Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2013    poetry    all issues


Tristen Chang

John Shortino
Final Notice

Chris Belden
The Woodpecker Problem

Naima Lynch
And I Will Bring You Oranges

Daniel C. Bryant

Susannah Carlson
Killing Methuselah

Afia Atakora

Mackenzie E. Smith

Sabra Waldfogel

Lainey Bolen Burdge
Paper Thin

Erin Rodoni
Crossing the Street in Hanoi

Tim Weed
The Afternoon Client

Rick Kast
Of Wolves and Men

Andy Jameson

Thea Johnson
Baby Doll

Charles Alden
Holy Orders

Julie Zuckerman
Birthday Bash

Kathryn Shaver
The Fourth Monkey

Chip Houser
The Goatherd of Naxos

Thea Johnson

Baby Doll

When she met him in arraignments for the first time, Lawrence wore a long, blond wig, styled straight with just a hint of volume at the bottom. He wore red, red lipstick that brought out the deep coffee color of his skin. He had in blue contacts that seemed to bulge out from atop his eyes. He wore tight bell-bottomed jeans with Sketchers sneakers and a matching jean jacket over a yellow tank top. He kept the jacket closed, even in the deadening heat inside the courthouse that night. He spoke in a low, soft voice. It had been almost too soft to hear over the din of activity in the pens. She kept asking him to speak up, but he could muster no more than a whisper.

Lawrence had been charged with robbery in the first degree for what was a fairly brilliant scheme. He would pick up johns for sex along the far end of Canal Street towards the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. From there, he would bring the johns to perhaps the last per-hour, down-on-its-luck motel that still existed below Washington Heights. Once they had their pants off, Lawrence would pull out an unloaded handgun, push the men up against the wall and cuff them with a set of pink handcuffs he picked up from a sex shop. He would then announce that he was an undercover cop, displaying to each face smushed against the wall a real New York Police Department badge that Lawrence had secured from a friend who knew how to get things like real New York Police Department badges. His demand was money in exchange for letting his victims go without arrest. The men, and there were a lot of them, were happy to pay up. They were almost all white, straight men with families in the suburbs. They came to the city to indulge in whatever it was they saw online that got them hot. None were eager to make their predilections known.

Lawrence’s MO worked for a while. Jennifer wondered how many men actually believed that Lawrence with his pink handcuffs and melting voice was really a cop and how many accepted the stick-up as an accepted risk of their behavior. But, finally, a trickle of men reported the tall, thin black man in a blond wig pretending to be a police officer to the actual police, and, one night in June of the previous year, Lawrence was busted when he tried his routine on an undercover cop. Because he used a gun, albeit an unloaded one, he was charged with the B felony of robbery in the first degree. He faced 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.

The bail had been set high at arraignment. $50,000 bond or $20,000 cash bail. That meant someone would have to come up with a lot of money for Lawrence to spend the pendency of the case out of jail. Jennifer was shocked when she got an e-mail notification that Lawrence’s bail had been paid within hours of his arraignment. There were no indications that Lawrence could make that kind of bail. He had no real income, no steady place to live, and no family to speak of. When she asked Lawrence once in passing who put up the money, he smiled and said only “a friend.”

Over the course of the year, Jennifer was able to wrangle out of the Assistant District Attorney assigned to Lawrence’s case the best offer she thought they’d get. 3 1/2 to 7 years on a plea to robbery in the second degree. At this point, the victims were piling up. Once the story made the news, men began to crawl out of the woodwork, telling their own tales of a sex tryst gone wrong. Jennifer, single all these years in New York City, despaired at the number of married men who sought out the company of a tranny hooker on Canal Street. Better not to be married, she thought to herself every time she heard the nasal sound of the ADA’s craw, informing her voice mailbox that another man had come forward. By the ADA’s current count there were eight men willing to testify. Jennifer’s investigator was able to find five of them and, although not eager to take the stand, all of them said they would. That would mean that after a trial, Lawrence would likely get consecutive time for each robbery, which could bump his sentence up, in the worst case, to the equivalent of life in jail.

Under the circumstances, the offer was miraculous. Jennifer suspected that the ADA knew that as the trial approached the willingness of her witnesses would wane. These men wouldn’t be afforded any of the usual protections for victims. The New York Post, more gossip rag than newspaper, had already had a field day with its headlines. “Fluff Cuffs for Bankers on the Sly” read the headline on the day after Lawrence was arrested. It ran above a series of photos of the men and accompanied an article that named each and what they did for a living. Teacher! Rabbi! Investment banker! The job titles were much more titillating than the sex. A trial would make matters worse for this group. It would lay bare things they wanted to keep quiet and it would only take cross-examination of the first witness for the others to realize it. And so, the offer was made.

Jennifer knew that after a client was able to pay bail and get sprung from jail, convincing him to walk back into jail could be a bitter and ugly affair. The act had a name, “stepping in,” which sounds graceful, but is actually a wrenching experience involving a defendant cleaning out his pockets, hugging his family goodbye and turning around to greet his new constant companion—handcuffs. No one wants to return to prison, even when it’s the only option. But Lawrence was no fool. He knew what he was getting and he agreed to accept it. He was prepared to “step in,” even after over a year out of jail since his arrest.

Today was Lawrence’s sentencing day, and Jennifer sat reviewing his file, when a man approached and stood over her. She looked up. It was Lawrence, but not Lawrence. The blond wig was gone. So too the lipstick. Now he had his hair closely shaven. His skin was without the usual glistening sheen of glitter. Instead she saw small pockmarks in his cheeks that she had never noticed before. He was wearing jeans, hanging low like so many of the men in the courtroom they were about to enter. He kept on his puffy, red jacket, again despite the heat. The only thing she recognized were the blue contacts bulging out of his eyes. She was so surprised by his transformation that she was already standing to greet him before she noticed the stroller.

Inside the stroller was a tiny baby, sleeping quietly. She had on a soft white headband with lace trim and miniature gold earrings in her round puffy ears. Jennifer began to panic. A baby? What the fuck was this? She sat back down. He sat down next to her on the bench and parked the stroller in front of both of them.

“Hi Jennifer. How are you?” he whispered.

“I’m fine.” She paused, trying to figure out what to say, “I have to admit. I’m a bit confused. Is this your baby?”

“This is Sunshine. My friend was supposed to come pick her up today, but he didn’t show up in time and I didn’t want to be late. I know today is very important.” Lawrence lifted the child out of the stroller slowly. He cradled the baby’s head, putting his palm around the underside of the skull.

“Lawrence, you never mentioned you had a child. I had no idea. I’m not sure what we’re going to do now. You’re about to walk into jail.” Her voice was pitched.

“Jennifer,”—Lawrence’s voice was now as small as a mouse. Jennifer leaned in.—“it’s a reborn doll.”

“It’s a what?”

“Sunshine is a reborn doll.”

Jennifer looked at the baby. It looked exactly like, well, a baby. Rosy, pudgy cheeks. Wisps of dark hair curled around her tiny head.

“It’s a doll? Lawrence, are you saying this is a doll?”

Lawrence nodded.

“I don’t get it.”

“They’re very special dolls. Not even dolls, really. They are babies, crafted with care. It’s, sort of, like, I don’t know exactly. It’s sort of like a community. People who care for their reborns. I really don’t think of her as a doll at all.”

Jennifer reached out and touched the baby’s hand. The stiff, cold fingers remained unmoving.

“Wow, that’s incredible. That’s really incredible. She looks just like a real baby.”

“She’s my daughter. That’s how I treat her. My friend couldn’t come to get her this morning, so I didn’t know what else to do but bring her to court. All I need is for you to take her back to your office and my friend, Malcolm, will pick her up and take care of her while I’m away.”

Jennifer thought to protest, but didn’t dare as she watched Lawrence sitting there trying to quiet Sunshine on his chest. He was rubbing the doll’s back softly and rocking it up and down as he kissed the crown of its head.

“She looks just like a real baby.” Jennifer repeated as Lawrence rocked his lifeless charge.

“I know. She’s beautiful.”

“Ok. I’ll take Sunshine to my office. Do you have Malcolm’s phone number?”

Holding the doll with one hand, Lawrence used the other to slip a sheet of paper out of his pocket and passed it to Jennifer. It already had Malcolm’s cell number scrawled out in pink pen. “Ok, I’ll call him when I get back to the office. I promise.”

“Thank you,” Lawrence said as he rocked Sunshine gently back and forth against his body, holding Sunshine the way Jennifer had seen her mother hold her baby brother when he started whimpering. A tight hug and slow rock.

“You’ve already pleaded guilty, so today is quite simple. The case is on for sentence. The judge will sentence you to the agreed-upon sentence of 3 1/2 to 7 years. You’ll be eligible for parole in . . .”

“It’s ok. I got it. We’ve gone through it a thousand times. Everything is in order and I’m prepared to go in. Thank you for taking care of Sunshine. She doesn’t deserve this.”

Lawrence placed the baby back into the stroller delicately, just as Court Officer Jameson walked out of the Part. Jameson was a black woman who had worked in Part 32 since Jennifer had arrived at the public defender’s office. She was short. So short she looked like a child dressed as a court officer for Halloween. But she had a voice that boomed out of her chest. And if you walked into the well without permission, or tried to touch your client without permission or basically did anything without explicit permission from the judge or the clerk or Jameson, she’d crank her voice to top volume and release the simple phrase—“Excuse me, counselor!”—and that was all it took to stop anyone in his or her tracks.

Jameson peered down at Sunshine with a smile she reserved for only those defendants Jameson thought were “behaving right.” Jameson was always telling defendants to “behave right,” to “get it together,” to “act like a man.”

“Oh what a beautiful little baby! You take care of this baby. She looks pretty as a little peach,” she said, putting her hands on her hips in a motherly way and leaning back at the waist. Jennifer and Lawrence turned their faces up towards her, smiling. Jennifer’s smile contained just a note of hesitation. “She’s daddy’s little girl,” Lawrence said, the register of his voice dropping to a bass, rather than his typical soprano.

“I’m sure she is! God bless you for being a responsible father,” the officer nodded, approving of the lace headband on the healthy, chubby baby. “God bless you for taking care of your baby. That’s what I like to see.” The officer was still nodding to herself happily as she walked to the elevator. Lawrence was behaving right.

“Are you ready to go in to the courtroom?” Jennifer asked.

“As I’ll ever be.”

Jennifer stood up and walked to the door of the courtroom, holding it open to allow Lawrence to enter with the stroller. Lawrence took his usual seat on the far right of the courtroom, next to the aisle. Jennifer approached the rail that separated the audience from the inside of the “well” and signed up the case to be called before the judge. She took a seat in the front row and pulled out her People magazine. She was halfway through an article when the clerk called the case.

“Calendar Number 15. Lawrence Jones. On for Sentence.”

Jennifer entered the well and held the chain-link gate open for Lawrence. Lawrence pushed the stroller just up to the entrance of the well and left it outside of the wall in the audience portion of the courtroom. As he began to enter, a court officer shrieked at him—“Get your child! Don’t leave your child unattended!”

With some hesitation, Lawrence walked out to retrieve the stroller and pushed it into the well with him. He placed it next to the defendant’s table to his left. Jennifer stood to his right.

“The Public Defender’s Office of New York County by Jennifer Miller on behalf of Lawrence Jones.”

Judge Wang looked up from the laptop sitting before him. He was a slight man and even in a billowy black robe he looked small. The screen of the laptop almost blocked out his face—a small face too, on which he wore trendy 1920s-style glasses with thick tortoise-shell frames. His very black hair was slicked back with gel. It was thick, but the gel weighed it down so much that there was only a hint of volume. Wang was a graduate of Yale Law School and a former associate at Skadden Arps, the ultra-prestigious New York law firm. Every syllable he uttered made clear that he had no idea how he ended up presiding over the dregs of society in Manhattan criminal court. Jennifer suspected that somewhere along the way, a friend of a friend of the mayor had floated Wang’s name for a judgeship and, overcome with the flattery of it all, Wang hadn’t bothered to figure out what he’d actually be doing every day. He never yelled or screamed or shook his fists, as so many other judges in the courthouse did, but he also never showed a moment’s interest in the lives of the people who sat before him, seeking his judgment.

Judge Wang sat up straight in his chair, pulling himself towards the desk. Now he was peering down from above the laptop. Everyone was silent. Jennifer didn’t know whether to address the very realistic looking doll in the room or not. The Judge looked at her, and she half smiled.

“Ms. Miller, I assume you and your client know this case is on for sentence today. Never mind that I don’t like when people bring their children to court, but it seems particularly ill advised when a defendant has agreed to step in to jail as part of his sentence.”

“I agree . . .” Jennifer began.

The Judge put his finger up to stop her and continued, “I am utterly perplexed as to how anyone could think this is a good idea. Do you have any plans for where this child will go if your client goes in today? Is he aware he is about to start of a very long sentence?”

“Judge, may I approach the bench?”

“No you may not. I want an explanation on the record as to what’s happening here.”

Jennifer hesitated. “Judge, the baby is actually a doll. I will be taking the doll, along with any possessions Mr. Jones gives me for safekeeping back to my office until a friend of his can retrieve the items. Mr. Jones understands his sentence and he is prepared to step in today. We can proceed to sentence at this point.”

Jennifer could hear the rumblings of recognition come over the court officers and audience as they realized the adorable tot in the stroller was a doll. Jennifer looked over at Lawrence, who stared heroically into the air in front of him.

Judge Wang continued to look confused. “Ms. Miller, you’re telling me that’s a doll?”


“Bring it to me.”

The court officers were laughing. The one officer standing in front of Lawrence looked at the two officers behind the defendant’s desk and held his finger up to his head, turning it frantically to make it clear that he thought Lawrence was crazy. “Can you believe that, man? Can you fucking believe that?” he whispered.

The Sergeant was already retrieving Sunshine from the stroller for the Judge. He picked her up roughly by one arm, delivering her to the judge with a toss. Jennifer could see Lawrence wince.

The Judge held the doll up, examining her at every angle. “Well, this is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s like a real baby. I mean, this thing looks exactly like a real baby.” He flipped Sunshine upside down. Lawrence almost came out of his chair.

“Please, stop!” Lawrence’s face broke into mangled sadness; he reached his hands forward for his child. Two officers were on him in a moment, putting their hands on his shoulders and pushing him towards the seat. “Sit down right now!” one yelled.

The audience was delighted with the spectacle, a diversion from their own horror stories playing out in the courtroom that day.

“Judge, I think we’ve had enough of this. Can we please just get to Mr. Jones’s sentencing?”

“Not just yet Ms. Miller. I’m fascinated by this. Mr. Jones—how much did this doll cost? I want to know. You can’t simply get this in a store. I have children and I have never seen anything like this.”

“It’s not for children,” Lawrence offered.

“It’s not for children? Then who’s it for?”

“She’s my baby. I treat her like I would treat my daughter. That’s my daughter you have up there with you.”

“How much did it cost?” the judge said, returning to his questioning.

Lawrence looked at the judge for the first time. “Five thousand dollars.”

The crowd gasped and then broke into a buzz of whispers. Jennifer heard the court officer behind her clap his hands together. “You’ve got to be fucking kiddin’ me.” He leaned over and put his hands on the back of Lawrence’s seat. Lawrence shifted his body forward. “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” the court officer said as his body shadowed Lawrence, sitting quietly in the chair.

“I suppose robbery is lucrative, Mr. Jones. $5,000 for a doll. I can hardly imagine it.” The Judge held Sunshine around the waist with both hands, examining her every freckle.

“She’s not a doll.”

Jennifer put a hand on Lawrence’s shoulder. At this, the Court Officer lifted his hands from the back of the chair and took a step away, crossing his arms in front of him. Jennifer could feel Lawrence’s muscles tight and solid under his shirt. He looked up at her, and the area around the contacts filled with water, giving the impression that the contacts would slip off at any moment. She squeezed his shoulder. His gaze returned to the desk, where his sentencing papers sat unsigned.

“Mr. Jones is ready to be sentenced, Judge. You can imagine how painful this process is for him, and he’d like to get it over with. I’m sure you can understand—“

“What I can understand is that Mr. Jones chose to rob a series of vulnerable targets with a gun, while pretending to be a New York City police officer. What I understand is that he then used that money to buy a five-thousand-dollar doll. This painful process, as you call it, is a creation of Mr. Jones’ own doing. I understand that perfectly. Take this doll back and pass me the paperwork.” Judge Wang tossed Sunshine to the clerk sitting below him, who passed her to a court officer, who eventually passed her back to Jennifer, who put her back in her stroller. Lawrence watched her journey through his floating contacts and rested his eyes on the table when Sunshine was safely back in her stroller.

The Judge resumed the sentencing process. He read his script, the one Jennifer had heard a hundred times in this courtroom. And Lawrence dutifully recited his lines. He knew when to say yes, when to say he understood what rights he had and what rights he was giving up. He knew when to thank the court and when to sign the forms, the forms that forced him to relinquish his right of appeal, the forms that bound him to pay $350 in court costs. Unlike so many of her clients, Lawrence never looked at Jennifer once to make sure he was doing it correctly. Lawrence had been sentenced to prison before.

When it was over, Lawrence was told to stand and he was cuffed from behind. Jennifer followed him, pushing the stroller, through the door on the left side of the courtroom and into the narrow hallway that connected the courtroom to the prison cells in the back. The court officer told Lawrence to sit while he processed the paperwork that would transfer Lawrence to the custody of the Department of Corrections.

For a moment, Lawrence and Jennifer were alone.

“Could you put her on my lap?”

Jennifer lifted Sunshine from her stroller and leaned her curled, fragile shell against Lawrence’s chest. She used his coat to couch her against Lawrence’s body. She took a file out of her bag and went to stand in the far corner of the hallway, which was no more than a few feet from Lawrence. She stood looking into the white peelings underneath yellow paint in the corner and flipped the pages in the file.

Behind her she heard a butter-soft whisper.

“Hush little baby don’t say a word. Mama’s going buy you a mocking bird. And if that mocking bird don’t sing . . .”

The voice got so low that Jennifer could only hear the whisper brushing against her ear. She looked at the ground.

And then the metal door slammed back and open. Jennifer turned around and gave a startled look to the officer as he re-entered the tiny space. He looked at the scene before him and rolled his eyes. “He’s going back. He’ll be on the four p.m. bus to Rikers. Take the doll.”

Jennifer lifted Sunshine from Lawrence’s lap. His tears were gone. As he stood, his full height became apparent; his chest went out and his shoulders broadened. The officer pointed Lawrence towards the door to the cells, and as Lawrence walked his gait transformed. One leg went down, as the other stayed straight. It was the “pimp walk” adopted by so many young men entering courtrooms throughout the building. His pants fell down a bit, resting on the lower part of his hips. Jennifer stood there holding Sunshine as Lawrence went through the metal door.

Jennifer put Sunshine in her stroller. She pushed her out of the hallway connecting the prison cells and the courtroom. She pushed her through the courtroom well, opening the chain gate with one hand and pushing the stroller with the other. She pushed her out of the courtroom and out of the building past the line of men and women waiting to go through the metal detectors. She pushed her up Centre Street and wove the stroller around the Department of Corrections van that parked its rear end against the courthouse, waiting for the next group of souls to take to Rikers Island. She pushed Sunshine, resting peacefully, the seven blocks to her office. And then she carried the stroller up two flights of steps until they reached the corner, windowless office next to the mailboxes.

She started to call Malcolm, but hung up before she finished dialing the number. She looked at Sunshine and then picked her up. She felt her weight. She moved her fingers over Sunshine’s small arms and hands and fingernails. She put Sunshine against her chest and leaned her head back, closing her eyes, and rocking her chair on its springs back and forth. And then she fell asleep.

Thea Johnson is a writer and lawyer living in California. She is currently a fellow at Stanford Law School, where she writes on issues of criminal justice. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The World Policy Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, Columbia Human Rights Law Review, and Moment Magazine. This is her first published short story.

Dotted Line