portion of the artwork for Roxane Gay's story

Law & Order: The Complete Series
Roxane Gay

Season One
Edgar believed in following rules. Abiding by the rules, he often liked to say, was the foundation of a democratic society. He believed in rules great and small from the Ten Commandments to the instructions on everyday products. If a shampoo bottle instructed him to squeeze a dollop the size of a quarter into his hand, he used a quarter to help him measure that exact amount. His bathroom was full of random objects to better aid in the quantification of things. Edgar also loved breaking rules. He walked to work every morning and, at the last corner before reaching his building, he liked to inch the toes of his left foot beyond the neatly painted margins of the crosswalk. How he loved the way his chest muscles burned after that tiny indiscretion.

Season Two
Emma was reading the newspaper and drinking tea and feeling rather old-fashioned about the whole thing. The previous evening, a passerby rescued a boy from a burning building. The good Samaritan was pictured on the front page, an older man, balding but fit, his face darkened by smoke, and in his arms he held a scowling young boy, limbs flailing. It was so charming, Emma thought, that people still cared enough to do that sort of thing. It was so charming to read about it in a newspaper. Later, she would wash her hands in the sink, enjoying the warm water trickling across her knuckles and she would smell her fingers and hope they still smelled like newsprint. Emma heard a woman’s high-pitched scream from the street below her apartment. The sound of it made her ache.

Season Three
Rosa likes to befriend people with pharmaceutically manageable yet socially aggravating mental disorders. She specializes mostly in narcissists, mild schizophrenics, manic depressives, and people with borderline personality disorders who might, under different circumstances, become serial killers. Rosa tells her mentally disordered friends everything’s going to be OK and she hears the voices too and they are the center of her joy. These friends take from her. They take and take and take and she loves it, how bad it makes her feel, how good it makes her feel. The way they take and the way they need her make her feel special. Every woman wants to feel special.

Season Four
The best part about medical school, Parker thinks, is being alone with the cadavers when he’s studying for his anatomy class. Even though he wears a lab coat, he always dresses up, fresh slacks, a nice, clean shirt, a small splash of cologne. His classmates say he’s a hard worker. That’s what they say to his face. After they leave and he’s alone in the morgue, he finds the body of a strong man, lays the corpse out on the gurney. Parker carefully presses his fingers along the nearly invisible vein structures of the dead man’s body. When he can bear the anticipation no longer, he slowly licks his lips, then leans over the cadaver’s face. He inhales deeply, the smell of death sinking into his skin. He presses his lips to the dead man’s lips and he cries. His tears stain his cheeks and seep between their mouths.

Season Five
It’s hard to behave rationally when every other month there’s a new temp sitting at the desk outside of his office. Just when he has the girl trained, she moves on to something better or worse. His best girl, Annaliese, she was a smart cookie. She worked for him for four years, always dressed real sharp in tight blouses and short skirts. She smelled like hot tea, which was strange but he didn’t mind. She knew how to type without making too many errors and always answered the phone after the first ring even if she was hung over. They worked together in perfect tandem. Things got done. Then Annaliese had to go and get married. Or she found a better job. Or she decided to travel the world. He never bothered to find out or he knew and was holding that secret in a dark, lonely place. He decided to call the next girl and the girl after her Annaliese. He decided to call all the girls Annaliese. It’s a matter of respect. He doesn’t even remember how he likes his coffee anymore.

Season Six
Every night, Stella removes her makeup with a coarse white washcloth she cut from old towels she received from her mother when she got her first apartment. When Stella was seven, her mother taught her how to apply makeup. Her mother called it “going undercover.” First, Stella’s mother tied her hair back with a headband and washed her face. She added moisturizer, rubbing it into her skin with her fingertips in quick circles, trying not to stretch the skin. She applied foundation with a big, soft brush, sometimes tapping the bristles against Stella’s nose. She turned her head to the left, sucking in her cheeks, painted blush just below her cheekbones. She lined her eyes, shadowed her eyelids, lengthened and strengthened her eyelashes with mascara, painted her lips with a thick coat of lipstick and then brushed her face with a loose powder to hold it all together. After she went undercover, Stella’s mother would smooth her eyebrows with her pinky finger and wink at her reflection. Stella’s mother told her daughter to call her Jessie.

Season Seven
Ephraim had long thought people these days were fundamentally weak. He didn’t believe in wheat allergies and environmental sensitivities or vegetarianism—crutches of the modern age, he called those things. It was an especially bitter pill to swallow when the itching started. At first, a mild discomfort, a gentle burning sensation just beneath his skin, but as the days and weeks passed, the urge to scratch through his skin, through ligaments and muscle, became more than he could bear. He stopped eating or drinking anything but water. He stopped laundering his clothes or leaving his home in the hopes of determining the cause of that which plagued him. When they found him, he had wasted away to nothing, his skin thin and dry, clinging to his skeleton. His arms bore the worst of it—every few inches, deep wounds revealing the silver glint of his bones.

Season Eight
They went on strike because they hated the new cafeteria chef who cooked all that healthy fancy food that tasted too rich in their mouths and sounded too beautiful between their lips. The onsite masseuse was too attractive; she made it impossible for them to concentrate when they returned to their cubicles. They protested the indignity of the chartered bus driving them to and from work every day—having to share their commute with so many people was asking too much. They sat in front of the complex in their well-appointed lawn chairs, the kind with headrests and cup holders. They typed on their laptops, enjoying free wireless Internet. Mostly, they watched porn—the really filthy stuff with women lowering themselves on parking meters. Once in a while, they sent each other angry e-mails, professing their dedication to the cause. When the security guard passed them each morning, he shook his head. He laughed when they shouted, “Scab!” and took pictures of him with their iPhones. He had a scab on his back in that uncomfortable place he could not reach. It was dry and itchy and the only thing he could think about. He sat at his station staring at the bank of monitors before him, the itch radiating from his dry scab, worsening as he shifted from side to side, rubbing his back against his chair. It was more than he could bear. He yearned for a strong hand and sharp fingernails that would lift the scab free and allow a thin trickle of lymph to follow along his spine.

Season Nine
Every morning Julie wakes up and thinks, Today, I’m going to live my life like a Very Special Episode. For the rest of the day, she treats a random person as a Special Guest Star. If she chooses a stranger on the street, she offers them a kind smile, holds a door open, waits for the next cab, or pays them a fine compliment. When Julie chooses a coworker as a Special Guest Star, she comes to work with hot coffee. She takes her chosen coworker out to lunch, her treat, and helps them with their duties for the rest of the day. She offers them an important piece of gossip or brings them clean Tupperware for their snacks or lets them take credit for something she has done. During the months of February, May, and November, Julie dresses up in a pleated schoolgirl skirt and a black corset with pink ribbing. She sweeps her hair up, exposing her long neck, sprays perfume between her breasts, wears dark eyeliner and high stiletto heels. She goes to a different bar each Friday and Saturday night during those months. She finds a good-looking man—a man who is used to being the center of attention. She dances sexy for him, her arms raised loosely over her head, her wrists crossed. She shimmies up and down, her knees squeezed together. She buys him drinks. She goes home with him and ignores the cold sweat pooling at the base of her spine. She never worries, not even when she notices a length of rope, duct tape, and black leather gloves in his nightstand. Julie knows that in a Very Special Episode, the script has already been written.

Season Ten
The old man was always near death, in and out of the hospital. His insides were mostly spare parts now—a pacemaker, stents, new blood flushed in and the old blood flushed out every other day. “You can let go,” his children would tell him. “You’ve lived a long life.” The old man hated his kids. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Season Eleven
The lifers, the guys who had been in and out of the joint so often it was like a hobby, they told Sean Kilpatrick getting out wasn’t all that great but Sean Kilpatrick had a girl, Maggie, and she was waiting, had been waiting seven long years. He stared at her picture day and night and read her letters until the paper disappeared between his fingers. When he jerked off at night, he thought of her long red hair and how it tickled his face when they slept, her back pressed to his chest. On the day he was released, Sean Kilpatrick walked through the prison gates with a freshly shaved face and a bounce to his step. He looked around for his sweet Maggie but the only woman standing in the parking lot was old. She looked bitter. She wore her hair shorn close to her scalp and stood against her car, scowling, smoking a thin cigarette. Sean Kilpatrick stopped. He looked at the angry old woman a little harder—finally, recognition. He closed his eyes and fingered the worn picture of Maggie in his pocket. The lifers often said it was easier getting locked up the second or third time. You knew what you were going back to. Sean opened his eyes. At least there was that. The woman’s scowl had grown deeper. He looked into the sun, high and bright. He waited for an eclipse.

Season Twelve
As the new girl on staff, Hannah took a lot of crap. Her coworkers resented her. “A woman,” they scoffed. “There’s no place in a knitting supply store for a woman.” The men rubbed their stubbled jaws as they restocked yarns, felts, needles, and notions, keeping the displays bright and neat. They watched her, relentlessly, and hated how she leaned into customers over the counter, practically touching them with her breasts. Her voice, it was high and smooth, not at all like their deep, gravelly voices. Sometimes, while working on projects, they stared at Hannah over the click and clack of their needles, their hands moving faster and faster, casting their yarns and drawing stitch through stitch through stitch.

Season Thirteen
Deena thought about all the things she had never done as she sat on the toilet, one leg crossed over the other, waiting for the little magic stick in her hand to reveal a plus or minus sign. She pressed two fingers to the hollow of her neck just above her carotid artery, enjoying the light pulse.

Season Fourteen
Magnificent Jones, the barker for McNulty’s Traveling Carnival of Wonders, knew he was the last of a dying breed. Bearded ladies, gaunt men suspended with flesh hooks, Siamese twins, tattooed ladies. He blamed the Internet. Freaks didn’t impress people anymore.

Season Fifteen
Todd and Alice were very enamored with the seventies. Once a month, they hosted a key party for their closest, most attractive friends. From a local home décor emporium Alice bought a lovely glass bowl that looked like an oversized brandy snifter. She set her lovely glass bowl on the small table in the foyer of her well-appointed home. As Alice greeted her guests, she enjoyed the sound of the keys falling into the tempered glass. It was such a thrill, crossing over into someone else’s marriage for one night. Her favorite husband, other than Todd, was Martin who lived three doors down. Like most men, he was comfortable in the knowledge he was average in every way—but he had the softest, fullest lips imaginable. When they were in his marriage bed, he would kiss the insides of her elbows with his soft soft lips. It was like Martin was kissing her everywhere all at once. In those moments, she tried to think about quotidian things: her husband’s dry cleaning, sitting in a soiled pile in the backseat of her car, waiting to be dropped off.

Season Sixteen
He ran ultramarathons only on holidays, commemorating those special days with an impossible test of endurance, running mile after mile after mile until he was exhausted and giddy with the numbness in his toes and calves. The first fifty miles were always manageable. It was getting through the second fifty that tested him. After so many miles, his feet blistered and his toenails started sliding off of their fleshy beds. He could hardly bear the steady sound of his feet hitting the ground and the chafing of his inner thighs, that forgotten skin rubbed to rawness. At the finish line, he never felt exhilarated or buoyed by adrenaline. When he was on the other side, he stopped, stood perfectly still and felt his limbs, heavy and limp, pulling him down. He once threw a party where he screened all three Lord of the Rings films. By the end of the third installment, everyone’s eyes were dry and itchy, their heads aching gently. They were humbled by the sheer persistence of the little Hobbits. As the credits rolled, they fell silent. He sat perfectly still and looked at his friends, also unmoving. They had been through something together. The six Star Wars movies would be an interesting challenge, he thought. Sometimes, after a marathon, he felt like he was still running hours after the race ended. No matter what he did, the muscles in his thighs and calves twitched, desperate to keep moving forward.

Season Seventeen
Sometimes, when he’s walking down the sidewalk behind a woman he doesn’t like the look of, Joe Turner thinks about pulling her into a dark alley and slamming his fist into her face before she has a chance to make a sound.

Season Eighteen
The guy and girl had been dancing around the will they or won’t they question for quite some time. They were best friends, had worked together for years, knew each other almost too well. Neither of them could deny the attraction. She loved his muscular upper body and the narrow way his torso tapered to his waist like a swimmer. He liked her lips and her small hands, how she would always hold the small of his back, pressing her fingers through his shirt and against his spine, when she leaned in to tell him a secret. Her lips would brush against his earlobe and her hot breath tickled his neck, and if he were a braver man, he would turn his head to the right just enough for the lips to meet. Instead, he always moaned softly and she would laugh, pull away and ask, “What was that for?”

Season Nineteen
The man she married would never get right and Sylvia had long ago made her peace. She no longer nagged him about finding a job or becoming a law-abiding citizen. He was a modern-day outlaw and when she took a long, hard look at herself, Sylvia admitted that his felonious ways turned her on. He was a man who took what he wanted, when he wanted. He took her any which way and she allowed it, gave in. She was good at surrender. She learned to lie for him—to his mother, to the police who visited their home regularly simply because they could, to their son, to herself. With each lie (and she knew this) Sylvia and her husband moved further from the people they had once been when they met and he would pick her up from her mother’s brownstone in his father’s car and take her for gelato in Little Italy and then they would park under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and he would pull her head toward his lap. At first she would protest, talk about how she was a good girl, but she’d let it take her: the pressure of thick fingers against the back of her neck.

Season Twenty
The author sat at the table, smiling at the long line of fans winding through the bookstore, clutching copies of his books. “Amazing,” he thought. “I write the same book over and over and they love me more than ever.”

There is a comfort in the Law & Order franchise. A cadence. A rhythm. A rise and fall.

From one week to the next, across three different shows, we are subjected to the exquisite dramas of (in)justice. I have long loved Law & Order. I have seen almost every episode across all six Law & Order iterations (the original, SVU, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, Conviction, and the even shorter-lived real-life Law & Order that took place in Boston, I think). Whenever I’m feeling bored or depressed or sick or antsy or happy, it doesn't matter, it is a thrill to know that on some channel, there will be some episode of Law & Order and if there isn’t, I can stream SVU (my favorite iteration) or Criminal Intent via Netflix. I watch Law & Order while grading, while working out at the gym. I leave it on in the background while I’m doing other things in my apartment.

The people are mostly pretty. The detectives are earnest yet flawed, righteous yet vaguely hypocritical. The prosecutors are angry and beleaguered and brilliant. The criminals are bad, bad people and sometimes you find yourself rooting for them. The show is an excellent employment program for working actors in New York. I’m a fiend for Broadway and I don’t know of a single Broadway performer who hasn’t been on Law & Order at least once, if not more. In addition to exceptional casting, the production values are simple but consistently high. The plots are always interesting and timely. The dialogue is predictable but fairly smart, often witty. You always know a twist is coming, but it is still exciting when it happens, when you find out that the politician is having an incestuous affair with his stepdaughter or that the evangelical preacher eats babies or the detective has a drug addict daughter and he secretly killed her in her sleep because he was overcome by the shame of his child’s fallibility. Law & Order is all about the formula and the formula works. It’s all about the cadence, the rhythm, the rise, the fall.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 27 | Law & Order Issue | Winter 2010