A parole officer came by Clinton House and talked to Wat. This was a few weeks before Wat was supposed to get out. He expected a social worker type, but this guy looked like he came off a factory floor someplace, worked maintenance like his uncle Preston down in Cumberland County. A regular-looking guy, with gray hair and little glasses he pushed back on his head when he wasn’t looking at the forms in his lap.
The place was something between a rooming house and prison. Sprung couches and the smell of cigarettes you couldn’t get away from. Wat would have said a halfway house, but he never heard anybody call it that. Part of the release program, the PO sitting in one of the broken chairs in the front room, asking him questions about what he was going to do. Interviews, counseling. Urine tests. Guys fresh from Southwoods or Bayside, most of them tense, edgy, trying to remember how to be outside, be with their families. Wat thought they wore themselves out trying to seem normal. Looking out at North Clinton Avenue, their faces clenched. He understood the pressure. Wanting out, not wanting to come back. Sick of the place but not ready for the street, either. The PO flipped through his file while Wat looked at his shoes, tapped his foot, read a poster about how to use Methadone safely.
He said his name was Mr. MacDowell, asked if Wat knew where he was going when he got out of Clinton House. Wat told him his uncle down in Vineland, and McDowell asked him if he thought he could get work down there. Wat didn’t know what to say about that, pictured himself working a commercial dishwasher at a diner on 40, maybe. Something like the big Insinger they’d had in the kitchen at Riverside, down on the Delaware in Camden. He’d gotten his GED there, taken a couple of courses before the funding was cut and they closed the place. Wat hadn’t worked since he was sixteen, didn’t know his own social security number till he’d heard it read in court. The gun charge that had gotten him sent away this time. Wat said everybody he knew was dead or locked up or nobody he should be talking to.
MacDowell said maybe it wasn’t as bad as Wat thought. “Sometimes coming out alone is better.” Sometimes, he said, the guys who have it hardest are the ones who come out too quick. “All their friends are waiting for them, get them laid, get them high. The whole scene is right where they left it, and they go right back. Make the same mistakes.”
Wat said, “Nobody’s waiting for me.” Let himself wonder about Allison. Where she was, what she was doing. Who she was with.
He thought about when he’d been arrested the last time, talking to a girl, a clerk at a little Asian market on Ventnor Avenue. All the things he should have done, the things he didn’t get to do, all the clever ways he could have covered his tracks (and didn’t) coming into his head in that last second. It was a turn of mind, he saw in that instant, a convict way of thinking, a bone-deep mulishness, like a barrier in his brain between the truth as he wanted it to be and the truth as it was. He’d been locked up before and seen it but didn’t recognize it in himself until he watched the state troopers come out of their car in those blue, thirties-style cop suits with the Sam Browne belts to ask him a bunch of questions he didn’t have good answers for.
Riverside had been full of jailhouse lawyers who saw it all as a game they could work. Threw their whole lives into the gap between what the law said was supposed to happen and what was just true. He had seen that way of being in prison and thought it the worst kind of stupid till he found out he was no better. Spread eagle on the linoleum, the staties turning out his pockets and finding the pistol while he worked his mouth, sputtering about probable cause, about what they couldn’t do. A trail of spit from his lips, the slim girl behind the counter fascinated and a little frightened, maybe, one hand behind her neck as if she was forcing herself to watch. They jerked him up by his wrists and put him in the back of a car.
The robbery itself would come through in dreams. The echoes of roaring guns and people screaming, and the smell of burned powder and hot metal and the low-tide reek of the boardwalk and the sea a block away. Not just that, all his street life. Robbing stores, doing burglaries, pointing guns at people in the street and taking their money, their jewelry. A series of drug buddies and juvie friends who got locked up or got clean or went blue and dead in Camden squats with silk trees pushing through the floorboards. And then the last thing, finally, him and Rennie and Eddie Rouquette, all of them coming out of Riverside Prison together. Standing on Atlantic Avenue with long guns pointed at an armored car. That endless moment, the older guard on the truck seeing them, registering their presence and going upright, rigid, freezing until Rennie started screaming at him to get down off the back of the truck and lay flat on the pavement. The man scared, and Wat more scared. Scared the cops would come, scared the gun in his hands would go off. The fear dumping chemicals into his blood, the way he remembered it. The rifle rattling in his gloved hands.
Now Mr. Macdowell saw him drifting and asked what he was thinking. Whether he was worried. Wat said. “I don’t know.”
“If you’re not, you’re the first.”
“No, it’s not that I’m worried, not like that.”
“What’s it like?” The guy looking at him over the glasses, in his lap a file with Wat’s life in it.
He shrugged. They both watched a black and white Trenton police car go by, its siren giving a trilling whelp like a started animal. Wat didn’t know what to say to the guy. What he would hear, what it made sense to tell a guy who made a point of saying he had three hundred and thirteen other parolees he had to keep track of.
In group, sitting with six other guys in the program, Wat had said, “You never believe you’re going to be locked up, not really. You think you’re not stupid, you’re watching the angles. You got plans, you got friends, draw lines and make, like, lists.” He mimed writing, bent over an imaginary paper, a student in a schoolroom. “Even though you and all your friends been locked up, even though everybody you ever knew fucked up and went down. I guess it’s like dying that way. The way everybody thinks about dying. You’re going to beat it, right? Going to be the one who makes it and gets out and lives someplace with palm trees, I don’t know. I really don’t. It sounds stupid to say it out loud.” The other guys, some of them, smiling and nodding at that.
“There’s things you can’t ever admit, not even to yourself. Maybe mostly it’s that. Man, you can get locked up a hundred times and get away once and that one time is the thing that stays in your head. Like that one time is the way it should go. And the rest of it is something went wrong. That’s the way we think, people like us. Like me. I was at Harborfields when I was a kid, down in Atlantic County, for robbing houses and cars. I was at Gormley in Mays Landing, for burglary and stolen goods that time, then Riverside before they closed it down, then Southern State on weapons and dope, and now here I am again, looking out that door. I don’t know nobody in my own family anymore, don’t know nothing about their lives. I lost my wife. I don’t mean she left me, I mean I fucking lost her, I don’t know where she is. Whether we’re still married. I guess we are cause I never got any paperwork. And these last four years I been pretty easy to find.”
But that was talk to people like himself, guys who saw the world he way he did. Now MacDowell looked at him, trying to read him, maybe. Make a decision about whether he was going to be trouble. “So, where are you now? You feeling sorry for yourself?”
“No.” It wasn’t something he could explain, and anyway if this guy had been a parole officer for a while he either knew it already or never would. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “There are two things. There are two things and one of them is true.” Wat’s head was pointed at the window, but he wasn’t seeing the street. “Either I’m going out there forever, or I’m coming back inside to die, and I can’t believe either one.”
Rennie woke up sick. His lungs full of something wet and a fever whine in his ears. More proof, if he needed it, that if he didn’t do something he was going to die inside. There was a guard going by and maybe he’d hit the door with his palm. They did that sometimes to mess with you. Rennie coughed, one hand bracing his sore ribs, and pushed himself up on the bunk, leaning forward and coughing, a terrible noise like marbles clacking together in his lungs. He was forty-four. There was still time, a little. He could do something.
Now there was screaming from somewhere, banging, and the C.O.s yelling commands. A CERT team, guards with masks and thick gloves going in with their sticks the way they did, to get you down flat on the deck before throwing all your shit out onto 3 Wing. Rennie spat, remembered when he was in the Navy and locked up in the brig at Pendleton and the jarheads who didn’t need all that gear to keep you down. Walked the halls with just the batons and beat your ass one at a time. Called the sailors squids, hated them. Because the guards were Marines, because that’s what they did. The uniform telling them who they were.
Rennie had gone to the Navy to get out of going to prison on an assault charge in Abbeville down in Vermilion Parish. Growing up, Rennie had carried a dime on a string, a withered Lucky Hand root, believed in signs and portents. His mother used to predict the weather by running her yellow fingertips over the back of a woolly caterpillar, read the death of family in flights of crows. Put his old shoes in the attic to confuse the witches she saw in rain clouds. Rennie grew up uncertain and prickly, confusing his own spiky nature with the intervention of dark spirits. Even now he searched for meaning in his hot brow, the thin gruel in his lungs. Sickness was unfinished business.
Maybe he didn’t know who he was, Rennie. Maybe that was the secret thing that made him antsy, the reason he woke up at night, his heart racing, his pulse beating in his neck. He knew there was a place he was supposed to be, and it wasn’t here. Men sticking each other, men telling lies, squirming and screaming in their cells at night like they were burning alive. Somewhere there was a home where he’d be known by his real name. His mother had been married to a man named Arsenault, so that was his name, she said. The man they called Papa was the father of Rennie’s younger brother and his sisters, but his mother hadn’t ever said about his own father. Left him to imagine who it might be. Told him he’d find out when it mattered. The way she said it like a secret she had over him.
She came to see him once in Angola, to tell him she was dying. Cancer. She made a motion with her hand, a kind of flourish that meant to say it was throughout her body. Riddled, the word she used. As much as blamed him, spite in her face, the prim set of her lips. The stink of his failure to get along in the world had made her sick. It was something he knew, had seen rising out of the files of the social workers and teachers and cops he’d sat in front of, his head bowed, in rooms with cinderblock walls. A kind of miasma, the smell of rot.
He had a number here, 00758096. It was on everything he owned, stenciled on his khaki prison-issue, burned into the side of the little TV he’d bought at the commissary, inked in spidery black marker on the box with his paperwork. Most guys hated the number but he thought it was as good as anything. He said it to himself, fast, at night in the dark. Oh Oh Seven Five Eight Oh Nine Six. There was meaning in numbers. They were never random. His mother had a dream book that said the number meaning of every dream. A falling star was something, losing teeth was something else. She wrote it all down, locked it away. Addresses, dates, the time of a knock on the door.
Wat had called him Rainy or sometimes R.A. or then Ra, the sun god, he said. Wat read all the time, would stick his finger in a book when he was talking, telling you by that gesture he was going back to the book when he was done with you. A smart one. A planner, a thinker. Rennie had heard Wat was in the Clinton House in Trenton, making good time, doing his service, his programs, and getting out. Was already out from behind the wire and seeing the sun every day. It was Wat had drawn lines on a paper and said how it would go when they came on the Garda truck on Atlantic Avenue. Him and Wat and little Eddie who had come out of Angola with Rennie and was his friend.
Later the paper said an undetermined amount of cash was taken. The cops sat on the edge of the table like they liked to, sitting over you while you’re folded up with the cuffs behind. They said, is it fair you go to prison and this other unnamed person gets away? Two Atlantic City detectives and a State Police Detective named Rooker, as he remembered, with that smile they couldn’t help that said they were smart and knew the ways of the world. Three hundred thousand, they said. The paper wouldn’t say how much, but there was a number and maybe it was three hundred thousand dollars. And where is that money, they asked, their eyes wide. Where is that money, Rennie? If you don’t have it?
The C.O. came back and smiled through the bars and Rennie saw it was Alvarez and the slap had been to say hello. Alvarez was new, replacing a guard named Curran who had been moving heroin for some Brotherhood guys and siphoning off some for Rennie to sell on the tiers. Now he was working Alvarez and so he made himself smile, trying to keep his teeth from chattering.
“I got something. The damp in here. Got into my lungs.”
“You want to see the doc?”
Rennie made a motion with his hand. “I’m alright.” He didn’t need prison doctors poking him with needles, the ward full of guys coughing out their last breath of who knows what diseases. Somewhere on the wing there was a soft hooting, like an animal. A man reduced to that, to making noises like something hanging in a tree. Alvarez ignored it. Rennie asked him, “You thought about what I said?”
“Thinking got nothing to do with it.” Alvarez crossed his arms and looked up and down the tier.
“You deal with all these J-birds, bluegum shines, yellow Chinese, whatever. You can’t do a white man a favor?”
Alvarez dropped his head, spoke quietly. “They pay. They don’t talk, they pay. White, black’s got nothing to do with it. You going to pay?”
“I just been waiting for you to say. Now I know.”
“Now you know. So I ain’t going to say it again.”
“I just need to know how much.”
Alvarez raised his eyebrows, waiting. What were they talking about?
“I don’t want my calls scanned. To start.”
Alvarez looked up and down. They watched the group of helmeted guards drag a shirtless man down the tier, his head lolling. He waited while they passed, then hooked three fingers around the bars.
Three hundred for a burner cell phone. Rennie got up slowly, one hand on his rib cage, feeling his lungs heavy in his chest. He was dying here, dickering with this idiot in a cell. He wanted to launch himself at the bars, enfold the man’s large brown head in his hands. He imagined working it like clay. But he smiled. “Good. That’s how it starts. For you and me.”
“You got kids, a wife? A girl somewhere?”
Alvarez brought the thick rope of his brow down into a line at Rennie talking about the guard’s personal life. Thought he looked hard. It made Rennie want to laugh. Hack hard, bull hard, it wasn’t real. It was something they were taught to do, an act. It wasn’t real. But Rennie raised his hand to show the man had misunderstood. He didn’t mean anything.
“No disrespect, Al. I mean you need things. We all need things. You got people to take care of. This money is the first thing, that’s all. We’ll do more.” He called him Al, that was a chance to take. Closing the distance between them. Getting them maybe on the same side. “You’ll see what it is to have a friend.”
“I’ll see three bills.”
“Didn’t I give you that tip about young Flaco there, hiding contraband in his cell?”
Alvarez waved his hand. “That’s you having the facility beat on your competition. Don’t play me, convict. I know where your money comes from.”
That night, Rennie wrote a letter in his cell, to Eddie’s widow, Brixy. I ask you to come here and talk with me about the circumstance under which Eddie died. I have information relating to his death that was not under the general knowledge of his being shot by the police and the incident that lead direct to my arrest and incarceration in June 2007.
The address for East Jersey State Prison was Lock Bag R, Rahway, New Jersey. Lock Bag R, which Rennie thought could be the name of the place, all of them locked together in this bag and fighting it out. Black gangsters from the Baxter Terrace homes, Puerto Rican Netas from Paterson mixing it up with Breed bikers and Pagans with gray rattail beards. Sticking each other in the cafeteria while the hacks watched from a control room, recording it all on video and waiting for the fighters to wear themselves down or pass out from blood loss.
I would like to tell you what I know and see if you would take steps on my behalf so that I can redress the wrong that Eddie suffered on that tragic day.
He remembered Brixy, a wild girl with a tattoo of her baby’s face on one bicep and crossed pistols on the other. Hair dyed an ashy black so hard that it looked like pulverized coal. If she was the same she’d come help him, maybe, if there was something in it for her.
I have information about money owed Eddie that he would have go to you and his daughter. I feel this certain. He crossed out money and wrote substantial funds, stopping to look up ‘substantial’ in his Merriam-Webster. Brixy had been smarter than Eddie, quicker on the uptake. Which Rennie felt would have been a problem in the long term had Eddie survived. Sometimes she and Rennie had shared a look. Waves in the air between them. He wasn’t wrong about that.
Rennie looked up from his painfully slow lettering when Alvarez brought Ezequiel back to the cell from the kitchen where he was learning how to cook. Alvarez looked at him and he nodded and held three fingers over his mouth.
“What you bring me, Zeke?”
“Cake, coconut cake. The lady say is the same recipe as Paula Deen.”
“Did she now?” Rennie said, no idea what he was talking about. “Paul who?” He accepted a plate wrapped in wax paper, ran a pale finger through white icing. Ezequiel’s cousin Alandra worked in Administration and was the only one in his family who still talked to Ezequiel, the hothead boy who had stabbed a man to death over money, or love, or sex. The story changed over time. Rennie coughed daintily, covered his mouth, holding himself rigid.
“My poor sick baby. You like the cake?”
The lights began to go out on Three Wing, each bank going dark with an echoing snap. Rennie dropped back onto the bunk and Ezequiel sat in his lap. His cousin Alandra had looked up Wat Tyler for him, found out he was in pre-release down in Clinton House. Rennie thought about what else he’d need to tell Brixy to get her to come up from Jonesville in Louisiana and help him. Having a project now, he felt himself coming alive. Even locked up here, even sick. Wheels in motion and old thoughts, old wants coming awake in his head. He could smell sweat and butter and vanilla and put his arm around Ezequiel’s chest. Whispered, “Don’t you know you my sweet thing?”
He’d need a little bit of money. He’d need someone on the outside who could move. Ezequiel shifted and sighed. Rennie had held Eddie the same way when he was bleeding out in the car after him and Rennie and Wat tried to take the Garda truck on Atlantic Avenue. He kept snapshots of it in his head. Driving with one hand on the wheel and one arm around Eddie, running on the county roads off Route 9 north of Atlantic City. The smell of burned powder and gun grease in Eddie’s hair, the rotten-egg tang of the endless grass-filled bay. Eddie shot through his lungs but laughing, saying Brixy was going to be pissed if Rennie let him die. Pink froth on his lips.
Rennie was going to get out of here and get his money. The cops said three hundred thousand dollars, of which Rennie saw nothing. They gave him stacked sentences. His friend Wat had almost gotten away clean, ran into a convenience store and got picked up on a gun charge for the hot Kimber .45 in his coat. The Atlantic County DA had his suspicions but couldn’t put Wat with Rennie and Eddie on Atlantic Avenue. So Wat got easy time. The statie detective, Rooker, had ridden him about it, saying why you want to do hard time alone, Rennie? Your friend Eddie dead and nothing to show for it? Tell us Wat Tyler was there and we’ll knock some years off. He’d been polite, Rennie. Back home they’d have taken him back to Angola and put him on death row, but New Jersey wasn’t executing. So they’d put him away and forget about him, but Rennie Arsenault had his own feelings on the subject. What was justice. How much time he’d do.
All his life he had been looking for something that explained him. All the principals and truant officers, social workers and sheriffs and parish police who looked at him over all those desks and through all these bars asking what wires were crossed, what circuits blown in his head? After his mother died he became obsessed with cancer. What it looked like, where it hid. He was aware, in bad moments, of being a thing inside his own hide, his tough skin, the red strings of his muscles draped over some hollow core. Thinking there was some small being that lived in there that might be his real self. Whatever the soul might be, for real. Not the airy, blank-faced angels in the pamphlets his mother brought home from church. Something dark and wet, something like sinew that wasn’t. What if you were made of that blackness, that thread of sickness that killed your mother? What if it was who you were, at the end? How could you live except to shake the world and make it give you want you want?
She woke up and it was the same room every day. That was something. It didn’t look like much, four scuffed panel walls, a dented metal door that opened onto the highway. A corner room in a cinderblock motel on the White Horse Pike in Absecon, but she could walk to work at the diner, and there was a Wawa across the street so she could get coffee and a pack of cigarettes when she got fidgety. It took a while to get across the road, sometimes, and she’d look into the cars at the fathers going home at the end of the day, the mothers picking up their kids from school. Looked in at car seats, saw bright orange crackers clutched in small fists. Kids in shoulder pads on Sundays, eating ice cream after the games. No one made eye contact with her except dazed-looking toddlers or golden retrievers with their blonde muzzles pressed against the windows, as if she was invisible to everyone but small children and dogs. She felt like a ghost standing by the side of the road. One of those dead hitchhikers from the stories teenagers told each other in the dark. Imagined the cigarette butts and white plastic Acme bags tumbling at the side of the road blowing right through her on their way to the bay. Sometimes she would put her hand on her ribcage just to feel her heart.
She’d lost her license when she’d wrecked the Escort, trying to drive to the base of one of the windmills on the edge of the wetlands. She’d remembered bits of it. Opening the windows to let the air in while she drove along the water. Turning the radio up to hear ‘Stolen Car,’ and singing, the cold mist gathering on her cheeks while she drove. And later, talking with the judge and crying on a hard bench in the police station.
The day manager at the motel, Kavi, brought her the books people left behind, after he saw her sitting on the curb reading a Vonnegut paperback she’d accepted from the silent Ecuadorian girl who cleaned the rooms. Allison was reading Robinson Crusoe and had The Magic Mountain and a biography of Joseph Smith on her nightstand, as if she was in a kind of demented book club for transients. She didn’t sleep much. During the day she stood in her open doorway and awarded names to the other furtive and mostly silent people living at the Lucky Seven. Black-haired Woman with Devil Tattoo. Girl with Port Wine Stain. Red Shirt Man.
Being at work was better, though as the days got colder and darker there were fewer people in for dinner. Nicolette, the manager at the Sea Strand, liked her because she’d work shifts for the teenagers from Absecon and Pleasantville who’d stay home with their periods, or skip work for dates with the sullen boys who sat for hours in the booths nursing a single coke or an order of fries.
The Sea Strand Diner was one of those places that still sold gum under the register counter, and the counter was always crowded with little boxes for nickels and dimes with pictures of local kids who needed new wheelchairs or skin grafts or a liver transplant. The casinos were only a few miles away and at night the eastern sky glowed blue with their lights, but the tide of money stopped at the bay and things out here looked pretty much like they’d always looked. The bars and dry cleaners and convenience stores along Route 30 had names like Four Aces and Royal Flush and Lucky Devil and Jokers Wild, naked and pathetic attempts to link the drowned flatlands along the pikes to the noise and lights of the casinos. There was something self-defeating in this, Allison thought, like asking your friends to call you by a nickname that you’d thought of yourself.
Days off, she walked. West along 30, one day as far as the giant bottle of wine at the turnoff for the Renault winery. A good landmark for a drunk, she thought. An easy place to convince herself to turn around and walk back. Ten miles, with a bottle of water hanging out of the jacket of her parka and the beginning of a sweat rash under the waist of her frayed jeans and on the backs of her knees. She walked because she’d lost her license, but told herself it was good exercise and she was sweating out all the poison she’d loaded herself with all that time waiting for Wat to reappear. All those nights sitting in bars, or buying pints of Cuervo Especial and driving around. Waiting, waiting for something to happen.
Sober now, trying to find muscles she’d lost track of, she’d hike down the bay to watch the points of the steel-gray waves go white as they tipped and fell into troughs. She’d watch the big blades of the windmills going fast as clouds rolled out over the water and try to remember why it had seemed so important to go out to them. Battering the gate with the car, laughing and singing and crying, the way she’d get sometimes.
One Wednesday night at the Lutheran Church they gave her a thirty day chip. It was white and looked like one of the chips that that came with a home poker game set, except for having a big ‘30’ embossed on one side. She smiled and looked down, the way she always did in front of the group. Stealing glances at Ynez, her sponsor, who nodded at her and winked. Back in her room at the Lucky Seven, she held the chip to her head and sobbed, until she jerked it away, suddenly afraid she’d left the number pressed into the skin of her forehead. She went to the mirror and rubbed at the mark. Wished for Wat to come and get her and take her away, then just as fast, wished he was gone for good.