By the time Johnny Morton’s name was called, everyone in Family Court knew something was up. The seventy-five chairs in the audience were filled and one of the janitors was setting up extras in the aisles.
Doris Morton had been calling people, telling them how her Johnny had been mistreated, complaining about the court snubbing her rights as a grandmother. After all, the baby had been removed only because Johnny was being questioned in the death of his wife, and no charges were ever filed. The state hadn’t presented any evidence that Justin had been mistreated. A happy family had been disrupted by bureaucratic red tape. Rosie, Tracy’s mom, came up with the idea of inviting a lot of people to observe the court in action.
“A little gentle pressure of the people,” Rosie called it.
So they came, mostly people from the blue collar Lockwood neighborhoods: construction workers, refinery workers, waitresses still in uniform, a mechanic with his first name embroidered on his dark green shirt.
The grandmothers, Rosie and Doris, sat side by side in the front row. The two women never had been friends, but they were united on this issue. Neither of them had seen their grandson since he had gone into foster care almost a month ago.
Johnny was prepared for another setback. He didn’t expect to understand a thing the attorneys said, but after brief speeches by each, the judge launched into a soliloquy. Johnny wasn’t sure if she was saying good things or bad things, because she looked so stern. When she finished with “petition denied” and the clap of her gavel, his heart sank. But then the back doors of the courtroom swung open and the same social worker who had visited his home came in with J.D. in her arms. The state’s petition for protective custody had been denied. J. D. was to be returned, immediately, to his father.
When the social worker approached Johnny’s table, the baby fairly leaped out of her arms into Johnny’s eager embrace. The seven-month-old had no words yet, but a happy “ga-ga” seemed to suffice. Johnny pressed the baby to his neck, trying to hide the tears that welled up in his eyes; the room erupted in applause and cheers.
Rosie, Doris, and Tom clustered around, smothering the baby with kisses. There was so much laughing and talking that no one heard the judge’s gavel at first. When they did, a hush fell over the room, and Johnny was relieved to see a smile on the judge’s face.
“Please celebrate elsewhere, Mr. Morton,” she said. “And good luck.”
“Everyone’s invited to Rosie’s,” Rosie said loudly. “Even you, Judge.”
The crowd dispersed fairly quickly, but from a seat in the back row, Chief Don Miller silently watched. Johnny stopped by the doorway on his way out and made a honking sound as the baby squeezed his father’s nose.
Even after the room was quiet and the bailiff and judge had left, Miller remained in his seat. He pulled out his wallet and began flipping through the photos: Scotty’s wedding picture, Scotty in uniform, Scotty’s senior picture, Scotty in Little League. Then Miller pulled out a small faded photo, tucked behind the Little League picture, a snapshot of a baby tweaking a man’s nose. His hands began to shake and a pitiful, wounded cry exploded from his lips.