THE DEVIL AT THE CROSSROADS


dev

It was all about a girl.

I was in love. Young love. The kind of love only a teenage boy can know; a sweet, abiding, all-encompassing obsession, innocent and pure, beyond mere physical attraction. I loved her warm, brown eyes, the softness of her skin, her heart-shaped face and the beautiful sadness of her smile; her Mona Lisa smile. I loved her long, brown hair, which she wore down, parted in the middle, her halo of glory, flowing loosely to a point just above her lovely waist. She was my first thought every morning, and my last, aching thought every night. And, though I loved her outer beauty, she was also my best friend, my closest confidante. I would have given my everlasting soul for her.

And I nearly did.

I attended James Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas, with my two older brothers, Brian and Gary. Though a freshman, I had none of the awkward moments of not fitting in. Brian and Gary were already something of high school royalty, though not part of the “in crowd.” They were the patriarchs and protectors of the misfits, the ones who did not fit into the proscribed roles of Jocks, Stoners or Kickers. Brian and I, with our brown hair and blue eyes, resembled our father. A surgery Gary had as a young boy to repair two holes in his heart had left him with a long scar on his chest, and his body never seemed to fully recover. Brian and I were thick boned and sturdy. Gary was gaunt, tall and thin. Where Brian and I were sanguine and gregarious, Gary was quiet and serious.

The Pullman boys were the twin terrors of James Madison High. They were six and a half feet tall, wore their hair long, and, though teenagers, had full beards. They walked the halls, wearing dark tee shirts of the Metallica or Iron Maiden variety, denim jeans and motorcycle boots. They had once been wrestlers on the high school team until they were kicked off for sheer meanness and excessive violence. They were kings of the hill, lions among the sheep of James Madison High. Until they cornered my brother Gary, that is.

I was still in the eighth grade when it happened, not yet a member of high school. My brother Gary, so the legend goes, was walking from one class to another and happened upon the Pullman brothers and one of their friends. I was never sure of the details. One of the Pullmans, or Gary, either by accident or design, brushed up against the other in the hallway. Whatever the details were, what happened was the Pullman brothers and their friend decided to follow my brother Gary, pushing him from the back as he walked. Other students, wanting to watch a fight, followed the procession. the Pullmans and their friend pushed my tall, skinny brother until they maneuvered him into a corner with no way of escape. Gary was helpless, alone. He had no way out. And that was the Pullman brothers’ mistake. Gary was always quiet and of few words. The friend of the Pullman brothers was just the opposite. He puffed out his chest and taunted Gary, confident in his strength and the strength of the Pullman brothers standing behind him. Gary simply hit him. Hard. In mid-sentence, a half-formed taunt still on his lips. The witnesses said Gary’s fists were lightning, hitting him three times before his limp body could even start falling. And, boy, did it fall, hard, all the way to the ground, a knockout punch. Then two things happened. A teacher passing by stopped the fight, and Gary became an instant legend. In the sort of logic only high school students understand, because Gary was a legend, a fighter with lightning fists, Brian, who was Gary’s bigger, older brother was considered a legend, as well. After all, everyone knew Brian could take Gary in a fight. Brian had a couple encounters of his own that launched the Taylor brothers further into legendary status at James Madison High School, and their reputation for not being trifled with earned me an immediate umbrella of protection. Far from being alone in high school, I was instantly part of the group, and, as the youngest of the Taylor boys, I was awarded a small part of the respect they had earned.

Our group was a myriad of different personalities. We had good students, we had students who were close to dropping out. We had poor students and wealthy ones, the nerds, the geeks, all mixed in with others who could have been Jocks, Stoners or Kickers, but simply enjoyed the variety and acceptance of our group. I don’t remember them all. Some came and went. But I remember the leaders of the group. There was Joe, a short-haired boy of seventeen, whose cigarette smoking, cowboy boots and willingness to fight, put him on equal standing with Brian and Gary. There was Bob, who drove a brown Volkswagen bug, and appeared to be in his early twenties. There was Alex, a Mexican-American boy, there was James, a tall, lengthy lover of all things guitar and Rock N Roll. He was my best friend at the time. There was Shawn, a country boy, Andrea, a diminutive girl we all considered one of the boys. There was Kristen, a religious girl who loved all things Jesus. And there was the girl that I loved.

I loved her the moment I met her. I know that sounds foolish, juvenile even, and my only defense is that I was, in fact, a foolish juvenile. But I loved her the moment I laid eyes on her. Brian introduced me to the group on my first day at the school. I felt an instant connection to them, an acceptance closer to family than to friendship. But, for her, I felt more. It was electric. She was sitting on a bench, laughing at something someone said. She looked up at me, and I looked down at her. And that was all it took. I am no expert on the vagaries of the heart. It is not logical. Some call it chemical, but I believe that to be a tawdry definition of love. It is more like the knitting of two souls, an occurrence that can happen over a lifetime, or in the space of a few precious moments. There was something in her eyes, in the way she laughed, the way she smiled up at me. And something else, a sadness just below the surface, below the smile. I asked Brian about her, and learned she was off limits. She and Joe were in an on and off again relationship, part of the reason for her sadness. But the timeless code of honor followed by high school boys from time immemorial meant we could be no more than friends.

Over the next year, I loved her in the only way I could, spending time with her, surrounded by the rest of the group. Every day after school, at four-thirty, she called me. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, watching the clock, waiting for the yellow wall phone to ring. I remember the pure agony I felt the few times when, for whatever reason, it did not ring. We talked about life, about her dreams, about her heartache, about Joe. I helped her through her many breakups with Joe, and, despite my heartache, celebrated with her when they got back together again. Never once did I tell her how I felt. Joe was my friend, part of the group, and I was loyal. I hoped that one day she would see, that she would realize the one who truly loved her was the same one she wept with when her heart was broken and laughed with when her heart was glad.

Railroad tracks ran behind my neighborhood, surrounded by trees and bushes. Large green junction boxes with red and green lights stood to one side of the tracks. These became a regular hangout for our group during summer, when we needed a place to drink. School was out for the summer, and one night, Brian, Gary and I told our parents we were going to see the late show, but spent our movie money on booze instead, Joe or Brian purchasing it at the local Kroger, hoping not to get carded. The group met up at Judson Road, and walked the tracks late at night, carrying cheap bottles of wine, six packs of beer and Jack Daniels. Darkness surrounded us, the green and red lights from the junction boxes shone in the distance and pale moonlight guided our steps as we opened cans of beer and unscrewed the tops of wine bottles. We walked, drinking and talking, until we reached the soft green and red glow of the junction boxes. There we sat, our backs against the metal walls of the box, feeling the electric hum coming from inside. We sat and drank, laughing and joking. James talked about the guitar, our favorite bands, Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin. James said something about wanting to play the guitar like Led Zeppelin.

“I would sell my soul to play like that,” he said.

“You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?” I said. James took a long drink from the bottle of wine. He looked at me, the green and red light from the junction box painted his face in an eerie glow. He was a tall boy, two years older than me, with brown hair reaching just passed his collar, wearing a Levi jacket like a few others in the group liked to wear.

“Yeah. So what?”

“I didn’t know Mormons believed in the Devil,” I said.

“We believe in the Devil,” he said, “and if he was here right now, I would sell my soul to play like that. Like the bluesman at the crossroads, Man. I mean it. I would sell my soul.” He looked down at his hands, as if picturing the Devil blessing them that very minute.

“And you would go to Hell,” Brian said. He had downed a couple too many beers and stared at James, bleary-eyed. Would you go to Hell just to play like Led Zeppelin? That’s stupid, Man.”

“Mormons don’t believe in Hell, do you, James?” Joe said. He preferred Jack and Coke and was drinking from a plastic cup. He was wearing a ballcap and a Levi jacket like James was.

“Not like you do,” James said, shrugging.

“Well, Hell is real, damn it,” Brian said, pointing an admonishing finger at James, “and if you sell your soul, that’s where you’re going.”

“What bluesman at the crossroads?” I said, “what does that even mean?”

James looked at me like I didn’t know anything at all.

“What bluesman? What bluesman?” he said. “Just the greatest guitar player that ever lived, Man, Robert Johnson! You know, Crossroads Blues.”

“Never heard of him,” I said.

James shook his head. crumpling his empty beer can, he threw it on the ground a few feet away. He grabbed a full can from one of the six packs and cracked it open.

“Never heard of Robert Johnson? You never heard of Robert Johnson?” The look he gave me was a mixture of incredulity and shock. James and I worshiped at different altars. I loved books and authors. He loved guitars and musicians. His realization that I knew nothing about one of his guitar gods affected him more than the fact I knew little, and cared even less, about Mormonism. He had once explained to me that, whether I became a Mormon or not, someday, somewhere, somebody would be baptized in my place in one of their temples. I would wake from the dead and find myself in Mormon Heaven. He was drinking at the time, but I got the impression good Mormons would be on a higher plane, with white clouds, white suits, all living in clean, white mansions. The unwashed throng, my self included, would be on a lower plane with the drinkers, smokers, gamblers and loose women.

“You don’t have to tell me anymore,” I had answered. “That sounds like a good enough Heaven for me.”

“Robert Johnson was the greatest guitarist to ever live, man,” James continued. “They say he met the Devil at the crossroads and made a deal. He sold his soul to be the greatest.” He looked down at his hands again, his face filled with longing.

“What crossroads?” I said.

“I don’t know what Crossroads. Crossroads in Alabama or Mississippi, Man, but that’s not the point. They say if you go looking for the Devil at the crossroads, any crossroads, he will make a deal with you.”

Brian looked up, bleary-eyed, nursing another beer.

“And you’ll go to Hell for it,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t believe in Hell, and I don’t believe in the Devil.”

“Don’t believe in Hell? Don’t believe in the Devil?” Brian said. He was suffering from the acute deafness that seems to affect the inebriated everywhere. He spoke loudly, just below a shout, slurring his words. “You know better than that. You were raised better than that. You believe in God, so you have to believe in the Devil.”

“I don’t believe in God, either,” I said.

Brian looked at me, concerned. He wasn’t what you would call religious, but he had a strong belief in the existence of God.

“You don’t mean that,” he said.

“Like Hell I don’t,” I said. “I’ve never seen God and I’ve never seen the Devil, so I don’t believe in either one.”

“Then what do you believe?” James asked.

“I believe,” I said, reaching for a six pack, “I will have another beer.”

That’s when I heard her voice and turned to see her walking with Kristen and Andrea on the tracks, making their way to where we were gathered around the junction box. I felt the familiar flutter in my chest when I saw her, her face becoming more visible in the soft red and green glow of the junction box lights. She smiled and waved at me, and I waved back. She walked to where Joe was standing nearby, smoking a cigarette. She said something to him, and he answered, unsmiling. The smile on her face turned to a frown. Even in the dim light, I saw sadness in her eyes. Joe took a long drag from his cigarette and blew out smoke. He walked over to where Gary was standing with Bob, Shawn and Alex. He opened a can of beer, his back turned toward the girl that I loved. I stood up.

“Can I get you all a drink?” I asked. “We’ve got beer, wine and Jack.” Andrea had already grabbed a beer from the cache and was drinking it down. Kristen looked at the alcohol with disgust and righteous indignation. “Maybe some wine?” I offered. “Jesus turned water into wine, after all.”

“No thank you,” she said, sounding more offended than thankful.

“I’ll have some wine,” said the girl that I loved. I poured wine from the large, green bottle into a plastic cup and handed it to her. My hand brushed hers, and I wanted to let it linger, to hold her hand, to comfort her. I didn’t know what Joe had said to her, but, at that moment, whatever it was, I hated him for it.

“Thank you,” she said. I nodded and sat back down, leaning against the junction box. She sat next to me, her arm touching mine. She looked to where Joe was standing, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and talking with the other boys. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Are you okay?” I said. She shook her head. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“He wants to break up again,” she said.

“He told you that?”

She looked at Joe. He was laughing at something Gary said.

“No, but I can tell by the way he’s acting.”

We sat the rest of the time in silence, her arm touching mine. I wished I could take away her pain, her hurt feelings, and replace them with good feelings. Hers was a face made for laughter, hers was a heart made for love. She watched Joe as he stood, drinking, laughing and smoking. He never glanced her way, and he never came over. After a while, she told me goodbye and left, walking on the tracks towards Judson Road with Kristen and Andrea. James joined me, offering me a beer, and we sat, drinking in silence. Finally, we all began walking the tracks towards Judson Road. We were about a hundred yards from where the railroad tracks and Judson Road met, when I realized we were at a kind of crossroads.

“Alright, James,” I said, “now’s your chance. We’re at a crossroads.”

James looked around us. There were trees on one side of the tracks and a tall fence wrapping around my neighborhood on the other side. The railroad tracks crossed Judson Road. A crossing signal with an automatic gate waited for a coming train. A white and black railroad crossing sign at the side of the road formed a diagonal cross.

“I guess this is a crossroads,” he said. “Never saw that before.”

“Well,” I said, “there’s no time like the present. Call the Devil and deal your way to glory.”

James hesitated.

“You’d better not,” Brian said.

“I think you have to be alone,” James said.

“A bunch of B S,” Gary said.

I looked at Joe, who was smoking another cigarette. I loved him like an older brother, despite the fact his actions were hurting the girl I loved. I wondered what he would want if the Devil appeared in front of us, ready to make a deal. Here was the guy who already had everything I wanted. He had the heart, the love, of the only one I would have given my soul for.

“Come on,” Brian said, “You’re talking crazy. No one’s summoning the Devil while I’m around.”

James shook his head, grinning.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I really do think you have to be alone.”

We continued onto Judson Road. Brian, Gary and I parted from the others and walked to our house on Kissing Oak Street. I had trouble sleeping that night. My thoughts were on the girl that I loved. When I finally fell asleep, my dreams were of her.

Two weeks passed. As predicted, Joe broke up with the girl I loved. I helped her through her heartache, talking with her on the phone as we regularly did, even when school was out. She told me it was over. This was the final time. She could not continue breaking up with Joe and getting back together again. And, as her heart began to heal, I was coming to my own decision. I decided to tell her, to bare my heart, to reveal my soul, my longing, my desire, my love for her. When the timing was right, when her heart was fully healed, I would let her know how I felt. Then, suddenly, the phone calls stopped coming. I figured she needed time, and the daily phone calls were a little more sporadic during the summer, when we had other things to do. I wasn’t overly troubled by it. The phone would ring again when she was ready to talk. And it did ring. I answered it, relieved when I heard her voice after so long a time.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” she said. She sounded nervous. I felt my heart stop. Was this it? Was this the time to finally tell her how I felt?

“There’s something I need to tell you, as well,” I said. “You go first.”

“Well,” she said, “you know Joe and I aren’t together anymore.”

Yes,” I said. I felt a lump growing in the center of my chest.

“I’m ready to move on.”

“Okay,” I said. “Do you have anyone in mind?” Let it be me. God, if you exist, let it be me.

She laughed nervously.

“I don’t know how to say this,” she said.

“Just say it,” I said. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to tell her she was my everything. I wanted to be hers and for her to be mine. I held my breath.

“Well,” she said, “I have been seeing your brother, Brian. He asked me out and I said yes. I just want to make sure you’re okay with that. He was worried it might be weird for you, since you and I are so close.”

My heart came to a full stop. I listened further, numb, answering by rote. Sure, I’m okay. Yes, I want you to be happy. Sure, we will still be best friends. Some time later, the conversation ended, and I hung up the phone. I went to my room and fell onto my bed. Lying on my back, I stared up at the ceiling. Tears ran down my face as the shock dissipated and I felt my heart break. I wept for over an hour, until, finally, no more tears would come. A knock came at my bedroom door.  I sat up and dried my eyes.

“Who is it?” I said, doing all I could to stop my voice from trembling.

“It’s Brian,” came the answer.

“Just a minute,” I said. I wiped my face on the blanket of my bed and looked in the mirror. My eyes were red, but he might think I had been sleeping. I opened the door.

“What’s up?” I said.

“I just want to talk to you,” he said. He looked at me. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I said, “just tired.”

Brian sat on my bed. He told me he was dating the girl I loved. He wanted me to know he wouldn’t interfere with the friendship I had with her. He told me he had always liked her, but because she was with Joe, he could never make a move. I listened and nodded when it seemed appropriate. He finally left my room, closing the door behind him. I looked around my room, wanting to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be away. I wanted to be alone. I left my room and exited the house through the garage, walking up Kissing Oak Street to Judson Road. I reached the railroad tracks and turned left, walking on the tracks, away from my neighborhood. It was twilight time. The sun was setting, and dusk was fast approaching. I thought of all that had happened. I remembered with sharp clarity the telephone conversation with the girl I loved. I remembered Brian’s words. The tears came again, and I walked alone, weeping, as dusk fell on the tracks before me. I turned toward the trees lining the sides of the tracks, and shouted, not thinking about what words I said, not caring.

“I will sell my soul for her!” I heard myself shout. “If you’re real, Devil, I will sell my soul for her!”

I stood, motionless, looking into the wooded area. No devil appeared there. I shook my head, and continued walking. I looked up and saw the figure of a man walking on the tracks ahead of me. He had not been there just moments before. I was sure of it. It was dusk, but I could tell even in the failing light he was dressed all in red. I laughed to myself. Yeah, right. The Devil in a red suit. He continued walking away from me, not toward me. He moved slowly, and I realized after several minutes that I was catching up to him. He looked back at me a couple of times, but continued walking toward O’Connor Road. Finally, where O’Connor Road crossed the railroad tracks, he stopped. He turned and looked at me, waiting. I was about fifty yards away. His image solidified as I drew closer. He was a young, black man, wearing some type of uniform, a red hat, red shirt and red pants. He beckoned toward me, and a feeling of unease and trepidation washed over me. I shook it off and walked to him. He was wearing a Taco Cabana uniform. The name tag above his right breast pocket said Carlos. I felt like a complete fool. My crossroads Devil was a fast food worker. I nodded at him.

“Hey,” I said.

Carlos smiled at me, a wicked smile, parting his lips, showing teeth that, though human, were entirely too sharp; the smile of a predator.

“What the Hell?” I said, realizing immediately that might be the wrong phrase to use. Carlos grinned again, and I was filled with a deep revulsion. Whoever he was, I wanted to get away from him, but my feet would not move. He met my eyes with his own. They looked black in the falling darkness. He spoke in the accented tones of an islander. His voice was low and hoarse.

“Meet me at six o’ clock tomorrow at the Taco Cabana.”

I tried to look away from his gaze, but I stood, staring, unable to move.

“What?” I managed to say. His face hardened. He appeared to be growing angry. He answered again, reluctantly, spitting out each syllable as he spoke.

“Meet me tomorrow at six o’ clock at the Taco Cabana.”

He turned from me and began walking, crossing O’Connor Road to the other side of the tracks. He stopped and looked at me, leering at me, showing again the teeth that were far too sharp. He spoke, and his voice was mocking, low and guttural.

“God bless you,” he said. Then he turned from me, walking on the tracks, disappearing into the darkness of night. I walked home, taking the road instead of the tracks.

Had I met the Devil at the crossroads? I do not know. I did not meet our appointment at Taco Cabana the following day. I remember like yesterday, sitting in the living room. The clock on the wall showed six o’clock. It was June 6, 1986. Part of me wanted to go, but I remembered Brian’s admonition about going to Hell. I think, though, what finally decided it for me was love. I wanted to be loved. But, more importantly, I wanted to show love. Perhaps the Devil could have given her to me. I doubt it. I doubt, even, that he was the Devil. Perhaps he was an eccentric Taco Cabana employee simply wanting a friend. But, if he was the Devil, and he could give me the desire of my heart, that would relegate the girl I loved to nothing more than a possession. I did not want to own her. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to know love.

A few months later, I would leave San Antonio for San Diego, to live with my mother. I would leave my brothers, my friends, the girl that I loved. The relationship between Brian and her ended rather quickly, each of them deciding they were not ready for anything too serious. On my last night in San Antonio, I told her the truth. I told her I loved her and kissed her softly on the lips.

More than three decades have passed. And I wonder still, what would have changed had I met Carlos, my crossroads Devil at the Taco Cabana? Perhaps I will never know.

Maybe it’s better that way.

THE GIRL SCOUTS SAVED MY LIFE


girl scouts1

“Would you like to buy some cookies, Mister?”

I turned to see the girl scout. She was about eleven years old, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a dark green shirt and khaki pants. A light green sash decorated with pins and medals was draped across her chest. She smiled up at me, showing braces. She stood behind a table loaded with boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I stopped at the table and examined the boxes.

“Do you like cookies?” I said.

Her smile broadened.

“Everybody likes Girl Scout cookies,” she said. “Want to buy some?”

“What’s your favorite kind of cookie?” I said.

She looked down at the boxes of cookies on the table.

“I like thin mints the best. But they’re all really good. My mom likes the Samoans.”

“Samoans?” I said.

“Yeah,” the girl scout answered, “the kind with chocolate and coconut in them.”

I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet.

“A box of thin mints, then,” I said, handing her the money, “and a box of Samoans.”

The girl scout took the twenty-dollar bill, picked up a box of thin mints and a box of Samoas, which are delicious, unlike Samoans, the natives of the Samoan islands, who are delightful people, but do not taste very good. She held them out to me. I shook my head.

“They’re not for me,” I said. “They’re for you. And you can keep the change.”

She stared down at the twenty-dollar bill and the boxes of cookies in her hands. Her eyes grew wide.

“Really, Mister?” She said. “But why?”

“Really,” I said, smiling down at her. “And if you must know the reason, it’s because I never did say thank you.”

“Thank you to me?” She said. She looked confused. “Thanks for what?”

“I owe all the Girl Scouts a thank you,” I said. “You don’t know it, but a long time ago, long before you were even born, the Girl Scouts saved my life.”

I was seventeen years old when it happened. The church I attended had an annual campout, and my friend, Sean, a petty officer in the navy, a young man with a light complexion and a military regulation haircut, talked me into going. I threw the only camping gear I had, an old green army sleeping bag with a broken zipper, into the back seat of Sean’s little blue car.

“Is that all you’re bringing?” Sean said, looking at my sleeping bag. “You don’t have a tent?”

“No,” I said, “who needs a tent?”

“You’re going to need one, knucklehead” he said. “It’s cold in the mountains. You should at least bring a jacket.”

“I’ll manage,” I said. “It’s like eighty degrees outside.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

We headed to the campground located in the mountains east of San Diego. The church had reserved about half of the campsites, and we were greeted by familiar faces. The campground was surrounded by hundreds of tall oak trees. Sean drove slowly, following the small asphalt road winding through the campground, passing church members near recreational vehicles and tents. Some rode bicycles, others busied their selves cooking over barbecue grills or putting up tents. They waved at us as we drove by, and we waved back. We passed the campsite of a group of girl scouts, all in matching green uniforms, scurrying in every direction, erecting tents, preparing a fire ring, setting up lawn chairs, all under the supervision of a brunette woman in her early thirties. I paid them little attention.

Sean parked at a campsite and began setting up his tent. He worked meticulously, paying attention to every detail, carefully hammering the tent stakes, evenly spaced, into the rich, dark earth, inserting the tent poles, raising the small, green tent to a perfectly formed A-frame. He unrolled his sleeping bag and laid it neatly out on the tent floor. He gathered stones and built a fire ring, digging a hole in the center of the ring to contain the fire. He removed firewood from the trunk of his car and stacked it in neat rows next to the fire ring. Finally, he hung an electric lantern on a small pole near the entrance to his tent.

I grabbed my sleeping bag with the broken zipper from Sean’s car, and threw it on the ground next to the fire ring. Done. Sean grinned at me, shaking his head. I guess you could say we were opposites.

The day was warm and pleasant, lulling me into a false sense of security. Who needed a tent in San Diego, after all? But as night fell, so did the temperatures. Sean built a fire, and I huddled next to it. Campers from the church group roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire and were generous enough to share with me. But, as the night grew colder, they retreated to the comfort of their tents and recreational vehicles. Near midnight, Sean also turned in, climbing into his tiny tent, leaving me alone by the fire, which by that time was little more than dying embers. I moved as close to the warmth of the fire as I could, lying down on half of the sleeping bag, covering myself with the other half. Somehow, despite the cold, I managed to fall asleep.

I awoke just after dawn to near freezing temperatures. The sun was coming up over the tops of the mountains, but it provided very little warmth. My muscles ached from sleeping on the cold, hard ground. My body shook, my teeth were chattering. My breath came out like steam in the freezing air. There was nothing left of the fire, but a few hot embers buried under gray ashes. No firewood remained. Wrapping my sleeping bag around me, I scoured the nearby area for anything that would burn; cardboard, soda boxes, paper towels, dry twigs, anything I could find. I blew on the hot coals until my small collection of flammable materials ignited. The warmth from the fire was wonderful, but fleeting, as the paper, cardboard and twigs ignited, flashing hot, then burning out. I searched for more items to burn, desperate to get warm, but soon ran out of flammable materials. The fire died.

I needed to burn something bigger.

Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I broadened my search, passing several campsites, including the site belonging to the Girl Scouts, to a nearby meadow, finding bits of wood, parts of fallen branches and more twigs. I brought them back, placing them in the fire ring, blowing on the coals until the fire sprang back to life. The bits of wood burned longer than the cardboard and twigs, but they, too, burned out, leaving me cold and miserable.

I needed to burn something much bigger.

I headed back to the meadow, my sleeping bag draped over my shoulders. I looked passed the small pieces of wood. Something bigger, I thought, something much bigger. That’s when I saw it. An old, round log, two feet long and a foot and a half wide, lay on its side near one of the large oak trees. Surely that much wood would burn for hours. Gleefully, thoughts of a warm, roaring campfire in my head, I picked the log up. It was heavy and cumbersome. I struggled under its weight, carrying it in both arms, stumbling as I went, tripping over the sleeping bag, which was draped over my shoulders. I passed the campsite of the Girl Scouts. A large flip chart rested on a stand. The brunette scout leader flipped through the pages of the chart, preparing for a class, I supposed. I noticed the words Stop, Drop and Roll on the front page of the chart. A fire extinguisher sat on the ground next to the flip chart.  A couple of girl scouts watched me as I passed by, stumbling under the weight of the log, tripping occasionally on the edge of my sleeping bag.

I made it back to the fire ring and dropped the log directly in the middle of the hot coals and waited for it to ignite. Smoke rose up from the log, and the part touching the coals turned black, but it did not catch on fire. I blew on the coals, and they turned red for a time, but still the log did not burn. I grew desperate, my hopes of a warm fire dissolving before my eyes. I remembered one of the church members at the campsite next to ours had a bottle of lighter fluid near his barbecue grill. I went to the campsite and “borrowed” the lighter fluid. The bottle was about half empty. I sprayed the log with lighter fluid and, bending over, blew on the hot coals. The log ignited in a blaze of blessedly warm fire. I stood as close to the fire as I could, soaking in the warmth. But, to my chagrin, the fire was consuming the lighter fluid, and not the log. As the fuel burned out, the fire died.

“That log will never catch fire,” Sean said. I turned to see him standing up from the entrance to his tent. He stretched and yawned, wiping sleep from his eyes.

I poured the rest of the “borrowed” lighter fluid onto the log. The fire sprang up again, lapping up the fluid. I exulted once again in the warmth. Then, just as before, the fire died. The log was smoking, but it wasn’t burning. Sean stepped up beside me, looking down at the log.

“It’s too big, Knucklehead. You have to split it into firewood before you can burn it.”

“Do you have an axe?” I said. He shook his head no.

I shook the empty bottle of lighter fluid and headed over to the other campsite looking for more. There, sitting on a folding table next to the church member’s recreational vehicle, was the answer. Of course. A two gallon can of Kerosene. Now that would light anything. I “borrowed” the can of kerosene and headed back to the fire ring, feeling triumphant. Sean was on his knees, straightening the inside of his tent. The campground was coming to life, and a few church members were sitting in chairs not far from the fire. I unscrewed the lid from the top of the kerosene can and poured it eagerly over the smoking log. Nothing happened. I bent down and blew on the coals. They grew redder, but the kerosene did not catch fire. I examined the can. It was kerosene. The warning “highly flammable liquid” was written on the front of the can. So why wasn’t it lighting? Frustrated, I tried once more. I poured the kerosene over the log.

PHUMP!

The kerosene lit with a small explosion, rippling the air around the fire ring and scorching my eyebrows. Everything seemed to slow. I watched, frozen in place, as the fire climbed from the log and up the stream of kerosene, entering the can. The can grew hot in my hands. Fire spewed from the opening. Someone once told me a can of gasoline would explode if it caught fire. I figured that was also true for kerosene. I saw the church members sitting nearby and worried the can would explode, injuring them. I had to get it away from people. Turning away from the church members, I tossed the can, using both hands, but stumbled just before tossing it. The can left my hands, spinning in the air, end over end, the fiery liquid pouring from the can as it revolved in the air, covering and igniting the ground, the nearby bushes and my right leg. It landed about five feet away from me. My right leg was on fire. The ground was on fire. The bushes and leaves around me were on fire. Thinking the can might still explode, I made the brilliant decision to kick it further away. I ran toward the can and kicked it hard with my right foot. It flew, spewing more fire, landing upside down in the top of the nearby bushes. The rest of the kerosene poured from the can, setting the bushes on fire. I stood, watching the fire as it grew, consuming the bushes and dry leaves. I felt no pain, but I smelled burning flesh. Acrid smoke enveloped me. Everything burned around me, and I was growing dizzy from the fumes. The world was on fire, spinning before me. My knees were going limp, and I felt myself falling. I was going down in flames.

“Stop! Drop! Roll!” A girl shouted.

Someone grabbed me from behind. I felt small arms around my waist, pulling me to the ground. I fell, landing on my left side. The girl behind me was covering my right leg with a wet blanket. Someone in front of me was using a fire extinguisher, putting out the fire.

“Stay down,” the girl behind me said. “You will be okay.”

Moments later, the fire was out. A girl of about twelve years old came into view, seeming to appear from the smoke and the misty white residue of the fire retardant. She had long, dark hair and wore glasses. A light green sash was draped across her chest, over her dark green uniform. Her pins and medals glistened in the morning sunlight. She carried a red fire extinguisher in her right hand. I craned my neck to see the girl who had pulled me down. She was a heavyset blonde girl, wearing a sash and uniform like the girl in front of me.

“We need to get him out of the smoke,” the girl scout with the fire extinguisher said. She joined the girl behind me. Taking me by the arms, they pulled, dragging me away from the smoke. I heard clapping and cheers. Dozens of campers, drawn to the commotion, were applauding the brave actions of my two young rescuers. It must have been quite a sight; me, covered in soot, sitting in the dirt, my right pant leg, black and charred, the two girl scouts looking down at me with concern. And in the middle of all the commotion, my lungs still filled with poisonous smoke, I forgot to say thank you.

Sean drove me to the closest clinic. He was my friend, which meant, of course, he laughed at me the entire ride, and would, for many years, tell the story of the brave and stalwart actions of the Girl Scouts to everyone we knew.

At the clinic, the physician, a man in his early forties, removed my pantleg with a pair of shears. The skin on the inner part of my ankle had melted down to the underlying facia and came off with the pantleg. He removed the dead skin around the burn with surgical scissors and dressed the wound. Sean sat in the treatment room, watching the procedure. I winked at him.

“Doctor,” I said, looking down at the dressing on my leg, “do you think I will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks?”

Sean shook his head and smiled. The doctor thought about it for a few moments. He nodded.

“As long as you change the dressing as ordered, and keep the wound covered during the game, I’m sure you will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks,” he said.

I grinned at Sean.

“That’s amazing, Doctor,” I said. “I’ve never been able to kick a field goal before.”

–Dedicated to the memory of Sean Mescher, my faithful friend–

A TIME TO DIE


Typhoon Omar hit the island of Guam in August of 1992. Winds reaching speeds of up to one-hundred-fifty miles per hour blew the roofs off buildings, toppled houses and devastated the Chamorro population, the natives of the island. I was twenty-one years old, a navy corpsman, flown out as part of a medical relief party. Our mission was to assist U.S. Naval Hospital Guam, which had received a huge influx of patients due to the typhoon. Naval hospitals were built for the medical needs of active and retired military personnel and their immediate families. On the island of Guam, the idea of immediate family was stretched to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant relatives. Few seeking medical treatment were turned away, regardless of their military affiliation, and the hospital was heavily populated with the island natives.

Typhoon Omar was brutal, but the island had recovered quickly. When I arrived, the worst part of the crisis was over. The winds had subsided, and our presence was no longer needed. Instead of being part of a relief crew, I ended up spending much of my time exploring the island alone. I visited Two Lovers Point, a cliff situated high above treacherous ocean waters, where, according to legend, a lovely maiden and her one true love, forbidden to marry, leapt to their deaths in the waters below. I hiked the densely forested Boonies and swam in the clear, warm waters of the white, coral beaches.

I quickly developed an admiration for the Chamorro people, their history and culture; intrigued by their resolute belief in the Taotaomona, the spirit of the island. If one respected the island, the Taotaomona was thought to help and bless them. If one disrespected the island, the spirit became angry and worked against them, hindering them in every way imaginable. The Chamorro people were as much a part of Guam as the land and the surrounding ocean, believing they would become part of the Taotaomona when they died, their spirits forever entwined with spirit of the island, as were their ancestors before them.

“You must ask permission of the Taotaomona before entering the forest,” an elderly Chamorro man told me. I was getting ready to enter the Boonies for a short hike. “You must ask permission before cutting down a tree or hunting an animal. If you do not, you will anger the spirit of the island.” He shook his head sadly. His ancient eyes scanned the horizon. “That is why there was a typhoon. So many do not believe, and their actions have angered the Taotaomona.”

My time on Guam was not all fun and games, however. It was a paid vacation, interrupted by spurts of work on a few of the hospital wards. It was on one of the hospital wards where I would learn a valuable lesson. A lesson about life, and a lesson about death.

I happened, one morning, to walk by one of the hospital rooms. A young doctor, a navy lieutenant in his early thirties, wearing a white doctor’s smock over his khaki officer’s uniform, saw me passing by and motioned for me to join him.

“Corpsman,” he said, “Could you help me in here, please?”

“Sure, Doc,” I said, stepping into the room. A diminutive Chamorro woman in her late seventies sat on the edge of the bed, wearing a hospital gown. She looked up at the doctor, a deep frown wrinkling her dark, determined face.  I sensed I had entered the room in the middle of an argument.

“Mrs. Khalida,” The young doctor said, “I assure you, you are not dying.” He ran his fingers through his brown hair and looked at the patient in frustration. “Please,” he said, “we ran every test we could, and they all came back normal. You’re in perfect health.”

“No, Doctor. It is my time to die,” Mrs. Khalida said. Her small hands gripped the front of her gray hospital gown. “I will not be going home. I will not be going home, ever. I will be joining my husband today.”

The young doctor glanced at my uniform name tag and motioned to me.

“Mr. Taylor will help you get dressed and pack your things,” he said, sliding the phone on the bedside table closer to her. “Please call your family. Have them pick you up.”

Mrs. Khalida ignored the phone. She rubbed her hands together and looked pleadingly up at me.

“Make him understand,” she said. “I will die today. I know that it is time. Please do not send me home.”

The doctor shook his head.

“Mr. Taylor,” he said, “help Mrs. Khalida get dressed and pack her things. She has been discharged and needs to leave.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida as if to say something, decided against it, nodded at me and left the room, leaving me alone with the patient.

“Ma’am,” I said, “can I help you get dressed?”

“I can dress myself, young man,” she said. “I may be dying, but I am not sick.”

“Please,” I said, “will you get dressed for me? I can help get your things together.”

She sighed resignedly.

“If I must, then I must. Will you bring me my clothes? They’re in the closet.”

I got her clothes, a pair of white pants and a cool, light blue shirt, from the closet and brought them to her. I pulled the curtain around her bed to give her privacy and began putting her other items into a hospital bag.

“The doctor is wrong,” she said through the curtain. “He does not understand my people. He does not understand it is my time to die.”

“He said you’re healthy, Ma’am. He can only go by the test results. Would you like me to call your family?”

Mrs. Khalida pulled the curtain back. She was wearing her street clothes and hospital socks.

“Where are your shoes, Ma’am?” I said.

“I will not need my shoes,” she said.  “The dead do not need shoes.” She sat down on the bed and picked up the phone. “I will call my family now.”

While Mrs. Khalida called her family, I continued putting her items into a bag. I heard the faint sound of ringing through the receiver she held to her ear. A muffled voice answered.

“I am in the hospital,” Mrs. Khalida said. “I am dying. I want you to come. Tell the others. My time has come, and I want to say goodbye.” She told the person on the other line the room number and hung up the phone. The doctor stepped into the room. He saw Mrs. Khalida dressed in her street clothes, sitting on the edge of the bed. He smiled at me.

“Ah, good. I see you got her dressed,” he said. “Did she notify her family?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “She just called them.”

He turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“You will see this is for the best. You have a lot of years ahead of you. You’re a very healthy woman.”

Mrs. Khalida did not answer. Her eyes studied the white linoleum tiled floor. The doctor grinned at me, nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him. Mrs. Khalida looked up at me.

“Healthy,” she said, a disgusted look on her face. “Healthy has nothing to do with it. Healthy people die every day. It is not about health or about sickness. It is about time. There is a time to die, and it is now my time.”

I placed the bag containing her personal items at the foot of the bed and sat down in one of the chairs, facing her.

“Why now?” I said. “The doctor said you’re healthy, but you believe it’s your time to die. Why?”

“You would not believe me, even if I told you,” she said.

“Try me,” I said. “I really want to know. You seem to be very sure about it.”

She turned from me and looked out the window.

“My husband let me know it is my time,” she said, “my husband and the Taotaomona.”

Mrs. Khalida said it happened when Typhoon Omar first hit the island. The small home she had lived in with her husband, and where she had lived alone after his death a few years earlier, was hit hard by the typhoon. Half the roof was blown off and one of the walls had fallen in. The powerful gales of wind had shattered the windows and the power was out. She hid under the relative safety of her bed while the storm raged against her house. Her home was near a cusp of woods at the edge of the Boonies. When the storm passed, she climbed out from underneath her bed, and entered her living room. She looked out through the glassless windows at the cusp of woods where her property ended, and the Boonies began. There was a creature standing there. He was extremely tall, above eight feet. He looked human, but she knew he was not a human being.

“It was the Taotaomona,” she said. “And standing next to the Taotaomona was a young man, a Chamorro. He was wearing a marine corps uniform. His dress uniform; the one he was buried in. He waved for me to come to him.” Her eyes glistened with tears. She turned away from me to stare out the window. “He was my husband, not old, but young, like he was when we married. But I was afraid. I did not go to him, though I knew my time had come. He was there, standing next to the Taotaomona. He kept waving for me, beckoning me, but I would not go. He was sad. He turned away from me and walked into the Boonies with the Taotaomona. It was my time, but I did not go.”

“But you’re still alive,” I said. “Maybe it wasn’t your time.”

“It was my time, and I did not go. I must go today. I must, or terrible things will happen. The spirit of the island is about balance. If I am alive when I should be dead, then everything is out of balance. No. I must go with the Taotaomona. I must join my husband.”

About half an hour later, someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find several people, all Chamorros. Mrs. Khalida called to them in her native language. They entered the room and surrounded her as she spoke, her eyes brimming with tears. Though I could not understand the language, I knew she was saying her goodbyes. They began to weep, hugging her and speaking with her, one by one. More family members began arriving, and soon the hospital room was filled with people, men, women and children. More arrived, squeezing into the room and spilling out into the hallway. I did not count them, but I am sure there were above fifty people. Many were weeping, and the sounds of their grief carried out to the rest of the hospital ward. I stood by the window, trying to make room for the family.

The doctor entered the room, making his way through the throng. He stood at the side of the bed, turning to the weeping family members.

“Please, please,” he said, gesturing with his hands to calm them, “Mrs. Khalida is not dying. She has been discharged from the hospital. She’s very healthy, let me assure you. You can take her home now.”

Mrs. Khalida said something in her language, and the weeping grew louder. A woman sitting next to her on the bed let out a great, mournful wail. The doctor looked at me, questioning. I shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing I could do but watch. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“Ma’am, you really must leave. You’re upsetting your family.”

Mrs. Khalida spoke to the woman sitting next to her. The woman stood up and Mrs. Khalida lifted her legs onto the bed, lying down.

“I told you, Doctor,” she said. “It is my time to die.”

The weeping intensified. The woman standing nearby began wailing again. The family members in the hallway also began weeping. The doctor looked helplessly around him, and imploringly at me. I shook my head. I could not help him. Mrs. Khalida reached out and held the hand of the wailing woman. She smiled up at her family and said a few words in her native tongue. Then she simply closed her eyes.

I watched as her steady, rhythmic breathing became more and more shallow, becoming erratic as minutes passed by, the muscles of her diaphragm moving in and out, her lungs barely drawing in air. This was Cheyne Stokes breathing, almost always present at the natural end of life. The heart would continue to beat, pumping air from the lungs to the body for as long as it could, but the oxygen in her lungs was not enough to sustain life.  I pulled her socks off and saw the tell-tale signs of mottling, purple and edematous ankles, a pooling of blood and body fluids; another sign that death was near. I looked up at the doctor. He stared down at the tiny Chamorro woman who was in the middle of Cheyne Stokes breathing. His face was pale. He looked up at me with wide eyes. I pointed to her ankles. He looked down at the mottling in her ankles and shook his head in bewilderment. He took out his stethoscope and listened to her heart, looking up at me as he did.

“Is she DNR?” I said. DNR or Do Not Resuscitate was an order to not perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the event of death.

The doctor nodded.

“She signed one when she was admitted. I tried to talk her out of it.”

We watched, the family weeping around us, the doctor, a man of science, baffled by what he was seeing, until Mrs. Khalida took one final gasp of air and relinquished it, a rattling sound coming from deep within her lungs. The doctor placed the end of his stethoscope above Mrs. Khalida’s heart and listened to her apical pulse, his eyes on his wrist watch to mark the exact time of death. Moments later, he nodded. Mrs. Khalida’s time had come.

I visited the Boonies once more before leaving the island. I placed a hand on one of the trees at the edge of the forest, and asked permission to enter from the Taotaomona. There was no answer, save the rustling of leaves in the tree above me.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the rustling of leaves as permission.

I stepped out into the forest, feeling much safer, having asked and received permission from the spirit of the island. After all, if I had learned anything, it was that science did not have all the answers. Perhaps much could be learned from the natives of the island of Guam, whose ancestors had lived there from time before recorded history. Perhaps there are some things about life that science does not have an answer for. Things about life, and, as Mrs. Khalida had proved to me and the young doctor, things about death.

WHEN THE CLERK CAME TO WORK


Inmateghost22

A PRISON GHOST STORY

“It really happened, Taylor,” Kellogg said. He sat behind his desk in the Facility Three Yard program office of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. He wore the bravo class uniform of a correctional sergeant, khaki shirt with three stripes on each arm, depicting his rank, and a black uniform ball cap to cover his brown, thinning hair. I sat across from him, leaning back in a chair, one booted foot on the desk. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but I was there. I saw him with my own eyes.”

It was first watch, the graveyard shift. The inmates were locked up for the night, and the prison was staffed by a skeleton crew. What better time was there to tell ghost stories?

Prisons are replete with tales of supernatural apparitions, purported to be the spirits of murdered inmates, or officers who spend their lives after death eternally haunting the halls of their former places of employment. During my academy training as a correctional officer cadet, I worked a short time at Old Folsom, the second oldest prison in the state. The stories there revolved around the spirits of inmates hanged for murder. A warehouse stands now where the gallows used to be. Officers on first watch were required to conduct security checks of the facility. New officers often reported they heard men weeping and wailing in the old warehouse. Experienced officers either stopped reporting the sounds or stopped entering the warehouse altogether. Another tale at Old Folsom prison had to do with a certain housing unit. Officers routinely counted inmates and grew accustomed to the idea that, in that housing unit, they were never alone during count. They felt the presence of an unseen officer walking the tiers with them, and even heard the jingling of his keys.

“I don’t know, Kellogg,” I said. “I’m not calling you a liar, but this place can do funny things to a man’s senses. And you did say you were sleeping.”

“Yeah, I was sleeping, “Kellogg said, “but I was awake when I saw him. He was there, as real as you are, standing on the second tier, looking down at the dayroom floor.”

“What did he look like?”

“He looked like an inmate. He was a white guy, covered in tattoos. Even on his face. He was wearing his blues. I thought he had gotten out of his cell somehow. I’m just glad I didn’t think to notify central control. They would’ve thought I was crazy.”

As the story went, it happened when Kellogg was still an officer, working overtime in the control booth of housing unit seventeen on Facility Four. The control booth was a large room in the second story of the housing unit, with thick, unbreakable windows. The control booth officer provided gun coverage for the yard from his back window, and coverage for the officers inside the housing unit through slots in his front windows. He also controlled the opening and closing of the housing unit and cell doors from a panel on his desk. During the day, it was a busy job, but at night, when the inmates were locked in their cells, it was one of the easiest jobs in the prison. And an officer, especially an officer on overtime, could find himself struggling to stay awake. Kellogg had succumbed to the struggle that night, and was fast asleep.

“Something woke me up,” Kellogg said, “I felt like someone was up in the control booth with me. I didn’t see anyone, but I felt it. I got up and looked around, but no one was there. I looked out at the dayroom, and there he was, clear as day, leaning against the second tier railing, just staring down at the dayroom floor. I shouted at him, but he ignored me. I called down to the officers, but they were sleeping in their office. They wouldn’t wake up. The inmate started walking toward cell 217, and I started shouting at him again. He never even looked at me. He got to the cell door, but didn’t stop walking. Taylor, man, I’m telling you, he walked right through the cell door like it wasn’t even there. I don’t know what to think of it, but I know it happened.”

“And you don’t think it was a dream?” I said.

“No dream,” Kellogg said. “When my shift was over in the morning, I left the control booth and went to cell 217. There were two inmates locked up in there. I talked to them.”

“What did they say?”

“That’s the thing,” Kellogg said. “At first they didn’t want to talk to me. They thought I would think they were crazy. When they did talk, they told me they woke up and saw an inmate, the same inmate, standing in their cell, staring out their back window. And, just like that, he was gone. He was there one second, and gone the next.”

I took Sergeant Kellogg’s story with the proverbial grain of salt. I did not dismiss it outright. Who am I, after all, to judge another man’s ghost story? But to say I believed it would not be entirely true. I had witnessed many unexplainable events in my life, and tried to keep my mind open to possibilities, but I also nurtured a healthy cynicism.

Another strange event happened in the prison infirmary. I wasn’t a witness to it, but I talked to the doctor and nurses involved, who swore to me that it happened. Inmates with severe medical issues were kept in cells that were basically hospital rooms, equipped with medical beds and televisions. A man convicted of serial rape was dying. He was a belligerent old inmate, rude and caustic, especially to the female staff members. He was in the last few minutes of life, and was still conscious. He looked up at the television from where he was lying in bed, and cried out in fear. Scrolling on the bottom of the screen were the words, YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The Doctor was in the room with two nurses. They changed the channel, but the words remained on the bottom of the screen. YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The inmate took his final breath, staring up at the television screen. Perhaps the story was true. Perhaps not. I kept an open mind.

It wasn’t until I had an experience of my own that I decided Sergeant Kellogg may have really seen a ghost. It happened to me. It happened when the clerk came to work.

There were many jobs in prison for inmates. Inmates were cooks, they worked in the laundry, as porters in the housing units and a variety of other positions. Being an inmate clerk required intelligence. To be the lieutenant’s clerk required even greater intelligence. The lieutenant’s clerk had to be knowledgeable of yard procedures, and had to be able to read and write well. When a yard discovered an inmate with these capabilities they held on to them. Most lieutenant’s clerks had long sentences, and many held the same job for ten years or more. The Facility One lieutenant’s clerk, Inmate Jensen, had been the clerk for at least fifteen years. He was an older man with gray hair, a pale complexion and bifocals. He was quiet and unobtrusive, never out of line with the officers, but was always professional and courteous. He became part of the furniture, so to speak, his presence so common in the program office that he often went unnoticed. He had been convicted at the age of thirty for murdering his wife’s lover after catching them together in his bed. He was in his sixties, and had spent more time in prison than he had lived outside prison. His life inside the wall was routine. He got up every morning, put on a clean, pressed inmate uniform, waited for the control booth officer to open his cell, then headed to the program office. Five days a week, every week for more than fifteen years. He never talked about paroling. Like many lifers, I am sure he hoped to one day be free. But Inmate Jenkins would spend the rest of his life in prison.

The rest of his life. And one more day.

It was early on a Monday morning. I entered the Facility One Program office. I was scheduled to work as one of the yard officers, and grabbed my equipment, baton, pepper spray, radio, keys, from the equipment locker. I barely noticed when Inmate Jenkins entered. He looked around, and seemed a bit confused. I was too busy donning my equipment to pay much attention. He headed back to his work station, an alcove just down the hallway with an electric typewriter on a large wooden desk. I finished cinching up my duty belt and keying the microphone on my radio to make sure the battery was charged. Inmate Jenkins left his work area, the same look of vague confusion on his pale face. He walked to the front door of the program, which was propped open for the officers to come and go, and stepped out onto the yard. I checked the schedule of duties, which was posted to the wall, to see what extra duties I had to perform.

I heard shouting from one of the first watch officers at the back of the program.

“No freaking way!” he yelled.

I stepped out into the hallway to see what was going on. The officer, a middle-aged Hispanic man, was staring from where he stood at the end of the hallway, out through the open door. His eyes were wide with surprise, and not a little fear. I followed his gaze to the empty yard.

“What’s happening?” I said.

“Jenkins, man. I just saw Jenkins!”

“Doing what?” I said. I looked out at the yard, but did not see inmate Jenkins.

“You don’t get it! He’s not supposed to be doing anything.”

I scanned the yard again. No inmate Jenkins. Where could he have gone?

“I don’t see him at all,” I said.

“Taylor,” the officer said, exasperated, “Jenkins is dead. He died at the infirmary last night!”

I looked at the officer, sure he was messing with me. I grinned.

“Okay,” I said, “Jenkins is dead. Go on. I just saw him a minute ago.”

The officer stepped out onto the yard, looking around. He shook his head.

“I don’t get it, man,” he said. “They told me he was dead.”

“Well,” I said, “they told you wrong. Maybe it was another Jenkins.”

He thought about it, looking at the empty yard. He nodded to himself.

“Yeah. I guess so. That has to be it…”

“Here,” I said, “come with me.”

I entered the program office and he followed. Sitting down at the computer, I put in my password and logged onto SOMS, the information system for officers. I searched for Inmate Jenkins on Facility One. His information flashed on my screen, his housing unit and photo identification. I checked his status. It showed he had discharged from prison the day before. I looked up at the officer, who stared over my shoulder at the computer screen. His mouth was open. His eyes were wide. There, directly under Inmate Jenkin’s photo were the following words: Status- Discharged. Cause- Death. Location- Office of the Coroner, San Diego County. Inmate Jenkins was not only dead, he was discharged to the San Diego County Coroner’s Office.

His body was in the morgue.

Occasionally, I read articles in the newspaper or watch news stories about people convicted of heinous crimes. Some are sentenced to life, some to life plus fifty years. I worked with inmates who were sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. We all assumed they would leave the prison when their first life sentence was over. After all, a man has only one life to give. But now I wonder whether that is entirely true. How many inmates served their sentences of life, only to find they had a lot more time to do?