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This pillar, part of a gate to USC's beloved Horseshoe, stands at the western end of the Old Campus, along Sumter Street. 

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The Walk

Chad C. Rhoad

 

There’s something nostalgic in the chill of a fall night. The way the crisp, cold air wraps itself around you and pushes you inside of yourself, and you have to remember certain things whether you want to or not. But, yesterdays and tomorrows run together here and create a blur in the present. Inmates aren’t allowed to be out on the yard at night, but I helped Sgt. Mathias with his taxes two years ago and he’s been soft ever since. I had one of those dreams again where I’m suffocating under a pillow and when I move the pillow it’s me holding it. The guards let me come out here to smoke and walk around. I tend to pace when I smoke, so I leave a slight imprint in the artificial turf. There are only eight inmates on death row, and none of them are allowed outside more than one hour a week, but I’m a short-timer, so things unofficially change.            

            Breakfast comes at five, and it’s always up to standards. Today I just fold two greasy pieces of bacon into a flat cornmeal biscuit and choke it down with black coffee and a cigarette. A lot of the guys here smoke as much as they can and hope that God, or whoever, will kill them before the state does. But, no one here has died of cancer since this purgatory opened in 1996. This is a fairly new, innovative wing of the prison. Everything in here is made of glass save for the first three feet of wall on each cell; the walls are concrete painted with that smooth black paint so you can see the dimples. About nine feet separate the cells on either side of the Walk, and there is a mural of Jesus painted in bright red, orange, and yellow on the brick wall at the end of the Walk. Halogen lights hang high from the top of the ceiling, so everything has an institutional blue tint. There are black lights attached to the walls about every six feet. They turn on the black lights after lights out. And the place always smells like new plastic.

             Dr. Maria Villanueva will be here at 7am for my daily mental check up, so I lean back in the blue recliner in the center of the cell with the worn, dog-eared copy of Oedipus the King she lent me last week. She is a psychologist working on a grant from her university, and she is not afraid like most visitors are when they get here. She even had a television crew here following her around for a week or so last year. The routine has been the same for the last three years, so I’m already formulating the answers to her questions. When she arrives, with a sharp blue pinstripe suit on, I walk a few steps and press my hand against the glass wall of the cell.

            “Good morning, Vernon. And how are we today?” she always talks to me with her eyes closed.

            “I suppose we’re doing o.k.”

            “Officer Mathias told me you were up pretty early this morning. Another nightmare?”

            “A weird dream, yes.”

            “The one about the little girl?”

            “No, this one was different. I was trying to kill myself.”

            “Anything I need to worry about?” The death warrant in my case is already signed, so the 13” black and white TV and radio in front of my cell indicate that I’m on death watch. That question sounded unusually procedural.

            “Must take an interesting doctor to accept healthy patients that are all going to die soon. I mean, seems a little morbid, ya know. What do you dream about?”

            “The dream, Vernon.”

            “Yeah. There was two of me. I was trying to suffocate one of me with a pillow. How ‘bout that?”

            “What to you think it means?

            “That I don’t sleep well?”

            “What you are going through comes out in your dreams. You shouldn’t joke so much.”

            “My apologies, doctor. I think the dream is a demonstration of the frustration incurred as the result of incarcerated life. And, perhaps some of the decisions I’ve made. There are several meanings, but none of them are that enthralling are they? Crazy people have crazy dreams.”

            “Vernon your mind does things that you aren’t consciously aware of all the time. There are some things that you can’t keep a firm grip on. Some things are out of your control.”

            “Is Oprah here?”

            “Vernon, please. Things are going on with you that I don’t think you are aware of. You’re under a lot of stress and that does damage.”

            “Damage doesn’t scare me doc. I’ve been doing damage all my life. I’ve kind of developed a skill. These dreams are just dreams. I mean, I miss my daughter, I think about my daughter, I dream about my daughter. Things are black and white in my world, just like this cell. It’s right before my eyes.”

            “O.K. Vernon, I see. You’ve given me plenty for today. Is there anything else you need to get off of your chest?”

            “Nah. I think I’m good for now.”

 

 

            Lunch has come on time for the last five days. The only times in six years. I guess the staff thinks getting your country-fried steak on time for seven days in a row is a fond farewell, or something. Of all the inmates on the walk there’s one child rapist, one adult rapist, three convicted murderers, two armed robbers, and me. Since there’s only eight of us and twelve circular cells on the walk, Terry asks to be moved about every month or so; he says it breaks the monotony. Dr. Villanueva works with all of us. The two armed robbers are brothers, and they’re pretty entertaining.

            “Hey Vern, Dr. V coming to see you today? Man, that is one bad bitch, ya hear?” Terry said, looking at his brother in the next cell. “Ain’t that right Ricky?”

            “Who? Man, I don’t know. Vern, Mathias let you out again last night?” his right eye twitched when he talked.

            “Yep.”

            “Ya gotta love that fat bastard, huh?” Mathias mumbled something and shifted in his chair, and Ricky changed his tone. “Gerry!” he yelled out, “ain’t nothin’ wrong with big bones, man. We love you.”

            “Hey—uh—gimme a minute Rick. I gotta finish this letter.”

 "Phoebe,

             Well, like my daddy used to say, ‘I’m in the short rows now.’ It’s kind of hard to write a letter to someone you’ve never met, but you should know who I really was. When I was your age, I wanted to be a racecar driver. Those guys stare death in the face every time they get behind the wheel. Me and daddy used to watch them every Sunday after church. He used to let me drive the car whenever momma wasn’t riding with us. He said I was a natural. I used to dream about winning a race and dumping champagne all over daddy and the pit crew in the winner’s circle, but I guess I didn’t quite make it there. All I wanted to do was make a little money and have you and your momma live like you should. Things just didn’t work out like I thought. Your momma is taking real good care of you though I’m sure, and I know you’ll be so much more than I ever was. Just don’t ever stop dreaming. You can do anything you want to do. I got a picture of you in my cell that your grandpa gave last time he visited, and I think about you every day. Sometimes, I even picture you a grown woman, as a lawyer, or something, in a high-class business suit saving the world one case at a time. I’ve never even seen you in the flesh, but half of you comes from me. Half of me is beaming with pride about that while the other half fears it. When you get older, you’ll realize that things hardly ever work out like you plan them. I guess I’m no exception. You probably won’t ever hear too much about me, so just remember that things aren’t always the way people make them out to be.

 Love always,

Vernon L. Hughes"

 

            I decide to skip dinner today. It’s some sort of breaded fish and corn with little red chunks in it anyway. Instead, I get Gerald’s relief, Officer White, to take me to the library. When the doorbell that signals the door to the Walk is unlocked rings, we leave the walk and head toward general population. The cells there are bigger because they house three to four inmates at a time, and kind of resemble small, efficiency apartments. They have got bunk beds three high and showers in the corner of the cell with no curtain or stall. And, the toilet looks like it gets wet when the water in the shower is running. The inmates lean their arms through the bars and stare at us with eyebrows arched and dead eyes in a look of blind aggression. They don’t seem to be sure who they are mad at, or where to direct it, but its there and they don’t deny it. Inside the library, it’s just me and Officer White. He wears glasses that are thick enough to double as cell windows, so he always looks like he is amazed.

            The library is a newly remodeled work of art. Weird linoleum covers the floor, and my shoes click when I walk like they’re sticking to it. The shelves are made of the same stainless steel as my toilet, and are filled with law books. Four wooden conference tables perforate the room down the center and low billiard style lamps lazily hang over the top of them. The lights are housed in blue plastic that gives the room a polarized tint amid the smell of the pages of hundreds of old books. The chairs we have to sit in are the orange ergonomic type with the u-shaped metal underneath that bends and squeaks when you move. One of the square plastic pieces that balance the chair is missing, so every time I shift my weight the chair rocks. Officer White is new to the walk, so he still tries to engage us in conversation.

            “So what you reading?”

            “Words, words, words. I’m kidding. It’s Dostoevsky.”

            “I’m a Coontz fan myself. You like him?”

            “Not at all. I’m really a Kafka man,” the chair rocked as I spoke.

            “Never read him. Is he good?”

            “Not really.”

            “You know, Gerald thinks highly of you. How do you not go crazy like those other bastards?”

            “Most guys lose it when they start to feel trapped, especially inside their own head. Me, I’ve been in here in one form or another as long as I can remember. I just think about what it will be like when I finally leave this place. I’ve learned a lot here and I’m not taking any of it with me.”

            “Right. Uh—well, it looks like its time to head back. Lights out is in an hour.”

            “Give or take.”

 

            Lights out is at 9pm, and there’s no talking after. But in a black tube where the heat constantly runs I usually just lay here on my back with my arms behind my head until I get too tired to think, or I sweat myself to sleep. There are bible verses written in chalk and smeared all over the black walls of the cell, but the one that always catches my eye when I lay down is Genesis 40:1-23. I don’t know what that verse says because I never looked it up, but I’m sure its something profound. The pink nightlights from the yard shining through the windows make a pattern that bends at the crease between the floor and the wall. They blend into each other, and I fade off.

            I dream I’m at my final appeal and my daughter is my representation. The entire time the prosecution is presenting its case she is gripping my hand. With some of the things they’ve alleged that I’ve done, I would have thought that my daughter would be cringing, but she just sits there making notes on a white legal pad. Occasionally she looks up at me and smiles, but her eyes are closed each time she looks at me. She pleads my case in such a dramatic and heartfelt manner that all of my regrets are scattered in the whirlwind of her success as an attorney. She struts herself around the courtroom demanding justice with the utmost sincerity. She even calls me a good man. But just before the judge gives his decision, I wake up. The chilly weather has forced its cold smell through the windows and into the walk.

            “Hey, Gerald.”

            “Need a cigarette, Vern?” he says walking gingerly towards my cell.

            “Ya’ll shut up,” Terry yells. “I’m dreaming about something serious here.”

            “Is it cool? I don’t have to.”

            “Yeah, gimme a minute though.”

            After a while, Gerald lets me out of my round closet, and I can hear our footsteps on the hard floors bounce off the thick plate glass of the other cells. Gerald’s office is a circular cubicle-type office in the center of the walk, so I have to go through it to get out. They’ve decorated the inside with pastels so it looks like an Easter egg exploded on the walls. He’s got pictures of kids pinned against the yellow fabric of the walls, and a giant bottle of No-Doz with the top off and a cotton ball lying beside it in the center of the desk. Gerald presses the buzzer to unlock the door and it sounds more like a doorbell at a high-class mansion. The prison yard is too far from the walk, so the guards let me smoke in their break area. I sit down on the old gray picnic table and light up. I can smell the butts burning in the can beside me. All I can hear is the hum of the generators next to the kitchen, and the pink yard lights have that starburst effect to them. The smoke storms away from my mouth and swirls around my face; my eyes start to water from the cold fall breeze. This area is closed off to non-staff by three walls covered in grey vinyl siding. Do not enter signs are tacked all over the walls. The rules for C.O. conduct are posted beside the “designated smoking area” sign.  I haven’t slept all the way through the night since I got here. Come to think of it, I never have.

 

            I was up again when breakfast came, but fell asleep before Dr. Villanueva got here. She taps her wedding ring on the dirty glass.

            “No bad dreams this time, I hope.”

            “Just fell asleep, didn’t have time.”

            “How are things?”

            “Almost over.” I can tell by her facial expression she was taken aback by my answer.

            “The wit is still going strong, though I see.”

            “So are the dreams. I dreamt about my daughter again last night. It was a good one.”

            “Have you called her?”

            “Nah, wouldn’t be fair. I haven’t talked to anybody, save for Terry and Ricky.”

            Wooooooooo! Hell, yeah!” Terry yelled when he overheard, and Ricky winked at the doctor.

            “Did you write the letter like I asked you too?”

            “No. I couldn’t think of anything to say to her. Maybe I’ll do it later.”

            “Opening up might do you some good. Tell her about your dreams.”

            “She can’t be any older than seven, doc. Why would she care?”

            “You’re her father.”

            “Well, we are one episode of the Maury Povich show short of knowing that for sure, but I still don’t like the idea. Did the 49ers win today?

            “No. And you are going to have to work with me here, Vernon.”

            “I’m dedicated to your cause, doctor.”

She puts her hand through the slot in the plate glass and touches me for the first time, and her eyes flutter. “What do you want to do for today?”

            “Let’s watch Judge Mathis. It’s a new episode.”

            “Okay, Vern. Mathis it is.”

 

 

            After lunch it was time for our weekly exercise in the yard, but I ain’t feeling up to it, so I stay inside. I walk to the rec room in the B4 block. It’s in the process of renovation right now, but I’m me, so I get to go there to hang out as long as there’s a guard to go with me. There are drop cords running all around the room like an orange snake pit, and the walls are a grainy white color. The drop cloth under my feet crackles as I walk to the only treadmill that is plugged in. Only half of the lights work in the room, and I feel like I’m on stage; there’s a huge green fan in the corner blowing dust all over the room. I usually run two or three miles, but today I just keep running. The monotonous hum of the belt and the heartbeat of my footsteps lull me into a dream world. I’ve got a dingy beige towel draped over the controls on the treadmill, so I can’t see how long I’ve been running. I can’t help but think of Phoebe. My whole life I have wanted to be a father, even though I never knew how one was supposed to act. I wanted to go to the zoo, and to birthday parties, and dress up like Santa on Christmas. I wanted to help with the science projects and be overly jealous when she goes on her first date. Maybe, she does know who I am. Maybe she really wants to meet me, and thinks about me as much as I do her. I do know that I most likely deserve the things that are happening to me, and trying to find peace his taken up most of my life. Her mother won’t bring her to see me, but I’d rather her remember me for who I’m not than see me as who I am.

 

 

            At dinner, Mathias brings my food and sits down beside the black and white. He doesn’t say anything for about ten minutes, so I just keep eating.

            “Does it rain much in West Texas?” His eyes stare directly into mine and move back and forth from one to the other.

            “I don’t know, Gerald, I ain’t ever been there. You?”

            “No, I’m from Montana. I’d love to go sometime, though.”

            “Well, don’t sell yourself short Gerald. We all gotta have dreams.”

            “Yeah, I reckon you right Vern. Can I get you anything else?”

            “A shot of Johnny Walker. But, no, I’m good, Gerald, thanks.”

He reaches into his black cargo pocket and pulls out a dull, stainless steel flask with a monogram on it.

            “Here. Why the hell not?” 

            I take the flask and the whiskey barrels down my throat warming my bowels and conjures memories that are seven years old. He didn’t ever talk much, and this gesture was about the most he has ever said to me. Gerald sits in the same spot looking at the TV, which is off, for another five minutes or so, then gets up and leaves. My radio is on the oldies station that usually pisses Ricky off, but he’s reading an Archie comic he got in the mail and laughing out loud to himself.

            “Damn that Jughead is one funny cartoon. I’ll tell you that much.”

            The clock’s giant blue numbers read 3:44 when I turn over the last time. I dream I am trapped in a stockcar after it slammed into the wall at 225 mph. The car is upside and burning slowly. None of my harnesses are coming undone like they are supposed to, but I’m not afraid at all. I can smell the sickening odor of spent fuel, and one of the harnesses is digging into my left shoulder, so I can’t really feel it anymore. I hear sirens and people yelling all around the car, but I can’t make out the words. I take a sip of Gatorade from the liquid system rigged inside my suit and the back of the car rocks from a loud explosion. I see feet scurrying in too many different directions through the checkered, one foot slot to my left. I can tell they’re in a hurry by the tone of their voices, but they can’t help me. I did this to myself.

            “Hey, Gerald.”

            “Hold on Vern. Be there in a minute.”           

           

 

            I was up again when breakfast came. I’m not going to eat much this time because I have to save room for dinner; the last one. Dr. V said the state will only allow me a budget of twenty dollars for my last meal, so she is going to cook some kind of Spanish rice, or something, for me. The only thing I asked for is a piece of cheesecake with strawberries. Cheesecake makes me sleepy. She was late this morning, and didn’t apologize like she normally does. The dark circles under her eyes told me she had been sleeping like I do.

            “Good morning, Vernon.”

            “I suppose. And you? You look tired. Wanna talk about it?”

            “Thanks, but let’s concentrate on you today. Dreams?”

            “Yeah. Trapped in a burning car, no way out, ya know the usual.”

            “And what can we draw from these dreams Vernon.”

            “Look, Doc. I have been here going on seven years now, lifting weights on the same artificial turf, and reading the same lame ass books. But, I can’t remember the last time I was actually here, you dig? They handed my sentence down six years and nine and a half months ago and nobody looked back. Not even me. Some said it was just, and maybe I agree, maybe I don’t. But it is what it is. After seven years of pondering I’m all thought out. Nothing I can think right now can help any of the process in motion around me.”

            “I understand Vernon. I really do. I—“

            “Doc, please don’t try to empathize. That’s the last thing anybody here needs. Right here, on the walk, all we know is reality. And the reality is no matter where my mind is at any given point my body is always in this tube.”

            “Look, Vernon,” she opened her eyes, “I need you to—“

Just then her cell phone went off. The ring tone was an Otis Redding song, Dreams to Remember I think.

            “Listen, Vernon. I’m sorry, but I have to go back to the office. I’ll see you at dinner O.K.?”

            “Maybe, I might have other plans.”

She smiled.

 

            Gerald’s wife made me a macaroni casserole and Gerald decides to give it to me at lunch. He takes me inside the officer’s lounge to eat since Officer White was sick and he was the only one on shift. Gerald lights up a cigarette and the smoke thinly veils the smell of fish and feet in the lounge. The room is maybe the size of two cells, with a double door refrigerator in the corner beside a dirty sink full of plastic utensils and a microwave that hasn’t been wiped clean since I got here. The TV on the end of the table in the middle has got aluminum foil on its antennas, and the football game on is either in the snow or the aluminum needs to be changed. Gerald pulls the aluminum foil off of the macaroni and steam is still rising from it. He sits down and stares at me over a plate of steamed cabbage and venison.

            “You ever fish for steelhead?”

            “What the hell is that, Gerald?”

            “It’s a fish. Mean bastards, too. I used to catch them on the Snake River. Same one Evil Kenevil fooled everybody into believing he was jumping some time back. Had us all snowed. You ever see him?”

            “Yeah, I thought he was full of shit. He always had all this hype surrounding his stunts, but they never lived up to the expectations. Some elaborate set up that looked death-defying in the commercial, but in person it looked like something me and my brother used to do in our back yard.”

            “Yeah, I never liked him much either.” And like someone flipped a switch, Gerald goes back to eating and doesn’t say another word until the bell for lunch sounded.

            Back in my cell, I sit down on the stainless steel toilet and pull my blanket around to create a stall for privacy. I don’t need to do anything, but this keeps Ricky and Terry from talking to me for a while. I remember what I wrote in my senior yearbook about my plans for the future. I said I was going to join the air force and then move to L.A. and become an actor. I was voted most likely to succeed, and me and Angela Morrison were voted prom king and queen. I always thought I’d have plenty of time to accomplish all the things I wanted to do in my life, funny now I’m down to counting minutes. The silence on the walk is numbing.

            When I fall asleep I have one of those dreams that are not really dreams. I’m still on the walk in the very same cell. The darkness of the black and marble cellblock is amplified, and the only thing I can see is pink beams of light darting in through the windows and bouncing off the cell walls. I hear someone calling my name. It’s a female that I almost recognize but can’t make out. The voice is soft and gentle, but there is an angry desperation looming behind it. It sounds as if it’s coming from Gerald’s workstation, but when I move closer to the station it moves. I run into the door of the office and I can hear Gerald on the phone with Dr. Villanueva. Then he presses the buzzer and I hear the high-class doorbell.

 

            Dr. Villanueva is on time for dinner and interrupted Judge Mathis. It‘s a re-run anyway. She didn’t come in talking about work like she usually does; she seemed to be in a daze.

            “I brought the food for you, Vern. I think it turned out well.” She was blinking a lot when she spoke tonight, maybe trying not to cry. She had told me before this was her first assignment; she had high hopes for doing big things in the field of criminology and dreams. I wonder if she’s off to a good start.

            “Hey Vern.” Terry yelled. “I had a dream about you last night. Mathias let you walk right outta here without a fight. Ain’t that something? Of course you got shot at the gate by another guard, but—well, whatever man.”

            “Terry, please. This is my time with Vernon,” the doctor interjected.

            “Oh, yeah, uh, sorry.” He mumbled something under his breath.

            “So, Vernon, how are you holding up?”

            “I been on the walk seven years doc, this ain’t no surprise.”

            “Fair enough.”

 

            After dinner, we just sit and watch TV with the glass cell door open. The rest of the Walk was extremely quiet, even Ricky and Terry, who are playing pinochle in Terry’s cell. Dr. V doesn’t have too much to say either; I even nod off a few times.

            “Well, I have to go Vernon. I can’t stay for the—you know.”

            “Its o.k, thanks for the food. You’ve made me think about a lot in the last three years. Maybe one day you’ll figure out these dreams are just in people’s heads, and nothing ever comes of them.”

            “You have been a real pleasure, Vernon. I’ve learned a lot from you. More than you have learned from me I’m sure. You are going to mean a lot to my work. You are my work.”

            “That’s a shame. You should have made a better choice. But thanks for being around.”

            She hugs me and walks out. I can hear her footsteps on the fake marble floors as she walks away. She stops after a few steps, but then keeps going.  I lean back on the flat checkered mattress atop the white wooden box and light a cigarette. While the smoke swirls, I rub my finger along the crease in between the cinder blocks of the wall. The fan on my nightstand blows air at the poster of Muhammad Ali on my wall, and the poster crackles as it moves slightly. I slide my hand across the wall smearing bible verses, and rub my hands together to feel the chalky residue. The song from Dr. V’s phone has been stuck in my head all day long. The lights flicker several times.

“Hey Vern,” Ricky said with more seriousness in his voice than I had ever heard. “Fuck ‘em, huh. Fuck ‘em.”

            I close my eyes and think about Phoebe, and Dr. Villanueva, and cheesecake, and bible verses. I only have one more cigarette in the pack, so I light it up and watch the smoke rise and then catch a draft and fly outside. Its funny how the tip lights up so bright then turns into dull grey ash and falls off. I hear footsteps on the floor. Father Bill, the priest assigned to the walk, stops short in front of the cell. I can’t see him, but I can tell who it is by the look on Ricky’s face.

“Vernon, are you ready for me?”

I thought about the song on Dr. Villanueva’s phone. I’ve got dreams.

 

Chad Rhoad was a Fiction Workshop student in the spring 2007 semester. He is now at work on a novel.