I've lived these two blocks from the penitentiary all of my life, either in this rancher, built by my husband when we were newly married, or next door in my father's Victorian, so I'm well aware of its moods. Public sentiment is a shifty thing and right now the mood is cautious. Used to be that if a judge said twenty years would do the trick, then the perpetrator served twenty years to the day and came out a better man for the experience. Not so anymore; Just because a few judges incarcerated the wrong souls (causing one heck of a hullabaloo when the truth came out), the profession as a whole hesitates to come down hard on anyone. Even when they'd have to be blind not to see that so and so had perpetrated such and such a crime. Even when they have a confession, or a shoe that fits, or a video recording of the criminal proceedings complete with voice-over. And the whole dog-and-pony show costs us taxpayers a bundle, but I guess that's half the point, for the lawyers anyway. Before he opted for pre-emptive cryogenic storage, Mr. Hoodnose used to say that what we needed was less lawyering and more justice. And as head cook at the penitentiary for forty odd years, Mr. Hoodnose saw enough to know.
Not one of us is safe anymore. Take that little family who lived over at Farmer Dell's Trailer Court in a renovated penitentiary bus. They only wanted to sell their car. No harm in that you say? Well, they discovered the hard way that you take your life in your hands when you go the private route.
As soon as he got behind the wheel for the test drive, the perpetrator took off for his evil ranch in the hills. The husband could have jumped out the window and saved himself, but his wife and baby were stuck in the back seat and that antique only had two doors. So much for chivalry; the perpetrator finished off the husband—knife to the throat right there in the front seat. Blood everywhere, on the dash and windows, probably all over the mom and babe in the back seat too. It doesn't bear thinking about, what that monster did to those two afterwards. I watched the trial on the telly until it got too gruesome. Let's just say that death would have been a welcome relief, when it finally came. That's why Mr. Hoodnose's 59' Impala, with its stock engine and red and white exterior and fine chrome detailing, can sit in the garage and rust for all I care. I may need the money, but it'd worry me sick to advertise.
Last week's earthquake was the largest in our town's living memory. It shook the pictures right off of my walls. Broke the glass in the photograph of Mr. Hoodnose posing in the penitentiary kitchen with a gag prop, one of those rubber meat cleavers held to his throat by a prisoner. They say to stay inside for an earthquake, but I bundled on a coat and boots and then fled outside when the stucco crumbled into dust.
Everyone was on the street and on the move. I got swept up until we massed outside the corner produce store. I shop at the Super Bulk N' Save myself. It's pricey and the fruit's modified, but at least their produce is properly packaged, not just lolling about in bins for any Joe Blow to sneeze on or manhandle. To lighten the mood, I cracked a disaster joke, what Mr. Hoodnose called gallows humor, but no one heard the punch line in the uproar.
A photographer from one of the big national magazines, Fustian Today or The New Maclean's, covered the disaster. When the tremors lessened, people surged towards the penitentiary. Not a smile to be seen in that sea of troubled faces. The photographer had on one of those head-implant cameras. He ran backwards through the slush, limber as a mountain goat, framing us with his fingers and saying "Beautiful, beautiful". Like we were models on a fashion shoot.
I was at the front of the crowd, sort of being pushed along towards the cameraman, so I took it upon myself to give a little wave and a smile. Since I got my new dentures I like to smile extra wide, they look much nicer than my natural teeth ever did. I only wish I'd had time to take off my glasses. The frames are too big for my face and the lenses shrink my eyes down to raisons. I got those glasses second hand from one of those charities that come to the mall and test your eyes for free. Some woman with water on the brain must have put those huge glasses in the donation box, but at least I can see now, which is better than being blind.
The crowd swelled up like a PM's head. People shouted slogans like, "Would have been eleven. Instead he's resting up in heaven." Some ladies from the local Grey Panther chapter waved a banner. The words, "We've got a bone to pick with you, buster", were spray painted in black over, "Happy one hundredth, Elsie!"
We approached the penitentiary like a wave, like one of those big waves you get sometimes after an earthquake. A tsunami. By the time we reached the prison the whole town was part of the wave. There I was front and center, an innocent Canadian, doing what I could to keep ahead of the pack. Didn't even know what we were rolling for, but I guessed it was out of frustration over one of those early released child molesters or some such. I guessed that on account of the earthquake and the slogans.
When we drew abreast the penitentiary, the double doors clanked opened and a prisoner was ushered outside by a contingent of guards. Even though he was blinking like an owl in the sunlight, I recognized him as the perpetrator in the Farmer Dell's Trailer Court murders. Like I said, I watched the trial on TV. For the occasion, the perpetrator wore a brand new charge-it-to-the-taxpayer suit of clothes and had slicked back his hair.
The tsunami put up such a roar that I swear it did damage to my eardrums. My hearing on the left's still flat, though the doctors promise it will recover in time. The rest of my body wasn't any luckier. I hit the perpetrator straight on. Ploughed his skinny body onto a ridge of exhaust-blackened snow. I had just enough time to see his look of horror before the wave rode over us both. Then it was my bones breaking against his bones and his internal organs being squashed by my internal organs.
When we were both near to dead, I heard the sissy beg for mercy. Oh, sure! I thought, You can shovel it out, but you can't take it in. Despite my injuries, I was all set to slap him silly when a black motorcycle boot with silver buckles descended between us. The boot belonged to one of those fellows who live in the compound on the edge of town. You can't see past the razor-wired barricades, but sometimes, if the gates are open, you get a peek at the meek wives and obedient children they keep inside. Anyway, that boot crushed the perpetrator 's larynx like it was crushing an egg, crushed the self-pity right out of the man. And that's the last I remember of that day.
When I came to, I was lying here in bed, sprouting tubes from every orifice and feeling like a piece of resurrected road-kill. Half the town sustained injuries in the melee, so they placed us where they could: here in the maternity ward, down the hallways and even in the chapel.
I had a visitor today, while you were at the payphone informing folks about your squalling bundle of joy. It was the man with the boots. He handed me a bunch of plastic carnations and told me I was looking good. I told him to get away from me with his flattery, that a woman knows when she looks like hell. He gave me one of those dollar boxes of chocolates they sell at the co-op. Said the soft centers where on account of my missing teeth.
There were three chocolates apiece in that box. After we ate them, there wasn't a whole lot left to do. So I complimented the shine on his boot buckles and he laughed a little, though nothing gloating or proud. He said the whole thing was a sorry piece of business, but that he hoped we'd all sleep a little easier in our beds now.
"I know I will," I joshed. "A few more earthquakes and I'll be advertising Mr. Hoodnose's 59' Impala and leaving my doors unlocked at night." His eyes perked up at the mention of that car.
I lied about the unlocked doors. In fact, I'm going to install deadbolts and buy a killer Pit Bull-Shepherd cross the day that I go home. Once you've seen what normal people are capable of when their dander is up, it makes you extra cautious. Today they're after criminals, but tomorrow it might be the lonely widows of retired public servants or their valuable cars. All it takes is the tiniest shit of sentiment.
Oh, dear. I do hope I said shift. Honestly, if they thawed Mr. Hoodnose today, he'd find the world's gone crazy and his old lady with it.
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