The jurors sat stone-faced as the witness described the horror she had discovered in the alley that fateful night. It was hot in the courtroom, and beads of sweat clung to the woman’s upper lip and danced as she spoke. The prosecutor paced back and forth, periodically placing his pen to his mouth as if in deep thought, but actually punctuating points he wanted the jury to pay particular attention to.
“And Mrs. Vasquez, do you see the man you saw that night in this courtroom?” the prosecutor said. Mrs. Vasquez nodded. “Can you point to him?” She pointed a quivering finger at the defendant.
“Let the record show that the witness is pointing to the defendant, Mr. Alberto Sanchez,” the prosecutor said. “Mrs. Vasquez, based on the blood spatter and the position of the knife, would you surmise that the defendant, Mr. Sanchez, was the assailant?”
“Objection!” shouted the defense attorney. He stood, “All due respect to Mrs. Vasquez, Your Honor, but she is a waitress and does not possess the technical skill necessary to make that determination.”
“Your Honor, I am merely drawing from the firsthand knowledge of the only eyewitness left alive. You don’t have to be a forensic scientist to figure this one out,” the prosecutor said smugly, smiling at the jury.
The judge eyed both men and then the jury. “Counselors, approach the bench,” he said.
The two attorneys stepped up to the bench, each prepared to fight to the death for their clients and for justice.
In a whispered tone the judge said, “Counselors, it appears we are at an impasse; Mrs. Vasquez was indeed in a position to logically make a determination, but Counselor Turner is correct in that she is not a qualified crime scene investigator.”
“Your Honor, I would disagree that we are at an impasse. The law is clear—” the defense attorney attempted, but was cut short.
“Law! We don’t have time for the law, man! A life is at stake, for God’s sake!” the judge shouted. “No, the only way around this is…”—the two attorneys tensed in expectation—“a justice joust.”
He rose from the bench and pounded his gavel. “The court will adjourn while preparations are made. We reconvene in the parking lot in one hour. Today we joust!”
Breastplate donned over his Armani, the defense attorney straddled the bicycle and waited for his aids to ready his weapons. A woman in a sleek pinstriped pants suit and heels handed him a shield. To his right a third-year man, promising, would be partner one day, handed him his lance. It was state issued, chipped and battered.
“You got this,
,” the man said as he gently lowered the helmet onto his boss’s head. Harvey
“I’ll teach him to lead a witness!” And the defense attorney dropped the visor. It landed with a metallic clang.
Fifty yards away, the prosecutor was likewise prepared. His staff scurried away and both men looked to the judge and jury, saluted with a raise of the lance then faced each other and saluted again, although halfheartedly; their respect was for the system, not the man. The courtroom audience and jury stood in the parking lot amongst the cars and sat on bumpers and hoods. The court reporter stepped to the center of the joust lane, untied her neck scarf and held it in the air. Silenced reigned.
“Joust!” the judge shouted and the neck scarf fell. Cheers erupted from all sides.
Both men pushed off and began to pedal awkwardly, wobbling for the first few feet before momentum came to their aid. They closed on each other quickly, lances held high, hate in their eyes. Sunlight sparkled off of the razor-sharp ends as the lances lowered, in striking range now, searching for their targets like hellhounds.
They hit each other like freight trains, and both men fell from their metal steeds, the bikes veered off, handlebars wobbling out of control as they disappeared into the crowds. Prosecutor was on his feet quickly. “Sword! My sword!” he said, hand outstretched.
One of his staff ran onto the lot carrying a large broadsword. He handed it to the prosecutor and dusted off his own suit before hurrying back. Prosecutor ripped his helmet off and tossed it to the ground. He circled his foe, a mask of death-lust on his face.
Defense Attorney was slow to rise. The prosecutor’s lance had pushed up under his shield, pierced his breastplate and broken off in his side. Two feet of wooden shaft jutted from his chest. He staggered to his feet, arms swinging like a rag doll, blood hanging from his mouth in long stalactites. His aid with the pants suit ran out, sword in hand. He took the blade, but the weight of the weapon dragged him to one knee. His aid shrieked in terror. Powerless, he watched as his opponent closed.
“Object to this!” the prosecutor yelled and hefted the sword over his head. Simultaneously the defense attorney lunged forward and plunged his sword into the abdomen of the prosecutor, running him completely through and twisting the blade, his intestines spilling onto the pavement. The prosecutor stumbled backwards, death-lust gone, replaced with only shock and surprise now. The sword fell from his hands and hit the ground a moment before his lifeless body did.
It was minutes before the bailiffs could regain order; the audience and jurors were wild with shock and horror at the spectacle. The prosecutor’s staff laid a sheet over his still body and waited for an ambulance. The defense attorney was helped by his staff back to the courtroom, where the trial was resumed. He sat at his desk, blood pooling under his chair, gasping for the sweet air his punctured lung would never find.
“All rise!” the bailiff shouted. Everyone but the defense attorney stood.
The judge took his seat on the bench. He slammed the gavel down hard. “Sustained!”
The sun was beating down; the heat, like physical matter, weighed on him, oppressive and thick. Grass shavings clung to his body and clothes, his sweat-saturated clothes flypaper to the cloud of dust and debris that encircled him as he moved across the bright green lawn. The mower sputtered, cut grass oozed from under the catcher and Jeremy killed the mower; another bag full. He was wiping sweat from his brow when Mrs. Johnson stepped onto the porch.
“Jeremy, oh, Jeremy!” She was waving a couple of bills—
Jacksons, he hoped, but likely ’s. That kind of fortune was not in Jeremy’s daily ensemble of possibilities. Hamilton
“Yes, Mrs. Johnson,” he said, putting his best Eddie Haskell face forward. His smile was fake, he didn’t like her; she was cheap and picky, both undesirable characteristics in a customer, but he needed her.
“I need to pay you now. I have to run some errands.” She handed him the bills—a Hamilton and a damn Lincoln. What the fuck? He stared at the
, confused. A moment of awkward silence passed. “You know last week you missed the side yard. Bill … Mr. Johnson had to touch it up, and you know Mr. Johnson hates yard work.” Lincoln
“Uh, okay. Sorry about that.” Damn she was cheap. He wondered if she would care how much Mr. Johnson hated lawn work if she knew how much Mr. Johnson did not hate Mrs. Vernon who lived a few blocks over. Lawn boys knew things.
He looked at the bills a moment longer. Lady Johnson had written the customary “thanks for the hard work!” on the ten spot and ended it with a smiley face. Idiot.
Jeremy finished up as Mrs. Johnson drove away in a pearl-colored luxury SUV, then he walked the mower six blocks to a friend’s house and knocked on the door. A teenaged boy answered.
“Dude, your mom is going to kill you. I’m all for rebellion, but damn, man,” Anthony Craig said, smacking down some potato chips. He wiped greasy fingers on a striped t-shirt. “I’ll meet you in the garage.” And he shut the door. Jeremy went around front and waited. There was an electric hum and the door began to rise, creaking and groaning, the motor screaming for its life. Jeremy pushed the mower inside.
“I need to use your shower.” He didn’t wait for an answer. After cleaning up he pulled a fresh pair of clothes from his backpack and swapped them for his grass-stained work clothes. He went downstairs, where Anthony was watching a show about crime scene investigators that wore low-cut blouses and listened to rock music while they tested vital evidence. “I’m outta here, man. Same time tomorrow.”
Anthony shook his head. “Whatever, dude.”
He caught the bus two blocks over and was walking in the front door of his house thirty minutes later.
“That you, Jeremy?” his mother asked from the kitchen.
“Yeah, Mom. Gotta go. Meeting Jamie,” Jeremy said, running up the steps.
“Hold it right there,” she said, half running into the hall. “Do I smell grass? Is that grass?” She sniffed the air.
“Mom,” he groaned. “We played some football at gym today, that’s all.” He threw his arms up in exasperation.
“If you’re mowing lawns again, you’re out the door, buddy.” She pointed a thin finger at him. He crossed his heart with his hands.
“Promise,” he said. They glared at each other for a second, waiting for the other to crack, and the beginnings of a smile appeared at the corner of her mouth. He knew he was in and he bolted for the shower.
Jeremy’s mother fought back tears. While her son sang the latest top 20 in the shower, Jessica Moran stepped into his room and opened his backpack. She found the clothes he had worn today and sniffed them deeply; grass, sweat … was that oil, a little grease on the pocket? She dug in the pocket and found the bills, unfolded them and read the message. She laid the money on the desk and went out into the back garden and cried. It had started again.
Reggie sat in the recliner yelling at college basketball players on television. A coffee table covered in beer cans and fast-food wrappers separated him from the source of his angst. A player in a red and black jersey missed a free throw and Reggie squeezed his beer can until it buckled and his knuckles went white.
“Boss, you shouldn’t get so worked up. It’s just a game,” Ox said. Ox walked in from the kitchenette with a bologna sandwich. Ox looked like an ox.
“Shut the fuck up, Ox, I got money on dese bums,” Reggie snapped. “Speaking of bums, did you make the collections today?”
Ox dropped himself into the loveseat across from Reggie and took half the sandwich in a single bite. Speaking around the meat product and bread, he said, “Yeah, but you ain’t gonna be ’appy.” He washed the sandwich down with a beer. They looked at each other in silence.
“Well, what the fuck? I’m sit’n here like what the fuck? What are you wait’n for?”
“Okay, okay.” He pulled out a roll of wet greenbacks and tossed it to Reggie, who snatched it out of the air and rifled through it, licking his finger with each flip of the bills.
“It’s short.” His chest on his chin, he looked up at Ox.
“Turbo. He’s been coming up short the last few weeks. I think he’s hold’n back.”
Reggie sat forward in the chair, the attached ottoman folded in. Sweat glued his wife-beater undershirt to his thick chest hair.
“Let’s pay the little bastard a visit.”
Jeremy stepped out of the shower, dried off. He clinched his teeth in the mirror, scratched at the canine and ran his tongue over it. He needed to look good. He was seeing Jamie tonight for the third time. Things were going well, but he needed something to tip the balance, send her over the edge. With today’s earnings he was up to seventy-three dollars, twenty short of the necklace he had picked out for his girl. Three more yards with no kicker to Reggie and he was good with enough left over for a nice dinner at Chili’s. It would be a night to remember. There would be time to pay Reggie back before the dummy even knew he was short.
From his window he saw his mother sitting in a lawn chair, the hose running into a flower pot that overflowed with soil-laced water. It ran across the porch, painting it a brown in the hot sun. His eyes drifted to the dresser and the money.
“Shit.” His mind racing with the ramifications of being discovered, he panicked, shooting around the room throwing clothes into his backpack. He pulled some jeans on and a sweatshirt and left.
Mrs. Craig woke in the night to a noise downstairs. Mr. Craig was cutting timbers inside his nasal passage and would not have heard a locomotive running through the house. She shoved him. He rolled over, the sawing ceased, silence hung in the air, taunting, teasing. Then the mill resumed operations, the shift change complete.
“Roger!” she hissed and punched him in the shoulder. Roger shot up.
She grabbed him, placing her hand over his mouth. “Someone is downstairs.” She mouthed the words. His eyes widened. The noise, metal on metal, downstairs. The pair of crime fighters slid from the sheets and eased down the stairs.
The noise again. From the garage?
“Oh, screw this. I’m calling the cops,” Roger said and quick-stepped into the kitchen and dialed the three magic numbers. Twenty minutes later a police officer was knocking on the front door.
Mrs. Craig ran to the door.
“Good evening, ma’am. Did you call 911?
“Yes, I’m so glad you came. I—”
“Is anyone hurt?” he continued.
“Hurt? Well no, we heard—”
“You should step outside, ma’am.”
The Craig’s followed the officer around the front of the suburban house. Mrs. Craig gasped at the open garage door. Roger checked his sedan and the tools that never left their outlined stations on the wall; the Craig garage is where virile tools went to die. All was in order.
“Everything’s here, officer,” he said.
Anthony had come downstairs when he heard the knock on the door and saw the cop car from his bedroom window. Now he stood behind his mother, staring open-mouthed at the empty space that was the hallowed parking spot of his father’s lawn mower.
“What’s wrong, sugar?” his mother asked.
“Nothing.” Anthony slinked away as the cops ran through the required questions. He ran upstairs with the cordless phone under his shirt and into the bathroom and dialed. The receiver picked up on the other end and a weary but awake voice said hello.
Ox kicked in the door of the abandoned house. It flew off its hinges and hit the floor with a loud clap. He walked into the hallway banging a bat against the wall every few steps.
“Wakey, wakey, fuck-oh’s.”
Reggie came in behind him. He lit a cigarette and waved out a match. The hall opened into a living room. Ox took two steps in and Reggie snapped on a heavy flashlight. Two weed eaters and an edger lay on the floor among scattered garbage. The room smelled like piss and cut grass. Three or four skeletal figures huddled in the corner shielding their eyes from the light.
“Tell me where Turbo is, you douche bags!” Ox yelled and brought the bat down on the edger’s gas tank. It cracked open and the smell of the gas-oil mixture began to fill the room.
One of the cowering figures reached out impulsively. “Ohh, man …why, man, why?” he pleaded. Ox raised the bat over a weed eater.
“Where is he?”
Reggie walked over to the grass-heads and kneeled. He took the face of the emaciated man in his hands. “Tell me where your little friend is.”
The man shivered and began to cry. Reggie began to squeeze. “Break it.”
Ox smashed the head of the weed eater. The wire guard shattered, plastic pieces skidded across the floor. The dwellers of the house moaned and pressed themselves impossibly into the corner.
“Last chance. Where-is-Turbo?” Reggie said, his face a gnat’s ass from his prey’s. Rancid breath hovered over their faces, and the grass-head’s wasn’t very fresh either.
“I don’t know, man, I swear, I don’t know,” the man begged.
Reggie jabbed the skinny man with the end of the flashlight. “You’re lying!”
Ox grabbed the last weed eater and began to bend the metal tube.
“Ahh, shit, man. Okay, okay! He’s mow’n, man, fuck!”
“Good, good. Keep it coming. Where?” Reggie growled. Ox bent. The man wept.
Palisades,” he said, and Reggie threw the man’s head back. “Now was that so hard?” He started back to the hall. “Bend it, Ox. Make sure these douches never mow again.”
Men whistled and jeered at Jessica in her minivan as she followed the train of low-riding mowers down the strip. The metallic-painted machines popped up and down on hydraulics. Chromed blades spun, unguarded, beneath many of the riders. Spinner rims danced along their endless journey. One rider had an airbrushed shade covering depicting an Aztec warrior holding a fallen maiden in his arms atop an ancient temple. Scantily clad women prowled the sidewalks and hollered at passersby, “I’ll cut yo’ grass fo’ five dollahs.” Heavy-bassed music played from a dozen sources. Her rearview mirror vibrated with the beat. A group of teen agers, stained in emerald, were popping and locking around a radio, their bodies moving like double jointed robots.
Jessica stopped in front of a group of men standing on the street corner, mowers by their sides, weed eaters leaning against the nearby wall. They tried to stare fear into her, but she had been down this road before, many times, both literally and figuratively. Now, the only thing she feared was losing her son.
“I’m looking for my son, Jeremy Moran. Have you seen him?” she asked bluntly.
A man tucked a burning cigarette behind his ear. He wore a hairnet and white tank-top shirt, a wife beater she knew the shirt was called, and high-waist trousers, “You in the wrong place lady. Tricks like you get got out here, yo.”
Jessica nodded, “Yeah, yeah, I can pay. Jeremy Moran, have you seen him?”
“Who the fuck is Jeremy Moran, lady?”
She ignored the profanity and handed him Jeremy’s sophomore class picture. He took it and his eyes widened.
“Oh shit, yo!” he said excitedly and showed the picture to the others, who laughed animatedly. “This ain’t no Jeremy, mommy. This here is Turbo, yo.” He slapped the photo against his other palm as he spoke.
“Okay, Turbo, whatever.” She had forgotten her son’s street name since his last relapse. The memory pained her, “Can you tell me where Tur … Jeremy is? He’s my son.”
The group of men looked at each other. They were gangbangers, killers, addicts and … sons. They all had mothers—at least they did at one point—and memories.
Hairnet handed the picture back, “
Palisades, lady.” Then, “He’s real bad.”
Jeremy stood outside the jewelry store, staring in the window, head cocked to the side like a zombie trying to compute algebra in his head. The necklace was draped over a black, felt display neck. His clothes were filthy; grass stained, mud, grease, three days’ worth of binge body odor. Anthony’s dad’s mower was at his side, fuel tank empty, grass clippings draining from the stuffed rear-mounted catch bag. A sign on the store’s door stated that they would open at 10 a.m. That was eight hours away. He had traveled an eon in just days and was now so close. He would wait here until the doors opened.
Jeremy had mowed fifteen yards in the last three days, all in the
Palisades, an uppity neighborhood of the rich and lazy. He ate little, drank little and slept never, and when he wasn’t mowing he was scouting lawns for the next day. He even made a midnight run once and mowed a few strips of someone’s yard at two in the morning and then ran. He needed the money, but he needed the mow even more. All he could think about was Jamie and the balance tipper, and that channeled into the violent need to mow something. Once he had her, everything would be fine, he knew that, and he could climb back on the wagon. Lord knew he needed the change in scenery; the view from rock bottom was lacking.
The necklace glimmered in the overhead display light, the gems winking at him, teasing him. The street lamp behind him cast his silhouette across the window, but it was not enough to stifle the balance tipper’s brilliance.
Jeremy blinked and another shadow appeared. It blocked out the entire window. He thought he might be seeing things; from time to time during his binges he was visited by people that only he saw, Spirits of the grass, and this felt like one of those times. He was that far gone.
“I don’t want to talk now. I’m almost finished and then I’ll go home,” he told the grass spirit behind him. “Just need a little more time.” He looked at his watch that had stopped ticking a day ago and shrugged.
“I’ve ’erd you’ve been a busy beaver,” the grass spirit said.
Jeremy didn’t bother turning around. He had tried to face the grass spirits before, and they had always managed to elude him. His eyes never left the necklace. “Need to be. I’ve got a girl now,” he said listlessly, like someone talking in their sleep.
Then the grass spirit grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face against the window.
“You little prick; you think you can hold out on me? Me!” Reggie, Jeremy’s lawn pimp, stepped onto the sidewalk as the bastard Ox held Jeremy hard to the window. The initial blow split Jeremy’s check, and now bright blood smeared the glass and dripped on the sidewalk concrete.
He tried to speak, but his words were plastered against the glass along with his blood. “Nooo, I…” was all that came out. Ox punched him in the kidneys and his legs gave out. Jeremy would have dropped to the ground if he wasn’t suspended in the arms of the behemoth.
“Give it up. All of it.” Reggie began to rummage through Jeremy’s pockets, pulling them inside out, dumping dirt and grass on the ground. “You mow whores are all the same, filthy animals, grass-heads. My dog’s cleaner than you. Least he cleans his own balls.”
Ox finally let Jeremy go, and he dropped like a sack of rocks. Weak from the blows and the binge, he simply curled up and waited for the beating. Reggie kicked him in the ribs. “Where is it? Where’s my lettuce?”
Jessica Moran parked far enough away from the men to hide the slight squeak of the minivan brakes. Far enough away to comfortably open the rear door and lift up the cover to the spare-tire compartment that no longer held a spare tire and not be noticed. No one heard her pull the riot shotgun from the spare-tire cavity and unfold the stock. She walk-ran the few blocks to where she had seen the pigs beating her son and stepped up behind the big bastard pumped the first round into the weapon’s chamber.
Ox spun, pulling a pistol from his waistband. She shot him in the abdomen as he turned, spraying his gun arm and gut with double-ought shot. He went down screaming like a twelve-year-old girl.
Reggie stepped back and almost tripped over Jeremy, caught his balance then almost tripped over Ox. “Easy, lady. I know what this must look like, but you’ve got it all wrong. I’m the kid’s mentor, his manager. Put the gun away and I won’t even press charges over poor Ox here.” He gestured to the fallen thug and former lackey and beater of lawn whores.
She pumped the shotgun again. “Your pimp’n days are over, fucker,” she said and shot Reggie, her son’s ex-lawn pimp in the face. He flipped backwards, completing a full three-sixty in the air, and landed on his back. What was left of his skull bounced on the pavement with a hollow sound like a melon breaking. Jessica stood over him, chambered a third round and shot him again in the chest, opening him up like a blooming flower. Without looking back she blindly aimed the gun and shot the screaming Ox. The gurgle told her she had hit her target. Silence reigned.
She spat on Reggie’s dead body and turned to her son, who had found an energy reserve and had crab-crawled several feet away from the flying lead and blood. He was lying against the wall of the jewelry store near the door, tears cutting paths through the yard dirt painted on his face.
The shotgun hung limp at her side. “You ready to go home, son?” she asked him softly. He shook his head and began to weep into his crossed arms. Jessica stepped to her son’s side and touched his shoulder. “It’s time to go home, Jeremy.”
He still didn’t move, just cried in his arms, face hidden in his sleeves. The mother laid the shotgun against the wall and sat next to the son and put her arms around him. They sat silent for hours, words unnecessary, nature’s bond between a mother and son enough to convey volumes. It was all going to be okay and they both knew it, felt it down to their core. This time would be different. The sun crept over the downtown skyline and she leaned back the worry in her subsiding for the moment.
“Damn, we got to go, son; I just shot two motherfuckers.”