Bichon Frieze loses a crust of bread from his peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich. Mister snags the crust before it hits the cement. He chunks the bread into the corners of his mouth, a wary black eye toward the boney shadow sprawled on top of an overturned five gallon bucket. Bichon claps a brown hand down on his knee, absently gesticulating with his sandwich atrocity.
"Mister, you ever feel like wez just goin through the motions... like mebbe we dont see the real deal?"
A glob of tuna butter smacks the ground and echoes around the boiler room. Mister darts into the circle of light, unmoralistically broadcast from a naked bulb hanging forehead level among stalactites of mineral build-up, to lap at the spewtle. The stark border of white on black, Bichons unruly hairline, rushes down toward his thin brows and he squints at the shadow of the rat cast on the moss growing up the prison wall.
"Thats right, friend, if a dollup of luck wanna fall down from heaven, ya smile and take it flat on the kisser, that's what I say, too."
Bichon emits viscous gagging tones, culminating in a slimey-chunky projectile that splats soundly on the concrete beside Mister, who is mildly interested.
"But see what I mean? Its hard nuff ta realize - recognize - the good from the bad, and then you gotta be quick bout that, too. Ole Doc knowed that, sure nuff, but even so, seems like somehow all usre missin the big picture. Mebbe heaven didn't drop nothin down on him after all, mebbe the world just pulls down bits and pieces of whatever, like it got a inclination towards our direction." Bichon tosses the rest of his sandwich down, "You gotta be quick in yer determination."
Mister lumbers across the light after the scraps. The old man picks up a burned out light bulb and throws. It bounces off the rodent's back and shatters against a jaundiced junction box.
"Stupid rat, you best be quicker en that, you'll end up fated like the good Doctor."
Bichon meets up with his janitor cart on Block D: Bottles of acids and bases, scrub cloths, scrub brushes, scrub stones, scrub-free rinse, a plunger, a box of urinal mints a broom, a mop. At one time the prison had need of a fix-it man and a custodian. As far as the prison was concerned, Doc checked out at just the right time. The building, like the inmates it suffocates, needs only the minimum of warmth in the belly to numb its slow decay.
"Bichon! I say, c'mere boy, got work to do."
Warden P. Willard Karstenicz stands at the entrance to the cell block corridor. In times of previous vitality the prison had hardly a bunk to spare, but these days Tarradiddle houses a total of seventeen convicts, none on Block D. His head sits squarely on his shoulders with no intermediary neck to complicate things. He turns his torso from side to side when looking around. Adding to Warden's primal overtones, he holds his arms out from his body like a weightlifter and cuts a figure more square than rectangle. Adjusting his mottled and threadbare Palomino stallion tie with a furtive, sweaty motion, he stamps his way down toward the waiting janitor.
"Boy, I need somebody ta get on up and give Sparky a once over, longside uv a general cleaning up of the chair and surroundings. Take care of that for me?"
Bichon lays his ears back and grimaces.
"Yessir. You got one goin down tonight?"
"That injun kid down in B-2. Raper, murderer, sodomizer, thief and general bad guy."
Warden is already walking away, and hesitates before settling on "guy." He leaves Bichon there, thinking about death.
The sun is out, beating down on the Tarradiddle scrub. Dung beetles churn up the foundation of the prison. So does Doc. He crouches over a bed of budless roses. The brown stalks break apart in his meaty hands. The flowers won't grow. Regardless of gallons of water, mounds of manure, cupfulls of nutrient supplements, hours of loving discourse, the roses refuse to take hold. He is relentless trying to get something to grow in the prison. He prunes dead bits from the plants.
"Hey down there! What're you wastin yer time with those damn flowers? Ain't nobody round here gonna take no notice of no damn roses. Fix the damn radiator!"
Davis, a porcine prison guard with a face like pistol, spits off the roof. The spittle brushes past Doc's shoulder. He looks up at the straining uniform and takes a few plodding steps back. For the first time, he focuses on the backs of heads, and a chorus of heaving and hoeing.
He moves around the building, and comes upon a rope and pulley contraption lifting an immense Gatling gun to the roof. He pauses beneath the arrangement to watch sunburnt prisoners hoist the gun just over the halfway point of the prison's height.
"It's the solution, old man! Keep these pukes in fear, right? Ever'body loves the gunslinger position."
The prisoners grumble at this. Escape has never been a problem for the Tarradiddle County Penal Facility.
"Shaddup all of ya!"
Doc notices a dog gnawing at the base of a rose bush, oblivious to the thorns. Doc moves to shoo the beast along and straighten the plant when he hears a twang. He looks up to see the shiny new armament falling towards him.
Bichon searches the shelves of chemicals for the brass cleaner. Before he finds the right container, he sees a movement of brown hair.
"Mister? Dat you, boy?"
Mister's head pops out from between bottles of ammonia and chlorine.
"Stupid rat. Y'know there ain't nothin in heah for ya."
Bichon lifts Mister up onto his grey collar, "I dog, Mister, seem like everyday we got another'n goin to the chair. But we ain't gettin em in that quick. Well, seem like me and you don't get much lonelier, but still, I don't like havin nothin to do with it."
He places the extra potions he needs on the cart and wheels it down towards the chamber. Davis comes around the corner.
"You gettin that chair all red up? Warden said you was takin care uv things, what you doin movin so damn slow?"
"I get there duly, sir. Din't realize no rush."
"It's an obligation ta do these things right, boy, outta respect for those that been wronged."
"Yessir. How many this boy kill?"
"Don't matter, a lot I'm sure."
"Look boy, don't try to makes me look stupid. I've been gettin purty sick uv yer attitude since ole Doc's little accident."
"Queer old man."
Davis goes past, smell of sausage and pickles wafting after him. Bichon enters Block B, floor two, which houses seven death row inmates, hoards of lice and crabs, and one tiny, renovated cell that sucks the life out of the bricks.
Thin, black hand upon the railing, Bichon begins his first descent of the iron stairs to the basement. Warden is already turning back down the mislit corridor, "Just down the stairs, there's an extra cot."
A steel door nearly butts up against the last step. He opens the door, and steps down into the room. A workbench strains against the normal force of deposited gadgetry. A portly elf sits in the light of the patchwork desk lamp, ocular socket clamped tightly on a loupe, fiddling with the remnants of a small motor. Bichon sets his duffle on the moldy concrete and removes his hat.
"How d'ya do, Mister?"
The Doctor looks up from the contraption, drops the loupe into his palm, "I'd pick up my bag if I were you, gets damp down here, terrible damp if it's raining."
Bichon notices the fungus covering the floor, scalier in the corners, slimy towards the drain in the center of the room. He puts it on top of a mostly empty bookshelf.
"I can make you somewhere to put your gear some time. Take it you're stayin awhile?"
"I'm the new custodian, s'pose I'm fixin to be here a long time."
"Well, you're already shock-white, I guess this place can't take much more from you."
Bichon scratches at the cottony mess atop his oblong skull. Wrinkles are firmly established already along his brow, and grow suddenly in the yellow shadows. "You makin somethin outta that ole garbage?"
"I'm doin a deed here good deed y'know, making an electric needle. For tattoos."
"A man without a tattoo is just a hairless ape, friend. It's either this, or they just go at each other with a needle on a stick. Poor boys..."
"Seems to me, if the Lord wanted somethin else sides black on my skin he woulda put it there hisself."
"People have been doin tatoos longer than theyve been doing God, son. Sides, nobody here's got time to waste prayin for a miracle. It's like that mold down there -- can't really appreciate it, but can't fault it none cuz it manages to survive."
The execution chamber of the Tarradiddle County Penal Facility is not as dramatic as it sounds. Yellow paint over grey brick contributes to a sulfur brilliance. The chair is covered with a tarp.
"I'll tell you what, Mister, this room give a man the jitters. Feel like the old man hisself is right behind me."
Mister clings to Bichon's shoulder. He scurries down the old man's arm, raising tiny pale welts on the back of his hand, and onto the arm of the chair. Bichon takes out a polishing cloth and begins massaging the electrodes. The room is silent. The chair presses into Bichon's chemically weathered paw. His motion becomes less fluid. He fumbles with the brass polish, knocking the bottle over on the seat. Mister scrambles up a wrist restraint, leaving a damp trail of urine. The man sops up the mess, and returns to his polishing. Bringing the rag back into contact with the brass ring, he feels a static shock.
"I thought I'd plant some roses around the building." Doc sits at the workbench tinkering with a piece of thermostat. "Davis can't leave the heat alone."
"He wanna make it hotter than hell in heah, Mister. Jus one more thing fuh that sonuvabitch ta break." Bichon scrubs the scale out of a corner. The mold almost retreats during the height of summer, but returns before the leaves are off the trees, and becomes relentless during the dead of winter.
"I thought it'd add some color. Start the bushes down here, under some lights."
"Don't want this mold growin no faster. It's like tryin ta dig a pit in the sand, fightin this damn slime."
"Why do you fight it?"
"Man ain't supposed to live in filth."
"Who told you that?"
"Jus figure it's true nuff."
Doc plugs in a purple light and shines it toward Bichon, whose white hair glows.
"I don't know how you lived so long, rat." Bichon oils the leather straps of the chair. "You ain't makin it without me. Spoilt is what you is. Spoilt."
Mister nibbles a piece of cracker on the seat of the chair.
"If you'se a person, they'd be puttin you in this chair, stealin food and gnawin up the place."
The rodent sits back on its haunches, round.
"Don't know how you feel bout that, but I don't want them ta put me in some chair. Livin in prison least it's still livin, right?"
Chewing on a restraining strap.
"Shoot, you'se just a stupid rat, what you is. I said, Mister, that jus cuz you livin in a prison, you still livin."
Bichon has moved on to polishing the wood. He moves quickly, but the wood shimmers. "That's how I see it, anyhow." He shoves the supplies back onto the cart, scoops up Mister -- "I don't want any part in this, I tell ya" and maneuvers down corridor B.
The prisoners are in their cells, just sitting or standing. In number two is the young Indian. His head is shaved clean, eyes are hollow. It seems to Bichon that he is a manifestation of the world: That his content stretches far beyond his form. The old janitor feels the boy/man searching him, and wrings his polish-rag as if it would squeeze High John right out of the fibers.
"Old man, what's your name? Whatchoo know about that room there?"
Bichon pauses in front of the cell.
"It's where they lectrocute thems that needs lectrocutin."
"You the one they make do it? Do I get to see your face when you do it?"
"Son, I don't want nothin ta do..."
The boy shoots across the cell, arms outstretched, and grabs Bichon by the shirt.
"You just getting ready, huh? Just get it all polished up, make it look nice for when they fry the dirty bastard! YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW ME!"
At this point, the rest of the inmates notice the confrontation, and begin hooting and hollaring for the kid to kill the custodian before it goes the other way, and Davis enters with his night stick already drawn:
"YOU MUTHERFUCKERS SHUT THE FUCK UP OR YOU'RE ALL IN DEEP SHIT!"
He marches straight to Bichon, pounding the stick on the cell bars. Without pausing, he brings down the club on the Indian's wrist producing an audible snap. The kid collapses to the ground, through clenched teeth, "You'd better get your mojo on, old man."
"I told you before, Bichon, you stay outta reach uv these convicts from now on."
Were it not already so, the boy's intense gaze would have bleached the custodian's unruly hair. Davis marches back down to the staff lounge. Bichon feels empty where a root or a rat or a friend could fill him up. Mister is gone.
Doc strikes the wall with a pickaxe. His face is swollen and pink. He pauses, sits back on a short stool and folds his hands on his considerable belly. "Phew, it's hard work this pickaxin."
"Why they want this wall all tore up anyway?"
"Warden says they need to put some cables through for the new electric chair."
"They gonna start killin people up heah?"
"This place already kills people, friend, I reckon this'll just speed up the rotting. Don't like it, myself."
Bichon grabs the pickaxe and swings at the wall. Chunks of brick and rock explode everywhere, but there is one hunk that emanates a singularity. "What the hell is that, Mister?"
Doc picks up the dark lump. It's more rounded than the rest, as if it had been rolled along the bed of a long river before settling in the wall of the Tarradiddle County Penal Facility. Licking his finger, Doc works off the conglomerate clinging to the outer layer.
"I believe this is a frog."
Bichon looks unbelievingly at Doc. "A damn frog? In the wall?"
"It's pretty rare, I think."
"I never heard such a load of hooey."
Doc continues massaging the creature, and eventually it begins moving slightly. "See, it's a natural frog thing. They hibernate over the winter by burying themselves in the mud, so it's not completely unusual to find them in bricks."
"I don't believe it. I don't believe muh eyes."
"You'd be surprised how much stuff gets into something you're building. Sometimes it brings with it a whole life of its own."
The frog, after a couple moments of wiggling in Doc's fleshy grip, leaps to the ground.
"He's fine, see?"
The frog hops once more. Again. Again. But this time lands on his side. His rear legs kick a few times, then quiver, then are still. Doc leans over to prod it in the stomach. No response. Doc's smile fades, and he looks like he's been punched in the gut.
"Well, he was fine. Geez, that's sad."
"But that little guy was in there for how long?"
"Don't know. I been here forty years, but nobody was going to give me a history lesson back then. Or today, for that matter. I'd guess probably at least a hundred years. More. Maybe."
"But he was livin that whole time?"
"Depends on how you differentiate living from just staying alive."
In the evening, he is swabbing out the kitchen. Warden enters and stands in the doorway until Bichon notices him.
"Boy, I need yer help up here with this injun kid. We need another button-pusher."
"Oh, sir, I don't think I'm the one for that."
"Why not? You like workin here, right? You wanna keep on livin here?"
"Right then, I'll see ya up there soon's yer finished here."
And Warden spins again on his heel and exits the doorway. Bichon leans on his mop. Mister eats bits of grated cheese from the chopping board.
"I'll tell ya, this business ain't no good at all. What'm I supposed to do now?"
Rats have paws like tiny human hands, without a thumb, and Mister uses his to comb back the hair on top of his head.
"It ain't no use. Dammit, you'd think a man of my yeahs would have somethin figgered out bout this kinda stuff. Stead I'm stuck talkin to a damn rat."
The cur snorts in the dirt, scratching a hole at the base of the perimeter fence. The ground is still damp after the cleanup, but Bichon is there. He can hear Davis' occasional burst of laughter from the rooftop where he tells another guard about the technical specifications of the Gatling gun. The prison yard is empty except for the dog, now pissing on the chain link. Bichon focuses on the crushed remnants of the rose bush. He hears a short burst of shots and a yelp.
Davis' hysterical chortle confirms the kill, and, without looking, Bichon makes his way down to his hovel. Although their dwelling had been mostly rodent-free for the duration of Bichon's time in the prison, when he returns to his room he notices a mound of brown fur moving on Doc's workbench.
"That you, Mister?"
The rat, in a move unnatural for rats in general, emerges from the clutter on the table and sits back. It's a young rat, but already it has a jovial belly.
The execution chamber is crowded with people standing around doing nothing. Davis is there, with a couple of guards, a priest, Warden, and a couple of people who Bichon suspects might work for the prison in areas he never sees. The kid is still in his cell. Warden ushers Bichon and one of the unnamed men into the control room. Davis and his cronies accompany the priest to retrieve the condemned. The man in the control room with Bichon is smiling.
"Whooo, boy! I have looked forward to this all week, hain't you?"
"I just heard about it today..."
"Shoot, got me a seat saved straight from the gitgo. You oughta be proud."
Three plungers stick out from the wall just below the window. Bichon watches the guards seat the prisoner and fasten the restraining belts around his waist, arms, feet and head. Lubricant oozes out from the edges of the skullcap.
"They put that stuff on there to get the current goin good through im."
Although the executionee area is well-lit and the executioner area is dark, to provide some anonymity for those pushing the buttons, the Indian boy's eyes find Bichon and manage to track his every move. The custodian mostly just fidgets. Warden enters the room, followed by Davis.
"Alright, Davis, you get on that other one, you other fellas ready?"
"You bet, Percy, I been ready all year," and then to Bichon, "Y'know this is the sonuvabitch what knocked up my daughter. All we could get him on was statutory rape, since the baby was born six months after her eighteenth birthday. It's a great favor, Percy lettin us do this."
"Sir, mebbe you could take my spot..."
"BOY! I told you to push the damn button, now yer gonna push the damn button."
Stomach cramps and dizziness. Warden flips the main switch. The light flickers above the boy. His broken hand sticks out at an unnatural angle from the leather strap, all black and green and swollen. "OK, we're all charged up boys. Fire when ready."
Davis pushes his plunger. The man pushes his plunger. Bichon hesitates, notices a lack of reaction from the boy in the prison jumpsuit, and feels himself pushing his plunger down. He sees the kid's eyes widen. There are screams. Foam oozes from the kid's mouth and nose and ears. Blood flows like tears. His right hand repeatedly clamps and unclamps on the arm of the chair, and his left spasmodically flails perpendicular to his forearm. Shit and piss flood his jumpsuit. Bichon is fading: vision tunneled on the kid's eyes, and it's like being sucked in.
Bichon and Doc sit on a fire escape at the back of the prison eating tuna-butter sandwiches. They are watching Davis and Warden out in the field behind the prison yard. Davis and Warden are knocking the heads off rabbits with golf clubs.
"Y'see, friend, those boys over there don't have enough sense to piss straight."
"Why you say that, Mister?"
"What're they doing that for? There's no reason to go killing all the bunnies like that."
"Lots of bunnies this yeah. Seem like they might just overrun us all over heah."
"I work all spring and summer trying to get a little life to grow around here."
"Them rosebushes oughtta be takin a lesson from the rabbits."
"No wonder they won't grow. I think Davis and Warden stomp them."
"Them two's just a-killin machines since they got that lectric chair."
"It ain't good."
"Naw, they was bad nuff before."
"I'll tell you friend, killing everything around you is the first step toward killing yourself."
In the basement room, Mister laps at the salty tracks running down Bichon's face.
"He knew. I could see it in his eyes."
Water drips off a pipe running across the room and plops on the thick carpet of mold, unhindered in its growth since Doc's death. Bichon stares into the darkness. "It seeps. What's hot seeps into what's cold. What's known seeps into what ain't. What's kilt seeps into what's done the killin." His hand rests on Doc's tattoo gun. Bichon stuffs it, along with the rest of his belongings into his old duffle bag.
"Well I have to test it out."
Bichon is organizing his meager belongings on a small table he found in a storage closet on his first set of rounds. There had been a lot of extra cleaning backed up from the lag period between he and the last custodian, plus the prison is nearly full, so he hadn't gotten around to unpacking. Now, as he folds his shirt, Doc is preparing to test his latest device.
Stubby hands, impressively dexterous, quickly bring a razor over to clear a strip of hairless skin perpendicular to his forearm. He fingers a dial, cannibalized from a thermostat Davis broke, to initiate and then adjust the buzz of the tattoo gun. Blue sparks arc in the linkage, and the smell of ozone permeates the room. "Can't use it on nobody else if I won't use it on myself. It'd be against my conscience."
He dips the needle into a bottle cap full of India ink, and nearly flips it over with the vibrations. He grins at Bichon as he puts the needle to his flesh. In slow, methodic movements he spells out:
A L I V E
in simple block letters.
He comes across the room, and holds his arm out to show Bichon.
"Can't say I's ever been much impressed with that sorta thing, Mister."
"It ain't right. It ain't what the Lord wants."
"Who told you that?"
"Don't matter. It's true nuff ain't it."
"I say the Lord cares more how you treat other people."
"Sides, how come you want somethin on you forever?"
"Something like this, how could you not want it? It'll remind me every day."
Outside the rain is deafening. Bichon makes his way across the prison yard, oblivious to Davis' yells from the roof. Above the din of the storm rings a dog's howl, and the short burst of the Gatling gun. Bichon falls into the fence. Davis turns on his spotlight. Mister scrambles through the chain link. Alive.
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