Friday afternoon finds me trying to coax words out of a scuffed wooden bench.

Come on, bench. Just tell me a little bit, completely off the record.

Nothing. The bench ain’t talking. It’s a pity because if these parts of Androscoggin County Superior Court could talk, oh the stories they would tell.

They wouldn’t be happy stories. On this Friday afternoon alone, I saw more misery, heartbreak and life-changing drama than I ever want to see.

As a young woman confronted the man who had sexually abused her, those sitting on the scuffed wooden bench stirred with unease. They shifted in their seats, cleared their throats and wiped at their eyes with the backs of their hands.

Some of the people in the seats knew the girl, others did not. It didn’t matter one way or another. It was one of those moments, so profound and so intense, you wonder if you somehow stumbled into a TV drama. There is just something unreal about seeing a young lady — a girl, really — baring her soul in a way that most of us never will.

The tears, the hair hanging in her face, the way the words struggled up out of her gut to find bleak life in the realm of human hearing. It seems like make-believe, but it’s not. It’s human agony, raw and unvarnished, and the courthouse benches hear it every day.

For years when I first got started in this reporter gig, I covered courts quite a lot and by golly, I enjoyed it. In a single murder trial in 1995, I learned more about the grim inner workings of Lewiston’s drug culture than I could possibly learn anywhere else. The prostitution, the gang beat-ins, the dirty deals and double crosses.

All of the city’s main players were lined up and on display, either in the seats that held the accused or on those scuffed benches that seem so much like church pews. All of their filthy secrets came sprinkling out like salt from a shaker, gritty details captured forever by the court reporter’s microphone and by my pen and pad.

I spent days on those hard benches and I learned — about the blind, dopey devotion the young local women had for their big-city boyfriends, the crack dealers and small-time thugs from Lowell or Lawrence or Brooklyn. About the family links, the clans, the gangs in exile, all those connections crisscrossing the downtown like some crackhead spider’s web.

Things the courthouse benches have known for generations.

The courthouse has a way of reminding you that things aren’t so sweet in the other dimensions. You sit on one of those benches and listen to a killer describe, in cold monotone, how he strapped his tiny baby down, pulled tape over her mouth and waited for her to die.

You sit, and watch and listen to the horror of other people’s lives. A husband confronting the man who raped and butchered his wife. The helplessly sobbing mother trying to describe her grief to the man who got drunk one night and mowed down her little boy.

You focus your gaze upon the fiend and wonder when some aggrieved victim is going to snap and try to stab him with a pen. Just sitting and watching and listening, you feel their rage, their grief, their pain all the way to the hollows of your bones. And through those bones, all that raw emotion is transferred to the benches below; they suck it up like sponges in hell.

The benches aren’t moved by much. If they were, they would have rotted away in grief and madness during their first year on the job. They are mere wood and nails, existing only to support our frames as we sit and listen to the woes of others.

I’ve never heard a court bench gasp or cry out in shock or sympathy. I’ve never seen one throw up its wooden arms and try to cover its varnished face in horror. I suspect it will never happen. Because if those benches could sit through that young girl’s agony last Friday — testimony that pierced even the hardest hearts in the room — they can withstand anything.

And with that in mind, I will never again try to tease a word, or thought or memory, out of that courtroom furniture. If those benches could talk, I’m pretty sure the cumulative horror they held would drive a man mad.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. He doesn’t always talk to benches … LOL JK! Email him at [email protected]

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