Monday, July 21, 2008

Polly Escapes

Polly watched Amy pushed the cart down the center of the dormitory. The nightly collection never slowed. As it got heavier, it moved on its own. Amy’s night shirt stuck to her sweaty body. Each girl carefully dumped her chamber pot to avoid splashing, but Polly could already see brown and yellow stains. Unlucky Amy drew the day after laundry and would have to shower in her night shirt to remove the worst of it, but the odors would be with her for two weeks waiting for the next laundry. Polly stood patiently waiting for her turn. When Amy drew close, she mouthed the word, “Thank you.”

At the far end of the dormitory, Sharon did a little dance with her pot held high over her head like trophy or a spring bouquet. Polly maintained her focus on Amy and the approaching cart. Just as the cart reached her, she heard a crash and the lights went out. She knew Sharon had dropped the pot and hit it the light switch. She felt sorry that Sharon would also be showering in her gown tomorrow morning. Without a pause, she dropped her own pot and vaulted into cart.

The contents splashed. The smell urged her to remember the plan. She took a deep breath and pressed one hand over her mouth and the other pinched her nose. She closed her eyes and submerged herself in the muck.

She imagined Amy guiding the cart down the dormitory ramp and coasting across the yard to the warden’s garden. Her lungs burned and her ear rang. She felt like she was spinning, but didn’t dare loosen the grip on her mouth and nose. The slimy mixed oozed between her hands and her mouth. She pressed her lips so tight they hurt. The cart bounced. “Push Amy. Push faster.”

She moved towards the front of the cart, safely hidden. Waiting. Wondering if she’d die, drowning in the cart. The thought of swallowing gave her courage. Two bumps gave her hope they were in the garden. The cart tilted and she was poured out on the ground. She didn’t move, except to make a small slot for fresh air. This time the muck entered her mouth, rolled over her tongue, but the air felt fresh and clean. She wouldn’t die tonight.

When she heard the garden gate shut, she crawled to the orange tree. Camouflaged in brown, she climbed up the tree trunk. She reached out to the last orange, and a long thorn stabbed her. She watched the blood drip off her palm, washing away the dirt. She silently shouted. “Thorns? What else can happen?” She shinnied out on the branch carefully balancing because her camouflage made it slippery and those giant thorns were everywhere. Then she heard a gun shot.

She woke up on the ground with a sharp pain in her back. She rolled over and, not seeing any blood, realized that the branch had broken and several thorns impaled her back. But, none of this mattered; she saw the orange within reach.

She grabbed the smooth fruit and ripped it in half. She pushed it against her mouth and sucked the sweet juice. This is what freedom tasted like.

Guards came running. The garden gate opened and their flashlight beams circled the orange tree. By this time, Polly had run across the yard and approached the barbed wire. This time she didn’t pause, the barbs were tiny compared to the orange tree thorns. By the time the guards starting shooting she was lost in the night.

Not lost in the night; free in the night.

Polly Receives a Letter

Dear Polly,
The orange tree outside the warden’s house is in bloom.
Love Mom

Polly got down on her hand and knees. Now that she knew what a prison envelope looked like, she sorted through the entire pile of mail. She counted on her fingers, one, two, three. Three weeks since her fifth-grade graduation, three week into summer vacation, three weeks since they took her mother away. She stacked the junk mail, some of it yellow with age, against the stairs and left the letters below the broken mailboxes built into the wall. When she was tall enough to reach the brass doors, her mothers had warned her, “Polly, you never even look there.”

For a year, Polly watched those forbidden doors. Sometimes she saw plastic bags stuffed in the cubbies. She never touched them, and they were always gone he morning. The mail mostly belonged to people who had moved away, mostly bills, but no more prison envelopes. Polly had the only letter.

She walked outside. She held the letter up to the sun, looking for some hidden message, She’d read a book about prisoners during some war sending messages by pressing hard on two pieces of paper and mailing the second sheet with the message impressed onto the blank page. Nothing by the red prison stamp, APPROVED, and in small letters Jumping Cholla State Prison, and in even smaller letters, like they were embarrassed to say it, Depart of Penitence and Rehabilitation.

Polly carefully put the letter back in the envelope with the preprinted return addressed and embossed stamp, folded it in half, and slipped it into the pocket of her jeans. She ran down the street toward the school. She never stayed in the building long. If the CPS lady found her, it would be foster care or juvie. Chrome had lived with foster parents for two weeks before he ran away. He didn’t recommend it.

* * *

“Are you going to eat all that?”

Polly looked at her tray, three fish sticks, a packet of catsup, two celery sticks, two carrot sticks, a roll wrapped in cellophane with a pat of butter, a sealed cup of cut-up fruit, and a container of milk. Unconsciously, she pulled her tray closer.

“Of course. I don’t have a grandma to feed me over the weekend. Besides, I love the food here.”

The school served free breakfast and lunch all summer. Polly and Chrome ate together everyday. His mother had been at Jumping Cholla, they called it JC, for four months. Polly snuck into her apartment after dark. Even without electricity, it was home. She liked to use her own bathroom, and sleep in her mother’s bed. She felt safe there. Sometimes she dreamed that her mother spoke to her. She held the envelope in one hand while she finished he lunch, wondering what the letter meant.

* * *

Polly and Chrome sat on a discarded protein incubator under the only tree. The smell of yeast reminded her of her mom who’d been arrested for synthesizing patented proteins. She looked around the park she called it Trash Park, because all summer she saw Splash Park banners on the broadband and this was the closest she’d get. Once a year the city brought in trucks and a skip loader, but that hadn’t happened recently. They were alone. She handed the envelope to Chrome.

“Wow! You got a letter from you mom? Nothing for me in the last two months. I know she writes, but if the guards don’t like her or the letter, they just throw it out.”

Polly watched two well dressed women, with briefcases walk by the park. She silently moved her lips, keep walking, just keep going. Chrome read the letter, held it up to the sun, looked at the back of the paper, and checked inside the envelope.

“What’s your code? What does mean?”

She didn’t budge, willing the CPS ladies to stay out of the park.

“Don’t you and your mom have a code? When my mother tells me to hug my grandma, it means she’s come home, and when she says to kiss my grandma, it means, they extended her time. What’s your code?”

Polly felt like a helpless, little kid. “We don’t have no code.”

She felt her mother whispering to her. “Sorry mom, we don’t have any code.”

“There has to be a code. Tell me about oranges.”

“Oranges? I’ve never seen an orange, except pictures on the broadband. Those little plastic cups of orange water at school breakfast are the closest I’ve ever been. Maybe if I saw an orange, I’d know the code.”

He carefully folded the letter and returned it to her on two flat open hands, palms up. She wanted to hug him or maybe cry, but not in Trash Park. They walked toward the cement wall, the edge of their world. They could hear the traffic roar on the other side, but they never been that far from home. As they walked along the painted wall, Polly counted the blocks. Chrome kicked rocks and collected cans for recycling.

“97, 98, 99.” Polly stopped. “If there is a code, I can figure it out.”

* * *

Chrome slid an armful of can across the counter in the only store in their neighborhood. Mostly it had snack food and drinks. He bought Polly a drink box and a box of crackers.

He whispered. “For tomorrow.”

Again she wanted to hug him or cry, but they just walked towards the back of her building to hide the food. She thought about the letter.

“Maybe if I saw an orange, I’d know the code.”

That night she dreamt about orange trees. Some of the trees were small like the pot of geraniums on Ms. Silver’s desk in Kindergarten. Other trees towered over her building, like the eucalyptus in Trash Park. She had never seen any other live plants. Her mother talked to her again. “The tree is so beautiful. I wish you could see it.”

Polly Rides the Bus

Despair came easy in Polly’s neighborhood. But not to Polly.

A dusty, blue bus stopped by the park, well not really a park, more like an empty lot. Polly called it Trash Park, because all summer she saw Splash Park banners on the broadband and this was the closest she’d get. Once a year the city brought in trucks and a skip loader, but that hadn’t happened recently. Polly sat on an old protein incubator. She liked the clean smell of yeast. A few grandparents and children boarded the bus carrying cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Polly picked up her two bags, one containing some underwear, her everyday jeans and two shirts. She wore her good jeans, the pair her mom had bought at the church sale for a dollar. The other held her toothbrush, a bar of soap she borrowed from the church men’s room, and a dogged-ear, coverless copy of Pride and Prejudice that her teacher gave her as a graduation present.

In a few blocks, the bus drove approached a gate in the concrete wall that formed the eastern border of her world. She recognized the graffiti, but aside from the dull roar she never thought about the other side. As soon as the massive doors opened, Polly pushed her hands over her ears, dropping her sacks and looking through the dirty windows to discover what caused the noise. It sounded like a centrifuge, a really big one, with its case removed, and a few missing bearings. As the bus rounded the corner, she saw the problem, hundreds, no, thousands of cars and trucks, really big trucks, flew down the road, a road so wide she couldn’t see the other side. She didn’t imagine that her bus would join this torrent of traffic, but in a few short seconds, it flew with the rest of them. She bent over, elbows dug into her stomach and her eyes pressed against her knees. Taking deep breaths, she prayed. “God please don’t let my heart explode. Make the noise stop. Make the bus stop. Take me home.”

Little by little, the noise did stop. Her heart slowed. She let go of her ears and sat up. No only did the noise stop, but the traffic faded and the city was gone, no more buildings. She picked up her sacks and placed the on her lap covering the two wet spots from where her eyes had rested. She pressed her fingers, one at a time, against her thumb. This is how she remembered things. She was recalling broadband pictures. She whispered, desert, sand, rocks, cactus, trees. She’d never seen any of these in real-life. Then, she looked up and saw it, bird, feathers, claws, raptor, hawk! She just had to tell someone. She saw a boy across the aisle, a boy she recognized from school.

“Gene, look up there! A hawk!”

He jumped to her seat and leaned over dumping her clothes to the floor. She was ready to punch him when the hawk fell out the sky, dropping so fast she was sure it would die. She froze as the bird fell, forgetting about the indignity of her clothes on the floor and a boy in her lap. At the last moment, the hawk stopped. Miraculously, it furiously flapped its wings and rose.

Polly hugged Gene and screamed. “Look! It caught a mouse!”

A second later, he was on his hands and knees collecting her clothes from the floor, apologizing, and picking up her underwear with two delicate fingers and dropping each piece into the sack she held open. She was glad she brought clean underwear. She held her packages tightly against her chest. She wanted to say thank you or something, but she didn’t dare. He sat next to her for the remainder of the trip, but he never said anything. She stared at the window, just whispering, flower, rabbit, mountains, saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, thunder storm.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Enabler

“Honey, I feel terrible, do you have any meds?”

“No dear, of course not. You know your sponsor says alcoholics shouldn’t take drugs.”

She reached towards him palms up. “Look my arms are shaking. Just give me something to calm my nerves.”

He looked at her arms. He checked the inside of her elbows for needle tracks. No tracks, but still after six months of sobriety, her body refused to recuperate. The skin hung off her arms like an old lady’s. As the loose folds shook back and forth, he tried to recall the young woman he’d married five short years ago, the smooth curves he’d caressed each night, and many mornings and afternoons. Her lips had become so thin they seemed to disappear behind the lipstick that outlined her mouth with a shaky red circle like some Precambrian sucking monster.

She wrapped her arms around him, lifted one thin leg onto his lap, and whispered. “We could have fun, like in the old days.

He flinched at the touch of her leg as light as a child’s. He stiffened. He had to stay strong, for both of them.

She stood up and turned away. “Well forget it.”

She sauntered into the bathroom.

He ran to the front door and checked the padlock. As long as he could keep her in the house everything would be okay. He checked her hiding places each night as she slept. The house was clean. She couldn’t get in any trouble.

He leaned forward and pulled his head between his legs pressing his thighs against his ears. In this position he listened to her trash the bathroom, probably looking for pills. Not again. He cursed her and cursed himself, trying to remember that she was sick and that none of this had anything to do with him. She had her own private deamons.

He remembered all the advice. “This too will pass.” “One day at a time.” Mostly he remembered, “Tough love.” None of this eased his pain. He was different, educated. He was a medical doctor, a microbiologist, a researcher. His job, no his calling, was to cure disease, ease suffering. He couldn’t just sit and listen.

The noise in the bathroom stopped.

He reached into his pocket and examined a bottle of pills. The label said Experimental Compound. Not for Human Consumption. However, the animal trials had gone very well and he didn’t think they could be classified as narcotics, drugs. He walked towards the bathroom.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One Night at the Bridge

He ran up the path, stopping every few minutes to catch his breath and keep track of the three girls leading Tommy along the road below. When his reached the summit, he crawled to the sheer edge of the old quarry. Flat on the ground, he took out his night-vision binoculars. Chips of granite poked through his clothes. They had stopped at the bridge.

Andie’s slid her hand along her waist towards her back, stretching her shirt against her belly and breasts. Slowly, it entered the back pocket of her shorts, releasing her shirt. The hand reappeared with a long tube of lip gloss. He knew better than to watch what happened next.

A mother coyote with two cubs patrolled the creek bank ready to ambush the mice and rabbits that might risk a drink under the cover of darkness. His night scope didn’t show the cold blooded rattlesnakes, but he knew they also waited. Above, observing the drama in the moonlight, a pair of red-tailed hawks circled on the thermals rising from the black road.

He looked back as she released Tommy from her embrace. Tommy’s arms swayed limply as his chest fought to feed his lung with enough oxygen. The girls seemed pleased with the results. Andie refreshed his lip gloss before she said anything. With lips as the opening curtain and white teeth reflecting the moonlight for scenery, her tongue performed its mesmerizing choreography.

“Nice, huh? Would you like another taste?”

He couldn’t see what Tommy said, but from the way his head bobbled, he guessed Tommy wanted more.

“Next kiss on the other side.”

She laughed and ran across the bridge, arms out, and turning in circles. Front, back, front, back, her blond hair sparkled in the moonlight. Faster and faster she spun until she tripped. First she fell towards the road, but regained her balance, overcompensated and careened towards the creek below. She folded over the metal rail. He held his breath as her head shot down in the direction of the boulder strewn arroyo below, not that he would have regretted a fatal accident. Sandra screamed as her feet left the sidewalk. Tommy ran to her rescue, but before he’d gone two steps Sandra and Cass grabbed his arms.

“No so fast.”

Andie now stood in the center of the span laughing. She turned away and with an exaggerated hip sway pranced to the other side of the creek.

“If you want another kiss, you have to walk across on the guardrail.”

In PE, Tommy was the last person chosen for the team, after the fat girls and the two special ed boys. “Tommy Trip” they called him. If he was alone, like in left field, he’d trip over his own feet running for a fly ball. In a group game line nation ball or soccer, he’d fall over and trip two of three of the others on his team.

“Don’t do it. Don’t do it Tommy.” He whispered from his perch high above. Tommy climbed up on the guard rail and started crawling, his belly pressed against the cold metal and his legs hanging down.

“No way. Stand up!”

On the other side of the bridge, Andie’s tongue reprised its her siren song. Tommy lifted one leg to place his foot on top of the rail.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Bigger than a Breadbox

“16 pieces of toast, 8 slices white, 3 bagels and 2 slices organic, sprouted, whole wheat. Do you still claim you were in the house alone on June 20th?”

Brick brought his cuffed wrists to shield his bruised face in anticipation of another hit. He answered slowly, giving his shirt time to administer some first aid and top up the level of pain killers.

“Someone must have hacked the toaster. You can check my ‘sumption log. I never waste creds on that bogus organic junk.”

His shirt whistled to indicate a blunt object accelerating in its direction. Brick immediately went limp. He almost smiled as his slid across the floor, lubricated by his own blood, but thinking that the genetic training probably saved several ribs. He open one eye to see his interrogator leaning on a baseball bat like he was on deck.

“That’s not what the bread box says.”