THE DINNER PARTY
Justice Fulton awoke with a gasp. He searched his surroundings, and once his disorientation subsided, he got up from his cot and walked two paces to the basin.
He considered his lips in the stainless steel safety mirror.
In the nightmare he’d just awoken from, he was dressed in his black legal gown and on the bench with the other High Court justices. He was trying desperately to speak, but couldn’t—his mouth was gone and all that remained was a thin red scar.
Leaning closer to the mirror, Fulton brushed his lips with the tips of his fingers and drew a breath.
“Nothing to be afraid of…” he thought, “…just an old man’s lips, an inch-and-a-half wide and a mixture of rose and pale violet.”
Returning to the cot, he bent down, with effort, for the khaki shirt that had arrived that morning from the prison laundry. Like the others Petersburg had issued him, the garment sported a razor sharp collar.
“Must be starched and pressed by a throat cutter,” Fulton said to himself. His Tennessee drawl suggested, at once, a patrician upbringing and a man who was accustomed to being listened to.
Shivering, he unfurled the shirt and slipped it over his naked shoulders. He realized then that there was a difference between this shirt and the others they’d sent him over the last five years. The breast pocket was blank – no prisoner identification number.
“So that’s how they dress you for your last supper,” he mused.
His hands began to shake and he fumbled with the bottom button. He slammed one trembling palm against the other, the way his father used to whip a disobedient hound.
“It’s not a last supper,” he reassured himself. The sting steadied his hands and he buttoned up.
“Just a dinner party for one,” he added, failing to bolster his spirits.
He returned to the basin and took one final look at his mouth.
The nightmare had plagued Justice Fulton’s sleep ever since Deerfield’s suicide seven years ago. James Deerfield, a high school government teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, had been arrested on May 5, 2010 for telling his class of sophomores that it was only a matter of time before Americans donned explosives in order to be heard by those in power.
Deerfield’s case which eventually reached the Supreme Court was the first legal challenge of the Unpatriotic Speech Act (2010), which forbade speech which was “defamatory towards the United States with the intent to incite acts of sedition, treason, rebellion, or terrorism, thereby giving aid and comfort to her enemies.”
By 2008, seventy-one percent of Americans polled agreed or strongly agreed that extremism in the name of civil liberties would lead to destruction of their nation. The US Attorney General, Peter Alexander Smith, was fond of saying that the Constitutional Bill of Rights was never intended to be a suicide pact.
In chamber, Justice Fulton argued that James Deerfield hadn’t encouraged terrorism or given aid and comfort to any enemy. The teacher had only suggested that depriving a person of free speech might lead to desperate acts of violence.
At a vote of eight to one, the High Court ruled that Deerfield’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment according to the “clear and present danger” test established by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States (1919). Fulton had considered entering a dissenting opinion but backed down in the face of mounting pressure from the President, the Attorney General, and the other eight justices.
According to the sentencing guidelines of the Act, a violator was granted a five-year grace period, while in Federal custody, to formally recant seditious statements. If after five years in federal custody a prisoner refused to cooperate, he or she faced execution for high treason under Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution.
Three months later, Deerfield retracted his words, signed a loyalty oath, and was granted his freedom. Unable to find work upon his return to society, he had succumbed to alcoholism. News of Deerfield’s suicide on the one year anniversary of the man’s release from prison had shaken Justice Fulton to the core.
In the wake of Deerfield’s death, Justice Fulton was warned repeatedly about his increasingly outspoken criticism of the Administration and the Unpatriotic Speech Act. Then, on January 2nd, 2012, Federal Agents pulled him from his bed and led him away in handcuffs. He was charged with making an anti-American remark at a New Year’s Day dinner party held the night prior at his home. Federal agents had surreptitiously recorded his words.
The Washington Post printed a government-approved excerpt of the Justice’s seditious statement:
“Here is what I foresee: One day soon, a man will come to Washington wielding a weapon of mass destruction. The men responsible for taking our freedoms away will be swept aside, like Oaks in a Tennessee flood plain.”
At the trial, Associate Justice Fulton refused to answer any of the prosecution’s questions. He made only one statement during the entire criminal proceeding:
“‘Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.’”
Five years passed and the imprisoned judge still hadn’t retracted what he’d said or explained the meaning of his words. There was widespread speculation that he intended to test the government’s will.
While waiting for the escort to his “dinner party,” Justice Fulton opened his family Bible to a page that his father had dog-eared thirty-seven years ago. A verse from the Book of James was underlined in blue ink:
“And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature.”
Thirty seven years ago, his father, Billy, had quoted the passage at a party at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis celebrating his son’s success on the Tennessee Bar Exam. The theme of the toast was that his son William’s “unbridled tongue” would be the boy’s fortune and—if he wasn’t careful—his undoing.
Running a finger across the underlined verse, Fulton realized that his father’s prediction had indeed come to pass. His “unbridled tongue” had taken him all the way to the Supreme Court, and tonight, it would save him…or damn him.
He heard a noise that sounded like a beggar rattling coins in a paper cup. The cell door rolled open and Officer Sandoval entered, holding a pair of handcuffs and ankle restraints threaded together by a silver-plated chain.
“Sorry Judge, gotta truss you up,” Sandoval said humbly.
Once the shackles were applied, Justice Fulton followed Sandoval out onto the second floor gallery. Warden Carver was waiting for them there. He avoided Fulton’s gaze and walked ahead of him with Sandoval bringing up the rear.
Feet spread shoulder width apart, hands threaded through the iron bars, knuckles facing outward, like fists clutching the hilt of a sword: the other doomed men on the Row watched Fulton’s procession. The watchers’ heads pivoted slowly from left to right, reminding him of a mechanical pirate he had seen on a carnival ride at the age of seven.
He began to hum softly, a song that his mother used to sing to him when he’d awoken from a bad dream. He tried to recall the words–something about dying cotton fields.
They stopped at a barred gate.
“Open up!” Sandoval yelled.
A buzzer blared. A red light flashed. The gate rolled open. On the other side, they passed a scowling guard with small, black eyes and fleshy, pock-marked cheeks.
Warden Carver mounted a staircase and Sandoval motioned for Fulton to follow. Carver stopped at a scratched metal door and opened the orifice with one of his skeleton keys, disgorging them into a hallway with blazing halogen lights and cruddy, brown carpet. Two more guards, carrying shotguns, joined them for the final steps to Justice Fulton’s dinner party.
When Sandoval opened the door to the Founder’s Room, Fulton was greeted by the perfume of magnolia blossoms. His head became light for a moment and tears clouded his eyes.
Through a haze of tears, he saw a silver bowl on the dinner table containing three white magnolia flowers.
At Calloway Hall, Fulton’s family home outside Memphis, his great-great grandmother, Delia, had planted a magnolia grove. As a boy, he would race down to the grove before bedtime to pick a flower for his bedside table because Delia had once told him that the flower’s perfume warded off nightmares. Among Fulton’s many special requests for tonight’s meal, the magnolia flowers had been the most important.
Fulton tried to wipe his tears away but the chain linked to the cuffs prevented him from reaching his face.
Sandoval deposited the prisoner’s Bible on a side table and quickly unlocked the shackles.
“We’ve managed to get everything you asked for, Fulton,” Warden Carver said. “We’ll be back in a half-an-hour with the Attorney General.”
“Only half-an-hour?” Fulton asked, his voice betraying more fear than he would have liked.
The Warden nodded, led the three guards out, and closed and locked the door.
While he ate, he remembered the New Year’s Day dinner party he’d hosted five-and-a-half years ago, the night before his arrest. Most families served black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day; the Fulton’s always served shuck beans. The secret recipe had originated with Justice Fulton’s great-grandparents’ cook, Hope Green, and it had been passed down through the generations to Hope’s granddaughter, Ella Mae, Fulton’s housekeeper and cook in D.C. She’d prepared tonight’s fare: shuck beans, ham hocks, collard greens, and cornbread.
Fulton ate quickly to allow plenty of time for a high ball of Gentleman Jack sans ice and his cigar. He opened a small humidor on the table and found three Avanti cheroots. The cigars were custom-made from hand-selected Tennessee tobacco. The mass-marketed line of Avanti’s was tainted, in the Fulton family’s opinion, “by that Kentucky weed.” The dealer hadn’t raised the price from the one negotiated eighty-five years ago by Fulton’s great-grandfather, Alistair William Fulton, a prominent Tennessee judge. Fulton paid only ten cents a cigar though he hoped his supplier had charged the government much more.
He fired up the stogie.
“Well then, Happy New Year, Alistair,” he said and took a puff.
As he smoked, he recalled something his mother, Viviane, had once told him: “Heaven is a dinner party filled with friends who know each other well enough to speak the truth but still retain the capacity to be delighted by an unexpected revelation of heart and soul.”
“I’m in a hurry,” the Attorney General declared as he burst into the Founder’s Room trailed by the Warden, Sandoval and the two other guards.
Justice Fulton emerged from the back corner of the room through a cloud of cigar smoke.
“Yes siree, Mr. Smith. No doubt you have many other calls of a similar character to make in the vicinity.”
Smith ignored the jab and declined Fulton’s offer of a touch of whiskey and a cheroot.
“Mister Fulton,” the Attorney General said, emphasizing Fulton’s now inferior status. “I’d prefer to get right to the business at hand.”
Fulton nodded and took a final draw on his cigar before crushing it out.
The Attorney General removed a digital recording device from his coat pocket, cleared his throat, and pressed the record button. He paced the room, reciting the particulars of the case for the record.
“…Fulton’s five-year grace period expires tonight,” Smith concluded. “Barring an apology to the State and a signed loyalty oath, he will be executed by lethal injection, as soon as reasonably practicable–“
“I took the liberty of having our physician on stand-by,” the Warden chimed in a little too eagerly.
Smith glanced at Fulton.
“Justice—excuse me—Mr. Fulton, do you understand our intentions?”
Fulton frowned. He’d always felt that Smith’s enormous, bee-stung lips were not at all attractive on a man.
“Are you questioning me on a point of law, young man?” the former Justice boomed.
The Attorney General tugged nervously at the tip of his red tie.
“For the record, the Prisoner has answered in the affirmative in front of me and four other officers of the law.”
Smith lowered the recorder and addressed Fulton again.
“We went to considerable expense to provide everything you asked for. That was a gesture of good faith on our part. Your letter to the President suggested we might avoid any further unpleasantness. You’re a reasonable man—a smart man—a wise man. We all hope you aren’t harboring any foolish ideas of martyrdom. Believe me when I say that it would be a useless gesture in the current—”
“I’d like a glass of water.” Fulton interrupted.
Smith bristled. “I mean if a tree falls and no one hears it, etcetera,” he added hastily.
Sandoval brought Fulton a glass of water.
After moistening his lips, Fulton crossed to the side table, picked up his father’s Bible, and turned to the dog-eared page he’d studied earlier in his cell.
“As the Book of James tells us: ‘Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! ’”
“I’m sure we don’t have time for a sermon, Sir” the Attorney General scoffed.
“I plan to elaborate on the meaning of my prediction, assuming that’s permissible,” Fulton rejoined.
“It’s a little late. Don’t you agree, Mr. Attorney General?” the Warden interjected.
Smith raised a hand to silence Carver. “I’d like to hear what Mr. Fulton has to say about that ‘weapon of mass destruction’ business.”
“Good idea…” Carver mumbled sheepishly.
Fulton proceeded: “‘But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.’”
Fulton looked up from the Bible. “The ‘weapon’ that I referred to five years ago was the same one that James wrote about.”
Fulton clapped the Bible shut and placed it carefully on the table.
“In Biblical times, the tongue was cut out in recognition of its danger to men of power. Today, the State has commandeered the mouth as the tongue’s gate keeper. I can only anticipate that some day our brilliant scientists will succeed in creating a race of men and women without a mouth and tongue at all. For that subspecies of Homo sapien, the mouth will become a vestigial organ. A thin red scar just below the nose will be the only evidence that it ever existed at all.”
“Oh, behold the mad prophet!” Carver sneered.
“Perhaps, Warden. Perhaps…I’ve dreamed of such a day…” Fulton allowed.
“Your words hardly have the character of an apology. Is that going to be all?” the Attorney General responded gravely and looked at his watch.
Fulton shook his head several times. “My mea culpa follows hard upon.”
Smith and the Warden exchanged a suspicious glance, but the former judge proceeded building his case.
“As William Faulkner said famously: ‘When the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, …even then there will still be one more sound: that of man’s puny, inexhaustible voice, still talking.’”
“Shut your mouth!” Smith ordered, shaking his digital recorder in the air. “I warn you! Not another word”
“He can’t say that!” the Warden squawked. “He can’t be allowed to say a thing like that!”
Fulton ignored their protestations, pressed his palms together, and bowed his head serenely.
“Will I not be permitted my apology…?” he whispered.
“Your chance to make a case has passed. Perhaps you doubt our resolve?” Smith threatened.
“You can’t begrudge an old Judge a dissenting opinion?” Fulton charmed. “May I?”
The Attorney General looked at his digital recorder uncertainly and then back at Fulton.
Justice Fulton began his apology. “As you will recall—I predicted that Washington would be cleared of men like you, Mr. Smith, men who were taking our freedoms away. For that I am sincerely sorry.”
“I knew it!” Smith cried, rocking back on his heels and raising his fists victoriously.
“Just like the others,” the Warden gloated. “The bigger they are—”
“Where’s the oath?” Smith hurried.
“I have it right here.”
But Justice Fulton cut their celebration short.
“I’m sorry because I waited too long for that man to appear rather than recognizing that I was adequately armed for the fight!”
Smith and Carver were dumbfounded.
“I am guilty, but not for the crime for which I will be executed tonight. I only hope that my death will say something that I cannot.”
Officer Sandoval’s eyes were red with tears.
Former Justice William A. Fulton, Jr. crossed to the dinner table and withdrew a magnolia blossom from the bowl. He pressed the flower to his lips, closed his eyes, and inhaled.
None of the news programs reported the execution of William A. Fulton, Jr. for the crime of unpatriotic speech. The White House sent a sternly worded memo warning the Press that any mention of the prisoner’s execution would play right into the hands of those bent on destroying the United States of America.
One intrepid newspaper editor printed a brief item, buried in his society pages:
Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America William A. Fulton, Jr. hosted a dinner party at the Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution. Shuck Beans, ham hocks, and collard greens were served. After dinner, cigars and whiskey were enjoyed.
That was all, but it was a start.