Even though I'm fairly muscular, I was worried about coming here because of reports of prison brutality. But, up to now, everyone has left me alone. I was afraid I'd be locked in with some obnoxious cretin, but, for some reason, I was given my own cell. As far as I tell, I'm the only prisoner without a cell mate. The cell has a six-foot cot, a chair, and toilet facilities. Above the washbowl is a metal mirror. I assumed I'd have to do without a mirror. In the past, I liked to study myself in one. I would peer into my eyes, as if, if I looked long enough, I would detect something hidden behind them.
I was pleased to learn prisoners can wear their hair long. Since my former boss expected me to keep my hair neatly trimmed, I'm looking forward to letting it grow. I may also grow a moustache, though it may not go well with my blond hair and fair complexion. A moustache could make me look like a different person. I know it does some people.
Before coming here, I figured I would be making license plates, an idea I must have picked up from some old movie, but, instead, I've been assigned to the library. I don't know why, unless it's because I have a college degree. So far, I haven't met any inmates who have been in college. Most, I gather, didn't finish high school. I imagine some of the prisoners think it's unfair, my getting this cushiony job. But no one has said anything.
All I do, basically, is shelve books and enter data into a computer, which I usually get done by mid-afternoon. Since I have to stay in the library until 5 o'clock, I'm left with several hours to kill. To fill up this time, I've decided to write, mainly about myself. I've never liked to write about other people. I don't feel I know them well enough; I would probably misrepresent them.
Really, I've adapted to the routine here so well it seems improbable that not long ago I tried to kill myself.
It was a Friday. After auditing the day's accounts at the bank, where I was a cashier, I drove, as fast as the city traffic would allow, to the old wooden two-story house where I stayed. I'd chosen this particular place because, for only a small charge, the landlady, an eighty-year-old arthritic, let me pen my two dogs in the backyard. What with not liking my job and not knowing anyone in the city, except the people at the bank, the dogs were a consolation.
Every Friday afternoon when I got home, I put the dogs into my old Taurus and drove to a lonely dirt road twenty miles outside the city. The road wound through dense woods, of giant oaks and elms, and had several rickety wooden bridges that gave passage over small streams. While the dogs chased about in the woods, I'd walk the entire length of the road, about three miles, at times sitting on the bridge railings and watching the flowing water until the dogs caught up with me. When they did, they often went into the stream and paddled for a while. I was often struck by the silence of their movements.
That particular Friday, a warm day in late April, massive clouds began to gather shortly after I got to the road. By the time I reached the first bridge, about a half mile from the car, the sky was a thick dark bowl. Thunder rolled continually and long zigzags of lightning shredded the sky. Soon, rain was pouring so hard that the dogs, no more than ten feet from me, faded into the trunk of the giant oak tree they were huddled under. Every once in a while, the rain would ease to a point where I could see the dogs were watching me, but then the rain would start pounding again, and the dogs ' forms would become indistinct. Finally, after an hour or so, the downpour gave way to a light, steady rain. The dogs left the tree and began to sniff about in the woods. Everything smelled fresh.
Throughout the deluge, I had stayed on the bridge, liking the fierce driving rain and the display of lightning. But not long after the heavy rain had passed over, I became unusually depressed. Gray, drizzly days had often made me despondent, but never had the feeling been so intense. As I looked at the raging stream, full of swirling debris, I had an odd sensation. I felt I had been alive for eons and, in that time, had done a billion things I didn't want to do. How often had I brushed my teeth, tied my shoes, lifted a fork, waited at a traffic light, filled out a deposit slip, put money into the hands of a stranger?
I soon tired of this line of thought. I never liked to complain of things easy to eliminate once and for all.
I had considered suicide before, but, for various reasons, had never attempted it. For one thing, I had never quite relinquished the idea, drummed into me as a child, that the future can always change things for the better. Also, I'd always been able to think of at least one thing I didn't want to give up. These lifebuoys might be a new book, a kiss, a movie, a bottle of beer. There was one other reason, a silly one, why I had never tried to kill myself. I didn't like the idea of people looking at and handling my corpse. I knew this made no sense. After all, I wouldn't know.
That Friday these old deterrents failed. I decided to jump into the surging stream. Still, it was likely I wouldn't drown. I would probably be immediately washed on to the bank or carried along on the surface. I decided I would have to use the car. I could lock the doors, roll down the windows, and then simply drive down the embankment next to the bridge.
As I started back to the car, the dogs broke from the woods. I was surprised I had forgotten about them, my companions for five years. My first thought was that I could leave a note promising my savings, about thirty-thousand dollars, to anyone who would take the dogs in. But I decided that would be a bad idea; the dogs would be taken in by someone only in it for the money. Remembering I had originally found them straying along an interstate highway, I decided to leave them to fend again for themselves. Maybe someone else would take them in. Or maybe they would learn to survive in the woods.
When I reached the car, the dogs, as usual, were standing beside it, waiting for me to open the door. Instead of opening it, I sat on the hood. As I expected, the dogs soon wandered off into the woods. When they were out of sight, I got into the car, locked the doors, and cracked the windows. As an afterthought, I took off my belt and buckled one end to a pants loop and tied the other to the steering wheel. I then started the engine and headed for the bridge.
As I neared a bend in the road, I threw a quick glance in the rearview mirror. In the distance, I could just make out the shapes of the dogs running full speed after me. I didn't look again.
When I got to the bridge, I was doing about thirty. I swerved to the left, closed my eyes, emptied my mind, and plunged down the embankment. As the car hit the water, I had a moment of detached curiosity. What does drowning feel like? How long would I remain conscious?
Seconds after hitting the water, I realized I was breathing normally. Opening my eyes, I saw trees and sky. I had misjudged the depth of the water. It hardly reached the door handles.
I untied the belt, rolled the window all the way down, and, feeling inept, climbed out of the car. Just as I pulled myself to the bank, the dogs arrived. They sniffed of me, licked my face, and then trotted off into the woods.
I felt a profound detachment. The concerns of humankind seemed alien, and it seemed incredible I still lived, breathed, saw, thought, felt. The odd feeling soon passed, and in its place came an intense desire to sleep. With the dogs trotting alongside, I began to jog back to the city. A mile up the highway, I came to an old house with a pickup in front. I gave the owner twenty dollars, all I had on me, to drive the dogs and me to my apartment. After locking the dogs in their pen, I went upstairs, put in earplugs, plopped down on the bed, placed a pillow over my head, and slept until noon the next day.
I used to spend Saturdays reading, visiting the zoo, and walking in the cemetery. But at that time I didn't read as much as in earlier years. I had stopped reading fiction altogether. I had trouble finding characters I could relate to. It was also around this time I stopped going to the zoo. I still liked the animals, but I could no longer bear the hordes of people who flooded the zoo grounds on weekends. I knew the judgment was superficial, but I felt they were too patronizing to the animals. It was easy to imagine a world where lions and tigers peered at caged people.
I still enjoyed the cemetery. There, I seldom saw anyone. In five years, I had never spoken to anybody. The visitors, what few there were, seldom left their cars. Of course, funerals were an exception, though afterwards the mourners returned quickly to their cars.
Each time I went, I'd spend about an hour walking among the huge oaks and the hedged plots. I soon became familiar with most of the tombstone inscriptions, though there were thousands. I was especially interested in the tombstones with pictures of the deceased. I liked to imagine the kinds of people they had been. I often lingered before the picture of a young, beautiful woman named Helen Richards. I regretted I hadn't known her. She had a Mona Lisa expression and luxuriant, raven-black hair.
Sometimes, when a funeral was in progress, I'd walk to within twenty yards of it and gaze at the people gathered around the coffin. After the funeral was over and everyone had left, I'd walk over and read the identification plaque to find out the name and age of the deceased. Then, I'd spend a few minutes looking at and smelling the flowers. If I stayed longer, I became uneasy, feeling I was trespassing.
The Saturday following the bridge incident, I decided, for no particular reason, not to go to the cemetery. I decided to go to a tavern and drink a can of each brand of beer sold there. I hadn't been to a bar in months, though I used to go to them almost every day.
After getting out of bed that afternoon, I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror above the lavatory. I had hoped the events of the previous evening would've lent some new quality to my face. But nothing had changed. I still looked like Mr. Nice Guy. Keeping on the clothes I had slept in, I brushed my teeth, ran a comb through my hair, and left the house.
Nearby, I came to the Elysian Fields, a tavern with a faded brick exterior. Inside, a long counter and a few booths were barely visible in the blue light of a beer sign and the pink light of a jukebox. I wondered why bars were usually dim. Was it to cut down on electricity, to conceal shabby decor, to hide wrinkles, what?
While I was on my third beer, a middle-aged man with a tie and a beard sat down next to me. He said he was a psychologist at a local university and was involved in some important research on human stress factors. Since it wasn't feasible to use human subjects, he subjected guinea pigs, mice, cats, and dogs to physical deprivation, noise thresholds, shocks, and the like. I asked him i f all that was really necessary, and he said he thought so. When I told him I didn't see that it was, he seemed to take offense, and soon left.
When I had drunk seven or eight beers, a slender woman of indeterminate age, middle twenties I guessed, sat down on a stool next to me. I thought about speaking to her, maybe asking her if I could buy her a drink, but the longer I thought about it, the less interested I was. To get her to my apartment, I was afraid I would have to listen to a few lies and probably tell a few. Over the years, I had had a few one-night stands. None had been satisfying. After a while, the woman moved to a stool at the far end of the bar.
When I left the tavern, I was surprised to see the sun was nearly down. Its dying rays shone gold on the windows of buildings along the street. I considered walking downtown to a movie, something I hadn't done in a couple of years. But when I thought of all the people who would be swarming the street and how crowded the theater would be, I decided not to go. If I had been drunk, I might have gone, but the beer had had little effect. I decided to go back to the apartment.
Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting in the backyard with the dogs. In the fading light, I tossed them their rubber balls. Each time I threw the balls, the dogs, standing about ten feet away, leapt into the air and caught them on their downward arc. The dogs would then trot over and drop the balls at my feet, return to the spot where they had made the catch, and gaze at me expectantly.
Later, the old lady came outside and pretended to shake dust from a bathroom mat. I could tell she wanted to talk to me, probably about the dogs. Acting as if I hadn't seen her, I walked to a back corner of the yard and gazed at the shrubs that lined the outermost part of the yard. About fifteen minutes later, I heard the back door slam. It had become pitch dark, and I guessed the old woman had gone inside only when she could no longer see me.
In an hour or so, I decided to eat, feed the dogs, and then go to bed. I really wasn't hungry, but I thought the food might make me sleepy, as it often did. Back in the house, I rummaged through the cabinets of the kitchenette, a small block once a closet. As I looked at the cans of vegetables and soup, I mildly regretted I had no meat. I hadn't eaten any in fifteen years.
When I was a child, my father worked in a meat-packing plant. His duties were mainly clerical, but one day, when I dropped by after school, he took me round back to the slaughter area. Cattle were being prodded into a small chute, where a man with a sledgehammer waited. Sometimes he had to strike the animal three or four times, between the eyes, before it died. I watched him kill several steer, and with each blow I winced. I wondered that the animals didn't rebel, turn fierce and charge their executioner. I also reflected that if the cattle had been people, one blow would've been enough. For a few weeks after that, I couldn't watch anyone eat meat without recalling the episode.
After I had eaten a carrot, a handful of peanuts, and a can of cold peas and given the dogs some bread, I sat in my underwear on a cot next to the open window, barred on the outside. A light breeze stirred through the room, bringing with it the smell of honeysuckle that grew beside the house. A dog barked in the distance and nearby an air conditioner hummed. Beneath the streetlight, insects moved in an unbroken circle. About two hours later, I fell into a deep sleep that lasted until near dawn, when I awoke from a strange dream.
I had climbed to the top of an icy peak. Just as I was about to descend, my foot slipped, hurtling me down the steep mountainside. As I neared a deep chasm, I managed to clutch a dead shrub wedged between two rocks. While hanging over the chasm, I looked up. Standing atop the mountain, their faces outlined against the stars, were two boyhood companions. One shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette in my father's living room, and the other was killed in a car wreck as we returned home from a date with two cheerleaders. Both girls suffered broken bones and severe facial lacerations. I wasn't injured. In the dream, I tried to call to them for help, but no words came. For a long time, they stared at me, their eyes dark and vacant. Then, as I was about to get a foothold in the rocky mountainside, the two friends lifted a huge tombstone and flung it at me. As the tombstone neared, I saw it had my name on it. Just before it crushed me, I woke up.
I stayed in bed until it began to get light. Then I got up to make a pot of coffee. While it was brewing, I went into the bathroom to shave and comb my hair. Impulsively, I took a pair of scissors and cut my hair as close to the scalp as I could. Then, instead of shaving my face, I shaved my head. When I finished, I saw a stranger in the mirror. I tried to picture the brain tissue beneath the skull. It seemed odd to think of my brain thinking about itself. I left the bathroom, poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat in a chair next to the window.
I sat there for several hours. At first, I drank only coffee, but later I drank from a six-pack of beer that had been in the refrigerator a month. I had a good view of the street. For a time, there was little traffic, and I could watch, without disturbance, the shadowy patterns cast on the street by the big oaks that lined it. I wondered whether anyone still alive was around when the oaks were planted.
Around nine o'clock, cars began to park along the street. It was time for Sunday morning services at the big church at the end of the block. The women had their hair fixed up, some in fancy buns. The men straightened their ties and brushed their coats. Mothers fussed with the clothing of small children, and adolescent girls paraded in shiny heels. I hadn't been to church since my mother died, when I was twelve, and for a minute I thought of getting dressed and going, just to see if things were as I remembered. But I was afraid I would be uncomfortable, out-of-place, and, besides, I figured the sermon would be trite.
About eleven o'clock I decided to take the dogs for a walk around the neighborhood. Usually, the only time I let them out of the pen was late at night, when most people were in bed. A few times, the dogs had tried to bite passers-by. But I thought Sunday morning would be almost as good as midnight. The few people stirring would likely be in church.
While I walked, the dogs sniffed around trees and flower beds. I enjoyed the warm sun on my bald head, and I was pleased to think the wind could no longer mess up my hair. I fantasized I had found my way to a small, deserted island somewhere off Okinawa, where I had been stationed after being drafted into the army. The island, always warm, had fruit trees and springs of clear water. I spent the days, and nights when the moon was full, splashing in the ocean and then drying on the sand. Sunrise and sunset were the same, each spreading a canopy of gold over the ocean's vast expanse.
I smiled at the picture. The reality would have been sunburn and hunger and mosquitoes and chilly nights.
My thoughts were interrupted by the barking of a dog. Looking about, I saw only one of my dogs. I began to trot in the direction of the barking. When I reached a nearby intersection, I spotted the other dog some twenty yards away. He was barking at a man on the porch.
The man, old and frail, was pointing a rifle at the dog. Before I could yell, he squeezed the trigger. The barks stopped. The dog lay motionless a few feet from the man.
For a second, I couldn't move. Then my body filled with an intense heat. I started running toward the man, now standing over the dog. I drove into him with my head and shoulder, and when he was down, I dragged him away from the dog and then banged his head several times against the ground.
I then walked over to the dog. He gave a low moan. A minute later, I noticed the old man's wife bending over her husband. She was wringing her hands and making low whining noises. She and the dog sounded alike.
I was still in the yard when the police arrived, called there, I guessed, by a neighbor watching from a window. Within seconds, I was handcuffed and in the back seat of a police car. I asked if my dog could be taken to a veterinarian, but the two policemen ignored me. As we drove away, my other dog chased after us until we were out of sight.
I had been in the county jail two months when my case came before the court. The court lawyer assigned to me, when I said I didn't want to hire an attorney, said I was lucky to have been locked up when the docket was light. Otherwise, I might have been in jail a year or more. The lawyer told me I should waive trial by jury and throw myself on the mercy of the court. The judge would understand I hadn't meant to kill the old man. And since I had no previous arrests, I should get off with a light sentence, a few years at most.
As it turned out, I was given a life term. When my lawyer asked me whether I wanted to appeal, I told him no. I didn't want the hassle. Besides, the old man had been within his legal rights when he shot the dog. I should have had the dogs on leashes. And, according to the old man's wife, I had banged the old man's head against the ground at least a dozen times. I figured I might, at best, get my sentenced reduced to twenty or thirty years, and by then I would be unfit for life on the outside.
Had I been feeling better the morning I appeared in court, I think I might have fared better. But I had lain awake all night listening to the rain splatter against the barred window of my cell. When my hour came to see the judge, the sun was just starting to break through a cloud clover. Since I was looking forward to wa tching the play of the sun on the wet pavement, the summons to the courtroom was an intrusion. I was a bit annoyed I had to go right then. I guessed I would have a long wait once I was in the courtroom.
The judge, old and thin, looked a little like the man I had killed. I wondered why the judge kept his seat when he could've enjoyed the leisure of retirement. I figured he would be dead within the year. He looked sickly. He seemed dissatisfied with my responses. In fact, I thought he might have some personal dislike for me.
He asked whether it bothered me to have taken a human life. I said I was sorry the old man was dead and I understood I was guilty of a crime. But, in a way, the old man had brought it on himself. He could've stayed in the house until the dog left. Anyway, my dog had done him no real harm, just barked.
The judge said almost every killer who had stood before him rationalized what he had done. He said I was a bully who preyed on the weak and that I was obviously short on conscience. It was people like me, "well educated, intelligent, with all the advantages," who least deserved mercy.
The day after the sentencing I was transferred to this prison. I haven't been able to find out anything about the dogs. While in the county jail, I wrote letters to the city animal shelter and to my former landlady, but I got no reply. I can't help but wonder about them. I shouldn't complain, I suppose. I guess I had it coming.