At 19 he beat a man to death and was sentenced to life without parole. Decades later his only freedom lies in conjuring the past and re-creating his present.
Last Days on the Other Side of the Fences
By Kenneth E. Hartman
I woke up in the joint again this morning. Ten thousand seven hundred and ninety-one days and counting. Through no one's fault but my own, I exist as a number, a body filling a carefully delineated space, a breathing statistic. Looking out across the horizon of time at the next thousand days, I can see only more of the same. So I have had to create ways to achieve some measure of release, even if it is of an illusory nature.
Most evenings, I hang a blue towel off the edge of the top bunk to secure some degree of privacy, put on my oversize headphones, click on a rock CD, lie back and fall out of this constrained world. I put my writing board across my knees and pick up a Pilot Better Ball Point, medium, black. I use these pens only for serious writing, for the express purpose of writing my mind back in time and out of prison.
Just a few nights before I dove off the face of reality into this irreality, I wander alone down a residential street in the quiet hours of the night still tasting Arlene, a beautiful, brown-skinned girl. She had spread her black hair, its tangled tresses and heavy solidity, its vitality and coarse strength, across my lap. Looking up at me, she told me how the blue and green flecks in my eyes reminded her of Christmas lights. I ran my hands over her breasts, the soft skin giving way as she arched her back slightly and gasped a little gasp. When I put my arms under her and lifted her mouth to mine, it was as if she weighed nothing; she curled into a ball of warmth and girlish passion. Her mouth tasted of cherry Tic Tacs and the ocean.
Later, I walk aimlessly, smoking Camels and imagining Arlene lying under me naked. I sit on the back bumpers of anonymous cars parked in random driveways, staring straight up into the night sky. I can never see the Milky Way. For me it is simply the name of a candy bar. My stars are the streetlights and the searchlights on the bellies of the helicopters buzzing around, disturbing the peace of the night. I'm certain the next time I have her alone, the next time she falls in love with the idea of my eyes staring into the dark forever of hers, she and I will do more than kiss and caress each other - we will make love like the first humans.
But Arlene's charms exist now only at the end of my Better Ball Point. Young Mexican girls no longer defy their fathers and sneak off to the hungry embrace of their bad-seed white-boy neighbors for a stolen moment of rough passion. No, her delicacy has disappeared and lives only in a place out of place and out of sync, frozen in concrete and caged inside iron bars.
Days before that delicious experience, I sit on the edge of a battered green picnic table in the darkest hours of the night explaining to Brenda she cannot spend herself on me. She suffers from the diminished status of young girls in my neighborhood. Most of them her age have already had many partners; they are passed around like pretty baubles to show off and trade. But Brenda possesses disquieting qualities that separate her from the other drug-addled girls in their cutoff jeans and poorly applied makeup.
I feel a powerful connection to her that has a transcendent nature, an out-of-time sense that draws me to her and her to me. Though she is only 13, her soul is ageless. Somehow, she knows my fate is to die to her world, and she does not want to wait for a moment that will never arrive.
Brenda's pink wristwatch is broken. I give her mine, a silver pocket watch that has survived its bruising, weeks-long encounter with me. I promise to get hers repaired and return it to her in response to her prediction of my imminent disappearance. I walk her home and hold her hand in mine. She tells me, in a voice too serious for her age, that I am breaking her heart. I can hear it coming apart as I kiss her forehead and leave with a little girl's watch in my front pocket. When I turn back to wave, she has taken her broken heart and gone inside. She is only 13.
Back in the park, blowing smoke rings in the cold air, I ponder this encounter, rolling her watch in my hand. Secretly, from my waking self, I am a little afraid of Brenda. She knows me in ways I do not; in her eyes I can read nothing, gather no information. Perhaps in Salem or some other overwrought place she would have been burned at the stake for her otherworldliness, for her connections to the earth's vast intelligence.
Brenda's predictions were accurate for both of us, unfortunately. I did, indeed, never return with her broken watch. It vanished as surely as I vanished. Her broken heart blinded her from that beguiling inner sight she had then, so she blindly connected to a string of losers who left her a brood of children and rotten teeth eaten away by the acid of methedrine's false exhilaration.
A couple of months earlier, sitting on the edge of another green picnic table, in another, much nicer park, I watch Gail struggle through the grass on the points of her high heels. She wears painted-on white Levi's and a tight top that outlines her generous curves. I am only hours freed from the grasp of one of the California Youth Authority's juvenile prisons, aged out at 19, floundering around trying to figure out how to swim. Several years have evaporated while I fought my way to the top of an imaginary heap, the mock hierarchy of boys pretending to be men in a prison pretending not to be a prison. Deprived of the counterbalance of girls and dreams, we had undergone a devolution back to protohumans, all hormones and posturing and endless, mindless violence.
We lived in long dorms, two rows of 40 beds in the main bay, a dozen single rooms down one side. A large communal shower and toilet area with institutional green tiles too often covered with blood and come, regularly reverberating with muffled wails of pain, and a spartan dayroom completed the accommodations. Around the quad were seven more of these euphemistically named "cottages," each reeking of desperation.
At the top of the inner road was the one different building, the Intensive Treatment Program or, more honestly, the hole. A fight bought you a 24, a full cycle of the sun, and repeated combat a 72. They put us in small windowless rooms, naked, with a ratty mattress and a sheet crazily stitched to deter noose making. Every time I did a 24 or a 72, I spent the time furiously masturbating and counting meals until I was let back out. Occasionally, I would lie on my back and kick the door until the youth counselors arrived and ran in to beat the resistance back out of me.
Gail is the first girl I run into after years of living on the island of angry boys. As she comes toward me, I cannot shake an overwhelming fury, a vicious self-reproach and castigation over how I could have allowed my own idiocy to deprive me of this gorgeous creature. The last time she and I rolled in the grass behind her parents' house, she was 15, a freshly minted young woman. This new, older girl still has a dusting of freckles across her nose and chest; her eyes are still liquid green and electric, her hair the same shining dark-brown cascade. I can see her nipples pressing against her tan sweater.
Over the next couple of days, I have sex with her with the passion of a brute, a joyless mechanical thrusting that leaves me unfulfilled and irritated. She has become the vessel for my self-loathing. I pour it into her in great, hot loads of bottomless rage. In her eyes, I see only confusion and fear. There is nothing left of the soaring love of the past. I smother her in all I cannot forgive myself for.
The last time I see her, Gail makes one more try to reach down into me to find who I had been on those barely remembered nights of unsullied, innocent pleasure, back to when the little park was our refuge, together apart from the ugly world of the day's toil. She drives off in her Mustang, in her tight jeans and disappointment, as I walk down another street, alone in the world more profoundly than seems possible for a free man.
But I can never be free again. I carry inside me the torture of places hidden away behind tall fences and obscured by euphemisms. I have been bent into shapes that simply will not fit into the world outside captivity. The free world moves too fast and leaves me breathless too much of the time to ever relax. Strangers keep walking up behind me and splintering my space, my security zone. Phony tough guys issue threats they have no intention of carrying out but that I cannot ignore.
I walk down miles of quiet residential streets by myself in the tumultuous 73 days of my last journey through the free world. I like the isolation and reduced pace off the boulevards of south Los Angeles County, away from the glaring lights and crush of bodies. Inside the fences, nothing much moves faster than a fast walk, and nothing is louder than a loudmouth's voice. On the outside, cars seem to fly by me; their roaring engines and buzzing tires like wild beasts. I spend much of the time ducking and jumping out of the way. It is unnerving.
There is also the problem of my dislocation in the flow of time. After committing a series of violent and inexplicable acts, I was taken out of the normal course of events. Everyone I knew before I hurled myself out of real life has moved on to different spots in the continuum. l am stuck in a surreal beforetime, still an angry boy fighting old demons, still just turned 16.
The world has moved on and left me behind. Everyone who spends enough time as a ward of the state's penal institutions devolves and degenerates. I am no exception to this iron law. On the outside, I can't use a knife at the dinner table because every time I pick one up it feels like a weapon in my hand. When I take a shower, I wash my boxers and socks with my bar of soap as if the laundry exchange's limitations have followed me out through the fences. I wake up at the wrong times and forget to go to bed when I ought to. The more accurate way to describe my situation is that the world stayed in its place while I fell down through a rip in the fabric of time. When I was pushed back through to the real world, a thread of the netherworld attached itself to me, a thread that won't let me go.
I spend my last night in the land of the living, the last night I breathe unchained air, the last night I wander down darkened streets absorbed in lonely colloquies with parked cars, searching for hidden stars, unaware of the significance of my life, of life itself, before I end my own life as surely as I end another man's life. I feel the crisp air of a February night. The smooth grooved concrete of the 91 freeway runs under the car, a distant, blurred river. The old Pontiac's prow bobs into the oncoming night, into the black current, its radio playing old rock and roll; the glare of the streetlights flashes across the chipped paint of the dented hood and then across my lap.
Ten thousand seven hundred and ninety-two nights ago, I am oblivious to everything around me. I am simply, merely ferocious, stupendously and stupidly so. In a fit of inexcusable barbarism, I punch and kick a man to death because his words hurt me. I cannot handle insults or challenges, and I react violently. It is programmed into me, coded in blood and training.
This is not something I am proud of; this is the part of my life I most desperately wish I could undo. I cannot, and I must live with all the wrong I have created. My every waking moment is a jarring reminder of my shame. Murder is not simply the taking of another's life; it is the negation of all that is right, the nullification of what makes us human.
The scenes that fill my memory and flow out of my pen do not exist any longer. Pontiacs don't push against the wind, and angry teenagers with bottles of warm Jose Cuervo Gold between their legs don't cup their cigarettes against the cool gusts of open car windows, setting off trails of orange-red sparks.
Decades later, I set down my pen and take off my headphones. A couple of hours have passed during which I was not here, not trapped in the poisonous amber of an angry lost boy who could not let his guard down, who would not let an insult pass unanswered.
In these moments of release, I run toward tall, stunning Gail and pull her close. I shed tears of joyous release or shout something triumphant. Arlene is still my beautiful, naive neighbor with a secret crush on me. Brenda gets her watch back, repaired. When she looks into my eyes, she sees a future of freedom for both of us.
No one ever predicted freedom for me. I was always voted most likely to die young, to implode, to vanish behind bars. I managed to live down to expectations magnificently.
So now I turn in for the night, another night inside a concrete box too small for dreams, until tomorrow when I pick up this pen, again.
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