Hung on a Smile
It is a hard thing, to look like something out of a horror tale, but over the years I have grown used to people avoiding me, or looking at me with addled faces, and wide eyes. It is more unusual for a stranger to smile at their first sight of me than it is for them not to. It’s the scarring left behind after the surgeries that shocks them, or it could be the patchy hair, or my rough, poor clothing. My name is Gerald Harper, but I go by Possum. They stitched the name Possum onto the scratchy blue shirts they gave me to work in, shirts that must be clean when I put them on or else Ms. Leona will send me home to change. Because they sewed that name on the shirts, I am now Possum to everyone who stands in front of me. The name often draws a smile when my appearance cannot, which is ok by me. The name Possum is probably a joke, but I don’t know what the joke is, so it doesn’t bother me. I can’t let it bother me, because the people who call me Possum are the closest people left to me in this world.
I work at the First America Building, the tallest building in Macon. I clean there... a lot. I clean the floors, I clean the restrooms, the breakrooms, the offices, and I empty the wastebaskets whether or not they are full. It is a good job, and I work with nice people, mostly. One of those nice people is Ms. Leona. When I got a letter from the courthouse and couldn’t figure out the big words, I took it to Ms. Leona. She said I’d been selected for jury duty, that all patriotic Americans must take their turns doing jury duty, and that I might get to cast the vote deciding whether someone is guilty or innocent in a very important trial, and maybe decide whether or not they go home, or to prison afterward. That first day I took some pride in being invited to the jury duty, but then later that night, when I was alone in my apartment, it got frightening to consider. I looked at that letter until I got a nervous stomach, and I wished I could fold it back up exactly as it was and send it back to the courthouse.
The trial was about to begin. I was sitting in the courtroom’s jury box with the other members of the jury when she looked at me and smiled.
As I pointed out earlier, it it a strange thing for me to be smiled at. I was sitting in my seat when she smiled, seated with the others, but alone. I am most always alone. It had flooded me with relief though to find that I wouldn’t be alone in deciding whether or not someone went to prison, just as it was relieving to find that most of the others in the jury box with me were real nice, and mostly helpful, friendly people. Before we were escorted into the courtroom we all ate tiny sandwiches together at a big table where we got to visit with each other for awhile, although I mostly stayed quiet. I am usually mostly quiet. After that a man in uniform read us the court’s rules. We listened politely while we drank iced tea poured from a glass pitcher. It was all real nice.
She was pretty, the smiling woman was, with beautiful, straight teeth, but her smile was empty, and didn’t make it all the way up to her eyes. I knew that smile well. It was the smile of someone lost, of someone falling through life’s cracks. Hers was a familiar smile that made me think of my mother, a woman who had taken her fair share of kickings from life, even after she was down. I looked around to see who the woman might be smiling at, but there was no one else looking her way. Sometimes things take a little longer to register with me than they do with most people, but I am not dumb. The doctors said that I was “neurologically impaired” after my surgeries, which means slow, I guess. I pointed at myself by way of asking the lady if it was me she was smiling at. When I pointed, her smile grew all the way up into her eyes this time. It was a beautiful smile then, filled with kindness for another sorry soul. I soon enough learned that her name was Adrienne Harlow, and that she was the person whose fate our jury would be deciding.
After a lot of people talked for a long time it began to sound, even to someone who is a mite slow, that this lady Adrienne Harlow, the one with the smile, had killed her own husband by running him over with a car. The question was whether she did it on purpose, or was it accidental? And if she did it on purpose, what was the reason she done it? The gist of what they said, of course, was that it ain’t alright to kill people, least of all your own husband, but I kept thinking about all those times I heard my own Momma say when I would ask her about my absent dad. “If your father was here I would shoot the son-of-a-bitch,” so I expected it was something a lot of wives wished to do.
When the talking was over the judge sent us back to the room where the iced tea waited, so we could do some more talking it over. I drank my tea quietly, but my fellow jurist, Mr. Vernon T. Lund, had a lot to say about how evil Ms. Adrienne Harlow was, how she ought to be put to death, and that we should not let ourselves be fooled by the fact that she was a woman.
Well, of course she was a woman. Nobody was being fooled by that! And of course she wasn’t evil, she only had an angry moment, which we all have from time to time, especially when we discover we’ve been cheated. Sometimes those cheatings can build up inside a person until they are like to burst. I couldn’t figure exactly what it was Mr. Harlow cheated her out of to make her run over him with her car, but it must have been something she held dear.
When it was decided by the loudest jury members that Adrienne Harlow was guilty, papers were passed around for us to place our “guilty” or “innocent” votes on. I scratched my X next to “innocent” on my piece of paper. I scratched it with a pen so fancy that I stuck it in my pocket afterwards when no one was looking. Across the table I watched as Mrs. Jenkins did the very same thing with her pen. I was startled to see her wink at me when she noticed me watching her do it, as though she knew I wouldn’t tell.
Mr. Lund‘s face turned to crimson when he pulled my paper out of his coffee can. I knew it was mine by the way it was folded. I felt bad that he was so angry, but Mrs. Harlow’s smile had made me feel a kinship with her that I didn’t feel with many people. At a time when she desperately needed an ally, without even knowing what she was doing she had reached out to the right person. That last ditch, last chance smile had been a cry for help that won her something that fancy words never could have... my loyalty. With that smile she chose me, “the freak,” to be her white knight, and she chose wisely. That smile was her standard, and her cross to bear. When she passed it to me, I determined that nothing bad would happen to her on my watch.
“I thought we were all decided! Who changed their mind?” Mr. Lund did his best to keep his voice steady, but in his anger spittle flew across the table and onto my only dress shirt.
I cleared my throat, digging deep inside for courage. “It was me that voted innocent, Mr. Lund. I can’t help wondering what exactly will happen to Mrs. Harlow if I vote guilty?” I didn’t think it was so much to ask, but Mr. Lund acted as if I’d dropped a cricket down his britches.
“Why, what would happen to her is she would get what she deserves, she would get the death sentence for killing her husband,” Mr. Lund stammered in his excitement! “Justice would be served. Don’t you understand that?”
“But what would ‘happen’ to her?” My voice cracked from fear of speaking up in front of the group.
Mr Lund was flustered now. “Why, she would die by lethal injection, like all convicted murderers in Georgia do nowadays. Now then, shall we vote again?”
“Wait. What is ‘lethal injection?’”
Mr. Lund was exasperated. “I don’t know, it’s drugs that they put into a syringe, and shoot into a body to kill it, I suppose.”
There was no more talk after that. The coffee can made its way around the table once more. When Mr. Lund pulled the papers from the can this time the most crinkled up one was still checked “innocent.” “Are you kidding me? What about this do you not understand? Are you stupid? I suppose the little retard is going to hang this jury!”
Ignoring his insult, I asked him in a lowered voice, practically a whisper. “Can you tell us what those drugs will do to her?”
A nice gentleman named Mr. Peabody answered my question this time. “The drugs will relax all of her muscles until they stop working, and finally her heart and lungs, until she is dead. It is not a nice thought, is it?”
“Does anyone know what that will feel like for her? I mean, while it is happening?”
Mr. Lund forced himself to stay somewhat calm. “Who cares what it feels like? She is fixing to be dead, and then she won’t feel a thing!”
My voice lowered even more, but I stood my ground. “I care. It will be me doing it to her, and you should care too.”
The coffee can made its way around the table once more, and we each dropped in our cards. This time there were three papers marked “innocent.” I looked over at Mrs. Jenkins, suspecting that one of those papers was hers. It was me who winked at her this time.
“Son!” Mr. Lund bellowed. “Don’t you see what you’ve done? Do you think it’s alright for folks to go around killing one another and getting away with it? What good can come from this foolishness?”
“I don’t know about all of that, Mr. Lund, but tell us, why do you think she ran her husband over?”
“It’s all in the evidence transcripts. It’s in that paperwork over there that you haven’t bothered to read! Or are you too dumb to read it?”
“Maybe I am too dumb to read it, but those lawyers in the courtroom said it was because he was cheating on her. What would you do if your wife was cheating you like he was doing to her?”
Vernon Lund smiled now, sure that he had me. “I don’t know what I’d do son, but I sure hope to hell that I wouldn’t kill her for doing it.”
“No, of course you wouldn’t kill her. Why would you? You are bigger, and stronger than she is, so you wouldn’t have to. You could beat her, or cheat her back without worry... you could do just about anything you wanted to do to a weaker person, because you are a bully Mr. Lund. You would bully her just like you are trying to bully me. But Mrs. Harlow couldn’t bully Mr. Harlow, could she? She was angry, and hurt, and she only had the one thing to do if she wanted to get away from his meanness.”
With our points made, the can was passed around once more. This time there were six innocent votes.
“Jesus Christ! Are you people siding with this freak show? You can’t be serious?”
“Mr. Lund, the reason I asked how you think those drugs will feel entering her body is because I think I know. Have you ever been close to death before? I have. I’ve been so close to death that my fingers and toes stiffened with it. I’ve had my blood chilled, and my heart stopped while the doctors prodded around in my skull, cutting out the bad pieces they found in there. Those drugs feel cold going in, Mr. Lund. Not cold like that iced tea there, but a deep inside cold that’s trying to freeze you up forever, a cold that moves a little further through your veins with each pulse. You can feel it inching up your arms, pumping slowly, oozing up to where you live, and breath, and think, and you can’t stop it, Mr Lund. You can only lie there as you try to summon up courage. You can only pray that you are stronger than that drug is, that it can’t put you down. You try to hold your eyes open, afraid that if they close they will never open up again. You pray that maybe you will wake up after, and the nightmare will be over. I woke up from my nightmare Mr. Lund. I only hope Mrs. Harlow gets that second chance.”
Vernon Lund bowed his head. He was beat. He could see it in every face around the table, and he even felt it in his own heart. Our little group lined up, and we made our way back to the jury box. From across the room Adrienne Harlow’s eyes found mine, only this time it was my turn to smile.