Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Other Half - Part Two

By Steve Bartholomew

To read Part One, click here

Charlie floored it.

The cop leapt up onto a shelf of air a foot or more above his own hood. The hollow clatter of clipboard and flashlight bouncing off sheet metal as the Jeep passed.

They came out of the parking lot sideways, accompanied by the headlong thunder and shriek of automotive rampage. Behind the wheel Charlie was knuckle-white and angular, his face showing nothing. The four-wheel drive made for an unruly drift, the tires lurching unpredictably. He felt the center of gravity heave up and shimmy before he remembered to ease off the throttle while counter-steering.

This was a five-lane thoroughfare wending through forestland between affluent suburbs, an upscale parkway lined with a dronish species of strip malls. Its curves were unbanked, designed with leisurely drives and rush hour in mind. He kneaded the throttle deeply, working the mechanical sweet spot between terminal velocity and control, exploring the limits of factory metallurgy.

The fluid geometry of flight. He swept back and forth across all five lanes, trimming radial degrees from shallow curves. The headlights were switched off for concealment, and the better to spot approaching vehicles while pushing a hundred and ten in oncoming lanes. He glanced at the rearview. The distant red and blue colorsoaking of roadside trees behind them. Here we are. You may drive for a living and maybe you’re better at it than me, but I’m willing to drive for our lives.

"He‘s back there," Moira said, turning around fully in her seat, "he‘s coming fast."

"Sit down. I told you," he said, as if to the mirror, "put your seatbelt on."

"You don‘t have yours on."

"I'm a little busy here. Just this one thing. All I'm asking."

"Fine," she said, and crawled across the seats, reaching around his middle to grab the belt beneath his arms, tugging it across him and fastening it. She pushed herself back to her side and fastened her own.

"Jesus. Keep your ass in the seat. Sometimes, girl."

"You want to put me over your knee?"

"Beat the dimples out of you, is what I want to do."

"Throw me down and choke me like I'm rented? It's okay if you say yes."

"By the half hour. And you can keep my deposit."

Up ahead, trees lining a bend in the road took up the glow of approaching headlights. Charlie swung the wheel, swerving to the opposite edge of the road as a box truck flew past in the other direction.

"You're sweet for saying that," she said, "I might hold you to it later, like I did last time."

He knew she was trying to bolster his confidence, to remind him that he was skilled at the art of eluding. But he preferred to think of every chase as his only chase. To have faith in a winning streak is to underestimate your opponent. A couple weeks earlier, a sheriff had spotted them as they were leaving Bellingham. As he ran through the gears, he told her to talk her dirtiest, because the distraction would keep him from overthinking instinctive maneuvers. After he'd outrun the county mounties, they holed up, car and all, in an abandoned barn that leaned cartoonishly to one side. Even the best hide is a bust, he told her, if you come out one minute early.

They crept to a boarded window and stared through the cracks, watching hand in hand because touch carries a trustworthy bandwidth of information. His fingers twined between hers, and he could feel the quickened pulse in her thumb. The dried traces of animal in each inhale, the grip of uncertainty loosening gradually with each exhale.

Evasion can lace the blood thickly and he felt it build like a thunderhead, a tantric rush crackling across the air between them. She looked lethal in the rising dust, hushed end smokey with intent, daring him wordlessly like a character in a smutty plot. Daylight seeped through cracks and knotholes, and as it died away he could feel their chances improving. Something about the play of light-stripes on her skin made him claw the ground, firmly alive and primitive. He pulled her down roughly, whispering demands he'd stored up on the way there. Even the stagecraft felt real, a textured scene stolen from the world-beyond, and he lost himself in the role of the toying villain while she played captive in the hay.

The distance to the pursuing lights was impossible for him to gauge at this speed, but he thought their lead might be increasing.

"Seems like I was the one doing most of the holding, the way I remember it. Which, I'm not complaining."

"I want to have to make up a story this time, why I'm walking funny tomorrow."

"Tell them you fell on a doorknob again."

She lowered the window a few inches and flicked her cigarette into the roaring wind. Then she hit the switch to reseal it. "Does it make me way complicated? Because I'm all 'Respect me, but ransack me like I'm stolen first?'"

"I’ll respect your brains out."

"Prove it. Get us somewhere I can be noisy."

The Jeep had a little gumption left, he knew it would do maybe one twenty, but he could not remember the lay of this road. Whether a given side street was a cul-de-sac or an alternate route, he had no way of knowing. He cursed himself for not at least studying a map before being tested in the actual territory. He could feel a peculiar floating sensation, the quirky physics of drag and centripetal force contesting with suspension designed for gravel roads and soccer games.

The State Patrol precinct was somewhere up ahead, one of the hives sure to be emptying by now and swarming towards them.

Charlie came down hard on the brakes, swinging into a wide arc that would bring them in line with an intersecting road that led sharply to their left. It took them up a steep grade. He could see that it disappeared farther ahead, winding into the forest that covered the foothill above. He took the first right, breaking line of sight with the parkway, and slowed enough to not draw attention. Darkened upscale houses set back from the winding curbless street.

"Oh," she said, "I feel like I've been on this road before."

Moira claimed to remember her own birth. She had described the event to him in terms of its pathos, the watershed expulsion, and how this had congealed into a motif throughout her life. She would never admit as much, but Charlie wondered if she'd let this inform her expectations ever since, looking for the sayonara lurking behind every smile or hidden within a fuck. He pondered the weight of blaming your life on your own birth, and how that might become self-fulfilling.

"I‘ve been to that house before. That exact one. I think maybe inside it."

Charlie wondered whether this was another instance of the deja vu she experienced so strongly sometimes.

"Which way then?" he asked, hoping her comment related to an actual event.

"I don't know. It‘s not that specific. It‘s more a feeling, like reading the past, I guess."

"So we're talking post-diction, as opposed to prediction. This is what you're telling me. Like reading your own palm. Not the most useful thing at the moment, I have to say."

"Post-diction isn't a word or a thing. And you‘re a condescending prick sometimes, that's what I'm telling you." She turned toward the blackened window before continuing. "What else I can tell you is that your palm is in your future. How's that for a useful prediction?"

"So you got a reading about this neighborhood, one way or another?" He caught himself dressing the word "reading" in snark and instantly regretted it.

"Just that I wish I was riding through it with anyone but you right now. You‘re a bastard."

They came around a curve and on their right was a low-slung school, an array of portable classrooms arranged about a central building. Charlie swerved into the small parking lot, bouncing over a curb and onto the lawn. He drove along a narrow sidewalk that led between two of the outbuildings and then turned, steering them up a small grassy bank behind the school and out onto a playing field.

Surrounding the field was a thinly wooded greenbelt, younger maple and alder among a smattering of old growth. Beyond the far edge of the field the elevation rose sharply to the crest of the ridge, maybe a hundred feet higher than the school. He nosed into the woods below the rise, threading carefully through the gaps between trees, dropping the transmission into low gear to crawl over fallen limbs and through brush as tall as the windows. The condensed dark beneath the evergreen canopy made him feel myopic.

He killed the engine and nodded at Moira. After getting out slowly, they leaned into both doors, half-latching them. The powertrain ticked and sizzled like a recent wreck in the wooded stillness. He waited for her to pick her way through the dense groundcover and around to his side. Taking her hand, he pushed through the foliage, pulling her along.

At the base of the embankment she pulled up short and looked up at the stubbly clay rearing far above them. Milky light bled through the dark along the crest. "I can't," she said, "Not in these." 

He knelt at her feet and, placing her hands on his head he lifted one boot at a time, snapping the six-inch heels off and tossing them into the brush.

"These were my favorites,” she whispered.

"Sorry. You can take it out on me later."

He grasped her by the forearm, their wrists intertwined so that she could hold onto him, and in this way he began towing her up the steep incline. He would scrabble to gain a couple feet and then with his free hand grab onto a sapling, root or vine, digging his side-heels into the loam before hoisting her by one arm until she could find a purchase. The fire in his lungs spread to his shoulders, his back.

Halfway up, a branch broke off in his hand and he lost his foothold, sending them skidding backward. A racket of cascading debris announced their place in the night before he could plant his toes enough to stop their descent, his hand clawing dumbly at scree. "Charlemagne, I'm scared," she said. "I don't think I can do this." She'd called him by his full name only once before, the first time they'd seen themselves on the news. She knew he thought it sounded like men's lace and French dressing.

"It's only a few more feet," he lied, and began towing her upward again before her reluctance could gain inertia.

At the crest of the cliff they came to a wooden slat fence. He raised up on the balls of his feet and peered over it into a dark backyard. A split-level deck arranged with patio furniture, and in the far corner of the yard a large doghouse. The idea of facing a hostile dog made his nervous system pucker. But there was no way around without backtracking part of the way down and traversing the face of the bluff. "Take off your coat," he whispered into her ear, "and put your bracelets in your pocket. Quick." She must have felt the tremble rising in him. She stared at him, her face a jumble of fear and trust. She handed him the coat and slipped off her jewelry.

"Wait for me to jump down first," he whispered, "and try to stay calm. Whatever happens, keep going." with the leather coat held in his teeth, he laced his fingers together into a step. He lifted her until she could straddle the fence, steadying her before he pressed himself up and over. As he dropped down into a crouch, a floodlight mounted on the house blazed like an instant sun, pushing the darkness from the yard. A deep growl emanated from the doghouse. Charlie wrapped the thin black leather around his left forearm and, keeping Moira behind himself, ran backward toward the side fence.

A potato-colored pitbull came toward them at a dead run. It did not bark, instead making small anticipatory grunts as it ran. Charlie stooped, holding out his arm covered in designer leather the way he‘d seen trainers do. If dogs can really smell fear, than I must reek right now. What if it prefers balls or throats to arms?

The dog lunged, clamping its jaws onto his forearm. The impact was hydraulic violence, high-voltage jolts of bone grating against bone. Nails. The feeling of nails hammered in, sinking and tearing into his flesh even through the leather. Searing cold. His vision strobed in time with the dog's neck muscles, a vicious back and forth, drastic pressure and tugging.

The pain shrank his world, reducing all there ever was down to canine teeth and the nerves in his arm. The paralyzing shock of being consumed.

Fight thoughts flurried through his skull, discrete packets of kinesthetic possibilities, hopes really, entertained without language. But hand-to-hand tactics do not translate against teeth and claws.

His brain was misfiring from the trauma, and so he did what he could do mindlessly. He lifted. He grabbed hold of the collar with his free hand and lifted explosively, swinging the animal's weight as high as he could, and in one motion he slammed it down onto its side. This stunned it, he could tell, a reversal of aggression that confused its sense of dominance.

The jaws loosened and he pulled free his arm, motioning for Moira to run. The dog scrambled to its feet and Charlie backed away, trying to broadcast menace. He wondered if alphas ever back down. It came at him again. This time he almost didn't offer up his arm. But he could not let this dog past him, he knew she hadn't climbed the fence. When it lunged and reclamped its jaws on his arm a brilliant renewal of agony burst loose in colors behind his eyes, making the backward-driving force register slowly, unkiltering him. He stumbled and went down.

Pain is a private language you use to frighten yourself.

This is where it happens, this is how an attack dog makes a kill. He punched at the side of the dog's head but his angle was wrong for any effect.

He fumbled beneath its chest, finally gripping its front leg, near the paw. Ha wrenched it in a lateral movement, torquing it outward until he felt the wet snap and crunch of bone and joint parting ways. The dog let go and began keening, hobbling on three legs away from Charlie.

He stood and ran behind Moira to the side fence, a cyclone type woven with privacy slats. "Oh my god. Are you okay?" she whispered. Examining his injuries now would only infect his mental state, so he simply nodded. He could feel blood dripping from his hand but he could move it, or at least flex the muscles, so he figured no critical bones were broken. He peered over the fence bordering the next yard.

"Let me see it," she insisted, reaching for his injured arm. But he turned her around by the shoulders and slipped one hand between her thighs, gripping her by the crotch, his other hand at the nape of her neck. He lifted her with no thought of grace or comfort, pressing her overhead in a clumsy wrestling move, and then dropped her over the fence into the next yard. He hoisted himself up and over and they ran to the next fence. He lifted her again.

They ran through the hollowed-out landscapes behind the row of houses where the other half lived, past the darkened windows of the sleeping. The stillness felt combustible, as if they were poorly contained sparks edging alongside tinder. He focused intently on listening for the sounds of pursuers, dogs or both, until the blood rushing through his ears started taking on imaginary meaning.

There was a wobble in Moira's movements, a telltale slowing. Exertion and the mental strain of being hunted can bleach meaning from the moment, and he could see the detachment in her face, pale as prison-bread in the dimmest light. She was looking blankly to him for the next move, to somehow divine their exit strategy. His leg muscles were approaching failure and his arm was a kaleidoscope of pain. He knew there would be no more lifting or running. He gestured for her to wait, and she stood there fingering her hair. Her eyes were wide and seemed to drift across their surroundings.

From the rear of the property he could see through a break in the trees a narrow swath of the valley below. Red and blue lights trickled toward them in discrete streams. The gathering mass of lights pulsing somewhere below meant roadblocks. In the middle sky were the blinking blue markers of an approaching helicopter. The visible signs of the snare being tightened. He scanned the yard for options, for somewhere to hide. A lattice arbor covered in vines, clusters of broadleaf bushes and small decorative trees. A rectangular patch of earth, a garden maybe, and along the far side a tall privacy hedge. Two towering fir trees blotted out much of the sky. Near the back fence was a compost box made of landscape timber, maybe three feet deep and eight feet to a side.

Charlie climbed onto the great pile of rotting grass and prunings within the box and shoved in both hands up to his elbows. Moira stood a few feet away, keeping watch while he lifted out clump after clump of blackened mulch, his forearms coated in a paste of blood and plant juices. The syrupy plant rot filled his lungs, his mouth. Steam rose to coat his skin as he scooped out the heavy, moist matter warmed by its own decomposition.

When he had cleared out what he thought was enough, he motioned for her to come near. She looked at the coffin-sized trench and the pile of muck beside it, and then at him. She shook her head, No Not that. He wiped his palms on his pant legs and pulled her close. Please, do not fight me this once. Holding her head in both hands he breathed two words into her ear.

"Thermal. Imaging." He gave her a look that said, This is the only way. He wrapped the punctured and bloody leather coat around her shoulders.

She looked at him for a long second before moving. She lowered herself uneasily into the steaming black hollow, arranging herself on her side and leaving room for him.

Remembering the wheelbarrow he‘d seen while crossing the yard, he held up one finger in a gesture for her to wait, and crept toward it, picking his way through the pitchy darkness. In the wheelbarrow was a folded canvas tarp. He lifted it carefully and made his way back to the compost box. Wedging himself down into the warm slime facing her, he thought, this is it. No more running. We're fully committed now. Her body pressed tightly against him. Propping himself up on one elbow, he began packing around and onto them the piles of removed plant matter. The weight of it felt like damp hands pressing them warmly into the earth.

The wisps of evaporating rot enveloped them. He could taste the ferment. He left the tarp partially folded so it would not look large enough for someone to hide under. With his free hand he pulled it over their heads, just a wad of canvas someone had left atop their compost. He hoped desperately this was something people do.

Their faces were inches apart. His only view was of her eyes, in and out of dim focus. They searched his face for some reason not to be so afraid. He kissed her mouth reassuringly, a chaste lie half told to himself. Her fingers twined between his, pressing into his drying blood. He could feel her pulse outpacing his own.

His lizard-brain shrieked for flight, to somehow flee because this plan will never work and this is not a good enough hide. His thoughts took on a charged quality, the grim mental blurting of the unprofessed. She was printed indelibly on his heart, but this had seemed dangerous to express plainly--until now, and how that bracketed his general regret. He had failed to prevent what was happening, and this was an unspoken part of their pact. Because whatever you name a relationship, at its core it is a reliance.

He wondered if she could sense his sorrow, dumb and powerless. He thought about their self-entombment, the irony someone else might see in it. Why had he been unable, or unwilling to tell her she was the first human being he‘d ever loved?

They communicated in scant movements, the flex of a finger, a roll of the eyes more intuited than seen. He wanted to tell her this one thing, the words pushing toward his surface, but she either already knew or couldn't tell what he meant.

He figured there was a strong likelihood that the incident of the dog and floodlight would draw the police to this neighborhood. The homeowners must have heard the commotion and called 911. He peered through a wrinkle in the canvas.

A helicopter walked across the sky on bluish stilts of light. The swelling throb and muted chopping of another rotor, much nearer.

The canvas came alight like someone had turned it on. A tiny noise escaped her, a gasp at their sudden illumination. She had a mucky thumbprint on her forehead. Charlie squeezed her hand and moved his eyes back and forth, Not yet. The light moved on.

They lay in the racket of their own heartworks, their darksight wrecked. Time passed in a way impossible to gauge. He thought of the go-bag back in the Porsche, and the evidence it contained. They would throw him back into the stone man-hive at Walla Walla, they would throw her into the woman's prison and they would be forever broken apart without ever having broken up. This knowledge gnawed at him more deeply than that of his own imminent capture. How the final frames of a life-stage tend to outlive the highlights, enduring articles of unwanted recollection, and this, he thought, this noxious burial with something crawling up my ankle, this will be how she remembers me.

He could hear the distant approach of a well-tuned engine, idling and than accelerating, idling again. The signature whine of a police-duty alternator. The engine grew nearer and then changed pitch, surging slightly, the sound of someone shifting into park. A car door slamming. And then another. He tried to slow his breathing, eye-screaming for her to hold onto whatever she had left. His entire awareness shifted into his ears. 

The light jingle of a small latch being thrown, the metallic grating of a rusted return spring and gate hinges. The snick of a latch closing. Froggish creaking of leather, rhythmic and footstep-paced, growing nearer. The muffled clinks of steel hardware enpouched on a duty belt. And then, the sounds of stealthy movements coming from farther away, maybe in the next yard. Someone inhaled nearby, sighed. The canvas over them made Charlie unable to gauge the true distance between the sigh and their last good-bye.

And then Charlie‘s watch beeped once to signify the change of hour. Beneath the tarp it was an electronic shrike, a half- second banshee. He cringed. How could I forget this one thing, to disable my goddamn watch alarm?

Her eyes sharpened in reproach and she dug her nails into his fingers. Really? After you bury me in this? He waited for the hand that would yank back the canvas.

“Was that you?" a male voice half-whispered from a short distance away, maybe in the next yard.

Another voice answered, this one coming from directly overhead, "Think so." Charlie could feel the presence of the cop standing over them. They lay utterly still, listening to the tiny whistling in his nostrils.

Every moment was a storyline, its rising conflict played out in heartbeats and tiny breaths, each one a crisis. The creaking struck up again, moved farther away. The snick of a latch opening, the metallic grating and this time the sharp wooden clack and jangle of a gate slapping shut.

They gulped lungfuls of deliciously stale air.

The adrenaline ebbed from his bloodstream and he felt dopey, a puppyish delirium relaxing him muscle by muscle. He thought of nothing, let himself be aware of nothing but her bodyheat and the softness of compost. The weight of his eyelids was staggering.
Just for a second, he told himself, I can close them for a few seconds.

The cold woke him. The brunt of it had settled into his core, making him shiver uncontrollably and out of phase with her. Their frames were clattering against each other. She was watching him across the inches, her face half lit by the gathering dawn.

He imagined a homeowner discovering them there, and how the pursuit would start up again, this time without the cover of night. He slowly pushed back the tarp. His arm had stiffened and felt like a disorder. Fog had rolled in and clung to the trees in webbed clumps. He looked at his hand. Blood-caked sausages creased deeply at the knuckles, the taut skin glowing febrile already.

He rose slowly, moving first one limb then another, the millionfold needle jab of neglected flesh. He held out his good hand and pulled her slowly to her feet. The damp in their clothes was wicking the morning chill. She leaned against him, her shivering coming in fits now. Petting her hair, he inhaled the trace of French shampoo and plucked from her collar a rotting weed.

"Damn," she said, "I sure wish my smokes made it."

"I fucking love you."

"Are you sure you don't have a couple words backwards?"

"Even if you do look a little like a bog person right now."

"Prove it," she said, sliding one hand into the front pocket of his pants and fingering the master key there. "Take me somewhere that has heat and breakfast. I‘m starving."

"Deal," he said, plucking a worm gently off her shoulder and then showing it to her. "But this time you're leaving the tip."

Steve Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

To view Steve's art, click here


Here is a video clip of a stunningly beautiful reading of an excerpt from another of Steve’s essays, "Tearing Down The House of Gemini," by Katherine Hervey

Katherin Hervey is a multimedia producer, college instructor and restorative justice facilitator for incarcerated populations. She is also a former Los Angeles Public Defender. As a multimedia producer she was the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of Shades of Contradiction, a nationally distributed not-for-profit arts and culture magazine dedicated to promoting critical thinking and creative action; and co-founded Raw Love Productions, a multi-media production company focusing on visual storytelling. Alongside her partner Massimo Bardetti, she is currently producing THE PRISON WITHIN, an interactive web-based documentary exposing the failure of the U.S. justice system to restore justice through the stories of those most impacted.

Katherin first met Steve as in instructor for University Beyond Bars inside the WA Monroe Correctional Complex, and continued filming him as a character in THE PRISON WITHIN. She chose this piece, "Tearing Down the House of Gemini" because it showcases Steve Bartholomew's emotional depth - his willingness to dig deep within himself and reflect what he discovers through the creative process.

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