By Joshua Ryan
The executive lounge is on the top floor of the Freer Building. It’s very comfortable. There’s even a deck outside where you can catch a few rays or look at the stars if you’re working late. It was a good view, but not many people stepped outside to enjoy it. Like Peter said, how much ass can you scope in an industrial park? And at breaks, everybody sort of expected you to keep with your group. There was one guy who stayed in his cube and read, and he was regarded as totally antisocial. I didn’t have enough guts to do that. But I was tired of Peter and his stupid jokes. So I started using the deck.
I knew he’d be watching out of the corner of his eye, so at first I just strolled around, glancing over the railing at this and that. But then I looked for what I really wanted to see. Down below, at the edge of Phase Two, the convicts were moving closer. Already the pile of rocks had come about a third of the way along the fence. The cons in the harnesses pulled the bin across the field, and the cons on the chain pulled out the rocks and laid them in line. Then you could see what looked like guys with hammers, going after the rocks to get them in shape.
“Making little ones out of big ones,” Peter said, on the one day when he surprised me by leaving the group and coming out on the deck. “Same thing that an old queer does when he’s naked.”
“He doesn’t have to be old,” I said. “And I wish you wouldn’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Whoa!” he said. “This bitchiness is something new, isn’t it, Jason? Tell me, am I to blame?” Of course, I wanted to say yes, and go fuck yourself; but there’s no telling what a guy like Peter Tomlinson can do to you, once he starts working behind your back. So I said, “Of course not, Peter. I’m sorry. I guess I just have a headache.” Then he made some jokes about the various reasons why boys like me get a headache, and he went away. And I went back to looking at the tiny figure working by itself down near the fence, a figure that seemed to turn, from time to time, and look upward in my direction.
Did he see me at all, I wondered, and if he did, what did he see? Probably just one more human blur attached to the top of some phony office building, a blur with nothing better to do than to watch a convict working in the field. Why should he look for me, anyhow? No reason. But I knew why I was looking for him, and I knew why I wasn’t doing anything more than look. I wanted something, but I was afraid to get it. I was just a little faggot after all. I turned and opened the glass door to the lounge, and there was my reflection again, the reflection of a faggot trying to open a door.
The next morning, I was waiting at the shuttle stop. My muscles were clenched, and my palm was sweating into the handle of my briefcase, but I was there when the convicts came. By that time, it was like the whole thing was a memory of something that had happened long before. I had memorized every detail — the white truck, the black lettering on the side, the convicts standing silently in the back, gripping the wooden fence, their workboots poking through the slats, their caps set firmly on their heads, their numbers stamped indelibly on their chests . . . . I was looking at an old picture, taken very long ago. Then I saw him. It was 351699, Cleveland, Jacob. He was a convict just like all the other convicts, but he was my convict. And he was looking at me. There was no doubt that it was me he was seeing. He turned, and his eyes fixed on mine; then his chin moved slightly, unmistakably, up and down. He nodded at me, then he reached up and gripped his cap by the bill, as if he was pointing at something that I was supposed to remember. “351699″ was the number on the cap. I remembered it, all right.
It took only a couple of seconds, and that’s the point — there was no surprise on his face, and no hesitation about what to do. He knew exactly what to do, because he’d been expecting to see me, sooner or later, and he’d already made up his mind about how to respond. It was better than an engraved invitation.
Waiting was hard that day, but I put it all off till 2:30, to make absolutely sure that he’d had his chow. I felt that I needed some kind of cover or deniability, so I went to the deli and got another sandwich and another coke, and then I went to the park. Another casual, wandering luncheon trip, on which one might happen to meet Cleveland, Jacob, inmate of the state penitentiary. Sweat was pouring down my armpits. This was the day, no matter what. I left the sidewalk and entered the scrub, plunging downhill on a path that looked like it went where I wanted it to go. There was a little rise, where you could look into the distance and see the convicts at work, and right under the rise I saw Convict 351699. He was working the fence again. I was lucky — there was a dry gully that ran down to the fence. I followed it as fast as I could, trying not to fall on my ass. Then, before I had time to think, the gully swerved, and I came face to face with him. He was holding the barbed wire with one hand and cutting a vine away from it with the other.
He looked up. It was obvious that I wasn’t there by accident.
“Hi,” he said. Again, his eyes were shaded by the brim of his cap. But this time, he had his shirt on. “What’s happnin, man.” Slowly he released the wire. He stood waiting, with his hands by his sides.
“Uh . . . hello,” I said. “Nothing much.” I couldn’t believe I actually said that. It was incredibly lame. Coming there was either the greatest or the dumbest thing I’d ever done, and I was living up to the second possibility, not the first. “What’s happnin with you?”
He looked sideways, like he was about to laugh at the stupidity of what I said. It was stupid all right. I could feel myself wince. But what could I say to a fuckin convict, anyhow? We were living in two different worlds. I should go back now, I thought. I should leave. But it was too late. Leaving would be . . . impolite. And a little faggot like me would never want to be impolite.
“Nothin much,” he said. “What’s in the sack, dude?”
“Sack?” Then I remembered. I was carrying a sack. “Oh,” I said, “just a sandwich and a diet coke.” I winced again. I guess I was the kind of guy who drank diet cokes.
“OK,” he said. “Gimme your coke and your sandwich.”
Hey! I thought. I didn’t offer you anything. Then I remembered. This was my chance.
“Here you are, man,” I managed to say, and I tossed the sack at him.
“Thanks,” he said. “I ate already, but what the hell..” He was smiling. It was a teenage smile. “Tastes pretty good.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said. Apparently, I could never run out of inane responses.
“Listen,” he said, throwing the coke back, unpopped. “You know who I am. Sort of. But who are you, man?”
“Me? . . . Uh . . . I’m Jason Rossetti.”
Instantly I regretted giving him my last name. Why did I do it? If we’d been in a bar, I would have stopped at “Jason.” Then I thought, what the hell does it mean anyhow? He asks who you are, and you give him “Jason Rossetti,” like that’s some kind of answer. It isn’t.
“Glad to meet you,” he said. He nodded at the numbers over his pocket. “I’m 351699 — in case you haven’t guessed.”
“Glad to meet you,” I said. Since I left the office, my dick had been pushing my shorts. Now it was pushing hard.
“Listen,” I blurted out. “I know your name.” I had no idea why I said that; it was just another one of those stupid things.
I expected him to look surprised. But he just looked back and said, “Convicts don’t have names.” He grinned when he said it. Was he laughing at me? Had he already known that I was going to look up his record?!
I couldn’t stop; I had to go on. “I looked you up on the web. They’ve got a search thing that lets you look up any con- . . . any guy who’s . . . in prison . . . and . . .”
“So you know all about me, eh?” He was still grinning, but it wasn’t just a teenage grin anymore. I wasn’t sure what it was. “You know that I’m Jake Cleveland.”
“Glad to meet you, Jake. For the second time.” I was trying to act as casual as I could and still let him know . . . what did I want him to know?
“Thanks, man. I know about that computer stuff. Well, what can I say? I guess you know, I been down for two years now.”
“What’s it like?” I said.
“It’s OK. It’s not too bad. It’s a little . . . lonely sometimes.”
Lonely. I pictured him alone. It was night. He wasn’t on the truck. He wasn’t pissing in the field with the other convicts. He was in a cell in the Southern Regional Longterm Correctional Facility, and he was alone. He was lying on his bunk. He had his trousers open and he was digging into them, pulling his dick out and cheering it up. Pretty soon he was gonna splooge . . . and after that . . . he would really be alone.
“Don’t they allow any visitors?” I asked.
He gave me a strange look. I was afraid it was hope. God, I thought, I don’t want to show up in a prison visitors’ room! I’d already been trapped by Joey; was I gonna get trapped by this guy too? No way!
“Two a month. Thirty minutes apiece. Unless you’re married. If you’re married, you get an hour.” He looked at the ground. “I don’t get any visitors.”
“You don’t have any family?” I asked. The question was obvious — but my heart was in my mouth again. What if this guy was married! Married — then dumped when he went to jail. Most guys get married . . . and I’d heard someplace that most convicts get dumped. I heard a sarcastic voice inside me saying, “What’s it to you? You’re not gonna bone him anyhow. How could you do that?” But I heard another kind of voice saying, “How do you know?”
“I got a sister in Indiana,” he said. “She came out to see me once.”
I was expecting more, but there wasn’t any. I made sure that my look was blank. I felt sorry for him, but . . . I could see it now — explaining to Joey that I needed to get away on Saturday morning for a nice drive out to the state penitentiary. That wasn’t gonna happen. So the convict’s face turned blank, too.
“I don’t care,” he said, in sort of a dry, husky voice. “Better off alone, I guess.”
What could I say?
“You’re like me,” I said. “I don’t have any family. Not really.”
“My mother died, and my father is . . . ” How could I explain it? All my father used to care about was his job. He worked in an office. Sometimes we’d go out in the yard and toss a ball around. It didn’t last long, and he wasn’t very good at it. Once he tried to teach me to swim. Now all he cared about was his golf game. I remembered the way my mother looked at him when I was a kid. She looked at him like he didn’t matter. Why did she let me see that? It wasn’t right of her to act that way. Still, it let me know . . .
“Mine too,” he said.
“Pardon?” I couldn’t believe it. I was saying “pardon” to a fucking convict.
“My father’s like that too.”
We’d reached the point at which anybody else would have asked for an explanation, from both of us; but neither of us seemed to need it. He was an arm’s length away. Something was happening. And something was about to happen. . . .
“I gotta go,” he said.
“It’s late. I’ve been here . . .”
He must have been waiting a long time for me to show up.
“OK,” I said. “See you around.” That was another fuckin STUPID thing to say! But I couldn’t avoid it. I was stunned. He couldn’t just leave — not now! And why was he leaving? Was it just because he’d been waiting so long? Or was it because he knew what was about to happen? I had to say something, but what? I couldn’t say any of the things I was thinking. I couldn’t say, “I love you. . . I want you . . . I want to be with you . . . Please come back! . . . Come back tomorrow!” He was a convict. I couldn’t tell him what to do. And I couldn’t beg. There was nothing for me . . . .
“Come back tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll be workin here tomorrow, too.”
“I will,” I said.
“I gotta go, man.”
To be continued …