Read Glass Cell Online

Authors: Patricia Highsmith

Glass Cell

BOOK: Glass Cell
11.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Strangers on a Train

The Price of Salt
(as Claire Morgan)

The Blunderer

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Deep Water

This Sweet Sickness

A Suspension of Mercy

Ripley Under Ground

A Dog’s Ransom

Ripley’s Game

Little Tales of Misogyny

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder

Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

The Black House

People Who Knock on the Door

Mermaids on the Golf Course

Ripley Under Water

Small g: A Summer Idyll

Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith


Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (with Doris Sanders)

A Game for the Living

The Cry of the Owl

The Two Faces of January

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

Those Who Walk Away

The Tremor of Forgery

The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories

Edith’s Diary

Found in the Street

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes

The Glass Cell

Patricia Highsmith

W. W. N
& C

To my dear cat
born in Palisades, New York,
now a resident of Positano,
my cellmate for most of these pages


t was 3:35 p.m., Tuesday afternoon, in the State Penitentiary, and the inmates were returning from the workshops. Men in unpressed, flesh-colored uniforms, each with a number on the back, streamed through the long corridor of A-block, and a low hum of voices rose from them, though none of the men seemed to be talking to anyone nearby. It was a strange, unmusical chorus, and it had frightened Carter on the first day—he had actually been green enough to think that a riot might be in the offing—but he accepted it now as a peculiarity of the State Penitentiary or perhaps of all prisons. Cell doors stood open, and into certain cells along the ground floor and along the four tiers above, certain men vanished, until the corridor was nearly empty. There would be twenty-five minutes now in which to wash up at the basin in the cell, change a shirt if one cared to or had a clean one, to write a letter or listen with the earphones to the disc jockey program that was always on at this time. The bell for supper rang at 4.

Philip Carter was walking slowly, dreading the sight and the company of his cellmate Hanky. Hanky was a short, chunky fellow, in for thirty years for armed robbery (“bargaining”) and murder, and seemingly rather proud of it. Hanky didn’t like Carter and called him a snob. There had been several minor tiffs in the ninety days Carter had spent with him. Hanky had noticed, for instance, that Carter disliked using the single seatless and exposed toilet in the cell in his presence, so Hanky made his own use of the toilet as noisy and vulgar as possible. Carter had taken this with good-natured indifference at first, but ten days ago, when the joke had become rather old, Carter had said, “Oh, for God’s sake, Hanky, cut it out,” and Hanky had become angry and called Carter a worse name than snob. They had stood up to each other with fists clenched for a moment, but a guard had seen them and broken it up. After that, Carter had kept a polite and cool distance between himself and Hanky, handing him the single pair of earphones, if he was nearer to them, handing Hanky his towel or whatever. The cell with its two bunks was too narrow for one man to pass another comfortably, and, by tacit agreement, if one man was up, the other took to his bunk. But this week Carter had had a piece of bad news from his lawyer Tutting. There was to be no retrial, and, since ninety days had passed, a pardon was out of the question also. Carter faced the fact that he was going to be in the cell with Hanky for some time to come, and that he should perhaps not to be so hostile and aloof. The atmosphere between them was not pleasant, and what did it accomplish? Hanky had sprained his ankle last Friday, jumping off the truck that took the inmates back and forth to farm work. He might at least ask Hanky how his ankle was.

Hanky was sitting on the edge of his lower bunk, fondling his incomplete deck of dirty playing cards.

Carter nodded to him and glanced at his bandaged ankle. “How’s your foot today?” He unbuttoned his shirt and headed straight for the basin.

“Oh, so-so. Still can’t walk on it.”

Hanky lifted the bedding at the foot of his bunk, and produced two packs of Camels that he had been hiding there.

This Carter saw as he straightened up, drying himself with his small rough towel. Hanky didn’t smoke. The ration was four packs a week, which the inmates bought with their own money. The inmate’s salary was fourteen cents a day, the cigarettes twenty-two cents a pack. Hanky saved up his own ration and sold it at a profit to other inmates. The guards knew about Hanky’s sideline and winked at it, because Hanky occasionally gave them a pack or even gave them a dollar.

“Do me a favor, Cart? Take these to number thirteen down here and number forty-eight, third tier. One to each. I don’t feel like walking that far. They’re paid for.”

“Sure.” Carter took them in one hand and started out, buttoning his shirt with his other hand.

Number thirteen was only two cells away from his and Hanky’s cell.

An old Negro with white hair sat on the lower bunk.

“Cigarettes?” Carter asked.

The Negro rolled sideways on one fleshless hip and pulled a small piece of paper out of his pocket. With stiff, black fingers, the Negro pushed Hanky’s receipt into Carter’s hand.

Carter stuffed it into his pocket, tossed a package of Camels on the bunk, and went out. He walked toward the end of the corridor, where the stairs were. The guard called Moony—a nickname for Moonan—quickened his slow walk and frowned as he came toward Carter. Carter had the other pack of cigarettes in his hand. He saw that Moony saw it.

“Deliverin’ cigarettes?” Moony’s long, thin face scowled harder. “You gonna start deliverin’ milk and newspapers, too?”

“I’m taking them for Hanky. He’s got a sprained ankle.”

“Let’s have y’hands.” Moony took his handcuffs off the clasp of his belt.

“I didn’t steal the cigarettes. Ask Hanky.”


Carter held out his hands.

Moony clicked the handcuffs on his wrists. At the same instant, two toilets nearby flushed simultaneously, and simultaneously Carter saw over Moony’s shoulder a pimply faced, pudgy inmate smirking slightly with vague pleasure as he watched. A few seconds before, Carter had thought Moony might be joking. He had seen Moony and Hanky joking a few times, Moony even swinging his stick playfully at Hanky. Now he knew Moony was not joking. Moony didn’t like him. Moony called him “the professor.”

“Walk to the end of the block,” Moony said.

Moony’s voice was loud. While Moony had been talking to Carter, a silence had fallen in the two or three cells in either side of the block which could observe them, and it was spreading over the whole ground floor. Carter walked, with Moony behind him. At the end of the corridor were two stairways going up to the second tier, the elevator’s barred doors that Carter had only twice seen open for hospital cases on their way up, and two plain doors, their fronts flush with the stone wall, with large round locks in them. One led to the next cell block, B-block, the other to the Hole. Moony stepped in advance of Carter and swung off his big ring of keys from his belt.

Carter heard a soft, collective groan from the men watching, a hum as anonymous as a wind.

“What’s the matter, Moony?” asked a voice, so self-assured Carter knew before he glanced behind him that it was a guard’s.

“Got the great engineer here deliverin’ cigarettes,” Moony said, and opened the door. “Step down,” he said to Carter.

The stairs went down. This was the Hole.

Carter paused after a couple of steps. He had heard about the Hole. Even if the inmates exaggerated, and he was sure they did exaggerate, it was a torture chamber. “Listen, an offense like this—doing a favor for Hanky—it’s just a few demerits, isn’t it?”

Moony and Cherniver, who was coming along too, chuckled superiorly, as if at the remark of a half-wit.

“Git goin’,” Moony said. “You already got more demerits than I can count or you either.” Moony shoved him.

Carter kept his balance, then descended the steps, watching his footing carefully; for if he fell, he could not easily save himself with manacled hands. He had taken a fall the day he was put into prison, and at that time his handcuffs had been shackled to a heavy leather belt. It was true that he had a lot of demerits, but they were mostly due to the fact he did not yet know everything he could and could not do. You got demerits for not keeping in step in a line marching to the mess hall, for saying “Excuse me” or saying anything on the way to the workshops (but not on the way back), for flicking a comb through your hair at certain times, for looking too long at a visitor (a stranger, perhaps, man or woman) through the double-barred wall at the end of A-block; and four times, due to demerits, Carter had been unable to see his wife on Sunday afternoons. This was doubly infuriating, because on each occasion the two letters per week that he was permitted to write had been sent to Hazel too early to tell her that if she came that Sunday he could not see her. There was no list of regulations anywhere that an inmate could read and so avoid committing misdemeanors. Carter had asked some inmates for all the ways of incurring demerits, and he had listened to thirty or forty, and then one inmate had said with a reconciled smile, “Ah, there must be about a thousand of ’em. Gives the screws somethin’ to do.” Carter supposed now that he was due for twenty-four or forty-eight hours of solitary in the dark. He took a deep breath and tried to be philosophical about it: it wasn’t going to last for ever, and what were three or six missed meals of the lousy food they served here? He regretted only missing his daily letter from Hazel, which would be brought to his cell around 5:30 p.m.

Carter’s feet found level stone. There was an unfamiliar dampness in the air and a familiar smell of stale urine.

Moony had a flashlight, but he used it to guide his and Cherniver’s steps behind him, while Carter went ahead into darkness. Now on right and left Carter could see the small doors of the cells he had heard about, tiny black holes that a man could not stand up in, big step-ups at the doors so one had to crawl into them. The prison had been built in 1869, Carter remembered, and these must have been part of the original prison, the part beyond improvement. The rest of the prison was said to have been improved at one time.

“. . . the hose?” Cherniver asked in a low voice.

“Somepin’ stronger. Here we are. Stop! Go on in.”

They were beside a cell with no door at all, a cell with a very high open doorway. As Carter walked in, he heard from another cell a groan or a grunt and the snuffle of a nose. There was at least one other person down here. It was comforting. The cell was huge compared to the one Carter shared with Hanky, but there was no bunk or chair or toilet in it, only a small round drain in the center of the floor. The walls were of metal, not stone, black-gray and red from rust. Then Carter noticed hanging from the ceiling a pair of chains that ended in black loops.

“Gimme y’hands,” said Moony.

Carter extended his hands.

Moony removed the handcuffs. “Cherny, ol’ pal, can you git me a stool from Sommers?”

,” said Cherniver and went out, drawing his own flashlight from a pocket.

Cherniver returned with a square wooden stool like a small table, which he set down below the chains.

“Step up,” said Moony.

Carter stepped up, and Moony after him. Carter raised his hands before he was ordered to. The straps were leather with a rubber lining, and they buckled.

“Thumbs,” said Moony.

Obediently Carter turned up his thumbs, then realized with a shock what Moony intended. Moony fixed the straps between the first and second joints of his thumbs, then buckled them tightly. The straps had holes every half inch and all along their length.

Moony stepped down. “Kick the stool away.”

Carter was strung so high, he was on tiptoe and could not kick it away.

Moony gave the stool a kick that sent it a couple of yards in front of Carter and turned it over. Carter swung. The first stab of pain prolonged itself. Blood rushed to the tips of his thumbs. His back was to the guards, and he expected a blow.

Moony laughed, and then one of them kicked him in the thigh and he began to swing back and forth, twisting a little. Then a push in the small of his back. Carter suppressed a groan. He held his breath. Now sweat trickled in front of his ears, down his jaw. Carter’s ears were ringing loudly. He smelled cigarette smoke. Carter wondered if they had a time limit, vaguely a time limit, such as an hour, two hours? How much time had passed already? Three minutes? Fifteen? Carter was afraid he would scream in another few seconds. Don’t scream, he told himself. The screws would love that. Muscles down his back began to flutter. It was hard to breathe. He had a brief fantasy that he was drowning, that he was in water instead of air. Then the ringing in his ears drowned out the guards’ voices.

Something struck him in the back. Water hissed over the stone floor in front of him, and a bucket bounced and clattered. Everything seemed in slow motion. He felt much heavier, and he imagined that the two guards were hanging on to his legs.

“Oh, Hazel,” Carter mumbled.

“Hazel?” a guard said.

“That’s his wife. Gets letters from her every day.”

“Not today, he won’t.”

Carter felt his eyes were bulging from their sockets. He tried to blink. His eyes felt dry and huge. He had a vision of Hazel walking nervously up and down in his cell, wringing her hands, glancing at him now and then, saying something that he could not hear.

The scene shifted to the trial. Wallace Palmer. Wallace Palmer was dead.
Then what do you think he did with the money? . . . Come now, Mr. Carter, you’re an intelligent man, a college graduate, an engineer, a sophisticated New Yorker
. (Your honor, that is irrelevant.)
You don’t sign papers not knowing what you’re signing!
I knew what I was signing. Receipts, invoices. It wasn’t my job to know the exact price of things. Palmer was the contractor. The prices could’ve been raised on the receipts after I’d signed them, raised by Palmer . . . I did not know our material was second-rate and I told him so.
Where is the money, Mr. Carter? Where is the two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?
And then Hazel was on the stand, saying in her clear voice, My husband and I have always had a joint bank account . . . We’ve never had any secrets about anything to do with money . . . with money . . . with money . . .

“Hazel!” Carter cried, and that was the end of it.

Several buckets of water sluiced over him.

Behind him, voices seemed to be chanting. There was chanting and laughter. They faded and he was alone again. He realized the chanting was the pulsing of his own blood in his ears. He imagined his thumbs two feet long now from the pulling. He was not dead. Wallace Palmer was dead. Palmer who could be made to talk, if he were not dead. Palmer had fallen from the third-floor scaffolding down to the ground beside a cement mixer. Now the school building was finished. Carter saw it, dark red and four stories high. It was shaped like a wide U, like a boomerang. An American flag waved on top of it. It stood, but it was made of bad materials. The cement was no good, the plumbing didn’t work, the plaster had started cracking before the building was completed. Carter had spoken to Gawill and to Palmer about the materials, but Palmer had said that was okay, that was what they wanted, the school board was cutting corners and it wasn’t their concern if the building materials were bad. Then the word got around, and the safety board or whatever they called it said that children ought not to be allowed to set foot in it, that it all might fall on their heads, and the school board had not been cutting corners, they had paid for the best, and who, who was responsible? Wallace Palmer was responsible, and maybe a few others in Triumph had got a share of the $250,000—Gawill could hardly have been blind to what was going on, for instance—but Philip Carter was the chief engineer, worked closest with the contractor Palmer, was an out-of-towner, a New Yorker, a wise guy, a man out to feather his nest at the expense of the South, a professional man who had betrayed the honor and trust of his calling, and the State was going to have his blood. “Let the school stand empty, until the next hard wind blows it down,” said the prosecuting attorney, “a disgrace and an expensive disgrace for all the State to look at!”

BOOK: Glass Cell
11.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Craving Absolution by Nicole Jacquelyn
The Lovebird by Natalie Brown
Fire Kissed by Erin Kellison
Insatiable by Adriana Hunter
Charm School by Anne Fine
The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie
Amber's Fantasy by Pepper Anthony