Whenever he was troubled in prison, Newman buried himself in books. Television was not a soothing distraction. Bored inmates preferred action movies featuring busty blondes and car crashes. The sound of sirens and the flash of red lights disturbed him, as did the chorus of cheering prisoners who, strangely enough, rooted for the cops blowing away bad guys. Instead, Newman would slip into the library and select a book at random and force himself to read it cover to cover. Kafka or Stephen King. The Castle or Carrie. At times he invented homework assignments and immersed himself in a historical event or controversy as if writing a research paper for Sidney Feldman’s Dissent and Civilization course. FDR’s Rainbow Plan. Arguments over the Second Front. Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur. Al Capone and the Berlin Wall. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Jimmy Hoffa, and Gettysburg. Enron and Climate Change. Nazi saboteurs in Long Island and the Stock Market Crash. Prohibition and the Production Code. Lincoln’s assassination. George Lincoln Rockwell’s assassination. Watergate and Lindbergh. Roosevelt’s last year. Howard Hughes and Robert Moses. Jack Kerouac and Mae West. The history of television. Microbe Hunters and Moby Dick. Moon landings and movie stars. The Rosenbergs and Jack Ruby. Conspiracy theories and obscure political movements. Trivia and world events. Reading about global issues, famous people, and ancient battles diminished his own troubles into insignificance. Newman drugged himself with books until he emerged from the library tired and disoriented but finally able to sleep, his mind freed, temporarily, of guilt.
Now on parole, he faced the terrible freedom of choice. What to do? What next?
He filled his days manning the desk at the halfway house, teaching GED classes for ten dollars an hour, and sorting donations for a food pantry. Alone, without family or friends, he was an exile in his hometown. The members of the bar association, his pals at the yacht club, law school alumni, and former neighbors had long since forgotten him or relegated him to a cautionary tale. The once promising attorney who, celebrating a big win, got drunk and slammed his Mercedes into a Fiesta and killed two college girls.
Faced with a free afternoon, he was restless and lonely. Seeking solace, he walked to the university, its familiar buildings reminding him of happier times. He crossed Kenwood Avenue and passed through the student union to the flat, open concourse. The block-long Golda Meir Memorial Library looming before him contained two million books, an endless Lethe of words, sentences, the ideas of others.
Newman took the broad steps to the third floor and walked up and down the aisles of the history section. He pulled down a book about the Tet Offensive and spent forty-five minutes reading about Khe Sanh, LBJ, Westmoreland, Hue, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Cronkite. Two generations ago, this campus was filled with long-haired, moustached students in jeans and field jackets passing out leaflets, protesting the draft, and following the events that might drive them to enlist, resist, flee to Canada, or just study harder to maintain their student deferments. Bored, Newman moved on and paged through a book about Stalingrad, glancing at grainy photos of contorted frozen bodies strewn among abandoned trucks and burned out tanks. He scanned a few titles about the July 20th Plot, then walked past several aisles until he found a book about Michael Collins. He remembered Con Molloy inviting him to see the movie in Madison. Molloy and his date, both Irish, watched with rapt attention. Newman, on the other hand, was too enamored with his date’s breasts to follow Liam Neeson’s political speeches. The black girl was a history major and took the film seriously. Only after a few Guinnesses, which Newman hated, did the conversation at the Irish pub on State Street move beyond the Easter Rising, the IRA, Fianna Fail, and DeValera to what Newman was interested in. The girls suggested they head to their apartment on Mifflin Street for some dope. Newman was not so much interested in the weedy pot but Janelle. Memories of her tight blouse and tighter jeans came to him. Gripping her firm full rump as she bit his neck in orgasm. Newman put the book down and briskly walked across to the north side of the building.
He recalled a tattered collection of short stories an inmate lent him his first year in prison. There was a story about a man on a ledge in New York and one about a bored bank clerk given the chance to escape to a parallel planet. Escape stories fascinated the incarcerated. What was the title? Newman paced back and forth, contemplating his dilemma, using a technique from his attorney days when he struggled to recall an obscure precedent by association. He would close his eyes and let his mind land on a word or image to start a chain of references. . . . The White House. . . . President Bush. . . . Nixon . . . Lincoln. . . . President Monroe — Great Pacific Mutual v. Monroe! This challenge gave him a chance to test his memory. He recalled the book’s red cover, the Fifties kitsch design, even the price – 35 cents. He closed his eyes, and the title came to him – The Third Level. He was walking toward a computer to look up the author when a name came to him. Jack Finny. Newman checked the computer catalog: Jack Finney. Off by a letter.
He found the book in the stacks. A slim black hardcover with coffee-stained pages that had been last checked out in 2002. Wanting to kill the memories of that night with Janelle, Newman sat a slanted table near a window and began reading “Of Missing Persons”:
Walk in as it though it were an ordinary travel bureau, the stranger I’d met at a bar had told
me. Ask a few ordinary questions—about a trip you’re planning, a vacation, anything like that.
Then hint about The Folder a little, but whatever you do, don’t mention it directly; wait till
he brings it up himself. And if he doesn’t, you might as well forget it. If you can.
Because you’ll never see it; you’re not the type, that’s all. . . .
Newman sank into the story, becoming Charley Ewell, the bored bank teller in Fifties Mad Men Manhattan who reads too many books and is sick of dining alone. A man of “ordinary abilities, looks and thoughts,” he takes the stranger’s advice and goes to a “pseudo-modernized” office building on West 42nd Street on a drab rainy day. Newman followed Charley through the brass-framed glass doors, past the lumpy green plaster walls to the antique grilled elevator that rattles upward to the Acme Travel Bureau and the gray-haired man behind the counter. Charley – after some banter about trips to Buenos Aries and Bermuda – mentions that he seeks not a vacation but an escape from selling his days, from cities and newspapers, from worry and fear – “from the world.”
After a few questions, the gray-haired travel agent produces a dark blue folder resembling a Christmas card inviting tourists to “Visit Enchanting Verna! . . . where life is the way it should be.” The high-definition photos feature lifelike textures and colors Charley had never seen before. Verna, a parallel planet, offers Earthlings escape to “a place where no one worried or was ever afraid.” Charley studies the faces of people relaxing on a beach, noting their “look of permanent relief.” Verna, the travel agent tells him, provides all the conveniences of modern life – medicine and appliances – without the distraction of cars, radios, and television. Instead of TV, there are conversations, shared meals, jokes, and parties. Charley learns that among the earliest escapees from Earth were Ambrose Bierce and Judge Crater. The travel agent then informs him that he must decide on the spot whether to go to Verna or not. He cannot study the folder at home or take a few days to ponder the consequences of a new life on a distant planet. Charley takes the plunge, and the travel agent produces a yellow one-way ticket. The price, Charley learns, is everything he has in his pocket. “We once sold a ticket for thirty-seven hundred dollars,” the agent tells him. “And we sold another just like it for six cents.” Charley lays eleven dollars and seventeen cents on the counter, takes the cardboard ticket, and follows the directions to a dumpy bus depot west of Broadway. In the shabby waiting room he joins a stenographer, a black family, and a middle-aged executive. A battered bus arrives and transports them through Manhattan to an isolated farm on Long Island. The driver, armed with a flashlight, guides the passengers into a dark barn, instructs them to wait, and wishes them luck. Sitting in the chill empty building, Charley suddenly senses he has been swindled. Angered, he slides open the heavy door and exits. As he beckons the others to follow, the dim barn suddenly fills with light. For an instant Charley glimpses the green forests and rolling streams of Verna then the barn goes black. The passengers vanish, departed to the new world, leaving only the yellow confetti of their punched tickets on the earthen floor.
When Charley returns to the travel agency, the clerk refunds his eleven dollars and seventeen cents, then turns to help other customers, refusing to speak him. “Walk in as though it were the ordinary agency it seems,” Charley advises, “Then hint about The Folder a little, but don’t mention it directly. . . then make up your mind and stick to it! Because you won’t ever get a second chance. I know, because I’ve tried. And tried. And tried.”
Escape from selling your days, from reading too many books, from the mundane and boring, from fear and loneliness. In prison escape took many forms. Anything to fill your mind and make the time pass. Anything to erase the evils of the past and the uncertainties of the future. Newman remembered an inmate named Weber who kept a science fiction and fantasy blog, printing and mailing hard copies of stories and articles for his wife to scan and post on Weber’s Web. He shared some his favorite pieces with Newman, who found most of them unreadable. But one caught his attention. Weber went to college with Don Stein who worked on the Chicago Tribune and wrote fiction on the side. He was widely published online and had won a few awards. Stein’s best piece was titled “Reckoning,” a story about Jimmy Bergman, an NYU student in the Eighties who becomes obsessed with finding Erich Vogel, the Nazi war criminal who tortured and killed his grandfather. Bergman skips classes to locate obscure documents, mails letters to Interpol and Israel, spends his vacations chasing dead-ends, going into debt to fly to Vienna and Warsaw. Simon Wiesenthal gives him a copy of Vogel’s file and photographs shot in Argentina in the Sixties. A Polish investigator shares additional information. An Israeli journalist faxes him Vogel’s most recent alias, Jorge Samsa. After graduation Bergman passes up a Wall Street job to stay on the hunt, delivering pizzas and selling bootleg videos to make ends meet. His girlfriend leaves him. His family sends him to a therapist. He loses weight. He is busted selling pot to finance his search. In jail he encounters an old drunk, a Hungarian survivor, who provides a clue. His family takes a second mortgage to secure their son’s bond. Out on bail, Bergman ignores his upcoming trial to track the new lead. Learning that Vogel/Samsa is believed to be living in a small village in Paraguay, Bergman takes a bus to Laredo, Texas, crosses the border, and bribes his way onto a cargo plane headed to Asunción. Eighties Paraguay was the land of Alfredo Stroessner—El Stronato and the Colorado party. Bergman, a Yankee, a Jew, and an Anglo, moves cautiously, renting a car in cash and waylaying a security guard to steal his gun. Smoking one cigarette after another, listening to rock music, and banging the steering wheel in anticipation, Bergman makes a torturous drive up hilly roads to a crumbling village of shabby stores, dusty farmers’ markets, rows of squat brick cottages, and gas stations surrounded by rusted oil drums and columns of worn tires. Eventually, he finds the old man. Afflicted with dementia, the old Nazi had forgotten how to speak German and had no memory of life outside South America. Freed of the past, he had no guilt or fear, and spent his dwindling money treating children to ice cream in the park. Spotting the frantic Nazi hunter approaching him, the old man smiles and asks, “Chocolate o vainilla?”
Chocolate or vanilla? Death or justice? Revenge or redemption? Maybe dementia was a blessing to millions. There was a lot to forget in this world. Newman recalled a late night movie about a man with no memory adrift in New York. Gregory Peck or James Garner. Mr. Budwing? Maybe the prospect of amnesia only terrified audiences who had nothing to forget. I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger – anything that can blow your candles out!
On a whim, Newman went to the K-L section and found a copy of A Separate Peace. He sat in a cushioned chair by the window overlooking the concourse and read the first chapter. But the book brought back memories of his old room, a slimmer, younger Ms. Jones, and Judi Midori. He had not thought of Judi in years. At sixteen he had a tremendous crush on the Midori girl and enjoyed watching her flip her hair with the casual nonchalance pretty girls use to attract attention. Other high school girls came to mind. Jennifer Chu. Laura Tollson. Erica Baumer. The blonde bosomy cheerleader who gave him a sudden, unexpected kiss.
Newman put the book down and stood up. He stared out the large window. He had lived eight years with a single view and enjoyed looking out new windows like a visitor examining paintings in a gallery. He replaced the Knowles novel and picked up Morning in Antibes. He moved to a different window and read for twenty minutes. Closing his eyes, he imagined himself walking down narrow cobbled streets banked by cafes and boutiques to a strand of beach and the dazzling Mediterranean. Sailboats shimmered in the sun, and sea gulls soared overhead. Icarus.
Growing restless, he stood and paced through the stacks of long-forgotten novels. He selected one at random, a habit from prison. Bored or lonely, he would often grab a book from a shelf or return cart and devote himself to reading it from cover to cover, whether it was Thomas Hardy or the Hardy Boys. Sometimes he lost himself simply in the pattern of words on the page. Symbols and syntax. Teaching English in prison made him attuned to the interplay of adjectives and adverbs, of commas and semi-colons. Reading a juvenile sports book, he counted complex sentences, tested himself on identifying coordinating conjunctions, and smiled when he detected a dangling modifier.
Without looking, Newman ran his hand down a line of books. His fingertips stopped at the curved, bubbled spine of a library rebind. He slipped the book from the shelf and flipped open to the title page. Hotel by Arthur Hailey. A fifty-year-old best seller was a good choice. Newman remembered seeing the movie in prison during a chess match. The black accountant he was playing with shook his head with a patronizing smile when Rod Taylor badgered Melvyn Douglas about “desegging” the hotel to admit “Negroes.”
It was light reading he could immerse himself in to forget. Newman found a comfortable sofa at a window overlooking the tree-lined avenue. He began the first chapter, allowing himself to be absorbed by the tasks Peter McDermott faced that Monday night in his New Orleans office. It was nearing midnight, and McDermott was reviewing the problems breaking loose in the city’s largest hotel. There was a loud party on the eleventh floor, a room service complaint from the Duchess of Croydon on the ninth, and a man moaning in 1439. In the lobby the bell captain Herbie Chandler was watching drunken conventioneers stumbling through the doors. Newman read the words slowly, carefully observing how Peter McDermott diplomatically handled an alleged gravy spill before racing to assist an elderly guest in respiratory distress. The storyline was hopping about the busy hotel, a perfect book for Hollywood. Newman skimmed over a drunken fraternity party scene and then carefully read Hailey’s explanation that McDermott had once disgraced himself while working at the Waldorf and was blacklisted by the major hotels. Newman paused. Blacklist. Indiscretion. Shame. Poor McDermott. Things picked up when Christine, the hotel secretary, invited him to her place for a late night omelet. Newman visualized her little 1960s VW bug humming down Burgundy Street. What was the name of the cafe where he and Chrissy had those amazing poor boys? When Peter and Christine passed the scene of a hit-and-run accident, Newman slapped the book shut and returned it to the shelf.
Better luck next time.
Newman went to the men’s room to wash his face and study himself in the mirror. Better to stick with Dickens or Tolstoy or the Hardy Boys, he told himself.
Newman returned to the reading room and paced up and down the stacks. He found comfort in academic settings, maybe because they were places of preparation, change, and promise. He had enjoyed his years in Madison and loved his days at Marquette. He spent hours in the law library when he could have just as easily worked on his lap top at home. But he loved doing homework surrounded by walls of thick law books, portraits of judges and senators, and the marble busts of Cicero and Tacitus. The atmosphere of it – the mullioned windows, the polished woodwork, the smooth soft carpeting – made him feel he was in a kind of temple. He was an acolyte, a disciple of something important, noble, and challenging that could take him wherever he wanted to go in life. Lawyers made fortunes defending and suing corporations. They changed the course of history by erecting protections and demolishing barriers. They could empower the weak, give voice to the silent, take up the cross of the poor, make the powerful accountable, and expose injustice. The law was something sacred. Eyebrows raised in approval when you let it slip at a party that you were a lawyer, had a case, or a court date. Being a lawyer was not like selling insurance, managing a front desk, or teaching sophomores. It was more akin to being a quarterback on the gridiron or an actor on a Broadway stage. The courtroom would be his theatre, his operating room, his red zone. A doctor might save one life. A lawyer could shape laws that brought healthcare to millions, stop a bad drug from being released, or curtail a pollution hazard that would plague generations unborn. As a lawyer he could work on Wall Street, help the homeless, join hectoring demonstrators, or devote himself to writing scholarly books on Constitutional law. At home, too tired to read anymore, he relaxed by sipping tea and watching Law and Order.
He missed those years of self-assured confidence and direction. Now he felt adrift, like a downed pilot foundering in a life vest. One moment seated in a brightly-lit cockpit, master of instruments speeding faster than sound, in a zone, on a beam, an arrow in flight – only to find himself tossed about in a vast sea, nothing more than jetsam.
Walking past the shelves of books, he thought about of getting a teaching license. Public schools were definitely out. He did not have an education degree, and he doubted if a convicted felon could even apply. Would any school district hire one? Maybe he could tutor GED or seek a full time position at the Esperanza Center. With a law degree, he could teach at a community college. There were paralegal courses, he read, that had to be taught by attorneys. He wondered if they had to be licensed or simply degreed. He had learned enough Spanish, even legal Spanish, to translate for law firms. No doubt all the ambulance chasers advertising on television needed interpreters who not only knew the language but appreciated the nuisances of interviewing witnesses and clients. In prison he had mastered the shorthand used by Mexican cops and prosecutors. The best pitcher on the prison softball team had practiced law in Mexico City and had a brother who clerked for a Supreme Court minister. But then nearly all the law firms advertising on TV dealt with accident victims. Drunk drivers. What about immigration lawyers? Tax lawyers?
He glanced at his watch. It was too early to leave. The halfway house would be empty, and the quiet would be unsettling. Without friends, Newman found himself clinging to the mere tokens of affection – a smile, an inflection, a nod, even a fleeting gesture of recognition from a stranger.
Seize the Day! Seize the Day! The novel had been one of his favorites. He read it over and over again his second year in prison, later watching the DVD, engrossed himself in Robin Williams’ performance. Poor Robin. Poor Tommy Wilhelm. Newman read and reread pet paragraphs, memorizing Wilky’s secular prayer:
“Oh, God . . . Let me out my trouble. Let me out of my thoughts, and let me do
something better with my myself. . . Let me out of this clutch and into a different life.
For I am all balled up. Have mercy.”
Newman could so identify with Tommy. All balled up. Wanting to be released from his thoughts. Wanting to be transported into a different life. And no wonder Wilhelm fell under the spell of Dr. Tamkin who preached the value of the “here-and-now.” Tamkin was right. “The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real—the here-and-now. Seize the day.”
Seize the Day. He tried to live by the “here-and-now,” focusing on the immediate, deliberately shunning the past and the future. But the past was all around him. A passing Mercedes, a smiling model on a billboard, a police car, a siren swept him back to that night on Howell Avenue. Leaning against his crumpled bumper, holding a towel to his bleeding face, his nose smarting. The future haunted him as well when he saw old men on the street carrying plastic bags or leather attaché cases. Lugging cans to recycling for lunch money or heading to see their brokers. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. Which road should he take? Which would be the road less-traveled? The path to new success or continued denial? Fame or obscurity? Wealth or poverty? Doing onto others or looking out for number one? Here or abroad? He thought more and more about Mexico. Living in a different country and speaking a different language was as close as Verna as he could get. How many differences could separate him from his past and his future? How could he separate himself—by distance and language, by culture and companions? Would people in other countries find the deaths less significant and more forgivable because they had no associations with two college girls from Colorado? Would Muslims in Pakistan or Yemen dismiss the deaths of two hell-bound Christian females as forgettable, even forgivable?
But he knew there was no escape from himself. Walking a path in Peru or strolling Red Square among suspicious Russians, he would still be himself, still haunted. Immer. Immer. The accident always came back to him. Something he saw on TV or read in a book, an overheard remark, a passing car triggered the memory, and he was back on Howell Avenue that chill night, leaning against the crumpled fender of his car, holding a cloth to his bleeding nose as the paramedics and cops circled the smashed Fiesta. The soft squeal of the gurney wheels. The covered body. Immer. Immer.
Just before his release from prison he had taught Introduction to Film. The topics his students chose for their research papers were interesting. The incarcerated had eclectic tastes. Sex and action films. Horror classics. Childhood favorites. Sci-fi and film noir. The Wizard of Oz and Nine and Half Weeks. Franco Perez chose Fritz Lang’s M, intrigued by the idea of criminals holding court to try a child killer. Newman had seen the movie in college and had caught a few scenes on cable over the years but could only remember the blind balloon seller and the chalked M on Peter Lorre’s shoulder. Watching it again on DVD in the library, he made a few notes on Perez’s paper, casually fast forwarding to the final scene.He watched with fascination as Peter Lorre was hauled before a kangaroo court of convicts and criminals. Panhandlers and safe crackers. Hookers and heist men. They denounced him as a mad dog that had to “disappear” to make society safe. Lorre sank to his knees, pleading, eyes bulging like a terrified child, begging for understanding. “It’s me, pursuing myself. I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible,” he whined. “I’m pursued by ghosts.” Newman closed his eyes. He could not take Lorre’s rolling tormented eyes. Taught German by his grandmother, he did not have to read the English subtitles. Lorre’s voice rasped through the headphones. “Ghosts of mothers and of those children. They never leave me. They are there, always there. Always. Immer! Immer!”
Mark Connelly’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, Home Planet News, Mundus Artium, Vanderbilt Review, Contemporary Atlanta, Smoky Blue Arts and Literary Magazine, Change Seven, Light and Dark, 34th Parallel, and Digital Papercut. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014; in 2015 he received Third Place in Red Savina Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction. In 2005 Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes, which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.