Read A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden Online

Authors: Stephen Reid

Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (14 page)

Finally when we had all of my participles redangled and infinitives unsplit, the lawyers moved in. They slashed and burned anything that resembled libel, truth, or an interesting sentence. The smoking remains were typeset into galleys. But when my publisher told me how many copies were being released, I said there were Italian wedding invitations that had bigger print runs.

I got an invitation to my own launch and couldn't go. My story was between covers but I was still behind bars. The parole board, instead of tripping over themselves to cut loose this literary lion, said I lacked insight. There were higher ideals at stake, they told me. I left the hearing with another year to think of some.

Meat was waiting in the hall. His lip hung when he learned I didn't make my ticket. But his mood brightened at mail call; he got a postcard from Mona. She was threatening to visit. To impress her he went to get a new tattoo.

I used the time to jot down a few ideas for a new book, which I'd begin as soon as the warden returned my typewriter. He had all the typewriters arrested last week after some serial killer had used one to start a fraudulent chain letter.

At lockdown, Meat flexed his bicep so I could read his new tack, BORN TO LOOSE, as I lay there wondering how to do another year. Hell, I could do it in a shoebox — it was enough time to get a first draft on a second novel. Of course, it might take a bit longer, writing with a seagull feather and transmission fluid, if the warden didn't give back the typewriters.

“Born to loose”? Sometimes it just works out that way.

T
HE
A
RT OF
D
YING IN
P
RISON

W
ITHOUT
M
Y
D
AUGHTER

A
S MY DAUGHTER DIVES DEEPER INTO
the whirlpool of her teenage years I often kid her that I must be the envy of other fathers. I am in prison and the razor wire keeps me safe. Under the watchful eyes of visiting room guards, our black humour is what we share best.

I have not been in the natural presence of my daughter since she was ten years old. We talk on the phone, write letters; our time in visits seems all too fleeting, never long enough to get down to the ground of what really hurts her out there in the real world. Sitting at right angles under revolving cameras is too strained and artificial a setting in which to untangle the confusion and conflicts. We have our occasional heart to heart but mostly we make small talk, an unacknowledged pact not to disturb much below the surface. Sophie knows, with the clarity of a fourteen-year-old, that I can only go to those places where she lives in the abstract. I see how fiercely she wants to shield me from her burdens: it is her way of loving me now, protecting me as if I were the child.

I was in the delivery room when she emerged into this world, saw how wide her liquid eyes opened for the first time. That morning an unbreakable filament of love connected us forever.

In the ensuing months I warmed her formulas and mashed her carrots. I changed a thousand nappies. I watched her learn to crawl, then stand for the first time. I heard the first words she ever uttered: “More!” I pushed her in strollers, dozed with her glued to my chest like a pygmy tree frog, and buckled her into car seats to take her everywhere I went.

I read
Goodnight Moon
until she knew where to spy the mouse on each page. We teeter-tottered in every park. We survived the stages where she wouldn't be caught wearing clothes in public, where it was lullabies on demand until I fell into a dreamy sleep beside her, and her obsession with hog-tying her nanny to the patio chairs.

I slid coins from the tooth fairy under her pillow, hid chocolate bunnies in the garden at Easter, drank the brandy and ate the Mediterranean dip she left every Christmas Eve for Santa. I drove to swim lessons and jazz-tap and ballet classes, patched bicycle tires, placed kisses on her bruises and bandages on her knees, slept beside her when she was sick, on a cot in the Children's Hospital. I piggybacked her through rain forests, built her a castle in the sand on Haida Gwaii, and built her an even bigger one when the first washed away. When my daughter grew older we fished our quota of dorado in Mexico and waltzed in a Cuban ballroom during a wild lightning storm.

Ever since I can remember Sophie has made me cards for Father's Day. She decorated them with buttons, tiny seashells, or bits of macaroni painted in splashy colours. Now that she is older she has dispensed with the decorations, but the cards haven't stopped and the messages inside haven't changed. We remain bound to one another in as primal a way as any parent and child, by our experiences, our love, and our DNA.

In 1999, the dragon that has haunted my entire life reared its fearsome head again. Within months I was living with a monster heroin and cocaine habit. Crazed and desperate, seeing no way out, I lit my life on fire. I harbour no romantic notions of what took place, only the sad admission that I robbed a bank and shot at a motorcycle cop, barely missing a woman bystander. Of all the people harmed that day Sophie remains my most enduring reminder of an innocent victim.

The day after my arrest my wife found Sophie in her room absorbed in crafting a Father's Day card, as if by this deliberate act she could bring everything back to the way it had been. But before she finished she looked up at her mother and cried, “He's not coming home is he?” Then threw herself on the bed, and sobbed her grief away.

We are about to observe our eighth straight Father's Day in prison. When I first told Sophie I would be eligible for parole on her graduation day, she seemed consoled. Then I realized she thought I meant graduation that year, which was less than three weeks away. Sophie was in Grade five, and high school must have been unimaginable.

Early in my bit I pondered the idea of taking myself off the count. A psychiatrist, one for whom I have a great deal of respect, was conducting a pretrial assessment, and saw through to my private thoughts. “This isn't about you anymore,” he told me. “You've had your life, you're going to prison for a long time. This is about a ten-year-old girl. You have to show her that no matter how badly you screw up your life, you can survive, maybe even find redemption. That is the one gift you have left to give.”

I began to lay a lot of hard bricks, to rise out of my addiction, up from that pit where only the self matters. I started to reclaim the heart-place of a parent, re-entered the realm of selflessness in the small and ordinary ways.

There are days when the memory of those little button and macaroni cards fill me with a terrible caring and I am overwhelmed with the numbing regret of it all. Then my name is called for a visit. Though Sophie has learned to live with the fact her life has been diminished in some ways, her love is relentless: it jumps over the razor wire. I go back to my cell, lifted by the knowledge that everything she needs is already there inside her.

T
HE
A
RT OF
D
YING IN
P
RISON

H
IS LAST LETTER WAS LESS THAN HALF A PAGE
— a small piece of yellow paper, more of a Post-it note, really. The hand-written words closed in on themselves the way his life was closing in on him now. He was weakened as much from his knowledge of the inevitable as from the disease.

I longed for his letters of old, those bulging envelopes, fifteen and twenty page raves on anything from “the amazing salad bar here at Leavenworth” to the joys of “running an eight-minute mile! Before chow line!”

After the diagnosis he wrote heroically, about beating this thing, how he was responding to the chemo, but every passing month the envelopes grew thinner. Then they became more infrequent. It was as if he were slipping away from me one page at a time. In this, his final kite before falling into a coma, the grit, even the imagination, was gone from him. He knew he wasn't going to throw some knotted sheets over the wall or tunnel his way out of this one. The letter ended with, “We've had a life haven't we. God bless. Your friend . . . , ”

The first time I laid eyes on him I was young, just turned three times seven, and was holed up in a basement suite in Ottawa fresh off a prison break. The unofficial mayor of the local underworld had come to take the measure of the new kid in town. Pat's strong suit was charm and he carried it off with the smile of a little boy and the manicured look of a Las Vegas pit boss. When he peeled me off some “pocket money” from a thick roll of hundreds I knew then and there that this was a guy I wanted to get busy with. When he mentioned a “piece of work you might be interested in” I leapt at the offer.

Pat introduced me to the big leagues. Within months we had robbed millions in cash, jewellery, and gold bullion. He was usually having tea with his mother or driving his son to hockey games while I was doing the robberies. Our m.o. was established. Pat planned and I carried out the work. It was a perfect arrangement. Like Jack Spratt and his wife we licked a lot of platters clean.

Over the years we became known as The Stopwatch Gang, outlaws and fugitives. We robbed banks and armoured cars from Ottawa to San Diego to St Petersburg and back again. Later, there were others who entered into the crew with names like Skywalker, French Danny and French Gilles, The Iceman, and chiefly a little fellow named The Ghost. These were guys, with the exception of The Ghost, who parachuted in for a particular score, then left again. But Pat and I remained together. Between the two of us we have notched seven escapes, robbed hundreds of banks, and served sentences so long they looked like telephone numbers.

Throughout, we have remained bonded by deed, consequence, nature, and friendship. His last letter, which left North Carolina in a canvas mailbag marked US Bureau of Prisons, arrived in a canvas mail bag stamped Canada Corrections. Our friendship, often separated by iron bars, always found its way through the spaces between.

I'm not sure if anyone can truly know another human being but I knew Pat in ways that friends, girlfriends, priests, policemen, cell mates, bosses, even brothers, sisters, wives, or children, never could.

Pat was a man of a thousand-and-one faces. A natural-born con artist, he possessed an uncanny ability to sense whatever he, or you, needed him to be. I've watched him take a name off a tombstone and breathe life back into the long-buried deceased. He didn't just assume the guy's driver's licence and social security number, he exhumed the persona. Pat could invent a history, then inhabit an alias so consistently that it became somehow more real than the flesh. Yet, in all the roles he played, he never lost who he was in the act of who he wasn't.

As prisoners, we put on masks for the same reason people put on survival suits. As fugitives, we changed identities the way most people change their socks. New town, new history, new habits, values, and beliefs. Because I helped to guild the puppet personas I got to know the man behind the strings.

I knew Pat when he smoked cigars and heaped sour cream on his baked potato. I knew him when he ate raw carrots and ran five miles a day. I knew him as a Democrat and as a Republican, as Catholic, agnostic and Southern Methodist. I knew him when he liked black people and I knew him when he pretended not to; when he wore white shoes and pressed the pedal to the metal of a beige Cadillac, or when he wore horn rimmed glasses and drove a Volvo station wagon under the posted speed limit

Somewhere up the middle of all our tomfoolery a truth ran through that emerged time and again, despite our well-constructed roles. We were human. There were contradictions. I got to see Pat when he was kind and generous and humble to circumstance. I've witnessed him being churlish and insufferable. I've seen him act bravely and heroically, and I've looked on sadly when his nerve failed him. I've known him selfless as a monk and selfish as a two-year-old; honourable and less than honourable. He has been disingenuous to my face and honest behind my back. He has demonstrated a loyalty beyond the capacity of most human beings, yet betrayed me in the most petty of ways.

The only reason any of these things even bear saying now is that Pat saw those facets of me, too. Disappointment, as much as loyalty, defined our friendship. He went on being my friend. He punctured the piety of my expectations. He taught me that friendship is not built from ideals. Most relationships in the underworld, although at times intensely sentimental, seldom go deeper than camaraderie. Maybe it was because our lives were played in such high dramatic notes that there was no time for judgement and sourness to congeal. Perhaps because our lives depended so much, and so often, on instinct and intuition we were less dependent upon the construct of personality. Or maybe it was just our sense of heehaw, laughing at ourselves above all else. Whatever the reasons, our relationship endured and deepened, sometimes because of, sometimes in spite of, ourselves.

In the beginning Pat was my mentor. He taught me about good wine, musicals, and how not to think in nickels and dimes. By the time I was thirty, and Pat thirty-eight, he was as much student as teacher. I taught him the joys of cocaine, the language of poets, and some on-the-job training — how to throw his first bank up in the air.

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