Locked In / Looked Out
I’ve never been where they thought I was. No, even now I’ve made plans—other plans that don’t include darkness. And I’ve never wondered what anyone else was up to, not even youth. Everything will destroy itself in a couple of decades or so . . . it doesn’t matter who helps the destruction along. I prefer to wait for the outcome. And I would never say “I told you so.” That wouldn’t be truthful. I don’t lie outloud. I’ve never been lonely, either, but I would like a game of chess now and again. Solitaire is a game that I always win. I beat myself, I imagine, and although winning is frightening, to some people, I’m not afraid of losing either.
You can tell a murderer right off. It’s not a special gleam in the eye like everyone says . . . it’s the hands. They act separately from the body. They say, “it’s time,” when the mind says, “it’s time.” You stand still, and your hands become the assassins. The assassins; the sins. And yet, I can see, in my mind . . . a jungle without boundaries and limitless green. Then I awaken.
If I were to say that I’m not afraid, that would be lying, and I’ve told you already that lying is the only thing I don’t do . . . well. I’m not ashamed either to tell you that I’m just like you, let’s talk. I’ve talked to lawyers, judges, desks, and benches. I’m locked in. As locked in as one gets without being on an island, surrounded by waves and scorching sun—Africa. There are some deserted islands left, it’s a constant. I had seen canaries, and zoos, and all those things you think of when you think of “locked up”; it’s not like that, either. For one thing, you begin to talk to yourself; on the second day you answer.
I’ve always been good at stories. In here, I’ve gotten very good. I can break your heart. Love stories. Hate stories. War stories. Then I get too pure. I distill war until it is just two men in the desert, biting each other, kicking, screaming, locked together in eternity. Eternity makes some people quite somber. Not me. I know that you can’t erase the original war; we still wear our bones on the inside to prove that.
Do you see; it’s because of this, that everything is so easily explained in terms of post office lines and bridges and teacups and immunizations? And that’s why some of us are locked in. Something else . . . if anyone assumes that physical containment precludes travel, then they have never allowed their mind to use its legs.
An imagination can slice the ocean up into edible pieces or walk onto an old western movie set by swinging open bar doors and spilling light on expectant bad guy faces. An imagination can dangle upside down in an animal snare and bite its leg off to escape. I’ve done these things and more. I know they think I’m here, but I have gone on to bigger, much better places.
I could tell you how I got here. I could tell you that I haven’t the dark soul I thought was a prerequisite to murder. I’ve always gone at least far enough out of my way to buy Girl Scout cookies, and sometimes I would remove my hat in movie houses. I had no trouble murdering her, though, because she asked for it.
She took me to her house, after all, and pulled pieces of herself from high school annuals and memory boxes . . . dust filled the room as she hollowed herself out; preparing. We got good and goddamn drunk, too . . . cheap stuff . . . good and goddamn drunk. A murderer doesn’t have a dark soul like I thought, just an understanding of endings.
It might have all began in childhood; what doesn’t? I guess some of us here are born older than others. Most of what I did back then was in the name of science. My only friend as I was growing up was a scarecrow of a kid named Roger. His hair was the color of violin rosin, and freckles dotted his face in three separate constellations. We were accused of murder more than a few times. The judgment of the neighborhood weighed more heavily on our respective families, however, who were consistent in their punishment—Roger and I were separated on a weekly basis. One summer, we froze thirty-six frogs in my mother’s deep freeze—right next to the vanilla almond ice cream and six frozen-eyed flounder. My mother lost ten pounds that summer because she couldn’t bear to reach in behind the icy toads to get the ice cream. Eventually, when she could bring herself to endure the reach, she discovered she didn’t want the ice cream anyway. Roger and I considered this an important discovery . . . much more important than the simulated “end of hibernation,” when we thawed the poor things out on what must have been the hottest day of July. They moved slowly at first, dripping and steaming just a little. We ate watermelon and spit out the seeds as the frogs must have endured the greatest of all reptilian shocks—the immediate scalding of what had previously been nearly frozen blood. Thirty-six toads gave their lives for science that afternoon and two pink-stained, sticky children carried the burden of thirty-six tiny souls to bed with them that night. That was my first nightmare, by the way—it was much like a Japanese film I had just seen a few weeks before the toad massacre. I called out for my mother in my sleep just as the giant steaming toad ate my body, save the left leg which he left dangling from the carport rooftop like a Christmas tree decoration. I don’t know what nightmares Roger had that night, but they must have been bad. He started attending mass even more often than before (it might have been a coincidence because his sister began wearing dresses that same summer), and he and I drifted apart. I bring all this up because, as I’ve mentioned, he was my only real friend and the last person who could hold a conversation with me without first packing it full of recommendations.
I had once gone to church with him to see what he found so attractive about it all. The stained glass held my attention for awhile, with all of the pictures of slaughtered animals and woeful sinners and children who peered between purple-lined clouds to see God or a golden cup. One pane was of Jesus, who was talking to the masses with extended hands; the next pane over was Jesus on a cross with nails in his palms. Religion seemed very cause and effect if you looked at it only through the stained glass illustrations. Eating wafers and drinking wine sounded a lot better than it turned out to be. For one thing, we all had to use the same cup and you didn’t even get enough wine to make you a little drunk. Roger must have enjoyed that kind of stuff, though, because he became very serious about it all. I’d like to think he got into it for the girls; after all, that’s how I got where I am today. He might have fallen for some girl or another without realizing that Catholic girls cross their legs as well—especially those who “intend” to become nuns. He can’t tell me he wasn’t interested at one time, either; I knew him then. I really knew him.
I didn’t have any enemies then; everyone was too frightened of me to hate me outloud. Kids tried to avoid me without catching them avoiding me. I wasn’t a bully; I was a scientist. I had a conscience, though, and Roger was a firm believer in that. If I didn’t like someone, they were fair game for my experiments. My grandmother proclaimed to everyone that I was just mature for my age, which made some of the things I did more palatable for the family pride in general. It wasn’t only the “animal experiments” that made me out of the ordinary—it was my uncanny disconcern for what people thought about what guilt was, and although Roger tried to explain it to me, my reputation already was terribly tarnished.
I didn’t surprise my family in the least when I ended up here. They all knew I would end up here. What they didn’t know is that I haven’t ended up—I’ve just begun a new experiment. I travel. That may be strange to hear from someone who lives in a 12x12 cubicle; from someone who has a constant shadow of black bar slashes on his face. I admit I worried a little, at first. The day they brought me in, for example, I paced. I remember quite plainly, that I ran to the bars to ask the guard for a transfer to a larger room. I told him that I would go crazy in such a small place, and that I wanted a room facing the courtyard instead of the injecting chamber walls. There was a possibility for a less gruesome place, I thought. He said something that I still believe to be profound, no matter the source. He said, “You’re all crazy in here. Look what side of the bars you’re on. If you were sane, you’d be out here.” Then he walked away, as if it were a natural thing to walk away from a man who had just been condemned to trudge through the mire of his own memories or to invest a whole new personage into a whole new world he would have to invent inside a 12x12 block room that faced his inevitable doom. Roger told me once that heaven was described in the Bible as being just about this small; but he was given to exaggeration if he felt it helped get the point across.
He came to see me a while back. He’s a Father now. Father Roger. He asked me some questions, of course, to make sure that my mortal body had committed the actual act and not my immortal soul. Father Roger tended to believe my theory about the hands acting separately from the soul. In a way, I feel sorry for Father Roger; his best friend grew up to be a murderer. He promised to return tomorrow morning though. Everyone was surprised that I would allow the last rites to be given, since I’m not a Catholic. I did it for Roger. Why not? Personally, I think murderers don’t give a damn about what people think they deserve. The just take anything that’s offered.
Like her, for example. The cafe door opened. I looked up, automatically, not really caring to see anyone in particular. When she walked in, red dust from the road shook off her. She threw her head back; dust like glitter in the sunlight that had been allowed in the open door swirled into my coffee. She walked over to my booth and sat down. Just like that. No “may I” or “my name is” . . . just sat. For that moment, I thought of a jungle somewhere. A jungle absorbing the day, trailing mosquitoes and the scent of flowers behind it. I thought of this because she made me feel . . . as if she was a movement of the leaves; like a deer . . . and I was supposed to crouch for the attack.
Yes, it was strange. I tell you it was like life had stopped following her around weeks before. Just the sight of her made my blood being to race. She spoke—the empty sound of wind. Within the hour, I knew her life as well as my own. Anyone who can relate a life story so well, considers it over with already. Before too long, she began to expect sympathy, first, then we had some pound cake. It must have been a week old because I remember her remark about how it tasted like a sweater. That’s the only thing I remember her saying, and we talked all afternoon.
She was a stranger after all; not an enemy, or a friend. I began to wonder if an experiment was presenting itself to me. Sure. I had to be careful . . . the previous experiment had lost me my job; the one prior to that, well, my family doesn’t want to talk to me anymore. Perhaps that worked out for the best because they can work on each other so much more efficiently without me causing so much scandal. I use the word scandal loosely here; it was a shame but all of their plans to denounce me were worthless when the media interviewed them on my capital punishment case. Each and every one of them had his opportunity to tell everyone how much I deserve everything I get. Anyway, I knew that caution was at a premium when you experiment with adults, but I rationalized that what else was destiny but a string of experiments? My failures could have been considered catastrophes by someone less objective. I had nothing of value left, and I didn’t even know what “value” meant. Who could have projected that a quiet diner, like any other you see on the side of the highway . . . and a cup of coffee would begin a new adventure? Just coffee, I thought in my innocence as I stopped my journey, then I’ll finish hitching to Dallas. I had hopes that a purpose would present itself to me in Dallas. I found something interesting on the side of highway 380 instead. The rest of the story is just details. They aren’t as important as what I learned. I learned that I have the capacity to feel so sorry for someone that I will do anything for them. At least I did it that once. I thought that a strange discovery about myself, and I felt almost human about it. I know that murder isn’t really a starting point in the quest for being a great humanitarian, but I was concerned enough about someone else to carry out a request—at the expense of my freedom. She asked me to go home with her; she had been desperate for someone—anyone. I was anyone enough for her.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t beautiful, either. People have been murdered for that before, you know. Imagine waking up one morning and finding an ugly old woman where your wife once lay. She was beautiful, though, especially afterwards.
That, I imagine, was the last “real” thing that happened to me. By “real,” I mean that after that, my physical freedom was clipped and trimmed and finally honed into these four walls. I’m locked in, all right. But, as you can see, I’ve only really traveled since the day I came here. Father Roger tried to save me, he said. He asked me about my faith, wanting to know if it had diminished any since he knew me. The truth was that it hadn’t, because I’d never had it back then, either. I told him that I liked parables, though. I even have one of my own.
It’s a recurring dream that I call “blood sea island.” I’m not an active participant in this dream, but I’ve attached meaning to it. The dream always begins the same: Thousands of bronzed people line the shores of what appears to be a small white-sanded island. This island is of the variety with beautiful flowers and where every kind of fruit is represented. An inactive volcano points ineffectually toward a clear, blue sky, and I know there are toucans in the leaves of the banana trees. The odd thing is the stance of all the islanders—they are all uniformly, as well as distortedly, peering out over the ocean toward the horizon in an eerie, unflinching manner. It’s as if one single eye is formed from their union; an eye that creaks from left to right in a predetermined pattern they all know by heart. They don’t see what they seek, and are very unhappy. Suddenly, after what I perceive is the passage of a great amount of time, they see a speck in the distance. The waves force the speck closer until it becomes a raft; closer still, it is a raft with the figure of a man on it. It’s at this point that I realize that these islanders are afraid of the water. I know then, by a sudden burst of historical insight, that several of the islanders have tried to escape before by swimming. As one of them touched the water, froth and bubbles became scarlet as the body was pulled down by an unknown force, and bones were returned surprisingly clean. I became one of the silent crowd, then, warning this gentleman not to leave his raft lest he be consumed as well. The man does, though, much to our discomfort. As we crane our singular neck, his quick strokes bring him in the one hundred yards or so to the island, leaving his raft bobbing forlornly in the unending expanse of blue ocean. He doesn’t say anything to us, but at once we assume he is our savior. He points at us individually, explaining without words that we are to swim one by one to the raft and be taken away from this paradise. I become increasingly uncomfortable as I watch the islanders’ faces. Each one registers unwillingness to remain on the island even one moment longer now that a means of escape is at hand. The danger is very evident to me—cooperation is the only way in which this task can be completed. On my invisible yet concrete-laden lips are the unheard words of a cliché: “women and children first.” They jump into the water in a single body; the ocean immediately beginning to become animated by their arms and legs and faces—scratching, reaching, flailing, clutching, and finally bleeding, frothing, and drowning.
“Cause and effect,” I told Roger, “is the only way to perceive religion.” I’m sure he has forgiven that insight, however, as he’s consented to perform the ceremony after all.
As I told you before, I’ve become very good at stories in here. “Blood sea island” is just a dream. Stories are my dreams made into memories. Those are the kind I collect. I’ve been too caught up in mind-traveling to worry about real destinations, schedules, time, and geography—all moot points. The war stories I mentioned earlier are the most emotional journeys for me. I must really prepare myself for anything when I depart for a war. The problem I’ve come up against is that, like I was saying, I distill war into its purest form. I pit two men against each other, causing me to assume the unhappy roles of the thousands of widows and children, as well as the millions of grieving friends left behind to set the world in order after it’s all said and done. Sometimes I forget why I even started the war in the first place, but I cover well. I like the victory parades best of all. When the clowns with the confetti pepper the car of the winning side, and the loser is forced to walk behind with a broom These war stories are usually the closest I can come to observing morality—of course, I get to choose the winning side. Usually the side that shows initiative has nothing to worry about. In other words, the side that is fighting to experiment with possible outcomes—that’s the winning side. I admit a possible bias there, but tell me, does God feel differently?
Now I feel compelled to negate any suspicions as to my considering myself a God; I’m merely a mild megalomaniac. Forgive me, but when you re-create your own universe within a very limited physical territory—well, I call it an accomplishment. Think of the Old West, or any unconquered wilderness for that matter. That’s wide open territory. Think now about generations of people feeling good about “owning” that land, presiding over it, being “gods” of its destiny. And I have done so much more with so much less.
Death row doesn’t have to be a dramatic place, especially for a scientist. A person’s last night of life doesn’t have to be more memorable than any other—the next day will erase the memory so quickly that it might not have ever happened. I have been studying my hands, though. Tomorrow they won’t be part of me anymore. My hands, the assassins, will go along their way toward dust.
I have imagined an execution—to prepare myself. Not an injection, of course—I chose instead to see a hanging. In the afternoon; a man fell from a ladder to the full extension of a rope and dangled like a ripe plum; I couldn’t have been more graphic. When the sun began to set, I watched the outline of his form on the horizon—such a beautiful sunset; so many colors. To further calm myself, I gathered clouds that kneeled on the sun to push it to the other side of the world.
I might as well tell you that tomorrow I won’t be there when I receive the injection; I’ll be reliving “blood sea island.” The man in the boat will swim toward the island. The sun will be unbearably hot, and the toucans will be screeching at each other in the woods behind us. This final time he’ll have a face . . . a kind one. He’ll explain to the islanders that they must come one by one onto the raft if they are to survive at all. They will jump into the water and the frenzy will begin. I will stand on the white, stark-white sand and watch, glancing now and again at the volcano and the sky. All of the islanders will die, and their bones will float away with the tide. Then there will only be the young man and myself. We will swim to the raft. We’ll climb aboard and wait until the sun dips itself like a communion waver into the sea. Then we’ll chart our course by the stars. I might even cast a line to catch an ugly drumhead, which will thump himself on the floor of the raft in a final frantic code of uselessness. Then, when the injection works, perhaps I’ll be able to travel even further than before. My plans don’t include darkness; I’ve told you before.
The sunlight is filtering into my small window to be strained into black slashes on the floor. I awakened to curt footsteps not ten minutes ago, yet, they only peered in to check on me. I have begun to prepare for my journey. My arms relax; my mind begins to walk around the room, then into the courtyard, then I am suddenly thrust into the glaring sunlight of the island. A man, meanwhile, has entered my cell with a tray of food. I have never explored the island before, so I decide to take a walk. The jungle is greener from the inside and the leaves slash my face with light, like my window back there . . . where another man in a green smock comes in apologetically to remove the tray. I run through the woods now . . . faster than I have ever run before . . . I am an animal. In the leaves I hear a rustle and turn to see a deer, or a woman, I’m not sure . . . the guard who had advised me about sanity came and cuffed my body to him . . . but I am in the jungle . . . running, breathing between the leaves of a tree. Behind me, a toucan—AAAHH! I sense everything so much more keenly. I guess because I’m suddenly vulnerable; perhaps I’m more powerful in that vulnerability. I am led into the injection room where a bright overhead light swings back and forth in a mad attempt to imitate the sun, but it is here with me . . . and the deer running just ahead of me. The deer with legs shorter than mine; she had told me that she had seen things before . . . so painful that she could not stand . . . life anymore . . . “I see only limitations before me . . . so many hurdles to jump” . . . I jump; I devour . . . I have dragged so many carcasses home in one lifetime; it must be me. I remember it all too plainly for it to have been someone else; there is someone else . . . Father Roger, is that you? I’m sorry you came after all, I didn’t come to greet you . . . because I’m looking in the distance on the shore now. The islanders and I are searching for that man on the raft . . . I see the needle enter my arm. . . . He is swimming for the shoreline . . . I’m still hopeful . . . the bodies pile onto one another as if freedom were that easy. Father Roger is saying something I can’t make out . . . the hot lamp is still swinging . . . or is it the sun? Yes, the sun is swinging . . . I am swimming to the raft in long, easy strokes . . . the sun goes out for good.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.