Chapter 1

A Year Ago on the Fourth of July
Alexander Conrad

Chapter 1, Part 1

                This isn’t the first time I have sat down and written the first sentence. There are several of them that have been crumpled up into little balls and tossed away, not incinerated or decomposing in a landfill somewhere. They weren’t bad sentences. The ones that followed weren’t bad either. Probably not great, but they were a start, which I suppose all first sentences are, regardless of how the author feels about their subjective quality.
                I used to write poems, and I still do when the mood strikes me, when one comes drifting into my thoughts the way they sometimes do for me. I will jot it down, oftentimes unsure of where it came from or who it belongs to, if anyone at all. There was a time that I could force them though, and force is not really the word for it. I could squeeze them out, several a day, of a wide variety of styles and subjects. There was effort involved, in terms of making the time to write them, but the physical process of words to paper driven by thoughts, memories, postulation, was all mostly effortless. It just happened, and that was that, to the tune of stacks of notebooks, thousands of pages, and I never bothered to question it until it stopped.
                It isn’t your typical case of writer’s block. Even at my most virulent, I would have runs of days, occasionally even weeks, where I struggled to write anything of substance. These were, without fail, followed by a day, or more often a late night, where I would write two or three or as many as a half dozen new poems, of what I considered by my own judgement to be good quality. Easy to read. Focused. Proper use of spacing and sentence breaks. I’ve not given very much thought to the salability of my work, mostly out of fear of rejection, and of small part because I am content writing them for me and a few people who enjoy them, but I know that some of them are good. Many are middling, several are bad, a few are than that even, but some of them are good, and a few of them shine bright off the page, are perhaps even excellent in some ways. Some of them I reread months, years after I wrote them, and they feel almost foreign, and not as I scan the words, my lips moving, silently sounding the syllables, I get this rush, a feeling of accomplishment and home and satisfaction and a quiet pride, a private knowledge, a sense of contentment, that comes with looking at words that I put to paper, that take me back to when I wrote them, that say what I meant them to say, with precision and grace. This was all the release I needed. Between my daily exercising to the point of exhaustion, and my pouring my thoughts to paper daily, nightly, I had a peace beyond circumstance. I had a therapist, a partner, a mentor, a guru, a friend. Maybe at first I threw a page or two away, but once I really got started, got to seeing what I could do, I kept every page, for better or worse, knowing even early on that my worst page was better than many people’s best page. This wasn’t arrogance on my part, but a firm belief that what I was doing was good, and worthwhile, even if it was only for me. I kept my work out of respect for what it did for me. I created it, yes, but that was where my contribution ended. Even the process of creation itself was cathartic for me. I could convalesce in putting a troublesome memory to page, and free myself from it in that way. I could think, bouncing ideas and theories off of the paper and back into my head, in ways that were impossible within the confines of my own head. I’ve done more in the way of comforting myself, facing my issues head on, by stringing together words into lines, into loose, arrhythmic, non-rhyming verse, that I ever could have otherwise.
                That all stopped shortly after I arrived back here. Sure, I didn’t do much with it between my stays at Pineville, but I never got the feeling it abandoned me like I have now. I never thought that I wouldn’t be able to just pick it up and use it, like a tool, a hammer to beat down worries, a knife to cut through doubt, a flashlight to find my way in the dark. This misguided interpretation of its essence, of the nature of its comings and now, of its goings, has led me to this. I can’t say what I have to say in a poem. I am not sure of how to write a book. But this isn’t an endeavor of choice, or volition, but of necessity so that I may get back to what I know and what has worked for me up until now. The channel through which my writing normally flows is blocked, completely stopped up, and this story is the pile of flotsam that must be cleared so that I may continue on, so that my peace might come back to me.
                I had the notion to tell this story almost exactly a year ago today. I was thunderstruck by it, actually, stopped dead in my diagonal mowing line, shut off my mower, and knew then that all of this was a story that sooner or later I would have to tell. I sat in near silence for several minutes, my ears ringing, my hands tingling, sweat beading, then falling down my tanned face in rivulets. The profundity, the necessity, the tragedy of it all was laid out right in front of me, and when I got home from work that night, I wrote the first of the first sentences. I hadn’t touched a pen or keyboard to write anything in months, but I was high enough at the time, both on my epiphany and on crystal meth, to believe I could take on such an undertaking. I gave up after a few lackluster paragraphs, but I kept the basic idea jotted down in a notebook, and stored at the back of my mind. Occasionally I would be sitting around, bored, high all by myself at three in the morning, and I might type a few of my handwritten poems up, immortalizing them in ones and zeros, and on nights like these I would usually attempt a start a this story, but be it for the drugs stopping me from creating at a high enough level, or a generalized lack of day to day focus, I never got anywhere with it. I had the desire, but lacked the drive.
                That changed about three weeks ago. This is a story about me, and a friend of mine by the name of [tktk]. [Tktk] and I aren’t the best of friends; we met in prison, found out that we were from the same town, and spent some time hanging out after this minor revelation. We knew few of the same people. We had little in common. He was intelligent thought, thoughtful about the world and its ways like few other incarcerated individuals are. We found commonality in our inner peace, in our mutual acceptance of being incarcerated as being, by and large, our own fault and no one else’s. Because of this, we could have long conversations into the night, whispering in the dark about the strength we drew from being able to get over the hang ups that plagued so many around us, and where, and how far, that strength might carry us into the world, once we got there. We made plans, separate plans, both large and small. We had dreams of education, philanthropy, success by standard definitions of word. We convinced ourselves, and we were convincing, that we actually could get out of there, take advantage of a fresh start, and really apply ourselves. Give it our all and nothing less. We knew for a fact that we had advantages and opportunities that most of those around us simply did not have, and we told each other, over and over, how dumb it would be to waste them.
                By coincidence, we would be released within a couple of months of one another, but we didn’t really make plans to meet up, as people leaving here so often do. There was, I believe, a mutual and unspoken assumption that we would allow providence to either cross our paths again, or keep us separate in the world. I think we both felt it had to be that way, although, I cannot for certain speak for him. Looking back now our violent and tragic collision, our trajectories crossing, crashing, burning, all seems almost pre-ordained, but this isn’t the way of it really. We could not have known then that our failure would be so swift, so total. Even though we both understood on a level that all of our plans and dreams would probably not come to fruition as planned, I don’t believe that we ever could have guessed that everything would go so wrong. No one ever really does. We all like to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and even now I believe that we should. Life is hard, friends are scarce, and someone has to believe.
                It took seeing him back here a few weeks ago to shock me into this thing. I can’t tell another story, I can’t write another word, I can’t get back to my simple, private poems until I spit this story out. His face, pleading for an answer, wanting nothing but confirmation. The disbelief on my part was that this backward, petty place was our shared reality once again. My mouth agape, speechless, and unable to give him an answer. My mind struggling to answer his question as I walked past him. When I looked back I saw his hands clenching the fence between us.
                I did the right thing, didn’t I? If only that were true. If doing the right thing could land you here, it wouldn’t be so hard. Forced to own our mistakes and shortcomings, we may try to convince ourselves that we did what was right, that we tried as hard as we could. We had a chance out there and we blew it. We failed because it was the easiest thing to do. We didn’t start making righteous decisions until it was too late to do us any good. As much as we, Arie and me, may want to believe that we tried, I know good and well that we didn’t. Sitting here, writing this in the heat, it is too fucking hot for me to lie. I wish I could write about something else, but this story, the look on his face, are the only things on my mind.

                They let me go at midnight, after three and a half years behind a fence. My brother Drew picked me up and took me to breakfast. Afterward we drove back to town, back home in Collision, Indiana, and stopped by my mom’s place to wake her up and visit for a bit. She gave me a key to an apartment that she and Drew set up with furniture and a paid deposit. After some hugs, tears, and a bit more food, we left, and Drew drove me to my new place. The apartment was in an old elementary school and had the lofty ceilings and tall windows of a classroom. I was pretty blown away by the place. It was a nice one bedroom, one bathroom with an alley kitchen that connected the front hall with the living room. It was the perfect size for a single guy, and the tall ceilings made it seem larger than it was. My belongings were still in boxes, pushed up against the walls of the living room, still packed at my request. I spent months anticipating the ritual of unpacking, examining objects, artifacts from my past. One thing at a time. This goes here, that goes there. Making the place my own, a home. I had been insistent about that. My brother watched me walk through the apartment.
                “How do you like it?”
                “How do I like it? Goddamn bro, I love it.”
                “Mom spent a lot of time looking.”
“Yeah, she likes that shit. It paid off.”
                “She is so excited you’re home. We all are.”
“Yes, we are.” I couldn’t stop walking, making circles, more circles…
“How are you feeling?”
“It’s… a lot. It’s a lot of things It’s overwhelming. It’s awesome. It’s mine? It’s too much. It’s… thank you.
“You’re welcome, but you don’t have to thank us. After everything, you earned it. Everyone feels like you’ve earned it, that you will earn it.”
Another lap. From front hall to kitchen to bedroom to hall to living room to kitchen made figure eight that I’d walked a dozen times now, looking, touching.
“Not twelve hours ago I was there, and now, here?”
“Cool, huh?”
“It doesn’t seem real.”
“I’ll bet it’s a strange feeling.”
I let this hang in the air. The words seemed to echo. It was a strange feeling, to say the least. Everything was bright and new. Everything was important and good. It was all so large and meant to be appreciated, and I did. I did.
“I’ll tell you what,” Drew said, breaking the silence. “I’m going to go, maybe head to Dad’s for a while. You should have some time to yourself, anyway. Take a few hours to unpack, or walk around, or sit and do nothing. But take a few hours.”
“Thanks, Drew. Thank you for this. Thanks for everything.”
He walked out of the apartment, shutting the door behind him. I spent a few long, eerie moments marveling in the quiet. The solitude. There had been very little of that where I was, and now I was luxuriating in it. Enveloped by it. I moved around slowly, methodically, not wanting to disturb the peace. I unstacked a few boxed and randomly chose one to open. After sifting through its contents, I set it aside, feeling restless, and opened a large plastic tote. Inside were a few sweaters, a jacket, shoes and boots at the bottom. I took off the shoes my brother had brought me the night before and pulled on the left boot. The leather was stiff. The shaft of the right boot was folded in half from being packed in tightly with the other shoes. I straightened it and stuck my foot in, threaded the laces of both, and left them untied. The silence was so total that my ears were slightly ringing. It was all so much to take in, so much all at once. I felt like laughing, felt like crying. I was exhausted, but wide awake. It took conscious effort to accept that this was all real, that this place was mine and I was home and it was done.
                I took a seat on a couch I was pretty sure had come from my dad’s house. I looked around and felt nervous. I needed some air, some space, and decided that a walk would do me good. I got up, checked my pockets for my wallet and keys, and walked through the front door, out of the building, and into the bright February sun without a thought to where I might be headed. The sunlight was reflecting off a few patches of old, melting snow, causing me to squint. I set off to the left, down the sidewalk, towards the last place I had lived before I left. I had no desire to see the place, but my feet led me in that general direction, towards the streets and alleys I knew. I was already getting a headache from the sunlight, making me wish I had taken the time to find my sunglasses in the mess of stacked boxes. The feeling of my boots stomping through the slushy snow felt good, my feet still dry, my toes still warm. My spirits were high. I was buzzing on the freedom of walking, wandering, without rhyme or care or reason. I did find myself a bit weary of interaction as I saw someone coming up the sidewalk towards me. I turned and crossed the street as if I had been meaning to anyway- don’t mind me. I was uncomfortable with the thought of casual interaction, of friendly greetings, so I avoided them for the time being. I allowed this of myself- take your time, you’ll get used to it- and kept on walking from block to block.
                I made my way past rows and rows of houses until they eventually gave way to stores, a gas station, and a bank that I walked in to cash the hundred dollar check I’d been given the night before. I wanted to keep going, but I had no money and didn’t want to let myself hesitate. I made for the front door with my head held up and found the place mostly quiet and empty. The clerk behind the counter seemed friendly enough. I made my way towards her before I could turn around, took the check from my wallet and signed it.
                “I just need to cash this, please.”
                “Okay sir, do you have an account with us?”
                “I don’t. I don’t have an account anywhere, actually. I’ve been away from home for a while.”
                “Well, welcome back. May I see the check?”
I slid it across the counter and watched as her eyes scanned it, as they opened a bit wider, her eyebrows raised slightly when she saw where it was from.
                “May I see your ID, sir?”
I had been hoping she would just cash the thing. I slid over the only ID I had from my wallet, a state issued prison ID card that they had given me the night before along with the check. I watched her eyebrows raise even higher, probably as she noticed that the release date printed on the card under my picture was that very same day. I couldn’t have been a free man for even twelve hours.
                “Is this… your only form of identification?”
                “Yeah, I haven’t really had a chance to go get another one.”
                “Well, I’m really supposed to see a driver’s license or something equivalent.”
I tried my best to smile, to look harmless, to look in need of help.
                “Is there anything you can do? I really need this cashed. It’s all I’ve got. I just got home.”
She bit her bottom lip. She was cute. She handed my ID back and her fingers grazed mine, making me shiver.
                “Just don’t tell anyone about this,” she whispered.
                “I wouldn’t dream of it. Wait, tell anyone about what?”
She smiled and opened the drawer in front of her, counted the money, and put it in an envelope that she slid across the counter. I thanked her and walked out, stuffing the cash into my wallet and wadding up the envelope. As I was about to toss it into the trash, I noticed something was written there. I unfolded the paper to find a phone number scrawled across the front. I smiled, wadded the paper back up, and threw it away outside. I didn’t need those kind of problems.
Back out on the street. I still had no plan, no place in particular to go. I thought for a moment about stopping by some old friends’ houses, but then thought better of it. I wasn’t really ready to see anyone, and no one I knew who was close by was worth seeing anyway. I kept walking, slowly, looking around, taking it in, controlled. Stricken with a sense of everything I saw being new, as though it had just sprung from the ground, manifest that very morning. I was a child. I was a baby. I had just been born. Delivered from a womb of indebted bondage.
Looking here, there, everywhere as I was, I had failed to notice that my feet had carried me to the liquor store that sat across the street from my old apartment, the one from before. I glanced over at my former residence. It looked old. It looked the same, but different somehow. It was still the ugliest color of yellow that had ever adorned a house. I cringed and looked away. The liquor store was open, must have just snapped on its neon sign and unlocked the door. I then realized it had been my intention to come here from the moment I put my boots on. I didn’t fight it. I went inside to look around.
A person coming from a lengthy stint of incarceration may find themselves overwhelmed by the concept of choice, variety, and selection. Prison limits one’s options. There is only so much that can be done in a given day. Most of the major decisions; where you’ll sleep, when you’ll eat, who you’ll live with, are made for you. Everything else is set within a narrow and controllable bandwidth of choices. Over time, one becomes accustomed to what is initially hellish repetition and monotony. Given long enough, though, even the most resilient individual will grow to depend upon the sameness as it is the only protection against the months and years stacked against them that have yet to pass. They will start to detest breaks in their routine, and strive towards an unspoken, unacknowledged goal of making today the same as yesterday, tomorrow the same as today.
I can’t that I caught a full-on case of this high-level institutionalization, but I did take long enough in the liquor store to make the guy behind the counter uncomfortable. So many choices, brands, varieties. Top shelf, bottom shelf, eighty proof, one hundred proof, ale, lager, Zinfandel, merlot, even a clearance shelf. After twenty or so minutes I grabbed a pint of Crown Royal and asked the clerk for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He thought nothing of my ID, and seemed to be put at ease when he saw that I intended to pick something and pay. He’d seen my kind before. Long hair, stocky build from years of pushups, pullups, and squats; hundreds of thousands of repetitions, now in here to quiet the noise of a world full of choices, decisions, potential mistakes. He put my bottle in a sack, I pocketed the cigarettes, and he wished me well on my way out the door.
The walk back to my apartment was a blur. It wasn’t so much the pint in the bag and the cigarettes in my pocket as it was that I had bought them, had been allowed to buy them, and had a place to consume them at my leisure. I made it back and lit up a cigarette on the building’s front stoop before I went in, not wanting to stink up my apartment. I took a deep drag, held it, and delighted in the buzz tingling in my limbs, numbing the back of my brain. I looked up and down the block. A few of the houses looked respectable enough, but on either corner were whitewashed homes, split into a half dozen or so efficiencies, that had fallen into disrepair and the traffic of thousands of pairs of feet coming, going, in and out, at all hours. I saw no one moving; this would probably be the time of day that everyone in those places would be asleep, or at least resting, waiting for the hours to pass into evening.
I took my time, finished my cigarette, having forgotten the bottle for just a moment. Walking in, I got to my door and realized that I had run out in such a hurry that I hadn’t even locked it behind me. I was once again taken aback by the quiet when I walked in, shut the door, and locked the deadbolt. There was nothing. I was drowning in it. I found a box with KITCHEN STUFF scrawled across the side in marker, tore off the tape, and found a glass wrapped in old comic strips. The refrigerator had an automatic ice maker. The cubes cracked as I poured the Canadian whiskey over top of them. The wavering lined in the golden-brown liquid. It smelled like heaven. It tasted like freedom. My throught burned with desire. I poured another. 
Despite the eagerness with which I jumped off the wagon, I managed to show some restraint. I took intermittent pulls at the bottle, unpacked boxes, put books on shelves, set up my old stereo and turned it up so loud the windows shook. My neighbors were either at work or were deaf. I stepped outside a couple of times to enjoy buzzed smoke breaks from the work of making my place feel like home. It came together well. Pictures adorned the walls, dishes filled up the kitchen cabinets. I found a ladder in the basement and used it to reach the highest corners of the rooms and knocked the cobwebs from them. I set up the wardrobe my grandma had built for me years ago, and filled it with clothes. I watered the succulents my mom had placed in the windows. Deliberate motion. Things fallings into place. I sang along to songs I hadn’t heard in years and found places for everything, made this place a place for myself. It was just above freezing outside, but I cracked the windows to let the place breathe, to stop up my sweat. I took a trip behind the building with a load of newspaper scraps and empty boxes, threw them in the dumpster, came back inside and shut the windows. I took a pull from the bottle, turned the music up louder and showered with the bathroom door open so I could keep singing along with the Robert Plant. Your time is gonna come. I wailed along with him, I knew that it finally had. I washed away the sweat from my work and the invisible, accumulated film from Pineville. I scrubbed it from my pores, rinsed it from my hair that I had let grow and grow, until it was just past my shoulder blades. I looked like a convict. I also looked like Jesus’ stunt double.
I was out of the shower in time to answer the ringing doorbell; my brother had come back to pick me up for dinner with our family. I had brushed my teeth well and put on fresh, clean clothes. If he could smell booze or cigarettes on me, he didn’t say anything about it. The evening passed by in a blur of food and wine and questions and well wishes and several recommendations I get a haircut if I ever wanted to get a job. “Don’t make it harder on yourself,” they said. I had no piercings, no tattoos. The thought of cutting my hair made me sick. I kept it pulled back in a bun at all hours of the day anyway, but it was something I wanted to keep. It felt like something I had earned, not like I had brought it with me from a place I wanted to forget. I brushed this off and talked and ate and drank more until the meal was over and I walked home, declining all offers of rides or company for the evening. I felt good, but it was a lot. I knew I would cut my hair even if I didn’t want to. I made it home and turned on the music again, softer in volume this time, and I chipped away and my pint of whiskey, emptying it finally and passing out on the couch with all the lights on.

                “This is awesome, bro. Fuck you. This is fucking sweet.” James and I were at Pineville together, and he stopped in for a visit a few days after I got home.
“Seriously bro, and so close to the bars! We are walking there later,” he said.
“I don’t have money for the fucking bar, James. That’s the last place I need to be right now, anyway. I haven’t even seen my PO yet.”
“Fuck that shit,” he said. “You don’t see him until Monday, right? Four blocks away. The bars are four blocks away and this pad is tight. Tits. We’re going to get laid tonight my friend.”
“I might get laid, you’ll just get mad,” I joked.
“I getting both of us laid,” he insisted.
“You have a fucking bullfrog face and fish lips, you aren’t getting anybody laid.”
“We’re going fishing!”
“You’re a fish.”
“I’m not going to the bar with you.”
“Listen, hear me out. We’re going to wait here for a while and relax. Watch the Pacers game. If they lose, we’ll take that as a sign. Night’s over. If they win, we’re going out, have just a couple drinks, talk to some girls, lure them back here. Have you even gotten any yet?”
                I hadn’t, which hadn’t been bothering me, but he made is sound so easy, so convincing he was. Or perhaps he didn’t have to be convincing, it was entirely possible that I was ready to be convinced.
                “Who do they play?” I asked.
                “Who does who play?”
                “The Pacers, who do they play?”
                “They’re at home, I’m pretty sure they play Philly.”
                “Well shit man, that’s deciding our evening for us. We may as well leave now. There’s no way we’re losing to those bums.”
                “That’s what I’m talking about!”
                “You are buying, though. Every round.”
                “Fuck you.”
                “I just got home from a nice, long stay in prison. You’re buying.”
                “A week. You got out a week after I did.”
                “And those, my friend, are the breaks.”
                I changed into some nicer clothes, brushed my teeth, and out we went. We ambled towards the bar, taking our time, laughing and joking along the way. Even though I had wanted to stay in, it felt good to be with a friend. We made light of where we had come from, where we had met.
                “Remember when you snuck behind the officer’s desk and stole that letter that had suboxone on the seal?” James was not amused at the reminder.
                “That was bullshit, bro. I caught so much hell for that.”
                “Well shit, at least you got away with it,” I offered.
                “Got away with it? I got my ass kicked over that.”             
                “That guy was little, too. He split you wide open.”
                “Fuck you,” he said, though he was smiling. “Hell, I could have fought that dude, and we both know I can’t fight for shit.”
                We carried this on for several blocks, until we came upon Forest Street, where the few bars in town were. I kept talking, kept my mouth moving, but was anxious. The prospect of seeing someone I knew, who wasn’t family, who I wasn’t locked up with, was both exciting and nerve wracking. My heart began to beat faster. My palms were sweating. I stopped us for a cigarette to calm my nerves before we walked in Forest Street Bar, the most likely spot for single women in a town with decidedly slim pickings in that department.
                Once inside, my nerves quickly calmed. Two rapid fire tequila shots helped with this. It was all the same; nothing ever changes in a bar. Once a bar is built, it will stay exactly just like that until the day it closes, no matter what sort or remodeling is done. They’d moved a few things around, installed some new glass in the front window, but otherwise it was just as I remembered. I’d been in here countless times before, had been in fights, taken girls home, and although I hadn’t given it much thought until we got there, I had been banned for life the last time I was there.
“I just remembered that I’m not allowed in here,” I said, smiling, as this was quite amusing to me.
“What do you mean ‘not allowed?’”
“I mean not allowed. Banned. Barred. Excommunicated. Voted off the…”
“Yeah yeah, I get it. What the fuck for?”
“Dumb shit. One too many fights, a fight with a regular who apparently had more clout than I did. He won’t be a problem now, though.”
“Because he won’t recognize you?”
“He couldn’t recognize me. He’s dead.”
“Died in a car wreck, right near my dad’s house, actually. I read about it in the paper.”
“Well that’s kind of fucked up.”
“Is it?”
“It is.”
“It’s convenient for this evening’s purposes. I don’t know what it’s fucked up.”
“Saying that is for sure fucked up!”
“Shit, it’s just an observation. If he was alive, there is a good chance we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. We’d be kicked out or fighting. Probably both.”
“That’s cold blooded.”
“You act like I wished the man dead or something. All I’m trying to say is…”
“Look at them. Look at them.”
A few girls had just come through the door. They were laughing, loud, drunk, and stumbled as a group past us to a booth next to ours. The bar was narrow, shotgun style, a straight shot from the front door to a small stage at the back, with the counter and stools to the left as you walked through the front door. I had seated myself and James close to the rows of full liquor bottles.
“We need more tequila.” I was out of practice at the low artform of picking up girls in bars.
“That we can do. I’ll buy several. Offer some to the new arrivals.”
“That’s very discreet. Here ladies. Tequila shots on us. No intent behind them, though.”
“Fuck being discreet, I’m a man on a mission.”
                He got up and ordered the shots from the bar. As he did this, I slipped out of the booth and ducked out the front door to smoke a cigarette, collect myself. I didn’t want to be there. It all felt so desperate; talking to girls we didn’t know, buying them drinks, trying to be charming, convincing them that it was a good idea to come with us, with two guys they didn’t know to a place they’d never been. It was exhausting me just thinking about it. I stood out in the cold, smoking my cigarette. I finished it, took my hair down, and rewound it back up in a bun. I lit another cigarette, stalling for time. I contemplated just leaving. James would figure out where I went. I wanted a girl. I wanted to walk home. I was aching. I was bored. I gave up the struggle and walked back inside. James, the three girls, and another guy I didn’t recognize were all sharing a booth, laughing. I spotted two full shot glasses of tequila. I grabbed them as I sat down, reached across a girl seated next to me to grab a lemon wedge and a salt shaker. I licked the spot between my thumb and forefinger, salted it, licked again. Shot one.
“Hello everyone.”
“This is my friend, esteemed colleague, Alan. Alan, this is Christy, Courtney, Amber, and Brad,” James introduced.
“I’m Christy, she’s Courtney. He got the other two right, though.”
“Fifty percent isn’t so bad in some circles, for some things,” I said.
I did my best to help him out. Christy and Courtney, Courtney and Christy, I already had them confused myself, were two tall, unremarkable blondes who were clearly sisters and very close in age, maybe even twins. I later confirmed this assumption. Amber and Brad appeared to be a couple, a married couple, judging by the rings on their fingers. Amber had flowing, tumbling red hair, beautiful skin, and was wearing a low cut teal top under a gray knit sweater. She turned her attention towards me.
“So, you two were in prison together?”
“Prison? I’ve never been to prison. I’ve never even been to jail. And this guy hasn’t either.”
She laughed at my deadpan.
“I’m serious!” I said. I don’t know what he told you before I came in, but I was born to a good Christian home. Raised on high morals that rubbed off.”
“That’s a load of bullshit,” she said.
“Bullshit? What makes you say that?”
“Take off your glasses,” she said. I looked over at Brad, who was chatting with one of the sisters.
“Take off my glasses?”
“Yeah, I want to see your eyes. I’ll be able to tell if you’re lying.”
“You won’t be able to tell shit.” I smiled, leaned across the table, took my glasses off, and started into her eyes. I purposefully set my eyes wide open. She looked back at me, searching, until Brad scooted into her while trying to leave the booth.
“We need drinks! We need shots! Girls need shots!” Brad declared. He must have been at the bar for some time before we got there, as he was drunk enough for two people. Amber and I got up to allow everyone else out of the booth to go stand at the bar. I still had a shot of tequila. Salt, shot, lemon. Amber and I resumed out staring contest, talking as we gazed.
“I won’t ask if prison was bad. Was prison bad?”
“It was wonderful.”
“Is this what happens after having been in such a serious place, that now you can’t be serious?”
“I’m dead serious. It was wonderful. It changed my life.”
“For the better?”
“What is better? It changed things. I haven’t decided if it’s better yet. Give me a few more days.
“How long have you been out?”
“Less than two days. I left night before last.”
“Wow. How long were you there?”
“Four years. A little less than four years.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“I’m serious. Always serious.”
“Were you really there for that long?”
“I was. It went by pretty quickly, believe it or not.”
“I don’t. But I don’t know why you’d lie about that. Why are you lying?”
“I assure you I’m not lying.”
“You lied about being in there in the first place.”
“A joke. That was meant as a joke. Mostly it was. I mean, that’s awkward, isn’t it? ‘Hi, I’m Alan, I just got out of prison.’ It’s awkward. There are better ways to start out meeting people. It gives off the wrong idea.
“Well if it makes you feel any better, I only knew because James mentioned it.”
“James is a friend. He is also an idiot.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“It’s nothing I haven’t said to him before, or wouldn’t say to his face right now.”
“Does that make it okay?”
“To me it does.”
“Is that some kind of prison thing?”
“It could be. It probably is. Why do you ask so many questions? Do you always ask this many questions?”
“Not always. Only when I’m interested. And you are interesting. Kind of interesting, anyway. You’re also cute. How long is your hair?”
“It’s long, longer than yours. And you are quite cute yourself.” She was well beyond cute. “But I think I have to go.” I started up to leave, she grabbed my arm.
“Aw, don’t be like that. Look. Just look there at the bar.” Her husband was making out with Christy. Or Courtney. James was chatting up whichever one Brad wasn’t rounding second base with. “A little obvious, isn’t he? I can’t take him anywhere, he does this all the time.”
“Is this real life? Are you two married, or is this some sort of setup?”
“A setup?”
“You’ll have to excuse me, but in my experience, things like this are usually a sham, some sort of subterfuge, a ruse, if you will.”
“Those are awfully big words for an ex-con.”
“Are you really stereotyping me like that? Are you serious?” I played along. This was all becoming very amusing to me.
“I could be serious, or maybe I’m only teasing. I would like to point out that your experience, as it were, is not very relevant here. A lot of big, naked dudes, coyly dropping their soap in the shower.”
“Wow. I really am going.” I got up, but only to smoke outside. As I walked past the bar, James broke away from Christy, or Courtney, excused himself, and followed me outside. I lit two of my cigarettes and hand him one
“We must be the two luckiest motherfuckers alive.”
“Which sister are you with in there? Are they twins?”
“They are twins! Fucking twin sisters. I’m with Christy. No. No wait. Courtney. I’m with Courtney.”
“Uh oh, you’d better stick to pronouns and pet names my friend.”
“Nevermind. I’m leaving. I think I’m leaving, anyway.”
“Leaving? You aren’t leaving, bro. Why the hell would you leave?”
“Because the girl giving me the time of day is married, and her husband is in the bar with us. No thank you.”
“If you leave it’s going to fuck everything up. I’m going to end up not getting laid. You’ll be running my chance!”
“By not staying?”
“Exactly. Besides, do you not see what her husband is up to?”
“There is certainly something amiss in there, and I’d really rather not find out about it.”
“Amiss? What the fuck is wrong with you, man? Fucking ‘amiss?’ Who are you right now? Bro, they’re swingers. They swap partners. That’s what they do. Along with sending time with these twin sisters, one of which, Christy, it’s definitely fucking Christy, is totally into me. His wife is the hottest one and she’s into you. It’s cool, man. It’s okay! You’re trying to tell me you aren’t going to go for it?”
“It really seems like a bad idea to me. I mean, things could go wrong. Feelings could get hurt. We just met these people. How long have we been here? An hour, an hour and a half?”
“Courtney is calling a cab and we are all going to Brad and Amber’s place. All of us. You included.”
“I’m not fucking going anywhere,” I said, throwing down my cigarette and lighting another. “And you shouldn’t either.”
“Where are you balls? Where is the Alan I know? You need more drinks. Tequila. I will buy us some more shots, and when that cab gets here, you will get in it with us.”
“With us!”
“Fuck. No.”
“Fucking with us!” He turned and went inside, stomping his boots off on the way in. I followed a few steps behind ad stood beside him as he ordered a dozen shots; enough for all of us to have two. We sat down to find the sisters and Brad had rejoined Amber at the table.
“I got us all shots! I hope everyone likes tequila,” James said.
“Are you coming with us? Our cab is arriving soon,” said Christy. Or Courtney.
“Hopefully soon we’ll all being coming.” Brad was too drunk to need two more shots, which had just arrived at the table.
“Everyone grab two!” I winced at this request from James. I also obliged. We all did. Salt and shots and lemon and salt and shots and lemon.
“Whew! At least I haven’t forgotten how to drink,” James said, slamming his second shot glass down onto the sticky table.
“Everybody grab your stuff.” Christy or Courtney was now also post-drunk. “The cab is outside. They just called. Let’s go.”
I had my chance my chance to back out. If I was going to, I had to do it then. Cut out, leave without a word, walk outside and keep on walking. Home was just a few blocks away. This is how bad situations begin. A hunch ignored. Divergent paths not taken, opportunities at righteousness bypassed for lust, greed, other base human failings. The way Amber was looking at me, I ached. It’s always so convenient to do the wrong thing. It’s always so easy just to fail. She refused to break her stare. I gave in.
We stumbled as a group outside and piled into the cab. It was just starting to snow, so the cab driver took it slow. We were packed in tight; Brad sat in the front with the driver, James sat to my right with Christy or Courtney on his lap, Christy or Courtney sat in the middle. I sat behind the driver with Amber on my lap. She kept her arm around my neck, her breasts pressing close to my face every time we hit a bump or someone said something that made her laugh. I didn’t feel drunk like I should have. I wanted to feel drunk. I felt ill and uncomfortable and I wished I had walked home and I was glad that I hadn’t. Amber playfully bit my ear. I throbbed and shivered. We arrived at a house in a quiet, residential neighborhood. Brad paid the fare then unlocked the door to their blue-shuttered home, complete with brass doorknocker and a welcome mat. Once inside, Amber drug me to the kitchen, where there was a cat and dishes in the sink. It all looked so normal on the surface.
“You look stiff. Relax. Drinks? Do you need a drink?” She was intuitive.
“I need to be home a half hour ago, but that aside, I need a drink.”
“What’s the matter? You act like you’ve never had a girl think you were cute before.”
“Are there drinks? You said, drinks, which implied a selection of multiple alcoholic beverages. I wish to make my selection. Then we talk.”
“Okay, you got it.” She opened a cabinet with a selection of bottles; vodka, whiskey, gin, tequila, and a jar full of bright green marijuana.
“Grab the gin and the weed. Do you have any orange juice? We’ll need papers.”
She grabbed the juice from the refrigerator and produces papers from her purse. I mixed myself a drink and set to work rolling a joint.
“That’s good pot. When’s the last time you smoked? You probably don’t need much.”
“I need all I can get. This is my hope at getting through the rest of this evening.”
“I can’t decide if you’re just weird, or freaked out. Which is it?”
“Both.” I lit the joint and pulled on it, inhaling deeply. I held in the smoke, tipped the rest of my drink back, then exhaled.
 “Someone didn’t forget how to party,” she said.
“One doesn’t forget, only wishes he could. Would you like some?”
“I don’t smoke, that’s Brad’s. Why don’t you we take that back here, I have something to show you.”
She led me from the kitchen and down a hallway to what I assumed was their bedroom. I could hear yelling and laughter as we passed an open door that led downstairs to a basement I never saw. We entered the dark bedroom, where she turned on a small, dim lamp and shut the door behind us. My joint had gone out. Amber took it from me, grabbed a lighter off the dresser and lit it. She took a long, slow pull, then placed her open mouth onto mine. I inhaled the smoke from her lips. We held it for a few seconds, then together, exhaled.
“I thought you didn’t smoke,” I said.
“I don’t, just right now. Lay back, “she said, and pushed me onto the bed.
I had almost forgotten how that felt.

                On Monday morning I woke up early and made myself a long breakfast; an omelet with spinach, onions, cheese, and tomatoes, a bagel with cream cheese, yogurt with blueberries and pecans, a glass of milk, a glass of orange juice, and several cups of coffee. I had been to the store and was relishing the luxury of preparing large meals for myself. There were so many options and possible combinations, I carefully balanced carbohydrates and proteins to correspond with my continues exercises. Every day I did 300 pushups, 300 squats, and 300 situps. I had kept to myself and had a strict regimen since my walk home after my evening with Amber. I wanted to isolate the incident, to chalk it up to the nerves and pressure and excitement of coming home. I felt that I couldn’t let it happen again. Stay indoors, prepare meals, pushups, squats, and situps. I watched movies and browsed the internet and paced my floor, anxious for this morning. I’d smoked the pot I had taken from their house, and knew with certainty I wouldn’t be able to pass a drug test. My first meeting with my parole officer was bright and early, 8:00 a.m. After making my smorgasbord breakfast I found myself too anxious to eat much of it. I sat in front of the TV and picked at it for a while, moving the food around with my fork, hating the thought of wasting any of it. 7:30 rolled around and I put the food in some Tupperware to eat later. I drank all the milk, all the orange juice, finished the pot of coffee, and forced down two full glasses of water before leaving the apartment. The civil building where my PO had an office was just a few blocks away. I still had to stop and pee in an alley and was almost seen by some kids who were walking to a nearby school. As I zipped up and turned away, one of them yelled something after me, but I kept walking, imagining the headline: Released Ex-Convict Exposes Himself to Children. I quickened my step at the thought and showed up to the civil building, which was attached to the side of the police station. I checked in with the receptionist, a severe looking woman who had undoubtedly heard it all, had seen thousands of people like ne walk thought the door.
“Could you tell me where the restroom is?” I asked.
“Here, you’ll need this key. Down the hall, second door on the left. Your eyeballs are floating.”
“I had a lot of coffee for breakfast.”
“I’m sure you did. Second door.”
She pointed down the hall. I got to the door and danced, fumbling with the key, which was attached to a frisbee, of all things. The chain that held the key was short, which made it next to impossible to put the key in the lock. I was on my tippy ties, hoping back and forth, when I dropped the stupid frisbee key and thought for sure I was going to piss my pants.
“Let me get that door, sir.”
I stepped out of the way to let the man open the door. He put his key in the knob and opened the door, holding it open for me. I only caught a quick glimpse as I pushed past him- large, metal framed glasses, a button up shirt, the same severe demeanor as the receptionist. I muttered my thanks before letting the door slam shut in his face. Even though I had peed just ten minutes before, I felt the magic of release of a piss held for several hours. I sighed, then groaned with relief. I was chuckling to myself when I almost ran into the man who had opened the bathroom door.
“Whoa there, are you Mr. Lechowski?
“Yes sir, I am.”
“I’m Officer Pullman, your parole officer. Let’s take the frisbee back to the desk and step into my office.”
He picked it up off the floor where I had dropped it in my rush to relieve myself and handed it back to me. I gulped.
“Sorry about that, with the door there, I mean. I really had to go. Stupid frisbee. Or maybe it’s just the stupid guy holding the frisbee.”
I tried to get a laugh, but he just nodded.
“Follow me, sir.”
I handed off the frisbee key as we passed the front desk.
“Oh, there he is, Bob. He was about to drown out here in the lobby.”
“I had to open the door for him. I don’t think he likes your frisbee key, Linda.”
“Well if the bathroom keys would keep coming up missing I wouldn’t have to attach it to a frisbee now would I?”
“Something smaller, maybe?” I offered. “I couldn’t even get it in the lock.”
“Anything smaller just comes up missing. The frisbee works.”
“Miscreants and heathens, the lot of us,” I attempted to get another laugh.
“Let’s leave Linda to her work. Let’s go, Mr. Lechowski.”
Bob led me through a door that Linda buzzed us through and down a hallway lined with anonymous, windowless doors. Paranoia and thoughts of leaving the building in handcuffs, put in a squad car and taken to the county jail, home less than a week and already back behind bars, all for a failed drug test. For marijuana, no less. My stomach churned, my armpits rained sweat. I made a conscious effort to take slow, deep breaths as he opened the door to a small, bare office at the end of the hallway. A phone, a desk, a computer. No pictures or decorations. He didn’t spend much time here.
“Have a seat, Mr. Lechowski,” he said as he gestured towards one of the room’s two chairs. “We’ll try to make this quick this morning, I have some other things to get done today. We just have a few questions we need to get through to get you entered in the system here, then we can set you up with another appointment here in a few weeks. Sound good?”
“Good, good. How are you adjusting? You did, what, four years, correct?”
“Just shy, yes sir.”
“That’s a long time. People do longer, but that’s plenty long.”
“It went by fast, thankfully. I kept myself pretty busy. Got a lot done, actually. Did drug rehab, some vocational programs, was released early for completing them and for good behavior. As for adjusting, I am. It’s a process. It’s weird, you know?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve heard that from a lot of guys. It’s weird, it’s difficult. After years in there, the pressure is up, the stakes are high. Maybe it’s like that for you. The problems start when the challenges, challenged like finding a job, staying sober, staying out of trouble, start to become excuses. That’s when guys have problems. You’ve got to really face this thing head on, Mr. Lechowski. It won’t serve you to half ass or be unsure about what you want from life. If you’re going to do that, you might as well go have your fun for a month or two, until we catch up with you and send you back to finish out the rest of your time. I won’t bullshit you, so if you bullshit me, we’re going to have problems. If you want to be straight with me, let me know what’s going on with you, what problems you’re having, I can help you. Don’t come to me asking for help when it’s too late. A lot of guys do that. Are you following me?”
I had heard this shtick before. “Yes, I am, sir. I did a lot of thinking, learning, and growing while I was in there. I want to stay out, to be done with it. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long while now, and I think I’m ready to rise to the occasion.” The sentiment wasn’t necessarily insincere, but I laid it on a bit thick.
“That’s good, Mr. Lechowski. Alan. Keep that attitude. Let’s get these questions out of the way now. He turned and pulled up a prompt screen on his computer. “Let me see, Where are you currently staying?”
“With my mom, with her and my stepdad.” I lied without effort or second thought.
“What’s her address?”
“2132 Willow Way. In Crawford.”
“That’s a little ways out, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it sure is. I think for right no that’s probably a good thing.”
“Do you have any plans for getting a job? How will you look for one from out there?”
“I’ve looked into getting my license back. It expired, but it was good when it expired so I should be able to get a new one pretty easily. My mom has offered to let me use her car to get around in a bit.” At least this wasn’t a lie.
“She seems nice. You get along with your stepdad?”
“We’ve never had issues.” A lie. “I don’t think I’ll be welcome there forever, but they both seem happy to have me for now. We’ve been catching up, spent some time this weekend hanging out, the three of us.” Blatant lie.
“So you’re going to use one of their cars to get around and look for a job, once you get your driver’s license back. Do you know where you might look?”
“I haven’t had much of a chance to figure that out yet, but I’ve got a resume all typed up from a class I took in there, and I’m pretty well willing to take just about anything at first. I’m pretty excited about the process, to get myself out there again. I’m a hard worker if someone will take a chance on me.”
“Someone will, if you put yourself out here enough. It’s a numbers game with guys like you. So many of you claim good intentions, but end up discouraged after you put in four job applications and you don’t hear back from anyone. You’ve got to get out there, pound the pavement. Sell yourself. Be willing to accept the fact that some people aren’t willing to give you a chance, but plenty of others will.”
“That sounds like good advice, sir.”
“It’s advice from someone who has seen it too many people fuck this up, but has also seen some succeed. There isn’t a magic wand, or a formula, for you to do well on the outside. You’ll either do it or you won’t. But the guys who do well take looking for a job seriously, and they keep themselves clean and sober. Have you done any drinking or taken any drugs?”
The moment of truth for my lies.
“Not a bit, sir. I’ve been with my family all weekend, and luckily they’re not the drinking or drugging type. I think I’ve pretty well got all of that type of fun out of my system.”
“That’s good. Did you use at all while you were incarcerated?”
“More money, more trouble, more problems then getting high was ever worth. I saw too many guys have problems, get themselves in trouble, get themselves hurt over trying to catch a buzz. It was a pretty strong deterrent. I’ve got close to four years clean time at this point.”
Outright lies.
“So you could pass a drug test if I gave you one today?”
I felt his stare. I met his eyes. It felt like a poker game. It felt like a shootout. I pushed my chips into the pot. My fingers danced on my holstered gun.
He paused for seconds that hung in the air, processing my response doe deceit, smelling the air for the sweat of fear.
“Make sure you keep it that way. I’m short on time today, but I’ll most likely take a drop at our next meeting. Staying clean is the biggest thing around here, Alan. That, and keeping a job, staying busy, keeping yourself occupied. Don’t just do it because I’m telling you to. Do it because it will help you keep your life on track. There is no life in it, there is no future in it, and it I catch you at it, there are going to be consequences. Do you understand?
“Yes, sir.”
“I think we’ll get along just fine, Alan. Just stay above board with me, and we’ll get through this.”
He stood, and I followed and reached out to grab his extended hand.”
“Sounds good, sir.”
“I’ll take you back up front and Linda will set up your next appointment.”
He let go of my hand and I did everything I could to hide the relief I felt, to keep it from showing on my face, my shoulders. We left the office, and Bob dropped me off at the desk with Linda. She handed me a card with Bob’s name, office number, and cell number on the front. On the back she had written a date, three weeks from today, at 11a.m. Not so early at least. Before Bob or Linda had their chance to change their mind about me, I made for the door, crossed the street without looking, and was two blocks away before I stopped and caught my breath, feeling my heart beat hard against my ribcage. I pulled out a cigarette and lit it, held it in, exhaled, letting the nicotine numb my nerves. Walking again, on a roundabout route back to my apartment, I was stricken with a fit of the same dumb laughter that had hit me two night ago, as I ran from Amber’s house towards home. I laughed until I started coughing, realizing what it was I was laughing at as I hacked and spat phlegm through the snow. I thought about this and was quiet for the remainder of my walk home.
Incarceration may well be the ultimate test of a romantic relationship. From both observation and personal experience, most couple will fall apart at the seams if forced to endure much more than a year of supervised visitation. Phone calls that are 25 cents a minute or more, letters that become increasingly difficult to write. Words wrought with hope, desperation sneaking in between the lines and the things unsaid. The one locked up gets a sense of what is going on while they aren’t there. Clues picked up along the way, adding up to guessed conclusions that are usually not too far from the truth. Small sounds heard through phone receivers. A glassy eyed look caught while looking across the table, holding hands, trying to soak in every second of allowed contact. Word from family that they have become distant, hard to reach. Other signs are more overt. The commissary money slowly decreases, then stops. Phone numbers change, the bill gone unpaid for weeks that unfold into months, seemingly overnight. Drug use is a sure sign of faithlessness; is infidelity in and of itself, or it may as well be. Letters stop altogether, or nearly. A guilt laden explanatory missive might make it through on occasion, but over time, those will stop as well.
If a relationship was love and love alone, many more may well endure the tribulations of this most challenging sort of long distance relationship, but this isn’t the case. One can only be so supportive from behind a wall, behind a fence, behind the locked door of a cell. It becomes hard to listen to problems that seem so mundane, so manageable, compared to the torture of day-to-day living that can be a reality for some. Sometimes a person needs someone to cry to, to cry with, who is present to share in the struggles of everyday life made worse by the abscess of absence, the void that is left in the wake. Trust breaks down reciprocally. Doubt fills up every small fissure and freezes overnight during dreams causing cracks and chips that break off from the whole. Sooner or later the whole thing crumbles into pieces scattered and broken, too shattered to be repaired. There comes a moment of mutual understanding, a reciprocated agreement to terms of dissolution that are reached without words or even conscious thought. To let thigs pass, fall neglected and abandoned to fade away. Eyes that no longer meet. Started sentences that trail off into apologies and never minds. What once was good is first questioned, then answered, the truth is denied but eventually believed.
I’d gone in to my last stay at Pineville with a girlfriend. We were terrible for one another, probably knew it, but ignored it anyway. There were times before I left that I tried to leave her, but we remained together, both of us frightened by the thought of being alone. We drank ourselves stupid in the months leading up to me departure. I’d wake up first, walk across the street to the liquor store, and buy us a fifth to wake up with. Depending on how much money we had, I might make a half dozen trips across the street over the course of a day. We drank brandy and vodka and rum, we drank cheap red wine when we were broke. The more we drank, the more we convinced ourselves that we would make it through just fine. Most of the time we drank to ignore what was coming at us. It hurt too much to think about. We also fought constantly, and I tried time and again to leave her, but I was always too weak to go through with it. What little was left of my rationality knew that it have been better, that it would hurt less to end it on my own terms out in the world. Rationality lost out to hope that something made her and I special, though there was nothing special about us. We were a pair of drunks places into a shitty set of circumstances that neither of us had the desire of wherewithal to overcome. We lasted until we didn’t, we tried until we couldn’t, we moved on but still clung to writing back and forth periodically. I would call occasionally, usually on holidays, and she would answer and talk to me if you rebound-boyfriend-turned-husband wasn’t around. We were mad at one another. She was mad at me for leaving, I was mad at her for moving on, for getting married behind my back. We still laughed together when we talked, though. She never changed her number, and although we never made plans or talked of spending any time together, it was always implied that I would call when I got home. She was doing better. I was doing better, feeling better, ready to give the world a try like I hadn’t before. At the very least we could keep in touch, be distant friends, be that couple who split up but managed to keep things civil. I think we both hoped for that. Without meaning to I waited a week and a day to call her. I had purchased a prepaid cell phone, and toyed with the idea in my head. Should I call, should I leave things alone, will she know that I’m home or will it be a surprise, perhaps some relief and excitement in her voice when I call? I dialed the number without hitting send. I saved the number and deleted it. I typed out text messages and erased them. Finally, in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, I worked up the courage to dial and hit send. I gritted my teeth as the phone rang, twice, three times. I almost hung up.
“Hi. Guess who.”
“Oh my fucking god.”
“Something like that.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“I haven’t talked to you in months and already you’re telling me to shut up. This is not good.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m home. In town. I have an apartment by the school, close to downtown.”
“Holy shit, how long have you been home?”
“Since last week.”
“And you’re just now calling me? What the fuck?”
“I had to settle in first, and it’s not like it isn’t kind of weird, anyway. I haven’t known what to say. I still don’t know what to say.”
“Saying that you’re back works, for starters.”
“I’m calling now, we’re talking now, aren’t we?”
“Hold on.”
The phone went mostly quiet. I pressed it to my ear and I could hear the sounds of footsteps, a couple of doors banging. She cupped her hand over her receiver, but I could hear her yell, “just a minute!” When she came back, she spoke in a hushed voice.
“Okay, I’m here.”
“Well that must have been…”
“Yes, yes it was, Alan, and we aren’t going to go there.”
“That’s odd. One would think that you would want to talk about him, you must love him, right?”
“I’ll hang up.”
“No you won’t. You might have in the past, but right now you---”
She hung up.

I stepped outside to smoke, angry with myself for caving in and calling, for not leaving well enough alone. I wasn’t halfway through with my cigarette before my phone beeped.
Hey I’m sorry Wyatt was coming outside and I’d rather he didn’t know you were home he gets weird enough about you as it is.
I thought about this for a minute. I was still unsure about what I even wanted.
Of course he gets weird. I would too. Maybe it’s not good for us to talk.
No I want to talk to you fuck I want to see you I miss you. I just don’t want him to find out or get hurt.
So you wanna meet up without him knowing…
I think that would be best yeah
I paused to light another cigarette and think. Part of me felt vindictive enough to enjoy the thought of Heather coming over, spending time with me, remembering things, going behind his back like he had done to me. I had actually fantasized about it. Spend nights awake in my bunk, planning and plotting to make such a thing happen. I never figured it would be that hard, but never thought it would be this easy, either. Another part of me wanted to be above it, to be content with the knowledge that I could make it happen if that’s what I wanted, to be bigger than doing to him what he did to me. I didn’t feel bigger. I wasn’t content.
Okay. Come over then.
I held my breath.
I can’t right now. Don’t you know what day it is?
I flipped to my phone’s main screen. February 14th.
Haha oh shit I didn’t realize
A bit out of touch are we? Wyatt and I are going to dinner but we’ll just be going home after. I want to see you.
Well how is that going to work
He can’t stay awake past 10 I can come after
Are you serious?
Why wouldn’t I be
Never mind. I’ll be home all night. Text me later and let me know when you’re coming.
I will. Can’t wait.
I got up from the front steps of my building, put my phone back in my pocket, and flicked my cigarette hard enough it bounced on the sidewalk and almost landed in the street, spraying sparks in the falling light. I went inside and started straightening up with the stereo on, arranging couch pillows, making my bed, running the dished in the dishwasher. I looked in the freezer and saw that what I had for drinking, a bottle of gin, was nearly empty. At this I clicked the stereo off and set out for the liquor store. An empty bottle wouldn’t do.
Inside of an hour I managed to talk to the liquor store for more gin and another pack of cigarettes, and was working on my third drink when my phone beeped in my pocket.
Hey Wyatt and I are fighting can I come over?
It had just gotten dark. I inferred that they hadn’t made it to dinner, and that I had something to do with their fight. Alcohol was taking hold and this did nothing but make me smile.
Come on over call me when you get here
Okay give me a few
                I knew that meant I was in for a wait. I put a movie on and made another drink. I wanted to lull myself into a state of sleepy disinterest. The more aloof I could appear, the more I might feel like I was winning something between us. She would take her time, playing her game, and I would get drunk and play mine. I went to the kitchen and made an ashtray out of aluminum foil and smoked, exhaling into the exhaust above the stove. I had waited so long for this moment. I had planned out countless scenarios in my head, wrapped around the circumstances of my reunion with Heather. She had become almost mythical, I had built her up so much that I knew she could never live up to the hype. It all seemed so surreal. We all make plans and map out our futures, plot the course of events to come despite the fact that things so rarely go as planned, and when they do, there is a shock to the system, a disbelief that all of the planning, plotting, and scheming has come to fruition. It is so disorienting that it leaves little room for one to even enjoy the moment. We spend the whole time waiting for the other shoe to drop without taking a break to appreciate the successful execution of considered actions. I smoked several cigarettes back to back, lighting new ones with the butts of the depleted when I heard my phone beeping in the other room over the sound of the TV.
                Just called a cab
    Hey I’m on my way
                Be there in a few
                Hellooooooooo earth to Alan I need you to help me pay for this cab
                If you are ignoring me right now I’m going to hate you for life PICK UP YOUR PHONE

All of this and three missed calls. I turned the volume on the movie down and called her back.
                “What the fuck?”
                “Sorry, I was in the kitchen.”
                “I’m outside in this cab.” She sounded as though I wasn’t the only one drinking. “I need you to pay for it.”
                “Alright, hang on.” I hung up and put on some shoes, grabbed my drink and a cigarette, and walked outside into the cold. I turned around on the steps just in time to watch the building’s door shut behind me. I’d left my keys on the coffee table. At least I remembered my wallet. Heather emerged from the cab, all noise and angry energy in a petite, almost tiny package. Her walnut curls exploding from under a light blue hat that matched her scarf and her eyes. The wind was biting.
                “Could you pay this guy so we can get inside?” She wrapped her arms around my waist, almost spilling my drink.
                “Pay the guy I can, getting inside is going to be tricky, though.” I leaned into the cab, handed the driver a twenty and told him to keep the change.
                “Tricky? Do we need a password? Have you forgotten the password?” She had finished my drink in the ten seconds I hadn’t been looking.
                “What we need is the key, which is inside on my coffee table. Maybe someone will buzz us in.” I skipped up the steps and started hitting buttons. First in order, starting with my neighbor, then all at once. No one answered.
                “It’s fucking cold out here, hurry up.”
                “Tell me about it, at least you have a coat.” I placed my cigarette butt in the receptacle. “Follow me, I’ll get us in.”
                I walked around the side of the building with her behind me. I was fairly sure my kitchen window was unlocked. Although my apartment was on the first floor, the window ledge was some eight feet from the ground as well as covered in snow.
                “Stand here and catch me if I fall.”
                “Catch you? I can’t catch you! Are you fucking kidding me?”
                “Then call me an ambulance if I land funny and break my neck. You can go around the front once I’m inside and I’ll let you in.”
                I grabbed below the window and started pulling myself up, placing my feet one at a time on a lip in the bricks at waist level. After some strenuous pulling and awkward maneuvering, I got to where I was standing on the small window ledge. I leaned over to try to open the window.
                “Be careful.” Snow had melted and revealed a thick layer of ice around the bottom of the frame. Pushing my hands against either side of the brick surrounding the window, I gently kicked the bottom to loosen the ice. “You’re going to fall if you keep doing that.” I felt the window give. I squeezed my fingers in where the bottom half of the window met the top and pressed hard. My fingers throbbed from the pressure and the cold. It slid up an inch, I wedged my foot into the gap, and leaned over to pull the window up.
                “Ah HAH! Meet me around front.” I had reached the limits of my drunken coordination and fell in through the open window, landing on my kitchen table and rolling off onto the floor, laughing to myself. I made myself another drink and strolled, nonchalant, back out of the apartment and opened the front door for Heather, who was bouncing on the front steps, trying to keep warm.
                “You stopped to make a fucking drink?”
                “Someone drank all my last one.”
                “You’re a dick.” She threw her arms around me again, dropped the empty glass she had been holding to the floor. It bounced on the carpet, but didn’t break.
                “Be careful, now. As a single man I only have so many glasses. Actually, if I remember correctly, you should have a few of these in your possession.”
                “I don’t, and even if I did, I’ve had them long enough that they’re mine. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
                I broke our embrace, picked up the glass, and motioned towards my door down the hall. “Spare me any legal shit. I have enough of that to deal with, still, and I don’t need to hear it from you.” I smiled.
                “Well, sorry, Mr. Sensitive. I shall refrain.”
                We walked in and I shut the door behind us. She took off her coat, threw it, her scarf, and her hat into a chair, taking survey of her surroundings.
                “This is…”
                “Fucking awesome? Thank you so much.”
                “You’re such a pompous ass.”
                “The more things change.”
                “Your hair is fucking ridiculous.”
                “That statement reeks of jealousy. Would you like a drink?” I asked, reaching for her glass.
                “You said it yourself, ‘the more things change.’ Of course I’d like a drink. Even though you still drink that nasty shit and you know I hate it.”
                “Why do you think I bought it? I was honestly hoping you wouldn’t want any.”
                I went to the kitchen and made both of us drinks, came back and sat down next to her on the couch, handing her a glass.
                “Thank you.”
                “You’re welcome. Cheers.”
                “What are we cheersing to?”
                “To freedom, to happiness, to unconsidered, hasty decisions made without regard to consequence.”
                “You’re terrible, why did I come here?”
                “Irresistible charm. The likely prospect of free booze. Perhaps the hope that I’m adjusting poorly and you could bear witness. I’m not.”
                “No, you’re just being an asshole, which you’ve always been, which is what you always do when you’re nervous.
                “I’m not nervous. Drunk, maybe, but not nervous.”
                “You don’t have to be that way, this is hard enough as it is.”
                I paused at this. She was right. I had no intention of admitting that, though.
                “Hard enough as it is? I’m so sorry this is hard for you.”
                “Shut the fuck up, Alan.”
                “It must be so hard to see me sitting here in front of you, instead of tucked a couple hundred miles away, out of sight, out of mind. I really do hate this for you.”
                “I hate you.”
                “It must have been so hard for you to leave me down there to rot while you forgot all about me so that you could move on with Wyatt, that fucking turd.”
                “Why don’t you stop being so goddamned dramatic? It wasn’t like The Count of fucking Monte Cristo. You aren’t some saint, and neither am I, and I’m fucking sorry, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m sitting right here, next to you.”               
                She started to cry. I got up to grab my aluminum foil ashtray and come back with a cigarette lit for each of us.
                “This whole thing is so fucking ugly.”
                “Do you know what it felt like to lose you, the day you left? That was the worst day of my life. It felt the same as if you had died. I would talk to you on the phone, and it was like talking to a ghost. I’d come to see you and it was like you had come back to life, but then I’d go home and sit there, I was all by myself, I was so lonely, Alan, and it was like you died all over again.”
                “Except I didn’t. I didn’t die at all. If anything, I’m better off now than I have been since I started fucking things up at around, fifteen years old.”
                “You’re no less an asshole.”
                “And you’re no less the bitch who left me. It’s not like I wasn’t lonely. It’s not like it wasn’t hard for me. I’ve had to think about the fact that you moved on every night, every single night for over two years. You might have had the luxury of finding yourself a new boyfriend, but I didn’t get to move on with someone else.” Which wasn’t entirely true, but I continued.  “I had to sit there and imagine you and him and play out practice scenarios in my head where I was doing this, where I was telling you how I felt and it was having some sort of effect on you.”
                “I need to tell you something, Alan.” She put out her cigarette in the ashtray. I had let mine burn down to a nub.
                “I’m not sure I’m accepting apologies this evening, you’ll have to get back to me with that.”
                “Seriously, Alan.”
                “I am serious. I will consider your apology at a later date.”
                “You’re not going to like it.”
                “I don’t like much about this evening so far other than the fact that I’m drunk.”
                “Look, I know you don’t like him and you probably have every reason not to, but Wyatt is a really nice guy.”
                “Fuck him.”
                “He’s not the biggest fan of you either.”
                “He shouldn’t be.”
                “You have to know something.”
                “What? You’re pregnant? No, a baby couldn’t survive in that alcohol steeped wasteland.”
                “Shut up.”
                “No! No! You’re getting married. Am I invited?”
                “In a hypothetical world where you two got along, and you were home instead of where you were, you would have been invited.”
                “Wait, what?”
                “We got married.”
                “You fucking what?”
                “We got married about a year ago. It was his idea, he kind of forced me.”
                “It was his idea? He forced you? What the fuck do you even mean?”
                “Alan, I’m sorry.”
                “You’re sorry? You have to be kidding me, Heather.”
                “I didn’t want it to be like this.”
                “Well how exactly did you want it to be? Why am I just now hearing about this? A fucking year? You’ve been married for a fucking-“ Before I could finish she leapt on top of me, grabbing behind my head and pulled my mouth to hers as she knocked us backward on the couch. I somewhat resisted. “Heather, what the-“

                “Shut up. Just shut up and go with this before I change my mind.” She grabbed my wrists and pinned them above my shoulders and pressed her mouth to mine again. I was too shocked to stop anything from happening, even if I had wanted to. I didn’t. In a few swift motions we stood, kissing, peeling off layers of clothing as we spun and backpedaled toward the bedroom. We fell to the bed almost naked, and made fast work of what was left of our clothes. I rolled on top of her, went inside, it felt familiar, comforting; fighting had almost always preceded love making for us. I finally felt the moment, all my planning, hoping, waiting, had led me to this, and even in the act I wondered if it was not sweeter for the fact that she was married now, if there was not some extra vindication for me by virtue of her breaking marriage vows with me. I decided that this was the case.
                “I been thinking of this for so long, Heather,” I whispered.
                “I missed you, Alan,” she moaned back.
                “I knew it would be like this.” I sped toward the climax we were both approaching until she shoved her small hands into my chest. I fell out of her and almost bounced off the bed.
                “Heather, what-“
                “I can’t do this. I can’t do this to him, Alan.”
                “Can’t do this? Can’t do what?” I stood up at the end of the bed, leaving her laying and looking up at me.
                “It’s not fair.”    
                “What’s not fair? You’re confusing the hell out of me.”
                “You look good, for one. That’s not fair.”
                “Okay, so do you, as always. I am still failing to see the problem.”
                “I can’t cheat. I can’t cheat on Wyatt. You know I hate cheating.”              
                “You hate cheating? You didn’t seem to have a problem cheating on me.”
                “And you think that would make it right? This isn’t right and you know it.”
                I sat back onto the bed and moved towards her. “This is right. Nothing has felt more right to me in a long, long time. Damnit.” I leaned in to kiss her.
                “Alan, don’t. Stop it.” She slid backwards towards the wall.
                “You’re fucking serious, then? It’s okay to cheat on me, but not fucking Wyatt?”
                “He’s my husband.”
                “You don’t love him and if you say you do you’re a fucking liar.” 
                “I do.”
                “Then why are you here? To shove the whole thing in my face?” I was losing my grip on the situation. So much for feeling vindicated.
                “Are you that dumb, Alan?” She grabbed a pillow and hugged it in front of her, sitting up with her legs pulled into her chest. “You might not believe me, but I do love him, maybe I didn’t at first, but I do now.” She paused. “But I love you, too.”
                “Well good for you, Heather. Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
                “You could at least try to understand.”
                “I understand perfectly. I had all the time in the world to understand. No one has thought about all of it more than I have, no one understands it better than I do. I understand that I left and that it was hard and unfair and not your fault, but you handled everything that came after like shit.”
                “How was I supposed to know? I didn’t know what to do.” She had started to cry. I wanted to ease up, but there was so much time, unresolved anger, so much pressure behind the words, there was no way to stop. “It’s not like I knew what to do, either. It’s not like I had something, some extra guidance that you didn’t. I have the decency to not treat the people I claim to love and care about like they’re shit, or like you said yourself, like they’re dead. I wasn’t fucking dead. I’m here now and if you want someone to blame for the way you feel, the bathroom is right there,” I pointed towards the hall. “I suggest you get in there and take a good look in the goddamned mirror because you have no one, no one to blame but yourself.”
                “You are so fucking mean. I fucking hate you.” If looks could kill.
                “That’s fine by me, and I hate you, too. I hate you for every minute you stole from me, that I wasted thinking about you, and hoping for a chance to make us right.”
                “Fuck you.”
                “Fuck you, fuck Wyatt, and fuck the cab driver who brought you here. Fuck your mother for having you. Get the fuck out of my apartment.” I put on my pants and went to the kitchen to make myself a drink, sat with it on the couch and smoked with my aluminum foil ashtray on the cushion next to me. Heather emerged from the bedroom, gathering up her clothes in her arms, covering her chest, makeup smeared down her face. She dressed right in front of me, in the middle of the room, without saying a word. We were both so ashamed at what we had said, what we had done, that we said nothing and she put on her scarf and her hat, she zipped her coat up to her chin and then walked out without a word, not leaving a trace that she had even been there at all, and I sat on the couch for the rest of the night with the TV off and no music on and drank as much as I could stomach. I can’t be sure of what time I passed out, but it was sometime between when the world turns gray at dawn and the first rays of light would rise above the buildings across the alley, piercing their way into my window. 


            Nobody wants to hire a felon. There are people who will, in a pinch, and there are jobs that are so undesirable that only a felon or illegal immigrant could veer be pressed to work them. By and large though, the vast majority of respectable employers will not take a second, if even a first glance at a felon, most of whom are uneducated, undertrained, and come with a sizeable gap in their employment history. The Department of Corrections makes half-hearted attempts to make an inmate more employable prior to their release. There are classes offered that teach the art of deceptive resume building with the objective being to show an offender how to highlight the positive aspects of their stay in prison, such as completed rehabilitation and vocational programs, while downplaying the negative aspects, such as the fact that they were in prison for committing a felony. This is largely an exercise in futility as ninety nine of one hundred jobs an ex-convict would apply for not only do not require a resume, but will look at you like some kind of freak for trying to provide one. They want their application filled out, and when it comes time to answer the critical question -Have you ever been convicted of a felony?- one can either tell the truth and probably not get the job, or they can lie, perhaps get the job by making up some references and fudging some numbers in their employment history, and risk their employer finding this out later. At best they fired. At worst, their parole officer finds out and they end up getting put back behind bars for doing what they could to find work in an environment that is not only unfriendly towards those released from prison, but is set up in opposition to them from the jump. Recidivism rates aren’t what they are because of what we’re doing to help these people, but because of what we aren’t doing, or worse, what we’re actively doing to stand in the way of them having any sort of chance of a normal life.
            I will try to stay off the soapbox because here, in reality, no one gives a shit about people who are locked up. They got themselves put there and if they didn’t want to be there they shouldn’t break the law. This is the prevailing attitude, for good or ill, but there was a reality that was working against me, against us, that must be defined. We had been told that when we got out, the world would give us a fair chance to prove that we weren’t deviants, that we could function in society without living outside of the rules. Even knowing well that this message was bullshit, many of us held out hope that there might me some truth to it, that we might overcome the nearly eighty percent chance that within a year of our release, we would be back behind bars once again. It was with this hope that myself and another friend I had made in Pineville, Ricky White, set out on out job hunt as newly freed men.

James had made it home a week before I did, and Ricky followed me by about a week and a half. I had done nothing in the way of looking for work, and hadn’t seen Ricky in the few days he had been home. We talked briefly on the phone and I agreed to pick him up so that we could go job hunting, courtesy of my mom graciously letting me borrow her car. I dropped her off at her job and drove across town to pick up Ricky from his mom’s house, where he was living with his daughter. He was outside smoking on a small front porch when I arrived.
            “Fishy fish!” He seemed both excited and anxious as I got out of the car to greet him
            “How are you, Ricky? Good to be home?” It felt weird seeing him in normal clothes, as it was with James, as I’m sure they felt about me.
            “I’m glad, buddy. Been spending time with my daughter, catching up, man. She’s gotten so big.” On cue, her smiling face popped up in the window, mouthing words we couldn’t hear. He offered me a cigarette that I took. There was something off about him that I couldn’t put a finger on.
            “Are you alright?”
            “Yeah, man. I’m good. It’s just been crazy, you know? A crazy couple of days. But it’s good to see you. We made it.”
            “Yes we did. And crazy it has been, indeed. I’ve got some stories for you.”
            “Have you seen James?”
            “We went out the other night, I’ll tell you about it in the car. Are you ready?”
            “Let me go grab some things first.” He disappeared inside and I still couldn’t place what it was that seemed different. Maybe it was just the excitement of seeing one another out here. It is often talked about and planned for, but actually seeing someone out in the world who you were locked up with is an experience that is difficult to describe. It’s like meeting during a dream you’ve had in some sort of artificial, suspended animation to wake up and find that the person you’ve met is actually real, that the things they told you in the dream are all, for the most part, real, and it takes a bit of time to adjust the context of a prison friendship to a real world one. I chalked up my unease about Ricky to this and tried to put it from my mind.
            “Are you ready, fish?” He came bursting ack through the front door, slamming it behind him. He carried a backpack I didn’t question; I almost always carry one myself, even if it is nearly empty, and I have noticed that many felons, criminals, ex cons, and drug dealers are in this same habit, for one reason or another. We got in the car and he was still smoking.
            “Throw that shit out, my mom will have a fit.”
            “Sorry about that.” He rolled down the window and tossed it. “Where are we headed? I don’t really have any ideas but I figured you would.” He laughed at this.
            “I have a few places in mind. There’s a landscaping business that runs out of an office on State Road 27, and another one just down the road. There are a couple of hotels out that way too where we might be able to apply for maintenance jobs. I’ve also heard that most factories will hire around here, at least on a probationary-type basis, but I’ve never worked in a factory.”
            “There’s one just down the road that I worked at for a week or so that might not remember me. I think they’re hiring, too.”
            “Which one?” I put the car in drive and pulled away.
            “What the fuck is an Opunhauser?”
            “They make the plastic parts for cars, or something like that. Seat belt buckles, maybe, or like, the plastic part on a headlight.”   
            “The housing?”
            “Yeah, something like that.” He lit another cigarette.
            “Ricky, what the fuck?”
            “Oh goddamn, man, my bad.”
            “What’s wrong with you? You’re acting funny.”
            “I’m good, buddy. Just nervous. And glad to see you, man, I really am. I can’t believe we made it.”
            “I’m glad to see you, too,” I chuckled and shook my head. “It’s up here, yeah?” He instructed me lefts and rights through town until we arrived at the factory. I found a parking spot near the office entrance, parked and got out. Ricky remained in the car.
            “What’s up? You ready to go in?” He was looking around, inexplicably nervous.
            “Why don’t you go in and grab a couple of applications, then we can fill them out later at your place.”
            “Are you kidding? Just come in, we can fill them out now and be done with it.”
            “We’ll get more applications if we just go around and pick up a bunch. We can go around now and get like, twenty applications, just stop in everywhere we see, and we’ll fill them all out tonight. I’ll stay over and we’ll get up early and drop them all off. It’s a numbers game. Up the numbers.” It was, actually, when I thought about it for a second, a really good idea.
            “Alright. We’ll take turns going in. I guess I’ll go get these first two.”
            “We’ll get so much more done this way. You’ll see.”

            Ricky was right. Within a couple of hours we had our twenty applications a piece, more than enough to keep us busy for the evening. We stopped in at lawncare businesses, a moving company, restaurants, factories, construction, hotels, and even a pet store. With these in hand we made our way back to my apartment. Filling out job applications is the worst sort of tedium, but it was a necessary evil if we had any hope of acclimating to society and making normal citizens of ourselves. I have never much liked having a job, and always greatly appreciate when circumstances allow for me to spend my working hours drinking, smoking pot, and taking long walks through town with some headphones on, but I am far from lazy, really. I can accept that bills need paid and that I am probably better off with something to do during the daytime so that I am asleep at night, rather than up all hours with no occupation but for finding things that are attached to trouble. Boredom has always caused me problems. Without structure to my day, I fall into patterns of self-destruction, addiction, general depravity. During my time in prison I discovered I was capable of being quite productive, and had many fewer problems if I stuck to a schedule all day long. Between the various programs and the classes I took, exercising twice a day, writing poetry, and a dollop of fee time for playing euchre or watching a bad movie, I not only made the time go by as quickly as possible, I did a commendable job of keeping myself out of trouble. I received my share of write-ups and spent small amounts of time in disciplinary for various petty infractions, but was well enough behaved that I was released a year earlier than I could have been. I knew coming home that if it came down to it, I could get the bills paid, job or not job, but without one it would only be a matter of time before an idle existence caught up with me and put me right back where I was, and I was determined not to let that happen. The stack of applications that Ricky and I had gathered might take all night to fill out, but I was willing to put in the work. There was a ballgame on, I had some beer in the fridge; we could make an evening out of it. We might even manage to have fun.

            Ricky’s reaction to my apartment was similar to the other’s. “Damn, Fishy, this place is way nice.” He took a look around, made the lap from the front hall to the living room to kitchen to bedroom to bathroom and back to the front hall, and I walked with him admiring it all over again myself. I was keeping it clean and simple and organized and it already felt like home to me. It was the nicest place I had ever lived since leaving my parents’ house at seventeen, and I was proud of it. I knew that Ricky and James were both slightly jealous of my living situation, as they were both in the awkward position of being in their thirties and living with their families, but they were also pleased to reap the benefits associated with me having my own place. I was just blocks from the only bars worth going to in town, and my couch was available for them to crash on if and when they needed.
            “Really, Chezski, this is pretty great.
            “Thanks. I just hope one of these applications pans out so I can start paying for it. My family can’t foot the bill forever. Or at least they won’t.
            “At least they got you started, though. That’s a lucky thing, man.” He was still fidgety and acting weird, just off of normal, in a way I couldn’t quite place. “I’m going to use the bathroom then we’ll start filling these things out.” He gestured to the stack of papers in my hand. I heard him walk down the short hall to the front door, and then walk back to the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. I turned on the TV and split up our applications into two piles. Some places we had stopped just for him, and a couple just for me, and there were two of all the rest and I split those between us. I flipped through the channels, there was nothing on this time of day, so I turned the TV off and got up to play some music instead. In the silence between I heard faint, strange noises from the bathroom. I stopped to listen. I heard a zipper. He had gone to the front hall to grab his backpack, which he had left there when we came in. I was already piecing it together in my head. I heard a clicking noise once, twice, followed by a steady hissing sound that started high, got low, then went back up a bit. I didn’t want it to be happening. Not in my bathroom, not in my apartment. I forgot the music and walked slowly on the sides of my feet through the kitchen and into my bedroom, to the other bathroom door. I listened again at the shut door. I guessed he hadn’t thought to lock it. I heard the hissing sound more clearly. No doubt it was a butane lighter. I kept listening until the noise stopped, counted to ten, and in one motion turned the knob and pushed open the door. Leaned over the counter next to the sink was Ricky. One end of a rubber tube was jammed up his nose, the other was attached to a glass tube that he held over a chalky line of white powder which he was in the middle of insufflating the moment I came in. A blowtorch, not a butane lighter, sat on the counter. As he inhaled the powder through the tube it instantly vaporized and turned into a dense, white smoke that traveled through the rubber tube and into his nose. He stopped inhaling when I opened the door, I had just caught a glimpse of the process before he stopped and turned to look at me, rubber tube still sticking out of his nostril, pupils the size of dinner plates as they had been all day and I was just now noticing. How dumb of me. His hands were shaking. His eyelids twitched. He stared at me dead in the eyes and exhaled the thickest cloud of smoke I had ever seen, like a miniature cumulonimbus cloud formation right in my bathroom.
            “Ricky, what the fuck? What the fuck?
            “What the fuck, man?
            “Hold up."
            “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Are you serious right now?"
            “I need a minute.”
            “You need a minute? What the fuck does that mean? Get out of my bathroom.” I stepped aside then followed him as he went out the other door, walked into the living room, and sat down in front of the applications. He had left his things in the bathroom. I went back for a look while he found his bearings.
            The line of powder was, on closer examination, not so much powder at all. It sparkled in the light, looking blue, pink, and green as the light passed and refracted through it. I pressed my pinkie into one end of the line and tasted it- hairspray and ether- it made me gag, made my mouth water. I had never done it, but I knew what it was. I went back in the other room and confronted Ricky.
            “You were doing crystal meth in my fucking bathroom.”
            “Bro, I’m sorry. I really am.”
            “Don’t give me that shit. What the hell, you’ve been home for what, three days? You just saw you PO this morning?”
            “Yesterday morning.”
            “You were with your little girl, man!”
            “That’s not cool, bro.”
            “That’s not cool? Doing meth in my fucking bathroom is what’s not cool. What the fuck, man. And Jesus H. Christ, you couldn’t just do a line like a normal fucking human being.” I didn’t feel anything from my taste, but my mouth was watering and I suddenly needed to sit on my toilet. “What the fuck was that tube thing?”
            “You heat up the glass tube with the torch, get it really hot and then hit the line with it, but you don’t pull hard, you kind of swirl the tube in circles over the line and inhale really gentle through your nose and the tube smokes it and it hits you hard like you did a shot.”
            “Jesus, Ricky.”
            “I can’t start shooting again, man. I know how I get but this is pretty much just as good.”
            “Can’t start shooting? Just as good as what?” I was full of questions and a shit that I needed to take care of with increasing urgency. “You shouldn’t be doing anything, not like that, anyway. I mean, shit, I smoked weed, but that’s…”
            “Still in your system. In two days, this won’t be.”
            “So that makes it okay?”
            “All I’m saying is that we’ve both gotten high, and you’ve taken more of a risk.”
            “That’s fucking stupid, man.”
            “It’s true.”
            “It’s fucking stupid.” I couldn’t hold it any longer. I made my way to the bathroom, shut and locked both doors when I got in there, and barely got my pants off in time to sit on the toilet. I sat there, relieved, and looked at the torch, the tube, the line that sat half finished at the edge of my sink.
My stomach rolled and I felt myself sweating. I pulled off my sweater and threw it at the laundry hamper. The torch, the tube, the line; it was such a ridiculously complicated setup. He had brought it with him, had it in the car with us all day. If we had gotten pulled over, two felons just released from prison, we doubtlessly would have been searched. A black backpack in the back seat. We’re pulled from the car, one at a time, the car is searched, the backpack opened. We are questioned about its contents, both of us deny ownership. We both go to jail for parole violations and new drug charges that stick, a few more years behind bars. All of this raced through my mind and I felt sick. I finished and washed my hands, showing begrudging reverence toward the line at the edge of the sink. I didn’t want it getting wet. I dried my hands on my pants, pressed my thumb into the line and tasted it again. It really was nasty stuff. Back in the living room, Ricky had put on some quiet music, found a pen, and was at work on his stack of applications.
            “This one is mine, right?”
            “Yeah, I put the one for the ice cream place on top of my stack.”
            “I can’t work in an ice cream place. Too many kids and everything would be all sticky.”
            “How are you even working on those right now? I’ve never seen anyone take that big a hit of anything in my entire life.”
            “Are you kidding me? This is perfect, bro. A little music and a bunch of stuff that I need to sit here and do, that’s what this shit is made for, and I ain’t stopping until they’re done. My handwriting even looks better, and I’ve for the names and numbers and addresses of my made-up references already memorized. Have you not done it before? Don’t tell me you’ve never done it.” My armpits were drenched in sweat.
            “I smoked a little once. Did a little line another time. I never got into it, man. I did plenty of coke when I was a teenager, but once I got on opiates I never really wanted anything else.
            “Heroin will do that do you.”
            “Fuck. I always told myself to just leave this shit alone. I’ve had my go with everything else. I don’t need another thing I have to avoid.”
            “It’s really not all that bad. It doesn’t hook you other shit does. You can do it and stop and it doesn’t hurt anything.”
            “Bull-fucking-shit Ricky. How about that whole prison full of people with their goddamned teeth rotting out of their heads, or the county jails I’ve sat in where all anyone does is pick at their skin and talk about how to cook dope, and how good their dope is, and blah blah blah.”
            “That shit is nasty. This is crystal. It’s pure, not like that crap that they cook in barns and pickup trucks rolling down the road.”
            “Where did you get it?”
            “My uncles gave me some. Kind of a coming home present.”
            “Well that’s classy. He must really care.”
            “He knows what I like.” Ricky stood up. “I’m going to put my stuff away. Unless…”
            “Unless? Unless what?”
            “You know what, Fish. You want to try one. Your forehead is all sweaty. You can’t sit down.” He was right, I had been standing the whole time. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll go grab it, it’ll be better to do it in here. I hate doing drugs in bathrooms. Makes me feel like a shitball.”
            “You are a fucking shitball.”
            “Don’t get mad at me because you want to do one. I’m not going to hold you down and force it on you. You haven’t said no, and no is all you have to say, but you’re not saying it.”
            “Fuck you.”
            “You’d say no instead of ‘fuck you’ if you didn’t want to do one. Sit tight for a second.” I sat. I listened to him unzip his backpack and put the items in the bathroom back into it, I could hear this just barely over the soft music Ricky had put on, some older hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest? People Under the Stairs? I couldn’t place it. I stared at the floor with my head in my hands, not thinking about anything at all, I heard Ricky leave the bathroom, turn, and enter the kitchen. “Where are your plates?”
            “The cabinet to the left of the sink. You can’t be hungry.”
            “Far from it.” I heard him grab a plate and he came into the room with it in hand and set it on the coffee table between our two stacks of applications. “Scoot over, and don’t look like that. You’re in for a treat.” I got up and sat across the room and watched him pull everything back out of his backpack. The blowtorch, the tube, and he dug into his back pocket and produced a corner baggie that he had set at untying, and once successful, dumped the contents onto the plate. “See the stuff I haven’t crushed up yet? The bigger crystal pieces? This isn’t crap that somebody made shaking a two liter bottle of paint thinner and cold pills in their garage. This is superlab, ‘Breaking Bad’ shit.”
            “Just set it up already and quit hyping it up.”
            “That’s the spirit, my guy.” He took a card from his billfold and separated the chunks from the powder, forming a small line. “How’s that look?”
            “More. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. Full blast for me, please.”
            “You see, this is why we’re friends.” He crushed up several of the crystals, which stuck to the bottom of the card. He scraped it across the edge of the plate and pulled the powder in with the small line, which became a longer, wider line.
            “That looks better.” I got back up and sat next to him again as he began heating up the glass.
            “Now when I hand you this, shove the rubber end up your nose and put the glass over the line, but don’t inhale too hard or you’ll…”
            “I watched you for a second, I think I get the idea. Inhale slow, make circles with the pipe. Thank you so much for this, Ricky.” He missed my sarcasm, he was focused on heating up the pipe. Smoke began pulling from either end, remnants left in the tube passing from solid to liquid to gas in the blink of an eye.
            “Take this, it’s ready.” He handed the tube to be and I immediately shoved the rubber end up my nose with one hand, held the glass tube where it met up with the rubber in the other. I cursed myself and ran the opening of the glass tube overtop the line. I held my other nostril shut with my thumb and inhaled. A flash of smoke ran up the tube and straight into my lungs. It was surprisingly cool and smooth and I continued to move the pipe in tiny circles over the line and inhaled delicately, giving the rising crystalline powder time to vaporize in the hot glass tube before passing down my throat and into my lungs There was no harshness and I had thought that I might cough but now knew that I wouldn’t kept pulling and pulling to fill my lungs to the very top with the thick, white smoke. It tasted almost sweet. Such a contract to the bitterness I had tasted before. I reached the end of the line and set the tube on the plate. I felt my hair stand on end and the room became brighter and full and alive with bouncing electrons as I exhaled the cloud, and it felt like a longstanding fog was lifting as I exhaled, releasing it into the world that I could now see so clearly as if for the first time.
            “You hit that that like a champ, my guy!” I sat speechless for a time that felt long and short. It was both and that was fine, I was fine with not speaking until I spoke.
            “That…” the words came slow, “was fucking awesome. Was that a lot? Did I do a lot?”
            “You did a good one, probably just right. You want your first one to be strong.”
            “I don’t feel crazed or hyper of jumpy. I just feel awesome. And super aware. My heart has to be going two hundred beats a minute but I don’t feel bad or panicky or anything. That was awesome.”
            “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”
            “Let’s go outside for a minute. Or better yet, let’s take a walk and smoke a cigarette.”
            “And then we’ll come back and fill these out.”
            “We’ll fill them out, and then find something else to do. We are going to need several things to do.”

             We returned from our walk and before nightfall managed to fill out all the applications and even returned my mother’s car without incident. I might have seemed slightly nervous or edgy, but if I did she said nothing of it when I picked her up from work. I had left Ricky at my apartment.
            “How’d your day go? Get a lot done?”
            “I did. I went and picked up a friend and we went together. I’ve got a couple dozen applications that I’ll need to drop off tomorrow, so I’ll need your car again if that’s okay.” I spoke staring straight ahead, intently focused on the task of driving with extreme precision and polite consideration for my fellow drivers.
            “That’s fine. A couple dozen?”
            “Yeah, it’s a numbers game. We’ll see what pans out. I’m pick up some more tomorrow while I’m out dropping off the ones I’ve got done.”
            “Well I’m proud of you, Alan. You’re trying and that’s all any of us can ask.”
            “Thanks, Mom. I couldn’t do it without you.” I felt a tinge of guilt as we pulled up to my apartment. We got out of the car and hugged before she got back in and drove off. I stood there starting after her for a moment and lit a cigarette. The sun was setting but it seemed as bright as midday. Even with sunglasses on, the world glowed golden and new and the setting sun behind the buildings and trees made the air chilly but I was sweating. I must have been sweating in the car and not noticed, and I hoped my mom hadn’t either.
            Inside, I found Ricky had moved on from filling out applications to vigorously cleaning the grout between the tiles of my bathroom floor. He’d turned on music in the other room to keep himself company.
            “Fish, check this out. It’s going to look so much better in here. Girls notice things like a dirty bathroom floor.”
            “That’s looking really good, Ricky.”
            “Thanks. No need to help unless you want to. It’s keeping me busy and I’m almost done. You could set us up another line each. I put everything in the drawer of the coffee table, except the torch, the torch is still out. Do you want another one?”
             “I think I do. I’ll yell for you when they’re ready.” I got everything out and repeated the process I’d watched Ricky preform. I crushed the crystals and laid out the lines, making them bigger this time, and heated the glass tube with the torch, spinning it in my fingers to distribute the heat evenly. I put the rubber end up my nose and did my line while Ricky was still in the bathroom, making the same small circles with the tube, moving down the line of crushed crystals, watching it travel up the tube and instantly transform into opaque smoke. I stopped just short of the line with my lungs full, held the smoke for a moment and relived the sensation of the first. Even though I was already high, the second hit was no less intense. I sat for several minutes staring across the room into space, feeling the surge of a small powerplant suddenly hardwired to my nervous system at the back of my head. I felt unlocked, the full potential of my strength and mental abilities brought out after a lifetime of dormancy.
I walked over to the stereo and turned the music up then made myself a drink in the kitchen, hoping to counteract a bit of the jitteriness I was experiencing.

            “Ricky, do you want a drink?” No response. I went to the bathroom to find him finishing his project, giving the freshly cleaned floor one final wipe down. “Do you want a drink? Your line is ready, too.”

            “No, I shouldn’t drink. Believe it or not, drinking will get me into more trouble than the other stuff will.”

            “It looks really good in here, man. The ladies of tomorrow will be impressed with the level of cleanliness.”

            “Sure will. You said my line’s ready?” He got up and squeezed around me, leaving me standing in the doorway. I felt the sudden urge to try out the freshly scrubbed bath. I shut the door, took off my clothes, and turned on the shower. The warm water felt amazing. I scrubbed and cleaned and washed and got myself cleaner than I had probably ever been. I turned the water off and carefully shaved. I brushed my teeth until my gums bled, flossed, and picked out some clean clothes. In the top of my closet were my poems and short stories that I had written while I was locked up, all stuffed into a couple of boxes. I got dressed and brought the boxes into the living room.

            “That’s the stuff you wrote while were in Pineville, isn’t it?” Ricky was lost in the computer screen of the laptop my brother had given me, almost undoubtedly looking at porn.

            “I haven’t done anything with it since I’ve been home. I’m starting to feel a little guilty about it.” I made stacks of poems and pieces of writing, making organized sense of the chaos. Within a few minutes I had my work spread across the floor and organized by type, level of completion, and date. “Give me that laptop. I’m going to type some of this up.”

            “Get your own, man. I’m busy right now.” He didn’t even look up. I crossed the room and picked the computer up off the coffee table and unplugged the charger. There was porn on the screen. “What the fuck, man, I was looking at that.”

            “I’ve got stuff to do, work to get done, that supersedes your need to look at tits.”

            “Well if you ‘ve got shit that’s so important to do, why don’t I just leave you to it?” I could tell I offended him, but got the sense he might have been looking for an excuse to leave. “Can I at least leave this stuff here?” He motioned at the drawer, where the paraphernalia was stored.

            “That’s not a problem. You don’t have to go, I just all of the sudden want to work on this.”

            “It’s alright. As high as you are, with that pile of work to do, you’ll be at it all night. Literally.”

            “How long does this stuff last?”

            “You’ll be lucky to get any sleep tomorrow night.”

            “Goddamn, are you serious?”

            “I am. Are you coming to get me tomorrow?”

            “Yeah, I’ll have the car again. Leave your applications here and I’ll bring them. Where are you going, anyway?”

            “I’ve got some buddies that live a few blocks over. I don’t know, I’ll figure it out. I might even be back by later.”

            “Bring some girls.”    

            “I’m on it.” With that, he gave me a joking salute, turned, and left, slamming both doors on his way out.  I shut off the music and picked up my work, moving it and the laptop back to the coffee table. I closed the window of porn, pulled up the word processor, and set out at typing up some of my more recent poems. It felt good to revisit them, and even better that I was enjoying them without being overly critical. I made minor revisions but left that largely untouched as I typed them in, saving each one, creating folders and sub-folders and backing them all up on a thumb drive, making them substantive. I printed out copies and read them off a typed page for the very first time. They looked good. They looked like something one might find in a poetry anthology. They looked like the start of my own poetry book. I could imagine it. Alan Chezski, bringing a dying artform back to life with his cut-to-the-chase style and wit that could appeal to both those acquainted and those who hadn’t read a poem since Dr. Seuss. This thought was pleasing. I pulled up the internet browser, undid my pants, and spent the next seven hours watching all manner of depravity. They had come a long way while I was gone.



No comments:

Post a Comment



                I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My body is a lot smarter than my brain. That’s not saying much, seeing as the t...