Green Hills Literary Lantern

Bad Thoughts

 

My pupils are boiling and my nostrils sizzle, and the more I touch my eyes the sharper the pain from the pepper spray.

On my stomach, I push my cheek and eyelid against the cold cement floor of my new cell in the adjustment wing, which takes away some of the bite.

A guard, he yanks off my belt and shoe laces, and he locks me in. Last month a kid choked himself out with Converse laces and his bed frame—talk about an American who’s got talent. 

They don’t have to worry about me doing the Dutch—not today. Today is important to me. One—it’s my fourteenth birthday. B—it’s the first time in three years I’ll be in the world. You see, today I meet my Youth Advocate.

YA’s are like professional Big Brothers for us juvenile inmates with mental issues doing good time. To help with my rehabilitation, this guy will take me to the mall one day a week, or bowling, or to miniature golf or to some everyday place so that I get re-acclimated to normies—people who aren’t. . . in here. It’s a big step toward hitting the streets, freedom, and I got one to the door. One year left!   

I’m anxious because today my YA will decide if I’m ready to spend time outside, or if my last year here will be spent stuttering to myself while the walls close in.

I rub my eyes, but I can’t stop crying and sneezing like I’m some frustrated Labrador.  I love dogs, which proves, I think, that I’m not a monster. I hate cats, which doesn’t prove anything. Cats stick to themselves and are creepy and dark. I’m more like a cat than a dog, which is why I don’t like cats. In jail you have time to think about these things. For instance, I’m more like a cockroach than a rat; more like a science geek than a jock, even though I played soccer when I was ten and never much liked science.  

Will you shut the fuck up in there! Tyrone, the gunner in the next room, barks at me.

A gunner is a kid who jacks off in front of a female guard, which is why Tyrone is in the room next to mine in the Adjustment Wing. Tyrone is more like a dog than a cat. I like Tyrone, even though two weeks ago he tried to stab a number-two pencil through my forearm in English class. I don’t hold that against him, as he isn’t a good student and was likely frustrated over not being able to write what he means.

Hard to say when I began speaking my thoughts aloud. Maybe six months ago? I don’t even realize I’m doing it until someone like Tyrone, the guards, or my mother on her rare visits, points it out. It doesn’t mean I’m nutting up, just becoming institutionalized. But having a Youth Advocate is supposed to prevent that.

My old roommate developed a stutter here at Montgomery; he sounded like a lawnmower waking up. One of the guards told me I’d develop one, a stutter, as well. The longer you’re in here, the higher the chances you’ll become a stammering idiot is what the guard said.   

Bert, another guard, the one in charge of the Adjustment Wing, who looks more like Ernie from Sesame Street than he does Bert, returns my belt and laces and lets me know my YA’s here. He also informs me that he would’ve cancelled my YA because of the fight. I don’t much care what he thinks because the Warden’s Court decided I was good to go. 

I mean, three kids jumping me and beating my balled-up body wasn’t a charge they could stick me with.  I still don’t know why they attacked me, but my guess is it had something to do with my crime, why I’m here in juvy jail in the first place.

Bert tells me he doesn’t got all day, so I get up, and then I’m on the walk, sticking to my side of the yellow line, doing my own time, moving past the Mainline, the Sally port, the pill line, and an empty classroom, when I see a guy with pockmarked skin who looks like a football coach standing on the other side of the Turnkey.

The Turnkey, she’s Wilda, she doesn’t talk much, just kinda grunts and uses her chin to relay information.

The YA takes me in, gives me a long look. I touch my greasy hair, and my eyes become terrified and uncontrollable insects avoiding a murderous hand—they leap to the floor, my leg, a light switch, my sleeve, and eventually to the vicinity of my YA’s face but not on any feature—definitely not his eyes. In juvy Jail you realize eye contact could get you jammed.

 A Spider Monkey’s scream startles my YA. A Spider Monkey’s a kid who’s jumping out of his skin. I don’t even hear the screams anymore—white noise.

Hey Tim, I’m your Youth Advocate, Abe.

He wants a handshake.

I nod, trying to control my eyes, finally letting them land on his cheek.

My hand is clammy, and he wipes my sweat off on his jeans.

Now, we’re through the gate and into the parking lot, which I haven’t eyeballed in three years. I hope he doesn’t notice how much I’m sweating like a horse; horses sweat the most out of all the animals, I once read. He probably thinks I’ll be excited to see the mountains behind the trailer park, so I look but I don’t really see anything. I’m in my head.

We get into his Volkswagen Bug—an odd car for such a big guy—and I can’t stop my leg from bouncing. I feel dirty in this guy’s car, like he’s going to have to hose down the passenger seat, scrub off the jail filth.

Okay, I think, I got two hours to convince this Abe that I’m worth his time. Two hours to convince him I am worth trying to save. 

We’re out of the parking lot and onto the street, and we pull up to a light, and he asks me what kind of music I like. I look at his radio like the correct answer is going to be written on it. I guess I take too long ’cause he pushes a button and some rap song fires up. I’m gonna have to be quicker answering his questions if I want to win him over, I decide.

He doesn’t know what to say or ask me. He’s probably going over my crimes—god, what he must think of me—wondering how he could get out of being my YA. The radio yells be mine, be mine, be my dirty bitch. He taps it off and silence howls in my ears.

He asks if I’m hungry, if I want something to eat, and I tell him my meds kill my appetite.

I got other clients with that complaint, he says.

Really? You got other kids on chemical castration? I ask, relieved he may understand my situation.

And his tongue gets all jammed up. He tells me he doesn’t have kids on CC. His kids have Schizophrenia and are Bipolar.

Bipolar and Schizophrenic’s brains are poisoned in a way that doesn’t prohibit them from parks and birthday parties, I want to say. I want to tell him that I begged, actually cried, for my shrink to prescribe chemical castration to kill my dreams and my obsessive thoughts.

Cho-mo, Tree-jumper, Chester, is what they call me, but I’m trying to be normal, and I want to tell him how much I want to close my eyes and see a sexy girl my age, but my brain won’t have it. I want him to like me, but I know he won’t. 

He asks if I like movies.

I tell him I like to read. I don’t tell him movies leave too much room for my own thoughts. Reading commands all of my attention; watching movies allows my mind to wander.  

He explains to me how our relationship is supposed to work, how I can tell him anything; the only time he has to report me is if I intend to hurt myself or someone else. Then he wants to know where I want to go.

I don’t want to bowl or play pool or go for a walk or play miniature golf or really do anything. My first time out in three years and I don’t know what to do. What do I like? I can’t remember. Ice cream? Ice cream is normal. Normal kids like ice cream.  

Abe thinks ice cream is a good idea.

It’s summer and there are lots of kids around the pedestrian mall. I don’t want Abe to misinterpret my gaze, so I watch my feet making their way, which is like watching a boring movie about dirty sneakers.

Abe, he’s silent, still unsure what to ask me, probably cursing his bad luck at pulling me as a client: I picture YA’s sitting around a conference table, a photo of me circulating like a plague they don’t want to touch, praying they pull kiddies with small problems, relatable stuff, baby delinquents.

We make it to Ben and Jerry’s, and I get Cookies and Cream, and he gets Chocolate, and we sit down at one of the two tables outside, and we lick our ice cream.

He doesn’t look directly at me, which allows me to watch him: he has kind but worn-out eyes with smile lines at the corners. And that skin—so pockmarked that it looks like an old leather football. Yeah, this guy looks troubled, like he’s carrying more than his share.  

He asks me if I like my ice cream, and in his gravely voice I recognize pain, the permanent kind.  I wonder how he ended up a YA, if he ever did time. I decide that he did.

 A few teenagers approach Ben and Jerry’s, and the last one, he lingers at the door, gawking at me. I look away and then back to find that he’s giving me the finger.

Abe notices this: Get your damn ice cream before I give you something to look at, he says to this kid, who, you better believe, joins his friends at the counter inside.

This kid, who I’ve never met before, knows I’m off. At first sight, he hates me. Some kids just know I’m a monster. I don’t know how, but I think it has something to do with my darting eyes, my bony arms and legs, the way I slouch as if my shoulders are trying to hide on my chest.

Sure, it is Abe’s job to stick up for me, but the way he did it seemed real, not prescribed.

As a reward for his chivalry, I strip my jacket, revealing deep cuts up and down my arms.

Adults like my shrink love cutters because it gives them something solid to talk to you about, something with teeth to write in their report. The truth is that taking a shank and carving my arm sends a warm tingling sensation through my body, which reminds me of when my mom used to wake me up from a nap.

I wait for him to ask about these slices as his kind eyes move over my arms, the scabbed tick-tack-toe boards. Why did I choose tick-tack-toe boards to carve into my arm? My shrink says it’s because nobody ever wins that game. I don’t know. It’s not like I could carve Wii Rockband into my arm. I mean, I don’t like or hate anyone enough to carve their name into my skin. Maybe next time I’ll fill in the X and O’s. That might be cool.

What do you want to do next? Abe asks.

I spot a Buddhist store across the way, and I tell him I’ve read, studied really, books on Buddhism, but he’s suspicious. 

Life is suffering, I declare, but it sounds fake, regurgitated.

Truth is I’ve read like ten books on Buddhism, searching for a way not to be reborn. Apparently if you become enlightened you can either choose to come back as a teacher—a Buddhist teacher, not a science teacher or something—or choose not to be born again. I share this thought with Abe, and he sits up in his chair and scrutinizes me for the first time, which is startling but feels like a connection. I can’t remember the last time somebody looked at me this way, like he gave a shit.

You don’t want to be reborn? he asks, curious.

I shake my head, and hurl out ideas that have been rattling around my skull for the last three years. If you’re enlightened, I say, you can even kill yourself and not be reborn. If you’re just normal, you know, not a master or anything, and you do the Dutch, then you’ll just come back as a cat or something, or worse, protozoa.  

He asks me if I want to kill myself. I, of course, tell him, no, I don’t. I tell him I was just making a point.

He nods and wants to know more about enlightenment.   

I tell him the books say you could meditate, or chant, or just stop thinking, and then the world will be exposed to you. You’ll know that everything is an illusion, that it’s not really happening, and that you’re not doing the stuff you think you’re doing.

He looks at me, trying to probe deeper into my thoughts, but I don’t like him there in my head. I keep my thoughts in the back of my skull—for my eyes only.

I tell him I’ve tried meditating but my thoughts just killed everything.

He gets it. He tried meditating, he says, and he botched it up real good. Every time he closed his eyes, his brain would do its thing, and he couldn’t concentrate, just kept thinking his damn thoughts. He says his thoughts think themselves sometimes. Then he asks if I know what he means.  

Blood beats in my eyes and forehead. We are having a conversation, finding common ground. It isn’t my shrink analyzing me, or kids threatening me, or the ideas of a book rattling around my head—or my mom’s disgusted eyes. It’s an actual conversation. Just two people talking, and one of them is me. I try to calm myself as I can feel my limbs gangling out.

It’s impossible not to think, I start. My thoughts are always at me, more abusive than even my old gunner cell mate. Whenever I try to think of something normal, my brain shoves something in its place, an image I don’t want there, I tell him.

I immediately regret what I say. I can’t have him wondering about my thoughts, thinking I obsess on cuddling younger kids.

Abe leans back in his chair and studies me. He says, Maybe next week we could go to this Buddhist temple I’ve seen on Arapahoe Avenue?

I nod like my head’s gonna come off—a bobble head. Abe doesn’t find me revolting. He might even like me a little bit, I hope.

Then Abe’s eyes get like saucers at something in the distance, so I turn, and that’s when I see her, this small, brown-haired, pigtailed whirlwind darting toward us through a huddle of shoppers. A mini running back.

Uncle Abe! Uncle Abe! this girl shouts.

I haven’t seen a little kid in like three years, not outside of the visiting room. I turn to Abe, terrified. I want him to tell me what to do, how to behave, but I get nothing from him. I put my attention on my ice cream, studying the Oreos like they’re little life rafts.  

Abe bangs his knee on the table as he stands. It sounds like he hugs her, this girl, and he gives her a kiss. He says,  Casey, what are you doing here? Where’s your mom? He says this like he’s upset at her, but really he’s just upset at the situation.

Over there, says the girl. Mom’s over there. Then I hear her say, Hello, in this sing-song voice.  

Then there’s this silence, the kind of silence even birds don’t interrupt.

Helloooooo!!!!, sings this little agitated voice, right beside me.

So I look at her, because what else am I gonna do? When a person, any person, says hello, you look up. Even with three years in, I still know that.

 Casey, this little eight-year-old girl, extends her hand, wanting me to shake it, to touch it.

I look at Abe, but he appears shaken. I mean, he’s no help to me—none whatsoever. I think to bolt, to run away, but I’ve learned to ignore my instincts.

So here I am, holding this little hand in my paw, but only for a second, a millisecond. With my other hand, I’m twirling my hair—a nervous habit.

Did that hurt? she asks, pointing to the scabs on my arms.

I continue to twirl my hair, and my tongue gets knotted. I’m not gonna launch into some long explanation as to why sticking a knife into my arm doesn’t hurt, but I don’t want to be all rude and silent.

Did those cuts on your arms hurt? she repeats, raising her voice and cocking her head, standing her ground like she’s not going to move until I speak. She looks like a little damn statue is exactly what she looks like.  

No. Not really, I blurt out, conscious my eyes are blinking like I’m crazy.

You’re lying, she says.  

I mean they hurt after a while, but not at the time, I manage.

Why did you do that to yourself?

I don’t know, I say.  

That’s stupid. That’s really stupid, she says in that sing-song voice again.

There’s your mom, Abe says, like he couldn’t be happier about anything. He takes Casey’s hand and pulls her toward him, away from me.  

Casey’s mom is rushing through shoppers, mouthing the word sorry over and over to Abe. She just disappeared, she says, when she is closer. I turned around and she was gone.  

Casey turns to me, Are you coming to dinner tonight?

I shake my head.  

Casey, let’s go, says her mom, who then leads her away.

Nice meeting you, Casey calls back over her shoulder to me.

I wave back to her because I don’t want to be rude.

When she’s finally gone, I realize I’ve been holding my breath, and I exhale a long stream of air. I wipe my hands off on my pants, blink, run my fingers through my hair again, and I try to steady my eyes on my runny ice cream, which now looks rancid. 

Abe gets a blank stare, and he’s different now, more withdrawn.

I’ve never been to a Buddhist temple, I say, trying to recapture our connection, but he just nods.

Maybe it would be easier to meditate with a whole bunch of monks, I say. Or maybe the monks have little tricks or whatever that they could teach us, to get us started. Maybe I should be a monk? Monks just sit and pray that the world will heal. I mean, that sounds good to me. I could really get into something like that, I say, babbling like some moron.  

He nods again, but he’s checked out, thinking, no doubt, about his niece’s innocent hand in my diseased one.

So we go back to the car, and we’re driving, and I want to say that I don’t think about  Casey in a bad way. I just think that she is nice and kind. I want to say this to Abe, but somehow that would make it worse. So I just sit there in the passenger seat looking at my dirty sneakers, waiting for him to talk, which finally he does: Let’s get you back is what he says. Let’s get you back before they begin to miss you.

I want to ask him who he thinks will miss me. I want to scream that he needs to give me one more chance. I don’t want to be a stammering idiot, is what I want to say.

I like Abe, I decide. I understand why he doesn’t want to be my YA. I really do. I don’t hold it against him, how could I?  

I shouldn’t have shaken her hand, I finally say.  

He looks at me.

I try to look him in the eyes, and I can almost hold his gaze. 

She’d still be standing there, waiting, he says.

That’s true, I say. That’s why I did it, shook her hand, that’s why. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. She was like a statue staring at me like that.

By this time we’re parked in the juvy jail parking lot, neither one of us moving to open our door. My mind’s pleading, begging him to be my YA, but my mouth’s keeping out of it. I think to bring up the Buddhist temple again, but I don’t want to seem desperate. I just want to seem normal, a regular kid. What would a normal kid say here, anyway?

Abe clicks the door locks, and we are out of the car heading toward and then through the gate.

Then there’s Wilda, the Turnkey, who says something like we weren’t out very long.

Looking down the hall where the empty classroom is and where just beyond that is the Mainline, I turn to Abe and extend my hand. This time I want a handshake. I want one last connection with Abe, one I can hold onto, one that will calm me when I feel alone.   

Shaking my hand, he says to me, I’ll see you next week, we’ll check out some monks.

I want to hug him, to cry, to scream, but I just take my hand back and watch Abe wipe my sweat off on his jeans.

Back in my room in the Adjustment Wing, I hear Tyrone, the gunner, jacking off.  I wonder if Abe will really come back. I hope so. I close my eyes and I think about monks. I think about their robes, of them chanting, and then I picture myself alongside them praying to heal the world. And then another thought creeps into my head, a bad thought, one I don’t want there.

 

 

 

 

Scott Gordon’s most recent story can be read in Mobius magazine. He is an award-winning writer and director of independent films. He has also written and directed thirty-two half-hour television programs currently being broadcast on PBS networks across the nation, including American Writers of the Twentieth Century and Complete History of the Black Experience in America. Scott grew up in New Jersey and New York and now lives in Los Angeles.