by Allen Coyle
I saw a woman recently. I mean a real woman; not a magazine clip-out or a poster. Honest to god, a real-life woman.
It’d been more than twelve years since I’d seen one.
It was Clancy who introduced us. He’s the captain of the guards. Over the years he seems to have taken a liking to me. I’m not sure why. I think maybe it’s because I’m soft-spoken and obedient, and not loud and rebellious like some of the others. I don’t give him any problems.
It was after dinner when, unannounced, Clancy asked me to accompany him to the fifth floor. Much of the area is restricted, but I’d been there before to clean—under a guard’s supervision, of course. They keep a sharp eye on you here.
I figured maybe he’d spilled some coffee and needed a trustee to clean it up. So I was surprised when he led me down the corridor and into a large, dark room filled with files. Along the far wall, nestled between two shelves, stood a tall, nondescript door. Clancy unlocked it and swung it open, revealing a room that was a mirror image of the one we were in.
And there she stood, as if she were waiting. I gasped, and froze.
She, too, was accompanied by a guard—an older woman. And like me, she wore the regulation uniform: white shirt, white pants, white sneakers, white socks. All white. She had a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look—as I’m sure I did—and she stood with her knees slightly bent, as if she was prepared to scamper. She sort of reminded me of a young Scarlett Johansson, that actress from the old-time movies I liked to watch, before I came here. She had the deep, mature eyes; the red, parted lips. And her light, blonde hair flowed in waves well past her shoulders.
Clancy let out a laugh—a loud, whooping, bottom-of-the-belly laugh, which made his large gut quiver.
“Well,” he said, “don’t just stand there staring at each other. Say something! Introduce yourselves!”
But I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t. And neither, it seemed, could she. We both just gazed, awestruck, as if trying to comprehend one another’s existence.
“We wanted you to have the opportunity to meet,” Clancy said. “You’re both nearly thirty, and we thought you deserved a nice birthday present.”
He and the female guard shared a knowing smile. The girl and I remained speechless.
Clancy checked his watch. “We’ll give you both a half hour. The corridors will be clear. Introduce yourselves; get to know one another. Make the most of your time, because we can’t promise another opportunity like this. The risk is too great.
“And whatever you do,” he continued, “don’t talk too loudly. These rooms echo, and your voices might carry.”
He took a step toward me then and clasped my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father encouraging his son before a big date. He said nothing more; he simply squeezed and let go. He had a large, brawny hand, and I felt small under his grip.
Clancy and the female guard looked at each other, then both retreated to their own wings, like duelers marching in opposite directions. Clancy left through the door behind me; the female guard, through the door behind the girl. The latches clicked into place loudly, making me jump. More than anything, I hate the sound of doors closing—especially the barred door of my cell when it slams shut at night. Even after all these years, I’ve never gotten used to it.
We looked at each other, the young woman and I. My mouth and throat were dry. She tried to smile, but her lips were shaking. Her whole body, in fact, was shaking. Mine was, too. And the fifth floor was warm, especially on this particular summer evening.
I swallowed. “Hi,” I said.
She let out a nervous laugh. “Hi.”
“I, ah…” I let my voice trail off. “Do you know what this is all about?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I really… I don’t know.” She raised her shoulders, her head tilted. She forced a smile. It was awkward, almost like a wince, but nonetheless endearing.
I tried to smile back. I can only imagine how I looked. Grotesque, probably. “I’m Paul. I’m… it’s good to meet you.”
Another nervous laugh. “Hi Paul.” She smiled, though, and this time, it didn’t seem quite as forced.
I grinned. “Hi.”
All this stuttering and stammering, you’d have thought we were inexperienced teenagers.
Which made sense, in a way. The last time we’d interacted with members of the opposite sex, we’d both been in high school.
I’d always known there was a women’s wing. All of us did. It was a place of legend: a mystical location we could only dream about, but never visit. I imagined it to be a mirror image of the men’s wing, with cells and a cafeteria and a library and classrooms, except with women inmates instead of men.
Not especially imaginative, but exciting nevertheless.
Others speculated it was a paradise filled with luxurious amenities, including a private deck for sunbathing, and a spa where the women could soak in mud. An oasis so close, and yet so far. Someone always would claim to have seen it—to have snuck in once, undetected—but when prodded for details, their elaborate story would sputter to snickers and a shaking of the head.
It was all bullshit, of course, but a way to pass the time. And when you’re dragging a rake across the dirt exercise yard, grooming the sand, or wiping spots off of hot trays that the dishwasher missed, you need a way to fill the void—the aching emptiness in your life. And if you’ve got nothing else, bullshit works quite nicely.
The conversations about the women’s wing made me feel young and immature, like a five-year-old and his buddies envisioning what it must be like in the girls’ restroom. Deep down, you suspect it’s nothing spectacular—probably no different from the boys’ restroom (except for the lack of urinals, of course)—but it’s nonetheless alluring because it’s off-limits and forbidden.
For all of us hard up male inmates, legends of the women’s wing became our grown-up version of the girls’ restroom.
I knew the main entrance to the women’s wing was from the lobby, the same as the men’s. I’d been to the lobby plenty of times—always with a guard escort, of course—sometimes to visit the warden’s office, but most often to mop the floors in the visitors’ area. I’d seen the entrance to the wing, but the double doors were always closed tight. I couldn’t get so much as a glimpse inside.
I’d never have guessed that the men’s and women’s wings connected from within, especially from a nondescript door in a random filing room on the fifth floor. Of course, if I’d have told any of the guys about the door, they’d have laughed me off; said I was full of shit. Thing was, though, I had no desire to tell. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep the secret to myself. It was that telling the guys would tarnish my memory of meeting the woman—cheapen the experience somehow. Because there was more to that encounter than simply getting a glimpse into the proverbial women’s wing.
That night, you see, for the first time in my life, I fell in love.
The woman’s name was Pam. She was a couple of months younger than me—we both were twenty-nine—and she’d been in Permanent Detention since she was sixteen. Sixteen. Like me, she’d spent almost half of her life in this place.
She’d never even had the chance to get her driver’s license.
It took awhile for us to get over our nervousness, but once we got going, we talked and talked and talked. The conversation just flowed. I’d never known I had so much to say. I never was much of a talker to begin with, and over the years I found I spoke less and less. It seemed the longer you spent in Permanent Detention, the more difficult small talk became.
Mainly, we chatted about our present lives and our living conditions. Like most inmates, we spent our days working in the laundry (separate facilities, of course; you can imagine the kick male inmates would get sniffing female garments). We also pulled kitchen duty from time to time, and both of us liked to spend Sundays reading in our cells.
Like me, good behavior had helped elevate Pam to trustee status, which allowed her special library privileges and access to otherwise forbidden areas, such as the officers’ lounge. (Not to hang out, of course, but to clean—being the meek, obedient little servants we were.)
We didn’t touch at all throughout our conversation… except at one point I did clasp her hand. I’m not sure why; it felt right. She let me; she didn’t recoil. Her hand felt very soft, and very warm, and it filled my whole body with a tingling sensation I hadn’t felt for years, as if dead nerves were sparking to life.
I’d wanted to kiss her—in fact, I ached to kiss her—and it wasn’t because of any sexual urge, but rather a desire to get close to her, to meld with her—to become almost as a single living entity. I suddenly wanted to feel connected to someone—attached. I wanted to feel her warm skin pressed against mine; her soft hands clasped inside mine. I wanted to feel her head on my shoulder, her hair in my face… and I wanted to hold her and protect her from the world; from the pale gray walls of the institution; from the bleakness of our reality—from the harshness of our world.
But we didn’t kiss. Our hands, instead, slackened… and our fingers slid apart. Not because we didn’t want to hold hands, but rather, I sensed, from a tacit understanding that we were treading on forbidden territory… and that we only were setting ourselves up for a more painful goodbye.
That half hour flew faster than any time I’ve ever known. And when the door behind me clicked open and Clancy returned, I wanted to cry. But I somehow contained myself as he led me from the filing room and downstairs to the main cell block, accompanying me to 4D, fourth cell from the left—my home for the past dozen years. He called out to the operator, and the barred door slid shut behind me.
It was only when I was curled up in my bunk with my back to the corridor, facing the pale, gray wall, that I started crying. They were intense, guttural sobs, springing from a sadness buried so deep inside of me, I hadn’t realized it existed. Or maybe I did know it existed, but I’d grown so numb to it over the years that I no longer was aware of it, like the way you don’t think about your heart beating.
Thankfully, nobody heard me crying. You can’t let your emotions get the better of you in this place. The only way to live is to recede within yourself; to numb your soul and senses. It’s no way to live, but in here, it’s the only way to live.
I turned my pillow to the dry side and tried to fall asleep, but sleep was a long time coming that night. It was only a couple of hours before dawn when I finally dozed off, and then my dreams were bright and colorful and lifelike… and all of them featured Pam.
And then a loud buzzing was sounding, and my cell door was sliding open, and I was struggling out of my bunk, hurrying to get dressed before the morning count.
I dream about women sometimes. Not as much as I used to, but occasionally.
Sometimes they’re sexual dreams, and I awake feeling all perverted and gross—and guilty somehow. More often, though, they’re romantic dreams—simple depictions of companionship—such as walking hand-in-hand in a park, or cuddling and watching a sunset, or sharing a laugh over a candlelit dinner. I often awake from these dreams with a warmth that stays with me the whole day, as if the woman will be waiting for me when I return to my cell—from a long, brutal day in the laundry—to hold me after lights-out.
I imagine it’s how a close relationship must feel: a warm, comforting sensation that stays with you all day, even in those moments when you can’t be with your partner.
I never did have a girlfriend; not really. Probably the closest was eighth grade, when I kissed the neighbor girl. She was my age and lived next door. We didn’t hang out often, and we weren’t great friends. However, she came over one morning and asked me to walk with her. She led me down the street to a home under construction. We snuck inside—there were no workers that afternoon—and she cuddled with me in a crook formed by two walls.
She started kissing me: deep, wet, gooey kisses that, to me, seemed gross and invasive. We quit after a couple of minutes; it didn’t feel right. She left me on my own, to wonder what had happened—to ponder on what I’d done wrong.
A month later, she moved away. We never even said goodbye. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, that experience was the closest I’d ever get to feeling true love.
Until now, that is.
A lot of the guys here had girlfriends in high school, and a few even got laid. That’s what they call it; they say it as if it were an accomplishment, a trophy. The way they describe it isn’t the way I imagine it. They talk in terms of thrusting, banging, fucking. I always envision it as more of a gentle thing, a sweet thing—something where you’re simply together, looking into each other’s eyes, loving each other.
Some of the romance books in the library depict it like that, but I wouldn’t want anyone to catch me reading those; not when I finally have some seniority and the respect that comes with it. That perk could disappear in an instant, and I’d be right back where I was when I first arrived: a timid seventeen-year-old condemned to a life behind bars, aching for death.
Though I suppose I’m not all that different now: I’m no longer seventeen, but I’m still timid and condemned to a life behind bars. And though I no longer ache for death, some days I don’t think I’d mind it that much.
I was sentenced to Permanent Detention shortly after my seventeenth birthday. My crime? Possessing a book.
Not just any book, of course—an illegal book. And the sad part is, I didn’t even read it.
Well, I did read some of it; the first couple of chapters, anyway. It was a giant tome of a novel, and the print was microscopic. It had belonged to my father, and according to my mom, he’d always wanted me to have it. He said it was an important book: a book of ideas.
I remember it was called The Fountainhead and it had been written in my great, great grandfather’s time, when printed books were still available. I vaguely remember it had something to do with architecture, and a student talking to his dean. But that’s all. At the time, I thought it was boring and dense, and if it had any useful ideas, they were way over my head.
But that book was one of the few things I had to remember my father by. He’d proudly printed his name on the inside front cover, in big, block letters. In fact, it was the only part of the book I enjoyed reading. I’d often run my fingers along the penciled name, retracing each letter, as if trying to forge a connection to the dad I never really knew.
He was killed when I was seven, gunned down in a demonstration outside the capitol. It was an inevitable end, my mother said. He’d served time once for publishing seditious content, and he spoke often at underground anti-government rallies, which usually were infiltrated by undercover informants. He was a marked man, according to my mother, and he had been living on borrowed time for ages. If he hadn’t have been shot in that demonstration, then he probably would have been stabbed in a back alley somewhere, or taken to an underground detention center and never seen again.
She claimed agents watched our house and followed us wherever we went. I remember being a young child crouched in the backseat of the car, on the verge of hysteria as my parents tried to out-maneuver a van they claimed was following them.
Looking back, it’s no wonder I grew up to be so timid and anxious.
After my father’s death, agents raided our house, searching for seditious material. They confiscated my dad’s computers, file servers, notebooks, pamphlets—you name it. They also arrested my mother for conspiracy and put me in protective custody.
She claimed she didn’t agree with my father’s viewpoints (which wasn’t true; she simply was less vocal). The state’s case against her was weak. All of the confiscated materials belonged to my father, and none of the writings bore her name.
She’d also never demonstrated her treachery in public. The state claimed she was a traitor by the simple virtue of remaining married to my father. She countered that she remained married only for my sake, because she lacked the income to raise me on her own.
In the end, the tribunal decided to show leniency. Not because they didn’t have the proof (proof was only a convenience for these sorts of trials, not a necessity), but rather because it was an election year, and nobody wanted to look bad for imprisoning a young, widowed mother, even if she had been married to an enemy of the state.
The surveillance only got worse after my mother’s release. They were ready to pounce at the slightest perceived misstep. Black cars followed us wherever we went. Figures hid in darkness across the street, like silent, watching shadows. My mother never again mentioned my father, except to curse his name—convinced as she was that our home was riddled with bugs.
As the years passed, my memory of my father devolved to a shadow, then dissolved to a ghost.
The surveillance became less intrusive as time wore on, but whether seen or unseen, the government always was a constant presence—the uninvited white elephant in the room. I learned to accept fear as a normal part of my life: the fear of my mother being arrested; the fear of me being taken away from her. The fear instilled in me a rigid compliance to government dictates, and it snuffed out any rage that otherwise might have consumed my soul.
By the time I entered high school, I’d pretty much forgotten my father. So I was surprised when one evening, as I sat at the dining-room table doing algebra homework, my mother silently approached me, her index finger pressed against her lips. She handed me a handwritten note, as well as a tattered hardcover edition of The Fountainhead.
She tapped her lips with her finger, emphasizing the need for silence. Then, she pointed to the note, beckoning me to read it.
I unfolded the paper. In my mother’s tiny, neat script, she’d written: “This belonged to your father. He always wanted you to have it. He said it helped define him as a person, as an individual. He loved you more than anything, even freedom. It’s the only thing of his I have left, and I’m giving it to you.”
The note continued: “As a young man, you need to understand: this is a dangerous book. Not so much for the ideas it contains, but because so many people fear those ideas. The book’s also number six on the top-ten banned list, meaning anyone caught with it could be imprisoned—maybe for life. So whatever you do, keep it hidden. You’re old enough now to be trusted with it.”
I read the note twice. When I was done, I looked at my mother. She held out her hand, to take back the note. She stepped into the kitchen, then held the paper over the gas burner, setting the page on fire. She let the flames creep silently toward her fingers, then tossed the paper into the sink.
I looked down at the book, all worn and grubby and beat-up. Its pages were yellowed; its cover pockmarked. I opened it and immediately noticed my father’s name on the inside cover, scrawled in his erratic, blocky script.
It was the first time in eight years I’d seen his handwriting.
That book became my only link to my father. And for some reason I figured that if I could understand the book, I could come to understand him.
Unfortunately, like I mentioned, the writing was so dense, and the printing so small, that I made it through only the first couple of chapters—and even then, I understood none of it, which frustrated me. If the book had helped define my father, and I found it inaccessible, then what did that say about me? Was I even worthy of being called his son?
I kept the book carefully hidden under my bed, and I never took it out of the house. I looked at it only at night, with the door and blinds tightly closed, and even then I felt watched—haunted, almost. The fact that the book was banned—and that I could be imprisoned for owning it—filled me with a terror so intense, it made my stomach churn. In fact, it often felt more like a burden than a gift.
In the end, the book might have been too great a responsibility for a fifteen-year-old to bear. Even at the time, I wondered if my mother was naive to entrust me with it. I think on some level, she might have known I was too young. After all, I couldn’t help but notice how tightly she’d held her finger to her lips when she gave it to me, and also how quickly she’d reclaimed her handwritten note, to hold it over the fire.
I feel like a lovestruck schoolchild.
Whether I’m stacking sheets or mopping the cell block or pulling weeds near the perimeter, my mind keeps drifting back to the fifth-floor filing room—to the wide, mature eyes taking me in; to the warm, soft hand clasped in mine.
I can’t get her out of my mind.
“Easy!” snaps Bruno, the lead cook, when I drop an empty casserole dish near his feet.
“Sorry,” I say, mumbling.
“Dammit, Paul.” Bruno waves his spatula at me. “You’ve had your head up your ass all day. You drop one more thing and I’ll smash your face against the goddamn grill. I swear I will.”
I want to tell him that my head’s not up my ass, but rather in the clouds… soaring high above this dreary compound, surveying the world. But he wouldn’t understand. Like everyone else, he’s tethered to the ground, mired in existence, with no thoughts or dreams to defy gravity—to launch him into flight.
I especially think about Pam after lights-out, as I lie awake, staring at the ceiling. I wonder if she thinks about me, too, during those long, drawn-out nights when you’re teetering toward madness, with only your thoughts and your dreams to keep you sane.
I start to think maybe Pam and I could be something—maybe friends, maybe more—if only we were a million miles away, with no bars to keep us confined; no walls to keep us contained. I imagine walking with her along a beach: the ice-cold waves splashing against our ankles… the blood-red sun sinking along the edge of the earth.
I imagine making love to her, the ocean’s roaring pulse resounding in the background, our breaths quick and hot against the chilly saltwater air.
But then I curse myself. It’s dangerous to play the “if only” game. Tottering down that path can lead only to lunacy. Pam and I never can be anything: not acquaintances, not friends, and certainly not lovers.
The truth is, we’ll probably never see each other again.
It’s a bleak, heartbreaking realization, but it’s a fact as cold and as hard and as impenetrable as the walls of my cell.
What I feel for Pam can’t be love. It can’t be. Even I know that love isn’t forged in an instant, but rather cultivated over time.
Which leads me to wonder: what if what I’m feeling isn’t really love, but rather lust in disguise?
After all, I hadn’t seen a woman for more than twelve years. What if it had been another female inmate that night, instead of Pam? Would I still have been swept away in the same lovestruck stupor?
It’s a question that haunts me at night, well after lights-out. Because, if true, it would mean the only genuine feelings I’ve felt in years aren’t really genuine after all.
It would mean that what I’m feeling for Pam, I could feel for any random woman.
It would mean that, in the end, I wasn’t in love with a person, per se, but rather with an idea—a fantasy.
So when I’m lying awake late at night, crying silently in my cell, it’s not because I know I’ll never see Pam again. I can live with that, I think.
What’s slowly killing me inside is the fear that my love for her might not be real.
And if that’s true, then maybe that was Clancy’s intention all along: a sort of psychological torture. If so, it would be the harshest, cruelest punishment I’ve ever endured in this place.
Before we get into how I came here, a little about Permanent Detention:
It’s a relatively recent program. They started it twenty or so years ago to prevent young undesirables from joining society.
By “they,” I of course mean the government.
And by “young undesirables”… well, I suppose you’re looking at one.
According to the powers that be, sedition is the number-one problem facing our country. They say it’s a national-security issue. How can they effectively fight wars, they say, or protect the homeland, if their own citizens speak against them? For a nation to prosper, everyone must be beholden to the same philosophies—devoted to the same ideals.
And those who reject those philosophies and ideals need to be eradicated, like an organism rejecting a germ.
As I understand it, there was a time when you could disagree with the government openly, either in public, or in literature, or on the Internet. It’s hard to imagine. In my grandfather’s time the nation abided by what was known as the Constitution, which empowered individuals with certain rights. And though it was abolished long ago, its spirit still exists in the hearts and minds of many—including my father, who publicly advocated its reinstitution.
Of course, look how he ended up.
Hell, never mind that: look how I ended up. At least my father had a life before he died. I’m not sure you could call what I’ve got a life. I exist; that’s about it.
But at least I’m alive… so I suppose I should be grateful.
Permanent Detention started as an experimental program, but it proved to be so successful—and was looked upon so favorably by the population—that it became a cornerstone of the national agenda. The basic premise was simple: Identify potential nonconformists—those most likely to hold anti-government attitudes—and sentence them to life imprisonment, effectively cleansing society of its undesirables; the organism rejecting the germ.
And who better to target than high-school students?
After all, said the government, your basic philosophical foundations are laid during your youth. If you display treasonous tendencies as a young adult, chances are you’ll grow to become a rebel.
And if you were a rebel, there was no place for you in their fist-pumping, anthem-chanting, single-minded society.
High schools everywhere became a patriotic litmus test. If you obeyed, marched in line, said “yes sir” and “yes ma’am,” you generally were safe. Potential nonconformists, on the other hand—those who avoided sports and clubs, shunned cooperative learning, who ate alone and had few friends—these folks were hauled before a military-style tribunal. An administrator—most often a principal—presented evidence against the defendant. The defendant—most often a trembling, teary-eyed dweeb; you know, the quintessential menace to society—was given a chance to rebut; to claim how passionately he loved his country.
The tribunal, then, would render its verdict. Those deemed a danger to society were condemned to life imprisonment—to Permanent Detention. The gavel would slam down, and they’d be led away sniffing and sobbing… their lives effectively snuffed out before they began… and their parents would be watching in horror, knowing a raid likely was on the way, as well as additional arrests. After all, no child became rebellious in a vacuum. They had to acquire their attitudes from somewhere.
The program was a resounding success, and the senator who proposed it later won the presidency. According to government statistics, crime plummeted, national unity surged, and once again we became a great and prosperous nation, united by a common thread… beholden to the same philosophies… devoted to the same ideals.
A healthy, happy, germ-free organism.
Which, I suppose, was best for everyone.
Looking back, I was probably on the fast-track to Permanent Detention all along. I had few friends; I didn’t play sports; I belonged to no clubs. I was quiet and kept to myself, which alarmed several of my teachers.
Plus, my father was a known radical.
My mother begged me to become more socially active. Begged me. Rather than to help me blend in, she said my meekness and timidity made me stand out.
“They’re going to peg you as a loner,” she said. “And once they do, you’re as good as done. Nothing upsets the establishment like obstinate individualism.”
I tried, but I couldn’t change my nature. Besides, I was weak and small, and if I wasn’t cowering in a corner, I was being confronted by bullies. Withdrawing was easier than asserting my presence, which usually resulted in my ass getting kicked.
But in the end, it was the book that did it. The book… coupled, of course, with my own stupidity.
I was sixteen then, and driving. I’d spent the previous summer working as a laborer on a prevailing-wage job, which allowed me to put a down payment on a used car. It was a total piece of shit—not exactly a chick magnet (not that I was, either)—but it ran, and it was mine.
The construction company I’d worked for had a yard-maintenance service, so for three hours after school I mowed lawns, pruned hedges, adjusted sprinklers. After work I’d head home for dinner, and then I’d do homework, which I always completed dutifully. Not that it scored me any points with my teachers, who all seemed to regard me with disdain.
That car gave me a freedom I’d never known before (or since, I might add). On a moment’s notice I could grab my keys and take off anywhere. My mother didn’t care, as long as I ensured I wasn’t followed.
By that time, though, my father had been gone for so long—and my mother and I had behaved so well—that the surveillance had trickled from constant to occasional. Only twice did I notice the familiar black SUVs in my rear-view mirror, trailing a few car lengths behind. Most often, they left me alone, to savor the solitude of the open road… to leave behind the burdens of school and society… to feel unconfined, unconstrained, unencumbered… free.
I especially enjoyed driving at night. I felt more shielded, somehow; less conspicuous, less visible. It was just me and my headlights cutting through the darkness, finding the way. Often, around 9:30 or so, after my homework was done, I’d grab my keys and dive into my car, to go cruising. Unlike most teenagers, though, I didn’t head to the city. In fact, I went in the opposite direction: into the wilderness; as far away as I could get from civilization, from people—from society.
I crawled along bumpy mountain roads—the ones I could navigate with a two-wheel drive, anyway. I explored some cool, seemingly untouched scenery. My favorite place was this dry, desert lakebed I discovered a couple miles off a windy stretch of utility-company right-of-way. I would park in the middle of it and lie on my warm hood… my fingers interlaced behind my head… and I’d stare into the deep, expansive night sky, letting my mind wander, my thoughts drifting toward the heavens, my dreams searching out the stars.
I’d return home around midnight, long after my mom was asleep. And as I slunk into bed and shifted on my mattress, I’d feel it—the book I’d hidden—its bulk pushing into my back, reminding me of its presence.
It always left me with an ache when I awoke: a sharp reminder of reality; a pain that dissolved my dreams.
I’d always wanted to read the book, to understand the ideas it contained.
And, perhaps, to understand my father, and why he cherished those ideas.
I’d tried to read it at home, but I felt too uncomfortable—too compromised, somehow. I’d grown up hearing our house was bugged, so I’d spent my whole life feeling watched, spied upon. I never truly felt at ease in my own home. When I jerked off, I did it as quietly as I could, under the covers, and even then I felt like eyes were boring into my back, judging me. The only place where I felt any seclusion, any privacy, was at the dry, desert lakebed, surrounded only by the sky and the darkness.
And it hit me: Why not read the book there?
It made sense, and the risk seemed small. I visited the lakebed about three nights each week—including Saturdays—and I figured if I read half a chapter a night, I could get through the book in no time.
The hardest part, for me, was smuggling it from the house to the car. I shoved it in my backpack one morning, took a deep breath, then dashed from the front door to the driveway, scurrying like a rodent evading a cat. I prayed no agents were watching from across the street—ensconced in shadows, as I imagined them: smoking, squinty-eyed, suspicious.
Once I was safely away, I crammed the book under the front seat, along with the crumbs and loose change. It seemed a safe place—I’d never had my car searched at school, and I’d never been caught speeding. I figured it’d be fine there, at least for the month or two it’d take me to read it.
My progress was slow-going. For one, as I mentioned, the print was microscopic, and I had to hold the book close to make out the words. For another, I had only my car’s dim dome light to read by; it cast a sickening, piss-colored orange upon the pages.
But perhaps the biggest problem was that I simply wasn’t used to reading off paper. Up till that point, most everything I’d read had been on electronic tablets. The text I knew was fluid, adjustable. I was used to changing the text size and fiddling with the fonts.
Words on paper, on the other hand, seemed static and dead, as if engraved in stone. They were like viewing an unchangeable past: unadjustable, unmovable—mired in time.
I’d read while lying across the backseat, the windows down to let in the cool, evening air. The crickets chorused in time to my breathing, providing the perfect backdrop to the unfolding story.
It took me a few nights, but I reached the end of chapter two. I sat up, checked my watch, and saw it was after eleven. Not that I had to get home right away. As strict as life was, few communities enforced curfew ordinances. The fear of Permanent Detention kept most teenagers in line.
I rumbled over the rocky dirt road, headed back to town… the book carefully concealed under the front seat. And that’s when I saw it, about a mile up the road: several sets of headlights, barreling over the low brush… and the flashing red and blue lights, spinning like wild cyclones.
I froze, slamming to a halt. It looked like a big cluster of cars, haphazardly spaced. They were racing toward the road I was on, following a perpendicular line.
On instinct, I flicked off the headlights and steered the car off the road. Brush scraped at my side; the metal undercarriage ground against rock. I shut off the engine, my breathing strained, my muscles tight.
There were about ten cars, and they were racing across the desert landscape, bouncing over rocks pockmarking the ground; slamming through narrow gullies carved by rainwater.
And then a chopper appeared, casting a brilliant spotlight upon the scene.
I could see, then, that it was a pursuit. Three lumbering SUVs struggled to outpace seven or so patrol cars. Their front grills were mashed; their paint and sidings torn. The rough terrain was tearing them up so badly, I was surprised their tires and suspensions had remained intact.
As the cars approached, I held my breath, wondering if they would cross my road… or take a sharp turn toward me. It seemed likely they might turn; compared to the outlying terrain, my road was smooth and unobstructed.
And then, it happened: the frontmost SUV hit a hole—or maybe one of its tires blew out; I couldn’t tell—and in an instant it was flying in the air, turning on its side… and then it landed, hard, twisting into a heap of shattered glass and mangled metal, pushing up a pile of sand as it slid to a stop.
A handful of patrol cars screeched to a standstill, and officers emerged, guns drawn, screaming. I saw shadowy figures moving, running.
Then, gunshots… more yelling… and pained, anguished screams.
The other two SUVs kept going, and the remaining patrol cars followed.
And when they reached the dirt road, they took a sharp, right turn… and started soaring in the direction of the lakebed.
Right toward me.
I remember watching the headlights as they rumbled toward me, bright and unblinking. And I remember the dazzling glare as the chopper cast its searchlight over the road, illuminating my car as if it were the focal point of an onstage display.
I remember hearing more gunshots… and a nearby zinging. And then I was cowering on the floor, hiding my head, the roar of the chopper deafening.
I remember the blue and red lights flashing before me… surrounding me; engulfing me. And I remember strong hands wrenching me through the door, dragging me onto the ground. And then there was a boot on my throat, and bright lights all around… and then more of the yelling: deep, primitive, indecipherable.
I remember gasping for air, my face pressed against the dirt, small puffs of sand billowing from my strained breaths. And I remember glimpsing an officer fishing through my car—most likely searching for weapons—as others leveled their rifles at my head, screaming at me.
He didn’t find any weapons. Instead, he emerged from the car holding the book.
I remember more of the yelling… and then a sharp, blinding flash of pain as someone slammed the butt of a rifle across my head, nearly knocking me out. After that, all I recall is a dreamy, spacey feeling, as if I were sinking underwater… and the warmth of the blood as it flowed down my face… pooling on the ground, staining the sand.
Later on, I learned the men the police were chasing that night were members of an outlaw survivalist organization that took refuge in the desert, migrating from camp to camp. They were considered armed and dangerous—known enemies of the state.
That night, four were killed and six were captured.
Well, seven, I guess… if you included me. Which is what the headlines did. It was a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Though I was never charged with being a member of the group, the news portrayed me as a teenage malcontent, armed with a copy of The Fountainhead… the son of a known radical, captured in hostile territory near an enemy camp.
A camp, it turned out, with whom my father had associated once, eons ago.
That juicy fact emerged during the trial, a three-day public spectacle complete with reporters, cameras and jeering spectators. Most juvenile inquisitions were small, private affairs, but in my case, they wanted to make an example.
Teachers testified against me, as did my principal. Said they knew all along I was a rebel; apparently, they’d pegged me long ago as an antisocial malcontent.
I remember when the inquisitor raised The Fountainhead for the audience to see—all the murmurs and gasps that erupted from the crowd. That damning piece of evidence alone was enough to put me away for life—never mind the alleged connection to the survivalist group.
They ripped out the pages right there during the inquisition and threw them in a metal receptacle. The inquisitor lit a match, then let it sizzle between his fingers for a long, dramatic moment. Then, looking at me and grinning, he tossed it into the bin, setting the pages aflame.
The fire was bright, its flames fierce… but within moments it had petered out to a smoldering, useless clump of ashes.
The verdict, of course, was inevitable: immediate, lifetime removal from society.
My mother didn’t make the trial. I heard that after I was taken into custody, agents raided our house and arrested her for crimes against the state. I don’t know what became of her; no one’s ever told me. I don’t know if she’s in a detention center somewhere, like me… or if she’s even still alive.
If she’s alive, she’ll be turning fifty this year.
If she’s alive.
Permanent Detention involves not only discipline, but re-education. Three days each week we take classes in national history, to learn the importance of patriotism and unity. We’re told these lessons will help us function in the event we rejoin society.
Not that anyone ever rejoins society—at least not that I know. At age thirty, we’re supposed to undergo an evaluation to determine whether we’re fit for release. What I’ve heard happens is that we stand in front of a board to plead our case. If you can convince them you’re no longer a nonconformist threat (and good luck with that), then you’re sent to a halfway house and placed in a low-end, menial job somewhere. Those who lack the charm to dazzle the board are transferred to a maximum-security prison, to finish their lives with society’s other scourges—including rapists, child-molesters, and murderers.
You know, real criminals.
That’s what scares me more than anything, especially as my birthday approaches. Permanent Detention is horrible—don’t get me wrong—but it’s a different sort of place than an everyday prison. For one, all of us inmates are of a similar mindset. Each of us lost our freedom for the unpardonable crime of offending the government. And though we’re all a little too individualistic to form groups or cliques, we’re all very much brethren, bonded by our ideals.
I wouldn’t call anyone here a criminal; not really. In fact, I’ve never encountered violence in Permanent Detention. There were initiations when I first arrived, but they were of the high-school variety, and they certainly didn’t involve beatings or rape. And though there is a pecking order delineated by seniority, I’d say for the most part, all of us treat each other respectfully.
So the idea of being integrated with real criminals terrifies me, because I know I won’t survive. I’m weak and timid… and any anger I’m capable of feeling I direct inward (this is what I’ve been told, anyway), so that when an external force oppresses me, my only defense is to self-destruct… which, essentially, is surrender.
Generations of inmates have matriculated since I joined Permanent Detention, and now I myself am inching toward the end. No one I know has ever been released. If they have, they’ve never written to report on the outside (unless, of course, their letters were intercepted by the powers that be; none of us knows for sure).
If I’m transferred from Permanent Detention, I’ll die. One way or another, I’ll die. I’m not a survivor. As fucked-up and cruel as this place is, it insulates me from life’s other horrors. And that’s what’s funny, if you think about it: the fact that my life depends on me remaining in an institution whose very purpose is to strip my life away from me, piece by excruciating piece.
So, in the end, I’m faced with an impossible question of what’s better: a quick, violent death… or a slow, agonizing one?
Not much of a choice, really.
“You’re angry,” my counselor says.
“Huh?” I ask, looking up.
He smiles. “You’re angry. You may not think so, but you are.”
I meet with a counselor for an hour each week. It’s part of the re-education program. He’s supposed to help me understand the depravity of my individualism. So far, he’s been less than successful.
I shake my head. “I’m angry? I don’t think so.”
“I know so.” He leans forward. “The guards tell me you’ve been moping for weeks. You don’t eat much, and I can tell you’re not sleeping. Something’s making you angry.”
“I’m not angry,” I say. “Tired, maybe.”
The counselor smiles. “Paul, when a patient exhibits symptoms of depression, it means deep down they’re angry about something. Depression is merely anger turned inside-out. Did you know that?”
“Well, it’s true. Depression emerges when we’re unable to direct our anger outwards. Which, in your case, makes sense. As a prisoner, you’ve probably learned to bottle your emotions, for fear of punishment. So when you’re angry, you clam up, directing all those feelings inward.”
“And that means I’m angry?”
“It means your anger is manifesting itself as depression—yes.” He leans back and steeples his fingertips. “Anything happen to you lately that would arouse these emotions? A confrontation, perhaps, that I should be aware of?”
An image of Pam flashes through my mind. “No.”
I shrug. “I can’t think of anything.”
The counselor tilts his head. “Perhaps you’re nervous about your upcoming evaluation?”
“You’re turning thirty in about… what is it, a month?”
“Oh.” I shrug again. “Maybe.”
“Your anger might be rooted in a feeling of helplessness.”
“You might be feeling you have no control over your future or your destiny.”
“Well, I don’t, do I?”
The counselor frowns. “You make choices each day that affect your circumstances. That’s why you ended up here.”
“You made a choice to flout rules. No one held a gun to your head. You alone made the choice to be disobedient—to disobey.”
“They did hold a gun to my head,” I say. “Literally. I’ll never forget that.”
“They only held a gun to your head because you broke the law.”
A stupid law, I want to say. But I don’t. I’m sure the counselor wouldn’t appreciate it, and I don’t need a black mark on my file, especially not this close to my thirtieth birthday evaluation.
The counselor takes a deep breath. “Paul, I think deep down, your feelings of helplessness anger you. You’re nervous you’ll fail your evaluation, and you’re angry that you’re being put in a situation where you have to defend yourself. But you’re unable to direct your anger outward, so you’re deflecting it inward, instead. Which is why you’re exhibiting symptoms of depression.”
“Oh. OK.” My mind wanders, and suddenly I’m thinking of Pam. She’s standing in the filing room doorway, her hair flowing past her shoulders, her eyes glinting like jewels in the dimness.
I look up. “Yeah.”
“Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“What I’m thinking?”
“Yes, what you’re thinking—right now, at this very instant.”
I smile. “I’m thinking a beautiful thought.”
The ends of his lips twitch upward. “A beautiful thought?”
“Care to go into detail?”
“No.” I shake my head, slowly. “No, not really.”
He rests his pen on his clipboard. “For a second there, you seemed genuinely happy. That’s why I asked. You actually had a smile on your face.”
He nods, and a slight grin forms.
I think of Pam again—I see her smiling at me, holding my hand, telling me about herself, about her life… and suddenly it’s as if someone’s grabbed the back of my collar and is dragging me out of the room. Pam’s still standing there, but she’s growing farther away—she’s reaching out to me… and I’m digging my heels into the floor, to slow myself, but I can’t stop the force that’s yanking me backward. And suddenly Pam’s gone, and I’m back in my cell, staring at the brick wall… and then the daydream’s gone and I’m back in reality: I’m sitting in a hard, metal folding chair, my hands clasped in my lap… and I’m facing the counselor, who’s staring at me, a clipboard in front of him. There’s a window a few feet above his head, and the morning sun is pouring through it, casting the room in a golden glow.
Only the window is cloudy, opaque… and at least a foot thick. And though it’s letting the morning light through, I can’t see through it to the outside world.
I jolt awake in my cell. It’s the middle of the night.
I’ve just had a dream; a terrible dream. Pam was in it. I’ve had several dreams with Pam, but none like this.
It starts out as usual, with the two of us in the filing room. She’s looking deep into my eyes, and she’s smiling. I smile back. We clasp hands, standing there, together, savoring the moment… a moment we know won’t last—can’t last—because in time we know we’ll be taken from each other, back to our individual wings… to our individual cells… to the lonely, tedious, individual grinds we call our lives.
But then the dream takes a different, unfamiliar turn. I’m reaching out to touch her face; I run my fingertips along her cheek. Pam rests her head on my shoulder, pressing her body against mine.
And then the scene accelerates. Suddenly, I’m pulling off her shirt—my heartbeat quickens—and Pam’s fumbling at my pants, trying to yank them off.
And in the next instant she’s naked, and she’s crouched on her hands and knees, her back to me. And I position myself behind her—I have to sort of squat—and she’s reaching between her legs, to guide me into her.
I place my hot hands on her buttocks, tilting my head back… and then I start thrusting, banging, fucking—I begin slowly and work up a rhythm. With each thrust Pam is moaning, grunting… and I’m moaning, too. My eyes are closed, and my hands are caressing her smooth hips, which she arches backward, to press against me.
My heart and my body are moving to the same hammering rhythm… and then I’m crying out, gasping, heaving… then my body’s slowing to a standstill, my breaths growing deeper, less strained.
I drape myself across Pam’s back, exhausted… and I bury my nose in her hair, which smells like sweat and the lilacs we used to have in our front yard.
Pam’s moaning, softly… and like mine, her breaths are deep and even. The two of us lie there, together, fingers intertwined, gazing into each other’s eyes.
The filing room door flies open then, and though I can’t see who’s entered I can feel them: a dark, hovering presence, which surrounds us—like a chilling mist—to break us apart.
And then Pam starts screaming, and screaming—her high-pitched wails echo across the darkness.
And I’m screaming, too, because the mist has encircled me… it’s cinched around my throat… and it’s pulling me away—out the door and down the hall… and Pam’s screams are growing fainter, and fainter.
That’s when I jolt awake. It takes me a moment to orient myself. The dream is still bright and vivid and alive; the last few moments replay themselves in an endless, terrifying loop.
I sit there for a few minutes, breathing heavily, the nighttime darkness seeping into my soul. Then, hesitantly, I reach under the blankets, my arm creeping like a snake, as if afraid of what I might find. I wince when I finally feel it, what I know has to be there: the hot, sticky pool of semen, some of which clings to the sheets, with the bulk covering my stomach like syrup.
And I start to cry, then—my body trembles with the familiar guttural sobs that lately have become a late-night ritual. Only this time, they’re much more intense—and much more profound—because I know I’ve forever tarnished my wholesome, unblemished memory of Pam. What we did in the dream wasn’t loving—it was primitive, mindless, and violent… with no depth, no sensuality—no meaning.
I fucked her as if she were a whore… and I enjoyed it.
I close my eyes, and I try desperately to revisit that night in the filing room, when Pam and I were holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes—and nothing more.
Only the perverted dream keeps returning in graphic snippets: the thrusting, the sweating, the gasping, the fucking.
And I start to cry harder—not for me, or even for the precious memory I’ve ruined—but for Pam.
I feel like I’ve violated her.
I spend the following morning in the laundry, as always, sweating buckets in the hot, steamy enclosure. I speak to no one. At lunch I eat alone, sitting at a small table in the very back of the cafeteria. The food seems even more bland than usual. I take a few bites, then push the tray away, sighing.
After lunch, I sit on the dirt in the exercise yard, my back against the cafeteria wall. I fold my legs against my chest, resting my chin upon my knees.
It’s a warm, mid-summer day; the air is hot and still. I sigh and gaze at the sagebrush-covered mountains in the distance, draped in shadows in the afternoon sun. They’re so majestic, so imposing. I imagine myself lost in their wilderness, hiking up a narrow deer trail, pausing every so often to sip water from my canteen.
I love to gaze at the mountains. They give me a horizon to focus on: a dream upon which to set my sights. And if I hold my palm in front of me, I can almost block the twelve-foot-high perimeter fence, topped with gleaming barbed wire… as well as the twin guard towers, which stand like sentries on either corner of the yard.
Most people are milling around, loafing, waiting for the whistle to sound the beginning of the next shift. No one stops to talk. In the past weeks I’ve severed myself from the rest of the population, spending as much time alone as I can, either in the library or in my cell.
My only companion is Pam—she remains with me at every moment.
As I stare at the mountains, I glimpse Clancy walking toward me. He’s huffing with his heavy-footed gait, the brim of his cap pulled low over his eyes. He approaches me and leans against the wall, sucking in deep breaths.
“What’s up, Paul?” he asks.
I shrug, staring straight ahead. “Just enjoying the day, Clancy.”
“Yeah?” He pulls out a handkerchief and dabs his forehead. “Word is you’ve had your head up your ass the past couple of weeks.”
I swallow. I don’t say anything.
“Well?” Clancy says, glowering. “What’s the deal?”
“No deal,” I say, shrugging again. “Just tired, Clancy.”
“‘Just tired’—that’s bullshit. Something’s up… and I think I know what it is. You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be a smart ass, Paul—you know what I’m talking about. You’ve got to get that girl off your mind. You’ll go crazy daydreaming about her.”
I swallow. “Take me to see her again, Clancy. Please?” My voice cracks on “please,” and my face flushes with heat.
“Oh, shit.” He turns away and surveys the yard. “I knew it. I knew it was a mistake. Goddammit.”
“Please,” I say. “Even if it’s just for ten minutes. I won’t cause any trouble. It’s just… I think I’m in love with her.”
Clancy glares down at me, his lower lip protruding. “In love? Come on, Paul. That’s stupid. You barely know her.”
I sigh, staring down at my shoes. “It’s true.”
“Paul, listen to me.” Clancy hunkers down, his gut hanging over his knees. “You don’t know what love is. You have no idea. It’s not your fault; it’s just you’ve never learned. Love comes about through time; it don’t just happen just like that.”
I take a deep breath. I don’t say anything.
“I want to be clear on this,” Clancy says. “That was a one-time thing. You understand? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t take you to see her again. I couldn’t. The risk is too damn big. Hell, do you know what would happen to me if they found out? I’d be right in here with you, spending my retirement staring through bars. No, actually, I take that back—I’d probably be executed for a stunt like that: for aiding and abetting a convicted enemy of the state. I only did it because the situation allowed for it… and because I wanted to do you a favor. I think you’re an all-right guy—I do. But I’m not going to risk my job and my freedom playing matchmaker to a couple of convicted felons. I won’t do it.”
I swallow again. My throat has gone dry, and my voice sounds raspy. “Please, Clancy.”
“Nope, no way. Not a chance.”
I turn away, blinking. Even though it’s a warm summer afternoon, my body’s trembling.
Clancy lays his hairy, brawny hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Paul. Enough of this. You’re a grown man, and you’ve got to face reality. You and her, you’re prisoners. That’s just the way it is. There’s some things in life you can’t control.”
“I’d be a good husband to her,” I say. “I know I would. I’d be so kind, so attentive. I’d hug her if she were sad. I’d stroke her hair if she were scared. I’d always be there for her. I would. I’d be a good man; the kind of man she deserves.”
“Paul,” Clancy says, nudging me, “that’s enough. Get up.”
I look at him. “You’re married, right Clancy? What’s it like? Having somebody, I mean?”
“I said get up.”
I take a long, deep breath and let it go, staring straight ahead. I remain seated.
“Paul.” Clancy squeezes my shoulder, digging his thumb into my flesh. “Don’t make me say it again.”
Slowly, I rise to my feet. Clancy does, too; his left knee pops like a gunshot.
“I’m going to have you pull weeds the rest of the afternoon, instead of working in the laundry,” he says. “You need the fresh air to get your mind out of the gutter. And I mean it:
I want you to forget about her. You’re never going to see her again—ever. Do you understand me?”
I take another deep breath, letting it out slowly.
“Paul, do you understand me?”
“Yeah,” I say, my throat dry. I give a small, imperceptible nod. “Yeah, I understand you.”
He rests his hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, you’re going to be all right. You’ll get over this; you’ll see. You’ll forget about her eventually.”
I don’t say anything.
Clancy grins. “You want to know what I think? And I’m only being honest here: I think you’re just hard up.”
I look at him. “Hard up?”
“Yeah. I mean, think about it: You hadn’t seen a woman for… well, how long have you been here? Ten years, right? So then you meet a woman, and all of a sudden you’re in love. C’mon. You know how pathetic that sounds? That’s like a guy who fucks a prostitute, then thinks he’s fallen in love.”
My eyes widen. “Pam’s not a prostitute!”
“Hey!” Clancy holds up his finger. “Don’t raise your voice to me. What I’m saying is that you’re mistaking lust for love. You, my friend, need to get laid big time. And why you didn’t seize the opportunity that night is beyond me. Hell, we gave you a half hour. I thought you would have been all over her. You missed your chance, bud. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you completely blew it.”
I stare at the ground, blinking. My shoes start to blur.
Clancy grins. “You know what would solve your problems? One of those handheld rubber cunts they sell in sex shops. I’ve seen them smuggled in from time to time. Maybe I’ll get you one for your birthday. A few nights alone with that, and you won’t have to daydream about that chick anymore.”
He nudges me again. “Get going to the tool shack. I’ll have Bernard meet you there. Go on—hoof it.”
I start walking, looking down at the hard, dry dirt. I can feel Clancy watching me as I walk, his eyes burning into me like branding irons.
I look up and turn, facing the mountains. God, they’re so beautiful: a picturesque image I only can reach for, ache for, but never touch, never feel.
And as I look, I have to squint against the sun hanging lower in the sky. I wince as it glints off the barbed-wire strands intertwined along the top of the fence, connected together like links of chain.
I remember the last time I saw my mother. It was the night I got arrested.
She looked so tired—so worn-out and defeated. It was after dinner, and she was sitting in the living room recliner, the newsman prattling on in the background. She was looking at the screen, but I could tell her mind was somewhere else. She sat with her back slouched, her eyes unfocused and faraway.
“Mom?” I asked.
“Hmm?” She glanced over; her eyes seemed to look right through me.
“Is it all right if I go out driving later?”
A small shrug, a slight nod. “Sure. Yeah. Just be careful, hon.”
She turned back to the screen, letting out a small sigh.
I remember thinking she must have had a long day, or maybe she hadn’t slept well the previous night. It was only later, after I’d been in Permanent Detention for a while, that I came to understand that flaccid posture, that defeated look… because I recognized them both in me, in those rare times when I studied my reflection, looking hard at myself.
They came not from overworking, or from lack of sleep.
They came, I learned, from being alone.
Despite having only each other, my mom and I weren’t that close. After my father died, she sort of receded within herself. I recognized it later as a defense mechanism—the same one I adopted in Permanent Detention. As I said before, it’s no way to live, but sometimes, it’s the only way to live.
We spoke little. In the evenings we went our own ways—Mom to the television and me to my homework. Later, she would go to bed and I would go driving.
And that was our routine. We were virtual strangers living under the same roof.
At one time, my mother was as radical as my father. In fact, I think they met at a political rally. But while my father never lost his political fervor, over time my mother became less outspoken, less passionate. Not because she abandoned her beliefs, but rather, I think, because she grew up, faced reality… and recognized the futility of it all.
Plus, of course, she had me… which I think triggered a protective, nurturing instinct—an instinct that sought to preserve life, instead of endangering it by challenging authority.
I have few memories of my mother, and even those are beginning to fade. One time I’ll never forget, though, is when we took a week-long road trip to the California coast. It was summer, and I was out of school. I was about thirteen. The whole thing was Mom’s idea; she’d finally accumulated enough vacation to take off a whole week, and she wanted to go someplace special.
“I’m tired of living in a goddamn desert,” she’d said. “I want to see the ocean.”
And so we went to the ocean.
It was a gorgeous drive, filled with lush, green scenery. Giant, lumbering redwoods towered on either side of the road, grasping for the clouds. Mountainside springs coursed through brush and vines, pooling into slick, granite basins draped in moss. Claustrophobic forests gave way to sprawling green valleys patchworked by vineyards and fenced-off fields.
When we arrived at the coast, I pressed my face to the glass, staring at the scenery. I’d never seen the ocean before… so large and so sprawling… the white-tipped waves collapsing onto the shore, then grasping at the sand as gravity reeled them back.
It was late afternoon; the day was tapering to twilight. We parked along an empty beach to watch the blood-red sun melt into the turbulent water. Waves crashed and gasped… seagulls circled and squawked… and Mom and I cracked the windows to let in the cool, seawater air—so heavy and humid; so mist-tinged and sharp.
I glanced at her, and I saw her eyes—as usual—were unfocused and faraway. She stared at the ocean, her lips pursed.
We didn’t speak; not then. Instead, we watched as the sun descended into the horizon, its light dissolving along the waves; its fingers straining for the sky. Then, with a flicker, it slipped away and disappeared, retreating into the sea… plunging the world into an ashen, murky dusk.
Someone knocked on Mom’s window, then; she and I jumped. A cop stood outside, making a motion with his hands.
She rolled down the window. “Something wrong?”
“Your documents, please.”
Mom fished in her purse, handed him some papers. He snatched them and skimmed the information. “Thank you. Now your hand, please.”
Mom extended her left hand, palm-up. The officer unholstered a laser scanner, focusing the beam on the center of Mom’s palm—on the electronic chip embedded beneath the skin.
He scanned her as if she were a barcode on a cereal box.
I held my breath; my throat constricted. I couldn’t help staring at the officer’s gun dangling from his belt, along with a baton and a set of handcuffs.
Mom, I noticed, had retracted her hand and curled her fingers into a fist, which she clenched tightly alongside her lap.
“You’re from out of state,” the cop said, reading his electronic tablet. “You got a traveling permit?”
“Right here.” Mom tapped on an orange card affixed to the dashboard.
“Pick it up and hand it to me, please.”
The officer scanned it, then handed back all the documents in one big clump. “You aware there’s a law against parking on this beach?”
“We were just leaving.”
“Can I ask what you’re doing here?”
“My son and I were watching the sunset—that’s all.” Mom’s voice sounded flat, tired—defeated.
The officer typed onto his electronic tablet. “Says here your husband was registered as a class B civil offender.”
“My husband’s been dead for six years.”
“May I ask your purpose for visiting the state of California?”
Mom sighed. “I went through all this already at the border. They granted me the permit.”
“I’m not a border agent; I’m a law-enforcement officer. And I asked you a question.”
“We’re taking a vacation. That’s all.”
“Is that so?” The officer hunkered down till his face was level with Mom’s. He wore large, mirrored sunglasses that masked his eyes. I could see my mother’s face reflected in them; her mouth was even, betraying no emotion. He glared at her, then looked at me. I swallowed.
“How old’s the boy?” the officer asked.
Mom took a long, slow breath. “What’s he got to do with anything?”
“I asked you a question.”
“You saw his documents, didn’t you? He’s thirteen.”
The officer turned to me; now it was my own face I saw reflected in his sunglasses: pale, timid—cowering. “What’s your name, kid?”
“What are you asking him that for?” Mom asked, her voice raised. “You saw his documents.”
“You just let him answer, now.” The officer’s voice remained even.
My mouth and throat felt parched all of a sudden. I struggled to breathe.
“I asked you your name.” The officer’s large, mirrored eyes burned into me like branding irons.
“Paul,” I finally managed to say, croaking. My heart seemed to hammer in my ears.
“Paul.” The officer continued to look at me, as if trying to read my mind. I knew I was quivering, and it made me ashamed, because I knew I wasn’t behaving like a man, but rather like a frightened schoolboy… leaving my mother to defend not only herself, but me, as well.
And I hated myself for that: for how small the man made me feel. It’s a memory I’ve dwelled on often; a feeling that’s haunted me my whole life.
“I wasn’t aware of the law,” Mom said. “I swear. We were just leaving, anyway.”
The cop stood. “You staying anywhere in particular?”
Mom hesitated. “We don’t know, yet. We were going to find a motel.”
The cop took a card out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Law requires us to monitor any out-of-state citizen our system flags as a potential threat. Once you know where you’re staying, you call that number and report your whereabouts. The same goes for any time you change motels, and also for when you head home.”
Mom raked her teeth along her lower lip. “I was tried once for sedition. They declared me innocent.”
“Don’t none of that matter: it’s the law. Someone with your background—and your husband—it’s automatic twenty-four-hour observation.”
“For god’s sake,” Mom said, her voice cracking. “We don’t deserve this. My son and I are loyal citizens. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“It’s the law.” The cop turned to leave. “You be sure to call that number, now. If you fail to check in by 10 p.m., we’ll put an APB out on your vehicle. Failure to comply is a serious offense. Mandatory jail term is six months, I believe.” He tipped his hat and started walking away. “Have a nice day, now.”
“Yeah, right,” Mom said, rolling up her window. She flung his card on the floor.
We watched him climb into his car and speed off, his rear tires spewing sand. Mom started the engine, then backed out slowly. She didn’t say anything as we pulled onto the highway, merging with the heavy traffic.
I swallowed again. My heart was beginning to slow down, now that I knew we weren’t going to jail.
“Close call,” I said, trying to laugh. It came out as more of a hiccup.
Mom stared straight ahead, her eyes narrowed. She clenched the wheel tightly.
I took a deep breath. I wanted to say something to make Mom happy—to bring back the laughing, carefree person she’d become on the ride over; the person I suspected she’d been when she was younger, when Dad was alive.
The person I rarely got to see, and who I really wanted to get to know.
“That was a good idea, watching the sunset,” I said. “I thought it was awesome—thank you.”
Mom sucked in a deep, long breath, then expelled it slowly.
“The last time I saw the sun set over the ocean, I was a little girl,” she said, her voice soft. “I remember it so clearly, like a picture pressed upon my mind. Seeing it again, after all these years… it takes me to a better time, a better place.”
She huffed. “I just wish he hadn’t have showed up. He ruined it for me—he really did. Now, whenever I look back, all I’ll see is that smug, condescending face… and I’ll be flushed with the same anger I’m feeling now.” She sighed. “I hate the power they wield—I really do. It makes me feel so helpless, so hopeless… like I’m an inferior life form with no backbone who can be bent and twisted into any direction they choose. They have a way of doing that to you—of making you feel so little; so insignificant and small.”
She shook her head and gave me a sideways glance. “I’m sorry—I’m just a little shaken. I hate the way things are, sometimes.”
Shame surged through me then, and my guts bunched into a hard, tight knot. According to Mom, the cop had made her feel small, just as he had me… and yet she’d maintained her composure while I’d frozen like a startled deer.
Looking back, it probably shouldn’t have bothered me (I was only a child, after all, while Mom was emboldened by adulthood), but at the time I felt so emasculated, so little… and I hated myself for my cowardice—so much so that I wanted to die at that moment, in the most painful and violent way possible. I imagined the cop wrenching me from the car and slamming my face into the asphalt… then kicking me in the stomach, the chest, the face—repeatedly—till I was gasping for air and choking on blood. He’d slip out his baton and bludgeon my skull, walloping and wailing till bones split apart and my brains slid out in a gooey, bloody pool. Then he’d stand over me and piss on my corpse, as my mother screamed from the car, crying.
And as those cruel, sickening images flashed through my mind, hot tears stung my eyes… and yet I smiled. I smiled, because—strange though it might sound—it felt good for me to envision my own demise, as if it were a means of retreating within myself—of denying the cop the satisfaction of exposing my weakness, my cowardice.
Only later—much later—did I realize what I was feeling was inverted anger. I’ve always directed my emotions inward. It’s a reaction, I suppose, that comes from a lifetime of oppression; of withdrawing from the world. And when you lack the guts to stand up and fight, all you can do is envelop yourself in a snug blanket of self-destruction.
And it feels good.
It feels good, I guess, because it’s a feeling… and any sort of feeling is better than numbness—than nothing. Pinpricks sting, but when they’re all you feel, they feel downright orgasmic.
Mom glanced over at me. “You OK, hon?”
I blinked. “Huh? Yeah. I’m fine.”
“You sure?” She was looking at me, hard… and frowning.
I turned away to watch the scenery. I didn’t answer.
She reached over and touched my knee. “It’s OK, honey. It’s over—he’s gone. Nothing’s going to happen to us. We’re going to be OK.”
A sharp pang of sadness shot through me. The way she’d spoken—the quiet, toneless inflection of her voice—had such a forlorn, lonesome quality to it, like the notes of a harmonica drifting over the desert… and I realized then how alone we were, my mother and I; how fragile and delicate and helpless we were… especially in that moment, miles and miles away from home, with the gorgeous sunset now only a memory, and the impenetrable darkness closing in.
And I wanted to make my mother feel better—again, to make her the happy, carefree person I knew she could be—so I swallowed and tried to strike an optimistic note: “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”
She laughed—a dark, humorless laugh—and she looked at me and said: “You’re so young. Do me a favor, will you? When you look back on this day, try to think only of the sunset, and nothing else. I want you and I to share that one, unblemished moment. Life is bleak enough without the real world marring your memories.”
She gazed at the road then, at the scenery unspooling before us. The engine hummed with the rhythm of the road. Only a few other drivers had flicked on their headlights, to cast their beams upon the impending darkness.
“You know,” my mother said, after a couple of moments, “seeing that sunset reminded me: there’s still some sanctuary in the world. They can take a lot from you: your freedom, your self-worth, your dignity, your pride. And they can prevent you from reading certain books, or from expressing certain views. But one thing they can’t take—no matter what the threat, no matter what the punishment—is your ability to think beautiful thoughts. In the end, all we have is our mind, and if we use it to immerse ourselves in beauty, then we can always escape… no matter where we are.”
She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. And as we continued driving the hot, vivid flashes of euphoria I’d felt envisioning my own destruction tapered away to a cool, calming peace, as my mind drifted back to the ocean, and to the sunset… and to the white, blinding beauty of the sun’s rays as they grasped for the sky, reaching for the heavens… before being swallowed by the sea.
It’s after dinner, and I’m shuffling in a line with the other inmates to the cell block—to 4D, fourth cell from the left.
My home for the past dozen years.
As we round a corner, I see Clancy standing there. He motions me over.
“Paul,” he says, his voice quiet, “you’re coming with me. Don’t say nothing.”
My eyes widen, and my lips part, but no words emerge.
Clancy nods, as if in response to the question I was trying to ask.
The line of prisoners keeps marching, but I follow Clancy in the other direction. I’m thinking we’re heading to the elevator—to the fifth-floor filing room—so I’m surprised when we keep marching toward the exit.
A guard buzzes us through, and we emerge into the glistening white lobby.
The door slams shut behind us. Only a few feet beside it lies another door, a mirror image of the first.
The door to the women’s wing.
It remains tightly closed. I can’t get so much as a glimpse inside.
Clancy walks behind me now, following procedure. He guides me to a guard post near the prison’s entrance. Two guards immediately come out and frisk me. Then one cuffs my hands behind my back while the other secures chains around my ankles.
Clancy tells them he’s checking me out for off-campus detail—he gives them my name and number, then fills out a form.
“Open your mouth,” one of the guards says. He checks under my tongue and between my gums, prodding with a gloved finger.
Then they lead me outside, into a spacious parking lot, where a minivan is waiting. The chain between my legs is short, so I have to walk with a shuffle. The guards usher me into the van’s backseat, which has a cage separating it from the front. Steel mesh covers the windows.
Clancy climbs behind the wheel, huffing. He slams the door; the front windows are rolled down.
“See ya, Clancy.” One of the guards waves—he’s a young man, fresh-faced and eager, probably in his early twenties.
I wonder suddenly if he has a wife, or a girlfriend—if he’s ever fallen in love.
I glance, but I don’t see a ring on his finger.
Clancy fires up the engine, and we’re off. We drive toward the main gate, which lies at the end of a long, two-lane driveway. Tall fences stand on either side, affixed with bright, blinding lights.
My heart is beating fast. This will be my first time off the prison grounds in more than a decade. I remember my ride in here, along this very driveway, as I sat in the back of a rickety, stuffy bus. It seems like eons ago, when I didn’t qualify as a man.
I swallow, wondering if I even qualify now.
We approach the gate; Clancy slows to a stop. A trio of guards emerges from the shack to inspect the vehicle.
“Keep your yap shut,” Clancy says over his shoulder, his voice gruff. But he doesn’t have to worry about me—I’m too nervous and excited to say anything.
The guards shine flashlights in the vehicle, into my eyes. Clancy leans his head out the window, answers their questions. He’s the captain of the guards, so they mostly nod in obedience. Then they retreat to the shack, and the tall, double gates swing open… and then we’re driving along a narrow desert highway, in the middle of nowhere. The headlights sweep through the darkness as we drive around curves and bends.
I remember this road. It’s all coming back to me.
“You’re excited to see her again,” Clancy says. “I can tell.”
My breathing has quickened. “Where are we going?”
“Up the road a ways, into the desert. We figured it would be safer to do it away from the prison, where there’s no chance of you guys getting caught. You’ll be able to talk all you like, as loud as you like.
“And,” he continued, stealing a quick glance at me over his shoulder, “who knows—you might even get laid. Right?” He laughs.
“Is she already there?” I ask.
“Yeah, she should be. They got a half-hour head start. The story is we’re taking you to my mother-in-law’s party, to wait tables and do dishes. It’s not strictly procedure, but I’m the captain, and I get my perks, which includes state-provided slave labor.”
“Thank you, Clancy,” I say. “I really… I mean—”
“You don’t know what to say? You’re speechless?”
I smile. “Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”
He turns again, briefly. “Happy birthday, kiddo. Next week, right?”
“I guess,” I say, shrugging.
“You guess? You don’t even know when your own birthday is?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“‘It doesn’t matter,’” he mimics. “Fuck you; you’re turning thirty. When you’re an old codger like me, with one foot planted in the grave, then suddenly it’s going to matter. You’re going to look back and wonder where the hell your life disappeared to.”
I gaze out the window. I don’t say anything.
Clancy glances back at me and smiles. “This will be a better birthday present than a fake rubber snatch. Am I right?”
I only nod, closing my eyes. I don’t want to think in such sordid terms. All I want to think about is Pam—her beauty, her voice—and the way my stomach fluttered when she looked in my eyes. I don’t want to think about the seedy sexual overtones of runaway lust. I only want to think about love, and light, and the vision of myself in the embrace of my soulmate.
We continue driving; it feels like we’re going uphill. The van shifts down a gear, and the engine whines.
“She’s a good-looking girl,” Clancy says. “I picked her out for you myself. You and her, you seem alike. You’re both the quietest inmates we’ve got.”
“Why are you doing this for me?” I ask. “I mean, you’re putting yourself at risk, right?”
“You’re damn right I am,” Clancy says, nodding. “But I’ve always said, a man’s got to lay his eyes on female flesh once in awhile. You really do. You got to get laid every so often to keep your mind working right—to keep the cobwebs clear. You know what I mean?”
Before I can answer, he laughs and shakes his head. “No, you wouldn’t know what I mean; not really. Fuck that. What I’m saying is… well, you deserved a nice birthday present. Let’s just leave it at that.”
I stare out the window; the wide, desert flats stretch along on either side of the road like a dry, giant lakebed. The moon and stars gleam brightly in the cloudless sky.
I stare at the heavens, mesmerized. I haven’t seen the night sky like this since I was that lonely kid who went off driving at night. It seems so long ago. I’m used to the prison’s bright perimeter spotlights, which blot out the stars, as if to keep your thoughts and dreams from reaching too high.
We turn onto a rough, bumpy dirt road. We bounce over rocks, and I press myself against the door, to steady myself. My hands are cuffed behind me; I have them burrowed into my lower back, and by now my wrists and shoulders are burning with pain.
We continue driving. There are no trees out here; only rocks and sagebrush. The outlying terrain is rough and ripply, like a wavy, stormy sea. The air that drifts in through the open front windows is cool—much cooler than seems normal for a summer evening like this.
We approach a second minivan, which is parked on a hump alongside the narrow dirt road. Clancy eases next to it and kills the engine, plunging the world into an awkward, sterile silence. There aren’t even any crickets. All I can hear is my own breathing, along with Clancy’s labored wheezes.
“Well,” he says, finally, “this is it.”
He climbs out of the van and slides open the back door. Taking my elbow, he helps me step outside.
“Let’s get these off,” he says, motioning to the chains. He extracts a small, metal key and unlocks the cuffs—the ankles first, then the wrists.
I rub my arms; the chains left bright red indentations.
“This way,” Clancy says, motioning me. “You lead.”
I start walking, and Clancy falls in step behind me. My heart is pounding, and it’s hard for me to breathe. Even though the sky is bright, it’s difficult to see. I step over rocks and brush, but my shoe catches on a small gopher hole, and I almost trip.
“Easy!” Clancy says. “I hope you’re not this clumsy when you dance.”
I laugh. “I’ve never danced before.”
“Ever? Not even at a wedding?”
“I’ve never been to a wedding.”
“Damn,” Clancy says. “Ain’t done much in your life, have you?”
I don’t know how to answer that… so I continue walking.
There are small hills scattered about, some as large as haystacks; others, the size of tanks.
“To your left,” Clancy says. “They’re behind that hill, waiting. Don’t piss your pants now. You feeling up to this?”
“Yeah,” I say, my voice soft. I wring my hands.
“I’m up to this—yeah.”
Clancy laughs. “Nervous?”
We round the hill, and I think I see two figures standing against the rocky wall, but it’s dark, and I can’t quite make them out.
“Keep going,” Clancy says. “Don’t stop.”
“Is that them?” I ask, meaning Pam and the female guard.
“It’s them. Keep moving.”
I continue walking, but it’s difficult to see where I’m going. Unexpectedly, one of the figures switches on a flashlight and shines it in my eyes. I trip on a large rock, which causes me to stumble and scrape my shin.
“Hey!” Clancy calls out. “It’s us!”
I rub my shin; there’s a dirty mark on my white pants, and my shoes are covered with dust.
“Over here!” the figure calls, lowering the flashlight.
I pause, abruptly. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, as if electrified.
The figure’s voice was masculine.
Clancy pushes the end of his baton into my lower back. “Keep moving, Paul.”
“Clancy,” I say. “Who’s the —”
But I don’t get a chance to finish: my voice is cut off when Clancy slams the baton into the back of my head. I pitch forward, falling onto a stickery brush. Branches scrape my stomach.
I hear shuffling footsteps; then, a couple of strong arms are hauling me to my feet.
“This the guy?” someone asks.
“Yeah,” Clancy says. “Be gentle with him; he’s probably got a hard-on. He came out here thinking he was going to get laid.”
The men laugh. My vision is wavy, but I can make them out: they’re a couple of younger guards who work in the towers. I don’t know their names.
“Where is it?” Clancy asks.
One of the guards points. “Over there, by the hill.”
“Bring him, then. I want him to see.”
Clancy starts walking, and the guards drag me toward him, toward the hill. My head is aching; I’m almost sure it’s bleeding.
Clancy stops and stands with his arms folded. “Look, Paul.”
My head is tipped backward; my skull is throbbing in time to my pulse.
“I said look!”
I struggle to focus my eyes. I follow Clancy’s finger, which is pointing to the ground.
There’s a large pile of fresh dirt; two shovels protrude from it.
And beside the pile, carved from the earth, lies a long, deep hole.
My head pitches forward. I feel like I’m going to vomit.
“It’s nothing personal,” Clancy says. “I really do think you’re an all-right guy. That’s why I introduced you to the girl. I’ve never done that for no one else. But this is the way things are. This is the way things have to be.”
I take a deep breath. I try to say something, but it comes out as more of a moan.
“What’s that?” Clancy asks.
“Pam.” I swallow, feeling groggy.
“Not in this life, bud. I’m sorry. She’s already gone.”
I moan, softly.
“Well?” asks the guard to my left.
“Yeah,” Clancy nods. “Go ahead; take your time. I’m going to head back; I don’t need to be here.”
He reaches out and clasps my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father comforting a son.
“See you, Paul.”
And then he leaves. I hear his footsteps retreating into the darkness—shuffling through sand, crunching through brush.
The guards let me go. One pushes me back, and I stumble, trying to keep my balance. They extract their batons, slowly, as if their thoughts are synchronized. They stand and stare, their eyes steely and cold, their weapons held ready.
They look like snakes poised to strike.
The one on my right swings at me first: he whips the baton in a long, sweeping arc that catches me smack in the jaw.
I yelp and fall backward.
They’re both on top of me, then, walloping and wailing… the batons smash me in the face, the head, the stomach, the groin, the knees. The pain is sharp, and blinding—everything is white.
I hear them hollering—deep, primitive, indecipherable yells. One drives the toe of his boot deep into my stomach. I gasp, spitting out something—maybe blood, maybe the contents of my guts.
The batons slam into my arms, my chest, my back, my lower legs. I try rolling, but I succeed only in exposing my stomach—one guard strikes blows to my chest and belly; the other slams me alongside the cheek and in the mouth.
My eyes are squeezed shut—one of my sockets is gushing blood—and all I see is a hot, blinding whiteness, as if I’m staring into the sun.
And from the whiteness, a figure emerges, transparent and tinged with mist; it drifts toward me like a silent, sailing ship. I hold out my hand, as if to touch it, to greet it… but one of the guards grabs my fingers and bends them backward. The bones snap like twigs.
The figure is defined, now: it’s a woman. She has deep, mature eyes and red, parted lips. Her light, blonde hair flows in waves well past her shoulders.
She’s smiling at me, and she’s extending her hand, to hold mine.
We’re back in the filing room, and we’re looking into each other’s eyes.
And the guards are bashing my skull, my neck, my back. One gives me a smooth, swift kick in the ribs, and I’m falling, falling… and I land hard on my stomach; my mouth takes in dirt.
I cough, but my lips and tongue are coated with sand. I gag.
And then I’m back with Pam; her fingers are entwined with mine, and she’s telling me about her life, how she likes to read in her cell on Sundays. And I’m aching to kiss her, to hold her, but I don’t. Instead, I give her hand a gentle squeeze, and I listen: I take in everything she says, her lilting voice swinging me like a melody—like the soft, sweet notes of a long-forgotten song.
And then there’s a crushing, searing pain in my back: one the guards has dropped a rock on me. I gasp; the wind’s knocked out of my lungs, and I can’t breathe.
I vaguely hear their warbled laughter… but then again, the night dissolves, and I’m back in the filing room with Pam, and we’re sitting on the floor together, leaning against a shelf, sharing stories. I’m telling her how I once burned the brownies at lunch, and how Bruno, the head chef, threatened to smash my face against the grill—how he’s always threatening to smash my face against the grill, even for the slightest transgressions—although he never does, because he doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.
And I’m only faintly aware that the guards are tossing shovelfuls of dirt on me… but again, I’m back in the filing room, back with Pam, and the pain devolves to pinpricks… then, it dissolves away to nothing.
And I’m no longer numb; I’m feeling all there is to feel, but there’s no pain. There’s only beauty, and light, and love. And I’m immersed in all of it.
And I’m looking into Pam’s eyes… and she’s looking into mine, and whispering… and I know now more than ever that my heart was right—that all my tender, anguished yearning was not in vain—because right now I’m holding the girl of my dreams… the woman I want to be with, forever… because I love her so much. I love her so, so much.
She’s so sweet, so perfect, so pure.
And she’s so beautiful.
She’s so, so beautiful.