Trial • John Vanderslice

I'm watching the OJ trial when my mother calls.  

"What are you doing?" she says. "Right this second."

"Watching television," I say.

"Holy Mother of God," she says. "Don't you want to improve your life?"

Mom does this a lot. She likes to call and berate me for being a nobody. After years of this treatment, I still don't know if I'd call it love. But I've gotten used to it.

She has the habit of telephoning at the tensest moments: when a witness is squirming under a question by Carl Douglas, or when Marcia Clarke and Johnnie Cochran are insulting each other, or when Greta Van
Susteren comes on and I'm about to find out what's so important about what  I just saw. I really get annoyed then. I hate to miss Greta. Mom wouldn't understand.

"So what else do you plan to do today," she says. "If you don't  mind my asking."

Well, Mom, as a matter of fact. But I just say "Nothing."

"Nothing? What about that job of yours?"

"I don't work till this evening."

"That means you have hours, Larry, hours. Why don't you use them? Why do persist in spending your life in this fashion?"

This is how our conversations are.
"Look Mom, I have to go."

"Go? Go where? Where do you have to go to?"

"Nowhere. I just have to do something."

"Like look for a better job, maybe? Or do you intend to keep that one of yours indefinitely?"

I glance at the tv. Marcia Clarke has stopped talking. She stares at her papers. Then she raises her head. She knows exactly what question she wants to ask.

"Mom?" I say. "Can you hold a sec?"

I work the night shift at High's Dairy Store. Don't ask me how I got there, I just did. I'm happy enough for now. It pays the rent and the cable bill, and I've got plenty of time in the afternoon to watch OJ. But Mom can't stand it. She almost can't take it. She doesn't understand why I'm not like my older brother, who's a chemical engineer, or my sister, who works for H & R Block, or even my other sister who quit her job at Price Waterhouse in order to raise a family.

"She's not working either," Mom likes to say. "But at least she's doing something for it." I don't think my manager would be too happy if I told him the night shift at High's means "not working."

I live in an efficiency off Indian Head Highway, two skips from the beltway. I can be in the District in five minutes. Mom says I should take advantage of the free museums. She's probably right. But I don't. Mom's always been like this, with all her children. But I guess as the rest of us take on real lives I'm the only one left to berate. Last
month, for my twenty-fourth birthday, she gave me a card which said "I love you anyway."

"Your father, you know, he didn't find work right out of college either, but he didn't just give up. He kept looking. And he found a job, a good job. And he's been there--"

For thirty-five years. This is one of Mom's mantras. I've heard it so often I can tell when it's coming two minutes before she gets there.

Dad works for the government. He's made a good living, all the way up to GS-15. Mom hasn't had to work, and never wanted to. She always did like to talk on the phone, though. Usually she calls in the early afternoon, between one and three, after she takes care of whatever it is she does in the mornings, and has lunch. Then, with her giant mug of coffee and a big pastry, she settles in for her afternoon phone orgy. When I was at Maryland this is when I got all my calls from her. Same with my brother and my sisters when they were in school. I used to laugh about it with them. It's just that now I've got OJ. I can't be on the phone with Mom.

Former policeman Ronald Shipp is telling the story of how OJ told him on June 13 that he dreamed he had murdered Nicole. Jim Moret appears. He looks giddy, even though he's being serious. As if he's so glad to have escaped CNN's "Showbiz Today." You can see it: behind the calm demeanor, the concise questions, the reporter's voice. I'm a legitimate journalist at last.

They cut to Greta. She says this evidence is soft, but can be effective as long as the prosecution doesn't push it. After all, she says, it's early in the trial. There's plenty of evidence to come. As part of the mix, this testimony, if kooky, can be useful.

What presence, what powers of analysis. This is one confident woman, Greta Van Susteren, with the courage to be herself: what with that long, straight, retro brown hair flipped back over her forehead; her willingness to glare wide-eyed at the camera for minutes at a time without blinking; her big square jaw jutting out, moving, challenging you, grinding her words as she speaks. She doesn't give a damn about being telegenic.

And she's right--it is soft evidence, but they can make it work. Think about it: dreaming a confession. It has that Hollywood, tv drama feel to it. Perfect for this case. You can't get more sexy soft evidence than that. Heck, look at me. I'm glued to the set.

Carl Douglas asks Ronald Shipp if it's true that he opined to OJ that the bloody glove was planted. Ronald Shipp is shocked. He looks toward the defendant. "No," he says. Then: "This is sad, OJ, sad." Carl Douglas doesn't like that. "Move to have that struck from the record," he says, practically jumping in place. This is great. Great. Then Mom calls.

"What are you doing?" she says. "As if I expect an answer."

"I'm watching television."

"Oh, of course. Watching television." She sighs as if she's buried under laments. "I forgot. You don't want a job after all."


"Don't. Don't tell me you 'have a job already.'"

Well, that doesn't leave me much. I don't say anything. Before I started at High's I wasn't working anywhere for two months. I was ecstatic to get the position.


"Did you even check the want ads today?"

I don't tell her that I don't get a newspaper.


"What? What now?'

"I've got to go, I was watching something."

"And what's that?"



"You know, the football player, the murder trial?"

"Oh, good God," she says.

It's been an emotional few days at the trial. Denise Brown broke down a number of times while she was testifying about her sister. That was a spellbinder--great tv. I couldn't get up to go to the bathroom. Just sat there and held it until I hurt so bad I thought my intenstines would explode. That's how good the trial was. Makes me wonder how I managed to watch anything before OJ came along. Then the manager at Mezzaluna, Ron Goldman's old restaurant, broke down when she saw his clothes. A beautiful move by Marcia Clarke. Just stick those dirty things in the woman's face and--bam--she cries, right on cue. Scored some really big emotive points with the jury, as Greta pointed out.

But that was the end of the drama. Robert Shapiro took over and now he's looking for holes in the manager's testimony. She told Marcia Clarke that Ron Goldman didn't eat before he left the restaurant on June 12. But didn't you say differently, Shapiro insists, in your previous testimony? The manager looks confused. Shapiro brings out a transcript from the preliminary hearing, turns to a certain page, points out a passage to her. Then he reads it. Earlier you said that "Jim and David were at a table eating and Ron was with them." Aren't you changing that testimony now? The manager looks confused. So am I. How is this different? Just because Goldman was "with them" doesn't mean he was eating. Isn't Shapiro stretching it? And what difference does it make if he was eating or not? Greta comes on and says the manager is a good witness for the prosecution. Shapiro, she says, isn't getting anywhere. Thank you, Greta.

I missed part of the trial. I had to work late last night (I should say this morning), and overslept. One of the freezers went out. I didn't realize it until I was about to get off. Then I saw ice cream and orange juice and pre-fab hamburgers and tv dinners and everything else that's supposed to stay cold dripping and oozing all over the inside of the freezer. I had to call the boss. It took me hours to clean the mess up. And the boss seemed to blame me for it. I couldn't say anything in my defense, except show him the freezer. I didn't leave until 7 a.m. Now I'm trying to wake up and follow what's happening at the trial. Johnnie Cochran is cross-examining some foreign looking guy about a dog. Did the dog cross the street? When did the dog cross the street? The guy hesitates, then slowly answers. He explains when and where the dog crossed 

the street. I try to figure how this is relevant. I'm hoping Greta will come on and tell me, but CNN sticks stubbornly with this segment of questioning. Isn't it time for a commercial? I decide to go back to bed, but just as I do the phone rings. It's Mom.

Judge Ito is so on top of it. I'm amazed how rapidly he can respond to all those objections. "Sustained," "Overruled," "Sustained," Overruled." It's not like the movies where somebody stands up and outrageously shouts "I OBJECT!" No, it's more like a ping-pong match: lightening quick and barely audible. You don't realize how closely Judge Ito is watching until you see him manhandle these lawyers: "Leading question," "We've already established those grounds," "That's irrelevant, counsel." It's like he already knows what going to happen, and can stop it, anytime he wants to.

I bought an answering machine yesterday. It was on sale. Now I don't have to interrupted from the trial by Mom, and I'm not really ignoring her either. I'll get her message, and I'll call her back. But when I want to. Perfect. So I settle in to watch some OJ. Johnnie Cochran's asking Officer Robert Riske about whether or not there was a spoon in a cup of ice cream found at the murder scene. What in the world? The trial is getting more arcane everyday.

Officer Riske looks like a decent enough man: nice guy; pleasant, Germanic face; soft-spoken; well-groomed moustache--the younger detective. How melted was the ice cream, Cochran asks him. A quarter?, a third?, a half? Officer Riske looks unimpressed, yet always polite. A quarter? A third? A half? Can't you give us an estimate, Officer Riske? Gret-aahh! Mom calls. I let the machine pick up.

"What is this Larry?" she screams. "When did you get this contraption? Are you trying to avoid me?" 

She pauses a second.

"I know you're there, Larry. You never go anywhere. Answer this phone--right now, right this minute."

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it.

"What, Mom?"

"What--you don't want to talk to your own mother?"

"No, it's not that--"

"I brought you into this world, Larry."


"I held you as a newborn and cuddled you like I never cuddled anyone before. Not your brother or your sisters. Not even your father--not even on our wedding night."


"I kissed the top of your gross, sticky, bloody head. And I loved it, Larry. I loved that kiss. I didn't say I wouldn't kiss you because you were gross and sticky and bloody, like a reptile. You were my son, and I wanted to kiss you."


"When I call back next time, I don't want to talk to a machine."


"Do you understand?"

I hesitate.

"Do you?"

"Yes, Mom."

"Goodbye, Larry."

Dial tone.

Bummer. No trial today. After waiting a whole weekend too. Judge Ito wants the jury to see the crime scene, so court isn't in session. I don't know what to watch. Out of protest, I don't watch CNN. I watch a few soaps and then Gilligan's Island on channel 20. Then Night Court. Then Who's the Boss?. At one point I think about switching to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? on PBS, but I decide to stay with Tony and Angela. Angela's pretty hot for an older woman. Pretty soon I'm going to have to start thinking about dinner. I switch to the news on one of the regular stations and watch a clip showing Judge Ito walking around Bundy Drive with the jury. He's wearing a real hip, dark pair of sunglasses. Makes him look like a Japanese mobster. Except smoother than that, much smoother. The kind of hood who gets no blood on his fingers. He's immaculate, controlled, even kind--when he wants to be. He donates a fortune to the opera. And he goes too. Except he doesn't cry, not ever. He just appreciates the aesthetics. You can't touch him, no matter how guilty he is.

Detective Tom Lange is talking about there being "no marked signs of lividity" on Ron Goldman's body. He tries to remember how the procedure for taking Ron Goldman's temperature was performed at the coroner's office. He knows how the procedure goes customarily: they insert an instrument into the liver. But, no, he can't say whether or not it was followed in this case. He wasn't watching closely. Then Johnnie Cochran asks Detective Lange about the weather on June 12. They talk about it. Johnnie Cochran mentions the weather report from the National Weather Service for June 12. They talk about that. This is getting deadly. I wouldn't even mind if Mom called.

Be careful what you pray for.

"I'm worried about you, Larry," she says.

"In what way, Mom?"

"You're all alone--doesn't that bother you?"

"I'm not all alone."

Actually, I am all alone.

"You live by yourself, right?"


"How often do you get out?"

"You mean besides work?"


"Not much."

"Then you're all alone."

I sigh, inaudibly. "What are you getting at, Mom?"

"Well, Larry, do you remember when your sister was all alone, what she did?"

"You mean Trudy?"

"Yes." This is my H & R Block sister.

"No, what?" I say.

"You don't remember?"

"What, Mom?"

"Cats. Don't you remember?"

Oh no. Oh no.

"Your sister had cats, remember? There was the brown fuzzy one with the crooked nose who wouldn't look you in the eye, and the skinny black one you never saw unless you were holding a cup of coffee, and then it would jump in your lap and scare the blazes out of you. To say nothing of making you spill your coffee."

"What's the point, Mom?"

"The point is: I didn't like those cats, but Trudy did. She loved them. They were her best friends, her companions, her boyfriend and girlfriend."

Jesus, Mom.

"I don't mean anything kinky, Larry. You understand me. She needed those cats."

"I understand, Mom, and I don't want any cats."

"But Larry, the thing is, she's got a brand new litter just now. You can have one for free. No charge--no pet store--no pound. And you'd be doing your sister a favor."

"So let me get this straight. You're trying to unload Trudy's cats on me because she can't get anyone else to take them."

"Now Larry, if you're going to be ungrateful--"


"I'm trying to help you, Larry."


"I guess you just don't want your mother's help."

Dial tone.

Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clarke are screaming at each other. I never knew such things went on in trials. I mean they look like they're actually mad, not just faking it. Everything else they do looks like they're faking it. There's always an agenda, a subtext. They might seem to be monomaniacally devoted to their own causes, but you know when the day is done they're out drinking together, like Capitol Hill politicians. But now they look really mad. Marcia doesn't like a picture the defense wants to submit. It didn't come from a reliable source, she says. The defense is trying to cover up the truth. Their whole case is an attempt to hide the truth. She's actually getting herself worked up. But Johnnie's just as bad. The prosecution is trying to hide the truth, he says. Their whole case is built on lies, rumors, innuendo, and racial bias.

They're like two candidates on the stump, mugging each other. But who are they playing to? The jury's not in. And Judge Ito's not going to be impressed by such elementary grandstanding. Greta Van Susteren will dissect their outbursts into bits. I watch until I can't take the yelling anymore. Then I turn off the tv. Suddenly the apartment is very silent.

Mom hasn't called in a few days. She must still be mad. I'm not sure how long this peace will last.

I overslept again and missed some OJ. We had another incident at the store. A robbery this time. Sure enough, I'm just about to get off my shift and a kid comes in and asks for all the money. It's a kid from the neighborhood. I've seen him before, even talked with him once or twice. He didn't think to wear a stocking on his head, or a hockey mask, or even one of those little black get-ups the crooks always have in cartoons. He was waving something which looked like a pistol--but I'm not sure what it was. I don't think of him as the type who would have a pistol. Other kids around here? Yeah. But not him. I told him I didn't have the combination to the safe, which is true. He got mad and said he was going to kill me. I said, "Go ahead." That made him more mad. I'm pretty sure his gun was phony. Then he said to open the register. So I did. Then he took the money and left. Then I had to call my manager, and the cops. And my manager comes in and I have to tell him the whole story and he wants to know why all this stuff happens on my shift. Then the cops come and I have to tell the story all over and yadda yadda yadda. I'm not out of there until 7 a.m. again. I don't know about this night shift business.

"What's this I hear about you getting mugged?" Mom says.

My brother called me the day after the robbery. I guess he must have told her. Traitor.

"I wasn't mugged, Mom. I was held up."

"Holy Mother of God."

"The store, Mom. The store was held up. During my shift."

I hear what sounds like an almost painful intake of air.

"How can you be working there? How can you be working there? Are you still going to tell me it's a fine job?"


"You almost get killed, and--"

"I wasn't almost killed, Mom. I know who the kid was. He wouldn't--"

"You know this person? You know him, Larry? So now you're telling me you associate with criminals? That's what this job has done to you?"


"Is that how far you've fallen?"

"Mom, I don't associate with--"

"Cavorting with thieves and muggers and God knows what else at all hours of night."


"I want you out of that job, Larry. I want you to find another one immediately. Why aren't you looking for a better job?"

Truth is--and I'm not going to tell this to Mom--I started looking through the wants ads yesterday. I even found a job I'm going to apply for. Data entry. Nothing that's gonna change my world, sure, but at least it would be a step up from High's. Besides, it was one of the few openings I was qualified for.

"Mom, trust me. When I know it's the right time to leave--"

"The right time? Getting mugged doesn't make you think it's the right time? There was never a right time to take that job, Larry."


"Now listen to me."


"I only want what's best for you."

"Mom, I appreciate your concern--"

"I don't think you do, Larry. I don't think you do."

Holy moly, I've never seen a case with so many sanctions. It's delaying everything. I don't even know what the sanctions mean. Do Shapiro and Cochran get kicked out of court? Do they work in handcuffs? 

Are they sent to a cell every evening after the trial, like OJ? I can't see how these sanctions affect how the trial is conducted. I wish Greta would explain this one to me, but they don't go to her much anymore. Seems like days since I've seen that jaw of hers.

Sherri Lewis is up there now, arguing for sanctions. She has kind of a mousy appearance, but she's always sure of herself. I think of her as Miss Conviction. Whenever sanctions are the question, it's Sherri Lewis up there arguing. But she has this tendency to stumble over her words, she's so caught up in her determination. Then she has to go back and correct herself, apologize, blush, start over. Somebody ought to talk with her about that. Like just now. Sherri Lewis is telling Judge Ito that he shouldn't worry about any ramifications from imposing sanctions. "No court of appeal would overturn a verdict in this case," she says. "Not with the People's overwhelming evidence." The judge doesn't like this. I knew he wouldn't. He goes right after her. "I don't know about 'no court,'" he says, with just the right edge of contempt. I think of him wearing those sunglasses. "You might want to rephrase that."

That puts Sherri Lewis in her place. She gets flustered. Now she's treading around in her shoes, trying to apologize, trying to come up with the right way to do it and still look in control. "You're right, your honor," she sputters. "Perhaps I overstated it. I guess I shouldn't have said 'no court.' Perhaps that was too hasty." But doggone it if she doesn't right herself in seconds and start attacking again. Miss Conviction.

Some defense lawyer I've never seen is on the screen now. An old guy. White guy. Who is this person? He's talking about why there shouldn't be sanctions. He's talking about precedents. What is he a sanctions lawyer or something? He's talking about Rodriguez v. the state of California. "Now in that case," he drones. I turn off the tv. When are they going to get back to the trial?

The boss is after me today. Says he drove by during my shift last night and didn't see anyone at the register. Where was I, what was I doing? I look at him a second before answering. Truth is, I was in the back watching tv. The time the boss is talking about is between two and three--the bleakest part of the night. Almost no one ever comes into the store. So usually I go to the back and watch tv, even though it's forbidden under store policy. If I didn't have tv during that hour, I'd lose my mind.

I tell the boss I was in the bathroom. He says he waited in his car a long time. I say it was a long dump. He says he drove by a half-hour later and there still wasn't anyone at the register. I say I was in the bathroom again. I drink a lot of coffee, I say, to stay awake. He looks at me. Watch it, he says. I got my eye on you. Just remember that. Great, I think, now I've got the boss spying on me at two o'clock in the morning. This might mean I'll have to give up tv on my shift. I shiver.

Johnnie Cochran's asking Roza Lopez questions. She's the cleaning lady from next door: a sour-looking woman, cold and wrinkled. Contemptous. Wouldn't want her testifying for me. Or cleaning my house. Johnnie Cochran is asking her about her life, her history, how she came to this country, how many people she supported. Blah, blah, blah. Nothing about OJ and it's been twenty-five minutes. As Cochran speaks, an interpreter stands next to Rosa and translates for her. And when Rosa speaks, Cochran has to wait for the translation before he can ask his next question. This creates a strange sluggish rhythm. The trial has seen better days. I call the company with the data entry job I applied for. It's been a week and I haven't heard anything. I wonder if there's been a mix-up. They put me on hold for a few minutes, then I finally get transferred to the right person. This woman practically laughs at me. She says they got scores of applications the first day and stopped taking any more. So, I'm not in the running?, I ask. Did you send in your application on the first day? No, I say. She laughs again. We didn't even look at it, she says.

Greta's back, and she's really going after Johnnie Cochran. Detective Tom Lange has returned to the stand. Greta says Johnnie just let him off the hook. Greta says Tom Lange just changed his testimony, and Johnnie let him do it with impunity. Greta is on fire. I've never seen her so critical: her big brown eyes staring out, her jaw working, her voice loud with a lawyer's know-how, like she's itchy to run the defense herself. Then Roger Cossack appears. Who is this clown? I've seen him for a week now and I can't understand what he's doing on the air. Unless CNN figures they've got to have a man to go along with Greta. But all he does is get in the way. He's got a big nose and jug ears and sputters around for something to say like a drunk trying to remember what he's arguing about. Greta's time has been cut in half for this goon. You barely have a chance to hear her and then--zip--Roger Cossack's on the screen. There's nothing he says that I couldn't if given the chance. Like now: Jim Moret asks him about Cochran's questioning. Yeah, Cochran let Lange slip away, Roger Cossack says. Yeah, it's pretty bad, he says. He doesn't have anything more to add, as if he's embarrassed to be in front of the camera. Jim Moret tries to coax him with another question. He squirms. For this they're denying me Greta?

The boss tells me he's been thinking. He's remembering how three or four months ago a lot of things suddenly starting walking out the door: Hostess Fruit Pies, Band-Aids, Scotch tape, beef jerkey. Packages and packages of jerkey. We never did find out who was taking that stuff, he says. I'm just thinking, he says. He looks at me again. I tell him I wasn't working here three months ago. He gets all red. He starts moving his cheeks without talking, like he's getting ready to blow air. Then he nods: slowly, carefully. I'm watching you, he says. Just remember that.

I see Jim Moret on a blurb for CNN's "Showbiz Today." He's smiling. I guess he hasn't moved on after all.

Mom calls. I don't tell her I tried for a job and failed. I don't tell her my boss hates me. That I hate my job. I don't tell her anything. She wants to talk about Trudy. It's really picking up over there at H & R Block, Mom says. It's that time of year. Trudy could get a record bonus, she says. If it keeps up like this.

I don't know what's happening. The jury's not in. The lawyers, from the lectern, are talking to the judge; the judge, from the bench, is talking to the lawyers. More things to straighten out. I can't follow it. Everything is stalled. Judge Ito looks like he has no idea what to do next. I try to remember him in sunglasses, but can't picture it now. I just see his eyes behind those telescopes he wears and think how beady they look, how embarrassed. There are spaces of seconds when I don't hear anything. Everyone is talking to somebody else away from the microphone. The defense, the People, the Court. They're not talking to each other. Judge Ito's face goes completely blank. CNN cuts away.

I'm looking through the want ads for other job possibilities. As soon as I see one I'm qualified for I'll apply. I look for a half-hour. I don't see any.

The boss has started cutting back my hours. He's keeping the afternoon guy on longer, coming in himself to work a few hours after that: to eleven or twelve. I don't know what game he's playing, but if he cuts me anymore I won't be able to pay the rent. I won't be able to live here.

The lawyers are arguing again. It's been days since I've seen a witness. Somebody named Sacks is talking about the need of his client to be protected. His client is a witness. I don't understand. Who's threatening her?

Mom calls. I try to keep an eye on the trial and talk to her at the same time. Have you quit your job yet? she says. I don't tell her I've been fired. Or that I'm going to file for unemployment. I don't tell her that I have to move back home, with her and Dad. I'll tell her tomorrow. Or the day after. Not now. I mumble something, the equivalent
of no. In the trial, Sherri Lewis has gotten up. The prosecution is doing the best it can, she says, under difficult circumstances. She's lashing out again, almost accusing the judge. We're doing our best. Mom says "Why haven't you quit? Do you want to go to your grave working there? Do you want that to be your contribution?"

"Mom. Mom--" I start to say, then I picture myself getting out of my car, carrying my single piece of luggage, stepping to the front door where Mom waits, watching me, shaking her head. I just can't tell her. Not yet.

The person in question, Sherri Lewis says, should not be protected. Make her testify.

I'm still not sure what they're talking about. I don't know if I'll ever see another witness. Jim Moret appears. Then Roger Cossack. Mom's talking. They're going to a commercial. This could go on forever.


John Vanderslice teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas.
His poetry and fiction have appeared widely in literary reviews and