JAIL BREAK - Welcome to My Woven Words


My mom is driving me to prison. She’s pretty drunk, but she’d know the way coked out too, which she’ll be on the way back. I’m ditching the last of my stash with her.
“Don’t fraternize,” she says.

“Ma, c’mon.”
“People talk. I know what happens in there.”
“I’ll be fine, Ma.” And I truly am a lot less jittery than last time, having invested last year’s profits into buying protection from the Aryan Brotherhood for the next six to nine years. “Pass the Scotch.”
She swigs a mouthful and sends it over. I take a sip, pour a little on my hair, dribble a line down my back. Thirty years old from a craggy island in Scotland I’ll never get to. “This is the kind of shit I should do,” I confess. “Make something beautiful, that people have for their last drink before prison.”
“Scotch is basically cocaine for rich people,” my mom says, which makes it clear that she doesn’t know cocaine that well, since cocaine is really crack for rich people. I’d say Scotch is more like cocaine for people too chicken to risk mandatory sentencing guidelines, but then again here I am on the losing end of that one.
“Jerry will be done with school when I get out,” I realize.
“I hope he makes it,” she says, followed by her first swerve, dodging an imaginary cyclist.
“Why wouldn’t he make it?” I wonder, helping myself to more of the Scotch, dousing my nose, slurping from the bottle like Gatorade after a basketball game.
“It’s right around the age kids go bad in this town,” she says, veering to avoid an invisible chicken, a dog, then banking hard for the mail truck. “Benjamin,” she says. “Daniel. Kerri. Caitlin.” “Caitlin was a fuckup from the start,” I point out.
“That may be true, but fourteen’s when she got violent,” Mom says. And I remember when Caitlin came back from her first taekwon do class, all nunchucks and jump kicks, how she beat me purple on the front lawn and still it was the most fun I’d had since Street Fighter broke at the arcade and you could play all day on a single quarter. I pass Mom the Scotch and she gulps it, spraying it back at me in a tropical mist.
“But Jerry?” I wonder. “I hear he’s getting decent grades. Can make a jump shot here and there. A good head of hair on his shoulders. Where’s the trouble in that?”
“Crapohontas!” my mom exclaims, then yanks the wheel toward the shoulder and up a small incline, braking hard at a scenic overlook of a dung-splattered cow field and an assortment of decomposing motor homes under a lemon-lime sun. She caps the Scotch and hurls it into the backseat, then slaps her face into serious, frown tips hanging limp like a pervert’s mustache. “Look, Jason. When it’s your own, you don’t see it coming. One day your daughter’s helping clean the toilet; two days later she’s out-dancing you at the wet T-shirt contest. And I got five kids’ worth of statistical proof that the fourteenth birthday is always the day in the middle. Present company included.”
“You too?” I wonder, and I suppose I can see it, the old pictures of Ma with electric orange bra straps and hair styled like elaborate topiary and puddles of purple and green makeup, PCP and stickups radiating in her eerie yellow smile.
“Me too,” she admits, wiggling the steering wheel. “You too. All of us. Makes you wonder if we were decent at sports or school, how things’d’ve gone.” Translucent froth drips from her nose, leading me to wonder if her brain has gone to mush and is leaking out her orifices, finally, until I spot the coke clumps like unmixed sugar, her headstart on the stash.
“Well, we’ve all been pretty good at the cop sprint,” I point out.
“There is that,” she agrees.
“Caitlin had her tae kwon do blue belt. Daniel made the spelling bee once. Kerri could draw bird pictures like they flew right onto the page. And Benjamin, well,” and it is a reach on Benjamin, two years younger than me and a life of canned chili and video games and Internet futzing and silence, “he can stay up for two days straight if we have enough Red Bull on hand.”
She stays quiet. The engine chortles and traffic screams and bluegrass pops and slides on the radio. “Danielle’s looking after Jerry,” I note, “and I’d appreciate it if you could check in on him now and then.”
“Danielle’s even loonier than Caitlin!” she exclaims, and I recall why I divorced Danielle in the first place: how she drove motorcycles blindfolded and threw dinner plates at mailmen and left the oven on all night with the entire contents of the bathroom cabinet inside. “I got two jobs and guardianship of three other grandkids and a suitcase worth of snow to sell,” my mom continues, “now give back the
Yellow-tipped fingers foxtrot over the armrest, itchy and devastated like squished caterpillars. I dig out the Scotch from the backseat, give it a shake like a Magic 8 Ball, except no answer surfaces and I’m forced to take a long ruminative pull before I send it over. “Let’s go see him,” I decide. “Jerry.”
I get the cowed look back, sorry and sad and too scared to say it.
“What time are you due?” she asks.
“I’ll be fine,” I tell her, and now it’s an order: “Let’s go.”
She points the truck off the highway and we backtrack down local roads for twenty minutes, rolling through identical suburbs and past identical strip malls until she tucks in at one of the identical Starbuckses. “His school’s across the street,” she says.
“Good,” I say. “Here’s money for coffee.” I slip her a twenty and catch her wrist, squeeze her palm, as close to a hug as I get.
“Be nice,” she urges, “and try to listen,” but I’m out the door before I catch the brunt of her lecture.
The school’s done up like an old Spanish mission, with a wide courtyard paved over and stocked with basketball courts, an auditorium doubling as a chapel, nifty white-arched classrooms offset by grungy temporary units arranged like boot camp barracks. It is hideously sunny, the worst kind of school day. I tip my baseball cap at a custodian hosing down a pile of mats on the sidewalk and look over at a ramshackle guard building carrying a hand-painted sign that says oFFice, a pride of bulky Hispanic women chitter-chattering and a platoon of dazed students ambling in mindless orbits like penguins on a hot day at the zoo.
I walk, fast, out, away, charged, striding beside a bashed fence laced with hot-dog wrappers and soda bottles, waiting, waiting, feeling time slip, time dripping like sweat, the hot stupid sun, pulling down my cap, creating more and more distance, feet on top of miles on top of months on top of years. Halfway around the block I hear scrapes and murmurs, a wave of radio static. I creep up on a green Dumpster in a secluded nook walled off by trees and a chain link gate, perfect for trying out cigarettes and adventurous girls so long as they can take the smell. Boys flip skateboards off a curb and swig energy drinks, their backpacks piled in a trash heap, rap music fuzzing from cell phones. Leaning on a guardrail a near-teen kid with Jerry’s square chin and Danielle’s hazel eyes and my monstrosity of a hairdo scrawls into a notebook held two inches from his face.
I step out from behind a parked van and it’s like I’m knocking off liquor stores again, six sets of spooked eyes deciding whether to pretend to be a tough guy or not. “Get out,” I tell them, and kick the Dumpster hard twice for effect. They snatch their backpacks and shoot out for the street, but when I jab a finger in Jerry’s sternum he coughs hard and stays put, neatly folding up his notebook and plumping his hair hedge and rubbing his hands on the back of his jeans. The spot stinks of fry grease and fungus, and I’d bet all the cash buried in my backyard that yesterday’s lunch special was fish sticks.
“Hey, man,” I offer. Then, to be clear: “It’s me. Dad.”
He coughs, then spits, then frowns, staring at the Dumpster, scratching his neck, his cheeks softening like water put to oatmeal. “How you doing?” I ask, and he stands perfectly still for at least a minute before I slap my hands together in front of his face.
“Don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t have much time,” I explain. He’s hunched over and blank as a bus seat, waiting for me to lose interest and leave, like usual. “Say something,” I order.
He grunts and shuffles and snorts before risking eye contact: “Hiya, Pops.”
Which makes for the first time I have ever been addressed that way seriously. Laughter pours out of me like the first beer of the night, but when he tries to turn my handshake into an eight-part gangster breakdance I clamp on to his shoulder instead.
“Good to see you,” I say, though I haven’t actually decided yet, the kid’s sprouted from bungling toddler to life-sized human being since the last time I tuned in, complete with a regulation-size basketball taking up the entirety of his backpack and four wisps of hair on his lip matted up to imitate a mustache. “Whatcha writing?”
He unfolds his notebook, shakes open a page. “Lyrics,” he admits.
“Nice. What kind of song?” I dredge up the pictures Danielle posts online, mostly Jerry cowed around a birthday cake or leading a fast break, though it’s possible I’ve seen him buried in the back row of a marching band or church choir, hoisting a beat-up guitar around a campfire, staring out a truck window singing along to Toby Keith.
“Hip-hop,” he says, with a salty sneer that says he’s proud of it.
“Ha!” I exclaim, though it’s less a laugh than an alligator bite.
“Well, let’s hear it.”
He glances straight at me, just enough waver in his eyelid to tell me he’s scared. “It’s not that tight,” he says.
“I just want to hear it,” I insist. I pop onto a knee and build up a grin, sequestering off the Scotch for a few seconds of good-natured get-up. “I’d appreciate it pretty bad.”
He looks around for witnesses, flips through his notebook and back again. He hasn’t gone bad yet, you can tell by the fluttery eyes, the watery-sick breathing, the sweat bubbles amassing on his forehead. His duct-taped sneakers begin heel-tapping and words spill out of him, not a flow, not a river, not a babbling brook, nothing peaceful or natural but rather human-made and purposefully ugly, like a sewer or gutter runoff. He rolls through a list of profanity and sexual positions and narcotics terminology laced with gibberish, made-up words that don’t come close to rhyming, like a harsh and sickly Eastern European language that’s relegated to long-distance phone calls and bad memories. The number finishes with a massacre of thirty-five gangsta enemies topped off with a seven-woman orgy back on his yacht, the musical equivalent of running seashells through a lawnmower.
He looks up at me with a pink sheen over his eyes. Sour liquor pulls my scalp, the first pangs of a world-class still-drunk hangover. “That’s good,” I lie. “Real good. Dang!” I paste the smile back on, shake out a wink. His teeth form a wobbly sliver, and it’s the best chance I’ll ever have.
“Do you need any money?” I ask.
But it’s not an offer I’m inclined to extend twice. And as Jerry stands there wondering if he misunderstood, if I was serious, how much—or, worse, not wondering at all but instead waiting, for me to repeat myself, for somebody else to do something—I am seized with a rare fatherly vision.
Running with the same bozos when he gets up to high school.
Landing his first bust doing somebody else’s dirty work, selling a dime bag or fencing an iPod or riding shotgun on the wrong night.
Vacationing a few months in juvie before graduating to dropoutland, revolving through lockup and small-time gangs, stealing old clunkers, snorting battery acid, screwing insane women, and badrapping his way to a pile of nothing, until the second strike hits and he’s tracking down his kid on his way to federal prison without a single thing to say.
“Stick to the music,” I tell him, “you’ve got promise.” I make a fist and tap it gently to his shoulder, then spin out to the street, hulking, enraged, dying of thirst. I will get the Scotch and drink it and then I’ll call the police and turn Jerry in, I’ll plant cocaine on him, it’ll be easy, he’ll go to juvie and the process will begin now, the crimes will come and the prison cycles will rotate and he’ll be done with it sooner, the stupid shaken out of him. Maybe he’ll uncover a mentor along the way, a basketball coach or English teacher who puts him to work sinking his free throws and learning to craft a bankable rhyme.
Somebody who would rather be honest than awesome.
A cop car glides down the road and I flag it down with both hands. A bald patrolman hangs an elbow out the window, his sunglasses tight enough to leave ear rash.
“Officer,” I state. “I think I may have observed some illegal activity.”
“Don’t pester the kids,” he says.
“We got a couple calls about you harassing boys by the Dumpster.”
“They were skipping class,” I point out. And it strikes me that I have never once in my life called the police, whereas at least two of those kids called the police within the last fifteen minutes.
My third strike.
“That’s not your concern,” he says.
“One of them’s my son,” I press, “and I’m going away.”
“Take care of it at home.”
My mom jogs down the sidewalk with one of those new Starbucks coffees the size of a bathtub, and it’s impossible not to grin at her old-lady jiggling. It is a fine final memory. “I’m not going home, you dumbass,” I tell him. He gets out of the car and I could hug him as he puts me in the backseat, as he hears me out and calls in the request and nods and drives, heading back out on the highway, the rest of the way to prison.

by Matt Stewart

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