before he stood up. “You’re honor, my clients pleads no contest but asks for leniency due to extenuating circumstances relating to the crime.”
“What? No,” I said looking up at my dad, trying to catch his eye. “You didn’t do it dad. Why are you saying you did?”
“Be quiet,” he snapped. “Remember what I said in the hall.”
I did as I was told but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. No contest? He wasn’t even going to try and prove he didn’t do it?
“What are these extenuating circumstances?” the judge asked, as if I hadn’t said anything.
“We aim to prove that Mr. Tenacki was wrongfully terminated by Mr. Morison without due severance and that it was a direct result of the financial desperation caused by this previous action, that Mr. Morison’s home was invaded by my client.”
The judge waved Uncle Teddy and the prosecutor to the front of the room. The three of them talked, while the rest of us waited quietly. I looked at the cover of my book. There was a young boy standing in front of a tower. I wondered who the boy was and why he was there. What had happened in the first book that brought him to that tower and why did he look so scarred?
When they came back, Uncle Teddy was smiling, which made dad perk up a little.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The judge is going to let us put Charlie on the stand.”
My heart bumped into overtime. My chest suddenly felt too small for my lungs.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I don’t want to go up there. I didn’t see anything. I don’t know anything. Why are we doing this dad? You said you didn’t do it.”
“Don’t worry Charlie. Just answer Teddy’s questions and then we can go home alright? I’ll buy you pizza after.”
“No, I don’t want to!”
I didn’t realize I’d shouted until the words were out of my mouth. My voice filled every corner of the little room, and everyone turned to look at me.
“He doesn’t want to do it Jake,” my mom said. Her voice creaked like an old floorboard in winter.
“Listen,” dad whispered. He was close enough I could smell his aftershave mingling with the stink of cigarettes. “I’m not going to make you go up there. It wasn’t fair of me to surprise you like this but I need you to know that if you don’t, I’m going to jail. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t do it.”
“But that isn’t fair.”
He scrunched up his eyebrows and cracked the fist small smile he’d had all day. It made him look younger, the way I remembered him when I was little, when mom and me watched him ride a jet ski up and down the coast at lake Shasta while we sat on the beach eating grapes and building sand castles.
“You shouldn’t get used to things being fair,” he said.
I got up and walked with Uncle Teddy to the stand. It was just a stool behind the little wooden barrier like those that line the bar at dinners. I put my hand on a different book and repeated the words the guard in brown told me to repeat, then waited for the first question. Everyone in the room was watching me. Dad was sweating. Mom was biting her nails. A million tiny itches seemed to spring up all over my body as the invisible hairs on my back rose and tangled in the weave of my t-shirt.
“Relax Charlie,” Uncle Teddy said smiling. “Just tell the truth and everything will be fine.”
I nodded, my mouth suddenly felt dry.
“Do you know what happened to your father last month?” he asked. He was still looking at me but he was talking louder now.
“Yeah, he hurt his leg.”
“What do you remember about the day it happened?”
“I don’t know. Not much. Mom pulled me out of school early. She took me to the hospital and we had to wait for a really long time. There wasn’t much to do there. Then a doctor came out and told us dad was gonna be ok but he wouldn’t be able to lift stuff anymore.”
After he said that, my mom started crying. I remember thinking that was weird. Shouldn’t we just be happy he was going to be ok? When they released him, he looked like he hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. His skin was pale and damp, as if he hadn’t spent that morning loading cargo at the shipyard. He looked like a ghost, but I didn’t think that’s what Teddy was asking.
“Do you know what happened after that?”
“Dad had to go to the hospital all the time to exercise his leg.”
“And while he was doing that, do you know anything about what was happening with his work?”
I remember a phone call one night. My dad had managed to switch from the wheel chair to his crutches but mom still answered it first. I was in the kitchen trying to build a card house. I could never get past the second level before it fell. She screamed dad’s name and he came swinging in to take it. He looked confused, then angry, then he started shouting too. Mom took me out to the backyard but I could still hear everything he was shouting.
“He got fired cause he couldn’t do his job.”
“As far as you know has he ever missed work or done anything wrong to deserve to be fired over?”
“I don’t think so. He always went in early, he said traffics hard to predict so it’s less stressful that way.”
“Thanks Charlie. One more question then you can get down. Is your dad a good person?”
I looked at him, past Uncle Teddy’s frozen smile. His hair looked thin and disheveled from running his fingers through it all day. His knee was bouncing under the table so high, it looked like it was about to start knocking. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I was starting to wonder about that myself. I could tell that mom didn’t think so anymore. That’s why she had fully packed bags hidden in the trunk of her car, it’s why she told me we might be moving to Ashland to stay with her mom for a while. There might be some collection of words out there that could have answered that question, but it wasn’t the one I gave.
“He’s the best.”