“You needs be careful when you talks to dat guy,” the man sitting next to me in the mess hall whispered. I continued chewing on my rubbery eggs, looking off into space inconspicuously. “He woiks for dem. He be lookin’ fah infamation.”
“On anybahdy. You, me, dem – anybahdy. Dey don’t care.”
“What do I do?”
“Keeps ya mout shut. When they’s done, they’ll be movin’ us all down one.”
“Why are they doing this?”
“Who knows. I’se been in fah weeks. It’s jes’ dah way iz been.”
“What did you do?”
“Whah you do?”
“Nothing. Maybe looked in at the Hauser’s abandoned ranchhouse…name showed up on a watchlist. I don’t know. What did you do?”
“I won da Lot’ry.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I won dah Lot’ry. Dey took dah pictures a’me and my kin and, by’n by, I ends up in heya.”
I dropped some hashbrowns into my coffee and tried to control my cough.
“I’m fine. They’re looking. Be cool.” I felt that tightness in my neck and chest returning. I’ve always avoided gambling. It’s a part of the Olson family code to avoid taking the easy way out of anything difficult. But to me it just feels like I’ve got a hold a several hundred volts of direct current and I can’t let it go. I can’t let anything go. It has to make sense somehow, some way.
“You ‘memba, now. Mums dah werd.” And with that my new found friend picked up his tray and headed towards the dishwashers. Feelings of paranoia and anxiety were not uncommon for me in my line of work. Nausea was something new. Especially with those eggs bouncing and jiggling around inside my gut.
Everything inside says, “Jeff Olson, back the hell off now. You’re wading in way over your head.” But I don’t how to stop thinking about it. I just don’t. I haven’t smoked in over a decade, but that warm smell of oily tobacco and ammonia wafting from the outdoor yard and into my lungs feels like peace and freedom. One puff and I’ll be gone. One puff and I’ll be outa here the same way my Mom used to leave the nursing home in Palo Alto.
“When I get outa this place,” my mother said, almost jutting her chin into the wind, “I know where I’m goin’. I’ll finally be free to come and go as I please.” Everything on University Avenue in Palo Alto at 4PM on a Friday afternoon came to a screeching halt when I heard those words and the way she’d said them – so desperate, but so laced with stubborn resolve. The university kids hopping from bar to bar and screaming at the top of their lungs, the cars honking and whooshing by on their way home from the Mall – all dissolved into the sound of a gentle wind through the blooming magnolias. I almost tripped over my feet on the uneven sidewalk before I finally snapped back into a moment I more closely identified with the present.
“Where you goin’ with that tray, convict,” a stern voice attached to a nightstick interjected.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was daydreaming.”
“You got all goddamn day to daydream back in your hole. Scrape off the tray into the trash and put it on the stack nice and neat like eva’body else.”
“Yes, sir.” I scraped what was left of the eggs and the biscuits into the fetid trash, and quietly dropped my tray onto the stack. Walking back towards my cell I remembered more about that last day with my mother, and more about that tightness in my neck and chest and where it came from.
“You know you’re going to be here a while, don’t you, Mom?”
“Not much longer,” she said with a distant, impersonal resolve.
I let it go. I took her to the Equinox at the top of the Hyatt Embarcadero and watched her watch the skyline of the city as it slowly twisted in toward us from outside. She was sitting there, looking out, but she wasn’t there. She hadn’t been for decades. Locked inside of a mind that only wanted relief and release from the unkindnesses of the past, the pharmaceuticals had finally succeeded in erasing the problem. That late afternoon, I could feel her leaving to go somewhere else.
I showed her where I had finally managed to graduate from college – the wonderful view of the city from atop the hill, the smell of the ocean as the fog began to roll its way back in past the Golden Gate – she seemed proud, if unaffected. But it was cold and I’d promised her prime rib for dinner, so I knew we needed to get to Rickey’s before too late and then take a short hop back to the assisted living dorm where she had been staying.
The clang of metal on metal brought me back to my cell where I had just walked in, uncuffed, to spend the rest of my day. I barely noticed the guard or the other inmates, so obsessed I had become with just a whiff of the smell of burning tobacco leaves and the memory of them rising inside my chest. Breathing it in but once, they would own me. I couldn’t stop again. The last time I quit, though I succeeded, was just too hard.
“You back yet,” a voice growled from around the corner. The wrong one.
“No,” I muttered back.
“You’ll get here, eventually.”
I let that comment hit earth with a thud and resisted the temptation to indulge a need for repartee with a disembodied voice, or any voice for that matter. One in a series of slow news days that would come to run together to form the dull, constant lighting — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some days I would sleep, other days I would be wide awake.
I came to a place where the days, dates, minutes or hours could all run together. They would tell me it was time for lunch right after dinner and I would shuffle off without protest to see who was still here, what there was to eat even though I wasn’t hungry anymore, even though I’d given up shaving to retain a sense of time – it just wasn’t important to me anymore. Nothing was.
Praxis. A word carved into the concrete by someone using “contraband.” I repeated the word to myself as I lay down in my dimly lit world behind bars that once kept me in, but were fast becoming a way of keeping them out. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, anymore, since it was a crap shoot who was a spy (this week), who was telling the truth (on which subject), who was lying (everyone), or even who might still be here. One thing was certain, anyone I talked to disappeared. After that happened a few times, I lost my desire. Praxis.
A ray of light seemed to penetrate the grey sameness of prison life and I rose up from my bed to see what the commotion was all about. An invisible wall of frankincense hit my nose and I tried to look farther down the hall…it was a priest swinging a censer, muttering in barely perceptible Latin, followed by a succession of altar boys, lay people and someone dressed in an Easter Bunny costume that had seen better days. The bunny turned to look as he walked by and cast a gaze in my direction, waving his gloved hand and tossing candy and shiny pieces of paper through the iron bars. I suddenly felt panic for no explicable reason as the candy hit ground, watching it turn into cockroaches and insects that scattered all over my cell and my bedding. The shiny pieces of paper were lottery tickets.
I awoke in sheets soaked with my sweat, my heart ready to leap from my chest. I was terrified as much by the insects as by the lottery tickets being passed out by the Easter Bunny. Was it really Easter now, already? Were there bugs in my bed sheets? Where did the lottery tickets go? Was I dreaming? I fell back into my soaked sheets, exchanging one nightmare for another, catching my breath and wondering when, if ever, I would see the Sun again. […to be continued…]