Authors: Charles Runyon
a division of F+W Crime
His own smell flowed around him like warm mud; he couldn’t breathe….
He shouted the word. A tiny door opened in one wall; an ingot of white light slid into his cubicle and splashed against the opposite wall. He heard the languid voice of the guard.
“Want some water, Simmons? Shut up or you get it.”
The door closed, chopping the light off at the roots. The glow within the cell withered and died. Drew Simmons found his voice: “What day is this?”
Nothing happened. That was the exquisite agony of a tour in the sweatbox; nothing happened.
“Hey, screw!” Drew called again. “Hey, fat-ass!”
Boots clanked on the steel plates overhead. Drew looked up to see a tiny round moon appear in the ceiling. A hose nozzle poked through; water blasted down into his face, peeling his lips back from his teeth and pressing his eyes into his head. He bowed and let the stream pummel his back until it was a hammer driving shafts of pain up and down his spine. He laughed to mock the guard, but slid out of control and filled the cubicle with wild whoops. The water stopped and the guard swore.
“You’re gonna wig out, Simmons.”
Drew stood in dripping denims and listened to the water gurgle down the drain in the corner. The sound stimulated his bladder and he walked to the corner, urinated into the hole. He made an inward appraisal: his bowels didn’t require movement and that was a pity; nothing to do until the next meal, supper, breakfast, whatever it was….
He leaned back against the steel wall and slid down onto his haunches. Lacing his fingers over the top of his head, he pressed his palms to his temples and waited. Time dissolved; his body ceased to exist. He became a weightless thought floating in blackness….
There was no color inside his mind. Edith was black and white and shades of gray; color was knowledge and not perception. She held a green swimsuit in her hand. Muscles shaded her long brown thighs. Breasts, hips and stomach glowed white in the dusky bath house, and all the blackness of night condensed the dark spearhead which drove downward between her legs. He smelled pine, oil and wood shavings. He heard her voice, cool and amused: “Will you close the door, or do we make it public?”
He slammed it hard, feeling the blood pound against his temples.
“Don’t frown like that,” she said. “It won’t hurt.”
He walked forward on legs which seemed cased in cement. He tore the suit from her hand and threw it aside. He seized her shoulders and pulled her against him, feeling the three-point pressure of her breasts and pelvic mound. She raised her face, her lips curled in a half-smile.
He stopped her words with his lips. She became a dead weight hanging from his neck. They sank to the floor and both struggled with his trunks. When they were gone, when he was poised above her straining to control his jerking muscles for one last task of manual precision, she whispered:
“You should’ve brought the blanket. I’ll get splinters.”
And even as she spoke, she seized him, guided him into that shadowed trap. Then she began to move, drawing the life from his body….
The bolt of his cell slid back with an oiled click. He stood up and found that his prison denims were dry; he had been away a long time, ten years into the past, but he had done nothing different. He had entered the trap and his life had changed.
Now the cell door opened, and the light was a sheet of pain before his eyes. The guard jerked his thumb toward the corridor.
“Out, Simmons. Warden wants you.”
Drew moved down the corridor with the stiff jerkiness of an invalid. He was a big man, half a head taller than his guards. Heavy shoulders stretched the jacket tight across his back and outlined the flat planes of his pectorals. Straight black brows rode a shelf of bone jutting out just above his blue eyes. His long, narrow nose was saved from sharpness by a division of cartilage just above the septum. It looked slightly like a dimple and gave his face the overbred character of an aristocrat. His beard looked unusually neat to have grown from neglect; the thick black mat was interrupted only by a streak of gray running from the corners of his mouth to either side of his chin. His cheeks were smooth beneath the beard, without a hint of wrinkles, with no provision for a smile. Through it one could see the thin stretch of the upper lip, pulled back to join the downward arch of the lower. Beside his left eye a deep red line zigzagged its way to his earlobe. It was recent, with dead skin flaking off from new pink tissue. It was not a cut, but rather looked as though a jagged piece of metal had been caught under the skin and ripped down….
The warden was God. Drew stood between flanking guards and watched the gray-haired man signing papers. The gold fountain pen seemed to rake across Drew’s naked brain; the corpse-white paper looked slimy to the touch. Drew’s mind was jangled, jumbled, crumpled, disintegrated like the inside of a broken thermos bottle, little bits shaking loose inside, all hurting. He wanted to get back to the velvet dark of his cell where Edith waited.
The warden stopped writing and laid his forearms on the desk, palms together. “Criker has a broken jaw, two busted ribs, a concussion, and he’ll never see out of his right eye. But he’ll live.”
Drew’s mind turned sluggishly; he remembered the man who’d leaped on him in the mess hall and slashed his face with a broken plastic spoon. So his name was Criker—didn’t know I’d hurt him that bad—remember hitting him once then blackness behind my eyes….
A stab of pain jolted him just behind the kidneys. Drew mumbled, “Yes, warden.”
The warden allowed his voice to harden. “I don’t imagine the sweatbox has taught you anything. Some never learn, Simmons, and you aren’t alone. Because your father was a state senator when he died, somebody in the statehouse thinks you’re entitled to a special privilege. You’ll be allowed to attend your mother’s funeral.”
Drew felt the words strike the surface of his mind and bounce off. It was the first he’d heard of his mother’s death. He thought of her last visit six months before, when she’d looked stiff and two-dimensional, touching nervous fingers to her new permanent, chewing mints because the cancer eating at her throat had made her breath smell bad. Another time, another place, the news would have slashed deeply, but here in the warden’s office he could only give the rubberized response, like a programmed doll.
The warden’s lips twisted. “You don’t owe me thanks, Simmons. I raised hell about letting you go. You killed once and you’d kill again if you could. You’re no damn good. You’re cold and vicious—and smart. I told them you’d try to break. They said it was my job to prevent it. So I’m telling you this—” He leveled a finger. “You broke out once, and you got a new rib of stainless steel for your trouble. Now I’m sending Fellini and Cornell with you. If you run, if you take one step out of line, you’ll get a chunk of lead through the back of your head.”
The mention of escape brought a feathery lightness to his stomach. He felt the jab to his kidneys and mumbled the words, but his mind lay in the West Indies. There was a hotel in Jamaica called The Blue Waters. Five years had passed since he’d heard she was working there; five years was a long time, and Edith was a restless girl….
“… and on April 7, 1920 she accepted Jeee-sus Christ as her Sa-vior—”
The Reverend Slocum is turning it on, thought Drew. He wipes sweat from his forehead and intones in sweeping cadences, aware that the press is here but unaware that he’s knocked his red toupee askew, and the part runs from his right eyebrow to his left ear.
Drew stood in the front row with the jacket of a gray business suit covering his manacled wrists. The chain passed beneath his belt so that he stood with his hands folded mandarin-style across his stomach. The shoulders of the guards, Fellini and Cornell, brushed his on either side. They exuded odors of after-shave lotion and sweat-damp Dacron. The afternoon sun was hot, but Drew felt a chunk of ice lying in his stomach. Escape would be dangerous, but possible. The little cemetery on the bluff was as familiar as his back yard; the crowd was huge, their parked cars clogging the single exit and lining the gravel road which wound down the hill and across the river. He would find one with keys; then there would be only the town marshal, who directed traffic with the sleepy boredom of one who in twenty years had never gotten closer to a funeral than the intersection of Highway 23 and Cemetery Road.
Drew surveyed the crowd through half-closed lids, aware that the eyes were on him and not on the Reverend Slocum. He saw the men he’d gone to high school with, girls he’d dated. There was the barber whose shop had been below his father’s law office. Drew looked at the round face, with its interlocking circles of plump cheeks and silver-rimmed glasses, and he remembered the musty odor of comic books mingling with the aroma of shaving lotion and cream oil. He could hear the scrape of a straight razor on the cheeks of his father, and remembered his own delicious fear when the barber inserted his thumb in the Judge’s mouth to shave the downward gradient of the lower lip. The barber had seemed a brave and foolhardy man to submit the Judge to such indignity….
The barber moved his head; for an instant his eyes met Drew’s. They darted away, but Drew had caught the arrow-flash of hatred … or was it fear? It added up to the same thing; he could expect no help in this town, no sympathy.
He moved his eyes and caught a thin woman staring at him with glazed fascination in her brilliant green eyes. Recognition struck him like a blow.
You’ve changed, Carey; you’re so thin you almost look tall, and that man whose hand you’re holding, the one with the successful jowls padding his cheeks, that would be your new husband. He looks like a man with one thousand acres of bottom land, and you … you’ve got the taut, sleek, expensive look of a woman who has everything but peace of mind. Why are you staring? Are you trapped in some mouldering memory? Remember when you lived on the farm next to Grandpa’s? You played Jane to my Tarzan. You were a white captive with large teeth and white budding breasts, and you exchanged a pair of cotton panties for a mullen leaf because I said it looked better, and after all I was older and lived in town. Remember the guttural contentment of hogs in the wallow, the acrid smell of sheep in a shaded grove, the clomp and swish of grazing horses? I was dizzy from the thumping of blood inside my head, my palms were slick with sweat, and your hard-muscled legs never stopped trying to close me out even while your fingers were gouging into my back. Later your voice trembled with an echo of fright and relief: I
thought it would hurt worse than that….
Sure you remember. A girl never forgets the first man, and a man never forgets it either. Maybe I never stopped trying to pay you back. Maybe that’s what led to the marriage we consummated beneath the shower of a motel somewhere near Granby, Colorado. But even in those first exciting months, when I used to come home with a goofy smile on my face, because after years of furtive coupling it was suddenly legal … even then you never really dug it, did you baby? Because the trouble began when you greeted me with the words: I saw the doctor today. Your face wore such a smug, satisfied look that I didn’t have to ask, What was it, your appendix? You made me feel like an accessory to a uterus, a porter who has delivered his burden and is no longer needed. And that feeling brought on the final low-key crisis the night before I met Edith. I came home carrying the stimulus of two martinis and found you putting dinner on the stove; I walked up behind you and cupped the fertile fullness of your stomach in my palms, I nuzzled the soft skin behind your ear and said I wasn’t hungry. Once you’d have set dinner on the back of the stove; long ago you’d have let it burn. This time you stirred the gravy. Afterward you washed the dishes, cleaned up the kitchen, wrote the bi-weekly postcard to your mama, took a shower, put up your hair, caressed your face with cleansing cream, put on your pajamas and came into the bedroom. I was already there, my nerves jumping with every sound of your delay, my eyes passing over my book without seeing it. You crawled into bed stifling a yawn, your eyelids drooping.