Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Sandrine's Case, Page 2

Thomas H. Cook

  Yet was Sandrine’s last bit of writing pretentious? I hadn’t thought so when I read it. It was simply how Sandrine wrote, always in a tone that was slightly old-fashioned, but which was also graceful and carefully measured. She had used such connectives as “into whose” and “by which” and “according to whom” in order to string thoughts together, and she had taught her students to do the same. For her, the task of writing was to relate insights to information, or vice versa. “Sentences must join like the fingers of a hand,” she’d said to me one evening in New York, when we’d both still been young and the wine bottle two-thirds full, “otherwise, they can’t hold water.”

  Water, by which she’d meant wisdom, the collected fruit of those hard-won truths, all of which inevitably led to what she called “the bottom line,” and by which she meant the irreducible and unavoidable facts of life.

  One thing was certain. Sandrine had loved language the way others love food, and so, understandably, no doubt it had been the loss of that command of language she’d most dreaded in the end, the terrible fact that eventually she would begin to slur, not to mention drool and blubber.

  “We will prove that a miserable charade was concocted by that man,” Mr. Singleton continued. “It was a veil he hoped to conceal a murder.”

  It was a veil behind which he hoped to conceal a murder, I corrected Mr. Singleton in exactly the way Sandrine would doubtless have corrected him.

  “That man,” Mr. Singleton all but shouted.

  That man, of course, was me, Samuel Joseph Madison, husband to the late Sandrine and father to our daughter, Alexandria, who sat behind me that first day, dressed entirely in black, with close-cropped hair, a daughter nowhere near as physically beautiful or intellectually gifted as her mother. Because of that, I’d found myself wondering if Sandrine’s death had removed a competitor from the field. After all, with her dazzling mother dead, Alexandria would never be unfavorably compared to her again, and surely that would bring her a certain, unmistakable relief. There is nothing quite so painful as invidious comparison, after all, and for that reason I’d sometimes wondered if Sandrine’s death might not have been altogether unwelcomed by her only daughter.

  Dark thoughts.

  Such dark thoughts.

  Murder’s bedfellows.

  “It was a crude and cruel act of selfishness that Samuel Madison attempted to disguise as suicide,” Mr. Singleton declared.

  I glanced behind me and noticed that Alexandria’s expression had turned scornful at this latest of Mr. Singleton’s pronouncements. Even so, it was impossible for me to know if she believed Coburn’s lean and hungry prosecutor or whether she’d accepted my version of her mother’s death: that it had been by her own hand and that I’d had nothing to do with it. A few weeks before, I’d dined with my daughter at Le Petit Court, Coburn’s notion of a French bistro, and she’d bluntly asked, “You really had no idea, Dad?”

  “There were hints,” I admitted. “But nothing solid.”

  “It just seems so strange that she would do it, well, out of the blue, the way she did,” Alexandria continued. “You go to your class and you come back and she’s dead. I mean, that she would just suddenly decide that she had . . . that she’d just had enough.”

  I shrugged. “Your mother had a mind of her own.”

  “But that night, if you’d known what she was going to do, what would you have done, Dad?”

  “I don’t know,” I answered. “If your mother wanted to die, didn’t she have that right? The Greeks would have given it to her, after all.”

  It was then I’d suddenly glanced left and right, noticed my fellow diners at Le Petit Court, noticed those first stares, heard those first whispers, and sensed that the shock troops of Coburn were gathering against me.

  Even so, I’d boldly proceeded on.

  “This case is made for scandalmongers,” I said.

  Alexandria’s gaze grew darkly still but she said nothing, so different from her mother, as I’d thought at that moment, less able to accuse me of every crime imaginable, save the one I’d actually committed.

  “It’s made to order for the type of people who read those tabloid newspapers,” I added. “First of all, it’s a case involving two college professors, and intellectuals are still the most hated people on earth. To have one accused of murdering the other? It’s red meat for their fangs. Especially a woman like your mother, so very . . . photogenic. My God, how much juicier can it get?”

  But in his opening argument Mr. Singleton had made it even juicier than various media outlets—both local and national—had already made it. In the most perfervid language of which he was capable, he’d described a deadly intrigue hatched in the hothouse atmosphere of a small town liberal arts college, with emphasis, of course, on “liberal.”

  That wasn’t all.

  I don’t read genre literature but I’d seen enough movies based upon those sorts of books to understand that into Coburn’s pristine, even pastoral setting Mr. Singleton had introduced a generous helping of noir. He’d pointed out Sandrine’s insurance policy, for example, a rather obvious nod to Double Indemnity. And, based on that first salvo, I’d guessed that as the trial moved forward he’d almost certainly describe me in such a way as to ensure that the jury would indeed hear the postman ring twice. He would build his case against me brick by brick. By the time of final arguments he would have painted the portrait of an arrogant and foolish man—by any standard an immoralist—who’d clumsily conceived and even more clumsily carried out a plot to kill his wife, his motivation being money, sex, or simple selfishness, take your pick. The jury would hear all this and, after they’d heard it, they would cheerfully send me to the Great State of Georgia’s heart-stopping, muscle-relaxing equivalent of the gallows.

  “Sandrine Allegra Madison did not die of natural causes,” Mr. Singleton gravely intoned in the final line of his opening argument. “Sandrine Allegra Madison was murdered.”

  With that statement, delivered with a quite sincere show of quivering moral outrage, Mr. Singleton returned to the prosecutor’s table. He did not smile but I knew he was quite satisfied with his performance. He glanced at Morty as if to say, Top that, Jew boy!

  Opening Argument:

  For the Defense

  I glanced at Morty, who does indeed look like an anti-Semitic version of a typical yeshiva boy with his curly black hair, slightly crooked nose, and thick black glasses. He nodded softly, assumed his “What, me worry?” pose, and rose slowly from his chair. Once on his feet, he drew in a deep, theatrical breath then strolled with a deliberate lack of urgency toward the plain wooden lectern that rested a few feet in front of the judge’s bench. A thoroughgoing actor, Morty gave every appearance of thinking it quite unnecessary to make any opening statement at all since nothing Mr. Singleton had said was actually worth addressing. His gait was unhurried, and to this leisurely pace he added an air of weariness by which he wished to convey to the jury that he shared their opinion that Mr. Singleton was a pathetic little wimp who had given them nothing but empty rhetoric by way of opening argument, and that he was absolutely certain they had found every single word of it a stupendous waste of time.

  “Your Honor,” he began once he reached the podium, “ladies and gentlemen of the jury.”

  He brought no notes with him, and so he looked only at the jury as he continued. Who needs notes, he was asking them with this ploy, when there is no evidence whatsoever against poor Sam Madison, a grieving widower now unaccountably charged with the murder of his beloved wife?

  “You know, I’m sorry that you good people have to be seated in the jury box today,” he began, “because I’m sure you’d rather be at your jobs or at home with your families. And frankly, ladies and gentlemen, you shouldn’t be here, because before bringing a person to trial, the State is obligated not just to have evidence but to have evidence that is beyond
a reasonable doubt. No. Let me correct myself. This is a murder case. A capital case, if you can believe that, and, frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I have trouble believing it. But here we are in a capital trial so, no, the prosecution is obligated to present evidence that will convince you not just beyond a reasonable doubt but beyond the shadow of a doubt. That’s why each and every one of you should be at work today, ladies and gentlemen, or at home with your families, going through your usual routines. Because there is no evidence in this case. Not even enough to have brought Mr. Madison to trial, let alone try him for his life.”

  I faced the jury silently as Morty continued, faced these twelve women and men who, I felt certain, were quite prepared to kill me. It was obvious to me that they despised me, and I knew precisely the cause of their hostility. For wasn’t it just such windy professors as myself who’d poisoned their children with atheism or socialism or worse, who’d infused their previously unsullied minds with dreamy fantasies of changing the world or writing a great novel, while at the same time teaching them not one skill by which they might later find employment and thus avoid returning to their parents’ homes to sit sullenly in front of the television, boiling with unrealizable hopes?

  How odd that I was to be judged by these people, I thought, as I allowed my gaze to drift over to the jury, all of them dressed neatly and with quite somber expressions on their faces. How many had I passed on the street or glimpsed in the park with no anticipation that they might ever have any power over me, much less the awesome one they now possessed?

  To the extent that I’d thought of them at all, it had been as characters in some Coburnite version of the Spoon River Anthology. There’d even been times when I’d sat in the park or on the town square and made up gravestone poems about the people passing by, cynical little rhymes that Sandrine had rarely found amusing, and in the midst of which she’d sometimes risen and walked some distance away.

  What had she been thinking at those moments, I wondered suddenly, and on that question I once again saw her lift her eyes from that study of Iago: cynics make good murderers. Could Sandrine have sensed something dangerous in my mocking quips, I wondered, and had her sudden rising and walking away from me been only the first small steps toward the final, isolating distance she’d imposed upon me during the last weeks of her life?

  She’d changed so much during those last months, I recalled as I returned my gaze to the front of the courtroom. She’d become so quiet, so still, at least until that last smoldering night when her fury had boiled over and she’d actually thrown a cup at me. Prior to that night, and because she was still so young and because there is nothing more infuriating than bad luck, I’d expected her to rage against death, rather than against me, but she’d exploded like a roadside bomb, her fury so fierce it had finally driven me from the house.

  Things had been very different before that night, however. In fact, during that last week, a gravity had settled over her, so that I’d often found her sitting in complete silence, no longer reading or listening to music but simply, darkly thinking. Had it been in the midst of one of those sessions of deep thought that she had come to some monstrous judgment on her life? Is this what I had seen in that little sunroom, Sandrine wrestling with her past as her future closed, coming to grips with the cruelest of her “bottom lines”: that she could not add a single second to the clock, the one precious second that would have allowed time for her to . . . what?

  In Sandrine’s case, I had to confess that I simply didn’t know.

  On that thought, and quite suddenly, while Morty continued his opening argument, I recalled Sandrine’s suggestion that we retrace our first trip together, make it our second honeymoon.

  “Let’s book a trip around the Mediterranean, Sam,” she’d said excitedly several months before her death. “We could return to all the places we visited on that first trip.” She smiled happily. “We could start in Athens and end in Albi, the way we did when we were young.”

  I’d been at a loss as to how I might respond to this, and so I’d said nothing as she’d raced on.

  “We could go to Alexandria, where the great library was.” She thought a moment. “Yes, Alexandria.” She smiled. “The city we named our daughter for.”

  Alexandria, yes, a name I’d always been careful to pronounce clearly and distinctly. Al-ex-an-dree-ah . . . not Alexandra. And certainly never Alex or, God forbid, Ali.

  Oh, how much can now be made of my daughter’s name, I thought as Morty finished his initial remarks to the jury, a version of our family life that was meant to convince the jury of just how perfect things had been in that little house on bucolic Crescent Road, the house, surely, of a devoted couple, a house right out of Good Housekeeping, with its bright green lawn and red bird feeder and tinkling wind chimes.

  “This home was a warm home,” Morty told the jury. “It was not a cold, dark place.” He paused and gave its expressionless members a penetrating look. “The house on Crescent Road was not a place of plots and schemes. The home that was made by Sam and Sandrine Madison was a place of love.”

  I cringed at this, but I kept my discomfort with the final words of Morty’s opening argument to myself. Still, the sentimental language rankled because it turned our house into a Hallmark card. Sure, there’d been love at 237 Crescent Road. Years of love, as a matter of fact. But has anything in a marriage ever been that simple?

  In my mind, I saw Sandrine’s hand lift from the bed and stretch out into the gloomy air. For a moment I’d thought it a gesture intended to draw me back to her after having hurled that cup. But then that same hand had violently grabbed the white sheet and pulled it over her as if I were no longer entitled to see her body. Oh, of course there’d been love in our house on Crescent Road. But what else had been there?

  Seeds of discontent?

  Seeds of infidelity?

  Seeds, at last, of murder?

  As Morty headed back toward the defense table at the close of his argument, I thought of Sandrine when we’d first settled into the house in which, some twenty years later, she would die. It had been a bright spring day, and she’d worn a brilliantly colored sundress, and for a single, exquisite moment she’d seemed gloriously happy. “Oh, Sam,” she said as she flung herself into my arms. “Let’s be careful.” She stepped back, looked at me quite seriously, then added, “Let’s be careful not to change.” Then she’d kissed me very sweetly and gently, a kiss that had been made one hundred percent of love, and which had probably bestowed upon me, as I realized quite suddenly, the single happiest moment of the life I’d shared with her.

  Oh where are they, I asked myself, recalling what Sandrine had believed the saddest sentiment in all poetry, and which she had first read to me in French: Mais, où sont les neiges d’antan?

  Oh where are the snows of yesteryear?

  Strange, but as Morty resumed his seat beside me at the defense table and picked up some document or other, then rose again and headed toward the bench, it struck me as rather curious that, although Sandrine had quoted those lines many times over the past two decades, I had not felt their dreadful warning, time’s ever imminent peril, until then.

  As if returned to that bright day, I was on the lawn with her again, her body pressed against mine as we walked to the front porch and sat down in the swing, her voice soft but firm, as if talking back to time. “Nothing will go wrong, Sam, if we don’t let it.”

  How quietly they can begin, as I would starkly realize on the last day of my trial, the journeys that return us to our crimes.


  They came in flurries after the opening arguments, a host of motions that flew out of the current proceedings like butterflies emerging from the long incubation of pretrial activity. Motions to dismiss the charge. Motions to reduce it. Motions to exclude this or that. There’d been a good many motions before then, of course. So many I’d already lost track of all save the
one that had actually had some merit, at least sociologically, a motion for change of venue that Morty had expected to be rejected, but the denial of which might serve to buttress my case in the event I needed to appeal. And besides, Sam, he once told me, it’s pretty clear that the people here in Coburn don’t like you very much.

  I knew this was true, of course. In addition to the dreadful things I’d done to their children, the people of Coburn no doubt resented the fact that I’d done it while living a very privileged life, at least some of it paid for by the exorbitant tuition required to send their children to Coburn College. But this hostility had remained more or less mute before Sandrine’s death. After it, the media had gone on a feeding frenzy, the result of which was that by the first day of my trial I’d become a person much despised in this little town. To them, I was a man who’d had a great job, if you could even call it work, what with summers off and sabbaticals at full pay and holidays for every religion known to man. I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was a free ticket to a carefree and semiluxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired—so the locals assumed—no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and to each other. A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lived high on the hog by . . . talking.