I got picked to go to Washington, DC.
I went with a bunch of other teachers from around the country to learn about the Supreme Court. This was supposed to make us better history teachers. We were going to get to be where judicial history was and is made. We were going to get to touch it. I didn’t want it to touch me back. I’m usually not a tactile learner.
We milled around in a room in the Supreme Court building. A handler was arranging us, posing us around the seventeenth chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Honorable John G. Roberts. The handler grabbed my elbow and shoved me next to him. Other petite teachers were propped close to him, too, and with those of slight stature sur-rounding him, an optical illusion emerged. Roberts no longer appeared elfin. He looked tall.
“Oh my god,” I thought. “He’s the Court’s Tom Cruise. He’s fucking short.”
“Cheese!” we shouted in the tastefully conservative reception room. Cherrywood paneling bedecked by portraits of jurists the average American probably can’t identify surrounded us. This meet-and-greet with an actual justice, this jurisprudential petting zoo moment, was sup-posed to be the highlight of three days’ worth of sandwiches, pizzas, roundtable talks, lectures, and PowerPoints from journalists, wonks, law professors, historians, bloggers, and the like.
Roberts showed up fifteen minutes late.
And to be honest, I was disappointed. I hadn’t wanted to meet the chief justice. I’d wanted to meet Clarence Thomas.
I’d come prepared to meet him.
I was going to ask him to split a Coke with me.
“It’s a hoax,” I said.
We were stepping out of a makeshift dining room where teachers had just torn apart an Italian buffet. The teacher from Detroit was staring at her phone.
“Well,” she said. “That’s what the text says. Michael Jackson’s dead.”
Back at the hotel, in a room I was sharing with Dorothy, a teacher from South Carolina, we watched CNN.
News anchors were narrating what they suspected Michael Jackson’s last minutes were like. They described his thin, dead body. I pictured it as a Cheeto with vitiligo.
Dorothy’s phone rang. She answered. In her Southern drawl, she squealed, “We’re watchin’ the news about Michael Jackson!”
Seconds passed. Dorothy laughed. She turned to me. “Wanna hear a joke about Michael Jackson?” she asked.
I wondered if the joke would be racist, homophobic, transphobic, or a triple threat.
“Fine,” I said.
Dorothy rushed through the telling in a guilty voice. The punch line:
Little Boy Blew.
“Didn’t you say you were a preacher’s wife?” I asked her.
She nodded and returned to her conversation with her son.
Lying on my bed on my stomach, I listened to the news. Commentators kept saying it was the end of an era. It didn’t feel that way. It didn’t feel real. Mr. Osmond was still alive and Michael Jackson lived through him. Mr. Osmond was Michael Jackson. Tommy was Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was my childhood. Michael Jackson was my innocence before I knew what innocence was. Michael Jackson was my mother and father. Michael Jackson was my sister. Michael Jackson was not my brother but he would’ve loved my brother. Michael Jackson was my skin. Michael Jackson was my thighs. Michael Jackson was confusion. Michael Jackson was virginity. Michael Jackson was my country. Michael Jackson was the white knight of my soul and the dark night of my soul and the dark light of my soul and, most of all, Michael Jackson was a donut.
Michael Jackson was now another racially ambiguous corpse. As a racially ambiguous living person, he’d been tried in a courtroom presided over by the whitest of judges. A Melville. He got Moby Dicked.
I wondered about Michael Jackson’s dying. I wondered about Michael Jackson dying his skin. The idea of his corpse moved me. All racially ambiguous bodies move me. They feel close. Like family. The dead are still our family.
On this historic evening, I revealed my connection to Michael Jackson to Dorothy.
“You know how Michael Jackson got tried for molesting kids?” I began. “Well, that happened in my hometown. The judge who was in charge of his trial presided over a trial I was supposed to be a part of.”
“Yeah. When I was nineteen, I sort of got raped.”
Dorothy was trying to think of something nice to say. She leaned against her elbows, faced me from her bed, and said, “Maybe he couldn’t help himself because you’re so gorgeous.”
I thought about all the ugly people who get raped. Was I one of them? “I don’t think so,” I said.
Dorothy was quiet for a little while. Eventually, she asked, “Why didn’t you go to the trial?”
“I was embarrassed,” I said. “And I felt guilty about being alive. The guy who attacked me attacked other women too. One got her head smashed. She died.”
Hugging my pillow, I looked at our nightstand. Michael Jackson’s ghost was in everything.
“My son’s in federal prison . . .” Dorothy began. She tried to console me with an account of her imperfections as a mother and the sinful ways of those she’d parented.
Justice Thomas sat at the highest bench in the land, staring at the ceiling. Besides sexually harassing Anita Hill, that’s what he’s most notorious for—being the quietest and weirdest Supreme Court justice in American history. The judge who stares at the crown molding and says nothing during arguments.
I sat in the audience with the other teachers, watching Justice Scalia read a majority opinion. Nearby, Justice Ginsburg rolled her eyes.
Justice Thomas leaned back in his chair. A mug of something devoid of pubic hair rested in front of him. The ceiling’s corners fascinated him. His mind was so far away.
Was he thinking about Michael Jackson?
I jogged in Washington, DC. I jogged and jogged and jogged. I jogged to the Library of Congress. I jogged to its walls and I leaned against them and I touched them and I touched them and I touched them.
MYRIAM GURBA lives in California and loves it. She teaches high school, writes, and makes “art.” NBC described her short story collection Painting Their Portraits in Winter as “edgy, thought-provoking, and funny.” She has written for Time, KCET, and The Rumpus. Wildflowers, compliments, and cash make her happy.
“Capital Murder” is reprinted by permission from Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Myriam Gurba.