Ascending the Throne
Sean Dunne was awarded honorable mention in Fiction in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.
This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.
ASCENDING THE THRONE
If you’re ever in Tustin, CA. in September, walk down Holt. It’s an avenue that starts somewhere and ends nowhere. A wrought iron riddled row of storm channels and rain gutters. A shortcut to a strawberry field and beyond that, I don’t know.
The powerlines droop like the tentacles of a depressed octopus. Their poles lean and glare kinda mean. After a certain point there are no street lamps to tell you if it’ş time to go home. And if you like to you just kinda wonder, index finger to lip, moody blue sky turning down the brightness on you, turning objects into shadow.
The seismographic lines of distant mountains ride the horizon, doing nothing, sometimes peaked with snow, though to you it may still feel like summer.
Canyons are out there. Creeks and squirrels are in tenure. Gypsum weed, that storied maker of blind teenagers, rivals the sagging powerlines for title of King Gloom. All about the leaning fences it sags and stinks as it hangs in decay.
Jesse made his way up Holt to Delores’ parents house. It was on the very last little street before the city gave way to unincorporation and the unknown. Out there the sky could eat you up if you weren’t careful.
Jesse’s image would make a student of optimism lose heart. He kept his head low and he kept his hands shoved into the pouch : of his hoodie: Black Chuck Taylors made small splashes in the puddles yet to evaporate from an earlier rain. The sky shone watercolor depths of deep purple. It sulked. It threatened to burst into tears. It said nothing, but you could hear it grumble.
Delores awaited him next to the big cedar in front of her parents house, a two story job with Greek columns and a t.v. in the kitchen, a waterproof radio in the shower, and a welcome mat to tell you where your heart was. Her forehead touched his as he bent to kiss her. It was the kind of bump that people who are well acquainted navigate with intimacy. On him she smelled cigarettes and discovered a lightheadedness for a second. And so there her heart burned in a redoubtable feeling that began in her throat and sank to her stomach. Like a fiber pill without a water chaser, it sat there, turning into cement.
They stayed there like that for an uncertain amount of time. He put his hand to Delores’ belly but pulled it away, remembering that they were in front of her parents house. He snuck a glance over her shoulder to their doorway. All was in shadow. But he didn’t put his hand back.
Jesse began to shiver and he became wretched.’ “I need more,” was the mantra inside of him. It was so fucking loud that it rattled his bones. Sometimes it just be like that.
“Jesse?” Delores put her tiny hands to his hoodie strings. Jesse tried to stifle a tremor which threatened to shake his knees, Unanswered, the girl just held the folds of fabric tighter.
Slowly she removed her hands, only noticing then that they were trembling. She tried to pull Jesse toward her. He kept wincing and glancing over her shoulder.
He resisted her with his mind. With terrifying apprehension. With voices unregistered at the sign-in center in his brain he heard his own voice screaming shit that could have been something like a satanic chant mixed with Catholic liturgy on echo at stupid loud volume to the effect of. Row, Row, Row your boat.
At length, beneath an old cedar wet with the stain of an earlier rain, beneath a purple, darkening, bruised sky, he gave into her.
Delores stood on her tippy toes and Jesse bent his head down. His craving to drink and to use was the space that persisted between them. It was the faint light which defined the lines and character of their bodies. It shone like a purple shadow. It was a picture in picture. It was the Rumplestiltskin coming to snatch their first born.
But as Jesse bent down to kiss her the slope of their child reached into that void and somehow made them mesh into something where nothing had previously been.
The next thing we know, we are being transported on a county jail bus to a large auditorium full of people and you are Jesse and you are on a stage with bright lights dimming to a reflective quietude and you got your eyes open but you close em for a second, just a second, and when you open them again you snatch the last glimpse of faces you can see out there, and they are all hating on you.
You are Jesse, the Bum.
Shaking your head with a sigh. You sit down drunkenly on the bus bench behind you, bluntly realizing that you are on a set which resembles a boulevard scene.’ There are neon signs and sketches of noir characters in a panorama of cardboard all around the vague storefronts, and some street lamps up above. You look down. There’s a forty-ounce-shaped bottle with a generic label that simply reads, “SIDEWALK SLAM”. You pick it up and examine it, holding it up to the stage lights and ruminating with a swerving, canny interest. Thus satisfied, you tilt the bottle a little, turn up your bottom lip, and crack that bad boy open. It makes a gasp of carbonation. The sweet perfume of malt liquor mixed with watermelon wine is welcomed with open arms by the hairs which dangle from your nostrils like centipede legs carrying cessation to the brain and cessation of the soul as you take a long pull, replace the cap, and wipe your wet lips with the back of your dirty mit.
“I was thinkin about getting a beer bong just hooked straight into my liver,” you say, and take another fat drink off the Sidewalk Slam. The audience just stares blankly. “Fucking gang stalkers,” you jeer, “I’m onto you fuckers.” You make a face and shake your head. “Everywhere I go. Same people. Same cars. On the bus. Wherever. Gang Stalkers. Trying to make me go crazy and kill myself. Well, I’m not gonna do it!” you hiss. “I come from a long line of bums and I’m fulfilling a prophecy, you motherfuckers. “The crowd in the auditorium is completely silent Their bad vibrations are way louder than words. But you don’t be givin a fuck. You’re used to it. Undaunted, you take another snort of Sidewalk Slam, and continue. “I come from a long line of bums, but it always skips a generation. My father, God love em, was a hard working man. But his father was. . . well. . . like me. If that comparison ever escaped his attention, I doubt it.” The crowd watches dully. “My dad was an astute dude. Of course he put some thought into the similarity between his father and I. But he never actually said anything about it.”
You take another fat pull off the forty, and ignore the hateful silence. “Anyways,” you say, once more replacing the cap, moisture on your fingertips, setting the bottle down on the bench beside you, leaning it against the backrest with the care of gratitude. “My grandfather – I never knew em- he was a bum like me. My dad had ten brother’s and sisters. That was them days. Irish. You know the deal. And my grandmother -a four-foot-saintess who I only had the pleasure of meeting a few times before she also died, she had to work 12 hour shifts at a five and dime to get shit done. All of en turned out to be self sufficient. I’m not saying they’re all squeaky clean. But ain’t one of em a bum. See what I mean? It skips a generation. As far back as I can get a picture it’s been that way. My great grandfather was a stand up dude, begat by a hobo and a drunkard. All the way back to the genealogy of Jesus Christ. I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m just saying that’s the way it was. And my father being aware of this generational thing, aw man, he musta always been afraid that it would happen to me.”
Jesse made a face and took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped some sweat off his forehead and put the thing back. He took another long, satisfying drink and stared up into the street lamp stage lights for a second. Pretty soon he began fidgeting in his seat and looked directly out toward the obscured faces of his audience as little dots of bright light danced around in his bleary eyes. He couldn’t see any of them but he nonetheless gave them a colajstare and said, “You people think we’re born normal or something. No one ever stops to think that this man you tell to get a job might be dealing with a generational curse.
“I remember him “scrutinizing me with that appraising eye of his like a friggen Jew looking at a hunk of gold, just looking at me like as if I were predisposed to Werewolfdom or something. He knew. He knew it was only a matter of time before I became inducted into the fraternity of Bumhood. He always knew, didn’t he?”
Jesse sat erect and put his hands in his hands for a while and said nothing. Eventually ice cubes were heard clinking in glasses and low conversation began in the audience and there was movement as people got up to leave. Darkened figures stirred in the shadowy hall. Jesse had begun to slouch again. He sat zijn up and then he actually stood. He put his hands in his front-pouch. He was wearing jeans and a hoodie. He began to pace back and forth around the set as the audience left. Admiring the low budget props on the stage he mumbled to himself and paced and occasionally stooped to examine the carpentry and craftsmanship that must have gone into the work of art all around him. “Fucking gang stalkers,” he said one last time to no one in particular.
The camera in your mind slowly zooms out to the furthest perspective in the auditorium. Standing in a perplexed state, hands now descending absently to his sides, Jesse slowly hangs his head to his chest and grows smaller. As the wideview lens zoons out you can see that all the seats in the audience have been vacated, and a black curtain closes in around the melancholy sight. The stagelights slowly dim. You close your eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. And when you open them you have to squint cause you’re no longer in the dark performance hall. You are astonished to find yourself staring up into a streetlamp. Little spots dance around in your disoriented vision. As it clears you look around you. There’s the Shell Gas station with the liquor store and laundromat behind it. The air smells like Mexican detergent and Mexican fabric softener and. . . rain.
There’s the Jack in the Box where the staff always knocks on the friggen bathroom door as soon as you get in there. A little bit down , about a quarter block on the same side of the street there’s the New Harbor Inn, where you can climb the wall to the furniture shop next door and shimmy between the two buildings (which are no more than two feet apart) like Spiderman to the second story windows cause they don’t have any bars on them, If you are cold and desperate enough, if you have the strength, you can try to pull à screen off and pry one of the windows open and crawl in and hope that the room doesn’t get rented while you’re in there. If you have the strength.
There’s the crowded mixture of people going home and people who ain’t got no home standing and sitting in various attitudes of drama all around the stop for the 43 South, aros crossed. Indian Style on the sidewalk, intensely talking to a friend, some of them quietly standing to the side beneath the street lamp stage lights, sharing a common look of fatigue, unaware they are extras in a movie documenting the ascension to the throne of a boulevard king.
There’s an unusual storm headed toward Southern California, where storms seldom go. Nevertheless, this night is an exception. A storm is fast approaching and the streets are emptying as people generally flee to some semblance of shelter. Thunder reports the imminence of a cloud burst like a procession of cannons fired nearby in the sky. Everyone at the bus stop ceases what they are doing, even if they were just staring at the ground. All of them look up at the sky with dread and check their watches and look down Harbor. Boulevard for any sign of the bus.
Jesse the Bum stumbled down the street draped in a pair of thin hospital blankets with his shoulders hunched. You could see the imprint of his knuckles through the fabric, his hands clenching it tightly across his chest.
A tall, skinny white girl staggered out from the Costa Mesa Motor Inn on the the other side of Wilson. “Oh, excuse me.” she mumbled. The gangs in the sky rumbled and threw a piano down the stairway to Heaven. The 43 blew past them and stopped across the street to swallow up the people waiting for it with a collective sigh of relief. “Last bus,” mumbled the tall, skinny girl. Jesse noticed she had no sweater on. “Here,” he said. And he gave her one of his flimsy blankets. They were walking, but she stopped to accept the gift. Jesse noticed she had blue eyes. And the bags under them told her story, but he asked anyway. ‘”Coming down on speed?” She just nodded and shivered. As she wrapped the blanket around herself they started walking again,
On the other side of the street a skinhead Jesse knew from the 7-11 on 17th st. came out of the Jack in the box as he and the girl sat down at the now deserted bus stop. “Hey, there, Jesse.” Evil said. He seemed in high spirits. Thunder resounded like a heavy dresser with wobbly legs being dragged across a hardwood floor. The noise didn’t seem to frighten him at all. “Who’s your little friend?” he crooned, sidling up to them. Jesse said, ‘”I don’t know. I just gave her a blanket.” The girl stared expression lessly at the empty street. The changing colors from the stoplight painted her empty eyes and emotionless face in green, yellow, and then red. And she scarcely blinked. “That right?” soothed Evil. Jesse didn’t like the soothing tone in his voice. “Say,” Evil said, almost conspira-. torially, “you know, you guys, it’s about to start pouring something pretty. You two can come and stay at my pad for the night, but a buncha my homeboys are there. So anyways,” he said to no one in particular, “We’ll be having some fun with her.” Jesse didn’t like this guy to begin with just on the principle that he was a skinhead. But he definitely didn’t like whatever ideas he had in his dumb ass skinhead brain about the girl.
Evil’s real name is Joseph. Joseph got sober long enough one time long ago to score himself a Section 8 apartment. But now times changed back to the more destructive patterns of active addiction that he and I and probably you are more consistently acquainted with.
There the camera zooms in close on the face of Jesse the Bum. There are signs and all kinds of indications of weariness all about it. But nevertheless it is him, Jesse the bûm. A young Jesse the Bum. He and the skinny girl are sitting beside each other on the recently in vacated bus bench with their flimsy blankets wrapped around em tightly, the wind a kickin up and the temperature a droppin, just starin at the empty street. “Come on,” says Evil. And neither of em had the strength not to follow.
The three of them walked up Wilson toward Evil’s pad on Newport Boulevard. He had a shaved head and a flight jacket. Typical skinhead. He talked pointlessly the whole time, Jabbing Jesse annoyingly and fainting punches to the ribs, oblivious to the fact that his two companions were in very poor spirits.
All along the way Evil kept making little comments about the girl, implying that he and his homeboys were gonna, “have a good time with her.”
The pitch black sky erupted with an ovation of thunder as they passed an abandoned house on Thurin. Heavy clouds, pregnant with rain, sagged and swirled tumultuously above them, invisible in the darkness. Even Evil, tweeked out as he was, shut the fuck up for a second in startled reverance.
On the other side of the crosswalk however he continued his inane musings. Little globs of spit gathered in the corners of his mouth. You could hear his cotton mouth in the subtle impairment of his elocution. Yet, nevertheless he went on talking.
Jesse and the girl clung tighter to their blankets, making no comment, each of them a picture of misery. . . and fear. They stood to the inside of the sidewalk, sorta closer to each other, while Evil kinda walked on and off of the sidewalk, stepping over small bushes without really looking where he was going, hands raised in an expression of constant comment, oblivious to anything except the disbursement of his endless stream of words. Each paragraph seemed to be punctuated only by the incessant declaration that he and his homeboys were gonna have a good time with her. It was his only coherent thought. Onward they trudged like that, trying to avoid ripping open the blisters on their feet with staggered steps to a Section 8 apartment full of horny, tweeked out skinheads, just looking for a good time.
Evil’s apartment was behind an ethnic restaurant in a little 8 unit spot, in between Victoria and Wilson, on Newport Boulevard, right beside the Ali Baba Motel. As the trio rounded the corner to Newport they passed a Circle K and a shithole bar and a laundromat on the left hand side. On the right was the 55 freeway. The air was heavy with the precipitance of rain.
A short old lesbian with a silver mullet named Kat came riding up along side them. Jesse knew her. She’d bought him a cup of coffee and a donut one freezing night when he’d passed out with his head on one of the tables in the back of the donut shop just down the street from there. She was a good woman. But she was a speed dealer. I always say it’s better to have a speed dealer with a mullet and a heart of gold than a speed dealer with a .357 and a case of moral turpitude.
Anyways, she rolled up along side Evil and they began to negotiate about the idea of kat kicking him down with some shit. Jesse and the girl stayed completely silent, just kinda standing to the side. “Come on, Kat,” pleaded Evil, “you know I got you.” Those three words are like the kiss of death on the street. “I got you.” Might as well say, “I’m gonna burn you.” But Kat relented. “Alright,” she conceded, “come on over here.” There is a small tunnel between the adjacent shops in the Circle K parkinglot.
Evil and Kat scurried off through there to do their thing away from the seeing eyes of Newport Boulevard. Evil said nothing to Jesse and the girl as he departed. But the general feeling was that he would return. And that was a probability that Jesse could not abide. He grabbed the girl by the elbow, opening up his blanket for the first time since Harbor Boulevard, and said, “Come on. Let’s get the fuck away from this creep.” The girl said nothing, but her willingness to comply spoke for her.
Right around the corner from there was a small lumber yard. Jesse guided her down a darkened driveway.
The back patio had a huge covering. I swear to God as soon as they got underneath it the sky bellowed one last tremendous diaphragm wrought. blood curdle and the clouds broke. It was such a dramatic scene that even in their state of extraordinary fatigue the two just froze like mannequins as the throat of midnight was lit up by a bright scope of lightning.
Jesse and the girl were like tramps in a silent film melodramatically depicting their circumstances. Their eyes’ seemed to be surrounded not by the symptom manifesting their shadows, but instead to be intentionally done like that with jealous stage makeup. The creases and lines were not the beacons of destruction, but carefully done clumps of face powder. So put to say without words. that they were worried. . . and afraid.
The lightning flashed and they had their Americana moment and then there was only the light from the back door of the building to make intimate their affair.
The rain punched through the rent in the clouds and came down harder. It poured out with violence, intent it seemed on divebombing into the ground all around their overhang with anger, The wind howled and disemboweled the air, but thanks to Jesus Christ the back of the building completely sheltered them from it. It still made everything cold though, and the noise it made was very much like a sound effect from an old fashioned horror movie.
There was a stack of pallets off to the side. Jesse moved em over to the back wall, underneath the yellow doorlight. He was heaving and hurting and wincing. The tall, skinny girl just stood there still staring at the kamikaze rain.
“Come on,” Jesse said. He stood next to her and pointed at the ground around them. It was beginning to get wet beneath the overhang. They were on a slight decline and water would soon begin to pool around them. “Thank God for the pallets,” Jesse muttered. “Come on,” he said, guiding her gently to them. “We gotta sleep on top of those.”
Jesse sat her down beside him. They clung so tightly to their blankets as they lay down. The wind howled all around them like a child’s tantrum as they closed their weary eyes and went to sleep.
The stage curtain reappears. But as it does the faint blue light of angels surrounds them and can be seen flickering brighter and brighter as the curtain closes them in.
Back on the county jail bus after 16 hours in a holding cell at court, the nighttime landscape of freeway side buildings and flower mosaic perversities glued onto the sides of sound walls stream by in a familiar blur. Jesse has to stand on top of his seat; handcuffed to the dude beside him just to see out the little slice way up at the top that the sheriff’s dept. hasn’t blacked out of the buses window,
Somewhere out there in the strawberry fields and sagging powerlines, past the 17th St. exit on Holt avenue is Delores and his baby. He shuts his eyes and again he is ushered onto a stage. This time by an impatient deputy with an angry face. Desperately trying to hold onto a baloney sandwich, Jesse stumbles back out there and drops it. The black curtain opens once more with an audibly creaking system of pulleys. And there he is again on the bus bench drinkin a Sidewalk Slam in front of that same broken down boulevard scene. It isn’t young Jesse the Bum anymore. The lines on his face are real, the culmination of years. Burst capillaries on his nose make him look like a cartoon drunkard.
Jesse cups his eyes and stares out into the audience for a familiar face. There they are. His long lost wife and baby.
He takes a sloppy slug of swill and he feels so good a bit spills down the front of his hoodie. He wipes it haphazardly with the back of his hand and pulls up his sleeve. There are a thousand needle marks all up and down his arm. He takes another drink. Jesse cups his eyes again and he squints even harder.
His vision clears like two magnets pushing away from each other. Like the little square moving upward across the tv screen in a game of Pong the dot of light arises and now he can see that there’s nobody there.
He grabs for the forty ounce bottle instinctively without looking, bleary eyes widening in disbelief. Those are electrical boxes, Jesse. You thought they were an audience. And that isn’t your wife and son. That’s a cluster of bushes.
And the layer of mist that descends upon us all who stay outside too long in the middle of the night descends upon Jesse. As he averts his hand from the forty and reaches to steady his suddenly shivering knees, the giant black curtain closes in on him once more like the whispering fate of a merciful death.