Errata Literary Magazine

Bucks County Writers Workshop

Once Bitten
by Kurt Krumpholz

Jolene Rosan enters the hearing room wearing a fitted black raincoat over a striking red dress -- a designer piece cut from a metallic fabric that glistens like the scales of a just-caught fish. Wobbling slightly on five-inch heels, she strides down the gallery aisle toward the front of the room. Beautiful dark curls, thick and cinnamon-colored, frame her narrow face. Her rouged cheeks, glossy pink lipstick, and silver-blue eyeliner are a shock of color in the otherwise bleak courtroom. On the other side of the low railing gate she stops before the second of two scuffed tables and bends to take her seat, pausing to smooth the back of her raincoat beneath her before she drops into the blue swivel chair. Seated, she coughs once nervously, covering her mouth with a closed fist. Around her neck she wears a bright floral scarf clasped at her throat by a gaudy gold brooch. Its faux diamonds glitter beneath her unusually square chin.

Common pleas court Justice Francis Hackett, a large man with white hair, bushy black eyebrows, and a drinker's red nose, slips into the courtroom from a side door and takes his seat on the bench. He opens a manila folder on the desk before him and begins the arraignment of case number 789124-B. Without emotion he states the evidence against Jolene in the murder of her husband, Thomas Rosan, who died one day after what police believe was a botched castration attempted by Mrs. Rosan. This procedure, Judge Hackett points out for the record, is alleged to have taken place inside the mobile home Jolene and her husband shared in the Beulaville Trailer Park for the past eleven years. The following afternoon, while being rushed to the hospital, Mr. Rosan choked to death on his own vomit because, authorities maintain, pain from the crude surgery combined with painkilling drugs he took or was administered suppressed his gag reflex.

Jolene, who denies taking part in the operation, doesn't move while Judge Hackett presents the case against her. She does not react to the stir of activity in the courtroom or to her attorney who swivels in his seat to glance first at her and then at the gallery behind them. Instead she waits calmly, looking down at her palms resting on her lap. Smoothing the wrinkles from her dress, she listens in silence, betraying no outward sign of emotion, while Judge Hackett resumes presenting the preliminary evidence against her.

The Judge raises a pair of black, wire-rim reading glasses to his nose and plucks a wrinkled sheet of paper from the folder. Shifting his weight forward, he looks down over the top of his spectacles at Jolene with that unique combination of malice and reprobation accessible only to judges and old maid schoolteachers. He clears his throat and leans to his right, moving his mouth closer to the microphone. In a flat monotone he reads the one-page, handwritten note police found in the trailer, which, he states for the record, although apparently signed by both Rosans, is still being analyzed by handwriting experts.

Jolene slides her spine up against the backrest and sits rigid in her seat. Her eyes, bright and hard, stare straight ahead at the bench, exhibiting only the slightest twinge of apprehension.

"I, Thomas Rosan," Judge Hackett recites, "because my wife Jolene accused me of being unfaithful," pause, "stabbed myself in the testicles. Because of the bleeding and pain, I allowed my wife Jolene to remove my testicles. I allowed her to do it because of her vast knowledge of medicine. I only hold myself responsible for this. I begged her to help since I was ashamed to go to the doctor."

As Judge Hackett reads, his words begin to buzz and crackle in Jolene's ears like the rattle of a blown speaker in a cheap transistor radio. All at once, the room begins to swim before her eyes and then turn as if caught in a giant maelstrom. Defenseless, she gives herself over to its pull, spinning like a leaf atop water spiraling down a drain.

* * *

Thomas Rosan and his wife Jolene lie on their king-size waterbed beneath gray satin sheets. Jolene rests on her back staring at the reflection of lights that dance across the ceiling. Next to her, Thomas sleeps. Outside, the rolling surf of traffic on the interstate murmurs like the constant spit and fizzle of a steady rain. From time to time she glances at the clock next to her, feeling the minutes overflow like water dripping from a leaky faucet. Nearby, one of the neighborhood cats yowls before a now empty bowl left out by the widow, three doors down, who takes to strays with the same reckless altruism she usually reserves for the alcoholic men in her life.

Jolene lies awake listening, feeling her weight press down against the viscous mattress as she tries to negotiate the fog of thoughts that keep her from releasing into sleep. She turns her head to Thomas, who lies on his side facing her. His eyes are closed. His mouth hangs open, exhaling the deep, raspy breath of early slumber.

"Thomas? Thomas, are you awake?" She reaches over and shakes his shoulder lightly. Thomas stirs, rolls over onto his back, mumbles something unintelligible and begins to snore. "Thomas, wake up, honey. Please. There's something I've got to tell you," she says, a little anxiously.

"Now?" he grumbles. "Can't it wait?" He shakes his head and makes a smacking noise with his tongue and lips.

"No. I'm afraid not," she says, remaining motionless.

"Aw, Jee-zus. Well, what is it this time, then?" He raises his head and squints at her through the darkness.

"I don't know how to say this, Thomas. I've been meaning to, but... I don't know how."

"How to what?"

"How to tell you, well...the fact...that I know." She sits up and pauses, waiting for his reply.

"That you know what?"

"That I know all about you," she says with more conviction.

"That you know what about me?"

"Oh, puh-leez, Thomas. Don't play me for a fool. I know all about your little Tuesday night escapades. So you don't have to lie to me any more. Give me at least that much courtesy, would you?"

Thomas sits up in bed as well. "Jolene, what in the hell are you talking about?" He looks at her with a dazed and bewildered expression.

"Did you think I wouldn't find out?" She begins to sob and wipes a single tear from the corner of her eye with a knuckle.

"Jolene..." Thomas says, as if trying to console a lost child. For a moment, she imagines, he considers telling her. But instead, he just reaches across the bed. Jolene pulls away, turning her back to him. Thomas sighs and lets his outstretched hand slide down the back of her nightgown. With his thumb and index finger, he smoothes back the two halves of his thin mustache. "Well, for crying out loud, Jolene," he growls in frustration. "What the heck am I supposed to say?"

"You could say you're sorry, for starters."

"Jesus, Jolene! Not this again. Really. Will you just tell me what in God's name this is all about?"

She turns briskly to face him again. "It's about us, Thomas, in case you hadn't noticed. It's about me and you and this...our marriage." She waves her hand across the bed. Thomas lets both hands fall to his lap. He sits in silence for a moment staring at her blankly. "My God, Thomas. Look at us, will you? What has happened?" She sits very still watching for a change in his expression. But there is none. Her first instinct is to be angry, to resent Thomas for his smug denial. But all she feels is numb and vaguely nauseated; as if some switch has been tripped inside of her and she now operates on mechanical reflex alone.

Thomas looks down at his hands but remains silent.

"Who are you?" she asks almost apologetically. "You've changed so I hardly know you any more."

Thomas lifts his head. "I'm sorry, Jolene. I don't know what to say. A lot can change over eleven years." Long pause. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I have changed. Maybe we've changed. Fact is, I'm not the same man I once was. But I can't help that."

"Yes, I know." she says. "I was different before I met you too."

* * *

Judge Hackett returns the letter to the folder. He removes his glasses and sets them down. A chill washes over Jolene as she resurfaces. She struggles, thinking back, searching for the wrong turn that has led her to this day. But for the moment, there is only this: the early love she and Thomas once shared is spent, burned down like a candle left guttering in a dish, vulnerable to even the slightest insinuation of a breeze. Of that she cannot acquit herself. Judge Hackett leans forward and clears his throat. Jolene takes a deep breath and snaps to attention. Their eyes lock and in that instant she becomes acutely aware of every detail in her surroundings. Her heart pounds. She slides to the edge of her chair. It creaks beneath her. Judge Hackett opens his mouth, but before he can speak she knows with certainty and an almost welcome acceptance the answer to his question.

"Mrs. Jolene Rosan, nee Joseph Waldman," he asks, "how do you plead to the charges levied against you?"

Jolene's attorney sits up and places his hand on top of hers. She smiles.

Bucks County Writers Workshop