"Waiting for the Noun" by Paul García
Joe walks past the grey-painted cinder block walls and numbered steel doors to introduce himself. The young corrections officer staring at video screens ignores him, finally looks up. “Yes?”
Joe speaks slowly, to not need to repeat himself, “Joe Martínez. Interpreter. Here for a U. S. Probation interview. Prisoner’s name is Arturo Luna Baez. Defense Attorney’s Mike Howell. Probation Officer’s Jim Hayes. He probably entered the back way, through the garage.”
“Okay, sir. Nobody’s here yet.”
“I’ll sit and wait.”
Joe stows his coat, money and metal in a locker, pockets the key, and takes a plastic chair. He puts on reading glasses and works on his clipboard’s invoice until Mike Howell arrives. “Hey, Joe! How ya doin’?” Howell is a big man bundled up for this below zero spell with the earflaps of his fur-lined ushanka tied up at the crown. He pulls it off, exposing a shaved head, and bites off his mittens. “Cold enough for ya?”
Joe looks over his reading glasses, stands, shakes hands. “Mike. It is chilly.” He nods toward the corrections officer. “Told ‘em we’d be here.”
Mike says, “And I called. Let’s see.”
Joe sits back down.
Mike, still in his overcoat, approaches the guard. “My name’s Michael Howell. I’m here to see Arturo Luna-Baez.”
“And you are?”
“Why don’t you have a seat.”
They sit and wait. A C. O. comes through with two inmates happy to be heading outside to shovel snow. Joe and Mike make small talk. Howell is a golfer. “Had my clubs regripped.”
Joe only nods.
“Some have it done every winter.”
Joe knows miniature golf, when his daughter Lucy was little, summers, years ago. “You must miss golf.”
“I’ll hit a few on Florida courses soon. Haven’t seen cold like this for ages.”
“Good for splitting firewood. Tap it with the axe, splits like a diamond.”
Mike looks as if he has a bad taste in his mouth. “Haven’t burned wood in years.”
“Sometimes, below zero like this, you just show it the axe, and it splits.”
Mike says nothing.
For a while, Joe’d been wary of skin heads but Mike, if anything, was even a little too deferential, was simply a nice guy, without that guarded, frozen anger, like permafrost, and Joe’s caution eased. He asks, “Why do you shave your head?”
“Lotta guys doin it. Low maintenance. Shave while I drive.”
Joe nods. They’re killing time. “I’d get shaving cream everywhere.”
Mike smiles with his eyes. “Beamer has a dispenser.”
“Makes sense, I guess. Jim from Probation shaves his head.”
“As does my client, Mister Baez.”
They make light talk about matters unrelated to the case, but neither is good at idly hanging around a county jail. Joe gestures toward the wall clock. “Been sitting here a while. Hayes might already be in there with your guy.”
“Let me see.” Mike approaches the C. O. at his desk, stands there a moment. “We’ve been waiting quite a—”
“You’re the lawyer looking for the one with the foreign name? We can’t find anyone named Mártinez.”
“Mister Martínez is the interpreter. The inmate’s last name is Baez.”
Joe stares at the wall, doesn’t bother pointing out the prisoner’s surname is Luna. After five minutes, the guard calls out. “Mister Howell?”
“Baez, the prisoner you want, is with Federal Probation.”
Howell lets a beat pass. “That’s why we’re here. They’re waiting for us.”
“Okay. You can go in now.”
The steel door’s innards clank and Joe pulls it open. They enter a cinder block corridor with heavy Plexiglas on either side. The door slams behind them. They stand in the corridor. Howell mutters, “You’d think they’d keep track of prisoners.” A tin speaker announces “lawyer and translator to fourteen.” The steel door’s interior mechanism clanks and Mike pulls it open on a small area of grey steel tables and stools anchored in the cement floor where they meet—
“Jim Hayes, U. S. Probation.”
“Mike Howell, Defense Counsel.”
“How you doin, Joe?”
Joe shakes hands and regards Jim’s glowing pate. “Fine. Good to see you.”
Howell greets the prisoner. “How are you today?”
Joe stares at the Defendant’s shaved head and begins work. “¿Cómo está hoy?”
As they arrange themselves around the steel table, Joe glances again at Hayes’ pattern baldness stubble. Luna and Mike at the Initial Appearance were no big deal, but here, three of them! He’d always tried to conform; just speaking another language can look too ethnic for popular taste, a liability. Growing up in Manhattan’s cultural soup, he made conscious effort to lose any accent. A chameleon, he dressed conservatively, got haircuts, knew he had to be squeakier and cleaner. But there are limits to fitting in. Sitting with the three glossy domes gleaming under fluorescents, Joe feels like a cast member of Hair.
Howell tells Luna, “Mister Hayes will interview you and write a report for the sentencing judge, which he’ll submit with recommendations. I’m here to protect your interests by advising you not to answer certain questions, if necessary.”
Joe renders that. Luna nods. “Está bien.”
Hayes has waivers for the prisoner to sign. “These are to allow my access to records about you.”
Luna signs. Hayes begins with pre-arrest questions, when and how he’d entered the States, through what Port of Entry, place and date of birth, parents’ and siblings’ names, and so on. Routine biography. Then he brings out a sheaf of police reports, Immigration and Homeland Security forms, Court Orders, a fingerprint card... “You were arrested in Texas in 2010 for stolen car?”
Howell interrupts. “Wait a minute. Where’d you get this?”
“U. S. Attorney. You didn’t get Discoveries?”
Howell doesn’t answer, advises Luna, “You don’t have to talk about any of this right now, though it will come out.”
Luna says, “No, no hay problema. Está bien.”
“No problem; it’s okay.”
Howell nods. Hayes proceeds. “Police report alleges a blood alcohol level of point one two, that they found crack cocaine in the stolen car you crashed into a Highway Patrol cruiser.”
Joe renders that, and Luna waves an index finger back and forth. Joe puts it into English, “Oh, no, what really happened...” The prisoner shares the same story, but with spin, with embellishment, ameliorating each criminal felony point. “I was drunk, three sheets to the wind, but the crack wasn’t mine.” Luna weaves a long explanation of its source and vague true owner, followed by a solemn oath sworn on the Divine Trinity and his own dead mother’s soul that he would never ingest such a substance. “A friend lent me the car. Being indocumentado, he was intimidated. When the police came to his house. He claimed the car stolen.”
Luna runs on at a good clip but Joe has no trouble keeping up; it’s nothing adversarial, just Probation and prisoner. And more interesting than a lot of cases. Pero algo que no cuadra... But something doesn’t add up. It’s too interesting, doesn’t fit neatly into either drug or immigration, one or the other. This prisoner’s too smart for illegal entry... But there’s no time for thinking like a lawyer or detective, with interpreting.
A lot might be at stake, but Howell doesn’t cut in to protect his client. To postpone till he has Discoveries after the time it took to schedule the interview, wouldn’t be a welcome delay; Probation’s under the gun to get this Pre-Sentence Interview report done for the judge, and, after all, it’s mostly just the taking of personal history. Records Hayes now has signed permission to obtain will fill gaps with details. No one interrupts and in an hour, they’re done.
Howell has another prisoner to see, so Joe exits with Hayes through the main entrance. Crossing the parking lot, Joe comments, “Interesting story.”
Hayes chuckles. “Depends on how much is true.”
Joe thinks about that. “I’m so busy with meaning, I can’t consider truth. That’s others’ responsibility.” He gives Hayes a sharp sidelong glance.
Jim snorts. “I know. Lot of ‘em spin a good yarn.”
“Defendants?” Joe stops at his car.
“Yeah. Some are pathological.”
Joe gives him a wave. “Stay warm.”
He drives across Bangor to the new Judicial Center’s brushed steel elevators. There are hand sanitizer dispensers along the sunny fourth-floor hallway for lawyers’ unavoidable handshaking with everyone.
Courtroom 402 opens. Big security guy, six-four, 250, takes up pretty much the whole double doorway in his blue blazer, gray slacks, soft-soled shoes. “Good mawnin. You aw here faw...?”
Joe picks up on the accent. “López.”
Joe flashes on the now defunct technique of determining origin by accent, regards this towering gorilla with the rugby player’s nose and yet another shaved head, says, “I can usually tell where someone’s from by their accent. Sometimes, with only a few words.”
Big guy sizes him up with a scowl. “Oh, yah? Go ahead.”
Joe deliberates, is only 90% sure. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
Big guy’s eyes open wide, then he giggles like a baby being tickled. “Very gut! I was bawn in Breslau! But I left when I was a kit!”
Joe’s made a friend with the Bailiff. In the courtroom, the case is a marielito named López found guilty and facing jail time for threatening a Sheriff’s deputy. Defense says, “Your Honor, this has all been an unfortunate misunderstanding,” and begins to laud his client. Joe grabs his clipboard, is jotting down the laundry list of adjectives. His visual link with the presiding magistrate intensifies, the Judge’s glance now a concerned stare asking Why have you stopped interpreting for Defendant?
Joe has no way of answering Waiting for the noun, Your Honor, just nods and hand-gestures assurance that all is fine, under control. Defense Counsel reaches his noun and Joe softly reads the list of laudatory adjectives from his clipboard to López’s left ear, “...franco, sin dobleces, trabajador, religioso, honrado, sensible, un hombre muy unido a su familia en Cuba.”
Defense asks for postponement of sentencing so that his client can put home and work affairs in order. The Judge seems amenable and asks the Defendant, “Is there anything you’d like to say to the Court?”
Allocution is a crucial moment; all can turn on a dime. At the colloquy defense counsel often wear expressions running the gamut from curiosity (young lawyers) through trepidation (the experienced). No one wants surprises. Girding, Joe asks, “¿Algo que le gustaría decir al tribunal?”
Angry, without any thoughtful pause, the Defendant yells expletives straight at the bench. Nothing fitting courtroom decorum and not anything Joe wants to tell a judge, yet, automatically, ethics and training compel him to call out at the same level and tone, for the record, loud enough to be heard over the rant, an accurate rendering, “You’re just another racist son-of-a-bitch who wants to put blacks in jail! In Cuba, at least the judges were honest...” The usual subliminal courtroom murmur of conversations in undertone ceases. Joe has to yell to be heard above López’s railing. The Breslau giant, alert, on the ready, stares, a slight grin of admiration saying Ballsy little guy, dis Spahnish trahnslatah. Joe has the attention of lawyers and defendants awaiting hearings, of two State Troopers, one so young he doesn’t look old enough to drive. Joe feels pinpricks of sweat on his brow as he berates the bench and heaps condemnation on the American justice system.
When López is done, the judge asks, “Anything else?”
The guy is pissed, looks away, ignores the Judge.
The magistrate says, “No stay of execution. Deputies, take the Defendant into custody; he’ll begin his sentence today,” and moves on to the next case.