Thursday, November 15, 2007

Excerpt: "Simple"

Donald “Jett” Ferris searched through the window to the east, then to the west. Outside, the highway cut a black line through the arid Texas landscape, separating nothingness from more nothingness as far as he could see.

A deep voice crackled from behind.

“Thought you said you had a ride.”

Isaiah Walton. At two hundred and fifty pounds, with fists made of concrete and a seismic temper, the head security guard at the TDCJ prison was also known as The Wall. He minced few words and tolerated nothing.

“He’ll be here,” Jett said.

Kyle Winston, a former cellmate, promised he would be at the gate around noon; the clock on the wall registered five minutes after, and the only vehicle in the parking lot was an empty, dried-up Chevy C-10, its brown paint sun-bleached the color of vomit, its rims packed with caliche.

“You got two minutes,” Walton said. “Your boy don’t show, we go back into lockup till he arrives.”

Jett bit down hard and fought against the urge to say anything. Texas policy mandated that inmates would not be released without transportation. As such, he was still a ward of the state. Out in the desert, with the sweltering weight of a hundred and five degrees and twenty miles separating Jett from the nearest town, the reason was painfully obvious: a released inmate would collapse and die before trekking back to the civilized world. So much for rehabilitation.

His muscles vibrated with anticipation. Fourteen years. Too long to be rotting away on the bright side of hell, chained down to the devil’s playground.

Finding the only words he could, Jett repeated himself. “He’ll be here.”

Jett pulled out a crumpled pack of Pall Mall’s from his pocket, shook it and cursed. Only three left. In anticipation of his release, he’d forgotten to barter another pack.

Lockup. In this strange, up-side-down world, a pack of smokes could easily cost a man twenty five dollars. At twenty-five cents an hour--the standard wage for inmates--buying cigarettes, or anything for that matter, didn’t come easy. As such, bartering was a way of life: you got to give to get. The question, though, was whether an inmate had anything to give. For some, that meant selling themselves out, and prison provided a fresh market for the bartering of souls. For his part, Jett offered protection. It was never about sex, though. For one, he wasn’t a back-door man for no one. Secondly, it was sex that handed him fourteen years behind bars. Some mistakes weren’t worth repeating.

Jett stuck a cigarette in his mouth, patted down his pockets for a lighter.

“No smoking,” Walton said.

“You gotta be kidding.”

Walton pointed to the wall. A white sign with a red circle-and-slash, the familiar idiot’s symbol for Thou Shall Not, covering a burning cigarette hung beside the prison’s version of the Ten Commandments for all visitors.

Jett muttered another curse and stuffed the Pall Mall behind his ear for later.

Winston finally arrived in a black Ford Mustang. Jett turned to Walton, who paused but finally spoke into a radio and asked for the main gate to be opened.

Outside, Jett walked around to the passenger’s side of the car. The window was open.

“About time,” he said.

Sitting behind the wheel, hair pasted to his forehead and a jade tattoo of a cobra coiled around his arm, Kyle gave Jett a long look. “You getting in or not.”

A slow, wry smile curled Jett’s lips. Occasionally, an inmate tried to push Jett’s graces, test his ability to provide the protection they needed. When that happened, he resorted to his father’s philosophy on life: keep it simple. Time was too short to dance around with the issues. Anyone willing to step across the line was free to barter with the rapists or the child molesters, in which case their options were limited. Like most of the inmates, Kyle tested the boundaries once and quickly discovered that Jett’s protection was worth the cost in order to keep his dignity. But here, only six months out of the joint himself, the boy had apparently worked up his old attitude. Jett decided he would deal with that--later.

On the highway, the Mustang up to a cruising speed of eighty-five, Jett asked if Kyle took care of the guns.

Kyle gave Jett a double-take. “You sure about this?”

“That cop took fourteen years of my life.”


“I already told you--”

Kyle held up a hand. “I’m just saying maybe it ain’t worth it. You ready to do more time when you just got out?”

He thought about that a moment and then slowly nodded. “I’ll take my chances.”

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