About New Surroundings
Epistles to the State Pen: A Novel (Working Title)
Chapter One: The Single-Cell Organism
The singular note of prison bars locking into place rang out as Dr. Deke Connolly hopped to the creaky top bunk. He tried to ignore the smell of his cellmate’s body odor, but it was no use. He tried to block out the fact that his head was all of two feet from a stained, leaky roof. Maybe he’d try meditation. Maybe pushing the cold hard facts away was all wrong; perhaps acceptance and leaning in would provide a salve against the perpetual presence of cheap metal toilets and dirty men and ubiquitously noisome smells.
“They’re just sitting there. Can’t I just read one?”
“It’s all nonsense. You need to give it up, Claude. Obsession doesn’t work out well, whatever the intentions.”
“See that. That right there. Running away from who you are, you’re still giving out great advice.”
“You realize you’re not taking the advice. As we speak.”
As the exchange went on and went nowhere, a procession of guards walked by their cell. Though generally brutal, each man in uniform touched a bar gently with two fingers and moved on with faces so reverential, Michelangelo might’ve used them for ceilings. Claude sat watching with a skinny leg crossed tightly over his knee, writing down the names of each guard that performed the “ritual.” Deke could hear the pencil scribbling furiously and he snuck a look down; immediately he was spilling over with regret—it was like he won a lottery and the prize: Least Sexy Secretary In The World.
Dr. Deke sometimes wished a good old-fashioned psychopathic murderer was his bunkmate. A time-honored throat-slashing and the silence of death at times seemed preferable to the very vocal genuflections of Claude Windle. The kid was relentless in all the wrong ways; probably why Connolly hated and secretly liked him. It was like looking in the mirror, only the image had stringy black hair and a long beak that reminded you of gravity every time you glimpsed it. The thing literally overlapped his top lip. Connolly didn’t even know that was a thing. Claude’s standard-issue orange jumpsuit top hung limply off his hangar-thin shoulders while the bottoms constantly threatened to collapse and take him down with them.
“Are they almost done?” Deke asked. He was laying down facing the back of the cell, doing his best to ignore the procession of lemmings.
“Unless there’s been new acolytes, should be five more.”
Holy balls, Connolly thought. Acolytes. He’s coming up with more of that crappy, adopted nomenclature.
Five more taps and five more scribbles and it was finally over.
A sliver of silence and then, “It looks like we’re done for the evening. That’s really surprising. Our membership hasn’t stayed static since your first day inside. Wonder if that’s a sign of anything. Well, with all the personnel changes lately, who’s to say? Still. Could be worth looking at.”
Connolly rubbed his eyes, annoyed by the tedious strain coming up through Claude’s windpipe as he conveyed his trepidations with superconductor speed. “Perhaps we’ve finally hit our carrying capacity. Maybe it’s finally burned itself out. God knows I have.”
Windle sprang up like there was fire at his feet. Too short to see over the lip of Deke’s bunk, he hopped up to the bottom bed and dug his sweaty fingers into the top “mattress.” Connolly moved only slightly; the whole exercise smacked of a startled junior camper or scared little brother. Then again, that’s essentially what Claude was—only here, at Klampton State Prison, there was no calling home or running down the hall to the arms of loving parents. Dr. Deke realized he represented home. He represented those loving arms.
In that moment, Dr. Deke came very close to vomiting.
“It’s just one night,” Claude said, “and more and more of the inmates are converting each day.”
“Fine,” Connolly grunted, turning toward the filth of the concrete wall. He could feel his cellmate’s hot breath on the back of his neck. “You want to get down? I get that we’re incarcerated, but I’d like the entirety of the three inches of personal space mandated in the prisoner guidelines.”
“Please let me read one. Just one.”
Deke turned around with abrupt frustration, scaring Claude and causing him to fall awkwardly against the opposite wall. A few seconds passed before Windle starting moving, using his skeletal arms and weak ankles to get himself sorted. Connolly heard a whimper that seemed to issue forth from every molecule of the little man’s body. It was quite extraordinary, Deke thought, and singularly pathetic.
“Shut your shit up, assholes.” Ah. Mason Drexel, from the next cell over. One of the uninitiated. The putrid sound of hatred was something akin to music to Dr. Deke’s ears, but did little to attenuate Windle’s state of hurt and discomposure.
Connolly rotated his flexible frame and landed softly on the concrete floor of the cell, moving to help Claude up. “You okay, kid? Nothing bleeding or broken?”
“I’m good,” Windle whispered, grateful for his cellmate’s help and terrified of Drexel the storied armed robber on the other side of the wall.
“Here you go.” Deke held out a dusty red envelope, unopened and dated six months back. Claude’s countenance transformed to calm in a microsecond; it was like he was just handed the keys to the kingdom. More than that; he had a look of forward determination, as if he’d been handed the baton with a three lap lead in the relay.
Dr. Deke Connolly was only trying to soothe a yowling creature. It seemed like a good idea until he heard, “Can I read it out loud?” Claude was standing straight and wearing springtime on his face.
“Go ahead,” Connolly said, patting his little secretary/cellmate on top of the head with condescension that he knew would be misunderstood as a blessing.
Windle was like a forensic scientist as he opened up the letter. To him it was a museum piece. A cornerstone in the pyramid of history. Waves of gratitude filled his soul as he tried his best to steady his pink, bony little fingers. The idea that the fates had thrown him into the same cell as one of the most famous people on the planet; one of the truly great men—of course it was too much, but that wouldn’t stop him from reading the letter.
Claude Windle was not violent or crazy; just a chronically scared, misguided young man, doing five to ten for computer and mail fraud. His parents ignored him through childhood and abandoned him in adolescence; he did what he had to do to survive.
But that was all over. Deliverance from the cruel world had come. He gently placed a homemade pair of reading glasses atop his beak and crossed his legs high and tight, coughing a few times to clear his throat. A few reverential breaths. The buildup was ceremonial in its length and superfluousness. Windle felt the cosmos opening up and all the stars and supernovas casting their shine on him like a great intergalactic spotlight. Never mind that he was reading a random letter from a place that most rodents would’ve found inhospitable. Never mind the fact that shit on my face was written on the wall, mere inches away.
Before he could even start reading, Dr. Deke was back in the top bunk, sound asleep.
Chapter Two: Multicellular Life
“‘Dear Dr. Deke,’” Claude started, trying not to completely float away.
“‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through. So many of us are confused right now, but we understand that when you plead guilty—when you did what you did—it was to teach us some sort of lesson. Now we need your guidance to understand. There is a rift in the Hamlet that only you can make right.’”
“Who’s this from again?” Deke asked, interrupting Windle’s delicate reading.
“It’s from Margery Lightfoot.”
“Ah, poor Margery. She was the first member. Dubious distinction if there ever was one.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s an understatement,” Connolly said. He had one hand over his eyes and another on his forehead. “Go ahead with the letter.” Deke wouldn’t admit to it, but he was slightly interested. Margery was a good person when he met her. Ripped apart but honest, only looking for a path that wouldn’t shred her weary feet. He hoped his incarceration would wake her up to the truth of the gilded reality they’d been living over the last few years. He could still remember the day…
“‘It’s like a memory of yesterday, the first time we met. I wonder if you see it as clearly. We were both crying. I showed up early because I lost my watch and my cell phone—you were standing in front of seven separate chalkboards, back turned to me as I walked in the gym. Neither of us were wailing—think we were both too exhausted for anything that loud. I came up behind you and asked if you were there for the depression group. “Maybe I should be,” you said, “but no. I’m Deke. Kind of the guy in charge.” It was enough to stop my crying. That chalk all over your hands. How long and wild your hair was, as if you hadn’t slept in a week. Like body and spirit were engaged elsewhere, fighting a battle above and yet still about this world. In an instant it was love.’”
“Mrs. Margery Lightfoot was in love with you?” Claude asked, reluctantly tearing himself from the letter.
“She doesn’t mean it like that, kid. We were friends. Very close. People that meet on the way down or at the bottom often have high valences. There’s comfort in another’s pain—or not. Don’t listen to my bullshit.”
“Can I continue?”
“It’s a free country,” Connolly said, knowing Claude wouldn’t catch the irony.
“‘You flipped over all the chalkboards and told me not to say anything. It didn’t matter. Nobody else came in. That was the first time I ever told anyone about the abuse. My own private session with one of the greatest thinkers in the country—what were the odds? I don’t know if you ever think about odds, but I do.’”
“Is she talking about the very beginning?” Windle asked. “That’s not how the story goes.”
“The story is nonsense,” Deke said. He wiped moisture from his eyes but did it slowly enough so Windle wouldn’t notice. “Most stories are. Especially ones about origins…..”
Claude seemed churned up, but to what degree or purpose Deke didn’t know. He let the little man continue the missive. ‘“When I think back on the people we were just five years ago, it’s astounding. From battered alcoholic housewife to international celebrity and best-selling author. A member of the inner circle of the Hamlet. My life has gone from disaster to triumph. Can you not see? It’s because of you.’”
A laugh tinged with sadness escaped Connolly’s lips. Windle looked over the top of his crooked glasses and waited for more. “Is something wrong, Dr. Deke?”
More laughter followed. It was loud enough to trigger a particularly vivid death threat from Mason Drexel next door. Drexel was a humorless soul, even for a violent criminal. Connolly put a hand over his mouth and stayed himself from any more outbursts. He wasn’t afraid of their neighbor—he had all the protection he could need, desired or not. Windle, on the other hand, was more vulnerable. Being a “second” put a man in a precarious sort of esteem—especially in the highly confused and combustible prison hierarchy of Klampton.
Deke turned on his side and hushed Claude. Looking down he could see the little man was ready to implode. “Okay,” he whispered, “finish the damn letter. But keep it down. Drexel sounds about ready to get in touch with his inner self.”
Windle cleared his throat as quietly as he could before recommencing. “‘I owed you everything. I owe you everything. Which is why it’s so confusing.’”
“Wow,” Claude said, “she really does love you.”
“‘I think the pressure got to you. Going from one follower (me) to millions brought with it a heavy burden. Greg was trying to help when—it happened. I hope you know that. Whatever transpired, however bad it was, you have my forgiveness. Please be safe in there and know that you are high in our soul tree. I love you, Dr. Connolly. Forever yours in The Hamlet, Margery Lightfoot.’”
Claude was preparing a fresh fusillade of questions when Deke hopped down and put a stern hand up. He moved Windle out of the way like he was on rollers and dropped to the floor for three sets of rapid-fire pushups. A great deal of steam had built up during the reading of the letter; he required a little physical exertion to balance out his spirits.
Windle watched on as his celebrity roommate went up and down, breathing in a controlled, methodical fashion. Connolly was a physical specimen before prison—now he was positively shredded. The scant menu and ample time in the exercise yard had pushed him into the realm of some of the strongest men in Klampton.
“Are you okay, D.C.?” Claude asked. He could sense a new tension in the cell. A more potent claustrophobia; suddenly the little fraudster felt palpably afraid of his bunkmate.
Deke popped up and knelt over the rusty sink, looking between the cracks of the little mirror. He barely recognized himself, and that was okay. The long golden-brown locks were gone—his hair was shaved tightly down to a two-guard. A few new age lines were starting to pop up here and there and around his narrow, searching eyes, but he still looked five years younger (and meaner) than his forty years. Besides a little natural weathering and a short haircut, though, he didn’t have the look of a man doing hard time for felony assault.
“I was fine. Before you read that letter.” As he answered, Connolly turned to Windle. His ridiculous nose was almost touching the floor in deference. Deke realized he’d been blustering about with more menace than he meant. Claude was skittish, with good reason. “Hey, it’s not your fault. Memory is precious, but sometimes memories suck.”
The succinct, smoky wisdom seemed to perk Windle right up. Those were the words of Dr. Deke Connolly, PhD. That was the kind of comfort offered by the founder and former head of The Hamlet, the world’s leading self-attainment organization.
“Margery—what she said in the letter—was all that true?” Claude asked.
Deke held out a hand and twiddled his fingers until his roommate shook it. “Sorry for getting riled.”
Windle turned red as a stop sign and said, “No problem, Doc.”
Connolly knelt down in front of the little man like a catcher readying for more pitches. “Yes and no. Memory is precious, but it’s funny too. Everybody’s is slightly different.”
“So it started in a gym?”
“No doubt about that part. I was between support groups. Leading six a day and had a grand total of four people coming—combined. There was a meeting for depression, PTSD, substance abuse, marital problems, chronic illness, and crises of faith. Thought I’d put my degrees to use and do some good in the community. Funny.”
“It was a complete bust until I combined it to one group called Life Kind of Sucks Right Now. Then… well.”
“Nobody wants your help, even for free. Change the label, then everyone does. Then it just gets weird.”
Claude put a hand on Deke’s shoulder and gently squeezed. It was off-putting, but Connolly did his best to stomach the gesture without reaction. “I feel honored to hear this.”
“The Hamlet changed my life.”
Dr. Deke reached across his body and patted Claude’s hand, still resting on his shoulder. “You know you’re a criminal, right?”
“But when I get out, things are going to be different. I’m going to follow the Ten Edicts and govern my agency with absolute focus.”
Deke just about needed to roll his eyes, but he let Windle have the moment. In dark places and lonely stints, sometimes people just had to believe some bullshit. This, Connolly knew all too well. He’d built a frigging empire around that very principle. Built it from a few faithful attendees into something that had so much reach he couldn’t even do the calculus. For shit’s sake, he had acolytes. In a damned prison.
For six months, he’d been on the fence about what he had to do. Strange as it was, Claude’s incessant nettling had brought him back to mission—to what landed him in Klampton in the first place: He had to destroy The Hamlet and topple every brick of that hideous edifice he’d spent a decade erecting.
As for how, he was a little short on plans, though a few things came to mind. He worked himself back up into his bunk and told Windle no, no more letters tonight. “Claude, did the guards bring in that fresh cell phone earlier?”
“Sure did, D.C.”
“Let’s have it.”
“No contacts are stored in it.”
“That’s okay, kid. I grew up in a time when people still remembered a few numbers. Hopefully she hasn’t changed hers.”
“Who are you calling?”
“Yeah. That about sums it up.”
Chapter Three: Soft-bodied Creatures
Dr. Deke woke from a quick nap to the familiar sound of grown men trying to kill each other. For a few seconds everything was blurry—the surrealistic nature of his reality wasn’t wearing off to any noticeable degree. “Guys! You want to take it easy?”
“Screw you man!” said a man with blood running down his forehead. He was short but built like a Sherman tank, heaving wildly with rage. Deke noticed a sizeable belly on the tank—an obvious sign of food thievery—the paltry rations of Klampton made it next to impossible to attain a paunch like that. The tank was either a man of respect or a bully or both—whatever he was, Deke didn’t really care.
Connolly rubbed his eyes and removed his feet from the desk. He was up front in one of the Klampton’s three “education” rooms, teaching the first of his daily “courses.” “Chavez, isn’t it?” Deke asked, thrusting himself up from a feeble school cafeteria chair. Three men had the little tank locked up from behind; apparently he was doing his utmost to rip the head from one of the white nationalists on the other side of the room.
So tedious. Tribalism on repeat.
“What’s the disagreement, gentlemen?” Connolly asked, pushing a way through the testosterone-filled mess of stunted humanity. “Didn’t you like the defensive driving video? There was some great car crash footage, I thought. The grandma decapitated by the seatbelt…” He let out a protracted yawn, still coming to his senses. “Eh. Maybe it’s one of those better on the second viewing type deals.”
“Ain’t had nothing to do with no video,” said the white nationalist. He had a tattoo of what looked to be a crossbreed of Joseph Goebbels and Joseph Stalin covering the majority of his shirtless torso. It made for a disturbing image and nonsensical history, but Connolly couldn’t help but laugh under his breath at the imaginary prospect of the mope’s two heroes having a mutant antichrist lovechild. “I was defending you, Dr. Deke.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Killian Kilroy, recent initiate of The Hamlet,” answered the white nationalist. When he talked the scars on his face seemed to push and pull until they were only thing one could notice. Whatever Kilroy was protecting—whiteness or The Hamlet or Earth Day—he was total crap at it.
“Perfect. Please don’t defend me. Especially when you’re shirtless.”
“Whatever you’re about to say, it doesn’t matter at all. I can look after myself. And you,” he said, looking at the still seething Chavez, “if you have a problem with me or maybe want to murder me, wait until after class. This is where we all get credit for good behavior and I get to nap.”
The guards outside were looking through the glass, aware of the dispute but not making any sudden moves. It was something Deke learned very early at Klampton; if the arbiters of justice could stay out of the way, they would do so at all costs. His second week inside he witnessed a guard start and finish a tuna sandwich while a man was shanked to death fifteen feet from where he sat. The damn guy shot blood skyward like Old Faithful as Officer Jerkoff washed lunch down with a Coke—washed it down, like it was Saturday and he was mindlessly watching golf on TV. Officer Jerkoff’s name was Becker, a man with the scruples of a tick. He had mangy eyebrows and was brutishly thick from head to toe, inches of adipose tissue over mounds of muscle.
Deke looked over at the clock on the wall. Like everything else in the classroom, it was that tired cream color, probably put there before the advent of the space program. 3:30. “That’s the end of class, boys.” He heard grumblings and a few more threats exchanged between Kilroy the Hamlet Nazi and Chavez, Emperor of the cafeteria. “Seriously, get the hell out. I’ll see you on Thursday, you know—assuming nobody gets brutally murdered and whatnot.”
As the class made their way out, pushing and shoving like elementary school children with tattoos and too much Ritalin, Connolly turned back to the TV. Maybe I’ll try another tape, he thought. Another class was due to arrive in fifteen minutes. He picked out a video called Healthy Cooking for Two. Deke smiled, wondering where the hell these tapes came from. Perhaps a donative from a particularly clueless and underfunded do-gooder organization. Just the sort of reformatory tools needed to turn around the wayward lives of the Klampton residents.
“Warden wants to see you, Doctor Douche.”
Deke turned around to see Becker and another guard named Leonard, looking even more impatient than the normal impatient visage adopted by every prison guard throughout the history of time. Becker was gripping a stun baton with one hand, slapping it repeatedly into the other.
“The warden? Guys, I’ll nix the videos. Tell him I’ll stick to lectures.”
“Nobody gives two dumps about the garbage you teach or don’t teach these animals,” Becker said. His hairy eyebrows lowered and seemed to protrude outward. It wasn’t as menacing as it was upsetting. “This is about something else.”
“Wanna give me a preview?” Connolly asked, holding up his hands and walking slowly in their direction. Leonard stepped aside so Deke could walk into the corridor. It was over a quarter of a mile to the administration building; too much time to for Connolly to be silent. “Well since we’re not going to talk about me,” the PhD said, “let’s talk about you two.”
“Just shut your greasy mouth,” Becker said, prodding Connolly along with sharp jabs in his back from the inactivated baton.
“It’s best you keep quiet,” Leonard said flatly.
After a buzz and the sound of a mechanical latch release, they opened the door to the yard. For a prisoner, natural light was always something of a miracle. Deke didn’t even want to squint for some metaphysical fear of offending the sun. It was a ridiculous notion, of course. Just a fugitive trifle from a man with too many structural hindrances.
There was only about forty yards of outdoors before the warden’s building, and suddenly it occurred to Deke that he could delay his time in the fresh air. “Leonard,” he said, “how’s the new baby? Did you and the wife know she was coming before you got hitched?”
Leonard told him to keep moving, but he stopped in the middle of a concrete slab, letting his feet soak up the warmth of the concrete. He almost didn’t feel the next prod from Becker’s subjugation tool. He stopped, barely able hear the older guard’s raving. “Not getting much sleep, obviously,” Connolly said, ignoring Becker and turning to face Leonard. The junior guard had ginger hair and an honest face—Deke figured him to be one of the only people in Klampton on either side of the bars not to possess some form of aberrant social behavior. “I’ve heard the first bit can be a challenge, when they’re so young.”
Leonard had a confused look on his face. He didn’t think the prisoner was trying to wind him up—Connolly had never exhibited violent behavior before, after all.
Whatever the motivation for the rampant questioning, it was cut off. Becker’s face was red as a stop sign as he shoved the electrified baton against Connolly’s chest. As the inmate went to the ground, he hit him again and again, until finally Leonard suggested that his superior take it easy.
“On your feet,” ordered Becker, holding the baton inches from Connolly’s cheek. With shockwaves continuing to make their way through his body, the prisoner slowly gathered himself, dusting of his orange jumpsuit with trembling fingers. “You done with the twenty questions, asshole?”
Deke nodded while shaking out the remaining tremors, rolling back his head to take in one more drink of sunlight. He walked crookedly to admin building, spitting mucus and blood.
“You okay?” Leonard asked, waving at the camera above the door.
“Top notch,” Connolly said, stepping into the dour corridor of the warden’s stronghold. He struggled up two flights of ancient marble stairs, Becker mumbling insults at him the whole time. Reaching the top, he saw the figure of Elgin Darnell, fastidiously dressed in a navy pinstripe three-piece suit. “Warden,” Connolly said, trying for a dignity where none was to be found. He’d bitten his tongue severely and was having a hard time forming clear words.
“After you,” Darnell said. “My office is the second door on the right.”
Leonard told him to sit in the heavy oak chair in front of the warden’s desk while they handcuffed him to both armrests. “How’d you know all that, about my kid and everything?” the young guard whispered.
“Tell you later, if that’s okay,” he said with a strained smile. He felt he needed to save his ailing tongue for whatever Darnell had on the docket. The explanation was pretty boring, anyhow; just the observation of Leonard’s new wedding ring and substantial bags under his eyes. Not exactly Sherlock Holmes levels of deduction.
Leonard shrugged and walked out of the office with Becker. They closed the door behind, leaving Dr. Deke alone with Darnell in the big office. Connolly was surprised at the warden’s lack of fear and by the plush décor surrounding him. As Darnell took his seat behind the desk, it was terrifically quiet. Connolly couldn’t help but enjoy the tranquility and the distinct absence of the smell of shit.
“You like the office?”
“I do indeed,” he answered. “It’s a bit arresting, to be honest. After six months on the cell block—to even see real furniture—weird what you forget—or rather, what you put out of your mind.”
Warden Darnell rolled his leather chair forward and slowly clasped his hands together on the desk. “You might have anticipated the disorientation. I’d think a man of your intellect would understand the dominance a man’s surroundings can have on his mental facilities.”
The man in charge was a slow talker. His voice was low but not guttural or overly deep. Quite pleasant, Deke thought. As pleasant as his appearance. Connolly looked at the warden’s well-manicured beard with a bit of longing. He couldn’t get a proper beard trimmer and had decided to go barefaced for the foreseeable future. In observing the commandant’s considered appearance and taking in the sonorous nature of his voice, Deke had completely forgotten to listen to substance of the man’s words.
“Yeah,” he answered, hoping that would do.
“I was told you were brash. A joker.”
“I’m sorry, Warden. Just zoned out for a second. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, truly.”
Darnell smiled and opened up one of his drawers down to his left. He then looked back up at Connelly and asked, “How did you get here?”
“You know how.”
“Could I have the real story?”
“One of the oldest stories there is. I tried to beat a guy I once called my brother to death. Cain and Abel,” Connolly said, clearing his throat. “So here I am. Klampton State Prison. The Land of Nod. East of—sorry. I don’t like to talk about life. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“And yet you’re the most prominent life speaker of all time.”
“So you can imagine my discomfort. Record high levels. Worse than jock itch.”