All I was trying to do was to keep the peace. That’s all I was ever trying to do.
Jumpy rolled up on me at The Buck Stop, the seedy bar I escaped to when I needed to get away from myself. A tap on my shoulder, and there he was. We didn’t bro hug, fist bump or shake hands. Just eyeballed each other for a while, both of us waiting for the other to start the conversation. Was I surprised? It had been a long time, but deep inside I accepted the fact that the past never really leaves you, no matter how hard you try to leave it.
“I told you I’d find you one day,” Jumpy said. Cocky, he wore a self-satisfied smirk, like he had pulled the inside cards for a straight flush.
“I thought you were doing a dime,” I said. “Early release?”
“You didn’t hear?”
I hadn’t. How could I? I had severed all connections to that part of my life.
“Won my appeal. Came out that my public defender was banging the prosecutor’s wife, so the judge overturned. DA’s office dropped it like a hot rock. Guess I’m blessed with the good fortune only those who don’t deserve it get.”
“Lucky for you, I guess. Here’s the thing…prison was a long time ago. Part of my life I keep in the rear-view mirror. No offense, but it’s best for both of us if you move on, pretend you don’t know me. We never met. Not here. Not ever.”
Jumpy looked down at his feet and wagged his head back and forth, slowly like he was trying to clear his thoughts. “Nah, it don’t work like that. I owe you. I don’t leave debts unpaid. You’re the one who was always talking about principles. Always said, ‘a man’s principles are the only thing he has left after he’s lost everything else.’ You did me right in Statesville. So I gotta do you right now.”
His face hadn’t changed much over the years. Maybe a little more wrinkled, but the same mask of crazy agitation. You could almost hear the gears spinning away behind his dark, beady eyes. The scar that wandered from his left eye to the top of his lip had deepened, making a home in the wrinkles on his face. His smile amped up the distortion, the right side dragging the left side along, like a dog on a leash.
“I don’t need any help. Besides, your kind of help never made my life any better,” I said.
“Don’t be ungrateful, man. I got something cooking that I’m gonna offer you. It’s a sweet deal and you don’t want to say no.”
“Not so fast. It’s fuck-up proof.”
“I got a solid situation here. A job. A place to live. I get by. More important, though, it may be fuck-up proof, but you’re not.”
“Slow down, bro. No need to get personal.”
“Jumpy, personal is all we got.”
Jumpy leaned in, hanging over my shoulder. So close I could smell the tobacco and beer on his breath. They say that smells bring back the strongest memories, and underneath the alcohol and nicotine, I got a whiff of the Jumpy who had been my cellmate in Statesville. It was a sharp-sweet odor, a mixture of anger, fear, and sweat. It brought me right back to prison. Ten years had passed, but the smell – well, that never left.
I had done six of my seven for bank fraud when my old cellmate, Junior, got a humanitarian release thanks to a pancreatic tumor which left him with about three months to live.
I got on with Junior and was sorry to see him go. He was a veteran of the mob and listening to him talk helped me to understand that a man is more than the crimes he commits. That was important for me. I got a step ahead of myself, working for the bank, figuring out the vulnerabilities in the loan process. Junior helped me accept that being smart doesn’t mean you don’t do stupid things, and doing stupid things doesn’t make you a stupid person.
Jumpy got assigned the day Junior left. I figured him to be about 35, but it was hard to tell because his skin was weathered barn siding from too much tobacco or alcohol, or both. He had a shaved head, although I could tell from the speckled pattern of grey stubble riding a rim around his dome that he was balding, and the shaved head was a vain attempt at image control. I checked his file, in the warden’s office where I worked doing secretarial stuff. Ten years for armed robbery with extenuating circumstances. It had his picture on the front and his name typed on the flap along the side. Oliver O’Connell, it said, which is probably why he preferred Jumpy.
Jumpy was wrapped tightly. ADD to the nth degree, like he had some kind of internal itch. Always wagging hit foot, tapping his fingers, and when sitting got to be too much, he’d hoist himself up on the bars and slide across from one side to the other, swinging from cell to cell. When the doors to the cell groaned open he’d bolt out and pace the tier. All day long, back and forth, back and forth, pacing, like one of those big cats at the zoo. Sometimes, when he was pacing, he’d talk to himself, mumbling some inaudible bullshit. Annoying as hell.
That night at The Buck Stop, Jumpy was pressuring. “You know how the farmers got to pay the illegals in cash? Like once a week? Where do you think they get all that cash?”
Jumpy snorted a laugh. “You’re messing, right? Brinks truck. Makes the deliveries up and down the Central Valley every Friday, dropping off the green to pay the wetbacks. Out in the fucking boonies. That truck is a sitting duck. I got a solid crew. You remember Mahogany Slim?”
Mahogany Slim was an armed robbery pro we both knew from Statesville. He was also a sadistic snake. Even if I had an inkling to get involved with Jumpy’s scheme, which I definitely didn’t, Slim was a show stopper.
“Dayton Bennie is coming up from San Diego. This bitch is golden. Easy as robbing the charity box in church.” Jumpy stood back and gloated, self-appreciation dripping off of his grin.
“Why you need me?” I asked.
“Don’t need. It’s an offer. Payback. Like I said, I owe you.” Jumpy’s eyes skittered around the dingy bar. Someone put some money in the jukebox and George Jones started singing If Drinking Don’t Kill Me. The smell of stale beer percolated in the still air.
“Don’t let this pass you by. Opportunities like this don’t come every day.”
“Not interested,” I replied.
“It’s a gift, man.”
“I lived within a fart’s cloud of you for months, and I know you. There’s a thousand ways to fuck up a sure thing, even if you’re a genius. And Jumpy, you ain’t no fucking genius.”
Jumpy looked confused. “Tell me, how many Brinks have you hit?”
Jumpy hunched his shoulders.
“Right. Zilch. Nada. Zero. You don’t know shit about Brinks trucks. You’re going to get yourself killed, Jumpy. Maybe not this time. But eventually. It’s only a matter of time.”
“That ain’t for you to worry about. Besides, you’re going to die too. Might think you won’t. But know you will. Someday. So why not enjoy the ride before lights out? You prefer to die lonely, cold, in some bed with some shit eating you from the inside?”
“A man can’t always know how it’s going to end, but that’s no reason to put his hand in the fire to make sure it’s hot.”
As new cellmates, it took a while to get the boundaries set – which shelves belonged to whom and who got to use the shitter first thing in the morning. I didn’t like him touching the books on my shelf and told him so. As for the shitter, it was kind of an ad hoc thing.
“You get the top bunk. I’m on the bottom one. See these books, you don’t fuck with them. I keep them in a particular order, so don’t mess. I keep my shit close. You do the same.” A couple of days later I caught Jumpy flipping the pages of my copy of Of Human Bondage. “Hands off,” I snapped, swiping the book out of Jumpy’s bony hands. “Chill, dude,” he replied. “Maybe something in here will help me with the stretch I’m serving.”
“Fuck, Jumpy. It’s not about prison. And even if it was, you can barely read.” Once Jumpy and I got our limits set, the clock started moving, slowly, but moving nevertheless.
I liked to read in the evenings, before lights went out, but I couldn’t get through a paragraph without Jumpy bouncing from his cot, jumping up on the bars, or asking me stupid questions, or yipping and yapping as if the neurons in his brain were in a constant state of agitation. At night, I’d hear him tossing and turning. Then he’d start jerking off. Every night, like it was a pacifier for him. I tried to ignore him.
Being on the home stretch of my time, I was playing it heads down, and I could see Jumpy was dangerous. He had the knack of pissing the whole tier off. One hot night, Big Eddie, the lead dog on our tier, had enough. He snatched Jumpy mid-stride. Gripped him by the neck, lifting him six inches off the ground, Jumpy’s legs twitching like a puppet whose master had Parkinson’s.
“Look, motherfucker, I’ve tried and tried, lord how I’ve tried, to ignore your bullshit. Hopping around like a rabbit on meth. The fucking mumbling, the barking. Times up. I’m trying to concentrate on my dominoes here, with Fat Willy, and, I don’t care what the fuck you’re up to, it stops right now, right here. Feel me?” Jumpy’s eyes bulged.
Big Eddie dragged Jumpy down to our cell, his legs still spinning, spittle running down his chin, his arms windmilling in search of a hold on Eddie’s arms. “Professor,” Eddie called out. “Come educate this ignorant motherfucker about manners.”
Big Eddie deposited Jumpy like a sack of dirty laundry in front of our cell. “Easy, Eddie,” I said, avoiding direct eye contact. You didn’t want to look Eddie straight on when he was in a state.
“Fool can’t help it. I’ll talk to him,” I said, even though I wouldn’t have felt a flick of sorrow if he had snuffed Jumpy right there and then. He had it coming, as far as I was concerned.
“You better,” Eddie said, his eyes squinting with anger. “Cause if he don’t, I’m gonna pitch his sorry ass over the railing. See how he do trying to swing from the bars when he’s flying to the floor.”
Eddie dropped Jumpy and wiped his hands on his pants. Free from Eddie’s grip, Jumpy sucked in a huge breath and skittered backward, crab walking away from Big Eddie until he was out of reach. Safe from Eddie’s reach, he jumped to his feet and raised the middle fingers of both hands thrusting them upwards like sewing machine arms at Big Eddie, yelling, “Hey Eddie. You like birds? How about these two?” Big Eddie lurched after Jumpy, but Fat Willy held him back. Jumpy slipped over the guardrail, scrambling to the safety of the guard station.
Jumpy was doing a minimum of ten for armed robbery with extenuating, which he never completely told me about, but had something to do with forcing the store owner and his co-workers to undress and do sick sex stuff with each other while he watched. He was a twisted fuck, no ordinary con, and I knew it. I just didn’t know what to do about it, other than keeping myself away from him, which, in a six by eleven cell is not easy.
“You need to get with the program here, Jumpy,” I warned. “This shit you’re doing, flipping around, yelling and stuff, it’s pissing everybody off. It ain’t gonna make you popular, and being unpopular here ain’t like you don’t have a date to the prom. Big Eddie is not to be trifled with.
“Fuck Big Eddie. He don’t scare me. What’s he gonna do? Kill me?”
“Might. Eddie’s a bona fide lifer. Got nothing to lose.”
“So he kills me.” Jumpy shrugged.
Which only confirmed my belief that Jumpy was a lost cause. Jumpy and I shared a cell, but not much more. Funny how you can be so close to someone, hear every breath they take, smell their shit, and still keep your distance. I’m not cold by nature, but prison changes a man.
Release day finally arrived. I packed my box, said goodbye and told him I never wanted to see him again. He laughed. “You ain’t gonna get off that easily. I owe you. If I get out alive, I’m gonna look you up and pay you back. We’re partners, bro. You looked out for me.”
“Don’t even think about it,” I told him. “I wasn’t protecting you. I was protecting me.” I meant it, especially the part about never wanting to see him again. I was fixed on getting right with myself and my life.
My sister’s boyfriend ran a little welding shop in Fresno, so I made it out West and settled there. I lived with them for a while, until I had enough of a stake to get my own place, nothing fancy, one room with a torn curtain over the window, a kitchenette, furnished with thrift shop discards, in an apartment complex filled with Mexicans and farm workers, three families to an apartment, parking lot filled with beaters. But it was mine, and I worked the job, learned to weld, picked up scrap, swept the shop floor, whatever needed doing. My sister’s boyfriend seemed to like having me around. I was one of the few steadies, guys he could rely on showing up not stinking of alcohol or weed. We got on.
Weekends, without work, were tough. I didn’t have a car, so I was stuck. Sometimes I’d take the bus to the local bookstore, where I browsed, picking up books on psychology or politics, looking at them the way a divorced man looks at his ex-wife when he sees her out on a date with her new boyfriend. The bookstore had big stuffed leather chairs in a lounge where you could read. I liked hanging out there. Some of the other browsers, mostly women, would settle there too. I’d look at them and imagine what it would be like to be in a relationship with one of them. I never talked to them, just snuck looks from time to time. You’d think coming out of prison a man would crave connection. It’s just the opposite, though. Prison twists you so you really don’t know how to relate to people who haven’t been locked up.
I liked predictability. That’s another thing that happens to you in the joint. You get used to keeping a schedule and don’t like it when things get out of whack. Prison teaches you to appreciate routine. Because in prison, when things don’t go as planned, they never work out for the better. Prison surprises are never good ones.
That night at The Buck Stop was the last time I saw Jumpy. A couple of weeks after bumping into him, I walked into work and found the boss reading the newspaper. He tapped the front page, running his finger across a grainy picture.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Three damn fools tried to rob a Brinks truck out in the valley. Killed one of the guards to start with. Two guys got away clean with the money. The other stayed behind to shoot it out, some Bonnie and Clyde, western shit. He was holding the other guard hostage. Cops took him down. Turned him into swiss cheese after he blew away the Brink’s guard. Cold.”
“No shit,” I replied, my heart beating a little faster.
“Says here he could have bolted with his buddies. Instead, just stayed by the truck holding a gun to the guard’s head ’til the cops showed up. Like he was waiting for them, begging for it. It was a stand-off til he pulled the trigger on the other guard. What makes someone like that do what they do?”
“Some people just built that way, I guess.”
I shuffled off to my locker, hung up my jacket and slid on my welding gloves.by
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Ross Goldstein is the author of Chain Reaction and Fortysomething. He currently splits his time between Mill Valley, California and Sun Valley, Idaho. When not writing or reading, he can usually be found on his bike, drinking espresso in one of the local cafes, or thinking about his next writing project. Ross was a clinical psychologist for many years. His writing reflects his fascination with the inner workings of unusual characters.