barcelona review #15

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by Alice Mullen    

Glo0bug pic

       Cell BX23915
       Stratham County Prison,
       Dover, New Hampshire.

       When he first came in, he was all fucked up. He was coming off heroin, cold turkey, no detox, no medicine, nothing. All anyone knew of him was his moaning, and screaming, and being sick.
       I didn’t mind much. To be honest, his addiction, and what it did to him, was the most interesting thing I’d had going on for months. I know it’s a little perverse, but every day it was something different. My favorite part was the hallucinations and all the talking he did while he was sweating it out, in fevers, half-sleeping. It was like listening to one side of a conversation and guessing at what the rest is. I made up whole stories and scenarios in my head that I’d wrap around the things he said. I just about went nuts trying to imagine a face for each name he called out. Mostly he called out for Tran and Lydia. Trying to picture them, I’d just come up with distorted versions of his face. When the fevers were real bad, I spent a lot of time watching his face. His eyes would race around under his lids in quick flashes. His lips were all chapped, and sometimes when he’d go on talking and talking, not making any sense, they’d crack and bleed. He has kind of a square jaw, and you can tell when he’s clenching his teeth because it seems to get wider, or to stand out more under sideburns that kind of blur into scruff.
       There wasn’t anything he could hide from me when he was that bad off. He cried like a baby sometimes and screamed like a nut others. Around here, people are usually pretty guarded, no pun intended. Harlo didn’t have any of that. As far as the cleaning up goes, I’m sure the guards would have assigned me to it if I hadn’t done it myself. Besides I have to live in the cell too, so it might as well be tolerable. After two weeks he was starting to make sense. I remember I was cooling him down with a wet face cloth one night and he looked me straight in the eye. That was the first time he looked at me and knew who I was. He'd been here for two weeks and that’s the first time he noticed me, because it was me that was taking care of him.
       It was strange, when he started to pull his shit together, it was like the difference between seeing a suit on a hanger and seeing it on a person. He seemed to come into himself and fill up every corner. I have to say, it was a disappointment when he came around. Here I was, feeling like I’d really gotten to know him, like we were friends, and he wasn’t feeling quite the same. Thinking it over from his point of view I can see that though. All fucked up for a time, out of your head, and when you clean out, your roommate’s all friendly? So I’ve been backing off, leaving him alone. It’s been a few weeks now and we haven’t talked much. He looks over at me sometimes with a strange look on his face while we’re in the cell together, but most of the time when the cell’s unlocked and we’ve got access to the common area, he avoids being around me. Which is just as well, because he seems to take up the whole cell, but maybe I’m just intimidated by all those freaking muscles.
       Taking care of him was real good for me. I miss it. I’ve had a tendency since I came in here to fixate on the stupidest things. I don’t know if it’s the boredom or if I’m just overly aware of things. For example, I absolutely hate brushing my teeth. I like having clean teeth and all but it’s the process that freaks me out. The way your vision shakes while you’re brushing. I’ve spent hours trying to manage to do it without moving my head, but it’s impossible. Along the same lines, I can’t stand looking straight ahead of me when I walk, because my vision bounces with each step. I look at my feet while I’m walking so I can’t notice as much. I tried to just walk stiff, but the guards gave me too much grief saying I was going too slow or just making 'em nervous. Taking care of Harlo I’d get so caught up in what he needed, or how he was doing, that I could finally put shit like that out of my mind.
       James, my old cellmate, he thought I was just too high strung, too nervous. Sometimes I miss him, wonder what he’s up to now. I always felt more comfortable around the other guys once I figured out where I stood with James. James is the one that gave me this damn name. Every morning when I’m getting dressed, I see this mole on my shoulder, every time I see it out of the corner of my eye I think it’s a bug. So I almost always scare myself when I’m half-asleep and jump or brush at it. So James loved this, he thought it was the craziest thing that I would forget my skin every night. He swore it looks just like a ladybug. So between the bug thing, my red hair that looks more like orange than anything, and my rap sheet, he tagged me, Glo-bug. Everyone’s been calling me by it since the first day James said it. Even the guards. You get used to anything over time. What gets me isn’t the name; it’s this mole. Why is it I have to go through that every morning, the forgetting? Sometime I think my brain’s just wired wrong, or I have to cut down on the coffee. I don’t know.
       I can see now why James wanted to look out for me when I first came, like how I feel with Harlo. It’s like a cross between nursing a sick animal back to health, and making friends with the new kid at school. Maybe that comparison doesn’t work, because sometimes when he was real sick it felt more like poking road kill with a stick out of some sick curiosity. As far as thinking of him as the new kid in school, I can show him how things work. That is, if he’d let me. But I can also watch him fuck up with people and land flat on his face. Aren’t I the twisted bastard?
       I guess he’s right to be paranoid. He doesn’t know me, and he probably figures that the only reason I’d have helped him was if I’d wanted something. It’s impossible to tell someone that you’re interested in them for their entertainment value – well, I just don’t think it’ll play. So I’m trying to just leave him be.
       So we were sitting in the cafeteria, and as usual no one is talking because with only fifteen minutes to eat, there just isn’t any of that. I wasn’t even looking down at my plate, just kind of shoveling it in while I looked around kind of nonchalant. The chewing was distracting, vision jiggle, but still, it’s easier to eat, and eat fast if I don’t look at it. So there’s just the scrape of forks against the plastic plates, and the brown trays shuffling across the tables, and Harlo spoke. So the room wasn’t entirely silent, there was some mumbling and grumbling on the other side as guys were finishing up and stuff but from where I was sitting Harlo’s voice was like -Bam. All I could hear.
       I guess that’s because I’ve been waiting to hear it for a while now, anticipation being what it is and all. So in a clear strong voice to everyone around him and no one in particular he says, "You know where’s a scary place to be?"
       Every one sitting around him turns to look at him like he’s a nut and he answers himself, "The inside of a chicken nugget."
       And he looked around him, like he was looking for someone to back him up, or agree with him, or something. He wore this serious expression on his face, like total confidence, like he was passing down gospel truth –word. He was looking around, and I was outright staring, just trying to tear my eyes off of him, and we ended up looking each other right in the eye. It was the look on his face that did me in; he was dead-straight serious. I busted out crazy laughing so bad it hurt like hell. Something happened then, I don’t know quite what. While we were looking at each other, it’s like we saw something we recognized.
       Now he’s talking to me, not a lot, just a little bit here and there, but it’s like he’s not all paranoid around me anymore. He’s in here for armed robbery. Once his plea goes in, he’ll probably get six years. I didn’t offer up anything about myself. While he was undressing tonight I saw his tattoo. On the top of his arm, he’s got a picture of a lion standing up holding a flag in one paw, like a cartoon, and on the flag there’s his name, Harlo. A tattoo of your own name seems like the stupidest thing in the world to me, but somehow it suits him. The colors were faded into his skin like they’re settling in for the long haul. I’m guessing he’s around twenty-seven but that tattoo looks ancient.
       We went to the courthouse today. There were seven of us in the bus. One of the guys was maximum so the guards were really tense. I heard them call him Cuba but I don’t know what he was going to court for. They had three guards and two of them were like glued to this guy, so the rest of us were stuck in a courtroom that wasn’t being used while they dealt with him. For a while Adam told stories. He’s always going on about some shit, and if he isn’t just telling tales about how tight he is with the mayor in Providence, he’s going on about how much money he’s gonna make when he’s out again. So that killed like two hours. Not just Adam’s stories but all the back and forth between him and the guys. You have to give him credit; he doesn’t ever shake off a con. He could be on the friggin Titanic and he’d be going on about how safe the ship was and how much he paid for his tickets till he was spitting up salt water. After a while though we all got kind of bored and quiet. Some of the guys dozed off, and I realized how nice it is not to have a snorer for a cellmate.
       I was just waiting to stand in front of the judge and get a date for my next parole review. Normally they just schedule them at regular intervals but when I got sentenced, since I was young, they wanted to keep an eye on my rehabilitation. I don’t really know what rehabilitation’s supposed to feel like, so I never know if I’ve gotten any closer or farther away from it.
       I was seventeen when I set the match to Misty’s house. We’d been going out for seven years, ever since we were in the fifth grade. I don’t know why she wanted to break up. We’d had breaks before but that time it was different. I don’t know what had gotten her so mad but she wasn’t going to see me again. Her mom was at work, and Misty was out on a date. I know, because I’d watched her leave with him.
       I’ve been to the counselor, the psychiatrist, the psychologist, all of them. None of them have made me understand what I felt that night. I’ve never felt anything like that, before or since. I wasn’t me. The gas had that clinging oily sting in my nose and throat; breathing through my mouth I could almost taste it. I could feel the cold sloshing around inside the red metal can while I balanced the weight of it in my hands. I held it like I was watering plants, thinking about the flames that would sprout up from everywhere I poured it. I poured a long line across the flowered couch in the den Misty and I used to make out on. I watched it soak into the fabric; the wetness spreading out and turning the flowers blood red.
       I was standing in the doorway of that room when I hit the match. No fancy toss of the wrist or flashy arc through the air, but it was like it was in slow motion. I just let it drop. This tiny spark on the head of the match, it flickered, turning small and pulsing blue till it hit the vapors rising up from the wet rug. The sound was like a soft breath, a rushing whooomphff. I watched it spread away from me in waves and it took over everything. There were so many layers of smell, like burnt hair, scalded coffee, black plastic and tires. I would have stayed longer, just watching it, if it weren’t for the heat. When I left, the flames were chasing each other up the walls like squirrels up trees: crackling, snapping, and hissing at me. I stood in the woods behind her house, watching it take over. I heard the fire trucks screaming and I knew I should leave but I just couldn’t tear my eyes off it. That small blue spark that had started with me had grown into these huge flames surging up into the cool air of the night, tearing big hunks of the roof down while they grew bigger. Small sparks carried in an updraft rose like stars against the black night.
       This is where my problem is: I understand in a logical sense that what I did was wrong. I’m ashamed of what I did because I understand it was destructive and pointless. But that fire, I don’t know. That fire was the most amazing thing I’ve ever had. When I think of those flames, how tall they were, the heat that poured out of the place, the smell of the air turning crisp with ash, I feel like I’ve got a talent that no one here will ever see.
       So we’re all waiting, thinking of the time passing as the same time that skims past us while we’re in the prison. I’m in the back row of the jury box where they’ve put us, and Harlo’s next to me.
       He taps me on he shoulder and I jump from the static charge that arcs as he does. Harlo points to the windowsill on our left.
       "Look," he says, "A ladybug Jonestown."
       I turn and see the small red and black dead dots that litter the white edge of wood. The idea is neat, but I realize that I’m immediately suspicious, thinking that any remark involving bugs could be a veiled comment towards me. But as soon as that thought is out of the way, another cruises in to replace it and I answer him.
       "Mmmm, Kool-Aid."
       Harlo gets this big shit-eating grin on his face, and he looks over at me beaming. No one else seemed to hear, it was just something between the two of us. I don’t even know if anyone else would get it, but the moments passed and the chance of telling the others and getting more laughs just passed us by, and Harlo and me watched it go on by.
       Afternoon light spilled into the courtroom, and the sunlight felt so good and warm wrapped around me, compared to the chill in the prison. Eventually we all had our time in front of the judge down the hall. Harlo, I imagine, put in his plea, and I was assigned a new date to go in front of the parole board. Adam left for a bit and came back with a deflated look on his face but he didn’t say much more that day. By the time we were all back in the bus and on our way back inside everyone was wiped out. It’s strange that a whole day of doing close to nothing can make you so tired but its been my experience that you get all wound up and tense in the courthouse and that wears you out. It doesn’t matter why you’re tense, it could be just the memory of facing sentence, it could be the cynical hope of getting out, but whatever it is, it rolled over everyone like a steamroller.
       The ride back to the prison in the bus was quiet, you could practically hear all our brains jiggling in our skulls with the potholes. I was spacing out looking out the window and Harlo was next to me. I was watching the bare trees whiz by and looking at the mounds of snow by the roadside crusted dark with exhaust. So out of the corner of my eye I saw Harlo make this weird gesture and I turned to look closer and he was still doing it. He held his hand face down, parallel to the ground and he kind of poked his head up from behind it and looked from side to side with his eyes bugging out of his head and this strange pursed look on his lips. He didn’t say a thing. He just dropped his hand back down to his side and took back to looking around him as if nothing had happened. I looked back to the road and tried do the same but to be honest I was starting to wonder if he’d snapped. After about twenty minutes I couldn’t get it off my mind and not asking about it was about to drive me nuts. "So what was that?" I asked, repeating the hand gesture half way.
       "What?" he says.
       I repeat the gesture trying to force the resemblance to what he’d done a little harder, "that."
       "Oh," he says as if he forgot entirely. And then he repeated the whole thing, the wall of a hand, his head straining to reach above it, the O look on his mouth, and he says, "I’m a fire-hydrant, I’m trying to see from under the snow, and I’m saying hello to anyone that passes by."
       Never mind how fucking funny it was that he did it in the first place, and then just let it sit until I asked, but he was so matter of fact. It was like, oh, of course.
       That night I had trouble sleeping. Court stresses me out enough as it is, but on the days when I get to thinking about Misty and the fire I have nightmares. I have dreams of the fire but they turn all haywire away from what really happened. James told me about how I would talk in my sleep or toss and turn but he never really made much of it. So, through the night I kept waking up sporadically. Weird images kept chasing me into being awake and I just couldn’t seem to steer myself away from all of it. It must have been around three in the morning. I could tell the time by the strange half-light creeping in the window, and the way it laid across everything in this strange wet blue. The sheet was all tangled around my neck and it felt cool to my skin, like there’d been a draft in the cell.
       Harlo’s hand was on my shoulder. The palm of his hand was pressed against the top of my back, and his fingers were cupped to fit the tendons joining my shoulder and my neck.
       I didn’t know what to do. It took me a second to remember where I was, and to figure out whose hand that would be. I always err on the side of caution. So I just restrained the breath going in and out of my lungs, to keep my breathing like it would be when I was asleep. I was holding my lungs tight, easing the air out slow, and his hand just stayed there. I could feel the imprint of his hand on my skin in braille heat. This small piece of flesh connected the two of us. I was sure that when his hand moved, I’d have his fingerprints branded into me. I counted my slow breaths while I tried not to tense up my muscles showing that I was awake. Fifteen sets of slow deep breaths in and steady even breaths out.
       All my concentration was on pretending to be asleep, and the feel of his hand. I never knew that I could feel so much through my shoulder. I never knew that my skin had that much to tell me. I could feel the bit of moisture in the palm of his hand, like dew. And I knew his palms were sweating just a little bit. I could feel his joints as they creaked in his grip. I could feel the cool air touching my skin in between his fingers. And for a split second I thought I could feel his breath. But I might have got it confused with my own. And then it was gone.
       The first thing I felt was relief. Then, I don’t know. The weight of his hand lifted off of me so fast that I wondered if I’d imagined it. The tension his hand had built up in me, well that seemed to take forever, easing up bit by bit. I didn’t realize at the time, since I was trying so hard to pretend sleep, my heart was racing. The heat from his hand had seemed unbearable while it was on me, but as soon as it was gone it seemed as if every other part of me surged up like a hot flood, a quiet inferno. But then I spent the rest of the morning shivering against the cool blue light on my sheets. I must have finally dozed off at some point. I woke up with a jolt as the alarm on the speaker screamed into the pod. I’m amazed the adrenaline-charged shakes of the night ever eased up enough to let me sleep at all though.
       I didn’t want to acknowledge any of this in the light of day. I just didn’t know how to deal with it. So I acted like nothing happened. And Harlo did too. Well we kind of did. I think we did. In the first part of the day it felt tense, like we were forcing it not to have happened. But what am I talking about? What happened? My roommate touched me. I know that this is nothing, but it feels like something. But maybe that’s just me. The way Harlo acted that next day made me feel a lot better though. By the time I went down that night I was more confident that he and I are tight, and that I’d been freaking out over nothing.
       After a while things got to feeling like normal again. We were cracking jokes and wisecracking in the TV room making fun of the shit on the tube, and the other guys. Adam made some remark about us always being in on things together. I double-checked myself before I reacted. I couldn’t figure out if him saying that made me defensive because I’m all confused about what happened the other night, or if he just pissed me off because it’s such a cliché insinuation around here. Harlo turned it around somehow to make it seem like the joke was on Adam.
       A few weeks later the same things happened. I was having a restless night, and I must have woken him up. His hand rested on my shoulder for a moment. Like he was thinking of waking me, and couldn’t decide if he should. I understand it in these terms now. But part of it hasn’t changed. The heat was just as intense, but this time it felt like it was spreading out from the center of his hand, out from his fingers. I kept my eyes closed but it seemed like flames danced on the back of my eyelids. I was absolutely frozen but it felt like so much was happening at the same time.
       So, it’s been like that. Every now and then, in the night I’m all restless, and he doesn’t shake me. Just holds my shoulder. I’ve come to the point that I appreciate it. I’m trying to take it like it’s given. It is kind of comforting that he cares if I sleep sound. He doesn’t give me shit about waking him up, like most guys would, he just settles me. It kind of anchors me when I’m caught in the nights’ cross currents. The heat’s still there. Sometimes I doze back off while it’s still on me.
       I haven’t been tossing around tonight though. I’m just laying here on my right side, staring at the concrete in front of me. I don’t know if he knows I’m awake or not. His hand is on my shoulder and the heat is unbearable. It reminds me of the fire. It’s a tight, small, intense, spark. Set apart from me, flickering. The muscles of my right arm are wound up tight. The first few bare breaths of movement almost hurt. The air is burning the inside edges of my lungs; waiting for me to let this breath out. My teeth are clenched, and it’s feeling just like that night. In one fast smooth move, the match is past the strike. I can’t take it back. My right hand is crossing my chest. There’s no hiding that I’m awake. I can’t take any of it back now. My hand is cold and damp with sweat. I reach up and put my hand over his.
       I’m just holding it there. He hasn’t moved and neither have I. I can feel the heat all over now. His warm breath on my neck. We’re inside this frozen moment as the match hits the wet cool gas. Harlo and me -we’re catching the light.

© 1999 Alice Mullen    

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Author bio:

Alice Mullen, a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, lives in Dover, New Hampshire with her dog Turtle, who is learning to spell, and her husband Eric, who has mastered spelling and now ventures off to physics.  She works at a local college and writes in her available time. 


navigation:                     barcelona review #15             November  1999 to January 2000
-Fiction Ian Wild - The Woman Who Swallowed The Book of Kells
Gotzy - Gotzy's Story
Greg Chandler - The Ghost of Sharon Tate
Alice Mullen - Glo-bug
Javier Marías - Fewer Scruples
-Essay Barbara Lefcowitz -Swans, Tricksters, The Letter 'S'
-Quiz Samuel Beckett- win a book
Answers to last issue's Nabokov quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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