Michael Johnson was awarded Second Place in Memoir in the 2019 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. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.
The body was found at approximately 3pm on a sultry Sunday afternoon, not far from the Army National Guard trailhead, by an elderly couple taking their dog out for a romp in the park. It was the animal who made the discovery, sniffing out the 33-year-old male. The investigation would reveal the assailant performed his handiwork near the top of the mountain, the victim then crawling roughly a quarter mile to the bottom, finally bleeding out amidst the sand and wheatgrass covering the rifle range below
Mount Apatite is a 344-acre park, owned by the City of Auburn, Maine. Rock hunters have been poring over this area since the 1800s, searching for tourmaline, quartz, feldspar, apatite, and garnet. For many years the Main Feldspar Company mined these minerals, while gobbling up vast quantities of mica, a mineral used to produce Formica(r), commonly found in laminated plastic products and used to produce surface finishes. Eventually the commercial digging stopped, allowing seasoned and neophyte gem-hounds alike to move in and take over. The mines filled with water and the deepest became a popular swimming hole, replete with a 30-foot cliff to jump from. Audacious souls climbed onto the branches of 60-foot pine trees, juxtaposed along the edge, preferring a more ostentatious display of derring-do.
The victim’s car was located close to the park’s main entrance, on the Garfield Road side, where the armory sits. The vehicle bore Massachusetts plates, and contained a copious amount of gay pornography. The year was 1983, long before the advent of the internet and its manifold supply of salacious material. The young man had been beaten about the head, shoulders, and upper body, suffering wounds consistent with blows from a hatchet or axe. There were defensive wounds on his hands and arms. They’d been facing each other when the attack began.
The City of Auburn purchased the land in the 1970s and in 1994 created trails for hiking, biking, cross country skiing, and snow shoeing. Snowmobiles and motorcycles saw their share of use—at one time the park hosted a lean-to belonging to a snowmobile club—until it burned down and motorized trail users were banned. Eventually the Auburn Suburban Little League relocated their fields to an area near the Garfield Road entrance, building four pristine diamonds, along with an auspicious snack bar. An illuminated Senior League Field gives older players the chance to thrill family and friends well after sundown.
Before the park took its official moniker, and even to this day I’m sure, many locals referred to the area as “the mica mines,” or simply “the mines.” Teenagers and young adults partied there, driving the canted, pothole-ridden dirt road to its apex. Over the years more than one stolen vehicle found its way to the bottom of the largest mine, the hole so deep it seems to reach down to earth’s core. I saw a large sedan go in one night, the taillights slowly disappearing into the dark water.
I was a local, my neighborhood situated southeast of the park, a short walking distance through bordering woods. Children on my street considered the mica mines part of our locale, yoked by proximity to generations of Heath Lane progeny. My first trip came at age 10, after the purchase of a Suzuki 50cc, 3-speed automatic. The perfect confluence of motorcycle and mini-bike. Once a kid from any neighborhood on the periphery of the park acquired motorized transportation, there was one destination that came to mind—the mica mines. Walking or pedaling suited many, for the mines were a place you wanted to be. You wanted to be seen there, be able to say you’d been there, to boast with authority “I go there.”
Mount Apatite had a numinous quality about it. Before I ever set foot at the top, that’s the feeling I held. It was sacred ground, and I wanted to stand on it. There was zero ambivalence on this topic—the mines were cool, and I was cool, for going there. Being there.
Sunday evening the rumors started. There was a large police presence on the National Guard rifle range. Not just local, but State Police as well. A body had been found. Maybe two. Someone had been shot. Stabbed. Bereft of information, people filled in the blanks in hyperbolic fashion, 24-hour news cycles not yet within our grasp. The following day’s news would bring a modicum of truth to the matter. Little did I know I’d be filling in the blanks.
Monday began in the usual way. I’d graduated from Edward Little High School that spring, and currently worked mixed shifts at Leighton’s, the neighborhood variety store and gas station I’d been employed at since age 12. Local headlines gave the basics—customer gossip augmented their story—and as the sparse details seeped into my workday, my mind traveled back to a rather innocuous encounter with a customer the previous Friday night.
Afternoon shifts ran from 3-8pm except on Fridays, when they ended at 10pm. Three days ago I’d worked this shift, and at 9:55pm waited on a teenage customer decked out in full camping regalia. Most impressive was his backpack—the lightweight aluminum framed type, adorned with a sleeping bag, canteen, and other attachments.
“Where you heading so late at night with that stuff?” I asked.
“The mica mines,” he answered. A resident of Lewiston, twin city to Auburn, he was getting away for a weekend of camping. Where else but the mica mines, and I gave it very little thought as he went on his way. My shift was over, my mind wandering to tomorrow’s day off, and a party I would attend.
Saturday arrived, and I spent the day doing what many teenagers did before a big party back then—driving around with the host, smoking weed and gathering supplies while spreading word of our big plans. Party. Glen’s house. 8pm. Parents away at camp. Awash in the evening’s possibilities concerning the opposite sex, we headed into town for a load of snacks that would compliment keg beer.
It was close to 6pm when we pulled out of Garfield Road onto Minot Avenue, the intersection where Leighton’s store took residence. Glancing to my right as I entered this busy four-lane highway, I spotted a hitchhiker with a large backpack. The camping kid, from work last night.
I yanked my Chevy Nova into the bicycle lane as he jogged toward us. He threw his backpack into the back seat and jumped in, expediting his entry so we could get on the move, Minot Avenue not being conducive to quick stops by the edge of the roadway.
“Hey, it’s me from the store last night,” I said. “Thought you were staying the weekend. You didn’t make it very long.”
“Oh hey,” he replied.” Yeah, it was cool up there, but then some gay guy started giving me a bad time, so I decided to leave early.”
His comment led to the ignoble bigotry associated with the banter of teenage boys discussing homosexuality. Exacerbating the issue was our unfamiliarity with one another; that feeling you get when confined to a small space, for an indefinite period of time, with someone you don’t know. Staccato cadence. Forced, banal conversation, falling far short of badinage, with a smile painted on your face. The feeling you get when chatting up a hitchhiker. I didn’t know this kid—didn’t even know of him. Later it would be revealed that he, too, was 17 years old. In that moment, in my Chevy, with a friend and a stranger to impress, I uttered some trope regarding cutting the guy’s balls off, eliciting a chorus of nervous laughter and agreement.
And just like that, it was over. Shop-and-Save loomed large in front of us, and our new acquaintance was saying he could walk the rest of the way, downtown Auburn being just across the bridge from Lewiston. And just like that, I’d forget this conversation, refocusing on my priorities of the moment—salted snacks, cold beer, and teenage girls.
Sunday was a beautiful day, the beginning of what would become an oppressively humid week. Glen’s party fizzled just past midnight, my choice of drunken sylph proving too quick to catch. Striking out with her prompted me to sober up, driving myself home in the wee hours of the morning.
Heath Lane, the street I grew up on, is a cul-de-sac—a dead-end, the only way out being back where you came from. Unless you cut through someone’s yard. This wouldn’t be unusual; my own yard, and our two-acres of woodland, hosted a labyrinth of trails heading primarily toward Mount Apatite. Denizens of children from my neighborhood traipsed through these woods over the years, doing exactly that. Because we lived here. Strangers walking on our street were a rare and conspicuous sight—because Heath Lane took you nowhere.
So I was genuinely surprised when I drove past a stranger walking in the direction of my house, just after 9:30am Sunday morning. Only he wasn’t a complete stranger, and I thought it uncanny how I’d seen this young camping enthusiast three times, on three consecutive days. Incredulous, I drove past, not waving or acknowledging his presence. He never looked up, his eyes locked on the ground in front of him. His appearance struck me as odd, but not overly disconcerting. I didn’t know, didn’t care. But on Monday, he had me curious. He’d been present too often now for me to overlook as the story gained purchase.
When the workday ended, my curiosity got the best me, and I made the call that would change his life forever, dialing up my neighbor, Auburn Detective Gerald Small. The Smalls lived six houses from me, and I was a friend to Ron and Ricky Small, the latter of whom also worked at Leighton’s.
“You need to find Glen and get down here right away,” exclaimed Detective Small. “How long will it take?”
“Not long,” I assured him. “I’ll call him now and head your way.”
We arrived to find a coterie of law enforcement officials waiting to whisk us into separate offices, anxious to nail down every detail. We told our stories, mine carrying more weight as I put this young suspect near the area on three different occasions. Our part in the investigation seemingly finished, Glen and I went on our way, feeling good about giving assistance—vaunted by the fact we’d been closer than anyone to the story everyone was talking about. Nothing had been proven however, no arrest made. All we’d told was a story about a boy, on a camping trip, who’d hitched a ride after purportedly being harassed by an adult. Mount Apatite was a big area. Almost eight miles of trails linked long-empty quarries, humongous slag piles, steep ledges, and monstrous boulders. And for all intents and purposes, a killer was still out there.
Mother Nature turned up the heat. By Thursday, daytime temperatures were soaring into the nineties. Glen and I were on a mission—deliver my dad’s car to the post office where he worked, and recover my mom’s car so she could use it that evening. I’d worked all day, and with no night shift staring me in the face, I was considering my options for after-dark mischief.
One block from the post office we chatted away, making our party plans for that night. Every summer night was a party night, even if it meant splitting a six-pack of Mickey’s Malt Liquor and a few joints. What an easy, carefree life we shared, never forced to delve much deeper than our menial-task jobs and the girls we chased, a buzz of some sort always within reach.
Stopped at the intersection of Rodman and Marley roads, Def Leppard pouring from the speakers, we waited for traffic to clear. Rodman and Marley was a tricky intersection, traffic moving faster than the posted limit on Marley; the view partially obscured by cattails growing thick in the swampy roadside of Rodman. I edged out. Clear for a half-mile on my left; Jeep approaching fast on my right. The black Wrangler sat high on tires designed for mudding. She had the top off, roll bar prominent overhead, clipping along in excess of the suggested miles-per-hour posting. As she came closer I glanced to my left, double checking the long open view on my driver’s side.
When they hit, the back end of the Jeep went up, pitching left and ejecting her from the vehicle, which landed flat on its driver’s side, sliding roughly 10 feet. She landed on the asphalt in front of it, dropping directly into the shards of glass that, a moment ago, made up the whole of her windshield.
Mesmerized by the garish scene unfolding in front of us, we were temporarily frozen in place. To our credit, we thawed quickly, pulling to the shoulder and jumping out.
“Check on the car,” I said, pointing at the vehicle that had pulled into the intersection across from us. “I’ll take care of her.”
What struck me later was how quiet everything became, aside from her shrieking, a keen that would have shamed a chorus of banshees. I ran to her and she was already standing, with her arms out as if expecting a hug, in that position your hands take after unexpectedly being sprayed by water in front of a sink.
I put my right arm around her waist and she leaned into me, her cacophony of misery running at high volume. Little pieces of glass stuck in her face and arms, more in her hair. A big chunk protruded from her left hand, in the webbing between her thumb and index finger. She bled profusely, and continued screaming as I led her to an island in the middle of the intersection and sat her down. All the while I attempted to soothe her, using as cool and calm a voice as I could muster.
“You’re okay.” “It’s going to be alright.” “See, you’re standing, you’re walking.” “You’re okay.” “Let’s sit here, okay?” “Listen!” “Hear that?” “They’re coming.” The distant sound of sirens interposed on our one-sided conversation. “See that stoplight down there,” I said, gesturing toward an intersection half-a-mile away. “The fire department is just around the corner.”
She went silent.
“I’m going to stay right here with you until they get here,” I said. “I won’t leave you. Please be calm. It’s going to be okay.”
We sat there together, her howling reduced to whimpers and light crying. She was a lovely young woman, with blonde hair, 33-years-old I would find out later, having read it in the paper. Small and fragile, someone’s everything was here in my hands, counting on me to get her to the other side of this frightening circumstance, to bridge the gap between paroxysm and professional assurance.
As we huddled together on that island, the bright sun and 90-degree temperature draping us in a shroud of intense heat, I lost track of everything. Time stopped, Glen disappeared, and the traffic crawling between the two wrecked vehicles made no sound. This traffic, with faces agape in every window, eked by only feet away, yet it seemed like she and I were all alone, far from anyone. She never said a word, and I held her close as we waited for the real heroes to arrive.
And just like that, they were there, cloistered around us, comforting and confident—but in my stupor it was all just word salad. And just like that we were separated. I stood and felt hands lifting up my shirt. A female fire fighter was saying, “Let’s get a look under there,” and I realized then they thought I was in the Jeep with her. What led them to this conclusion was her blood. My t-shirt was saturated from armpit to waist, now dried and stuck to my rib cage. My jeans were darkened, and my brand new white Nikes were speckled in big, dried drops.
“I wasn’t with her,” I stammered. “I only stopped to help.”
The police took our statements for the second time that week, and once again we were on our way, off to complete our original objective. The people in the car were shaken, but otherwise unharmed. My island butterfly was loaded into an ambulance and carried away. That night Glen and I slept in a grove behind my house, drinking beer in front of our campfire, rehashing the day’s events until we passed out.
Sometime after the police interviews concerning Camping Boy, Detective Small and his crew decided it would be best to check out Leighton’s Store. Ricky Small had been working on the Saturday I’d picked up our camper friend hitchhiking, so it was confirmed he’d visited the store—and used the bathroom—moments before stepping onto Minot Avenue and sticking his thumb out.
Leighton’s bathroom was tiny, more like a closet with a toilet, sink, and trash can. It wasn’t built for public use, but the owner had no issue with customers using it if they chose.
Garbage from the store’s various trash cans was deposited in a dumpster behind the building. It was there, after a brief search, where police found the trash bag Ricky had tossed in after Camping Boy exited the store. Inside were a couple dozen blood-stained paper towels. Someone had done a thorough job of cleaning themselves up.
Five days after the car crash I sat in my room, listening to rock and roll on vinyl, the sound so much better than on these compact discs everyone was pushing. It was late afternoon and my workday was done—time to find a party.
“Michael, telephone!” my mom shouted, dueling with the pipes of Robert Plant.
“Is this Michael Johnson?” she asked.
“Yes it is.”
“Hi! This is Kimberly Redding, the woman you helped in the accident last week.”
My heart skipped a beat—she’d found me. She was calling to thank me, telling me she was feeling much better. No broken bones. Lots of little cuts—stitches in her left hand. Very lucky to have walked away from it, they’d told her. Very luck to have me, she said, thanking me again and again. Nonplussed, all I could say was “You’re welcome,” and “No problem.”
“Michael, how old are you?”
“Seventeen,” I said, adding that I’d just graduated in June.
“Seventeen! My God, you’re so young!”
And just like that she was gone, thanking me once more, and blessing me as she moved from living entity to distant memory, to be revived only in moments of drunken braggadocio, or those times when friends compare iconic events from their past. On card game and movie nights, when the conversation turns on a flashback, and someone says “I remember the time . . .”
Years after drugs and alcohol stole my college education, long past the time bipolar disorder and addiction altered my path, even after I’d gone to prison for the first time, I never forgot Kimberly Redding and that hot summer day. A day when someone had a reason to thank me for helping them when they were scared and hurt. The type of help I wish I’d had when my life crashed and flipped over onto its side, dumping me into the roadway alone.
People called me and Glen heroes for the things we did that week, but I didn’t feel like one, the gravity of the events reaching far beyond my teenage pay scale. No, they were just things anyone would have done, should they ever walk in these same shoes. Besides, wasn’t life full of these exciting moments, something fresh and novel every day, now that we were adults?
Heroes? Maybe. Probably not. Either way, we had a lot more to learn about life.
In the fall of 1984 I returned home from class one day to find visitors waiting. Two Maine State Police detectives sat in our kitchen while my mom busied herself with laundry and dishes.
They had a photo line-up, and wanted to know if I could pick Camping Boy out of a group of six men: I wasn’t sure. It had been so long since I’d seen him—and I hadn’t spent much time looking at his face. I sat at the kitchen table with them for more than an hour, vacillating between choices, trepidation creeping in every time I wanted to commit.
“Take your time,” one of them said. “We’re in no hurry.” And they didn’t seem to be, remaining calm and stoic throughout, impervious to my concerns that I would “wreck their whole case.”
“That’s him,” I said finally, as I pointed to a young man with dark, wavy hair.
“Are you sure?” the other asked.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Without a hint of elation, or disappointment, they thanked me for my time, gathered their belongings and went on their way. I never saw them again. Days later I was visiting the Small’s, talking to their dad about the case, telling him I was afraid I’d botched the identification of their suspect.
“Well, Mike,” he said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, so don’t repeat it. You got him.”
Of course, this was good news. A killer caught meant justice would be served. A family would find closure. As I smiled and thanked Detective Small for telling me, one might have believed those were the thoughts I was having—but I wasn’t. Any joy I felt for having helped the police was fleeting, just as the happiness I found in anything now was short lived.
As Camping Boy was making his way to prison, I was embarking on a journey of mental illness, addiction, and abject failure, my successes fewer and farther between from this point on. In 20 years I’d been on my way to prison, facing the same fears he must have felt as a teenager.
Camping Boy. I didn’t even know his name; I may have heard it once, but have no memory of it now. Under different circumstances perhaps we would have known each other, been friends—we were both 17. That week. That week where we each wore the blood of another human, drenched in it for totally different reasons. Maybe we would have drank beer, smoked joints, chased girls, and slept in the grove behind my house.
But we didn’t.
And just like that, the week that felt as though it would never end, finally did.