Sterling Ross, Judge Sterling Ross, let Gloria Fentress, Esq. drift toward him, through the crowd at the Los Angeles County Bar lunch, her grin widening with every graceful step until she was close enough to whisper hello. Their hands brushed against each other, and he inhaled her Bulgari scent. Their lips almost touched and then they did, and when they touched again, this time to linger, the judge heard the coos, the murmurs from everyone around them: Judge Ross and Gloria Fentress, they’re dating…
The word dating speared the dream, slew the dream, and returned Judge Ross from the stars to his bench, the bench in his courtroom, where Gloria Fentress had just accused the defendant of “dating”—as in backdating—documents. The cadence of her words combined serenity with celerity, projecting the charm of a diplomat from the high latitudes, and since Gloria Fentress had a voice he wanted to hear forever, the judge let her argue another ten minutes while he watched her face and—when she gestured to make a point—realized that Gloria Fentress’ ring finger contained no ring. Only the exasperated sigh from Lucas Stillman, her opposing counsel with a face as bland as his status quo client, broke the judge’s trance. Ms. Fentress wanted the judge to order the defendant to produce documents. Judge Ross wanted this hearing to last forever. He asked her an open-ended question about how she and her opposing counsel were getting along on other aspects of their case.
“Not well,” she said. “Mr. Stillman is delaying things. Let me enumerate.” Five minutes later, Gloria Fentress sat down, and Judge Ross hoped that Mr. Stillman would delay everything so that Gloria would have to come to court weekly, better yet, daily. The way she tilted her head and said, “Thank you, Your Honor,” reminded the judge of Dana Sharwell, when she had thanked him for taking her to the Senior Prom. And Judge Ross’s crush on Dana had not abated until he met Karin, his wife.
Gloria packed her briefcase. The sleeves of her blouse extended no farther than her elbows, and the muscles of her tan forearms danced each time she picked up a file. Her skirt was high enough to allow the judge’s eyes to loiter over her calves as she walked from the counsel table to the courtroom door. He looked until his clerk whispered that the next case was ready.
Later, after his morning calendar call, the judge logged onto the California State Bar’s Web site to learn more about Gloria. Most likely Gloria had already Googled him. Good attorneys always ran searches on their judges. Part of him hoped she would be too young for a forty-eight year-old man. She was younger, but only by ten years and—according to a site he found—had competed in a triathlon on her last birthday.
He was entering her name on Lexis/Nexis when an e-mail from his son Josh popped onto the screen. They were communicating again after a month of silence, over what, Sterling could not say. His wife Karin had dismissed the episode as something all teenagers go through. Now Josh was writing a civics paper about Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and wanted to discuss the book, “because, Dad, you had to know a lot about politics to get to be a judge.” Sterling did know a lot about politics. It was time to share with his son how he had convinced the governor to appoint him to the Superior Court instead of his former law partner, who had been regarded as the natural heir to that seat. He’d describe the letter-writing campaign, including—if Josh agreed not to put it in his paper—the note written by a grateful client, a state senator, who had said, “Anything you want, Sterling. I owe you big time.” During his next hunting trip with the Governor, the Senator had disclosed an ethical lapse, rumored but never proven, allegedly committed years earlier by the partner. Sterling called Karin to make sure they had no dinner guests. He wanted a cozy evening, just the family enjoying ossobuco—his wife’s signature dish.
Gloria was a tease. Of that the judge was certain, but he was equally sure she would take him in the exquisite end. He willed himself to think carefully. Gloria would have to remain a fantasy, at least until her case ended. That meant all appeals exhausted and the judgment final, a process that could span two years unless she and Lucas Stillman could settle it.
Judge Ross’ cell number was blocked; Judicial Security had made sure of that. He had her office number from the State Bar web site. Once the judge was on the 110, heading home to Pasadena, he ordered his BMW’s handsfree system to call Gloria. He wanted to hear her voice, even a quick, “hello.” If she answered, he’d hang up, but Sterling’s wish was granted, and the call went into Gloria’s voicemail. “I can’t take your call right now…” He was rapt. “Leave your name and…” He accelerated. “I will call you back as soon as…” The Infiniti’s brake lights turned red, the judge swerved, missed him, and Jesus, had the beep tone sounded before he said, “Oh fuck”? No, it couldn’t have. Someone had honked his horn. Even if…she wouldn’t recognize…too quick… He slowed down, flowed with the traffic. Sterling did not relax his grip on the steering wheel until he entered his driveway, and even after he had hugged Karin and Josh, his fingers remained curled little claws.
The settlement terms were confidential, Lucas Stillman and Gloria Fentress said a week later, so they asked to approach the bench where, for the first time, Judge Ross received a close look at Gloria’s face, flawless except for one beauty mark. Her complexion, together with the hint of cleavage she displayed, would remain in his brain for the rest of the day, along with her dulcet voice that said, “We’ll miss you,” as she waved good-bye and glided out of the courtroom.
On his way home, Sterling stopped by the drug store to refill a prescription for his wife. He imagined his lips exploring the hollow of Gloria’s tan throat as he put down the co-pay for the pills that would keep Karin free from osteoporosis for another month. Gloria moaned softly when the pharmacist handed over the vial. Sterling loved the woman he had married eighteen years ago. When he had the flu last winter, Karin had brought him meals on a silver tray, always with a flower from their garden. Karin had sponged the sweat off him after his fever broke. She had kissed his clammy forehead, and when Karin had helped Sterling stumble into the bathroom, he gaped at his pale, grizzled flesh in the mirror and had marveled how she could stand to be near him, let alone kiss him. The judge’s eyes glistened at the notion of sneaking off for a night with Gloria. He vowed not to call her and he felt relieved.
His relief dissolved the following morning, when he saw Gloria’s picture on the cover of the County Bar Association’s monthly bulletin announcing her team’s victory in a lawyers’ tennis tournament. The photographer had captured her curves, and the judge studied the richly colored image. He wished her case had not settled, because he wanted Gloria to spend more time viewing Judge Sterling Ross seated at the highest point in the courtroom, his court clerk, law clerk, court reporter, bailiff all hovering nearby as he issued just rulings backed by sensible analyses.
The judge would have to place a decent interval between the date the case was dismissed and the first time he could reach out to her. Six weeks sounded about right. He tried to predict how she would respond. Of course she would take his call. What lawyer ignores a judge’s phone call? Gloria would chirp a surprised, but friendly greeting, the momentum of which would sustain them through five minutes of shop talk. He had no pretext. Once their dialogue started to falter, Sterling would have to rescue it by inviting her to something easy, non-threatening, such as the County Bar’s annual dinner, which was scheduled—he looked at his calendar—in three months, far enough out so that he could ask her two to three weeks ahead. Following that event, he would suggest a walk or coffee in the hotel lobby or a drink in the bar, or—
The judge had no idea what he would suggest.
And no idea materialized while he drove west toward Gloria’s house after working late in his chambers and coaxing her address out of the Internet. He was about to stalk her. No, he wasn’t. His plan was legal. He’d coast down Gloria’s street, look at her place without so much as a tap on the brake, and head for the freeway. This little detour to Venice was costing him an hour that could have been devoted to preparing tomorrow’s cases or—Sterling cursed himself as he remembered—critiquing Josh’s paper on The Prince. Fresh and enthusiastic after their dinner conversation last night, Josh had bounded to his room with a promise to have the first draft ready when Sterling came home. His son was rejoining the family, thanks, of all things, to Machiavelli. “I ought to plan a campaign,” Josh had said at dinner. “Maybe run for sophomore class president. Would you help me out if I did?”
Beaming inwardly, Sterling had said, “Of course.”
Josh had touched his curly hair and said, “I’ve got to get the popular girls to support me.”
“We’ll devise a strategy,” Sterling said. “But first you have to write your paper.”
And now Judge Ross was ignoring his child to snatch a glimpse of some woman’s house. He would have turned back if he were not there already. Gloria’s white bungalow sat behind a low hedge. The brown front door was bathed by a porch light. To the right, a bay window revealed her living room inside of which was a white couch and—that is all the judge saw before he passed her house.
A mile later, Sterling stopped at a gas station across from the freeway entrance. Moments before he extracted a receipt from the pay point, a red Audi A8 appeared next to him. “Judge Ross? I didn’t know you lived near here,” Gloria said when she got out.
“I don’t. I mean, I was at a meeting.” His hand shook as he pocketed the receipt.
“So was I. The County Bar litigation committee.” She inserted an American Express Gold Card into the slot.
“That’s a—a wonderful group.” His hands were shaking.
“They are,” she said and swept her free hand through her straight black hair. “Everybody’s delightful and really bright.”
“Here, let me do that.” He removed the hose and inserted the nozzle into her tank.
“Oh, Judge, that’s so nice of you.” The night was chilly, Gloria wore a stylish coat, and Sterling thought about Josh waiting at home.
Gloria said, “You were active in the bar before you became a judge, isn’t that right?”
“I was president,” he replied. The pump hummed and digital numbers flashed at strobe light speed. Gloria kept beaming at him. “It was a good experience,” he said.
“I’ll bet,” she said. “What an honor.”
“I really like bar activities,” she said. “I’d enjoy going to more of them, like their dinner.”
The nozzle clicked off. Sterling’s hands shook as he replaced the hose. At least a second passed before he said, “That would be good for you.”
“I want to. Judge, I’m so glad we ran into each other,” Gloria said.
“Me too,” Sterling said. “We—I have to get home.”
“I understand. Have a great night, Judge.”
Sweating in the fast lane of the freeway, Ross decided that Machiavelli would not only justify, but condone his coming affair with Gloria. Josh had unwittingly revealed so much at dinner when he quoted the passage, “It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong and to make use of it, or not, according to necessity.” Sterling invented the conversation he and Gloria would have over their first meal: lots of law gossip followed by their life stories lite. And dammit, he would not be as flustered as he had been at the gas pump. He visualized himself sitting on her living room couch. As he started to kiss her, into his mind flashed the image of a studio apartment, the drab unit in which he would be living should he decamp and shut down his family. Would he spend quality time with Josh there? Would he cry in his rented room, its thin curtains drawn so he did not have to see the alley? Or would the room become a paradise where Sterling Ross could feast on Gloria Fentress’ body?
“Who’s Gloria?” Karin asked.
“What do you mean?” Sterling pulled the blanket to his neck.
“You said her name in your sleep.”
“I have no idea,” Sterling said. “Must have been a weird dream.”
“Do you remember it?”
Sterling told the truth, “No.”
Karin hugged her husband. “I had a bizarre dream too. Can’t recall it either.” She kissed him before she got out of bed and said, “Josh really appreciated your helping him last night.”
Several days later, when Ms. Fentress and Mr. Stillman told him that their settlement had fallen apart, Judge Ross masked his pleasure. Now Sterling and Gloria would live together through a trial, five luxuriant days during which she would see her man in his black robe doing justice between the parties. The mask stayed on during lunch with Josh, who was using his weekly free period to visit court and show his father the revised draft of his term paper. Their discussion lingered over one of Machiavelli’s quotes Josh had used: “If he is wise he ought not to fear the reputation of being mean.” “Are you mean in court, Dad?” his son asked.
Sterling said, “Some lawyers might say so. Because…”
“Hey, she’s hot.” Josh said.
“What are you talking…” and then Sterling saw Gloria’s tennis picture, in Josh’s hands. He had not removed the County Bar bulletin from his desk.
“If women lawyers are like her, I want to go to law school,” Josh said, smiling at his father. “Do you know her?”
Years ago at judges college, an instructor had told the class, “Sometimes you have to watch them go down in flames.” Judge Ross recalled the remark as he sat on the bench watching Gloria lose her case. Despite hours of testimony, she had proved absolutely nothing. Every time she tried to get an exhibit into evidence, Stillman belted out an objection to which she could react with nothing more than a smile. “Sustained, sustained,” the judge kept saying in a rhythm resembling a factory machine. He silently pleaded with Gloria not to get angry with him, for he had to follow the law. Even so, he was shocked. Until today, all he knew about her case came from trial briefs. Her opponent’s strategy was now clear, the judge realized. Lucas Stillman had never educated her over the past year. Not once had he pointed out the weaknesses in her case. He had simply let her coast into trial. Now, looking deadly, Stillman asked to approach the bench.
Once again Sterling would receive a close-up of Gloria, but this time her full lips trembled while Stillman asked the judge to dismiss her case. “Even if her evidence is admissible, and she proved everything she planned to prove, she has no claim,” he said. Stillman’s tone hardened. “Frankly, Your Honor, I have no clue how she expected to win, or why she sued my client in the first place. Any first year law student would have realized how frivolous this is. You should end this nonsense right now.” Judge Ross remained fixed on Gloria, whose tremors had spread from her lips to her hands. Only when Stillman finished his argument did the judge turn to him, and then for no more than a second before he looked at Gloria again. Quietly, he asked if she had anything more to support her client’s claim. Her answer consumed ten minutes during which the judge said nothing, for Gloria still excited him even though he realized that her argument constituted sophistry.
As soon as Judge Ross granted the motion to dismiss, Stillman said, “Your Honor, we’re going to file a motion to order Ms. Fentress to pay my client’s attorney fees. We think that if any case deserves sanctions, it’s this one. We need to reserve a hearing date.”
Josh got an A on his term paper. Wonderful job, his teacher wrote across the top of the essay. You understand Machiavelli very well. But don’t let him go to your head.
That night Josh said little during dinner. The boy was retreating again, back to his monosyllabic world, and he wouldn’t say why. When Sterling asked if he still planned to run for class president, Josh grunted and went to his room. Sterling and Karin looked silently at each other.
Two hours later, when Judge Ross silently made love with his wife, he visualized Gloria beneath him, digging her fingernails into his lats and grinding hard. They kissed, and Karin moaned softly. When it was over, Sterling told his wife he loved her, and they fell asleep spooning each other.
Slightly more of Ms. Fentress’ cleavage was on display three weeks later, during the sanctions hearing at which Lucas Stillman stressed that the entire experience had cost his client $96,000 in legal fees and another $9,500 in costs, a sum the law allowed him to recover from, “this attorney on account of her bad faith tactics and her failure to conduct even the most rudimentary investigation of the facts.”
“Thank you, counsel,” the judge said. “I’ll take the matter under submission. Court is in recess.”
He let two more weeks elapse before ordering Gloria Fentress to pay $105,500 to Mr. Stillman’s firm. Any judge would have reached the same conclusion, he thought. Her case was pathetic, worthless. Judge Ross looked out the window of his chambers. The Canons of Judicial Ethics obligated him to report to the State Bar any attorney against whom he imposed more than a thousand dollars in sanctions. The Bar would open an ethics investigation, and she would have to provide some reason for filing this lawsuit. Of more concern was what Gloria Fentress, facing discipline, would tell the Bar about The Honorable Sterling Ross. They had warned him at judges’ college that attorneys lash back when they get fined. You never quite knew how, but Judge Ross could use his imagination. Attorney Fentress could claim he asked her out and was livid over her perfectly appropriate refusal. He and Gloria had smiled enough at each other over the past several months. Subpoenaed, Lucas Stillman would have to describe what he saw. So would the judge’s staff. A careful reading of the court reporter’s transcripts would show that although Judge Ross, like most jurists, did not hesitate to cut off lawyers when their arguments morphed into blather, he had never interrupted Gloria. Not once. He could explain that he wanted to let her make a complete record in order to be fair, but equally rational was the inference that he had indulged her, cultivating her good feeling in preparation for the tryst to come, and then retaliated when she had refused him. Judge Ross did not want to forward a copy of his order to the State Bar, but it was a blow the law forced him to inflict if he believed that Gloria Fentress deserved to be sanctioned. Judge Sterling Ross so believed. To rule otherwise would constitute intellectual dishonesty.
The judge recalled another of Machiavelli’s passages from Josh’s paper. Sterling wished he had written it down. He wanted to remember it precisely. He telephoned the house and asked Josh to read the quote from his paper. Josh complied. Starting a week ago, when Sarah, the head cheerleader, promised to nominate him for class president, he had resumed talking to his parents in full sentences, even in paragraphs.
“If you decide to kill the king, kill the king. Never do an enemy a small harm. Failure to dethrone a king leaves a powerful enemy in place.”
“When are you coming home?” Josh asked his father.
“Soon. I’m finishing off a letter.”
“Can you help me? My civics teacher wants a paper on due process of law, and I don’t understand it.”
Sterling said, “I’d be delighted, Son. I’ll be home as fast as I can.”
The judge wrote the letter. Machiavelli would understand. Maybe Josh would too, if he ever learned. The judge slipped the ersatz event into the text, tucked it in just so. The letter would be believed. Who wouldn’t believe a judge over incompetent counsel? With that thought he threw away the County Bar bulletin, which was still on his desk.
When he finished, Sterling phoned Karin and suggested dinner at Lucques on Friday. “Just because,” he said when she asked why. “Can’t I be nice to my wife?”
Karin’s parting words, “I love you, Darling,” played in Sterling’s ears as he read his letter, dated today, just like the file in his secretary’s computer, dated today. He signed the original before making a copy. Then he shredded the original, along with the envelope his secretary had addressed to Gloria at her office. (On Avenue of the Stars, Sterling noticed, twelve floors down from his college pal Rod. They should have lunch sometime.) The copy went to the bottom of the judge’s desk drawer, the drawer that locked, where it would remain until that day in the future when, possibly, he might need to take it out:
“Dear Ms. Fentress:
Thank you for asking me to accompany you to the County Bar’s annual dinner, but I feel that in light of recent events, as well as the fact that I am married, it would be best if I decline. I appreciate your thinking of me and wish you the very best.
Judge of the Superior Court”
Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, California Prose Directory, The Christian Science Monitor, The Coachella Review, Eclectica, Front Porch Journal, The MacGuffin, War, Literature & the Arts, and ZYZZYVA. Three of his pieces have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. By day he is a judge on the Superior Court in Los Angeles. Once upon a time, he was a member of The L.A. Connection, an improv theater group.
–Art by Marta Bevacqua
–Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden
–Art by Seamus Travers