The Music of Lucas Darnish
From where he lay on his bunk, Lucas Darnish stared at the stain on the cell wall. Water dripped from the ceiling and left a guitar-shaped image on the dull gray concrete. The longer he looked at it, the more certain he was that it was a guitar. He made out the tuning keys, the fret board, the curved body, even thin strings. He tried to imagine the music—to pluck the strings—but could not. Instead, Darnish wondered if the water washed the old stain from the wall or left a new stain. The thought wasn’t with him long
Past rack up, the narrow concrete cell existed in a permanent gray dusk. Down the run, keys jangled. The steel cell doors clanged and rang. As a pair of hard boots drummed out a slow, heavy beat, inmates sang, screamed, and cried. This was the only music that Lucas Darnish knew. He rolled his fingers along his ribs, riffing, too wired to sleep.
Darnish stretched his crooked fingers, pushing them together in a here’s the church, here’s the steeple kind of way. He wiggled them and laid them splayed over the slender ID holder that lay on his chest. In the clear plastic wallet, he kept his prison identification card with his picture and number on it, six Forever stamps, and an address.
He stretched his fingers again. The fingers of his right hand refused to spread. There was some range with his pinkie and his pointer. And his thumb, broken back against his wrist years ago and never set, still touched his forearm. His ring and middle fingers—shattered and fused with a screw—didn’t open at all. His right hand broken and rebroken, the knuckles recessed toward his wrist until the knuckle of his pinkie almost touched it. When he held his hand sideways, it looked like the rising notes of a scale. When Darnish made a fist, his hands’ natural position, they became rocks, barked, chipped, lumped as stone. As far from the slender, graceful instruments Darnish came in the system with.
For almost fifteen years of his twenty, Darnish’s fists enforced the fuck, fight or fifty rule for his set, letting the fresh fish select their own level of victimhood. It was that, or become a victim himself. It disgusted Darnish how easily they fell into it, how easily he did. Everything that Darnish did, he did from hate. It took years to realize whom it was that he hated.
They arrested Lucas Darnish one month shy of his eighteenth birthday. Three older homeboys caught him on the sidewalk, walking to his piano lessons. They asked Darnish if he wanted to roll with them. Hell yes, Darnish did. They smoked wet—cigarettes dipped in PCP. When he woke, Dallas County charged him with armed robbery, possession of a controlled substance, and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
They sentenced Darnish to twenty agg. on his eighteenth birthday. Darnish played the piano. He made music. He thought a little prison would earn him some respect, not realizing that the aggravated tag meant that he must serve a mandatory half of his sentence.
On the chain bus from county lock-up to prison, they shackled him to an old Mexican man, thirty-five maybe. The old man’s arms bulged beneath his cut-off jumpsuit. Ropey veins and muddy tats covered his yellow skin. When the man smiled, black gaps winked at Darnish. He rubbed the soft skin of Darnish’s thin arm with a hard, swollen finger. Darnish already wedged against the window, wiggled away. “Who you down for?” the man asked.
The man nodded and adjusted himself so that the handcuffs and Darnish’s slim hand settled into his lap. Panic rose up in Darnish like a thousand startled birds and he jerked his hand away. The man’s elbow punched a hole in his chest. Darnish gasped, doubled over. “Shhh,” the man whispered. “Don’t make it worse for yourself. “
The chaplain let him play piano on Sundays, but the punk jacket followed him to his unit, where a bag of instant coffee rented him for an hour. He ate peanut butter at chow so he wouldn’t have accidents in his sleep.
One day, the gang Sarge noticed a busted lip and called him in his office. Surrounded by inmate artwork, Darnish cried as he told the man about the piano and the abuse. The Sarge tapped his pen against his coffee cup as he listened. “Just let me know and I’ll come running like the dog god cavalry.”
Darnish let him know.
The cavalry never came.
Hate ran through Darnish like a swollen river. He started with push-ups. Then sit-ups. Then squats. He hit everybody that wasn’t feeling his no. He got whipped a lot. He got segged, the Major took away his piano privileges, but the abuse stopped. Diet and workout added four inches and forty pounds. He told the dayroom, this is my table. The guards stayed away from him. He told his cellie, “Don ‘t make it worse for yourself.”
The thump of fists had no rhythm. The cries of pain no music. Darnish never played the piano again.
Darnish stared out into the dayroom until the C.O. popped his door. “Big day, ” the C.O. said. His voice sounded like a gravel slurry. He wore a wide, bushy mustache under his ballcap.
Darnish followed him through the old brick hallways, through secure doorways, getting closer to the gate. “Discharged a twenty.”
“Was it worth it? All the fucking and fighting. “
“There’s no other way.”
“There’s always another way.”
“Live it before you go around giving advice.”
While the C.O. fiddled with his keys, Darnish gave the old con in the clothes window the six stamps. When the con returned, he gave Darnish some good jeans and a nice cotton shirt. A glass mirror hung on the wall.
The only mirrors in a cell are brushed steel. As Darnish studied himself in the mirror, he tried to recognize the old man that stared back at him. He touched the hate-ridged brow. Narrowed eyes glared out at him. Spider-webs threaded his short black hair. Darnish wiggled his fingers just to make sure it was him.
At a window in the hallway, he signed his name four times, the fat pen clumsy in his hand. The man handed him two checks. The first one, from the state, totaled one hundred dollars. Fresh start money, they called it. For Darnish, it equaled five dollars for each year he spent in prison. The second check he received after his Nana passed. The check was from the money she had saved up for a piano—a gift that she wanted to give him on his eighteenth birthday. “That’s a lot of money, boy, ” the man said.
The C.O. peered over his shoulder. “Good things do happen to bad people. “
Darnish walked the long empty street outside the prison until he came to a strip mall with a pawn shop, a thrift store, and a store that cashed checks. He caught himself standing at closed doors, as if a C.O. needed to unlock it.
In the check cashers, a skinny man behind the scuffed Plexiglas slammed his check back at him in a metal tray built into the counter. He jerked his thumb back at a sign partially obscured by his uncombed black hair. “We don’t cash those commissary checks. Just parole checks.”
The man tapped his fingers against the counter as Darnish stared dumbly at the check. He had never endorsed one and didn’t know now how to do it. The wild-haired man shook his head and pantomimed what he should do.
“Who cashes them?” Darnish signed and thumb printed the back of his parole check and pushed it through in the tray.
“The bank,” the man said and slammed the drawer back through. The coins clanged and rang in the metal pan. He turned away from Darnish and stretched a pair of headphones over his ears. Darnish counted eighty-seven dollars and some change. The skinny man taxed him thirteen dollars to cash his check. Darnish knocked on the glass. The man ignored him, his head bobbing to private music. Darnish folded the money around his ID and papers. He slammed the door on the way out. The panes of glass warbled in their frames like distant thunder. He stalked the sidewalk back and forth, glaring at the man. A woman stepped off the curb to avoid him and hurried past. He could wait all day. Or he could hit the back. A cellie once told him that these places all had steel doors set in wooden jambs. He crossed the street and took a seat at a bench. Cars rattled past. The bus squealed past in a thunderstorm of smoke and noise. A sharp whistle pierced the racket. Darnish searched the street for the sound. Instead, he found a small, brown bird huddled near a puddle behind him, the water as muddy as he was. As Darnish watched, the bird dipped his beak and neck into the dirty water then splashed himself as reckless as a child. In a kind of glee, the bird released a rolling four-note celebration so clear and so perfect that the raggedy street noise only thrummed like a bass line.
Darnish listened to the bird. On his walk to the bus station, he tried to recreate the four notes, but he couldn’t. The four notes lingered, D-E-A-F, but he couldn’t get it.
The bus terminal hid in the elbow of a weathered strip mall. He walked past it. He noticed the long, skinny dog only when he sat on the curb to adjust his sock over a blister.
A cafe and a nail salon bookended the station. Three rows of empty park benches faced an old box television with warped plastic wood grain trim. He nearly stumbled into a bench as he stared at the old relic. Even the prison used flat screens. An old woman scanned a magazine folded in front of her. Darnish gave her the voucher. She changed it for a bus ticket. “Wait in the cafe, you want to. You won’t miss the bus. Damn thing takes up the whole parking lot.”
Darnish found a worn red booth in the diner and sunk into it. His feet hurt. The farthest he walked in prison was maybe thirty yards. Diners filled the booths around him and breakfast conversation wrestled with the clatter of heavy plates. Again, he tried to hear the music of the bird, F-A-D-E, recreating the notes as he waited.
After a few minutes, a harried waitress asked for his order. Ten years younger than Darnish, she was worn in a different way—him by the waves, her by the wind, maybe. A hurried ponytail trapped her dry brown hair into a handle of a pitcher. No make-up adorned her scrubbed, pale face and it gave her a blank, unfinished look. Her body beneath her dull, brown uniform looked as if someone set a skinny person’s top on a big person’s bottom. It reminded Darnish of a mythical creature. The one with the flute. “Shot of coffee, ” he told her.
The waitress smiled as she poured it. Her small, even teeth caught the light like tiles. Darnish felt his cheeks crack like crisp-cooked chicken skin. “Something funny?”
“How about a cup of coffee? That’s what we call it out here in the free.”
“Ok. A cup then.”
“And that red book in front of you? It’s a menu. You read it, and when I come back, you tell me your favorite part. “
Darnish nodded, as red-faced as a trumpet player. The waitress patted his shoulder. A current surged through him. Something inside him cracked, sharp and loud. A cool breeze filled his lungs. A song floated through the restaurant, the name of the artist on the tip of his tongue. His mouth parted, more like a dog with his face in the wind than a smile. “I can do that. “
On the bus to Dallas, Darnish pretended to sleep. Keeping his eyes closed kept the world the right size. He did the same on the DART rail. He opened his eyes when the lazy voice intoned his stop on Forest Lane. He recognized nothing. His street was gone. A school stood where he once lived. His chest squeezed him, his breathing rushed. He felt overwhelmed. He squatted. The street spun like a Merry-Go-Round around him. When he looked up he spotted the dome of the old bank his Nana used, over on Audelia. It wasn’t a calm that came over him, but a sense that if he just didn’t panic everything would be all right. “The dome is home, ” he whispered to himself. A phrase his Nana used on their way back from errands.
The skinny bank teller studied his social security card, his birth certificate and the check, all while she glanced at his ID. Bony as a boy, she wore a red sweater over pinstriped pants. A gold nametag read “Kara.” She turned towards the manager’s desk. The manager leaned against his desk with a phone pressed to his ear and the mouthpiece over his head like a periscope. “Is this even a real ID? ” the girl asked.
Kara had a pert white girl’s ass. It took Darnish a second to drag his eyes from it. She smelled of soap and fruit. “Yes, ” he said. The twenty years were real enough anyway.
The girl scrubbed the top of her tongue with the bottom of two slightly protruded rabbit teeth. Phones rang. Ringtones sang. The people behind him shuffled, coughed, ruffled through purses, pockets, pants. A spigot turned on in Darnish and he felt himself fill with thick, viscous hate. His stomach burned. His chest raised and fell like a bellows as he waited.
The red fused hate flowed through his body. He saw this girl as a C.O. dawdling at the cells. He saw fear swell her eyes when she realized that she was alone. Darnish flexed, showing her that this can go two ways, her nodding, understanding, kneeling. Afterwards, he kissed her forehead and slapped her ass as she left, infecting her with his hate. Her fear and her pride made her complicit.
Darnish saw the hate fill her. She switched off the radio as she drove home. The small pockets of hate fractured and a reservoir filled until it spilled out of her and flooded her car. She rolled down the window before she drowned.
The hate splashed into the house with her as she hurried past her husband and kids to the fridge where she gulped a beer to rinse the bitter hate from her mouth. In the bedroom, her angry fingers fumbled at her uniform, but she couldn’t remove it. Voices called to her from the hallway. “Leave me alone,” she yelled and slowly the house filled.
She can’t tell anyone, because she didn’t tell anyone. She hates her co-workers for leaving her alone. Her husband for not having a better job, herself for being small. She hates everyone but Lucas Darnish, who understands her hate. He wants so little, only her body and what she can fit in it.
Darnish squeezed the teller’s small hand with his big mangled one. She looked up, startled. The noise fell away. He recognized Tupac on Muzak. Her hand was cold and soft. He made himself smile. “I understand,” he said lifting his hand. “But maybe you could check with someone.”
“It’s just that I’m new and it’s such a big check.” He tapped his ID. “It ‘s ok. I ‘m new too.”
The manager stretched the phone cord and studied the documents, touching each one. “Cashier’s check?”
“I’m here to cash a check. “
The manager smiled and Kara laughed. Darnish felt the deafening red return. She slapped his hand. “It’s for if you’re gonna buy something big with the money. Like a car or something. It’s like cash, but you don’t have to carry around a lot of money. It’s a good idea. I mean, there’s a lot of bad guys out there. “
“Can I buy a piano with it?”
The glass and mirrors that filled the store disoriented Darnish. A thousand Lucas Darnishes glared at him, as if he had kept them waiting. The smell of polish and wood intoxicated him. Glossy, black and white pianos stretched out in front of him like the hoods of exotic cars. He sat down at the bench of a long, white Yamaha that was easily six feet long. He plinked out a few notes. His fingers cramped as he played chords. He stretched his fingers and started again. Notes tinkled from his fingertips. Slowly, the missed notes fell in, gathered by the chords like garden blooms. Soon music spilled from the piano. It wasn’t perfect, not even close, but the gnarled hands of Lucas Darnish spread from fists into something almost beautiful. The music soared through the glass filled room. As he played, he noticed all the faces that had waited for him for these twenty years. They were there in the glass and they were smiling.