The Point of Failure
by Alan Schulte
I sit low in the swivel chair, chin to chest, stabbing deep, black circles into the yellow legal pad. I watch out of the corner of my eye as the judge nods sympathetically at my father’s long explanation of the events leading up to this moment. Judge Stevens, a thin, pale man with a permanent look of disinterest carved into the deep folds of his brow, is the last person I expected to see today. He is not part of the plan.
I am twenty-seven years old and I’ve spent the last six months in county jail waiting for this day, my opportunity to strike a plea deal that would keep me out of prison, at least for the time being. My mother sits directly behind me on the other side of a low partition. The rest of the seats remain empty. There is no one left in my corner. My public defender arranged, in advance, a guilty plea in exchange for six months time-served and one year in a “diversion” program, a sort-of strict probation for non-violent offenders, in lieu of the two-to-four year sentence the state prosecutor is pushing for.
Today I was scheduled to see Judge Warner. Liberal-minded in the aspects of “rehabilitation” rather than “punishment,” Warner is revered within the razor-wire walls of the county farm for doling out second chances to drunks, potheads, tweakers, and junkies. This is actually my fourth (or, perhaps fifth) chance but I was accepted anyway, following a battery of psychological evaluations, and deemed a “good candidate for treatment and rehabilitation.” I’m not sure what constitutes a “poor candidate” but I went with it, twitching through the formalities, anxiously awaiting Judge Warner and his decision that would finally allow me to be released from the custody of the State and walk out of here a free man.
All around me there were small groups, mini-conferences taking place in hushed tones, discussing strategies and arranging plea deals. My public defender was huddled just to the side of the clerk’s desk with two other men in dark suits. She drew big circles in the air, and then waved her arms as if to erase the previous circle only to draw another, equally large circle. She turned to face me, biting her lower lip, walking with a stiff, put-on casualness that has become her tell that things are not going as planned. She slid awkwardly in the chair next to me, and rolled close, leaning in, tucking a blonde strand behind her ear and releasing a big sigh that told the story.
“Warner is out,” she said, speaking slowly, in whispers but not making eye contact. Her name is Maggie Lawson, and I waited as she studied the marks on the pad in front of me for some jurisprudence, as if she might find a solution there. I realized that my fate was in the hands of this wide-eyed public defender, a year and a half out of law school. She had been working hard for the past six months to line up this plea deal. We have invested everything into this arrangement and the only thing left to seal the deal was Judge Warner’s consent. Without him, we had nothing. She looked like she was going to cry. In the silence I sensed that she wanted to say I’m sorry. She didn’t.
A hush fell over the cavernous hall and the small groups of dark-suited men dispersed as we were called to order and instructed to rise. I shifted in my ill-fitted orange jumpsuit, the thick canvas rubbing hard against my body. My legs were weak. I stood, holding on to the edge of the long table and watching Judge Stevens as he appeared through a hidden panel in the wall, his black gown whipping behind his long gangling strides to the tall, gray paneled bench, rapping his gavel in earnest, calling the room to order in short, quick busts. My stomach turned.
Maggie, red faced, jumped out of her seat, stammering, stalling. Motion to postpone, denied.
Time began to speed up and blur into the grey paneling as I watched my life circling around the room, my story of self-destruction told and retold, every aspect examined and scrutinized.
It is my father’s voice that I hear first. It is familiar, but different. He speaks in low, soft tones, pausing several times to clear his throat, choking down the lump that grows there, then resuming in an uncharacteristic staccato. I take my head out of my hands for a moment to look across the stale courtroom and into the pale florescent light, cast from the round cylinders overhead, exposing every feature, the long creases and tired lines of his face. We haven’t spoken in years. He looks different, tired. This long battle has worn him down. He does not look at me.
He stands to read his statement, removing his glasses from his breast pocket and placing them on his face, gently sliding the wire frame snug to the bridge of his nose. I notice a few more sprouts of gray around his temples, his receding hairline, and I realize how long it has been since we were in the same room together.
His movements are slow, methodical as he pulls a paper from his shirt pocket, unfolds it and clears his throat once more before beginning to read. The paper is for show, to give his nervous hands something to do. He knows very well what needs to be said: the words, the sentences that will reveal a tragic life that has long been careening out of control.
He is asked to identify his son. It takes a moment before I realize that they are talking about me. My chest tightens as he raises his head from the paper. It’s the first time in two years I have looked him in the eye. My face burns.
He points in my direction. His words, though true, make me sick.
“I love my son” is how it begins, and ends.
There were other words, too, but somehow far less important.
But, in that moment, I am transported back through the events of my past, considering our lives, together and apart. That word: Love. I know now that it is all I ever wanted: his love. And it is here, in this cold hall of justice that I am hearing the word as if for the first time.
I want to understand what he is saying and how he feels. I want to feel too. I want to escape. But I don’t understand the difference between the two.
This is how I ended up here.
In this moment, beneath the weight of my own cold reality, my arms explode in tiny bumps, chicken skin, and they begin to itch and, although it has been six long months since I’ve messed with it, I can taste the Junk, the dirty water dripping bitter down the back of my throat. And just like that, the cravings begin again and there is no room for love: his, or anyone else’s.
It is my disease and still today it continues to rip us further apart.
He folds the small slip of paper and places it gently in his pocket, scanning the floor, choking down the lump.
“Please, your honor” he says, “my son needs help. If you let him go, he will die.”
I remember sitting in Mrs. Miller’s class. It was January, 1986. Sixth grade. We had gathered in front of the television, poised to witness history in the making. It was the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, an epic event in its own right, but our purpose that day was to watch as Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire became the first civilian and educator to fly into space. A dream realized.
After months of delays and rescheduled launch dates, all eyes were glued to the television as the countdown began. Teachers and students from other classrooms had joined us, circled around the small screen, ready to take part in something memorable, something, we were told, that we would share with our children and our children’s children.
As the countdown continued we watched as both boosters and the main engine fired, sending bright orange flames out of the base of the craft. Large plumes of exhaust spread out and around the launch pad as the count continued down to one, pushing nearly eight million pounds of vertical thrust.
Cheers erupted from the television, from all around the classroom as the shuttle rose into the air, defying gravity, slowly rotating onto its back, propelling Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts at full throttle, over two thousand feet per second, into the upper atmosphere. There was a moment of shared exuberance and joy and tears of triumph for teachers and children everywhere.
It was seventy-three seconds into the launch when I, the class, the world, watched as the Challenger broke apart beneath a cloud of smoke, sending fragments in all directions. There were no words. The commentator said nothing. Ground control said nothing. We watched as the thin trail of smoke snaked its way through the sky, streamers of smoldering debris falling around it. It was silent for ten long seconds as everyone processed what was happening.
A static laden voice from the television announced what we had all feared. “Obviously a major malfunction.”
The real tragedy took place long before that cold day in January. The explosion, the disintegration of the entire vehicle, was the result of a faulty O-ring in the right solid rocket booster that caused a breach in the joint that allowed pressurized hot gas to escape the cell which came in contact with the external fuel tank causing structural failure and allowing external pressure and aerodynamic forces to rip apart the orbiter: a series of events leading back to a ¼ inch thick rubber gasket.
Following nearly a three-year investigation, it was discovered that NASA had known about the “potentially catastrophic failure” in the O-ring design since 1977 but failed to address it properly, disregarding warnings from engineers. A tiny flaw in this small, seemingly insignificant piece—a mistake made years earlier, followed by countless missed opportunities to correct the problem—lead to a series of breakdowns in the system, resulting in fatal consequences.
A chubby lady in an ill-fitted, mustard colored pants suit stands to read the indictment.
“At the Superior Court, holden at Dover, within and for the County of Strafford…”
I have heard these words before. This is not the first time. I have read them, alone, late at night in my cramped cell, dodging shadows, attempting to reconstruct the past, to play back the old decomposing film that tells the story that isolates that moment, that first mistake that lead me down the path that has brought me here.
“The Grand Jurors for the State of New Hampshire…”
I look up to watch the judge, slouching on his elbow, his swollen, arthritic knuckles pressed against his pasty cheek. He is bored with the whole thing, bored with me and my pitiful story. I imagine, as he sits there, high above us all, he’s playing through a round of golf in his mind: three under on the back nine, forty miles from here. Perhaps he’s considering his game, his last hole, his last stroke, his last mistake.
He will go back, replaying it over and over in his mind, considering how he could have played it differently; though, the mistake rarely occurs at the point of failure. It is a long process of tiny maladjustments, misalignments, a series of microscopic miscalculations that forever alter the course of events to follow.
Alan Schulte is a writer, freelance editor, musician, and videographer. He recently received an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of New Hampshire where he teaches composition. He is currently working on a memoir about his experiences with addiction and recovery.
The Point of Failure is an excerpt from Mr. Schulte’s work in progress.