by Linda Sillitoe
[p.101]“Sir,” James Hubbard said politely to Captain Grimshaw, “you have a little spider stuck to the back of your hair.”
Grimshaw rubbed a hand roughly over his head, eyeing James coldly. Amused, James watched with innocent interest, and Grimshaw glanced down at his empty hand.
“Must have gotten him, sir,” James said, as Grimshaw gave him another look and left the cell, slamming the door behind him.
James smirked as Cretin doubled over on the bed. “You sure had him going,” he chuckled. “Little spider.”
James didn’t reply. He was on his knees, a sheet of lined prison stationery between his fingers, hand-sweeping the floor where Grimshaw had stood. He was riding the current today, without even a splash against the canoe. Some days were like that; he could skim along like a script in his brain and everyone else would skim with him. Nothing pulled at the canoe from below; no boulders extended sharp edges below the white water.
Cretin finally sat up and observed. “What are doing? You find a spider for real?”
James let him see the paper, which held only dust and several gray hairs. “just checking,” he said crisply. “Don’t you have to [p.102]go to work, Kyle?” Cretin usually sulked or yelled if James called him by his designated title, and there was no point in spoiling a smooth ride.
Grumbling Cretin got off the bed, pulled himself together, and shambled out of the unit. James had been appointed tier janitor soon after he was placed in the medium security unit, but that hadn’t lasted—he saw no reason to waste his energy on housekeeping just to try to impress a Board of Pardons that wouldn’t be impressed anyway. Grim-reaper, as James had dubbed Grimshaw, couldn’t be won over, something James had realized as astutely as Grim had sized up James. So Kyle had been appointed his successor, Lord of the Broom. Inside for burglary, Cretin had more hope. But then cretins always did.
Once Cretin had gone, James carefully lifted the hairs from the paper and shook the dust back on to the floor. He slid the hairs into an envelope, the seventh envelope from the front in the box of stationery he kept on the table. He lay back on his cot and began to think what he could do to Grimshaw, the guard he most hated. Grim was a stocky man a few inches taller than James, and he’d never turned his back, not for a minute. No excuse or petition for a privilege moved him. Even today, his gesture to remove the “spider” had been a reflex, not a distraction—he’d never really looked to see if there was a spider. Had his eyes been blue instead of brown, they’d have reminded James of his dad. James hated guys like Grim, especially when they treated him like a misbehaving kid.
Hair. All he had was hair. Head hair, but hair grew on most parts of the body. Whatever he did would have to be strong and focused. If his exposure to Grim was more frequent, he could find a million ways to reinforce the original stimulus. Eventually the torment might conform, more or less, to a clinical disease, as had happened—finally—in his father’s case. Then maybe doctors [p.103]could “cure” the malady, especially if James decided to relent. It was all a matter of science.
James recalled the night he had seen his father get up from his chair and leave the room, blood staining the seat of his pants. Wouldn’t he love to see Grimshaw exit his cell just that way! James held the image in his mind, relishing it, examining every detail, every nuance, until he dozed off. At one point he rolled over and opened his eyes briefly, then decided to sleep until lunch, if he could. He’d ride the current all day, awake or asleep, with his supply of contraband to coast him through the afternoon, if needed.
An hour later, James frowned in his slumber. “Mount Nebo exit,” he heard a woman’s voice say just as he saw the green freeway sign. Instantly the pleasure drained from his sleep. He’d been dreaming he was driving, and he loved the sensation of being alive within the car’s power—even though in the dream he was driving his father’s old Plymouth.
As the dream’s pleasure vanished, some part of his mind realized he was dreaming not driving, and he fought for the lucidity to recognize the voice that had pulled the plug. He didn’t know the voice, but the glare of ordinary reality brought with it an awareness of his confinement and the stale air of Tier D. He decided to dive back into the dream if he could.
He felt the road and the traffic. In a moment he saw the Mount Nebo exit sign, and then the road running east toward the mountains, close brutish mountains that his father liked because they reminded him of the village where he was born. Finally the road curved around a drive-in’s parking lot and on to the main street. James recognized the small signs in front of shops. Then she picked up on a sign, too, a red octagonal one on which the writing was faded.
[p.104]“A street,” he heard her say. “The main street.”
He woke up, staring at the closed door. He always positioned Himself on his bunk so that he woke looking at the door. Cretin slept with the door behind him. James closed his eyes again, seeking to regain his foothold in the other world. But his brain was working. Maybe he could zap a fast response toward her. One could send darkness, wind, storm, clouds of bacteria, a computer virus if he could picture his opponent. How much smarter to assign a destination to darkness.
And therein lay some uncertainty, for one never knew for sure the damage caused, except for the reports one might hear and the satisfaction that crept into his heart in the dark.
Hadn’t he watched his father tear at his own skin to stop the itching before the doctors found a diagnosis? That evening his father had jumped up from his armchair and whispered at the dark window, “What did I do to deserve this?”
James, slouched in the other armchair, had switched on the light and stared impassively until his father walked away. Then he saw the blood. The next week his father was diagnosed with cancer and surgery followed. Shaken, James turned his attention to college. His father recovered fairly well after neighbors held a special fast for him.
His father misunderstood everything about the way the world worked. With religion, nothing had to be explainable. God gave no guarantees, no apologies. But everyone else made explanations.
The scientific world, however, worked on wires so fine they didn’t show but were as dependable as cause and effect. The spider felt her prey transgress the fibers of her web, fibers spun from her own body. The natural world displayed the pattern for the science of the mind. Few people explored the limitless possibilities.
Now who was that woman intruding into his dreams? He [p.105]knew her somehow. His mind swept back, looking for a face—he didn’t know many women who weren’t related to him. Was she someone’s wife? A customer? No. No, her voice was light and intelligent—and it wasn’t her face or even her intonation that he recognized, but the way she thought, the voice from her mind.
How could he know this woman’s mind? Nothing occurred to him. What did he know of her, except that she probed.
Nell, his wife, had never probed. She was there for his probing, when he had the inclination. She poked, at most, with little nagging hooks like fingernails that he could easily brush off. And now Nell was out of his life anyway, except to raise their children. He had crossed her off the list of prison visitors and that was that. People thought you lost all control when you went to prison but, in reality, it was just the opposite. With enough intelligence and appropriate public relations, you could rule your world.
Voices accumulated in the hall outside his cell, and he knew lunch time was approaching. He had time if he concentrated, ignoring his full bladder, his edgy anticipation of Cretin returning from work, to think only of that voice saying, “Mount Nebo exit” and “the main street.” Who was she?
He relaxed his eyelids, slowed his breathing, and concentrated. Nothing came except, again, the sense that he knew her. He let his mind follow that thread. When it touched recognition, he gasped in anger. Fully awake, he threw an arm over his eyes to block both vision and visibility. That mind was one he had met before, all right, most recently in the magazine article about the old, buried plot to kill Ray Alexander. That article could do him no good, except, he admitted, inside the penitentiary where it might bolster his image. Add to his mystique.
For so long he had laughed at the media—fools trying to fathom him, to defend him, then to explain him, quantify him, label him, condemn him. But this annoying bitch had nipped at [p.106]his heels early on, then treed him when he was already behind walls.
He knew her, all right. He’d had a cousin in court one day to show family support. At lunch he’d set that cousin up to ask someone, when court reconvened, who Caitlin Findlay was. The reporter the cousin asked had replied, no doubt hoping for an interview—“Oh, I’m Caitlin.”
Throughout the afternoon session he’d hurled his fury behind him. When recess came and he carelessly glanced back, the woman’s eyes had met his, weary but alert.
Kyle stomped into the cell, growling about his supervisor. James sat up, feeling anger shroud him like a promise. Tonight he would send this whiteness around her, as specks in the air, dust in the blood, prickles on the skin; white collecting the way dark collects, the way snow collects. Smothering, choking, until human desire failed and only a smooth surface existed—a clean sheet, an empty meadow, a blank page.