I was surprised to find a sheriff's deputy on the doorstep when I answered his knocking. I was even more surprised at the language on the subpoena. Under the header it read: "To all and singular the sheriffs of the State of Florida - Greetings" for an opening salutation. It sounded like a good way to start an Epistle, but a strange way to address me about a summons to traffic court.
Things got stranger still in the body of the letter:
"You are commanded to appear before the Honorable ____________, of this court, at the location listed below on this [date] at [time] to testify, and the truth to speak, in a certain matter pending before said court and to wit."
I was jarred at the force of the language.
Lest I doubt his seriousness, the Honorable __________ closed the letter with: "Witness my hand and the seal of the said court this 7th day of March, 2014."
The syntax and the formality in this form letter, (hand-delivered by a man deputized and representing the man whose hand I was supposed to witness behind the printed stamp signature) felt biblical and Shakespearean at the same time. It was just a shadow, I felt, but one with enough weight to register somewhere in me: Justice is more than an abstraction. I will appear. I will testify. It will be the truth. So says the judge. There are, I believe, images, elements of the natural world and unexpected pockets of language that make parts of a hidden world plain and believable. Which is so much the better, since the hidden is true.
Even in The People's Court or an episode of Judge Judy, we can't escape a feeling or a sense of something real, and something important underneath the campy melodrama. It happens at weddings and funerals, too, even the most non-religious ones.
When I registered my car recently, the clerk, after 15 minutes of asking rapid fire questions and staring at her monitor while she typed, stopped, swiveled her gaze to meet mine, and said more slowly: "Do you solemnly swear, under punishment of perjury, that all the information you've given me today is correct?" Do I swear? Do I do anything solemnly? Is the truth really that important?
I felt the weight of testifying in traffic court and, somehow, that was weightier because it reminded me of an irrevocable, greater summons to every man. One where the truth will indeed be told, and witnessing the hand of the one who commands will shake us, each and every one.
I was surprised, in part, because I don't expect letters anymore. And for all my love of it, I guess I don't expect much from language, from just a word, anymore. Not all this, anyway. What is that? And isn't there something – someone -- at your door and mine, even now, knocking?