Pas­sen­ger

Prairie Fire - - KIRSTI SALMI -

WE ROLL UP TO THE JAIL as dawn breaks over Slate River Val­ley. Pine trees stand at at­ten­tion in neat rows, shaggy with fresh snow. When we pull up to the front door, there’s no more cover from the wind. It whips across the sur­round­ing farm­land, rocks my Chevy, whis­tles around the ra­dio an­tenna. Adam’s fid­dling with the dial. He shifts from ZZ Top to Lisa Laco’s voice, leans back and slurps his coffee.

“Rick,” he sighs. “How many times I gotta tell you? None of this dad rock bull­shit. Not this early in the morn­ing, man.”

Adam likes lis­ten­ing to CBC. He got the shit kicked out of him a lot on the in­side, so the guards gave him a lit­tle ra­dio in­stead of tele­vi­sion priv­i­leges. Adam isn’t much of a reader. Tells me CBC is the clos­est thing to an ed­u­ca­tion he got af­ter he dropped out. Swears by it. We never get through a whole story or in­ter­view on these morn­ing pick­ups, though. He’s al­ways turn­ing it down to tell me some ran­dom tid­bit he learned on another seg­ment.

Twenty min­utes later, the door opens. The buzzing noise still rat­tles my teeth, even ten years out. Adam and I lean for­ward as the gate re­treats. Spliced by a crack in my wind­shield, a short, wiry man shuf­fles into the frigid morn­ing. A guard fol­lows him, shoves a brown paper bag into his hands. Sticks his hand out for a shake. The wiry man stares down at it quizzi­cally. Ten, fif­teen sec­onds pass like this. Adam snorts as the em­bar­rassed guard tries to re­cover, slap­ping the wiry guy on the back in­stead and ges­tur­ing at my pickup.

“Beau­ti­ful,” he snick­ers. “That’s fuck­ing price­less.”

I reach into the back seat for my old parka. From the look of it, it’s gonna be too big for the guy. But it’s Fe­bru­ary, the wind­chill is mi­nus twenty. It’s bet­ter than noth­ing. His pa­role of­fi­cer told us he got put away dur­ing the sum­mer, so it’s un­likely he’s got an al­ter­na­tive.

Adam’s al­ready out of the truck, half­way across the yard. Curs­ing un­der my breath, I am­ble af­ter him as fast as my aching joints will take me.

“Vern, man,” he says. “Wel­come back to the world!”

Vern gives the same be­wil­dered look re­served for the guard’s re­jected hand­shake. Adam reaches for his paper bag, but Vern hugs it to his chest. He’s shud­der­ing in the cold, but try­ing to cover it, his jaw flex­ing and set­ting, re­sist­ing chat­ters.

“Hey Vern,” I say, hand­ing over the parka. “This here’s Adam. I’m Rick. We’re here to take you around town to­day.”

Vern re­gards me with wary eyes, but nods stiffly. “Any­one ever tell you you look like Clint East­wood?” he says.

He’s got fuzzy and gnarled eye­brows like pipe-cleaner cater­pil­lars from a kinder­gartener’s art pro­ject. Maybe ten years older than I am. Gaunt grooves in his cheeks, as though glaciers carved his cheek­bones. Neat lit­tle salt-and-pep­per goa­tee. Blurred and faded tat­toos creep past his col­lar, inch­ing up his neck. He shuf­fles into the parka, gropes re­flex­ively at his bald head.

“Shit, it’s cold,” he mut­ters.

We pull away from the fa­cil­ity, to­ward High­way 61. Vern’s eyes widen in the rear-view as he takes in the sunrise over Mount McKay: smears of red tinged with white and fad­ing to blue. I sig­nal left, waiting for morn­ing traf­fic to pass.

“Nice, eh?” muses Adam. “Kinda looks like a rocket pop.”

Vern scram­bles for the door, tum­bling out of the truck. Adam makes to chase him but I slap my palm across his chest be­fore he can un­buckle. Vern’s retch­ing into a snow­bank, his wiry shoul­ders heav­ing un­der the parka’s thick down.

We take Vern to the Husky diner on Me­mo­rial. It was Adam’s idea to take the guys here first. It’s not busy like the Hoito, but it’s busy enough. There are mostly truck­ers around, griz­zled old fucks who mind their busi­ness and don’t stare. Wait­resses are pleas­ant, but not flir­ta­tious. There’s all-day break­fast, the menu isn’t too large.

Vern goes ahead of us with his chest puffed out. Sur­veys the restau­rant. A wait­ress with false eye­lashes stacks Dan­ishes onto a plat­ter, mak­ing small talk with reg­u­lars at the counter. A har­ried busi­ness­man squints at stock in­dexes in the Globe. Two young paramedics hunch over lum­ber­jack spe­cials, their ra­dios crack­ling. Vern eyes the uni­forms ner­vously.

Adam catches my eye. Back booth, he mouths. He’s right. They al­ways choose the back booth.

There’s a small plop, fol­lowed by a hiss­ing god­damnit. Vern tenses. The busi­ness­man fishes around for a cuff­link, two fin­gers in his coffee cup. Every­body’s ig­nor­ing us.

“Let’s take the back booth,” Vern says. Adam winks at me.

The wait­ress hands us splotchy lam­i­nated menus, cracks her gum as she dead­pans the daily spe­cials. De­posits a few oily cof­fees and a stack of cream­ers on our ta­ble. Vern’s back is to the wall. He scans the room un­der his pipe-cleaner eye­brows, then paws at the metal cut­lery and its won­drous im­pli­ca­tion of trust. He squints at the menu like it’s a le­gal doc­u­ment.

“What a trip, right?” Adam chat­ters at Vern, dump­ing ob­scene amounts of cream and sweet­ener into his coffee. “Lemme guess: Tues­day is still south­ern spe­cial. Eggs and Eggo waffles.”

Vern’s eyes light up; we’re get­ting some­where. Adam’s good at strik­ing com­mon ground. Prison menus al­ways come up. Vern leans in. “Used to wrap that shit up, right? Put a lit­tle maple syrup on it.”

The wait­ress comes back around but Vern’s still caught up with the menu. He fin­gers the jam stains, digs the plas­tic cor­ner un­der his nails. All these op­tions. The air is greasy with the smell of juicy, suc­cu­lent ba­con—ac­tual, iden­ti­fi­able meat. It’s a lot for a guy to take in. She blows a strand of hair out of her face, raises her eye­brows. Adam’s strain­ing to jump in. His knee is bounc­ing un­der the ta­ble; I give it a lit­tle knock with mine— shut it, man.

“Eggs benny,” Vern says. “No—French toast. Pan­cakes! You got Finn pan­cakes? With sausages. And ba­con.” Adam’s nod­ding vig­or­ously, but Vern looks to me for ap­proval. Not a good sign.

“Have it all,” I say.

“Cook makes the ba­con crispy here,” warns the wait­ress, rip­ping the chit from her note­book. “Like it’s stripped from Satan’s ass­hole. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

For a wiry guy, Vern can pack it away. He or­ders two more rounds of break­fast. When he’s done, he traces through syrup and hot sauce, lick­ing his fin­ger­tips with em­phatic smacks.

His empty plate is a fin­ger paint­ing master­piece. Adam and I sit pa­tiently, be­cause we get it. The first meal out is al­ways a mind-blower.

“So,” he says, sit­ting back with a con­tented groan. “What’d you guys go in for?”

“Dumb shit,” says Adam. “Ten years for gang stuff.”

Wisely, he leaves a lot out. He got tan­gled up with skin­heads, put away when he beat on some poor kid for his ini­ti­a­tion. Adam was eigh­teen. Wanted to be part of some­thing. Wanted to feel tough, be­cause his dad used to rough him up. Lots of peo­ple find Je­sus in prison. Adam found en­light­en­ment in a cy­cle of lib­er­ally doled prison beat­ings and the lib­er­ally minded pro­gram­ming of the CBC.

Vern thrusts his chin at me. There are toast crumbs dot­ting his beard. “What about you, man?”

“Fif­teen years,” I say. “Drug charges. You?”

We al­ready know the an­swer to this one. His pa­role of­fi­cer told us. But it’s a rit­ual, to share like this.

Vern stares at his hands. I no­tice for the first time that they’re not cal­loused, the way most in­mates’ are. His fin­gers are long and ta­pered, like a pi­anist’s. Kind of el­e­gant. He squeezes them into fists, then re­leases. Squeeze, re­lease.

“I went off my meds for a month, twenty years ago,” he says. “A bad thing hap­pened.”

Some­body bumps into Vern while we’re in Wal­mart get­ting toi­letries and clothes. The guy doesn’t mean any­thing by it. The aisles are small. Vern is bent over Adam’s iPhone, mar­vel­ling. Adam’s scrolling through Face­book, show­ing him the weather fore­cast, tex­ting me. Guys on the in­side see ads for these things on TV, but they’ve never had a chance to use one. I got re­leased around the time smart­phones flooded the mar­ket, so I learned with ev­ery­one else. Adam’s that gen­er­a­tion that seems ef­fort­lessly tech lit­er­ate, so he never missed a beat even though he only got out last year.

Adam’s tak­ing a selfie with Vern when the guy brushes past him. He’s got a sub­ur­ban dad look to him. I don’t mean clean-cut; they’re not re­ally, these days. Plaid flan­nel jacket, scruffy hip­ster beard, ta­pered jeans, toque pulled low over his eyes. A vape pen sticks out of his breast pocket. I can tell he’s a dad be­cause he’s haul­ing Hug­gies un­der both arms. The guy’s di­a­pers con­nect, mak­ing Vern’s lower back buckle slightly. Vern whirls, knock­ing the case out of the guy’s arm by ac­ci­dent.

Vern’s whole body changes. His shoul­ders tense, knees lock. Hands clenched at his sides. The mus­cles in his neck spasm, the only part of his en­tire body that’s re­act­ing out­wardly. Adam sucks in his breath, waiting for catas­tro­phe.

But the hip­ster dad chuck­les, bends down to col­lect his di­a­pers. “Sorry ’bout that, man. Wife al­ways tells me I should just get a damned cart.” He flashes a grin at Vern, gives us a nod. “Have a good one.”

It isn’t un­til Vern looks at me that I re­al­ize I’m hold­ing my breath, too. He’s trem­bling with re­straint, but didn’t re­act. I’m proud of him.

“Let’s grab you some shav­ing stuff, a tooth­brush,” I say, re­cov­er­ing. “Doesn’t look like you’re gonna need sham­poo with that squeaky clean dome.”

He barks laugh­ter, and I of­fer him con­trol of the cart. His long, ta­pered fin­gers curl hes­i­tantly around the han­dle­bars, test­ing the feel­ing. Ev­ery­thing is for­eign. Small, mea­sured steps are the best way to take it. Like learn­ing to walk again.

We get to the main aisle and Vern stops, gaz­ing around him as if he’s aware, for the first time, of where he is. Peo­ple bus­tle around us. Rows and rows of ev­ery con­ceiv­able need stretch for yards ahead and be­hind us. Fried snacks. Gym socks. Baby blan­kets. Hockey cards. Fish­ing rods. A cou­ple of flu­o­res­cents wink over­head.

“I haven’t seen a James Bond movie in twenty years,” he says softly. “They put me away two days af­ter I seen a trailer for Gold­en­Eye. You think they got movies here?”

Vern asks to swing by his old house on Dease Street. Adam tries to talk him out of it. Our good cop, good cop rou­tine usu­ally sours a lit­tle here. We don’t agree on whether the pas­sen­ger should be re­minded of their old lives. Adam’s a be­liever in cold turkey. No won­der. I don’t blame him for not want­ing to get en­tan­gled with those bull­shit lowlives again. But I’m the driver, so Vern gets his re­quest.

On the drive, Vern asks us what we do for a liv­ing, now that we’re out.

“I’m a farm hand,” says Adam. “One of those wheat farm­ers out in Slate River. Can you be­lieve it? It’s hella hard work, man. They give me room and board Mon­day to Fri­day, be­cause I don’t have a ride all the way out there. On the week­ends my brother comes to pick me up. Spend time with him, with my niece. It’s pretty dope.”

I tell Vern this is my job. The pick­ups, that is.

We park in front of the ad­dress, tell Vern we’ll be back in ten, fif­teen min­utes. He looks as though we’re aban­don­ing him. Some things are im­por­tant to do alone. He’s gonna have to get used to be­ing alone a lot now. His pipe clean­ers are all ner­vous and wrin­kled up, but he doesn’t say any­thing.

Adam and I trudge a cou­ple of min­utes till we reach Dease Park. It’s cloaked in heavy lay­ers of fresh snow crunch­ing un­der my Sorels. Midafter­noon sun makes the park glit­ter. It’s hard to look at di­rectly. Be­hind the Dease Street Pool chang­e­room, I men­tally map the Vick­ers Fire­hall and mas­sive Fort Wil­liam Curling Club and hockey arena.

“Maybe we should take Vern to a Thun­derwolves game this week,” I say to Adam. “We can take him for Chi­nese buf­fet at the curling club af­ter.”

He nods, mould­ing a fist­ful of snow in his hands. He lobs it at the mu­rals decorating the pool’s change room, but it lands with a dis­tant thud on the pool’s cover. “You think he’s gonna be all right out here?”

“Sure,” I muse. “Ten min­utes won’t hurt him. Some­times when you see what you’ve lost, you can make peace with mov­ing for­ward.”

“That’s not what I meant, man,” says Adam, rub­bing a hand at the back of his head. He read­justs his Blue Jays ball­cap. “Most guys, you know―they’d be stoked, by now. I just keep talk­ing, try­ing to get him stoked. But he’s not.”

He’s got a point. Usu­ally pas­sen­gers start out ner­vous, but gain con­fi­dence by the time we leave Wal­mart. Vern keeps ask­ing what time lunch is, whether we have to re­port any­where. He’s anx­ious to check in. Ev­ery time we give him tiny op­por­tu­ni­ties to gain in­de­pen­dence—push­ing the cart, swip­ing my credit card, get­ting a tran­sit pass—he looks stunned, like some­body’s just asked him to en­ter a nu­clear code. Re­lieved when it’s over. Trails be­hind us when we’re walk­ing any­where.

Foot­steps crunch be­hind us. Vern’s headed down the foot­path. Drops of ice glit­ter on his cheeks. Tears frozen in the wind­chill. He paws them away ag­gres­sively.

“She’s gone,” he says. Adam starts talk­ing about how his girl left him too, it’s not so bad, there’s plenty more in the sea.

“That’s not it,” Vern says, shak­ing his head. He doesn’t bother to tell us who, or what he’s lost. We don’t press him.

When the phar­macy tech at Shop­pers hands Vern the bill, he starts breathing funny. These lit­tle stop-start, stop-start breaths. Set­ting my jaw, I pre­pare a gen­tle lec­ture on how he has to do these things him­self soon.

“Just a minute,” he says to the baf­fled tech, waiting to re­ceive pay­ment. “I need to talk to my friend Rick, here.”

He pulls me into an aisle, nearly upend­ing a vi­ta­min dis­play.

“I only got fifty on me. That’s all they gave me when I left. I can’t af­ford this shit.” His eyes are rolling wildly, one hand wav­ing the re­ceipt, the other clutch­ing at my parka like a drown­ing man. “Do you know what hap­pened the last time I couldn’t take these?”

I take the re­ceipt, scru­ti­niz­ing the charges. Bold print de­mands a three-fig­ure sum for a one-month sup­ply. My stom­ach sinks. It’s way more than my blood pres­sure meds.

“Okay,” I say, try­ing to be up­beat. “Let me talk to them, Vern. We’ll see if we can sort some­thing out. Just give me a minute, okay? Go find Adam. He’s prob­a­bly tak­ing his blood pres­sure or in the mag­a­zines or some­thing.”

The tech is a girl—par­don me, a woman—about Adam’s age. She’s got finely arched eye­brows, cheek­bones like shrap­nel, lots of dark, smokey makeup around her eyes. Prim, nerdy glasses with thick frames, the kind we would’ve beaten peo­ple up for in grade school. Her wide smile holds rows of per­fect, con­temp­tu­ous teeth.

Be­fore I have a chance to open my mouth, she says she’s sorry. It’s such a shock, she knows, but he’ll have to get used to it, these are very, very nec­es­sary and if he can­not af­ford them there are gov­ern­ment pro­grams that can as­sist, you know, with the pay­ment is­sues, if you’re—she whis­pers this part—you know, of a lower in­come bracket, and you can find the pa­per­work on­line, but she’s re­ally, re­ally sorry she can’t do any­thing for him be­cause she most cer­tainly does not rec­om­mend skip­ping any doses, with his con­di­tion.

She is not sorry one bit. I know it in my gut as I swipe my credit card, as I thank her for her time. Prison tells you when peo­ple mean it, and she does not.

Quiet drive to the shel­ter. Vern doesn’t have a lot of ques­tions for us, which isn’t a good sign, ei­ther. Dusk smears pink across the sky, as though

the world is a child cu­ri­ously ap­ply­ing Mother’s rouge. At the lights, I check on Vern in the rear-view. His head is against the back win­dow, trac­ing his ini­tials in lit­tle puffs of con­den­sa­tion against the cold glass. He pre­ferred the back bench, even though Adam of­fered him shot­gun.

Adam lays a hug on Vern as I gather his bags. We check in at the front desk, make sure he’s got his room keys. He drops the set in his phar­macy bag. “The two most im­por­tant things in my life,” he says, grin­ning. He looks ex­cited to be here. More ex­cited than he’s been all day.

“We’ll get you down to the min­istry to­mor­row,” I say, as Adam and Vern un­pack his things. “Get you some ID, so you can get a job. Ap­ply for those health ben­e­fits.”

He doesn’t hear me. He’s ask­ing Adam what time break­fast is served in this place, what time every­body takes their meds. Like it’s another prison. It breaks my heart.

My cell vi­brates through the down in my parka. When I haul it out, I see it’s Vern’s pa­role of­fi­cer, tex­ting me for up­dates.

Well?

You were right. He can’t af­ford his meds. He needs struc­ture.

Give it a week. He’ll come around.

I give him a month. Till his meds dwin­dle, till the shel­ter kicks him out. Adam and Vern are bent over a cheap DVD player, hook­ing up the red and yel­low wires to his lit­tle TV. Tina Turner’s sul­try snarl lingers over the open­ing scenes of Gold­en­Eye.

“Look, Rick,” he says. “Adam got it set up for me. I’ll be shaken, not stirred in no time.”

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