Friday Night Story

Automatic Justice

Mitch Pruett’s fingers shook around the index card. He’d been running over his arguments, collected statements from everyone he could think of as a witness. He hadn’t slept the night before, and he wondered if the bags beneath his eyes would make him seem desperate, or worse.

The man in front of him was sweating profusely, but had a broad smile that spread across his freckled cheeks. He put out his moist hand for Mitch to shake, and introduced himself. “Alan. Pinched for kiddy-fiddlin,” he said, his smile becoming momentarily dour, before rebounding, “I’m innocent, of course.” Mitch gave him a pained smile, and fought the urge to yank his hand away. When Mitch didn’t carry the conversation further, Alan shrugged, returned his hand, and spun around. Mitch wiped his hand against his jacket, not caring if it left stains; while the moisture came off on the jacket, he could feel the salt of Alan’s sweat around his hand like a glove.

There was a loud ker-chunk at the front of the line, and everyone took a step forward. Alan turned back to Mitch, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, “Hot in here, ya think?” Mitch grunted sympathetically, glancing at the lines to either side of them, not wanting to be seen associating with the other man. “Gotta tell ya, I think they leave the AC off just to make us sweat, ya know- see if we’ve really got the stones.” Reflexively, Alan pushed a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips, and was about to light it when the bailiff stopped him with a stern look; he folded it back into his pocket, muttering, “Right, right.”

“Screws think they own the joint just cause they’re allowed to carry in here,” Alan said, thumbing his nose. Ker-chunk. We all stepped forward.

The man in front of them stepped up to the machine. It looked like an unpainted mailbox, a worn, gun-metal gray, like old playground equipment. He didn’t stop to stroke the machine like a stray the way some of the men did, didn’t whisper or even look at it as he threw his card into the slot. He turned the crank arm at the top, and walked towards the bailiff without waiting for the verdict to come out. The man bore a defeated familiarity with the whole process, and even the guard seemed to know him, or at least recognize his gait as he opened the door for him to pass through.

Alan spent a moment staring at the machine, squared to it like a gunfighter, before he stepped up, and tossed his card in like it was the sweetest hand of his life. “All right, you big tin fucker.” He put his fist over the ball on the machine’s arm, and pulled it down. His note card slid out of the basket, and into the machine. Ker-chunk. It slid out the slot in the bottom, where Alan collected it. “Woohoo!” he cried, thrusting his arms into the air. “Justice is served. Don’t suppose I could get a choclate malt and a order of curly fries with that?” Alan made a gun with his hand and fired it at Mitch as he walked away.

Mitch spent a long moment staring at his own card, making sure the “not guilty” box was checked. A shove passed through the line to him, along with a charcoal-breathed, “Hurry up, plenty of people waitin to plea.” Ker-chunk. Mitch’s fingers shook as he reached down to the verdict slot. His card had an x punched through it, in the box marked “guilty.”

Mitch couldn’t feel the dirty tiles beneath his feet, the moistness of the air or the bodies crushing against him from behind. Then a heavy hand squeezed his shoulder, and Mitch struggled to find words. He was already being pushed in the direction of a large metal door when he stuttered out, “But, but, I’d like to file an appeal.”

The guard didn’t stop, and Mitch couldn’t see it, but there was a half a grin in his voice when he said, “That’s fine, sir, the appeals line starts on the other side of this door.”

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