Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly,
All your life…
You were only waiting for this moment to arrive.
—Blackbird, John Lennon and Paul McCartney
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, And next year’s words await another voice.
—Little Gidding, T.S.Eliot
He stood by his cell window in his boxers, feeling the damp morning air against his chest as he inhaled the scent of orange blossoms. It was March, and he was a little more than twenty-four hours away from walking out the gates of Baker Correctional Institution, the prison near Olustee, Florida, that he knew like his own skin.
At times like this, Jared Aesop Martin remembered working on his uncle’s Pennsylvania farm picking tomatoes in the morning fog, the plant juices staining his hands black where he touched the vines, and the smells of the rich loam, the rotten tomatoes that had fallen on the ground, the hay under the plants used for mulching, and the sounds of morning birds. During his fifteen years of prison, when the television noise, fights and shakedowns all threatened to crush him, he brought up those memories to help him cope. Now he wondered what kinds of difficulties he would face in the freeworld as an ex-felon, and if he would recall the memories of prison to get through them. He smiled at the thought.
The screeching of Sergeant White’s static-distorted voice over the speakers in the hallway interrupted his thoughts. “Work call! Work call! Make sure your cells are clean! Inspection today! Work call!” Jared quickly pulled on his prison blues and brogans, ran his fingers through his close-cropped gray hair, locked his locker, then checked to make sure his cellie’s bunk and locker were okay. Charles “C. J.” Jackson was a blond-haired old con, a good cellmate who often went to work early as Coach Denver’s clerk.
Jared stepped out of his cell and locked the door, then headed down the wing. As he pushed through the fire doors and moved into the flow of inmates through the dayroom, he spotted Samuel “Stormie” Lawson just heading down the stairwell. He hung back, feeling a sudden jolt of hatred as he watched the old con disappear with the crowd down the stairs. Jared had avoided him successfully for three years, even after Stormie had moved into his dorm. Stormie had killed two inmates early on in his twenty-six years of prison, and he was still strong and mean-spirited enough to hurt someone. Still, Jared noticed that he was beginning to show his age. He walked slower, hunched over more, talked less, and lately he seemed withdrawn, deep in thought.
When enough time had passed, Jared headed downstairs past the officer’s Plexiglas-enclosed wicker and out the door, nursing a core of relief in his chest. He felt the last day of his incarceration like a distant thunderhead coming his way. Working at his assigned job one last time, he raked and picked up litter around the handball courts, but the day was going way too fast. After work and dinner, he soaked and scrubbed in the shower, then walked back to his cell.
He didn’t see his attackers. They were too fast, jumping him from behind as he pushed through his door. He was shoved to the floor, his towel thrown over his head as his wrists were pulled painfully behind his back. A dozen fists pounded his ribs and back.
“We don’t like faggots like you!”
“You’re gonna remember us, Cracker!”
“When you hit the streets, you can sell your ass and send us cigarette money!”
“Don’t go telling the womenfolk out there you’re straight, punk!”
“You might as well go back to your favorite leather bar and put on your old dress!”
“Don’t come back here, asshole!”
“Don’t ever come back!”
Jared tried to break free, but he was laughing too hard, as were his opponents, When they let him up, he gripped his sore ribs and looked in the mirror. “You sons-a-bitches!” he growled, then laughed again. They had rouged his cheeks with contraband lipstick stolen from a female guard. “You girls are just mad because a real man is goin’ home!” he snorted, wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand.
Although the bruises and pain were real, the mock beating was Jared’s going-away gift, his friends’ way to tell him not to return to prison. Jared looked from face to face—Luis “Buzzard” Gonzalez, Robert “Gonzo” Gordon, Theo Spencer, and Willie Logan—already feeling the loss of leaving his friends behind. His cellie, C. J., pushed past them, carrying two large brown bags. “Your sendoff wouldn’t be complete without a Last Supper, Homeboy!”
As Logan, the only black man in the group, urged Jared to the cell window, the others set clean towels on the two footlockers and began laying out the food. C. J. ran his out-of-the-locker canteen by buying food and supplies from the prison canteen, then selling them at a fifty percent profit to inmates who expected to receive money soon. Despite the deadbeats, he made a handsome profit that financed his tobacco and coffee needs.
“So what’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you get your goat-smelling ass outta here?” Gonzo asked as he and Theo sorted cans of lukewarm sodas, packs of cookies, potato chips, crackers, and icing-coated honeybuns called “six-fifties”.
Jared sipped a soda. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe get a double-thick deep-dish pizza with everything, a pitcher of beer, and a little pussy on the side.”
“Goddam!” Buzzard, the old gray-haired Mexican, snorted. “I been down so long I didn’t even know they moved that thing!” He brought out the peanuts, candy bars, and a large, brown, greasy paper bag full of Chaingang Goulash—a specialty made of Ramen noodles, mayonnaise, packaged tuna, chunks of cheese, crushed Cheetos, and other odds and ends stolen from Food Service.
“Did you ever say anything to Stormie about your going?” Gonzo asked cautiously, rubbing his bald scalp.
A shadow fell over Jared’s face. “Why would I want to do that?” His light blue eyes narrowed. They all felt his mood change.
“Yeah, after the way Stormie betrayed him, why would he?” Buzzard explained. He rolled and lit a cigarette. Jared quit smoking three years ago, but he never complained when someone else lit up.
“What betrayal?” Theo asked.
“Stormie and Jared were solid once,” Buzzard explained. “Good amigos. Real tight. Until three years ago, when Stormie put down on him, started a fight, just about beat the shit out of him. And when the guards showed up, Stormie rolled, got them both locked up for a month.”
“Jared was having a rough time,” Logan added, taking the cigarette C. J. offered him and lighting up. “Good looking out, Bro. Anyhow, Jared fell off the wagon, stopped going to A. A., got back into weed, and when Stormie started the fight, Jared was too strung out to defend himself properly.”
“I doubt I could’ve beat him on a good day,” Jared mumbled.
“Point is,” Logan went on, “they wouldn’t have been locked up in the first place if Stormie hadn’t run his mouth to the Captain. They both got a month in confinement. First time for old Jared here. Not only was he claustrophobic, he was going cold turkey in a cell by himself.”
“Poor ol’ boy was bawling all night long for his momma, keeping all the other confinement boys awake,” Buzzard taunted.
“Fuck you, Buzzard!” Jared snapped, tossing the empty soda can at him. He laughed too, but he could still remember how bad it was, huddling on his rack in the confinement cell, trembling and sweating like an oversaturated mop, feeling his breath being crushed from his body. Even three years later, he felt the raw terror as if it had been branded into his flesh.
“Stupid marecon!” Buzzard grumbled. “Pulling shit like that!”
“But confinement broke you of your addiction,” Theo said.
“I slipped one last time after that,” Jared said. “Did a little joint, but I learned my lesson.”
“Jared really impressed the guards!” C. J. said. “A couple days after he smoked the weed, the brownshirts woke him at one a. m. for a piss test.”
By the next morning, everybody on the yard knew.
“You tested positive?” Theo asked.
“Nah,” Jared said. “I tested negative. I ‘studied’ for the test.”
“He drank a lot of water,” C. J. explained. “He had fifteen minutes before the guards escorted him to Medical to piss in the cup. He gulped down cup after cup of water to dilute his urine and any traces of THC. And it worked. His test came out negative, and he didn’t get locked up. Just one problem. He pissed his pants on the way to Medical!” They all laughed. “He never touched anything stronger than a Tylenol after that!”
Conversation waned as the men finished off the goulash and other snacks. Jared felt morose as he watched his friends. Gonzo and Buzzard were lifers. C. J., Logan, and Theo had years to go before they got out. His eyes felt watery. “You guys are really important to me,” he said.
“Yeah,” Theo grunted. “Let’s just see you send just one fuckin’ post card when you get out!”
“I’m serious,” Jared said. “I coulda made it through this bid on my own, but I had a lot of help, and that made things easier. I can’t leave without sayin…”
“Hold on, Homeboy,” Gonzo said. “You’re way too sentimental for me right now. Kick my ass or steal my shit, but don’t you say goodbye!”
“I wouldn’t do that, Bro,” Jared smirked, covering his tracks. “I was just gonna tell you I was gonna send you all T-Backs when I write so you fags can get more money for your fat asses!”
“You pinga!” Buzzard shouted as the others laughed. “You faggot!
“First girl you meet on the streets, you’ll want to share recipes and decorating tips!”
“The important thing is you’re getting out,” Theo said. A pall settled over the crowded cell. For the first time in three years Jared wanted a cigarette. “You know,” Gonzo said, staring at the floor, “Stormie finally saw the parole man about six months ago.”
“Fuck Stormie!” Buzzard snorted.
Jared felt a twinge. Stormie had a life with a quarter, a life sentence with twenty-five years mandatory time. Supposedly an inmate could see the parole man after the mandatory for a release date, say, five years down the road, but it usually didn’t work that way. C. J. asked the question Jared was afraid to ask. “So what did he get?
“He walked out of the interview like nothing happened,” Gonzo went on. “Like nothing was wrong. But you could tell something had whipped him real bad. Turns out they gave him a Buck Rogers date, 2095. You ask him about it, all he’ll say is, you gotta die somewhere. But you can tell it’s gnawing at him. He’s looking at the fences these days the way he did in his first years. He’s waiting.
“Waiting for what?” Theo asked.
“For the parole man,” Gonzo answered. They all knew what he meant. When the fog rolled in—-the “Parole Man”—it provided the best conditions for a man to get over the fences and razorwire and escape.
“So what’s the deal with this betrayal you all talk about, and what’s so wrong with Stormie?” Theo asked.
They all glanced at Jared. It was his story, after all. He glanced around, then shrugged, “He’s an old con,” Jared said. “About fifty-five or so, a decade older than me, same height, about five-foot-nine. About ten years ago, he moved into my cell. Right from the get-go he hated my guts because I was only a newcock— I had five years in to his fifteen.”
Jared slowly related the story of how Stormie had moved in like a rabid, menacing wolverine. His gray hair was combed back with pomade, and his light blue eyes were predatory and watchful. When he took off his shirt, Jared saw that his body was covered with images of Confederate flags, Rebel soldiers, naked women, skulls, demons and dragons. His chest and biceps were cut and thick.
The long, gray scar that ran from throat to belly across his sternum was a memento of a triple bypass five years earlier. He was truly an old soldier.
From that first day they argued. When they weren’t yelling, the silence was as thick as smoke. Often they threatened each other back and forth, but as long as Jared didn’t throw the first punch, Stormie wouldn’t fight. And Jared wouldn’t throw the first punch; he knew he wouldn’t have a chance. Even at his age, Stormie was a scrapper.
On three occasions, Stormie brought another inmate back to the cell and threw Jared out so they could throw fists to settle a dispute. All it took was an insult or comment directed at him. Stormie always won.
One day Stormie got into it with another old con named Mong. The fight started before Jared could get off his rack and out the door, and when it was over, Mong had a split lip and bruises all over, and once again, Stormie, sporting his own bruises, was victorious. But this time, someone didn’t like it.
Two days later the three of them were handcuffed and taken to Captain Stark in his office. Someone had sent him an unsigned note about the fight. Even though Mong and Stormie claimed they got their bruises playing a rough game of basketball, Stark wasn’t buying it. He had his officers lead Stormie and Mong out so he could talk to Jared alone. “No sense worrying now,” Stormie hissed at Mong, meaning he expected his roommate to run his mouth.
When they were gone, Captain Stark leaned over his desk. “I know everything,” he said. “But I can’t lock them up without a witness. An unsigned note just won’t cut it. And if I can lock them up, they’ll get a month in confinement for fighting. But you were a witness to the fight—the note said so. I also know that you and Inmate Lawson don’t get along, and you’d like to be rid of him.”
Jared stared at the paperweight on the desk, a black, shiny scorpion in a half-sphere of glass on a stack of interoffice memos. “You don’t have to worry about Lawson getting back at you,” Stark went on. “One more lock-up for fighting, and he gets a year in Close Management. He’s had that coming. What do you say?”
Jared swallowed. “I don’t know about any fight.”
“Inmate Martin,” Stark went on, his smile radiating hostility. “Maybe I forgot to mention I could lock you up for a six-month investigation. I know you’re claustrophobic, and time in the Hole could really drive you nuts.”
“You mean,” Jared said, “you could lock a guy up for a month for fighting, but you can also lock him up six months for an investigation, for not doing nothing? That’s fucking nuts!”
“So, do you have something to tell me?”
Jared stared back at him. He was trembling, sweating, just thinking about confinement. He didn’t care one way or another what happened to Stormie, and he’d be glad to get him out of his cell. But even so, the fight between him and Mong was over, and none of the Captain’s business. It didn’t seem right to him.
“Yeah, I have something to tell you,” Jared said. “That was one hell of a rough basketball game I saw them playing. You shoulda seen it, Captain.” He held eye contact with the Captain, smiling as sweat trickled down his back.
“You’re full of shit, Martin,” the Captain said. “A confinement cell is a miserable fucking place to spend your time. You think I’m joking?”
Jared held his gaze steady. “Do what you gotta do, Captain.”
In the end, to Jared’s surprise, they were all let free.
Later, back at his cell, Jared unlocked his locker to get a library book when Stormie stepped through the door. “Martin. Look here.” Jared stood up. They locked eyes. “I was wrong about you. I apologize. I misjudged you from day one. You did good telling the Captain it was a basketball game, even though he was threatening you with lockup.”
“How’d you find out?” Jared asked.
“First off, I’m not in confinement,” Stormie said, smiling. His grill was worse than Ernest Borgnine’s. “And second, Jack, the inmate orderly, had his ear on the Captain’s door.”
That was the day their friendship began, and it grew from that point on, even though in time they moved to different cells. When Jared began encouraging him, Stormie reluctantly went with him to the AA meetings. And Jared began working out with Stormie three days a week on the weight pile. For seven years they looked out for each other, worked together, watched each other’s back, and usually where one went, the other eventually showed up.
Until Jared met Bobby “T-Bone” Webber. T-Bone was a good-ole-boy from Alabama who got caught running drugs in Florida. He was a fast talker and a willing listener, and he helped Jared get the job he wanted as head trustee in the Visiting Park. The job was a lot of work, but it had its perks, too. When the Food Service Rep came in to restock the vending machines every Thursday, he gave Jared all the expired packaged sandwiches and junk food.
But Jared’s friendship with T-Bone drove a wedge between him and Stormie. Three months after Jared met T-Bone, he and Stormie got into the scrap that ended their friendship forever.
“And it burns me that he’s in this dorm!” Jared finished. “I have to see him every day, and it gnaws at me! I don’t need him around! He had no business moving in here, the sonovabitch!”
“Seems to me he snitched on himself, too,” Gonzo reflected. “Seems to me he made a helluva lot more trouble for himself. You both pulled box time, but you got out. They put Stormie on Close Management for a year. Now, why would Stormie tear his own ass like that?”
“Because he was a slimeball who went and showed his true colors!” Jared snapped, angry that his own integrity was being questioned. When he finally was released back into open population, Jared called Stormie everything from a punk and a jeffer to a brownnoser and a snitch.
A year later, when Stormie finally got out, with his pasty-pale “confinement tan” he looked like a walking corpse. The first thing he heard on the compound was how Jared had talked cash shit about him, By that time, all their mutual friends had polarized, half taking up for Stormie, half for Jared, and for a week they waited tensely to see if Stormie would dig up a knife and get some straightening. Jared, hearing the rumors, began worrying day and night.
But Stormie didn’t do a thing. He didn’t even try to explain himself. To Jared, it was a nonverbal confirmation of what he”d said about the old con, but he was still gravely uneasy, always aware of Stormie’s angry eyes watching him.
“Look here, Bro?” Gonzo said. “I think you got him all wrong. Stormie’s a good dude. You two are a lot alike. You both got heart and live by the old code. Sure, Stormie’s a bug, and he gets into all sorts of fights, but if he thought he’d wronged you, he’d make it right somehow, no matter what it cost him.”
Jared snorted and shook his head. “The man started a fight with me, and I don’t know why!”
“Did you ask?” Gonzo said. “You were strung out. You and him both had the monkey, only he’s the one who stayed clean since the first time you dragged him to his first twelve-step. You’re the one who fell, Homey.”
“The fucker got me locked up!” Jared shouted. “I coulda got off! We both coulda got off had he kept his fuckin’ mouth shut! Sonovabitch was jealous I was hangin’with T-Bone!”
“T-Bone bumped you off the wagon, Bro,” Gonzo continued. “What kind of friend is that? You’re lucky the bastard transferred while you were locked up.”
“So maybe I misjudged T-Bone, but I’m right about Stormie.”
“I’m not gonna argue about it, Bro,” Gonzo sighed. “But if Stormie was such a prick, why didn’t he do something to you for all the times you badmouthed his rep?”
“Whose side are you on?” Jared snapped. “The dude got me locked up and cost me a primo job in the Visiting Park!”
“All right, that’s enough!” C. J. growled, rolling another cigarette. “Jared’s going back to the freeworld tomorrow, and all you’re doing is getting him into a fighting mood.” He gave a meaningful glance at Gonzo. “We want our boy in a good state of mind when he hits the streets.”
The others nodded as they thoughtfully lit up. “You say you worked in the V.P. for awhile?” Logan asked Jared.
“I was just thinking—after you got locked up, a guy named Carp got that job, The man was a really fast worker; he set up a source in no time. Two weeks after he got the job, he and Sergeant Bromide got busted for a pound of hash.” Logan took a deep drag. “Bromide got a clipped sentence just to keep the story out of the papers. But Carp got an outside rap for fifteen years. Sad thing is, he only had two years left on-his bid. Why would a guy go and do a fucked-up thing like that?”
Buzzard guffawed, staring at Jared. “And you thought you had drug problems when you pissed your pants!” The others laughed, but Jared just stared at the wall, thinking, desperately wanting a cigarette.
Later they left, one by one, promising Jared they’d see him off at breakfast, exchanging hugs, not a convict thing to do, but they hugged anyway, awkwardly, cautiously. At ten o’clock, all the cell lights in the dorm went off as they always did. C. J. turned in, and in a few minutes, he was snoring.
Jared could hear the television down the hall, another Jerry Springer trashtalkfest. He sat on his bunk in the dark, staring at his laundry bag bulging with his property. Freedom, like a waiting predator, was just hours away. At eleven, all the cell doors in the dormitory would be locked for good for the night and not reopened until 5:30 A. M., breakfast wakeup. Maybe there was still time.
Jared had unfinished business. It haunted him like a red-hot ball of lead stuck in his craw that he could neither swallow nor vomit up. He pulled on his socks, then his brogans, lacing them up tight. It was called “strapping up,” for times when traction was essential. He didn’t want to do this, not with the freeworld and frightening changes just hours away. But there was still time, maybe.
He gently pulled his door shut without locking it, then headed down his wing, through the television room, and up the south wing. Stormie’s cell was the last one to the left. A couple of inmates in another cell were shouting at each other. The air stank of years of sweaty men and chemical cleaner. The cell door was wide open so both men could read by the light of the hallway—Stormie on the lower rack reading a Hustler, while his cellie on the upper rack, Art Smalley, read his Bible. Jared stepped up to the cell door, blocking the light. Both men looked up. At first, Stormie’s face registered surprise, giving way to a quiet, seething rage. “What do you want, Martin?”
“I want to talk,” Jared said.
Stormie glanced down, noticing that Jared was wearing his brogans. He reached for his own. “Art, we need the room.”
“But it’s almost lockdown!” Art whined.
“Art,’ Stormie growled, “I’m not fucking telling you twice!” He finished tying his shoelaces. Art put down his Bible, crawled off his rack, and quickly went out the door. Jared stepped in as Stormie reached over to push the door shut. The cell door window, one-foot square, allowed a little light in from the hallway.
Stormie drew a weary breath. “Talk to me, Martin, I”m all ears.”
“I’ve come to apologize,” Jared said.
Stormie stared at him, his face barely visible. His arms looked smaller, the tattoos faded. The scar on his chest looked ripped open and rehealed, a thick discolored river through a forest of white chest hairs.
“Look,” Jared went on. “I was wrong. I didn’t understand, three years ago, when you started that fight with me. I didn’t understand it when you told the Captain about it and got me locked up. I’m really sorry I turned my back on you. I’m sorry about everything.”
Stormie glanced away, his face now completely in shadows. “Enlighten me, Martin. What are you talking about?”
Jared drew a breath. “I don’t know why things happened the way they did. But you were looking out for me. I know that now.”
“I was really strung out that day. I had been for over a week.”
Stormie snorted. “Imagine that,” he said, bowing his shaggy head to the task of rolling a cigarette, “The only asshole in creation who could talk me into going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and giving up getting drunk on buck, and he is the one to fall off the wagon.”
“I went back after I came out of the hole.”
Stormie licked the cigarette paper and sealed it, then lit it and sucked in smoke. “You wouldn’t listen to reason. You couldn’t see that punk was toxic. Pure shit. When I saw he was using you, I should have beat his ass, but you wouldn’t have understood why. So I tried to talk with you. That was a mistake, too.” He took another drag.
Jared shook his head. “By then, I wasn’t just doing weed, but horse and coke too. When I fall, I fall big time.”
“All you did,” Stormie said, “when I tried to talk to you, was run your mouth, rant and rave that I was jealous that you had a new friend. And, yeah, I guess I was, a little, but I couldn’t talk any sense through that drug haze of yours. I got tired of arguing, just started swinging. Every bit of rage I was feeling for T-Bone got directed at you for all your stupidity. And then the fuckin’ guards came. Didn’t see us, but cuffed us up any way, took us to the Captain.
“But that was an opportunity for me. I knew I couldn’t beat any sense into you, so when Stark pulled us in, I told him, yeah, we were fighting. If I got us locked up, if I got you locked up, you wouldn’t be in the Visiting Park to make that drug sting with Sergeant Bromide that T-Bone had set you up for.”
“But you knew you’d get that year in C. M. if we got locked up,” Jared said. Stormie nodded. “Why risk it?”
Stormie shook his head. “There was nothing else I could do,” he said. “There was no other way. I knew it was a set-up, and I wasn’t about to let T-Bone fuck over my Roaddog. That punk just wanted something to tell the Warden as leverage for a transfer. Had you got busted in that deal, you wouldn’t get thirty days in the hole like you did. You would’ve gotten an outside charge, and another fifteen-year bid. I wasn’t about to see that happen to you. I couldn’t let that happen. I just couldn’t.”
Jared drew a deep breath. “I just tonight heard about the parole man, Stormie. I know he must’ve aggravated your date because of the fight that day and your CM. time.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Stormie grumbled. He finished the cigarette and tossed the butt in the toilet. “You forgot the two dudes I killed after I first fell and all the fights in between. But the Parole Board don’t need a fuckin’ reason. They were gonna slam me either way. Keep me and other old cons still in the old parole system in, so they could keep their goddamn jobs longer. Job security, you know. I don’t blame you for their bullshit.”
“I’m really sorry,” Jared said. “I’m sorry about everything.” Stormie took a deep drag, then blew the smoke towards the floor. He looked away, scratching the back of his head. “Okay, Martin. You had your say. Don’t let me keep you from wandering back to your cell.”
“I just apologized,” Jared said.
So what do you want? A medal?”
“But I thought….”
“You thought what?” Stormie snapped around. “You thought that we’d maybe kiss and make up? That I’d clear your conscience before you went home tomorrow? I don’t begrudge no man his freedom, Martin, even if I have to leave this shithole someday in a body bag. But you called me a snitch! A snitch!” Stormie glared at him, his face in shadows. “You rolled on me like I was slime. You never once came to me to hear my side, just decided I was a rat! You treated me like goddamn motherfucking puke!”
The finality of Stormie’s words stung bitterly. “But I didn’t know,” Jared said. “Things were confusing for me back then.”
“Don’t give me that whiny shit. You coulda found out easy.”
“C’mon, Stormie, all I’m askin’ for is to make peace.”
“You don’t get it, do you, Martin?” Stormie snapped, pointing with the red tip of his cigarette. “I’ve been beat and kicked down and bruised and stabbed a lot more times than I care to remember, but nobody tore up my guts as bad as you did when you called me a fuckin’ snitch! You were supposed to be my goddamn friend! I had to make myself not do anything about it!” Stormie’s shoulders trembled in the shadows. He shook his head and looked away. “Now, take your almost-free punk ass outta my cell. You gave your apology, now get the fuck out.”
Jared looked down. “I need to settle this.”
Stormie took one last drag and tossed the butt in the toilet. “I thought you were claustrophobic, Punk.”
“A month of confinement broke me of that.”
“Get out, Jared,” Stormie whispered. “Get out now. There was a time I’d batter a fool like you into a coma, smash his nose, smear him, but I’m holding back now because we were once friends.”
“Don’t let me stop you,” Jared growled.
“I got no more rap for you, Martin! Get the fuck out!”
“Get out!” Stormie stood and shoved Jared backwards. Jared caught himself and shoved Stormie back, surprised that the old warrior almost lost his balance. At one time he was like a boulder, unbudgeable.
“Fucking bastard!” Stormie growled. His fist caught the side of Jared’s head, Jared shook it off and swung back, his knuckles glancing off Stormie’s chin, though it didn’t seem to faze him. Even so, Stormie was surprised and angered, and began fighting in earnest. He caught Jared in the ribs and bloodied his nose, slamming his body into the door, locking it shut.
“Goddamn you, Jared!” Stormie screamed, pounding his stomach, his arms, his chest, his head. Jared realized too late that he started something he could not control. Each punch brought new levels of pain and dizziness. He couldn’t even raise his arms to block them. Blood and saliva sprayed from his mouth. Two ribs cracked. His consciousness flickered as he slid to the floor. He tried to curl into the fetal position, but there seemed no defense against the violent barrage. Stormie was punching, kicking, spitting words Jared could no longer make out, yelling, yelling, yelling. Then he stopped.
Jared choked out a moan. He could hear the old con wheezing over his body. He couldn’t bring himself to move. Each breath hurt his chest. Suddenly he felt himself gripped unceremoniously under the armpits, dragged deeper into the cell, and dropped onto the concrete floor. He opened his one good eye. Stormie was sticking his head out the cell door window. “Hey! Mack!” he yelled. “Mack! Yeah, my door accidentally locked. Get the brownshirt to click my button. Yeah, thanks!”
He stood by and waited, and when the door lock popped open electronically, he pulled his door partially open, then sat on the toilet. Opening a new bag of rip, he rolled two cigarettes, lighting one and dropping the other and his lighter on Jared’s chest.
Jared hadn’t smoked in three years, but he heaved himself up on one elbow, put the cigarette between his lips, and lit it with a shaking hand. He went into a racking cough after the first drag, then took another.
“You were nothing but a fucking punching bag,” Stormie growled. “I said for years I shoulda taught you how to fight.” As he took another drag, the glowing ember lit his face in red light. Jared could see how much he had aged. “You came here to my cell tonight with your boots strapped on,” Stormie continued. “Like you were ready to get it on tonight. But all you wanted to do was to get me to whip your ass so I’d maybe have a change of heart. Well, that was really petty, especially from you. How could you be so fucking stupid?”
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking,” Jared groaned. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at the smeared blood. “Maybe I was trying to make amends.”
“Amends!” Stormie grunted. “Was that the sixth or seventh step? I can’t remember, it’s been awhile.” He laughed dryly. “Once I thought you were the smartest shit I ever met. When I moved into your cell, I didn’t have a real problem with you being puny, but I was jealous of your thinker. Sure, you were low on street smarts, but you learned fast. You stood up to me, even though you knew I could whip you, even though you were trembling inside. I tried, I tried hard, but I couldn’t break you. I was getting to really hate you for that. But when you took a stand against the Captain to save my ass, sticking your own neck out for an asshole like me, well, that’s when I knew you had heart.”
Stormie rolled two more cigarettes and tossed one to Jared. “Nobody but you coulda gotten me into AA Nobody but you coulda talked about Mozart and Debussy and Satchmo and Bird and kept my attention like I was listening to an Atlanta Falcons game. I thought you were Mensa Mike. But then you got stupid and got back into drugs and believing T-Bone’s bullshit.”
He sighed, almost choked. “Don’t think I didn’t feel bad about getting us locked up. I never forgot your fear of closed spaces. I knew it would eat into you after a day or so, and what with you going cold turkey…. I was right down the hall. I heard you screaming your fucking guts out. T-Bone got you hooked worse than I thought. I hated him for what he did to you, almost hated myself for what I had to do.” Stormie drew slowly on his cigarette. “But nobody twisted your arm to take that first hit. You chose that road, even if somebody did give you a nudge. You chose to be stupid.”
“I’m sorry I put you through that shit.”
“What shit?” Stormie glanced at him. “A year in confinement? When you stuck your neck out for me, I couldn’t understand why. We hated each other, I treated you like garbage, and yet you pulled the line for me. And all this time I wondered why. Well, now I know, now I know. You did it because it was the right thing to do. You did it because it was personal, no matter what.”
“Count time!” the P. A. system blared. “Eleven O’Clock Count! All inmates back to your cells and lock your doors!”
“Go,” Stormie said. “The time for talk is over. I don’t care how bad I beat you. I’m not your fucking priest.”
“Fuck the words, Jared. You can’t ever make it right, no more than any of us can go back and undo our crimes, put back the stolen property, un-rape that woman, bring the murdered back to life.” Stormie coughed into his fist. “You can’t go back in time, and you can’t expect me to, either. You’re getting out. You can’t come back here. There’s nothing here for you. Nothing.”
“Jared, shut up and get out!” Stormie didn’t look up. For the first time since he came into the room, Jared knew that his old friend truly hated him. It gnawed at him worse than anything ever had. He slowly rose from the floor, wincing at the pain.
Art pushed open the door, then stepped back, startled at Jared’s bruised face. Jared took the handful of toilet paper Stormie handed him and dabbed at his bleeding nose and split lip. He would have to keep his head down when he went out the gate, maybe have a story ready, maybe say it was a really rough basketball game.
He stopped at the door and glanced back, but Stormie would not look at him. It tore at him, but not half as much as knowing what he had done to his friend, and what he could never take back. As he walked down the hall, trying to not think about tomorrow or the thing he would carry out the gate with him, he heard Art go into the room and lock the cell door. It was a sound he would never forget.