Do I have a Certificate of Good Conduct,
Justice Milton Tingling wants to know.
I don't think I do, no—
For years I asked the court for exemptions
and when I did serve I was useless,
I didn't care about the chiropractor and his wife,
about graft, theft, delinquency, malfeasance.
Justice was a beautiful
abstraction I counted on from within the walls
of my exhausted mothermind.
It's a long time since I've been summoned,
and now Milton Tingling
has replaced County Clerk Norman Goodman,
who ruled the courts for forty-five years,
including the eighteen it took me to raise my son.
You don't know me, Justice Tingling,
but I like the sound of your name,
I like the sound of Justice Anything,
you who refuse to honor exemptions
I have none of, now.
The boy is no longer exempt, no,
and I want to serve, I want to make amends
for my absences,
my failures of civic duty.
I don't need to ask for time to raise him,
he's been raised, he no longer lives with me,
he's not waiting for me to come pick him up
to the sound of twenty questions
and the sound of the phone ringing and the dead dog barking.
He's a mystery to me,
old enough now for his own summons,
Justice Tingling, but he's not home
to receive it or fill it out,
he's not here to answer your questionnaire
about his own Good Conduct.
I listen to the traffic outside my window,
what would I do without it, it's a boon,
it idled us through the days I tended
to the child who right at this moment
might be drinking his own lovely self
into a stupor
or watching the fraternity kids
drink themselves into stupors
in the basement and backrooms
of a self-replicating Upsilon Upsilon
across whose exterior in black poster paint
early one spring morning
someone spray-painted the words rape haven.
Anonymous, the papers said.
Anonymous, the brothers said
for the brother who is not my son, no,
my son has no brothers, Justice Tingling,
he's an only child, or he's only
a man now
who for all I know is or is not,
is or is not
with other young men
washing paint off a stone wall
with a high-powered hose and a stiff brush
like it never happened,
like it never happens.
Justice, forgive me.
Forgive me, Justice.
CATHERINE BARNETT is the author of Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced and The Game of Boxes, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives and teaches in New York City. Human Hours (Graywolf ), her third collection, is forthcoming.