Reasonable Doubt

by Nancy Ludmerer

1st Place Winner – Flash 405, June 2023: “Crescendo”


I congratulate Jack when he calls. I saw the verdict on TV.

I lie, tell him I’m making dinner.

That’s not to say I haven’t filled the spaghetti pot with water and put it to boil. That’s not to say I haven’t crushed the garlic. Cored the tomatoes. Seared the bloody meat in a pan.

Jack’s trial victories don’t thrill me the way they did when we were both starting out. I used to admire his ability “to go for the jugular” on cross, a skill he insisted I lacked.

Later, after I stopped working, I even brought the twins—eight or nine years old, in crisply ironed white shirts, like his— to observe Jack’s summations. What was I thinking? Jack thought it would help win an acquittal. Before he began, he’d step down from the podium, give his boys a hug, muss their hair. Sometimes prosecutors objected. Juries loved it.

Now they’ve left for college, our twins, three thousand miles away. I worry but I’m glad they have each other. I’m alone in the empty apartment, not making Jack’s dinner.

That’s not to say the kitchen floor isn’t sticky with tomato seeds, with meat drippings. That’s not to say that, by not cleaning up as I go, I won’t have a bigger mess later.

I imagine the post-verdict scene, after the jury is excused. The bleary-eyed associates hanging around, hoping—after weeks of all-nighters—for a fancy dinner with Jack, Peter Luger or Wolfgang’s. A chance to play back the greatest trial moments—and drink to that!

The defendant probably imagined he’d be invited, too.

But Jack has a whole post-verdict shtick. He goes home to his simple wife and simple meal—spaghetti bolognese, green salad, ice cream. Merlot, the unfashionable red. After all, you can’t publicly celebrate a rapist or wife beater or lady killer going free.

This defendant barely knew the twenty-three-year-old woman he met at a Chelsea bar. He left her, passed out, bleeding, on a subway platform.

What happened next? Did she roll or fall or crawl onto the tracks?

Was she trying to board the train? Going to meet someone?

All the jury knew: a speeding, nearly empty train wrested her soul from her broken body and roared on. No cameras, no witnesses, not even an audible scream.

I’m alone in the apartment, not making Jack’s dinner.

That’s not to say the water in the pot isn’t boiling.

Waiting for Jack.



Judge’s Comments:
I was wowed by how skilfully this piece layered on the dramatic tension. From its use of rhythm and repetition, to how it tapped into food’s primal, feral associations to foreshadow the violence crouching just beyond the frame (“kitchen floor … sticky with tomato seeds, with meat drippings”). This was a great example of how to build up a slow undercurrent of menace, without giving away too much at once—or indeed, ever explicitly saying what is going to happen.

Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, New Orleans Review, North American Review, Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022, and many other journals and anthologies. Her fiction has been translated into Spanish and read aloud on public radio, and since 2020, her stories have won prizes from The Masters Review, Carve, Pulp Literature, Streetlight, Gemini, and Orison Books. Her short memoir “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was cited in The Best American Essays 2014. Her debut collection, Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, was the 2022 winner of Snake Nation Press’s annual fiction prize and was published in October 2022. Her novella Sarra Copia: A Locked-in Life, historical fiction set in seventeenth-century Venice, will be published by WTAW Press in October 2023. She practiced law in New York City for many years and continues to live there with her husband Malcolm and recently adopted nine-year-old cat Nova.

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Photo Credit: Wesley Tingey