A Life of Quiet Desperation
I didn’t speak, not because I wanted to convey the impression I was a hardened criminal, and not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I was afraid. Adorned in an oversized, navy blue, one-piece uniform, the Orange County Jail standard, surrounded by lawyers, prosecutors, and an unforgiving judge, I imagined anything I said being quickly refuted and twisted in a way that would worsen an already bleak situation. My public defender’s argument rested on the ostensibly unimportant fact that I was “just a kid,” seventeen years old, but that was no defense at all. Aside from an incompetent attorney, a lack of courtroom perspicacity, and my fear of speaking in front of a mob of higher-educated adults, was a rap sheet that was inserted at every opportunity. It served to confirm the idea that I was some inveterate rule-breaker, a danger to society. The scene was more of a show than a sentencing, like a public hanging, and I was the ideal antagonist, unwealthy, unprivileged, unlucky. They were all against me, I thought, and decided not to hand them any more ammunition than they already possessed. I was terrified of being ridiculed by those people, so I remained silent when the judge asked if I had anything to say before she proceeded with sentencing.
My attorney leaned in, whispering. “I think you should say something.”
My eyes doubled in size. A beat thundered in my chest and I was certain it shook my body visibly. I had prepared a response, but all the eloquent words that poured forth so fluidly in practice eluded me.
I stuttered in response. “Oh…uh…do you think it will make a difference?”
He expelled an audible breath, tugged on the lapels of his blazer. “Yes. It can only help.”
I shifted eyes toward my mother and sister sitting in the crowd of onlookers. I swallowed, looked at the judge whose countenance screamed of seriousness.
“I…uh…I know it seems like I’ve done something really bad, but the charge makes it seem worse than it really was, and I know I’ve been arrested a few times already, but I’ve never been punished or incarcerated before and-
“All the more reason why he needs to be punished to the full extent of the law, your honor.” With every utterance the prosecutor intended to vilify me, and she succeeded in presenting me as a teenage, one hundred forty-five pound monster who needed to be dealt with mercilessly.
I was silent. The prosecutor continued with her assault. “And I didn’t hear him apologize, your honor. He’s not even sorry.”
There were volumes I wanted to recite, but only seconds into my bumbling speech I was interrupted and denounced. My fear had come to fruition. The prosecutor didn’t allow me time to complete my thoughts, interjected, then cleverly drew attention to what I hadn’t said, undoubtedly sensing vulnerable prey. I knew I couldn’t win a war of polemics against a resolute prosecutor, I mean, she went to school for this, and me, I was a kid with a GED diploma.
Judge White shuffled papers, a normally slight and insignificant sound but deafening amidst the enveloping silence of the moment. She glared at me. “If that’s it, we can proceed with sentencing. Anything you wish to add Mr. Varela?”
I shook my head. “No, your honor.”
She snatched up a pen, struck it across various sheets of white, yellow, and pink. “Okay then, in the case of The State vs. John Varela…”
I visualized the name; John Varela. I remembered my second grade teacher, Mrs. Rossin, telling me the name John means ‘God is gracious.’ It was my father’s name, well, the anglicized version of it, but he wasn’t here, I thought, not in this room, not in this building, not in this sate and, for the most part, not in this life.
“…charged with one count of Robbery with a Deadly Weapon…”
That’s me, I thought, the armed robber who apparently, judging by the way the lynch mob looked at me, upset the earth, but it would be nice, I would appreciate it, if the official charge, Robbery with a Deadly Weapon, was followed by important details, the kind which could assist onlookers and listeners, but mostly the judge and prosecutor, in grasping a truth that was hidden behind a charge, because there was, I believed, one thing that could have helped me; the revelation of fact, the illustration of my movements within the store, during the commission of the crime, and those judging me would then be informed of what really happened that night, eight months before, when I was still sixteen, when my cousin Jason and I walked half-drunkenly into that store, each of us intent on committing a specific crime so we hurried to the rear of the establishment. He selected some colorful sneakers while I chose a pair of Timberland boots. We put them on and tried to run out of the store, but some guy, a customer, an employee, it wasn’t clear, he grabbed Jason as we were leaving. My cousin withdrew a handgun from his waistband. The man released his grip and we stepped out into the buzzing night air, where there was a team of officers already in place, prepared for our exit, and we were arrested. We tried to steal two pairs of shoes: Robbery with a Deadly Weapon.
“…I hereby sentence you to sixteen years in the Florida department of corrections, followed by ten years probation.”
She raised a pale hand, her bony fingers choking the neck of an oak-colored gavel, manipulating its downward trajectory, and it must’ve sounded with pounding punctuation, but the report never registered with my auditory sense. In those eternal seconds of muted slow-motion I was listening but not hearing, living but not breathing. Her thin shapeless lips snapped at a steady pace, left hand pressed against her pregnant belly, but slightly, quickly, you had to be really focusing to have noticed. The robe’s darkness surrounded her like an aura and hid the pregnancy well, veiling her humanity. I wondered if she would be so unforgiving with her own child.
An impatient voice carried me back. “I asked if you understood all that is going on Mr. Varela.”
“Yes, your honor.” How could I not? You’re sending me to prison, I wanted to say, where I’ll probably die from a knife wound or, if I’m lucky, I might be the one inflicting the torture, pushing an ice-pick through some would-be attackers jugular, then fleeing the scene to the echo of hurried taps, my bare feet slapping wet tile in a bloodied shower stall. I clenched my teeth.
“I need you to sign these,” my lawyer said. He placed some papers before me and handed me a pen. It was a difficult task to perform in handcuffs, but I managed to scribble my name as the steel that bound me clanked repeatedly, an eerie reminder of the captivity I was signing up for.
I staggered back to the juvenile pods of Orange County Jail, still cuffed and shackled, escorted by a nameless, faceless officer. Dazed and unable to focus on anything but my impending prison days, and nights, the flashes of violence I was certain lay ahead. I wondered if I would survive my punishment. Would someone, or some group, try to rape me or kill me? I wondered if all the prison movies were true. I averted my gaze from everyone, trying to conceal eyes that glistened like polished marbles. I had never been so frightened.
The officer reclaimed his chains and let me loose in the pod.
“John, what happened at court today?”
I started up the steps.
“John, what’s up?” It was the same kid, scrawny, too curious.
“They gave me sixteen,” I said without looking back.
“Years?” He stared but seemed to arrive at the proper conclusion: the conversation was finished.
I walked to my cell, the last one on the second tier, and fell into my bunk.
*Please let me know what you think of my writing.
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