by Linda Sillitoe
[p.31]Across the prison infirmary, a tap dripped noisily. James timed it against his heartbeat, which he estimated at about eighty beats per minute. That meant one splatter approximately every two heartbeats, all the more irritating for the slight variation in the dripping. The noisy globules of water might as well be hitting the center of his forehead, they were that maddening. If only the moron sleeping three beds down would snore again and drown out the spatters. If only James, himself, could sleep on this hot afternoon. But sleep was difficult for him even at night. Even at home with Nell humped beside him under the blanket.
The room’s only window stood not far from his cot but displayed only a drab view through the heavy screen. He could see dull sky and the edge of a mountain that looked scribbled with the flat side of a charcoal.
“This is the Point of the Mountain,” he informed himself softly in his flat, metallic voice. The small joke amused him. It not only incorporated the colloquial name for the penitentiary but resonated with the famous “This is the place” statement Brigham Young purportedly uttered when he directed the first company of Mormons toward the valley. Purportedly.
His own parents had pointed him toward the temple, which [p.32]horny old Brig had enjoined the poor villagers to build out of the mountain granite, lugged by oxen down to the valley’s arid floor. For decades, this scene of heat, oxen, sweat, and granite had been described to James every time he and his father had driven by Temple Square. It was a legacy James’s father claimed in spirit though not in fact, for his own father had not left Belgium until just before World War II. That was another faith-promoting story, though it could never rank with James’s mother’s tales of her people coming West.
Even as a small boy, James had decided the pioneers’ sacrifices were brainless. They had made their own lives hard without embellishing his own, although his father demanded that he be grateful. Through consistent evasive action over thirty-three years, James had eluded his father’s plans. True, he had served in his father’s own mission without converting any of the contented citizens of Amsterdam, and had married Nell in the downtown temple built of mountain granite. Still he had managed to end up at this Point after all.
Both his parents’ huge clans had thought his guilty plea would literally kill his dad. It didn’t. Of course, James had never been good enough for his mom, a veritable saint. So far, his parents had only been able to visit him once.
The Point of the Mountain quip pleased him enough to ignore the dripping tap for a moment. But once this wore off, he realized how difficult the joke would be to share in all its ironies. Perhaps an orderly or nurse or therapist would happen by who was conversant enough to appreciate it. Probably not.
Beginnings both frustrated and fascinated James. Now, for instance, he had everything to learn about his new environment: which bleeding heart therapists might prove useful to him when he eventually got his cell assignment or even when it came to [p.33]facing the Board of Pardons; also which morons might provide him some diversion, and what sort.
Since pleading guilty, he’d been preoccupied with keeping himself as teflon-coated as his father’s favorite president. A guilty plea, he’d explained to his family, clearly differed from actually having committed the crimes—though the judge would make him say it. Still, prison threatened his equilibrium far more than he let anyone know.
Oddly, the evening he told his parents of his plea had felt like conversations he’d had months earlier with his father when he had explained how the family could take out Chapter 11 bankruptcy. There was nothing wrong with Chapter 11; in fact, it held certain advantages. But like the damned European he was, his father wouldn’t recognize its potential. Of course, the family business had always run that way. James could set up the computer programs for the scripture and genealogy games and projects his father and uncles sold on disk, but would they take his advice on anything else? Never. What a surprise when some of their customers received little packages that exploded when opened.
Explaining the deal he’d made with the prosecutor had proven as frustrating as trying to explain bankruptcy and corporate rebirth. His parents just didn’t get it. “Would you rather see me sitting on death row?” he had asked reasonably. Of course they wouldn’t, his father said as his mother wept. “You’re not guilty,” his father said. “We know you’re not. You shouldn’t say you are, but we’ll stand by you.”
And that’s where James’s nerve failed. He had planned for months to say, “Sure I am, Dad,” anticipating that moment like smashing his fist through glass. Oh, he had relished that moment on dozens of wakeful nights. But looking into his dad’s familiar, fanatical eyes, he couldn’t do it.
[p.34]Oh well, James told himself now, let the old man wonder his insides raw if his Old World stubbornness couldn’t protect him from doubting his son. James had enough to deal with—such as the flutters and poundings in his chest, when cold sweat rolled from his hairline clear down his spine. Those dreaded attacks made him feel uncomfortably vulnerable.
James knew he had to keep himself tight. He knew he would adapt; adaptation was the great law of both science and survival. Sex hadn’t been all that important for a long time except to give certain people what they thought they wanted in order to get what he knew he wanted. Freedom was simply a state of mind, and his concentration could focus on a world that existed in a very small space. Once he adjusted, he would be able to assume command of his surroundings. He’d learn, for instance, which brutes he would never want to owe, but who might—it was not impossible—become indebted to him.
This afternoon there were only more heartbeats, more drips. He was used to entertaining himself but they left him so little. Nothing, they thought. Except an endlessly dripping tap.
He was in the infirmary to be evaluated. Some counselor or psychologist had decided he was withdrawn and depressed because he didn’t whimper and gnash his teeth. The infirmary was a joke since there were few patients and even fewer medical staff. Television cameras watched him impassively from the comers of the ward. Maybe, someone had said, he was suicidal.
Actually, he knew they really wanted to watch him to decide for themselves if he was harmless as long as he had no explosives. His entry papers predicted he would be a model prisoner, for his meek but ironic manner won hearts at Adult Probation and Parole. They were used to dealing with callous, humorless bozos who weren’t too bright. James would see to it that the prison [p.35]honchos, too, concluded that he was small and tame. A rabbit with hidden fangs. A weasel that strikes swifter than a snake.
Appreciating his ability to shape the officials’ estimation of him offered a moment’s confidence. Already he was far from helpless. He rejected the thought of waking last night with a wet face, desperately wanting to see his parents. Some aberrant dream had risen from the archives of his subconscious. Nothing real.
Having calmed his stretched nerves, he next thought about the dripping tap. After a moment he closed his eyes and envisioned it wholly, taps, spout, pipes, and drips. After a minute his breathing paused, then deepened, deepened more. His slow breaths pulled on an inner core that swelled like a spotlight between the point of his ribs, warming the metal pipes, the silver spout that gleamed so clearly behind his eyelids. Before too long, the taps glowed faintly. Inside them, the metal warmed degree by degree until the nick through which the water leaked opened by a hair’s width. Ah, a train roared through a tunnel in the Rockies. Molten lava coursed smoothly up an underground crevice, secret and silent. His breath sounded as if he slept deeply, but after a few minutes, it lightened.
Presently he opened his eyes and looked around. Nothing in the room had changed—except the dripping had stopped. He waited but heard nothing. He couldn’t see, yet knew that separate drops had united into a slim trickle running evenly without sound. The silence virtually sang. He pulled his knees up to his chest, content, and rolled his flat pillow into a tube under his cheek.
Satisfaction quirked the corners of his mouth. His father had never been able to stand a leaky faucet. He even helped out the neighbors. It irritated James when his father tinkered for acquaintances who could well afford to hire the work done if they were too lazy to take care of things themselves. His father stopped [p.36]playing handyman only when he had become ill, and James became frightened of his own science.
Let’s play psychologist for a moment, he suggested. Did this adjustment of the dripping tap mean that he was his father’s son, after all? That he, too, couldn’t abide a leaking tap but must fix it even without tools?
No, Freud-face! he answered the goggle-eyed psychologist posturing in his mind. He had worsened the leak, not fixed it. Eventually that running tap would cause someone trouble if the water not only corroded the washer but grooved the stem.
Yet he had done nothing, had not even left his bed. No one would blame him for the ruined tap. Even if someone had observed him, even if James explained the images he had conjured, the change in the dripping would be considered nothing more than a coincidence. Mind was the purest form of power, indirect, dynamic, blameless.
“Not my boy,” he could hear his father saying, and still feel his chest puff with glee at how his dad would come to his defense. For years, no one had dared contradict his dad’s burning eyes. When James was a kid, the two of them, several times, strode home from an angry neighbor’s, his dad’s hand resting on his shoulder. And James would delight in knowing what he was sure his father didn’t. “His boy” had done it—thrown firecrackers under moving cars, gotten the deacons to moon the Relief Society sisters, whatever.
He didn’t want to think long about his father, a man he had fairly well broken. Assuming control of one’s world, no matter how bleak, was what mattered. He was keeping a journal of the useful information he picked up, just a tablet from the commissary, nothing special. And he had plenty of time to write his observations in code. He might switch the code. That could occupy his mind the rest of the afternoon.
[p.37]They said you have to play the hand you’re dealt. But if you knew how, you could cheat for the cards you needed. Most people were too stupid or timid to try. They accepted any hand. Which made it easier for someone who knew the game to get control.