By Margot Pepper
From forthcoming book, the Acrobat and Other Stories for Dark Times
For Piri Thomas, a muse to so many of us
The Bay surrounded the runway on three of four sides, agitated, black as obsidian with reflections of moonlight like the small fingernail-shaped indentations in an ancient arrowhead. Across the expanse of darkness, the bracelet of lights of the San Francisco Bay bridge glittered, accentuating the silhouettes of the Transamerica pyramid in North Beach and financial buildings beyond. The cumulous clouds created by the fog hovered over the base, trapping in the smoky color of the circus’ gold lights. The tremendous white canvas tent rose up, out of the ruins of the closed base like the chimera or hallucination of a city.
Angel, the acrobat, watched two of the last children grabbing anxiously at their papi’s hand to hurry and run before the show began, though it had been they who had insisted upon one last journey down the magic 5-story slide, after touring the snake exhibit outside. Though Angel had quit smoking a decade prior, he still had the habit of stepping outside, away from the crowd to breathe and gather his thoughts. He watched the father and his two kids hastily purchase tickets, a box of popcorn and a wad of pink cotton candy before disappearing. All transactions were effortlessly carried out in his native Spanish. The vendors and workers who set up the tent were largely Mexican. Many had auditioned to perform acts. Angel’s cousin, a beautiful young indigenous-looking woman, who sold jester hats with flashing multicolor balls on the ends, had just signed a contract to walk the tight rope the following year with a French circus.
In a stand next to the tent entrance, a coffee-colored pony in the glamorous merry-go-round, now deserted by incredulous children, stamped its feet and twitched its golden mane in anticipation of dinner, which was getting sparser. Angel stepped back inside the tent and took a seat not far from the dressing room entrance. He put his feet up on the empty chair in front of him, leaned back in his seat and watched as another cousin opened with a tight-rope act. Angel belonged to a large family of Mexican circus performers. The most famous were three brothers from El Distrito Federal–the capital. Two brothers were cyclists, the last, this tightrope artist.
His cousin’s act culminated in his riding a small bicycle on the tight wire. Angel wondered if this would be the last time he’d see the act. It just wasn’t right, he thought. Next, the cyclist’s older brother rode in on a motorcycle and entered a transparent global cage the shape of the world. He proceeded to ride up and back along the walls, like a pendulum, until, finally, he gathered enough momentum to ride forward, upside down and back down again in a three hundred and sixty degree orbit, over and over until he seemed like nothing but a ball bearing in a baby rattle. The cyclist slowed his gyrations until he was able to stop. Then he was joined by his eldest brother. They took off in opposite directions, gathering enough speed to ride along the rim of the metallic world’s equator without colliding. Children in the audience screamed. The pair of brothers repeated the maneuver the first brother had pulled off, as though they were mirror images, together riding forward, upside down and back down, over and over, passing each other exactly at the equator of the world.
The act always made Angel sweat. It was worth the six or seven dollars admission price alone. Applause and cheers were deafening. Still the thousand bleachers in the tent were largely empty with the few hundred audience members scattered throughout. The low turnout was not surprising; the base had cut the circus run a week short to begin motions for its reinstatement. The publicity about the base reopening overshadowed the modest circus flyers and radio announcements insisting that that the show would go on. In addition, the event was competing with the anniversary events commemorating the survival of the historic earthquake that had flattened the city a dozen decades prior.
Angel’s memory packed the stands by superimposing the audiences of days gone. They had formed lines under unpleasant weather conditions to see some of the finest performers from the world over—Peru, Mexico, France, Belgium and Russia. The circus founder was a Russian clown who had settled in Oklahoma with a dream of bringing the art of the circus to America after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But his timing was poor; even more bellicose than the native country he had rejected, his “America” had turned its aspirations single-mindedly to the art of empire. This was to be Circus Chimmera’s final night.
Turnouts throughout the country had proved progressively more dismal, perhaps owing to anti-bellicose themes woven throughout the acts and to the nation’s increasing pro-war hysteria; or perhaps owing to the competing circuses featuring such sensational acts as unwanted, starved mountain lions fighting each other until the death. Rather than suffer the final days of his magical circus to echo those of a cancer patient, the owner had decided to close it.
Angel’s head was bent in thought as he walked toward the dressing room. He emerged in his bird mask and stood off to one side of the stage. While he waited for his cue, he watched his cousin Samuel, the clown, entertain the crowd with his two-foot high stuffed elephant—since the circus family did not believe it proper to subject wild animals to the training required of most circus acts. The little elephant came to life, following the clown, then turned into a floppy stuffed animal again when the clown picked him up. It was impossible for the audience to tell what was inside the elephant suit—a dwarf child? Strings? Eventually a little dog emerged, clad in a bikini, prancing on her hind legs across the stage. In a matter of days, the little dog’s owner, Samuel, and his other cousins and brothers would return to Mexico City to send out their resumes and DVD clips in response to increasingly less circuses. This would probably be the last time they would all perform together again.
Angel’s act followed the seductive, blonde Russian quick change artist and magician, who changed from a blue ball gown, to emerald evening attire instantly at the flick of a cape. She pulled umbrellas out of thin air, then as red glitter fell on her, her emerald dress changed to a red clubbing mini. That was his cue. Shame, Angel thought, inside his bird mask. All that magical talent for what?
Angel came out with his brother, Enrique, dressed in white leotards with white bird masks and feathered wings. They were a derivative of the Nahua Voladores de Pampantla, indigenous Aztec birds that flew around a tall maypole holding spirals of colored streamers. Here they were the “peace birds,” holding fifty foot sashes of white silk. Rather than pulling themselves upward by the silk ropes, they entwined themselves in the sashes, writhing upward on their sides, seeming to defy gravity. Then back down, around they flew, swooping down and pulling themselves up six stories almost instantaneously. “ ¡Arriba la paz!” They shouted. The crowd roared with delight, furiously applauding. “Long live peace!” they chanted in response. One critic had condemned the entire show as unpatriotic, owing to the response of the audience during “wartime”—a strange accusation, Angel thought, since to his recollection war involved two armed sides and the country was simply massacring those standing in its way.
Instead of darting off the stage like a startled bird, as he had thousands of times, it occurred to Angel to stand there a minute and listen to the applause so as to record it in his memory. Until now, Angel had almost deliberately denied the sound of the applause, as though hearing the sound might forever turn his supernatural muscles and nerves to stone. He communicated this desire to his brother by holding his hand firmly down at the point where they usually lifted their arms over their heads and darted off the stage.
For the first time, he scanned the faces surrounding him and it surprised him how pleased they looked. There were imperfect, tired faces that belonged to those trying to juggle survival with living. In contrast, the perfect, cherubic faces of the children to him looked as though they had descended directly from Michelangelo’s paintings. How about that, all those people touched by Enrique and me, he thought. It is each of you who are spectacular, he thought. Thank you, he bowed a second time, clasping and holding up his brother’s hand. Then they each darted off the stage in opposite directions, for the last time.
An hour after the tent closed, he found himself wandering around the surreal base, watching the play of the lights on the fog long after most performers had packed up and headed to the trailers for the party. He felt like a stunned sparrow that had hit an invisible pane. Off by the water, he saw his beautiful cousin, the jester hat vender, finally kissing the French trampoline artist she had had a crush on all these years, who had landed them both a job in his native country.
Of all the family members, Angel was one of two who remained in the United States. Little did he suspect this tragic event would lead him to a life sentence in federal prison.
At first, a family tip landed him a high-paying job working as a performer for a beer company during football games. His act involved diving from a giant plastic beer can at the top of the billboard into a giant mug of beer after a few death-defying flips. Two of these stunts earned Angel what he had made at the circus in two months. But everything about the work repelled him; his boss, the product, even the fans. Worst, was the deep sense of shame he felt after each act. He had always believed the price of his talent was responsibility; that in exchange for his gift, it was his duty to give back something to humanity. Selling alcohol, which he himself did not consume, and which had ruined his own parent’s lives, was not this.
The beer company signed him up to do a commercial. At the same time, he was offered a job as a stunt person for an upcoming Hollywood movie. He was filled with a sudden burst of hope—as though his talents had finally been discovered and his dream of performing on a large scale was about to be realized. He began to believe the closing of the circus had been for the best–yet within him, there was a growing feeling of unease and guilt. The unease worsened and he developed a strange stomach condition. The pain caused him to cancel several shoots. The movie company immediately wrote him off. This led to intolerable anxiety and depression, which in turn caused excruciating stomach pains. Suddenly cognizant of how unhappy he was, he cancelled his season contract, infuriating the beer company. His stomach woes disappeared almost instantly. He continued applying for jobs in the film and television industry, to no avail.
Meanwhile, funding dried up for his brother’s job at an educational theater company that made science come to life for the public schools. Enrique left for his Venezuelan wife’s homeland, leaving Angel to fight out his existence in the States without the support of any family. Angel applied to teach in a circus school. The director couldn’t offer him a job, but worked out a deal whereby Angel had access to the tools he needed to maintain his craft 20-30 hours a week, if he helped clean up at the end of the day.
Angel spent the next year working part time for a dangerous window washing company which specialized in San Francisco skyscrapers. The job required him to dangle twenty and thirty stories above the pavement cleaning the Transamerica Pyramid in the Financial District. Angel was naturally so skilled at the work, the owner kept pushing him to sign on full-time, putting Angel’s acrobatic training at risk, for he would no longer have the time necessary to maintain his talents.
Fortunately, a French circus came to town and Angel was able to work as an understudy for an English trapeze artist who had just gotten an occasional minor part on a television series. The owner of the circus was very proud of this fact and hoped that the trapeze artist’s growing fame would rub off on his circus. The trapeze artist took advantage of the owner’s fondness of him to continue auditioning for television career, providing Angel with increasing work. This worked out quite well, until the audience began expressing their preference for Angel and the British trapeze artist, who was not having success in his second career, managed to get Angel fired by accusing him of dipping into the cash register.
In actuality, the show had begun, the box office had been closed and a little girl with irresistible black curls and piercing brown eyes had wanted some cotton candy. Angel had been relaxing outside before his act as usual and thought he was doing the circus and girl a favor by forcing his way into the booth through a slightly open window and taking her money. During the maneuver, a Swiss army knife fell out of Angel’s pocket. Upon seeing Angel working the register, the trapeze artist, who had come solely to pick up his paycheck before allegedly heading to the television studio, ran over to a patrol car and summonsed the policeman to investigate what he claimed was a robbery in progress.
At first, Angel thought the meeting with the officer went well, as he secured the sympathetic ear of his boss. But after they asked him to step outside to conduct a private conference with the trapeze artist–who never liked the fact that his understudy wasn’t a carbon copy, but instead had dark features and skin–the officer went ahead with the boss’ request to press charges for robbing the ticket booth. Apparently the trapeze artist had convinced his boss that Angel was just using the cotton candy as a pretext to rob the entire contents of the register. Angel’s insistence that they interview the little girl or count the register money fell on deaf ears. The amount of money in the register would prove nothing, a child would make an unreliable witness; the meeting had to conclude, they insisted, so the trapeze artist could get to the studio on time. “You want your knife back?” the officer pulled out Angel’s army knife wrapped in a hankerchief. “Thank you!” Angel said, not knowing the knife would be used to indict him with armed robbery.
Angel lost his job at the circus and couldn’t afford a lawyer to defend him at the trial. The court-appointed attorney, Bill Simpleton, was a tall, wiry man with thick grey hair and good intentions. He had a talent for talking a mile a minute, sniffing and blowing his nose all the while, as though on cocaine. He missed two of his appointments and overslept the day of the trial. He did manage to convince a contact, however, not to deport Angel, though this turned out to be unfortunate.
The charge was registered on Angel’s record as a felony robbery. It would become the first strike in a law that defined three strikes as life imprisonment. Unable to pay his rent, Angel’s belonging were put out on the sidewalk and his flat rented to a young bio-tech worker for ten times the price.
After Angel’s release, he moved into the living room of a friend who was willing to take an I.O.U until Angel landed on his feet. Another month of failed job inquiries and Angel found himself at the door of his old boss at the window washing company, seeking full-time employment at the expense of his own craft. The gargantuan owner, who looked like a retired cop behind his desk, sprawled his white cuff-linked sleeves over his head, then slapped Angel on the back, and handed him an application. Angel stared at the question: “Have you ever been convicted…”
Wouldn’t lying be another crime? he wondered. Besides, the owner knew him long enough to know he wasn’t a criminal.
The results taught him to lie on subsequent applications. This got him a few more interviews, but once the references were checked, he never heard from them again.
In the months which followed, Angel went through all of his friends’ good will and most of his own ingenuity. In spite of sporadic hunger and fatigue, each day he’d force himself to comb through job ads, walk the streets soliciting work, fill out and send job applications. Looking for work became an 8-4 job in and of itself. From time to time, a day laborer job would wipe out some of his debts. But waiting on the corner proved seldom fruitful and kept him from applying to better paying jobs. One horrible, three-day job he obtained this way, excavating a foundation beneath a rat-infested, feces laden basement, threw his back out for a month.
Then, a few of the friends he had met in the moving business came up with another plan. They’d finally obtained some old FBI badges at a thrift shop after years of hunting. Next, they had borrowed an ice-cream truck and painted it to look like an armored vehicle. There was a bank that kept its safe on the second floor. They’d show up with the FBI identification one of the guys had forged, warning the bank that it was about to be robbed. They’d explain that the robbers had already pulled off millions in heists and the agents were close to catching them. They’d convince the bank’s managers to substitute some special wired bags of fake money the agents would provide in exchange for the sacks of real money in the safe. They’d explain that the wiring would enable the agents to trace the bank robbers when they arrived, and this way there wouldn’t be any danger of the real money being taken. The alleged FBI agents would then whisk the real money away in the armored vehicle waiting outside, supposedly to another bank branch.
Angel’s role was to be a bit more complex. He would be dressed as a maintenance worker and climb up to the roof of the building. He’d drop a bucket with cleaning supplies to one of the windows in the 2nd floor hallway. One of the “agents” would secretly take the money out of his briefcase and fill up the cleaning bucket. Angel would pull the bucket up, stuff the money inside his jumpsuit and with the aid of some ropes, jump to the building next door.
One of the guys—a native American named Castillo–had a girlfriend who lived in that building. They had actually cooked up the idea together after countless hours on the roof of the apartment complex, smoking Lucky Strikes and staring at the bank that ruined their view. Castillo wanted to use his cut to help Native Americans fight for the enforcement of a broken treaty which entitled them to a huge plot of land and aide.
His girlfriend would leave the roof access door unlocked and Angel would escape easily into her apartment. She’d drive him to the next city to stay at a friend’s and they’d all meet up there and split the money. If the others were caught, the evidence to convict them would be missing.
“It’s foolproof,” Castillo demonstrated time and time again at the actual site. “We just need an acrobat like you to guarantee this. Imagine, Angel, you’d never having to look for work again, you’d never have to be humiliated again… not for a heck of a long time….”
Angel stopped sleeping. All he could think about was the plan. Countless times, he rehearsed it in his head. There would be no real firearms arms, just play guns, so even if they were caught, the sentences would be lenient. Deep down he had a gut feeling they’d pull the plan off. He even began daydreaming about flying abroad to land a new circus job and buying his own home. But even the fantasies and his assurance of the plan’s feasibility did not put to rest a deep disturbance within his being that kept interrupting his sleep. The night before the robbery was scheduled to take place he called up Castillo, the principal architect, and told him the deal was off.
“What the heck are you doing, maestro? It’s normal, you’re spooked. But just think of the stuff you pulled off in the circus. Weren’t you spooked the first time you tried a stunt there too?”
“You just can’t understand, ‘mano. All those years of training. You have no idea. If I was just after money I would have stayed in the ad business. It’s not like I never had the chance until now. My whole life—was it just to get to this?”
Eventually the robbery was attempted without him. Though it seemed like a hair-brained scheme, the members actually got away with the extraordinary hoist. The bank manager never even questioned their motives and they were able to slip the briefcase of money into their milk truck as easily as if departing from an automatic teller machine. Until Jimi, one of the minor players in the escapade, couldn’t resist gloating over his cut of the money and showing his mother.
“Look, Ma, now you can open that beauty parlor! Happy Birthday!” Within an hour, his mother had the whole story out of her misguided son, and by sunset all of the original conspirators were behind bars.
The seemingly-ludicrous crime made it into the local papers, along with Angel’s old mug shot. Apparently, the poor artist was nailed for conspiracy to commit bank robbery by Jimi, in exchange for a lighter sentence.
This time when Angel was released, a friend in the window-washing business helped him land a three-month house-sit in Manteca for a foreman who needed someone to care for his family’s dog and plants.
The first month Angel ate well after securing permission to go through everything in the refrigerator, freezer and cupboards. That same week, Angel landed a lucrative painting job covering areas his coworkers would otherwise be taking a great risk to reach from their scaffolding. The work was painstakingly tough and dangerous, often up to twelve hours a day, but with the money he saved on food and housing that month, he was able to pay off the entire sum of one of three debts. He believed his luck was turning. Next, he began saving for a deposit on a studio, unfortunately still in the same conservative, dull town from which the majority of the police force were housed. By the summer’s end, he moved in.
Once the rainy season began and painting jobs ended, however, the company cut his hours back considerably. He resumed his routine of looking for work and subsisting on beans, tortillas, rice, coffee and increasing amounts of sugar as the other supplies dwindled. He noticed his fingers trembling all the time. Finally, when he could bare his hunger no longer, he walked several blocks to the modest Mexican restaurant where he had once eaten. It was shabby, but clean. Its chipped peach paint, ceiling fans and indoor palms reminded him of a café in Mexico he’d visited along the coast.
Those had been the happiest ten days of his life. He had been invited to perform at a local fair. He had stayed in a palapa overlooking that unreal neon aqua Caribbean. He caught fish, ate the coconuts he found on the beach, occasionally making ceviche with the mussels a local diver brought back. He swam, sunned himself, juggled and ran along the shore. All his muscles began to unknot. In this state of calm, he found the subtle breeze was sufficient to cool him. The sea became his second skin; he had trouble distinguishing where one ended and the other began. He passed from liquid to air, from dark to light, but everything else remained constant. Temperature, like the simplicity of his life in Playa, remained constant. The hot humid breath of the sea became his own, its ebb and flow, his own blood. Never had he felt so at peace.
Remembering back on the tranquility and simplicity of those days, Angel scolded himself for ever having left. He ordered the carne asada plate, which came with free pozole and a special rum drink. Unable to resist the free drink, he took a sip and imagined himself at the seaside café in his native land, the setting sun along the balmy Mayan coast turning the walls peach. The drink went right to his head and he lost himself in the memory of dancing with a girl on the sand, then trying to get her to go for a swim in the water. The girl had wanted him to remain in her town, but he had been set on joining the circus in Mexico City.
Before long, Angel was full. He picked at his food each time the waitress approached to postpone the dreaded inevitable. Finally, he conceded to having it wrapped. He didn’t even look at the bill. While the waitress was in the kitchen with his left-overs, he slipped out. The cook, who had stepped out to empty the trash, caught him.
“Sir,” he called. Then more defiantly, “SIR!”
Angel turned around. “Didn’t you want the rest wrapped?” The cook motioned Angel toward the side door, where the kitchen was. Angel wondered if he should just dart away, but courtesy wouldn’t allow him to do so. The waitress handed him a white paper bag. Angel looked at the waitress, then at the cook. He admitted he couldn’t pay and asked if there was some work he could do in payment. If they called the police, God only knew what it would do to his record. He prayed the two wouldn’t notice he had begun weeping.
The waitress offered to pay for his meal herself. “Let him help you clean up,” the cook suggested.
That winter, Angel came down with a strain of flu the likes of which he hadn’t seen since childhood. The second night, his fever climbed to the point of delirium. He tore his studio apart searching for an aspirin or something to bring his fever under control; the corners where the carpet met the walls, the backs of his bureau drawers, nothing was left unturned. His search terminated on the floor next to his bed, in a convulsive fit of tears. Somehow he pulled himself up and slid in between the mountains of covers, where he lay shivering for several hours, wondering whether he’d ever see daylight. He fell asleep trying to imagine all the magic ingredients of his mother’s chicken soup dancing on his tongue and soothing his raw stomach with its warmth.
After surviving the night, he dragged himself into the bathroom to clean up and headed to the bus stop with his last dollars. He had used up all his food coupons in the month’s first week. The weak winter sun drilled holes through his pupils and cranium. His head felt as though it would explode from so much pressure as the bus rattled its way to the supermarket. He tried to get the ingredients straight in his head for his magic soup; he’d just head straight into the store, be out and back home within the hour. That wouldn’t harm him too much. The cheapest assortment of chicken, celery, onions, garlic—he had chile, limes, rice and oregano at home— He’d need cilantro. That was going to eat up what he had left in his wallet. Yet he had to have aspirin also—it would bring down the fever and clear his head so he could start applying for jobs again… If only he could afford nose drops to be able to close his mouth and breathe… He tried to think of whom to call to borrow a twenty, but he had exhausted his list, tired his friends.
Once off the bus, he sat down at the stop and tried to collect his thoughts. He remembered hearing that sometimes pan-handlers earned up to eighty dollars a day. He watched the people walking by for a good ten minutes. He scolded himself for his thoughts. He was strong and able. How could he stoop to such a thing?
A group of teenage girls sauntered by, teasing and pushing each other; an elderly woman pushing a cart back from the grocery; a muscular man with a bandana over his hair.
“Excuse me, sir—” The muscular man stopped and peered at Angel through his tinted sunglasses.
“Do you have the time?”
Sure. The guy pulled a cell phone out of his jeans pocket. Ten twenty-six.
“Wait. Do you have any money I could have, please sir?” Angel managed in what suddenly seemed like clumsy English.
“Excuse me?” the man glanced over his shoulder.
“Could you, sir, give any change?”
The man reached into his pants pocket and handed Angel a quarter, a nickel and two pennies—the pay for Angel’s red cheeks and throbbing head. He felt abysmal.
It’ll get better, he consoled himself. It was just the first time. It must be like this for prostitutes too the first time, he thought.
Yet after an hour he only had eight dollars and thirty-six cents total—barely enough for a piece of chicken, celery and cilantro. As he entered the supermarket, he felt his forehead. He realized that if he didn’t get home soon, he’d probably end up in the hospital. He toyed with the idea, suddenly cognizant of the fact that he could receive all the medicine and food he required by allowing himself to collapse in the meat aisle. Staring at a couple balance a box of cereal on the precarious mountain of goods inside their cart, Angel realized that he’d be socked with an ambulance bill, as well as his hospital stay. Fainting was no way to get the nutrition, aspirin and flu remedies he so desperately needed.
He needed to lie down. He added up the cost of the meager number of ingredients he had in his cart and stood in the express line, in back of a woman with a newborn in her cart. Obviously he’d have to put back the aspirin, and nose drops were out of the question. But the combination of nose drops and aspirin would make him feel so giddy, he argued. What he’d give to escape. What if he just boiled the chicken with the garlic he had at home? He calculated and realized he could still not afford the flu remedies.
From where he stood, he noticed the woman in front of him had some make-up piled under the baby seat perched in the upper compartment of the cart. The clerk couldn’t see this. He watched as the woman retrieved her wallet from next to the baby seat, her diamond-studded wedding finger grazing the cardboard package of eyeliner, then nudging two lipsticks further under the baby seat.
Angel noticed there was no one behind him in line. He could just stuff the aspirin into his pocket, then the nose drops. The supermarket cashiers were always complaining about the greed of the supermarket chain’s owners, ever since they lost the strike, he rationalized, suddenly growing dizzy. Yet, if he got away with this, wouldn’t it hurt himself more than the supermarket chain, he scolded himself? They would be taking the only thing he really had left: his integrity.
He argued with himself for several seconds and began growing faint. The aspirin went into his pocket, then out and was hidden behind a magazine, then put on the belt again. By the time the clerk smiled her greeting at him, he couldn’t for the life of him remember what he had done with what. She rang up all his items. “Anything else?” she inquired. The bill was more than he could afford.
“How much without the nose drops?” he inquired.
The clerk grew impatient with him as she removed the item. He had some money left over now.
“How much if I had the aspirin, then?” he asked, suddenly turning red. He steadied himself on the counter.
“The bottle you put in your pocket?”
Fortunately, the offense was not a parole violation, or Angel would have gone immediately to jail to await a trial, had he not been deported instead. Unable to pay the fine, he was able to buy his freedom by taking a workfare job cleaning highways and road-sides. The transportation costs to the job ate up most of his paycheck and at the end of the month he found himself toiling on the scorching asphalt, dizzy from dehydration. At a pit-stop late that afternoon, he was dismayed to learn the water had been turned off to fix a plumbing problem. In his state of near panic, he noticed the clerk was too busy with a flurry of customers to notice him open a coke and walk out. But one of the people in line finked him out.
Because this was a repeat offense, the District Attorney for Manteca County determined that it was a felony. Because this was his third felony, the DA decided to count it as another strike. And because this was his third strike, the penalty for the dollar soda pop was life imprisonment. Angel’s lawyer argued for deportation, but the DA either seemed to want spare the county the expense of his fare, or to want revenge for the heinous crime against Coca-Cola company.
Angel’s cell was a teensy cage on the third floor of a prison overlooking a bay that had dangerously strong currents. It had no windows and the three stories of prisoners directly across the walkway had a direct view of his toilet. There was a discolored sink, and two cots, one practically under the sink, Angel’s virtually touching the badly stained toilet. This is because the cell was originally designed to house one. Now, with demand outstripping even the boom in prison construction, the overflow of non-Caucasian low-risk prisoners was being housed with more violent offenders.
His roommate, Raul, who wore his kinky hair in braids, had gotten busted for selling drugs countless times. He had been in the cell ten years already for chopping up an opponent with a machete and dumping him in the Bay. Angel was surprised to learn Raul was going to get out the following year, on good behavior. This is also why it had been determined that he was no longer a threat to the other inmates.
The first night in the cell Angel did not sleep. Fortunately his roommate snored, which allowed Angel to doze the next night, starting awake at various intervals to make sure Raul was still asleep. Angel cringed at Raul’s meaty forearm hanging over the side of the cot, in spite of the cold in the room, at the abundant tufts of kinky chest hair peeking out over Raul’s undershirt. Angel would keep to himself, speak as little as possible to the other inmates, he resolved, so as to reduce the probability of an assault or rape. Raul stirred several times, grunting. Sometime in the early morning, he grunted again, this time sitting up and staring right at Angel. Angel’s heart jumped as Raul’s hand went to his crotch. He scratched his balls for several minutes before falling heavily back upon his cot. By morning, Angel felt he knew every valley and disfiguration in Raul’s honey-colored, pock-parked round face, the large pores, pockets of oily skin, rounded curves of his nose, dark indentations under his eyes, slight double chin with stubble.
The prison had been converted from a lower security jail for inmates with shorter stays, but the modifications were always breaking down. The high security windows were a classic example; the wind kept cracking and breaking them. Many barred windows remained without the security panes between inspections.
At night, the chilling wind from the arriving fog was insufferable. It raged through the open bars, turning over papers, knocking over a tin water cup. It compelled Angel to shroud himself in the thin thermal blanket, like a grandmother off to the market place in Mexico, in spite of his fear that the other inmates would mark him as fare game for their sexual aggressions. Often, while in line for dinner in the mess hall, Angel looked out with rage at the fog coming in like a tidal wave at the horizon of that Cimmerian sea and wondered how he would manage to grow old in this same cell, in fulfillment of his sentence, without losing his mind.
The beauty of the San Francisco’s jeweled lights across the bay tormented all the prisoners, the endless possibilities forbidden, yet displayed in all their splendor, tantalizing as a spray of diamonds, rubies, garnets, an occasional emerald is to a jewel thief. Sometimes the sounds of someone else’s wondrous life floated up through the holes in the panes on the winds, especially on New Year’s Eve. But the wide open sky above the prison, glimpses of an infinite shower of stars visible on a clear night because of their location in the bay, was one of the things prisoners longed most to experience again.
Angel’s first hot afternoon in the mess hall was the worst, with the sapphire sky and shimmer from the water laughing at them through the dirty broken and barred windows. Ferries would surround the prison, on their way to various tourist destinations. Sometimes they got so close, the prisoners could see the wind ripping through their hair, hear broken snatches of laughter rising up on the air currents. To pass the time in the line, Angel tried to imagine himself among them, off to dine on sumptuous sea food, see museum exhibits, have drinks overlooking the splendor of the water, explore some hilly, lush terrain, lie on the beach. That was the thought he could bare the least– spending glorious beach-going days caged like a hermit crab in a cruel child’s jar.
Back in his cell, he often contemplated the deep scratch marks on the walls and wondered how they were made without the aid of a knife or utensils. He thought of an abandoned zoo he had once played in as a child, how similar his cell was to the cages and wondered how his captors could get away with the inhuman treatment of their wards.
Sometimes on the yard, he’d stare up at the rows of cement bleachers on which the prisoners sunned themselves on rare sunny days. The strange three foot-high concrete steps looked like those on the ancient Nahua or Mayan pyramids back home. He thought how much like an Aztec or Nahua slave he was, held in captivity against his will, through no real fault of his own. After all, his only real crimes had been stealing some cheap medicine when he was deliriously sick and something to drink when he felt as though he were perishing of thirst. Only a slave would be treated this way after having mesmerized and enchanted its citizens, after having risked death to kept their widows sparkling. This realization made him cry out and smack the rough walls with his fist, only deepening his own pain.
The first month, after having conquered his initial fears and rage at the injustice of his incarceration, a deep, bitter sorrow set in as Angel realized he was unlikely to see the outside world again for many decades to come. He had no appetite and stopped eating. After a week, Raul, who up until then had respected Angel’s wishes to keep to himself, insisted Angel eat. “You got to man. You’ll see things ain’t as bad as you think. There’s always hope.” The words moved Angel, threatening to release pent up tears. It seemed as though it had been years since he had heard another human being care two cents about him. Slowly, he took his first mouthful, then several more, until the gruel sat like a rock in his stomach.
Angel began trying to adapt himself to the prison routine. After a day-long training, he was given a job booking reservations for TWA, for which he was paid 20 cents an hour. He wondered what he would use the money for since he had a life sentence and had no interest in the prison’s black market cigarettes and dope. The job made the time pass more quickly. Once when a customer had asked Angel a question he could not answer, he was tempted to say, “Wait just a minute. I’ll ask the prison warden.” He knew this could land him in the hole, then being reassigned to something worse than road work, as could his nagging questions about the legality of government-forced prison labor camp for tremendous corporate gain. Prison labor, he reasoned, had the advantage of compelling workers to keep punctual hours and banned the unions from demanding reasonable wages from the large companies.
But Angel had been informed extensively that too many questions led to what seemed to him like cruel and unusual punishment: the hole was a pitch-black converted outhouse, wide enough only to stand in. There were rumors that the fatigue of standing for days on end and the absence of physical motion, light and sound and ensuing disorientation was worse than electroshock to the testicles. It had taken the top universities to research these psychological torture techniques whose only physical evidence were the shakes from hideous flashbacks. You were handed a bucket to piss and shit in—just the gymnastics involved in getting it past one’s ribs, and under the buttocks was enough to drive one mad–and when you came out, no matter how much you tried to keep it away from you, it was all over you.
The second month was easier. Sometimes while he was working, a customer would ask Angel whether he had ever been to the destination they were booking. He began to allow himself to daydream again. He devoured the few travel books in the prison library and wondered if he could convince the warden to get him some brochures, just so he’d be better qualified to do his job.
On one of the days he was allowed to shower, he noticed, that even though he had been working out in the recreation yard, his muscles had begun to atrophy from lack of practice of his acrobatic techniques. This knocked him right back into his depression. He wondered if there were any point in slowing down the process through a stricter exercise routine; a life sentence meant never performing again.
One night, he had a dream that he flew away, squeezing through some bars in a broken mess hall window, over the sea, back to a circus in one of the far away countries he had read about. The dream was so real, it seemed to reverberate throughout the routines of the following day, softening the hard edges. The reward of sleep at the end of each day, with the hope of another escape dream, pulled him through his days. About a week later, he had another dream about performing in a far away circus. As he went through the motions of his dreary prison routine, he tried to convince himself his incarceration was a dream and the performing a reality. After all, could he really prove otherwise?
By the third month, Angel was determined to invent a new routine to maintain his craft, regardless of the futility. Immediately he began feeling much better. Sometimes, when he performed for the inmates, the yard transformed itself into the airbase where he had given his last performance. A tent would materialize and he’d utterly loose himself in the fantasy.
A circle began forming around Angel as he practiced on the yard. He scaled the tetherball pole, then did a back flip off the top, landing on the ground. The inmates shouted, laughed; one with two gold front teeth shook his head. As Angel took on more challenging routines, his fellow inmates began nodding their applause from the cement bleachers above, like pleased Romans. On one occasion, some problem arose between the two African American and Latino gangs, which always sat on opposite ends of the bleachers. As the conflict began to escalate, the ring leader of the Latino gang noticed Angel performing and stopped. All members froze in amazement. When Angel had finished, the gang members simply walked away without any further exchanges.
With time, Angel’s depression began to lift. He found himself looking forward to the recreation time on the yard each day, when the yard would magically morph into a circus tent, his audience the otherwise bored inmates on the rows of cement steps. He began setting small goals for himself each week, broken down to each session. In this way, he rationalized, he could look forward to the coming months and years. As he began adapting his art and his imagination to his new environment, he began learning again.
Now and then, when Angel performed on the yard he could see temporary surges of joy in his otherwise steeled companions. Occasionally, later in the mess hall, or in passing, an inmate would say something which let Angel know his gift was bringing them relief. He began to realize that he was momentarily freeing them from their private misery. Those fleeting smiles, applause transformed Angel. They justified his razón d’etre, for even an audience of one or two was worthy of maintaining his gift. He began to feel a sense of fulfillment he hadn’t felt since his circus days.
Raul had begun warming up to Angel as well, making life a lot easier back in the cell. One night he had confided in Angel as though they had been old work chums: “My old man left us when my youngest brother was born with autism. This circus had just come to town and my other brothers and sisters tried to get our parents to take us, as a way of getting them back together. But Pa was already headed for Arizona. We barely had enough to eat, talk about for the circus. My mom came at me with her curling iron for asking too many times, but all I could think about were the acrobats. They were my favorite part on the commercial,” Raul lit up, forgetting the painful part of his memory, allowing Angel to glimpse the excited kid in him.
Now, even the most deadened volcanic stone faces lit up when they came into contact with Angel. As his fame among the other inmates grew, Angel realized he was happier than he had been in years, happier than the days of struggling to feed himself, working at something he detested. One time, a small inmate who liked to keep his wavy hair back with oil and continuously worked out to make up for his lack of height because he was in the Latino gang, turned over his greasy spaghetti to Angel.
“You need this more than we do. You’re losing weight from your workout out there.”
“Yeah, take it man,” an African American from an opposing faction grunted. “You’re the only entertainment we have here in Siberia.”
This entertainment distracted the other inmates to the point of reducing the fights which would regularly break out in the yard. Angel’s realization that he was having this kind of impact moved him more than anything else. For a deluded moment, in which he temporarily forgot the heinous cruelty of the guards, translated into petty wars between inmate gangs, he told himself it would be fine to spend the rest of his days doing exactly what he was doing, now that circus work was so hard to come by.
The guards put an end to that fantasy. The heavy one with the receded hairline named Walker seemed to be developing a real hatred of Angel. He picked at every regulation, even throwing Angel in solitary for a week for causing a disturbance on the yard. Surprisingly for Angel, even more difficult to bear than the muscle spasms from the confinement, was not being able to see the ocean for six nights. The night he was returned to his cell, then allowed to rejoin the others in the mess hall for dinner, Angel lost himself in the sea through the bars as though reunited with a lover. He kept hunting for a miracle of star through the fog, then some land, as though it could be his homeland. Any place in Latin America, he dreamed, Venezuela, Cuba… Someplace where people compete to make the other feel better, not worse.
The next day, the guard who was Angel’s nemesis, beat him up for eating another prisoner’s serving. He asked Angel to stay to clean up and when everyone was gone, he grabbed Angel by the collar. “We all know you threaten people if they don’t turn over their dinner to you. You should be ashamed of yourself, pig,” he screamed kicking Angel in the stomach with his boot, before laying into him.
That night, after the lights went off in the block, Raul whispered to a bloody Angel, “Hey, can you hear me? Me and they guys have been talking. Can’t you do that stuff you do on the yard here in the cell? On the bars… we can move our cots like this—“
“What for?” Angel could barely speak through his fat lip.
“The guards. Do you really want them to know about all you can do?” Raul looked hard into Angel’s eyes. “Listen, buddy,” Raul continued. ‘Practice here. You can do it after lights out. Until you outlast all the guards who already know your stuff.”
“Then what?” Angel asked with some muted amusement.
“Don’t you ever want to get out of here? You could do it, bud”
“Right.” Angel grimaced. “Stop it man, it hurts to laugh.”
“Seriously. A few of us has been waitin’ a long time for a punk with your talents,” Raul said, almost menacing through his teeth. “Think how we’d feel if you pulled it off.”
“The plan” began to spread among the blocks faster than porn or some home-made goodie from a care package. It began to take on status: those who knew and were “in” seemed to gain membership into a special club. This club transcended all the petty artificial border lines which had traditionally divided inmates. Unlike membership into a particular jail gang, this club, instead of offering protection from fear and pain, offered something the inmates had not felt in years: hope. Once Angel began to notice this development, he confined his practicing to his cell, keeping his talents from the guards.
What he did not know was how impossible everyone thought “the plan” was.
Nearly two decades prior, someone working kitchen detail on the third floor had learned about a trap door in the ceiling which led to a storage room. While shelving a shipment of food cases, he managed to steal some time to explore an air vent in the room. Inspired by what he remembered of the film, Escape from Alcatraz, he decided to try to remove the grate on the air vent. Curiously the grate on the vent had been removed and replaced so many times—by others who saw the movie, perhaps–it was quite easy to pull out of the edges of the crumbling wall. He peered inside and, judging from the light he saw there, determined that it led to the outside.
Yet before he could hatch a plan, the other inmate on kitchen duty—a bank-robber anxious to rejoin his wife, three little girls and a newborn boy–got himself assigned to unloading the next food shipment and attempted the escape himself. After about fifteen minutes, the guards in the kitchen became suspicious and, cautiously armed, climbed the ladder to the store room to see what had happened to their worker. An alarm went off, the prison was locked down and guards called to the building’s exterior, where the vent came out. There they saw the escapee, craning his neck out of the shaft’s opening only to learn that the only landing to freedom was several stories below. Yet before they had time to shoot or negotiate, the prisoner writhed out of the opening like a worm, and pushed himself far enough out to crash, cranium first, into the rocks below. Rather than reconstruct the grate in the storeroom, a grate was secured to the exterior of the shaft and the prisoner’s blood left staining the rocks as a warning to other prisoners.
For years, the men speculated about why the bank robber opted to smash his head on the rocks. Some believed he feared facing a year in the hole for escaping. Others conjectured that the journey in the shaft itself was more terrible. Some argued that his fate allowed him the only freedom he had left: that of determining his death. Regardless of the victim’s motivations, no one dared that method of escape again. The ladder to the trap door had been secured under lock and key and such an attempt would now require an uprising or food riot in the kitchen.
Now, however, with Angel’s talents, the prisoners came up with a new plan. The next time there was a disturbance in the mess hall, which was on the same floor as Angel’s cell, Angel would make use of his acrobatics to quickly pile kitchen tables and chairs on top of each other and scale them until he reached the ceiling with the trap door. He’d escape into the shaft and kick the furniture tower down to create more confusion.
The prisoners would be locked down in their cells, where those in the 430’s numbers of C-Block would pass their bed sheets to the prisoner in cell 438—one of the few cells with windows, which ended just below the air vent. Number C438 would collect the sheets, tie a weight to the end, and pass them up through the bars and hole in the broken pane to Angel in the shaft. Aided by the weight, Angel would cast the sheets around a pole on the roof and secure them with a sailor’s knot. He’d then slither up to the roof, throw the sheets back down to the hands extended through the bars, so they could be back in the cell beds for the night count.
The roof would give Angel the boost he needed to dive out over several feet of granite—a feat never before accomplished by any living escapee of the prison, for the rocks extended ominously far out into the water. It was difficult to judge exactly how far the rocks extended, but some inmates on a higher floor had determined the shortest distance to the water from the prison wall to be from 12 to 15 feet.
The dive conjured for Angel memories of the 30-foot seaside cliff near the coast where his family vacationed each year until his father’s death. The dive involved landing in the deep waters precisely between two rock formations several feet out. He had to attempt it in secret the first few times so as not to torment his mother. That dive, he believe, was what inspired him to go on to the circus. But now he hadn’t practiced diving in over a decade.
“Maybe we can go on a hunger strike and get them to put in a pool and diving board here, for you to practice,” Raul joked.
The decision to stop practicing on the yard took a toll on Angel. Now instead of looking forward to exercise time, the focus became more introspective: the hour from six to seven o’clock, when the water man visited the cells, bringing inmates up to a gallon of water for them to make tea or wash up. At this time, all the inmates would start tuning their instruments to play in their impromptu jazz concert. It was the time Angel used to practice his routine, since the music covered up the sounds of his antics. Those across the way could see him perform, but the satisfaction Angel derived was not the same. He was too confined. He felt like a caged macaw or quetzal bird.
The year progressed at a painstakingly slow rate, not just for Angel, but for many of the other inmates. Several fights between the Latino and African American gangs with razor blades, pens and bed springs, ended in the death of a couple of prisoners and endless lock-downs spearheaded by Walker. Unfortunately none of the disturbances took place near the kitchen.
Angel’s endurance that year paid off; Walker had begun to forget about him and by the end of the year was promoted to an easier facility.
The year was a good one for Raul, however, who regained his freedom. He was replaced by a good-looking Puerto-Rican with café-con leche colored skin, kinky, receded, grey hair shorn close to the scalp, piercing brown eyes and a dimple in his chin. He kept to himself and read and wrote a lot. Rumor had it that he was a best-selling author by the name of Piri Thomas.
In the past, Raul knew every fink in the house and steered Angel clear of them. The introduction of a new potential threat to his plan compelled Angel to postpone practicing until he could size up his new roommate. This took quite some time, since for weeks, the man didn’t say much to anyone, just a grunt here and there. He hardly ate and began losing his excess middle-aged weight at an astonishing rate. It seemed to Angel that his cellmate was depressed.
One night Angel asked him what his sentence was.
“Life.” He shook his head. “Though I can’t believe it. I keep thinking I’ll wake up from this nightmare. You too, no? Three strikes?”
“Three strikes,” Angel muttered.
“What was your last strike? hijo”
“Some Coca-cola.” Angel smirked. “You?”
“Coca? Like—“ Piri put his right index finger to his nostril and sniffed inquisitively.
“No, Coca-cola. Like—“ Angel feigned a burp.
“¡No coño! That sounds as crazy as mine. You want to know what I’m really in for? What we’re both in for?” The Puerto-Rican searched Angel’s eyes. “Cruelty. Some people in this world are very, very cruel. They have this huge hole they can’t seem to fill… like Tantalus,” he said cryptically, moving his fingers as though accompanying his sing song style with his invisible flute. “The whole world is set up like a game for them to try and fill it, only they need losers to have their game and we’re the losers.” Piri’s eyes became very sharp, piercing. “Did you know the U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country on earth? It sends Black men like me to prison at a rate six times higher than did the apartheid regime of South Africa. In fact, one out of every three young Black men in the U.S. is now in prison, awaiting trial or on parole! Now are you going to tell me we’re genetically inferior or is the system defining us as criminals inferior?”
“You sound like a newspaper, ‘mano!”
“We authors have a responsibility to commit these things to memory,” Piri said somewhat indignantly. “Ever read Farenheit 451? Always got to be ready!”
It turned out that many years ago Piri had shot a cop. Piri had been shot as well, a gold religious locket over his heart saving his life, as the metal changed the angle with which the bullet pierced his chest, sparing his heart. “I hadn’t been religious when I was first given the locket, but after that, believe me,” Piri explained to Angel in Spanish. “The cops beat me up good in the hospital for shooting one of theirs in the robbery. My doctor saved my life by complaining. Another miracle.”
Since Piri rarely spoke to the other inmates, Angel took Piri’s story as a good sign, particularly the fact that they were conversing in their native tongues. Slowly, he resumed his routine. It wasn’t long before Piri had Angel talking about his circus history. “I don’t know why you’re so secretive, I’ve heard people mention it.”
“Who?” Angel inquired defensively. After Angel was satisfied that word hadn’t spread to the guards, Piri began to proceed with his own story. Apparently, Piri felt more comfortable having the other inmates believing he was in for shooting a cop, but this was not really the whole story. The cop had lived and after a dozen or so years Piri had gone free on good behavior. Apparently he had been an autodidact, reading everything he could get his hands on and teaching himself to write. In prison he wrote his autobiography, but it had been lost in attempt to smuggle it out of prison. He rewrote it, and it became a best-seller called Down These Mean Streets, for which he won various awards and a large international following.
“So what’s a best selling author doing in here? Really?” Angel asked somewhat skeptically.
“Look,” Piri opened a book an extracted a dozen photos of his wife, children and grandchildren. A breathtaking panorama of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges twinkled in the backdrop of their living room. He went on about his beloved Suzie for some time. “Suzie thought I should have a back operation. They say men who are married live longer because their wives make sure they get medical care they otherwise would overlook. If it weren’t for Suzie…that woman’s a saint…” Piri looked at the ceiling in what seemed like an attempt to hold back tears. “My back was so bad they had to remove a disk. You can imagine what that means for an old guy like me. So I’d smoke to relieve the pain. Only after the operation, things got worse. Finally Suzie talked me into going in again. Meanwhile, as you may know, the Federal courts reversed the marijuana referendum. My third strike.”
“Hey, bro, it’s okay, don’t look like that,” Piri continued after reading Angel’s expression. “There’s a bright side. Now, I guess we don’t have to pay for a retirement home.” Piri enunciated every word carefully, accenting just the right words because of his years of performing.
“¡Ay, lo siento, ‘mano! That’s cold!” Angel looked at his elder, suddenly frail and helpless-looking in the fluorescent glow of the cell. What kind of a country was this? Angel asked himself, breaking up decent families like this one, locking away a man who had reformed himself, becoming an honest family man, working hard enough to get himself a castle on a hill somewhere, hardly a menace to society, this author who had television shows, CDS and movies made of him.
Angel flew into a rage, as he did from time to time at the realization of being locked away for having stolen some dollar soda pop.
“Hey, take it easy, man,” Piri put a hand on Angel’s back. “You know all your hatred will only hurt yourself. It won’t touch them. But they can’t get us here,” Piri pointed to his head. When my pop was punishing us, my ma would always say, ‘Coño, not near his head, hit him low near his legs, don’t touch that brain of his.’” Piri smiled. “And don’t let them touch us here,” he beat his chest once. “That’s where my ma is, god rest her soul.”
Sometimes Angel’s anger turned to self-hatred as he obsessed about being punished by a higher power for stealing and not having taken the ten commandments seriously enough.
“Ever think we sin and don’t realize the gravity?” Angel brought up during what had become one of their typical evening philosophical discussions.
“Take it easy, Angel. All you did was try to meet your basic human needs, bro. You think Nuestro Compadre would think that’s a sin?” Piri squeaked. He was like a one-man play, his hands and facial gestures a symphony.
“And remember, Angel, there’s nothing so terrible that you’ve done that you can’t free your mind. The greatest prison is the prison of the mind,” Piri added, moving his fingers up and down to his invisible flute.
He put his hand on Angel’s shoulder. “My Suzie and I like to believe I’m back here for a good reason, not a bad one. ¿Comprendes, Mendez? Look, I’ve never gotten so much mail in my life!” Piri positively squeaked with delight as he scooped up some of the thousands of letters from a garbage bag full the guards had kept from him for the first six months.
“Yeah, I get you,” Angel reflected.
Piri always spoke in stories and metaphors, “flows” as he called them. His favorite time was also the hour the waterman came around. Piri quickly joined the other inmates’ concert, playing guitar. Still, he rarely spoke to them.
***(MEMORIAL EXCERPT) One day a pretty nurse came, heavily guarded, to draw the prisoners’ blood for genetic identification purposes.
“Any of you vermin so much as breathe on this lovely young lady, move your lips as much as a hair, you can count on spending the next week in the hole,” Walker barked, whacking his nightstick repeatedly against his palm.
As Angel waited his turn in line, he watched Piri closing his eyes, inhaling deeply.
Back in the cell, Piri went on and on about the lovely scent of perfume pervading their quarters. Apparently, he had memorized the aroma while his blood was being drawn. “You see, it’s the perfume I just bought for my Suzie. That’s her scent. She’s been here,” he laughed. “Can’t you smell her, too, Angel? We have a date tonight!” he said, and began whistling.
The next morning Piri woke up singing. In the mess hall people kept asking him why he was in such a good mood.
“Don’t you know you in prison, man?!”
“Mmmmmhmmmm,” Piri agreed. “But the greatest prison is the prison of the mind,”
“See that ferry right there?” Piri whispered to Angel. “My Suzie and I rented it last night and sailed round the bay. We went dancing at Pier 21, had some drinks, then made love until the wee hours of dawn!”
“Loco,” someone snickered with a heavy U.S. accent, index finger running circles around a hairy ear.
Suddenly Piri looked at the man hunched over his plate. Piri’s brown eyes were piercing and sharp. “Where would you rather be? Here?” He pointed to the cell bars. “Or here?” he closed his eyes, pointed to his head and flashed that broad, sagacious, roguish grin of his. “¡Punto!”
Piri had begun to speak more and more freely to Angel, almost in verses as though possessed by a muse, for hours on end. It was during one of such moments, during the waterman hour, that Angel told Piri of the plan for his escape.
“That could get us all killed.” Piri squeaked as he pronounced the word, “killed.” “But if you want to go ahead with it, I’m not going to stop you. You know me, I don’t say a word.”
For the next few years, Angel resigned himself to performing in his cell as Piri and a handful of others across the hall cheered him on. Piri seemed satisfied reciting his flows to Angel, passing around the cell block an occasional story from a new collection he was working on about his days in the Merchant Marine. Angel began reading Piri’s stories whenever he could get his hands on them. The first one took him a month to read, referring to Piri’s dictionary constantly. The rest were much easier and Angel began to loose himself in them.
He also had begun practicing Piri’s art of traveling on the wings of his imagination. There were days, it seemed to him, that he was floating around between Piri’s old New York neighborhood and the circus. He began inhabiting night time dreams during tedious waking moments.
Other weeks, between Piri’s stories, Angel was faced with a dilemma that had begun to plague him about his own work. He tried to feel the same sense of satisfaction as Piri seemed to have with an audience of as few as one. Everyone’s favorite routine involved Angel’s mastery of the cell bars. He seemed to defy gravity as he stuck his body straight out, perpendicular to the bars, then wiggled up the bars, his body still parallel to the floor. Once at the top, he’d double flip down. The few prisoners who could see, would applaud wildly; others who couldn’t, would demand to know what he had done, and applause would follow. One night, he extended his bar routine to include walking up the bars to the ceiling, then flipping back down to the floor, off the ceiling, turning everyone’s world upside down. After the applause, he felt the twinge of sadness and disappointment which seemed to be growing within him begin to cut into his chest.
Piri was up on his feet for a standing ovation. “¡Angel que viene del cielo! What you do to those cell bars! ¡Vaya! You make them seem like they’re made of rubber. I don’t know what they see across the way, but for me, those bars were gone, I was ready to walk home after the show!” Piri’s voice was high and excited, like a child. Until he noticed his own enthusiasm was not being reciprocated by his buddy. “Bro, … something the matter?”
“Poeta, did you ever stop writing after you got hooked on it?”
“Did you ever stop breathing? It’s a mandate!”
Angel was silent before persisting. “What happens if you stop?”
“¡Coño! If I stop, if I stop, I get kind of like, like jell-o, depressed, ¿comprendes? Could you stop practicing?”
“No. I guess not. Though I don’t see the point sometimes.”
“The point? The point? If you can’t stop, the point is for you. ¿No es así? To keep hope alive… The hope of your plan working. The hope that someday you’ll get out of here and be discovered again, no? To keep hope alive with both of us. Look, you’re enriching my life… helping me transcend these bars.. Imagine what life would be like here for us without you doing what you do and me doing what I do! ¡Punto!
Angel’s spirits lifted for a while. Until one day Piri got a letter from his wife Suzie containing a clipping from a magazine with one of his stories. Angel was happy for him, but his own morale began declining in proportion to his longing for a larger audience. In the past, before he was cut out of the circus circuit, Angel had always turned to his art for solace whenever he was in crisis. He had simply channeled his depressions into his act; the more depressed, the wilder stunts he’d attempt, which would in turn get him more attention and make him wildly high and thirsty for life when he pulled them off.
Was he just imprisoning himself—not allowing himself to practice on the yard? Wasn’t the escape plan just another self-destructive suicide mission? There was such a fine line. Yet wasn’t it his insistence on the long shots, on taking chances, which had led him to such a rich life before the previous decade?
He brought up these ideas to the man he called “Poet.”
“Poeta,” Angel said.
“Díme, pájaro” Piri responded to the man he now called “Bird.”
“Sometimes I think I was crazy,” Angel stammered. “I mean, I could have avoided all this,” Angel walked up to the bars and shook them. “I could have been more successful had I changed my art, used my craft to advance my social standing, like this job with a beer company and Hollywood. I could have changed my perception of the truth, my opinions, to be able to keep that job. But I chose not to, because I respected the art too much. Do you think I was crazy?”
“Do you regret what you did?”
“Not then, when I thought I still had possession of my art. Not now, when I think I’m getting out. Then, I’m even proud. Then other times… You, Poeta, you’re publishing even from in here. You seem to be having even more success locked up, in fact, because of your solidarity movement.”
“Because of my Suzie!” Piri interrupted, pontificating with his index finger. “And, yes, the solidarity movement—”
“But no one knows about me or cares,” Angel continued. “I don’t have a family, I may never have a family. I have nothing in this world except my craft. And now, here, I don’t really even have that, any more than a caged bird can fly. If I gave up the crazy plan, at least I could perform on the yard again, with an audience.,” Angel ran his fingers through his black hair. “But then I ask myself, is that what all this was for?”
“You know Angel, sometimes I feel like I’m living a double life… like there’s another story book Piri living his life out with his Suzie in the hills, touring the country, going to Puerto Rico, on cruises… And when I was living that life, I had the feeling of this other Piri living his life out here in this icebox… which is what made me appreciate every waking moment of the other life so much. I can’t say I didn’t appreciate everything I had…It’s like time is a spiral or vortex and my time here was making me really live all the time preceding.” Piri laughed and shook his head… “No sir! I lived pretty well, every moment, coño! A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. You can’t worry about ‘should.’ You gotta go with what’s inside, like my ma always said. What does your gut, your heart say?”
“My heart says get out of here, fly, run, find a circus, highjack the trapeze, just run on stage in the middle of a performance and dazzle them… fly! They only way I know how to live is to half dream at the same time.”
“That’s it, then! ¡Punto! Only you gotta send me DVDs of yourself and a player! What am I gonna do without your act here?”
The years passed and Piri, who had diabetes, began to loose feeling in his toes, then his feet. He requested to be seen by the doctor, and was denied access for months. When access was granted, it was too late and Piri had to loose his right foot. The amputation resulted in an infection, which again, due to neglect, led to the loss of his right leg below the knee. It was at this point that Piri’s solidarity movement grew to such a groundswell, he was given a new trial and set free on a technicality.
Meanwhile, the last guard who had ever seen Angel display his talents on the yard had just quit and everyone was gearing up to put the escape plan into action. Fortunately for Angel, the prison had yet to assign him another cellmate. The plan was to wait for the first foggy summer evening. Spirits in the prison were high.
But now on the outside, Piri wanted to send in a video crew to shoot a documentary about the acrobat bird in the prison. Angel was torn. He couldn’t risk having the guards learn about his talents for a documentary that might never be seen. Piri tried to convince him to dump the escape scheme; the film would be the lucky break he was always waiting for…
Instead of the usual June fog, there was an atypical heat wave. Angel enjoyed sleeping with only a sheet at night. Rather than coiling up on his cot for warmth, like springs in an electric heater, his muscles relaxed as though for the first time in a decade. It was the kind of night to sleep on the beach in a hammock back home, or make love on the sand. In the early morning, Angel was awakened by motion of his bed rocking. At first he thought he was in a hammock; he was going to awaken in a hammock in Puerto Angel and finally shake off the terrible nightmare about being buried alive forever in a tomb of concrete over some aspirin and cola he had pilfered. But as his surroundings came into focus in the dark, he could make out the bars of his cell seeming to bend. The sun through a low window across the hall had begun to bleed its red, golden light into the sky at the horizon over the city, which also seemed to be bending as the entire room shook, then convulsed. Angel realized the big earthquake, anticipated for thirty years, might have arrived.
The quake hit at 5:22 am. The bottom floor sank a few feet into the landfill under it’s foundation, walls caved in as the prison bent. A tiny tsunami rolled in from the ocean, swept under the bridge, into the Bay and broke ten feet high over the prison, flooding the first two stories. The toilets all backed up, sending sewage everywhere. Angel could see none of this, but the sound of the wave was unmistakable. Its spray came through the broken pains in the high cell block windows and wet Angel’s cell. He could hear the men on the lower floors screaming and tried to gage if there would be a larger wave.
He felt the prison floor shake yet again, then came a tremendous crashing noise. Angel’s heart was beating faster than the time he lost his grip on the ten story pole and began unraveling in a free fall before managing, by some miracle, to get a grasp of one of the streamers. He wondered if he would perish in that very cell on the third floor, drowned like a rat by a tsunami, or crushed against the bars, like a hard-boiled egg in one of those wire egg slicers.
Sirens began sounding on every floor, making it impossible to hear over the screams of agony and shouting. The guards were yelling about evacuating. The prisoners held their breaths, silently praying for a chance to turn the collective tragedy into their own personal miracle. A few more tremors passed through the prison. After an hour or so, the sirens stopped. The prisoners waited.
The Bay level had risen and crept up to the chests of the prisoners in the corner of the prison which had sunk farthest down into the landfill. Those in that corner, who had survived the wave, now stood on their bunks to keep above water. A few bodies floated by them and they began to yell. They did not know the guards had fled, locking down the prison as tightly as they could. The men shouted at those on the floors above them, pounding on the ceiling. An interview would appear that week with one of the surviving prisoners on an upper floor.
“We was calling down to the guys in the cells under us, talking to them every couple of minutes. They were crying, they were scared. The one that I was cool with, he was saying ‘I’m scared. I feel like I’m about to drown.’ He was crying.”
Night fell, mercilessly, and after an eternity, morning, only to dissolve into night again. As the news of their abandonment by the guards and the plight of prisoners on the bottom floor spread, the men in cells with windows or near them began burning blankets, sheets and T-shirts to get the attention of anyone on the outside.
The prison began to fill with so much smoke it reminded Angel of the aftermath of Fourth of July fireworks. Cries of “Burn baby burn!” and “Somebody’s got to see us!” abounded. Angel leaned his face against the bars tried to breathe. Just then he heard his next door neighbor, Hanks, swearing violently that the fire was out of control. To Angel’s horror, flames were leaping out of his neighbor’s bars, though judging from his cursing, he was still alive. Angel and the neighbor on the opposite side quickly passed the victim their buckets of toilet water and sheets.
“I’m running out of water and it’s getting stronger! It’s going to catch the other mattress!”
“Pass your water bucket!” the men screamed to their neighbors. “Fire in Cell 387! Fire in Hanks cell! If his other mattress goes, we could go!”
“It’s taking too long!” Hanks screamed. I’m pouring and pouring but it’s angry!”
“This is the last one we got! Make it count!” the men repeated, as they passed the last drops of water they would have until god knows when.
Angel panicked. Being burned to death in his cell would be a fate worse than anything else he could think of. “Wet the blanket, then smother it! Smother it!” Angel yelled as he handed the bucket over.
“Die mother-f!” Hanks screamed. Then, miraculously, came some shouts of victory, followed by a wave of cheering on the cell block.
“What’s going on outside? Anyone see us?” someone yelled. The men began inquiring of their neighbors on the top and bottom floors. It didn’t take long to realize the outside world saw nothing, or perhaps cared nothing, about the plight of those inside.
As the third day came to its conclusion without any contact from the outside world, prisoners became anxious and then desperate. Two of the prisoners, who survived the collapse of their cells, were able to break into the previously-defunct wood shop and pass out tools to the inmates. After many hours of working on fissures created by the earthquake and weakened cell door hinges, some were able to force their way out by sliding through the gaps. They were aided by other inmates in the common areas. Once out of the cells, however, they remained trapped in the locked facility. They were, however, able to get water and food from the mess hall to the other prisoners.
Almost simultaneously with Angel’s attempts to further weaken the cracking cement around his cell bars, inmates in Angel’s block began to concentrate their energies into their original plan to break him out with the hope that he’d be able to notify civilians outside about their plight. Sheets were passed down the cell block and tied together in a long rope, as were bedsprings, pens, spoons from the cafeteria and a hammer and chisel. Still, even with the tools, it took Angel another six hours to weaken the cement around one of the bars. Lack of food had made him weak and light-headed.
Fortunately, during all this time, more and more prisoners were able to aid in breaking each other out of the less secure cells. A couple of these prisoners succeeded in finally forcing one of the bars in Angel’s cell free. Still, the opening seemed too small for any human to fit through. Angel asked them to retrieve some lard from the kitchen. He stripped down to his underwear and greased himself up. The other prisoners watched in amazement as Angel squeezed himself to inhuman proportions and slid through the bars. Angel dressed, retrieved the bed sheets through the bars and headed for the mess hall. Aided by the other free prisoners, he constructed an acrobat’s ladder of chairs and tables and scaled to the vent.
Angel wound the sheets tightly around his body and began to squeeze his way through the airshaft, his elbows tucked tightly under him, almost to his sides to help him inch his way through, since he had to remain practically straight to fit. Most of the sheet had to trail behind him, at times catching and making him backtrack until he found a way to tuck the now filthy, ragged tail under the part around his waist. This painstaking process took several more hours. The way was pitch black and Angel began to get disoriented. At times he did not know whether he was lengthwise or upside down, going backwards. During this time, he would knock and yell to keep prisoners beneath him abreast of his progress. They in turn relayed his location to the other inmates who would help confirm his location, cheering him on. The muffled words he could discern kept him from lapsing into a state of sheer panic.
“You got it, Angel. You’re almost there! You’re past the shooting gallery now!”
“Just ten more yards, dude!”
At this point the piping became much larger and Angel began to discern some of the cobwebs he had been pushing out of the way with his head, clumps of his hair now covered in the sticky webbing. His progress increased dramatically, but once at the end, he remembered there was another grate screwed in at the opening. His heart began to race and he paused, not wanting to discover the impossibility of removing it
“I made it! I made it!” he screamed, banging on the grate. He could hear a couple of voices shouting excitedly, then a chorus of commotion from below, generalized banging and cheering. This made him smile as he momentarily forgot his obstacle. But after the ensuing silence, there was nothing left to do but push his head against the grate with all his force. Predictably the metal was not going to yield. In this position he had no leverage. He had to turn himself about, so that he could kick the grate out.
He tried to bring his knees to his chest, but the metal sheeting surrounding him was not yet wide enough. He began to panic. How could he make his way back, backwards no less? There was a maneuver had learned in the circus as part of his Houdini routine. It would involve his folding his head under his torso, inching his legs along… but in these tight quarters he could snap his neck that way…
Images of himself starving, then rotting in that shaft almost made him vomit. Desperately, he focused on the sunlight on the other side of the opening. It tasted sweet, pure. Would he ever feel it on his naked chest again? Life suddenly seemed too hideously cruel to him, all too unjust. He ran the reel of his life through this mind, the love affairs, the times at the beach, the performances. That had been a life worth living, he tried to console himself. At least he liked the person he still was, now that he had possibly reached the end. But what an end, he grimaced… All for stealing some aspirin and soda— He began to weep. The weeping went on for quite some time and echoed horribly in the pipes. From time to time he wondered whether the others could discern what was happening, whether they’d realize the hopelessness of their situation. Their fate, after all, was dependent on him.
No sooner did this thought strike him, than a new determination surged through this veins. Slowly he began to tuck his head down and inch his legs forward. He became stuck at some point and remained that way, the pressure on his neck seemed intolerable. He recalled the few times he had come close to death his routines in the circus… He’d find a way out, he always did, he told himself. This was the ultimate test. If he succeeded, his art would save not only his life, but those of the other prisoners.
By trial and error, twisting and writhing he found a way to turn himself around. When he succeeded, he rested his head on the knot of sheets and dozed for what seemed like days.
He awoke not knowing where he was or what day it was. The men were calling his name. There seemed to be a state of panic down below him. He started kicking the grid to make sound, to let them know he was all right. And somehow, because the salt air had rusted the screws and loosened the holes… the grid seemed to pop right out. Angel began screaming with ecstasy as the weak sun and cold wind whipped through the tunnel and struck his face. His shouts were eventually echoed throughout the prison.
“He’s made it out!” he heard the others shouting.
The rest seemed like a dream. Arms reached out of the cells above him.
Still groggy, Angel began to doubt that he was awake. How could he be certain, he wondered. It seemed so easy, as he balanced his thighs inside the vent, yet freed his torso and arms to cast the sheets around the pole on the roof, using his iron stomach muscles to keep him in a perfect “L,” a position in the howling wind that would have thrown anyone else off balance and to their death. Though it took several attempts, he felt the pole catch the loop, tied a knot and hoisted himself up, out of the vent, four floors above the rocks.
Angel allowed the sheets to fall to the ground. The ragged end was more than long enough and trailed into the bay, swaying back and forth with the tide. Almost without thinking, Angel was at the base of the building. Reflexively, he peered around for guards and found none. So instead of swimming, he nimbly jumped along the rocks, and was to the front and down the road within minutes. Cautiously, he made his way past the guards’ housing units, but they were abandoned. He hadn’t thought about the problem which, now so obviously presented itself; being unable to find others to help him break the men out.
He dug his heels into the dirt. He ran, galloped like a gazelle right out of what was the deserted parking lot. That’s what freedom felt like, he thought. Running. He could just keep going. Not stop until he got to the border. The deserted scenery was surreal. It had to be a dream, he thought, why were the prison grounds so empty?
He came to some houses on the perimeter. For a minute his heart stopped, as he tried to remember whether or not the units might house other guards. A voice stopped him cold.
“What are you doing here?” The man was tall and thin, with cold blue eyes, an old grey Father Knows Best haircut parted on the side and a butcher knife in his hand. He was not wearing a badge.
“Excuse my appearance, but there’s a fire coming from that prison. The men are burning it up to get help. There are dead on the bottom floor! “
“You want to call authorities on our phone?” the man offered.
“Law all left three days ago. Just left the men there to die…”
“Really?” The man seemed somewhat pleased about this last bit of news. It turned out that he was part of the community of molesters that lived within the confines of the prison; once having served out their terms, no community would house them. Upon hearing Angel’s tales about the atrocities taking place in the abandoned prison, he and two of the other perpetrators were more than willing to help break the prisoners free.
A whiff of the bodies now rotting on the ground floor lent urgency to Angel’s account. After conversing with a few inmates through the broken cell windows, the men began picking apart the guard’s entrance with car jacks and tools they had brought from home.
Once the door was open, a few dozen men darted out. But the majority waited nearby voluntarily for authorities to take charge again. When the inmates saw Angel, they pretended not to know him.
“Thanks for the help, buddy. How’d you find out about us, Pal?” one prisoner said to Angel.
Angel’s clothes had been so blackened by his excursion, that they were unrecognizable as prison atire. He mumbled some story about working at a construction project.
“Can you believe his boss left him by the side of road after the job, to get out of paying them for the month?” the inmate said to one of the molesters. “How about one of you giving him a ride?”
Angel was so grateful for the story, he almost broke into tears again. He was dropped off at a bus stop near some railroad tracks, where he waited for one of the slow cargo trains heading South to pass. Nimbly he hopped up onto one of the cars. He fell asleep staring at the stars overhead, a delirious grin on his face. All night he kept waking himself, more to remind himself that he was not dreaming this time, than to keep abreast of the train’s progress. Once or twice, he laughed aloud into the night.
The prison guards informed the prisoners that their acrobat had died on the way back to the compound after being apprehended at the border and beaten. But news of the Bird’s performances in Denmark reached the inmates not long after. His tale inspired prisoners there and elsewhere for generations to come.