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Story Excerpt

Judge Not
by Twist Phelan

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Albert Kastner has been a judge for twenty-five years and a new husband for ten months, and he is tired.

Lately, he’s been dragging himself to the courthouse, where the telephone has become his enemy. Nearly every morning when he arrives in chambers, his secretary hands him a message slip. A little urgent note from Tetyana, usually in the form of a Ukrainian proverb. A hungry wolf is stronger than a satisfied dog. Sometimes she sends more than one. Luck is against the man who depends on it.

Then there is when he gets home. Tetyana has plans for him; over dinner is when she lays them out. Promotion to a better court . . . run for local office . . . join a downtown law firm . . . While the strategies and directions are endless, they unfortunately fall short of distracting him from the food.

Everything Tetyana cooks involves cabbage or potatoes, sometimes both. The starchy odors permeate the flocked wallpaper she installed in their bedroom, the bedroom where Martha spent her last weeks after the doctors said there was nothing else to be done. Martha, who made things like pot roast and cherry pie. Martha, whose idea of conjugal relations was twice a month, missionary style. Tetyana is as earthy as her vegetables. She insists they have sex four times a week, followed by an hour or two of watching true-crime shows, her favorite kind of TV.

Judge Kastner is halfway through his sixth decade. He doesn’t know how much longer he can last without good food, or keep up with the acrobatic sex and redecorating expenses. The word enough does not exist for water, fire, and woman was yesterday’s proverb. Judge Kastner wishes Tetyana had shared it before he proposed.

But this morning, as Judge Kastner buttons his faded black robe, he whistles a few notes. He is thinking about the day’s docket, one case in particular: State v. Crouch. It is the case that will change everything.

Judge Kastner met Tetyana in the dim bar where he’d taken refuge after Martha was gone, the house too big and empty. Tetyana is ten years his junior, with towering blond hair and ambitions to match. She introduces him to all her friends as Judge Kastner. He’s sure some think Judge is his first name.

On that first night, Judge Kastner told her how much he missed Martha cooking for him, keeping the house tidy, ironing his shirts. Tetyana nodded and patted his arm. “We are not baby chicks,” she said. “The days are short for hens and roosters.” Six weeks after meeting, they were engaged, and married a month after that.

Being a municipal-court judge isn’t the same as serving on the state court of appeals or the federal bench. There is no upward mobility, and the pay is on par with that of a warehouse stocker or rideshare driver. Tetyana acts as though this isn’t true, booking spa services and shopping for designer clothes.

A divorce would cost him—Judge Kastner added Tetyana to the title to his house and put his bank account in both their names. The latter, never substantial, is dwindling. There is no prenup. If they split, he’d have to sell the house and give her half the proceeds. His share from the house sale and a ten-thousand-dollar bearer bond inherited from an uncle will be his only assets.

And what Judge Kastner did a month after Martha died is about to make his situation worse.

It was a simple sentencing hearing, assigned to him because the upper courts were behind on their dockets. Simple, because the sentencing guidelines decreed what term to impose. A robot could’ve entered the ruling: ten years, parole possible after eight.

The case was basic bad guy/dumb girlfriend: A drug dealer had been busted at his girlfriend’s house, where the cops found weapons and a large cocaine stash hidden in the attic heating vents. The girlfriend, who worked two jobs—Walmart cashier and commercial janitor—claimed ignorance but the jury didn’t believe her. Her boyfriend dropped names higher up the supply chain and cut a deal for time served, while she was looking at real time.

What caught Judge Kastner’s attention in the pre-sentence report was the paragraph on the girlfriend’s son, Elijah. Eleven years old and gifted at math, he attended one of the city’s better private schools on scholarship, riding a bus three hours every day to get there and back. He also volunteered as a tutor at the local Boys & Girls Club.

Elijah backed up his mother’s testimony. He swore if his mom had known the boyfriend—who’d moved in only a month earlier—was selling drugs, she would’ve kicked him out. The jury didn’t believe him either.

After his mom was convicted, Elijah lost his scholarship. He was placed in foster care and has already tried to run away once.

Elijah came to court for his mother’s sentencing. His jacket was too big but his tie was neatly knotted, if long. He never once looked away from Judge Kastner.

A sentence of eight years would’ve meant Elijah would be nineteen upon his mom’s release. Once on track for college, Elijah would be who-knows-where after spending his teens in the foster-care system.

Maybe it was because Judge Kastner was still grieving. Maybe it was a symbolic nod to Martha’s kindness. In any event, for once he bucked the system. He sentenced Elijah’s mom to time served, which meant she was free to go.

The objections were immediate in the local media. Those on the right decried Judge Kastner’s leniency. Those on the left insisted he should have overturned the conviction altogether. The powers that be—that is, the city council that appoints municipal-court judges—were not pleased by the tumult. A councilman quietly told Judge Kastner he should enjoy the remainder of his term, as it would be his last.

Right after they were married, at Tetyana’s urging, Judge Kastner attended a legal-community fund-raiser for local charities. To be a lion, you must walk with lions. Waiting for a drink at the bar, he started a conversation with a woman who reeked of cigarets. She turned out to be the tutoring director for the Boys & Girls Club. Before he could stop himself, Judge Kastner asked if she knew Elijah and his mom. She did, reporting they lived in an apartment on the fringe of the city’s best school district. Elijah was doing well in his classes and had returned to tutoring, while his mom was working two jobs again. According to the director, there was no boyfriend—bad or otherwise—in the picture.

Judge Kastner and Tetyana were married eight months when their neighbors, the Lackmans, bought a new car, one of the pricey German ones. Judge Kastner has never liked Merv Lackman. He calls Judge Kastner Your Honor whenever they happen to put out their trash at the same time. Merv would pound on the lid of his can with his fist as though it were a gavel and yell, “Order, order!”

Merv is a city building inspector. Judge Kastner knows this because during their occasional meetings at the trash cans, Merv regales him with tales of slip-ups and shoddy work, cut corners and outright fraud he’s caught on the job. Judge Kastner nods and tunes him out, instead wondering how long he can stay outside before Tetyana comes looking for him. Sometimes he makes an offhand comment, hoping to derail Merv from his monologue.

Like he did a few weeks ago. When Merv paused for a breath while listing the code violations he’d caught in a shopping-center redevelopment, Judge Kastner remarked, “Too bad you can’t do anything about speeding up construction. The building they’re putting up beside the off-ramp really slows down traffic.”

“That’s a project I’d like to see never end,” Merv said, with a wink so exaggerated that for a second Judge Kastner thought the man was having a minor stroke. “Every day when I’m stuck in that traffic, I say to myself, ‘Look around, Merv. You’re the only one driving a car paid for by this building.’ Makes the commute pretty sweet.” He folded his arms. “Don’t tell me it isn’t the same in your biz, Your Honor. When the wife wants a new dining table . . .” Another exaggerated wink.

It took Judge Kastner a moment to realize Merv was accusing him of throwing cases.

“I’ve never done that! Never!” Judge Kastner couldn’t say it didn’t happen with other judges. He’d heard rumors, but it had never crossed his mind to do it himself.

“Sure you haven’t,” Merv said. Chuckling, he went back to his house.

Judge Kastner didn’t sleep well that night. The houses in his neighborhood were tiny, pressed up next to one another, mostly owned by people who worked for some branch of government—trash collectors, inspectors like Merv, postal workers, clerks. Judge Kastner was the only judge, if you didn’t count George Pulanski, who ten years ago served one term as a justice of the peace before his unfortunate addiction to sports betting was revealed. As Judge Kastner thought about it, he realized none of his neighbors seemed as financially pinched as he was. They had kids, bought motor homes and boats, added on decks, went on long vacations.

Why was everyone flush except him? Wasn’t he educated? Hadn’t he worked hard? Judge Kastner wondered as he tossed and turned beside a slumbering Tetyana in a pink baby-doll nightgown, the color she wore when she was in the mood for especially acrobatic sex. Judge Kastner feared he would slip a disc if he didn’t make a change in his marital status soon. But how to afford it?

The next morning found Judge Kastner more tired than ever, but resolved. A hungry wolf is stronger than a satisfied dog. That day, he started delving into his cases, looking for the right one. And he found it. . . .


Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023 Judge Not by Twist Phelan

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