Sunday, February 11, 2018

BROKEN...a short story

The walkers and joggers stayed in their world of closely cropped grass and a winding dirt trail edged by park benches, exercise stations and little signs—All dogs must be kept on a leash; Bag your pet’s droppings; No alcoholic beverages allowed.  In the month since he’d arrived only one person had ventured near:  A man who scooted into the woods, dropped his sweat pants and left a pile of dung then wiped himself with the leaves from a poison oak.  There were no signs about poison oak.
Sometimes he sat for hours peeking through the brush watching and wondering if any of those who ventured down the path met the warden’s criteria.  Hikers, he’d decided, fell into one of three groups.  Look-At-Me’s jerked along like joggers shackled, their steps brisk, arms swinging robotically, hips swaying wildly left and right and backs arched inward as if someone was holding a shank against their spine.  The I’ve-Got-Nothing-To-Prove walked slowly contemplating butterflies or looking at birds in trees or clouds overhead and all the while oblivious to anyone who ambled by.  Finally, there were the Don’t-Look-At-Me-Please with their feeble steps and scrunched shoulders, eyes at the ground.  Perhaps those were the ones the warden meant though in truth joggers seemed to fit a little better.  Like the men who pranced around in shorts that came to within half an inch of their groins.  Squared shoulders, tight stomachs and moving as if in a permanent combat stance.  Or maybe the women who ran full out, snorting like copulating peccary; their skin gone to sinew.  Then there were the gray haired and leathery old farts that loped along with dulled and tortured gazes as if already glimpsing the black and bottomless abyss.
But as always when night crept through the woods he sat alone thinking about the warden’s first speech.  “We don’t give a damn here about rehabilitation.  We’re here to break you, plain and simple.”  The warden had a habit of walking back and forth, hands clasped behind him and not looking at anyone in particular.  “You see the reason you’re here is because you refuse to be broken.”  The warden came to an abrupt stop as if he’d walked up to a wall only he could see then turned and looked at the bunch in front of him.  He couldn’t remember exactly how many were there that day—when the bus drove through the gates, gray and featureless, with rows of rebar welded onto its windows and a shotgun-toting guard sitting behind the driver and looking back at everyone cuffed to their benches.  No words, no glances, no one even attempting to shoo the gnats off their face.  Twenty or so men it must have been.
The warden’s long pause melted into eternity.  Then he said, “You see if you were broken you wouldn’t be here.  You’d be out there like everyone else scared shitless.  You’d pay your damn taxes and keep to your side of the fence and make sure your doors were locked and then say your prayers hoping like hell there’s a God to hear them.”
As if lines from a play repeated over and again the warden stepped into every innuendo and through each inflection with all the appropriate pauses and gestures in between, stage right and stage left.  “Hell, when the bills came you’d pay them.  You wouldn’t ask questions and you’d never complain.  You wouldn’t even vote unless somebody told you who for.”
He was a tall fellow built like a linebacker.  Mid-forties, receding hairline, drill sergeant crew-cut and vacant crystal eyes veiled by wire-rimmed bifocals.  His voice wavered between tenor and baritone depending on his place in the script: “But hell no.  Not you stupid sons of bitches.  For whatever crazy reasons you ain’t broken.”
They were lined up shoulder to shoulder, hands at their sides, barely breathing, trying not to pass gas and looking straight ahead.  But no one met the warden’s eyes.  Hell, some probably weren’t even listening.
“Like I said, we don’t give a shit about rehabilitation here.  Rehabilitate to what?”
They were each issued two pants, prison gray, and two light-blue long-sleeved denim shirts with a ten inch long and two inch wide blaze-orange stripe running lengthwise along the back.  Three white T-shirts, three olive-green boxer-cut under shorts, three pairs of white socks and a pair of lace-up black-leather, rubber-soled shoes.  A Gideon’s Bible and a college ruled journal and two wooden pencils.
“What the hell’s this for?  I cain’t read or write.”
One of the guards stepped forward.  “Shut up you goddamned moron.  Prison shrink wants you all writing in your journals so that’s what you’re gonna do.”
He wondered if he had been broken all along and the warden just didn’t understand what it meant.  He didn’t complain any when he was given clean-up detail.  Sweep, mop, vacuum, and pick up litter.  And didn’t scope out the joint like everyone else during the hour a day of walking the track.  Round and round and round with every inch of it paved and hard on the ankles.  Come to think of it prison was like the park.  Had its share of Look-At-Me’s and I’ve-Got-Nothing-to-Prove and Don’t-Look-At-Me-Please.  Had its share of joggers and weight lifters too.  Except the high shorts usually wore eye makeup and lipstick and the snorting peccaries copulated after and not during their runs.

“I’d like you to write down your feelings so we can talk about them when you visit. Name’s Shockley is it?  Aaron T. Shockly?”
The shrink was a squatty bald fellow with pale skin and gray eyes and short, stubby fingers.  His heavy glasses made his eyes look twice as large when he glanced up at you.  There was an odd whistle to his voice as if half of it squeezed out his piggish nose.  It was hard to tell if he really gave a damn or if this was the only place he could find his kind of work.
“I’ve got nothing to say, Doc.”
“Everyone has something to say.”
“Can’t think of anything.”
“Make lists then.  Draw pictures.”
“Of what?”
“Look, if there’s one thing you’ve got here is time.  It’ll come to you.  Maybe not now but sooner or later you’ll have something to write about.”
“I’m not so sure, Doc.”
“Well, we’ll see.”
The first time he ever wrote anything in his journal was the day they found Lulu—a big fat black guy who was in for whatever and who sang a lot and liked to read comic books—dead in the laundry and carved up from thighs to neck.  Didn’t cover him up or anything when they took him away.  Maybe they wanted everyone to see.  Black skin flayed and sliced, yellow-white fat bubbling underneath.  Rows and rows of cuts, one after the other.  Like a slab of beef or maybe a side of pork filleted just deep enough to let the coals take their heat down to the bones.  And nobody said anything.  Just stood there and watched.  Lulu wasn’t even bleeding anymore.  Curled up on the gurney, legs tucked up against his gut, crack of his ass like a deeper cut amongst the many.
Afterward someone was playing a guitar across the way, badly.  He could hear thunder outside.  A forty-watt bulb from a gray prison lamp illuminating the lined page.

Sometimes he’d see kids hiking down the park trail.  They scared him more than anything.  Kids are curious, not yet broken.  Fortunately, there were always two or three adults with them.  Teachers, he guessed.  Most teachers are broken.  Then there were the two little old ladies who walked every morning about an hour after sunrise.  Probably in their seventies, always talking, but not like maniacs.  Little binoculars dangled from their necks, and now and then they’d stop and look through the glasses up into the trees.
One afternoon he heard a couple arguing.
“I can’t live the way you want me to live and I can’t do the things you want me to do.  The other night, that party.  Everything was crazy.  They were crazy.  Hell, you were crazy.”
“It was just simple fun.”
“Simple fun?  How the hell can you call that fun?”
“Well we didn’t do anything.”
“Damn right we didn’t do anything.”
“I’d still be your wife.”
“How can you be my wife and want to do that sort of thing?”
It was summertime and the rains had stopped; but this year there weren’t many bugs which was good.  If he had to he could sleep at the shelter but people there snored and coughed and smelled.
The pastor at the shelter always wanted him to stay the night.
“It’s dangerous out on the street.”
“It’s dangerous everywhere.”
“What do you mean?’
“I’m not broken.”
“No one said you were broken.”
“Don’t think you’d understand.”
“Why don’t you try me?”
“Just wouldn’t is all.”
“There’s a doctor I know.  Maybe he could help you.”
“Help me with what?”
“Well, maybe help you with your thoughts.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my thoughts.”
“This stuff about being broken.”
“You’re the one who’s broken.”
“Broken, you keep using that word.  I don’t think I’m broken.  I’ve got the Lord.”
“Then you’re really broken.”

He’d written it all down actually.  But never showed it to the prison shrink.
“Aaron T., why don’t you bring your journal?”
“Haven’t written anything, Doc.”
“Just not my style, Doc.”
If there was ever a shakedown they’d find the journal and then tell the shrink.  Two possibilities after that: Privileges would be taken away or Doc would get all excited and say something like, “This is good.  We’re making progress.”
He had a friend named Harvey who was doing life.  He’d popped a goddamn town mayor, who was also a banker, right between the eyes.  Then popped him in the ass for good measure.  Just walked up on the son of a bitch and stuck the pistol into the guy’s forehead and said, “Lights out.”
Harvey didn’t seem to mind he was in prison.
“Good as any,” he’d always say.
“Bullshit, you’re behind these bars for the rest of your sorry little life.”
“Well, guess I had a sorrier little life out there.”
“But didn’t you realize wasting that mayor would get you here?”
“Didn’t think on it.  Just went and did it.”
Of course, it was important to keep the journal hidden.  So he found a place up over the water pipes.  Had to roll it up in order to hide it.  But there was no other way.

One night he heard rustling in the leaves that lined the park’s path.  He ducked low, quiet and still, and looked out between the bushes to see if he could see anything silhouetted against the glow of the city.  Maybe someone else had walked into his camp.  But it was only a deer.  If this were someplace far off maybe he’d set some traps and make a fire and cook some venison and jerk the rest.

The way out of the park was not via the hiking trail but back through the woods and into a brushy corridor not more than a hundred feet wide and three hundred yards long.  Then up a knoll and down onto a sidewalk along 45th Street.  Make sure no one was coming or going then step out and hike the nine and a half blocks to the shelter.  He’d borrowed two olive green wool blankets, an old brown cotton sleeping bag, and a paperback novel.  And found a long nylon rope in a garbage bin and strung it from one tree to another then A-framed one of the wool blankets over the rope to form a roof.  Dug a hole a few yards away with a stick and used that as a latrine.  Of course, there were airplanes and helicopters flying about but never directly overhead and that was good.
It was on one of the trips out of the woods and down the brushy corridor that he ran into two lovers up on the tree-covered knoll.  Naked as the day they entered this earth.  The man was laying flat on his back, the woman straddling him.  Tappet and cam at thirty rpm.  He didn’t see them until he cleared the brush and walked up the knoll and the woman gasped and the man’s eyes grew wide.
Stepped over the man’s legs and kept going.  Down the knoll and onto the sidewalk and north toward the shelter.
“Aaron T., how are you today?”
“Fine, Pastor.”
“We’re going to have a service before lunch.”
“Take a seat with the others.”
God loves you….We love you….Keep His commandments….Keep our commandments….Do the will of God….Do our will….Our will, God’s will….We want, He wants…we He, He we….He we, we He….We We We.
Chicken dumplings.  Iced tea.  Lettuce and tomato salad.  Whole wheat bread.  Butter.  Vanilla ice-cream.  Chocolate chip cookies.
“Will we see you for supper, Aaron?”
“Supper’s at five.  The service is at four-fifteen.”
“You can stay the night if you wish.”

The prison shrink had this thing about group therapy.  They met every other day.  Lots of arguments.  Like that time with Nedham.  He was doing twenty-five years for possessing illegal prescription drugs.  Claimed they had the wrong guy.
“How are you doing, Nedham?”  He refused to be called Fred.
“I’m in here for something I didn’t do.  How the hell do you expect me to feel?”
“Well I understand but according to your records the feds found over fifty-thousand pills in your house.  What’s to deny?  Isn’t it time you accept what you did?”
“Not when I gotta go to prison and other guys get off scot-free.”
“Damn right, Doc.  How come Nedham and the rest of us are here when we did nothing worse than a hundred other guys?”
“Yeah, Doc.  Thems that get off just got lots of money and lots of pull.  Our only excuse is that we’re just a bunch of poor boys.”
“Hell, yes!”
“Tryin’ to break us Doc?”
“Just like the warden said, huh?”
“Now now fellows.  It does us no good to talk this way.  You’re here, I’m here.”
“Ah hell, Doc.  You get to come and go.  We don’t.”
“Yeah, don’t be trying to tell us you’re one of us.”
“All I’m saying is that we’re not here to discuss politics or economics or—”
“Then what the hell is there to talk about, Doc?  You think we’re crazy?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“This is all bullshit.  Why don’t you just let us be?”
“I can’t do that.”
“Hell, we won’t tell no one.”
“I’m sorry but that’s just not the way things are done around here.”
“So what do you want, Doc?  Tell us what you want and we’ll pretend we’re doing it and you can leave us the hell alone.”

There was this big old owl that perched in one of the trees near the park’s hiking trail.  At night it hooted and hooted and then sometimes flew off and hooted farther out somewhere.  He liked listening to it.  Always stayed up late listening and then slept until noon.  Sometimes it was mid-afternoon before he got hungry.
Walk to the shelter.  Endure the service, eat supper, and ask for a bottle of water.  Trek back to the park, Daylight Savings Time, and read the paperback novel until nearly nine when the sun blinked out.  Sometimes he penciled his thoughts on pieces of cardboard.
“Hey, Pastor.”
“Yes, Aaron.”
“Would you happen to have a notebook of some sort and maybe a ballpoint pen?”
“You want to keep a diary?”
“A journal.”
The pastor thought a moment.
“Actually, I just happen to have a stack of spiral notebooks in my office.  Use ‘em for taking notes for my sermons.  Bible texts and that sort of thing.  I think I can spare one.”
“Thanks, Pastor.”

When he heard the shot in the park that night he wasn’t sure what it was.  A firecracker maybe?  Then the sounds of sirens came echoing through the woods.  It was past midnight and he could see flashlight beams poking through the brush and up into the trees.  He’d thought about the possibility that something like this might happen but hadn’t really prepared for it.  Slipped his tennis shoes on then snatched up the two blankets and the sleeping bag.  Grabbed his journal and the paperback he’d been reading.  Ducked out north and through the brushy corridor moving fast but quietly and then up the knoll and saw two squad cars coming east on 45th Street.  Both cars parked a couple hundred feet from the knoll.  A cop got out of each.  One had a dog with him.  They moved quickly into the park.  He waited a couple of minutes then stepped out onto the sidewalk and crossed the street.
“Hey you, there!”
He stopped, looked back.
“Come over here.”
“Yeah, you.”
He crossed back and stood on the sidewalk.  The dog sniffed him.
“Where’d you come from?”
“Was sleeping up on that knoll.”
“Been drinking?”
“Don’t drink, sir.”
“You can’t spend the night in the park.”
“Sorry, sir.”
“Got any ID?”
“Yes, sir.  Got one here.”
A couple minutes later the cop returned, but left the dog in the car.
“You did five years?  Theft?”
“Yes, sir.”
“What’re you doing here now?”
“No job?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“Better know now we don’t care much for vagrants around here.”
“I was just on my way to the shelter on thirty-sixth.”
“Get in the vehicle.  We’ll have someone give you a ride.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Did you hear or see anything around here?”
“No, sir.”
“You sure?”
“Yes, sir.”
A police van picked him up about an hour later and dropped him off at the shelter. A volunteer processed him in.
“Aaron T. Shockly, right?”
“I’ve seen you around.  How come you don’t spend the night here?”
“Guess I will tonight.”
“Well, go find a bed.  Keep it quiet.”
One guy was walking around whispering.  And there was this lady who was really sunburned and wore little girl clothes and she was drinking milk in the dining area.  Then the guy in the next bunk got up during the night and sat there but he wasn’t drunk or anything like that.  After a while he started sobbing ever so quietly.

Good thing about the morning sermon was that it was the shortest of the day.  A prayer, a call for volunteers at the shelter.
Scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits, butter, orange juice, coffee.
He grabbed his things and walked back to the park.  Took the corridor through the woods to his camp.  His nylon rope was gone.
When he’d crossed 45th Street into the park there’d been three cop cars parked along the curb.  And he could see cops and dogs going up and down the walking and jogging path.  From out of nowhere a cop and dog appeared.
“What’re you doing way back here in these woods?”
“Just enjoying the day.”
“You been drinking?”
“Don’t drink, sir.”
“Well you can’t be here.  This area is cordoned off.”
“What happened?”
“A man got shot over there last night.”
“I don’t have time for this.  Move on out.”

Back at the shelter, looking at a map on the wall, a big national forest about a hundred and fifty miles north of the city.  Could maybe get a job and then get good and broken.  Or maybe go to someplace warm like Mexico.
He acquired another blanket.  What the hell, they had tons.  Most of them army surplus.  Turned in his old tennis shoes and got a pair of leather hiking boots, old but still usable.  Found a pair of blue jeans, a khaki shirt, a couple pairs of socks and a new leather belt.  Well, it wasn’t exactly new but it was in good condition.  And a blue gimme cap with Miller Concrete and Asphalt written on it.
Walked back to the park.  The cops were gone.  Just one of those bright yellow ribbons all around the woods saying, Police Keep Out.  Two ways to look at that, he figured.
Kept walking.
Fourteen blocks.
Found the railroad tracks.
Sat under a tree.
Night came.

There was a guy named Hudson.  He was in for car theft.  Said he used to ride the railroads before he started stealing cars.  Said you needed to know the train’s schedules and which way they were going.  Said, “One time I hopped this train expecting to go all the way to Montana.  Damn thing took me across town and stopped and that was it.  Had to walk clear back to where all the other trains were.  Damn near ten miles.”
“Did you go to Montana?”
“Ended up in Louisiana.”

The sun had set on the far end of the railroad tracks so that had to be west.  He knew that much at least.  Trains coming and going.  East, west.  West, east.  At around midnight or thereabouts one of the long lines of railroad cars started ramming up—whank, whank, whank, whank—and the cars began moving.
Had the three blankets wrapped around the sleeping bag, his journal packed inside, a string tying the works together.  Tossed the bundle into an open car, hooked a hand on the door, swung his left leg up, heaved himself inside, rolled out of sight.  Watched the stationary cars going passed, faster and faster.  Held still and took a deep breath.
Maybe head clear out to California or Oregon?  Or maybe southwest towards Texas?
Moving right along.  Steel wheels grinding.  Cars moaning.  Jostling to one side and the other.  Faster and faster.
Wonder what it’s like in the park right now?
The shelter?
“Ain’t broken, damnit.”



  1. Good story, thanks for posting.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Good story! Hope you write more about this fellow.

    1. Bob, I'll do my best. I've got some ideas. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Well, so much for butterflys and mesquite blooms . . . :^).

    That was a good tale of a person looking to find where he fits in. I enjoyed it very much too.


    1. J.R. I'm glad you too enjoyed the story. No butterflies this time but maybe later.

  4. Yeah, good story. I enjoyed it. It'd been months and I was starting to wonder if the ol' blog had gone dark for good. It's good to see you writing again.

    And I guess I ain't broken yet, either. :-)