In the cell on Mary Alice’s left was Max. Her name was really Maria but she had everyone call her Max, as though this were enough to transform her into what she had apparently wanted to be all her life, though God only knows what the attraction was. Walking as though she had a ten-pound Polish kielbasa hanging between her legs, arms held out and away instead of resting at her sides, the way a bodybuilder is forced to do because of his enormous, steroid-induced lats, which, on Max, existed only in her feverish imagination. Hair slicked back in what used to be called a ducktail in the 50s, the jeans riding low on the hip, the clunky scuffed boots, the plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, or when she had on a T-shirt, a pack of cigarettes tucked into one of the sleeves, the way she’d seen it done in those old Sal Mineo movies such as Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando’s The Wild One.
Oho, Max was wild alright. She was a tough sumbitch! Don’t mess with Max! Wasn’t she the one who had thrown two kids off a bridge alive, down into some river? A little boy and a little girl. First she’d mutilated the boy’s genitals, but we won’t get into the psychology of that one. She tossed him off, first, as his mother, Maria Max’s lover, looked on, smoking a cigarette. The little girl went next. Her blue polka-dot dress spread like a miniature parachute as she fell down, down, cutting the air into cruel strips of color. At first, Maria Max got the death penalty, but it was later judged “unconstitutional” by the courts, so her sentence was changed to “life.” She was now into her twentieth year, doing it “standing on her head” as she liked to brag.
Next door to the right was Coco, who was perfectly happy being a woman and spent at least an hour every morning becoming more of one by the assistance of various perfumes, lotions, waterproof mascara, high quality foundation makeup, and an enormous amount of hair spray to maintain two particular wings of hair perched at just the right angle on either side of her face, the better to disguise the deep acne scars she had often used as an excuse for the mess she’d made of her life. Coco, Coco. Dangerously similar to cuckoo. Fastidiously clean, the fingernails, the toenails buffed to resemble those exotic, milky agates, clothes always pressed to perfection, “bonneroo-ed” as the prisoners called it, from the French word for “bon”; it was a generally known fact that just because you were in prison didn’t mean you weren’t bi- or even multi-lingual.
Coco, coquette, cokehead. Or any other stimulant she could get a hold of, from hairspray or cold pills bought in the prison commissary to marijuana, speed, or heroin smuggled in from the visiting room in what the French, since we’re doing the bi-lingual here already, call the “derriere.” Doing five for possession with intent to sell.
Mary Alice in the cell between them, engaged at this moment in one of her favorite pursuits: gleaning universal truths from the classics, read in the original whenever possible. At the moment, she was immersed in a short story by Thomas Mann, “Little Herr Friedemann.”
Coco appeared at her cell door, dressed in a bright turquoise velveteen jogging suit.
“Spinner, do I look OK?”, she asked, making a slow turn counterclockwise. Everything in the slammer was done counterclockwise to thwart time, to show it the prisoners are boss.
Mary Alice had once made the mistake of telling Coco her nickname in high school. It sounded idiotic now, and besides, she didn’t have the slightest idea where it had come from. Did she use to do a lot of spinning? Say, taken ballet classes, pretended to be a dervish in those old Oriental-type movies, where their eyes were rolling out of the sockets in ecstasy? Not that she could recall. She had taken a rope-twirling class at the local youth center during her cowgirl phase, so that could have been it. That stopped when she’d roped her little brother once and nearly torn his head off, unintentionally, of course.
“It looks fine.” Mary Alice told her. “You always look perfect.”
“You’re full of shit, Spinner,” she said laughing.
“I wish you’d pull back your hair, though,” she told Coco. The way it was roosting there on her head, looking like a dishrag someone had scrunched up with their hands and then stuck in the freezer.
“Then my acne would show more,” she said, adjusting the wings to a pre-flight angle. “What are you doing?”
“Reading a German short story.” Mary Alice closed the book and put it down in her lap, using a bookmark instead of bending the page to mark her spot. In her family, defilement of a book was heretical. In her family, if you asked something simple like whether you could change the TV channel, her father would answer: Was that the hortatory subjunctive, Mary Alice? They discussed Nabokov’s synaesthesia at the dinner table.
“Spinner, you’re so smart,” Coco said, as though she were offering her sympathies to Mary Alice, and glided off, the wings frozen in place.
Later, when Mary Alice had finished her short story, she sat silently for a long, long time just looking out the window. She noticed that on the recreation field, just outside the fences, sat that same chipmunk, as though frozen in place, little paws cupped in front of him, perhaps holding an acorn or a piece of pinecone. He was there every day, no matter when she looked, as though he knew that she’d be searching for him, and that she needed him somehow, as a focal point, something that would anchor her firmly to the universe.
And then all of a sudden, perhaps inspired somehow by the serenity and constancy of the chipmunk, it became clear to her what she needed to do. SHE WOULD PROVIDE COCO WITH AN ALTERNATE GOD! Maria Max was a hopeless case, her faith was firmly rooted in a place where all the demons of the cosmos held sway, but Coco, Coco’s roots were shallow and frail, like bloodless veins leading nowhere. They could be pulled out and rerouted with the slightest tug, transplanted elsewhere, in the bright sun, among all the beautiful blossoms of the Holy Kingdom. Mary Alice would be that gardener, and under her capable hands, Coco would flourish!
She lay in wait for Coco, sitting silently on her bed, marshalling her energies, the book still resting in her lap. So many thoughts were scurrying around in her head, bumping into one another and then changing direction only to repeat the process. Redemption through art, the transcendence of physical limitations to attain a perfect state of bliss. But in layman’s terms.
Maria Max strutted by as she sat waiting and gave her a dirty look, still holding a grudge for Mary Alice’s curt refusal of her recent “foot massage” offer. Right. Mary Alice stared her down, directing evil rays of energy in her direction.
“Ah go chain yourself to a freight train next time instead of a fence,” Max told her sarcastically. “At least then parts of you would be spread around the country instead of me having to see all of you here everyday.”
Mary Alice gave a tiny snort, blowing air simultaneously out her mouth and nose, which seemed the most expressive way to do it. So what if she only had six months? She was here for a reason, “Nuclear waste sites=human waste sites!” “Nuke your mama, not mine!” and so forth—not for killing babies or robbing banks for a sex change like Tina-Robert down the hall.
Life enhancement, not biological decadence. In layman’s terms. See, Coco, she began in her mind, Little Herr Friedemann was dropped on his head as a baby by his drunken nanny, and he was crippled after that. Would she see an immediate connection between his infirmity and her pitted face? Maybe a little more subtly. See, Coco, she began again, he tried to rise above his difficulties in life, he refused to wallow in self-pity. He turned to music and art. Not rock and roll, the classics, she would have to remember to emphasize that. Coco needed to get away from rock and roll because she was the type who responded in a negative manner to the expansion of time and space that it produced in the listener, and thus a sense of powerlessness. The last thing Coco needed. A little Pachelbel, yes. A lot of Wagner.
She heard Coco’s voice at the end of the hall. And then her low laugh, the one that sounded like a stalled motor and indicated she’d been into the artificial stimulants again, a hair spray cocktail, some cold capsules.
“Cocoooooooooooooo!” Mary Alice called out loudly to her. “Come here!”
“Spiiiiiinnnnnnner! Are you still reading that book, Spinner? Your head’s going to explode from all that knowledge!” She pronounced knowledge with a long awwwww, like “gnaw”, as though Mary Alice were literally devouring the book, tearing at it with her teeth, perfect as a result of regular visits to the family dentist, Dr. Trotman, whom she’d always referred to as “Trotsky” just to get a laugh.
“Come in here for a minute, I have something for you,” Mary Alice told her, patting the bed with her hand.
Coco danced in, hips rotating as though they’d been attached to a cement mixer. Fingertips resting on her thighs, measuring the epicenter. She stopped abruptly in front of the bed, turned stiffly with military precision and plunked herself down next to Mary Alice.
“Don’t be mad, Spinner, you know I gotta party once in a while!” she said to Mary Alice, making a phony sad face, lower lip protruding. Mary Alice looked down at Coco’s arms, crisscrossed with dark tracks leading nowhere, paths into oblivion. A map of the world, but one that has sunk, like Atlantis.
“Coco, I’m going to introduce you to great literature,” she said. “Take you out of this hellhole for awhile!” She handed her the book she’d been reading. “And we can start with the first story, “‘Little Herr Friedemann’.”
Coco took the book slowly, a slow smile beginning, like a shark fin rising from the surface of the sea. “You want me to read that story, Spinner?”
“Then we can talk about it, you can tell me what it means to you, how you interpret it.”
“Well, can you give me a hint in advance so I don’t sound stupid?”
“It’s not a riddle. There’s not just one answer. It’s what it means to you!”
“OK,” she said reluctantly, holding the book as though it were an unwelcome carbuncle which had suddenly sprouted on her hand. The party was over.
“We can meet tomorrow and discuss it.” Mary Alice got up, dismissing Coco, who walked out slowly, her wings drooping dangerously.
That chipmunk, she thought, seeing him through her window after Coco had left, still crouching, motionless, out on the field. If only I had his serenity, his unflinching gaze, Mary Alice thought, as though he were penetrating the depths of all mortal wisdom.
The next day Coco showed up at the agreed upon time, book in hand. Mary Alice waved her in and they both sat down carefully, realizing the significance of the moment.
“Now,” said Mary Alice, turning to the first page of the story. “What did you think the author was trying to say?”
Coco struggled. Her face froze, her eyes focused on the floor where, Mary Alice noticed, a blob of something greenish brown had congealed, just next to Coco’s foot. The guacamole from the other night.
“Was he trying to say people could improve their lives if they really wanted to or something like that?” she asked hopefully.
“Listen to this,” Mary Alice said, and read: “He also well understood that a capacity for the enjoyment of life presupposes education . . .he knew how to savor the exquisite rhythms of a poem, he could appreciate the subtle atmosphere of a finely written short story . . .”
“So I was wrong?” said Coco, downfallen.
“No, no, no, you were RIGHT, people CAN better themselves, they AREN’T doomed to an inferior existence, there ARE noble things worth believing in, art, music, literature!” She continued reading: “This unfortunate cripple was a man to whom life was very sweet, this life of his that flowed so gently by . . .”
Coco was smiling beatifically, as though suddenly transformed into a glowing receptacle of revelations.
Mary Alice stopped for a moment to contemplate the enormity of her accomplishment. Coco was the bearer of a new faith! She would no longer worship the demons of excess and decadence, but the new, transcendent gods of beauty, vitality. A jolt of pure energy surged through Mary Alice’s breast, causing her to become faint for a moment. She felt as though she might begin to speak in tongues.
That evening after chow line, Mary Alice headed out to the recreation field to tidy up the exercise area just adjacent to the prison fence, a cushy job she had just gotten due to her lack of a criminal mind, according to the unit manager. Which had irritated her somewhat, the thought that she would be incapable of escape, could not be tempted by the proximity of a wall to the free world. As though a simple wall could hold her out or in.
She turned her head away as she passed Maria Max’s cell, so as to avoid whatever was going on in that den of iniquity, but when she heard a familiar low chuckle, she involuntarily turned and looked in. Coco and Maria Max were sitting on the floor. Maria Max was massaging Coco’s foot, rotating her thumbs suggestively on the sole as Coco giggled, eyes glazed, pupils pinned.
“Spiiiiiiiiiner!” she called out, seeing Mary Alice. “I did good, didn’t I? That little guy Friedemann, he figured out art and music were a drag, didn’t he? That you should just enjoy yourself, right? That it was stupid, how did it go in the story, stupid to distinguish between happy and unhappy experiences?”
Maria Max smirked at Mary Alice as she increased the intensity of her thumb rotations on Coco’s sole. Coco’s head had fallen back and her eyes were closed.
A waste of time, Mary Alice thought with deep disgust, a complete waste of time and precious energy which she should have conserved for other, more fruitful pursuits. Yes, it was true, Little Herr Friedemann had gotten off track, sought the purely corporeal satisfactions, but what had been the result? Rejection, humiliation, total destruction of his otherwise fragile psyche. Which was lost on Coco. The Cocos, the Maria Maxes of the world, they would always worship the dark Gods, they were incapable of doing otherwise. What on earth was she thinking?
Her gait became faster as she neared the fence. She shook her head back and forth as though trying to clear it of cobwebs, her hair came loose from her barrette, falling in her face. She scraped it back furiously with spread fingers. The chipmunk, she thought, and an inner peace descended upon her. She looked up and there he was, perched motionlessly as always, just on the other side of the fence, gazing into the very depths of existence, paws cupped, totally oblivious to the low and ignoble pursuits of daily life. Waiting. Waiting for her.
She hoped he wouldn’t be startled off as she approached and consciously slowed her steps, barely raising her feet from the ground as she moved forward. Had she seen his tail twitch, in preparation for flight? She hoped not. She slowed down once again, taking tiny baby steps, hands held against her thighs to decrease movement he might detect from the corner of his eye.
His coat was a dazzling burnt sienna with gold highlights, and Mary Alice had a ridiculous thought that he had somehow been rubbed down with Vaseline or lacquer of some sort to make it glisten. It had an otherworldly glow to it, like a meteor fallen to earth, or a chunk of enriched radium.
But as she got closer and closer and closer, the chipmunk began to change, little by little, to take on a different shape, alter its form, to look less like itself and more and more like a twisted, rusty pipe protruding from the dry grass.
With dawning horror she came to a stop in front of it. There was no soft, bushy tail, no glowing pelt or unflinching gaze into the depths of the universe. It was a pipe, an old, bent, rusty, gnarled piece of scrap metal that had probably been sticking out of the ground for years!
She stood staring at the pipe for several long moments. And then realized with relief that if she squinted her eyes, just enough to make everything a bit fuzzy, a bit blurry, she could see that chipmunk again, standing up on its hind legs, motionless, paws cupped, and she could almost imagine him turning his head slowly in her direction and giving her a wide, spooky smile.
© Julienne Busic
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Julienne Busic is an author, translator, and essayist who lives in the Republic of Croatia. She has studied in the United States and Vienna, Austria, and holds a Master's Degree in German and Linguistics. Her short stories, essays, and columns have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in America and Croatia (The Gobshite Quarterly, Verbatim: A Language Quarterly, The Bridge, Kolo, Aleph, Jutarnji List, Vjesnik, Autsajderski Fragmenti and Tema) and her book of memoirs, Lovers and Madmen won the Croatian Writer's Society award in 1997. She is also the author of Your Blood and Mine (Ridgepath Press, 2009), and a third, just published novel, Living Cells.