Authors: Jon Bassoff
Rise and shine, he said. The judge is ready for you.
He entered my cell and snapped on leg irons and handcuffs, then led me out of the cell into the corridor where the caged felons shouted and whistled and shook the bars. And along the way we picked up another half-dozen prisoners, their eyes beady and mean. But nobody gave me any lip, nobody at all, because my face was grotesque and even the devil can be frightened.
We were led outside and loaded onto a black-and-white bus with the words
Huerfano County Prison
on the side. There was a guard behind us and a guard in front of us and they both carried rifles and were ready to use them. We sat down in the bus and were told to keep our goddamn mouths shut, and it was just like a field trip, except we were going to the courthouse to get our charges read.
It was a twenty-minute drive. Nobody spoke. The courthouse stood in the shadows of a giant grain elevator. It was a menacing old concrete building that looked to have been converted from a hospital of some kind. We were led into the backside of the building and into another holding cell. This one here not much different from the one in the jail, except smaller and danker.
After a short wait, we were summoned, and the deputies marched us into a tiny courtroom two at a time. It was there that a plump old man with a rumpled suit, raggedly sheered hair, and oversized glasses approached me and patted me on the shoulder. Name’s Desmond Harris, he said. I’ll be representing you, understand? Try my best to get you out on bail, understand?
You’re a war hero. You’re not a threat to society. You’re the savior of society. Get you out on bail, hear me?
The judge looked like all judges do. Balding gray hair. Glasses resting on the tip of his nose. An expression of sternness or smugness. He called my name and Mr. Harris grabbed my arm and led me in front of the judge. The judge spent a few moments studying my file. He looked at me over his glasses, his lips curled into a frown.
Mr. Downs, he said. Are you aware of the charges brought against you?
I nodded my head and said I was.
You don’t need to make a plea at this time.
Your preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday, December 2nd.
At that moment, my lawyer put up his finger. Your Honor, he said. We move to have my client free on bail. He does not have any prior offenses, not even a traffic ticket. He is veteran of the Iraq war. He served with distinction.
A soldier, huh?
I nodded my head. Yes, sir. 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Division. Stationed in Mosul.
The judge watched me for a few moments and then nodded his head slowly. We owe you a debt of gratitude, he said.
Thank you, sir.
I hope you didn’t do the things they said you done.
No, sir. I didn’t.
Under the circumstances, the judge said, considering the lack of priors and valor in which he served, bail is set for $750,000. He slammed the gavel down. Next case.
The other lawyer, a slick-looking fellow with bright white teeth and a bright red tie, didn’t like this resolution. Your Honor, he said. I think you should reconsider. He’s charged with first-degree murder.
The judge took off his glasses and glared at the shyster. Only charged, he said. I’ve made my decision. $750,000.
My lawyer said something to me that I didn’t understand. I was supposed to be thankful. $750,000? That meant, what $75,000 to a bail bondsman? It was as good as no bail. The sheriff’s deputies marched me back to the courthouse holding area. It wouldn’t be long now. They’d delouse me, wash me down, issue me a jail uniform, a towel, a bedroll, and then lead me back to that steel cage…
* * *
The next few nights, I died a million deaths. Hanging from a gnarled branch of a chestnut tree. Submerging slowly into a scum-covered pond. Bleeding profusely from jagged wounds on my wrists…
Then early the next morning, as I lay on my cot staring at the cracks in the cement ceiling, a long shadow spread across my cell. I could hear those keys jangling again, then the
of the steel door opening. I sat up. A barrel-chested, baby-faced guard stood in the doorway gripping his billy club tightly. Joseph Downs? he said.
I rose to my feet. Yes, sir.
Come with me.
He grabbed me by the arm and we walked through the corridor. Where are we going? I said.
You’ve been bailed out, he said.
Who bailed me out?
He didn’t answer.
We reached the front desk. The cop behind the desk asked me to sign a paper before pulling out a bag with my clothes and belongings. He gave me another paper, which had the date of my next court appearance. And that was it. I was free to go. I reached into the bag and pulled out my snuff, stuck a pinch in my mouth. Then I nodded at the officer. Be seeing you around, I said. And I left.
* * *
I didn’t know what to make of all this. I didn’t have a friend in the world. Outside the air was cold and the wind was howling.
I walked down the highway, sticking out my thumb. Every now and then a car would slow down, but when they caught a look at my face, they sped right on up. I buried my hands in my pocket, mumbled a prayer to God.
When I finally arrived back at the Hotel Paisano, the moon was being smothered by a blanket of clouds. I snuck in the back door and walked up the stairs. Somewhere a phone was ringing, never picked up, lonely, lonely, lonely. I finally got to my door, shoved it open. It had been days. My suitcase was gone. And that’s not all. A skinny old man with a concave chest and Einstein hair was sitting on the bed, his eyes rolled straight back in his head. The town whore was sitting on her knees, humming an American tune. Her wig was pink and her back was bare. I watched for a moment. Then I shut the door.
I sat in the hallway and played mumblety peg with my knife. And I got to thinking about how it sure was lucky that I’d gotten out of the war alive, and it sure was lucky that I’d been bailed out of jail, and it sure was sure that one of these days I’d pay Lilith McClellan a visit…
I went down to the lobby. The blue-haired woman was behind the desk, head resting on the counter. I pounded on the counter a few times and she jerked awake. When she saw my face, she released a muffled scream. It took her a moment to compose herself.
I’m sorry, she said. You startled me.
My room, I said. I wasn’t done with it.
I assumed you would be gone for some time…
Where’s my suitcase?
She nodded toward a closet. I’ll get it for you, she said. Miscommunication is all. I hope you return to the Hotel Paisano next time you’re passing through…
* * *
I stayed in my car that night. I snorted snuff, drank brandy, listened to The Handsome Family. At some point it started to rain and it was a lullaby and I drifted to sleep.
I dreamed of Lilith and we were dancing in that old miner’s cabin and calliope music was playing and the floor was covered with rats, several layers deep, crawling over each other, gnawing on rodent corpses and I pulled Lilith close and her skin was missing, there was just a bleach-white skull, and I was walking down a darkened stairway…
* * *
I awoke to the sound of tapping on the window. My heart ruptured and my eyes flew open. With trepidation, I rolled down the window. A flashlight shone into my face. I squinted and shielded my eyes with my arm. The wind was howling and the rain was falling slantways. Winter trudging forward. The flashlight lowered and I saw cruel eyes under a gray wool hat. The stranger. I opened my mouth, ready to say something.
He raised a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and aimed it at my forehead.
Unlock the door, he said, motioning toward the passenger’s side. I pulled up the lock. The stranger walked around the back of the car, his shotgun still pointed at my poor head. He yanked open the door and sat inside. His eyes were all bloodshot and he smelled like Petron.
Start the car, he said. We’re going for a drive.
And so we drove. He guided my driving, told me how fast to go, when to turn, all the while keeping the weapon straight and steady.
Eventually we made our way onto Highway 52. It was a good deal past midnight; there were no other cars on the road. I could hear him breathing, wheezing. I wondered if he was going to shoot me. I wondered if I’d see my body from above. Another couple of miles, he said.
I didn’t ask him any questions. I didn’t ask who he was. I didn’t ask what he wanted. He’d tell me soon. Or he wouldn’t. It didn’t really matter. None of it really mattered…
There was a sign for a town called Dacono. He told me to exit. The snow was falling harder now and it was hard to see. I turned on my brights, but it only made it worse. We drove down a county line road, surrounded by whitened wheat fields, before passing through a little town with nothing but a farmer bar and a post office. We turned onto a little dirt road and drove for a while. Then he told me to stop.
We were at the end of the world and this man here was the devil and he was waiting for payment…
Turn off the engine, he said.
I did as I was told.
Did you kill that man, Nick McClellan?
I didn’t answer.
You can tell me. It won’t make a difference now. Besides. Don’t you think I deserve to know? After emptying my savings to bail you out?
I turned and faced him. My mouth was dry. My head was spinning. It wasn’t going to be long now.
What do you want from me? I whispered.
He didn’t answer for a moment. Then he took the shotgun and slammed the barrel against my temple. My head smashed into the window. I covered my face with my hands. He aimed the pump-action gun at my face. You know what’s gonna happen, Private? he shouted. Your skull’s gonna crack like a coconut!
After that he didn’t say anything for a long while. Eventually his hands tired, and he lowered the weapon, placed it on his lap. I eyed it cautiously, thought about making a move. Thought better of it.
Through the brooding gloom, his cheeks appeared sunken, his skin yellow. When he did speak again, his voice was filled with tempests, disease, and death. He said: Let me tell you about my son. There’s some things you should know.
And suddenly, I knew where this was headed and I didn’t want to hear.
A soldier. Like you. Same battalion. Same regiment. Same division.
Truth, truth, truth. Who decides?
He enlisted in March. Three months later he was in the desert. 130 degrees. Covered with gear. Knocking down doors, firing at insurgents. My son. My beautiful son.
But he didn’t last long, did he? Killed in action. A soldier knocked on our door. My wife fell to her knees. He told us the story. How my son’s convoy hit a tripwire. How there was an explosion. How his body was burnt beyond recognition. How the only way they knew it was him was because another soldier grabbed one of his tags. And he gave me that tag. Placed it right in my hand. A souvenir of his death.
The stranger stopped speaking and stared at me. The anger in his eyes had been replaced by sadness, by resignation. Finally I spoke because I couldn’t take the oppressive silence. I still don’t understand. What does all this have to do with me?
His eyes narrowed and his upper lip twitched. He started nodding his head over and over again; I wasn’t sure he would ever stop. He said: You showed me a dog tag back at the landfill.
What happened to your other tag?
What are you talking about?
Come on, Joseph, or whatever the fuck your name is. You know that every soldier is issued a pair of tags.
I shook my head, said, I lost the other one.
The hell you did!
The stranger grabbed a hold of my hand and shoved something inside of it. I sat there for a long moment, gripping the piece of metal tightly. Then, slowly, I loosened my fingers and stared into the palm of my hand.
A dog tag. Downs. Joseph. My past corroding, my hands trembling, I removed the tag from my neck and compared it to the one in my hand.
They were identical.
There’s been a mistake, I said.
He shoved the shotgun in the center of my forehead. No mistake. It took me a while, took some investigating, but now I know what happened. I know—
You don’t know shit, I said.
Adrenaline took over. Next thing I knew, I was struggling for the gun and then there was an explosion that deafened my ears. For a moment I thought I was dead. I was wrong. My hands were gripping either end of the shotgun. We fought, and his face was panicked and the veins were popping in his neck. I was younger and stronger than him and eventually I managed to shove the weapon against his throat. He pushed back, but his muscles and will began to weaken. He wasn’t able to breathe and his eyes were bulging, his face turning purple. Eventually, his hands loosened from the shotgun. I managed to get some space. I pulled the shotgun back, aimed it at his face and squeezed the trigger. Blood and brain splattered on the windows and on my shirt. The devil was dead, and I was a few steps closer to home.