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Palais de Justice – A Short Story

Palais de Justice – A Short Story

Mark Helprin –

In a lesser chamber of Suffolk County Courthouse on a day in early August, 1965. the hottest day of the year, a Boston judge slammed down his heavy gavel, and its pistol-like report threw the room into disarray. Within a few minutes, everyone had gone, judge, court reporters, blue-shirted police, and a Portuguese family dressed as if for a wedding to witness the trial of their son. The door was shut. Wood and marble remained at attention in dead silence. For quite a while the room must have been doing whatever rooms do when they are completely empty. Perhaps air currents were stabilizing, coming to a halt, or spiders were beginning to crawl about, up high in the woodwork. The silence was beginning to set when the door opened and the defense attorney re-entered to retrieve some papers. He went to his seat, sat down, and ran his hands over the smooth tabletop – no papers. He glanced at the chairs, and then bent to see under the table – no papers. He touched his nose and looked perplexed. “I know I left them here,” he said to the empty courtroom. “I thought I left them here. Memory must be going, oh well.”

But his memory was excellent, as it had always been. He enjoyed pretending that in his early sixties he was losing his faculties, and he delighted in the puzzlement of where the papers had gone. The first was an opportunity for graceful abstention and serene neutrality, the second a problem designed to fill a former prosecutor’s mind as he made his way out of the courthouse, passing through a great hall arched like a cathedral and mitered by hot white shafts of grainy light.

Years before, when he had had his first trial, one could not see the vault of the roof. It was too high and dark. But then they had put up a string of opaque lighting globs, which clung to the paneled arches like risen balloons and lit the curving ceiling.

One day a clerk had been playing a radio so loudly that it echoed through the building. The Mayor of Boston appeared unexpectedly and stood in the middle of the marble floor, emptiness and air rising hundreds of feet above him. “Turn that radio off!” He screamed, but the clerk could not hear him. Alone on the floor with a silent crowd staring from the perimeter, the Mayor turned angrily and scanned halls and galleries trying to find direction for his rage, but could not tell from where the sound came and so pivoted on the smooth stone and filled the chamber with his voice. “I am your mayor. Turn it off, do you hear me, damn you to hell. I am your mayor!” The radio was silenced and all that could be heard was the echo of the Mayor’s voice. The defense attorney had looked up as if to see its last remnants rising through rafters of daylight, and had seen several birds, flushed from hidden nesting places, coursing to and fro near the ceiling, threading through the light rays. No one but the defense attorney saw them or the clerk, a homely, frightened woman who, when the Mayor had long gone, came out and carefully peered over a balcony to see where he had stood. It was then that the defense attorney saw the intricate motif of the roof, past the homely women, the birds, and the light.

Now he went from chamber to chamber, and hall to hall, progressing through layers of rising temperature until he stood on the street in a daze. It was so hot that people moved as if in a baking desert, their expressions as blank and beaten as a Tuareg’s mask and impassive eyes. The stonework radiated heat. A view of Chalestown’s mountains and forests of red brick, and gray shark-colored warships drawn up row upon row at the Navy Yard – danced in bright waves of air like a mirage. Across the harbor, places made languid approaches to whitened runways. They glided so slowly it looks as if they were hesitant to come down. Despite the heat there was little haze, even near the sea. A Plains August had grasped New England, and Boston was quiet.

“Good,” thought the defense attorney, “there won’t be a single soul on the river. I’ll have it all to myself, and it’ll be as smooth as glass.” He had been a great oarsman. Soon it would be half a century of near-silent speed up and down the Charles in thin light racing shells, always alone. The fewer people on the river, the better. He often saw wonderful sights along the banks, even after the new roads and bridges had been built. Somehow, pieces of the countryside held out and the idea of the place stayed much the same, though in form it was a far cry from the hot meadows, dirt roads, and wooden fences he had gazed upon in his best and fastest years. But just days before, he had seen a mother and her infant son sitting on the weir, looking out at the water and at him as he passed. The child was so beautiful as the woman held up his head and pointed his puzzled stare out over river and fields, that the defense attorney had shaken in his boat – having been filled with love them. Then there were the ducks, who slept standing with heads tucked under their wings. Over fifty years he had learned to imitate them precisely, and often woke them as he passed, oars dipping quietly and powerfully to speed him by. Invariably, they looked up to search for another duck.

“You shouldn’t be going out today, Professor,” said Pete, who was in charge of the boathouse. “No one’s out. It’s too hot.”

He was a stocky Dubliner with a dialect strong enough to make plants green. When he carried one end of the narrow craft down the sloping dock to the river he seemed to the defense attorney to resemble the compact engines which push and pull ships in the Panama Canal. Usually the oarsman holding the stern was hardly as graceful or deliberative as Pete, but struggled to avoid getting splinters in his bare feet.

“I haven’t seen one boat all of today.” Pete looked at him, waiting for him to give up and go home. The defense attorney knew that Pete wanted to call the Department of Athletics and have the boathouse closed at two so he could go to tend his garden. “Really, not one boat. You could get heat stroke you know. I saw it in North Africa during the War – terrible thing, terrible thing. Like putting salt on a leech.

The defense attorney was about to give in, when someone else walked up to the log book and signed so purposefully that Pete changed his strategy, saying to both of them, “If I were you now, I wouldn’t stay out too long, not in this weather.”

They went as they did each day to get S-40, the best of the old boats. It was the last boat Pat Shea had built for Harvard before he was killed overseas. Though already a full professor in the Law School and over draft age, the defense attorney had volunteered, and did not see his wife or his children for three solid years. When he returned – and those were glorious days when his children were young and suddenly talking, and his wife more beautiful than she had ever been – he went down to the boathouse and there was S-40, gleaming from disuse. Pat Shea was dead in the Pacific, but his boat was as ready as a Thoroughbred in the paddock. For twenty years the defense attorney had rowed loyally in S-40, preferring it to the new boats of unpronounceably named resins – computer designed, from wind tunnels, with riggers lighter than air and self-lubricating ball bearings on the sliding seat, where S-40 had the same brass wheels Pat Shea had used when he had begun building boats in 1919. S-40 had seasoned into a dark blood color, and the defense attorney knew its every whim.

As they carried it from the shadows into blinding light, the defense attorney noticed the other sculler. He could not have been much over twenty, but was so large that he made the two older men feel diminutive. He was lean, muscled, and thick at the neck and shoulders. His face was pitted beneath a dark tan, and his hair long and tied up on his head in an Iroquois topknot. He looked like a Spartan with hair coiled before battle, and was ugly and savage in his stance. Nevertheless, the defense attorney, fond of his students and of his son who had just passed that age, smiled as he passed. He received as recompense a sneer of contempt, and he heard the words “old man” spoken with astonishing hatred.

“Who the hell is that?” asked the defense attorney of Pete as they set S-40 down on the lakelike water.

“I don’t know. I never seen him before, and I don’t like the looks of him. He brought his own boat, too, one of those new ones. He wants me to help him bring it down. Of course I’ll have to. I’ll take me time, and you can get a good head start so’s you’ll be along up river,” said Pete, knowing that informal races were common, and that if two boats pulled up even it nearly always became a contest. He wanted to spare the defense attorney the humiliation of being beaten by the unpleasant young man who had meanwhile disappeared into the darkness of the boathouse.

As S-40 pulled out and made slowly for the Anderson Bridge, the young man, whom the defense attorney had already christened “the barbarian,” walked down the ramp, with his boat across his shoulders. Even from 100 feet out the defense attorney heard Pete say, “You didn’t have to do that. I would have helped you.” No matter, thought the defense attorney, by the time he gets it in the water, places his oars, and fine tunes all his allow locks and stretchers, I’ll be at the Eliot Bridge and in open water with a nice distance between us. He had no desire to race, because he knew that although he could not beat a young athlete in a boat half as light as S-40, he would try his best to do so. On such a hot day, racing was out of the question. In fact, he resolved to let the young man pass should he be good enough to catch up. For it was better to be humiliated and alive than dead at the finish line. He cannot possibly humiliate me anyway, he thought. A young man in a new-style boat will obviously do better than a man three times his age in a wood shell. But, he thought, this boat and I know the river. I have a good lead. I can pace myself as I watch him, and what I do not have in strength I may very well possess in concentration and skill.

And so he started at a good pace, sweeping across glass faced waters in the large swelling of the stream just north of the Anderson Bridge, gauging his speed expertly from the passage of round turbulent spots where the oars had been, and sensing on the periphery of vision the metered transit of tall ranks of sycamores on the Cambridge side. He was the only man on the river, which was glossy and green with a thick tide of beadlike algae. Always driven to the river by great heat, dogs loped along with the gait of trained horses, splashing up a wave as they ran free in the shallows. S-40 had taut blue canvas decking, and oars of lacquered yellow wood with black and white blades. The riggers were silver-colored, an alloy modification, and the only thing modern about the boat. The defense attorney was lean and tanned, with short white hair… His face was kind and quiet, and though small in stature, he was very strong, and looked impressive in his starched white rowing shorts. The blue decking shone against the green water as in a filtered photograph of a sailing regatta.

It seemed to him that the lonely condition upon the river was a true condition. Though he had a lot of love in his life, he knew from innumerable losses and separations that one stands alone or not at all. And yet, he had sought the love of women and the friendship of men as if he were a dog rasping through the bushes in search of birds or game. Women were for him so lovely and central to all he found important that their absence, as in the war, was the stiffest sentence he could imagine, and he pictured hell as being completely without them – although from experience he knew that they must have filled a wing or two there to the brim. Often, as he rowed, he slackened to think of the grace and beauty of girls and women he had known or loved. He remembered how sometime in the middle Twenties, when he was courting his wife, he had passed a great bed of water lilies in the wide bay before Watertown. He grasped one for her as he glided by, and put it in the front of the boat. But when he reached the dock the flower had wilted and died. The next day he stopped his light craft and pulled deep down on a long supple stem. Then he tied it to the riggers and rowed back with the lily dangling in the water so that he was able to preserve it, a justly appreciated rate flower. But people did not “court” anymore.

He resumed his pace, even though, without straining, he was a dripping wet as if he had been in a sauna for five minutes. Rounding the bend before the Eliot Bridge, he saw the young man in his new-style boat, making excellent speed town him. He had intended to go beyond the Eliot, Arsenal, Street, and North Beacon bridges to the bay where the lilies still grew, where it was easy to turn (although he could turn in place) and then to come back. All told, it was a course of six miles. It would not pay to go fast over that distance in such killing heat. If they were to race, the finish would have to be the last bridge out. By the time he passed under the Eliot Bridge, with two more bridges to go, the young man had closed to within a few hundred yards.

His resolutions fell away as if they were light November ice easy to break with oars and prow. Almost automatically, he quickened his pace to that of the young man, who, after a furious initial sprint, had been forced to slow somewhat and retrieve his breath. The defense attorney knew that once he had it he would again pour on speed in the excessive way youth allowed, and so the defense attorney husbanded his strength, going as fast as his opponent but with the greatest possible economy. This he achieved by relaxing, saying to himself, “Easy. Easy. The fight is yet to come. Easy now, easy.”

Though the young athlete was a hundred yards down-river the defense attorney could see dark lines of sweat in his knotted hair, and could hear heavy breathing. “I’m a fool,” he said, “for racing in this heat. It’s over 100 degrees. I have nothing to prove. I’ll let him pass, and I’ll let him sneer. I don’t care. My wisdom is far more powerful than his muscular energy.” And yet, his limbs automatically kept up the pace, draining him of water, causing salt to burn his eyes. He simply could not stop.

He remembered Cavafy’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which he – in a clearly Western way – had originally assumed to be a lament. Upon reading it he discovered that the poet shared in the confusion, for it was indeed a lament, that the barbarians were not still on their way. But for the defense attorney this was unthinkable, for he dearly loved the West and had never thought that to constitute itself it required the expectation of a golden horde. And he believed that if one man were to remain strong and upholding, if just one man were not to wilt, then the light he saw and loved could never be destroyed, despite the barbarism of the war, of soulless materialism, of the self-righteous students who thought to remake this intricate and marvelously fashioned world with one blink of an untutored eye. If a man can be said to grit his teeth over a span of years, then the defense attorney had done just this, knowing that it would both pass and come again, as had the First War, and the Second, in which he had learned the great lessons of his life, in which he had been broken and battered repeatedly – only to rise up again.

He did not want to concede the minor victory of a river race on a hot day in August, not even that, not even such a small thing as that to yet another wave of ignorance and violence. He started with rage in remembered the sneer. Contempt meant an attack against perceived weakness, and did not weakness merit compassion? If this barbarian had thought him weak, he was up again the gates of a city he did not know, a stone-built city of towers and citadels. The defense attorney increased the rapidity of his stroke to meet his opponent’s ominously growing speed.

The young man was gaining, but by very small increments. Were the defense attorney to have kept up his pace he would have reached the North Beacon Street Bridge first, even if only by a few feet. But two things were wrong. First, such a close margin afforded no recourse in a final sprint. Because of the unpredictability of the young man’s capacities, the defense attorney was forced to build an early lead, which would as well demoralize his rival. Second, not even halfway to the finish, he was beginning to go under. Already breathing extremely hard, he could feel his heart in his chest as if it were a fist pounding on a door.

He was lucky, because he knew the river so well that he had no need of turning to see where he was headed. So precise had the fifty years rendered his navigational sense that he did not even look when he approached bridges, and shot through the arches at full speed always right in the center. However, the young man had to turn for guidance every minute or so to make sure he was not straying from a straight course – which would have meant defeat. That he had to turn was another advantage for the defense attorney, for the young man not only broke his rhythm and sometimes lost his stroke or made a weak stroke when doing so, but he was also forced to observe his adversary still in the lead. If the defense attorney saw the leather thong in the young man’s hair comb begin to dip, and saw the muscles in his back uplift a bit, making a slightly different shadow, he knew he was about to turn. This caused the defense attorney to assume an expression of ease and relaxation, as if he were not even racing, and to make sure that his strokes were deep, perfect, and classically executed. He had been in many contests, both ahead and behind.

Though it was a full-blooded race, he realized that he was going no more than half the sustained speed of which he normally was capable. Like a cargo of stone, the heat dragged all movement into viscous slow motion. Time was caught in its own runners, and its elements repeated. Two dogs at the riverside were fighting over a dead carp lapping in the green water. He saw them clash at the neck. Later, when he looked back, he saw the same scene again. Perhaps because of the blood and the heat and the mist in front of his eyes, the salt-stung world seemed to unpiece in complex dissolution. There was a pattern which the darkness and the immediacy of the race made him unable to decipher. Intensified summer colors drifted one into the other without regard to form, and the laziness was shattered only when a bright white gull, sliding down the air, passed before his sight in a heartening straight line.

Though he felt almost ready to die and thought that he might, the defense attorney decided to implement his final strategy. About a mile was left. They were nearing the Arsenal Street Bridge. Here the river’s high walls and banks stopped the wind, and the waters were always smooth. With no breeze whatsoever, it was all the hotter. In this quiet stretch races were won or lost. A completely tranquil surface allowed a burst of energy after the slight rest it provided. Usually a racer determined to begin his build-up just at the bridge. Two boats could not clear the northern arch simultaneously. Thus the rear boat had no hope of passing and usually resolved upon commencement of its grand effort after the natural delineation of the bridge. Knowing it could not be passed, the lead boat rested to get strength before the final stretch. But the defense attorney knew that his position was in great danger. A few hundred yards from the bridge, he was only two or three boatlengths ahead. He could see the young man, glistening and red, breathing as if struggling for life. But his deep breathing had not the patina of weakness the defense attorney sensed in his own. He was certain to maintain his lead to the bridge, though, and beyond it for perhaps a quarter of a mile. But he knew that then the superior strength of the younger man would finally put the lighter boat ahead. If it was to be a contest of endurance, steady and torture-some as it had been, he knew he would not win.

But he had an idea. He would try to demoralize the young man. He would begin his sprint even before the Arsenal Street Bridge, with the benefit of the smooth water and the lead-in of the arch. What he did was to mark out in his mind a closer finish which he made his goal – knowing that there he would have to stop, a good half mile before the last bridge. But with luck the shocking lead so far in advance of all expectations would convince the struggling young man to surrender to his own exhaustion. An experienced man would guess the stratagem. A younger man might, and might not. If he did, he would maintain an even pace and eventually pass the defense attorney dead in the water a good distance before the finish line.

A hundred yards before the Arsenal Street Bridge, the defense attorney begin his massive strokes. One after another, they were in clear defiance of the heat and his age. He began to increase his lead. When he passed through the dark shadow of the bridge, he was already five boatlengths ahead. He heard the echo of his heart from the cool concrete, for it was a hollow chamber. Back in bright light, clubbed by the sun, he went even faster. The young man had to turn every few second to guide himself through the arch. When he did so he lost much time in weak strokes, adjustments to course, and breaking rhythm. But far more important was what he saw ahead. The old man had begun a powerful sprint, as if up to that point he had only been warming up.

Three quarters of a mile before the finish the defense attorney was going full blast. From a distance he looked composed and unruffled, because all his strength was perfectly channeled. Because of this the young man’s stroke shattered in panic. The defense attorney beat toward his secret finish, breathing as though he were a woman lost deep in love. The breaths were loud and desperate, abandoned and raw, as if of birth or a struggle not to die. He was ten boatlengths ahead, and nearing his finish.

He had not time to think of what he had endured in his life, of the loss which had battered him, and beaten him, and reduced him at times to nothing but a shadow of a man. He did not think of the men he had seen killed in war, whose screams were loud enough to echo in his dreams decades after. He did not think of the strength it had taken to love when not loved, to raise faltering children in the world, to see his parents and his friends die and fall away. He did not think of the things he had seen as the century moved on, nor of how he had risen each time to survive in the palace of the world by a good and just fight, by luck, by means he sometimes did not understand. He simply beat the water with his long oars, and propelled himself ahead. One more stroke, he said, and another, and another. He was almost at his end.

He looked back, and a beautiful sight came to his eyes. The young man was bent over and gliding. His oars no longer moved but only brushed the top of the water. Then he began to work his port oar and turn around, for he had given up. He vanished through the bridge.

The defense attorney was alone on the river, in a thickly wooded green stretch full of bent willows. It was so hot that for a moment he forgot exactly who he was or where he was. He rowed slowly to the last bridge. There he rested in the cool shadow of a great and peaceful arch.

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Rower by Krunoslav Nevistic