by Chip Jett, 3.24am Sept 10th 2021
The mailbox at the end of the driveway hides in plain sight. I’m guilty, I guess, because it is mine; I installed it myself when vandals beat the original to death with a baseball bat. I wish I would never have replaced it. I should have let it die. Maybe it’s true that no good deed goes unpunished; the mailbox was destroyed, and I resurrected it. I can’t think of any other reason why I’ve been cursed.
The letters started coming after I brought it back. They haven’t stopped since.
Bills and flyers and other things I dread haunt me from the depths of the mailbox. It’s where I found the Dear John letter from my ex, postmarked from New Haven, over a hundred and fifty miles away. She must have wanted out bad.
But those things aren’t the worst of what’s crawled from the mailbox.
The worst would be the jury notices.
I received my first notice to serve on my eighteenth birthday, two weeks before the wedding, twenty-four years ago. Maybe we were too young; maybe that’s why she decided she’d had enough. Either way, I’ve been summoned nineteen times since. Twenty-one if you count the time the notice somehow dodged my mailbox, though I found out that “failure to receive the summons is no excuse for absence.” Judge Harper’s words. The judge issued a bench warrant for my arrest, I got hauled in to explain myself, and I ended up foreman of that jury. What a week that was.
I’ve done a little research, and it turns out twenty (or twenty-one) jury summonses is extreme. It’s almost like winning the lottery over and over, but not in a good way. Like in a Groundhog Day kind of way. The most times I’ve heard of anybody serving is six. There are several who make that claim, and each believes they’re cursed.
Unless they’ve heard about me. To me, six is nothing.
I asked Cathy why I get picked so often, and she only shrugged.
“I guess my computer likes you.”
Cathy is the Clerk of Court for Union County. Cathy and I, we’re on a first-name basis, as you might imagine. I even thought to ask her out when my divorce was final, but she cut me short. Didn’t explain, just held up a hand and said, “Don’t go there.” So I didn’t.
On my first call to serve, I ended up an alternate juror, sitting outside the jury room reading whatever they saw fit for me to read. Something titled Louisiana Myths and Legends: the Rougarou, though it seemed of no use to me in a Salem courtroom. Proceedings lasted two days, and I heard every word of the trial but was unable to help render a verdict.
At the trial’s conclusion, the judge, a guy named Wilhelm, asked me to approach the bench. Court had been dismissed, and people were filing out of the courtroom.
“Your name Christian Rose?” He asked.
“Yes, Sir, Your Honor, Sir.” Sweat ran down my back.
“Your dad go to Elmhurst College in Lagrange?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
Wilhelm extended his hand. “We used to hunt together, him and me, a couple towns over from here. Bad times, those were. But your dad was a good shot. I hope you’ve followed in his footsteps.”
I hadn’t seen my father in years, but I didn’t tell the judge that.
“Yes, Your Honor, Sir. I guess I have.”
“Glad to hear it,” Wilhelm said, still clutching my hand. “How about you keep it that way?”
“Okay,” I said and tried a little laugh. “I get called up here so often, I guess you can keep an eye on me.”
He held on a minute longer and said, “We’ve got to figure which side you’re on, Son, and where your loyalties lie. Sometimes that takes a while.”
He stared harder into my eyes, and I swear I could feel his fingers in my brain, searching for whatever it is that makes each one of us who we are. When he finally said “Dismissed,” I felt as if he might not be satisfied with what he had found.
The bills slacked off a little bit after that, probably because I quit spending money I didn’t have, and creditors likewise faded away. My wife left during those early days of my jury service, but I never connected her leaving with the tide of letters rising in the mailbox. I turned over many a new leaf, but none offered me sanctuary from Union County’s judicial system. The jury notices kept showing up, once a year, predictable as the phases of the moon.
My first few stints in the jury box were for what seemed to be mundane issues. I saw drunks, cheats, and thieves, and I heard them all use the excuse that they couldn’t recall what they’d done. As part of those juries, I did my best to sift through the bull and render a true verdict. Each time we concluded the same: guilty.
Case number seven was some business about destruction of property at a downtown bowling alley. Strange circumstances, too: claw marks, red eyes captured on surveillance video. Looked like the work of a bear to me. They charged some guy because of solid crime-scene evidence, and who can argue with that? Like all the defendants’ excuses before, I heard this one say, “I don’t recall.” The DNA matched, however, and the lawyer said the guy was responsible. As usual, the twelve of us agreed. The presiding judge – Richardson, I believe – smiled my way and gave me an approving nod.
By the tenth case on which I served, I began to notice similarities in the accusations.
For one thing, all of the crimes were committed at night. Sometimes the defendant wound up naked. Sometimes there was blood. Not that unusual, I know, but all of crimes were said to have been committed under the light of a full moon. All of them. And like I said, every defendant used the “I don’t recall” line as the best defense. As always, we found each of them guilty.
On case number twelve, the defendant said something that began tying up several years’ worth of loose strings.
The prosecutor asked the defendant, “How do you explain yourself, Mr. Jasper?”
Ricky Jasper faced several charges, including the now familiar standards: disturbing the peace; disorderly conduct; aggravated assault.
It was like a made-for-tv drama. We, the jury, held our collective breath, waiting for an excuse good enough to set Ricky Jasper free. I hoped for something better than the usual I don’t recall.
I was not disappointed.
Shocked, but not disappointed.
The courtroom was silent, the lawyer’s grip on the podium draining the blood from her knuckles.
“Rougarou,” Ricky Jasper whispered with undeniable sincerity. “I am a werewolf.”
I don’t know what came after that, but we found that guy guilty as sin, and the judge threw the book at him. My fellow jurors took the werewolf claim in stride, as did the judge, bailiff, court reporter, and everyone else in the room.
And though the claim was extraordinary, something inside me – something akin to instinct – knew it must be true.
I was foreman on sixteen of the juries on which I served, and I read the guilty verdict each time, though never once did it give me pleasure. We rendered those verdicts not for Lycanthropy, but for real crimes committed by real people. But still, people were going to jail, ostensibly, for the crime of being a werewolf. Though the word never came up again at trial, it lurked in the shadows, just out of my line of sight.
Had I been willing to suspend disbelief, maybe I would have tallied the evidence: full moon; no memory; no clothes. Even though I knew it was impossible, it all added up.
The years raced by like a frenzied beast on a path of destruction. I began losing sleep, but not to debt collectors or a failed marriage. Many moons peered in my windows, beckoning to me. If you ask me exactly what I did during the hours between dusk and dawn, there are nights I might not be able to say.
I always asked myself why I was singled out, why my participation in these strange cases was necessary. Was I some sort of Van Helsing, called by my peers to prosecute werewolves? Was that what my father did with the judge a couple towns over, so many moons ago?
On my last day of freedom, I didn’t get out of bed until two in the afternoon. In spite of the sun’s hateful glare on the kitchen windows, I could see something in the teeth of my old friend the mailbox, grinning wide at me from the driveway.
It was another envelope labeled “Official Court Business,” but this one was no jury summons.
The letter, which turned out to be a charging document, was addressed from the desk of one Honorable Judge Tina C. McCallum. She must be new, though I don’t recall voting for her in the last election.
I’m a defendant this time, it says, charged with crimes the likes of which I’ve presided over as foreman again and again: disturbing the peace; disorderly conduct; aggravated assault. It says a jury of my peers will decide my fate and that I should prepare a defense.
Defense? I was never even arrested.
Not that I recall, anyway.
As a matter of fact, I don’t recall disturbing anybody’s peace, being disorderly, or assaulting anyone. I don’t think I’ve been aggravated since my wife left.
And all of this, allegedly, on one night, the night of the seventeenth, a night of which I have no memory.
It’s the middle of summer, yet there’s a chill in the air. Maybe it’s because I’ve got on no pants. The letter flutters to the ground like a wounded bird.
I don’t recall the events of the night of the seventeenth. So what? I don’t recall last night, either. Or most nights lately.
There are vehicles coming down the road. One is a box van, another is a car, lights flashing but no siren. There must be six, seven of them altogether. I wonder if one is a mail truck bringing another summons for jury duty.
So many of them. Just one me.
What exactly have I done?
I don’t recall.
Am I guilty of any crimes?
I guess that will be for a jury to decide.