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The Hearing by Miriam Fried



One fine morning Klara woke up early. She was required to appear in court that afternoon and needed every hour to prepare. In fact, her testimony was so crucial that she had been given the whole day off. But Klara had not yet decided what to say.

The squirrel lady next door had also risen early. By the time Klara opened her front door, she was already throwing her peanuts into the trees.

"If I don't feed them, who will?" the squirrel lady said, possibly noting Klara's disapproval. "It's winter. You tell me. Who will?"

Klara felt it would be difficult to answer the question without bias. So she only said good-morning, and went to buy bread. The bakery in her neighborhood sold two kinds: challah and rye. Every Tuesday Klara bought rye and every Friday she bought challah.

On the way to the bakery Klara was intercepted by a protest march. One hundred people were going one way and Klara was going the other, but they swept Klara up and carried her on their shoulders for several blocks before she was able to make it clear that her destination had been the bakery. They set her down gently. "Tell the truth," said a short fat man, winking. His words were taken up as a chant by the other ninety-nine as they marched away, banging drums.

Klara trudged back up the street and bought rye bread without seeds, because the bakery was out of the seeded kind. She was already behind schedule. She had to think about her testimony and not about the broken fence, the water bill, what to make for dinner, or when to do the laundry.

When Klara returned to her house the squirrel lady was watching from a crack in her curtains according to her usual habit. The stray cat on the stoop was missing an eye. Klara opened the door and put the bread in the kitchen and went upstairs because the telephone was ringing. It was Klara's husband.

"Love, love, love," said Joseph.

"I know," said Klara, "but I have that thing, remember?"

"You'll be great, kiddo," said Joseph. Then they talked about dinner, as if he would be able to come home that very evening. Joseph had been away for six years, three months, and seventeen days.

After the telephone call, Klara waited for the mail to come, before which she could not possibly concentrate. But when the mail carrier arrived, she delivered nothing but advertisements. Disappointed, Klara performed a series of calisthenics, because she found physical activity mentally stimulating. That made her hungry for lunch. Time flies, thought Klara as she sliced tomatoes for a sandwich. I have few hours left in which to think. She decided to think on the walk to the subway, so that she would be able to eat lunch without being distracted and perhaps falling prey to indigestion.

Once Klara had rinsed the dishes, she left the house with a bag containing a notebook and pen. There was a newsstand on the corner, so Klara bought a newspaper. The vendor took Klara's money and, gesticulating passionately, launched into what appeared to be a stream of advice about the hearing. Klara nodded, but since she did not understand the vendor's language, his words were of no use to her.

The entrance to the subway was several blocks away. Klara opened the newspaper to read as she walked. She looked at the editorial page first, to see if anyone she knew had written a letter. No one had. The pages flapped in the wind.

A loud whistle made Klara look up. A man was grinning at her from a passing car. Klara was wearing a large, shapeless coat and a wide-brimmed hat. Neither her face nor her figure were visible. Why, then, had he whistled? Klara reflected on the symbolic nature of the relation between the sexes until she reached the subway stop.

There she entered into a discussion with the woman in the ticket booth regarding whether she would be allowed to buy a token given that she had arrived in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong change. Klara, used to the disciplinary rituals of public transportation, made very little protest and was finally allowed upon the platform.

When the train arrived, Klara stepped into a subway car and saw her affinity group sprawled among the seats in various attitudes of fervor and despair. Evidently a meeting was in progress. Her friends greeted her warmly and nominated her as both facilitator and note-taker. It did not seem fair, but at a time like this Klara would not refuse her services. After a lively discussion, the group reached a consensus to change the system of government at the first possible opportunity. Klara recorded the decision in her notebook and got off the subway at City Hall.

Apparently the courtrooms had been renovated. The last time Klara had gone before a judge the wooden benches had been covered with graffiti and the lightbulbs had flickered throughout the trial. The room had been so small that the handful present to hear Joseph sentenced constituted a crowd. Now Klara was ushered into a large bright room that appeared nearly empty, although many people were present.

Klara realized that she had not had time to consider her testimony. She would have to think on her feet. When she reached the front of the room, she shook hands with those she could find, although the light was rather blinding and she was not at all sure that she was not ignoring somebody important. If the proceedings were being televised, she hoped that Joseph was not watching.

"We've been waiting for quite some time," said a voice a little higher than Klara and to the right. It was the bailiff.

Klara was sure that she had arrived early, but she did not wish to make an issue of it. "I'm ready," she said.

A microphone was abruptly shoved in front of her mouth and the cross-examination began. "What is to be done?" asked the stenographer.

At last Klara began to think.

"What is to be done?" repeated a clerk, with some impatience. Whereupon the question was taken up by many voices.

"What is to be done? What is to be done? What is to be done?"

Klara opened her mouth to speak. She realized that whatever she said would be a lie.



Miriam Fried has published work in The Baltimore Review and The North Central Review. She is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Temple University, where she received the Frances Israel Manuscript Prize for a collection of short stories. A long-time Philadelphia resident, she is moving to England in the fall.


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