I'm much too absorbed in recondite speculation about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence to notice if anyone barks out "Hear ye, hear ye, all rise." Of particular interest to me is the theory, put forward by a prominent Russian physicist, that most of the stuff in the universe isn't our kind of stuff. It's as invisible as the wind which rustles the silvery leaves of aspens. But we know this other stuff, whatever it may be, exists, because we can observe its effects. A huge glob of it at the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy is apparently bending light rays and altering the orbits of the sun's distant cousins.

According to the Russian, we don't inhabit a universe at all, but a

multiverse. The reason we haven't been able to contact citizens of advanced civilizations on alien planets is that the material on the vast majority of them lies completely outside the periodic table of the elements. Imagine what the response would be if we beamed "I Love Lucy" re-runs at an African village without television, without electricity to power the nonexistent cathode ray tubes. No wonder the signals broadcast by the SETI antennas haven't coaxed a reply from our neighbors in outer space.

If I were a multiversal alien driving a car stamped out of other stuff steel, the rays from the cop's radar gun at the speed trap might've passed right through the vehicle. They might've been sucked inside it, been converted into some kind of primordial gluon marmelade in a prelapsarian world without speed limits or geometry. In any event, I wouldn't be sitting here watching the judge arrange the folds of a black robe as the courtroom hushes and he assumes his place at the bench.

The first case on the docket is a muffler violation. The violator, a young man who bags groceries at a local supermarket, has an uncanny knack for arranging my edibles so that their sacks break before I can get them inside the house. The judge asks how he pleads. I picture the tomatoes smashed on my walkway, the milk trickling from its dented plastic jug. The supermarket employee begins an elaborate song and dance.

He waves a yellow receipt from the auto parts store at the bench. He was on his way downtown to pick up the new muffler, which he'd ordered a month before, when he was stopped by the officer and cited. It would've already been installed, quiet as a mouse, if the central warehouse in Baltimore hadn't shipped it off, with the wrong code, to North Carolina, where it lay about in a gas station for several days before somebody tripped over it and discovered that the numbers on the delivery tag didn't match any invoices.

The judge, obviously unimpressed by the muffler's peregrinations, ruffles a sheaf of papers. I know this judge from somewhere.

"How do you plead?" he asks again, interrupting the continuing saga of the muffler's journey back to the central warehouse and the ensuing computer search for the destination of the missing part. "Innocent or guilty?"

Two large, golden medallions shine on the wall behind the judge. One is the Great Seal of the State of California, the other the familiar, fanciful representation of Justice. Suspended from one of her hands is a pair of scales. She could be a drug seller on the way into a motel room to make a deal, except that she's wrapped in a sheet, like an errant wife caught in flagrante delicto, or a fallen woman fleeing a fire in a brothel. And, of course, she's blindfolded, perhaps to suggest those popular legal pastimes, blind man's buff and pin the tail on the donkey.

"Innocent, your honor," replies the grocery store bagger.

The old cow pasture behind the garage. That's how I know him. Softball. The judge came to town once, to our mangy, narcoleptic ho-hum of a town curled up by the side of the highway with its tail tucked in, scratching itself to sleep in the fog. A mere ambulance chaser back then, he was canvassing for votes at one of our Sunday afternoon softball games. I'm not certain, but the political office he was seeking might even have been the very bench upon which he is now resting his ample judicial nethers.

What is certain is that he was the only pitcher in the long history of the town's sandlot games to toss curveballs and brush batters back from the plate. It was as though he had descended upon us from one of those other-stuff multiverses and couldn't comprehend that nobody cared which team won, that we didn't even keep score. The point of the game was to allow the batters, aged 7 to 70, to swing for all they were worth and put the ball into play. And when he himself came to bat, with a runner on first, he bunted. The tedious argument which followed this cowardly, underhanded maneuver, utterly unprecedented in our Sunday diamond lore, no doubt cost him several votes.

"Then you are instructed to post bond in the amount of $500 to ensure your appearance in court."

The amazed bag boy gapes at the judge. He mumbles that the ticket is only for $75. The new muffler only set him back $120, including a non-stock chrome tailpipe. He already has it in. The noise and nuisance are abated. His car purrs like a kitten with a bowl of cream.

"You can step outside and see for yourself, your honor."

"Five hundred dollars," repeats the judge wearily, rapping the desk with his gavel.

"Wait a minute, your honor."

The young man with the formerly faulty exhaust has brought a friend with him to traffic court. While the two of them confer in hushed voices, totting up figures, arranging possible loans, I entertain an alternative to the Russian's multiverse explanation for SETI's failure. For lack of a better name, I might dub it the Answering Machine Theory. Those other technologically sophisticated cultures on far away planets are actually constructed from stuff similar enough to ours to be receiving our messages, but they're screening their calls.

Albert Einstein found sailing conducive to deep contemplation. To a companion who remarked once on his expert handling of a sailboat, the renowned scientist confided that he had to be a good sailor, since he didn't know how to swim. In my own case, some of my best thinking has taken place in the bathtub and in court. I haven't had a bathtub for years now, so I suppose I'll have to speed more often if I want to plumb the secrets of the cosmos.

"Your honor," says the young man at last, standing up to address the bench. "I'd like to change my plea to guilty. I can't afford to be innocent."