Monday, March 16, 2009

LATIN FOR PONDER by Gregg Cusick

I am ersatz, a word I’ve wanted to use for the longest time. Can I say that I’m an ersatz? I’m an inferior substitute, a sad excuse you might say. I may be false or dishonest, in terms of society’s rules, although not unto myself—I’m a thief, a simple burglar really. And I’m something of an anomaly, a paradox, if you will, will allow me to use two more words I’ve wanted to for some time now. I’m a moral, ethical sort of thief. I adhere to a strict code of conduct.

And I’m also wealthy, at least relatively speaking, which is another irony since I’ve been working in the prison wood-shop for the past nineteen months, twenty-two days earning about a dollar and seventy-three cents per day, not the kind of fortune one salts away for an early retirement. Still, I’m fond of the traditional-values feel of the term, which also appeals to my sense of irony, since isn’t salt about the most abundant thing on the planet?

But I mentioned my wealth, so I can afford to ponder the linguistics—Christ, it’s a whole degree-bearing course of study at the state university not seven miles from here, though of course I can’t go there—and like I said, I’ve also got the time to ponder. In fact sometimes I imagine myself a professor of Philosophy or Linguistics or Ethics, in a state-funded think-tank, where I’m fed and clothed and fully supported, a place where the charter mission statement, perhaps on a bronze plaque beneath a statue, is the Latin infinitive to ponder, whatever that word might be.

That whole vision is not far from the truth, really, since right here in Central I’ve got three squares and a reasonably comfortable cot, a hands-on and not mentally taxing, satisfying employ (I operate a lathe), and a small living space that, while not the ivory tower of academia, is certainly simple and sparse enough to fit well as the milieu of a creative type, an artist perhaps. (Forgive me that, another word I’ve been trying to work into everyday conversation; and of the type, like the others, not so much appreciated by those around here.)

Forgive my digressions. As my high school English teacher, Mr. Frey, used to scratch in the margins of my essays, and as the court-appointed head-shrinker used to tell me here, months ago before I grew impatient and clammed up, Excuse me, but what’s your point? Precisely, doctor, I wish to discuss my code (and some of its implicit ironies), to explain my aforementioned wealth (its source, its meaning to other relevant parties), and then, quite frankly, having said my piece, to be left the fuck alone. Pardon my language.

A possible side benefit I’d hope would be some sort of personal epiphany if that’s not too strong a word (and if such understanding can result from casual pondering). Some realization for myself of what in my case has so many local folks, many of whom I know or know of or know their brothers and cousins (this being a small town and many of us have worked together, gone to school together, even church), what has so many locals so up in arms. This is no Unabomber treatise, and I’d hardly like it printed in the New York Times, but I sure wouldn’t mind, after I get out of here, to find some place like Ted did, Idaho or the Dakotas someplace, where people pretty much have their own codes, too. And where folks leave each other pretty much well enough alone.

The prison officials tell me, and it’s right here on page 3 of the News-Dispatch, that there’s at least a dozen picketers outside even now, protesting my release. Protesting, too or moreso, the transfer of funds that should be taking place some time this morning, the twenty-five grand (less, of course, taxes and lawyer’s fees, so that I’ll have in the end a deposit slip for about seven thousand and change, this my aforementioned wealth). The simple and legal, but also ethical, payment for service I provided, namely the “information leading to the arrest of the person responsible” for the “slaying” (this of course the media’s word, and one I was in no hurry to use), let’s just say the killing of a gas station convenience store clerk, January 26 of this year. At the Key-Mart, one of eighteen such establishments owned but not operated by Harrison Keymore III of Stone Mountain; the attempted robbery and murder taking place at the Store #17, corner of Woodstock and Cousins Streets, Bynum, Georgia.

Now I don’t know Harrison Keymore from Adam, but I went to high school with Candy, the deceased, and I had a pretty good idea who was responsible when I first heard about it here in the clink. A guy my brother’s age, three years ahead of Candy and me in school, a sociopath—a term I picked up from the therapist here—with no code at all and a mean streak clear through, name of Pinkerton (like the famous detective, ha!) whom everybody called Pinky. (And note the object-case pronoun usage, Mr. Frey.)

Anyway, when my brother paid me a visit here back in February, we talked about the incident, and he mentions casually how Pinky surprisingly paid off his annual Super Bowl debts that next week. (Perhaps Pinky’s only redeeming quality, his thread of a code: for years he bet on the Bills, and then anyone who played Dallas.) My brother tells me of the shooting, how there were no known witnesses, and how the owner of the chain of stores had put up this reward. This Keymore III, who was running for state congress and probably had insurance covering all of it anyway. So the slick businessman gets some good public image points whether the killer is found or not, but still the tightwad in him (and this how he got rich in the first place, taking good care of the family fortune) would hate to have to pay up.

So while most in town suspected Pinky, no witnesses and no murder weapon meant no crime. But that’s when I started pondering this, in the time I had here, spinning my lathe grinding chair and table-legs at a rate that astonished even myself, trying to get in the head of this code-less Pinky. I even ran the whole thing past the shrink here—a man himself, admittedly “fascinated by the criminal mind,” who no doubt has tax shelters and undeclared earnings well in excess of the reward pittance I should by now have in my account. To this doc I related Pinky’s penchant for firearms, his collection the local police had confiscated and fired every one, looking for a match for the bullet that killed our high school almost-friend Candy. I asked the shrink if such a character, a sociopath, I reminded the doctor, would be likely to dispose of the gun used in the robbery. He agreed that it was possible that such a character might have difficulty throwing a sentimental item such as that off a bridge into murky waters. Might he not hide it, instead, I offered, to the widening eyes of my therapist.

I continued pondering the case for several weeks, until an article in the “police blotter” section of the Dispatch caught my eye. Deer hunting season ended January 1st, and yet some brazen local youths had ignored their calendars and continued shooting Bambis well past the legal date. I guessed—and what did I have to lose?—that Pinky was of this ilk, that he’d be hunting perhaps even still. And that a favorite gun might be safely stashed in a deer-stand on his family’s seventy acres west of town. I hatched a deal with the D.A. and prison officials which would greatly reduce my own prison time if my hunches (of course I described them as certainties) turned out to be accurate. Which in fact they were, nearly exactly, to the degree that had I not been incarcerated at the time of the murder I’d have been brought up on charges myself, as at least an accomplice, or how else could I know so much?

Now I contend that I’d have done the moral thing and supplied the information no matter about the reward, and no matter whether it could help my own situation as it did, in reducing my 36 months to slightly more than twenty. I contend this, but I’m honest, and I of course can’t know this for certain. The local columnist who wrote the article I’m looking at now, the one condemning me more even than Pinky himself, invokes the term “honor among thieves,” wondering to her loyal readers if I should have perhaps protected my “fellow ne’er-do-well,” my high school “partner in crime,” protected him with my silence. Clumping criminals like an inferior race. Give me a fucking break.

Which gets me around, though, to my code and the code-less around me. Now Dr. Freud in his penthouse office here (overlooking the chain-link, razor-wired grandeur), a suite full of taxpayer-endowed plants and numbered-lithograph Rorschachs on the walls, he tells me that I shouldn’t be concerned with what other people think. Which to a large degree I’m not, if those others would just let me alone. But they won’t. Not him, not the lawyers, not the picketers outside, not the newspaper writers with their screaming headlines of indignation, “Crime Pays in Bynum.” Nor does my own family, nor Candy’s. Nobody seems to have the tiniest understanding of my situation, yet they won’t just let me take my few bucks and hopes for a new life and head to Idaho. So I’m appealing, I guess, for a little understanding. What’s so funny?

In the interest of fairness (one of the prime values in my code, along with trueness to oneself), let me to the best of my knowledge present a few of my detractors—

The judge: Hating his job the day he had to rule in my favor, that there was nothing in the reward offer that prevented me, a criminal, from getting paid. (Law enforcement officers pay off informants every day, my lawyer pointed out.)

My lawyer: Who told that columnist he rued the day he passed the Bar, that he’d one day be defending the likes of me, but adding that he was defending the Constitution, “even when it protects the rights of vermin”; such a crock, from a guy who snorts coke, slugs his kids, and has to weasle himself out of a drunk driving arrest once a year.

The columnist: Who champions the just cause, condemns, say, animal testing, pays a grand for a purebred-AKC-registered, when they put down a dozen a week at the pound; who condemns alcoholics and addicts but couldn’t live without her sleep aids and back spasm medications (sore, no doubt, from the crosses she bears).

And all the rest of them, who condemn me while they fill out the insurance claims for their stuff, calling that Cracker Jack broach a priceless heirloom and that handsaw a $200 Makita. Those who take two newspapers from the box for only one quarter, who pitch their beer cans and cigarette butts, not to mention their washers and stoves, by the roadside, who pass their grudges on like chain letters (while maintaining a crisp copy for themselves).

And forgotten in all this: this lynch-mob after me has forgotten Pinky. Pitiful, unchangeable Pinky, who blew away an old friend and probably laughed. Who will get thirty years and serve maybe six, who will be out before you’ve gotten your own shoplifting kids out of the fifth grade. Who’s got a mean streak wide as I-95. But who won’t be in Idaho, I bet.

In grade school, we used to call our town “Buy-none,” and the group of us—my brother and me, Candy, Pinky, Jerry (who later became a cop, ha!), and Cal who moved away before high school—had a pact to pay for as little as possible. Candy (his real name was George Herman, named for the Babe himself, and like him in some ways) used to steal mostly sweets, chocolate bars usually, gum, little stuff. It’s amazing he ever got the job at Key-mart, where when he died he was standing behind the counter munching peanut M&Ms and reading the letters in Penthouse. (My brother, who wasn’t there of course—there were no witnesses—told me this, and said he heard it from Jerry, who heard it from a cop friend who was first to the scene. Blood and M&Ms and Candy slumped over the counter, a hand on a glossy page that began, “I never thought I’d be writing your magazine, but . . .”) Candy used to lift stuff from the Key-mart all the time, magazines and beers and motor oil, would sell it at discount prices around town, and then tell his manager about young shoplifters, whom he could describe quite well from his own experience. “Shrinkage,” that was the retail term for the loss; Candy was responsible for a great deal of shrinkage in his twenty-seven years.

My brother and Cal and Pinky used to go for bigger stuff, for baseball gloves from the big discount store at the shopping center, chicken and burgers from the cafeteria-style diner at the mall, things they stuffed in their jackets. I was very selective even back then, taking only from those I had some score to settle with. I worked at a dry cleaner’s for a time—when I was thirteen and fourteen. I’ve always worked. And people used to come in demanding service, pounding the counter bell, pointing to spots and wrinkles, demanding one-hour service in their busier, more-important-than-others’ lives. Telling me, “Kid, let me talk to your boss,” when I was doing most of the work while he played golf.

People put their addresses on the cleaning receipts, and I’d go to their houses later and grab a lawn chair or a couple of their pink flamingos, never keeping the stuff but arranging it neatly, like the ensembles in furniture showrooms, in the woods at the dead end of our street. If the people worked in stores, I’d go there and take something. Sometimes I’d enter their houses through an open window or a screened porch door, walk around in their cool, dark homes while they were working. I’d assess their belongings and then grab something small but meaningful. Something they’d later ask their wives, “Hey, did you do something with my fountain pen?” And later on, when I started taking stuff I’d sell or pawn, I’d only lift stuff I knew was insured. TVs and stereos were easy, computers sometimes (I’d always leave the disks), golf clubs and power tools from garages. It was remarkably easy, really.

In later years, sometimes I’d follow people home, someone who cut me off in traffic, thoughtless folks I saw pitch litter out their car windows. When I worked in restaurants, I’d note the names from credit cards of patrons who stiffed me or treated me like a servant, so superior were they. I could usually find their addresses in the phone book. Simple. Maybe when their stuff turned up missing, they might have pondered the possible connection, the one I’d made.

The shrink here tells me my emotional growth was stunted about the time I left off working at the dry cleaner’s all those years ago. Dr. Freud tells me that when my friends grew up, and grew out of the thieving stage a lot of kids go through, that I graduated to higher-ticket items while they moved on to the adult world of responsibility. I ask him about Candy, a petty thief who’s dead, about Jerry who can’t pay his mortgage, who gets a few bucks a month to let gambling go on all over town, whose wife cheats with one of his neighbors. About Pinky, or his dad, a tax attorney who finds every client a loophole. He says I’m incapable of real friendship or a serious relationship, because I never learned how to take responsibility, and that I don’t know my identity. I tell him that’s what I’m doing here, is taking responsibility, and pondering who I am. And as for emotional growth, I feel things. I feel plenty, I tell him.

One of my last days here, maybe my last spinning the lathe. Maybe I’ll buy myself one with the reward money, and set it up in my shack in Idaho, and make the most beautiful furniture you ever saw. Tables of oak and elm and ash—I must’ve told you, I believe in wood; it’s absolutely true to itself—cabinets of knotty pine and cedar, rockers maybe of birch, something you don’t see around here. What I hate is that particle-board furniture that I see in everybody’s houses. The bookshelves and cabinets and tables with the plastic wood-grain veneer, it’s everywhere. Get it wet and it bubbles and peels like sunburned skin. So goddamned phony. We all are, I tell the shrink. I am ersatz. And you can print that in your column.


LATIN FOR PONDER earned Second Place in the 2008 Competition.


Gregg Cusick wrote his first real story, about “Nag, the Horse,” when he was nine. Some years later, in 1990, he received an MA in English-Creative Writing from North Carolina State University. His stories have appeared in Chelsea, The Crescent Review, Alligator Juniper, the Raleigh News & Observer, The Mochila Review, and elsewhere. He tutors literacy and tends bar in Durham, NC.