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Vol. 4, No. 2

by Dale Peck


Some men carry jail on their backs. They hunker down, hunched over under the weight of it, their shoulders drooping, their heads dropping into their chests. Shenandoah Manson was such a man. Oh, he talked a lot at first, but as we got closer to town his words slacked off, his back bowed even more, eventually he fell silent, his lowered eyes staring at his upturned hands, which rested a handcuff's width apart on the creases ironed into his jeans. The drive took nearly two hours, and during the ride his head sank lower and lower as his spine curved under his invisible burden. He didn't look up until we were a few blocks from my house, and then his head jerked up, he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looked out the windows, and then, with an almost audible gulp, he pushed his chin back into his chest. I thought about putting my hand on his knee then, telling him that I carried the same weight on my back: we all do. One of the things we learn in Group, one of the few things I have no trouble believing, is that no one's innocent after a crime. No one's free. And then I did put my hand on his knee, and Shenandoah Manson gulped again, and the muscles of his thigh were so taut it seemed I could feel his constricting throat under my fingers.
    "My parents were never married," I said. "My grandma says my dad was a deadbeat, and she had plans. My mom had plans. She was working as a broker even before she got pregnant with me, and by the time--by that time she had a pretty good business, and she owned two houses in this neighborhood." Only then did I pat his knee, remove my hand. "So no."
    Shenandoah Manson rubbed his knee as if checking for an injury. "No?"
    "No, it's not the same house. My dad sold that one."
    Shenandoah Manson looked again at the silvered wood of shingled roofs, at Bermuda grass and purple impatiens and the open-fan leaves of the spindly ginkgoes which had replaced the elms that had succumbed to blight a few years after he'd been convicted of murder, and then he said, "It was a nice house?"
    "I guess. Kind of small I guess. A cottage really. My mom turned the attic into a second story, so we could have separate bedrooms." I tried to dam it, but the word poured out of me anyway. "Ironic, huh?"
    "I mean, if she'd never put in the second story, there never would've been a staircase for her to fall down."
    "Oh," Shenandoah Manson said. "Ironic."
    When we got to my house Shenandoah Manson opened his car door well enough; he stood up, even managed to hoist his pack onto his shoulders. Then he just stood there in the afternoon sunlight, blinking, watching me through his glasses, and I was caught for a moment by the sight of the man who had killed my mother, standing on a mowed green square of suburban lawn. With his right hand, he fingered the spot over his heart where for nineteen years an ID number had been sewn into his shirts, but, finding nothing there, his fingers dug through the fabric into his skin. His foot scraped the dirt a little; other than that he didn't move except to blink repeatedly, whether at me or the unbarred sun I couldn't tell.
    I shook my head then, straightened my spine. "C'mon. You're a free man. Act like one."
    For the first time his smile didn't seem forced. "Your front door locked?"
    "Yeah. Why?"
    "Well, seeing as my housebreaking days are behind me, there's not much for me to do till you unlock it."
    He laughed a little, and I looked at him while he laughed, and when he was done I said, "Touché."
    Inside, I said, "As you can see, it's way too big for one person. Too big for two really, that's why my mom rented this one out. There are four bedrooms upstairs, two bathrooms, down here there's a den, a screened-in porch, even a little maid's room off the kitchen."
    "You sound like you a got a bit of the broker in you too."
    "Must run in the family."
    We walked from room to room. The next thing Shenandoah Manson said was, "So, um, you got a girlfriend or anything?"
    "I'm single," I said.
    "And besides, I'm gay."
    "That a problem?"
    He shrugged. "Guess not. Guess I'd've thought you'd've mentioned it by now, is all."
    "It never came up."
    Shenandoah Manson cleared his throat. "Look," he said, "I don't wanna be a imposition."
    "Shen," I said. "Can I call you Shen? Shen, this is the opposite of an imposition. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
    "That sounds like something you heard in Group."
    "If it wasn't for Group we wouldn't know each other. You'd be sleeping on some cold sidewalk right now."
    "It's noon," Shen said. "It's June."
    "Things change. Especially the weather."
    "I don't understand--" Shen began, but I spoke over him. "Listen to me, Shen. I don't understand either, but I know that this is something we need. Both of us need this, if we're ever going to move on."
    But he just blinked his eyes. "I don't understand," he said again. "What do we need?"
    We were in the kitchen when he said that. Shen had carried his bag from room to room, and now I said, "You wanna put that down? It looks heavy."
    He laughed a little. Disjointed words dribbled from his lips, one at a time. "Oh... yeah... sure... I..." He caught sight of the maid's room through an open door, and he pantomimed the fact that he was going to put his bag in there before he actually put it in there. When he came back, I had a bottle of whiskey in my hand, the glasses were already on the table, and Shen looked at the bottle and at me, and then his face broke into a grin.
    "Welcome home," I said. "Welcome back."
    I poured us each a shot and we touched glasses, but neither of us drank. Shen's hand slowly fell to the table, like a man losing an arm-wrestling match. He exchanged his drink for the car keys, which I'd tossed on the table when we came in.
    I nodded.
    For the first time he perked up. "No shit. I knew it, man. She's cherry." Then smile faded again. "I went to jail in '76."
    That seemed to me to be beside the point, but all I said was, "Last of the big Monte Carlos. Last, biggest, and best," and even before I finished Shen was shaking his head.
    "Naw, man. Best was '72. Half Caddy, half tank, half wolverine. Climbing into that car was about as good as climbing into pussy."
    Now I put my glass down. Behind his glasses, Shen's eyes closed.
    "Aw man. Nineteen years. Aw man. The thought of pussy is like God, man. There was times I'd reach up outta my bunk and touch that shit like it was right there man, pussy like the size of a grizzly bear waiting to work me over. My cellie used to say, hey everybody, Shen's having the pussy dream again. I like to kill that nigger when he do that. I mean, I don't give a shit what nobody thinks about me but he woke me up, you know what I'm saying, and when that pussy was gone there was no getting it back until it came back. Nineteen years I been having that dream, and I swear to Christ that pussy got bigger every year. Big enough to open wide and swallow me whole, big enough to take me right back where I started from. Nineteen years. Aw man."
    When he was done I said, "She's yours if you want her."
    "The car, Shen. The car."
    A new expression crossed his face, something that wasn't quite suspicion, and then Shen let go of the keys and picked up his glass and touched it to mine where it sat on the table. His eyes squinted shut as soon as the whiskey hit his throat, and he slipped the thumb and index finger of his free hand under his glasses to wipe a tear from beneath tightly squeezed lids; on the table, his hand pawed the formica, and I suddenly thought of a dog my father got me soon after I went to live with him. The dog had spent its life in a kennel, six or seven years, and when it was first set loose in the wide-open space of my father's yard the animal refused to run, to walk around even. It took just a few steps, wobbling like a newborn fawn, then turned and retraced its path, and then, eventually, turned again. It was months before the animal seemed to realize it was no longer in a cage, and as soon as it did it ran away and was never seen again.
    I wondered if Shenandoah Manson would realize he was free. I wondered if--when--he'd run away from me, but when he spoke his voice was hoarse and dry. "Aw man."

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