Not Even Jail

By Sean Jackson

’m not what anyone would call a nice person. More of what folks deem a misfit, a loser, a numb nuts. Convict. When I was a boy I had three dogs. One died under a car, one ran off and never was seen again, and we drowned the third.

And by we I mean me and Chain Bottoms. We didn’t mean to drown it. We was in a canoe at night and it jumped in the cold river and got panicky and we had cigarettes lit and it seemed too much trouble to get wet to save some dumb dog.

Like lots a boys I had troubles mixed in with good times. Football games on sleety nights when we’d see a cheerleader kick and show her twat. Carnivals. A summer trip to the beach. My grandpa handin me ten bucks.

Troubles. There were many. My daddy holdin me against the dewy back of the bathroom door so he could whip me to gain hold a my grandpa’s money. Mama drunk on the couch when I’d come in with the boys. My mama’s second husband burnin the house down on accident. That dog drownin. Countless acts me and Chain Bottoms done. A highlight reel of misdeeds and crime.

I shot at a man when I was fourteen from a car window when we was passin him on his tractor one August evenin. He jerked and flailed his arms and went outta the seat and we kept drivin me and Chain and went into the next county and robbed the Pop In convenience store and then rode around mad all night cause we was too young to buy beer.

I injected cocaine and heroin in a trailer bathroom with Chain’s aunt in a bikini and she adjusted her titties while I slumped on the toilet stool and drooled and stared a hazy stare at her big creamy breasts rollin around with browned nipples big as half dollars.

“If you fuck her,” Chain mumbled, vomit smeared on his neck, “my uncle will kill you. And then he’ll have to kill me. And that ain’t cool, bud.”

I quit school when I was seventeen. Stupid, but that’s what I done. I went and lived in an apartment at the beach and did carpentering. Then I sold drugs. I added house stealin to my resume. Then cars. Finally people. I’d met back up with Chain when we decided it won’t nothin left on the menu but to kidknap. Ransoms. Rape. Good times, huh.

We had this one ol boy a week and nobody ever called back for him. We’d done emptied his ATM and been to his trailer twice and emptied it out when it became obvious we was done with him. Chain rode him out to a stretch by the boatworks and sat and listened to the wind shift in the pickerelweed until he’d had enough a sittin.

“He hadn’t slept in four days,” Chain said when he got back. “Don’t think he understood. Like he thought maybe I was takin him out for ice cream. Or home. Didn’t seem to matter to him where we were goin, he thought we was goin to somewhere he’d be pleased with once we got there. We never did get there.”

We didn’t see nothing bout it in the papers cause we didn’t read the papers. We just moved on back near home and took up new enterprises. Sellin dope ain’t as easy as they make it bein. It takes time to build trust, figure out who’s who, and then decide what’s worth the risks and what ain’t. You grow a little marijuana is a easy way a get goin.

We steered clear a the niggers. Got our own cocaine line established. Through this feller claimed he was an eskimo.

“What the fuck is an eskimo doin here?” Chain asked this feller called hisself Orion. “I say you is a lying sunbitch.”

Orion had us in the living room a his trailer, a little thing shaped like an egg turned on its side. You could hook a big truck to the front and haul it off. Orion didn’t have no truck. He didn’t even have no refrigerator. His gelled black eyes fixed on Chain and he slowly rubbed the pox craters on his face with a hand a which the nails hadn’t been trimmed or cleaned in weeks.

“You say that?” the eskimo said. “I’m a liar?”

“I do.” Chain sat ballin his fists so the veins at the end a his forearms and along his wrists popped out like coils a rope.

They went to fightin and Chain stabbed the eskimo and we stole his stereo and one gun that did work and another that didn’t. Left him on the floor a that egg trailer bleedin from his mouth and both ears and Chain said he might be dead but he didn’t give a shit.

“Eskimo ain’t nothin but a cold weather mexican,” Chain spat, a trace of blood in the spittle he lodged against the frame of the trailer door. Chain was half mexican hisself and was all mixed with hate a cause a it.

We ran like this for a couple years, until Chain got hisself mixed up in a rape a this girl in town who was related to a magistrate. I didn’t read about it in the papers but I heard tell they’d given my buddy twenty years to life in prison.

…..

“Son? You say you can drive a rig?”

I said I did. I was twentyfive and this feller Clay Roulhac had built hisself a monopoly in the local farmin business. He’d opened two buyin operations since I’d give up dealin cocaine. I’d give it up cause this young feller had put the word out he was the honcho of late and he’d lay waste to any sunbitch who didn’t work for his payroll. And I didn’t work for niggers.

I’d drove big trucks on and off since my stepdaddy’d taught me how and I’d made a run with Chain once to Florida to haul back some dope packed in crates of tangelos.  Honeybells they called em. Chain’d called me honeybell for a while after.

Roulhac nodded and put his palm to his chin and looked at my driver’s license. I’d had a black eye when they took it. And you could see the tattoo on my neck, a tiger wrestlin a lightnin bolt.

“Come here in the mornin,” he said, “and we’ll fix ya up.”

We shook hands and I began haulin produce for Roulhac over the next five years. Back and forth to Florida and Brooklyn, sometimes to Baltimore, and maybe once or twice a year to Chicago. I rode once to Colorado to drop a chilled load of snap beans for the World Series games in Denver. They’d had a good crop here in 2007.

I moved out a my trailer several years back and found a old shotgun house in the north end a the county up near the river. Took up fishin and some huntin with a couple neighbor fellers. Nothin special. Just sitting on the tailgate a four-by-fours drinkin warm beer while the dogs’d run bucks through fallow peanut fields.

I dated a couple girls and that didn’t end in much.

It had its moments, that new kind a settled life. But I still had them urges. To use my profiteering skills. To live on the edge, on the outside a folks. Me and Roulhac got along okay but we never talked much more’n bout my loads, and all the other drivers knew a my old days and none a them ever cared to say much to me at all. Just shit like, Sup, dude, and, Awright now, bud.

So, bout a year ago Chain Bottoms gets let out and shows up back in town. He ain’t no skinny kid no more. He’s like a rock with legs. Tattoos spidery all up his arms and legs, his back. Even one on his face that’s a dragon makin violence on a dude with a two-handed sword.

“Sup, dude,” Chain says when he sees me in town lookin at DVDs in the movie store. We grab hands up high and bump chests, hug like old war buddies. Then we just look at each other for a second. He sees my movie in my hand.

“Lord of the Rings?” he laughs, all his original teeth gone, blacked out. “You ain’t got to watch that, bud. We can live it.”

Chain come to live with me and two weeks later Roulhac fired me and me and Chain got mixed up with this feller named Rico Benthal and now I’m in jail waitin on trial.

…..

When I was a speck of a feller one hot summer my daddy took me out on the river in this broke down houseboat he’d fixed up best he could. It had these pontoons he’d brazed back airtight and he’d painted navy stuff on em, like tattoos, and atop the fiberglass awning he’d painted “Badass Bassman” and he said that was fer the fellers in the crop dusters to laugh about.

He was drinkin real hard all mornin and we got back in a black creek and this metal-colored bird flushed from a tupelo over our heads and he yelled like it was the lord hisself swoopin at us. I won’t much of a swimmer yet but he put me in out in the channel and I felt the cold waters deep under me for the first time.

“It’s like death, boy,” daddy growled, lickin at the foamy beer in his English mustache. “Cold as the cold a death on yer ankles. I wanted you to feel it so’s you’d know better what it means to be alive.”

We got in to this tiny dock where he kept that boat and he slipped on the waterlogged boards and got this long red streak up his side and he laughed. Like he was crazy, laughin. I told him I had a good time and some years later when I brought it up he acted like he ain’t know nothin bout it. Like it was the craziest story he’d ever heard and he shook it off.

“Musta been yer stepdaddy,” he muttered, hardly able to walk then cause a what the drinkin had done to his legs. “I ain’t never had such a day in my life.”

He said he couldn’t recall ever ownin such a boat. Said it must a been my mama’s new husband, or else one a my friend’s daddy’s.

“I was gonna tell you somethin,” he said, closin his eyes tight to the pain lurchin up through him, his hands up on his head and caught there in his hair like they was in a net. “But I forgot.”

…..

Me and Chain had been runnin this black tar heroin from mexico and had done good with it all summer and fall. It was the week afore Christmas and this boy down along the desert woods said come to his place and he’d buy a kilo of it hisself.

“Now where do you reckon a redneck gets that kinda cash?” Chain asked as we bumbled up this thin reedy road to the boy’s trailer he shared with his wife. They was young folks and it did sound a stretch. Chain had already got some a the money. We’d get the rest on the drop.

We sat in these ladder back chairs in what went for a living room and the girl was the type with a lip ring and black tattoos scrawled up her arms. She was pettin a snake and didn’t smile or say nothin while the boy fetched bottle beers from the kitchenette.

“Where’s the tree?” Chain said kinda slyly and wrapped his hand round the neck of the bottle and drank it without takin his eyes off this girl.

“Huh?” she said quietly, strokin that snake like it was a cat. “What tree?”

“Christmas tree,” Chain said, lookin at the boy and then back at the girl. She won’t no more’n twenty.

“Oh,” she said. “Fuck a Christmas tree.”

The boy laughed and propped forward in his chair with one elbow on his knee and he pointed with the bottle in his other hand to a standin snarl a wires in the corner. He said it was the girl’s sculpture of satan.

“Ain’t that badass?”

Chain nodded, said it was. He dragged a boot across the dirty carpet and asked where his money was. He sat the empty on the floor and looked at em both, one by one. The girl asked where was they dope. Chain said he must be excused for that, that he’d forgotten and left it in the car. And he got up and went out to get it.

“I seen you,” the boy told me, lightin a cigarette and holdin it to his lips while he looked at me a bit. “You drive a truck or something?”

I said I did but had given it up.

“You got to pay the bills, too, right?” he chuckled, tappin ashes on the floor. He looked at the snake but the snake didn’t pay attention to none of us. It was in its own world. Chain came back in and stamped his boots and blew. He reached and grabbed a pistol from the back of his jeans and pointed it at the girl and told her hands up or he’d kill her.

He didn’t say nothin to the boy, but the boy lifted his hands anyway.

“Money,” Chain said, leveling the muzzle as the boa let itself to the floor and passed serpentine under her chair and headed for the back rooms. The boy pointed at the girl with a cock of his thumb and she raised her eyebrows at Chain.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I got plenty a bullets.”

I was tryin to figure why Chain hadn’t said nothin bout any a this, but I figured he’d tell me later. It won’t no reason to be nervous. Long as they played nice. She bent over and lifted the lid from a ottoman footstool and removed a strong box.

“The whole thing,” Chain said. “Slide it over to him.”

She pushed it near up between my feet and carefully sat back, raisin her arms after a second. Chain flipped a knife from out a his sock in one swift motion and had barely knelt down before he had the lid popped open. It was crammed with cash.

“That’s more’n we owe,” the boy said hoarsely, rearrangin hisself in his chair like he was bout to stand up. Chain peered up at him, the gun swingin along with his dark gaze.

“Owe? You think this is bout who owes who? Likes it payin bills time? Motherfucker,” Chain growled and stood, squarin his shoulders and legs spread like it was fistfight time, “you owe me more’n you got.”

He looked at the girl, whose annealed exterior had withered considerably. She had a tremble in her blackened lips and her face had gone whiter than snow. In that quiet moment you could hear the drips on the carpet where she had pissed herself.

“Chain,” I said. “We done.”

I picked up the strong box and snapped the lid closed as much as it would close but he reached up with the pistol and knocked out the bulb overhead. That left us in only a glow of pale light from the tube over the kitchenette sink. Won’t no brighter than a television. I heard the girl say please but Chain acted like he didn’t hear.

“Down,” he ordered, “on all fours.”

They crawled from their chairs like babies, awkward. I was half behind Chain. I could only see the side a his face and it was damp and pallid. I could see the scar where he’d been cut in prison, discolored, like a piece a somebody else’s face put there crudely.

“She’s pregnant,” the boy whined, bangin his forehead into the carpet softly. He kept clenchin and unclenchin his fists into the dry nap.

“Well,” Chain sighed, “that’s too bad.”

He turned his head just a bit and signaled me to come up aside him and I did. He held the gun out for me to take it and I did. He slipped his boot knife out and looped his thumb and index finger through the rings. He stepped over to the boy and grabbed him by the hair, tight, and pulled his face up where I could see it. A loop of snot was attached from the boy’s nose to the carpet.

“Tell mama it’s all over,” Chain hissed. “Tell her now. That it’s over.”

The boy sobbed and Chain fell to laughin and rubbed his blade across the boy’s cheek. He gave me a smile and a wink. He told the girl to watch. With hair knotted in his fingers, he wrenched the boy’s chin up higher and you could hear somethin bout to snap. The girl wouldn’t look.

I shot him as the knife flashed under the chin. For a second I thought the boy’s head would fall onto the dropped knife. But it didn’t. Chain took the knife with him as he sprawled over the ass and boots and went spread eagle and face up to the ceiling, a spray of blood jettin from either temple.

She was screamin. Like she could alert some savin grace through the carpet and the floor to under the trailer, and it would rise in and make things right. She didn’t realize I’d already done that for her.

…..

“Bud,” my lawyer said, scratchin his stool up near the bars, “how you makin out?”

I tell him it’s a lovely place to spend a Christmas and he just purses his dry lips and looks at his pen tappin on his notebook. He says don’t I know it’s three days since Christmas. I say it don’t matter cause ever day’s like Christmas in here.

Down in the bullpen Rico Benthal laughs and calls all the boys to listen. Rico’d got pulled in for not payin child support. He does thirty days and he’s good to go.

I can see a flash on the wall behind my lawyer and I know they’s got the mirror out so they can see down here. I don’t know why but I retract my hands from through the bars where I’d been hangin em. I put my hands in my jumper pockets and look down at the notebook. He’s underlined plea bargain. And beside it he’s made a big bold question mark.

They ain’t nothin to bargain to. State’s got two witnesses say I was an accomplice to enough crimes and acts a wrong to fill up near a full page of a docket. Lawyer says it don’t sound like folks is gonna buy in but so much that I saved their lives. I killed a man in the process.

And this couple I saved their lives, they sayin I woulda killed them if I hadn’t lost the nerve. They say my plan was to kill em all, everthing that moved. But that I locked up. It was two hours for the cops come and they said ever second they feared for they lives. It’s a damn lie.

“It cain’t really get more fucked up,” I said during out first interview, “can it?”

He said indeed it couldn’t. This feller is only a couple years older’n me. I remember him from school. But he says he don’t recall me. Even when I say I think we played a year a pee-wee football together he says he can’t place me.

“That’s all right,” I said, “I won’t worth a shit.”

What he’s tryin to do is keep me from capital. He says life in prison is a fair swap, all things considered. All things bein equal. I ask him what that means, in legal terms, all things bein equal.

He squinted to a high window in the confidence room in the jail and thought about it.

“I guess,” he said slowly, “in your case, it doesn’t mean much at all.”

Today he seems tired. Got wrinkles in his suit jacket. Wrinkles like he’s slept in it. Benthal’s been tellin me my boy’s been goin through a mess a late. The wife’s been runnin round with one a the higher-up sheriff’s deputies. Gettin a good stiff fuckin on the side, Benthal said. Which, accordin to Benthal, is not a good sign. When the boys on the state side don’t have no respect for your personal life, like when they fuckin yer wife near bout in public, that means you don’t got no standin in the court system.

“That deputy might as well be fuckin you,” Benthal laughed.

My lawyer says we got one more week to prepare afore we go in and get a date set for trial.

“I wish it was today,” I said. “I want to get it over with.”

He nods, caps his pen. I hadn’t even noticed it was uncapped. He didn’t write nothin. See ya Friday, he says, and then the jailer opens the door to the women’s section and the lawyer goes through so he can talk to one of the cunts he’s representin.

“Hey,” Benthal calls. “We takin bets for tonight’s game. Desserts. You in?”

I say I am and I got the Patriots. He says everbody’s got the Patriots, I gotta take the Dolphins. The bullpen boys find this funny. And it’s even funnier when I say go ahead and put me down for Miami then.

“Hey,” Benthal calls again, soundin like he’s moved as close down as he can to my cell. “See if you can git yer lawyer buddy to bring his wife in next time. I shore like to see what all the fuss is bout. Wouldn’t you?”

I say no I wouldn’t. That it don’t matter if she’s hairy as an ape or got legs from floor to ceilin.

“Sides,” I tell him, “I’m tired a hearin you pull on that skinny little pecker ever time you so much as get a sniff a perfume.”

…..

I was out in the yard and it snowin big wet flakes a blue glitter from the streetlamps, watchin the house burn down. Me and my mama and my stepdaddy lived in a old two-story down a rock lane by the railroad tracks. You couldn’t see the bottom floor a the house from the street for all the weeds in the yard. Hop sedge that crackled as the embers and ashes flumed from the upstairs windows, where my stepdaddy had been cookin on a hibachi.

He was tellin a fireman that he’d just wanted hot dogs and he’d brought the grill upstairs to cook em. The fireman swept smudge from his face with the back a his yellow sleeve and nodded and walked away to help saw a lean-to from aside the house that was catchin fire and blazin the dry sedge.

This nightmare gleam strobed all around the charred yard, as the flames crawled up to the bottoms a the low snowclouds. And with the smoke mixed, it was like we’d been livin in a volcano that had erupted.

“Bud,” my mama said, standin there smokin her slims in her gray housecoat, “what’s that? Is that a train?”

“Yeah, mama,” I said. “Sure sounds like one.”

And we watched the train bully along, shakin the hot windows so they broke, throwin rocks in the hissin sedge like it was tellin us to go on and leave with a final insult. One of the rocks struck my stepdaddy side the head and he hollered and was bleedin from his temple, wipin blood onto his dirty boxers, cussin.

Mama just looks over and shakes her head, groundin out a butt with her slipper.

“Put some pants on, Curtis,” she said puttin her hand behind my neck to push me on, “so we can go. I think we seen all there is to see here.”

…..

My lawyer tells the judge all bout my troubles growin up. A mama who left one drunk for another. How my daddy died in his truck in the cold night at a stoplight in town from a heart attack. My learnin disability. It was humblin to hear just how hardscrabble a life I’d lived to that point. One long run a bad luck.

This judge is a man with a widder’s peak like one a them movie draculas. He lays a yella pencil aside his nose while my lawyer talks and his gray eyes roam the room. Once or twice he gazes at me and it’s hard to tell what he’s thinkin. He’s got that look like you have when you window shop, like you thinkin you could use one a them things you lookin at, but is it worth the trouble goin in and listenin to the salesman.

I never planned on endin up bein somethin whose fate would be decided on such terms. It was all in this one basket, and this judge was left to figure out if he was doin folks a favor by sentencin me to death. And if he was to let me live out my life naturally, what would that mean to me? I knew I’d spend years figurin that out. Wonderin if old widder’s peak had just followed procedure, or found some redemption in my face, my story, that hard dirt life.

The judge just sat there rubbin the ridge a his nose with the pencil a good quarter of a hour while my lawyer shuffled papers and exhaled deep and heavy, and the prosecutor folded his hands in his lap and stared at the wall above the judge’s head. It was so quiet you could hear folks crackin they toes knuckles inside they leather shoes.

The judge looked up without raisin his head, fixin his stare on a empty spot in the back of the room, and cleared his throat.

“Not even jail,” he said, “can deter some of the worst acts we’re capable of, some of us.”

He looked at me durin the last part a that. He’d said it slow, pausin ever couple words, like we was the dumbest folks in the world and he had to make sure we understood not just the words but what he meant by em.

I didn’t even listen to what he said after that. He talked for another five minutes and my lawyer lowered his head and stared at the table. I felt some relief at knowin I wouldn’t be spendin thousands a days figurin out what had gone through this judge’s head.

Turns out it was all simple as somethin my daddy had told me when he’d come round to carry off his things and seen my mama had thrown it all out. All he had, he said, was his own thoughts and the pulse in his veins.

“Bud,” he said, leanin into a post as he stood on the steps and looked over the house one last time, “if there’s one thing you’ll find out in life it’s this.”

And he scratched a match lit on his pants leg and held the low flame to his cigarette, squintin to the faint trail a smoke it caused. He had a pained look in his eyes.

“There ain’t no greater trouble in this world than the one you can bring unto yourself. I believe that. A man’s downfall don’t sneak up on him in the night. It comes right up in the light of day and shakes his hand, how d’ya do. I been waitin fer you.”

——————–

From 1996 to 2007, Jackson wrote for Cox Newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. His poetry was published in literary magazines in the late 1980s/early 1990s. After the dozen years of journalism, he has resumed fiction writing. His latest stories have been published in Splash of Red and Beyond the Margins, among other literary magazines.


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