Jack’s first murder was an honest mistake. His second, even the judge privately thought was open to doubt. The third - Jack had to admit, was as cold as they come. Brief, brutal, final. The jury happily agreed and recommended the death penalty like they were offering a tip on a good mechanic. It wasn’t that Jack was a bad guy, just a little unlucky, though perhaps luckier than the three people he put in the ground.
Jack arrived at Parksburg prison at the worst possible time. It was 1977 and the authorities in Utah had just carried out the long-awaited execution of Gary Gilmore – the man who had wanted to die. It was now open-season for executions. Across the country; indignant judges, emasculated prison wardens and ambitious politicians were spearheading a new terror in the American justice system. Men who might normally have served ten years suddenly found themselves making half-formed confessions to priests in the dead of night. As they sat in the chair the next morning; confused and unwashed, many were hoping they might meet Gilmore on the other side, if only to give him a solid punch in the jaw.
One of those at the head of this bloodlust was the governor of Parksburg prison. Governor Shawcross was part of that breed of insecure men who compensate for irredeemable baldness by sprouting as much hair as possible out of all the other roots of their bodies. With his meshed beard, outstretched moustache, overgrown eyebrows, bindweed limbs and shoulders richly fluffed like hotel pillows, the guards at Parksburg had begun to joke that Shawcross was 90% hair and 10% governor – all of which amounted to 100% asshole. He believed in hard work, self-reliance and discretion, which was why Shawcross never felt obliged to let the outside world know much about how he ran Parksburg. The Governor made no secret of his enthusiasm for executions either. For years, he had resented feeling like an underpaid school teacher taking charge of men who would never be free, and privately wished he could march half the prisoners into the yard one evening and mow them down like dominos. Gilmore’s death gave him this opportunity.
Parksburg; like its governor, was cold and unforgiving. Built by convict labour a century before, it had once been held up as the model to which all other prisons should aspire. Designed with six wings, each leading to a central watchtower, it was surrounded on all sides by 30ft high stone walls, trenches deeper than two men and woods stretching three miles to the nearest town. There had been no successful escapes from Parksburg throughout its history and the prison had become infamous amongst convicts, becoming known as the ‘concrete coffin’.
There had already been three executions before Jack arrived at Parksburg. Two hoodlums from the city had fried for their part in a shoot-out which left an elderly bystander dead. The other, dubbed the ‘Vampire of the Rockies’ had murdered eight women in Colorado and had met his end shortly after Jack was convicted. Against these two cases, the story of another career criminal finally meeting his end disappeared into the crimes beats of the local papers. Jack didn’t mind. He guessed early on that he wouldn’t be in Parksburg for long and was determined to keep his head down and not make a name for himself.
After being processed and receiving his uniform, Jack was led away to his cell. On entering, he was surprised to find he recognised one of the men with whom he would be spending his last days.
“Jackie!” the young man called out as he rose from his bunk.
Tommy was around half Jack’s age. Handsome, clean-cut, without prison tattoos or scars, Tommy stood apart from the other convicts in the lunch line. Jack knew the reason; he was familiar with the kid’s story and was disappointed to find him still inside. Like Jack, Tommy was unlucky. At one time, he’d been a high-school football star and had expected to be snapped up by a set of colleges once he turned eighteen. That was until Tommy accepted a ride home one night from an old friend who had dropped out of school the previous year. Half-way through the journey, the guy stopped at a gas station, pulled out a .38 and went inside to rob the place, leaving Tommy alone in the passenger seat. Unfortunately for the both of them, the store clerk was quick on the draw and managed to bury a bullet in the robber’s back before he had even ordered the register open. The cops were called and they arrived to find the guy crippled on the floor and Tommy still in the car completely unaware of what had happened. They charged him as an accessory to armed robbery and gave him ten years.
Tommy greeted Jack like an old friend and the two of them sat down on his bunk to chat.
Watching them was the third man in the cell. On the surface, Joe was the exact opposite of Tommy. Standing around 5ft 6”, he was an ugly little man suited to managing a failing bar in a bad neighbourhood. He had cold, narrow eyes which seemed to clench like fists whenever he spoke. His hair had thinned ahead of his age and his nose bore the marks of many fights fought, and most of them lost. Joe didn’t rise to meet Jack, and instead sat on his bunk eyeing them from a distance and rolling cigarettes with the expertise expected of someone with two murder convictions hanging over his head.
Jack fixed his sheets and began pacing the cell, Joe watched him closely. He stopped at the wall and pressed the back of his head against the brickwork. Lowering himself to the floor,
Jack searched his mind for some explanation as to how he had wound up in Parksburg. He was forty-nine and had spent nearly half his life in jail. A ten year stretch from the age of nineteen for the first murder, for which he eventually served only six. A few years of freedom then back inside again, this time with a fifteen-year sentence, served in full. Finally, a death sentence, the natural end to a wasted life. Jack was a failure and he knew it. He had no excuses, his life – his early life at least hadn’t been a tragic story. There were no abusive parents to drag up at therapy sessions. He wasn’t poor, he wasn’t dumb. It was bad luck, plus a couple of stupid decisions that had brought him to this point. Yet, as he sat there on the floor of his cell Jack felt no anger; he wasn’t filled with regret or imagining himself knocking out Gary Gilmore like those other guys. His fate was out of his hands now, he couldn’t fight the decision and hadn’t even tried in court. In part, it was this resignation that had led the trial judge to pass the ultimate sentence. If Jack had shown a little remorse, if he’d wept or begged for mercy he might have kept his life. But that wasn’t Jack, and he was determined not to give the judge, the jury, the governor or the guards that satisfaction. He wouldn’t be the hysterical fool dragged through the corridors one morning to scream for the amusement of waking convicts. He would accept the sentence and face death like a man.
Jack had been in Parksburg a little over a week and his time so far had been unremarkable.
Some people might assume that a man with nothing to lose would take risks, would be out to cause trouble. But Jack wasn’t interested in this, for the next few weeks he would be a model prisoner and give the Governor no reason to bring forward his execution. Each morning he woke with the first clatter of a nightstick against the bars of his cell. Afterwards he would walk smartly to the showers and be washed and ready to face the day by 07:30. Tommy would imitate Jack’s routine the best he could but always found himself a few steps behind the older man. Joe on the other hand, was beginning to carve out a reputation as a toughguy. Before Jack arrived at Parksburg, Joe had been thrown into solitary for slashing another prisoner across the face with part of a broken lunch tray. His time in the hole did little to straighten him out, and a week later he spat at a guard who had woken him by hammering out the reveille on his cell bars. For this, he was stripped naked, made to run a lap of the wing and beaten unconscious by the offended guard.
Joe’s antics had come to the attention of Governor Shawcross, who decided to pay a visit to cell 23 and its three occupants, one of whom he noted was due to be executed shortly.
On Jack’s eighth day in Parksburg, the Governor, accompanied by two guards arrived at the gates of his cell. They found the three men stood against the wall, relaxed and cool as if they were waiting for a bus. Had the Governor arrived five minutes earlier he would have been
wringing his hands with self-satisfaction.
Jack had returned from the shower that morning to find Tommy and Joe crouched behind a bunk, closely inspecting part of the stone wall.
“What you up to fellas?” Jack asked.
Both men quickly jumped to their feet.
“Nothing old man” grunted Joe.
“Come on, what you got there?”
“Mind you own business!” said Joe moving in on Jack.
Tommy pulled away from the wall and turned pale. Jack and Joe stood in the centre of the cell, each man marking the ground with his feet. Jack threw his towel down on the bunk and pushed out his chest.
“It’s okay Joe, we can show him. It’s not like they’ll let him out for good behaviour” said Tommy.
“Shut up! This guy’s been eyeballing me all week” said Joe forcing himself up onto the tips of his toes. Jack’s eyebrows tightened like the strings of a crossbow. Losing his balance, Joe reached out to steady himself. Jack seized his chance and grabbed hold of the shorter man, spinning his arm up and around his back before pinning him against the wall.
“Listen kid, I dunno how long you’ve been in here but I guess you haven’t learned all the rules yet. If you wanna start something with a guy, get your first punch in quick and make it count. Otherwise they’re gonna find you lying on the floor of the shower with more holes in you than the jailhouse dartboard”.
“Let go of me!”
“You gonna calm down and play nice?” asked Jack tightening his grip.
“Yeah, yeah okay – just let go”.
Jack pushed Joe against the wall, where he hit the brickwork with a dull thud. The three men stood in a triangle, each eyeing the other closely.
“Now what was it you wanted to show me?” asked Jack.
Stepping forward, Tommy’s eyes glowed with the excitement of a kid clutching his first missing tooth.
“You heard of Salvatore Sorelli?”
“The gangster? Yeah, I know him a little actually, we were in the County Jail together at one time. Nice guy, despite the headlines” said Jack.
Joe moved alongside Tommy, his face sinking with shame.
“At one time Sorelli ran near enough every racket on the West Coast. When the law finally caught up with him they sent him here”.
“So where is he now?”
“Dead, throat cancer. They moved him to a prison hospital six months ago, he didn’t last long in there”.
“Okay, so why do I care?”
Tommy started to twitch wildly, his hair shaking like a dog fresh from a stream.
“This was the Don’s cell” he said pointing to the ground beneath his feet.
“Alright, so what?”
“Listen - Sorelli was a big shot. Before they moved him out there was a rumour he’d gotten an escape plan together. They say he was going to tunnel out, cut right through the wall and crawl to freedom” said Joe.
Jack moved across the room and tapped the wall with his knuckles.
“Bullshit, no one gets through these”.
Joe scoffed and sat down on his bunk. Jack took a seat opposite.
“Sorelli had a guard sneak in a bunch of tools; pick axes, hammers, even a hand drill. These walls aren’t as thick as you think old man, you just have to get through a couple of feet, then you fall into a bunch of air vents. Those are easy enough to crawl through, then there are a couple of weak spots in the wall outside. You get through one of those, you’re at the wire”.
“And then what?” asked Jack.
“Then you’re in trouble. The watchtowers will blind you with searchlights, you might catch a bullet from one of the guards up there. Add to that, I hear Shawcross ordered a charge set through the fence”.
“Can he do that?”
“Probably not, but no one’s stopping him. Anyway, one touch of that and you’re Jail bacon”.
Joe and Tommy could feel Jack grow curious.
“Alright so where’s the hole?”
“That’s the best part – Joe tell him, go on!” said Tommy bouncing up and down on the bunk.
Joe threw him a disapproving look and turned towards Jack.
“One of the screws brought Sorelli a brick, the big kind that keeps this wall together. After they were done cutting through the old one, they left the new one in its place”.
Tommy jumped to his feet and moved across the room, shaking off Joe’s attempts to keep him in place. Jack followed Tommy to the wall and watched him run his hand over the brickwork. He stopped at the far-left corner, at a brick no different to the others; battleship grey with a few chips and weapon scratchings in the centre. Tommy looked over his shoulder for any guards making the rounds. Seeing no one, he reached into his sock and retrieved two pieces of crude, workshop metal, both filed down to the shape of a cut-throat razor. Tommy gently inserted each piece into the side of the chosen brick.
“What’s he doing?”
“Shhh, just watch” said Joe.
The metal disappeared into the brickwork, leaving only an inch tightly clasped between Tommy’s thumb and index fingers. His arms tightened and a hazy layer of sweat formed across his brow. Tommy jerked his hands back and forth as if riding a bike. Gradually the brick began to emerge, pushing out like the extending lens of a camera. Jack let out a curious murmur and watched Tommy wrestle the brick free from the wall and lower it gently to the floor. The other two men fell to their knees in a semi-circle facing the wall. Where the brick had been, there was now a cavern, large enough for a man to fit through, leading into unknown depths of darkness. Jack struck a match on the wall and peered in.
“What d’ya see?” asked Joe.
“Christ, how far does this go?”
“I told you, the tunnel only goes a couple of feet. Then it’s just vents and crawlspaces. It’s like this prison was built for an escape”.
“Then why don’t you try it?” asked Jack.
“Don’t you listen old man, the power. All that electric flowing through the wire, those searchlights. If they don’t shoot you digging free you’ll get fried on the fence”.
“Well, better start praying for a power cut boys”.
“I guess” said Joe bitterly, lifting the brick back into place.
“Well whatever happens, good luck with it boys”
“You won’t say anything will you Jack?” asked Tommy.
“You kidding? I know the rules”.
“You better not say anything old man, or I’ll kill you before they get a chance”.
Annoyed, Jack raised his hand slightly and sent Joe covering his face.
“I know the rules” he said again.
At that moment, a chiming of nightsticks could be heard meeting cell bars along the corridor.
“Attention, Governor on the wing, prisoners out of bed now!” called a voice from outside.
The men of cell 23 stood against the wall and eyed the room for any visible contraband.
Governor Shawcross appeared, his face divided into segments by the bars. The cell gate slid open and in he stepped flanked by two broad and menacing guards.
“Gentlemen” the Governor announced as if conducting a funeral.
The prisoners lined up and stood silently to attention.
“Answer the Governor!” roared one of the guards.
“Bloodtooth, who do we have here?” asked Shawcross turning to the other guard. They moved along the line starting with Tommy.
“Armed robbery sir, ten years”
“I see, good behaviour?”
“Good, good. Are you being reformed young man?”
Tommy stood, struggling for words.
“Answer the Governor!” ordered the guard again.
“Yes sir, I don’t want to come back here”.
“Quite right, a lot of people work very hard to make sure you don’t come back here. You should thank them”
“Say thank you”
Tommy hesitated and shuffled his feet.
“Thank you” he whispered uneasily.
“Thank you, sir!” shouted Tommy, loud enough to make Shawcross jump back slightly.
“Very good, next Bloodtooth” he said moving along the line.
“This one’s trouble sir, two counts of murder”.
“Well why haven’t we executed him yet?”
“They suspect he committed another sir, they want him to stand trial for that one as well”.
“Hmm, what a waste of money” said the Governor contemptuously.
“Poor sir; violent towards staff and inmates, repeated escape attempts, drug possession”
“I see, so you want to cause trouble in my prison?”
Joe fixed his eyes on the Governor’s beard, isolating the rest of his face.
“Answer!” ordered the Guard.
“Then why do you fight with other prisoners? Why do you assault my staff?”
“I blame my mother sir”
“Your mother?” asked the Governor.
“She didn’t treat me well”.
“Your mother on the other hand, she’s very friendly, very friendly indeed. Ask any guy in here”.
“Shut up prisoner!” screamed the guard drawing his nightstick.
“It’s okay Bloodtooth” said the Governor gesturing to lower the weapon.
“So…a fighter and a joker, what a combination”.
“Don’t forget a lover sir”
The Governor smiled and folded his arms.
“Well I’m going to give you plenty of free time to work on your routine. Jackknife!” he said calling over the other guard.
“Take the prisoner to solitary confinement”.
“Fine, I just came out of the hole, my soup’s probably still warm”.
The Governor moistened his lips and tucked his thumbs into his beltline.
“Very well, perhaps we can put you to use elsewhere. Hmmm, Jackknife, Dental Detail – two weeks should be enough. Thank you”
Dental Detail or DD, was one of the Governor’s favourite punishments; because unlike solitary confinement, it had a practical as well as penal use. A man on DD would be made to clean the wing, fourteen hours a day using nothing but an old prison-issue toothbrush. If he was lucky, the prisoner might get the one toothbrush that still had a dozen bristles left on it. The wing didn’t just mean the cells; it meant the guards’ quarters, the hole, the medical room, and the workshop. The worst part of DD was that at the end of the day a prisoner would have to sleep on the floor, in the spot that he felt reflected his best efforts on that particular day. The result was that the next morning, the poor guy would have to clean that spot again because his prison uniform had dirtied it all up. After three days of this, most inmates were begging to be thrown in the hole.
The guard led Joe away silently and the governor finished his inspection by questioning Jack.
“What about this one Bloodtooth?”
“Murder sir, sentenced to death”.
“Ahh yes, our next offering for Old Sparky. Behaviour?”
“Excellent, I hope you’re using this time to reflect on your crimes”
Jack remained silent and looked out across the Governor’s gleaming head.
“Answer!” said the guard.
“I have been convicted and will accept my sentence” Jack said, almost without moving his lips.
“Really? A good attitude to take. But are you sorry for your crimes?”
Jack remained still and repeated:
“I have been convicted and will accept my sentence”
Something in Jack’s speech frightened the Governor, ordinarily such insubordination would have seen him following Joe, toothbrush in hand, straight out onto the wing. Instead, he peered up beneath Jack’s chin and announced:
“Well I have some good news for you, we’ve got a date for your execution – fifteen days from now. A Sunday, I hope that doesn’t bother you?”
Jack said nothing and breathed through his nose.
“Very well, that’s all, at ease gentlemen”.
Shawcross scuttled out of the cell and the guard pulled the gate shut.
Jack had fallen ill. It had been ten days since the Governor’s visit and he had been lying in bed, aching and moaning for almost a week. Although his execution was still a few days away, those men on the wing who heard the sounds coming from cell 23 imagined the procedure had already begun.
There were now two men in the cell, and Tommy dedicated much of his time to caring for Jack. The night when the older man vomited blood all over his bedsheets, Tommy lifted Jack across the room and laid him out on Joe’s empty bunk. The vomiting eventually became so frequent that Tommy called for a doctor, but the duty officer didn’t think it worthwhile making a fuss over a man who one way or another, would be dead by the end of the week.
One night, as Jack lay curled up on his bunk, an excitable Tommy tried to strike up a conversation.
“You know, you never told me how you ended up in here?”
Jack raised his hand from the bed, dismissing Tommy and groaning in pain.
“Come on, I can’t sleep, talk to me a little while”.
“I’m dying here. Let me die in peace”.
“You’ve been here long enough. Don’t you know the rules either? You never ask specifics about a man’s story” said Jack.
“Please, if you tell me I’ll let you sleep. I’ve earned a bit of conversation after the way I’ve looked after you this week”.
Jack breathed heavily, rolling over on his bunk to face Tommy and offering up a thin, uncomfortable smile. Jack didn’t like to talk about his crimes. They belonged to him, the court and the people he killed, no one else. Nevertheless, he felt he owed it to Tommy and decided to open up a little.
“Okay Tommy, I’ll tell you”.
The younger man leapt through the air like a ballet dancer and came to his knees beside Jack’s bunk.
“The first was an accident, seriously – a real accident, nobody’s fault at all”.
“I was working on a construction site. Me and this other guy had the job of hauling planks of wood up to the top floor of this apartment building and laying them out as flooring. There was no elevator so we had to carry as many as twenty units a go up ten flights of stairs. It was one of those exposed staircases so we had the wind blowing against us all day”.
Jack bent over to vomit again but managed only a mouthful of pale, bloody saliva.
“Anyway, the two of us didn’t get along. I don’t know why exactly but everyone on the site could see we were desperate to knock each other’s heads off. One day we got into an argument and I gave the guy a bloody nose. The rest of the crew broke up the fight, we calmed down and went back to work – no big deal”.
“And later that day, when I was carrying a bunch of planks up the stairs, the bum sneaks up behind me with a screwdriver and tries to get at my throat. I could hear his footsteps scurrying behind me, then…well it’s all kind of a blur. I guess I must have brought the planks around with me when I turned to face him. The next thing I know the guy’s taking a nosedive off the building, 100ft onto a pile of scrap metal”.
“And they put you in here for that?”
“Well they did once. What could I say? Everyone knew I hated the guy, we’d been kicking the hell out of each other just half an hour earlier. There was nothing unusual about a guy on a construction site holding a screwdriver. On top of all that there were no witnesses”.
“I can’t believe they did you for that”
“Funny isn’t it, Laurel and Hardy made a career off gags like that, me – I get ten years”.
Jack rolled over again and pressed his nose tight to the wall of the cell. Tommy tugged at his shirt.
“Huh?” mumbled Jack.
“What about the second one?”
“The second one?”
“The second charge”
“Ergh, come on, don’t make me go through that again”.
“Come on, you tell your story well”.
“Ergh, alright then. But this was an accident too, although I probably got a little carried away this time”.
Jack lay on his back, coughed up a wispy halo of blood and described his second charge.
“When I got out the first time, I found a job tending bar at a little place near the Mexican border. I was happy there, it was peaceful”.
“Then what happened?”
“This one night, two kids come into the bar when I was closing up. I was counting out the money with my back to them. I turned around to find a sawn-off lurking under my chin. They were there to rob the place”.
“What did you do?”
“I handed them the money, I wasn’t going to get my neck lowered for the sake of a couple hundred bucks”.
“So what was the problem?”
“These kids were drugged up or something. I slid the money across the counter and held up my hands as if to say ‘you get going’. But the one with the gun just stared at me, the meanest stare I’ve ever seen on a guy. He pressed the gun barrel into my throat and left me struggling for breath”.
“So what d’ya do?”
“What could I do? I thought the crazy kid was gonna shatter my windpipe. I coughed and looked off to my side, hoping to distract him. It worked too! As his eyes followed mine I reached under the counter for a glass, pulled my arm round and smashed it over his head”.
“Wow, did you get the gun off him?”
“You’re damned right I did. It fell straight into my arms and I pointed it at the bum as he collapsed in a heap on the counter. I told the two of them to get the hell out or I’d break them in half. That’s when I noticed the other guy going for his pocket, he had a piece on him too,
one of those little things they use to shoot cans at the county fair. He pulled it up to my face and just as he was about to pull the trigger, I swung round and took half his head off. His brains were all over the jukebox”.
“What about the other guy?”
“Ergh, he sprung back to life and slashed my arm with a shard of glass – I still have the scar, see”
Jack painfully tugged the sleeves of his uniform up to the elbow, exposing a long, shining gash on the underside of his forearm.
“I’m gonna tell you a secret Tommy, I could have let him go at that point. I could have cracked him with the gun and sent him off crying into the night. They would have given me
manslaughter, self-defence. I would have served maybe a year”.
“So what did you do?”
Jack sighed and wiped some dried blood from around his mouth.
“I pushed him to the floor, jumped over the counter and fired a round into his crotch. He screamed like a baby”.
“Oh Jackie, that’s never okay”.
“I know, I know. I regret it but…I dunno, all I could see was red. I just wanted to hurt this guy so bad”.
“What did they give you for that?”
“That’s the crazy part. The guy with his brains all over the jukebox – he survived. He was a total vegetable but he’s still breathing somewhere. The guy on the floor missing two nuts, he bled out immediately. The judge said my actions ‘demonstrated a cruel and sadistic desire to inflict pain on the victim, above and beyond what was reasonable under the circumstances’.
They gave me fifteen years”.
“Come to think of it, that was kinda my fault. I shouldn’t have put him down the way I did”.
“No use worrying about it now” said Tommy.
“I guess not”.
“What about the last one, the one that brought you here?”
“I don’t wanna talk about that”
“Oh come on, we’re almost there”.
“No Tommy, go to sleep”
“Come on, I’m enjoying this”.
“Tommy, go to sleep or I’ll put you to sleep!” said Jack holding out a weak fist.
Knowing better, Tommy backed away and let Jack rest.
“Lights out!” yelled a guard from the landing.
The cell fell into darkness and the two men lay silent.
“Jack” whispered Tommy after a couple of minutes had passed.
“I hate the dark, ever since I was a kid I’ve hated the dark”.
“There’s worse things than darkness Tommy” groaned Jack.
“If you say so”
“I do, you can be who you wanna be in the dark – you can be free. Around here that’s gotta count for something”
Tommy was asleep; snoring gently, with each effortless breath blowing the hair across his brow.
Jack tucked his legs beneath his arms, coughed into his pillow and lay awake on his bunk, watching the stars glimmer through the small barred window of the cell.
Joe was released from Dental Detail after two weeks. He was weak, stinking and just as mean as ever. As he was led into cell 23, Joe almost found himself led right back out again for dragging his feet in a manner which the Governor felt unruly. Shawcross was there for two reasons; one he wanted to check up on the man who was threatening his right to carry out an execution by dying prematurely, and second because materials had been disappearing from the prison workshop. Tommy and Joe stood to attention, but the Governor felt kind enough to allow Jack to watch from his bunk, either that or he couldn’t stomach the hassle of moving him.
“Gentlemen, we have a problem. Some supplies have gone missing from the workshop; bolts, nails, scraps of metal. Can one of you tell me why this would be a problem?”
The men were silent, forming their hands into thin blades by their sides.
“It’s a problem gentlemen because metal – crude chunks of metal can become dangerous
weapons in the hands of career criminals like you three”.
“Sir, I’m only here on one conviction…”
“Shut up prisoner!” screamed a guard, seizing Tommy by the arm.
“As I was saying; it doesn’t take much to sharpen down some scrap iron on a cell wall and use the deadly instrument to settle a lovers’ quarrel on the exercise yard”.
The guards moved in beside the bunks.
“So each cell will now be searched. And if we don’t find anything today, we’ll come back the next day and the next, and the day after that. We’ll keep turning over these cells until we find what we’re looking for or someone confesses”.
His final word seemed designed to provoke a hysterical admission of guilt. It found no takers and the infuriated governor clicked his fingers, signalling to the guards to begin.
The two men stepped forward and started to ransack the place with all the joy of a pair of kids in an abandoned house. Joe and Tommy moved against the wall and the Governor retreated into the hallway. A storm of sheets, blankets, pillow entrails and papers rained down over everyone in the room. It was all over in minutes, when they were finished, barely a square inch lay open for a person to occupy. The Governor stepped back into the cell and took up the nearest thing to a free space.
“Anything?” Shawcross asked.
“No sir, all clear”.
The Governor sighed and shrugged his shoulders.
“Nevermind, we’ll be back again tomorrow”.
Jack coughed violently in his bunk, holding his side as if he’d been stabbed.
“So prisoner, tomorrow’s the big day – your moment to shine. Do you have anything to say?”
Jack looked up, his face running with sweat.
“I have been convicted and will accept my sentence” he groaned.
“Hmm does he know any other words I wonder? I’ll see you in the morning. Thank you gentlemen”.
The Governor and guards surveyed the chaos and left the cell with their heads held high.
Tommy picked up a pile of papers and quickly returned them to the floor.
“Well that was fun”
Joe and Tommy fell onto their bunks, now stripped of sheets and blankets. Jack let out a heavy groan and shook wildly.
“Quit complaining old man, at least you don’t have to make your bed”.
“Leave him alone Joe” said Tommy stretching out on the mattress.
“So what did I miss?” asked Joe.
“It’s prison, nothing ever happens”
“What are you talking about? It’s prison, something’s always happening”.
Tommy swung his feet around and sat up on his bunk.
“Jack was telling me about how he ended up here”
“Oh yeah? What was it, did he crack some old lady over the head for her purse? Looks more like a pimp if you ask me”.
“Nothing like that; from the sound of things he got a raw deal”.
Neither man could tell whether or not Jack had fallen asleep. He lay with his face to the wall, breathing faintly beneath the blanket.
“Crime of passion I heard – killed some kid” whispered Joe.
“Not Jackie. No way, he’s like me he’s just unlucky”.
“Well you keep thinking that. Listen; I passed a couple of guards on my way up here, they were talking about what he did. They said he caught his girl in bed with the kid next door. Next thing you know the crazy old man’s carving up the poor guy like a thanksgiving turkey”.
“What about the girl?”
“He let her go”
“I let her go because I loved her”.
Jack’s voice fell slowly across the room like a cloud of winter fog. The two men turned to face him and watched a thin streak of blood pour out of his open mouth.
“You okay Jackie?” asked Tommy.
“Come here” he said, motioning to the two of them. They approached and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Yeah, I did it, I killed the kid. That was my last murder, the one that brought me here”.
“Why d’ya do it Jackie?”
“Like Joe said, he was messing around with my wife”
“That happens to guys all over the world, what makes you so special?” asked Joe.
“Nothing, and that’s why I’m here”.
“During my last stint, a woman started writing to me as part of the prison pen-pal programme. Her name was Judy; she was divorced, no kids and lived alone in a place on the coast. We wrote to each other every day. We fell in love in those letters. Once I got out, I went to join her. For a time, it was great; we got married and I felt like my run of bad luck was over”.
“So what happened?” asked Tommy.
“I dunno, I think the excitement of being with an ex-con must have worn off. She lost interest. I could tell she was seeing other people, but I guess I just tried to ignore it. Then one day I came home early from work and found her in bed with some kid. I knew him actually, he lived across the street from us, couldn’t have been more than seventeen”.
“What did you do?”
“I told him to stand up and get dressed, then I left the room. I walked into the kitchen and took a knife from the drawer, then headed back into the bedroom. The kid was still lying there, next to her with his pants around his ankles. They both just stared at me, not seeming to care that I’d caught them – if anything they were mad at me for ruining their fun. I must have stood there for five minutes just waiting for them to show a little shame, to at least try and apologise…but they didn’t. I had the knife behind my back. I wasn’t gonna use it, I just wanted to scare them both. After a while the kid sat up on the bed, and just said ‘I think you better go’. Can you imagine that? In my house, my bed, with my wife. The next thing I know…ahh hell I don’t know what happened. The next thing I know the poor guy’s on the floor and I’m standing over him, bringing the knife down over and over. Judy was screaming and the kid started letting out these little whimpers. He moved and I lost my grip on the knife, it flew behind me and disappeared into the bed sheets. Judy shouted my name and I immediately snapped out of it. I looked around and thought; no accident this time. I left the house, got into my car and drove away”.
The two men shuffled nervously on the bunk.
“The cops picked me up the next day. They told me that Judy had sat up with the kid all night before going to get help. She must have really liked him. That’s why I’m here. I did it, I regret it. My lawyer claimed it was a crime of passion. But it was a crime of pride, and tomorrow that stupid, macho pride’s gonna get me killed”.
Joe rose from the bunk and began tapping on the cell wall.
“So old man, I guess you’re just as bad as the rest of us”.
“Shut up Joe, you never told us what you were in for anyway” said Tommy.
“You never asked, and hey it’s no secret. I killed two girls on their way home from a dance”.
“What?” whispered Jack painfully turning onto his front.
“Caught them on the side of the road, offered them a ride. Did my thing and then…well then they put me in here”.
Jack wheezed and turned white.
“What? Like you’re any better?” said Joe attempting to flex his muscles.
“Let’s all get some sleep” replied Jack.
“Good idea old man, you have to be up early tomorrow”.
“Shut up Joe” said Tommy, now in his bunk and pulling a crumpled blanket over his face.
The ripping open of the cell gate at 4am the next morning felt like a welcome relief compared to usual routine of nightsticks against bars. It was so serene that all the men of cell 23 slept through it and had to be awoken by painful jabs to the ribs by a group of guards. The Governor had come along especially, he never missed an execution. Joe and Tommy were pulled from their beds and made to stand against the wall while the guards helped Jack to his feet. He hadn’t changed his clothes in days, various shades of dried blood had formed across his shirt like the uneven texture of badly cooked meat. It took three attempts to get Jack upright, and even then, he could only be held in place with a guard on each side. Shawcross, his beard peering out like uncut grass, served the official notice of death.
“John Lucas Thompson, you have been found guilty of the crime of murder by a jury of your peers and have been condemned to die by way of electrocution, do you have anything to say?”
Jack coughed, drooling blood onto the floor.
“Let me guess ‘I have been convicted and will accept my sentence’?” said the governor smiling.
“Metal” Jack whispered.
“Metal, I know who’s been taking the metal from the workshop”.
“Who?” asked the Governor excitedly.
Jack hesitated, remembering his years inside, remembering that a snitch was a friend to no man, not even the Governor. To hell with it he thought, what more could they do to him now?
“Joe, the prisoner over there. He’s been taking the metal” he said desperately raising a hand over his shoulder”.
“What? You Goddamn rat!” Joe shouted.
“Shut up!” yelled a guard moving to the back of the room. He seized hold of Joe and dragged him in front of Jack.
“Is this true?” the Governor asked.
“Yes, I saw him do it. He was planning on making a shank and going for you – he was mad that you put him on DD”.
The Governor turned purple and started to sway from side to side.
“Are you okay sir?” asked the guard,
“Of course I’m okay” he said adjusting his collar. Jack tried his best to catch the Governor’s eyes as they held back a flicker of panic.
“Get him out of here. Solitary, for a month!”
The guard threw a hand on Joe’s neck and pushed him towards the door. As he moved, Joe began swiping wildly at the Governor, screaming and cursing, letting him know what he’d do when he came back to the wing. Shawcross recovered his composure and addressed Jack.
“Well since you’ve been so co-operative prisoner, I’m going to let you say goodbye to your friend here” he said beckoning Tommy to approach.
The younger man came around to face Jack, brushing the hair from his eyes.
“Goodbye Jackie, thanks for all your help”
Jack, his eyes rolling as if drunk, motioned him to draw nearer. Tommy leaned in, so close he could feel a haze of bloody, stale breath land on his neck.
“Be at the wire at 5am, use the tunnel, don’t tell anyone”
“Alright that’ll do” said a guard pushing Tommy away and leaving the younger man stood against the wall.
“Let’s get to it then” said the Governor rubbing his hands. He was first out of the cell, followed by the two guards dragging Jack and a third who pulled the gate shut. Tommy was left alone in the cell, his face now fixed on the innocuous brick in the far-left corner of the wall.
Almost an hour later; in another part of the prison, Jack sat barely conscious in the electric chair, his head slumped over as if Old Sparky had already done its work. His hands and feet were secured, the sponge soaked in vinegar and a covering placed over Jack’s head. Governor Shawcross watched from the far corner of the room, his eyes glued to the clock behind the condemned man. It was now 5am, the governor took out his pocket watch and held it up to the light. A minute fast, they would wait. Shawcross believed in precision and fair trades; he would fulfil his end of the bargain at the right time. An elderly guard, his cap pulled down low over his eyes disappeared into the other room and raised the switch. Any moment now it would fall and Shawcross would see another job well done. A groan fell out from under the covering and Jack coughed violently. Ten seconds remaining. Governor Shawcross licked his lips and bounced up on the balls of his feet. Jack shook his head, groaned one last time and whispered three faint words:
“Good luck Tommy”
The switch came down and a flash of light engulfed the room. Sparks flew in every direction, a chorus of screams bounced against the walls and the Governor collapsed to the ground. At that moment, all the lights in Parksburg went out and the prison was absorbed into the vast, unending blackness of the surrounding countryside.
An official investigation found that the power outage was caused by a short circuit generated during the execution of John Lucas Thompson. As most prisoners were asleep the blackout caused no problems. When power was restored, some twenty minutes later, all the inmates were found in their bunks with no idea of what had happened. There was just one prisoner missing, he was the last occupant of cell 23. A young man aged twenty-six named Thomas Furlong, serving ten years for armed robbery. He had escaped from Parksburg during the power outage, using a tunnel that had lay hidden for at least five years. The prisoner left his cell, crawled through the ventilation system at the heart of the prison and emerged out of an air vent between the wall and the wire. No searchlights were there to spot him as he sliced through the wire using a pair of bolt cutters that had been left along the route of the tunnel. The police found his prison uniform in the bathroom of a gas station three miles away. No one has seen him since.
Governor Shawcross didn’t believe in coincidences; he knew that Tommy couldn’t have predicted the outage and so smelled a conspiracy. However, Shawcross was also a man who believed in covering up conspiracy with an even greater conspiracy. This led him to pay one of his guards to state that Tommy had taken him hostage with a shank, stolen his uniform and walked out the front door. This would be totally unconnected to the power outage.
Had the investigators delved deeper, they might have taken another look at the prisoner that had just been executed. Just another of the hundreds of other men that were to die at Parksburg prison in future years. Every death, like every life is significant, but perhaps the death of Jack Thompson was something special. Because of all the men that had sat in that chair previously; and all that were to follow, none, when the autopsy was performed were found to have 5lbs’ worth of prison workshop metal in their stomachs.
It was around the time the news broke that she made her decision: she and Bryan were over. Their year of stale coffee grinds and kale chips, of serotonin sleepovers and Nintendo narcosis had reached its terminus. It was time to move on. Her decision had nothing to do with the singer; she isn't a fan, and probably wouldn't recognize one of his tunes if he were serenading her, as if that were possible now. But this thing with her and Bryan, it's like a film without a climax, without any development or even opening credits, only a repetitive denouement fizzing toward entropy. She needed to get out as soon as possible. She needed resolution.
Which is how she explains it on her weblog. She can't tell him directly, not yet, so she uploads her beef onto the internet first. It was right after the push notifications materialized on her phone, she says, that she realized she and Bryan had to part ways. It's okay that she's posting this before telling him in person, he doesn't read her writing anyway, and maybe that's part of the problem. Overall, he's a decent enough guy. Washes her dishes when he eats over. Cleans out the viruses from her laptop. Introduces her to awesome new apps, and gives great foot massages. The sex is okay, not exactly shock and awe, but better than with most of her exes. In the bedroom, he's much the same as he is anywhere else. He puts all her needs ahead of his own. Except one. The one that, it seems, only his absence could fulfill.
The truth is, for the past few weeks, she's been experiencing this bloated sensation within her gut, something not unlike a phantom pregnancy, as if a sort of insemination has occurred, and a zygotic union formed, though engendered in pessimism, and more futile than fecund in its elaboration. Maybe the signs have been there all along. All those tweets about the #PointlessnessOfEverything. (Though people assumed this was just coming from her natural poetic predisposition to melancholy.) Whenever a Facebook friend changes their relationship status back to Single, she's usually the first to hit the like icon. As for her own status, she never bothered updating it. Not even after Bryan changed his, a month after they started seeing each other. Not even a year in, when you can't quite hide from the fact anymore.
One of her readers comments that she should be careful about acting impulsively. To make sure she isn't, she goes to Songza. Selects a playlist of romantic songs. None are by teen pop idols; they're by people her own age or older, all experts at discerning true love from the counterfeits. All averring how nothing beats the Real Thing. True love lasts forever; it doesn't tell lies and it doesn't let your attention wander. It's something you can possess without the requirement of a loan or a 30-year mortgage. It's the cosmic life-force, indeterminate and abstract, that can nevertheless be easily encapsulated by a 3-minute tune in a major key. She listens for almost two hours. She eats a couple bags of kale chips and drinks a power shake, but her heart stays just a heart, in all its beating cardiovascular regularity.
She will make an appointment with her GP to have her prescription strengthened. He will ask her routinely if anything significant has changed in her life since the last time. She will routinely reply that nothing has.
Not very long ago, she was this college girl who was bored with language yet who spent an inordinate amount of time trying to compose poems for the internet. When she couldn't find a suitable word that expressed the right sentiment, she would make one up. Not nonsense words like the ones found in Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll, but the kinds Joyce might have invented. One of her poems was an 8-line piece made entirely of neologisms that would've suited Finnegan's Wake. Like interlexion, which denoted the space between two words on a page (which she considered to be as meaningful as printed text); and marginitalia: those erotically-charged doodles you often make in the margins of your class notes; and disillment, a sort of hybrid of disillusionment and an obscure illness traceable to acute alienation. She soon packed whole megabytes with these coinages and their definitions. Until she got bored with them too, and just let them languish in a forgotten USB stick.
Then she tried learning a few foreign languages. French, Swedish. God morgon, Jan. God morgon, Brigit. Hur mår du idag? Or, Bonjour, Philippe. Il fait frois dehors, n'est-ce pas? And that's when she understood the crux of her dilemma: it wasn't the words she found uninteresting, it was the things they signified. It was soon after this that her doctor signed off on her first prescription.
She needs a new word for her relationship with Bryan. Something that should exist by its own merit but cannot. Something that every girl says she wants, yet would run the other way from given the opportunity. Something that should best remain undefined, if not unspoken.
And yet she has to give him a reason why she's pulling the plug. But what can she say? Bryan, our relationship has undergone a semantic shift. We are broken syntax, a fragment of a conditional sentence with a missing apodosis. Our metaphors lack both figure and ground. We're a cliché; our lexicon has kicked the bucket.
Bryan, there is no real love. There are only icons and idols in a godless world. A stage that has crumbled into a quintessence of dust.
It was so much easier with her other boyfriends. Those relationships all died of natural causes. After several overheated, door-slamming arguments (Steve). After she found out the guy was seeing her best friend on the side (Tom and Allison, those shits). After he moved to Singapore (Dave; though he still private messages her sometimes). But Bryan hasn't aggrieved her. He doesn't aggrieve people. He's always available she needs help unclogging a drain. Comes over at the drop of a hat to fix an electrical short. He knows the difference between series and parallel circuits. And he can bake, too. He's the sort of person who will pine away for a new PlayStation 4, then fantasize aloud about starting up an organic farm in California.
She drops onto the sofa and reaches for the remote. Almost no one on TV is talking about the dead singer. MTV3 is running Never Say Never, but with more commercials than film footage. On CNN, AJ and Nischelle spend three minutes debating the finer nuances of his post-adolescent material, now known as his Late Period, before shifting to a discussion about the next Bachelorette. Fox, meanwhile, has a tasteless exposé on child celebrity drug problems. MTV, MTV2, VH1 and Bravo are all running clips dedicated to Caitlyn. Disney is showing reruns of early Hannah Montana episodes.
The phone chirrups. Texts from a couple of girlfriends who saw her blog. Heidi wants to make sure she isn't afraid she will never meet another decent guy and die a lonely death. Lise asks whether Bryan hit her or committed a criminal act. Both invite her over for TV, Snuggies and Doritos.
She assures them she's fine, that Bryan hasn't done anything wrong, that they just ran out of steam. What she doesn't mention is how there never was very much steam to begin with. That gravity is all you need to propel you when you're travelling on a perpetual downward slope.
It's funny how the one thing all couples do at the beginning of every relationship is to replay the dissolution of the last one. Maybe it comes from a natural human need for dramatic continuity, for assurance you aren't just happening in medias res. But these conversations must also have a practical purpose: a way of sussing out the other's moral and ethical base, as reflected in his or her reactions to the breakup narrative. Are you showing me an adequate amount of sympathy right now? And an adequate degree of antipathy toward my ex? These conversations act like a big Yield sign on the road to the bedroom: So long as you don't repeat his mistakes, we'll be fine. Oddly, Bryan never talks about his exes. They've run into two or three of them about town, and he always behaves courteously toward them. He never let on what led to their breakups. As if he didn't want to give her any ammunition she could use later on.
She opens the folder in Google Drive where she keeps drafts of all her poetry. Opens a document entitled Stuff about Bryan. She wrote this a few weeks after they started seeing each other, random things that either did or did not endear him to her. Like how his face dimples when he passes a bakery selling Dutch crullers. Or how his nipples aren't aligned. How he is the only partner she's had who will willingly watch Girls with her. And not just for the sex scenes. Bryan's like the only guy on the planet who doesn't look at net porn. It isn't for moral reasons, he says; he just thinks the videos lack imagination. She says she thought that's why they make them, for people without imaginations. He says there's no point frittering with fantasies when you could be enjoying the real thing. It was weird to hear him say this. He doesn't listen to popular music.
Another thing about Bryan is that while he isn't afraid to show his emotions, he doesn't cry much. There was the one instance he teared up a little after Marnie broke up with Charlie for like the three-hundredth time. And the night he took her to see a production of Lear, and his cheeks moistened at the end when the old man died. Her own eyes couldn't have been drier if they were constructed from cardboard. It wasn't a real old man. His daughter wasn't really his daughter. They were characters. Played by actors. On a stage.
The only time she caught him weeping openly was after his office issued the Employee of the Year award to someone else. All those nights he took work home, and weekends too, he bawled. Days before, he went around to everyone's cubicle canvassing their support like a politician. A colleague of his later told her there were six nominees, and only seven people bothered voting. One staffer got two votes, the others only one. She didn't ask the colleague if Bryan was among the nominees.
Are you kidding me? He wept?
This was Lise, replying to her text.
He takes the Employee of the Year award that seriously?
Lise didn't mean this. Her comment was accompanied by a sarcasm emoji. What she was really saying was: Get the fuck out before it's too late.
In a few hours Bryan will be over. He will venture a cheek kiss or shoulder pat or make some form of respectful contact, sit on her chair, rest on her couch. He will carefully thumb through a magazine from her coffee table: The New Yorker, Utne, Harper's, Women's Health. He will treat her space with a display of familiarity bordering on intimacy, and yet with the same solicitous deference to personal boundaries he shows her own body. He may or may not be wondering: Should I ask her to move in with me? He may or may not be dreaming of marriage, of raising children together someday. He probably would be willing if she told him she wanted to.
He will ask her what she's done today. Whether she's written any new poems or anything. Then he will bring up the news. They will exchange speculations about whether drugs or alcohol were involved, or whether it was by the departed's own hand. He will make an offhand joke about some conspiratorial theory he read on the Deep Web. She will not laugh.
She will say there is something she needs to tell him. He will ask if he can pour himself a glass of water first. She will say of course. He either will or will not reach for an ice cube in the freezer. He either will or will not ask her if she would like something stronger for herself.
When she is done, there won't be tears. He will simply ask in a quiet voice if he can have a few minutes to gather up his things. He will circulate through the apartment like a spent zephyr, careful not to touch anything that doesn't belong to him.
He won't even bother asking her why. In all probability he understands that all breakups are the same, in that they are as senseless as the premature death of a young celebrity. Both depend on an iconology of permanence to mask their fragility.
After he leaves, she will turn the TV back on. The newsman will give the time and location for the funeral. He will name all the A- and B-listers expected to be attending. It’s unlikely, however, any one of them will weep either.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Marc S. Cohen is a writer, artist and musician born in the United States and residing in Canada.
An orange cab headed south through the pocked intersection at Kipling Avenue and Bloor Street, a white cloud pluming from its exhaust. From the curb, Rebecca spotted the vacancy and lifted her hand tentatively to hail it down. She watched the cab driver scan the sidewalks, the overcast sky stinging sleepy pedestrians with diffused light. He focused on a crew of safety vests and steel-toed boots walking into the Coffee Time at the corner before nodding in her direction. Rebecca dropped her arm and grabbed her son’s wrist as the cab pulled up.
Sometimes Rebecca had difficulty finding a cab to take her midtown. In the past, she had a few drivers confide in her that a handful of customers doing small trips is more profitable than one going the distance. “The payout’s all in the starting rate, lady,” they told her. With this in mind, Rebecca never revealed her destination until the wheels were turning beneath her, in hopes that her ejection became more inconvenient than her request.
The driver waited patiently as a sleepy-eyed boy crawled in, followed by his mother who slammed the door shut, causing the hanging pine scent to shake its stiff hips. Rebecca read the card in the plastic sleeve on the passenger’s headrest: Henry R. Knobs, operator since 2002. After merging into the left lane, Mr. Knobs finally asked where they were headed beneath his ungroomed mustache.
“45 Mount Pleasant Road,” she answered flatly. The driver rolled his eyes and set the fare meter glowing.
Rebecca’s son placed his Thomas & Friends knapsack on her lap and lay across the bench to nap. The seatbelts hung helplessly in their corners. The cab driver’s eyebrows danced like pinball guards in suspicion, she could see them swelling each time he glanced from the road to the mirror. A waving pedestrian, whose unlatched briefcase spilled over with mishandled reports, went ignored as Mr. Knobs continued to peer at his passengers.
Rebecca remained composed under the obvious scrutiny. The split-ends of her hair were curved tusks next to her jaw. Her high and round cheeks read more sallow than their broadness promised. Between the dark-circles beneath her eyes and the premature creases at their sides, a thin-lipped smile was her best disguise. She was a faded photo of a girl in her prime.
At a red light Mr. Knobs grabbed a pistachio from a container on the seat next to him, and adjusted his posture on his beaded seat cover.
“Heading to work?” he asked, discarding the husk into his armrest and grabbing another nut. Rebecca looked to the plastic bag nestled between the seat and the triangle made by Eddie’s bent knees. Her yellow rubber glove pointed skyward, as if attempting to make an interjection. Rebecca inhaled the stale scent of weathered leather, stuffed the glove back in and nodded a timid confirmation.
“Ma was a cleaner too,” Mr. Knobs managed to share through his vigorous chewing. “Made the mistake of never wearing those gloves. All those chemicals seeping into her hands, all day long,” he shook his head. “Left her hands as cracked and rough as the desert floor.”
Rebecca ran her hand over her son’s soft hair. The resurgence of guilt was insurmountable; the 24-year-old mother knew her world was a last grasp at a last grasp, every hold precarious. A passing car’s glare made her wince. She caught the driver’s expectant eyes in the rearview.
“Isn’t that right?” the driver turned his cheek to look at her.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Cleanliness is next godliness is what my ma always said.”
Rebecca gave another appeasing smile to the overused adage that was regularly flung at her.
“How come you’re driving out so far anyway? If I remember correctly, we didn’t make enough money to spend on luxurious rides downtown.”
The cabbie’s chin jutted into the air in a zealous nod and hum, and then flicked his left-turn signal on.
“Could you make a left at the next light, it’s a bit shorter.”
Mr. Knobs perked up at the instruction and turned the signal off, “Sure thing miss. Been late before I take it?”
“The babysitter isn’t always reliable,” she lied. There were always a few days a month she had to sacrifice the service after paying rent.
“Ah,” he nodded. “Ma never trusted us with anyone. She would’ve dressed us up as mops and hidden us in pails to keep us nearby. I can’t be sure if it’s because she was more worried about us or about the people she was going to leave us with.” He gave a hearty laugh, “Come to think of it, she might’ve just wanted to put us to work too.” She watched his smile fall with the high viscosity of longing as they crawled to another red light.
Rebecca embraced the muted reality of the cab: a silent radio, a blurred idyllic daydream. For a moment she did not regret the waning morality of it all. A second or two that did not rely on wit and luck to propel them forward was a welcomed relief. She scanned the roads with the careless ease of window-shopping.
In the entrance of an abandoned storefront, a group of drifters lounged on a flattened cardboard box. They were the vagrant youths who used their lifestyles as a statement to rally against the institution. As a parent, Rebecca spends every day trying to cram into the shallow pockets of the stingy system. She knows the frustrated shakes following a discarded plea for help, and the wafer-thin dignity that remained to quell the temptation to ask for more. Just to gain enough. In some ways, she envied their freed spirits, whilst neglecting the cold winter nights, the fights and abuse they endured for a communal rebellion.
Blue-eyed Eddie. Rebecca looked down at her son. His eyes moved left and right behind his translucent lids. She resented that beauty could be born from empty promises, that a lifetime could be bred from indifferent encounters. She lifted her eyes to the corner to see the bearded boy kiss a girl before turning to take a drag of a joint. A rolled sleeping pad buckled at the backpack’s base kept the leverage in the reclining boy’s favour. The taste of spite coated her unarmed tongue. But the bitterness was hers alone. Rebecca looked over her shoulder to keep sight of the smiling girl as the cab moaned forward. The young mother felt compelled to warn the girl of her own hardships. But perhaps she wouldn’t agree to take them on; indifference didn’t scatter at the sight of responsibility in all its victims.
Rebecca wondered if after all her errs and fruitless attempts at a good life, her son would avoid the daily uncertainty of being in luck’s good favour. If he rolled doubles maybe he could choose his fate. Two phantom die with twelve unmarked sides rattled in her pocket as they lurched to another red light.
An orange cab pulled up beside them. Rebecca was parallel with the attractive woman in the backseat. The young mother propped her elbow on the doorsill, and eyed the passenger safely behind her partially hidden face. It was difficult for her to swallow the envy that awoke at the sight of the woman’s sheening hair and rouged cheeks. Rebecca traced the woman’s posture and mindlessly straightened her own. She looked to see if there was a child across her lap, holding her breath so as not to fog up her view. But, before she could confirm her suspicions, Mr. Knobs inched the car forward, and Rebecca met the suspicious stare from the suited woman.
The warm wave of embarrassment that rolled through her was quickly doused when she came parallel to the icy stare of the other driver. She caught his eyes cinching in recollection, as his mind flipped through a frequently visited blacklist of passengers. Her hand instinctively tightened around the bicep of her son’s cotton sweater. She turned her face away to stave off his recognition. Leaning passed the passenger seat headrest she searched for the countdown. Pedestrians jogged to make it safely across in the last few seconds before the orange palm appeared. Below the wheel, she looked at her driver’s right loafer giving a tight-lipped scream for it to move. The car pulled forward. Rebecca’s back remained rigid with tension, unmoved by the increasing horsepower. The boy pulled open one eye and lifted his cheek from Thomas’ inviting smile. He watched, as she looked hard at the road ahead driving the cab with her stare. His forehead was pulled together at the brow in angst.
With the cab behind them, she ran her soft hand over her son’s eyes after winking a consolation. His strange blue eyes resumed their imitation of sleep. A crackling disturbed the silence as Rebecca’s hands fidgeted with the plastic bag, and then, self-conscious, moved to the strands hanging at the base of her neck to calm her.
They travelled west on St. Clair, the streetcars whining ahead, passed the jade awnings of Rolex headquarters. The digital clock read 8:28 a.m.
“It would be real mean of them to fire you for being late,” said the cab driver. “Especially knowing full well you have a little boy to clothe and feed.”
She nodded knowing Eddie was a debt she’d agreed too. A thin smile returned.
“It ain’t easy to gain the loyalty of people who don’t think too much of you,” Mr. Knobs continued. “But it can be done with some hard work and integrity. Ma raised three of us on the pay of cleaning jobs. Don’t know how, but she did.”
On Yonge Street the cab turned left and slowed unexpectedly; the driver whistled at the queue of traffic ahead. Siren lights. An accident.
“This might be a while,” the driver said over his shoulder. He grabbed another pistachio and tossed its shell into the mass grave at his elbow.
Rebecca looked out the window; the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery was less than a half-block away. The meter read $27.25.
Rebecca whispered to her son. “Babe, we’re here.”
The boy pulled himself up, the tracks of Thomas & Friends pressed into his clear skin. Straining to see above the dashboard he asked, “What happened mommy?”
Mr. Knobs opened the car door and placed one foot on the pavement, squinting passed the gleaming car roofs to the accident. She looked back at the long line of idling cars inches away from the left side of the cab. Gridlock. Guilt drowned in the high tides of adrenaline.
Rebecca opened the door and helped her son leap onto the asphalt, before following. She closed the door lightly behind her, and walked a couple of meters backward to avoid being spotted in Mr. Knobs’ periphery. He scanned the roads, staring into the car windows of the slow procession coming toward them for signs of an explanation. They slipped between two stopped cars in the left lane.
The boy ran ahead of her. He knew what was at stake.
At the stone pillars, she watched Thomas the Tank Engine pull in. Over her shoulder, she caught the conflicted expression on Mr. Knobs’ face. She cringed under his ceaseless stare; his eyes became an unsettling sight of retribution cowering beneath pity. Integrity was a luxury she could not afford. She listened for the cries of justice; she, too, was desperate for fairness. But none came. The distress in his brow vanished. He picked at something between his teeth and crouched back behind the wheel. Rebecca memorized the “451” decal on the car door and, with shame curling her shoulders, ran into the cemetery to catch up to Eddie.
She followed Eddie’s racing ankles as they blinked in and out of sight beneath the frays of his pant cuffs. His knapsack jostled, as he turned left into Section A, the eastern most point of the property. The sharp turn didn’t cause his momentum to falter, and Rebecca began to run faster to keep him in her sight. The car horns echoed against the tombstones and were absorbed into the grassy plots. Passing under a pair of quivering red oaks, Rebecca watched Eddie as he flew past the chain link fence to access Moor Park Ravine. She was impressed he remembered the route since the last time. But the checkpoint was an unsecured paddock beyond where her tending could reach.
Unease came over her as she entered the shaded canopy and tiptoed down the hill. She could barely follow the brief glimpses of blue sprinting toward the abandoned iron bridge. Rebecca licked her dry lips, panting to keep up. Overcoming her was the subtle panic of waiting for something that should have already come. As when a bystander waits for a diver to break the water’s surface, every moment of refrain coddles doubt. Eddie should have looked back to spot her, but he pummeled onward. She feared the cutting glare of the betrayed when he turned, a look to tip the teetering wall of misplaced faults.
She watched him brush the curls from his eyes before smiling back at the gap between him and his opponent. He kept his lead as he sprinted up the steel staircase to her client’s street. Rebecca eased a bit; she feared that someday he wouldn’t look back. That he’d finally caught onto her. Realizing that his mother was a thief, he’d feel too betrayed to understand her trials. If he knew that she was ashamed would that turn his judgment onto the system that caught her in an infinite game of cat and mouse? Rebecca was certain however, that someday he’d realize she was merely the shadow of a mother.
Eddie, flushed with exertion, waved to her from the finish line at the top of the staircase.
“I win again!” he grinned as Rebecca reached him. She tucked her apprehensions into the corners of her curled mouth and took his hand.
There was so little for him to brag about. “That’s right baby.” She glanced left and right along the street before turning down to house number 37 with unnatural prowess.
“It’s three – nothing,” he boasted, unaware of the cab coming toward them. Rebecca instinctively tightened her grip to keep her son from running.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Cristina De Miranda is a Toronto-based fiction writer.