Chapter 1. Diving Into the Jury Pool June 1, 2013

This is what it’s like being called for jury duty in a murder trial.

First, you get up far earlier than you have to. Washed and brushed, you stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea absently watching a robin outside, a particular bird you recognize from the mutant orange feather on its back. You watch it skittle over the back lawn, running in bursts, cocking its head from side to side until it stops, pauses—jerks a worm out of the grass and pecks it to death. You try not to see this as symbolic. Fail.

scales of justiceThen, my God, the clock says you’re late. You slam down the tea and trip over the cat (Archie, indignant) before bashing out the door, not forgetting to lock it because you never know who’s out there, even in Toronto. Life is fraught. Life is complicated. And if you don’t make it to the courthouse on time, God knows what’s they’re going to do to you when you’ve got enough problems already.

I’d received my original notice of jury duty four or five months before. By then, I was already obsessed with the way we were living our lives in a time of enormous upset, what the newscasters called worldwide economic volatility coupled with worsening climate change. Layoffs. Hurricanes. Tsunamis. The Great Recession reverberated through our families in ways we didn’t understand, changing life in ways we couldn’t control, and changing it forever. We’re not like David Copperfield anymore, wondering if we’re the heroes of our own lives. These days most of us feel like collateral damage.

As I passed through the subway turnstile, I surprised myself with a decision. I would keep a record of all this, starting with my experience of reporting for jury duty. A record of daily life. I thought I could probably get out of serving on the jury, since most people did. But it was a particular moment in a particular time that was getting almost too interesting, what experts were calling a hinge time. A hinge that pinched hard, not only when you were called for jury duty, but as you went over your family finances, or when you considered the future of a novel you’d just shed blood to write.

The experts talked about disruption in the arts, about disruptions in every sector of the economy, what amounted to the world falling into pieces that everyone agreed would be put back together differently. I might as well fiddle while Rome burned. Scribble while the butter churned, and life changed forever.

 

The first notice said only that I would be liable to serve on a jury sometime in the future, and asked me to fill out an enclosed form. I sent it back saying I was a writer, which I hoped they would recognize as code for Don’t Pick Me.

Long after I assumed I hadn’t been chosen, a summons fell through the mail slot. Four double-sided folded pages ordered me to report to the courthouse for possible jury duty in a second-degree murder trial. I stared at the summons, the thought of murder and juries and civic duty making a muscle twitch in my upper left arm; a long thin muscle I’d never particularly noticed before, although obviously something had to be in there.

Arriving at the courthouse, I found a long line of what I assumed to be fellow potential jurors waiting in the plaza outside. We shuffled through a revolving glass door to enter what the French sign marvellously called le palais de justice, where we turned out our pockets for a security check like the ones at the airport, our backpacks and cellphones and wallets riding plastic trays through an X-ray machine as we walked under the sensor archway one by one, and held our arms wide in surrender.

Jury pool, the sign said, Courtroom 6-1. The muscle in my left arm twitched as I headed upstairs.

 

The courtroom in question proved to be a big windowless room on the sixth floor covered in dark wood panelling. When my husband had been called for jury duty a few years before, no specific trial was named on his summons. The jury pool was kept in an ordinary room, a holding pen, and after a few days most of them were sent home.

Being called for a murder trial seemed to make things more solemn. We were checked in by two uniformed women and sent directly into the courtroom, a group of carefully, statistically, unimpeachably average citizens. Upright, impatient, business-looking people, humble, slow-moving people, many chubby, workaday types, fewer thin people than you used to see, and a decent number of retired people looking stoked by the chance to serve, including one old man who kept saying, “What’s that? I can hear just fine. I said I heard you. What?” We looked like passengers in a typical subway car: citizens of every conceivable age, race, class, eyes, nose, chin, hair and lack of same.

Overheard: people talking about getting out of it. Most of us had our summonses ready, and at the end of the Jury Questionnaire was a question shouted out in capitals:

12. THIS TRIAL WILL TAKE APPROXIMATELY 6 WEEKS TO COMPLETE. WOULD SERVING AS A JUROR FOR APPROXIMATELY 6 WEEKS CAUSE A SUBSTANTIAL HARDSHIP FOR YOU BY INTERFERING WITH YOUR BUSINESS, EMPLOYMENT, FINANCIAL, MEDICAL, FAMILY OR OTHER OBLIGATIONS?

My Yes and No boxes were blank, since I’d decided to leave the answer to Fate. Friends told me that judges usually let writers off, and I was counting on that. But in all honesty, I couldn’t claim substantial hardship, not that week.

With jury duty looming, I’d worked long hours to get ahead on the writing I had underway and the film projects I’d contracted for in my day job. My novel was out at a publisher for consideration and I was writing a kids’ book to no real deadline. Two short films I’d written were in the can, while the producers on my active feature film projects were looking for money, which these days is like corralling a herd of unicorns.

Of course, when you’re wearing your screenwriter’s cap, you always hope for the miraculous e-mail, the phone call from the famous director’s assistant (“I’d love to speak with Mr. Fincher”), for buckets of luck pouring from the sky.

But film was going through the same upheaval as everything else, the middle fallen out of the industry the way it’s falling out of society, so there are mega-million-dollar Hollywood films, a huge number of films shot for virtually no money, and very little in between. On balance, there was very little chance I would be pursued by a famous Hollywood director while the trial was underway. More likely I’d get asked to do slave labour on several movies with infinitesimal budgets, also known as working on deferred payment. It wasn’t a hardship to turn those ones down. In fact, the trial gave me a better excuse.

Murder? Cool.

Well, maybe not for the victim.

gunAnd in fact, I knew very well that I shouldn’t shuffle off jury duty without an ironclad reason. That’s the other part of it, civic duty. (Arm goes twitch, twitch.) How you owe a duty to the justice system, especially since you’ve lived places where it’s broken, in Mexico and Brazil, and the last thing you want is for that sort of corruption to happen here. You want a just society in every sense. For the family, for the future.

So my boxes were blank, in case it did rain Finchers. My phone was in my pocket, set on vibrate. But if it didn’t buzz?

 

Nine forty-five. A uniformed woman appeared in the courtroom, saying that it wouldn’t be long before someone came in to tell us what it meant to be called for jury duty.

“I heard that,” called the retired man. “What did she say?”

At 10 o’clock, another woman came in, apologized for her hoarse voice and told us that anyone wanting to be dismissed from jury duty for medical reasons or because of imminent travel plans should come to the front of the room. She gave no explanation, just said that the rest of us were free to go, but had to report back at 9 a.m. the following Wednesday.

Relief. Such relief to leave, hoping there was a mistrial or a guilty plea that meant it would all go away. It was still beautiful, blue sky, exactly the right temperature for walking home, 6.7 kilometres of exercise; I checked online. Shaking off my anxiety, I headed northeast, passing the Diversity Garden, reaching busy Dundas Street, seeing a tall young man in an expensive-looking pinstripe suit throw down a skateboard with wheels the colour of green traffic lights and ride it across Bay Street toward the Eaton Centre…

Where my half-brother Bob sat panhandling.

No. Bob couldn’t be back on the street, not after all these years. I think it could be him, and pushed through the crowd to make sure. When I got close, the man was leaving, heading around a corner. I didn’t think Bob moved like that, not such an eel; it almost certainly wasn’t him. But my relief about the trial was gone, and all the way home, I wondered why the man had left so suddenly if he hadn’t been trying to avoid me.

 

Only a day into writing this, I’m already falling behind. There aren’t enough hours to live, work and write about living and working, especially when I’ve been staring out the window more a writer usually does, which is quite a bit, not because of the trial, but because I keep wondering if the man I’d seen panhandling might really have been my older half-brother.

I didn’t know I had a half-brother until I was ten years old, when Bob showed up at our door, the son of my father’s first marriage. My parents had never told me about the first marriage, either.

I can still picture the scene in the kitchen, in suburban North Vancouver. The cupboards were avocado-coloured, the appliances gold. I angled my head up at the gangly new arrival, who had a brown suitcase. Being a kid, I was always angling up, usually feeling like a fairy-tale girl lost in a forest of adult trunks, trying very hard to understand what was going on.

“This is Robbie,” Dad said, as my mother stood behind the sink worrying her rings.

“Bob,” the new guy said.

“Bob. He’ll be your half brother. Yeah. He’s going to stay with us a while.”

Years later, I learned that my parents had taken Bob in after his mother and stepfather had kicked him out. Dad wanted to get him through Grade 12 so at least he’d have a diploma. His mother lived over town, across the Second Narrows Bridge in the east end of Vancouver. North Vancouver was up Grouse Mountain in the West Coast rainforest, salal and huckleberries rioting through the trees at the end of the block, the hillside falling down to Mosquito Creek, which turned dangerous during spring melt-off. I wasn’t supposed to go down there, but of course I did all the time. All the kids went down there, digging for treasure, adventures, a little manageable danger. Now we had a new danger in the house, I knew that right away, but Bob was surrounded by so much mystery that he didn’t feel entirely manageable, and at first I wasn’t sure how to feel about him.

There was no hope of my parents explaining what was going on. It wouldn’t have occurred to either of them to be pals with their children, me and my younger brother. They weren’t the right generation for that, and they seldom answered direct questions.

Eggs.2“How does the sperm get to the egg?” I had asked my mother not long before, having paid a big girl a quarter to see a sex education pamphlet handed out to the Grade Sixes. My mother was ironing at the time, and ironed faster.

“It will all come out in time,” she said.

So there was no sense in asking about Bob, and why I’d never seen or heard of him before. That first evening, he disappeared into the basement bedroom, where he played muffled songs on a portable radio; I could hear it upstairs in my bedroom. Bob stayed downstairs for a couple of days, even taking a plate into his room at suppertime, and no one objected or even spoke about him much. I think they must have registered him for school though, since he came in the kitchen on Monday morning ready to go. He picked up a lunch bag from the counter and thanked my mother politely, calling her “ma’am.” I followed him outside, holding my Monkees lunchbox, walking up the driveway between two borders of peace roses that in autumn, still had a few flowers but no leaves. When we passed the hedge that blocked my mother’s view from the kitchen window, I expected Bob to speed up and lose me, but he continued walking along amiably.

“You’re tall,” I said.

“What grade you in, anyhow?”

“Guess,” I said.

He wore a black leather jacket, something I hadn’t seen before.

“Grade Five?” I asked.

As one rainy Vancouver day sopped into another, Bob kept walking partway to school with me, never joining the packs of teenagers filtering out of neighbouring streets, always heading off on his own when our paths to elementary and high school diverged. In this way he became my liege and prince and hero, whose few words I hung on. “Well, she’s a dick, isn’t she?” he said once, when I complained about my teacher. Even though he was quiet himself, Bob always listened to my chatter, he fixed my bike seat when it started wobbling, and was in general like a sports hero, one of the B.C. Lions running backs my father admired, bashful and charming and obliging right up to a point I learned to recognize, when his eyes turned to diamonds.

The first time I saw him like that, Bob had been with us for maybe a month. We were alone in the kitchen, and he signalled me to keep quiet as he pocketed the car keys off the windowsill. Bob was on curfew but our house was porous with windows, and a few minutes later, the family car squealed off.

“What?” I heard my father ask, from his recliner in the living room.

When the Mounties brought Bob home, I was still awake in bed and shivering with a mixture of elation, guilt and fright. Inching open my bedroom door, I heard about his joyride along the suicidal bends of the Upper Levels Highway. He could of killed himself, a grunt-voiced Mountie said. Could of totalled the car, my father agreed, although it was pretty clear that he hadn’t, and I soon understood that the Mounties and my father were scolding Bob by talking to each other about what might have happened. Taken out a guardrail. Destroyed public property. Fathers still talked like that when I was young, to other men, over your head, although it wouldn’t last much longer, once they decided to be pals.

I also heard that what they were saying was underpinned with “boys will be boys.” I didn’t know the world nostalgia, and could never have pictured my father doing anything like that himself, although I knew the Upper Levels would have been nearly empty at that time of night, and understood that this was another instance of manageable danger. One time, we’d had to drive back from Squamish past dark when we’d got a flat tire, and even though my mother fretted about logging trucks, the road had been deserted. Standing inside my bedroom door, I could put a lot of things together, picking up the fact that Bob’s joyride had posed little danger to anyone else, and knowing that, at the time, you were allowed a certain amount of leeway in playing havoc with yourself.

I couldn’t have explained this, of course, but I knew it, and knew that everything would be all right. Slipping into the hallway, I saw my liege standing in the kitchen with his head hanging down and a half smile on his lips, trying not to look too proud. My father and the Mountie didn’t look that much different. This was a negotiation in which everyone already knew the ending.

Bob grew up to be a longshoreman, a logger, working the sort of jobs you could get on the West Coast without a high school diploma, our father having kicked him out a few months later. Dad finally reached his limit not on the havoc Bob wrought but on the petty thefts that fuelled it, the bottles of Southern Comfort paid for with cash slipped out of my mother’s purse, since she was often a little absent-minded about leaving it lying around.

It occurs to me now that my mother wasn’t absent-minded at all, and I’d like to remember the look on her face when my father came home from work, and they called Bob into the kitchen. Everything important happened in the kitchen, with its wallpaper of orange and brown kettles. My mother had caught Bob with her open wallet in his hand after school—I had seen this—and now my father was going to deal with it. Some discretion was required, so I was spying from the top of the basement stairs.

At first it was a dumb show, my father standing with his arms crossed, Bob standing with his head down, not defiant at all. My mother’s face is blurred; I can’t tell what she was feeling, what she thought, what she had planned.

“You could have asked,” my father said. “If you weren’t ashamed of why you needed it. But I suppose you were, and so am I.”

I was, too. Petty theft upset me in ways that bigger things didn’t, because it was so small. It made Bob seem small, and this confused me badly. I wanted him to explain it, and instead he just stood with his head down while my father waited.

Finally Bob said, “You never had any use for us anyhow.”

“What in hell does that mean?” my father asked. When Bob very deliberately gave him the finger, my father said, “Get out.”

eggBob left the room, passing me silently on the basement stairs, making a broken egg with his hand on the top of my head. By the time he reappeared with his brown suitcase, I was spying from my bedroom, and watched as he headed out the door with no more fuss than he’d made when arriving. I learned later that he went back to his mother and stepfather, who got him a union ticket.

Maybe my mother felt a little remorseful. She kept inviting Bob to dinner, ignoring my father’s silent objections. The fact he accepted her invitations: where does that come from? I didn’t understand most of what happened when I was a kid, and don’t understand half of it even now.

 

Staring out the window, I decided that it could well have been Bob on the street. These days, I think of him as one of those people who have a harder time than many of us being alive. Not long after I finished university, after I’d moved east, he showed up at my door saying that he wanted to make a clean start. He stayed with me for six or eight weeks, moving out when he had enough saved from his construction job for first and last month’s rent.

Bob stayed clean for his first couple of years in Toronto, then hit the bottle again. He cleaned up a second time, got hooked on crack, paid a price, then finally got off the rollercoaster eighteen years ago when he met Lauren. Lauren had been battling a few bottle-shaped demons herself, but she dug in as a hair stylist and kept them both steady, even after Bob fell off a roof a two or three years ago and could no longer work in construction, going on disability instead. We’ve never been close, but we’re family, and after thinking for a while longer, I decided to give him a call.

Somebody else owned the phone number; she’d had it for a few weeks. Well, people changed service providers all the time, Bob more than most, and he always turned up eventually. Hanging up, I decided to forget about it, and spent my unexpected day off in the garden.

It was a hot day in early summer, flowers blooming weeks ahead of their usual time. Global warming, luxuriant and eerie. But let’s not get into another issue, lost souls and murder trials being enough for now.

 

I reported back to the courthouse on Wednesday morning. This time, the sign offered a couple of new details. The charge was now first-degree murder, and there were two defendants.

Upstairs, the uniformed women not only checked you into the jury pool, they put aside pieces of paper printed with your name. Other potential jurors trickled into the courtroom for another hour, some familiar faces gone—no deaf retired man—but still a large enough crowd that I hoped a jury would be chosen before my name was called. I still hadn’t checked off the questionnaire box pleading to be excused, dithering about what to do.

At 10 o’clock, an avuncular-looking judge came in—“All rise”—along with three black-robed lawyers and a pair of crown attorneys, the prosecutors. Two shackled men in their twenties were led in by police officers, who placed them in a dock facing the judge before unlocking their handcuffs. One of the accused murderers was younger and more muscular than the other, with a closed face and shaved head. The second looked a little slacker: longer face, looser posture, a small gut. Both were dressed in tidy collegiate-style clothes.

The judge spoke in a public speaker’s well-modulated baritone voice. He said we had been called as possible jurors in a trial he estimated would last two or three weeks. Since the defendants were black, we would be asked whether we had any prejudice for or against black people. Since it involved street gangs, we would be asked whether we had any overwhelming feelings about street gangs that would prevent us from delivering an objective verdict.

grafittiA gangland killing. People around me shifted uneasily. One or two looked frankly scared. I went out-of-body, wondering if I was in conflict. My new novel surfed time periods and genres to tell the story of one family over two hundred years. In the end, the modern generation of my Tayler family suffers a murder, and gangbangers are suspected. I’d done a large amount of research, which included interviewing a detective from the Toronto Police Service over lunch on the Danforth.

“I’ll be the tall one with long hair and brown coat,” I had said, when arranging to meet him.

“I look like a cop,” he replied.

The cop (shaved head, highly polished loafers) turned out to be nearing retirement and planning to write detective novels afterward. A fair exchange. He would give me procedural tips while I gave him writing tips. The detective couldn’t talk about specific cases, but he told me how a murder investigation generally worked, giving me some background on street gangs and helping me construct a plausible killing.

Now life was imitating art, and I half wanted to be on the jury. The deliberations had to remain secret, but I could check my research against testimony in open court. On top of this, the judge had said the trial would last two or three weeks, not six. Even if I was Finchered, the world’s best screenwriting job erupting from my phone, the contract negotiations would take longer than that. If they didn’t, my agent could make them.

Novelist Graham Greene famously said that writers have a splinter of ice in their hearts. There’s also supposed to be a curse: May your family be cursed with a writer. I half wanted to be on the jury, but also didn’t, feeling queasy about having to examine gruesome murder photos of a real-life person, questioning my motives, not particularly liking myself for having such an icy heart. I hoped I’d do a good job if I was empanelled, but I’d also be doing something else.

Meanwhile the crown attorney read out a list of names, presumably of witnesses. Potential jurors were asked to say if they recognized anyone. I listened closely for the name of the detective who looked like a cop but his name wasn’t mentioned. Then it was on to jury selection, and the judge finally explained how it was done.

 

A tumbril? That wasn’t the right word. A tumbril was an old-fashioned farmer’s cart, the type they’d used to take prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution. But in court that morning, as the registrar put our names into a wooden drum, the word leapt to mind.

Maybe I meant tumbler. The judge had told us that the registrar would spin the tumbler and pull out names one by one. The first forty members of the jury pool chosen would be in Group A, the second forty in Group B, and so on. After being assigned to groups, we would be called in order of selection to be questioned individually about jury duty until twelve jurors were chosen and the rest of us could go home.

As we sat in the courtroom all that long morning—the judge on his bench, the accused murderers in the dock, the robed lawyers and crowns turning restlessly in their swivel chairs—the jury selection process lumbered along like a tumbril. Some potential jurors were in the upstairs courtroom where I sat. Others were in a room downstairs, and appeared on a video screen when their names were called.

The process was both painfully slow and riveting, like a chess game, each name read out and spelled. One time, both of the hourglassaccused leaned forward intently, staring at a man called to the downstairs video screen, obviously knowing who he was. A vigorous-looking middle-aged black man. He had the air of a community leader, a school principal or minister, someone with authority.

Yet while both of the accused seemed to recognize the man, they didn’t exchange a glance. They paid absolutely no attention to each other throughout the proceedings, remaining passive or impassive. When researching my novel, I’d been told that gangbangers were called soldiers, and apparently the Crown was going to claim that these young men were soldiers in a street gang. I thought that either they were showing military discipline, or they were callous, terrified, or depressed. Maybe all of these things.

By lunchtime the registrar had called eighty people for Groups A and B. The rest of us were dismissed until 2:20 p.m., so I went looking for my brother around the Eaton Centre. When he’d lived on the street, Bob had usually worked a specific territory; people did, so if I’d seen him there the previous week, there was a chance he’d be back.

No joy. He wasn’t there with his cap out, or a Hungry sign by his crossed legs—not among those giving out free Qur’ans from the bundle buggy parked at Yonge and Dundas, for that matter—and I reversed again and decided I was wrong. After lunch in the food court, I took a long walk before arriving back at the courthouse, where the tumbril rolled again. They were filling group C now, and as the Registrar called names and numbers—C20, C21, C22—I didn’t see much chance I’d end up empanelled.

Suddenly, my head felt weirdly open, my eyes unfocused. C25, C26. I was already bending to pick up my backpack when my name was called, knowing that I was going to be C27. As I walked to the front of the courtroom, I thought it had something to do with our imperfect grasp of time, how our senses take in data before our brains can process it, and sometimes there’s a jumble, crossed wires. Maybe we feel déjà vu, we’ve been here before. Maybe we think we know the future when we don’t.

Strange, though. I felt unsettled as the final people in my group were chosen, and was glad to get out of the psychic hothouse when we were dismissed until 9:30 the next morning. Leaving the courthouse, I calculated that with one hundred six people ahead of me, they would fill the jury long before my name was called. My shoulders again drooped in relief, even though I might still decide to serve on the jury if asked. Or not?

I was still mulling as I walked past the Eaton Centre for the second time that day. A sudden movement, a cap snatched, a man eeling away from his panhandling post. This time I was certain it was Bob, but before I could call his name, he was gone.

 

I’ve sometimes found that when you get a keen first impression of a person, when they say or do something odd early on, you keep expecting them to be like that, even when mutual friends say it was completely uncharacteristic. Maybe that was why I’ve never managed to think of Lauren as my sister-in-law, even though she and Bob had started living together eighteen years ago.

After court that day, I had a hard time making myself call her. I wanted to know what was going on with my brother, why he seemed to be back on the streets, but I had never felt comfortable with Lauren, even though she was a cheerful, breezy person, a pretty woman about my age who brought dessert and gifts whenever she and Bob came to dinner, liking to laugh and speaking politely to our pets even when they got old and smelly.

The first time Bob brought her over, years ago, the kids were away at summer camp, and we had a quiet dinner at the picnic table in the back yard. There were ladders lying by the house and a pile of lumber sat under a tarpaulin, since we’d just cut off the roof to go up another storey. We had—still have—a long, narrow bowling-alley house that had three bedrooms on the second floor, one quite small. With our son and daughter getting older, we wanted more space, a master bedroom and studies for both my husband and myself on a new third floor. Our yard was a construction site, but the debris was swept up, the climbing red roses were blooming, and I’d put out luminarias, sand-filled paper bags containing votive candles, an idea I’d picked up in Mexico, where we’d recently spent three years, sent there by my husband’s newspaper.

I wanted to like Lauren, yet she was jittery, chattering, pushing me away. Something distressed her. Lauren’s backbone was too straight, and her wrists fluted as she spoke as if she was conducting an orchestra. She was—is—blond-by-choice with a lithe figure and Italian brown eyes, and she quickly told us that she loved dancing.

Also that the contractor had a lot of ladders. And that tarp, she said. Where’s that been? It was quite an adventure to eat in a construction zone. With candles like the hydro was out. How unique!

Offended delicacy, I saw. It had never occurred to me before that someone would take umbrage at being asked to eat near a couple of ladders, or feel intimidated by brown paper lunch bags filled with kitty litter and corner-store votive candles. Intimidated, I mean, by never having heard of luminarias, and feeling she was being downgraded and mistreated at not being invited inside. She wanted a properly-laid table, proper candles in brass candlesticks. What my mother called fuss.

Casting around for a way to make her feel comfortable, I said I was thinking of changing my hair, my brother having told me on the phone that Lauren was a stylist. I’m not usually any good at directing conversations away from sore points, but everyone knows the value of asking for advice.

scissorsNow Lauren became fixated on my hair. She kept chattering, saying she had a few ideas. I should come to her salon, at least if I didn’t mind the trek out to Scarborough. She insisted that she’d make me over, even when I protested that my long-time stylist’s feelings would be hurt, or when I tried to distract her a second time by pointing out that the bats had come out. Sunset. A flap of wings overhead.

“They really do get in your hair,” she said. “It’s probably a nesting instinct.”

“Bats, they don’t nest,” Bob said. “They hang upside down in caves.”

“What do you know about bats?” Lauren asked. “I know about bats. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve picked up over the years.”

Bob shuffled down into himself and gave her a look of adoration.

 

Unfortunately I suffer from Canadian politeness, and people can wear me down. A week after Bob brought her over, I was sitting in Lauren’s chair in a Scarborough salon, showing my putative sister-in-law magazine photos of short, asymmetrical haircuts.

“Colour,” she said, barely glancing at the photos. “You need colour, highlights. Perk you up.”

“I perk along,” I said weakly, understanding that Lauren was going to do exactly what she wanted to and that I was going to let her.

It wasn’t just craven politeness. There was also something a little hard and selfish about letting her do this. In some ways, I was still the child I’d been, still ready for small adventures, for going down Mosquito Creek, for trying things on. I didn’t actually care that much about my hair—a stylist probably wouldn’t anticipate that—and I was interested to see what Lauren would do. I’d see what she really thought of me, her opinion revealed by the style she chose. She would also reveal something about herself, her taste, her ability as a stylist. I’ve already mentioned the curse of a writer in the family. Welcome, Lauren.

Chemicals. Dye cap. Clip, clip, clip.

Reveal: me as mousy and pasty-faced, nose thrown into relief by short, curled-under, blow-dried bangs, my skin looking sallow because of a particularly brassy hair colour, the circles under my eyes looking deep enough to dive in.

Over my shoulder, Lauren’s smile showed a combination of malice and nerves. “On the house,” she said.

Just as well, I thought, caring far more about my hair than I’d anticipated. I’m going to have to find a high-end joint to fix this.

“The colour was deliberate, but the cut wasn’t, poor dear,” Mr. High End told me, when I asked him to deconstruct Lauren’s work. He went on to give me a stunning, asymmetric, multi-hued style that I loved, although fortunately it didn’t remain in style for very long, since I nearly went bankrupt trying to keep it up.

 

After court, when I finally got Lauren on the phone, I didn’t tell her that I’d seen Bob on the street, just that I’d tried his phone and found he’d changed his number.

“Kicked him out,” she said. “He can take care of his own bloody-fucking self. I’m sick of the whole joint. Deserve better.”

There was party music in the background, and after nearly twenty years in Alcoholics Anonymous, Lauren was drinking.

A long pause while I took this in.

“I liked your kids, anyhow,” she said. “They can call me if they want.”

 

Thursday morning. I sat with other members of the jury pool in the courtroom. A chatty woman beside me said she’d heard P1000664someone on the escalator say they’d only chosen seven jurors the previous day out of the first two groups of forty. She and several women around us were desperate to get out of serving, but I still teetered. In my life, I’ve been asked to be many things—loving, insightful, generous, helpful, supportive, protective, useful, fair, sceptical, demanding, pushy, even cold—but I’d seldom been called upon to be precisely just.

After a short wait, they started calling people to the front of the room in groups of five, starting with the first in our group, C1. The line moved quickly. The first five left the room, another five were called to the front, and before long, it was my turn. As I sat down near the judge’s front door of the courtroom, I said to the woman beside me that I was C27, and the funny thing was, my street address was number twenty-seven.

“It’s an omen,” she said.

“What? That I’ll be called?”

“That you’ll go home,” she said.

We were summoned into a corridor. More chairs. Another wait. Then I was called into a new courtroom. When I walked through the door, I felt very small and undecided, a bit lost, and the room seemed to balloon around me, le palais de justice, as grand and airless as a cathedral. It was really just another panelled courtroom, but I felt as if the walls receded and the ceiling blasted high, and in the close warm air was a faint shimmer of the numinous.

The judge had told us earlier that if we were called before the bench, we would be asked whether we were willing to serve. If so, we would be questioned, after which the Crown or the Defence would either accept us or issue a summary challenge resulting in dismissal. The Crown had forty challenges. The two defence lawyers each had twenty.

The avuncular judge now told me to approach the bench, and I walked into the witness box to his side. He looked comfortable in his black robes, his white collar and red sash, one leg thrown over the other, leaning back in his chair as if the entire courtroom was the desk in front of him to ask whether I was willing to serve as a juror.

Now I had to make my decision.

“I am,” I said.

“You are?” the judge asked, sounding surprised.

I was a little surprised myself, and gave a rueful shrug. If you want me, you can have me.

“Swear her,” he told the registrar, and I think it was the registrar who gave me the choice of swearing on a holy book or affirming that I would do my duty. A Bible, a Qur’an, Sikh and Hindu texts were lined up along the edge of the witness box, but I said I would affirm, holding up my hand the way they did on TV.

Sworn in, the judge asked me to step onto the floor and face the defence. One of the lawyers was standing at a podium. The ceiling felt even higher and the lawyer’s voice was sonorous as he read the statement we had been told to expect, asking if we had any feelings for or against black people that would prejudice our decision.

“I do not,” I said, my voice sounding as small and tinny as I felt.

wheelsThe lawyer very slowly read a second statement asking if I had any overwhelming feelings about street gangs that would prevent me from reaching a fair judgment, his voice as rhythmic as a preacher’s.

“I do not,” I repeated, meaning that you could be a gangbanger, guilty of all sorts of heinous crimes—drug crimes, assault, whatever—but that didn’t necessarily make you the murderer in this particular case.

The lawyer then asked me to face the two accused, who were far apart in an open-fronted box to my right on the far side of the room. I looked from one young man to the other, meeting their eyes in turn. I thought they both looked hopeful.

To my surprise, the lawyer asked if they would accept me as a juror, and both nodded.

“The defence accepts,” the lawyer said, and I felt a surge of something I couldn’t quite define.

Looking more interested now, the judge levered himself up and faced two men sitting in the jury box to my left, asking if they would accept me. I wondered if they were other jurors already chosen that morning. No one explained but both nodded, one half shrugging as he did so. They would accept.

I stood there helpless, a heartbeat away from being chosen, as the judge turned to the Crown.

 

I love cliff-hangers. The way 19th century novels were published serially, chapters published in magazines not long after the writer had written them, the books unfinished as their earlier chapters were already being read—avidly, if it was Dickens—each chapter ending with a mystery or surprise or revelation that kept you wanting more.

I also love the way television series have been playing with that, season-long stories told through weekly chapters, each a separate story but also feeding the overall arc. Why not start doing it again when writing this record and, why not, posting parts of it online? Call it a collusion of the 19th and 21st centuries. Why not leave myself sitting in that cathedral-like courtroom, waiting for the crown attorney to decide if she was going to chose me for the jury?

And then…

The short, blond crown scarcely looked at me.

“Challenge.”

“Dismissed,” the judge said.

I don’t think he rapped a gavel, but I remember hearing one as I floated out of the reverberating palace of justice. Free of jury duty—for three years, according to the whispering clerk at the door—I sailed down the escalator and emerged on Armoury Street, where I tried to call my husband. Stalking back and forth, not getting an answer, I saw two other women from my same jury group tumble out the revolving door. They looked as giddy as I felt, sure that things that turned out for the best.

“I got off. I had to,” the dark-haired woman said. “I’m the only person in my family with a job.”

The other woman—the woman who had talked of omens, tall and elegantly spare—said she was a contract worker and afraid her contract wouldn’t be renewed if she was forced to take a month off work, no matter what the law said.

“My boss was already telling me how I was screwing up her vacation,” she said, endlessly grateful that the judge had let her off too.

My turn.

“I said I’d do it.”

Both were surprised into stillness, and I smiled.

“But the Crown challenged me. I guess she didn’t like my looks. And the irony is, my younger brother is an assistant crown attorney.”

We hooted with laughter and went our separate ways. I forgot to look for Bob out panhandling, but I phoned my younger brother that night to tell him what had happened. I’d called him when I first got my summons, and he’d said he didn’t have a murder trial coming up; it had nothing to do with him. The defence probably wouldn’t want the husband or wife of a crown on the jury, but excluding brothers and sisters was pushing it. I couldn’t get out of it that way, he’d said.

Now he chuckled, and told me I probably looked too arty for the Crown. “It could have gone differently,” he said. “I would have chosen you.”

He thought about this, and seemed to convince himself. “Women are usually more conservative in their judgments than men.”

As I hung up, I told myself again that things had turned out for the best. I’d done my civic duty. Had nothing to reproach myself with, certainly not for being arty.

Now I could attend the trial as a member of the public. In open court, I could check my research on gangland killings, and think about issues of justice that had been preoccupying me. That the whole long jury selection process had also piqued my interest in the crime: who the victim was, and who the accused might be. I had been meticulous about not checking out the case online, trying to preserve my objectivity.

Nothing to stop me now.