by David Plick
excerpted from Only Whales Keep a Schedule
The doorway to B-pod was painted orange like the metal tables and chairs. Underneath in parts there was grey showing where the paint was peeling off and everyone around, the inmates and guards alike, stared at him not making a sound. They couldn’t believe it but neither could Gabe, this day was never going to come. As he passed under the opening through to the other side where the air felt colder, he pinched his eyes shut and searched for Leah’s expression, how she would look watching him leave, walking out of B-pod with his eyes closed, an orange jumper and orange floppy shoes, an unending smile, but he couldn’t piece her all together. Somewhere in there he had lost her.
When did it happen? Where did he leave her?
He didn’t give up because since he’d been arrested an hour hadn’t passed without him imagining her, usually hearing their last conversation when she said, “How can you take care of me when you can’t even take care of yourself?” Other times, like when he was in the shower or lying in his cell, he’d hear something like, “All we need is time for you to get through this. Find yourself—not through me and not for me, and you will naturally become the man I need.”
Officer Bard nudged him to move but Leah returned to him. The crinkle in her skin as she smiled from her dimple to the side of her mouth. Her long hair falling on her shoulders. Her green eyes and eyelashes that would flick his own. Her lips tracing the outer edge of his earlobe. He remembered her face as if it was pressed up against him.
What was she doing? Was she wrapping presents and stuffing them under her tree? Did she feel warm with the glow of candles on her face as she smiled, thinking of her daughters opening Christmas gifts? She always cooked too much food and spoiled those girls with too many presents.
He rubbed his thumb along the lapel of his jumpsuit, imagined wool sweaters and jeans, soft burly cotton blankets and velvet rubbing against his skin. All those fabrics in existence out there he could roll into and out of, feeling all the differences between air and the physical, the rubbing of his prickly goosebumps with corduroy or satin.
There was cold snow outside, but he knew the world’s air would calm him; he envisioned white powder in his palm, it would fall onto his head like he was in a snow globe with little crystals melting inside his ear. He could roll in it, feel its coldness, making him numb as slush seeps inside his shoes, inside his socks, his toes wiggling reminding him of his skin’s sensitivities, and that being touched brings sensations—Leah’s soft hands scratching from his forehead up his scalp and his whole body would shiver from her touch. If she’d massage his mind, he’d forget everything.
The door to the pod closed behind him. He stopped in his tracks, listened to the air moving through the vent, breathing in the dust kicked up from his floppy plastic shoes. His cell buddies Chill and Poppy yelled something from inside the pod, but he couldn’t hear them through the glass. He thought about making a scene, having Officer Bard drag him out kicking and screaming, or like a corpse with his feet tied together, and the inmates still trapped inside could laugh and scream; he could howl wildly at the moon.
Bard pointed to the exit. “Let’s go Gabe.”
He kept still, remembered that everyone he’d ever known was still alive, and felt the cold glass of the pod’s door in front of him, like a castle’s gate, a mortuary entrance, and he couldn’t get back in. “Who’s gonna help you with your college classes?” he asked Bard.
“Don’t worry about it, man,” Bard said. “I’m sure you got better things to do.”
Gabe waved goodbye to the officer in the control booth. He didn’t know him, and the officer quickly looked away, but Gabe didn’t care.
The pods: A, B, C, D, and E, surrounded the booth in a circle except for two hallways jutting off. One hallway, painted yellow, led to the gym with pull-up bars and a basketball court where other inmates would gather to watch Gabe play. He was the best ballplayer in there. Further down was the conference room where Gabe and other inmates met with their lawyers, and the visitors' center where he never went.
The other hallway, painted blue, led to the nurse’s office where Gabe went when he had a nervous breakdown and the nurse gave him medication to calm him. It was the middle of the night, he keeled over and held his stomach, knowing he was weakened for nothing except that he was in jail and afraid, and it had finally gotten to him. His urine was brown, stomach convulsed, and he couldn’t eat, or sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time.
Beyond the nurse’s office was the jail’s intake/outtake and a holding cell.
“Keep going straight,” Bard said. “Your bondsman will be here in a few.”
Outside the jail two police officers hunched over The Florence Gazette. The moon lit up the page on the left where one officer’s body blocked the light from the streetlamp. Their breath scattered thickly over the pages, and then disappeared. One of the officers had a cup of coffee, but even with gloves on he still couldn’t bear the cold. He dropped the cup on the ground, and the spilt coffee covered the bottoms of their boots.
A jeep parked in the spot closest to the officers. Gabe’s sister Julia stepped out and the cops stared at her. She wore all white and blended in with the snow. Her short blonde hair curled up at the bottom. Her blue eyes reflected light from the lamp.
“You alright, ma’am?” the one said.
“I’m great, thanks.”
“You waiting for somebody?” the other asked.
“Yes, I am.”
Julia stood on her tip-toes, looking up to the one window where she could see the tops of people’s heads. She hopped, slipped on a patch of ice, and laughed as she regained her balance. “Come on already!” she said quietly to herself.
Julia had put up the money for Gabe’s bail and his lawyer. She would’ve saved him sooner but she didn’t think lecturing him about his habits was working and that jail time might actually help him. She knew from her experiences with their mother that sometimes alcoholics needed to hit rock bottom to be able to change and move on with their lives. Better for Gabe to do it then, when he was young enough to change, than later when he had a family and kids.
And Gabe told her not to worry, his safety wasn’t an issue, “jail isn’t prison,” especially in the richest county in New Jersey. The inmates were mostly suburban drug addicts, petty thieves, guys behind on their child support, so she felt no remorse for making him sit and wait. She insisted on visiting him, but Gabe refused. He didn’t want anyone to see him. She told him she’d come anyway.
“Don’t bother,” he told her. “I won’t even come down.”
“Wait in here,” Bard said, handcuffing Gabe to a bar inside a holding cell. “Paperwork’s taking a little longer than we expected.”
Gabe sat on the concrete with his back against the wall. The chain was barely long enough for him to rest his hands on his knees. He stared out into the darkness hoping he didn’t look too different. Julia couldn’t pity him. She couldn’t look at him like he was injured and needed to be nursed back to health. Physically, he had never felt better in his life. He ran three miles a day and could dunk a basketball. He lifted weights—his shoulders had never been so broad, arms never so defined.
His skin was pale, reddened from the jail’s cheap soap and the cold shower never letting his pores open. His face was clean-shaven with razor burns from the jail’s disposable blades.
Voices traveled from the intake but he couldn’t make out their words. A phone rang several times before someone answered it. He fixed his hair, missing the way it had been, grown out to his shoulders. He had it cut to look presentable for his bail reduction hearing.
He sat up straight and closed his eyes, trying not to hear anything. Fifteen months? Was it really fifteen months?
After a few minutes of being in the darkness, with only faint whispers in the distance, he felt neither in jail, nor free. All the moments of the past couple years, everything that led up to this, it couldn’t have been real. There was a time, it began a few months in, when a few other inmates convinced him he was going to prison for a long time so get used to it, and he conditioned himself to incarceration—jail became all he knew, like he was born there. It was his home. The warden was his father and the nurse his mother. He knew all the guards’ names, where they were from, if they were married, single—they were his friends.
Jail was his life, and the streets, that’s what they called it, or the bricks—the grass next to his Grandma’s apartment building, the stables on his sister’s street, the creek behind Leah’s house, the long forest leading from Angie’s when they would go exploring when they were seventeen and in love, the cities he’d never seen, the long American roads pushing towards mountains and another strange ocean—he tried to not think about it.
The living world where everything grows and dies.
The living world where everyone suffers.
When Gabe was first arrested he thought the other guy was dead. He sat in a holding cell waiting for them to question him, still drunk from the night before and without sleep, calling his sister, hoping she would bail him out so he could kill himself. He lay with his arm chained to a pole in the ground and cried, fantasizing about jumping off the top of the Menlo Park Mall.
A couple of hours later though, Gabe discovered from the detectives that the other guy was significantly injured, but otherwise, fine. This changed everything—the guy attacked him—he started it. Gabe was only defending himself.
But the grand jury still had indicted him on numerous charges, the worst of which was Attempted Murder. He learned quickly that there was no self-defense law in New Jersey. His bail was set at $250,000, and he was left to wait.
The Sentinel, the major local newspaper, featured this headline the next day:
TEEN STABBED AT PARTY
Everyone in his town must’ve read about it. And of course, they didn’t hear his side of the story. The Sentinel didn’t know what really happened. Only Gabe and the other guy knew.
What did Leah think? What did she think as she sat on her couch, wrapping presents and drinking tea? What if she didn’t think anything at all? She could think anything, he swore he wouldn’t care, as long as she didn’t remove him from her thoughts completely.
A bell rang somewhere. A door opened and closed. Someone entered and the voices grew louder. Gabe smoothed out some sore spots on his cheek and sucked in his stomach. He wondered what Julia would say first.
The holding cell door opened and light shined in his eyes.
“Come on,” Bard said. “Leave the jumper in there.”
The intake was a small room with a little office behind bulletproof glass. A man stood on the other side wearing a bowling league coat, signing papers. Gabe approached him, feeling strange and somewhat naked dressed in only basketball shorts and a white t-shirt, like he was walking around in his pajamas.
“Gabriel,” he said, extending his hand.
“Hi,” Gabe said, assuming this was the bail bondsman. “Thanks for helping me out.”
“No problem,” he said. “You’re gonna be living at 5035 Soundview Terrace after this, right?”
“I will,” Gabe said, looking around. He remembered the last time he was in that room, when he was fingerprinted and the Florence guards had mocked him, most likely because they were scared, unaccustomed to an inmate with such serious charges. Gabe had exchanged his bloody clothes, and finally fallen onto his cell’s bed for a long, agitated nap, wondering what the hell jail would be like.
It was a surprisingly humid morning with no clouds, the sun pounded on his heavy head and body. Steam lingered above the dark pavement as his blood-stained shirt stuck to him. He walked towards an underworld, and heard clicks and clangs, words; their faces were shoved in front of him, but he couldn’t respond to their questions.
Do you have drugs on you?
Do you feel suicidal?
Are you on medication?
He hadn’t slept. His mouth was pasty like glue, and tasted like whiskey.
Those first few days happened; there were movements, but they had no particular direction, and he latched onto his cellmate in the reception pod, where inmates go before they get classified. He was a funny and charming Southern guy named Jacob, who was merely passing through on his way to New York. He was arrested for starting a campfire in the middle of Route 22, and it turned out he had old warrants. He calmed Gabe down without even realizing it by telling him the story of the fire over and over again—“I don’t even know what the hell I was thinking, I was so dead drunk. Shit man, I just wanted to see New York, I felt like such a pussy for never going.” By the time Gabe was moved to C-pod, maximum security, Jacob had been bailed out, and he never saw or heard from him again.
Gabe signed a few papers, looking at the guards, deciphering which ones were there that first day. Which ones gave him dirty looks? Who laughed at him?
“So you’re not gonna be moving, right?” the bail bondsman asked Gabe. “Cause we always need to know where you are.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Who you gonna be living with?”
The bail bondsman signed underneath Gabe’s signature. “No running, right?”
“No running,” Gabe said.
“Good. You have to call this number once a week.” He handed Gabe a card. “And I’m gonna be calling you periodically as well.”
“Okay,” Gabe said.
“Are we good to go?” Bard asked the intake officer.
“He’s a free man,” a voice said from inside the glass.
Gabe’s bail bondsman shook his hand and walked out. “Good luck to you,” he said. The door closed behind him. Cold air ran through the room.
“Thanks,” Gabe said. He saw Bard moving towards the door, but he stood still, perused the intake and all of its officers, for what he hoped was the last time. He thought to himself if he never returned; if he beat the trial, or pled out to a lesser charge, giving him no more jail time, then everything they’d said about him meant nothing. Then the pods, cells, basketball court, the hallways—his lucid dreams when he would seem to levitate around his bedroom and fly around Lowell, opening his eyes to the shouting on a megaphone, “Chow up! Chow up!” seeing a dull yellow light shining above his head, disappointed to still be in a cell and alone; the guy that sung Happy Birthday to himself in the middle of the night; inmates dancing around the pod with towels on their heads, chanting, praising Osama Bin Laden on 9/11. That whole world would exist only in his memory.
“Here Gabe,” Officer Bard said, handing him a garbage bag of his belongings: legal documents and the letters his sister wrote him. “Let’s go. I have to get back to the pods.”
“Bard,” Gabe said. “Thank you for not judging me. When we used to talk about football and our ex-girlfriends and stuff I really felt like you were treating me like a regular person.”
“Don’t mention it,” Bard said.
“No, it meant a lot to me.”
“It’s really not a big deal,” Bard said, opening the door. “Watch yourself out there. Be safe.”
“Wait, wait,” Gabe said. “How cold is it outside?”
“Real cold,” Bard told him, pressing him on. “But, I bet you won’t feel a thing.”
David Plick recently finished an MFA in Fiction at The City College of New York, where he teaches. He is the co-founder and an editor of the literary magazine, Construction (www.constructionlitmag.com). His stories have appeared in Fiction, Iconoclast, Promethean, and Xenith.