NOVEL EXCERPTS

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ONE MAN’S DARK

an Excerpt
by Robin S. Crawford

Joe Gunther walked through the door with a slow, halting gait ahead of the guard. There was just one other prisoner in the waiting room, one too many. Gunther nodded
toward the unoccupied benches on the opposite side of the room. He was not feeling
sociable.

“Sign this.”  The guard handed a clipboard to the CO who was standing at the door tothe infirmary.  Then he held out a simple wooden cane. “And here, give this back to him, if you want.”

CO Jenkins, who had been at Lee Correctional for almost as long as Joe Gunther, signed for the delivery and traded the clipboard for the cane.

“Hey, Father Joe, what’re you doing back here so soon?” He stuck the cane up under his arm and reached for his keys. “Looking for a sweetheart to spend Valentine’s Day with?”

Gunther held out his wrists and considered suggesting the CO stuff his Valentine. But he was feeling as gray and lifeless as the concrete floor beneath his feet. He decided instead to conserve his waning energy.

“You know I’m saving my heart for you, Jenkins,” he said. The coughing jag that followed lasted nearly two minutes.

Gunther had pneumonia again. In two weeks, his weight had dropped from a muscular and well-distributed two-hundred ten pounds to one-eighty-five. Despite aggressive treatment for a bronchial infection, his health had continued to worsen.

During his first year inside, Gunther had been stabbed in the leg with a homemade knife—a rusty shank fashioned out of a spoon. The injury never healed properly. This resulted in loss of muscle tissue and permanent damage to his immune system. Now he was highly susceptible to illness and this was one reason he avoided any temptation to quell his loneliness—that maddening partner which had shadowed him since childhood—with even a brief fling.

In here it would be suicide. After nine hard-fought years of celibacy, he had earned the nickname “Father Joe—the priest of cell block twelve.”

He hobbled over to the bench and sat. His breathing was slow and labored. With what felt like his last ounce of energy he pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and waited.

Jenkins leaned down with a light.

“Well, y’ain’t got much to choose from, anyway.” The CO motioned toward the other inmate. “Just this sorry piece of shit.”

The young prisoner was dressed in poorly fitting prison issue denims crusted with dried blood. He avoided eye contact by adjusting the ice pack he was holding to his nose so that it hid most of his face.

Unruly hair, matted with more blood, hung over his forehead. His right foot rested on a blanket on the floor, a second icepack balanced on top of it. His toes, stiff and swollen purple, stuck out from underneath.

Gunther recognized the tell-tale signs of a first-timer. This was an inexperienced fish hardly deserving of the second glance he was getting. Anyone who hadn’t figured a way to score some decent clothes lacked money, connections, or was just plain lazy.

There was no room in Joe Gunther’s circle for this “sorry piece of shit.” He decided to let this one sink or swim on his own.

He leaned back on the cinderblock wall and feigned interest in Jenkins’ conversation. Usually distracting at best, today the idle and ignorant banter was annoying. Gunther’s gaze soon wandered across the room for a third furtive glance.

Jenkins truncated his gossip about the warden’s nineteen-year-old daughter and nodded again in the direction of the other inmate.

“Got himself cornered in the shower,” he said with a knowing smirk. “The two Franks.”

Gunther knew the pigs. Who hadn’t heard of Frankie Rizzo and Frank “Killer” Kilcoyne? The pair had hooked up with each other a few years back at a prison down state. Their reign of terror was by this time of near mythical proportion. The only reason they were at Lee—a medium-security facility—was lack of space at a more suitable prison.

Gunther began to take more interest in his fellow inmate. It was hard to believe that after a run-in with the two Franks, this kid would still be conscious, much less sitting upright.

Much less alive, for that matter, he thought.

“That’s all they did to him?”

Jenkins nodded and his smile stopped short of admiration.

“Wait a sec. Let him tell you. Hey, Flash. You, over there. Whyn’t you tell us what you did to those mother-fuckers?”

In despair of his dwindling anonymity, the prisoner moved the ice pack to cover his entire face.

Jenkins was not so easily discouraged. He turned his head to spit, and waited. He knew exactly what he was doing. If this kid was smart, he’d take the opportunity to tell his own story and earn status in the eyes of Joe Gunther, one of the most powerful inmates in the joint.

Instead, the young inmate let out a deep breath as he lowered the ice pack to speak. He scowled at the CO through a roadmap of bruises and bloody scrapes on his face. His nose had been broken in the altercation and both eyes were starting to discolor.

Gunther was unfazed by the carnage. It was standard fare for a prison fight. But he was surprised by what he heard next from across the room.

“If you don’t mind, CO, sir, I’m not much up to talking right now.” His soft, smooth-as-honey southern drawl oozed humility and deference. “I’m sure you can do a far better job of telling the story than I. Why don’t you just go right ahead?”

With a cursory glance at Gunther, the inmate repositioned the ice pack over his face once more, sat back against the wall and closed his eyes.

Gunther felt a jolt. He wished the eyes would open.

Jenkins shrugged and spat again. He wasn’t one to give second chances.

“Well, I didn’t see it myself—I wasn’t there, y’know what I’m sayin’?” His face fell at the disappointing thought. “But I heard Kilcoyne was coughing up blood when they took him away. Someone said his chest musta been caved right in. And Rizzo? Bawlin’ like a baby. They said he—the kid there—was jumpin’ around like some kinda wild fuckin’ animal. Kicked Rizzo in the nuts, then grabbed on and squeezed ‘til they popped like ripe tomatoes.”

He paused to savor the image, spat, and continued. “Blood everywhere. It’s a right fuckin’ mess in the fish tank, for sure. Anyway, that’s when Kilcoyne stopped the son-of-a-bitch, grabbed his foot and sent him into the wall. No tellin’ what he would’ve done if he’d kept goin’. Ain’t that right, Flash? Huh? Boy, you hear me?”

Winston shrugged and changed position. Jenkins shot him a scowl and went on.

“Sent both Franks to County Hospital. One lucky bastard, huh, Joe?”

“Nobody’s that lucky,” Gunther said as he studied the slight figure seated across the room from him. He no longer cared if he should be looking or not.

The boy—and that’s all he seemed to be—shifted position again, this time leaning his elbows on one knee with his face to the floor. He cradled his forehead in one hand. His stiff posture telegraphed the pain in every muscle of his body.

“Hey.” Gunther called out across the room.

The inmate Jenkins had called “Flash” rolled his eyes upward, raised his free hand in a small wave, and went back to staring at the floor. If he could, he would have willed the concrete to open and swallow him up. Another horny bastard, thought Winston Mills. Just what I need.

Though his body language made it clear that he didn’t want to be bothered, Gunther persisted. He wanted to hear that voice again. Had to hear it. He cleared his throat and tried not to sound too interested.

“Martial arts, kid?” He took a drag of his cigarette and was careful not to look directly at the boy.

The young inmate opened his eyes and muttered his reply without bothering to move the ice pack.

“No, sir. I was just trying to kill the sons-of-bitches.”

Gunther’s fit of laughter ended in another coughing jag. After catching his breath, he had a few words with Jenkins. Then he took up his cane and made his way to the bench on the other side of the room.

“Do you mind if I sit?” The courtesy of asking was unnecessary, of course. Joe Gunther sat wherever he wanted.

At the moment, the young man didn’t care who was asking.

“I’d rather just be left alone, sir, if you don’t mind.” Why can’t they all just leave me alone, he thought?

“Oh, shit,” Jenkins said with a gleeful smile. He’d been witness to the swift intensity of Gunther’s rage several times. Nothing brought it on faster than a show of disrespect. This could make up for missing the fight with the two Franks.

With an edge to his voice that could slice the steel bars at the window, Gunther repeated his request. It hadn’t really been a question, and he hadn’t really expected an answer.

“I just want to talk. I’m not asking you to marry me.”

From across the room came an explosive guffaw. Jenkins leaned forward to catch every second of the show before he’d have to break it up.

The boy sighed and stared at the floor.

“It’s a free country. Sit where you like,” he said.

For an instant, Gunther considered returning to his original seat and sealing the little punk’s fate. Even if he didn’t know who he was talking to, there was no excuse for this lack of respect. But a retreat might be taken as just that. He couldn’t risk that sort of blow to his reputation.

It didn’t matter to him what this kid had done to the two Franks—Joe Gunther wasn’t afraid, and he didn’t want anyone to think he was. He dropped down to the bench at a respectable distance.

Disappointed, the CO shook his head and prepared for a quick nap.

Gunther offered his hand. He was startled to see how much younger the kid appeared at close range. The thought that he might be one of those young offenders—under eighteen—filled him with regret and relief. They could only be friends, after all.

Sick as he was, it was becoming obvious that he would need all the reasons he could muster to resist this temptation.

“Joe Gunther,” he said. He was pleased to note a flicker of recognition in the boy’s eyes. “They call you ‘Flash?’”

Winston’s snort of disgust brought on a wince of pain. He rubbed the cold out of his right hand against his pant leg and then held it out to Gunther.

“They can go straight to hell,” he said, straightening up with a grimace. “The name’s Mills—Winston Mills. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Gunther, sir.”

His brief handshake was firm, and not that of a boy at all. As their hands parted, Gunther experienced a moment of terror. Something deep inside him stretched and yawned, coming awake.

The sleeves of Winston’s denim shirt, several sizes too big for his slight frame, were rolled up to the elbows exposing two slim wrists and long, delicate fingers. His eyes, flannel gray, soft as an old man’s nightshirt, and weighted with pain, were not those of a boy, either.

In another dizzying jolt, Gunther felt the return of a forbidden and nearly forgotten feeling. His sudden breathlessness had little to do with the inflammation in his lungs. He felt as if he were suffocating on an irrational, incongruous, and all-consuming fear.

Then just as quickly it disappeared. Disoriented and flushed, Gunther turned his smile on the battered face. Just inches away, it tempted him with a nerve-wracking mix of defiance, shyness, and allure.

“A pleasure, huh?” he asked. “You think?”

Winston Mills looked him in the eye again. Gunther knew this was a nasty habit that would be beaten out of the naïve inmate before long. He felt suddenly protective.

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Winston said, “but I’ve heard you’re a very powerful man, sir. To be quite honest, as I just don’t have the energy at the moment to be anything but that, if our meeting is a pleasure, then it will mark the first thing I’ve done right since checking in at this resort in hell three weeks ago.”

Gunther took out his cigarettes and offered one to his new acquaintance.

“Let me tell you something, Winston,” he said. “The only time anyone calls me ‘sir’ is when they’re arresting me or delivering bad news. My friends call me J.P. or Joe.”

Winston waved off the cigarette and pointed to his face.

“I can’t,” he said. “Not right now. Thanks anyway, sir, uh, J.P.”

Gunther tucked the cigarette into Winston’s shirt pocket and patted it. He felt a defensive shudder and stiffening of Winston’s chest. Gunther’s hand froze on the firmness of the warm flesh. He began to imagine what was beneath the stained fabric.

“For later then,” he said. He pulled his hand away, took a drag of his own smoke and coughed a little.

“So, I take it you’re not too fond of that handle—‘Flash?’”

Winston shook his head. He’d been christened with the nickname by his fellow prisoners three weeks earlier, the day of his arrival at Lee. Handcuffed and shackled, he tried hard to ignore the catcalls and invectives being showered on him and the five other incoming prisoners in his line. But as the only white man in the group, Winston could only assume that he was the intended recipient of the repeated promise that one burly inmate was going to “have your lily-white ass to myself, pretty boy.”

Winston had eaten very little in the county jail while awaiting transport and was weak with hunger. Overcome by heat, and the stench issuing from the cells, a wretched potpourri of sweat, urine, and rotting fruit, he became dizzy and light-headed. When the line was called to a halt, he stumbled, lost his balance, and fell.

His clumsiness was mistaken for an attempt at escape. Looking up from the hard cement into the barrels of no less than three shotguns, Winston promptly fainted. He was unconscious for two minutes. During this time, Winston’s fellow prisoners took it upon themselves to christen him with the nickname “Flash,” a reference to the flick of the week shown the night before—“Flashdance.”

The next thing Winston remembered was being yanked to his feet.

“Oh, shit,” he groaned.

“What’s your back number?” the guard was screaming at him.

“I’m okay,” Winston said.

“I don’t give a shit if you’re okay, cocksucker,” the guard said. “What’s your Goddamn back number, inmate?”

Winston’s head cleared and he carefully recited the five-digit number that was printed on the back of his orange jumpsuit. He then made the mistake of smiling for approval after finishing.

The butt of a shotgun made eye-watering contact with his ribcage and Winston never made that mistake again.

Gunther’s voice broke into the painful memory. “So, what do your friends call you?”

Winston raised his eyebrows and cracked a painful smile. He had no friends. Not here, anyway, and most likely none on the outside. Not anymore.

“Call me whatever you like,” he said. “Just not that.”

Gunther nodded and sat back. He pulled on his smoke and tried to avoid another coughing fit while he considered the young man beside him. He was reminded of a promise his mother had held him to years ago. He’d broken it three times, and only once since her death. Joe could hear her even now admonishing him, “Be careful. Be a good boy.”

He decided this was just a matter of bad timing. He was sick. His resistance was low. This pathetic kid was nothing special, not worth taking a risk that could not only compromise his reputation, but what was left of his health.

The attraction, if Joe could even call it that, lay in the fact that his own misery paled in comparison to that of this Winston Mills character. How else to explain the fact that just sitting with him on the same bench gave him a curious sense of well-being? In a few minutes, one of us will be taken away for our X-rays and that will be that, Joe thought.

As if reading his mind, a trusty came through the door from the inner exam room. Jenkins startled out of his nap.

“There’s a problem with the machine,” said the trusty. Jenkins threw him a dirty look. “You can take them two back to the infirmary, or wait it out. Could be ten, fifteen minutes. Maybe more.”

“We’ll stick it out,” Jenkins said. He was too comfortable and wasn’t about to rock his own boat. He had two hours left on his shift and he could think of worse ways to ride out the time.  Keeping an eye on these two was a piece of cake—one couldn’t walk and the other could barely breathe.

The trusty nodded and disappeared into the back room. Jenkins resumed his position against the wall.

Winston shifted on the wooden bench. He’d been sitting for over half an hour resting his foot on the blanket. With his free hand he massaged the pins and needles out of his leg. Gunther’s own hand tingled with a desire that made him wonder how sick he really was. He forced himself to look away.

The ice pack slipped off Winston’s foot. Gunther leaned down to replace it. The injured ankle was swollen to twice its normal size and sported a crayon-box assortment of blues and purples.

Winston thanked him. After weighing his meager choice of the two least painful positions on the bench, he leaned back against the wall.

“This sucks.” He shifted his weight again. “I’ve been sitting here so long I can’t feel my ass.”

Gunther gave his bench mate a quick glance out of the corner of his eye. Was he being flirted with? By this time he knew, if he were ready, here sat the person with whom he could easily break his long-standing vow. It was clear, however, that the remark had been an innocent statement of fact.

Gunther laughed to himself. In all likelihood, he thought, Winston Mills probably can’t feel his ass.

Gunther knew he had to act quickly to dispel his escalating and inappropriate feelings. The last thing he wanted was to make a move and meet with rejection. His depression had enough fuel. The only way around this was to change the subject.

Joe reached into his shirt pocket once more. This time he brought out a photograph. The corners were worn and the colors faded. It had once been torn in half by an over-zealous CO during a shakedown. It was now held together by a piece of yellowing tape with dirty, fringed edges.

Joe held it out to Winston.

“Here,” he said, “take a look.”

The young prisoner studied the photo with perfunctory interest.

“Cute,” he said. “Yours? I mean the kid?”

The child in the picture was seated astride a small pony. She grasped its shaggy mane between chubby fingers. Next to her stood a dark-haired young man with one hand on the pony’s lead, the other at the small of the child’s back.

“Yeah, she’s mine.” Gunther’s shoulders fell. “That’s my sister, Amy. She was three and a half when this was taken.” He fell silent and stared for a long time at the photo. After years of study and longing, the image was burned indelibly into his memory, but he never tired of holding the worn picture and looking at it.

Winston cleared his throat. He felt a rush of compassion but he was unsure of what to say, what the protocol would be.

“Who’s that with her?” he decided to ask. “Your daddy?”

“Guess again.” Gunther said, and he coughed. “That’s me. Almost ten years ago. I was just a young buck, like you. Yep, six months later I was sitting in this hell-hole.”

He shook his head and traced the image in the photo with one finger. He felt old and very tired.

“May I?” Winston lifted the picture from Joe’s hand to get a better look at the young Joe Gunther.

“Well, isn’t she a darlin’? You must miss her somethin’ awful. Does she come to visit you often?”

Gunther shook his head.

“I haven’t seen her once in all these years. This is all I’ve got. Don’t even know what she looks like. All grown up by now, I suppose.”

“Well, my guess is she needs a bigger horse,” Winston rolled his eyes to the side and was pleased to see a small smile appear on Gunther’s face. He handed the photo back and resisted the urge to offer the unhappy man a reassuring pat on the knee.

What he really needed was a hug, but the no-touching rule straight from junior high school was strictly enforced here. Winston was surprised they’d gotten away with a handshake.

Besides, he was still undecided as to whether Joe Gunther had been cruising him for the past ten minutes, or if this was just a lonely guy looking for a friend. This association was too promising and too useful to throw away with one poorly calculated move. He decided to keep his distance and wait for an invitation.

Gunther turned to Winston with red and glazed eyes.

“Thanks. Thanks for . . . you know. Just, thanks.”

He slipped the photo into his pocket and held the palm of his hand against it. His head bowed in a silent supplication. His shoulders dropped, and he stared at the floor.

Winston was thinking of something to say when the trusty appeared in the doorway again, studying the clipboard he held in his hands. Grateful for the interruption, both prisoners looked up and gave him their full attention.

“Seven-two-eight-three-six,” he called off. “Mills? Come on, sweetheart.”

Winston held up his hand in a tentative wave and pointed to his foot, swollen to the size and color of an eggplant.

“Shit.” The trusty made a face and stomped his foot. “No one don’t tell me nothin’ ‘round here. You ain’t walkin’ nowheres, are you, honey?”

Winston raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

“Sorry,” he said into his lap.

“Well, bro, you sho’ nuff don’t weigh more’ n a sack o’ taters, but I ain’t carryin’ you. That ain’t part of my job. I got a trick back, and I told them . . .”

He paused and looked to Jenkins for sympathy.

“Your problem is you ain’t got no fuckin’ brains,” Jenkins said. He nodded toward Gunther. “I ain’t in no mood for your whining. Take the other one first. Come back with a chair for the little one. Joe, guess it’s your lucky day. Move to the head of the line.”

Gunther lifted himself off the bench and stifled another coughing fit as he bent to retrieve his cane. He took a step toward the trusty and then turned. He slipped something out of his pocket and tossed it onto the bench next to Winston. It was a pack of cigarettes, nearly full—cash in hand.

Winston nodded his thanks and tucked the pack away in his shirt pocket.

“You need anything, come see me, okay, kid?” Gunther said. He turned away without waiting for a reply.

Jenkins stared at Winston after the door closed.

“Is something the matter, CO, sir?” Winston said.

Jenkins’ lips stretched over a nicotine-stained grin.

“Why, I suppose congratulations are in order. Looks like you got yourself a daddy.”

Winston leaned back onto the cold cement wall, closed his eyes, and broke a painful grin.

“Yes, it would appear that way, now wouldn’t it?” he said.

He marveled at this accidental turn of good fortune. The next twenty-two months, one week and three days no longer loomed before him like a torturous eternity. Fate was finally smiling on him, and until she discovered her mistake, he intended to take full advantage.

And the best thing, he thought with a chuckle – all it cost me was a little gushing over some brat in an old Polaroid.

__________

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