Warning: This is fiction, don't read if addicted to literalism.
War of the Words
Where do all the words go?
His daughter had asked him that one day when she was three and the world was fresh with her wonder.
"Daddy, where do all the words go?" Deep blue eyes invited him to travel innocently if he would but have the courage to dream.
"Uhm hmm, Daddy. When I say them are they gone forever?" Something like sadness touched her.
"No, sweetheart," Reardon had said. "They go to heaven, and they stay there so that everyone has a chance to enjoy them."
"Imagination. You can go anywhere you can dream," he told her. Perhaps it was no wonder she’d been drawn to literature as a college student.
Reardon now had more prosaic means of preserving the words around him. He had a court reporter. And daily he labored over something lawyers call "the record."
Oh, you know the concept. You are standing half sauced at a bar, and in comes the mighty mouth of the South. He’s more stewed than you, and he’s on a rant. He has something he wants to say. All that is necessary is that he get it out, pry it out, if necessary, in some more or less orderly collection of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
Grabbing the railing of the bar, he inhales deeply, pitching from side to side. Both hands now steadying himself, he belches. "And I will state for the record." Does that mean he now means to be taken seriously, belches and all?
We all want records of our life, and we busily seek to create them. The trouble is we can’t stop others from recording what they see.
Reardon recalled seeing, as an adolescent, a little pocket-sized comic book created by fundamentalist Christians. It was judgment day. God had a record of each word spoken; worse yet, God had a record of each conscious thought. A tormented soul on the eve of eternity shuddered as his secret lust was magnified on the divine viewing screen. Why, he had once looked at a woman with desire. Come brimstone; come fire; come damnation with no hope for relief. The comic book was prepared before Jimmy Carter pathetically announced that he was guilty, oh, so guilty, of lust in his heart.
Now Reardon had a chance to play god among men. He was the master of his own record. Lesser mortals in his presence could be compelled to squeeze every word into a salvageable form. And, like God on judgment day, Reardon could review the record of all that he surveyed before reaching his more mundane judgments.
But how much is enough? Judging a man for vagrant thoughts and the haphazard contents of desire seemed extreme. Aristotle counseled moderation. Moderation in all things? Well, how to moderate the desire for perfection? Does one draw a mean between perfection and, well, what, the mere lack of perfection, or, perhaps, evil? Reardon closed his eyes for a moment and saw a dark forest. There were trees present, but as his thoughts veered this way and that, he saw a fog rising. Thick, grey swirling vapors swallowed lonely pines. Perfect, evil, moderation, a mean; all now ingredients of some sickly existential soup. He knew where all this would lead: despair, indecision and solitary scotch before a fire. He must will it to stop. But will requires something firm on which to stand. A paper pushed by a hurricane stands no chance of resisting; it darts in the pell-mell fury of nature’s rage. Will requires roots, even if febrile and easily overcome. A blade of grass can stand, like Luther, and declare that it can do other, even as it is driven into Earth by the world’s machinery.
How much of a record is enough?
Reardon had long ago decided that how a judge treats his or her record was in fact a litmus test of the judge’s ambition and a barometer of his sense of self-importance.
There are judges who will never meet with a lawyer outside the presence of their court reporter. For these judges, the record is both sword and shield. Like bats in hermetically sealed belfries, these judges know the shape of each wall, the interior of each turret, of the castles in which they are imprisoned. To speak to such a judge requires the willingness, or, perhaps, the compulsion, to cross over the moat of informality and into a world so solemn each word is preserved for all time; sacred pebbles to be collected, savored and then tossed, either in celebration while sunning on the beachhead of success, or darted at those who come too close to undermining ambition.
These judges are bucking for stardom. They will never be at the center of a controversy about what was or was not said, by golly. Every word they ever utter in their role as jurist is on tape or packed away in some computer terminal. Slave to their records, these judges are not to be trusted. Sterile, they bob, weave and then preen in the presence of the ever-present tapping fingers of their only friend, the civil servant whose job it is to hang on their every word.
No, Reardon had decided he would never live like that. He would not live inside the sterile confines of such a bubble.
His vision of a the perfect judge was that of a problem solver. And lawyers bring nothing but problems to a court of law. The law’s great stories are not told on the record. Indeed, the law’s great stories are often never told at all.
A lawyer meeting in the dead of night with a client to prepare for trial learns sobering truths. These truths reflect less about the facts that will be marshaled before judge or jury. No, the deeper truths are truths that cannot be told. How fear can warp a man and transform him into an angry exclamation point, blind to everything but the imperative to strike before he is hurt again. How time passes some poor souls by, leaving them smaller and smaller in their mind’s eye until, suddenly, they will be heard, and the molehills over which they have tumbled become Alpine reaches they will now force others to scale. Freud, a student of the deeper reaches? Please. He controlled his record; his clinical notes and pithy essays a testament to his creativity. Dostoevsky? His underground man wrote and rewrote the record he used to portray himself.
Few know the subterranean turf of human desire so well as a trial lawyer. Why? Because he must keep his client’s secrets. He must tell the client’s story. He must build a home with the sticks and twigs at hand. That means that a lawyer, a trial lawyer, a lawyer whose task it is to make another’s record, must seem a fool. Common speech and the banal gestures of the courtroom are his tools. Somehow, he must use these tools to reflect the world his client inhabits. See now the hubble of stick and twig; but who, tell me, save the lawyer and perhaps his client can hear the wolf howling at the door?
The perfect judge knows when to let the record be silent. A simple side bar. A quiet word to put the blind fury into context. The perfect judge knows a lawyer’s fear. The rage of a client willing to sue is easily turned against a lawyer who cannot succeed in making real for others a solitary and lonely terror. Reardon had vowed to be a perfect judge. His record would not become a cage; nor would it be a wall to separate him from the lawyers appearing before him. That was a commitment he made when he took the bench. He vowed to be rooted in something other than fear, or vanity. It was a vow he hoped would withstand the tempests to come.
"Judge Reardon, counsel in the Antoine case are here and would like to see you." His clerk stood in the door of his chambers.
"Who is out there?" Reardon asked.
"Sterling, Shamir and Shank," the clerk said.
"Yes, sir." The clerk’s eyes danced, two nymphs at play.
"Well, in that case, call Glenda. I am not going to meet the lawyers in this case without a record," Reardon said.
He would settle for something less than perfection in this case.