He got home from the midday meeting at St. Luke’s about one o’clock. The house was cold, but he didn’t care. At the meeting some fat guy had been going on about how “if it wasn’t for hangovers, I wouldn’t have learned anything at all. Every Goddamn, excuse me, goldarn piece of spiritual insight I’ve ever had can be traced directly back to a hangover.” He had felt like kicking the shit out of that fat man. Stomping him in his ass and wearing him like a boot. Kicking him until his toes made contact with the fat man’s sorrowful, repentant heart. He wasn’t sure why. He agreed with the man. He just felt like kicking things.
He could write her now. Inside, the only person you can’t write is another prisoner. But now he’s home. And there’s paper and a pen and her inmate number. Of course, he’s basically a free man now. If he wanted to he could learn about bamboo therapy or start an Instagram account. Those things won’t be happening, at least not today, and neither will the letter. No, today he will watch football in the cold house and wonder about the nickel formation and the spread offense. He never could think about two things at once.
In county before they transferred him he had talked to this old guy, Christopher.
“Man,” he said, “every time I shut my eyes, I get like a cactus opening up in my chest.”
“Shame needles,” Christopher replied. “I get those too. They don’t help you here. But you’d done it before, right?”
“I’d done it plenty times. And she ain’t never done it once.”
“Then how come she had the gun?”
Two years into his bid he got her name tatted across his elbow. He wanted it in a place that would hurt. He paid a boy named Angel two boxes of Pop Tarts and a bag of tuna for the tat.
“Is she Katherine with the silent E?” Angel asked.
“I don’t know. I think so.”
Angel used blue hair gel for ink and a wire from a double A battery as his pen. The smoke from the needle singed his skin and smelled like gasoline rainbows.
“That ain’t how you spell her name.”
“Yeah it is, Papa.”
So today he’s sitting in the living room of that cold, little house and he’s drinking Kentucky Gentleman out of the bottle, watching some kid with fire trucks for forearms drop a slant route when he remembers the look she gave him before they got out of the car that night.
For just a second her face busted through the dope. And it shocked him some, the nakedness of it. It reminded him of when he was a kid and he was walking home through the buildings and someone would throw a sack of garbage from the fourth floor. They would open up the window and for a second you’d think they were gonna call out your name but instead it was just a white sack of trash busting open before it hit the ground. He never got used to that either.
The look had said, “I’m ready.” It said, “this is where I’m at. And I know you’re here too.” He thinks about the things he fed her and the things he took away. And how they had melted right then. All those nights inside he had thought it was fear he had seen but it wasn’t. Fear would be what happened in the house. Fear would be what he saw in the courtroom. It wasn’t fear. It was faith. No wonder he couldn’t tell the difference.
“Because I ain’t the good guy.” That’s what he wanted to tell Christopher. “Just cause I got shame, that don’t make me the good guy.”
The parole officer looked like a Wally, but his name was something else.
“So you’re going to go to meetings, do you understand?” Wally’s breath smelled like last night’s applesauce.
“Meetings for… like with you?”
“Drug meetings, son. AA, NA, CA. I’m going to need attendance sheets signed and dated. You will attend no less than four times a week. Also, and I shouldn’t even have to say this, any dirty urine and you’ll be returning to prison. This includes both illegal drugs and alcohol. Again, understood?”
“You are to drop the attendance sheets off at the first of every month. You will be tested randomly. Also, you’re going to need to get a job. That’s not going to be easy given your background. Will you be needing assistance with that?”
“Nah, I got job at the bowling alley. Malone’s on South Broadway.”
“And Mr. Malone doesn’t mind hiring a violent felon?”
“No sir. Scares people from stealing the shoes.” Wally put his knuckles on the desk.
“Well good,” he said. “’Cause we love keeping all you funny guys out of the joint.”
Last week when they handed him the one-year clean key tag, he had been high on Popov Vodka and two lines of crystal he bought from this kid Damon, who hustled out of the bowling alley.
“Is there anyone here tonight who has gone one year in which he or she did not feel it necessary to take a drug or a drink and—”
“I did. Over here, “ he said and bullrushed to the front of the room. He grabbed the key tag and twirled it like a little castanet.
“All right man, who are you and how did you do it?”
“Oh you guys know who I am. Seriously, I just listened to God and my Spirit Weasel and all that good shit. And I did some bad shit before, but I’m clean now. And I’m happier. I mean I was gone for a long time and one thing I learned, aw fuck it. It feels good to be clean. You guys are the real heroes.” He sat back down, staring at them while they prayed.
A few weeks ago he had been on the bus and he had tried to write her a letter. He got as far as “Dear Katherine, how are you?” when someone punched him in the throat with a shotgun. It was like the top of his head had turned into smoke. How are you? Did he really write that shit? What did he think she was going to say? Oh, I’m great. Last week a girl hung herself with the TV wire and my cellie beats my ass cause I wake up screaming every night, but it’s fine. Did you get my Christmas card? He crumpled up the paper and tried to flush it out the window. The air pinned it against the bus’s hull like a man clinging to a cliff.
After the meeting Clyde, one of the home group members, found him in the hallway.
“Secrets keep us sick,” Clyde whispered in his ear. He grabbed Clyde’s wrist and watched while his red eyebrows made furious little tunnels on his forehead.
“Is that what they do? They keep us sick?”
“I just wanted to let you know. Hey, could you please let me go. I’m—”
“Hey Clyde, did you know hurt people, hurt people? See, I can play too.”
It had been a year and nobody had come. He would drop off his attendance sheets at the probation office, he would make small talk with the receptionist and he’d wait. His piss was damn near nuclear by now, but he never got called to come in. No phone ringing, no Wally knocking on his door. One test and he’d be spending the next eight years paying for his haircuts with commissary oatmeal, but no one ever came. They lost him like you’d lose an earring or a daydream. A whole world with better things to do.
So instead he sips from the bottle and runs his fingers against the letters on his elbow that don’t spell her name. The chill in the air makes a necktie from his chin to his gut and he crouches nearer to the screen. A linebacker catches a running back on a reverse and breaks him into three pieces five yards behind scrimmage.
“Perfect discipline,” the announcer screams. “The defense stayed home and Archer wasn’t fooling anybody.” He watches the running back return to his huddle. The boy who fooled nobody. He wonders about him. If he’ll go on to be big and mean, and dumb and lucky. If he’ll ever be a guy with no one else to blame. Or if he’ll ever sit in a cold house, with another woman’s name on his arm and drink cheap whiskey, slowly, while he waits for a man who’ll never knock on his door.
Isaac Boone Davis‘s fiction and journalism can be found in the annals of Writethis.com, Smokelong Quarterly, Everyday Fiction, P.I.F., The Blue Lake Review, Fiction Magazine, The Bacon Review, and Hidden City Quarterly. His journo-fiction piece “The Cherry Picker,” which was published in the Southern Pacific Review about the death of a young newspaper sales rep in Seattle was nominated for a Pushcart. It didn’t win. He can be reached at email@example.com.