The buzzer opening the gate is an alarm clock releasing him from a hazy dream where he’s wandered from meal to meal and check to check. It is just after eleven in the morning and the sky above him is a real sky not like the sky above the yard but a real sky he can almost touch. He can smell it, the sky, and he remembers the ocean he hasn’t seen in so long.
He steps onto the pavement, a stretch of blacktop poured over a packed dirt and pebble path, onced over with a paver, if that. To his right and left the blacktop stretches nowhere. This is the forgotten edge of town. Though there are no buildings or people, just cars scattered across a too big parking lot, this is the world. Wall-less and infinite.
Across the way a man in dark denim jacket and pants nods in his direction then waves past him to a guard watching from the doorway on the other side of the 15 foot fence. He looks back at the guard, then both ways before walking over to the man, who asks him, They tell you ‘bout me?
He goes, Yeah, they told me.
So you ready? You good with the rules?
Yeah, I’m good.
Aight. Just needed to hear you say it.
They drive toward the heart of the city dodging pot holes that are the city’s acne-ridden face. On the side of the road the overgrown vegetation is filthy. Discarded trash decomposes everywhere. The drive is warehouses and abandoned factories, at first, then truck repair garages and depots, and then surely enough homes and streetlights and the city as a different version of a place he remembers. He stares blankly at his off-center reflection in the sideview mirror. His eyes are blank obsidian, a bleary white spot at the edge of the pupil impersonates a life. This is freedom, he thinks.
He begins to recognize some of the buildings as they approach downtown, though the roads around them have been reconfigured. He turns back over his shoulder to look at the unemployment office building on Broad Street. It has a line that snaketails out of the door and around the front and side of the building.
Yeah, says the man in denim, lots of unemployed.
He offers no response so the man in denim goes on. Yeah, they talk ‘bout all the business that’s coming back to the city. Like it’s a sign that things is better. They call it investin in urban areas, but it’s all big companies who come here for cheap labor. They set up shop. Low prices. And they pay minimum wage and drive out the small businesses that’s still left. Only a few of ‘em these days.
The man in denim pauses to see whether he’s going to speak but he just stares ahead.
They drainin the rest of the blood, the man in denim adds. Soon there won’t be none left. Which is why people need religion more than ever.
The side streets are quiet. The Caprice hums peacefully at a red light. Then red turns green, grants them passage, and they drive again.
How long you was in for? the man in denim asks. As a rule, the man in denim pulls hard on the steering wheel but the big body Caprice seems used to the treatment. It hugs the curves with only a slight sway.
The man in denim stares him down, the car maintaining its speed. What kind of crime?
The illegal kind.
You wanna fuck around we can go back.
I don’t wanna talk about what I did before I went in. Don’t matter.
It matter to me, the man in denim persists.
He offers no reply. The man in denim pulls hard on the wheel and kicks the brake to pull over the Caprice.
He turns to look at the man in denim. He does at least that.
Yo, the man in denim goes on, this ain’t how it gonna work, my dude. The man in denim lets the pause hang in the air for a second. You wanna go back in I take you back and they just send me somebody else. Same difference to me. Now, you either gonna answer when I talk to you or this ends right here.
He thinks of the food inside and the cramped space and the same faces day after day and about how much he misses a woman’s skin.
Manslaughter, he offers.
The man in denim nods. I knew you was a hard one, the man in denim says, pulling the car out of its spot without sympathy. But even hard ones gotta obey.
They drive across the city some more.
I could eat, he says.
They go to Jimmy Buff’s on 14th and 9th, or the place that used to be Jimmy Buff’s but has changed its name since he’s last been here. He is glad that the man in denim orders for the both of them, Italian dog with the works, because even the ten item menu displayed on a large blackboard above the counter is a demanding thing with its options and descriptions requiring a choice. He finds himself looking around with the same intensity of meals inside where he kept his head on a swivel, but they are the only two customers and the eat-in tables feel small as he struggles to find comfort in the cramped silence of the place. He avoids the seat that would leave him with his back to the door. Sizzling emanates from behind the counter and around the glass enclosing the grill. He thinks of how inside he saved packets of peanut butter and jelly to use with other meals later on — in the real world, he remembers with stoic amazement, he can just ask for more ketchup, if he wants it, or extra salt. But how would he ask? Would he have to walk up to the counter? Ask for it as he grabbed his food? Whatever, he can cross that bridge later, he thinks.
It’s the little freedoms that give you back your humanity, he thinks, but maybe it’s too early to tell. He eats way too fast and looks up to find the man in denim watching him.
He notices that one of the man in denim’s ears is lower than the other. It strikes him as a strange thing and he stares an instant too long. He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand.
Aight. The man takes a bite of his Italian with the works. Nods while chewing, gives a look like an idea has just come but this isn’t a man to be ambushed by an idea.
Behind the counter one of the workers scrapes the grill clean.
So I know they told you ‘bout me, but how much they told you ‘bout how this works?
He focuses on the man in denim. It’s best you just tell me everything now so we clear.
Fair enough. This a re-entry program. We understand you been inside for… how long, again?
Right. Well, the world change in that time. I make sure your re-entry goes smooth. You know, they done studies that show that even using money and rememberin to eat is difficult for former convicts. You gettin a second chance now, so we wanna make sure this works.
Yeah, I get that’s the story. But what’s we really doing me and you?
The man in denim raises his brows. Fair enough. I like that. Directness. I like that. The man in denim goes to speak but then a cloud gather over what was about to be said and the man in denim does not speak. The man in denim is sizing him up, again, with eyes that squint to zoom, see deeper. The man in denim sees a man just now freed on parole after seven years inside and then goes to speak again but says only, That’s a great question. The man in denim takes another bite to build suspense or whatever the fuck is about to happen, watches him from across the table with the food being chewed and considered. The man in denim wipes away some extra ketchup with a paper napkin and focuses on him one more time. He feels the weight of the look he’s getting from the man in denim. I like that, the man in denim repeats before taking another bite.
He knows better than to look away or show a reaction. Even his blinking is measured. For all he knows the man in denim is a cop, or a former cop. This man in denim running this experimental parole program. This man in denim making him wait for an answer to a simple question. But the waiting is a test, too, in a way, and he knows that. That’s alright, he can wait. He waits. He can wait. For seven years he’s done nothing but wait.
We gonna try it today, the man finally says. You gonna see for yourself. We gonna… put your skills to use.
He knows what this means what he already knew it meant. He’s playing a game, now, with this man in denim, but it’s a game whose rules are not known to him and still he has no choice but to play. To refuse is to go back in. During his time he’s seen too many be released only to come back a few weeks, or even days, later. He’s promised himself that he won’t go down the same road. So he says nothing. He is an empty wall and the man in denim’s words advance in his direction.
We gonna try it today and if you can make this work we gonna keep going. For one week, the man in denim holds up his right index finger, or until you can’t make it work no more.
And if I make it work?
Then, the man in denim emphasizes, you get your release. And once that happen I’ma check in with you every week or so, make sure you still makin it work, and if you can keep makin it work we won’t have no problems.
OK, he says. He knows there’s more here than he’s seeing, more meaning than he can draw out of the phrase make it work. For seven years his eyes have been seeing in a different light. The light of the outside is different, less focused and cast everywhere and his mind is playing catch-up.
Think of me as an ordained social worker, the man in denim says.
The front door swings open and two boys no older than sixteen and all in black stride in with purpose. From his seat he can tell that the boy covering the door is abnormally tall and lanky. The other boy is taking the lead, striding up to the counter with one hand on a piece that’s half-tucked and the other slamming on the counter.
Yo, you know what’s up, goes the boy with the gun.
His nerves react as if he is still on the inside. Without realizing what he’s doing he’s swung one leg out from his seat to clear the table, and he’s readied his fork, which he hadn’t used up until now because he ate his Italian with his hands.
The man in denim is casual, pivots in the seat and swings an arm over the back. Hey, Joseph, he calls out to the boy with the piece.
Oh, Joseph says to the man in denim while firing off one last threat that lands somewhere behind the counter. I ain’t know you was in here.
Joseph looks at him and sees his half-rising stance, the fork in his hand. He feels exposed. He’s afraid for an instant, not of the conflict, he’s ready for that, but of being discovered for what he is: a convict who should be locked up, someone who doesn’t belong outside.
Yeah, I’m eatin here with somebody, says the man in denim. C’mon over here. And bring your tall friend with you. Is that Al-rahim? Goddamn, boy, you a lanky thing.
Al-rahim nods. Joseph’s the talker.
Roach know y’all down here?
Nah, Joseph answers. We was just ridin through, you know.
Well, this ain’t a good spot for y’all to play.
I got you.
I won’t say nothin, the man in denim adds, but I don’t wanna see y’all in here again.
The boys leave but they slam the door on the way out and the glass rattles.
The man in denim turns back to him as if nothing happened, as if to pick up the conversation again after reaching for the salt or for a napkin. Oh, yeah, the man in denim adds, and you gotta come to my church every week. For appearances, you know?
Yeah, but we can talk about that later. You figure it out, though.
As they get up to leave he registers who is behind the counter. He’d been so overwhelmed upon entering that he hadn’t really registered it. There’s a twenty-something kid holding either a broom or a mop, he can’t tell, and there’s another young’un working the grill. There’s also a frail gray beard with glasses who slides a paper bag across the counter toward the man in denim. Thank you, the gray beard says.
The man in denim plays coy, feigns with a hand to his chest and says, That’s not, no. Please. It’s what anyone else would do.
But the gray beard insists, Please. A donation. For your church.
The man in denim finally accepts. God thanks you.
You do his work, the gray beard says mechanically.
Then the two of them are in the car again and the man in denim is running through the itinerary for the day. First, we gonna visit some brothers from the church. To, what’s the word… acclimate you.
Outside the passenger side window the city is dirty and gritty in a way that feels more human than the bleached and sterilized spaces he’s known for the last seven years. He spots crushed coffee cups and crumpled paper along the sidewalk and while at a stop light something that looks like used condom leans against the curb. A feeling comes back to him, a feeling he hasn’t felt in a long time. It’s the city. The city is bringing it out again. He can’t explain why, but he wants to pick up with his hands all of the trash on the sidewalks, all of the city’s discarded wrappers and used condoms and half-dried dog turds. He wants to pull it all close, to his chest. He wants to take a shit on the curb, jerk off into a gutter. He wants to hunt down a sewer rat with his bare hands and he wants to snap the neck of one of the pigeons keeping watch on the electric lines. But he’s in this car and the city is just the background, no more real than his memory. The feeling subsides. He thinks maybe a shower would be better. Wash all of it away. Start fresh. Mercy.
He goes, So, you knew those kids at Jimmy Buff’s?
Oh, the man in denim says. Yeah. I work with at-risk kids, too.
Al and JoJo. They highly motivated. They just need someone to channel that energy in the right direction for ‘em.
They two of Roach’s boys?
You been locked up inside, you know how it is. Inside or out, everybody work for Roach.
They listened to you, though.
They got good hearts, boys like them two. They don’t mean no harm.
I got you.
Where you grow up, again?
I didn’t say.
Don’t start that shit again, the man in denim says and turns off the radio. I ain’t gonna warn you no more. You either wanna be out or you want back in.
He looks at the man in denim and takes a breath. Summer Ave, he says.
Mom worked at the airport.
Yeah, me too.
The man in denim pauses before the next question. A matter of etiquette. And your father?
A mechanic at that oil change spot on Bloomfield Ave.
He still there?
Don’t know, really. Ain’t spoke since I went in. Probably in Florida. He got family down there.
The Caprice pushes through the city leaving corners in its wake. Potholes and manhole covers and other kinds of imperfections announce their existence in full force against the car or by causing the man in denim to swerve. The blocks breathe like living things, some busier than others with life that comes and goes, feet pound the pavement and in the car they are like visitors at a museum exhibit of a time long lost without going extinct. The streets are different but not really. He thinks he can learn to read them again real quick. Young cats are inexperienced and he knows so much. He knows what to do with his hands, how to handle and deal situations. He knows the pinch and the pitch. He knows the dirt, and the grime has never made him gag. He knows so many things he learned long ago that he didn’t forget, only reinforced through the years, and while he needs to get his street cardio up to speed even the last seven years have taught him lessons.
They pull up to the old Victorian mansion at the top of Court St on MLK Boulevard. The man in denim puts the car in park and says, We here.
Two men sit on the steps outside the front door. All Are Welcome Here and Only You Can Free Yourself and Change Starts With You banners fill the lawn.
He recognizes the place. He remembers it being boarded up from the time he was a child. Right here?
Yeah, the man in denim points.
He goes, Wasn’t this shit closed for years?
Yeah, it’s the old Krueger Mansion. Krueger-Scott, actually. We got the city to let us use it if we promised to maintain it. It’s ours now, kinda. So long as we look after it. The man in denim pulls the door handle and says, C’mon.
He thinks he recognizes one of the faces on the steps and stares longer than normal as he approaches and then passes.
The man in denim pushes inside and says, Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, I think you know some of the brothers.
From where? He’s racing through his mind to place the face he just recognized on the steps.
He understands and remembers where he’s seen the face before.
The mansion is mostly restored inside. Odd projects are still underway here and there, notably on the railing and wainscoting along the stairs leading up to the second floor and on the ceilings in the rooms that flow through wide doorways adorned with detailed woodwork. The experience of walking through is like traveling back in time. He’s never seen anything like it. After the grayish whiteness of his last seven years the colors and detail overwhelm his eyes. It’s too much and he thinks only of how much he’s not taking in.
At the end of the hallway the man in denim slides open a set of dark oak pocket doors and steps into an office with matching built-in book shelves. Close ‘em, the man in denim says without breaking stride.
As he pulls the doors to he peers down the hallway they just traversed hoping to get one last bit of visual information he can digest later but the colors and the wood and the ceilings are all calling at once and he can’t make anything of anything.
Sit, sit, goes the man in denim, and then the man in denim is parked on a black leather throne of an office chair on the other side of an oak desk that is big to suggest that maybe the room was built around it. There are two burgundy and gold guest chairs facing the desk and a small love seat off to the right. The room is small, he notices, but it doesn’t feel cramped. Maybe it’s the two large windows behind the desk letting in all that natural light. He opts for the couch and tries to make out the lettering on the spines of some of the volumes on the nearest shelf. Nearly all of the books are hardcovers, the pages a pastel yellow that suggests they are not new or fake copies.
They real, the man in denim says. I know that’s what you thinkin. You can open ‘em.
The man in denim works a desk phone, listens to some messages and takes some notes. The man in denim takes out a ledger from one of the desk drawers and makes some scribbles.
He looks at the man in denim and at the books and at the pattern on the area rug, burgundy and gold to match the guest chairs, and waits for what’s next. He understands. He waits.
The man in denim um’s and ah’s while flipping through the pages in the ledger.
There’s a knock on the door and the man in denim responds, Yeah.
The doors slide open and in walks another face he recognizes, except this one has a name. It’s Carlos, and he knows Carlos from his time inside and from the streets before then, but Carlos doesn’t acknowledge him. Carlos sees him but walks straight to the desk and hands some envelopes to the man in denim.
Carlos says, Mail. There’s somethin in there from the mayor’s office, too.
Yeah, it’s the yellow one.
Carlos, you know this man, right?
Carlos looks at him and then back at the man in denim and goes, Yup.
The man in denim flips through the envelopes and then, with the envelopes failing to catch his interest, throws them all in a drawer along with the ledger.
Think he can come with us today? the man in denim asks.
It’s your call.
I think he can.
And I believe in you, so if you say he’s good it’s ‘cuz he’s good.
Aight, then, give us a minute.
They speak of him as if he’s not there. He watches Carlos exit the room and then hears the man in denim ask, You and Carlos ok, right?
He goes, Yeah.
Good. Carlos is a graduate of the program, a success story, really. I think he can be a good role model for you.
There will be more here that you… recognize.
I’m tellin you that now ‘cuz though you recognize ‘em you won’t know ‘em. Not really. You see, they not the same men they was so it’s really just a face you recognizin. The man in denim paused to let that sink in. And these men, they committed to our program. Like, really committed. They appreciative of what we done for ‘em, as one day you gonna be for what we gonna do for you. So what I’m sayin is you gotta be ready ‘cuz they gonna come check you.
I’m used to it.
Good. ‘Cuz they gonna come see if you committed. ‘Cuz this is important to ‘em. This matters.
So long as we clear. You be ready now.
The man in denim stands and so he stands. The man in denim leads him through the house again, doubling back, and there are more faces he recognizes. There’s Beef, who he’s known since high school and who nods at him but leaves it at that, and Larry, who used to play basketball, and RJ, but these last two give him the same treatment he got from Carlos. Then they’re outside again and the man in denim is pointing at parts of the property, hollering out directions to a half dozen men scattered across the lawn and the porch and the side of the mansion.
They get back in the car. The man in denim is driving the Caprice and he’s in the passenger seat and Carlos and Larry are in the backseat and they’re all four riding through the city. There are more empty lots than he remembers, places where people used to live.
City look different to you, Carlos asks.
It’s a second before he realizes the question is addressed to him. Yeah, he finally answers, but the delay his response of its conviction.
What you notice most?
No houses, he says, pointing at a fenced lot with a Buy It Now sign. He doesn’t recognize the name of the real estate company.
Yeah, outside change a lot while you locked up.
He agreed. Time passed so slowly for him inside and seemingly so quickly for the city outside that it’s almost as if there are two different times, one for the inside and one for the outside.
I had one memory of it, he says, so when I thought of gettin out it was always of gettin out to that idea of the outside. But now it’s different so it still don’t really feel like I’m out.
That’s the hardest thing about people askin how long you been locked up, Larry chimes in. ‘Cuz it’s like, time for us ain’t the same, you know. You say ten years to someone out here and they look at you like it’s a long time but it ain’t a long time for them like it was for you, you know.
That’s why you gotta make up for lost time when you get out here, the man in denim said to close the conversation.
They pull up to a small grocery store on West Kinney. The man in denim puts the car in park but leaves the engine running. Carlos goes inside and comes out a few minutes later with a small paper bag that looks like it’s holding a sandwich.
They’re riding again, this time to a laundromat and then riding again to a liquor store and then to another grocery store and then a carwash and a bakery. Each stop produces a paper bag. All small businesses. The Caprice doesn’t stop at any of the large supermarkets or pharmacy chains.
It’s an hour later and they’ve been cruising through the city. Six stops. He’s counted. A scenic tour, of sorts.
Someone got shot on Walnut this mornin, the man in denim says.
Yeah, Larry adds, I heard.
Over a cell phone. We know who did it?
No, Carlos answers, but we will soon.
We should send somebody to see the family.
I take care of it, Carlos says.
They pull up in front of a go-go bar and the man in denim puts the car in park and turns calmly to him and says, Ok, now it’s your turn.
My turn to what? he asks, but he knows.
The man in denim becomes paternal. Just walk up to the bar and say that you here to pick up the donation. They know.
Carlos and Larry are statues in the back. They may not be breathing from what he can tell.
Who do I talk to, he stalls.
But they don’t know who I am.
It don’t matter.
I could be anyone. I could be an impostor.
The man in denim chuckles. No one would do that.
And then he’s out of questions. He wants to stall some more but now he can hear Carlos and Larry finally breathing in the back and he knows this is what it means to make it work.
As if prompted the man in denim goes, You gonna make this work or what?
So go make it work.
But… it’s just that…
Go on, now. We be right here.
He gets out of the car and rushes into the bar. He hopes no one on the street sees him because he doesn’t want to be identified later, if it comes to that. The bar takes up practically the entire space so the minute he walks inside he’s belly up. The place isn’t deep but it’s long, stretching out nearly in full to his right. It’s dark, with lights focused on the stage and bar. There are two stragglers, former construction worker types, old heads, and a dancer on the stage that he tries to avoid so he can focus. She’s facing the other way, anyway, and that’s fine. He tries to focus. But a bartender approaches him and she’s in a black top with her arms and shoulders exposed and her hair is up in the back so that he can see the outline of her neck and a few strays that have fallen across her upper chest and back. And she’s smiling and asking, What can I get you, handsome?
He’s petrified and he wants to grab her face and squeeze her pretty little smile away. He steels himself and stares at her but he can’t speak just yet. He needs a moment, but then a moment is gone and she’s still waiting for an answer.
She makes a face and goes, Yes… can I…
What? She chuckles. She looks amused. He’s standing and clutching the rim around the bar harder than he’d realized and she has noticed but hasn’t processed yet.
I want the donation. Then, softer: I’m here for the donation.
Her eyes go big and she says, Oh, ok. Lemme run in the back. She turns and goes and he makes it a point not to drop his eyes to follow her leaving for fear that in his condition he won’t be able to control himself.
He’s there and the dancer is making her way to him on the stage, now, he can sense it, and he looks up and it’s not as bad as he thought. She’s exotic but not beautiful. Her eyes are too far apart and something about the height of the stage and the bar and bottles between them makes their interaction less than real and he feels no draw to her. He wishes he could deal with her instead of having to control himself around the bartender with the neck and the shoulders and the strays. The dancer drops her ass and gyrates her hips to gauge his interest. She’s nimble on thin heels. He keeps staring like looking into the darkness at the bottom of a well. He sees nothing and the dancer understands and slithers her way back to the other end of the stage.
The bartender exits into the bar from a door across the way and he watches her walk all the way back to him. The fire comes back inside him, hotter as she approaches, because the bartender comes close and makes eye contact again and she’s not afraid of him or of his thoughts, he can tell.
Here you go, she says handing him a paper bag like all the other paper bags he’s seen today. You come back some other time, ok, just to visit.
He snatches her face in his right hand, pulls her in a few inches until he realizes she’s not pulling back. Her skin is soft but she’s not frail. She doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t squeeze, just watches her stillness. Then he lets her go, no remorse in his eyes. She looks at him. Still not afraid. He hears music playing for the first time.
He turns his back and pushes through the door to the outside. The afternoon brightness is nearly blinding and he tries to breathe. One foot on a step and the other on the sidewalk and then his mouth is dry and he’s motionless in full view of the world.
He spots a patrol car at his two o’clock, riding the opposite way the Caprice is facing. He drops the paper bag before he knows what he’s done. He doesn’t hear it hit the ground as much as he feels its dry smack on the sidewalk. Then his brain catches up to what his eyes are processing and he realizes that the cops in the patrol car aren’t even looking in his direction, though he watches them go all the way past. Inside the Caprice, Carlos watches the entire scene unravel. He picks up the bag but has to focus to land his trembling hand in the right place. He finds it on the third try. The same as he reaches for the door handle.
The man in denim is making notes in a green moleskin notebook and there isn’t a sound from the back seat as he stares straight ahead and places the paper bag in the seat between himself and the man in denim.
The man in denim closes the notebook and slides it into the left jacket pocket. Then the man in denim takes the paper bag and squeezes it into the right pocket.
Yeah, the man in denim laughs, you gonna make it work just fine.
Hugo Dos Santos is a writer, translator, and journalist. His work has appeared in several publications in the U.S., the U.K., and Portugal. He lives in New Jersey where he is working on his first novel, Brick City. You can find more information about him and his work at hugodossantos.com.