The Infinite Walls of Amaranthine

Who said there is no space there; no freedom? There’s more space in that six by nine, more freedom in there than you’ll ever know on the outside. For 37 years I’d studied the block walls of that cell. It’s like star-gazing, passed the spinning galaxy and into the sprawling universe. It’s just as eternal; just as forever. Except you can’t map those stars in there. Those walls aren’t still. They are as unsettled and anxious as the bus load of baby trout they ship in every month. Every time you think you’ve charted every sloping hill and jagged mountain range; every face with their endless expressions and scenes that play out like a film reel; just then a guard walks slowly by, shifting the way the light is settled across the cell for just an instant, then it’s all changed. There you are once again, a pioneer combing through a strange land. You lie there, only to discover it all anew. It was beautiful.

Sometimes, late at night, I could even sit there upright on my bed and imagine those block walls only half way built, exposing the ceaseless sheets of black heavens, punctured through with light. The bricklayers would hustle around, out of breath and filthy, making wise cracks about their wives, under big flood lights, around which hundreds of beetles and moths congregated. I especially loved the sound of that thick mortar slapping down on the blocks and the glare of those blinding lights on the wet gray sludge; the coldness of it when it splashes against your face, where it dries and tightens your skin. It was far too difficult to resist the seduction to be ingested into the hollow bowels of that place, so difficult to find the desire to peel from you the cinching fingers of its warm obscurity.

I didn’t even realize my day had come when it did. “So, Vic, what are your plans?” asked Martin, my counselor. “Plans for what?” I splattered, my cheeks bulging with apple.

My first last day, I barricaded myself in. They filled my cell with pepper spray. I gripped my throat and water flowed from my clenched eyes, curled tight on the cell floor. I got nine more months for that. The second last day, I head-butted one of the rookie guards as he turned me around. His blood streamed down my forehead. Three months in the hole and eighteen months added to my sentence. As my third last day drew near, the other inmates had a whole new sport to watch. They were taking bets; how many guards I’d take down or how long I’d hold out in my cell after the pepper spray canisters came out. I knew it was only a matter of time though, and besides, my old friend Frank, the wardens chief officer, told me if I tried it again he’d tranquilize me, tie me up like a hog and drop me off on somebody’s doorstep, like a stork. “A big old bundle of pain in the ass!” he snapped, as he shoved me in my cell after I’d completed my three months in the hole. I promised him the third time would be a charm.

“OK Vic, third time’s a charm, right? Just relax and don’t do anything crazy, got it?” one of the guards wearily inquired as they approached.

When I came to from all the tranquilizer shots and baton strikes, Frank and the doctor were standing over me, the doctor with his arms crossed and Frank shaking his head, disappointed. I smiled a ragged smile and victoriously charged him with his bluffing about the whole stork thing. “We’re not doing this again, Victor.” Franks voice trailed off, walking briskly away.

Frank and I had gone back a long time. He didn’t look so old then. His belly wasn’t so big. I was twenty two the day I stepped off the baby trout bus. Frank was twenty three; a six foot one, slender faced rookie guard with a cavernous voice. We could have been brothers except I was a couple inches shorter and my voice less booming. In the years after we met, he took to watching out for me and kept me out of trouble for some reason. He had even once broken the jaw of an inmate that set out to kill me after I refused to “take orders”. In time, Frank became a force to be reckoned with in Amaranthine State Penitentiary. I asked him about his looking out for me like that once and as expected his retort was, it was because I was stupid, and that instead of putting me in prison, they should have given me a shovel. He said I’d have dug a hole and sat in it forever; saved tax payer dollars.

We’d become old friends, Frank and I, on opposite sides of a key. The warden would only have Frank deal with me because I wasn’t particularly friendly with the other guards, and he never called me Victor. I knew the time was near.

Strange, that place. I’d miss retreating into the wild terrain of those walls. I’d miss all the bricklayers and the way they used to build my walls at night. I’d miss the clacking and banging all the time, echoing through the corridors, how after a while it all can start to sound like church bells on a Sunday morning, the desultory hollering of minds lost, the small clicking and snapping caused by the minute mechanism’s of a turning lock and the slamming of heavy metal doors. Even Abigail Heston. I’d miss her too. She’d been there with me every night since I’d gotten there. I wondered, as I softly stalked the variations in the almost seamless concrete blocks with my finger tips, if for some reason, she would stay behind. I’d taken her life 37 years before. And come morning ― I’d be free.

“Stole!” a guard shouted from the procession of guards marching down to me. The sounds of batons, keys, heavy boots crashing onto concrete, forewarned of their numbers and preparedness. The closer they came, the more deafening their march, like a freight train that shook all the earth around its passage. I tried to take hold of my cell walls, and I quaked.

“Turn around Stole, your coming out.” said Frank as he made his way in front of the others. I stood silent.


“Stole, don’t do this. We talked about this!” he said through his clenching teeth and tightening lips.

He turned to the readied guards behind him and motioned them back.

“Vic, If you mess this up again, they are transferring you. I’ve done all I can here.” he informed me in an alarmed whisper.

I unraveled my fists, and let free my lungs.

I drew close to Frank, we were face to face, separated by only a small rectangular piece of reenforced glass that muffled his voice. I knew he saw my fallen countenance when he spoke and his tone had softened.

“Listen, I know what this is, OK? Thirty seven years, Vic! Look at us! We got old in here. And I got doubly old because I had to deal with you! Now, I’m gonna tell you something that you don’t wanna to hear and you’re going to listen.” he hissed. “I know what bad people are, Vic, and I knew since the day I met you that you weren’t one of them. You should have been out of here a long time ago. You were just a kid. You made a mistake, but that’s all over now. You’ve filled your debts. It’s done. It’s time to let it go.”

My eyes shut tight, his voice dissipated into nothing, as did I.

The next thing I remembered was being walked down one of the prisons oldest wings. Well frayed, time had corroded its walls and rusted it’s metal. No longer in use, this was the route they took when parolees were escorted out into the world. It seemed an endless trek over the stone floor, toward the white sunlight beaming in from the final exit in the distant end of the corridor.

There was a chill in the April air that made my joints hurt as Frank and all the guards remained at an urgent pace. I squinted my eyes until they adjusted to the light and finally we arrived at the door of one of the prisons gray and white buses with metal grates over the windows. My handcuffs and shackles came off quickly. All of a sudden, I couldn’t feel their hands anymore.

I turned to my old good friend whose eyes began to break along with his voice. “You did good, Vic. You did good.” he said with a tight embrace and a pat on my chest. I’d always remember Frank and how he had looked after me like a brother. One of the inmates inside the walls of Amaranthine, concealing a shank made of a melted toothbrush, would years later, just before his retirement, kill my old friend out on the same yard where we’d grown old together.

I gradually climbed aboard and took a seat. The driver pulled the doors closed and we began bouncing slowly down the dusty gravel road. Frank had stuffed my arms with a few things. A bag with two sandwiches, one tuna and the other peanut butter and jelly, as well as two apples and two little cartons of juice, a large envelope full of papers with a note from Frank that had the address of where I would be staying. A little ominous reminder scribbled at the bottom read: “I know where to find you.” A few others on board ranted blissfully; how many women they were going to conquer; how beautiful the day was; how good it was to be free. One stood and beat his chest while dramatically reciting words spoken by Martin Luther King. My eyes remained on the floor of the bus.

The bus sped onto the freeway. I wondered if it was the same bus I rode 37 years prior as a young man. My hands looked tired and worn with scars and fading tattoos. I turned to see my reflection in the grated window. I traced the telling wrinkles in my face. It really had been 37 years, hadn’t it? Then my eyes focused passed my reflection in the window to see an endless blur of oleanders with their familiar pink and white blossoms, that lined the median of the freeway. And just over the oleanders; fields of strawberries, and then almond orchards, and apple orchards. Passed the orchards; mountains capped with shimmering white snow.

“Do you remember how we used to get lost in the orchards back home?” whispered Abigail in my ear.

“Stole!” someone yelled out and I turned, startled. “Are you gonna eat that sandwich?”

“We’ll be making a pit-stop in about forty five minutes! Back off, vulture.” the bus driver said disparagingly. My eyes returned to the floor.

The sun was beginning to set and I was the last one aboard the bus when we arrived in a small town of 20,000 people, beset by agricultural fields and dairies.

“Good luck Mr. Stole.” said the driver. “Keep your nose clean too! I never want to see you again. Hey, the county fair is in town through the weekend. Go have some cotton candy!”

My heels hit the ground and I stood still as the driver closed the doors behind me. The bus drove away causing the dust around my feet to churn upwards and around my legs. The wind whistled hauntingly in my ear, while off in the distance; the sound of a train heading north on the Santa Fe railroad, and from amongst the bright glow of colored lights that reflected on the scattered gray and white clouds above, the shrill screams of elated children.

As the bus driver had directed, I walked the few blocks it took to get to where Frank and my parole officer arranged for me stay. The light waned and a wispy fog rolled in from the fields to sharped the edge of the breeze that tossed blossoms from the crabapple trees about the sidewalks and streets. The town seemed abandoned; stilled, yet restless. Just behind the towns center road stood a red brick apartment building with several short stoops that lined a small street named Fremont Drive.

“Victor? Are you Victor Stole?” asked an overly-cheery Asian man, holding a bowl of food. I was taken aback by how tall he was. Much taller then Frank. He’d hunched down to poke his head out of a door with the word Office on the front.

“I’ve been expecting you! I thought you got lost!” he exclaimed in an accent, while weaving his words with chuckling. “Frank said you were going to be here an hour ago. I’m Shinook. Come in, come in, come in! I have to get your lease and your keys.” he spoke quickly, prying the door open for me. The entire family was having dinner.

“I’ll wait. Here. If that’s OK.”

He laughed loudly “Of course, I’ll be back, you wait there. Don’t go anywhere!”

He turned hastily back into the house leaving the door slightly open and as he moved away, there sat a young girl in a chair away from the others. She sat there playing a large cello between her legs. I came closer to the screen door, onto the porch, peering into the apartment through the small opening. I’d never heard anything so beautiful in my life. The notes she played skipped quickly upwards and soared high, left to glide like a bird adrift along an updraft, only to spiral back down to the Earth in a dancing free flight, only to hoover in a low and heartsick rumble. Wave after wave, it filled the spaces between past and present; between thoughts and words; between the aging dull ink that covered my body and the marrow in my bones. And I thought her beautifully absent, as she teased the notes from the thick strings with her bow.

The lanky man barged through the screen door. He was awkward with his elbows raised back like a cricket. “OK, I got it! You’re just the fifth stoop down. Apartment number five, I’ll show you.” he said as he fumbled through several key rings. “Oh, that’s my daughter by the way.”

He went on to explain the she had something called Autism and that she couldn’t speak. He called her a musical savant. Just played her cello, locked away in her mind otherwise. I thought, what a beautiful way to be, as he walked me down to my apartment.

“Hey, your not the first one I get from old Amaranthine State Prison.” his voice descended. I’m a psychologist. The state pays me to help house and work with parolees like yourself. Frank mentioned…well, he said to take extra care of you so, I’ll be checking in often. And don’t look so pale. It gets easier. It will.”

He led me up the stoop to apartment number five.

“Here it is! Apartment, sweet apartment! Ooh, a two bedroom, nice! Brand new carpet, brand new faux-wood vinyl, brand new paint. The stove isn’t new but it’s nice! Gas, look!” he rambled while turning on all the burners.

“Smaller? I interrupted. Anything smaller?”

“Oh…well, there’s a…one bedroom down…”

“What’s the smallest one?” I asked and his brow fell, puzzled.
“Smallest….well, there’s apartment number eight. It’s an efficiency above me upstairs, like a studio, but it’s not ready, it’s filthy still and..”

“I’ll take that one.” I said as I walked back out onto the side walk.

After climbing the stairs he led me into the tiny dingy apartment. I surveyed the walls.

“I’ll make sure to send the cleaners tomorrow, first thing. Are you sure…”

“There’s no need, really, thank you.” I replied quickly.

“OK, well, I’ll be seeing about getting you some more furniture. For now you have a table and a chair and there’s a cot in the closet. You…try to get some sleep.” he said with a compassionate smile.
I thanked him as he handed me the keys. I closed the door behind him looking upon the gold keys sitting in my palms.
The wooden chair had been placed by the singular window, which had no curtain, overlooking the street. I sat with my yellow envelope and sandwiches on my lap, where the lights from the fair, in all their brilliant colors, lightly radiated across the small town, made darker by the cloud cover, onto my face and chest as if with projectors. An overflowing ashtray sat on the windowsill and aside it, a box cutter, covered with smudges of white paint. I wished for my old friend Frank, and the bricklayers, and the infinite walls of Amaranthine. The walls in apartment number eight weren’t as thick as my old block walls. I could hear the other tenants in their apartments around me, and as the cloud cover seemed to fall closer to the Earth, the flimsy plasterboard walls began to reverberate with the hum of their thoughts and plans. Then there was that low rumbling note from the imprisoned girl’s cello downstairs, seeping its way into me through the cold vents.

Below, on the sparkling wet street, a group of young kids, yelling and laughing and chasing one another, paraded down the street. One trounced a spilled bag of popcorn as fireworks began exploding in the chilled night sky, showering the town with fiery colors. Reds and greens and golds. They jumped in the air hooting and hollering. A boy and girl stood at the very center of the road, embraced and kissed under the glowing cascade of embers.

“Remember, how you used to kiss me that way?” whispered Abigail in my ear.

I closed my eyes. Tight. Tighter. Until the lights went from me.

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