Given the evidence
of television, America may be the most profusely confessional nation
since the Spanish Inquisition put aside its rack and auto-da-fe.
Center stage one recent morning, a man--urged on by a pleasant master
of ceremonies--confesses that he betrayed his wife with her younger
sister. Stage left, the sister crosses her legs in a miniskirt and
confesses that she had always resented her older sibling. Stage
right, the wife weeps, confessing that she had not paid sufficient
attention to her husband.
A little farther along the electronic midway, an array of sinners
beckons: a former sitcom actress who has just published the story
of her decline and fall by drugs and bulimia; an admitted murderer
who has found God but is still seeking commutation of his death
sentence; a woman who left her infant behind a police station; an
athlete who is not going to snort coke ever again; a genial mob
hitman (subject of a made-for-TV movie) on a velvet sofa in a ranch
house somewhere in the Southwest; an insurance appraiser who duped
car accident victims for 20 years and who says, from behind the
dark circle that chases his face like a tadpole scurrying for the
safety of shade, that he wasn't the only guilty party, only the
one they caught.
"We cannot well do without our sins. They are the highway of
our virtue," Thoreau mused in his journal. Henry David could
be a wise-guy, and it isn't always safe to assume his meanings.
But I take his metaphors here for granted. Sin is a road. It stretches
to the horizon and never gets any wider, deeper, or more interesting
than it already was. Brother kills brother. Lover betrays lover.
President is unfaithful to wife in Oval Office while at the same
time talking on the phone with a lobbyist from the sugar industry.
It's a repeated dim figure, dull and dulling as the TV shows that
profit by amplifying its banal strain.
I was reminded of this when I visited a courthouse a few months
ago to sue a guy who'd resurfaced a bathtub for me. I was prepared
with speech and photographs, but winning the case took 15 seconds--the
length of time it took for the judge to determine that Alex B. hadn't
showed up to contest my claim that he'd made my bathtub look like
a guano-covered atoll. Time suddenly bestowed on me, I went upstairs
to catch an hour of criminal court.
I happened to walk in on arraignment hearings and so was treated
to a swift parade of 10 or so sinners, including a man who'd walked
naked down a city street on a Saturday afternoon with no expectation
of being arrested. I seem to recall that all the accused were men
of about 30, many had mustaches, all of them mumbled when addressing
the court, and all said "sir" as frequently as they could.
And then a door opened to admit a court officer leading four young
men who were manacled at arm and ankle and shackled to each other
with chain. Two of these sad figures, it developed, had been arrested
for assault, and a third for car theft. Sitting side-by-side on
a wooden pew, they behaved like fools. One admitted to a second
crime while being arraigned for the first and had to be told by
the judge to shut up. A second would not take his lawyer's advice
regarding a plea bargain. A third ogled the young female district
attorneys and at several points urged his fellows to do the same.
The fourth was a short, muscular young man who might have stepped
from a mural in an Aztec ruin. It developed that he had beaten his
roommate with a claw hammer and was being charged with attempted
murder. He stood at attention and gazed at a place high on the courtroom
wall while his story emerged from a dialectic between DA and lawyer:
argument, struggle over hammer, 911 call, bloody scene, quiet surrender
to police, no previous criminal record, references from an employer
who wanted him back at work, a plea for bail. Occasionally, the
young man's chest swelled suddenly, like the bosom of a child trying
to catch his breath after a crying jag.
Ultimately the man was refused bail. As he was being led away, he
turned to face the congregation of defendants, lawyers, town counsels,
nervous sweethearts, police witnesses, and me. Red-eyed with exhaustion,
he threw us a look of anguish, remorse, terror, and appeal that
landed like a rock thrown through a window. "Salve me,"
the note would have read.
I have not heard from Alex B. since the court declared him to be
in my debt; nor do I expect to hear from him until the contempt-of-court
fines start to pile up. But if I should ever see him again, I would
not know him, despite the fact that he once spent several hours
in my company in my house. His face is gone. The face of the sorrowful
prisoner in the Quincy District Court I believe I will always remember.