— 1 —
Every place I've ever been, there's pigeons.
Even here. Prison.
Rats with wings, convicts call them.
That's not ranking them, not really. You can't disrespect rats. Nobody likes them, but they always keep coming.
— 2 —
They let me out on a Wednesday. They gave me back my watch, the clothes I was wearing when I first went down, the cash I had on the books. Seventy-seven dollars and some change. I was the only white guy in the go-home line. It wasn't like that when I'd first come in.
The bus took us into town, this little stupid dead town that only has a depot and a couple of bars. If it wasn't for the prison, the people who live around here would starve to death—it's the only job there is.
Nobody got met at the depot. We didn't say anything to each other. I didn't know them; they didn't know me. We all got on the first bus down to the city. Same way we came up—only this time there wasn't any steel mesh over the windows, and we weren't chained to the seats.
The other guys made a lot of noise. It sounded like they were talking to each other. Going on about all the women they were going to mount, the fine clothes they'd be wearing, all the action, the big scores. Except they were really talking to themselves. Same as it was in the joint.
And a couple of them, they were already nodding out. Prison's just like the street. Only difference is, Inside, drugs cost more.
I looked out the window.
Port Authority was the same as the prison yard—wolves waiting on every new bunch, waiting to see if there were any sheep.
I walked through the terminal, following the rules: Look down or look hard. Maybe I didn't have any friends there, but nobody wanted to try me either. Up where I was, you learned to settle for that.
I walked all the way back to the neighborhood. The candy store was still on the corner, but there was a new sign in the window. Lotto.
The old man's back was to me, arranging something on the shelf behind the counter. I picked up three Milky Way bars, waited for him to turn around.
"How much are these now?" I asked him.
The old man's eyes were sharp behind his glasses. "For you, they're still a quarter," he said.
"Thanks," I told him. Handed him the money. Asked: "Where would I find Mingo?"
"Same place," he said.
I walked the three blocks. The street made springtime sounds, but the only birds I could see were pigeons, picking scraps off the concrete. Maybe they sound different outside the Walls. I had never listened to them before I went up.
Mid-afternoon, kids running down the block, sprung from school.
The basement door was the same shade of rust. I pushed and it opened. He was at a card table in the corner, wearing a Panama hat and dark glasses even in the gloom.
"Hey, amigo! When did you raise?" he greeted me.
"This morning," I told him.
"I got your stuff."
"I appreciate your holding it for me."
"Hey, no problem, man. Nothing's changed."
It was all in a duffel bag, the same one I'd told him to get and hold for me when he'd visited me in jail.
Mingo was the last visitor I'd had.
I got a room in the neighborhood. Fresh linen twice a week, toilet down the hall.
I went to the Greek's that night. The guy who owns the place is big, with a shaved head. People called him the Greek because of Kojak, when it first came out. It's a regular restaurant, though.
I took a table in the corner, looked over the menu. It was strange to see a menu. Choices.
The waitress had long, dark hair, big eyes. I told her I wanted the beef stew. She didn't write it down on her pad, just stood there, hands on her hips, looking at me.
"What?" I asked her, trying to keep my voice gentle. When someone stares at you like that Inside, you have to challenge them, but I didn't want her to think I was doing that.
"You don't know me?"
I looked at her again. Right in her face. Everything was different except the eyes, but soon as I saw them, I knew.
"Yeah. All grown up now, huh?"
"I ... guess."
"You don't see any difference?" she said, smiling.
"Uh ... sure." I didn't want to look at the difference pushing out the front of her plain white blouse. The last time I'd seen her, she was thirteen years old.
"How come you never answered my letters?" she asked me.
"I ... couldn't."
"How come? They wouldn't let you write from there?"
"They did. I mean ... you could. But ... I didn't know what to say."
"Because I was a baby?"
"I was going to be there a long time. I didn't want to ..."
"I don't know ... connect. I needed to just work on being there. Getting through it. I knew you'd stop, sooner or later."
"You know a lot, huh?"
"Why are you mad at me?" I asked her. "I didn't do anything to you."
"To me? No, nothing. In fact, that was me to you, yes? Nothing. So, why did you do it, then?"
Somebody shouted something at Alicia from one of the other tables. She ignored them. I heard a bell go off, the cook yelled "Pick up!" Alicia just stood there, watching me. Waiting for the answer.
I didn't know the answer.
I don't know why she'd done what she did.
I don't know why I went with it.
What happened was, a man had come into the after-hours joint where I got my jobs. I'm a thief. He walked right up to me, where I was sitting in a booth near the door. Everyone went quiet.
"You a grown man," he said to me. "You mess around with my little girl, I take your life, understand?"
I was a grown man. Twenty-two. But I didn't know who he was talking about. So I didn't say anything. We looked at each other for a minute, then he turned around and left.
"Who was that?" I asked Mingo.
He told me. But the name didn't mean anything to me. I didn't even have a girlfriend, so it didn't make sense. But I didn't deny anything when the man had said all that stuff—it would have looked weak.
A few days later, I was back in the same place. That's when Mingo told me he'd asked around. And the man who'd come in and sounded on me, he had a step-daughter: Alicia. And this Alicia, she was a little girl, and she'd been going around telling everyone I was her boyfriend. That must have been what started it.
I went and found her. I knew where she'd be. All the kids went to the same places I went to when I was a kid. Because the block was the same as it was then. But I didn't have to ask around. When I walked in the candy store, this little girl with dark hair and big eyes came right over to me. She took my arm and pulled me outside. I let her do it.
There's an alley next to the candy store. It's empty there in the afternoons. At night, it sometimes isn't.
"Why'd you tell him that?" I asked her. "That I was your boyfriend?"
"So he'd leave me alone."
"I don't get it."
"He ... bothers me. I told my mother on him, but she slapped me for even saying it. I'm not allowed to go on dates. He ... controls everything. I wanted him to stop. So I told him you were my boyfriend."
"Why me? I'm too old—"
"I knew he would—I'm sorry—I knew he would try and get you to ... leave me alone. But I saw you. I asked about you. You were ... in jail, right?"
"So I figured, you wouldn't be afraid of him. Maybe he would be afraid of you, even. He's never been in jail."
"I can't be your boyfriend," I told her. "You're just a kid."
"My pretend boyfriend," she reminded me, looking up from under long eyelashes.
"Not your pretend boyfriend, either."
Her face got all twisted up then, like she was going to cry. But she didn't. Just said: "I'm sorry," and walked away.
I started to go after her, but when I came out of the alley, her step-father was there. He was angry, making a lot of noise. She was next to the door of the candy store, in front of a little crowd. He slapped her so hard she went to the ground.
"I warned you," he said to me, one hand slipping into his jacket pocket.
I could have told him then.
But what happened was, I killed him.
The legal aid told me, if I hadn't had a record, I could probably beat the charge. He had a knife—I had a knife. We fought, and he died.
But I did have a record. And for something with a knife. It happened in a gang fight. Mostly it was chains and pipes, so many people screaming and swinging it was hard to tell what was happening. A couple of zips popped off, but nobody got panicked—you have to be real close to hurt someone with one of those things. In the middle of the rumble, me and Sonny Trion got split off from the rest. He was the other club's Warlord. I knew him from around, but he lived a few blocks away. Another country.
Everyone like, stopped—they watched us dueling. My blood was so high I was seeing him through a red cloud. Sonny cut me, but I got in under his ribs and he died. I was fifteen, so they couldn't send me Upstate, but they put me Inside.
Everybody had knives in there. They called them shanks, and they made them out of anything—spoons, files, even toilet brush handles—but they worked the same.
By the time I got out, I was grown. And I knew how to steal. I was too old for gangs. I mean, the gang was still there, but they didn't even expect me to come back to them.
I never used a knife again until that time in the alley. But I always carried one.
The legal aid told me I could take a plea. To manslaughter. It would be five years. If I went to trial, if they came back with murder, it would be life.
I took the five years. I was a graduate of the gladiator school they called a reformatory, so I knew what it would be like Inside. More knives.
What I didn't know was that the five years the legal aid told me about—well, it was five years until I saw the Parole Board, not five years until I got out.
You maybe can scam the Board, fake like you got religion or something. I don't know that for a fact, but some guys said you could. What I did know was that you couldn't scam the other cons. You couldn't just pretend to be hard in there. You had to prove it. They made you prove it.
So the Board kept giving me hits, keeping me in. I had a pretty good record the last few years before I first saw them, but I'd had to use a shank a couple of times when I'd first come in. I wasn't mad at anyone. It was just so they'd leave me alone. Just like that first time.
Inside is the same as on the street—you have to keep proving it.
The way it works, you do enough of your sentence, they have to let you go. I had a little more than eight years in when it happened to me, when they let me go.
When I first went in, there was nothing. I didn't expect anything. Mingo was my partner, and I knew he'd take care of my stuff, but that was all.
The letter from Alicia came a few months later. It took her a long time to find me where I was. She wrote the letter like I was her boyfriend.
She was just a baby, thirteen. And I was twenty-two, a man. But that wasn't why I didn't answer her. I remembered the last time I'd been Inside. If you had a girl to write to you, to visit you, it made you feel better. But when she stopped—and they all stopped, sooner or later—then you felt worse.
Some guys went crazy behind that. Hung up in their cells. Or jumped the railing off a high tier. For the rest, they just got sad. Deep sad.
I just wanted to get through my bit. I didn't want to get crazy, or be that sad.
I didn't know how to tell her all that now, looking right in her face. But I did the best I could.
"He didn't give me any choice," I said.
"Sure, he did," she told me, leaning over the table so her face was close to mine. She smelled like the syrup in the cans peaches come in. "He was just huffing. You could have told him I was making it all up. You didn't even know me. And that would have been it. For you, anyway. Me, he would've just hit me some more and ... you knew that."
"You knew that," she said again.
The Greek came from behind the counter and walked over to the table. He pulled at her arm. "What the hell do you think you're—?"
He stopped when he saw me. "Oh, you're back. Jesus, Alicia, I'm sorry. I know how long you been waiting."
"Now I'm done waiting," she said quietly.
The Greek was looking at me. "I got no beef with you," he said. "I'm just trying to run a business."
Alicia took off her apron, handed it to the Greek. "You owe me for three days," she said.
"You gonna walk out right now? In the middle of—?"
"He's home, now," Alicia told him.
The Greek went over to the register. Tapped the keys to open it. Handed Alicia some bills. "If you want a few days off, you can always—"
"Come on," she said to me.
The building was only four blocks away. "I never moved," she said to me. "I wanted to be sure you could find me."
I just walked along with her.
She had a key to the apartment. When we walked inside, a woman was sitting on the couch, watching TV. She was short and fat, wearing a housecoat. She had a bottle of beer in one hand. When she saw me, she said: "Oh, he's back. And now you're gonna—"
Alicia walked right past her like she was furniture, pulling on my hand for me to come along. At the end of the hall was a room with a padlock on it. She had the key. It was a bedroom. Hers. It was real small. There was a mirror sitting on top of a chest of drawers. My picture, the one the newspapers ran when I got arrested that last time, it was taped to the bottom corner. She took a suitcase out of the closet, started packing her stuff. She didn't have much.
She had four stacks of shoeboxes already tied together with some string, maybe five in each stack. She cut the string with a little scissors, then she put another shoebox on top of them and tied it all together. It made a big bundle, but it didn't look heavy. "You take the suitcase," she told me. She took the shoeboxes.
"Who's gonna pay the—?" the fat woman said as we walked past her on the way out. Alicia didn't answer.
"Do you have a place?" she asked me when we were in the street.
I told her where I was staying.
"Let's go," she said.
— 3 —
"It's extra for two," the old guy at the front desk told me when he saw Alicia and the suitcase.
"How much extra?" Alicia asked him, her voice hard.
"Uh, twenty-five a week."
She handed him the money without asking me.
We went upstairs to my room.
Alicia put her shoeboxes down. I put her suitcase on the floor.
"There's only one—"
"That's okay," she said. "I want you to sit there anyway."
"So you can see."
I sat in the chair. Alicia used the little scissors and cut the string. Then she gave me one of the shoeboxes. "Look," she told me.
Inside were envelopes. A whole long stack of envelopes. Every one with my name on it. And the prison address. But no stamps.
"I wrote to you every day," she said. "Every day. I told you what I was doing. Every day. Now you can read them. You can see for yourself."
"How many of these—?"
"Two thousand, nine hundred and forty-one," she said. "I didn't get to write you today yet. I always do that after I get off from work."
I didn't know what to say.
"In the last box, there's a little more than thirteen thousand dollars. I saved some, every week."
"You never got your meal. At the Greek's, I mean. I'll go out and get some food," she said. "You can start reading the letters."
"After you read them, every one, then you decide."
"Decide what?" I asked her.
"Decide if you really were my boyfriend. Been my boyfriend all these years. If I waited for you, faithful. If I loved you."
"If you decide you were, that I waited all this time, we can go together, get an apartment. I'm not too young now. If you don't, the money's yours. I saved it for you. So you could start over."
"How could you—?"
"Me, I was never pretending," she said. "And there's the proof."
for Emily Lyon Segan
© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
This story appears in Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss.
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