You have to be quick on your feet, and for Brian and me, even at fourteen we were ready to jump. A week before we were caught in Wolfe’s Sporting Goods, or I was caught, we were standing in the driveway of Brian’s house and a police squad car pulled up.
“Know anything about a bicycle that went missing down the street?” he said.
“No sir.” Brian looked at me, and I shook my head no. But the garage door was open, and there was the bike, pink streamers flowing from the handlebars, a yellow and pink striped banana seat, with a twenty-four inch sissy bar and a girl’s configuration, the center bar dropped in a curve. The cop took off his sunglasses and nudged his chin toward the bike. “I don’t know whose bike that is,” Brian added.
“Let’s just throw it in the trunk then, and I will return it to the young lady to whom it belongs. Does that sound fair?” The officer looked at the two of us. I nodded yes, my head pounding with blood, adrenaline coursing through me. And since I’d had no idea that Brian had stolen a bike I was angry.
We watched the squad car drive away. Brian slapped my hand in the air, but I was kind of disturbed. I couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t worth it. That’s why we got into trouble.
Brian had a shock of twisted golden curls growing from his pate. His nose had been broken, and he had a classical beauty, a smile wide, a chin angled and dimpled, and finely shaped ears, when you could see them. He was bigger than I was, and we had become friends when some kid punched me and Brian helped me get home while I held my shirt to my nose. We were inseparable.
I was skinny and small, which is how I later came to be the one to shimmy up the wall of Wolfe’s Sporting Goods and snip the grate off a vent and climb in. We were fourteen-year old boys there to steal skis. Within minutes of me thumping on the floor from the twelve-foot drop, police spotlights shined through the front door, and I could see growling dogs on leashes. The sound of Brian’s car (we stole his mom’s red Buick LeSabre) pulling away on the gravel made my heart sink. I knew I was done for and walked out with my hands up.
Thirty cops with their lights flashing and walkie-talkie radios blaring and scratching held their guns out as I walked out with my hands up, dogs on leashes growling at me. I was sitting in the back of a squad car with my hands cuffed behind my back when the cop from Brian’s driveway walked up.
“Stolen bike buddy, how’s the life of crime going?” he said. He got on his radio and two cars from the parking lot of Wolfe’s peeled out, presumably over to Brian’s house. They arrived as Brian pulled into his driveway.
As we were being processed at The Salt Lake Juvenile Detention Center Brian shot me a violent look. I figured he thought I’d rolled over on him. I looked away. I’d never been in jail, and I was curious. I was relieved we were in different cells. It was around three in the morning, and things were moving pretty slowly. The fluorescent lights buzzed, the burnt yellowed ends of them seeming ready to stop giving light at any moment and the variation of the power flow caused the light to vary, and with the institutional thick gray painted bars, the gray and green cell, and the guard sleeping with his hat over his eyes and his feet on the desk, it was all like a movie. A transistor radio talked about the news. A dusty electric fan rotated back and forth. The linoleum floor was weirdly streaked. And Brian was over there in the cell across the way making menacing eye contact whenever possible.
Suddenly he started screaming and banging on the floor with his socked feet, “Fuck you, fuck you,” he hollered staring me down. I just didn’t say anything; I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. He shouldn’t have stolen that bike. But I didn’t want to say that either, right?
The guard marched over and opened his cell, grabbed him by the neck, and took him through a locked door. Slam.
The weird ticks and clicks and flicks flickered. Finally a woman with deep blue eye shadow, her brown hair wound up tighter than a centrifuge drum on a jet engine brought me through a locked door, into a hallway, down a row of locked doors to my own small cell: two beds and a sink and a white porcelain toilet.
“Here you go. Wake up is at six forty-five,” she said, and she stood there while I acquainted myself.
There was a small rough cotton towel and a bar of soap and a toothbrush on top of the bed, which bed was covered in a coarse gray wool blanket that was too itchy to lie down directly upon. I was tired and pulled back the cover to jump into a grayed white sheet and lay my head on the flat lifeless pillow.
The guard shut the door gently, but it still made a clanking noise, and when she threw the deadbolt with the key, six flanged prongs slid into permanent place. Then the lights went out with a vaguely hollow echo of a click, and the latchkey, and the flanges out and the flanges in and her steps clicked fainter down the hall, then another jangle of latchkey then flange squeak slam flange. Then it was silent. Then it was morning with a lot of noises and metal doors opening and deep bellowing voices saying, “Rise and shine, faggots.”
Steps got closer to my door and I could hear a guard approach and tap, clanked the lock open, pushed the door open, slapped a tray of food on the unmade bed and motioned me to get moving with a snap. “You got five minutes to eat and get ready for your hearing. Ready?” I was confused. I picked up the stale cold toast and took a bite. I drank some of the milk. The eggs were congealed and seemed like not actual eggs. “I’m taking it you’re done with that?” But without waiting for an answer he grabbed me by the arm stopping long enough for me to slip on my laceless sneakers and out the door we walked. Down the hall all the cell doors were open, except two that were closed. I wondered if Brian was behind one of those.
One final metal door opened and a rush of cool open air washed into the mold-stale institutional yellow painted foyer of the Juvenile Courthouse. As we approached the courtroom I could see my mother looking upset. She wore these big amber colored sunglasses and her hair was up in a messy puff the way she did, arms crossed, whatever. I avoided eye contact. My guard and I breezed past her and thirty other people and sat in the front row off to the right side.
After a few minutes, a bailiff shouted: All rise for Judge Birrell. All rose. A little thin haired man with red patches of psoriasis on his head and face appeared at the bench in black robes. He was a small pink head sticking out of the top of a black deflated hot air balloon with wide spread eyes and strangely large ears. He read my name and I stood up. No one told me what to do, so I stood there. The thought of having an attorney never crossed my mind, but I realized that somehow I had no rights, being a juvenile. I didn’t expect rights, either. I just didn’t have them, and it was a thought that went through my mind at that moment. He read through my report and looked at me. Then he kind of double-looked at me for a long moment; we looked deeply into each other’s eyes before he asked me: “Did you break into this Wolfe’s Sporting Goods Store, son?”
“Yessir,” I said. “They caught me right inside.” I smiled.
“No reason to get smart, son. I suggest you cool your heels for a bit.” And he hammered his hammer and that was that; they led me past my mother, who was in tears holding her hands to her mouth, out of the courtroom and back to my cell. Brian was there in a hallway in handcuffs. He looked at me with plenty of rage. I avoided eye contact and kept walking with a push of assistance from my guard who noticed the tension. “Keep these boys separated,”he said to the desk guard. In a minute I was back in my cell lying on the scratchy blanket staring at the ceiling.
After awhile I realized I hadn’t eaten except the bite of stale toast before court, and after awhile they brought in a tray. “You eat by yourself for a couple days,” the guard said. He was faceless. A man in an olive uniform with hands attached to a tray of powdered mashed potatoes and canned gravy with a fried piece of chicken and some frozen peas and carrots steaming away. On the side were two slices of stale white bread and a pat of ice-cold butter on a square of thin perforated cardboard folded up a bit on each side. One pat, two pieces of bread, cold butter, a conundrum between hunger and style, eat a clod of butter on one piece and the other dry, or somehow hold up and spread it evenly on both pieces. The bread was the only thing that looked at all edible. I ripped one piece trying to put the cold butter on, then kind of warmed the butter up in my fingers, which left a black mark since I hadn’t washed my hands in two days. I hadn’t had a shower either, nor seen the outside, except the courtyard out my tight-knit chain link window. At some point the words “solitary confinement” entered my awareness, and at some point I realized solitary confinement wasn’t so bad. Better than having to matriculate with Brian and the Apes. After some hours they brought me dinner and I lay down on my scratchy gray blanket, which was beginning to be a comfort, like the itch became a heavy pressure on the surfaces it touched, and the itch transformed into a comfort of sorts.
Perhaps it was the third night. The lights were out and the sounds were few when suddenly in the dark soundscape you could make out sound. What was it? It was like a toilet flushing over and over, then the sound of water trickling, very faintly. The trickling was a small sound over the flushing, easy to question and dismiss until water began flowing under the cell door and crept toward my cot, reflecting moonlight and fluorescent jail light re-reflected off a window in the courtyard. It was steel chain link light, flickering and vague, but the water kept creeping along carrying its little flicks of light with it. After an hour it was at least an inch deep, and suddenly there were metal doors slamming open against walls and boot steps running, splashing down the hall. There was muffled yelling from deep-voiced men, and a thud, what sounded like a body being thrown against a wall and a muffled groan. Then it was quiet. Then the water receded back under the door faster than it came in. Then all was quiet.
That must be Brian. I thought about our friendship. From the time he helped me with my bloodied nose, what great friends we were. Inseparable. His mother made me dinner four out of seven nights. We tripped on motion sickness pills together. We took acid and smoked bong hits from PVC pipes. We tracked through each other’s tracks in the snow in the winter, and jumped off giant gravel piles in the summer. Then, one night we were sitting having Thanksgiving dinner, and it was snowing, and Brian said let’s go out in the pitch black and play in the snow and he led the way. We smoked a joint. I followed and he led us to Hare Hollow restaurant, a place that had a giant woodsy area in the back with a buck and a doe and some rabbits and tortoises and we would go back there sometimes and play among the animals. But this Thanksgiving night he said, “Wait here,” by the restaurant dumpster, and I waited. A window crashed. And then nothing. Then footsteps running and him yelling, “Let’s go let’s go.” He threw me a zipper bag and as I ran I unzipped it. It was full of money. More than a thousand as I ran and counted. And in the end it was two thousand, seven hundred. And we split it. Partners. We hit that place two more times before Billy Nunley hit it and got caught and blamed for everything.
We had a little spree of crime right there in Holladay Utah, hitting the Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Mr Brake, and the ill-fated Wolfe’s job. At some point in the night, before I drifted off to sleep all cuddled in my scratchy blanket, (my only reminder that I was a human with feelings), I thought, Brian is not a good friend. I wondered to myself what a good friend is. Maybe a good friend is one who is not committing felonies, I thought. But it was more than that. I had followed. It was a weakness. It was an acknowledgment of weakness. I remember realizing that neither Brian or I had fathers, and I remember realizing that night how Brian was as close to a father as I had, and how ridiculous it was. He was slightly bigger and slightly stronger at the moment. But there was nothing written that said he was the leader of the pack. Why was I the follower?
This boy, Tad Erikson, said something once. We were playing foosball at the arcade and I lost and I said I always lose and he said be a man. I said I was weak and he said never say that again.
This was months before the Wolfe’s job, but in the middle of a different crime spree. Brian and I were criminals at fourteen, selling weed, and drugs, and vandalizing things. We sniffed glue and paint. We did so many stupid things and I was having the time of my life, kind of. But, really… here I was. I looked around in the dark. I knew Brian was in pain. And I knew it was self-inflicted pain. And I was in jail! The smell of cleaning chemicals. The sound of metal. The aura of suffering and maladjustment. And I knew that I was not having that. And I knew I would do anything I had to in order to survive. I knew I was smart enough to move the needle the other direction.
In the morning a guard woke me up with a tap on the door. He opened the painted steel door and stood there impatiently while I figured out to grab my little towel and toothbrush and fall into line against the wall with everyone else. Brian was not there, so maybe it was him last night who caused the flooding. It felt good to be out of my cell and in a line against a brick wall. The guard said move and everyone moved through a hallway, through an unlocked door, and into a white tiled shower room. Everyone went in single file and everyone came out the other side with new clothes in their hands, folded, and the postage stamp size towel covering their private parts with one hand. Everyone got dressed, brushed their teeth at a big stainless steel sink then fell into line. Teenage boys in various stages of puberty, acne, and tough-guy stances stood there waiting for something.
As I brushed my teeth, I noticed a look in my eye that I hadn’t ever been aware of. Looking around at my surroundings I thought: this is jail. I was aware of a determination that this would all be over, and I would never be back to jail. Something about the look in my eye was aware of the circumstance, and its passing nature, and the overall sense that the universe was ok with me. It occurred to me that friends are everything, and if you have bad ones, you wind up doing very dumb things. Anyway, I must have been gazing too long and one of the guards pushed me off my stance and said, “get moving, retard.”Then he called me a faggot, and pushed me against the wall with the rest of the pimply boys.
We were led back to our cells and the guard yelled out: school, fifteen minutes. There was a lot of shuffling out there in the hallway. I sat there on the scratchy gray blanket looking at the sink. I noticed a piece of paper explaining a bunch of stuff I wondered about, like when we eat, and going to the school part. I wondered if it had been there all along, but it must not have been. I picked it up and glanced at it then wadded it up and tossed it in the sink. Swoosh; right in. I retrieved it and went back to my bed and swooshed another. When the guard opened my door for breakfast, I was bouncing back and forth like Kareem Jabar retrieving that paper. The guard rolled his eyes and walked me down the hall to the cafeteria, where two dozen young juvenile delinquents were chowing down stale white bread toast, powdered scrambled eggs, canned jam, frozen sausage, and powdered juice. I was last, and the pickings were slim, but I managed to get a plateful of food.
Everyone cleared their tray and lined up, but I was signaled to come along. We walked the hallway, the smell of ammonia and stale mop water permeating the senses, with a hint of the cafeteria steamed eggs and toast smell wafting at nose-height. We took an unusual left, a turn I hadn’t taken before, and we were in the library. Get a book, the guard said.
I stared at a pile of books, and a few stacks filled with books about race cars, dinosaurs, text books, like pre-algebra, basic geometry, horses, dog breeds, and adult fiction. After flipping through books that were as soft as velvet from being flipped through, I came upon Deliverance by James Dickey. It seemed good; there was a beautiful golden sunset and a canoe on the cover.
“Can I have some paper?” I asked.
“What kind of paper?” the guard asked, as if I were the first person to have ever asked for paper.
“Regular paper that you write on?” I asked, like, is that ok?
“I’ll see what I can do,”he said, and he motioned me to sit down. I sat on a bright orange bent wooden chair with rivets and chrome legs, and started reading my new book. It was great from page one, and I forgot where I was when the guard came back with a stack of ten or twenty pieces of typewriter paper. He took me to my room and I couldn’t wait to get in there.
I rolled onto the bed before the clanking bolt of the door was halfway through and slapped the pile of paper and the book down on the pillow. I crumpled up six or seven pages into balls and started tossing them into the sink, keeping score in my head. I did that for several hours. Then I started reading Deliverance, and I was transported into the North Georgia woods and a whole bunch of crazy things that I never imagined or knew about.
I wasn’t shocked, because I had heard and read about things people had done, adults, and it was pretty endless what kinds of things you could expect to see. Like Hitler. Like Charles Manson. Like my drunk neighbor firing his pistol off in the air at night. Like my own mother doing things that I found distasteful. Or, in the papers, you’d see a kid murdered or kidnapped. Or there was a commercial on TV of a child in India or China with their ribs bulging out and a hoard of flies on their face. Apparently anything was possible.
Deliverance was intensely disturbing. Hillbillies raping city boys. Crossbow arrows flung through necks. Disposing of bodies. It was shocking to see what people did. Once, when I was younger, I read a book called Stone Face about Jews in post-WW2 Paris. Some thug jammed a broken bottle up inside a woman and I was so shocked to read that a thing like that was possible I walked around in my head for days. I think it was one of those times when my mom was “concerned” that I wasn’t “engaging”. . How could people do these things to other people? But, they did, and that idea began to really sink in. Just because you don't know it’s possible, it doesn’t mean anything except the fact that you don’t know. You probably don’t know anything! You probably never will! And you probably don’t need to pretend to know, because what is the point of that? Reading Deliverance was just the perfect dose of: wake up boy, anything is possible. Only the strong survive. Get ready for some weird shit in life, because this world is filled with the most beautiful and the most horrible people and the beautiful ones can get horrible and the horrible ones can be so beautiful. The whole idea was upsetting.
Perfecting the paper-wad throw helped me to meditate on the vastness of my ignorance. There was a moment that I was very worried about all the bad things that could happen. Like, being raped. It had never occurred to me that as a man I could be raped, and yet… And so many other things just seemed too awful to imagine, things that kids my own age had to deal with. At some point I began to realize that I cherished my time alone in a cell. At least I was safe. At least I was safe. At last I was safe.
After a few days the, routine was as follows: up at seven, brush teeth and shower. Go to breakfast. Go back to cells. Some kids went to classroom for two hours. Then back to cells. I sat in my cell for eight days before they began to take me in the classroom. There was never a thought about how long I would be in Juvenile Detention. I thought maybe I would be there forever. Or, it would be over when it was over, but this is where I was now.
While I was not a very good performer in my regular school, it was mostly because of boredom and absolute sarcastic desperation to get some engagement out of them: teachers, vice principals, janitors, and fellow students alike. I would learn the material and keep up with it, but I was bored. Here in Juvenile Detention, what they were teaching to teens was literally first grade material. It does not need to be gone into, not pointed out that education in juvenile detention is a low priority.
Deliverance was finished in a couple days, and I read some other books, and played some basketball with some delinquents and sort of fell into a routine. Boys would be there for a few days, and gone. I never heard a single word about my status, and I began to wonder what I had to do. My mother visited me once or twice, and she said she would tell me when she knew something. I told her it wasn’t funny if she was purposely making me stay there. I informed her calmly that I had actually learned a lot in there, and she seemed to be hopeful about that, as hopeful as the poor, beaten down mother of an out of control teenager can be. That false inkling of hope that, no, he won’t grow up to be a gangster, even though he’s been in jail and he’s only fourteen goddamn years old. It’s false because it doesn’t end well, the sentence. Like, we know how this whole thing is going to go. When you’re that teen, you pretty much realize that everyone can go fuck themselves, I can wait this thing out better than you can since it’s my life. And I knew that being in jail was not good. I actually had changed.
One day, my door swung open and there was a kid there, blanket and towel in hand, to bunk with me. I had been there six weeks. I could sink a paper in the sink basket from anywhere, any angle in the room.
I’m Zeke, he said. He sat there and started telling me why he was in and asking me why I was in and I didn’t really feel like the whole conversation but had it anyway. After some chit-chat, he reached his hands behind him into his pants, all very casually, and dug out what turned out to be a baggy with some marijuana in it. I was excited and he could see that. And after that we were friends. I taught him to play league paper-ball, and we plotted how to get some aluminum foil from the cafeteria in order to smoke the weed that night. The potatoes or the macaroni pans were wrapped in foil. The guards would be happy if I changed it for them. I was right, and easily grabbed a wad of foil and stuck it down my pants.
Ass-weed in a dick-pipe, my bunkmate, Ezekiel, kept saying. Does that taste like ass to you, he said, coughing into his scratchy blanket. But we smoked in peace, no one said a word, neither fellow inmates or guards. It felt great. We still had enough for the following night. We both lay in bed looking at the ceiling, and Zeke kept saying, “Wow, I can’t believe I am in here again.” And I kept saying, “I wonder if I will ever get out.” I just kept thinking to myself, Every single mother fucker says he’s never coming back here. I just can’t do it. Even though I was stoned, I had tears in my eyes.
Friday night was movie night. The feature for the evening was The Graduate, with Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman and boy was it good. I never knew a story like that was possible. The things people did behind closed doors was continuously astounding. I had had sex once, and it was pretty frightening, really. I was thirteen and she was twelve and there was a movie projector blinking and making the noise movie projectors make, with a 1970s porn movie flickering on the wall of Brian’s basement bedroom She and I were on the floor and Brian was up in his bed. I don’t remember hardly a thing about it except how horrible it was and how mean I felt the next day, and how horrible I felt about feeling mean. I felt so badly for the girl; it was her first time, too. Anyway, watching that film, The Graduate, I understood that things were always complex in relationships. I could really relate to Ben, the main character. He was lost.
I went back to my room, Ezekiel was there waiting to smoke the last of the butt-weed with me. We played paper-ball to twenty-one in the dark, and went to sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, I was taken aside while everyone else lined up for classroom. There was no explanation, just a silent walk back to my cell. Ezekiel was not there; his stuff was gone. I thought for sure he had been pinched for smoking weed and I was next. When the guard came and opened the steel door and said “Judge Birrell would like to see you in private,”I thought I was done for. There was some rumor that Brian had been sent to a boy’s ranch, and I figured they would send me to the same place, just for torture.
The guard led me to a cell off the main corridor, and Judge Birrell was waiting inside, sitting on a cot with his legs crossed, in a tweed jacket, a yellowish shirt, and a black tie. The bottom of the one shoe I could see was worn down in concentric circles, the center one not quite worn through to the other side, but I could tell it was soft to the touch.
“Sit down,”he said, pointing at the cot across from the one he was on. I sat down; I felt an uncomfortable energy in the air. Like, my hair was standing up from some inert electrical charge, and I realized in the same moment the guard had latched the bolt on the door. ‘Oh God,’ I thought, ‘This is it. I am stuck with a pervert.’ But I dismissed it as an overactive imagination. Then he put his hand on my knee and smiled. His teeth were small and yellow. My heart was pounding in my chest and my mouth was dry. “I’m just going to ask you some questions,” he said. “You don’t mind?” he smiled, seeming sweet and caring.
“No problem,” I said, bracing myself for god knows what. Was it worth smoking weed in my cell for this? No. I can’t tell you how stupid I felt.
“Do you masturbate?” he asked, casually, but officially as if the Utah State Board of Juvenile Delinquent Psychology Department scripted the questions he was about to ask.
My mind was moving quickly. What did he want to hear? “Not that often,” I said, “maybe three or four times a day?” I looked to see if that was what he wanted to hear, and he seemed pleased, but moved right on to the next question.
“Has anyone ever masturbated you?” He could see I was a little confused, “done it for you? To you? You know?”
“Aha,” I said. “Well, not really. My neighbor’s wife watches me when my mom goes out and, well…” I stopped and looked at the ground.
“Yes?” he said, “what is it?”
“Well, she has touched me a few times, but that’s all.”
He seemed to like that answer, too. I was getting the idea that if I seemed confused, but earnestly asking if this was ok, he was happy.
“Have you ever had sex with an animal?” he asked, sort of breathily.
“Is a chicken an animal?” I asked. He smiled with his eyes and confirmed, and I confirmed, “I did do that once.”
“Ah, youth,” he reminisced.
That was pretty much the interview.
The next day I was out.
I hadn’t seen Brian for nearly a year, when one day, a kid I knew from another school came and knocked on my door. “Let’s go smoke a joint,”he said. I followed him to the field, and Brian was waiting there. He punched me in the nose, said, “Thanks for turning me in,”and walked away with his four friends, leaving me with a bloody nose, but free. We were never quite friends again, but I always had a place in my heart for the way he helped me when I had been punched in the nose at school that day we became friends, those years ago.
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