“How old are you, Mr. Danvers?” Judge Forrester asked.
He was an impressive man with patriarchal features, a sharp nose and dark hair that was graying at the sides. He looked distinguished and extremely intimidating, but despite my increased pulse rate, I kept my expression calm.
“Twenty-three, Your Honor,” I replied.
Judge Forrester nodded. “I have a son that’s twenty-three,” he said, and I saw him soften towards me.
Perhaps paternal love was what would save me here. It was ironic, really, that I should receive some small amount of empathy from a total stranger who had been called upon to sentence me when my own father didn’t have one shred of understanding for me.
“I know this question is irrelevant,” Judge Forrester said. “But I’m curious. I see countless young men go through this courtroom, most of them are even younger than you are. They’re all selling some kind of narcotic. Usually, I can guess at the reason, but with you, I find myself a little stumped.”
I could only take that as a compliment, but I knew enough about judges and people in law enforcement to know not to try to be funny or cute. I needed to be straight, I needed to speak with respect, and I need to take the whole thing seriously.
“I don’t do drugs, Your Honor,” I told him. “I only sell. And I only sell marijuana… nothing hard.”
“It’s still illegal in this state, Mr. Danvers.”
“I understand, Your Honor,” I nodded. “But… I suppose that is the way I justify my actions.”
“You don’t do drugs?”
“No, Your Honor.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“I know my word might be a difficult thing for you to take at this moment, but I do not deny selling pot. I do deny using pot.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s counter-productive,” I replied immediately. “It interferes with my work.”
Judge Forrester looked intensely intrigued, and I could sense that he liked me. I hoped that that would last until he sentenced me. I was hoping for a lenient one. Especially considering my parents were sitting in the back rows of the courtroom, listening intently. They had slipped in surreptitiously, but I had still noticed. Dad was actually wearing a blazer. Of course he was; this was quite the occasion for him.
“Your work?” Judge Forrester repeated. “And what work might that be?”
“I’m an artist, Your Honor,” I replied, and despite the distance between us, I could almost feel the disappointment and disapproval wafting towards me from where my parents sat. “At least… I like to think of myself as one.”
“An artist?” Judge Forrester said, with interest. “What kind of art do you create?”
“All kinds, Your Honor,” I replied. “I love street art, and I use that as inspiration for my paintings. But I incorporate lots of different mediums… whatever I need to bring to life my subject matter.”
“Did you go to school to study art?”
“I did, Your Honor,” I nodded. “I graduated almost a year ago with a degree in fine arts from New York University.”
I saw Judge Forrester’s eyebrows rise and I knew I had impressed him. I hoped that my parents would notice the same thing, but I knew they would never interpret his reaction that way. They were too small-minded… and far too proud to admit that their opinions might be backward.
“I see,” Judge Forrester nodded. “And you decided to compromise your future as an artist by selling drugs?”
“No, Your Honor,” I said. “I was trying to secure my future as an artist by selling drugs. The truth is I worked very hard to get into a university in the first place. I even qualified for a ten-percent scholarship for my senior year. But it still wasn’t enough, I had expenses and by the time I had graduated, I was drowning in student loans and my day job wasn’t even enough to be able to afford rent.
“I didn’t want to stop creating my art. So I chose to sell drugs so that I could continue my work, pay off my student loans and attempt to make ends meet somehow.”
Judge Forrester looked at me through narrowed eyes. “And did you have no one you could turn to for support?” he asked.
I suppressed a sigh, but I spoke a little louder to make sure that my parents would hear. “No,” I said. “I had no support.”
“You don’t have parents?”
“Not ones that support what I do,” I told the judge. “When I told them I was not going into medicine like my father, they cut me off. They made it clear that I would get no backing from them. They effectively disowned me.”
Judge Forrester’s expression was passive but thoughtful. I wondered if he would be less inclined to give me a hefty sentence in light of my sorry family situation. I also wondered if he would want to speak to my parents to corroborate my story.
“Let me ask you this,” Judge Forrester said, at last. “Do you still want to pursue a career in the arts?”
“I do, Your Honor,” I said immediately. “That is the only thing I’m passionate about. That’s the only thing I’m good at.”
“It’s not easy to do what you do these days… it’s very rarely profitable.”
“I know, Your Honor,” I said. “And I understand that I may have to live hand to mouth my entire life. But… it’s still worth it.”
“Is it really?” Judge Forrester asked. “If pushing drugs is the only thing that will allow you to support this lifestyle?”
I paused. He was giving me an out in a way. He was trying to extract a promise out of me so that he would be justified in giving me a lesser sentence.
“I… I suppose I will need to put my artistic dreams aside for now,” I said. “If I am lucky enough to walk out of here today, I’m going to have to wait till I can afford to pursue the career I really want.”
Judge Forrester sighed. “I hope you know that I take no pleasure in extracting that kind of statement from you,” he said. “I am a big supporter of the arts, and it is a community that needs to be nurtured and encouraged. My goal is never to advise a young artist to put aside his or her dreams. But every case is different. If pushing drugs is the only way you can be an artist, then being an artist needs to wait. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” I nodded. “I understand.”
Judge Forrester kept his shrewd eyes on me and nodded. “Given the evidence collected against you, sentencing is necessary. I don’t like to put men in jail, Mr. Danvers. Once they go into the system, they become part of a cycle that’s hard to get out of. I think you can be a useful part of society if only you commit to turning your life around.”
“I will certainly try to be a useful part of society, Your Honor,” I said, saying the words I knew he was expecting to hear.
The truth was I was upset and disappointed. I was looking at jail time, no matter how small, and even if I managed to escape jail time, I wouldn’t be able to support my artistic goals. I would be back to square one, and the degree I had fought so hard to achieve would be completely pointless, a waste of my time.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Judge Forrester nodded. “You have a clean record, Mr. Danvers, and so considering this is your first offense, I’m unwilling to give you any jail time.”
I breathed an inward sigh of relief, and I felt my spirits lift somewhat. “Thank you, Your Honor,” I said immediately.
“But you do not get off scot-free, Mr. Danvers,” Judge Forrester said, in his deep, authoritative voice. “No matter your motives, you still committed a crime, and for that, there has to be a punishment. I’m sentencing you to five hundred hours of community service. I will give you six months in which to complete it.”
Five hundred hours. I felt my insides squirm a little. Not only would I need to find myself a job with decent pay, but I would also have to fulfill five hundred hours of community service. I did a little quick math in my head and realized that in order to meet that commitment, I would need to put in at least three hours of community service every day for the next six months. Which meant that I would have absolutely no time left over to focus on my creative pursuits. I started to feel a little claustrophobic, but I reminded myself that I was extremely lucky to have received such a lenient sentence.
“The local fire department needs some help,” Judge Forrester said, looking at a few documents in front of him that I couldn’t see. “But there are a few more places that require volunteers. You can choose from the list if you’d like.”
“The fire station is fine, Your Honor,” I said, figuring that might be the most interesting place to be.
“Good,” Judge Forrester nodded. “You can start tomorrow. Make sure you meet with your supervisor before and after you finish. If your hours are not in the books, then they don’t count.”
“I understand, Your Honor,” I nodded.
“Good, then you are free to go,” Judge Forrester nodded.
“Thank you, Your Honor,” I said, and at that moment, I was truly grateful to have avoided jail.
The moment court was adjourned, I turned to the public defender that the state had provided for me and gave him a nod. “Thanks,” I nodded, despite the fact that he hadn’t done a whole heck of a lot to help me in my opinion.
“No problem,” Reese replied. “All in a day’s work.”
I walked out of the courtroom with him, but when I passed the seats my parents had been sitting at, they were already gone. Just as well; it’s not like they would have wanted to celebrate with me. I had just said goodbye to Reese, and I was walking down the steps of the courthouse when I noticed my father standing to one side of the steps in his ceremonial blazer. We made eye contact and I thought about walking past him, but then my mother stepped up beside him, and I decided to be the bigger person.
I walked up to both of them. Mom looked a little older and a little thinner. It was the natural progression being married to my father. He had a way of sucking the life out of you… ironic, considering he was a heart surgeon.
“Looks like you got all dressed up for nothing,” I said. “I managed to avoid jail time.”
“If that judge knew anything about the criminal justice system,” dad replied, in his emotionless voice, “he would have given you something… how will society ever learn if you’re constantly being let off the hook?”
“Let off the hook?” I demanded. “I would exactly call being sentenced to five hundred hours of fucking community service being let off the hook.”
I saw mom flinch and dad turned to me with his cold eyes. “Watch your language.”
“You know your mother hates that kind of talk,” dad said. “I would think you’d have enough decency to at least respect her.”
I turned to her and saw the same timid woman who had raised me. She was not capable of fighting back, which was probably one of the reasons dad had married her. He never liked anyone who disagreed with him.
“How are you, mom?” I asked, softening my tone.
“Disappointed,” she replied shortly. She had always been a woman of very few words, and yet she managed to hide whole speeches in the few words she did speak.
“Well, did you ever stop to think that I might be disappointed too?” I asked.
“You should be,” dad said firmly. “You broke the law. You degraded yourself and our family. You brought yourself down to the level of a common drug mule. We are a respectable family… we are a decent family and you—”
“I didn’t mean I was disappointed in myself,” I interrupted coldly, unwilling to hear dad’s soapbox speech all over again. “I meant I was disappointed in you… in both of you… my parents.”
“In us?” dad asked incredulously.
“Yes,” I hissed back. “Because you turned your back on me because I refused to be what you wanted me to be. You cut me off because I had the audacity to form my own opinions and thoughts and to pursue my own path. You cut me off because I refused to be controlled.”
“And that worked out well for you, did it?” dad mocked. “Look at you now.”
“You think that’s an insult?” I demanded. “You don’t get it, do you? I don’t want to be you. I never wanted to be you. And all the jail time in the world will be worth it if it means I never end up like you.”
I didn’t wait for either one of them to respond. Dad opened his mouth to say something, but I had already turned around and walked away.