The bus drove out of the Main Gate and made a series of lefts and rights until we merged into traffic on the highway. When the driver stepped on the gas and we roared forward, leaving Pawtuck behind, I let loose a pent-up sigh. I had a recurring nightmare of being pulled off the bus and thrown back into special housing, back into the dark.
Pawtuck Penitentiary lay behind me in my rearview mirror, or so I thought until I reached the halfway house and saw many faces I recognized, the bars on the windows, and the rent-a-cops playing correction officers. I didn't want to look over my shoulder, afraid I might find the cell I lived in for the past year open and waiting for me. This halfway house felt like Pawtuck Penitentiary—A.K.A. the Devil's Oven — had followed me back into society.
I did what the system expected of me. I attended the court-mandated addiction courses and saw there were still many tense jaws and smoked cigarettes from other recent releasees. All present (all except me) filled coffee cup after coffee cup crammed to the halfway mark with sugar and milk, bursting with anything sweet that would tamp down on cravings. This was life for a jonesing, partially recovering addict who knew that heaven was a short cold February walk down the street. Let them find their version of paradise. I wasn't an addict. I attended, but I paid no attention. I damn near fell asleep, but I showed up, and that's what counts.
I needed a job, though, or I'd wind up back at Pawtuck. That's the way it works. If I didn't get a job and demonstrate I could hold my own, back I'd go. I had been a cop until I went to prison. That line of work was out of the question now.
After the Narcotics Anonymous meeting, I went to my room, sat on the edge of my bed. My bed, for the moment, would belong to someone else later on. I stared out of the window. In all of my time at Pawtuck, I never suffered from claustrophobia but looking out of the small window, past the bars, and to the brick wall beyond--my only sight--a deep, and negative emotional chatter started. The babble spoke to me about not needing much to tie the sheet around my neck, end everything and not think anymore. This thread of thought was a mistake. To stop the feelings, I avoided looking at the wall and peered around the dingy room. I thought of a line from Shakespeare. I changed it to suit my circumstances.
My life is a tale lived by an idiot
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Yes, I am the idiot, and yes, the sound and fury were great. I went to sleep and dreamed nightmares.
One year ago...
I arrived at work, coffee and bagel in hand; my boss and detectives waited for me at the door of the Evidence Room. They instructed me to turn to the wall. Faced with this situation, my mind and body could not come to terms with what was happening. I stared at the people around me. My boss took my breakfast from my hand. A detective placed his hand on my shoulder and moved me.
I followed his motion and placed my hands against the cold brick because I didn't know what they wanted. Both my gun and badge were taken. I heard rustling. My boss opened my breakfast and began to eat. White matter populated the corner of his mouth as he chewed.
"Mm, everything bagel with cream cheese," he said around the food in his mouth.
I heard slurping. He drank my coffee. I didn't look his way because I knew he wanted to piss me off. "You wouldn't want this breakfast to go to waste, right?" he asked. He slurped again. I didn't say a word as one detective pulled one arm behind me and then the other.
They walked me out of the precinct in handcuffs; cops poured out onto the street to watch. They placed me in the backseat of a patrol car. I observed two cops walk to my sedan.
I had an old car. Nothing special. Nothing flashy. Rodriguez and Thompson, two patrolmen, used a slim jim to open it. They made a big deal of going through the backseat, the trunk, and then the driver's side seat. Rodriguez's back stiffened and he stood. In his hand was a red-bordered evidence bag. In the evidence bag was a kilo of tightly wrapped drugs. Some cops there clapped and laughed. Others hooted while they pointed their phones in my direction and back to Rodriguez holding the drugs, recording everything for the internet. I laid my head against the cool car door window. I didn't care what the drugs were. They weren't mine. I had never stolen anything from the evidence room. Never. Stolen. Anything.
We pulled away, and not too long afterward, I arrived at the local jail.
When I stepped through the doors of the Devil's Oven, I thought I'd be safe. I hadn't been a street cop, arresting people or laying hands on criminals. I had worked in the Evidence Room, cataloging, tagging, and keeping track of all things legal and illegal that came my way. I was proud of my job. I did my job well. I wouldn't tell my business in prison, and I thought no one would know I used to be a cop. Hmphf...
The next day I stood in line for breakfast at Pawtuck surrounded by other convicts in blue uniforms, the battleship gray walls, and battleship gray floors to match. The inmate working the serving line had thick glasses. I stared, wondering if he could see to the next state. I caught movement in their reflection. Someone ran toward me. I picked up the tray and met his oncoming fist with its hard plastic. A part of me wondered why someone would attack me. I didn't understand the nature of the beast, though, not at that moment.
His fist hit the tray, and I heard a wail of pain. Hot oatmeal covered my hand. I didn't care. I approached him, convict versus convict. We locked eyes for a second. He understood. I hit him with the tray. He fell and I continued to hit over and over again. I didn't kill him, but I left him with scars he would have to explain for the rest of his life.
I was taken to Special Housing, the politically correct term corrections uses for solitary confinement or the Hole.
I sat on the hard bed, puzzled by what happened. As the hours ticked by, I understood that no matter what, if I understood or didn't, I had to be ready if I was scared or not. I began doing push-ups and sit-ups and anything else I could think of to get prepared.
I didn't understand props; it's slang for respect; inmates get their props differently. One way is to knockout, stab, or, if you were a lifer who didn't expect to see freedom again, kill a cop. I was a target by default.
Props could earn you entrance into a group while in prison. The group would provide protection, drugs, and a little bit of power. Perpetrating a violent act against an ex-cop would also give the inmate the enviable tag of someone who T.C.B.--takes care of business.
I could have asked to remain in solitary, but I was mad. I didn't show it. I stayed outwardly calm, but inside I seethed. I boiled while I paced my dark, quiet cell. When they released me to my unit, I knew it wouldn't take long for someone to try me. It didn't.
When they released me from solitary and back to the unit, I played basketball, and I had to admit that it felt good to get my heart rate up. My unit had an outside basketball section. Above the court was a dirty mesh grill sitting on bars reminding everyone of where they played.
When I finished, I went to pick up my shirt when someone hit me. I saw my blood spray against the concrete wall of the court. I stumbled back. The world slowed and hazed over, but everything snapped back into focus. Two people came at me. The larger of the two swung with all of his might. If he connected, I would've woke up in the morgue. He didn't connect, though and his wild swing left him defenseless. I stepped to him and hit him as hard as I could in the nuts. Down he went.
The second, smaller man came at me. I wanted to take my time, but I knew the officers would arrive at any minute. I moved to him and jabbed. He backed up. I jabbed, again and again, hitting my mark each time. He lost all fight and ran back into the unit.
I turned back to guy number one. I wanted him the most. He was a big man. Most men are very primal. Masculinity 101: hurt the biggest man among them and the others will hesitate. I needed that man to send a signal to the rest of the unit.
He rocked back and forth clutching his crotch. I walked past him and picked up my shirt. I went to him and wrapped my shirt around his neck, and dragged him from the basketball court to the unit. All movement inside stopped. Everyone watched. He fought, but he was on his back, and the shirt was long enough, so he couldn't touch me. I pulled him and kept him off balance.
The officers stopped me when I arrived at the staircase leading to the upper tier. I wanted other inmates to think I was going to throw him over. I wasn't. When the officers ran to me, I complied. I didn't fight them. I didn't curse. I turned around and 'cuffed up.
As they led me away, I had to admit to myself the fighting felt good. It was great not to be a leaf blown in any given direction the wind wanted. Other cops treated me like a leaf when they handcuffed me and took away my gun and badge. The justice system treated me like I was a leaf. No, I did not like being a leaf at all. I liked being an oak tree--something solid that stands the test of time.
While I stayed in the Hole again, I exercised until bile rose and couldn't manage another push-up or sit-up. I cut a small thin strip of my bed sheet and used it the tie my mattress in a circle, like a sleeping bag. I put the mattress on my back and did squats. It wasn't very much weight, but it was better than nothing.
That's how my life went. I'd go to a unit, get into a fight and find myself either in the hospital or the Hole. Fighting became my life. I welcomed it. I enjoyed it--on the surface. At night when sleep came, I paid the price.
Then one day, it was over. A year into my bid, they called me into the office and told me that I would be released to a halfway house. I didn't understand, but neither did I question. I boarded the bus like a good little inmate and arrived at the halfway house as a parolee.
I debated about what to do next. There was the criminal route. I could get a gun and let loose on everyone who wronged me, but I'm not a murderer. I won't kill. I had scant outlines of a plan, but a key electronic piece was missing. I could order what I needed over the internet but who knows how long it would take to deliver. I also live in a halfway house with a bunch of crooks who were so good at their job they could surreptitiously steal the gold from your mouth while having a conversation with you. My nightmares sealed the deal, though. I took a bus downtown and accessed my bank account. Stores lined the block. I chose one and entered.
Electronic devices lined the display cases; most I recognized, some I didn't. I had to choose something, though. I had to record a conversation with something small enough for everyone to overlook.
Everything I wanted to accomplish--beyond the stereotypical clearing of my name, beyond punishing those who sent me into the Devil's Oven, I wanted to slit the throat of my dreams and watch the blood flow. Nothing would stop the knife from falling every night unless I grasped the hilt, pulled out the offending object, and used it on my nightmare. I had to fight in both the real and dream worlds.
All of my hopes depended on people and their habits. Would those habits still apply? Did they still go there? I didn't know. After all, a year had passed.
I walked around the block, trying to lose the tension running my body. I walked until I saw the bar I wanted to enter. I passed it, though uncertain about my next steps. Ralph's wasn't the typical cop bar like Lucille's over on the west side. Yes, cops were always present, but they didn't come to Ralph's to bust drug dealers or have a drink after work. Cops went to Ralph's to buy drugs—usually from other cops.
I didn't believe it when an older, more experienced cop told me about Ralph's when I first joined the force. "Go hang out at Lucille's," Donovan said. "Avoid Ralph's. There's enough drugs at Ralph's to supply the whole city for a year." Donovan leaned to me and said in a quieter tone: "Don't get any ideas about taking it down, either. You're not Kojak. You work in the Evidence Room. And besides, it's protected."
I nodded then just as I nodded in this time, my body acting on automatic as if agreeing and saying: Yes, it happened that way.
Habits, I thought, still nodding. Would they still be there? I walked eying the place, hoping I would see someone familiar. I knew I had to make a decision. I reached down, grabbed my balls, and made a decision.
I put my glasses on and walked into the bar. I noticed nothing changed. No music played. The quiet was broken by a small black and white T.V. droning on in the background. The ceiling was still the old-style tin, painted over on so many different occasions its original color lost to time. Two ceiling fans crusted with dust spun leisurely. A couple of tables and some booths sat directly across from the bar itself.
Ralph's was big. The further back a person walked, the darker it became. The rest of the establishment stretched out into the dim recesses. What happens in the far reaches of the bar, in the pitch black, I could only imagine.
Three people sat at the bar sipping their beers. I recognized them. I don't think they knew me. I had attended their retirement parties. They were former cops.
Two or three years ago, I walked into this place out of curiosity. I ordered a beer, sat at a booth, and looked around. When I saw him walk in I knew the rumors were true. This operation was protected.
In the short time I sat at the bar, I saw four more cops I recognized. They came in with baseball caps, sunglasses, and hoodies. They all walked past the bar and to the rear. All came back out seconds later, legs moving at an impatient, hurried clip.
I finished my beer and left. At the time, my thoughts ran along the lines of I'm not Kojak. I work in the Evidence Room.
Back in the now, I knew the person I searched for sat at the rear, out of sight--a master puppeteer no one ever suspected.
His bodyguard--another plainclothes cop--stopped me and turned to Benson, his boss, to get the thumbs up or down.
"Holy shit! As I live and breathe. Darren Wilkes. Hey, you lost weight. And you wear glasses now ."
Muscle pushed me against the table. I bent over and grabbed the end of the sides a he ran his hands up my front and down my back looking for a weapon or a wire. He moved his hands down my legs and cupped my balls. In prison, this was nothing. Try squatting and coughing while naked.
"Lift up his shirt!"
Muscle pursed his lips reached around, and pulled up my shirt.
"Pull down his pants!"
Standing straight, I waved off his guy. I took off my jacket and handed it to Muscle. I took off my glasses, fully removed my shirt, and undid my pants, so they fell around my ankles. I did a slow turn. Some in the bar swiveled their heads our way but turned back to their drinks. Street Rules 101: If it doesn't concern you, don't look too hard and forget everything you did see.
Benson and I held eye contact. I tilted my head as if to say: Satisfied?
He nodded, and I began to dress. Muscle checked my jacket, he handed it back to me.
"May I?" I asked. I pointed at the seat across from him.
I sat there for several seconds, trying to decide how to approach the subject. Detective Benson got impatient. "What do you want?"
Benson worked the same precinct as I and was as crooked as the Mississippi River. Nothing happened within the walls of the precinct he didn't know about or order. Benson was the man I saw on the previous occasion I sat in this bar. He had never talked to me, though. Never.
"Why?" I asked
"They sent me to the Devil's Oven!" My anger peeked out from behind my calm façade. I swallowed hard and pushed it back down.
"I know. I know." He smoked a cigarette below a "No Smoking" sign. "Darren, I'm a good judge of character. I knew you'd never do the things I needed you to do. I never had any problems from anyone else but you... I knew you'd be a problem. Would you have taken a bribe?"
I bowed my head. "No."
"Like I said, I'm a good judge of character. I needed you out of the Evidence Room."
My stomach roiled. I wanted to fight.
"Why was I released early?"
"I'm not privy to that information, but I guess your urinalysis came up negative. They probably didn't find any Monopoly money in your bank account or flashy clothes. You didn't drive an expensive car. If anything, they saw the theft increase after you left. These facts probably left the D.A.'s office in a bind. They talked to some people and pulled some strings."
"They didn't want you exonerated, nor did they want to charge any more cops with drug theft. That would've been a political shitstorm. I mean, how many D.A.'s put a cop in prison for something he didn't do?"
I wanted to hit the piece of shit in front of me. But he was a cop. A dirty and crooked cop but a cop, nonetheless. I was an ex-con.
"You put me in prison. You almost got me killed."
"Okay, that's enough," Muscle said. He pulled out a snub nose and let it hang at his side. He faced me, but his eyes darted around the bar. I knew what thoughts flowed through his mind: Who will see if I put one in his brainpan?
"I know what happened to you was wrong, but what's right in this world?" Benson said. He smiled a reptilian smile—a smile that didn't touch his eyes.
I moved out of the booth to the exit. The bartender held his sawed-off shotgun; the barrel pointed to the ceiling. Other patrons pulled out their handguns, ready to use them. They all smiled like they shared the joke Benson told.
As I walked out of the bar, I heard him laugh. I didn't know what he laughed about, but I guessed it was about me. I hadn't laughed in a year. My girlfriend left me. My mother died while I rotted behind bars -- denied permission to attend her funeral because they said I was too violent.
I caught the bus back uptown to the halfway house. I sat down at my desk with an envelope and scribbled the New York Times address on the front. I took off my glasses and saw they were still on. I turned them off and folded them. In the folded position, the memory card was exposed.
Donovan's voice chided me, stopping me. You're not Kojak. You work in the Evidence Room.
You're right, I countered. I'm not Kojak. But I don't I work in the Evidence Room anymore nor am I a cop.
I placed the memory card in the envelope, sealed it, walked over to the mail chute in the hallway, and threw it in.
Every night I pay the price of living by dreaming nightmares. My dreams had gained weight and heft, a ball and chain pulling me down into a whirlpool I couldn't escape. Maybe, tonight the ball and chain wouldn't pull me in as deep, and I would sleep in peace.
I walked outside into the February cold, pulling my jacket tighter, hunching over against the wind, passing the drug dealers and prostitutes peddling their fake version of momentary paradise.
I went into McDonald's. The manager worked the cash register.
"I need a job," I said.
"Gotcha," she replied.
She smiled and looked my way more than a heartbeat too long.
I smiled back. I knew if she were free, I would be a potential suitor. But unbidden thoughts came to me of how long I could've stayed in prison, of all of the other ways my life could have ended, but I landed here--safe. And with a pretty woman looking my way. My smile gained momentum and became a chuckle.
And damn, it felt good.
L. Jordan James has held several jobs, but none gives him as much enjoyment as writing. He is a veteran and has worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He grew up kicking around Brooklyn. Now he kicks around New Jersey.