The Eleventh Reason

Robert Meeropol is often asked about his memories (as a 6-year-old) of the tumultuous events of the final few days of his parents' lives.  Attorneys were working on his parents' behalf, making legal appeals involving the Supreme Court.  Robert recalls thinking at the time that the Court’s Justices had asked his parents' lawyer to give them ten reasons why his parents should not be killed, and the lawyer did, so the Court stayed the executions. But then later in the week, the Court demanded an "eleventh reason," which the lawyer did not have, so the exectuions went forward.
 
Looking back, Robert believes he must have interpreted the news reports about "elventh hour appeals" as this belief of his that his parents needed "eleven reasons."
 
After hearing Robert recount these memories, poet and RFC Advisory Board member, Martín Espada, wrote the poem below.

The Eleventh Reason
for Robert Meeropol

I am dreaming of a courtroom.
I am the one in a blue suit, necktie crooked,
my face blurry in the sheen of a polished table.
I must be the lawyer.
The judge flutters black robes into the courtroom.
The bailiff calls for all to rise, yanks my elbow
when I do not. The judge speaks to me in baritone.
He folds his hands on the bench, and smiles

like a state trooper contemplating a speeding ticket:
Good morning, counsel.
Give me ten reasons why Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
should not be executed today.

I stare at the judge. The lights above my head
are yellow with the spinning bees of amnesia.
Ten reasons, please, the judge says.

I say: Your honor,
someday an FBI agent will confess
in his hot loud sleep, crying that he killed
the Rosenbergs, the password of spies
was his idea for coached witnesses to recall.
The prosecutor will chatter
about his jello box puzzle of evidence,
snipped with his own scissors, but his hands will sweat
and someone will spray paint his real name
across the prosecutor's tombstone.
The mushroom cloud will bloom over the desert
and a city of gamblers, but no Red spies
will peer through binoculars, and soldiers
without helmets will sprout cancers
like cabbages in the stomach.

What about the Rosenbergs? says the judge.

They will walk with sandwich boards
and picket signs through our drowsy dying visions.
They will whisper their prison letters in voices that linger,
so we turn the knobs on the radio to crackle them away,
but their silence will swarm us, and we will swat the air,
howling that a million flies haunt the spirals of our ears.
Their pale oval faces will drift through the subway,
in crowds at the ballgame, his eyeglasses, her hat.
We will see them embrace in a tangle of handcuffs
and swear that we saw nothing.
We will glimpse the electric chair on television
and shriek Jew, Jew, Jew, and then deny we said it,
as the tentacles of leather straps
remember their skin's topography.
We will hear the common stickball names of their sons
called out from the window of a tenement
and sob without knowing why.
We will be unable to look at a clock that reads 6:19,
because that was the date of their execution
and numbers are hard like teeth.

Those are ten reasons, the judge says.
I need eleven. Give me one more.

My face is stinging. I glance down at the table.
I have no files, no folders,
no yellow legal pads, no notes.
Espionage, electrocution, these are not my areas
of expertise. I am a tenant lawyer.
I am not prepared to discuss
the eleventh reason.
I request a continuance.
I promise a memorandum of law
on the eleventh reason.
The judge says no, and smiles.
Thank you, your honor, I hear myself mumble.

In the hallway, I see you, their son,
waiting on a bench. You are not a boy, as in 1953.
Your beard is gray like the judge's beard.
This courtroom flickered in the moviehouse
of your forehead many years ago.

They wanted eleven reasons, I tell you.
I know that, you say, I've known for forty-five years.
Executioners know that the hands have ten fingers.
So they ask for eleven.

Then all of us are killed, I say.
Not yet, you say, squinting past me
at the bailiff shutting the courtroom doors.
Not yet.