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The Widow Bereft, страница 1


The Widow Bereft

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The Widow Bereft


  The Widow, Bereft

  (Esquire, January, 1970)

  Ronnie hooked his hands around the top bar of the grid in the barred door of the cell. Hanging there, stripped to his shorts against the summer heat of the cell, he watched the changing colors and cloud forms of the riotous Florida sunset.

  Cell J-57 was on the top floor of the penitentiary and, though an intervening catwalk ran the length of the range, the windows were open for most of the year and afforded a wide vista: acres of park-like grounds, meticulously pruned and clipped and sheared by convicts who were studying landscape gardening in Vocational Agriculture.

  His gaze wandered over the geometrical hedges; regal Washington palms, their fronds like heraldic plumes, raffish leaning coconut palms, formal spruce and cedar. He could see all the way to the high electrified fences, and beyond them, the sudden-death zone with the grass trimmed as close as a golf course. Then the dark mass of pine forest stretching to the horizon.

  He had never seen a human figure in that bare expanse between the fences with their guard towers and the dark wall of the piny woods. Often he would imagine one lonely running form, streaking for the shelter of the trees.

  He raised his eyes to the evening sky again. "Doug, you got to see this. It's all pink, even the buildings are pink. Looks like the light is coming out of the ground, too. Golden pink. Gold-green and pink."

  Northrop said absently, "Too pink. He always uses too much pink."

  "No, Douglas, get up, you got to see it. Down near the bottom it's magenta."

  "Magenta! What the hell is magenta?"

  "It's uh -- it's a kind of purple."

  "Then say purple."

  "Well, it's more -- Wow, it's changing to French gray. Like footlights."

  "French gray, for Christ's sake." Northrop got up from the bunk where he had been stretched out in his shorts, reading. Dark-haired, deeply tanned, in contrast to the red-haired sunburned Ronnie, he had a movie-handsome face on which a sardonic mind had stamped the permanent cast of discontent. He stood behind Ronnie, resting his chin on the other's hair, curling a long hand around the back of his cell mate's neck.

  "French gray, my ass. Just plain old gray-gray."

  Ronnie said in tranquil tones, "Okay, it's Oxford gray. Look, now it's -- ouch !"

  From the adjoining cell came the Carolina whine of Newt Barlow. "Northrop? You torturin' that poor Bracken boy agay-un?"

  "This poor boy's a phony son of a bitch."

  "Well -- if yawl gonna beat awn him tonight, do it before lights-out, okay? Ah'd surely like to sleep for a chay-unge."

  "Yessuh. Cuhnel, suh." He turned away to lie down in the bunk again and take up his book. "Bracken, stop mooning over the sunset, and make some coffee."

  " -- Mooning at sunset? You might as' well say -- "

  "Never mind, just dummy up and do as you're told."

  Ronnie went to the back of the cell and filled an empty coffee jar with water at the washbowl, dropped the bug in and plugged it into the socket. The "bug" was an immersion heater illicitly made in the prison electric shop from a length of element wire fastened to a piece of asbestos and equipped with a cord and plug.

  From the bunk Northrop said, "Put something on the box, why don't you?"

  Ronnie looked briefly through the pile of records and put one on the portable phonograph. The familiar opening of Daphnis and Chloe filled the cell.

  "Oh shit, Ravel. It's too goddamn early for that. Put on some Mozart."

  "Mozart, I hate Mozart."

  "It figures."

  "I think he wrote all that stuff off the top of his head."

  "Don't make me get up, Bracken. I'll kill you. Put it on."

  Ronnie chose Nachtmusik as least offensive. He was handing Northrop coffee in a plastic cup when Artie Dugan stopped outside the cell door. A stocky, muscled Irishman from Jersey City, with the blue-black hair of the Black Irish and, vivid in his tanned face, bright maniacal blue eyes outlined in spiky jet lashes.

  Ronnie liked him, liked the way his eyes laughed when his mouth did, though he suspected it might be by design. But it was to Doug that Artie always addressed himself, in a manner that was deferential bordering on sycophantic. He worked hard at being a jazz buff, and Doug played a driving trumpet in the prison combo -- he was a celebrity in the joint. Sometimes Ronnie figured Artie's fawning was because of Doug's rich mother and rich wife. But mostly it seemed to be because of the music.

  Artie was looking down through the bars at Doug in his bunk. He threw Ronnie a dancing glance -- "Whatcha say, doll?" -- and returned to Doug. "Jee-zus man, like what kinda long-haired shit you diggin'?"

  "That's W. A. Mozart, Artie," Doug said evenly, the studied forbearance in his voice an insult. "Called 'A Little Night Music.'"

  "A little goes a long way, man. Why don't you play some sounds, some Basie, man?"

  "You buy it, man, I'll play it, man. What are you doing out there after lockup?"

  "New gig, man. I'm a surveyor now, on Construction Squad. Number One Trusty, Charlie. Dig my new threads." He turned from side to side, displaying his Trusty uniform, white shirt and white pants with a broad blue stripe running down the sides.

  Ronnie said, "You made it,, Artie, that's wonderful. I thought you looked different."

  "Yeah, man, I'm in the club now."

  Northrop said, "Let's resign from the club, Bracken. They're taking in a lot of bounders."

  Artie said to Ronnie, "When are you gonna get rid of this square creep?"

  "I'm working on it, Artie. Arsenic takes a long time."

  "You know where I live, baby. Stay cool, Doug."

  "Hang loose, Charlie." When Artie had gone, Northrop let out a long sigh. "God, what a hippydip."

  "Artie is kind of clanky, but I like him."

  "You like him because he comes on with you. You're pussy, Bracken. Beat jaithouse pussy."

  "Awww. You're jest a-sayin' that."

  From the head of the range came the bellow of the convict range-runner. "Count Time! On the door! Count Time!"

  Ever since an escapee had evaded detection by putting a dummy made of bedclothes in his bunk, it was required that the occupants of each cell stand at the door to be counted. Some of the convicts on J-Range, in deference to the new guard, a pink-cheeked ex-Marine, had added a refinement to the procedure. They stood rigidly at attention, staring popeyed into space, and barked out the name and number in what they conceived to be leatherneck style.

  Standing at the door, hearing the guard making his way down the range, Ronnie turned toward Doug in the bunk, snarling: "Awright, Northrop, hit the deck! On the double! Now hear this! How would you like a taste of the brig, mister? You hear me, North -- "

  Doug suddenly sprang from the bunk and seized Ronnie about the waist, and while he spluttered protest, half giggling, half in alarm, stood him on his head facing the door, holding him up by the ankles.

  When the guard stopped at the door, he was absorbed in painstakingly writing on his clipboard and did not look up as Doug intoned briskly, "Northrop, sir! Five-seven-nine-nine-four!" at the same time letting go of Ronnie's ankles'. He collapsed against the door in a thrashing tangle of arms and legs. Struggling to articulate, he gasped out, "Bracken, sir! Five-seven-six-oh-three!"

  Startled at the direction from which the voice came, the guard raised his eyes from the board and looked down at Ronnie in mingled distaste and disbelief. He looked up at Northrop.

  "What's goin' on hyuh?"

  Northrop shrugged, looking down at Ronnie with annoyance. "I don't know what's the matter with him, Boss. If I'd known he was epileptic -- "

  " What?"

  Red-faced, Ronnie struggled to his feet. Shoulders back, he shouted: "Bracken, B
oss! Five-seven -- "

  " Shut up!" the guard hollered. He was glaring at Doug. "One of these days, Northrop -- " He passed from view.

  Ronnie waited till the guard was out of earshot. "Gee whiz, you did it again. He thinks I'm a lunatic. And ah been tryin' to creep into his heart, the little doll."

  "Don't feel bad, he thinks I'm a dope fiend. Well -- I hope he's got some mail for me."

  "Maybe he'll never give us any mail again."

  In a few minutes there was another bellow from the head of the range. "Mail call! Mail call!" And presently the guard Higdon, his face a cold mask of disapproval, stopped outside the door. "Northrop?"

  Doug gave his number and received a long envelope. He looked at it and threw it on the bunk. "Parole Board. Jesus." He stared at the envelope.

  "Aren't you going to open it?"

  "Scared to. I know what it says. A brush-off." He picked up the letter. Ronnie watched him as he read, feeling a growing apprehension in his gut. He watched the dawning delight in Doug's face. -- Oh Christ, let me be cool.

  Doug looked up from the letter, his face glowing. "Holy smoke, I made it! I made it, baby!"

  "When do you go?"

  He looked at the letter. " -- to be employed by -- starting date to be -- A week. A week ! Next week, Chicago, wow!" He tossed the letter in the air and fell on his bunk.

  "I'm glad, Doug." Hearing it totally hollow as he said it. Ronnie climbed into the upper bunk so that Doug wouldn't see his face.

  There was a silence. "Oh, like that , huh? You going to mope now, mope around here for my last week?"

  "No, Doug, I'll be all right. I promise."

  Again the charged, sustained silence. Ronnie slid from the upper bunk and went to the phonograph. He was climbing back up again when the voice of Billie Holiday began:

  No fears, no tears Remember there's always tomorrow --

  "Bracken, you're a scheming rat."

  "Aw, Doug, let it play."

  So what if we have to part We'll be together again --

  "I think I'll just beat the living shit out of you."

  Ronnie's head appeared at the edge of the upper bunk. "So every time you hear the tune, you'll think of us. Is that too goddamn much to ask?"

  "Okay, okay."

  Times when I know you'll be lonely Times when I know you'll be sad Don't let temptation surround you Don't let the blues make you bad --

  Later that night, when the lights-out bell had rung, the last guard patrol had been made, and the deep night stillness had settled over the penitentiary, from far off beyond the piny woods came the hoarse urgent call of the air horn on the Seaboard night express westbound for Tampa. Several times it sounded.

  In the lower bunk, Doug murmured jubilantly, "Ah heah you, Mistuh Engineer. Talk to me, baby, talk to me."

  Ronnie muttered, "You son of a bitch." Then, "Doug?"

  "What?" In a tone that said, "No."

  "Can I come down there?"

  "Not tonight."

  "I don't mean for that. I just want to be with you."

  He groaned. "Oh -- all right, come on. But that's all , you hear?"

  In the following days, Ronnie fought the steadily mounting tension, while Northrop was morose and withdrawn.

  One evening Doug said, "I talked to Bud Larrabee today. About moving in here when I go."

  Ronnie stared at him. "You got to be kidding. Larrabee's next door to psycho."

  "Maybe somebody like you could help him. Nobody ever has."

  "But why me? I got trouble just trying to stay with it. I feel sorry for Bud, sure. But -- "

  "He's heavyweight champ of the joint. Be a good protector."

  "Who's going to protect me from Bud?"

  "I know you've noticed his build. Quite a body, ain't it?"

  Northrop was smiling, a dangerous smiling stranger. Ronnie said, "What's the matter with you? Isn't it bad enough you're leaving, do you have to leave me in a pool of blood?"

  "And then, with all the stuff I'll be leaving with you, you'll be a wealthy widow. In demand."

  Ronnie's voice was barely audible. "You're like a hyena, Doug. Piss all over something when you leave it."

  "Oh? Already got a whiff of that ol' independence, haven't you? Look kid, you better get your mind right. When I go you're up for grabs."

  Larrabee . . . Ronnie remembered how hung up he had been at his first sight of Bud. Those unsettling liquid brown eyes that seemed to be constantly beseeching. Like the intense eyes of a deer. Or a dog. Then he had seen Larrabee in a fight in the yard one day and suddenly noticed that throughout the savage brawl, the gentle eyes had never changed. They were frozen forever in mute, mindless pathos.

  A couple of days later, Artie stepped outside the cell in the evening, loaded down with belongings.

  Ronnie said, "Where are you going, Artie? Running away from home?"

  "Movin' to Trusty Range, man. Onward and upward. Next week the warden's daughter!" He looked down at Northrop, lying in his bunk. "Heard about the parole, Doug. Sure glad you made it, man."

  Doug sat up. "Why, thank you, Artie. So you're moving to Trusty Range. Fink City. Hmm. Can't beat 'em, join 'em, is that it?"

  Artie flinched slightly, but the boyish grin didn't waver. "It's the shortest way out I know of, man."

  He looked at Ronnie again, a strangely estimating equivocal stare. "Kinda leaves you out in the open, don't it? What are you gonna do?"

  Ronnie shrugged. "I don't know what I'll do, Artie. Maybe commit suttee. You know where I can get a funeral pyre, cheap?"

  Artie smiled wryly and inclined his head in an oddly distant formal gesture. "Well -- lotsa luck, Bracken. I'll be seeing you before you go, Doug."

  Ronnie turned to find Northrop watching him steadily. "Pretty foxy, aren't you? Why didn't you tell him about Larrabee?"

  "I used to wonder about that expression, 'A dog eating glass.' Now I don't have to wonder anymore."

  "Getting foxier by the minute. And snottier. See how far you can go, Bracken. I'll let you know when it's too far."

  On the day before Doug's leaving, Ronnie spent most of the afternoon walking the Track, the well-worn path around the prison recreation field where so many prisoners had walked with their anxieties.

  On one of his rounds he was hailed by Larrabee. Watching him approach, Ronnie remembered Doug's sly allusion to Bud's physique. It was true he moved with feral ease and grace.

  Larrabee said, "Did Doug tell you about me movin' up there? I mean -- he said it would be all right with you."

  "Yeah, Bud. We -- talked about it. I guess it ought to work out."

  "You like to read a lot, don't you?'

  "Well -- yes, both Doug and I read quite a bit."

  "I was thinkin' -- maybe you could help me with that. You know, tell me what you think I oughta read."

  "Oh hell, Bud, anybody ought to read what he enjoys."

  "No, seriously. I'd appreciate it a lot. If you'd show me."

  Walking alone again, aware of having extricated himself too abruptly, he cursed Larrabee and cursed Northrop. From previous experience, he could chart the course of the Larrabee affair. Guide my faltering steps, Bracken, Bud would beseech with those mad hypnotic eyes. Teach me the finer things. Then, one freak scene in the sack, and pow for the Great Books.

  Anger and bitterness were tonic; he felt better. The afternoon rays of the sun stretched long across the grass; he was alone on the huge field. He walked slowly toward the gate leading into the inner compound of cell blocks and mess hall.

  Going through the gate, he heard Doug's trumpet in the combo that played for dinner every night in the mess hall.

  The band played on a balcony that overhung the entrance to the cavernous room. Ronnie paused under the balcony and decided to sit on the stairs leading to the bandstand. There he could listen without Doug's seeing him. He had found it was often easier to tell his cell partner's mood by listening to him play, rather than by what he said. On the horn he was unable to dissemble.
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  They were playing "You Don't Know What Love Is." Listening, Ronnie heard loneliness and loss in the music.

  There he is, the one I need Where does he go, why does he hide?

  The song finished, a pause, and the piano man began a slow introduction. Another ballad. Doug was calling all slow tunes. The horn began again:

  No fears, no tears Remember there's always tomorrow So what if we have to part --

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