Hard Time

by Sarah Martin Banse

Boston, 1993

I was three years older than Johnny, and if I had been in his shoes, I would have either ratted or run.

Every decent defense attorney knows that if you’re selling drugs and the buyer gets out of the car and opens the trunk, you take off. It’s a setup. But poor, stupid Johnny didn’t know he was procuring coke for a Massachusetts state trooper. On his first big drug deal, Johnny got caught in a hand-to-hand sale of an ounce of cocaine to an undercover agent. Richard Nixon may have declared the War on Drugs, but it was Ronald Reagan who signed mandatory minimums into law. That meant Johnny was looking at ten years in Walpole State Prison—no plea deal and he’d do every day of that ten years. It didn’t matter that he was only twenty-four with no priors, or that he had a wife and young son, or that his biggest crime was believing that you could get rich quick.

When Johnny graduated from high school, he got a job working at Sal’s Auto Body in his hometown of Revere. Sal, the owner, wasn’t a gangster per se. Let’s just say he knew people. And, to the average citizen, not all his dealings were entirely above board. Johnny learned how to buff out dents and replace a fender, but what he wanted was to drive a Caddy like Sal. He showed himself to be trustworthy and a go-getter, and it wasn’t long before Sal had him running numbers for him.

Johnny didn’t think the Boston PD was looking for white kids dealing coke, so he didn’t hesitate when Sal brought him into that side of the business. The cops, he thought, wanted black guys selling crack. He wasn’t wrong, but what he didn’t know was that the State Police had had their eye on Sal for months. They weren’t after Johnny; he was just dumb enough to get caught. Sal understood this even if Johnny didn’t, so when Johnny got pinched Sal posted the bail money and brought him to us for representation.

Harry, my boss, had represented Sal for fifteen years. They’d grown up together in Medford along the Mystic Valley Parkway. Sal was Harry’s first paying client. They knew a lot about each other and respected those secrets.

I liked Sal. He’d come into the office to meet with Harry and then take us both out for long lunches and many cocktails. If he brought Johnny to us, he knew Johnny wouldn’t be talking to the police. Sal always proved to be a good judge of character that way. Johnny must have known Sal would take care of his wife and son if he got sent away, and that was more than he could say for his family or hers.

Harry and Sal both knew there wasn’t much of a defense. That’s why they put me on the case. I had been out of law school for a couple of years and had worked for Harry for two years while I was still in school. Harry had let me second seat him on every case for the past four years, but this would be the first where I would take the lead.

I didn’t want it.

It didn’t make me feel any better when Harry said, “Don’t worry about it, Lucy. He’s going away. It will be good practice.”

“Good practice for what?” I asked. We were in the conference room in Harry’s office, a converted warehouse on Long Wharf overlooking the boats that took tourists out whale-watching. “I don’t want to be responsible for him going to jail. He thinks he has a shot at beating this.”

“Don’t be a pussy,” Harry said. “That’s the job and I’ll be there to second seat you. All your clients should feel like they have a chance of winning.” He lit a cigarette and laughed. “You know my motto: innocent until proven broke.”

When I first started working for him as a law clerk, people would ask what kind of law I practiced. They always followed up with, How can you represent someone when you know they’re guilty? I had a pat answer about protecting the Constitution and that I wouldn’t represent rapists or child molesters, but truth be told I liked most of our clients. I suppose I’m attracted to rogues. When you grow up with no money, you learn how to game the system. Right and wrong is never black and white.

I liked the fact that Harry paid me half on the books and half in cash. Every month when I sat down to pay bills, I took a safety pin and poked it through the routing numbers on the bottom right of the check. This would kick the check out of the ATM and then it would have to be processed by hand, which would buy me another week when money was tight. My grandfather had been a bookie, and I thought everyone got football slips at Christmas and had cash wrapped in tinfoil in the freezer marked hamburg.

It was a year from the day they first came into our office to the actual trial date. Johnny was out on bail and thrilled with every continuance I was able to squeeze out of the court. My life hadn’t changed much, though I was finally making enough to afford my own apartment in Charlestown. I had worked three jobs in law school and was happy that I no longer had to waitress at night.

The apartment had huge windows, with two sets of interior shutters that you could open and close in many configurations. At night I liked to board the place up, unlocking just one six-by-nine rectangle that let in light from the streetlamp. It felt like my very own night light. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but over the course of the year I’d had a couple of one-night stands when the shutters didn’t get closed. Each time, during the night, I had woken up and seen the old man in the brownstone opposite staring at me through the window. His name was Carl. He had a Virgin Mary on the half shell in his yard, and he tried to chat me up whenever he saw me on the street. Carl was a good reminder to get my shit together. I sometimes wondered how often he stood there waiting for a glimpse of me and what he really saw.

The assistant district attorney trying the case, Bob Grey, was an idiot. I’d gone to law school with him. He wanted Johnny to plead guilty. He’d call me at my office and badger me as if we were old friends. Win by forfeit is what he wanted. I wasn’t very confident about my trial skills, but I did know I could go up against that dope. He got his job in the DA’s office because his father was a longtime Boston politician, and the DA had no choice but to hire him. I might have gotten my job because I was a cocktail waitress at the bar next to Harry’s office, but I was still smarter than Bob Grey.

We were always going to bring the case to trial.

For ten years in prison, the government should have to meet their burden of proof.  The state’s case relied on the testimony of the state trooper. I cross-examined him hoping to lay the groundwork for an entrapment defense and a not guilty. The suggestion was that the officer gave Johnny the idea to get the cocaine and then persuaded him to sell it. He smirked through the questioning and called me “Missy,” as in, “listen, Missy.” I objected, but he had already put me in my place. My mother used to say that—listen, Missy—when she thought I got too big for my britches. Most every day I felt like trying to be a lawyer was me being too big for my britches. The jury stared right through me. It made me feel small and ashamed, like when I caught Creepy Carl looking at me through the window. But it was Bob Grey’s smirk that gave me the gumption to keep going.

The trial only lasted half a day. The jurors deliberated Thursday afternoon until the judge released them at five o’clock. The clerk told us to stay close to the phone Friday morning; he’d call when the verdict came back. We knew the deliberations would end before lunch; the jury of Johnny’s peers wanted out before the weekend’s commute.

When the judge sent the jury home, Johnny headed home to his mother’s in Revere, free on bail. He knew the score; this would be his last hurrah. Harry and I went to the Parker House for a much-needed drink. The enormity of what we knew would happen when we had signed on as counsel weighed on us. We drank double scotches and smoked silently, reviewing the case in our minds, looking for any scenario that might make it play out differently. I heard Harry swear, and looked up at him.

“What?” I said.

Before he could answer, Bob Grey sidled up to our table.

“Why so down in the mouth, Lucy? Another one of your scumbag clients off the streets is a good thing for the City of Boston,” he said.

“Go fuck yourself,” Harry said, blowing smoke at him.

I took a sip of my drink. “Did Daddy make them give you this case, so you’d finally get to win one?”

Bob laughed. “Yeah, you’re a tough guy, Lucy.” He looked up at the other prosecutors sitting in the corner watching him. “Why don’t you call me if you want someone to lick your wounds when we’re done.” That got a chortle from the other guys at his table.

“Beat it, asshole,” Harry said. Harry got quiet for a minute after he left and stared at his drink as he swirled it in his hand. “Don’t let douchebags talk to you like that,” he said.

I laughed.

“I’m serious,” he said.

“It would be a full-time job to get incensed every time some misogynist pig opened their mouth,” I said. “Bob Grey thinks he has power over me, so let him. What do I care?” I pulled a cigarette from the pack and Harry leaned to light it. I took a big drag and exhaled. “I have power over him, you know.”

“Really,” Harry said. “How?”

“Why do you send me to talk to the court officers or the clerk when we’re in court?”

“Well, you’re young and kinder on the eyes than I am.”

“Exactly, and I’m nice to them and they’re rooting for me. You think I don’t know I have long legs?” I sat back in my chair and crossed my legs the other way. “You get used to dealing with guys like Bob Grey all day long.”

Harry raised his eyebrows at me, like: Sure, whatever you say.

I turned my attention to my drink and savored the burn as it went down. I couldn’t help thinking of Johnny, and I tried to imagine what I might be doing if this was my last night of freedom for a decade.

“Hey, Harry, what would you be doing tonight if you were Johnny?”

He sat and thought for a minute and then described a filet mignon dinner at Locke-Ober, complete with potatoes Anna and popovers. “I’d drink a great bottle of red wine with a beautiful woman—if I could find one—and hopefully get laid. Then I’d go and find my college buddies and drink as much booze as I could.” He stopped and looked at me. “What? Why are you laughing?”

“It sounds like a typical Friday night for you. You start off all nice and then end up stumbling down Washington Street like a gutter drunk.”

“I don’t think you want to enter Walpole State Prison feeling all high and mighty.”

I took a big gulp of my drink and weighed the glass in my hand. He didn’t ask me what I would do, and I was glad because I was thinking I would definitely run. In my case, it would probably be my mother who posted bail and she’d have had to use her house as collateral. A house she worked years for. Knowing that, I would still skip town and not look back. I didn’t think I could survive the decade: three thousand, six hundred, and fifty days.

Harry half-heartedly asked if we should get dinner, and I told him no, I thought I’d head home.

“Take a cab, will you? Harry said. “Don’t get cheap and walk.”

“Hey, I’m not in a position to be big spender like you, but it’s too cold to walk.” I drained my glass. “I think all of this just hit me.”

“All right, get home safe,” he said. “I think I’m going to make another stop before I call it a night.” I found a cab in front of the hotel.

I got home to a cold, dark apartment. The shutters were still closed from the night before. I couldn’t decide if I was hungry, tired, or drunk, and I plopped myself onto the couch to gather my thoughts. As I sat, it hit me that in Johnny’s situation I’d be sitting here all alone in much the same way, waiting for tomorrow. My family wasn’t local, and I was basically alone in the city. Maybe they would come for a last supper, but maybe not. I had two older brothers and we weren’t close. I didn’t have any friends among my colleagues or law school classmates. It’s true what they say about lawyers: most of them are assholes. I spent my days surrounded by people I didn’t like, defending people I mostly couldn’t help. Harry would show up, but that was about it.

I woke up on the sofa with a stiff neck, still in my suit. Daylight shone through the shutters and hit me right in the eyes. My watch said 6:00 a.m. This was the day I had been dreading for over a year. I got up, opened the shutters, and surveyed the street below me. It was garbage day and trash bags crowded the sidewalk. The bags always made me think of rats and, though I knew it was silly, I often ran down the sidewalks on trash day.

Harry had opened the office before I got there, and it appeared he hadn’t slept at all. Johnny arrived at 8:30, alone, wearing the suit he’d been married in a year earlier. He had worn a navy blue blazer to court, his white shirt crisp and starched, his black shoes shined.

Notwithstanding the suit, he looked awful. He hadn’t shaved and had a dark, uneven growth on his puffy face; his eyes were red-rimmed. From behind he could have been any young businessman, but when he turned around his eyes completely negated that impression.

We all holed up in the conference room with coffee and a carton of cigarettes. Johnny lit one after another. He smoked one with his left hand and tapped another on the table with his right. The tapping seemed to be in time with the table that shook from his jiggling leg underneath. I was talking about the Big Dig when he interrupted.

“I left Jackie last night,” he said.

It turned out that he had sat down to a big spaghetti dinner with twenty of his closest relatives. When it was over, he and Jackie left the baby with his mother and went to their apartment around the corner. I’d been there once and the six rooms felt like a real home, unlike mine. Johnny and Jackie had started dating in tenth grade and no one thought it would last, but they were happy. She had a job at a daycare center where she could bring the baby and he worked for Sal. Every Friday they had a date night.

“We did it, you know,” Johnny said, glancing at me as if perhaps he ought to apologize. “And then I told her I wanted a divorce. She didn’t believe me at first, but I knew she wouldn’t wait for me for ten years, even if she really wanted to.”

Harry leaned over and lit Johnny’s cigarette, then his, and finally mine. Smoke filled the room, and I tried to feel something other than dread.

“What’d Jackie say?” Harry asked. The phone rang and we ignored it, hoping the secretaries would pick it up.

“She cried a lot, and I couldn’t take it, you know. I told her if things went my way, I’d be home for dinner and then we never had this conversation. But it didn’t make things any better.”

“Shit,” Harry muttered.

“That was easy compared to leaving JJ.” Johnny paused and took a deep breath and blew it out slow. I think to hold back tears. “That kid doesn’t need a convict for a father. I don’t want him coming to Walpole on Christmas and Father’s Day. I told her to tell him I’m dead. I’ll be his long-lost uncle, when I get out.”

I wanted to look him in the eye and tell him everything would be all right.

He said he drove to the Shamrock, a dirty little dive bar where he and his brother Ronnie sometimes drank after work. Bootsie McLaughlin, the owner, gave them the back room and Ronnie filled it with guys from the neighborhood and strippers. The festivities lasted all night. Ronnie returned Johnny to his mother’s at 6:00, where she had his clothes ready. He couldn’t eat. I don’t why I felt so sad that he’d passed up his mother’s bacon and eggs.

“I asked her not to come to court today.” He looked at his suit and wiped at the shoulders. “It’s still wet from where she hugged me”

The call came at ten, earlier than we expected. The jury hadn’t started deliberating until nine. We could have walked to the courthouse, but it was January in Boston, the kind of day where the wind leaves you crying and breathless. We crammed into the back of a cab. The cabbie tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to Aerosmith. Johnny sang along to “Janie’s Got a Gun” as he stared out the window. As we rode, I tried to think of a word to describe the moment.

We were grateful for the traffic. A ten-minute walk took us a half hour as we inched up State Street. At eleven, the jury marched backed in. We stood. They all looked away as they passed in front of the defense table and seated themselves in the box. That was never a good sign.

The judge asked if they had reached a verdict. The forewoman stood and said they had and handed it to the court officer. He read the slip and looked up.

“What say you?”

“We, the jury, find the defendant guilty.”

As he stood at the defense table, Johnny grabbed the bottom to steady himself. I looked at Harry and back at Johnny. The jury stared at Bob Grey at the prosecution table.

“Your honor,” I said, “I would like to poll the jury.”

The jury was not prepared for this, but I wanted them to look Johnny in the eye before they sent him away. They stood, pushing their chairs back slowly and deliberately. One by one they said, “Guilty.”

When the last juror stood, I could see Johnny’s shoulder tense and his grip on the table tighten. Before I could turn to console him, he overturned the large oak table.

Court officers raced from the back and threw him to the floor. His head hit with a thud. They pinned and cuffed him in front of the bench. The jurors stood by wide-eyed and shaken as the judge slammed his gavel, demanding order. The officers hauled Johnny out, his feet dragging behind him. The clerk and Harry righted the table. I stared at the jury while the judge imposed his sentence: ten years in Walpole State Prison.

Johnny’s outburst had surprised me as much as anyone. We all knew what the result was going to be, and I wondered if I should have let Johnny think there was a chance.

We went to lockup to visit him. He would be transferred later in the day. We found him sitting on a hard wooden bench, his head in his hands.

“Hey, that was quite a show,” I said through the bars, while I handed him two aspirins.

He got up from the bench and took the pills and popped them with no water. Then he grabbed the bars with two hands, head hung low. I’d been to the Suffolk Superior Court House lockup on many occasions, but that day it seemed particularly dank and the smell of piss was overwhelming.

“Yeah, sorry about that. It was that last guy, in the same suit as me. I’m not sure what happened. It all seemed too easy. I’m going away for ten years, I just wanted them to remember me.”

“Well, by the look on their faces, they will.”

“Tell Ronnie and my dad not to tell my mother about that. She raised me better.”

That was it. Harry grabbed Johnny by the forearm briefly and walked away. I held Johnny’s hand and he squeezed mine. Harry called from the door; otherwise I would have just held on. Harry grabbed me by the elbow and directed me to the elevator. “No good can come of lingering once the verdict is in,” he said.

“That seems cold,” I said.

“Well, self-preservation usually is.”

We rode down to street level in silence. When the doors opened, Harry said, “C’mon, I’ll buy you lunch.” I realized I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. I still had no appetite.

“I think I’m just going to head home,” I said.

“You all right?” Harry asked.

“Yeah,” I said. I stopped to wrap my scarf across my face so Harry couldn’t see my expression. “It’s just that, he’s a good kid ….” I would not cry in front of him. “I didn’t get much sleep last night,” I said. “I’m just going to call it a day.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Harry said. We started to walk in opposite directions, and he turned and called my name. He said, “You did a good job, Luce. You really did.”

I waved and kept walking.

The wind cut through me as I crossed Government Center. I should have taken a cab, but it felt like the walk somehow proved my mettle. By the time I got close to home my feet were so cold it hurt to walk. I went on past my street to the Papa Gino’s next to the Johnnie’s Foodmaster. I ordered a small cheeseburger pizza and was happy to sit in the hard booth and wait for it, the warmth from the pizza ovens thawing my feet. I usually made small talk with the kid behind the counter, but today I just put my head on my arms on the table. When the pizza was ready, the kid called my name and I made my way to the counter. He handed it to me and said, “This one’s on me.” I started to well up and he looked away.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said and threw a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. He started to say something, but I grabbed the pizza and headed out. As I walked the three blocks home, I regretted being unable to accept that small gesture of kindness. When I got home, I left the pizza on the counter and headed for the shower. The hot water made my extremities hurt but helped my mood.

I must have been in the shower over an hour. When I got out, I put on my college sweats, retrieved my cold pizza, and made my way to the couch. The plan was to not move for the weekend. I stopped to open the shutters and there was Creepy Carl staring at me.

I stared back, looking him right in the eye. He gave me a full-toothed lecherous smile.

I planted my feet and gave him the finger.

His smile disappeared.

I imagine he felt he was truly wronged.

Published on August 18, 2022