Gladys Stimpleton the Stalwart

Gladys stared out of the kitchen into the adjoining family room, the same view she had taken each night after supper dishes were done for the past 53 years. She stared over the 53-year-old counter and through the opening above it – an opening that had seemed quite modern 53 years before when her husband Oliver had thought of it. The same Oliver she had been married to for 55 years, the man who now sat in his chair before her, watching the evening news in the family room. The same family room which now seemed a misnomer, now that the family had dwindled down to just the two of them, Oliver and Gladys Stimpleton. Five children had come through that place, each a vital part of the Stimpleton family, and each now out of the house.

She sighed a little, but just a little. Her eyes scanned the counter, the sink and over to the table, leafless and small since Christmas dinner when the kids had last visited months before. Everything was in place, the dishes stacked back in the cupboard, the surfaces wiped down. The day’s laundry was done, maybe a few undershirts to fold, but she would do that at the couch. The kitchen was closed.

Walking through the doorway, she reached into the utility drawer and grabbed the scissors. She stood in the doorway and said, a bit loudly, “Oliver?” No reply. The TV was loud enough so he couldn’t hear her. Not that he wanted to, she allowed herself to think. She walked as silently as she could across the room to the back of Oliver’s chair, now in the partially reclined position, not so far back that he would see her approach, but far enough back for her to reach him with the scissors.

She slowed her pace and was soon within reach. She raised the scissors, her mouth a flat line of disapproval. Oliver’s wispy white hair stuck out barely beyond the headrest. What he had been thinking when he decided to grow his hair out at the age of 78 was beyond her. He had proudly announced one morning that he was growing a ponytail, and he had even talked a couple of times recently of getting a tattoo. It was as if midlife dreams had waited to hit Oliver in his mid-70’s. Perhaps, deep inside, he lamented the fact that the freewheeling hippie days had passed him by untouched.

He had also talked of getting a motorcycle, though this idea didn’t faze Gladys at all, since he was now too old and unsteady to ride one. To his great disappointment, he couldn’t even drive the car anymore, his fading vision degrading noticeably from year to year. But he could grow his hair out, he reasoned, and as he reclined in his chair at night, she could sneak in occasionally and cut it… after finishing the dishes and wiping down the counters, and before sitting on the couch and folding the remains of the day’s laundry. She could cut the wisps away, collecting them silently in her left hand as she cut with her right, and then throw them into the trash under the sink, the same trash that Oliver hardly ever saw, for he rarely bothered to throw things into it.

The next morning after he shaved, or perhaps the morning after that, he would emerge from the back bedroom and into the paneled family room, running his hands through his white hair and wonder, sometimes aloud, “Why isn’t my hair getting any longer? Gladys would respond that she thought it looked fine just the way it was.

On this particular night, after trimming Oliver the Wannabe Beatnik’s hair, she remembered the mail from the day before. Most of it would be ads, professionally marketed to their demographic, everything advertised as a must buy, produced so as to move both of them through the aches and pains, and losses, of advancing age as smoothly as possible. Gladys didn’t like these reminders of advancing age. Perhaps she didn’t want the rails into the unknown greased. Perhaps she wanted sticking points, places she could reach out and grab onto to slow the advancing years.

Most of the mail would go into the trash. All but the few bills, or from time to time a letter appearing from her remaining sister or from an old friend, though these appeared less often. The bills were always a simple affair, for whatever Oliver lacked as a man, he had never lacked the ability to provide money for the family, and he had put enough away, evidently, though she wasn’t sure where, for the two of them now. She would take a quick glance, place any bills beside Oliver, and throw the rest away.

Tonight, however, there was an official looking envelope included with the rest. She put her glasses on and held it up, sitting on the couch beside the few rumpled shirts as she read the return address. In bold letters, it read, “DAVIS COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,” located in the county seat of Newburg, 17 miles away, a town Gladys hadn’t been to in years. She turned the envelope over in her hands, this strange missive among the Stimpleton mail. She examined the name. Sure enough, it was addressed to her: Gladys Stimpleton, in clear and exact letters. Not to Oliver, but to her.

“Department of Justice,she whispered to herself. An image of their grandson, Jason, flashed through her mind. He had been in a few scrapes over in Tylerville, but that had been a while back, and not too serious. A few community service hours had paid Jason’s debt in full.

Then she thought of a TV commercial she had seen a few times about unclaimed property of Davis County residents. She had been intrigued by the idea that somewhere in the Davis County jurisdiction there was some bit of property that might belong to her. Perhaps an old bit of money left over from her Grandpa Harris, the only one of her relatives she could imagine ever accumulating anything.

Checking her imaginations of instant wealth, she reread her name on the envelope and then examined the special instructions on how to open the envelope. She tore the perforated sides and along the length of the envelope, finally able to unfurl an official looking letter addressed to her with the words “Jury Summons, County of Davis County, South Carolina” running across the top.

It could just as well have been a letter from an unknown colony of aliens on a distant planet. Gladys simply did not know what to do with the information that she had been summoned – by an official government agency, nonetheless – to perform the civic duty of sitting on a jury. Her knees and legs felt suddenly weak. She had heard of jury duty. She had seen shows on television with juries being seated and making crucial life or death decisions, the defendants’ very lives supple clay in their hands. She couldn’t sit on a jury. She didn’t know how. She couldn’t do that. Did she have to?

She thought of her son, Gerald, who lived in Atlanta and had had some legal training. She would call him. He would know what her duties were. She walked back into the family room and sat on the edge of the couch in her normal clothes-folding area. She looked at Oscar, presently engrossed in a television detective drama. Every week, the same heroes solved various murders and abductions, always getting their man within the hour allotted, and always engaging in snappy dialogue while working in dark rooms. None of them ever got sick, or even had to go to the bathroom, or had to fold clothes or serve on jury duty. She started to fold the clothes, waiting for a commercial.

Finally, a commercial for wheelchairs came on. “Oscar?” No response. Having dealt with his advancing deafness for so long, she knew that the first time she called him never counted. Again, this time louder, she called, “Oscar?”

“Huh?”

“Oscar, I have a letter telling me that I have jury duty!”

“What? Cherry pie? No thanks, I don’t think…”

“Not cherry pie… jury duty. I’m going to call Gerald.”

Is Gerald in trouble?” Oscar finally looked at her.

“No, he’s not in trouble.” Gladys reached over and grabbed the remote to mute the TV. Oscar’s hands rose up in objection, his brow furrowing a little.

“I’m calling Gerald about the jury duty letter I got in the mail.”

What do you mean? Let me see it.”

Gladys set the shirt down she was folding and walked back to the kitchen. She returned with the letter. Oscar was leaning way out of his chair, grunting, reaching for the remote now resting on the couch. Gladys placed the letter into his outstretched hand.

“Here, this letter. It came today. I thought Gerald might know what I should do.”

Oscar leaned back, examining the document, turning it over a couple of times and fumbling with his glasses.

“You can’t call him today… it’s Sunday and he’s still camping with the kids. You won’t get him.”

Gladys let her shoulders slump. “Well, I’ll call him Monday afternoon then, or late tomorrow after they get back.”

Oscar looked back at the letter. He pursed his lips, letting out staccato bursts of little half-whistles. He raised his eyebrows, looking over his glasses, now through them, now crinkling his nose, studying the letter.

“When did this come?” he asked.

“Just yesterday, I guess. It was in the mail, but I just saw it.” Oscar’s show was back on, but he ignored it. Once Gladys could get him onto something, he didn’t let go easily.

“Well, that is strange, dear, because it says here that you have to call this number on the evening of the 18th, between 7:00 and 9:00. Today is the 18th, isn’t it? This must have gotten hung up somewhere in the mail if it just came yesterday.”

Gladys took the letter back from Oscar and examined it more closely for herself.

“You mean, I have jury duty tomorrow? Tomorrow?! Over in Newburg?!!”

The gravity of the matter rushed over her. “How will I get there? What will I wear? What if I … can I get out of it? Do I have it or not? Why do I call the number? I’m calling Catherine.”

“Well, you call Catherine, and I’ll study this a bit more. Maybe you just call in to tell them you can’t make it and that’s the end of it, I don’t know.”

Oscar readjusted his glasses and adjusted his legs and studied the letter from the start of it, determined to figure it out. Gladys started toward the kitchen for the phone. She paused. “Aren’t I too old for jury duty, Oscar?”

Oscar, after 53 years, still didn’t like anything that could be interpreted as a loaded question. “You’re not old, Gladys, but there might be an age limit. Maybe they’ll tell you on the phone. Wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

In the kitchen, Gladys picked up the phone to call their oldest daughter, Catherine. She fought back nervous and sudden visions of sitting in a dimly lit courtroom, a hardened criminal with multiple scars on his face and fresh wounds on his body before her. How would she vote? Guilty or innocent? Her daughter’s prerecorded voice came over the phone. Gladys waited patiently and settled herself, “Catherine, it’s Mom. Call me when you get this. No emergency, but I have a question for you. It’s Sunday afternoon at 3:30. Love you.”

She set the phone down and stared into the empty sink, drumming her fingers on the counter. She picked the phone back up to call Jennifer, their second oldest daughter. She dialed the number and waited as it rang. What if the hardened criminal was found guilty, and her own vote was the one that sealed his fate, and he was sent to prison for life? What if one of his relatives or friends or fellow gang members decided to take out revenge on Gladys, or on one of her children or grandchildren? Or what if her address became known and the hardened criminal’s relative came right to her house? She pictured Oscar innocently opening the front door, television remote in hand, realizing too late the danger, and bravely placing his frail body in front of the attacker bursting through the door. Jenny’s friendly greeting interrupted her thoughts. Another message.

She then tried calling her remaining two children, Allan and Tommy. Neither one answered. Two more messages. She thought she might call up Jason, the one grandson of brief legal trouble. He was off at college now, but he might know what she could do.

“Gladys?” Oscar called from the family room.

“Yes?” Gladys hoped he had something good to say.

“I think this says you call this number, and you might not have to go at all. You have to call the number, though. Call it and see what they say.

He set the letter down, grabbed the remote, and returned to his program. “I bet they won’t make you come in if you don’t want to,” he added.

All the remaining afternoon, Gladys tried to concentrate on her usual activities, fighting off the distraction. She wondered what kind of trial she would have to adjudicate. She wondered if she could take notes during the trial. She wondered if she would know anyone else on the jury, but doubted that she would. She hoped one of her children would call.

At 7:00, Gladys was at the kitchen table, Oscar beside her. She waited until the clock on the microwave read 7:01, and then she dialed the number given on the letter. She had a pen and notepad ready to scribble down whatever the person on the other end told her. She had an extra pen beside the notepad in case the first one went dry. Her hand was shaking a little. Oscar reached over and rubbed her arm to calm her. She looked at him and he smiled at her, lifting his eyebrows and nodding slightly. She let out a deep breath.

“Welcome to the David County Courthouse. You have reached the Jury Selection Division of the Davis County Department of Justice.” Gladys hurriedly wrote, “Jry Sel Dvsion – Davis Cty Dep Jus” on the top of her notepad as she listened. “Please have your letter of jury service notification with you as you listen to the following instructions.” She placed her hand over the mouthpiece and said, “It’s a recording. I don’t think I’ll get to talk to any…” She stopped midsentence to write again. “If your jury panel number is not within the following range, you do not have to report to the Department of Justice building tomorrow morning, Monday, April 19th, and your jury service will not be needed. If your number is within the following range, you must report to the Department of Justice building tomorrow morning, Monday, April 19th, at 8:30 am. Reporting for jury duty does not necessarily mean that actual selection to a jury will occur. Failure to report…”

Gladys was writing furiously, “Dep Jus bldg. 8:30am Apr 19 # w’in range,” all the while trying to whisper to Oscar what she was hearing. It was becoming too much for her.

“Ohhh! What number!!? What number are they talking about, Oscar? Grab the letter! Is there a number

on there? I didn’t see any other number on there! I don’t know where the Justice Department is! How will I get there? Is there a number on there?!!! Here! Quiet!!” Oscar wasn’t making any noise, but he scanned the letter again for a number. He found it and pointed it out, holding it up in the air. Gladys was listening to the “failure to report” and waved him away.

“Not now, Oscar!” she whispered harshly.

Finally, the voice on the other end thanked Gladys for her time and attention to this important civic duty and invited her to push “9” if she wanted the instructions repeated. She did. She listened again, a bit calmer this time, reading over her notes as she did, glad that she could have the information repeated. She waved her fingers for Oscar to give her the letter. He did so, keeping his finger on the number he had found.

She carefully wrote down the range of numbers given, tracing over each number a couple of times for clarity of reading. She pushed “9” twice more and listened to everything over again each time. Finally, she hung up. Staring at the letter with her number on it, she slowly compared it to see if it fell within the range given. The range was 1200 – 1600. Her number was 1392. She heard herself gasp.

“Oscar.” She stared at her number, 1392. “Oscar, I have to go. I have to. Tomorrow. The recording said I have to go, even though I might not get selected, I have to go.”

Gladys called everyone she knew within 20 miles that night. Not one person could tell her exactly where the Department of Justice building was, and no one seemed to know if she would be allowed to take notes during jury duty. Some thought she could, but others said that it was not allowed. Marge, a former fellow choir member, thought it was illegal to take notes during jury duty. One friend, Selma, suggested to Gladys that she place a small notepad in her purse in case it was allowed, but if it wasn’t she wouldn’t have a large notepad to dispose of. Selma sounded so sure of herself, Gladys entertained the thought of asking Selma to go in her place, and when she mentioned the idea in a feigned joking manner, Selma laughed and said, “Honey, I’d do it, I would! I’d like to get some of those rapists and criminals put behind bars! But you know, when I went to show them my identification, I’d have to take yours… oh, my gosh! That’s it, Gladys!…”

“What, Selma?”

“That’s it! That’s why you got that letter. When you went to renew your license last month, that’s what put your name in the pool! You know, I think I’m going to go down and get my license renewed even before I have to, so I can get myself put on jury duty.”

Gladys remembered getting her license renewed the month before. She didn’t enjoy driving, as she once had, but had now become the family’s sole driver.

She hung up with Selma. She had wanted to ask Selma to drive her there in the morning, but couldn’t bring herself to ask. She had wanted to ask everyone she called if they could drive, but none offered, so she hadn’t asked.

That night, Gladys set her alarm for 5:00 the next morning. She had to be at the Department of Justice building by 8:30, so she worked backwards at Oscar’s suggestion. In the building by 8:30, so at the building by 8:00. So… parked by 7:30, in case she had to park far away. So… in Newburg by 7:00, in case she had to drive around to find parking. She didn’t know if she’d have to pay for parking, or how a parking meter worked, so she counted out $5.00 in change, gathering an assortment of nickels, dimes, and quarters. She counted out the total three times, and then threw in a 50 cent piece just in case.

She added an additional 15 minutes to figure out the meter. That meant arriving in Newburg by 6:45. She backed that up to 6:30 to allow time to stop and ask for directions if she needed to. She figured Monday morning traffic between home and Newburg could be heavy so she allowed 45 minutes to drive the 17 miles. That meant leaving the house at 6:00. One hour to get up and get ready would suffice.

She was in bed by 10:30, her jury duty clothes carefully selected and resting on the dresser. Her shoes were also at the ready. At 10:42, sleepless, she suddenly wondered if the car had enough gas to get to Newburg. Oscar was snoring peacefully, so she turned and adjusted her wake up time to 4:45 in case she had to get gas. She knew there was a 24 hour station somewhere out on the highway. She had heard about it from Selma.

She got up and checked her purse one more time for parking money, and to make sure she had enough money for gas. Then she thought about lunch. Was it provided?! Should she take something?! Was there a restaurant of some sort in the Department of Justice building? This led to a new flurry of activity to make a sandwich. She selected peanut butter and jelly, which usually only the grand kids ate. It would be okay to leave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her purse instead of a meat sandwich, which would spoil. She wrapped it in foil, and then realized that there might be some sort of metal detector at the front door of the Department of Justice, so she unwrapped it and placed it in a plastic bag. She stood in the darkened kitchen and wondered how many days she might have to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. She grabbed an apple from the refrigerator, washed it, and placed it in her purse as well. A fleeting thought that perhaps her leftover parking change would set off the metal detector gave her pause, but seeing the microwave reading 11:17 prompted her to give up that worry.

She returned to bed and tried to relax next to Oscar. She looked at the back of his head and his white hair, the hair that was so dark and full when they were young. She loved Oscar. She loved the way he had patted her arm and smiled when she was making the phone call. She loved the way he had left his television program to study the jury selection letter. She wished she could compartmentalize this whole thing the way he could. She knew that if he was the one going in the morning, he’d still be fast asleep now, and he wouldn’t have bothered to figure out parking change or lunch selection. He would have set his clock for 7:00, been out the door by 7:45, and been sitting in the courthouse, reading a newspaper, by 8:30. She wished he was the one going to jury duty over in Newburg in the morning.

Finally dozing off, Gladys dreamed of being in the jury box. The case was a murder trial. The defendant had killed the gas station attendant at the 24 hour gas station out on the new highway, and the judge was yelling at Gladys because she had gotten gas there that morning.

“You can’t solicit the same business where such a horrendous crime like this might have occurred!! I say ‘might’ because, as we all know, or should know…” he leaned toward Gladys, pointing at her,” that the man before us is innocent! Innocent, I say, until proven guilty!!” She looked around the courthouse in horror that she, Gladys Stimpleton, could have fouled up the case by getting gas that morning. She placed her hands instinctively up to her chest and asked, “But how could I have known? If I had run out of gas and not come here my spot would be empty and…”

“Silence!!” the judge yelled. “I’ll do the explaining around here!”

Gladys looked into the audience and there sat Oscar, shaking his head and holding his forefinger to his mouth to hush her. Beside him sat the man who had been murdered, alive! Gladys waved her arms frantically at the judge and pointed at the man next to Oscar. Surely the judge would see that he hadn’t been murdered after all! The judge looked at the man but then sneered at Gladys, saying, “Gladys Stimpleton, is that peanut butter and jelly on your fingers?” and to the dismay of everyone around, Gladys had made a mess of her sandwich and was suddenly trying to stuff it, half eaten, back into her purse. A ringing started up from the juror seated beside her, ringing that wouldn’t stop. Was it a cell phone? Gladys looked up at the judge, but he didn’t seem to mind the noise and was suddenly playing chess by himself. His robe had turned into a choir robe, the same type of robe that Gladys had worn when she sang in the choir. The ringing got louder and louder and… the man next to her was Oscar, lying in their bed, shaking her arm gently, “Gladys… your alarm!”

By the time Gladys came into the kitchen that morning at 6:17am, running seventeen minutes behind her appointed time, Oscar was dressed and sitting at the table, two plates of scrambled eggs and bacon with toast set before him. He was pouring a cup of hot coffee for Gladys, and a second one for himself.

“Good morning, jury member number 1392. How did you sleep?” he smiled at her.

Oscar laughed gently as Gladys recounted her dream. She ate quickly, glancing repeatedly at the time. As she finished eating, Oscar said, “I’ll go start the car for you.”

“Thank you, sweetheart,” Gladys felt a little foolish at all of her worries the night before.

She went to the bathroom and checked herself in the mirror one last time. She quickly brushed her teeth. Leaving the bathroom, she grabbed her purse and checked that her money was there. She came back to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and placed her sandwich and apple into her purse, stopping for a brief second before the sink. Oscar had already washed the dishes and set them in the drainer. The man could work fast when he wanted to. She looked at the microwave. 6:41. Time to go. Oscar must still be outside, she thought.

She stepped out into the garage. Oscar had backed the car out into the driveway and was now sitting in the passenger side of the car, reading the paper. She opened the driver’s door and got in.

“Oscar, what in the world are you doing?” she said as she placed her purse in the middle and sat down.

Oscar folded up his paper and looked at her. “Thought I’d ride along and see the big city.”

“Oscar… what? You don’t have to….”

“Gladys, what else am I going to do today? I got my paper and I brought a book I started last year. Been meaning to get back into it.”

Gladys looked at him and smiled a little slyly, “By yourself? You’re just gonna sit in this car the whole day by yourself?”

“What else would I do? Sit in the house by myself watching that blasted television?”

“Oscar, I could be in there all day! If they select me, that is.” She looked closer at Oscar. His eyes looked a little full.

“Honey, are you…? She stopped herself and reached out and stroked the clean shaven face of her husband of 55 years. She looked at his thinning white hair and suddenly felt shame for cutting it without him knowing it. She ran her fingers through it.

“Oscar, are you sure you want to…”

He interrupted, “I made us some sandwiches and chips. Got ‘em in a cooler in the back. If they give you a lunch break, maybe we could get a Coke and walk over to that big park. You remember that park? Douglas Park, I think it’s called. Been awhile.”

Oscar reached over to help Gladys with her seat belt.

He continued, “The one with the creek running through it with the little waterfall? You remember we took the kids there that one time and they kept wanting to throw pennies into the water and make wishes?”

Gladys remembered. Oscar smiled, put on the sunglasses their daughter Catherine had given him for Father’s Day, and sat back in his seat. He looked at her.

“Better get moving,” he smiled. “It’s gonna be a beautiful day!”

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