Town of Strangers

I don’t remember any particular thing that happened in prison, only the look and feel of the place, the low ceilings, that dank smell, the half-lidded eyes of the other prisoners gradually going blind from living in the dark. I remember the noise in the mess hall too: five hundred conversations going on at once, the clank of metal spoons hitting metal dishes, that mumble and clank that bunched up and strung out but never really came to a halt.

In the cell block, any time of day or night, you could hear guys scraping away at the walls with stolen spoons. You can’t really cut through solid stone with aluminum spoons, but we scraped away. It was like a religious ritual for us, a way to believe in life after prison.

The guards didn’t confiscate the silverware until the kitchen got low.  They just strolled along on the high metal catwalks, cradling their carbines like skinny babies.

I must have hatched a hundred escape plans with a dozen different fellows, and I don’t remember any of them. One night, I was with two guys I didn’t know when suddenly that one one-in-a-million-shot opened up, and the three of us bolted in a heartbeat. Next thing we knew, we were stumbling across a frozen field under a full moon, while the bloodhounds headed the other way, following a wrong scent until their howling died into distance.

For a long time, we hobbled along in tandem, hearing nothing but the clank of our own leg chains and the crunch of snow. I remember breaking into the empty house and how we found the shop tools in the basement, and how we sobbed after we had shattered our manacles. We stole some clothes, got to the buried cash, and kept going, traveled till we were lost and then kept going. Days blurred into nights and every town came to look the same. Out in the woods I could hear the hollow thunder that never stops when you’re on the lam, your own heart beating. The night we pulled into this town, Joe didn’t even want to stop for a beer, but we were all in this together, so he didn’t have a choice.

Inside the tavern, music wheedled out of a silver jukebox. A crowd of cowboys were sitting at a big table, drinking and laughing. We knew not to sit in a corner because it might look suspicious. Instead, we unbuttoned our jackets and sat right near the cowboys, just to show we had nothing to hide. The room stank of beer and stale cigarette smoke. The jukebox twanged, “Your cheating heart…”

A tubby lady in yellow nylon slacks came over. Yellow ceiling lights hung a shadow from every lump in her face. “What’ll it be, boys?”

“Give ‘em one on the house, Tillie,” shouted one drunken cowboy, and his pals bellowed “Yah!”

The woman slopped a pitcher on our table, and one of the cowboys threw his arms around little Joe. “No one’s leaving this place sober, unnerstan’ me, friend?” He unzipped a tobacco-stained smile.

“Please…” Joe started to say but Harry gave him a dirty look. We couldn’t refuse anybody’s friendship, it would look suspicious. I pressed Joe back into his seat. “Drink up, Joe, the man’s treating!”

Joe laughed and emptied the whole pitcher down his throat while the cowboys shouted “Chug a lug! Chug a lug!” and pounded on tables. When we tried to leave--“Hey bartender,” they shouted, “We gonna’ let ‘these boys get away? Throw the bolt on that door.” Drink made them as friendly as enormous puppies. The last thing I remember from that night was dancing on a table with a pitcher in each hand, singing “Sonuva gun, gonna’ have some fun, in the bayou.” Inside, I could hear the bloodhounds coming.

The next morning they fed us grits and smothered us with hospitality. Goddamn but they liked us. Before we knew it, we had rooms in the hotel. When some of the townspeople started inviting us over for dinner, Harry wanted to refuse but Joe brought him to his senses. “How would that look?”

“They know who we are,” Harry groaned.  “They’re playing with us.” 

“Bolting now would look real bad,” said Joe.

“If they know who we are,” I said, “we better not let them know we know they know.”

And so we traded giddy’up for git’along. We went to the square dance every Friday night. Harry even started calling dances. We never knew he had that talent. The Browns invited Harry to Thanksgiving dinner. Then we all got a standing invitation from the Smiths to drop in for supper once a week, and what could we say? Joe let slip that he had studied for the seminary once, and before we knew it, they had him teaching Sunday School.

“Goddamn it, this is wrong!” Joe whispered one night.  “We’ve got to move on.”

“We can’t,” said Harry. “It would look suspicious.”

He was the first to put money down on the house. Laura helped us move in. She was Tillie’s daughter: blonde braids, gingham skirts. Legs that would’ve reached the basement if there hadn’t been a floor. Sometimes she brought pie out to us in the fields. Naturally, when the crop came in, her family invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. I sat back from that meal feeling like a doughboy biscuit. Twenty-five conversations were going on at once around the table. They blended into a shapeless mumble woven in with the clank of spoons against good china. I could barely hear that hollow booming in my chest but it still there, that sound. Once, I opened my eyes and saw Tillie looking at me and my heart lurched. 

She looked away.  

And at that moment I knew she knew.

She bellowed, “Eat up, Willie, you ain’t even had thirds yet!” and everybody laughed, but she was just pretending. Behind that big laugh she was cold and quiet, just watching.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Think I overate.” I left my chair, slipped home.

The other two showed up minutes later. “Tillie knows,” I said.

I wanted someone to tell me I was just imagining things, but Harry came right in with, “I felt it too.”

I felt a nother sick lurch. “What do we do?”

“Vamoose,” said Harry. 

“Scuttle,” said Joe. “It’s time, gentlemen.”

“But you own a house, Harry! I’ve got Laura. How can we leave?”

“If it’s between prison and something else,” said Harry. “I’ll take the lesser evil.”

Before I could argue, somebody knocked.

It was Tillie Brown beaming at me from the porch. “Well, there you are,” she chuckled, but right at the end of that chuckle I heard a sour twang of falsehood. “You didn’t think y’all would get away, did you?”

Joe went pale.

“I got a thang or two to say to you boys, if you know what I mean.” Tillie winked. “I’ve been watching you. I’ve got eyes.” When none of us spoke, she went on. “You’re sweet on my little girl, ain’t you, Willie? Do you think she’s ready for a boy like you? Well, do you?” 

She reached for the phone. I couldn’t speak for horror. We had waited too long. She began to dial. That’s when Joe hit her with the poker from the fireplace. He drove the blunt hook right through her skull. The tip came out her forehead. I felt the same shock you would have felt. Just because I’ve been in prison doesn’t mean I’m different. Deep down, though, along with the shock, I guess I felt relief.

At least the doubt had ended. We knew what to do next. I rushed to the bedroom and crammed enough clothes for all three of us into a suitcase.  But just as I snatched the front door open, the doorbell rang and I found myself face to face with the UPS man.

“Package for Tillie Brown,” he said.

“She doesn’t live here.”

“I know that,” he laughed, “but I saw her go in and she didn’t come out.”

“I’ll give her the package.”

“Sorry, son. Special delivery. I’m supposed to put it right in her hands.”

“Well she’s in the bathroom right now, see--”

Behind me, however, at the same moment, Harry blurted, “She’s home right now, she’s at home!”

“Well, which is it,” said the UPS man, squinting. “Is she in the bathroom or at home? Say, what’s going on here, anyways? I’d better come inside and have a look.”

The UPS man started into the house. I swear I had forgotten about the gun. It just jumped into my hand. At that range, he practically disintegrated. I swear to God, I didn’t mean to do it. I swear to God, I felt physically sick when his blood burst across the porch.

The next moment, I was standing there with a hot pistol and my buddies gripping my arms. “Now we’ve both gone and done it,” Joe croaked. “The Killers Club.”

“And I’m about to join,” said Harry. The neighbor had come out to his porch. He must have seen the whole thing, for he stood there frozen with dread and regret, wishing he’d never come outdoors. He turned but it was too late.

“That should ought to do it.” Harry blew the smoke from his pistol and said, “Let’s get going. If we’re lucky, no one’ll find these bodies till we’re fifty miles gone.”

Let me make one thing clear. All three of us had just committed murder, but Harry was the worst of us. I killed him because it was the right thing to do. No one expected it. I shot him through the heart and he died without a whimper. It was for the best.

“Call the police,” I snapped. “We’ll say Harry went berserk and shot them all. Good thing we stopped him before he hurt someone else. Right, Joe? Right? You’re with me on this, aren’t you? Joe?”

Joe laughed uneasily. “I just want to be a survivor,” he said.

“Damn straight. This’ll make survivors of us both. You see that, don’t you?”

Well, he had no choice. We were a team, him and me. That was a long time ago, of course. I married Laura within the year. She loved me for avenging her mom’s murder. Joe married someone too, and they settled on the other side of town. We don’t see much of each other anymore. It all worked out, I guess. Late at night, I still hear bloodhounds coming through the swamp, but I’m the only one who does. I’ve got my pew in church, and I call the square dance every Friday night. I wish Laura could understand. Everything I did was for the best. I always chose the lesser evil, given the circumstances. None of us get to choose the circumstances. Don’t get me wrong, she accepted the story we told the police, but that’s not enough. It’s not enough that she loves me and doesn’t blame me. I want her to forgive me. But how can she forgive me if I don’t tell her what I didn’t do? Every time we sit down to breakfast, I can hardly make out what she’s saying over my heartbeat. I used to think we were all in this together, but I look at her and realize I was wrong. We are all in this alone.

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