"You'll be out by noon," Kayla said, "12:30 at the latest."
By 3:00 my eyes are bleary from reading without glasses (which I left on my desk, where they belong, right?), my earbuds and the contents of my iPod are irritating my head, my hand has cramped into a useless claw from scribbling this post in a notebook, and I have done all the napping one can do in a jury lounge chair. People-watching ceased to be entertaining hours ago; now the District citizens seated around me, dozens of rows in front and in back, are simply getting on my nerves.
To my right, a plump woman in leopard silk pours half a bag of peanut M&Ms into her right fist, where she hides the candies, transfers them one by one to her other hand and slides them deftly into her mouth -- like a student sneaking contraband snackfood every time the teacher turns around. Only nobody's watching, and no one cares.
An elderly man shuffles around and tips backward into the seat in front of me, landing with a quiet groan. He's clean-cut and dressed in a tailored brown herringbone blazer, but he smells terrible. Crossword Guy next to me sniffs the air, looks at me as if to say, 'You smell it too, right?' and mutters out of the corner of his mouth, "I think I can identify the source..." We grin at one another. He's nice-looking, young, shoes too Euro and polished to belong to a straight man. I make a mental note for the next time I'm called to this day-long purgatory: Fire up the gaydar and plant yourself next to a well-dressed homosexual. A bit of queer snark is a fantastic pick-me-up in the mid-afternoon slump, or at any time of day. The old stinker is hunched over a paperback novel, his poor posture a reminder to check my own; I instinctively sit up straight and tall in my chair. Crossword does the same. With a silent sideward glance, we are bonded in that moment by our common vanity, and an old man's B.O.
Another row forward is a thirtysomething man built like a small mountain; from the base of his small, shaved skull he widens steadily at about 45 degrees right down to his seat, over which he spills onto the next chair. The young woman next to him seems not to notice that someone else's ass is occupying half her seat; she's busy examining the sparkler at the center of her engagement ring, a diamond roughly the same size and shape as one of her enormous front teeth. I wonder what talents one might be able to hone with choppers like those. Rip the tags off new clothes? Consume a lobster unaided by tools? Open beer? That would explain the Hope Diamond on her hand; a girl who can pop the top off a brewsky isn't likely to stay single for long.
Since I arrived this morning and probably for some time before, each of the room's six TVs has been tuned to a snowy channel that plays a ghost of "The People's Court" on screen and an unrelenting stream of grating static through the speakers. Eventually -- at 11:55 a.m. -- one of the jury handlers darts in and starts a DVD. Twelve minutes later we're released for lunch, returning just in time to catch the final (now completely out of context) scene of "A Beautiful Mind," followed by the DVD menu (Watch Director's Commentary; Watch Producer's Commentary; Watch Russell Crowe's Mother's Commentary). It's accompanied by a short musical theme that is charming for no more than 120 seconds. After 15 minutes of that accursed sound I turn to Crossword Guy and announce that I'm going to kill myself now. He asks if he can have my iPod. I giggle; a bitch after my own heart.
I imagine jury duty is a lot like being an animal in a shelter: We're penned in, supervised more to ensure our presence than our well-being, never mistreated but far from free. Once in a while someone wearing a bored expression and a jangling keyring wanders in to pluck a few poor souls from the cage and refresh the "entertainment," but just as quickly he is gone, the rest of us left behind without a thought. No one notices that the litter box is full; the water dish is empty; the same infernal strings-and-voices melody is wafting from the TV speakers over and over and over again -- three bars of music strung together in a hideous, mocking loop, repeating for all eternity or until someone sits on the remote control and inadvertently releases us from our pain.
By 3:00 I am still in the lounge waiting, and not once have they called my name. I pace the hallway for a while. Make a couple phone calls. Kick myself for leaving my computer at home. Stupid girl! The courthouse halls are quiet but never empty. Lotta suits here. Everyone seems to be playing a role -- The Law, in uniform or suit; and The Citizens, in all manner of casual dress. It takes me back to my days with S, when I was a category unto myself -- 'Prosecutor's Girlfriend' -- and enjoyed privileged access I probably shouldn't detail here because most of it surely wasn't kosher. I will say that I've been on the inside of a murder trial, seen the crime scene photos, heard 911 recordings, watched grown men weep on the stand, confessing that they're still unable to sleep six months after they witnessed the bloody scene that changed the way they see the world. Few people in this jurors' lounge understand, truly, why they're here. The gravity of the role they could play. The responsibility to judge. The power to give freedom or take it away. The pressure to be sure, and to be right. I comprehend the weight; I'd be scared but proud. Right now, I'm ready to go home.
Around 4:00, after languishing in the courthouse for the duration of an absolutely stunning, cloudless day, we're released back into the wild with a cheer (and a few balled-up papers chucked at the televisions). It's too late to hit the office but early enough to Metro to Tenleytown and stroll the long way home, enjoying the sunshine, and an ice cream cone, and sweet freedom.