By John Michael Flynn
That last night. That last counterpunch with a sneer toward death. And life. All so unreal and he a ghost somewhere between those that conformed and those that fought while wired on dex, meth and Jack Daniels. That night he and Terry and Neil snaked the back roads of Mecklenburg County at high speeds –was there any other way? Neil said he was just one more black man nobody cared about and it was the same for his brother, Charles, who had been killed on his Harley outside of Hampton Roads. That last night – he and Terry and Neil together. Now gone. All of it gone.
Terry, like him, was a mixed-breed, but he had Osage blood. Mason’s own native lines ran Chickasaw and some Pawnee, or so he’d been told. Nobody in his family – if he could call it that – really knew.
Last he heard, Terry was living somewhere near Tulsa. Terry the skunk, who had dared him to rob that jewelry store, said he had planned it out. A sure thing. Those were Terry’s words, and three of the filthiest ones Mason had ever heard anyone use in the English language.
He didn’t hate Terry for it. Hated himself for giving in to Terry’s pitch, screwing up, getting busted again. No, wrong. He despised Terry. When it had gone bad, Terry had disappeared. Later on, Terry hadn’t spent a minute to visit him in lock-up. Nor had Terry helped him to make bail or pay a lawyer. Mason had used his one phone call to tell Starr, his sister, that he’d been printed and charged again. They’d hold him in county and that was all he knew.
Hadn’t known much, had he?
We’ll get you out, Honeybunch. We’ll help you.
Sweet-talk from Starr. Sounded like his Mama. He couldn’t hate that, either, not as much as he hated the idea that Starr and Mama had done their best to love him. Not like his old man – whoever he was.
All the others talked too much. Neil Pierre was the only quiet one. Only wise one. Neil was a thinker on a spirit quest. Hard to believe he was dead of an overdose on meth. Neil was always testing limits. Neil his brother, his father figure, the gaping hole that ached each night in Mason’s side.
Starr was in California now, married a third time. Why did she bother? Her third husband was from Argentina, had a little money and must have known he had someone exotic in Starr with her African blood mixed with Pawnee, French and God knew what else.
We all suffer, that’s why I refuse to bring a child into this world without a Daddy.
Starr. His only sister. Same mother but different father. Maybe. Nobody knew. Nobody cared except him, rotting in stir, with time to think about it. In the end, Starr had done nothing. Neither had Mama. But she was gone, too, and on hopeful nights Mason liked to think that Mama and Neil were together, part of a spirit union, guiding those who needed love and wisdom. On bad nights, he thought of them both as dead too soon, their lives wasted.
Starr was the only kin he had left. Like he’d never happened. Like he shouldn’t have been born. Just like Neil. And that’s what they shared. A couple of lost fearless souls.
Seeing Neil in his dreams, Mason often counted the pieces of his friend’s body; the little rags of flesh that the cops had found hanging from bushes and tree limbs along a fifty-foot stretch of road. Neil had survived that accident, had lost an arm, had never ridden again. Swollen on beer, running a gas station, constantly seething on meth, he’d lasted two years in a state of miserable juiced-up limbo.
All the partying together that should have brought release. But it didn’t. They slept it off and kept on partying. Now he wanted those nights back when he awoke wild-eyed and ready and stayed that way, the way he was supposed to be, speeding east to the shoreline and finding girls, one for each of them. They’d get high watching the surf under moonlight, rolled into blankets, paired off. Sometimes, at dawn, a cop would threaten to arrest them if they didn’t get moving. Mason couldn’t remember a time when Terry didn’t mouth off at a cop. Yet he got away with it. Had to be his high yellow tone and his good teeth.
Neil never mouthed off. He was darkest of all of them. Something smart and cunning about Neil that always kept the cops at ease. He and Neil went way back to high school, never finished, both joined the Army and Neil made it through and served in Germany, but not him. No. They’d arrested him for possession his first week of leave after he’d finished basic.
Back in riding days, he and Neil would devour breakfast in their jeans and then go hunting for sluts with long hair and a licorice-sweet smell to their underwear. White girls that liked whiskey and weed and knew how to hide money, shoot a rifle, and change a flat tire.
Under the blast of a new day, he and Neil would roll to a beachfront hideaway. They’d lie in the shade dazed, maybe even swim, not wanting to talk until they decided to wheel to the next wherever. Sometimes, it was a friend’s place, or a bar, music, a garage and fixing bikes, or trouble – a dealer, some whores, a card game they’d heard about. They just kept it going somehow, sleeping in their clothes much of the time. When money ran low, they’d call Neil’s old friend Jackson in Newport News and he’d hook them up with errands and drops, and pay them in cash or in dope – whichever they wanted. When things ran dry, they’d get into some stealing or pimping or even day labor or to keep cash-flow going in both directions.
Mason grinned as he remembered one job and how he’d lucked out and scored over twenty-grand from a safe in the back-room of a used car dealership near Virginia Beach. Lived on it and fed himself good. Met a red-head with a body that wouldn’t quit, called herself Lu but that wasn’t her real name, said she was from Corpus Christi and the daughter of a Navy captain – probably lies, but those had been sweet healing times with Lu and she’d kept him out of stir and in a real job in a road construction crew for nearly three years in the sun and he’d been strong and honest, for a change. As if to say: lookit, it’s me, Mason, I can do this straight thing. I’m nobody’s donkey-shine.
Lu didn’t want him running off with Terry, but he tried to explain that he got bored easy. God-damned dumber than a fence post is what he was. After he left her and got busted, Lu – wherever she was – wanted nothing to do with him. Nobody did. There had only been Neil and he was a prayer now.
The time had come.
Mason ginned up a fake smile for the lawyer. The guards were there. A starchy administrator in a suit. Mason didn’t like or trust these cogs, their faces as they loomed in front of him like those long-gone timeless years, one falling and rising after another in a foggy deranged roll. He closed his eyes a moment. At high speed on open road he was in that dream again, the one he kept having where he told everyone he was getting out, and nothing less would do than white lines under the new bike he was going to build with all the money he was going to make. In the dream, every face he saw – from Starr’s to Lu’s to Mama’s – was big and cartoonish and asking him: But how you gonna do it?
I’ll figure it out. I always do.
Starr had said she’d hold his bike for him, but she’d sold it. He owed her, so she’d taken the coin she had coming. He’d have done the same.
He’d once known so much, cared so little. Now? Nothing. A by-product of the institution. Law and order. These cog faces? They spoke of conquest and the red-clay ditches that lined the roads of gated communities, littered with the corpses of failed renegades like him.
Lu liked to say he was no failure and that it wasn’t a racial thing – he needed to be more sure of himself. Oh, he was sure, all right. Sure that he looked old for his real age, had a knack for winning fights, bets, and games of blackjack. If there was a party, he’d find it. He had plans. He’d speed along forever ignoring death. One trip to the next, but as Neil had told him: nobody crossed the great spirit and got away with it for long.
Terry, too, had figured this out. He’d known when to bolt and start fresh, leaving so-called blood-brother Mason high and dry. Didn’t matter now. All part of his unreal life. The life inside. It had a future and a past that tried to flow but mostly they just collided with the walls around his present state, his perpetual confinement.
Did this lawyer in front of him with the dark hair, the phone, and the thousand-dollar rock on one finger think she had a say in it?
Mason scowled as he looked up at her seated across from him at the table. She was most likely Legal Aid. Clean and ambitious. A nobody trying to make her name. She was on the ample side, the way he liked his women, and she wore a dark-blue suit, filled it out nicely. She carried files, a leather bag, a laptop; she was Latina, maybe. Mason couldn’t pronounce her name when she shared it. Didn’t care. Who were these legalese people? Why did they bother him?
She started with questions. Mason shrugged, craving a cigarette, thinking: All the dark time, it stays dark.
“If you don’t talk, how can we expect me to help you?” she asked.
Didn’t she know he was through, part of the system, a stone in one big boot stomping down the avenues of prosperity that powered each gear in the machine. The charges against him, his record – these were not real any longer. The real was the unreal, what lived on inside of him.
His first mistake was that he’d been born. Yet he was a minor infraction compared to the freaks he met on the inside and tried to avoid.
She was talking to him about the crossing of state lines –trafficking – the worst of his convictions. There’d been weapons involved in the jewelry store screw-up. There’d been earlier convictions. Shoplifting, burglaries, vagrancy, counts of B and E, drunk and disorderly, assault and battery. There’d been other cesspools where he’d served time. All of this put him in a category.
Would he get parole? She didn’t say jack about that.
If he got out, he might just bring his anger back to life, find Terry, saw off his nuts with barbed wire and stuff ‘em down his throat.
Meat for the county lock-up, that’s all he was. A burden to taxpayers. He’d taken his doses, cooled off, lost swagger, found it, lost it again. But he wouldn’t get parole or a suspended sentence. They’d let him rot for at least another nickel, maybe more.
The lawyer said something about a deal in the works, about good behavior, crowded prison, state funding. Maybe there was hope.
The lawyer and the administrator talked more to each other than they did to him. It was, as always, as if he didn’t understand, wasn’t smart enough. He’d read books in prison. Hadn’t wised up. Hadn’t converted to Islam, either, and he’d grown fat on starchy food, but he’d never been what they saw him as – one more big dumb shadow in the shadows.
No point in hope. Not like he wasn’t guilty. If he went to California, Starr wouldn’t take him in. She had her own habits to feed. Not to mention her Argentine husband.
The lawyer sighed, remarking that her time was up. She admitted to Mason he should have been up for a hearing months ago and they were working on that. Some record-keeping issues, a computer glitch, a backlog, she wasn’t sure.
She didn’t sound convincing. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She had to leave. A busy woman, she and other paper-pushers had more walking corpses to see. He liked watching her bottom when she passed through the open doors and moved down the corridor, her heels clicking as a guard on each side acted as her escorts. Another guard led Mason back to his cell as if he didn’t know the way. No, he couldn’t have a cigarette.
That night, he remembered the lawyer’s ass in motion, but he couldn’t summon strength to pleasure himself. He lay there and listened to his breathing and wondered why he never cried.