Teacher, Writer, Experiencer of Life
As the thesis for my MFA program, I'm currently hard at work on a novel, the working title of which I'm keeping under wraps (mostly because I think it's a really cool title and, so far, there are no other books on Amazon with the name). At any rate, it's a character-driven, psychological drama set in the mid-1980 Pacific Northwest. I've pasted the opening chapter below--not that it will look anything like this in the final draft. It is what it is, as it is.
He came out of the cage just before dawn, dressed in state-issued jeans and a t-shirt under a thin, denim jacket. The men shadowed him as if he was a child, one couched on either side of him, so close their arms brushed against his as they went.
It hadn’t occurred to Ernie that the sky on the outside of the wall could look so different from the one that spooned over his cell window. This sky went on forever in all directions, billowing black and gray cotton, pinhole stars pushing through where they could. Before the men ducked him into the back seat, he took in one more breath.
He thought he might find some satisfaction in watching the valley disappear in his wake, but by the time they came out of Walla Walla, he was beginning to drift. It was an old sedan with real good shocks, and it moved as if it were floating him downriver. The heat was set on high. He settled himself against the door and touched his hair to the cool window and closed his eyes, listening to the tires humming on the pavement like a hundred thousand mosquitoes. They hovered outside the screen, sometimes lighting, usually knocking against the mesh, and he felt the warmth of his son at his side as they named all the fish they’d caught that day.
In the front seat the men talked to each other in tones too low for him to piece together. Here and there a streetlight gave a momentary fade in and out, and when he opened his eyes, the whitewash of sagebrush or a lone, green exit sign appeared. Once, just as he dipped into sleep, a red bloom of fireworks came to mind, breaking neon against the back of his skull. He felt flash of heat over his chest and his foot kicked the floor. He pressed his teeth together and forced himself to follow the drone of the road beneath him.
His eyes jerked open, and his forehead knocked against the window. The one with the freckled neck and the red hair snapped the dome light and stared at him through the visor mirror, blue eyes shot and narrowed.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You calling me a liar?” He had turned now and was looking over his shoulder, his arm stretched along the seat ridge. A flat, gold wedding band corseted his finger.
Ernie swept his palms over his eyes and sat up straight, a chastised little boy again, and he watched ahead as the road came at him through the headrests. The fat driver fidgeted and checked the mirrors and gauges, his bald head shining from the approaching headlights, the flesh spilling over his collar as he bobbed right and left. It had been he who talked through the open window to the gatehouse guard. It had been an exchange between the two men, but Ernie was smart enough to know it was a ricochet conversation meant for his ears.
“Two and a half hours to the summit,” the fat driver had said. He talked loud enough for the whole east cellblock to hear him.
The guard asked, “With how many stops?”
“No stops,” the driver said. “Be no stops on this run.”
A few more miles down the road and the redhead seemed to have forgotten him already. He gazed out through his own window, the dim light carving a clenched jaw and thick brow, driven to the bridge of his nose. They passed under a streetlight and the face held like a granite sculpture, chiseled and cold. Through the mirrors, the white ball of an October sun was just beginning to emerge.
The clock glowed in the dashboard lights, and Ernie found himself wondering if his son could be at school already. He’d be in eleventh grade now, he thought. And Bobbie would be there too, in and out of her office, the hovering mother hen that his actions—his great weakness—had forced her to become.
The terrain shifted from wheat fields to scablands, and the driver wiped a thick hand over his head, and announced that they were making a quick stop. He steered from the highway to a breakaway road, taking them some distance along a crusted route that rose and dipped through sage-covered mounds. About four miles out they came upon a cinderblock gas station dropped smack in the middle of nothingness. They stopped alongside the building and flung open the doors, his included.
“You’re allowed half a cigarette and a stop in the toilet,” the redhead said. “Long as you make it quick.”
The man walked behind Ernie, nearly on his ass, but he kept his pace slow lest the guy think he was making a break for it. As if he would try something like that, out there in the center of Mars like they were. He could outrun the driver, but the redhead might well have a gun. Besides, Ernie wasn’t much for running. Running was for people with ambitions, and destinations worth running toward.
The john was no bigger than his cell, and it was coated in a mossy green paint and bordered with a train of cloudy glass blocks along the ceiling. The redhead stood at the sink and took a comb from his back pocket, then crouched under the static of the fluorescent bulb as he leaned into the mirror.
“Five minutes,” he said.
Ernie crowded into the stall, latched the door behind him and sat with his elbows on his knees as he began fill the stall with the stench of Walla Walla. He bunched his jeans in his hands and considered the vast diorama that surrounded him. These were people with pens and knives and too much disposable time, men who could leave their marks and then hit the road, to drive or hitchhike to Spokane or Reno, or wherever the hell they wanted to end up. There were cartoon faces with crackled golf ball eyes and horsey teeth, and crude drawings of tits and cocks, disembodied torpedo-like things, each of them in violent eruption. There were phone numbers with the names of girls who wanted it and queers who needed it, and a few rhyming poems. There was even a haiku, not half bad:
I just saw Elvis
Filling up with premium
He liked my Pacer
It was the first time in years that he had sat on the john without another man in plain view, thumbing through a magazine or carrying on a conversation with him between muscle flexes and the spin of the toilet paper roll. He wanted to make the moment last, as if the mere act of shitting in privacy was a prize earned in annual celebration. The walls were near his elbows and his thighs, but the square above the stall went straight to the sky, a perimeter of white trembling with the turn of the fan. This place wasn’t the worst he’d been in, not by a long shot. There were johns and then there were latrines, jungle latrines that had better ventilation and the added task of checking for spiders or tripwires. He was thinking of light coming through the boards, and of the dank heat and the sounds of helicopter blades cutting the sky when the outside door suddenly banged open and the morning poured in, brilliant and crisp with the light lacing of sage.
“Get that bastard out of there,” he heard the fat driver say. “We gotta hit the road.”
Ernie walked past the clock in the station window and caught that it was half past nine. Normal people were at work now, at their desks answering phones or filling out papers. It would be another hour and a half until he reached the midpoint, where the guys from Monroe would be waiting to take him the rest of the way to the reformatory. His legs crawled with a kind of electricity, like the crackling veins that ran over the owl-like eyes staring at him from the stall walls. From the station, the ragged terrain stretched low and wide in all directions, as far as the eye could see.
The men directed him into the backseat and shut the door behind him, then held an abbreviated conference from opposite sides of the car. They talked back and forth over the hood, the driver’s round face flush as he leaned elbows on the fender and worked his mouth like a sock puppet. The redhead nodded and closed his eyes then, after a couple false starts, held his hands up in surrender. After a few more words, they climbed in and slammed the doors in unison.
The driver threw a pill back into his throat and pulled out from the lot, hooking hard to the left onto the road as he held a Styrofoam cup of coffee like a torch. The seatbelt dug into Ernie’s stomach, and when he undid the buckle the redhead said without turning, “Don’t be messing with shit back there.”
Ernie sank into his shoes and watched the passing wires as they flatlined through the view of rolling scablands, trailed over the mounds of tawny grass and chunk rocks that tumbled to a distant, marbled sky. He yawned, and the glass bloomed to a silver fog. This is where it is, he thought to himself. A never-ending reach of openness. A guy could get past that first snag of barbed wire and just walk on forever, never meet another living soul.
They had dipped over the second ridge when the driver suddenly squeezed out a cry, mottled and phlegmy, as though it were being forced from deep within the gut. His thick body lunged to the right, cutting the car from the highway to the graveled shoulder. A spray of rocks hurled against the undercarriage as he grunted and growled, pulling at his shirt with one hand, while the redhead lunged at the wheel and yelled for him to hit the goddamned brakes. Tires plowed the gravel, and the fat driver spit and bobbed his head like it was on a coiled spring. A thin train of barbed wire raked over side window. They were a good distance from the gas station now, and the highway was nowhere.
Ernie took hold of the seat edge. His damp hands slid freely over the fabric. For an instant the car rediscovered the pavement, skipping and seeming to take hold. The craggy plain stretched gloriously from the rear window, barren fields spotted with brambles and boulders, just like the old westerns he once stared up at from the front row seats. He took hold of the armrest and tightened his stomach against the straining seatbelt. Over the fence, the dappled dips and swells rolled into distance as the car began to nose back from the highway to the shoulder. His mind went again to his boy Patrick and the last things he’d said to him, the details of which he could not bring to the surface. And then he felt his legs lift from the seat, and the ground falling beneath them. Fence posts slammed against metal and barbed wire clawed the glass. He pressed his chin to his chest, closed his eyes and succumbed to the roll.
The crash itself was finished in the time it took him to lose a single breath. One moment his body was being jerked in all directions and the next he was hanging like a fish, still hooked tightly to the belt. He looked up into a swirl of dust and grit. A hard pang stabbed his side, and his legs felt as if they were just coming out of a coma. From the front seat, one of the men mumbled in low tones; Ernie could see through the turning cloud the tangle of arms and legs, bare skin feathered with red. The right rear door looked straight up into the sky. He undid his buckle and leaned to the front headrest to see the redhead crumpled over the driver, thick neck glaring through settling dirt. His body shifted and his arm moved from his side, ever slightly.
“Oh Jesus!” He wailed like a stung child. “Jesus oh Jesus!”
Wire spilled in through the broken window and he separated the strands with care and intention, as if it might explode in his hands. He slid through the shattered window, the scratch of glass against his jeans and the metal teeth of the barbs biting at his skin. And when he hit the ground he scurried the slope to the road that was ice against his palms, and a breeze crept its fingers down the front of his shirt.
It was wide open, in all directions there was nothing but sage and boulders and sky. In the distance behind him, where the blue and red chevron glowed over little cinderblock station, a big rig was just pulling out from the pumps. It swung a wide left and took to the road, stuttering into gear as it climbed the hill toward them.
The shouting from the car faded as he ran on, every step over rocks and the sandy soil a drumbeat into the bottoms of his sneakers. There came a flash vision of An Khe again, of endless rice fields, and the crying of insects, and his throat burned as he fought to pull air into his lungs. He thought of the place west of the mountains, of the weeping green cedars and clouds of moss, and the whisper of his son’s voice at the other end of the phone. A sharp sting and viscous warmth pressed against his side. The noise of the rig swelled behind him and he picked up his pace, stumbling over the raw terrain as he trained his eyes on the tiny farmhouses freckling the far horizon.