The Ecphorizer

A Captive of the Tank
Frederick A. Raborg, Jr.

Issue #25 (September 1983)

Reflections in an aquarium wall

For an hour at least, Jordan Andrus sat in his den and watched two blind cavefish grope the contours of their aquarium until, having killed the last of the zebras and tetras, they killed each other.

[quoteright]There was no victor; as one turned belly up and hovered in a limbo

Of course he had failed. Quixotes always did.

between the pebbles and the glass cover, the other wriggled hopelessly near the filter's intake. Already an infant mystery snail had clung to its body, and the sole finny survivor, the catfish, the scavenger, screened the silt nearby.

For a moment more, Jordan reflected on shared ironies between a fish tank and the world. He had spent his life cracking riddles, yet the most important riddle of all still evaded him - why a peaceful community of fish men inevitably was the victim of the least suspected.

For thirty-eight years he had prided himself in having avoided membership in any authoritative body, church, or state; he had ignored political demagoguery for the sake of political purity, the voice of doom for the voice of hope, and he had exercised reasonable restraint in love affairs to enjoy the ecstatic moments which fueled his occupation.

Jordan Andrus was a judge - a municipal judge who dealt with "black bag jobs," welfare fraud, rubber check cases, child abuse, divorce, sexual crimes of the victimless sort.., the whole mail run of crimes committed by lonely people and the impoverished for the most part. He saw it in their faces, the gray descension of despair, a curtain which never lifted quite fully in their lives. Men did remarkably injudicious acts when they were frightened in uniquely disparate ways.

During the depression, everyone was poor and the community voluntarily shared the burden. During the War, everyone either was dying, volunteering to die, or working to pay for the dying.., and the community voluntarily shared the burden. But now, when it seemed to a poor man that everyone else at least was comfortable (even if the comfort was mythical), the community did not seem to care enough. Fences were built higher; more locks were installed, along with thicker drapes and occasionally bars, which then trapped their owners behind their locks and fences and bars when fire took everything from them anyway. Neighborhoods developed new strains of agoraphobia.

He had seen too many faces: men dragged into courts because, for one split second in their lives, they had dared to strike back. He had seen the new Tom Joads and J. C.'s who had plotted in the thickets of their minds for personal salvation only to get the blunt blow of the hard-swung axe handle as reward. He was not forgiving the deeds; he was trying only to understand them. A hungry man did not steal food for himself, but a father would kill for a hungry child.., and hunger more himself. Sometimes that same father, frustrated by his failure, would strike out at his wife or child because he could not strike society viciously enough to make it hear. Was it only ironic, only blind instinct?

No matter, he thought. Civilization was built on ironies; yes, even on blind instinct. The brain itself was the supreme humanistic irony of all.

The last cavefish died with a quiver, just as many of Jordan's early ambitions had died.., with a quiver. When he graduated law school, like most young men his first inclination was to accept one of the prestigious offerings from Park Avenue firms labeled with the most influential names in the state. All had expressed schoolbook-type shock and chagrin that an educated upstart would ignore their offerings to serve, instead, as a public defender.

He never regretted the move, though it had cost him a lovely woman at the time, because fifteen years of dredging back streets for character witnesses and reasons he had discovered the core of the working man's soul - integrity. Oh, certainly rich men could be integritous, but that more often was an integrity borne on convenience. The ghetto's integrity grew from the roots of survival.

Later, when he was considered for the judgeship, he had made it quite clear that he wanted no part of the superior bench. So, by way of picayunish punishment, he had served several years in night courts and small claims. Again he looked upon that tenure as a learning experience, as nearly joyous as working with other men's sorrows could be. Finally had come the municipal seat.

Andrus' ambition had been to empty such courts, to understand the depressed man's inner sanctum so thoroughly he could help to waylay the community's problems before they occurred. Of course, he had failed. Quixotes always did. He had failed because, along with his brilliance and need to be humanitarian, there was the naivete to fuel a continuing optimism. It was the age and technology, the steady combat between socialistic ideals and copious capitalistic realities which, instead of draining the courtroom, filled it with redundancies of language, deed and face until he had begun to feel like some sort of matinee idol blessed with a long run. He fought within himself against pedantry, against boredom; he strained to note those despicable qualities in the acts of younger and younger attorneys who appeared before his bench -- especially the public defenders. He could not abide ennui when it delayed or altered justice. Ennui was a neuterer of effect. There were moments during which he allowed himself to believe he was the sole defense left for a faltering man caught between two ambiguous legal machines - prosecution and defense.

Judge Andrus was considered to be a legal despot among his peers, capable of a harangue that would purple the most experienced ears and totally unpredictable in the structure of his sentences. Carefully prepared torts became only carnage that reputed his courtroom like carbuncles. More than one young attorney faced him with fear in his eyes, anxious to draw his first warm blood before a judge who refused to be vampiric.

The mystery snail worked the tattered scales on the dead cavefish, and Jordan marveled at how few attorneys sought him out to know the man of him, the salt-bearer to their Carthaginian ambitions. He was not an elitist in the sense of country clubs and greens; so, unlike other judges, his physical and genital endowments, unexposed in the fraternity of locker rooms, were as much a secret to obvious justice as were his poorly studied tracts, much less his principles.

Yet the men he sentenced knew him, and the keepers of the keys knew him, for long ago he had made a promise to himself to observe the workings of the justice he rendered. Regularly he visited the jails, the state facilities, and the county correctional compounds to see firsthand how men's faces, for whom he also remembered names, fared from his discretion. Once he had held a widow's hand as she was told of her husband's suicide and, later, when Andrus had learned of the man's innocence, she had held his.

When he walked at night, and he walked every night, he walked the streets of ghettos so he could know them, the heat of the concrete, the gutaches of the tenements, the occasional wails from open windows, the choices in music, television, cars, movies, myths and mayhem. He never stopped being afraid. He was scared "shitless."

And he was fearful now, with the wailing wall of retirement hard at hand. Good years still stretched ahead, and how would he fill them? His doctor, a young internist who doubled as GP for a clinic without compensation and lived in a lovely hovel, had said Jordan's search for fairness had a killing soul. "There's no such thing as social parity; no possibility for it," said his doctor.

Perhaps Andrus recalled thinking, but he never gave the doctor any kind of acknowledgement to his statement. Now, however, judgment had been passed on him, and so he would now read and write a little. He thought of tracts that needed explication. He dreamed now, not of the courtroom's fair antipathy to legal dysfunction, not of a system corroded by the sheer weight of numbers and tons of paper, but of pallor and bleaching of ambition just enough to include compassionate rage, and of new young defenders who could be oh, so heroic in their angry reach for fame. Yes, retirement was important in its time, for now it was time to teach.

Reluctantly he eased from his chair, took the fishnet from its hook and scooped to retrieve each blind cavefish in its turn. The mystery snail fell away, cocooned within its shell, into the dense growth of bottom greenery. The catfish scurried to other succulent corners of the tank. For the first time in months the aquarium looked vacant, unused, fresh

He'd begin again to build a community, he thought... with a pair of black mollies, some red swords, a tiger barb or two, and an angel. But, he reflected, no blind cavefish. Their appetite for angels is just too severe. 

Frederick A. Raborg, Jr. relieves the steady pace of life in Bakersfield, Ca, by producing a stream of verse, fiction, and reviews.

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