Some words just have a nice sound. Dissociation is one of those words for me. I just like the way it sounds.
I left the last bar of the day that night sometime around 8:00. I was bored. Exhausted. It was time for me to go. I waved a lazy good-bye to the girl behind the counter. Pretty girl. Pretty smile. If I had had more energy I probably would have flirted with her. I had been out late the night before, drinking, and I just didn’t have it in me. The crummy, nicotine stained apartment that I was living in was about three miles away, a pretty long straight shot. I had the option of going through town, which would have been traffic laden and busy, or to take the highway which ran parallel to the town roads. I opted for the highway. Less lights. Less people. Less chance of getting caught.
Things were pretty much going as expected. Driving drunk wasn’t an unusual thing for me. In fact, it was something that I did as often as not. After a while of intoxicated successes you start to think that the drinking and driving laws are really for those other people, the people that don’t know how to do it. The people that go to a Christmas party once a year, drink a little more than they expected, and stagger out the door towards home. I considered myself at this point a skilled professional. I smoked pot almost all day, everyday, and had for years at work, at home, driving. I left the bars drunk almost every night and, again, had for years. I had many friends in the bars that had lost their licenses, there was certainly no shame in that, and I figured that eventually it would happen to me too. I had experienced a few run-ins with the law, but had so far been lucky. So, at this point it was becoming like a never-ending game of hide-and-seek. I knew the roads, knew the towns, and had a pretty good idea of what roads to avoid for traffic stops. Also, there was kind of an underground network in the bars of people that would tell you which roads had traffic stops set up on them, which areas to avoid. So it was kind of like this huge game. I had reasoned that eventually, like many people I had known, I would get stopped, and probably lose my license. That would be inconvenient and expensive, annoying, but that was the price I would pay to maintain this lifestyle.
It was a huge game. I lost.
I wasn’t weaving down the road or anything like that. I wasn’t speeding. I might have been going five miles over or something like that. That was part of my strategy for pulling this off. Don’t go the exact speed limit. It looks too suspicious. Nobody goes the exact speed limit. I was driving a big, plain white, Econoline work van. It wasn’t mine, it belonged to the company that I worked for, but I drove it around everywhere, so I was pretty used to it.
It’s interesting. I’m still not exactly sure how it happened. This many years later it still confuses me. I finally did read a lot of the articles that were written in the papers regarding the accident, so I know what happened. I’m just still not sure how. It seemed like slow motion. There were weird lights up ahead. Something unusual was going on, and it was just as I was trying to decipher it that I crested this hill. There was a group of people in the road. Cars? And I remember thinking…or did I actually say it? “What the…” I’m still not sure what word finishes that sentence.
I remember trying to aim for the ditch on the other side of the highway. I remember seeing the ABS light activated on the dashboard. And then…
Well, next I was between the seats in the front of the van. There was a tangy, familiar smell, and some sort of smoke filled the van. Vinyl hung from the steering wheel looking for all the world like a deflated balloon, a giant used condom, and Ray Charles played stupidly on the radio, his warm, happy, voice so incongruent with my surroundings. “Basin Street is the street, where the e-lite always meet…” And so I wonder if I’ve been hurt. I try to move and find that it’s easy. I pull myself up into the seat taking in my surroundings. Gun-smoke. That’s what the smell is. Why gun-smoke? And then I put it together, that’s how the airbags were deployed. The windshield is cracked. The hood of the van is all bent up and there is steam coming from the radiator. The alarm is going off. I’m still confused. I’m not sure what happened. Did I hit the ditch? Did I hit those cars? This doesn’t make sense.
From there it all becomes elusive, like a dream, like a nightmare, and I have all of the pictures, but I can never seem to put it all together in a way that makes sense. It’s exactly like trying to tell someone about a dream. It seemed so real and seemed to follow such a logical path when it was happening, but when I try to explain it, well, it’s like trying to hold water in your fist. It just keeps slipping away.
I get out of the van. There’s a man running across the road. Is he a fireman? He’s screaming an anguished, frustrated, “Noooo!” And there are people running and standing still and yelling. A woman is on a phone and I hear her say that they need many, many ambulances. There are…are those bodies? It’s hard to tell what is going on. I need to help, but I don’t even k now how, and I am, I don’t know what I am. Confused? Frightened? Drunk? All of my cells want to run from the fear. All of them. I’m not sure why I am not running. I’m just standing there idiotically, my hand clasped over my mouth.
Behind me I hear a voice.
“Who did this?”
It all comes together.
And that’s when I start screaming.
But it doesn’t end there. I have to help. I don’t know how. I am drunk, confused, terrified. I feel sick. Overwhelmed. I see a body alone on the ground and I run to it. It’s a man. He is in pain and I see confusion on his face. The blood. My god the blood! It is everywhere. It’s as if the entire world has been coated in blood. I have this very odd realization- whenever I have read books where blood is mentioned it is always described as this metallic smell, but standing here I realize that I don’t smell the blood at all. It’s everywhere I look, a world painted red, but I don’t smell it at all. I tell this anguished man that he has been in an accident. He looks so bad. So hurt. I want to hold him, to comfort him, but I am afraid to touch him, afraid to move him more. His body is a distorted, unnatural, mangled mess. I walk away.
I walk away. I sit down on the ground, shuffle around for my cigarettes. Light one. I pull my knees in towards my chest. To my left there is another body there on the ground a few feet away from me. No movement.
I am rocking, rocking, rocking, rocking, rocking.
None of this seems real. It doesn’t feel like it is really happening. It’s like a bad dream, a terrible, terrible dream. It feels like I am outside of myself, outside of my body, like I am watching it all happen.
- A Few Years Later… A Body In Motion
Walking around the fence’s perimeter, another lap, another…quarter mile? I wonder if it really is a quarter mile. That’s what I’ve been told, but there’s no way to be sure, really. How many times have I made this particular journey? Hundreds? Thousands? I should know the distance by now, or, if not the exact measurement, then at least the number of steps. I suppose I could have counted the steps, but I’ve learned enough to know that counting is a bad habit to fall into in here. It’s dangerous. Sure, it could start with something simple, like steps, but it wouldn’t stop there. Next it would be…what would it be next? Months? Yeah, probably months, and then weeks, and then days. No, it’s better not to count. Better just to keep on walking.
I start into the longest stretch of the walk. On my right, about sixty, or maybe it’s closer to one hundred feet away, I see the long, tangled vines of what I’m guessing to be sweet potatoes. I hope it’s NOT sweet potatoes. They grew sweet potatoes the first year I was here, and that’s all we ate for months after the harvest: sweet potato bread, sweet potato pancakes, candied sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie. I don’t mind sweet potatoes; they’re okay. really, but…well, too much of a good thing…
Last year they grew cotton. The year before that it was soy. I wonder if there are rules about what the farm next door can and can’t grow. Corn might be a bad idea. Even tobacco grows pretty high. It doesn’t grow as high as corn, but it grows high enough that I can see where it might be considered a threat, a “security risk.”
I pass a sign hanging from the galvanized steel linkage. In sharp, red letters it warns: “STAY BACK TEN FEET.” I ignore the threat, like everyone does. The well-worn path that I’m hiking, the one created by the footsteps of thousands of men before me, is a mere
two feet from the fence. The only time I can recall this close proximity being a problem was about six months ago. There was a new guard training in the gun tower. Poor kid. She didn’t know that this is the path we always tread. One of the guys was out doing his walk, this walk, two feet from the fence. She shouted down from the tower for him to “Get back ten feet!” He ignored her, of course. Must have thought she was yelling at someone else. She panicked and pulled the gun on him. Staring fiercely down the barrel of the rifle, she screamed, “I said get away from the fence.” Her shrill voice sounded more full of fright than authority. The whole yard broke into fits of laughter. Guys were hooting and hollering, falling off of the weight benches. The basketball game came to a standstill in order to watch the drama unfold. I don’t know how it ended. Bored with the hysterics, I walked back inside. I know she didn’t shoot him. Everyone laughed about that event for days afterwards: “She pulled a gun on him! Stupid. Can you believe that? She pulled a gun!”
What a riot.
Sometimes it frightens me, how easily I’ve adapted to this place. The language, my language itself, was the first notable change. Not just the semantics, either – though those have changed, too – but I expected that. No, what frightens me is the way I approach subjects now. For example, early on, when guys would ask what I was in for, I’d go into a long soliloquy describing the unfolding of the nightmare that landed me here. I’d carefully explain how a car ran a stop sign one evening, slammed into an on-coming vehicle, and injured someone. I’d tell how a group of people stopped to help, and then how I came over the hill too fast to stop, but then, I had been drinking, too, and…
These days, when someone asks what I’m in for, I shrug and say, “Car accident. Killed a bunch of people. I was drunk.” And I shudder inside at how easy that has become to say…”killed a bunch of people.” That should never be easy to say, but the guys closest to me over the years have grown bored with my despair. They have their own hells to face, so I’ve learned to shrug off my despondence out of…politeness?
A mockingbird lands easily, tauntingly, between the glinting blades of coiled razor wire that shrouds the top of the fence. She chatters at me angrily in some unknown tongue. The fence is what makes this a prison. The buildings are just buildings: concrete, steel, glass, bricks, tar – just buildings. The earth that the buildings rest on, cooled by their looming shadows, is just earth. In a thousand years, long after nature has had her way with mankind’s “progress”, this will still be earth. The mockingbird doesn’t know this is a prison, a penitentiary, a place for penance. No, what makes this a prison, what confines me to the point of suffocation, is that fence, that quarter mile run of metal mesh, tangled barbed wire, and accordioned razor wire. I can see freedom through it, but I can never reach out and touch it from here. If not for that fence, this wouldn’t be such a bad place; free food, free rent, and I’m only lonely when I want to be lonely.
If I could just saunter over there and pluck one of the leaves from a sweet potato vine, smell its fresh, green scent, rub its milky smoothness against my skin. If I could just do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.
Dragonflies busily zoom here and there, across the yard, over the fence, to some unexplored water source, some mythological Xanadu. If I could just follow them to that magic fairyland, just hear the splash of water, smell the cool, damp earth, dip my fingers into that dark, liquid pool; if I could do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.
What I really want, desire…CRAVE, is a day off. I want my innocence back, just for one day. I want to enjoy the quiet creaking of a porch swing, to chase fireflies in the twilight, to thump a watermelon under the blazing sun and listen for the telling ring of ripeness. I want to not know death. That would be freedom! But I’ll never be that free again.
It surprised me to learn, in here, just how malleable time can be. Get a steady routine going and the years fly by. Shave every other day. Lift weights for an hour or so daily. Read voraciously, because a good book is the closest thing left to actually living. So that’s the trick. Get a good, steady routine and watch the seasons melt into each other. Of course, the downside to that is that I’m aging faster, too. Well, it’s about time I grew up. I’ve been playing this Peter Pan thing for too long as it is, and it has cost too many people far too much.
Step after step, lap after lap, mile after mile, always watching the ground, watching the grass blur beneath me, I walk this fence, going nowhere, just walking, because the body needs motion.
Sometimes I imagine that I’m training to hike the corridor of the Appalachian Trail. That’s one of my dreams of freedom. I’ll march the twenty-seven hundred miles of mountain ridges and flowering valley floors, and I’ll remember prison. I’ll look on all of nature’s splendid perfection, and I’ll muse to myself that I’d never be able to complete that stretch of walking if it weren’t for the endless miles I’d laid down behind these walls. It’s important to dream.
Other times, I’m just walking to escape the ghosts that haunt me now. If I walk fast enough, or far enough, or both, then maybe they’ll give up and leave me alone. (They never do.)
Some days, I walk to feel the sunshine warming my bones, browning my skin. The sun is a shimmering reminder that the world will be okay. Life will prevail.
I walk in the rain for solitude. I revel in the drenching sky-water rolling off my face, baptizing me, healing me, renewing me.
I walk in the winter for the winds, which is another form of travel for me. I begin in the Arctic, move down from Canada, across endless plains, and blow out to the Atlantic. I’ve wandered with the wind many, many times.
Mostly, though, I just walk.
I walk towards some future, away from my past.
With countless miles to go, I walk.
It’s better not to count the miles. Counting can be dangerous.
A body in motion, I walk.