pictures from the scene of death were gruesome. Two dead men
inside a burned out room in the Delrose Hotel. One, an elderly
man, had been tied to a cross. The flames from the fire had
eaten away his clothes; his flesh dried and cracked, peeling
in strips, failing away in clusters from his hands and face.
His lips were blistered and puffed; and a large scar on the
right side of his face looked like an open mine, the flesh tufted
along the edges in little ridges. The naked man on the bed was
less horribly burned. He was curled up like a child, his hands
wrapped around his knees. His legs and arms and sides were scorched
by the flames. Next to the bed were two tribunal masks. They
bore the image of a lion-no, lioness.
police report was unable to identify the two men. They were recorded
as transients, homosexuals who'd been involved in a strange ritual
of drugs and fire. The police theory was an ugly one of torture
and masochism. The gay community in Vancouver complained when
one local newspaper published a photograph of the death scene
and described the two men as homosexuals driven to sexual frenzy.
There were no arrests. The police closed the file. All that was
left was to try the civil action between the hotel owner and the
insurance company. There had been a question as to whether the
policy was in force at the time of the fire. Slum hotel owners
often neglect paying their bills on time, and in this case, their
default stood to cost them a lot of money. The Chief justice assigned
me to hear the case. He thought I should have more experience
in commercial cases. Before, my cases had tended to be crime,
family law, and contracts.
time I started to work on the case, I thought of the two lioness
masks. Throughout the trial they sat on the table with the other
exhibits with the empty eyeholes staring up at me. With the short
golden mane, they vaguely reminded me of an Egyptian goddess mask.
They looked too small for the heads of the dead men. The police
said that they fit their heads; but that didn't take into account
the shrinkage of the skulls from the fire.
hours after reserving judgment I'd written one sentence, stopped,
torn up the paper, and tossed it towards the wastebasket. Thirty-three
crumpled paper balls lay in and near the basket. The room took
on the appearance of a basketball camp for handicapped boys. On
each piece I'd written exactly the same sentence.
were seen rising from the rooftop of the Delrose Hotel at four
o'clock Sunday morning, the nineteenth of November.
evidence revealed that much. Beyond this one fact. I did not share
the views of the witnesses as to why or how this rest home on
the doorstep of Stanley Park burned to the ground.
was stuck. Mid afternoon in my oak-paneled study, trial exhibits
scattered across my desk, I rose and walked to the' window.. Arms
stretched out, I closed my eyes. What was behind the one sentence?
The three shareholders of Warnell Enterprises, the owner of the
Delrose, sought to collect three million dollars In Insurance
proceeds against the Federal United Insurance Company. One million
dollars each. Federal United, said the shareholders burned down
tile Delrose. Someone burned down the Delrose. but the shareholders
said it wasn't them.... Buildings don't just burn themselves down.
No one disputed that flames were seen rising from the rooftop
of the Delrose Hotel at four o'clock Sunday morning, the nineteenth
of November. That makes thirty-four times I've repeated the sentence;
like a Buddha Marooned on a koan and no vocabulary to pass around
the pleadings, exhibits, and briefs was my lunch. The case seemed
to consume my food. Somewhere there were cream cheese bagels.
The insurance policy balanced on a half empty glass of wine. Soon
everything would be stuck together with food. If the case went
on appeal, I'd be reversed on the basis of bad diet. So what could
I infer from the evidence? I was the judge. judges infer things;
but I could not. As I stared out the window I caught a glimpse
of Dr. Hershey Rosen who lives to my west on Marine Drive. Dr.
Rosen, wearing a Sony headset, pedalled an exercise bike on his
swimming pool deck. He had a pulse meter strapped to his wrist.
A psychiatrist who became a property developer, he had gotten
very rich in five years. We had two things in common: we were
both forty-three and divorced. Although I didn't know Hershey
well, our age and marital persecutions formed a bond between us:
like war veterans who had survived their wounds to fight another
had great faith in the healing powers of doctors. Edgar had been
a doctor. A gynecologist who worked twelve-hour days. Most of
the time with his hands fishing around in dark, wet places; checking
the ecology of the marsh. His father and uncle had been doctors.
Seeking medical advice was as easy as giving a urine sample in
my family. I include these facts as support for my decision to
cross the lawn and stand at the end of Hershey's pool deck after
writing the same opening sentence thirty-three times. I needed
a doctor's point of view.
was sweating and singing along on his exercise bike. I watched
him for nearly five minutes before lie saw me. He removed the
headset and slowed his pedaling to a crawl.
Matt," lie said. "How goes it?"
was the moment of truth. Judges lead secluded lives on a pedestal
so they can't be compromised. Secular monks
the power of the Pope. Not really monks, more like surgeons-Edgar
would like that better-who remained perscrubbed and sterile. Anyone
who wasn't a judge was a potential germ-carrying fatal infection.
But coming from a family of doctors I immediately trusted Hershey.
all right?" Hershey asked.
written the same sentence thirty-three times," I replied
after a moment.
should get a word processor."
a mistake," I interjected.
puffed out his upper lip and stared at me for several seconds.
I knew the look well. From my years on the bench, it wasn't uncommon
to see some prisoner in the dock slobbering out stories of his
genealogical horrors transmitted down the family tree- branches
missing, and standing before me was the bitter pulp. I was about
to mention this to Hershey when he pulled a cordless phone from
his belt and rang for two glasses of dry white wine. Within several
minutes, Nancy, his daughter, clad in a tiny white and blue bikini,
came onto the deck carrying a tray, two glasses and a bottle of
champagne. She had her own idea of dry white wine. She placed
the tray on the deck table and adjusted the umbrella canopy, delicate,
tanned hands working the lever. I watched her disappear back through
the sliding glass door, where she lingered for a moment. Flames
were seen rising ... I watched Nancy's young, slender figure from
the distance as she lingered framed in the door. Then she was
you've not seen one of these," said Hershey, showing me his
mini-push button, auto radial, computerized cordless telephone.
A little antenna rose from the top. He had that Secret Service
man's The-President's-safe, look, as he put it to his mouth. He'd
phoned a computerized weather service. He turned up the volume
so I could listen.
for the pool" I said as he gestured for me to take a glass
Celsius. No rain in the forecast," said the announcer.
two hundred dollars. Picked it up in Seattle last week,"
he said. "You can't get them here yet. Want me to pick one
up for you on my next trip""
Rosen didn't think smuggling was a real crime. Like low-grade
tax fraud, this type of misconduct was as morally neutral as the
weather report. I hadn't come to provide legal lectures on smuggling
to Hershey; so I let the question hang in the air.
really need some professional advice, Hershey''
leaned back in the chair, his feet crossed near the edge of the
pool. He swirled the champagne around the inside of his glass.
A smile started and aborted. He saw that I was serious. A critical
expression passed across his face; a little crinkling of skin
gathered between his eyes. I thought how exceptionally young Hershey
looked. Lean, relaxed, a non-aggressive manner. He looked at women
and they returned his attention. Nancy could be mistaken for his
second or third wife.
it'll pass on its own."
writer's block. Most writers suffer from it at some stage in their
I'm a judge, Hershey. I don't sit around writing telescripts.
guess I protested too much. Hershey smiled as he filled our glasses
all judges do—write stories about people who have problems. You
wear a robe. Hemingway wore a hunting shirt. He got a Nobel Prize.
David Mamet wrote 'Fuck you. Fuck your mother. Fuck your boss.'
And he got a Pulitzer Prize. You, Matt. Well-you'll get a nice
you ever read a judgment?"
been sued now and again. The judge decides who's the good guy
and who's the bad guy. Then he writes a story about them. Between
a slum hotel owner and insurance company that was a hard distinction
to make. It felt hotter than 26 degrees Celsius. I touched the
ice-chilled glass to my check, and unbuttoned my shirt. A drop
of sweat ran down my dolphin-white stomach. Hershey had a valid
argument. So I wrote little melodramas: sex, violence, drugs,
death, greed, stupidity, and stings were the central plots and
subplots. What I call the Wongness of human existence. Judges
became drunks, senile, or lazy but they always wrote their stories.
But I was blocked and lazy but sweating Oil Hershey's pool deck.
The sort of weather that makes you prefer Mai-net to Hemingway.
a special kind of artist, Matthew.
was the second time he'd called me Matthew. I'd ceased to be Matt.
The automatic professional touches kicked in like overdrive in
his sports car. I'd become Hershey's patient.
not a stigma," he continued, choosing his words with more
care. "Nothing to be ashamed about. just an unavoidable occupational
can't go fishing for six months. I've got to decide this case.
At the moment I can't decide any case." I'd overreacted.
Even to myself, I began to sound slightly crazy. I filled my own
glass, and leaned forward with my elbows on the table, head resting
oil my hands.
played with the antenna of his cordless phone. "It's simple
then-write. Write something like The plaintiff wins. Or substitute
defendant or Crown or accused for plaintiff. Just leave out the
story." fie was sounding like Stew, the Chief justice, a
father figure to me, who decided hard cases with the flip of a
quarter that lie kept hidden away inside his office desk.
wasn't the way I decided cases. Each decision needed a plausible
story line to justify the result. The Court of Appeal wants to
read these stories. Like editors, their very job depended oil
telling a good story from a bad one. Not that anyone expected
a lyrical, richly-textured, moving tale; not even pub- a narrative
so that everyone knew from all the lies the judge has decided
were facts. And there was the great power and authority: to impose
your story as fact and dismiss all the others as fiction. Only
this time the story wouldn't come from the conflicting testimony
and evidence. Like the lioness masks in the photographs, the case
had a mystery at the core. Only fragments stood out. The Delrose
Hotel had suffered damages oil the second floor. Two people, one
old and one young, both male, had died—one from fire and one from
drug overdose. This wasn't a complex case, no uncertain legal
principles were involved, and nothing was at stake but the insurance
money. A perfectly unoriginal, straightforward little incident
that even the gay community had forgotten.
Nancy returned to the pool deck she was wearing sunglasses; the
kind in which you can see your own reflection, like a two-way
mirror. She put down the tray with a jar of salmon mousse and
a baguette. On the side were cutlery and a chilled champagne glass
for herself. Smiling shyly, she poured champagne. The suntan lotion
glistened on her shoulders and arms. I felt her brush against
my leg with her arm. She paused. I saw myself in her glasses;
the sweat-streaked face looked tired.
a swim, Nance," said Hershey.
Just have time for a short commune. Then two appointments. "
she sauntered into her father's fourteen-room house, I wondered
with whom she was about to commune. A few moments later Nancy
reappeared framed in the sliding glass door. Ten or more high-strung,
exotic birds clung to her arms, shoulders and flair. I glanced
at Hershey, who faced me as he spooned salmon mousse onto a baguette.
Curiosity drew my attention back to the door. Nancy had peeled
off her bikini top, stretched out her hands, palms up, and tilted
back her head exposing her throat.
flames of red, yellow, green and blue feathers spread down to
her fingers. Her body shook slightly then was very still. At that
moment, she looked like a child who stepped from a jungle, all
innocent who occupied a space outside of the place and time shared
around the pool by Hershey and me. All air-conditioned jungle
with carpets and stereo equipment. A calm, reflective expression
crossed her face as if the feathers were brightly colored flames
that had cleansed her body and soul.
course this will be kept strictly confidential," Hershey
said, biting into the baguette.
of course." I used my stern judge's voice to mask my preoccupation
with Nancy's ritual. The libretto of confusion and irony, polished
and sharpened by the sexual fantasy, dissolved. She crashed through
layers of perception and thought, smashed through emotional levels
cluttered with computers, tennis rackets, television sets, heated
swimming pools, and cordless phones, and walked out on a plateau
heavy with animal sounds, amongst cloisters of rock, earth and
caves splashed in light and fire. She traversed a subconscious
slope, climbed to the top, unfrightened, alone, and experienced
emotions long lost to the shopping mall world of liquor stores,
tax returns, divorce, traffic accidents, and lawsuits.
confidential," Hershey repeated, slowly drinking his champagne.
"Nothing goes beyond here." Had he seen Nancy in her
commune mode? Was this some weird father and daughter stroke patient
routine? Maybe this was part of Hershey's cure for blocked writers.
merely want some insight," I said, as if I were talking to
a lawyer standing below me in front of the bench. A flicker of
a smile wove across his face. "As to your fee," I began,
but Hershey waved his hand midway through. Even the way he lifted
his hand reminded me of the Chief Justice. As I looked back at
the door, Nancy had disappeared . . . vanished.
had a difficult task. One could reform the law but one couldn't
reform a judge who no longer knew the cause of flames. working
that lattice of truth and fiction, good and evil, fact and opinion
caused warps and bends and the entire fragile edifice threatened
to collapse. Perhaps Nancy had never been in the door; perhaps
it was the heat splitting my psyche into atoms, showering the
pieces like shards of crystal through a wind tunnel of forgotten
traumas and passions. The voice inside my head sounded like a
tiny far-off echo bouncing from the debris. I sat and listened,
trying to tune in a clear, strong signal, as if the door was a
television screen that had lost its picture. An empty, remote
screen on the other side of the deck. This had happened before.
The reception faded and nothing but static came through.
plowed through the remembered images of Nancy, making my best
guess about the kind of birds; exaggerating the intensity of her
shudder, playing a stop-action rerun over and over again inside
my mind. All my faith, trust and integrity hung delicately in
the balance as I examined the sliding glass door. Like in the
Delrose Hotel case there could only be one right answer.
got an idea," said Hershey. "You must write." I
watched him spread the salmon mousse on a piece of baguette.
I am writing. The same sentence. Over and over again.
took a bite, then sipped his champagne. "But that's the point.
To clear the block you have to write ' about something
Another kind of story. Maybe a little sex." He winked.
ploy was clear. Challenge my ability to write: anything at all.
Put my pride on the line. Of course, I could write. My judgments
are widely reported in the law reports, the subject of scholarly
articles, cited in other courts, quoted in textbooks, taught in
law schools. As judges went, I knew the tech well, and had refined
my own voice. I even had what one colleague called "a real
flare" for writing. I enjoyed writing; no, I loved writing,
putting the facts together, describing the events in detail with
elegance and style. "Flames were seen rising . . ."
was a dramatic touch. A one-sentence drama in the making. A story
waiting to rise from the ashes. But this time there wasn't even
a possibility of reaching the second sentence.
don't know where to begin," I said.
definitely not healthy." Hershey was sounding more and more
like a doctor. It was possible that property developers said this
sort of tiling about deals over salmon mousse and champagne.
now I feel like I'll never finish another decision.
will, Matthew. But one stage at a time."
That's the Latin term that flashed through my mind. It means to
lawyers and judges a personal or incidental remark that Is unimportant
to the main decision. Since law school I've had an obession with
obiter. judges aren't supposed to use it. It's like flying off
the handle about all things that are wrong in life-all the Wongness
in the world-when you're only concerned about one concrete dispute.
When I Hershey trotted out the old chestnut about one stage at
a time, I found myself muttering, "Obiter."
you'll have to bear with me," he replied, no doubt thinking
I'd lapsed into foreign tongues, when I only dream about people
speaking in foreign languages. "Writer's block is a mental
attitude. One you can detach from. Trust me. Pretend we're taking
that little fishing trip you mentioned. Not for six months. just
for a couple of days. A little pleasure trip away from all the
pressures and anxieties of the job."
climbed back on his exercise bike. I watched his legs pumping
up and down on the pedals. Working off the champagne and salmon
mousse before he'd digested it. The secret to a fit and lean body.
My bleached white stomach, swelled from the drink and food, rose
and fell, spilling sweat down my side. I remembered now why I
had avoided Hershey. Any young woman in my presence would never
be confused for a wife. He made me feel like I'd gone to seed;
like other writers who spend their days and nights at a typewriter,
smoking and drinking, I was the worse for wear. I was coming apart.
do you suggest?" I asked Hershey as lie ticked off thirty
kilometers an hour on the bike.
autobiographical sketch," lie said. "Everyone can write
about themselves. Tell your own story. Throw in a little sex and
only one sentence?" I felt the toxins build tip. I tried
sticking in my stomach; it looked like a badly terraced Peruvian
moutainside. What sex was there to write about? And why did shrinks
always want to know about sex?
at the beginning. With your parents. School. University Women.
You can write about that stuff." He placed the headset back
over his ears. He gave me the thumbs up. Back at thirty-five kilometers,
his eyes closed. Our session had ended.
didn't speak or write French well, though I should. I was married
to a French Canadian for nearly twenty years. Some things float
back on occasion. Walking back from Dr. Hershey Rosen's pool,
I recalled one phrase Danielle sometimes used: auto-da-fe. It
came from the medieval times when heretics were put to the torch.
As my one-sentence judgment indicates, I have developed an enormous
sensitivity to fire.