Arts & Culture
by Sylvia Whitman
Back in the days when he chewed orange bubble gum and dreamed of becoming a fireman, Adam Miller used to be able to tell the temperature by the tree crickets. The hotter the weather, the faster their wings throbbed. If you knew somebody whose mom was a nurse’s aide, you could borrow a watch with a second hand and figure out the degrees by adding 40 to the number of chirps in 15 seconds. After a while, you didn’t even need the math; you’d listen for a moment and then say 82, which always impressed the hell out of any kid whose parents had just moved down from the North. By the middle of summer, the whole neighborhood droned with crickets frantically bowing their wing violins. This is what worried Adam, though: For the first time in almost three years as a guard at the Guile County Jail, he was hearing this chirr on the tiers.
At first, Adam thought he was imagining the sound. Or maybe he was going deaf, like Big Mike and all the other old-timers counting the years on their fingers until they could retire and collect their pensions.
Adam had never really adjusted to the din from the cellblocks, which stuffed his ears like a bad cold. At the start of the day shift, the lieutenant flipped the master switch that turned on the TVs mounted along all nine security floors of the Corrections Tower, as well as in the basement, where a 54-inch screen presided over the employee cafeteria. The Sheriff had ordered the knobs removed, so no one could lower the volume, not even the deputies on duty monitoring the intercoms from inside their Plexiglas booths. Above the background blare of car chases and fast-food jingles, inmates argued over the size of their peckers and the rules of rummy, and you always had to listen, not for words, but for trouble, especially in the showers. Of course, the wise guys tried to gross you out, grunting and groaning as they took a dump. There were other noises, too—the clank of ankle chains when a new prisoner stepped off the elevator, the whoosh of insecticide as you sprayed him for lice. Even on your break, just when you’d be enjoying a quiet moment in the can, a voice yelling “sweetheart” would echo up from the bowl, one of the men on Eight who drained the toilets to holler through the pipes to the women on Three.
Sometimes when he got off duty, Adam felt as if his head was going to explode. The other guys on his watch said he was crazy to live way out in the county, eight miles from the nearest 7-Eleven, but Adam welcomed the drive. He’d crank down the window of his pickup until it stuck and let the wind suck the pressure out of his ears. By the time he pulled up in front of the trailer, he could hear Jenny through the open window in the kitchen coaxing Mandy to eat her peas, their chatter as gentle as wind chimes.
In June, when they took Mandy for her checkup with the ENT, Jenny made Adam ask for a hearing test. He felt stupid, but she insisted. The nurse put him in headphones big as softballs, and whenever he heard a tone, he had to raise his hand, like a kid in class. Dr. Peters told him he had the hearing of a bat.
“Maybe I’m going crazy,” Adam said that night in bed, as Jenny nestled under his arm, her ear over his heart.
“I doubt it,” she said.
“I heard this story one time about a guy who picked up a radio station on one of his fillings,” Adam said. “He thought it was Martians giving him orders.”
“I wish a little voice would tell you to quit,” she said.
“We’ve been through this before, Jen.”
“I could go back to checkout, just part time, while you were looking.”
“What about Mandy?”
“We’ll find a sitter. If you’re worried about—”
“Drop it, please.”
“You heard Dr. Peters. Mandy probably won’t need any more surgery.”
“Probably we won’t be in a car crash either, but probably doesn’t pay hospital bills. I thought we’d learned that.”
“I just don’t want you to turn into Big Mike,” Jenny said.
“He’s not so bad.”
“He’s not the man he might have been,” Jenny said.
On Monday, Sheriff Hyde locked the Corrections Tower at 7:30 a.m. sharp. Latecomers had to call the watch commander and grovel to be let in. Adam happened to arrive early, but Froggy Jones, who supervised the kitchen, got caught, along with a bunch of others, and all of them lost half a day’s pay. As Adam was checking his gun in the lobby, one of the recruits, still in khakis instead of uniform blacks, karate-kicked the front door and gave the finger to the crowd inside.
“Kid’s got balls,” Adam said as they waited for the elevator.
“He can kiss his paycheck goodbye,” Sydney Beaumont said.
“Watch out,” Big Mike said. “This means the Sheriff’s in a creative mood.”
Up on Four, as Adam did the head count, he noticed the sound again, like teeth gnawing a grill. Maybe it was the air conditioning, which broke down with such suffocating regularity that you longed for the days when jails still had barred windows. Or maybe it was the friction of human bodies packed four to a two-man cell in contempt of a court order.
“You’ve been drinking too much coffee, boy,” said Big Mike, who was eating a doughnut and dusting his belly with powdered sugar. “Here, have a cruller.”
That afternoon the Sheriff paid them a rare visit. In training, the major had held up a photograph of Sheriff Hyde so they’d know to say “Good morning, sir” when they passed him in the corridor. While his informers kept tabs on the jail, the Sheriff spent most of his time working on his reelection campaign. Suzy, his secretary, complained that typing up lists of crime victims was ruining her nails. Rumor had it that Hyde was going to pull a squad of deputies from the ding wing and send them out to get folks to register to vote.
“How’s it going?” the Sheriff asked, all buddy-buddy.
“Fine, Sir,” Big Mike said.
“Hear you got some scum who can draw.”
“Raul, sir,” Adam said. “He was an artist on the outside.”
“Get him,” the Sheriff said.
Adam fetched Raul, who was sketching at the table farthest from the TV. He had a small business: Inmates paid him in cigarettes to draw their caricatures on envelopes. Dark and petite, with fingers as fine as a raccoon’s, Raul didn’t look like someone who’d knife a guy in the kidney, but then Adam had pulled enough bangers from under bunks to know you couldn’t trust anybody by his face.
“I’ll make this short,” the Sheriff said to Raul. “I want a mural painted on the perimeter wall facing the highway, something to honor the troops. I don’t give gain time, but if I like what you do, I’ll cut you five months. Take it or leave it.”
“Take it,” Raul said.
“Deputy”—the Sheriff peered at Adam’s name badge—“Miller here will watch your ass like the NSA. And make sure my picture’s in there somewhere.”
Every morning at eight, Adam cuffed Raul, rode down to the lobby, strapped on his gun belt, and escorted the prisoner to the wall. All the guys on the watch pitied Adam, one-on-one with a camarada out in the sun. And it was hot: At night when Adam peeled off his undershirt, he found bands of salt where his sweat had dried. Yet he didn’t miss the tiers a bit. Outside, you could hear yourself think.
The scene unfolding beneath Raul’s charcoal and brushes also fascinated Adam. Lines turned into palms, ellipses into camels. Raul had never been to Iraq, never even been in the service; Adam had asked. Raul invented everything—the tanks, the oases, the anguished faces. Back in grade school, Adam had been able to do that, close his eyes and imagine worlds unlike anything held ever seen. Mars. Japan. New York City. In one daydream he’d had for most of sixth grade, he and these scientists were collecting bugs in the rain forest down in South America, where giant bullfrogs croaked like tubas.
Now Adam couldn’t even imagine what he would do if he quit the sheriff’s department. His dad was collecting disability, which was lucky, since everyone else got a handshake and two-weeks severance when Ameritech moved all its die-making to Taiwan. Adam was pretty good at wringing the last miles out of balky, old engines, but these days you had to be Mr. Goodwrench to fix cars anywhere decent. At least pizza places always needed delivery drivers. The ads said you could make about ten bucks an hour, probably nine if you figured the gas. No benefits.
Dunes were rising from Raul’s desert with a stroke of color as simple as eyeliner.
“Got the whole picture in your mind?” Adam asked.
“I know where I’m headed,” Raul said. “But you got to finish with one chunk before you can be sure what to do with the next.”
The Rank always warned you not to talk to inmates. They lie. They get inside your head. They use you up. But out here, over the ham sandwiches Froggy Jones had packed, Adam found himself telling Raul about a lot of things, like how he married the girl at the register who had pointed out that his bag of charcoal had a hole in it or how he studied his heart out to pass the firefighter exam only to learn that the city and the county had run out of money and weren’t hiring. From his wallet, Adam pulled out a photo of Mandy propped on a merry-go-round pony, the scar of her harelip almost erased by her smile.
Raul had a kid, too, a boy who’d be about seven now, although Raul didn’t even know which state he was living in.
“You’re missing a lot,” Adam said.
“I screwed up pretty good,” Raul said.
“You got what, five years left on your sentence? After that, second chance, same as everybody else.”
“Who knows what this place will do to me in five years?” Raul muttered.
Once in a while, the Sheriff pulled up in his black sedan to inspect the mural. He seemed pleased, especially with his portrait, though he wanted more hair on his brow and a balloon from his mouth that said, “We’ve Got Your Back.”
Raul didn’t say much as he painted, and Adam respected his concentration. At home, building a bird feeder or something, Adam was the same way. Luckily, Jenny was too. Sydney Beaumont liked to listen to his lips flap, but Jenny spoke only when she had something to say. Yet Adam loved to work in her presence, following her progress by the lurching, humming, and stitching of the sewing machine as she made pillows to sell on eBay.
Jenny was interested in Raul. She wanted to know if he had a reason for the stabbing. What a question—the guys on the tiers would hoot if they heard him ask it. As the Rank always said, you weren’t paid to be an F-ing social worker. But one day when Raul stepped back to survey the MedEvac chopper he’d just added to the scene, Adam asked how much a mural like this would cost on the outside.
“Murals I did for free,” Raul said, holding up the brush he’d used on the wounded. “To make money, I worked as a graphic designer. Three grand a month.”
Adam whistled. “So why’d you do it?”
“Do what?” Raul said. Red paint dripped onto his orange jumpsuit.
“Do what. Nearly kill some guy.”
“My boss,” Raul said. “He messed with me.”
“That’s what bosses do,” Adam said.
“So every time Hyde tells you to take a leak in a paper cup, you all just drop trou and—”
“That was a drug test,” Adam said. “How’d you hear about that?”
Raul snorted. “Bet it was fun in front of the nurse.”
“They had to know the samples weren’t tampered with.”
“Right,” Raul said. “The man’s got a right to everything, even your piss.”
It wasn’t until Raul was finishing touch-ups to the wall that Adam thought to ask him about the chirr. Tomorrow, they’d both be back on Four, separated by bulletproof Plexiglas.
Raul laughed. “You probably hear us sharpening our shivs.”
He added coconuts under the palm leaves. As Adam gathered the paint cans and drop cloths, Raul bent down to tie his sneaker, then reached toward the tray of turpentine. At that moment, the sun struck shiny metal. Fast as a reflex, Adam’s thumb unsnapped his holster strap, and he drew his 9mm. “Drop it,” he said.
Raul’s hand opened instantly, and the weapon tumbled to the ground. It was a paintbrush, with a band of bright aluminum below the bristles.
Raul didn’t move. Adam slipped the safety on his gun and returned it to his hip.
“Come on, stand up,” Adam said.
Slowly and stiffly, Raul stretched to his feet and turned around. “Nearly killed me.”
“Sorry.” Adam’s heart was thumping so hard he almost expected his badge to rattle. “The sun—you know, I thought you’d stashed a knife.”
They looked at each other for a moment. “If you’d blasted me, what would you have done?” Raul asked.
“Called an ambulance,” Adam said.
“Then what? Say I tried to escape?”
“Say I made a mistake.”
You think Hyde would cover you? You’d do better just getting away with it,” Raul said. “Cops got drop guns. ‘Self-defense, boss.’ You’d make a lousy cop.”
“I would’ve made a great fireman,” Adam said. He studied Raul’s mural. One of the infantrymen was jogging away from a fiery orange explosion with a buddy slung over his shoulder. “Let’s go,” Adam said.
“One sec,” Raul said. He pointed to the brush and indicated he was going to pick it up. He dipped it into the gray paint and splashed a few hairs into the Sheriff’s nostrils. Then, in lovely, fluid script, he signed his name below a yellow ribbon: Raul Berillo Cantino.
“One day when you’re famous, that’ll be worth a million bucks,” Adam said.
“Sure,” Raul said. “But thanks anyway.”
He clasped his hands, splattered yellow and gray, behind his back, waiting for the manacles. “This is your last chance to let me escape,” Raul said. “You said you always wanted to rescue someone from a burning building.”
Adam paused. How much power he had. He could take a life. Just as easily he could give it back. But then he had to live with himself afterwards. He had to go home and give Jenny a good reason. Raul’s boss might have stolen his ideas or even his girlfriend, but Raul could’ve handled it differently. He could’ve walked. He could’ve joined the Army.
“I got a better idea,” Adam said, ratcheting the cuffs closed. “Draw a picture of Superman and send it to your kid.”
They ambled back to the jail in silence. The chirr met them at the rear entrance. Adam imagined 1800 steel blades being drawn across whetstones. The whole building was vibrating like an overheated fridge.
As usual when bringing in a prisoner, Adam took Raul up to Four, strip-searched him in the room behind the control booth, then signed him over to Sydney Beaumont.
“You must be ready to rejoin the living,” Big Mike said, brushing the crumbs off the seat beside him.
“I am,” Adam said. But instead of plunking down in his usual chair, he walked into the hall and caught the elevator down to the ground floor. In the lobby, he paused to unpin the star from his breast. “Give this to the Sheriff for me, would you?” he murmured to Linda, the receptionist. She was so engrossed in her phone call that she didn’t even look up.
He left the badge on the counter. Somebody would figure it out eventually.
Adam stopped on the threshold to listen. In the distance, he heard the muted roar of traffic. Several blocks away, a chainlink fence quivered like a tambourine as a stray ball struck the mesh. On the grass between the tower and the sidewalk, a hornet hunkered down in a gum wrapper, then buzzed off toward some weeds growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk.
Whistling, Adam walked down the steps and out into the wide, green world.