Monday, January 28, 2013

The Signature Move

The road to the prison is a long one, and you will want to turn around before you drive past the melting tar, hot-engine smell of the power plant. You will think briefly of all the other things you might do today -- go for a hike, work in the garden, watch the basketball game -- but you will settle in to the sound of the car as you merge onto the interstate, doing what you need to do.

You will look into the mirror and see the face of an old man, the bags and sag of the face you thought you would never have. You will feel tired, maybe sick, all of a sudden as you make the turn south. Do not go numb when you see the towers of the federal penitentiary off to the right. Do not hope that the guards will be waiting at the entrance behind a barricade that says no admittance. You may cringe when they say "I'd like to kill all of them," because they are frustrated and afraid and impatient. Do not smile when they call the men in your workshop cockroaches, rats, or worse.

You may tell yourself that you are not up to this, not bright enough, not ready, nor skilled enough, that you have no business asking men in a cage to hone their expressive skills. You certainly will not feel driven by some principle of fairness or service. You may remember something from years ago, a time when a man with a badge read charges against you, that he said you were going to jail. You might also remember the pucker of your nether regions as you think of the pills and weed hidden in the pockets of your girlfriend's purse, that because she was the daughter of The Man, and had a stack of traveler's checks, that they did not search her the way they did you. You will remember shame and gratitude, the feel of your car keys, your wallet, your watch, as you carried it all out of the courthouse back into a morning bright and clear with mountain sun. You may or may not remember that you wished someone would tell this if you went down.

You will have to smile instead of argue when they ask why inmates need paper, pens, dictionaries and books. You may have to lie when they ask if you plan to leave any of this with them so they can take it back to their cells where they will settle back onto their racks and think about what to say and how to say it.

As you carry the tubs you will look away from the blood spots on the sidewalk that go on for thirty yards and will not wonder what could have happened here. The tattoos on the neck of a member of the AB, the Aryan Brotherhood, will not scare you, even when he challenges you on why you think his friend's poem is overly cliched and sentimental and full of racist jargon.

If you forget that it is you who are the lucky one, that you might be confined here, then you will be lost. You have the comforts that you only dreamed of when you stood on the side of a road, with no money, in the cold. Or the time your boss reminded you that you were on the clock, so do that damned job over again, even if it's already done and done right.

The live wire of memory may be too much, so you will push it away. Try pain killers, but they will not silence for long the whispers, even when those voices are smothered in the cotton of comforts. You may want someone to do the work for you or someone to take care of you, but you know that it is up to you.

But still, you pack up the books and papers when the time is up. You cover the sore with a bandage and go back out into the noise of the free world.

Eat. Go back to sleep. That is the way to keep going, to get by, to take shelter from the wind. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Eating My Words

Megan and I are driving south of Tucson to the little burg of Patagonia to help some friends work on an old ranch house. It is New Year's Eve, so traffic enforcement on the winding highway climbing up to Sonoita has been beefed up. State Patrol cruisers parked conspicuously on fast, straight stretches of highway look dark, menacing.

The old truck makes deep moaning sounds at speed, so I keep it under 60. I am not worried about drawing attention.

We talk the way couples talk, lapsing into subtle irritations and criticism just because we have to vent a bit once in a while. Megan reminds me how hard it seems for me to let go of things -- shoes, T-shirts, youth, vigor, hair, height -- little things. I politely listen in silence, building up a litany of rebuttal that will soon be delivered, once I can get a word in.

The lovely tawny hills of Sonoita spread out like a blanket from the foot of Mount Wrightson. It is winter and the sky is cold and bright. Snow fills the shadowy defiles cut into the rocky heights. It is movie backdrop, a scene fit for real drama.

"You know, a bunch of people have gotten speeding tickets lately near Patagonia," Megan advises. She mentions friends and family, scofflaws who ought to know better, who have been cited. All the locals have talked their way out of, even when drunk with no registration or insurance papers. She says there's a wing-nut cop who is obsessed with giving city folks tickets, a spit-and-polish ex-marine. "Even the gas station guys don't like him," she adds. Between the lines of her counsel is the implication that I am not so lucky -- or charming -- as our friends who gotten out of big fines.

This is particularly irritating because I rank below the local malcontent reactionaries. The gas station guys pride themselves on being PIGS, the "Politically Incorrect Gas Station.," and tend side with law and order while opposing "bra-burners" and "tree-huggers."

I have to sit with that for a bit. I have a spotless record (except for the one time near Duncan, AZ that I do not like to remember and tend to omit whenever the subject comes up) for traffic tickets. Everyone in my family has had a ticket, but for more than 15 years I have been ticket free, in spite of my tendency to drive faster than I should. I feel I can drive how I want, even through speed traps.

The writer in me takes over and composes a dialogue fit for the occasion.

"I don't get tickets," I say.

That is a good start, I think to myself, but is not quite enough. It needs some elaboration.

"I am special."

Ah, yes, that is good too. But special in what way?

"In fact I have a sixth sense about when to speed. I can tell when there is going to be a cop with a radar gun."

The hole has been dug.

As these words are leaving my mouth, we enter the town of Patagonia's way reduced speed limit, and I slow a bit, but not enough.

True to script, the sheriff is parked in his truck with the gun on. Right on cue he pulls out behind me. Within seconds I am below the speed limit and I am sure it is just a coincidence. We drive s-l-o-w-l-y into town, and I make the turn toward Harshaw Canyon and the ranch house. He turns too. The lights come on.

Megan grins a big grin. I sink into my seat.

So, I will be spending this coming Saturday at traffic school with the other scofflaws. We will all be eating a piece of humble pie, hoping to return soon to the promised land of exception from the laws of man and spirit. After all, we are so very special.

Megan will not let me forget.