Annette was sent home early, suspended from school. We asked what she’d done and she said, Nothing. We asked again, but she wasn’t forthcoming, so we called the principal, who explained that, Yes, she was suspended until further notice.
But why? What did she do?
His response was as unsatisfying as hers: Nothing.
There had to be something.
School’s short on desks, he said. Short on books.
Then Crystal was sent home from work. Was she laid off? No. Would she work from home? If she was so inclined, but she didn’t have to. Would she be paid? Yes, but not as much.
Then I got arrested. For what? Was I speeding? Had I broken the law?
I was told to take it up with the judge.
I said, I will.
Meanwhile, I got a letter in the mail that my license was suspended, so I stayed home too. Crystal worked on her laptop, and with no one to drive Timothy to his preschool, our family stayed home all day every day, made to stay home by no fault of our own. Annette hadn’t done anything wrong. Crystal hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t done anything wrong. And Timothy certainly hadn’t done anything wrong. But I had a suspended license just the same.
Each morning I percolated coffee: for me, for Crystal, for Annette, and even Tim. He liked his black. The rest of us preferred a dash of cream, which we had run out of, so our mornings began steeped in bitterness. I would have gone to the store except I was forbidden to drive. Crystal moved numbers from one column to another column on her laptop. The coders at her company had written a program that was supposed to do this automatically, to much ballyhoo, except their solution was imperfect, and Crystal had to double-check the columns anyway. Despite thirty thousand lines of code, she usually wound up moving the numbers herself. We should be glad, I suppose. This flawed computer program kept her getting paychecks, even if they were smaller.
Luckily, Crystal had seen this coming. Her favorite film was about a giant rock that smashed into the Earth. That was at the end of the film. Most of the movie that led up to this dramatized our mortal worries in spectacular fashion. The film let everyone know that while we might anticipate the arrival of the catastrophic rock for several seasons, things could fall apart quickly. Crystal took the hint and she kept us stocked with vacuum-sealed bags of coffee beans, and other kinds of beans, from chili beans to burrito beans, from navy beans to lentils. We had water filters and bags of flour, canned tomatoes and jars of peanut butter, jars of yeast and tiny paper packages of yeast in case those ran out. We had jugs of kimchi and boxes of noodles, gallons of bleach and gallons of olive oil, with rows of metal shelving to store it all. We owed a lot to that movie. We drank our coffee without cream and went about our daily tasks separately in the same house.
My job was to make coffee and to try to reverse the trajectory of the court. I would call to see if my appeal had been received or if a court date had been set. I would call to ask the nature of my crime, if there had been witnesses, and if maybe there had been a mistake. I did look like other people and yes, I could have been mistaken for someone else and accused of their crimes. My interactions with the court were unproductive. I spent most of my time waiting on hold while a static-y blues riff played too loudly in my ear over and over. Generally, I’d put the phone on speaker and mute it so I didn’t disturb Crystal, who was working, or Annette, who was trying to keep up with her schoolwork (even if they didn’t have books for her or a place for her to sit), or Timothy, who could recite his ABCs like the best of them and had moved on to long division. We had our coffee, and we had our quiet house, which was how we preferred it, so I was self-conscious when a court official finally answered the line and I had to unmute the phone and rattle off my date of birth and social security number, my case number and court date, which I didn’t have, so that this sometimes sent me back into a loop where I might be on hold for days, until I eventually reached someone who was kind and who also knew the quirks of the system.
I should have gotten a letter, but I had no letter.
I should have hired a lawyer, but I didn’t want to bankrupt us.
Eventually, this court official would ask if I wanted to remain on hold or if they should call me back, which was a trick. I’d learned to always stay on the line, because they never called back. Why would they? The case would progress without a court date. It didn’t matter if I was the wrong guy. Justice had momentum.
I finally got through to a woman on the phone who was extremely knowledgeable and exceptionally kind. She told me I was on house arrest and someone would come over to fit me with a monitor.
An ankle monitor. An electronic device.
How could I be on house arrest if I hadn’t had a trial?
They do that sometimes.
What had I done?
She didn’t know but she said, I’m sure someone knows.
Each morning we drank our black coffee. Each morning I spent the day on the phone. I wanted to believe none of this was happening and that I could will it away. That I could walk out the front door and drive to the store for a carton of cream, maybe even pick up some donuts, and we’d all be fine. No one at the store would know I was supposed to stay home. I would be the hero for risking everything to bring home cream. Hell, maybe Tim would start taking cream in his coffee too.
But I stared out the screen door and stayed inside. I couldn’t cross the threshold.
I had the keys to the Hyundai in my hand and I clicked the fob to unlock the doors, so the horn beeped and the lights flashed like the maroon crossover was reporting for duty, or it was a toddler's sneaker with LEDs that lit up when Tim ran, and my car was ready to run, an old friend so happy to see me.
Except I couldn’t leave. I just couldn’t.
I clicked the fob and the car doors locked.
I clicked the fob to beep the horn and flash the lights.
This was better than waiting on the phone as blues music played.
This was better than moving numbers from column to column.
We didn’t need school. We didn’t need long division.
They couldn’t do anything to us if we just stayed right here.
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