Key-Bearer of the Courthouse
By: Michael Carter

It's fitting that we're meeting here at Chaplin's Grill & Spirits. You're from these parts, but you've probably never stopped by. The clientele isn't who I'd hang out with either. Bunch of bankers and sharks in suits. But don't mind them because they won't mind us. In fact, don't expect even to get served. I'll get to that later.

I heard you grew up out at Nine Mile Falls. But you've been to town, no doubt, many times. I'm sure your family took you to the Lilac Parade, visited Browne's Addition to collect chestnuts, probably stopped downtown for lunch on the way to Priest Lake or Coeur d'Alene.

I bet they pointed it out on the north bank of the river before. It's a castle that doesn't belong in this blue-collar oasis, nestled between what are now meth houses and bail bonds companies. Look it up at the public library or on that new Internet thing. You'll see how we built the Spokane County Courthouse and how it resembles those fancy chateaus in France. It's decorated with arches, brick turrets, and spires reaching to the sky, like something from a fairy tale taking place far away.

Your parents told you the story, right? There's a secret room at the top of the courthouse. Inside lives a princess. She's young and beautiful and waiting for her Prince Charming. When he comes, he'll sweep her off her feet, and they'll live happily ever after. We know she lives there because the pink light comes on at the top of the courthouse tower each night. Remember how it goes?

Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but there ain't no princess up there. I stay in the courthouse and turn on the light to give the little one's hope, to keep ‘em believing in the story that's been told for generations.

Why me? I worked for Washington Brick & Lime Manufacturing Company. We were pouring the foundation when I went in. They said I slipped off an I-beam. Pushed, more like it. You see, I had a beef with the owner of Brick & Lime over some wages he stiffed me on. Never cared for him to begin with. I became a part of the courthouse that day. My hollers were silenced by the wet concrete below.

So, when the jurors are sent home, the bailiffs lock the courtroom doors, and the judges and their law clerks finally turn it in, I make my way up the stairs—the part of me that's free to move around, that is. I take the long route, past the Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates office. Funny how they put those three together. You're born, you get married, then you die. That's if you're lucky, I guess. Getting bumped off over some bucks without ever tying the knot like me is no way to go out. Anyway, I head past the County Assessor's office and the juror waiting lounge, and up that long, winding marble staircase to the top. I take my time because I have plenty of it.

When I get to the top, I open the door with this key. The room is plush with velvet-upholstered furniture, a canopied bed, oak chest of doors, and of course, the pink lamp. I peer out the windows. A few folks are milling about this time, doin' the night shift, or comin' home from the bars downtown, or gettin' booked into County. I can see the black silhouettes of the gondolas hanging over the Spokane River as it meanders through the basalt formations. I think about the aquifer underneath, and the strange fish and other life forms that it must nourish down there. Livin'. Must be nice.

I heard they tore down the old jail recently. In the process, they cracked the courthouse foundation. I felt it crack that day, the release in pressure. My spirit is finally free. I can leave; I can feel it. Who knows what I'll do and where I'll go now that I'm fully released from that concrete tomb.

I'm not sure how you knew to come to me or what happened to you. Maybe an inmate got you, or perhaps it was just your time. It doesn't matter, really. You're part of the courthouse now. You're part of its history until someone else comes along.

You'll have an easy job even though coming by it wasn't easy. Keep the light on every night so that the kids can believe there's some good in the world, that there's a princess up there and she just wants to live a happy life, and that if they believe maybe they can be happy, too. Maybe the light will keep them from growing old quickly, from gettin' sour, or mean. Maybe some of them, when times are tough later in life, will look back and think about the light, and remember that things might be all right again if they just believe. Maybe they'll smile.

So, here's the key. I don't know how long you'll be in charge of the courthouse and keepin' the light on. You should swing by Chaplin's Grill & Spirits from time to time. Bring the key with you. You never know. You might find someone sitting right where you are, ready to take over, ready to pass hope down to the next generation, much as the river flows, rolling on forever.


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