I’m a grown man. Married. My wife and I own our home, the cars we drive, and several insurance policies we’ve had drawn up to protect our investments. I own three suits, a blazer I hardly wear, two expensive pairs of brown shoes and one excellent pair of black spit-shined dress shoes. I enjoy the blunt comedy of programs like Amazon Prime’s Catastrophe and the blanched intensity of Mad Men. I’m a writing instructor, a coach, and a dog owner. I’m trying to become more involved in the lives of my siblings and relatives.
And yet — like anyone, I suppose — I’m prone to moments of intense weakness.
Such moments make me question the statement I made about myself at the beginning of this post.
One such moment occurred the other night, around about 12:30a (which, now that I think about it, would make this technically an early-morning issue). My wife snoozed on the couch. Our house had gone quiet; the television had turned itself off and I’d just woken up after falling off an hour or so earlier, about midway through an episode of Doctor Who (a decidedly un-adult program, compared to the other two I previously mentioned, though the sci-fi drama often proves itself to be just as heady and intellectually rewarding as those others).
I don’t remember whether I woke on account of it or allowed it to develop gradually while I wakened, perhaps as I checked Twitter notifications or skimmed an article on Medium.
Whatever it was, however it happened, I panicked.
In that fit of panic, I opened the dialer on my phone and called my father.
He didn’t answer. I wasn’t surprised; it would have been asking a lot of anyone to answer the phone so late (or early).
This realization tweaked my panic. I convinced myself I’d screwed up royally — criminally — and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
After I hung up I hit the web browser on my phone and killed nearly half the phone’s battery tearing through page after page of results returned for my search, “Does ten days mean ten business days in a jury duty summons?”
I’d received the summons roughly ten days earlier.
It was the first of its kind I’d ever seen. I knew of some other people who’d been summoned — classmates who’d been excused due to heavy course loads; friends of the family who’d taken off work to sit and listen to arguments then deliberate with their fellow jurors on the fates of strangers. My mother had been summoned several times, though I never knew much about whether she sat or was dismissed or excused. I knew that happened, sometimes. I’d read courtroom-drama novels and had watched The Good Wife. Lawyers sometimes sent home people they believed would be unable or unwilling to sympathize with the position they planned to defend.
I knew it was compulsory, too. Jury duty. Vaguely I understood there would be trouble if I didn’t show. The first page of the four-page packet made it sound like there would be trouble also if I didn’t submit the completed questionnaire (page two of four) and the optional excusal request form (page three) within ten days of receipt.
After I opened the envelope I called my father to complain, rather than confirm my suspicions that this was serious business. He’s an attorney. He’s helped me in more ways than I can count in legal matters. Not that I’ve had many brushes with the law. But the accident I was in on the highway — he helped me sort through the mail I received from the attorney who represented the company that employed the drivers of the truck I’d rear-ended. And my DUI when I was a freshman in college — he’d represented me in court. Entered a plea in my name. Explained to me afterward, while we ate sandwiches at a McDonalds in Russell’s Point, what he believed to be most important in a person’s life.
He told me that it often happened that cases were settled out of court. Jurors were called in, questioned, told whether they would be asked to sit or would be excused. If they were asked to sit, they waited, made arrangements to take off work or miss class. The day before they were due in court, they called in to an automated service that told them whether opposing and defending councils had settled.
I told my father it bothered me that the dates I was to serve conflicted with the first two days of our family vacation in North Carolina this summer.
It wasn’t so much that I’d be missing out on the vacation, though don’t get me wrong, I was pissed about that. Perturbed. Disappointed.
What really got me was that now my wife would have to find another way down to North Carolina since I couldn’t drive down with her. She would have to caravan with her parents, and I would have to fly into an airport forty minutes’ drive from where we were staying. The day after my service had ended.
Nothing about this was really all that life-shattering. These were mereinconveniences.
But when you’re already under pressure, the slightest shifts can seem monumental.
I was already under a great deal of (mostly self-induced) stress on account of teaching. One of my classes hadn’t responded well to my teaching methods; I’d created for myself a mountain of grading work to complete in a few weeks’ time, and I wasn’t sure much of what I was doing to help students revise their writing assignments was actually helpful.
Also, I was beginning again to consider a career change. I’d been talking back and forth with an old college friend who owns a web design company and had expressed interest in working together. And I was struggling to keep writing, so that I didn’t feel like I’d totally forsaken the one pursuit I found joy in.
These concerns now seem banal when written out in such a way. In my head at this time, however, they’d somehow gotten all rolled together into one giant, impassible conglomerate of a concern that blocked out the hallway through to any sense of peace or self-worthiness I’d heretofore accessed.
So I called my dad and told him all this, though I used fewer, angrier words. I might have used phrases like “It figures!” and “When it rain, it pours!” to try and characterize the precise nature of my frustration.
Upon his urging, I filled out the questionnaire and made a mental note to contact my mother-in-law for the name and email address of the landlord with whom we’d already made a deposit, because there was a chance I might be excused on grounds of having prearranged and paid to be out of town over the term I’d been asked to serve.
I let ten days slip past without giving much thought to submitting the questionnaire.
How to frame my concerns so that you get a proper sense of how badly I feared I’d gotten in line to be punished for something I might easily have taken care of?
There’s a moment in one of my favorite David Foster Wallace stories where a young man whose son has been badly burned by boiling water off the stove realizes his son continues to scream in pain because he’s still wearing the diaper he had on when he pulled the pot off the burner. The diaper is saturated with still-scalding water and it’s still scalding his son.
After this realization dawns on him, Wallace has the child’s father throw a haymaker at empty air. The sheer impotence and violence of the gesture lingers in mind as one of the most powerful images Wallace managed to conjur during his prolific yet short-lived career as a writer.
I’m not a father myself, and I’m sure I’ve never been in a position to help or hurt someone the way Wallace’s father character was in position to help his toddler son. I remember reading the story feeling something like a fire burning in the pit of my stomach. It was excitement, the kind that accompanies discovery. The top of my head might have blown off it had been hinged on I had such steam built up.
I felt the same way the other night, scrolling through the search results after phoning my father: energized, but by my own oversight, and by the fear of what letting such a stupid thing go might do to me.
Everywhere I looked, I read that questionnaires had to be completed and returned within 10 days of receipt. Ten business days? That’s what I had thought; the more I researched, the more I became convinced I’d been mistaken.
I mentally threw haymakers at my imaginary midsection, and my face. If only I’d gone to the courts that afternoon even, I wouldn’t be here in this predicament, feeling such lousy, spine-crushing regret and silliness.
The phone nearly jumped out of my hands when it started ringing.
My father’s voice was sleep-softened, tentative. He said my name. That’s all I let him get out before I began apologizing. I think I said, more or less exactly, that I was panicking, I’d screwed up. Did he know if questionnaires had to be returned within 10 business days or just 10 days?
“I think they mean within 10 days,” he said.
Someone might have pulled a razor across the bottom of my stomach. Everything dropped down into my knees.
“There’s no use getting worked up over it,” he said. Then he said, “Just take care of it.”
I will, I told him. First thing tomorrow I’ll run the questionnaire down to the courthouse and I’ll accept the consequences. That’s what I’ll do. It’s all I can do.
I apologized to him then, and later the next afternoon when he called to check in, see whether I’d gotten it taken care of, whether I was okay, had I calmed down, eased up on myself. I told him I’d spoken with a woman in the clerk’s office and she’d told me I could request a postponement of service by writing in that I was due to be out of town.
She’d told me to take the form with me when I left, and I’d asked her, somewhat a little too excitedly, whether I’d get into trouble for taking the form and having it out another couple of days.
Would there be a fine?
No fine, she said. They sometimes received questionnaires a few days prior to the date the juror was scheduled to serve.
I sat down after I’d spoken with my father and thought about the other times I’d pulled him out of sleep on account of something stupid I’d done or failed to do.
I’d run into a deer, mashed the front end of my car. I was nineteen, home from college, hanging out with a friend of mine’s older brother who was much too drunk to drive himself anywhere.
I’d gotten pulled over some time before that for swerving left of center on US – 33 a few miles north of Marysville. 2:00 am. I had been driving myself and a friend to Columbus, where another friend of ours… I don’t remember the exact reason. I don’t even think there’d been much promise of a party. Our friend in Columbus had lived in the dormitories on campus at that point. It was 2:00 am. I would’ve had to wake up in less than six hours to drive my friend and I back to Wapakoneta, drop him off at his house, and make him home in time to attend 10:00 am Mass with my father.
Instead, I pulled him from sleep with a phone call made from the desk phone of the officer who’d pulled me over and shone a pen light in my eyes and watched as I followed the tip of his pen from left to right. He’d had me walk a line. He cuffed me, helped me duck my head under the cruiser’s door jamb, and then he’d stood nearby while I waiting for either my mother or father to come on the line.
“I’m in Marysville,” I said. “You have to come and get me. I’m in jail.”
I heard him pull away from the phone to tell my mother it was me. He told her what I’d just told him — where I was, and what I’d done.
After I’d slept a while, handcuffed to a bench in a holding cell, I sat shotgun and directed my father back to where the officer’d left my car on the highway shoulder.
My mother drove my car, and my friend, back to town. I rode with my father.
He asked me questions. Is this what you want to do with yourself? Who you want to be?
A few weeks later, after my day in court, he’d tell me one of things he thought was important for a person to learn was how to recognize opportunities. He told me, while we finished eating our sandwiches at a small table near the windows overlooking an inlet at that McDonalds in Russell’s Point, that he thought he probably could have done better in that regard, that there had been opportunities he might have taken if only he’d recognized them for what they were at the time.
I never forgot that. I thought about it again as I tried to write about the call I’d made that had pulled my father from sleep yet again, over something as avoidable as those other incidents had been. I thought about the way the phone’s ringing must have woken him up slowly and then very suddenly, and how it must have gone through his head as he’d approached the phone that someone he loved had been very seriously injured or was in dire need of his assistance. My grandmother. My sister in Philadelphia, or one of my brothers, in Columbus of B.G. One of his nieces, perhaps, or his sister-in-law.
Not all that long before all this, my mother had been in an accident — one from which she was very lucky to have walked away. She’d called him then. He’d listened to her describe where she was, what had happened. I imagine that call was fresh in his mind as well.
He would have gone to that phone knowing all of these things, knowing that when he picked it up and made the call back, that it would be me and that something might have happened to me that would crush him to learn of.
How hard that must have been. What bravery, boldness, and resolve it must have taken him to return my call. What relief he must have felt when he heard me talking to him — a little shaky-sounding, a little hysterical, but otherwise okay.
Image credit: Cole Patrick via Unsplash