The Last Run (An Excerpt)
Louis Gentry stood outside Kings County Hospital. His new shoes killing him. A forty-five year old ex-con with a limp in his left leg—a nerve severed by a shiv back in ’82–and a crumpled paper from his Parole Officer in his pocket telling Mirion, the guy doing the hiring, to give him a chance.
Over-crowding and a budget crisis had pushed the parole board to let him out even though he saw in their eyes how much they didn”t want to. Those eyes said: Scum! Louis didn’t blame them. This had been his fourth bid, but he wound up serving only seven years. “Only,” that had been the board”s word. As if “only” could ever be attached to seven years buried alive.
What they would never understand, is that once they put you in that tiny box, lower you into the grave and cover you over with concrete walls, razor wire, and paper—mountains of paper repeating what a piece of shit you are–once the air runs out on you, it’s all about survival. About holding on until the day they exhume your body, give you someone else”s clothes, a check for forty dollars, and a pat on the back that says: Welcome back to the land of the living, asshole.
Mirion was cool and after a short interview Louis Gentry was in a Kings County Hospital custodial jumper. The staff called the place the Roach Motel since Kings County served the poorest of the poor and once you checked in you weren’t likely to check out again. But Louis, buffing the halls in his stocking feet for nine dollars an hour, began to think he might have actually stumbled into a future.
* * *
The grimy neighborhood appeared slicked with crude oil from a late April rain shower. With sweating palms, he sped down the six blocks between the subway station and his job. The gauntlet, filled with drug spots: weed and crack and dope—that last his weakness—called out to him much too loudly. The neighborhood where he was living with his aunt was nice. He didn”t have to deal with this shit except when he went to work.
He passed the Jamaican restaurant. The nutty smell of chickpeas and the spicy scent of jerked chicken and curry goat steamed out of the open doorway. Sharon was behind the counter. A beautiful round-hipped woman, full cheeks like burnished copper. Perspiration danced light off her face.
Louis Gentry knew almost everything there was to know about Sharon McPherson. Sister in law to the joint’s owner. Three kids. Her heart broke by their father when he walked out. Church-going. Liked playing around with young boys but was looking for a real man to settle down with and make her own. All that was second hand, gossip but this Louis knew from six nights a week speeding past her doorway: Sharon liked him. And he liked her.
Liked her enough to stay away. He got tired just thinking about opening up to someone again. Her not fully trusting he wasn”t through with going back and forth to jail. Him knowing enough not to trust himself but pretending he knew no such thing.
Louis punched in his timecard.
“Gentry!” someone called out to him in the basement corridor outside Mirion’s office. It was his P.O. Louis”s guts constricted. He hadn’t done anything, but his palms dampened just the same. As he walked down the corridor, his limp was stiffer and more pronounced. He felt guilty over wanting to stop at one of those spots and cop. Stupid. There was no way his P.O. could know this, but he felt it all the same.
“Get that look off your face,” said the P.O. “Nothing’s wrong. Just came by to see how you and a couple of other guys are working out.”
He rested his long thin fingers on Louis’s shoulder.
“Everything is alright isn’t it? You staying out of trouble?”
“He causing you any trouble Mirion?” the P.O. asked.
Mirion came out of his office.
“Naw,” Mirion said, “Not this one. He keeps to himself. On time every night…”
“Good,” Louis’s P.O. said. “Seems like everyday I got to send one of you guys back up north. I’m glad you’re making the most out of this opportunity, Gentry. You’re all out of chances. You know that.”
“Yeah,” Louis said, “I know.”
“Got anything on you?” his P.O. asked.
“You sure. I’m not going to pat you down and find anything I don’t want to find am I?”
“Go ahead,” Louis said moving to place his palms on the cinder block wall. Feet spread apart. Ass sticking out. Head looking up to nothing. The human equivalent of a dog rolling on its back, legs splayed, exposing its vulnerable belly to its master. No matter how many times he did it Louis still felt the heat of rage rise up to scorch his ears.
“That’s alright,” his P.O. said giving Louis a smile that said: I have to bust your balls a little. “Keep doing what you’re doing. Mirion’s got something I think he wants to talk to you about.”
Louis relaxed and saw that Mirion did too. All at once, Louis understood that Mirion was an ex-con like Louis.
“You know Stiles?” Mirion asked.
“Yeah,” Louis said. Stiles worked the north end of the terminal ward. Word was he was a rape-o. Louis stayed away from him. One, he didn’t associate with that kind, and two, he was suppose to steer clear of other ex-cons.
“Well he got locked up today You been doing the south side of the fourteenth floor, right?”
“From now on the fourteenth floor is all yours. It’s a big job. North side’s got a bigger nurse’s station and the whole ward’s bigger.”
Louis didn’t move.
“Is there a problem?” Mirion asked.
“If you’re not upp’in my pay as of tonight—yeah, there’s a problem.”
“Louis, you been here barely five months. I can’t do that. Prove you can handle the floor by yourself and in a few months you’ll get a raise. You got my word.”
“Nah,” Louis said. He acted pissed, though he wasn’t. He wasn’t hungry for more money. More money just sped up the bad things. But this was the game, and he could no more stop playing it than he could stop noticing where the good shit was being sold or how much security a place had or counting the days since last he’d been in. A hundred and seventy. A pretty good run so far. He hadn’t even gone out to his old block yet.
“The north side is the AIDS wing, you know it and I know it. Homos and crack heads. Only the nurses who got no clout work that floor, and nobody wants to clean it. Stiles was a rape-o. That’s why you could play him like that. I ain’t no rape-o. You ain’t playin me. You gonna have to pay me real money to clean up the goddamn AIDS wing. Not no goddamn nine dollars.”
It was the first time he cursed at Mirion. First time he got loud. Mirion took it.
“Twelve…” Mirion began.
“Fifteen an hour,” Louis said. He had planned to ask for twelve until Mirion offered it first. “Fifteen an hour and you ain’t got to worry about nothing. You’ll never have to wonder where I am and the place’ll be spotless. Fifteen an hour and I can move out my aunt’s attic into my own place. Live decent.”
Mirion was angry but he said OK. Louis felt like invisible forces were moving him around, positioning him for—nothing good, he thought.
* * *
The following afternoon sweating in the hot box of his aunt’s attic apartment, Louis had a familiar dream. It was a dream he never had while locked up. He was a kid and back in Coney Island, near the projects where he’d grown up. He was down by the amusement park, over the boardwalk railing, past the slimy algae covered rocks, far out in the Atlantic Ocean itself.
The current was strong, the undertow too. He had to fight to keep his head up. His eyes burned with salt water. He was already tired. In every dream it was the same: it began with him this far out, not knowing how he got there, and tired, feeling he’s been out in the water for hours. The muscles in his shoulders weakening. His midsection threatening to cramp.
He was eleven. The water was choppy. The boardwalk was in view but far off. He bobbed up and down. Sometimes he was in a pit of sea, all glassy bottle-green walls of water, and then raised up, as if on the shoulders of some great sea giant and he saw his mother and stepfather, his favorite aunt and his best friend Carl Cee, with whom before the year is out Louis would commit his first robbery. There were shadowy figures too, and one man he shouldn’t recognize but did.
Himself as a forty-five year old man again. On some level his eleven year old dream self knew he was not eleven and that this was a dream but that did not inhibit the deeper sense that everything that was happening was completely real.
They were all waving and calling for him to come in. They didn’t know he was in danger and he didn’t have the breath to tell them.
And with that came the familiar tugging, as if something, someone, who knew his struggle, had shared it and given it up long ago and who now haunted the ever-night depths of this particular patch of sea, was gripping Louis’s eleven year old ankle with its clawlike skeletal hands. Pulling him down with a call of its own. A sick underwater gurgling call of forgetting. Finally forgetting.
When the sea pitched him up Louis called out to his expectant audience. “I’m coming!” he said. “I’m almost there!” He swam hard for them. But when the sea swelled out and he was in the pit again, out of view, Louis stopped thrashing and let the thing beneath take him as he had every time before.