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Property is theft. Property is liberty.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865)
Geese and ducks flew over the gun towers and barbed-wire fences, the crumbling walls and the aging buildings of San Quentin State Prison, the flagship of California's penal system set on the Marin County shoreline. Six hundred and forty-seven men awaited execution on its death row. The purpling head of Mount Tamalpais and the Golden Gate Bridge's spires were a few miles to the south. The oil refineries in Richmond, and the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco twinkled in the horizon.
It was a sweltering December morning in 2005. A heat wave had been holding San Quentin captive for two weeks. The water in the San Francisco Bay was calm and green. Cotton candy tendrils of fog decorated the bald and brown Marin hills. Dozens of black birds flitted over the pen's exercise yards. Stanley Williams, the cofounder of the Crips gang from south central Los Angeles, had just been executed by lethal injection. Williams was a Nobel Prize nominee and the author of children's books. His dying took thirty-six minutes and was witnessed by forty people.
In the prison it was hot enough to boil an egg. Steam
rose from the catwalks in the South Cell House. Lighting flickered on and off.
Robert Grogan sat on the lower bunk in his cell, waiting for the guards to come and fetch him. A beam of light from the tier snaked in between the cage's black steel bars and haloed his sweaty, tired face. In a pillowcase at his feet were a single pair of socks, a toothbrush, a safety razor, and a carton of Newport cigarettes. These were all his worldly possessions. He was getting paroled today and going home. Just in time for Christmas.
Slatts Calhoun was asleep in the upper bunk with his brawny arms wrapped around a blue teddy bear. The doll's stuffing had leaked all over the covers. An unlit spliff packed with angel dust rested on a tinfoil ashtray on the pillow. The Dexter Gordon tune “For Regulars Only” vibrated through the walls from a radio in the adjacent cage.
At first, Robert's romance with Slatts had been casual. It was just a jailhouse fling. Convicts had them continuously. It was no big deal. What Robert hadn't counted on was falling in love with the guy. It made returning to the world a nightmare. A prison relationship caused trouble in the streets. Folks were uptight about these things.
That wasn't even the half of it. Robert would have to tell his wife about Slatts. He hadn't gotten around to doing it yet even though the affair had been going on for three yearsâever since he got to Quentin.
The times she came to visit him in the pen, he never said a word about Slatts. That would have been stupid. Sheer suicide. Only a kamikaze would've done that. It was best to keep things separate. Him and the old lady had other shit to discuss anyway. What he was going to do for
a job when he got out, all that crazy stuff. His gig with Slatts was top secret, highly classified. The icing on the cake was that Slatts had a release date in two weeks. The coincidence was a miracle.
Robert and Slatts would be reunited for Christmas.
The less Harriet knew, the healthier it was for everybody.
The preceding evening, a beef had gone down in the Adjustment Center between members of the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerrilla Family. Three guys got stabbed, and another fellow took a sprinkling of bird-shot in the face when the guards moved in. Then a fracas erupted in the general population between the NorteÃ±os and the Mexican Mafia. A con was carted off to the doctor with a shiv in his neck.
On top of everything, Slatts had a temper tantrum and wrecked their cell. Robert didn't care for that. The cage looked like a tornado had done a number on it. The floor was carpeted with Marlboro fags, a William Faulkner paperback novel, cornflakes, porno magazines, rolls of unwound toilet paper, candy bars, underwear, and condoms.
After tidying up the mess Slatts cuddled with Robert on the top bunk and complained. “You'll forget me when you get paroled, dude.”
Robert's scarred face was conveniently hidden in the shadows. He had on clean boxer shorts and nothing else. His tattoos were indigo against his fish-white skin. Keeping his poise wasn't easy. Not when the temperature in the cellblock was melting his brain. And not when Slatts was hurting. Aware that his lover was feeling shaky, and skilled in the languages of affection and lying, Robert knew just what to say. “That's bullshit.”
“The hell it is. You're gonna drop me.”
“Yeah, right.” Slatts's aquamarine eyes were salted with tears and pink with sadness. He wiped his nose and pouted. Robert was a double-crosser. He could talk a goddamn blue streak and not mean a word of it. Which was part of his ineffable charm. “You'll ditch my ass the second you get out of here.”
“You're dead wrong, dork. Why in the fuck would I want to do that?”
“Because.” Slatts regarded Robert as if he were a moron. The answer was elementary physics. Their love life had been conducted in a 4 Â½ x 11 foot cell. “You'll be out there and I'll be in San Quentin. We might as well be in separate galaxies.”
“Hold on.” Robert was stern. “Let me explain something to you.”
“I don't want to fucking hear it. You always lie.”
“No, I don't.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Just listen to me. I get out and go home to San Francisco, and make things ready for Christmas. I meet with my parole officer. I tell the fool I'm all chilled out. She'll get no static. From now on, I'm cool.”
Slatts wasn't impressed. “What's that got to do with me?”
“Then I square shit with my old lady. I let Harriet know that when you get paroled, you're coming to stay with us.”
“For sure? You make it sound so simple.”
“Of course it's simple. There's nothing to it.”
“Where will we live? I ain't staying at a homeless shelter.”
“We'll have a penthouse in a swanky neighborhood. Maybe in Pacific Heights.” Robert spoke as if he was narrating something biblical. His young, worn visage had the sheen of rapture. He lied through his teeth with the absolute certainty of a religious zealot. “The pad will have great furniture. Skylights. Gourmet food. Partying all the time. Everything will be paradise.”
Paradise sounded uptown to Slatts. Where people paid a lot of rent. Drove fancy cars. Wore designer clothes. Ate in expensive vegetarian restaurants. Like he cared. He wasn't interested. His ambitions were more modest. He just wanted someone to watch out for him. Living in a flat and eating at McDonald'sâthat was good enough for Slatts. But he was afraid Robert's scheme was a pipe dream. “Robert?”
“I don't like Christmas.”
“Me neither, dude, but this is going to be a fantastic Christmas. Better than any fairy tale.”
“You swear we'll be together?”
“Always.” Robert was paternal. “C'mon, lighten up, daddy loves you.”
The fires of insecurity burned deep in Slatts and passive manipulation was his second nature. It was congenital. He was gifted at it. Robert was aware of his talents and soothed him with the healing oils of hype. “I'll take care of everything. Money and all that shit. When you get out, man, we'll live like kings.”
“How you gonna do that? You have a magic wand?” In his own primal way, Slatts saw the limits to Robert's strategy. Certain factors were being left out of the equation. The man was constructing a house with no roof.
Slatts spiced his doubts with a grain of truth. “It doesn't make sense.”
“Won't your wife object to me being around? You haven't been with her in what, three years? She'll want to be alone with you. She won't want me hanging around.” Slatts was gaining momentum. The palisade of his unlined forehead was bejeweled with sweat. “How's she going to be mellow about you and me? Won't she get jealous?”
A collage of photographs was taped to the wall behind the bunk bed. There was a color snapshot of Robert with Harriet at Baker Beach before he got jailed. The tide was out. Beds of seaweed mingled with derelict car tires in the hepatitis-yellow surf. The Golden Gate Bridge was in the backdrop. Harriet had on a polka-dot string bikini. He was in plain white corduroy shorts. The sun was in their faces, making them appear prehistoric, centuries old.
Then there was a snapshot of Robert and Slatts in the exercise yard on a windy day. Robert was in sweats and a black wife beater. Slatts had a regulation Fu-Manchu gangster mustache and a blue bandanna on his head. A pair of mirrored shades dominated his stony face. His short hair was greased straight back. He and Robert were holding hands.
“Don't be stupid. My wife isn't the jealous type. Never has been. She can handle the extra company.”
“Fuck, yeah. Just relax. Things are gonna be great.”
“You're insane. She'll hate this.”
“No, she won't.”
A herd of pimples roamed Robert's jaw line. A lop-sided
beard grazed on his chin. His ribs stuck out like barrel staves. He had arthritis in his right kneecap. The misspelled name of a former girlfriend was inked on his chest.
He nuzzled Slatts and got a noseful of shampoo. The soap smelled no better than a whorehouse. “Millions of guys like you and me come out of the joint every day,” he argued. “They have to go somewhere. So they stay with their friends and relatives. That's what we'll be doing. My wife will understand us. Harriet is an ace. She's a loving woman and supportive of everything I do.”
Slatts was dubious. “You swear?”
“I swear. Now keep your socks on. We'll be together for the holidays.”