George Washington and God Damn Cherry Pie
Ricky Ginsburg

Bad news comes by telephone; annoyingly bad news comes in a white envelope with the words "Grand Jury Summons" in bold red letters covering most of the space below the glassine window displaying your name.

Silvia, my wife of nearly thirty blissful years and the Mistress of the Mailbox for most of them, held the communique' in both hands, as if she was offering a sacrament to the god of patriotic duty. Her voice, in that frightening trill that comes moments before I'm allowed to say something that will cause me hours of grief, peaked on the last syllable, "Isn't it exciting?"

I took the letter from her hands and held it up to the dim light of the afternoon sun filtering through the curtains. "You're kidding, right?"

She took a step back, wagging an accusatory finger at my nose. "Don't start this again."

"I'm sorry," I said with just the faint hint of a grin on my face, "Did you suddenly get a college degree and a fulltime profession? Please, sweetheart, love of my life, show me a paycheck and I'll go serve on all the juries that summon me." Shaking the letter in a vain attempt to make it magically disappear or turn into a large check from the estate of some long-dead uncle who had only seen me once - at my bar mitzvah - I cursed the evil bureaucracy that had reached out in silence to chip into my freedom. "Not just jury duty, but Grand freaking jury duty. What's his name, the weird guy with the riding mower at the end of the block? He got pulled into a murder case. Screwed up his whole summer. One of the jurors almost died from heat stroke."

"It's winter, Morris."

I rolled my eyes. "Whatever."

The envelope, obviously closed by a machine operated by some overpaid son of a political appointee that I hadn't voted for and who had no idea that the device required an occasional cup of water to work correctly, popped open as though the contents couldn't wait to leap out and jovially announce themselves. The law of the land spelled out in detail the government's right to attach my body and mind for as long as was necessary to satisfy their lust for my attention. There were enough "whereas" and "wherefores" to fill several paragraphs of the Constitution along with the officially rubber-stamped signature of someone claiming to be in charge. The balance of the letter went on about when and where and why and what not to bring, including a firearm.

I read the list to Silvia, accenting the part about firearms, knives, and weapons of any kind. "Not that we want to encourage swift justice."

"Ah, justice. This coming from the man who spends his hours figuring ways to cheat the government out of legitimate taxes."

"And whose clients pay for the fancy cars, the weekend villa on the beach, the trips to Puerto Rico to see your family, and wait, what is that glittery thing on your finger? A very large piece of imitation diamond? Why no, it's the real thing, Uncle Sam. Paid for by... what do you call them - 'tax thieves'?" I knew what was coming next, we'd been down this road too many times before, but it was my job to play Wiley Coyote here and take the rock on the noggin.

"If someone didn't pay taxes, the airplanes we take to Puerto Rico might just get lost or fall out of the sky. And if someone didn't pay for the Coast Guard to come and rescue us, after the airplanes had fallen, you'd drown. So there's a good use for the money that you're doing your best to keep from sliding into the legitimate coffers of the US Treasury." Silvia reached down and opened her purse on the shelf by the front door. "Here's twenty bucks, go buy a new set of excuses."

Silvia and her parents had started for Miami from Havana long before the Marielitos had begun to build boats. Unfortunately for the family, the cargo ship they boarded was eastbound for San Juan and rather than settling where the primary language was Yiddish with a distinct New York accent, they set roots amongst fellow Latinos. While neither parent ever saw the need to swear an Oath of Citizenship, Silvia earned her right to vote, pay taxes, and serve on a jury one day after her twenty-first birthday. The ceremony, held in the massive county courthouse and administered by Judge Rodriguez, who only needed the mask to pass for Zorro, lit a spark of patriotism in my future wife that would flare into a bonfire whenever I seemed to lose my faith in the government of the United States.

Several times, over the years, I had received a computer-generated summons for jury duty. Each time, the offending letter was tossed in the trash. So far, the theory had been: until they send it Certified Mail, there was no way the government could prove that it had been received. That conclusion ran out the door when Silvia mentioned a signed receipt she gave to the letter carrier for the summons I now held in my hand.

"You signed it?" I slapped my forehead. "A cup of coffee, a cold drink for the mailman, that's fine. But you sign for something like this? Oy!"

Silvia put her hands on her hips and gave me that "Oh really?" look that indicates the boulder over my head is getting closer. "I'm sure it would please you no end to have to come bail me out of prison for refusing the order of a government official."

"Jackie? The hunchback with the squeaky voice who delivers the mail? That's your government official?" Nodding my head, I stepped around her and sat down on the couch in the livingroom. "I understand he's the top contender for the Republican nomination this fall."

"Another election you'll find some way to ignore."

I blew out a sharp breath. "Now wait a minute..."

Silvia flopped down in the armchair across from me. "No, you wait a minute, Mr. American Citizen. You think jury duty is unfair? Fine, vote for a change. What would you like, jury duty only for the unemployed? How about we have the folks already in jail be on the jury, at least they have some experience with the court system."

"Interesting concept." I smiled. "Maybe you should send a letter to the White House."

She leaned over and popped me in the chest with a finger. "Maybe you should vote once in a while."

I let the indignant tone of my voice punctuate my retort, "I do so vote, but only when it means something."

"Oh come on, Morris. The last time you voted it was for Nixon."

"Yeah and look how that turned out." I grinned, tossing the jury summons on the coffee table. "Almost as bad as Ophelia's husband."

There's a long moment of cold silence between us when a slip of the tongue, usually mine, opens an old sore. I thought this one had healed over years ago, but apparently not long enough to sustain a blow like I had just delivered.

Ophelia and Antonio lived three houses down the street from us. Nice folks, a great tennis partner for Silvia, a source of quality tools for me. The political bug managed to infect Antonio a couple of years ago and for reasons known only to him, he decided to run for Mayor. Initially, I chalked it up to having too much free time on his hands. Antonio had retired from a career in auto repair several years prior and had been searching for an outlet to employ his talents. How he managed to convince himself that politics had anything to do with transmission overhaul is still beyond my comprehension. Sadly for him, it was also a concept most voters couldn't grasp, as well. And though I did my best to stay out of the campaign, I occasionally felt obliged, at Silvia's insistence, to offer financial advice when the candidate's dream interfered with his bank account.

It was over Washington's Birthday weekend, just a few weeks before the election on March 1st that Silvia and I were invited to a fund-raising lunch Ophelia was throwing at their house for some of the high rollers in local politics. While the woman was an ace on the courts, her kitchen skills ended with scrambled eggs and even then, fragments of shell were common yet unintentional ingredients. The special treat that day was cherry pie, several of them. Homemade by the less than talented hands of a woman who could burn water.

Now, I can't stand any pie that includes the word "berry" or its cousin "cherry"; almost as bad as ketchup on a hot dog. Pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato, all make sense when it comes to filling a piecrust. Blueberry stains everything it touches. I won't even try Boysenberry. Who in their right mind wants to eat something that's one consonant off from "poison"? And cherry pie is the first step off the cliff of dental ruin - sweet enough to make my fillings rattle and dormant cavities holler with glee. Yet in a political situation such as this, I had no choice but to take a large forkful and wash it down with several gulps of whiskey.

Ophelia may have actually consulted a cookbook for the recipe. I never found out and honestly, don't really care except that the pits she left in the cherries cracked one of my crowns and nearly cost me the weekend in jail.

Everyone who was there acknowledges that Antonio threw the first punch. Of course, the various comments I made about his wife's cooking were perhaps a bit too inflammatory. Comparing her fake boobs to her lack of culinary intelligence was also a step in the wrong direction, but it was done so with pieces of my shattered tooth in my hand.

Antonio was tough, wiry, and had a mean left hook. I was a foot taller than him and loaded with whiskey and enough pain from the broken tooth to dull every ounce of common sense. In all fairness, it was his Saint Bernard that knocked over the large vase in his dining room, although I'll take credit for smashing the water pitcher on the table.

The police came rather quickly. I still think they were watching the neighborhood for terrorists. Who knew, maybe the mayoral campaign in our little hamlet would draw out some crazed sniper? They found both Antonio and myself pinned to the ground by the men gathered for the fundraiser - all of us in three-piece suits, we could have been a holding a Fortune 500 wrestling match.

There were several tense moments as excuses were made and I'm certain a handful of cash was passed between the pinstripes and the blue serge, but eventually the cops left the premises... along with one of Ophelia's cherry pies neatly wrapped in tin foil.

Silvia and I were about to follow the police out the door but Antonio stepped over to block our exit. He held my most recently discarded jury summons tightly in his hand and sneered at me as he said, "You see this, Morris? This means I own you. It means you owe, buddy. All I have to do is tell the wrong person about this and you'll be looking at those cops from the backseat of a police car."

"Where'd you get that?" I stared at the letter. "You go through my trash, Antonio?"

"Nah, I found it stuck in my bushes. Must have blown over here when your garbage can fell over in the wind the other night."

I reached for the envelope, but Antonio shoved it halfway down his pants and put up his fists to renew the conflict I thought was over. Stepping toward him, I hissed, "Give it to me, Antonio. Don't be an asshole."

"You help me win this election and it's yours. You know people, people with money." He sidestepped away from the door, waving the jury summons as though the breeze from it would knock me down. "Think about that tonight. Think about your comfortable bed and how you could just as easily be sleeping on a hard, wooden cot."

Silvia, in a fit of hell-bent Latino anger, lunged forward and grabbed the threatening evidence from Antonio's hand, punching the candidate in the nose with a right cross that would have flattened a heavyweight contender. "Puta madre, you don't get votes that way!" She tore the letter in half several times, tossing the shredded pieces on the floor. I was certain she was going to hit him again and reached to grab her arm, but Silvia spun away from me and started out the door. "The birthday of the first president of the United States and this is how you behave?" She spit at Antonio's feet, one large white glob landing squarely on his loafers.

There was never a doubt about the outcome of the mayoral election. Antonio's opponent, a councilman with over a decade of service, won with seventy-five percent of the votes. Even I marched triumphantly into the voting booth, closing the curtain with a flourish before casting my vote for a guy I knew nothing about.

My victory was short-lived.

Ophelia, aghast and disheartened over her husband's loss, filed for divorce and moved to Las Vegas. Silvia, raised under the watchful eyes of the Catholic Church, laid the blame for their failed marriage on my shoulders and refused to talk to me for almost a week. I ended the stalemate with the massive gemstone she's wearing on her finger and ten days in the Puerto Rican sun.

For several years, neither of us had spoken of what I'd come to call "the cherry pie incident". Silvia adopted the term "cherry-pied" to indicate when her favorite in a particular election took a serious drubbing. The newly arrived Grand Jury summons meant that shortly, one of us was going to lick the filling from a pie in the face.

"Do you know the slums we drive through in San Juan on the way to your parents' house in the mountains?"

She nodded and then shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah. What about them?"

I lifted the summons to eye-level and smiled at her. "This is a rock on top of the hills to the south of San Juan." Blowing her a kiss, I let the summons fall. It bounced off the edge of the coffee table and fluttered to a stop between my feet. "Underneath that rock is our life, crushed and ruined. This house, the cars, the beach villa, all gone. You are now living in the slums of San Juan. All because of a piece of paper."

The perfect "O" that froze Silvia's lips began a rapid slide to where just the whitest tips of her clenched teeth were showing. Her words were punctuated with slow shakes of her head. "You know... there are times... when you are... so full of shit... that I can almost see... your skin turning brown." Silvia dragged the letter to her with a toe, lifting it from the floor with both feet.

It always surprised me when she exhibited the flexibility of youth that had stayed with her into middle age. I stuck my tongue in cheek, ignoring her favorite jab. "Nice legs."

"Don't change the subject."

"What were we talking about?"

She cocked her head to one side and smiled. "The slums of San Juan."

"Do you know what Grand Jury means?" I smiled back. "It means weeks, maybe months of trial and deliberation. It means you are stuck with a bunch of idiots, one of which will turn out to be a George C. Scott wannabe and try to run the jury room like it's his personal domain. And do you know what happens to my business, to my clients while I'm imprisoned with this gang of politically correct, civically-minded, bad teeth and gum-problem citizens?"

"Oh, come on, Morris. The government is not going to put you out of business. DelVechio in the office down the hall from you has covered your clients for years while we're out of town. You don't think he'd do it for something like this?"

I stood and walked around to the back of the couch, leaning on the worn fabric top. "There's a big difference between a long weekend and several months."

"And what if it's a couple of years... in jail?"

Handing her the summons, I turned and headed toward the kitchen, shouting back over my shoulder, "I'm not the one who signed the receipt."

"Pendejo! You better bring your ass back in here."

I stopped in the hallway and spun around to face her. "What?"

"You would let me go to jail?" There was fire and brimstone in her voice. "What the hell is that about?"

"What are you saying?"

"I signed the receipt."

"Yes." I pointed at her. "You signed it, not me."

"And rather than go to jury duty, you'd let them take me to jail?"

I walked back into the livingroom and took her hands in mine. "No, sweetheart, of course not. I'm just saying there's no proof that I personally ever got the summons."

She took a couple of long, deep breaths before pushing my hands away. "So you're not going."

"I..." Looking up, I could see that boulder coming straight down on my head. "Not this time. But I promise I will the next time a summons comes in the mail."

Silvia took the summons and laid it upside-down on the coffee table. On the blank side of the letter she wrote, "I will go to jury duty next time." She handed me the pen and spun the paper around so I could read it. "Sign your name."

"You don't trust me."

"No. I trust you. I don't trust your memory." She pushed the paper closer to me. "Sign it," she insisted.

"Fine." I took the pen and scribbled my name at the bottom of the paper. "Do you want it notarized?"

"No." She smiled. "This is good enough."

I could feel the cherry filling dripping from my cheeks. "This makes you happy?"

Folding the letter, she stuffed it into a pocket on her blouse. "It would make me happier if I didn't have to make up stories about receipts just to get you to respect your patriotic freedoms."

"There was no receipt?" I raised my eyebrows. "You made that up?"

She shrugged. "You think George Washington always told the truth?"

The rest of Ricky's website.