Back to Twelfth Street

by Dylan Gilbert
He walked along the street at twilight, West Twelfth, lined with charming brownstones, a pocket of quiet in the chaos of Greenwich Village, a street he had walked since childhood, yet now it was unrecognizable, alien.  He passed a lady, pretty and Asian, with a device in her ear.  She spoke into the air, her face smiling and radiant, her voice animated.  A guy across the street talked into a sliver of metal on his cheek.  When he got to the corner at Seventh Avenue, he noticed a half dozen more pedestrians yakking into cell phones.  It was Ray Bradbury, not the block he had grown up on.

The brownstones had a feeling of familiarity in his joints, but he couldn't recognize individual buildings where friends had lived, like Marco and Ruthie.  The buildings seemed monotonous.  Not separate but merged into a frightening oneness.  

He stood in front of the third brownstone on the right from Seventh Avenue because maybe it was Ruthie's apartment.  But she could have been the third on the right from Sixth Avenue.  He studied the building, straining to find a picture of Ruthie's place in his dried out brain.  He saw himself and Ruthie, sitting on the stoop, passing a smoke, giggling, but maybe not at this building.  He remembered it smaller, the edges softer, the stairway not as steep.

And even if it was the right place, what would he say?  "Hi, Mrs. Shimski, remember me, Ruthie's friend who went to prison eleven years ago.  The thought of having to look at her—answer questions, tell her about jail—twisted his intestines into knots.  He couldn't talk to people anymore, not on the outside.  They looked at him deeply, and their faces were gentle, and they asked, always asked what was unanswerable.  How are you?  How was it in there?  What are you up to now?

Those questions were the same as looking at the infinite brownstones, watching people talk on their cell phones, hearing about this thing called Facebook.  He strained and fought to place them and understand them, but he had nothing, just angst and brain-twist.

What he knew was closed rooms with steel doors, blue-suited guards with side arms, murderers and rapists with prison muscles and prison tattoos, Bloods, Latin kings, Arian Brotherhood, stuffing layers of newspaper under his shirt for rec in case someone tried to stab him, scraping a piece of tin can against the cement floor every night till it was a fine point.  He knew violence, brutality, mayhem.

On his second day he was sitting in the cafeteria for dinner, gulping down a soggy burger,  when he saw a yellow blur whip past him—an inmate swinging a mop bucket, cracking the guy next to him in the skull.  He jumped up as his neighbor collapsed to the floor, his attacker kicking him with savage blows to the ribs and face.  A mob from the other table rushed the scene, dozens of giant men pounded, choked, kicked and tore at each others' faces.  Grunts, groans, enraged cries filled the air.  Blood splattered.  Guards screamed, shots were fired.  He curled in a ball under the table, trembling in a puddle of hot piss.

For the next four or five months the terror was chronic, his heart surging, sending panic chemicals into his body a dozen times a day—a crazy bull-headed dude walking in his direction, his cell mate talking to himself, the lights going out for the night, the whites telling him to join them, getting woken up by a new guy wailing in his cell, taking showers, eating meals, going to rec.  Eventually the terror burned his body out, the circuits fried, ruptured—that's when something in him floated away, above the prison walls and razor wire.  And then there was just monotony and rot.  He became a piece of meat that ate and shit and slept and no more.

Then he was freed, and waited to feel again, to taste a meal, to hear music, to allow someone's words or eyes entry.  But it hadn't happened.

He looked up at the brownstone and knew it was Ruthie's.  He saw them galloping down the steps, playful and carefree, out into the village.

He thought to ring the bell.  Her mom would answer; Ruthie was probably long gone—done with college, married, maybe kids.  He pictured her mom, plump and white-haired, her cheeks in a wide smile, eyes crinkled with joy at seeing him.  She was always good to him, even when he started running wild and drifting away from Ruthie and the quiet neighborhood.  She used to try to get him back, away from the drugs and hoodlums and the crazed lifestyle he had adopted.  She tried even harder than his own parents.   If he knocked, he imagined she would look at him and cry his name—Benton!  She would wrap him in her arms and hug him tight to her pillow-like bosom.

His heart sped up and his bowels weakened like he had diarrhea.  He knew she would hug him.  She always used to.  His skin felt cold and damp, his breath shallow.  He clutched the iron hand rail to support himself and dropped his head, locking his gaze on a faint crack on the edge of the bottom step.

He spun around and walked back to his dad's, where he had a mattress in a large closet, where he could stay closed in and safe.
Dylan Gilbert's fiction has appeared in The Westchester Review, Slow Trains, Pearl, and Word Riot, among others, and he was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He can be found online at http://dylansstories.weebly.com

© 2012, Dylan Gilbert