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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes life stories

Middle Distance
• John Tompkins 
 “What do you mean, middle distance?” asked Charlie Tiburon. He was standing at the bank of pay phones just outside of D block, wearing an orange jump suit.


“Middle distance, honey,” repeated his girl friend Terry. “I watched this old documentary on acting and they had Katherine Hepburn saying that when she acted she never looked anyone in the eye, she called it acting to the middle distance it’s cool.”

How could he explain to her that how you looked at people in here mattered? That one hard glance  could get you shanked?
“Look you just have to stand by and let me think of some way out of this mess.”
Charlie heard that drawn out sigh of hers again.  His throat tightened. He glanced around and noticed that the crowd near him had thinned out some. Was Rod coming?   
 “If you just stay where you are for the next year then you will be alright you can leave the jail and not worry about coming back.”  Just then the operator broke in and said that they had ten seconds left.
 “Charlie, you still there?” He heard yelling and the slap of rubber soles on cement: someone was running towards the phones from one of the upper tiers.
 “I have to go we’ll talk about this later.” He hung up just in time, for bounding down the stairs came Rod, he had a lazy eye and eggplant- sized biceps, which he called his guns.
“Nobody is to be using these phones lest they pay me a fee, ” he announced.
Charlie glanced backwards at Rod.
“Watcha looking at snow flake?” asked Rod, he moved closer.
“Nothing,” Charlie squeaked, he tried to look at Rod’s mouth. His mother had once told him that when she had worked at Danvers State Hospital as an attendant she had avoided being slugged by looking at a paranoid patient’s mouth, rather than the eyes  whenever they spoke to her. But standing there Charlie could not help but look into Rod’s dark, lazy orb.
“You  call’n  me nothing?”
“Yeah, he did Rod,” said Sticky Eddie.   
“He was using the phone too, and he didn’t pay,” Eddie pointed at Charlie with the manicured fore and little finger of his right hand.
Rod turned toward Eddie, “This cracker was usin’ my phone?”
“Yeah” said Eddie, his jump suit was unzipped to his navel and he was wearing green mascara.
“How long was he on the phone for?”
Charlie started to sweat.
“A good, five minutes, he was talking to some bitch,” Eddie leered at Charlie as if jealous.
“You mean you stood and watched this cracker, use my phone and you didn’t come get me?”                                                                                                                  
“What?” stammered Sticky Eddie. In an instant Rod was on him, grasping him by his hair and slapping him across the face. A thin stream of blood squirted from Sticky Eddie’s nose and spattered against the wall, forming a dripping red crescent. When the guards came and broke them up, Charlie just stood there stunned.
“You owe me for five minutes of phone time, Doucette bag,” yelled Rod to Charlie as they dragged him away.

“It’s because you looked at him hard,” said Harry, he was the older convict that Charlie worked with in the laundry.   “Look I’ve been in the system since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and if there is one thing that I’ve learned is that you positively never look at anyone hard.” Harry looked up from the shirt he had been folding, “You’re a young kid, you could get out of here one day ‘till then just do your own time.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?
Charlie liked Harry; he felt safe around him. Harry never pressured him for sex or smokes or anything, yet.  Charlie pulled down another pair of prison pants from his pile and started to fold.
“Well, in  case of ole Rod there, you shouldn’t  have turned around when he was yelling,  that was just asking for trouble, you have to be more careful”
“I’ll try,” said Charlie.
“You better do more than try. But if you are looking for protection then maybe we could work something out?”
 “Terry, it’s me.” Whispered Charlie into the phone, he glanced around  half expecting something to be sneaking up on him.
“Charlie? What time is it?” Asked Terry, he listened to her fumble around in what used to be his bedroom.        
“It’s late, look I have to get out of here, maybe to another institution, maybe to Tewksbury State Hospital, but I can’t stay here,”
“Oh Charlie,”
“Listen; there’s already been an incident.”  Charlie had spoken to his in- house case manager about a transfer out of the Middleton House of Corrections. But his worker, a huge mountain of a man named Nesmith, had told him that there had to be a good reason. When he explained what had happened by the phones Nesmith had shrugged it off as “con stuff.”
“Charlie, your P. O. called me again.”
“What? What the hell is he calling you for?”        
 “I don’t know but he took me out to lunch the today.”
“Lunch?” What the hell was Nesmith up to? Did he somehow know about the pound of marijuana he had hidden in his grandmother’s garage? Was he after that?
“Terry, look if you help me out of here I will,” he closed his eyes and swallowed hard, “I will marry you. I promise this time.”
“Oh Charlie,” her voice was barley audible, “do you really, I mean really promise this time? You know Nesmith is a Justice of the Peace.”
“Sure I do baby, now here is my plan...” 

Later, he stepped into one of the shower rooms. He thought of Terry and made himself vomit with a plastic spoon he had found out on the yard that day. After he had puked up  the money-filled condom,  swallowed while out on bail, he washed it off in the sink. He then went and found the one  man who could help him: Officer Roy Cutters. Charlie found him monitoring a contentious game of checkers in one of the day rooms.
“Listen. I have to be on your week detail the day after tomorrow,” said Charlie.
“Yeah and why is it so important that you get on my work detail?” Cutters asked,  still watching the game.
“I just need a change of scenery, that’s all.”                                                             
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with Rod getting out of solitary on the same day now would it?”  Charlie felt a rush of panic, but did not let it show.
“I wouldn’t know about  that.” he said
“ Bullshit, a little shit like you probably knows all that is going on here.”
“Look I can pay you.”             
“You got money?” asked Cutters.
“Do I have money? Come on a little shit like me? Of course I have bank.” Charlie smiled. He knew that Cutters could send him to the hole just like that. But he was once again buoyed by that strange confidence that had seen him through so many scraps.
“100 bucks.” said Cutters. Charlie looked at the burst capillaries in the guard’s  nose and for a moment said nothing. A hundred bucks was all he had. But fuck it once he was out of here it would not matter and he still had that pound.
“Ok, 100 clams.”

The next day he went back to staring at the empty spaces between the cons. During yard time he was careful to keep moving, to not look at anyone. He walked past the Latinos as they used the free weights and kept his eyes on the guard tower. He drifted by the blacks on the basketball court by staring at a spot three feet in front of him.  After he passed the  concrete picnic tables he heard a familiar voice call down to him.
“Hey Chuck-e- Cheese,”   Yelled Rod. Charlie looked around him. He was standing near the solitary block.  Rod had seen him through the window slit in his cell on the second tier. “I haven’t forgotten about those five minutes of time you owe me and all the interest that has been built up. But if you don’t have the cash I’ll take it in services,” with that came a series of whoops and whistling.

The night before Rod was going to be back in general population, Charlie had a terrible dream. He had been standing on the highway when Rod had pulled up on a motorcycle. Unable to stop, he had found himself walking towards Rod and had gotten on the back of the bike. 

The next morning he forced the images of the dream from his mind. He dressed trying to act as if this was an ordinary day even though his fingers were shaking. At breakfast he made sure to sit alone and look only at his corn flakes.

After breakfast, the prisoners with jobs on the outside lined up at a blue door that had a large “B” printed in white on the front. The door next to it was red and had an sported a  large “A”. Beyond the red door a corridor led deeper into the prison with its maze of classrooms and holding cells. The “B”, corridor was his “ticket to slide,” as he used to say on the outside. That corridor led to a fenced in area where there was a waiting van and a gate.  All he had to do was wait for Cutters to show up with a roster of names that hopefully included his.

But where the hell was Cutter’s? Charlie did a quick head count, counting himself, there were only five cons left hunkered over their breakfast trays. With mounting anxiety he watched as one by one the other cons got up and went to their perspective lines, still no Cutters. He rose dumped his tray and was walking as slowly as he could to the two doors when Cutters finally showed up to join the caferitera guard. He looked around and when he saw Charlie he waved him over. Relieved, Charlie walked to him holding the bill, now rolled into a tight little tube, in his sweaty right hand.  
“Ah,  Mr. Tiburon,”  said Cutters  winking at the other guard, “going to join us today?”  Charlie nodded and then waited, “let’s see,” said Cutters making a great show of trying to find his name on his list: “Tibbets, Tiberius, ah here we are Tiburon.” Cutters looked around and when he saw that the other guard had his back to them held his hand out. Quickly, Charlie passed him the bill. Cutters then ushered him and the others, who had either not seen the transaction or did not care, through the blue door and into the sunshine. Before them was a dark blue van with the gold star emblem of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department
“Well ladies just don’t stand there get it in.” said Cutters opening the back door. Charlie and the other inmates got in. As the van pulled out of the gate.   He kept his gaze focused on a smudge on the van floor until they  stopped at the strip of 495 that they were to pick free of trash. When Charlie clambered out with the rest of the group he was handed a heavy plastic yellow bag and a stick with a golf tee on the end of it.
He checked the time it was just after 8 in the morning; they had four hours and then it was back to the facility. Cutters himself showed him where he was to start. He moved off and started to poke at the various cups and wrappers, all the while sneaking peeks at the guards and moving further up the strip.

For the next four hours he filled his bag. He moved along spiking up litter with his stick. Every so often he would sneak a peek around. He was feeling much better now. He felt the wind and smelled the clean air and even though it was tinged with diesel fumes, it never smelt fresher.
When he checked his watch again he was amazed that the four hours had gone by so fast. Any minute now, he reassured himself.  He kept moving away and then stopped. He turned around and as if by magic he saw it:  Terry’s light blue Toyota truck coming towards him. He had to stop himself from laughing out loud.  He was certain that he could talk his way out of his promise to marry her. But not just yet, he would let her dream the dream for awhile, easier that way. He undid his vest and let it slip to the ground then stepped over the guard rail.

As the truck slowed near him he saw Terry in the passenger seat. Who the hell was driving? She turned toward him and pulled up her t-shirt. She was not wearing a bra and her two nipples were, for just a second, pressed flat against the glass. When she collapsed in her seat laughing he made out the profile of Nesmith in the driver’s seat. And then they were gone, driving up 495. As he stood there watching her truck slowly disappear into the distance, he heard a familiar voice crackle over a bullhorn
“All right ladies,” said Cutters, “time to head on back.”   
© John Tompkins   December 2012         

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