Of the 2,912 nights I spent in prison, two were the longest: the first and the last. But then, most cons would tell you the same.
That first was endless, even more so than those long-ago nights in the woods with Owen when the wind hissed along the earth and the darkness was full of howling. In the woods an animal might rip you to shreds, sure, but it had no goal other than to protect itself and its offspring. The Kingston Pen housed animals who’d flatline you for looking at them cockeyed or breathing their air.
My cot felt no thicker than a communion wafer, coils cork-screwing into my spine. Penitentiary darkness was different than the outside-the-walls variety. A prison never achieves full black: security lamps forever burning behind mesh screens in the high corners of the cellblock, hourly flashlight sweeps. Your eyes become starved for true night—anything is better than granular, gummy semi-dark where shapes shift, half glimpsed, at the edges of your sight.
Still, you get used to it, in time. You get used to everything. Then comes that last night. We’d talk all about it, you know?
Some guys had been in and out a few times; it didn’t mean as much to them. But for most of us it was . . . listen, it’s like my buddy Silas Garrow says: We all owe, and we’re all paying. What else is prison but the repayment? Then they set you loose. But some part of you figures you haven’t quite paid enough. You’ve paid what the law demands, sure, but some debts exist beyond that. Blood dues, you could say. And those aren’t collected in the usual way, are they? Those ones tiptoe up behind you like a sneak-thief.
That last night I lay in my cot—a new one, still prickly—thinking I’d die. The dread certainty entombed itself in my skull. It wouldn’t be anything crazy, nobody was going to stab me in the neck with a sharpened toothbrush or anything like that. No, it’d be a boring and commonplace kind of death. An itty-bitty shred of plaque might detach from an artery wall, surf through my bloodstream, lodge in a ventricle and kill me dead. That would be fair and right, too, because I’d killed a man myself. A fair one-to-one transaction, blood cancelling blood. Fairer still that it should happen in the hours before my release. You’ve got to figure that’s just the way such debts get repaid: with a gotcha.
I must’ve sweated off half my body weight that night. You could’ve wrung my cot like a sponge. When the first wave of sunlight washed across the cell floor . . . to be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it. I could still die two steps outside the gates, I guess. That’d meet the accepted terms just as well.
And so it happened that one afternoon, nearly eight years after I’d scrubbed with delousing powder and donned an orange jumpsuit, my prison term ended. I collected the items I’d been admitted with: $2.32 in change, half a roll of cherry Life Savers stuck with pocket lint. I shook a few quarters out of the manila envelope and slid them into the prison’s pay phone
It was a surprise to everyone who I called. Truth? I surprised myself.
Exiting the penitentiary was a shocking experience. Maybe it’s meant to be.
Two guards led me down a tight hallway, hands cuffed. A steel door emptied into a small yard, its clipped grass shadowed by the high wall. Jesus, grass.
One guard removed the cuffs while the other stood with a shotgun at port arms. I rubbed my wrists—not because the cuffs were tight but because I’d seen it done in films when the jailers took the cuffs off a criminal. Which I was. The fact cold-cocked me. For the past eight years I’d been a red fish swimming in a tank with other red fish. But I’d be freed into a sea of blue fish, law-abiding fish, and I was fearful I’d stick out—the prison bars permanently shadowing my face, even in clean sunshine.
The guards opened another door set into the grey wall. I walked between them. No tearful goodbyes. The door locked softly behind me. I stood in an archway ten feet from a main road. The Saint Lawrence Seaway was a strip of endless blue to the south. Cars motored up and down the hill, entering and exiting my sightline with strange suddenness. I hadn’t seen anything move so fast in eight years; my eyes needed to adjust.
I took a few tentative steps. A tight group of onlookers clustered on the far sidewalk, gawking at me. I’d heard about these people; they hung around the gates hoping for this exact sight—the first fumbling steps of a long con as he squinted into the new sunlight, his legs trembling like a newborn foal’s.
Ghouls. I ought to flip them the bird! But the idea of doing so filled me with shapeless fear—I pictured one of them making a call, then the prison doors opening to swallow me up again.
What charge? A red fish failing to swim submissively amongst the blue fish?
Owen leaned on the hood of his Lincoln, his right knee—the bad one—slightly bent to take the weight off.
“Thanks for coming,” I said.
His face tilted upwards, smiling at the sun. “Hop in, man.”
The Kingston Pen stood atop a hill, a monstrosity of conical turrets and razorwire. I’d forgotten how beastly it looked from the outside. I unrolled the car window. Wind curled over the earth, pulling up the smell of springtime grass. I inhaled deep, dizzying breaths.
Owen drove down a switchback and hit the highway. My breath came in a shallow rush—I was nearly hyperventilating. Stands of Jack pine blurred into a green wall topped by a limitless sky. I hadn’t seen unbroken sky in so long. It’s too easy to forget the sheer size of the world. We didn’t speak at all until we hit Cataract City limits. It wasn’t uncomfortable.
“So,” Owen said, “do I need to watch my ass?”
“Well, old buddy, it’s like this. Every night for the past eight years I’ve lain in bed with a three-hundred-pound schizo squealing in his sleep underneath me. You figure I’d want to wrongfoot you if it meant winding up back with all that?”
Owen said: “Fair enough.”
We reached our old street, driving past the house Owe used to live in. Not much had changed. The cars were rustier. I got out, then leaned in through the open window. “There’s something I’ll want to talk to you about.”
“I thought we just settled that.”
“Yeah, we did. Dead issue. This is something else.”
“Remember what side of the law I’m on, Dunk.”
I cocked my head. “Aren’t we on the same side?”
He gave me a quick half-smile. “Of course, same side. Run it by me any time.”
Excerpted from Cataract City. Copyright © 2013 Craig Davidson. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.