They stuck me in a cell with an old, redneck jailbird from north of Payson on my first day and his last in Winslow Prison. Hands clasped behind his head, he was flat on his back in the top bunk, staring at the concrete ceiling. He didn’t bother to look down when the door clanged closed behind me. An hour passed before he acknowledged my presence
“They’re shipping me down to Perryville in the morning,” he said, his voice full of gravel and molasses. “You know, I was on the first bus into Perryville when they opened the doors back in ’81, and it was no resort back then. Even all new it wasn’t much, but it was better than this hellhole, I can tell you that.”
He turned sideways on his bunk and looked at me. “What’s your name, son?”
“What kinda’ time you lookin’ at?”
“Three years.” I was plenty scared, and he knew it.
“You’ll be all right, son; just stay with the Caucasians. You are a white boy, aren’t you?”
“Well then, like I said, stay close to your own kind. You might like blacks and beaners just fine where you come from, but this is your world for now; best you don’t make eye contact if you can keep from it. And, whatever you do, don’t cut in line.” He fell back on his bunk and was soon asleep.
Although I thought his ‘blacks and beaners’ reference offensive, it made sense rules of behavior familiar to me would not apply behind prison walls. I decided to take his advice on all counts. The old jailbird dropped dead in the Perryville yard before I had a chance to thank him.
That no longer concerns me as I walk down this stark white corridor with Sergeant Tom Haynes close by my side. The Sergeant fiddles with buttons on his walky-talky, barking reports of our progress to guards in the prison tower. The monotonous clap of his leather-soled shoes bounces off the concrete floor. Harsh fluorescent light turns our flesh ghostly gray.
We approach a massive steel door. An actor in a play of his own design, Sergeant Haynes holds the walky-talky against his lips and feigns a whisper.
“Opening gate three.”
The salt and pepper hairs of the Sergeant’s walrus mustache rustle with each breath, a breath textured, moist and pungent, like the smell of rotting fish that garnered him his Tommy Tuna moniker among the inmates. His incessant popping of cinnamon Tic-Tacs has little effect on the unpleasant aroma of Carp in decay.
The walky-talky crackles and screeches before falling into a static calm.
My friend, Ron, from the planet Zargon in the galaxy of Dargo, hundreds of millions of light years, but just a short wormhole away, glides along only paces ahead. He looks back and nods; he transmits a smile before passing through the prison’s steel door with the ease of a knife slicing through opaque Jell-O.
Ron visited me seven times while I was stuck in a cage on Arizona’s high desert plateau. He stayed over on occasion, lounging on the empty bunk in my cell, jabbering through the night about this and that in his telepathic way. He was carefree as a weekend vacationer at one of the elite resorts of Wailea on the island of Maui, my home before the State of Arizona saw fit to make me a felon worthy of spending endless days in the company of petty thieves, drug dealers, psychopaths of every stripe, and my fellow victims of circumstance.
Sergeant Tom and I stand quietly in front of the prison door. A high-pitched garbled voice from his walky-talky breaks the silence.
“Copy that, Sergeant. Opening gate three.”
The Sergeant clips the walky-talky to his breast pocket and pulls out a double ring of keys bolted to his belt on a retractable spool. He unlocks a metal box mounted to the wall and pushes a red button that begins flashing like a traffic stoplight. A deafening beeping echoes down the corridor as the exit door grinds open on its sliders. The spooler snaps Tom’s keys back against his belt like jangling trinkets on a yo-yo’s yo. I grip my bag in front of me, my duffel full of the odds and ends I’ve collected in my locker during the last nine hundred fourteen days, and step over a bright red line painted across the threshold.
“Good luck, Gille.” Sergeant Tom shakes my hand with both of his. He smiles; his teeth show the nicotine stains of a two pack a day man double-timing his way toward the undertaker’s metal slab.
“Why thank you,” I say.
But I know Tommy Tuna’s wish of ‘good luck’ has no chance of bringing me any such thing. Luck has nothing more to do with the future than the past, or the present for that matter; it has no meaning in the reality of things.
I know this to be true. I have known since my friend Ron from the planet Zargon told me many of the secrets of life on earth and the workings of the Zargonian evolutionary game, the sole purpose for our existence on this planet. Ron told me these things soon after he first appeared to me more than thirty years ago, two nights before my eighth Christmas, in the year of nineteen hundred and fifty-four.
I raise my hand above my shoulder and wave a friendly Hawaiian shaka toward Sergeant Tom Haynes as I walk away from the prison gate for the first and last time. I don’t look back. Making a sign of friendship toward my captor after these hundreds of days under his lock and key must seem as strange to him as it does to me. But I know I have little choice in the matter. My programming called for a polite manner and civil disposition.
The door grinds back across the slider track and slams shut against its metal casing. I have heard that sound, muffled by the prison walls, hundreds of times before while sitting on a bench in the exercise yard or sipping a cup of coffee in the cafeteria or lying on my back in my cell divining the secrets of time as it fluttered by. It is the sound of a prisoner’s return to the real world; a killer turned back on his prey; a purse-snatcher on the loose once more; a new dawn for those of us not criminally inclined. Yes, I know the sound well.
My time to walk out that door has finally come. Now I rejoin those of you on the other side. I scan across the horizon. Zargon Ron has disappeared for now.
I find myself thinking of Sergeant Tom Haynes, locked behind those walls, a captive of his own fate. As I consider the mindset that must be in place for a man like Tommy to spend thirty years of ten-hour days in voluntary confinement, a conversation I once had with him crosses my mind.
On one of the more tolerable days at Winslow State Correctional Center, after the better part of a year locked away that seemed like ten, I sat on the gray hardpan and gravel of the prison yard, my back against a concrete pillar. I was lost in thoughts of the chain link fence fifteen feet high topped with razor wire that surrounded me and the puffs of clouds floating free across the cerulean sky.
Sergeant Tom strolled down the fence line and stopped next to me.
He patted the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and scanned the horizon, and, for that moment, we might have been kindred spirits with thoughts somehow intertwined.
“Nice day, a hot one though,” Tommy said.
“Yes sir. It sure is that.”
I stood and dusted the dirt from the back of my pants.
“How long you been doing this?” I asked.
“Doing what? Oh, you mean how long have I been a prison guard?”
“A little over twenty-seven years now,” Tommy said. “Just three more and that’s the end of it.”
I told the Sergeant it didn’t sound like he was looking forward to his retirement, and he said that might be so. What was he going to do on the outside? His pension would barely pay the rent. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to find a job in the real world.
“Who the hell’s going to hire an old prison guard?”
Tommy had the same fears as those of a lifer unexpectedly paroled after spending most of his days locked behind prison walls. Life on the outside was going to be a scary thing for Sergeant Haynes. Turn a thief or drug dealer back on the streets and he can always find a grocery store to stick up or someone willing to pay for a gram or two, but what can the future hold for an old prison guard? Greeter positions at Wal-Mart are in short supply.
Behind the walls of Winslow Prison, Tommy is somebody. He is Sergeant Tom Haynes, a man worthy of at least a semblance of respect. These days will soon be gone.
“Gene over at the Standard station said he might give me a try pumping gas. If that doesn’t work out, I could probably doublebag groceries part time at the Safeway; there’s not much more I can hope for.”
Tommy’s fate will be far grimmer than he suspects. I know because I sometimes see into the future of other people’s lives; it’s as though old newsreels and previews of coming attractions are being projected onto my mind. I have had this ability since I first met Zargon Ron thirty years ago. Ron called it ‘selective omniscience’, but I would say it is more like the ability to travel through time to places I seldom want to go without the inconvenience of packing bags. I have visions of events from the past and places where I am not in present space-time as well as the future. You might say I am all-knowing in a way for those short periods of time, but the visions only happen occasionally and seem to be totally random, unexpected, and beyond my control. There is nothing ‘selective’ about the whole process unless it is from the Zargonian point of view.
I saw three years into Sergeant Tom’s future as we stood there in the prison yard. It’s Christmas Eve of nineteen ninety-three, two months to the day after Warden Jacobs set aside a moment from his schedule on Tommy’s retirement day to wish him happy trails and pin a bronze plated service medal to his lapel.
Sergeant Tom, Billy Jean, and Polaris
An orange sun sits on the horizon west of Winslow as Tom pulls his old Chevy Impala into Kentucky Fried Chicken’s takeaway. He could have chosen Wendy’s or Burger King or a Safeway takeout just across the road, but Kentucky Fried Original recipe had always been his wife, Billy Jean’s, favorite.
Sarah Bale hands Tom his box of chicken parts through the Colonel’s pick-up window.
Tom has known Sarah since she was no more than six or seven. Her daddy often took Sarah with him on his Saturday afternoon jaunts to Bucky’s Billiards Hall and let her stand on an old milk crate to rack balls for him when it came his turn.
“Tell your daddy I said hello.”
“I sure will, and have a Merry Christmas if I don’t see you before, Mister Haynes.” She smiles and waves at Tom as he drives away.
Tom plops the box of Kentucky Fried on his living room coffee table, walks to the kitchen, and grabs a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer from the icebox. He flips on the television with his remote, and a Talking Head on his twenty-one inch RCA begins to babble about the day’s news. Tom sits on the edge of his sofa, pops the top on his beer, and opens the Colonel’s red and white cardboard box to reveal two extra crispy chicken legs, a tub of warm mashed potatoes with gravy, and a biscuit.
I ordered original recipe. Couldn’t they get it right this one time?
Tom nibbles at a chicken leg. He stirs the mashed potatoes and gravy in their Styrofoam cup with a plastic fork while staring blankly at the television screen. A talking head with razor-cut coiffure yammers on between flashes of gunfire and exploding cars. Tom sips from his can of beer. The talking Head cuts to commercial. A beautiful young model with sparkling white teeth tells Tom he will be in good hands if he buys insurance from All State.
Tom walks across the livingroom to the entry-hall closet. He puts his old prison guard uniform jacket on and fastens the buttons. He looks at the sergeant’s stripes on the jacket sleeve and touches the service medal pinned to the lapel. Tom pulls his fully loaded S&W Model 10 revolver from a shoebox hidden on the closet shelf and stuffs it in his pants pocket. He walks out the back door and down a rickety step to the wooden patio deck he built sixteen years ago for his beautiful bride, Billy Jean.
Tom felt a lump the size of a popcorn seed in Billy Jean’s right breast within three months of the day he pounded the last nail into the deck’s floor. The lump was just below and slightly left of her nipple; probably nothing.
Billy Jean died in his arms seven months later on the second night of spring; they were sitting on the same wooden bench swing on which he sits now. Billie Jean was the only woman Tommy ever loved, the only woman who had ever loved him, his only true friend. Today would have been their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.
Tom rocks the swing, crosses his legs, and rests his heels against the deck floor. He swivels his head back in search of the Big Dipper in the clear northern Arizona sky the same way he had on his last night with Billy Jean when she asked him to point it out for her one last time; the way she had asked him so many times before.
“I miss you sweetheart.” Tommy counts the Big Dipper’s seven stars and on toward Polaris as those very stars continue to speed away from one another in our ever expanding Universe. A sudden cold wind drops down from Arizona’s northern plateau.
I decided warning Tommy of his fate was pointless since there was no way to change the course of things. He most likely wouldn’t have believed me anyway.
“You should be very careful,” Zargon Ron’s mind told mine soon after we first met thirty years ago. “If you share knowledge gleaned from your contact with alien beings with those humans having no memory of similar encounters, you are likely to be thought odd. It might be best if you only speak of these things with the few who knowingly share that knowledge.”
With only one disastrous exception, I have followed Ron’s advice.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much Sergeant,” I said that day in the yard. “Something always turns up, you know.”
Sergeant Tom stood there with his arms folded in front of him and stared at those puffs of clouds floating free above Winslow’s State Prison. He wiped a single tear from the corner of his eye. He turned and slowly walked away.
“Take care of yourself, Gille.”
“You too, Sergeant.”
Tom Haynes shudders with resignation as the frigid winter wind whistles through the swing’s chains. He takes the Smith and Wesson .38 model 10 from his pocket. He looks at the revolver in his hand, the gun he carried when on tower duty for all those years behind the fence lines of Arizona State’s Winslow Prison, like he had never really seen it before. Polaris winks; all is well in the Universe of the stars.
Tommy sticks the barrel of the revolver in his mouth and squeezes the trigger. There is that moment of doubt as he reaches the point of no return. Powder explodes as the hammer strikes down. A bullet crashes through the roof of his mouth and out the top of his skull. It’s the first shot Tommy Tuna has ever fired at a living thing.