Playdates and executions
“Take your work seriously, but never yourself.” —Dame Margot Fonteyn
“Do you sell the size 4 leotards in white or just pink?” I whisper into my cell as I hunch over in my seat in the back of the courtroom. “Well, I mean, don’t you think a 6 would be too big? Or do they shrink?”
“Jury is coming back. Court is back in session. Order in the courtroom,” the deputy’s voice booms as everyone quickly shuffles back to their seats.
“Got to go,” I say to the bewildered salesperson and shut the phone, trying not to make a loud click.
For Christ’s sake, not again. Every time I get in the middle of something, it happens: The jury comes back with a verdict. I’ve got two days, two days, to find a white leotard for Mallory’s ballet class. For some reason they have to wear frigging white this year, not pink, and wear their hair in buns like girls out of a nineteenth-century painting. I don’t know how to do a frigging bun (I can barely manage a ponytail), and I certainly don’t have time to run all over town looking for a white leotard.
“Madame, do you have a unanimous verdict?” the judge asks the foreperson of the jury from his perch on the bench. His eyes peer over the wire-framed glasses teetering on the bridge of his nose. Nothing, I mean nothing, pisses off judges more than the sound of a cell phone ringing. I quickly double-check and make absolutely sure mine is on vibrate.
Sure enough, as the judge waits for the answer from the jury, my phone starts vibrating wildly in my hand like a live fish on the deck of a boat. I grab it just in time to keep it from slipping out of my hand onto the floor. A name comes up on the caller ID. It’s the mother of one of Mallory’s friends. We’ve been trying to connect for a week to set up a playdate, but I keep missing her calls because of more pressing issues, like a murder trial.
“Yes, your honor, we have a unanimous verdict,” the foreperson says to the judge, her fingers shaking visibly as she hands the paper to the clerk. The clerk, in turn, hands the paper to the judge. After reading it, the judge hands it back to the clerk.
I’ve seen this a thousand times, but every time I’m still fascinated by the fact that a person’s life is literally in the hands of twelve people, twelve regular people like you and me. I never tire of the human drama in the courtroom; the problem is that at the same time I often have my own human drama going on at home.
It takes every shred of resolve that I have not to answer the phone. Clearly, I can’t do it now that court is back in session and a man’s life is on the line. But my sanity is on this line. It’s just one more call that I have to return. One more call that I have no time to return. One more call I will forget to return.
“The jury finds the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree,” the clerk reads from her spot next to the judge’s bench. The courtroom erupts. There are tears of sadness from the defendant’s family on one side of the room, and hugs and tears of joy from the victim’s family on the other side of the room. Tripods click as photographers take their cameras down, and papers shuffle as reporters close their laptops and stuff everything into their briefcases for the mad dash into the hall.
It’s what we in the business call a gang-bang. We chase everyone into the hallway and ambush them into doing interviews with us. For some reason the crowd mentality seems to actually encourage people to talk to us. It’s like they feel like they don’t have a choice.
My phone vibrates again. I wish I could be one of those people who just ignored it, just stuffed it into my bag and forgot about it, but I can’t. It’s a sickness. I have to know who is calling. This time I can see it’s my daughters’ doctor’s office. The nurse is calling me to let me know if Mallory’s strep culture is positive. Damn, I hope she leaves the message on my voice mail and doesn’t make me call her back for the information. I’ll never get through to her if I have to call her back. I’ll be in Voice Mail Hell, where no matter how hard you try you can never talk to a real human being. It’s maddening.
But I can’t worry about the strep test right now. After all, if she has it, she’s already probably infected half her class. What good is it going to do to yank her out of class at this late hour?
The judge decides to take a break before sentencing. We jump up like the professionals we are and try to beat one another to the doorway. It’s a very mature game that we play, especially in light of the human tragedy that the case represents. We’re all hoping to get family members and lawyers on camera. Preferably, we want to interview someone from each camp on either side of the case. I reach into my jacket for my reporter’s notebook and pull out a plastic horse and a lollipop. Wrong pocket. I finally locate the pad and ... a Strawberry Shortcake pencil.
The gaggle of reporters and photographers is pushing in on the crying mother of the defendant, everyone jockeying for position. I drop to the floor on my knees in front of the woman, arching my back to keep the microphone high and near her face. She’s sobbing. I’m thinking that my back is sore from pushing the baby jogger up the big hill from the park on Saturday afternoon. Focus, I tell myself, focus.
After the interview we make another mad dash down six flights of stairs to the street, where our live truck is waiting. I’m balancing my open computer on my forearm, carrying a pile of tapes in my hand, and swinging my briefcase behind me, hoping papers don’t scatter, or worse yet, hoping I don’t hit some poor old lady in the head.
I really want to get bottled water from the machine, but I have only four quarters, and two I’m saving for Mallory’s United States coin collection. Don’t ask me how we got into this. I’m not a collector. I actually abhor collections of any kind. But somehow I mentioned to her one day that it would be cool to collect a quarter from each state, and now here I am dehydrating myself so that she can have her collection.
This is usually about the time my news desk calls, when I’m on deadline and can’t spare a minute to pee, let alone answer a tedious question that would require a simple Google on their part. But don’t get me started on people who work in air-conditioned cubicles versus those of us who work in the real, sweaty world where eating and peeing can be luxuries on a busy day.
“Yeah, don’t know the answer to that. I probably won’t have time in the next twenty-seven minutes to find that out,” I say, trying to catch my breath after navigating the stairs in too-high heels at high speed. “Hold on, I’ve got another call. I’ve got to take this,” I say, clicking over. I’m greeted by Chloe’s cherubic voice.
“Hi, sweetie, how are you?” I say, immediately changing my tone from serious Lois Lane to a loving Doris Day. “I love you, too! Did you have a good day? Did you go to time-out? Well, why did you hit him? That’s not nice. Did you say you were sorry? Good. What about the potty? Did you go in the potty? Just one accident? Well, that’s okay. Mommy’s got to go. I’ll see you at home, love you! Let me talk to Daddy.”
Grif gets on the phone and I’m back to Lois Lane. “Hey, I’m on deadline, call you later.”
Obviously I have my priorities straight, at least in my mind I do. I never decline a call from my girls, even on deadline, and I always make deadline.
By this time my news desk has hung up on the other line and I’m frantically tapping on my computer, trying to come up with a coherent script that can be edited and air in twenty-three minutes. As usual, I make it on the air with seconds to spare, and I never regret taking Chloe’s call.
Excerpted from "Smotherhood" by Amanda Lamb. Copyright 2007. Reprinted by permission of Globe Pequot Books. All rights reserved.