With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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In jail we licked pictures of food. Women’s magazines with their pages of recipes for Normandy chicken or beef stew made with orange flavoring for zing, were more in demand than pornography. Under our inch-thick plastic mattresses we hid recipe features from Redbook, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, even Vogue. When we weren’t out on the farm picking overripe zucchini, we’d stand around on the tier under the blaring TV and trade stories of good crimes and good meals.
My favorite recipe, which I had torn out of a dogeared copy of Redbook, was a cardamom-scented veal stew. Half starved and lightheaded, I could recite its ingredients like stanzas in a poem.
4 tablespoons sweet butter
4 pounds stewing veal,
cut into one-inch cubes
1 cup flour
1 medium yellow onion
3 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom
2 cups beef broth
Our usual fare at the San Bruno County Jail was more modest. A gluey mush in a tin pan and chicory-laden coffee for breakfast. Leftovers for lunch, or a single slice of baloney on dead white bread. But supper was the pièce de résistance, offered up with fancy titles like Chicken with Rice, or Kielbasa and Sauerkraut. But the rice was never more than flecked with chicken, though carefully stripped bones abounded, and I never knew anyone who had seen anything resembling a sausage, raw or cooked.
Every day, according to my friends in the kitchen, the guards loaded up on any meat or chicken that came in and stuffed it straight into the trunks of their cars.
On this diet you quickly became weak and loopy; you dreamed of nothing but pot roast and mashed potatoes and fried chicken. You lay limp on your bunk in feverish dreams of French toast and bacon. But even then, at age twenty-one, I had a practical turn of mind. I was saving up my seizure medication instead of taking it every night, hoping to buy a good meal with it on the black market. The doctors — including my father, when he was sober — had been saying for years that I might grow out of the fits. And anyway, a decent grand mal might put me in the infirmary, where I heard the cuisine was far better.
Ronnie, the thirty-four-year-old, handsome ex-marine and lifelong junkie who had risen to dishwasher, promised that for a handful of Dilantin he would sneak me a whole dinner with meat and potatoes. If possible it would include French fries with ketchup. My hunger was so ever-present, so acute that just thinking about these delicacies was an out-of-body experience.
“They’re kinda like reds or Valium,” I told him, stretching the truth.
“Just hit me, my man.”
In fact, I was in the county jail more for stretching the truth than anything else. If I had admitted to the string of small, harmless fires I would have been given counseling and probation, but I thought if I stonewalled it they’d never be able to pin the little blazes on me. Maybe that came from being a doctor’s son; you think nobody can really nail you for anything.
I’d been setting fires all my life, but my old man’s lawyer covered up my juvenile record somehow and claimed the wastebasket blazes at the college, and the bigger one at the new Market Street office building where I was working as a security guard, were really my first offenses, and that perhaps they were related to my epilepsy. This, of course, had no basis in fact. I just loved fires. From the time I was six, I burned sheets of newspaper in the bathroom, right down to the last flaming shred. Even now the tips of my fingers bear the scars. At eight I lit up Lincoln Logs and lied that I was making a campfire. I convinced people it was just cute. At ten I threw some gasoline around our cedar-shingled garage and torched that up. This act of arson we blamed on the Filipino maid, who I swore I had seen running from the crackling, collapsing building. In a big fire the sound of flames is like a strong wind, incredibly exciting.
A good fire, in fact, is like a perfect lie. It takes myriad shapes, it mesmerizes, it consumes itself and leaves nothing behind. Somehow, in my mind, the perfect fire and the perfect lie had always been intertwined.
I noticed that the prisoners who licked pictures were also the ones who told the most grandiose lies. The talking circle on the tier was for stories, and as the story got hotter, meaner, we leaned in toward the teller, the circle tightening like a sphincter around him. Clyde liked to brag about taking off cabbies. He’d done them all, from the Mission to Nob Hill to the Tenderloin. A skinny boy whose jaw worked hard when he spoke and who bounced up and down on his toes obsessively, he said, “This one cocksucker, he didn’t want to give it up. I stuck my gun right up his fucking nose and I said, ‘You piece of shit! You wanna breathe again?’ ”
“Yeah, that’s the way to go!”
The ring grew tauter.
“Dude shoulda give it up.”
We started to go up on our toes, too, just like Clyde.
“You shoot him?”
“Pistol whip the sucka!”
“Fuck him up!”
We could hardly wait, the tension was so bad.
“I ain’t talking about no shooting,” Clyde said, winking.
A low, satisfied sigh rose from the group.
“Who’s got some new food?” Ronnie the ex-marine asked. A stone-cold heroin addict, Ronnie had retained a surfer’s looks. He was the golden boy of the tier. Affable, muscular, he was more of a regular guy than it was possible to be.
“I got something,” I offered, producing a folded, glossy color page I’d pulled from Vogue. “It’s called ‘Catch from a Cold Current.’ ” I passed the Peruvian fish dish around, but it didn’t win much favor. I was still on the periphery, a skinny, upper-middle-class white boy who’d never done time before.
“Lookit this,” Fernando, a car thief, said. From inside his beltless prison pants he produced a nice Argentine beef roll, stuffed with vegetables and hard-boiled eggs. Everybody sniffed that one.
“You know how long it take to cut through the Club?” Fernando said. “Thirty seconds. They got these new remote-control locks; you get a box’ll steal the signals. Record ’em and you play ’em back later. Forget it. We chop the new cars up, and we get twice as much’s they worth. Or sell ’em to the Arabs; they don’t ask for no papers or nothing. You ever go down to the pier? You see a whole fucking barge of hot cars? Send ’em right through the Panama Canal.”
“Hey, Fernando, how long it take you to get into a Porsche?”
“Six seconds, man. I don’t give a shit what the fucking alarm is. Even if the alarm go off, we get what we want. Sometimes we just lift the son of a bitch right onto a flatbed, take it straight to the chop shop. Alarm go off, who gives a fuck, right?”
If Fernando had anything like the skill he professed, why was he spending his time in the San Bruno County Jail? But he could tell a lie with conviction, with good details, so you had to respect him. Most of those guys, they slept on their bunks all day or sat there staring through the bars like cows chewing their cud. Or they did small, obsessive tasks, like Manny, the American Indian wino who made braided red-and-white picture frames out of empty packs of Marlboros.
For ten days I hadn’t swallowed a single Dilantin. Now I had built up forty at a hundred milligrams a pop. If you took them all, they’d probably kill you, but even ten wouldn’t induce more than a leaden, groggy trance. As dope, they weren’t worth shit. Phenobarbital. But they had a nice look to them, with their orange stripe in the middle and their neat white tips.
Now that I was off my medication, my right leg would jerk two or three times before I fell asleep, or I would go through a brief, whole-body spasm in the morning just after waking: the ghost of a fit to come. But I figured, So far, so good.
Every evening, standing at my barred window, I watched tresses of fog pour over the raw hill and into the valley. Along the precipice above the farm ran rows of new prefab ranches with narrow back yards. Every morning the wives would come out with their wash and their kiddies and look down on us criminals squatting in the dirt, marching in ragged lines, skulking behind the toolshed. I couldn’t believe anybody would buy these houses until I heard they belonged mostly to the guards, who found it convenient to live near their chattel. Maybe if they got pissed on a couple of six-packs they would kneel down behind their sport-utility vehicles up there and pick a few of us off. Just San Bruno County Jail scum. Street alchies. Petty thieves. Junkies. Who would give a fuck?
I always prided myself on knowing when I was lying, and never lying to myself. If you start down that road you lose control, and the game is to control the other guy, the pigeon with the wide eyes. I knew I never wanted to be put away and experience this raving hunger again, so I tried to figure out what I had done wrong. I thought about the fires, and I thought about the lies, and I decided I’d have to get smarter. If I really needed a good fire, I’d go way out in the woods someplace or set a small one on a stone floor. And I would construct intricate, perfect lies to cover my tracks. When I thought about the crystalline structure of the lies I would invent, I became calmer, because experience had taught me that normal people never believe you will really deceive them. I just hadn’t gone far enough.
Wind leaked into the barren cell. They hadn’t given me any socks, so my feet were constantly frozen, and the only warmth came from a ragged army blanket that I threw over my shoulders and wrapped tight around myself at night. Three months. It hadn’t seemed like that much at first, especially since the felony arson counts had been broken down to three misdemeanors to be served concurrently. But now time was like half-frozen syrup that wouldn’t pour.
Out in the zucchini field I showed Ronnie the handful of Dilantin. He whistled. Some asshole in another row was jumping up and down with a two-foot-long zucchini dangling from his crotch. “Suck on this, mamacita! Suck on this!” he sang.
“Whadda you want for those?” Ronnie asked.
I had the answer all prepared because I had been mulling it over for days. Something at the higher end, but something possible. You don’t ask for salmon flambé in San Bruno County Jail, right? On the other hand, I didn’t want to set my sights too low. My pills might have been shit, but they looked good.
“Steak and eggs on a kaiser roll. Medium rare, no dried-out shit. And the roll’s gotta be fresh.”
“What’re you, Gourmet magazine or something?” Ronnie laughed. He had a whole library of Gourmets in his cell. Every one was worth a pack of Marlboros.
“I’ll give you half up front, and half on delivery.”
“Tha’s cool. Give ’em here.”
After this deal, Ronnie thought I was hip. And the strangest thing of all started happening. He started coming to my cell to hang out, especially on visiting days. My father was forgetting to visit — big surprise — and my last two girlfriends were hoping I was dead. Forget Mom. She had fled for Dallas and didn’t want to know shit. Even though Ronnie was married, his wife seemed to be keeping her distance. So when the wives and girlfriends and kids came for the other inmates, he’d sit on the ammonia-reeking floor outside my cell and tell me how he wasn’t going to do the same thing again.
“My brother’s a cop, man. Mr. Straight Fucking Arrow, but he’s my baby brother. He wasn’t in no fucking ’Nam. So the last time — this you won’t believe — I get fucked up on reds and wine all the time, you understand, and he stops me when I’m driving up on Potrero Hill. My own brother pulls me over! I can’t believe this shit.”
“So he tells me to get out; he wants to see if I can walk a straight line. Well, I won’t lie, I was high, and you get ringy when you mix reds and wine. Arlene always told me, ‘Never go out of the house if you been doing that shit.’ She stays in, but I never listened.”
“So what happened?” I kept my voice low, amazed he was confiding in me. On the tier Ronnie was like John Wayne or something.
Red-faced, he got an evil glint in his small blue eyes. He lowered his voice, too. “I had this set of wrenches on the seat next to me, right? So I get out and I fucking nail him before he gets another word out of his mouth. I mean, he looked worse’n a piece of bad fruit when I finished with him. Had a whole fleet of squad cars after me then. I practically drove off Twin Peaks. Lucky I didn’t get shot. My lawyer’s gonna help me, though.”
I knew from earlier conversations that Ronnie, who had already done a year and a half at the penitentiary for this crime, was down at Bruno waiting for a hearing that had been put off twice over the last four months. But I never asked him how long his real sentence was.
Soon he was visiting my cell every night to chew things over. He knew my old man was a doctor, and that I’d been to college — I may have mentioned Yale — and this seemed to impress him. He didn’t know that, at the end, Mom had to drive Dad to his clinic because there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell he’d ever get a driver’s license again.
“When I was in Alaska, man,” Ronnie said, “all I had to do was lay up in my cabin, go out and hunt. You couldn’t get in trouble. That’s where I’m going after I do my time. Arlene can get fucked if she don’t come. It’s clean up there. Hey, if you wanna do dope, who cares?”
“Alaska, whadda you think?”
“Shit, I’ll go with you!”
“Hey, Ronnie, what about that sandwich?”
It was hard to take my mind off steak and eggs. The steak had to be fresh and juicy, and the eggs had to be hot but soft, their yolks mixing with the meat’s warm blood. And there had to be plenty of salt and pepper, too. Hunger had hollowed me out. I was light as helium.
He didn’t seem to hear me, and I didn’t want to press the point. Instead we listened to the junkies singing themselves to sleep.
“Wha’ you gonna do ’n you get out?”
“Fuck that, man. Put some crank on top of that! San Francisco speedball.”
“Listen to those fuckers; they’d shoot their own mothers for a shot,” Ronnie observed.
I didn’t think it was the right time to point out that Ronnie might do the same thing.
Days went by, but my steak-and-egg sandwich was as far away as ever.
At the windup of an endless afternoon in the fields, we were lining up at the toolshed for the best reward the San Bruno County Jail had to offer. A guard stood with a ladle over an oil drum, you picked up a sheet of old newspaper, and he slapped a moist, speckled brown mess they called peanut candy onto the page in your hands. The stuff was loose, sickeningly sweet, but it tasted so good it made your head swim.
After devouring my portion, I pressed Ronnie about our deal again.
This time he appeared irritated. “Dude in the kitchen says those pills don’t do shit. You gotta give up the rest. I’ll see what I can do.”
Knowing full well that my friendship with Ronnie was protecting me from less-benign inmates, I had to tread carefully. “You think you can pull it off?”
“Would I shit you?” His face lit up like the sun. He had an aura about him that was so tough and so benevolent at the same time that he was hard to resist. Even though I knew he’d committed dozens of armed robberies, he had an innocent quality that made me think of Billy Budd, a character I had been drawn to in my single literature class at San Francisco Community College.
Then his features clouded over. “You see me on the street when we get out, you walk the other way.”
I knew then that he cared about me.
The fire that I started at the Narna Office Towers looked small enough at first, and I figured the drapes near the wastebasket had to have some retardant in them. It was interesting to watch the progress of the flames because they became so unpredictable. Where would they leap next? Could the twisting fire in the drapes burn through glass? This fire so quickly took on a life of its own that I had to admire it. But still, like a lie that leaps from your mouth without the intercession of thought, it had to be shaped, driven into a certain path to be completely satisfying. On the other hand, before I took control, I wanted to feel the force of it, its flash of heat, its sucking hunger. By the time I ran to pull the alarm a whole wall of cloth was aflame.
Another two days in the fields passed, and then the weekend came. Although I tried to hide it, Ronnie’s visits were starting to bore me. Just to break new ground I suggested he get therapy when he got out.
He didn’t take this well. “Fuck those shrinks, man. I been to ’em all. If you’re gonna do junk, you’re gonna do junk. They want me to tell ’em about what my old man and old lady did to me, and you know what? They beat the shit out of me. So what? Look at my brother. They did the same thing to him, and he’s a cop!”
“And what about you? You yank your weenie when you set those fires?”
“That’s bullshit. You set a fire for the action, to watch it. That’s all.” He had hit a sore spot, but I knew I didn’t fall into the sexual-deviant category. In fact, only a small number of fire-setters derive sexual satisfaction from their fires. I’d read all about it.
“Shrinks are full of shit, right?” he laughed, his mood shifting in that lightning way of his.
“Yeah, full of shit,” I agreed.
We were friends again, and I could console myself that with Ronnie behind me, I was a success in jail.
For a few days I could barely stomach the food, so I felt weaker than usual and almost didn’t go out at all. But the thought of lying on my bunk for twenty-four hours excited my claustrophobia, so I dragged my ass down into the ringing rotunda. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to get out and work.
A half dozen transsexual and transvestite prostitutes, who were separated from the rest of the population for obvious reasons, were being escorted past us to the infirmary, their grotesque parodies of women inflaming the work crew.
“Yo, what’s it? Asshole Inspection Month?” Clyde shouted.
Inmates keening and whooping, the hysteria rose. One of the “girls,” Irving, middle-aged, bald, and unshaven, flashed a pair of perfectly constructed, silicone-filled tits and minced through an open gate. The guards snickered, and the inmates hooted in the high, vaulted space, but I turned away, sickened by the sadness, the open incompetence of Irving’s performance.
Strange as it may seem, at that moment I began wondering for the first time if perhaps I did belong in the San Bruno County Jail, if in fact it was no accident that I had been placed with creatures who in one way or another were my grotesque equivalents. I wondered if my lies looked like Irving’s tits, naked counterfeits for everyone to see.
“Think I got something for you,” Ronnie said, as we grabbed our hoes and slouched out to the farm.
In a flash all my dark thoughts were wiped away by leaping, animal spirits. I tasted every seed on the surface of the kaiser roll, felt the yolks running in my mouth, rolled the charcoaled, seared surface of the thick steak on my tongue, my teeth taking forever to chew. I only had a few weeks left on my sentence, I was about to get the meal of my life, and the weather was cooperating, too. A gentle sunlight poured down on the San Bruno County Jail farm, and it was possible to think of myself as an ordinary farm worker with all the freedom in the world.
All day long I kept glancing up at Ronnie in the next row but then turning away, intent on hiding my desperate eagerness. Of course, in jail, impassivity is the only sane policy, but that day it was very, very hard to maintain. Finally, at four, we broke and headed to the toolshed to get our peanut candy. Ronnie whistled me around to the back, handed me a package wrapped in brown paper, and without a word darted away. I felt high, superhigh.
After looking around swiftly, I pressed myself against the shed’s unpainted slats and, hands shaking, opened the paper bag. In it were two dry, compressed pieces of Wonder bread in between which lay a single, cold fried egg. Even so, it was the most appealing meal I had seen in over two months, and I was filled with a raging fear that if I didn’t stuff it down my mouth instantly, some other prisoner would rip it out of my hands. Before I could taste it, the sandwich disappeared down my throat, the ache of hunger maddening, more powerful than ever.
Now I was outraged. I just lost my head. Ronnie had lied to me. He had been lying all along just to get his hands on my crummy medication. And I — who had been making up lies about what I had done, what I hadn’t, and who I was since I could remember — I had swallowed his lies whole. It was so humiliating I bolted back around to the front of the shed, grabbed Ronnie by the shoulder, and spun him around.
Somewhere deep in my reptilian brain I was trying to remind myself that this man had seventy pounds on me, that he knew countless ways to inflict pain, and that he enjoyed doing it. But I wouldn’t listen to my own voice of reason. “You son of a bitch, you played a fucking number on me!” I shouted.
By raising my voice in front of the other shambling prisoners, and before the guards, I gave Ronnie no choice. He shrugged and, without the slightest warning, hit me flush on the chin, hit me so hard it didn’t hurt. One minute I was in his face, the next I was flat on my back, struggling to wake up. I suppose the fit saved me, even though I almost ate my own tongue.
I hadn’t taken my Dilantin for so long it was bound to happen. For one thing, I hadn’t tapered off. In my feverish greed I had gone cold turkey, which could instigate seizures in and of itself. And I had been having those ghosts of fits in the morning, which I had studiously ignored, imagining that if I didn’t acknowledge them, I didn’t have an illness at all.
In fact, the seizure was a blessing. If I hadn’t gone down in public, if I had been forced to go back to my cell without Ronnie’s protection, I would have been marked as a suck-ass pussy, and someone would have gotten to me quick.
Instead, I was carried to the infirmary, where they fed me crushed ice for my ravaged tongue, and bland chicken-noodle soup with crackers that I could barely get down. After this seizure, aside from my aching joints, aside from my burning, bitten tongue, I felt a more ethereal, deeply frightening sensation, a shattering of an organ without a name. I lay there thinking of Irving swiveling his huge hips, of the flattened sandwich, of the way I’d lost my head, and I began contemplating a different path. But it is one thing to understand, and another to overcome.
In the crank-up hospital bed with its crib side panels, I sketched out a campaign of self-improvement. I made iron resolutions, swearing off the trance of flames and lies of shining convenience. I got high just thinking about hard work, climbing the corporate ladder, wearing a blue suit in a city where no one knew who I was. But my inflamed tongue was a thick, foreign thing in my mouth, and I feared it would never be able to shape true words now that I wanted desperately to speak them.