Joseph O’Kay looked at his watch and realized he had missed his six-thirty train by five minutes. His position as a Department Head within the government’s Office of Psychological Threats from Unknown Sources required a meticulous application of project management’s triple constraints; scope, budget and time. It was this rigorous and, if the truth be told, unnecessary enforcement of these constraints that left him perpetually at odds with his employees and perpetually late for his evening train.
As he had so often done before, Joseph decided to head to The Gallows, a favorite pub within walking distance of the office. This particular den of iniquity was located in the basement of an old brownstone, whose top floors were occupied by Smith and Smith, Barristers and Solicitors. “Lawyers on top, clients below,” as the owner of the bar, Kenneth Wang, was want to repeat at any given moment to new and infrequent customers.
The bar was deficient of the quick-witted, civil charmer of the TV sitcom who responds to questions upon his entry with pithy, punchy returns. When Joseph passed from the raucous metropolis into this modest hive of immorality he would, without being asked by the owner, offer up a Shakespearean quip such as, “I would fain die a dry death, Kenny. But first I’m in need of a long cold quaff.” Which of course would fall on the deaf ears of all assembled, except the barmaid Aoife, who had a soft spot for this errant player without a stage.
Tonight, Joseph grabbed his normal stool at the end of the bar and signaled to Aoife, the radiant Irish beauty Kenny had miraculously employed based solely on her smile and accent.
“Good evening, Joseph, missed your train again, did you? I’m beginning to wonder if you have an ulterior motive to your tardiness,” she remarked, her deep brown eyes on Joseph and that strong lilting brogue sending a chill to the tips of his toes.
“Meeting ran late,” he offered in sad defense of his tardiness, his face flush at the indefensible and incurable magnetic attraction to Aoife’s personification of unqualified Gaelic perfection. Adding quickly before he said anything remotely suggestive that might testify to his categorical sexual attraction, “Anything new on tap?”
Aoife, a hint of a smile behind thin red lips as her eyes burned into his tender, innocent soul, tilted her head to one side and said, “Tá, that we do. A new craft brewery. The Four Horsemen, a pale lager. Would you like a pint to ease the weariness cloaking that tender face?”
It took Joseph several seconds to break eye contact, and looking down at the bar, answered in the affirmative, “Yes, I’ll give it a go.”
Aoife pulled the pint, setting it before Joseph and adding, before departing to the other end of the bar, in that mesmerizing lilting brogue, “Don’t miss your next train, love.”
Love, as if. Joseph reached for the pint and took a tentative sip of this new brew and his taste buds immediately reacted to the bounty of flavours, a cornucopia of hidden essences that assailed his conservative palette. Eagerly and uncharacteristically, he downed the pint to quench a now consuming need to satisfy an unearthly craving before returning the empty glass to the bar. Then without rhyme nor reason he placed his head, now weary and free of the encumbrances of his mortal coil, on the bar.
When he awoke, he found himself no longer astride a stool in the Gallows but sitting in a leather-bound chair in a dark pitch-black room whose size or dimensions he could not determine. There was a spotlight overhead shining directly on him, and in front of him, at a separation of, he guessed, six feet, were three empty chairs, each highlighted as was his by an overhead spotlight.
Joseph had no idea where he was or why. He waited several minutes pondering what he should do, perhaps calling out to someone or departing the chair to strike out but, to where? His anxieties over his disconcerting situation, as he deliberated his whereabouts and the why abouts, were arrested by the sounds of feet approaching. He perceived three figures emerging from the darkness. As they approached, Joseph was struck by the fact that he knew or was aware of all three and as they each took a seat before him, his perplexity over this strange state of affairs was incalculable and disturbing.
To his left and casually making himself comfortable in the first chair was Dr. Phil McGraw. The remaining chairs were occupied by Maury Povich and Steve Wilcos. Dr. Phil, dressed in a lightweight, white linen summer suit carried a binder in his hand. Clearing his throat, he opened the binder and addressed Joseph O’Kay.
“You can dispense with any efforts of denials, misdirection, or pretexts of innocence,” he pronounced. “We,” turning to his associates, “will review your case in an arbitrary and unbiased manner and draw our conclusions based on the facts as we know them.”
“Excuse me but, are not arbitrary and unbiased conflicting terms? One refers to subjective interpretation and the other . . .”
“Your tilting against authority is one of the subjects we hope to address today, Joseph. Please let me continue,” and then referring to what Joseph had to assume were notes in his binder, he turned to his right as if to acknowledge a studio audience. He then stated in an unemotional and clipped manner, “You’re familiar with the Irish poet, F.T. Long, are you not?”
“Yes, I am,” Joseph answered, turning to his left in hopes of espying any of the dedicated Dr. Phil audience members in the black space beyond the circle illuminated by his overhead light, “but can you tell me why am I here?”
Dr. Phil continued, “Do you recall these lines from ‘Twilight’?”
“...he came through the gloam after sunset
His manhood untethered and free
And he took her on her bed
Her fine feathered bed
And spent with the crush of the sea...”
“No, I’m not familiar with that poem.”
“That poem is charged with sexual innuendo. It’s a roadmap for deviant behaviour and has been banned by the Church of Ireland for the desecration of Christian morality. In my view, unadulterated filth penned to satisfy the aberrant cravings of those deviant individuals who have come to represent the normal behaviour of our society.”
“But as I said, I am not familiar with that particular poem and of the poems I have read by that poet, I do not believe his work to be as crude as you have stated.”
Dr. Phil regarded Joseph with a stern look and a shake of the head that implied that Joseph was only digging his hole deeper. He referred to notes once again and asked, “Did you not remark disparagingly to the barmaid at The Gallows that the only way she would have a smoking hot body would be if she was cremated?”
Joseph was at a total loss for words. Though he wanted desperately to rise from his chair and depart this pantomime of what appeared to be a trial of his character, his body remained inert. The only muscle that seemed to be working was his brain, which ultimately responded with, “Are you for fucking real? What is this BS? I would never say that to Aoife or any other woman.”
Dr. Phil made what appeared to be a checkmark in his binder, obviously unperturbed by Joseph’s reaction to his last question. He then processed to ask, the wink unmistakable as he turned to Steve Wilcos, “Are you aware that self-abuse can lead to blindness?”
There was no response from Joseph. He simply looked at each of the celebrities in turn with incredulity etched upon his face. He slowly returned to Dr. Phil who now had a grin that broke into a smile. “I just threw that in to get a reaction. There’s nothing in your file about self-abuse.”
“I’ve never met you. Why is there a file on me?”
“Oh Joseph, there is a file on everyone.”
Dr. Phil proceeded to summarize his facts and findings while Joseph could only wonder at the fantastical proceedings that were taking place at his expense.
Steve Wilcos, in a red sports shirt, stood after Dr. Phil’s summary of the known facts, the innuendos, the prevarications and, in Joseph’s mind, obvious falsehoods, and faced Joseph. After acknowledging nods from his cohosts, he intoned, “Joseph came here this morning and took a lie detector test.”
“What lie detector test?” Joseph interjected, surprised and taken aback by this absurdity. “I’ve taken no lie detector test. And where the fuck is 'here'?”
Joseph turned to Dr. Phil.
“Please wait until the results are read before you raise your questions. As you were, Steve.”
“We asked Joseph three elementary questions and the result, based on Joseph’s answers, was conclusive and irrefutable.” At this point Steve cupped his hands to his mouth, turned to his cohost and whispered, eliciting responses of “You’ve got to be kidding” and “The truth wins out." He turned back to Joseph and declared, “That Joseph lied. Now," said Steve, pointing into the blackness, “get the hell off my stage.”
“Steve,” an admonishing glance from Dr. Phil as Steve returned to his chair.
“Lied about what?” Joseph’s dumbfounded expression was directed at each host in turn, but before either one acknowledged Joseph’s questions, the spotlights illuminating Dr. Phil and Steve Wilcos dimmed and Maury Povich rose from his chair.
Maury turned briefly to Dr. Phil and whispered, the sibilant hiss reaching Joseph’s ear. Joseph tensed as if in anticipation of a coiling snake ready to strike. Then facing Joseph, he announced, "Joseph came here today and took a DNA test.”
“Are you guys out of your fucking minds?” This was too much. “A DNA test for what?!”
“Joseph.” Dr. Phil again. “All in good time. Be patient. Maury, proceed. The sands are flowing.”
Maury retrieved a folded piece of paper from the inside pocket of his black suit jacket, opened it and announced, “Joseph, you are,” before resuming his seat.
“I am what?” Joseph turned to each host in turn hopeful for an answer to what Joseph assumed was a paternity test associated with his myriad liaisons with the opposite, and in Joseph’s defense, willing sex.
It was Dr. Phil who took the lead.
“This doesn’t bode well Joseph. As a member of the California Association for Well Being and Being Well (again another wink and nod to Steve) I would have to report these offenses if your actions here today do not indicate a willingness to accept and acknowledge your responsibilities.”
“You guys are nuts and this side show has gone on long enough. Was something in that beer Aoife gave me. Am I drugged? Because this sideshow is absurd.”
Both Maury and Steve looked to Dr. Phil as if for guidance, or perhaps conceding to a higher principled authority. Dr. Phil turned to them both, nodded his head, an unspoken agreement clearly accepted, crossed his legs and rested his binder on his knee before addressing Joseph in a calm, casual manner.
“I do not believe further deliberation is required in our determination of the sentencing requirements that would be satisfactory for the crimes and misdemeanors we have reviewed here today. Normally in such cases I would offer you the option of attending one of our rehabilitation centres for treatment and convalescence, but it would appear, by your actions and words, that that would be a waste of time and resources.”
Turning to his cohosts, he asked, “Gentlemen, do you have anything further to add?”
Maury stood up, raising both hands in the air as if in supplication to a higher being, and pronounced, “I would just like to thank my studio audience and . . .”
“Maury,” Dr. Phil cut in, “now is not the time.”
Maury returned to his chair. Dr. Phil, waiting to ensure there were no further comments or asides from his cohosts, addressed Joseph, who throughout this whole extraordinary and bizarre occurrence had no idea why he was sitting on, presumably a dais, in front of three television celebrities who were ostensibly reviewing and making judgements on his past life.
“We have nothing further to say, Joseph. We wish you God’s speed.” And without another word, all three rose simultaneously and withdrew into the abyss of darkness as the lights above their chairs dimmed and then cut out.
Joseph was left alone, a singularity in a black void with no rhyme nor reason for what had just occurred. He remained in his chair, pondering and evaluating what he should do next and the only option he concluded was to rise and head off into the unknown in search of a way out.
Tentatively, he leaned forward and found that, yes, he now could move his body and with a little effort rose from the chair. He turned to his right, black as night. He turned to his left; his optimism drowned in the depths of an ocean rift miles below the sunlit surface. If he moved forward, there was the possibility of colliding with his inquisitor’s chairs so he moved to his right and proceed through the darkness in search of: salvation, hope, truth. He wandered about in the darkness, hands outstretched before him to ward of any unknown and unseen objects or protuberances, well aware that eventually he would in all likelihood return to the spot where he commenced his search, if he didn’t fall into a void that his exploratory footsteps failed to identify in time.
After what seemed to Joseph an inordinate amount of time, he spied directly ahead of him a faint red glow. There was hope, and he advanced quickly towards this point of salvation. As he approached, he recognized the glow. It was an exit sign and beneath this icon of deliverance was a doorway.
He tried the doorknob and as it turned, his hopes of returning to his normal life flowered in anticipation of escaping what was, in Joseph’s mind, an absurd and dreamlike tribunal. The door opened and Joseph hurriedly walked through, his eyes slowly adjusting to the bright lights of the room. As his eyes regained their focus, he found to his surprise that the room, was more than a room. It was a courtroom, and behind the raised bench presiding over an empty courtroom, was a lone individual. Whose name, inscribed on the docket, was Judy Sheindlin. Judge Judy, with a green four-leaf clover brooch pinned to her robe. And she wasn’t looking favourably at Joseph, who returned Judy’s menacing stare with a look of complete exhaustion and despair.
And for whatever reason, the words of F.T. Long came suddenly to his ravaged mind:
“The wages of sin, can be sparse and hollow, the road of truth is the one you should follow.”