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Jail Bait

by James R. Tomlinson

Joshua Liddy swallows rat poison and rushes out the door to beat the high school bus to the corner of Samsa and Conner. Every weekday morning for the past eight weeks his wife places his poison on the coffee-stained tablecloth, next to his vitamins, next to his empty lunch bag, which she used to pack when living together was much more tolerable, before his banishment to the basement. “If you would just wear a nasal strip,” she would complain. No nasal strip, no sleep, no lunch.

Joshua skips eating breakfast and he doesn’t pack a meal. He will go to the cafeteria because he needs to come out of his office, he needs to be seen. He is not running late; however, he does want to get to the corner of Samsa and Conner as quickly as possible. He folds down, accordion-style, the faded vinyl top on his mustard-yellow Volkswagen and crouches in just the same. His Picasso-ugly head thumps the rearview mirror. His face turns blue. Bubble wide eyes stretch to the side. Plastic frames torque. Nose and lip lap. The reddish-brown derby down. The mushroom dome blown. He slows down, way down, get calm down, and puts the derby back on. It’s still too large; it bends his ears east and west like radars, or antennas, transmitting his momentary thoughts: how the bell-bottomed girl smiles as he drives by, how her nose ring attracts his attention as he approaches the stop sign – the soft sound of pebbles crunching beneath his whitewall tires – and how, when he tilts the clouds behind him, she waves an imaginary hand, the one with a butterfly tattoo, fluttering in the wind to Stravinsky’s rhythms from her MP3 player.

He discovered her by accident. A detour sign forced him from his normal route. This was two months ago. The roadwork is now complete, and he still doesn’t know her, he still doesn’t know her name. Greta, he thinks. The sun arrives prematurely; its glare embraces a heavy mixture of diesel and dirt, stirred by gentle winds, corkscrewing about a street lamp where gypsy moths clink, clink, clink against the bug-splattered glass and dull fluorescent tails sink on the horizon. His heart feels like an overloaded steel drum pounding, pumping, pushing thick blood through arteries, veins, capillaries ... traveling, tunneling, burrowing its way to the root of his mortality, his vulnerability.

At lunchtime he wonders if his blood will get too thin, or perhaps his blood will clot. He carries the prescription in his suit pocket as a reminder of the various side effects. There is no in-between. He feels trapped. He must eat and he must eat right.

Damon Wilkie catches him midstride, speaks fast, “Where’ve you been? You find the cell phone? Sit here with us.”

Wilkie and Joshua sit on backless, square chairs sprouted out from the table’s trunk as if designed to pull its inhabitants toward the center.

“Anyone want this coleslaw?”

“Give it here,” Rizzo says.

“Dr. Leuenberg wants to speak to you about Bradley Chalmers.”

“I have Bradley’s test results.”

He tells the doctor that it doesn’t really matter, that Bradley was reassigned to Rizzo’s horticulture class, that he may function better in a different environment, a vocational-type setting. “Rizzo, did he start your class yet?”

“Yeah. Give him a garden trowel and he’s happy. How are you?”

Joshua reaches for his prescription, tosses it onto Rizzo’s tray. “I’m not allowed to eat green leafy foods. Wife’s orders. Still no cell phone.”

“If I may,” says, Dr. Leuenberg, “Bradley was administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. He scored in the mentally defective range on seven subtest.”

“Is that good or bad?” Rizzo asks, “I mean – how many subtests are there?”

The men chuckle. They could care less about Bradley’s scores.

Dr. Leuenberg recites each subtest. He stresses the picture arrangement and objective assembly scores. He suggests that they work with Bradley on grasping the implications of a given situation, on planning ahead, on putting things in an ordered, logical way. “Give him small repetitive tasks. Make him feel important to your program. He’ll adjust better that way.”

Rizzo tells him they’re already doing this.

“Bradley loves working the garbage piles, and he puts his critical tools back on the shadow board. The Inmate Benefit Fund should be proud of him, right, Director Liddy?”

Joshua laughs. The IBF hasn’t seen any money. Joshua uses the profits for custody issues. He wants to know why Rizzo ordered vermiculite. What is it? Is it hazardous? Caustic? Necessary? Cost?

Rizzo’s mad. Weeks ago he explained the soil sterilizer and how the inmates prep the soil. “Vermiculite,” he repeats, “helps the plants to grow. I told you that. It aerates the soil and helps retain water and doesn’t stress the plants. I told you that too. It’s a mineral. You saw the safety data sheet and the cost per bag. Don’t tell me you lost the information?”

“Just tell me if it’s dangerous?”

“Why don’t you stick your head in a bag and shake it? Be the guinea pig.”

The men pick at their meals ... cautiously ... surrounded by thieves, pedophiles, rapists ... murderers. A prisoner dips his washrag in a bucket and polishes the silver finish of a nearby table. His hand moves in slow, circular motions, while another prisoner, a scrawny hillbilly, waits to take a seat.

“Er ya dun?” he asks.

The hand moves slower. “Does it look like I’m done?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I’m not, so find another table.”

“C’mon man, ya dun rub da coatin’offuvit.”

“If a duck can pull a truck,” the busy inmate advises through the sparkly clean surface, “then shut the fuck up and hook it on up.” The circular motion gains speed, magically rubbing the hillbilly, and everyone else it seems, away.

“What’s his IQ?” Wilkie asks.

“Bradley’s IQ is 75. It represents the average of all the subtest scores. Overall, it puts him in the borderline mentally defective range.”

Joshua never complains about his job, even when problems arise, even when he is passed up for promotions. He knows how to prioritize his duties. Officer Kelly calls him. She tells him about a vendor in the sally port. The regular driver isn’t there. She will not, under any circumstances, let him or his truck inside the facility without a lien clearance. “What should I do?” she asks.

“What vendor is it and where’s he going?”

“MRC, Muskegon Refrigerated Containers. The warehouse ... no, the greenhouse. He says both ... the warehouse for drop off ... the greenhouse for pick up.”

He tells her to call the vending company for verification of employment, to check with the shift commander, to have the vendor fill out the request of information form, to have him wait in the visitor’s parking lot. Joshua follows the operating procedures and policy directives. He explains, “OP’s and PD’s are like rubber bands, they can be stretched whatever way you want. Just remember: security first.” Some employees want to know about the phone calls. Did someone smuggle a cellular phone inside the prison? Who? What’s being done about it? Who’s next? Joshua can’t give them answers; Inspector Swiftland is now in charge. You can’t trust anyone, not the visitors, not the vendors, not the contractual employees, not even the regular employees. Joshua ends his day with a debriefing. He informs his employees. “Be on the lookout,” he warns.

The following morning, after his shower, he moves quickly. Sand-sifting socks on an avalanche of steps. Feet booted. Do the goddamn laundry. No umbrella in the past. Fuck lunch. Go to the cafeteria. Be seen. His wife drinks. She sees smooth female curves in a bowl of fruit and her husband in the tablecloth, hiding. She writes:

Your vitamins are by your lunch bag. Where’s your coumadin? Remember to take it. Pack a golden delicious apple. Don’t let them rot. Also, what about Cancun? See you when you get home. We’ll talk.

Love Anne

Joshua drives to the corner of Samsa and Conner. His windshield wipers swish faster, and faster, and faster, frantically swiping water from side to side, to the beat of his heart, to the beat of one ... two ... three ... four ... five hearts. His white, chalky tongue pushes saliva onto the back of his left hand, over the cold metal of his wedding band, and with a ceremonious twist and a ceremonious tug he pops it off and puts it in the glove compartment. Next, he rolls down his window. Humid, toxic fish assault his lungs. Greta leans forward, a violin case drips water onto her T-shirt. The closer he gets the more magnified everything becomes. He sees the night crawlers on the sidewalk; some intertwined with her untied shoe laces, some stepped on, mercilessly.

She smiles. “Can I help you?”

He tries to be friendly. “Would you like a ride?”

“Fuck off, old geezer.”

“You’ll be soaked by the time the bus gets here.”

She scratches at her white pearl stud. “I ain’t your type,” she says.

“Your parents approve of your nose piercing?”

“Navel too,” she says, lifting up her wet T-shirt with her free, tattooed hand.

“Oh, baby, I want your hard little body.” Where did that come from?

“I’ve already got your license plate number. I’m not stupid, you know. Every morning you drive by here looking at me. All I got to do is call the police and have them do a background check and arrest your ass. I know how the system works, ass hooole. Do you understand?”

Joshua’s chest inflates, sucks in the contraction, breaths in the “I’m,” then deflates, pushing air with words ... slowly, up his lengthy neck, out his mouth, “sorry I do.”

In the cafeteria, he pokes at the barbecued chicken wings with an overcooked french fry. Nothing seems appetizing. He sits with Wilkie, Rizzo and Inspector Swiftland. He offers Rizzo the coleslaw.

“Two days in a row. I don’t want it today,” Rizzo says, “I think it’s bad. What’s it smell like to you?”

“Vinegar.”

“Yeah, vinegar. Ready for the compost pile.” Rizzo informs Joshua about the vendor’s delivery, about the wrong size containers. They’re too large. Rizzo accepts them because they need them. Rizzo suggests a price break.

“Let me take a look at them first.” Joshua needs to feel important. He swears he’ll take the normal route to work from now on – if it’s not too late.

“Jail Bait,” Inspector Swiftland adds.

“It beats breaking rock in the hot sun. Ask Bradley. He knows how many Styrofoam cups fit in a box. Do we interrupt his routine? More cups per box might confuse him.”

“All this rain must make for easy pickin’.” Inspector Swiftland says, lowering her voice now that she has their attention, “Has anyone heard anything more about the phone? We’re having an emergency immobilization. The siren should blow at 1400 hours. We have got to search this compound until we find it.”

Inmate Horner rolls an overloaded, gray bin through the cafeteria, raw potato and skin under wheels etch their way across the floor. He’s a runner. He runs with any information he can get. Information is protection, or extra items from the store, or leverage. He dumps the leftover food from the lunch trays into the bin.

Wilkie, Rizzo and all the other employees are never informed of immobilizations. It’s against policy. Inspector Swiftland has her reasons. She has her snitches.

Joshua sneaks home early. The rain pelts the ground in large, separately visible drops, and, after the last one falls, the dark clouds, which have been lingering all day, begin to dissolve. In his driveway, Joshua’s blinking-blue face tightens. A curtain of light falls onto numerous water droplets that slide off the waxed, metallic surface of a state police car. He wonders how he’ll explain himself to Anne. A state trooper stands in the doorway of his house. Joshua doesn’t want to go in. He walks closer to the car, toward the light, up the front porch to the entrance of his house. His wife is nervous too. She is complaining, or is it crying? He doesn’t know. He adoesn’t need her to look at him, at the worried lines on his forehead just below his squenched reddish-brown derby, or at his ringed again hand tucked lifelessly in his windbreaker.

“I’m so sorry,” he starts, “I’ll change. I promise.”

“Are you Joshua Liddy?”

“Please forgive me, Anne, please.”

“Yes, this is my husband.”

“Your wife explained that you work in a prison.”

Joshua agrees.

“We’ll file the report. Here’s your copy.”

The state trooper hands a form to Joshua and walks away, indefinitely. Joshua regains his faculties, knows the truthfulness of his lies, asks, “What did he say?”

“He kept repeating, ‘I want your hips, lips, and fingertips.’ His breathing got heavier. He said it again and again. Why are you sorry, Joshua? He knows our address. Are we in danger? What’s going on? What happened?”

Joshua stares at the cold analytical eye with which she dissects the world, touches her face with his bull-fiddle nose, wonders why she wants him alive. They embrace. He kisses her neck. His chin bristles like razors. “My little buttercup,” he whispers.

Joshua doesn’t have any long-range plans. He promises to wear a nasal strip, and in return, Anne promises to prepare his lunches. They sleep together that night, and the next, until his snoring wakes her. She believes she hears the dull sound of a Minotaur returning to the basement. He passes his check-up. No more coumadin. His doctor tells him that he is a very lucky man, that if it weren’t for his wife he would be dead by now. He doesn’t feel lucky.

Anne brings home a brochure on Cancun. Joshua tosses the brochure aside. He’ll think about it. His thoughts come and go like water in an ice cube tray, hardening, waiting to be picked. He needs a change in scenery. They both do. He alters his way to prison — again, as if he is searching for a better way to communicate, and like Inspector Swiftland’s awkward investigation, he turns to relative strangers for solutions. From the confines of his rusted, golden orb, with his reddish-brown crown ever so slightly exposed, he stops at the corner of Oakwood and Lexington, Jolene and Lareby, and sometimes, Samsa and Conner where violins play in his head.

Joshua approves the purchase of vermiculite so Rizzo can beautify the prison. Bradley Chalmers and the others just like him work the soil with their garden trowels, touching the smooth, fat band on each worm; hands covered in mucus – they do what they’re told. And somewhere out on the distant horizon, out on Lake Michigan, a grandson asks his grandfather to look inside a Styrofoam cup where an empty prescription container lies covered in dirt.

“Just bait the hook,” the elderly man says, “like I showed you. We’ve only got so much time.”

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