Fiction | March 01, 2002

I got disoriented on the prairie. Most of the roads were gravel, and only a few had signs. Nobody up there needed them. Tourists usually stuck to the interstate on their way up to Grangeville or down to the Lewiston Valley. Who knew where they headed after that. It was a big part of the country, lots of space under the sky, and it seemed like people were always headed somewhere else. I’d been like that when I was younger-a few months in Vegas, then Seattle, up to Alaska and then back down to California. I’d traveled the West like an old pioneer, and that was the place I’d stopped – the Camas Prairie, in Idaho. The rolling hills looked the same in every direction, or at least, they did to me.

“Go back to the suburbs,” my father-in-law would say. “There’s plenty of stucco houses down there for you to navigate by. Up here we use a couple newfangled things like, oh, I don’t know … north, south, east and west! You ever heard of those California?”

Most people called me Cal, but my father-in-law, he called me California, and sometimes I had to answer for the sins of an entire state. During that time, though, he was gentle, almost fatherly, and would just sigh and squeeze my shoulder without saying anything. We knew that words were flimsy. He’d talked a lot more after his wife passed, but that was just to fill in the spaces she left behind. It had been almost two years since, and none of us had expected another funeral so soon.

Henry and I drove out to one of his plots near Big Canyon. He thought the bluegrass might be ready to cut and stopped by to see if I wanted to drive out there and check. He’d been a champ through the whole ordeal. I told him that the best thing I could do was to keep busy and let Jil work through her own grief. She wouldn’t talk about it anyway, just sat around and stared at old pictures of the three of us. The day before, I’d come home from work and she’d picked off the tips of her fingernails and lined them in two neat rows on the coffee table.

“Jesus, honey!” I said. “Are you okay?”

She looked up with disgust as her eyes came into focus.

“Of course I’m not okay. Just go … go do something. I want to be alone,” she said and went back to staring at her fingernails.

Henry was my brother-in-law, and during this time he stopped in almost every day and took me on some farm errand or another. He was one of the only people I could tolerate being around, and that was because he didn’t try to say too much. We talked about farming and sports, but he never asked if I was okay or if there was anything he could do, and that’s the way I wanted it. The sympathy of that town was crushing me; people bringing food, helping out with chores, not bringing their children with them when they came to the house – it was too much.

We got out to the field after driving miles on a skinny dirt road that curved like a spine over hills covered with wheat, bluegrass and bright yellow canola fields. Behind the hundred-acre parcel of bluegrass, which wasn’t blue at all, but a deep, dull green, was Big Canyon – a place where everything fell in on itself and carved through the landscape for miles before opening up at the Clearwater River.

We parked, and Henry jumped out immediately and wandered into the bluegrass field. Then he pulled one of the heads off, broke some seeds loose and cradled them in the palm of his hand. I walked over slowly, taking in the view, and by the time I got there he was chewing on the seeds; I could tell he was deep in thought. Hank took farming real serious. He studied new techniques, played the market with his surplus grain and was always looking for new ways to improve their yield. He threw the leftover seeds down and spat.

“It’s too hot,” he said. “We’re gonna have to cut at night, or else some of the heads will shatter and we’ll lose a decent amount of seed.”

Henry said these things for my benefit. I’d grown up in Los Angeles and didn’t know shit about farming.

“We could start cutting tonight?” I suggested, looking for something to keep me out of the house until ten-thirty, when I had to get ready for my real job at the juvenile Detention Center down in Lewiston.

“Want to put in a couple hours out here with me before you head down to the valley?” he asked, knowing I’d say, Hell yes. Hank could do most everything himself but often pretended to need my help.

We decided to get started right away. He called his wife, Kathy, on the cell phone and asked her to tell Jil – which was a relief, because then I didn’t have to. We drove into town, got the swather, and I flagged in the truck, driving out front with a radio so I could warn Hank if any cars were coming. He chugged along behind, barely doing ten miles an hour.

The swather was used for cutting grass crops and seemed alive when it moved. The cab was raised a good four feet above the axle and resembled the shell of some giant insect. Out front was a ten-foot steel rod that ran horizontal to the ground and was covered with thousands of six-inch steel flanges. It looked like a giant row of teeth.

I pulled ahead once we got off the main road and parked on a rise so I could tune in to the college radio station in Moscow while Hank caught up. The sun was starting to sink, and there was a yellow glow on everything that illuminated a decaying barn in the distance. They were everywhere, barns from the turn of the century that had been cooked by the sun to a grayish-brown color and crumbled in on themselves. Jil and I used to take pictures of all the old relics of the prairie: half-buried tractors, burned-out grain silos and those beautiful dead barns. There was so much space up there that people just left things where they stood and moved on.

We got back to the field after what seemed like hours. I parked the truck and climbed into the swather, and we started cutting right off. We sat and stared out the oversized front windshield and listened to the Mariners game on the radio. I watched the bluegrass disappear as we rolled over it, piled in neat rows behind us.
When I went home at ten-thirty to get ready for work, Jil was lying fetal on the couch in front of the TV. There were several empty beer bottles on the coffee table, and she seemed out of it. I stood there in the half-light of the doorway staring at her for some time. She looked so beautiful to me, her matted auburn hair hanging over part of her face, wrinkled dress climbing up her smooth, pale thighs. It was almost too much to take.

I bent down to kiss her forehead, which wasn’t soft, but clenched like a fist. I wanted to touch her, to help her, but I couldn’t, and that was the worst part of all. Still, I wanted to do something, so I scooped her up in my arms and carried her toward the bedroom. As I tried to gently lay her in bed, I felt my back start to go out and dropped her. She bounced three or four times and rolled over without waking. I dragged myself to the shower in defeat and stood under the scalding hot massage stream until the water was lukewarm.

The drive down was always the worst part because I had to pass by the place, and I always looked to see if the skid marks were still there. After that it was okay; I’d find something on the radio and cruise. It was about sixty miles to Lewiston, which sat in a deep valley where the Clearwater and Snake Rivers came together and headed west toward Portland.

We’d lived in the valley until the baby came, then moved to Nez perce in order to be close to Jil’s family. During the flood season, I used to walk down to the river every morning after work and watch things float past. Once I saw the roof of a house drift by. Another time I saw a full-sized Appaloosa, kept up by a bloated stomach while the rest sagged in the water like it wanted to sink. Most of the time it was just the bits and pieces of people’s lives, and I couldn’t tell what things had been before the river turned them into debris.

I got to work ten minutes early. Instead of going in, I waited around the corner until the swing-shift people drove off. That way I didn’t have to hear any gossip or make small talk with people I didn’t like. It looked like an office building except for the razor wire on the fences and the abundance of surveillance cameras. I waved at one of them, and the front door opened magically and let me into the lobby. The next door weighed five hundred pounds, and the lock sounded like a bone breaking as it popped open.

My partner, Loretta, was sitting in the control room, reading the log while she drank a cup of coffee. She was about fifty and had gray-brown hair that hung just below shoulders that were always covered by the same Seattle Seahawks jacket. I liked working with some of the older women, especially ones with children of their own. They didn’t have anything to prove and could calm some of the toughest kids just by going maternal.

“Any meds to give out?” I asked.

“Let’s see,” she said, leafing through the medication book to make sure everyone had been properly drugged.

“Idiots!” she said with disgust. “They forgot to give Fred his Haldol.”

There were two-way microphones in each room so we could listen in or talk to kids if we needed to without entering their rooms. I turned on the sound in Fred’s cell, and he was babbling like a lunatic.

“I’m an ancient Ninja warrior,” he mumbled to himself in a voice I didn’t recognize, “skilled in the art of shadows.”

“Great,” I said, “Fred’s a Ninja again. We’d better give him something before he tries to walk through the walls.”

Before I finished my sentence, she handed me the sheet for Fred to sign and dug out the appropriate bottle from the medication locker. I took the pill, pink and harmless looking, put it in a paper cup and walked over to the observation room.

I looked through the window; Fred was in the corner. He sat in the lotus position, whispering to himself. Loretta turned on the light in his room, and he looked up at me with a blankness so complete I wondered if someone hadn’t given him medications already and forgotten to write it down. It happened sometimes.

“Fred…” I opened the door and leaned in. “How ya doing, buddy? I heard you talking and thought I’d check in and see what was up. You okay?”

It took Fred about fifteen seconds to come back to the world.

“Oh, hey, yeah … um … they never gave me my meds,” he said. “I feel like a video game.”

“Yeah, I know. Why don’t you come on over here and we’ll take care of that right now.”

He groaned like an old man when he got up, and his bare feet slapped the floor as he wandered over, scratching his crotch absently. I gave him the cup, and he took his pill. Then he took a long drink from the water fountain that was built into his stainless-steel sink/toilet unit, opening his mouth wide afterward and moving his tongue around so I could make sure he’d actually swallowed it. I wondered how many pills this kid had already taken in his life.

I handed him the pen and paper so he could sign. When I first started working there, I took a defensive step back every time I put a pen in someone’s hand, but I’d been slipping for a while.

“Okay, Fred, see if you can get some sleep man,” I said and locked the door between us. I looked over my shoulder as I walked away. His head was pressed up against the glass. It stretched and distorted as I moved down the hall, and from the end of the corridor I could just see a sliver of face framed in glass. It reminded me of the joker from a deck of cards.

After the first hour of paperwork and security checks, our duties were mostly janitorial unless some kid got arrested before our shift ended. Most nights were quiet, but once in a while they’d bring in a couple of stoners, a B&E, or maybe a drunk Indian kid who’d been letting off some steam. The intake was always the worst part. I had to watch them shower, check for contraband and abuse, make sure they put a lice-killing agent on their heads and crotches and then watch while they stood there, naked and wet, for three minutes while the Lice-All did its job.

I walked around with a flashlight and checked all the rooms. There were ten juveniles in lock-up that night, three girls and seven boys. I got a real weird feeling when I looked in on them. I wondered if their parents could sleep knowing that their babies were locked up, though the reality of the situation was that most of them didn’t give a shit. I can’t explain what it did to me when I closed the door on a kid and they stared through three inches of shatterproof glass in disbelief. Some nights I’d feel something heavy follow as I turned my back and walked past the rest of the faces behind the rest of the five-hundred-pound doors.

I tended to dwell on things. Graveyard shifts could do that, and I was happy to be distracted by anything but my own life. I decided to keep busy by doing a bunch of extra cleaning, so I got the floors all mopped and then moved on to the kitchen. Something happened while I was scrubbing the stainless-steel counters. One minute I was working away, singing along to the radio, when I noticed that nothing was getting clean. No matter what I did, there seemed to be this slight film that covered everything. So I started over, cursing the table as I went. Then I did it all again … again … and again.

I woke up with my head between my knees, and at first I didn’t know where I was. I sat under a table, my whole body aching. Loretta stood about ten feet away, watching me cautiously.

“Loretta,” I groaned. “What’s up?”

She had a tear running down her cheek and looked like she was trying to decide whether to come over and hug me or run for her life.

“Are you okay, Cal?” she asked. “I mean, I heard all this yelling and came to see what was happening, and you were sitting down, shaking and saying all of these terrible things. You want me to call someone so you can go home? I wish you’d just go home and take some time off. Maybe this is too much for you right now.”

She sounded truly worried, and it made me feel even worse, like an invalid.

I slowly stood up. My clothes were soaked with sweat. The kitchen was as clean as it had ever been.

“I’m okay,” I said, “just worn out. You know, it’s hard to sleep these days, and I been doing a lot of farm work on the side. Please … I need to work. Don’t make a big deal out of this, Loretta.”

She nodded in sympathy, but it didn’t make things any better. She led me to the couch in the rec room, told me to lie down and promised to wake me up if anything happened.

Naturally, something happened.

Loretta shook me awake and said that the police were on their way over with a wild one. They were coming straight from the hospital, where he’d gotten into it with the cops and a couple of orderlies as he’d tried to escape.

Loretta locked herself in the control room and let me out into the sally port, which was a small parking area surrounded by razor wire. A squad car pulled up, and as I unlocked the gate, I realized that things were not good because there was no head in the back seat. That meant one thing: someone was hog-tied. This happened once or twice a month, and it was hard to have a smooth intake if the kid had already gone a couple rounds with the cops.

Officer Anderson got out of the car first. He was huge, had a big, bald head that was covered with freckles, and always seemed happy with the way things were going. He could be wrestling some punk into the back seat of his car and still seem jolly – like it was nothing personal at all.

The other guy’s name was Blake. He sat in the passenger seat talking to the kid in back, and I could tell by his body language that he was baiting whoever it was. Blake had a textbook case of “little man’s syndrome.” He pulled his five-two frame out of the car with quick, jerky motions and came over to Anderson and me.

“Fucking little bastard,” he said. “He got lucky.”

I noticed that he had a shiner starting to develop under his left eye. “Looks like he snuck one in, huh, Blake?” I couldn’t resist these kinds of comments.

He gave me the menacing-cop stare.

“You’re gonna think that’s real funny when you need my help and I’m a few seconds too late.”

“I’ll keep that in mind the next time I’m wrestling around with a ten-year-old,” I said, and shifted my attention to Anderson. “Who’s in the back seat, Mike?”

“Your buddy Pat,” he said. He didn’t bother with the last name because we all knew Pat. “They found him down in California. He got arrested at Disneyland.”

Pat was my favorite. He was violent, didn’t listen to anyone, but there was something about him. Pat had a look most of the time – like nothing in this world could touch him. He’d run away from foster care months earlier, and I’d been wondering about him.

I got the handcuff keys from Anderson, which really pissed Blake off, opened the back door of the police car, and there was Pat; his arms and legs were shackled. Seeing him on his stomach, with his legs pulled behind by a chain fastened to his handcuffs, I had this flash of recognition: only babies lay like that. For a second I put my hand on Pat’s head to keep my balance.

He looked up at me, a hospital mask over his face – which meant he’d been spitting at people. I pulled the mask off, and he had this huge grin.

“What’s up, Dog?” he said.

“You okay, Patrick?” I asked.

“Shit,” he said. “They’re punks.”

“All right, Pat,” I said. “Let’s get down to business. I want to take the legs cuffs off and let you walk in here like a man, but you gotta be cool. Besides, it’ll really piss Blake off if you cooperate.”

He smiled and winked at me. I took the shackles off and helped him squirm up from his belly and out of the car. There was blood all over his shirt and a blood-soaked bandage on his left forearm. I held him loosely at the right elbow, and he stared at Blake as we walked toward the door, smiling. Anderson smoked a cigarette and looked at the moon. It was just a job to him. He was as neutral as a glass of water.

I took Pat to the intake corridor, which was closed off from the rest of the compound and had a small holding cell, bathroom/shower area, equipment room and a computer to do all the paperwork. Anderson and Blake followed us in and stowed their guns in a locker while I placed Pat in the holding cell.

“Jesus, Cal!” Anderson said. “You left a fucking pair of scissors on the counter.” He picked them up and waved them at me. “You gotta be more careful.”

He handed the scissors over, and I put them in the back pocket of my jeans.

“Oh, yeah. Thanks, Mike,” I said, and changed the subject. “What happened to Pat’s hand?”

“He punched out a window trying to escape from the hospital. The little bastard’s motivated, I’ll give him that,” Blake said. He gave me another dirty look. “I’m going out for a smoke. Mike, let me know when amateur hour’s over and we can get outta this dump.”

Pat was up against the window of the holding cell, watching us. He paid attention to everything; which keys opened which doors, what shift people worked and who didn’t get along. He was always looking for something he could use.

Anderson gave me all the paperwork: the warrant, hospital clearance and summary of new charges – which were five pages long. It took about fifteen minutes. Then I opened the gate for them to leave. I waved to Blake and smiled. He gave me the finger as they drove off.

I went back inside and waved to the camera so Loretta knew that everything was fine. As I waved, I took the scissors out of my pocket and set them on the other side of the computer monitor so the camera wouldn’t see them.

“You got it covered?” she asked over the intercom.

“Yeah, it’s just Pat,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Go ahead and get some chores done if you want.”

I felt that everything was far away, like when you look through the wrong end of a telescope. It didn’t really matter if she was watching … she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

I took the keys off my belt and opened the door to the shower and equipment room – got the computer set up like it was business as usual. Then I opened the door to the holding cell, where Pat was lying on his back with an arm over his face.

“Get out here!” I snapped, and he swiveled around, eyes narrowed, mouth tightening. He got up and walked out of the cell, gave me an appraising look but said nothing. I set the keys next to the pair of scissors and pulled my plastic chair closer so he was within arm’s reach. I leaned back and gave him a disgusted look.

“You’re a piece of shit.”

I said this without emotion.

“I’m sick of trying to help you – you’re hopeless.”

Pat leaned forward, and I could see the hair on his cropped head stand up a little. He started looking real cold, and I could tell he was thinking about going after me. His eyes darted up and down the corridor. Then he caught sight of the keys on the counter. He didn’t look directly at them, but his face broke into a cocky smile. Then his eyes flicked to the side again; he noticed the scissors, and his smile dropped.

“You’re a big disappointment to me, Pat. I can’t believe I brought you into my house to meet my family. I don’t know what I was thinking, bringing a no-good little fuck like you into my home.”

Pat didn’t know what to do. He was totally unprepared for it. He put his head down and groaned, looked at me, looked at the scissors and then put his head down again. He stood up and walked down the corridor toward the holding cell, like he was thinking about locking himself in, then turned around at the last minute and walked back.

“I didn’t tell you to get up,” I said. “Sit your ass down.”

He sat down and looked at me. We stared for about a minute, breathing heavy but not taking our eyes off each other. He nodded, as if he’d made up his mind about something, and I leaned back and waited for what I thought was coming.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” he said. “I heard about your kid.” I closed my eyes and put my hands behind my head. I started crying, put my head between my knees and started to blubber.

Pat reached out and touched me on the shoulder, pulled his hand back like he didn’t know what the hell to do but wanted to do something. Instead, he got up and walked into the equipment room. I heard him rummage around and he came out with the fingerprinting supplies, laid the ink-board out on the counter, took an FBI fingerprint card from the left-hand drawer and started to print himself. He took each finger and rolled it across the appropriate square, leaving perfect swirls that looked like the pictures of galaxies you see in science magazines. He walked back into the supply room, came out with a Handi-Wipe and started to clean the ink off his fingers. I’d stopped crying by then, but I didn’t know what to do about anything.

Loretta’s voice came over the intercom. She sounded worried, like maybe she’d seen something.

“You okay in there, Cal? Want me to come in and help out?”

“No,” I said quickly. “We’re fine, just having a talk.”

I could barely form a thought, but the words came out.

“Come on,” Pat whispered. “Get it together, man. You don’t want to lose your job.”

I went into the supply room, got the lice-killing shampoo and the black sweats and green T-shirt that all the kids had to wear. I followed him to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the sink and watched him take off his clothes and put them into one of the numbered bags we used to keep personal items separate. He got into the shower, put the lice killer on his head and crotch, then stepped out.

I looked over at him and he was standing there naked, looking back at me without shame. There were scars all over his chest and arms, and over his right breast was a tattoo of a giant “W,” which stood for the West Side. Blood soaked through the gauze bandage on his forearm. On his upper left bicep were three large elliptical scars that I knew he’d done with a lighter. There was a small, circular scar on the back of his left hand, where one of his foster parents had driven a roofing nail.

“You’ll be okay, Cal,” he said, and shivered. “Everything’s gonna work out, you’ll see. You can have more kids.”

I took some toilet paper and blew my nose; then I stood up and washed my face in the sink. Pat got back into the shower and rinsed the chemicals off. He stood under the water for some time. He shook water off his head like a dog does, then opened his mouth, gargled and spat into the drain.

I took the bag with his street clothes into the supply room and hung it up with the others while he dried off and got dressed. He came out and sat back down in the chair across from me, smiled and said he wanted to get some sleep if I was ready to take him to his cell.

When I opened the door to his room, he walked in and didn’t look back, like he was embarrassed at seeing me like that. I closed the door and watched while he made up his bed in the dark. When finished, he saw me standing there and quickly turned away. Then he lay down and faced the wall, hugged himself, and I saw his body start to quiver – but he didn’t make a sound.

Later that night, while Loretta was cleaning the bathrooms, I turned on the microphone and listened to his shallow, fragile breathing as he slept.

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