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Authors: Lawrence Hill

Tags: #Literary, #Fiction

Some Great Thing (5 page)

BOOK: Some Great Thing
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“Take me,” the judge said. “How would I have advanced in this world if I hadn’t displayed exemplary behaviour? My record to date has been spotless, but I still haven’t been promoted.”


“Appointed to a higher judicial level. With all my experience, I still haven’t moved up. Not even to the Court of Queen’s Bench.” Mahatma asked how long Melvyn Hill had been a judge. “I’ve been on this bench longer than you’ve lived, I bet. I was appointed to this bench in 1960. When were you born?”


“See what I mean? So it irks me a little. I’m qualified. I’ve never been criticized. I deserve to be promoted and it’s unfair that I’ve been overlooked.”

“Why do you call it a promotion?” Mahatma asked.

“It’s more power. More prestige. More money. I call that a promotion.”

“But judges don’t usually move from provincial to federal courts,” said Mahatma, who thought, I can’t believe it, I’m actually using something I learned at university.

“It can happen,” the judge said.

“But it hasn’t for you because of your race?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You said—”

“Let’s say it’s partly because of race. You journalists really can’t accustom yourselves to nuance, can you?” Mahatma grinned. He felt a great story brimming. The judge rose to dismiss him. Mahatma was sure the judge would insist now that all this was off the record. But Melvyn Hill did nothing of the sort. He merely repeated his greeting to Ben Grafton. Mahatma went on to write the line story on page one for Wednesday, July 20. Canadian Press picked up the story and it landed in ten more dailies. Reporters from all over the country began phoning the judge. But Melvyn Hill refused to take any calls. He had his secretary advise Edward Slade to give Mahatma Grafton’s article a close reading if he wanted information on the subject.

The Winnipeg Star
Slade crashed down the telephone. “Fucking ‘close reading,’” he muttered. “Grafton wouldn’t even have picked up on that scoop if I hadn’t told him about Matthewson!”

The Herald
, Chuck Maxwell was the first to congratulate Mahatma. “Stick by me, Hat. Follow my advice and you’re heading for great things. You’ll do better than me, in life.”

Mahatma told his friend to shut up and took him out for a beer.

The Institute of Public Protection, where several provincial judges worked, and the Winnipeg City Hall, where the mayor worked, faced each other across a courtyard. About fifty yards long and wide, the courtyard had a fountain, a pay phone, three benches and five trees. The day after buying a thirty-five dollar Blow-Joe megaphone, Jake Corbett left Frank’s Accidental Dog and Grill at 10:00 a.m., walked south on Main Street and turned right into the courtyard. Then he phoned
The Herald
. “I’m having a demonstration at City Hall. Guaranteed page one.” A gruff voice mumbled “Damned dingoes” and hung up on him. Jake gave up on
The Herald
and turned on the megaphone. “Justice for the poor! Welfare is discriminating me to death! No more overpayment deductions! Justice for the poor!” Five people heading into City Hall paused to watch. Jake turned the volume button to max and emptied his lungs. He hollered for ten minutes. Then, resting on a bench, he saw a CBC-TV car on Main Street. Jake delivered another blast. His voice bounced off City Hall, ricocheted off the opposite building and came echoing back from behind him.

The mayor had gone south of the border to meet the mayor of Fargo, North Dakota. He had done this without any border troubles, despite
The Herald
’s recent article about him during his trip to Nicaragua.

Sandra Paquette liked having the mayor absent; she got more work done that way. But today she had a splitting headache. That amplified whining came right through her window. She looked down at the courtyard. A few pigeons clustered near Jake Corbett. He took a heel of bread from his pocket and threw it to the birds. She had to credit the guy for his persistence. He probably did have serious welfare problems. Three minutes after Jake Corbett began hollering, the telephone rang in Sandra’s office. A male voice, middle-aged or older, barked at her. “Connect me with the mayor.”

“The mayor isn’t in today. May I take a message?”

“This is Judge Melvyn Hill of the Provincial Court, and I won’t stand for any run-around. It behooves you to connect me this instant with the mayor!”

Sandra rolled her eyes. Men! It behooves you to blah blah blah…“I’m afraid there’s no way to reach him. He is in the United States.”

“Who’s speaking?”

“Sandra Paquette.”

“Who is that idiot outside? I can’t hear myself think!”

“That’s Jake Corbett.”

“I want you to march down there and have him cease that foolishness!”

“I’ll see what I can do, but…”

“I want that commotion to cease this minute!”

Seeing a woman approach him, Jake Corbett stepped up the commotion. “Mr. Corbett! Can I talk to you a minute?” Jake
kept bellowing. “Would you like an appointment to discuss this with the mayor?”

“Justice for the poor!”

Sandra sighed and walked away. Her phone was ringing when she entered her office. “Call the police,” the judge demanded. “That man is causing a public disturbance.” “I’m not sure the mayor would approve of that,” Sandra said.

“Silence that ragamuffin! This minute!”

Sandra found it pleasing to stonewall the judge. “I’m afraid I can’t do anything about it. If you wish to leave your telephone number, the mayor will get back to you—” The dial tone buzzed in her ear.

Jake paused. His lips and throat were dry. His leg was sore. But the megaphone was holding up. He was admiring a white stripe on the bell horn’s red surface when somebody called his name. Twice. He turned around and looked up at the fourth floor of the building opposite City Hall.

“Hey, you! Jake Corbett! Cease that commotion this instant!”

Jake stared up at the brown-skinned face of an older man leaning out a window. It looked like the judge he had seen in court. Grateful for the attention, Jake directed a blast at the Negro. Funny how there seemed to be a lot of Negroes around Winnipeg these days.

Don Betts had been listening to the police radio. “Hey,” he shouted, “something’s going on at City Hall!” Surveying the
empty newsroom, he groaned. No Quotes Hailey was out. Helen Savoie was out. Chuck Maxwell was in, but he was useless. “Mahatma!” Betts ran up to him. “Get off the phone. I have something for you.”

Mahatma Grafton saw Jake Corbett put down his megaphone. “Hi,” Jake said, “they’re gonna arrest me.” A police cruiser pulled up on Main Street. Mahatma saw Judge Melvyn Hill confer with the driver. Jake Corbett jumped up and shouted again into his megaphone. He shouted in the name of dignity. He shouted in the name of justice. He shouted until he was put in the police cruiser and driven away. Judge Melvyn Hill returned inside his building. Mahatma strolled over to a young woman standing near the doors to City Hall.

“Hello,” he said, “I’m with
The Winnipeg Herald

“I know,” she said, smiling. “Mahatma Grafton, right? You were here the other day, when the same guy broke up a reception with his vacuum cleaner.”

“I remember seeing you there too,” Mahatma said, “but I don’t know your name.”

“Sandra Paquette,” she said. “I’m the mayor’s assistant.”

They shook hands. She stood about five-five, had a slim figure and long brown hair parted in the middle. She had a generous smile, with a touch of blue-eyed humour that seemed to say, Welcome to the funny farm. The introduction relaxed Mahatma. “So what happened?” he asked. “Why was everybody out here? I even saw Judge Hill out here.”

“Got a minute?”


“Then come up to my office. I’ll tell you about it.”

Jake Corbett got his name on page one of
The Winnipeg Herald
two days later, but it bugged him that the story came out all wrong. All Mahatma Grafton wrote about him was that a lady judge had given him a suspended sentence for making a racket in the courtyard. And the rest of the article talked about the Negro judge. People quoted in the article were saying judges weren’t supposed to call cops on people. But there was nothing about the welfare people docking five percent from his cheque every month. Jake had some big thinking to do. He was going to have to drill it into the public’s brain and judges’ brains and reporters’ brains that the welfare people were chopping five percent off his necessaries of life!

The day after he had Jake Corbett arrested, Judge Melvyn Hill turned on his TV twenty minutes ahead of time. He had told his secretary he might be on the news. He had also told his neighbour. Melvyn would certainly have told his ex-wife to see the news, if he knew her telephone number. But she had left him with no indication of her whereabouts. His first wife had done the same thing. First Eileen and then Doris had left him without notice, in the middle of the day, while he was working. Both had cleared out his furniture.

Melvyn sighed and lay back in a chair, waiting for the news. Earlier that day, when Mahatma Grafton had phoned
to ask why he had ordered the arrest of Jake Corbett, Melvyn had been feeling lonely. It was a slow day at work. He wanted to call up old friends to say hello, but he had no such friends. Except maybe Ben Grafton and Fat Harry Carson. And Melvyn hadn’t seen them for years. So Melvyn was happy to hear from Mahatma Grafton. He was happy to talk. He said he saw nothing wrong with calling the police on Jake Corbett. The noise had been driving him crazy! No, he had no comment about whether judges should intervene in such a way. By the way, was this likely to be in tomorrow’s paper?

When he saw he didn’t make the six-thirty news, Melvyn Hill turned off the TV. He had no appetite. It had been a horrible day. Leaving the office at five in the afternoon, the judge had been stopped by a pimply Indian on Main Street.

“Hey, mister, I just lost my job, can you spare some change?” Melvyn kept walking, keeping his head up. “I say, mister, got a spare quarter?”

Melvyn stopped and looked into the lad’s sullen face. “I’ll have you know that I don’t give money in the streets. I am a judge!”

“You’re no judge.”

“Yes I am. I’m one of the highest people in this province, and I don’t hand out money on the street. But I will buy you a sandwich if you wish.”

The kid was chewing gum. He looked at Melvyn Hill curiously, up and down. “What kind of sammage?”

“Whatever kind you like. Egg salad. Tuna salad.”

“Fucking egg and tuna salad! No fucking way! You’re no judge. You’re just a cheap old nigger.”

Melvyn felt as if he’d been slugged in the solar plexus. His midriff caved in; his shoulders sagged. “How can you say that?” he gasped. “Being an Indian, how can you use such a word? Don’t ever call people hurtful names, son. Mind my words. I’m a Provincial Court judge!”

“Gimme a break.” The kid spat and turned away. “Judge, no judge, you’re a fucking nigger just the same.”

Melvyn spent Friday night alone, feeling depressed. But he brightened in the morning when he saw
The Herald
. There it was! Ben Grafton’s kid had put him on page one again.

Provincial Court Judge Melvyn Hill has admitted to ordering Wednesday’s arrest of a welfare recipient who was complaining about his financial woes by shouting into a megaphone in a Winnipeg public square.

Judge Hill told
The Herald
yesterday that he demanded that police arrest Jake Corbett, 45, in the courtyard outside City Hall.

“The noise was driving me mad…”

Melvyn considered it a fair and accurate article. He was proud of it. Of all the people whom he hoped would see this article, as well as the earlier story about him, he thought most about Fat Harry Carson. In fact, whenever he had accomplished something noteworthy in life, such as getting into university, and then law school, and then joining the Manitoba Bar, and then the Provincial Court, Melvyn thought more about impressing Fat Harry than his peers. In the past, Melvyn had thought he would always detest Harry.

How many times had Harry humiliated him publicly? Once, at a reunion many years ago, Harry had attempted to beat him up. Melvyn had always feared Harry, and he still did. He feared Harry’s geyser of hatred. True arterial hatred. Harry had hated Melvyn from the start, hated every atom in his body.
A judge? You think you can be a judge? You’re nothing but a blackassed porter, just the same as me.
Despite his accomplishments, Melvyn feared it was true. That he hadn’t amounted to much. Often he felt no happier about himself than he had felt forty years ago, working the trains. So he felt hatred for Harry Carson, and fear, but something else. Desire. Desire that Harry Carson see what he, Melvyn, had become. He heard that Fat Harry ran a café above the old clubhouse at 795 Main Street. In recent months, Melvyn had often considered looking the man up. He wondered what Harry would say, after all these years. He wondered if Harry knew that he, Melvyn, had been on the front page of
The Herald
twice in recent weeks. He clipped out the stories about himself in the extra newspapers he had purchased and mailed them one day to Harry Carson, Porters’ Club of Winnipeg, 795 Main Street, Winnipeg.

Harry Carson studied the letter with mixed emotions. It stunk. Nevertheless, it was for him. Harry had mail! He closed the letter box, ensuring that his old, thick digits made no contact with the bird dropping that clung to a spot below the stamp. He took the letter up to the café where he worked alone. It was hard climbing those stairs. Harry was old. As old and plain out of date as a steam engine. He had no customers. No
coffee percolating. No flapjacks cooking. Harry noticed, as he opened the envelope, that it said Provincial Court, Winnipeg, Manitoba on the upper left-hand corner. Who-all was sending him this material? Hunh! There was nothing inside but two newspaper clippings and one half-sized sheet of paper saying Compliments of Judge Melvyn Hill.

Harry unfolded the clippings. Someone had underlined the judge’s name each time it appeared. Underlined it in red ink. Harry Carson, who never read the paper, took the trouble to read each article. Certain things confused him but he got the general picture. Melvyn Hill was messing up! Lookit right here, it said: “Civil libertarians expressed outrage at Judge Hill’s statement that he handed out stiffer sentences to blacks than to whites.” My, my! The old judge was giving black folks a fit. In this other article, Melvyn Hill was phoning the police on some welfare dude. Harry studied the little piece of paper again.
Compliments of Judge Melvyn Hill
. Hunh! Why was Melvyn sending this stuff? What that man needed was to have his black ass kicked. Harry made coffee. He reread the clippings. He still had no customers. He wondered how old Melvyn Hill was making out, anyhow.

BOOK: Some Great Thing
10.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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