My friend talked in circles but that was life: around and around only to arrive at the same spot in our minds. Birth, death, it all came back to nothing; nothing but a random place occupied by a memory and even that was eventually lost to something we call history.
He was dying and he knew it and he didn’t much like it, but his attitude was “What the fuck. Let’s have some rum.”
“Have you ever seen a man stabbed 67 times?” He was yelling as he smoked and the two dogs scurried under the couch and all you could see were two straight tails sticking out. “No,” I shook my head. “Of course you haven’t,” he darkly smiled. “How do I know it was 67 times? Because I read a copy of the goddamn autopsy report, that’s why. Shank was about five inches. When you kill a man with five inches of screwdriver you got to keep pounding, pounding and that was one of the high points of my time in prison. The guy he killed deserved it ten times over. I shot craps and had chits for 600 cartons of cigarettes and 1,000 bars of chocolate. I bribed everybody.”
Addiction came in all forms and nicotine and sugar were the go-to currency in every prison setting for the past 150 years. The man who could scare the dogs he loved, had spent thirty months in prison for not paying federal income tax. “Fuck the war tax,” he said. They put him on a train in Sacramento along with some other recently convicted felons. Off they went on a tour of American prisons and as it turned out, he got off at the end of the line. The sour-faced clerk in his sentencing had marked him down for a special prison. As he stood in front of the desk, the clerk said “You’ll like this place,” as if to say, “This is a hell hole and fuck you.”
“Where is it?” he asked.
“Sorry, it’ll be a surprise for your conscientious objecting hippie ass.”
It turned out to be Leavenworth Prison and they gave him one of Robert Stroud’s old cells. Freddy, the guy he bunked with was a black bank robber whose father and grand-father had both been black bank robbers. “Freddy would tell me that to be a white man robbing a bank was easy. Try being a black man with a family history of ex-bank robbers, now that was difficult. I got along with Freddy just fine. He died in 1993 still at Leavenworth and he saved me every day I was in the joint.”
As I watched him rampage onward through his life, I suddenly realized that my book was lousy. I had tried too hard to make it palpable for the average reader. I shouldn’t have done that, but it was too late now. Jan had uploaded the whole thing along with the graphics and my drawing of a thought from outer space that had expropriated DNA to construct a human body on earth. I should have been more visceral. I should have copied my friend’s barking and howling at all of the little disasters that had brought him down. Most of his teeth were gone and he couldn’t take a shit without help and everything was as true as the faint wind and fading light of our conversation.
“I didn’t love her; it wasn’t about sex, not at all. You got to understand, when I came out of prison, I was looking for someone who was kind and reasonable. She was trying to get away. Shit, I didn’t know who she was. I had a buddy who used to work in the Condor Club and I got to know Carol Doda and she just loved northern California. You remember her don’t you?” I nodded. “I thought so. We’d go up to Humboldt, me and my rich buddy, and we decided to buy some land and start a commune to grow pot. We only wanted people who didn’t have any money to come and help. Finding hippies without money was not a problem. Carol would hang out and then one day Joan Baez showed up and it was a real scene…Watts and Kesey were there. Everybody dropping and smoking, the feds were after Joan and Bob and you know what you do when that happens? You fucking run, that’s what you do.”
He got up and shuffled out. “I got something to show you.”
He brought out a photo album he’d been working on. There were photos of everyone he was talking about from the Humboldt days. “There she is,” he said. Her long black hair and shapely figure connected a bunch of photos. She had a mischievous smile and soulful eyes. Marie was from a family that made massive amounts of plastics and other chemicals that ended up choking the sea and poisoning the air and soil. “Sure we got along and I liked her well enough, but we didn’t really love each other. She was like a refugee to me. No place to go, her family was too rich, too political, so I took her in. We got married because a felon can’t own a gun. The things you don’t want to hear a lawyer say is, it was his gun, or he stole the gun, but if it’s his wife’s gun, well that’s much better technically speaking. Anyway, I needed a gun to kill Mike. He was beating his wife and we just couldn’t take it anymore. Janet was such a beautiful thing and we’d find her in the morning all cut up and bruised. So me and Marie got married and she went down and bought a gun and a permit to carry it and then I was all set up. You know, it was a family gun, but I didn’t own it. Technically, it makes a difference.”
“Did you shoot Mike,” I asked.
“Just a little…I shot him in the calf and told him that if I ever saw him again I’d kill him. We took him down to Doc Hitchens and he got sewed up and then we put him on a bus. I never saw him again and we got Janet a good lawyer and then I lost touch with them. Don’t know what happened, but I never saw either again.”
“How long were you married?”
“For two years and then Marie went to Europe and had a kid. One day I got a notice of divorce and, of course, I signed it. She bought this house for me.”
Little things, one after the other, and then the sun went down. I left him there on the veranda of a house that was worth maybe $500,000. It had a spectacular view of the city and as I walked along the narrow path back down, I thought of the people behind the walls I was passing and all of those little things that pile up in our wake. How they slowly put pressure on us and finally push us over the edge. But there was nothing to be done about any of that and we were all going around and around only to end up at the same spot in our minds. The very one we started with all of those years ago.