Prison—no house of glass. Inmates don't throw stones—they eat them.
In an underground corridor at the bottom of D-Max-3, twelve lights burn night and day. Solitary yellow bulbs caged to the ceiling above each cell--wayward suns.
It’s 10:00 pm. Something whirs. Hum of an electrical impulse. The bulblights flicker. Cell doors slam shut in unison. Twice latched, twice bolted, like the clang of a coupling train.
I live alone in forty-eight square feet of precast concrete, one solid steel door separating me from hell. I’ve been here awhile, and have done just enough to ensure my solitary existence. Believe me, it’s much better this way.
Exhausted from writing since dinner, I doze. And as my perception dissolves into those first oily portals of slumber, my recurrent nightmare returns. The sordid allegations, the details of my crime, bleed through my hypnagogic haze. Gruesome apparitions—flashes of a brown car in the weeds, the girl, the hushed voices of men—jolt my memory. Paramnesia, the blackout from my drunkenness that night, now eleven years ago, eviscerates images I cannot quite grasp, the details spasming, evanescent, slippery as grease.
Hints of remembrance shudder through me, my mind convulsing, my conscience revolting from the notion I could have done as they say. I fight these visions, my dreams, rocking myself on the bed, constantly rocking—wanting to remember, and terrified I will.
Coming fully awake, I think of the letter, the box, wondering when she’ll get them, and if I’ll ever hear from Cassie again.
Late in the night, there is only my heartbeat and the drip by drip by drip of something leaking. Transfixed to the beat-beat rhythm of time in my chest, I rock myself to the thump-thump-thump as if my pulse were music—drumbeats, sounding off my sentence.
In this gray room. In this hard place.
* * *
One wintry morning a letter arrives at my office in New York, and five days later a box. I take them home, stash them in the closet of my writing room, unopened.
A week passes. I want to burn them, want to open them, but resist exposing old wounds.
On Friday evening, Joe finds the letter while rummaging for the back-up printer. The postmark gives it away: McAlester State Prison. Big Mac. A Google search finds Shaw’s case, State of Oklahoma vs Shaw Pence, reopened on new evidence.
I show Joe the box. He retrieves a bottle of Merlot, pours two wineglasses. We sit on the floor in front of the fireplace, the parcels between us.
With my index finger, I unseal the letter.
In a few days, a box will be arriving at your office. They only permit one mailing per week. Look for it. It’s my manuscript, my story. It took me two months, but I’ve edited it completely, changed it from first person to third so maybe it won’t seem so personal, since part of it is about your mom.
Not sure how publishing houses handle things, but don’t want my story in the wrong hands. I don’t expect a book deal, just a read. Then maybe you’ll understand, not be so angry, so disappointed. You have no idea how sorry I am.
There’s been a change in my case. After a dozen motions over the years, they’ve finally agreed to apply the new technology. They found DNA on her undergarments and beneath her nails. They’re still testing. I doubt it’s mine, but I still can’t remember. All I get are flashes, odd feelings about that night, bits of memory.
The review process will take months, years, and even then you never know. I may be stuck here another eleven years, or forever. My lawyer is young, court appointed, but bright. I’m teaching her, helping her along with my case. God knows I’ve handled enough of them.
But mostly I’ve been writing my history, a story I’m begging you to read. There’s so much I want you to know. I’m inspired by your success. Your mom would be so proud. My own writing has become cathartic. If nothing else, solitary confinement keeps a man focused.
Loved your novel. I’ve worn it out. Proud of you, but understand your position.
PS: I think I might be innocent. Don’t we all?
I put the letter aside, take the last red sip from my wineglass, and slit open the box with a butter knife. Shaw’s manuscript is a good four inches thick, the last page numbered 569. The typeset looks both antique and familiar, harkening some relic machine from the seventies, maybe a Smith Corona. Must have taken most of the eleven years to write.
I look at Joe. “Better break out another bottle,” he says.
While Joe messes with the cork, I get up and stoke the fire, jostle logs with the poker, resisting the urge to toss in the box, manuscript and all. I sit back down, look up at Joe, tears in my eyes. He pours more wine. Neither of us speak.
Here I am again. I’d come to know Shaw Pence, now fifty-four and on death row, when I was teenager, long before Joe, back when I was Cassie Zanger. Shaw had been a childhood friend of Zella, my mother, became an uncle of sorts after my parents died. At least, that’s how I thought of him then—until his conviction. If it weren’t for Shaw Pence, I’d have never gone to college. And it wasn’t just the money, the man had inspired me. But since the trial for rape and murder, almost twelve years ago, we’d not communicated. The evidence against him was overwhelming. I felt betrayed.
“Why does he want me to read this, Joe? What’s he after?”
“Details he can’t put his finger on. All he gets are flashbacks. Maybe, he’s looking for clues to what happened. Something he can’t remember.”
“Or that you would read it, Joe. You’re the psychologist. A plea for help?”
“No. That’s not it. Like he said in the letter. There’s things he wants you to know. He’s begging you, and from what I know about him, begging seems out of character.”
“Totally. Hard to imagine. And why now?” I pause, catch my breath. "But Joe, I owe the man. I'd not be who I am, wouldn't be married to Dr. Joe Harris if it weren't for Shaw. We were so poor, me and Mom, so utterly poor."
Joe reaches out and strokes my cheek. “Shaw said writing the manuscript has been cathartic.” He taps the stacked pages with his forefinger. “Something happen when you were a kid? Something that caused… created, a rapist? A murderer?”
“I think we’re about to find out.”
* * *
I’ve edited what follows; it’s part of my job, my profession. Trust me, it’s a story the world needs to hear.
We start on a ranch in Kansas, decades ago--April, 1970. Shaw had just turned fourteen.
So far as I know, every word of Shaw's story is true.
Cassie Zanger Harris
January 23rd, 2010
For Shaw Pence, the bus ride home was the last good thing of each school day.
Zella Zanger, in her customary seat next to Shaw, tore a page from her notebook. She looked at it and muttered, “Arithmetic’s fucked. Reading’s one thing, but math?”
Zella folded the paper and jammed it inside her math book. The book rested in the sag of her dress between parted knees. As she moved it higher on her lap, her dress came up, exposing her thighs. It’s what she did to him, playing her wanton game.
She sat back, crossed her legs at the ankles. Tattered blue Keds, no socks.
The bus pulled to the side and stopped.
Little Molly Hansen, yellow dress, lunch pail in hand, stepped from the bus. She stood near the bar ditch waving to the bus driver, then looked toward the back window and gave Zella the finger. Molly grinned, then charged down the lane toward the open arms of her waiting mother.
“She’s figured it out,” Shaw said to Zella. “You taught her well. She’s not using her thumb to hold down the other fingers. Mrs. Hansen will be so proud.”
Zella flipped Shaw the identical bird.
The bus driver, Mr. Kelp, tuned his radio and eased back to the road. He’d found Creedence, Fogerty warning of some bad moon on the rise. Shaw, recalling the fight, rubbed his sore jaw.
Zella and Shaw rode thirty-two miles roundtrip every school day: first on, last off. The oldest kids on the route, they’d sat together since fourth grade. By now, nearing the end of junior high, they had the bus to themselves most of the way. Each day after little Molly had departed, Mr. Kelp, with one hand on the wheel, would slow the bus to a crawl. He’d crack open his window, jack out a cigarette, light it, then reach into the canvas military duffle at his feet and pull out his transistor radio—a red Philips Babette, black handle, knobs along the top. He’d telescope the silver antenna full length, and tune in the after-school rock show from 710 WHB in Kansas City. That rousing music: Beach Boys, Doors, Beatles, Stones.
Shaw eyed Zella as she bopped her head to the Clearwater beat, his gaze sliding down her neck, her shoulders. All that thigh.
When the song ended, Zella, bent toward the floor, reached toward her satchel and stuck the notebook inside. As the math book slid off her lap, she scooched down in her seat, her dress inching higher. She began toying with the hem, fingering it.
Zella and her family worked as tenant farmers for old man Jespersen and lived in one of his converted bunkhouses about a mile west of Shaw’s ranch. Their place reminded Shaw of a scene from Grapes of Wrath—ramshackle and weathered, clapboards begging nails and paint. The Jespersen Ranch was prized ground, a reputed spread, but down in the hollows, on the backside of the Jespersen where Zella and her family lived, was malignancy—scabrous, festering. Rusted farm implements and tarnished junk hid among the pokeweed of their cluttered rut-yard. Skinny old chickens and one mud-caked hog rooted around free as pets.
Mr. Kelp turned up the volume again: Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”.
Zella had pushed her feet, the Keds, under the forward seat. She drew them back, bent her knees, began bouncing her legs to the music. Shaw opened his book, Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism, bent his head, snuck glances at legs.
Oh, she knew.
The bus banged every hole in the road.
Zella’s parents and four older brothers were fair-skinned and blonde. But Zella, the last to arrive by six years, had nut-brown skin, dark eyes. According to Gramp, no one blamed Maude Zanger for straying, being married to a crusty jackass like Vernon.
Although she lived within the grunge of poverty, Zella sparkled, especially her black hair. Oh, that riotous mane—homemade-soaped, carelessly dried, and left uncombed for the wind.
As a Kansas boy, Shaw loved the wind, and in those promising 1970’s days of short skirts, what it did around women, especially Zella, aroused him—naughty images for boys. On weekends or in summer while sitting on the ledge at their Dry Creek hideaway, he’d hold his breath at the flare of her dress in the breeze, enthralled by glimpses of those legs.