3rd place – RSR Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction judged by Khanh Ha. Read his comments here.
Doing the Drill
Newman woke before his alarm. Eight years of prison had fixed his biological clock. He went to the kitchen and made coffee. The coffee maker was old, and despite frequent cleanings the French Roast tasted bitter. He poured a mug, took a burning sip, then headed upstairs to collect his laundry. He tossed his worn bath and hand towels into the broken plastic basket full of soiled shirts. After a moment’s hesitation, he tossed in his khakis. He headed to the basement laundry room and began his wash. The soft pounding of the machine was welcome. It killed the silence. He was the first one up, so the music had not begun. Nearly all the residents of the halfway house turned on a radio, a recorder, or an iPod as soon as they woke to hear their music. Rock. Country. Rap. Hip Hop. Show tunes. Salsa or Chopin. It formed the soundtrack of their lives, gave them companionship, solace, maybe the illusion of purpose or direction.
Waiting for his wash, Newman went to the makeshift gym room across the hall. The exercise bike was a lawsuit waiting to happen. But the treadmill had been recently serviced and oiled, and Newman trudged away. After fifteen minutes, he did fifty pushups, a hundred sit-ups, then pumped iron for ten minutes. He put his clothes into the dryer, then returned to the treadmill. Doing pushups Newman remembered high school football. A wide receiver, he was fast and powerful. Lean but heavily muscled, he could blitz past defenders and get into position, but he never seemed to read the quarterback’s moves fast enough. He scored touchdowns but too often missed easy catches that led to fumbles and the occasional interception. He spent the summer after his junior year in France on an exchange program. A faculty advisor from Utah who played on the Eagles practice squad before getting his doctorate drilled Newman during study breaks. His European classmates paused their soccer games to watch the strange ball spiral through the air as Newman dodged imaginary safeties to snatch it from the sky. Back in Wisconsin, he scored four touchdowns in the state semi-finals his senior year. He wanted to go out for football at Madison, but his father, who encouraged him in high school, was dubious. Newman had no problem keeping a 3.8 at Tosa East, but college would be tougher. Preparing for law school, his father argued, was rigorous. He suggested his son take a double major in English and political science. There simply would not be enough time for football. Once in college, Newman joined a campus health club, reading books on the Stairmaster and listening to lecture tapes while pumping iron. In prison he lifted weights, played football, coached basketball, and ran track to kill time. He fought the loneliness of holidays with marathon workouts that kept him from thinking and left him exhausted.
After folding his laundry, Newman went upstairs. He showered, shaved, donned his khakis and blue shirt, and put on his tweed sport coat. He had a final cup of coffee, then headed out. The morning was cool but bright. Newman slipped on his sunglasses, a designer pair purchased on a trip to San Francisco with Chrissy. He remembered the store in Ghirardelli Square and paying $425 with a casual swipe of an AMEX card. After drinks at McCormick and Kuleto’s, they walked to the Cannery where Chrissy bought earrings and T-shirts for nephews. They strolled along Fisherman’s Wharf to Pier 39 with its shops, mimes, and jugglers. Yelping sea lions. Alioto’s. Alcatraz.
At the bus stop Newman joined his fellow commuters. A hunched woman who wore a raincoat, rain or shine, and always lugged a pair of bulging shopping bags from defunct department stores. An obese custodian whose green uniform fit him like sausage skin. For whatever reason he always bore two security badges, one clipped to his belt and another hanging from his neck like press pass. Today the long-haired music student was missing. He and Newman and sometimes chatted about Sondheim and Sinatra, Brahms and Bernstein. His absence was troubling.
When the bus arrived, the driver, sour-faced as usual, released the door, which parted with a Star Trek hiss. Newman took his customary window seat and watched the sunlight dazzle on fluttering gold leaves. Another month, another meeting with his PO. Time on parole was slipping quicker than time in prison. The bus bore him through the center city, a neighborhood that had not changed since his childhood. He found this oddly comforting. Away from Milwaukee eight years, so many things had changed. The new condo towers, office complexes, and expanded museums that delighted city officials and community boosters only made Newman feel more like a stranger, an immigrant in his hometown. The new buildings reminded him how much time he had been away, how many years had been lost. The prison was sixty miles from Milwaukee, an hour’s drive. It was not so much distance but time that separated him from his hometown. Returning, he felt more like a time traveler than an exile. He had seen smart phones and tablets only on television. They seemed like science fiction devices. And he could not get over how conventional and ordinary they seemed to everyone around him. Sitting on the bus, he watched bored teenagers checking email or taking selfies to send friends riding other buses. Newman had gone away in the flip-up phone era. He found the new phones fascinating. But asking to look at someone’s smart phone with curiosity would now seem as outlandish as marveling over a mechanical pencil.
Lacking keys or change, Newman walked through the lobby metal detector without pause, nodding to the thin, bored black security guard who waved him through. He took the elevator to the second floor, pressing the security buzzer and gazing up at the camera until the door clicked open. The small waiting area was empty. It often was. Parolees were famous for missing appointments. There was a reason Alton Jackson treated him with a degree of deference and respect. A former attorney who did the drill, Newman was no doubt a welcome change from the endless disappointments of parolees who skipped appointments, made excuses, or called from jail.
Jackson stuck his head out the door, “Ready, Newman?”
Al Jackson was forty-six, black, trim, but worn. He had hypertension. At times his lips looked purplish, and Newman worried about him. He could not afford to lose anyone. Without friends, Newman relied on familiar faces and voices to keep his loneliness at bay. A casual conversation with the mail man or an interaction with a delivery driver brightened his day.
Jackson beckoned him to sit, then sank into his own chair. He looked at Newman’s file and went over his card. “So, things OK? Any problems? Anything we need to talk about?”
“No. Just keeping busy.”
“You speak with your mother since we talked?”
“Once. I leave messages . . .”
“Remember what I said. That’s not uncommon. Just because they don’t respond doesn’t mean they don’t want to hear from you. The important thing is keeping the lines of communication open, staying in touch.”
Jackson tapped Newman’s file and changed tact, “I have a community service assignment for you.”
“What is it?”
“Giving a talk.”
Newman nodded. He had done a half-dozen talks to ex-offenders about staying clean, signing up for GED classes, keeping up with AA, and applying for jobs. It was an extension of the briefings he gave in prison to the men about to leave on parole. The talks were easy enough and part of the drill. Correctional officials assumed respected inmates made better mentors than prison personnel, and it freed their staff for more pressing concerns. Parole officers believed ex-offenders preferred listening to one of their own. The talks had little effect. Those in prison were too eager to get out to listen, and those on the street too burned-out to care about going back.
“Wauwatosa East needs someone for Parent Student Night next Tuesday. They had somebody cancel. Ten minute talk.”
“About what?” Newman was curious. A suburban high school was not likely to need a lecture on parole violations.
“Drunk driving. Also, these days texting while driving.”
“Why me?” Newman asked softly.
“You went there, right?”
“Tosa East. You went there, right?” Jackson tapped his file.
“Twenty years ago.”
“The media advisor said she saw your GED podcast. She likes the way you talk. Says you got real appeal. Personally, I think she’s got the hots for you,” Al smiled. “Look, I got a standard script from DMV. Just work off this. Like the get-your-GED-pep talk. Standard talking points.”
Jackson handed Newman a stapled printout. “Bob, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it weren’t important. You’ve given speeches before. Just show up, make nice, and do the drill. You’ve done it before.”
Newman glanced down at the first paragraph:
Last year 223 people were killed in drunk driving accidents in Wisconsin, which has the highest rate of drunk driving in the nation. 36% of all fatal accidents in our state involve alcohol, and 26% of adults in our state admit to driving drunk . . .
Newman lowered the paper, his hand trembling. “Al,” he said quietly, “this . . . this is different.”
Newman had not visited Wauwatosa in nine years. He was no longer connected to his hometown and had to consult his map to determine which buses to take. He had repeated the talk to himself for days, so the words became dull with repetition. On the treadmill, over coffee, on the bus, over his salad, between classes he read and reread the speech. He was sure he could pronounce “drunk driver” without hesitation, the phrase having as much poignancy as a weather report. Just do the drill, he told himself. Just do the drill.
The bus glided down Wisconsin Avenue, heading west into the sunset. Rolling from the city to the suburb he grew up in, Newman noticed that amid the rows of new condos and upscale strip malls and the inevitable Starbucks, childhood landmarks remained. Hansen’s Steak House. The Empress of Shanghai. The London Hat Shop, still needing a paint job. The large display windows of Rossbach’s furniture store, a place Newman had never seen anyone enter or leave in his life.
The bus pulled to a stop at 76th Street. Newman alighted, and, glancing at his watch, quickened his step. The trip had taken longer than he anticipated, and he did not want to be late. Do the drill, he repeated to himself. Just do the drill.
Security measures had tightened since he had graduated. The side doors were locked, so he had to enter the main entrance and pass a security guard, who nodded, mistaking him no doubt for a parent or teacher. Newman headed toward the auditorium and smiled when he was flagged down by Ms. Jones. She was grayer and thicker than he remembered, but immediately recognizable.
“Mr. Newman? Jane Jones.” She shook his hand with weary brusqueness.
“Yes. Do you remember me? I was class of . . .”
“So, you’re the attorney talking about driver’s ed? The DMV speech? Binge drinking, texting while driving, whatever?” she asked dismissively.
Her phone buzzed, and she glanced down, sighing. “Good, God,” she muttered, “This night will never end. The talent show went long, and these people handing out awards think they are giving the state of the union address. I hope you can keep your talk short. The kids have school tomorrow, and I’m getting texts from the parents asking when they can leave. We can wait backstage.” He followed her to the auditorium. They slipped up a short flight of steps and stood in an alcove behind a decorative curtain. The brick wall behind them was decorated with faded pictures of guest speakers. Former governors. Milwaukee mayors. Baseball legends. WWII heroes on bond tours. Talent show divas and Hollywood stars. Forgotten feminists and dead senators. Commencement speakers and celebrities. Groucho Marx. Joe McCarthy. Bart Starr. Ira Hayes. Scott Walker. Paul Newman.
Jane Jones glanced at her watch and sighed. Motioning to a director’s chair, she whispered, “You might as well sit. This is going to take a while.” She shook her head, “I could sure use a Scotch,” she muttered. She drummed her nails on the arm of her chair as they watched students receiving civic awards from community groups. One by one, gawky teens bobbed awkwardly across the stage, stoop-shouldered and self-conscious, for the obligatory handshake shot. An athletic award drew a few brief laughs when a hulking black senior bounded across the stage and held his plaque over his head like a WWE wrestler.
“OK, you’re next. Remember, try to keep it short.” Jane Jones stood, brushed her hair, and straightened her skirt. She walked across the stage to the podium, her rimless glasses flashing. “Our next speaker is Robert Newman, Class of ’92. He has an important topic for everyone here . . .”
Newman took a deep breath. Do the drill. Just do the drill.
The welcoming applause was faint, barely polite. Newman took the podium and looked out at the crowd. It had not changed in twenty years. Students sat down front with their friends. Their parents, no doubt embarrassments to the images they so carefully cultivated to impress classmates, were banished to the rear rows.
“Good evening. My name is Robert Newman. You know, we have a lot to be proud of in this state. A team that is 5 and 1 . . .” There was no applause or even a measurable reaction. Normally, any mention of the Packers in Wisconsin sparked an automatic flash of patriotic applause. He glanced down at a pair of kids texting and half a dozen others nodding to earphones and went right to the drill: “ . . . but one thing we can’t take pride in is ranking number one in drunk driving. Last year 223 people were killed in drunk driving accidents in Wisconsin, which has the highest rate of drunk driving in the nation. Thirty-six percent of all fatal accidents in our state involve alcohol, and 26% of adults in our state admit to driving drunk . . .” Newman studied the bored faces, the teens toying with smart phones, the adults making obvious shows of looking at their watches. Heads drooped over tablets and paperbacks. He bit his lip, then slowly folded his speech. The pause caused a few faces to gaze up.
“OK,” he sighed. “I know it’s been a long night. I can see you’re bored. I went to this school, and I was dragged to Parent Student Night. I even got an award one year,” he confessed, shaking his head. His derisive tone drew scattered chuckles. He pointed to the texting students in the first row, “I sat with my friends up front right here, and we made our parents sit in the back. And we had to listen to a lot of stupid speeches and watch a lot of geeks we did not know or didn’t like get a lot of dumb awards we never heard of. We had homework to do and were missing our favorite TV shows.” The mocking tone in his voice caused more faces to look up. Students smiled and nodded. At last some grownup seemed clued in.
“Look,” he sighed, “you don’t want to be here. Well, I don’t either. But I got dragged here tonight against my will. You see, I have to be here, too. It’s part of my community service because I’m on parole for manslaughter,” he stated quietly. He paused a second, then added, “I killed two people.”
Every face in the auditorium looked up. Elbowed by friends, a few removed earphones and looked around, confused. Whispers and nods flashed through the crowd. Despite the lights, he could distinguish the rows of parents leaning forward.
“You know,” Newman said wistfully, “ten years ago they might have invited me to be a commencement speaker. I was a success then. A role model. I worked for a major law firm. I had a lakefront condo, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a thirty-foot sailboat. I charged five hundred dollars an hour for my time. I used to watch Packer games from a skybox in Lambeau with Congressmen and CEO’s. I handled national and international cases. I knew governors. I met senators. I coached lobbyists how to testify before Congress. I helped convince a Chinese corporation to build a factory in Waukesha instead of Kentucky. I had a wall full of awards, a Rolodex jammed with names and numbers of important people. My teachers, my parents, the people who gave awards on Parent Student Night were all so proud of me.
“You know . . . when I went to this school and made the Honor Society, when I scored a touchdown in Camp Randall during the state finals against Appleton,” he shook his head, pressing his lips together, “. . . I never thought I would end up in prison. I never thought I would ever go to prison when I went to Madison and certainly not in law school.”
He picked up the speech and tapped it in his hands. “They sent me here with a lot of statistics to impress you, to get you to take driving seriously. But they are just numbers. And no one thinks they are going to become a statistic. I certainly never did. We all think we are too smart. We all think we can beat the odds. I sure did. I was not a big drinker. I was too busy. I lived on Diet Coke and coffee.
“But one day I had a big win at work. I was the hero. I pulled off a major coup for my firm. My boss gave me an eighty-thousand dollar bonus on the spot. Eighty grand! I was headed to junior partner. Everyone was celebrating. We all had a few drinks. But I was on a high, on a roll, and I wanted more. I had to celebrate. I wanted to fly to the moon! I went out with some friends for a few more. Well, they left, and it was only seven-thirty. Too early to go home. So I went to a nightclub and had some champagne and did a little coke. I walked out feeling like a million bucks. I thought I had it all under control. I wasn’t stumbling. I wasn’t slurring my words. I was just high. Just a little high. And I was going to be responsible and call it a night. I had Diet Coke at the bar to clear my head. I went to the men’s room and threw cold water on my face. I got into my car. I put on my seatbelt. I looked both ways . . . just they teach in driver’s ed. . . pulled onto the street and hit the onramp for the freeway. . . Then I slammed into another car and killed two twenty-year old college students. Two twenty-year old girls.” He stabbed the air with two fingers, then lowered them to point them at a pair of blondes sitting in the fourth row, “just a few years older than you two.” He looked toward the parents in the back of the room, “Some of you have daughters that age.”
He paused, swallowed hard, then looked up. “There are some mistakes in life you can correct. Goof off and fail a test, you can take a makeup. Flunk a course, you can go to summer school. You want to really get your parents upset? Be a rebel. Drop out of school. You can always get your GED. But you make a mistake behind the wheel – drinking, texting, daydreaming?” He shook his head bitterly, “There’s no summer school for that. There’s no pause or rewind button. There’re no mulligans. No delete key. You make a mistake driving, you live with it.
“There was no one to blame but myself. I plead guilty. I gave the girls’ parents all the money I had. I lost my condo, my cars, my boats, turned over my stocks, bonds, bank accounts. But it was never enough. Nothing I can do can ever make up for what I did. I hurt so many people that night. Those girls, their parents, their boyfriends, their classmates. I hurt my colleagues, my clients, my friends, my parents and teachers, and the people who helped and believed in me. I let them all down and disgraced myself.
“It was so unfair. I was so unfair. All those people who loved me . . . and I hurt them. I went to prison and lost my friends, my family. When my father was sick, dying in a hospital I couldn’t be there for him. When my brother got married, I wasn’t at the wedding. He has two kids now. He never told them they have an uncle. I have nephews who don’t even know I’m alive. I cheated myself out of so much, and I cheated those girls out of the rest of their lives. And nothing I can do will ever change that or make it right.
“So I went to prison for eight years. Christmas is very lonely in prison. I spent eight Christmases there. Eight. I lost my self-respect. I lost my soul. I always thought I was special, a good person. I thought I was strong. I thought I was powerful. But I let myself become drunk, selfish, and stupid for maybe just two minutes. Two minutes. And that’s all it took for me to kill two girls and trash my life.”
He pointed to a boy who had smirking earlier. “How much money you got in your pocket? I have four dollars and a bus transfer. A hundred and thirty in the bank.” He shot a glance at a girl who had been whispering to her friends. “I bet when you go on vacation you can’t fit half of what you want to take into your bags. Everything I have in this world fits in two suitcases. A hundred and thirty-four dollars and two suitcases, that’s what I have. That’s my net worth. Without a halfway house, I’m homeless. I make ten dollars an hour teaching GED classes. Ten dollars. Some of you kids probably do better.”
His mind was spinning like a kaleidoscope. Facts, memories, faces, quotations, lines highlighted in books, comments heard and remembered, scenes from movies, Bible verses, paragraphs, jokes, statistics, and poems whirled in his head like leaves in a storm. He was struggling to make sense, fumbling, like a man juggling on a tightrope. He kept hoping he was not slipping into profanity or nonsensically repeating himself. He was shaking and gripped the podium to steady himself.
“In prison you have a lot of time to think. You sit in a concrete box with your thoughts. No phone. No email. No texts. At night in the dark you stare at the shadows on the ceiling.” He shook his head, tearing up. “And things come to you. Lessons you were taught but never learned.
“I read a lot of books in prison. I remembered the books I read in school and read them again. And again. Until they made sense. I kept remembering Ms. Jones’ junior English class. She told us the story of Icarus. Our textbook had the poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ by Auden.” Newman noticed students nodding in recognition. “You remember the painting by Brueghel? It’s probably still on her wall.” A few students broke nervous, knowing smiles. “It’s almost like Where’s Waldo? Where’s Icarus? You see the ship, the ploughman, some guy herding sheep. Mountains in the background, then . . . then if you look closely enough,” he said in an almost whisper “you see those tiny frail legs down in the corner . . .” The poem came back to Newman as if he had written it himself and he found himself effortlessly delivering it from memory:
. . . everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Slowly sweeping his hand across the room as if casting a spell, Newman saw several girls in the front row tearing up.
“You know,” he said softly, “when your parents give you the car keys, they are handing you the wings of Icarus. They can take you very far, very fast. When you take those keys, think of Icarus. Icarus did not die because he disobeyed his father, but because he ignored the laws of physics. The sun melted his wings. He destroyed himself. Hubris, remember that word? Today, we’d call it ego. Impulse. Thinking you know it all. Thinking the rules don’t apply to you. So, it’s not about obeying your parents or doing what the cops want. It’s about you and your future and your dreams. It’s about self-preservation. Be careful, don’t let a drink or a distraction destroy your future. Don’t be Icarus . . . and don’t let yourself become an unimportant failure like me . . .”
He could not go on. His head was reeling. His mouth was dry, but his face was wet with tears. Newman muttered a few words, bowed awkwardly, stumbled from the podium and walked briskly toward the door.
He choked up, his eyes burning. He stumbled down the steps, lurching past Jane Jones who called out something to him, and pushed open the door. Staggering down the corridor, his legs were shaking. He was in a cold sweat for the first time since the accident. Shivering, he felt the goose bumps on his arms while beads of perspiration rolled down his forehead. His stomach clenched, and his mouth salivated suddenly. He found the men’s room and shoved through the door, racing into a stall. Standing over the toilet, he felt his stomach rise and clench. He gasped, he coughed, he panted. His throat burned and a strange metallic taste formed in his mouth. He bent over, but nothing came up. His stomach cramped and spasmed painfully. He felt hot and dizzy like a man with sunstroke. He left the stall, his shirt damp with perspiration. At the sink he washed his face with cold water as another spasm tore through him. He looked into the mirror, studying his panicked eyes, wondering if he were having a heart attack. He had seen a custodian stricken in prison. Bent over his throbbing machine, he was polishing the gym floor, when he contorted and collapsed, his face turning white then blue. Incarcerated physicians rendered first aid as the guard shouted for a crash cart, “Man Down! Man Down!” He remembered the janitor’s purple tongue protruding between swollen lips. A convicted internist was doing chest compressions when the heavyset nurse arrived with oxygen and hypos. Too late.
The spasms subsided. Newman washed his face again. There was no place to sit, so he leaned against the wall and began to sob. He wanted to get back to his room, to his bed. Why did Jackson ask him to do this? Why? Hadn’t he been punished enough? Was it necessary to humiliate him, to ask him to humiliate himself, expose himself, degrade himself like some carnival freak? Was that the point? Why not strip, crucify him, and post him on a median strip in warning?
Newman left the men’s room and walked to the exit. The chill air against his damp shirt made him shiver, and he felt swamped by a fresh wave of nausea. He tried the door, but it had locked behind him. He walked half a block, his mouth salivating. A burning acid welled at the back of his throat. He went into an alley and leaned against a dumpster. He tried to vomit, but nothing came up, except the strange metallic taste. Stroke symptoms?
A minute passed, then another. Newman limped from the alley. He felt drained, exhausted, ill. Mercifully, the bus shelter contained a bench. He sat, rocking back and forth. His stomach felt like he had done a thousand sit-ups. It felt so tight, he wondered if he could even stand upright.
Newman shivered and waited, his mind spinning with thoughts. His rage at Jackson faded. He only wanted to go home. Home. What did that word mean to him? A pillow on an assigned bed in an assigned room. A cab rolled past. It might as well been a private jet. He had four dollars. The ride home would cost over twenty.
The bus finally arrived. Newman sat near the door. The bus slipped south, rolling through the Village, a cluster of brick and stone specialty shops and European bistros. Stores he had shopped with his mom to buy bread and cheese for family parties were dark but still there. Le Reve Patisserie and Café Hollander where he dined with Chrissy or lunched with suburban clients. The buildings slid by like abandoned film sets, the faces in the lit windows like so many extras from his past.
At the halfway-house, he signed himself in and mounted the worn stairs, empty and troubled. Lying on his cot, he remembered his first night in prison. He tried to envision something lighter to help him drift to sleep – a sailboat skimming the lake, a multi-colored hot air balloon sailing away, away, over trees of gold and green . . . but closing his eyes he could only remember the cold concrete cell and sweeping searchlights.
Mark Connelly’s fiction appeared in Indiana Review, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, and Digital Papercut. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes (2005), which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.