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Sample of "Thin Places" by Diane Owens Prettyman


Chapter One

Polunsky Unit, Huntsville, Texas

The way I see it, it's the people you least expect, the people the rest of the world walk right by, maybe even turn away from, who know about the meaning of life, and by that I mean the world beyond this one and all those strings that connect us to it. I know now that Calvery was one of those people.

I was an addict and a liar, but Calvery entrusted me with his dying wish. Me. A guy so lost a bloodhound couldn't find me. At the time, I thought he was nuts. Now, I think maybe the Divine did have something to do with it.

While doing time for one too many parole violations, all drug offenses, I mopped floors all over Polunsky, including death row. Each time I headed over there, good ol' Spud, the Boss responsible for setting me up with my job as porter, gave me a cursory pat down. I could have packed a blade in my sock, green money in my shoe and a cell phone in my boxers, but we both knew I wasn't that kind of convict. What I did was mule sugar.

Calvery lived on the row, and we'd become friends. For the past year, I had slipped him a pound of sugar every couple of weeks. It took eight cups to make a gallon of wine. In return, he always gifted me some of his homemade wine. This ended up a little risky for me, but in his situation, I figured he deserved a little hooch to wash down his bread and beans. He bought his fruit juice in the commissary just like the rest of us, but he needed sugar to ferment the juice into wine. To get sugar, you needed to know someone who worked in the kitchen. Being a porter, I had connections. It was easy enough for me to do him the favor of dropping a pound of sugar in his bean slot every now and then.

When I reached Calvery's cell, his house as we called it, I pushed my trashcan up close. He dropped a plastic Sunkist bottle full of his wine into the trash. I covered it with the Houston Chronicle and started to slide some sugar through the slot. Talking to death row inmates was forbidden, smuggling sugar, even more serious, so even though Spud seemed to like me, I kept everything on the down low. First and foremost, I wanted to get out of this place.

"I won't be needing that," Calvery said. He stood behind the braided wires of his tiny window. I never got to see his face in plain view, but no matter when I saw him, his eyes beamed at me beneath raised eyebrows. In short, he always seemed lit. He lifted a cup to the window and said, "I got plenty to last me."

This struck me as a strange thing to say given our arrangement. "You attending AA meetings?"

But Calvery only smiled and said, "This is it."

"What're you talking about?"

"Tomorrow's my last day."

I knew this was inevitable, but we never talked about it. Why couldn't this happen after my release? I looked stunned, I suspect. Shouldn't I have felt something? But with the deadly heat of summer stuck to my skin and my teeth clamped tight, I felt empty as a well in August. "I can't believe it."

"It's true," he said. "How would you say it? I'm starting my descent." After his comment, he paused waiting for his audience of one to laugh. Calvery had always liked my sayings and tried them on whenever he had a chance. When I just stood there mute and tight-lipped, Calvery added, "I'm in my final approach."

"Stop." I raised my voice. What do you say; what could I say?

"I can see the runway."

"Stop it, I said." I glared at him, and if a three-inch, steel-reinforced door hadn't separated us, my hands would have been on his shoulders, shaking him, telling him to shut up. "It's not funny."

He put a finger to his mouth and hushed me in the same fatherly way I used to comfort Lacy, my daughter. That got me to thinking about Lacy. We used to walk along Galveston beach with her lime-green bucket and shovel until we found a spot to dig and watch for freighters entering the ship channel. I liked the shells; she liked the freighters. Once she found a sand dollar the size of a dime, perfect as a button. I still have it stowed away in my treasure box. One day I will give it to Lacy, maybe put it in glass and hang it on a gold chain.

Calvery would never see his little girl again. What little hope I had for the future depended on Brooke and Lacy. I had nothing to give Calvery except pity, a listening ear, and an honest look in the eyes. That day, while we locked eyes in that tier with its shiny floors and blinding white lights and inmates shouting at each other like men with nothing to lose, with my mouth dropped open in shock, and the look of happiness on his face--a look even the certainty of death didn't chase away--I think maybe something passed between us.

"You promised you'd talk to Chloe, Finn," he said. "Tell her I'm innocent."

I had promised this about a year ago because Calvery couldn't tell her himself. His family didn't want anything to do with him, and he didn't want anyone to know Chloe existed. That meant Calvery was doing the hardest kind of sentence--time with no visitation.

Calvery asked me because he figured no one could connect me to him. I was a safe bet. I made the promise to Calvery thinking I'd never have to make good on it--not that I'm the kind of guy that doesn't keep his word--I just figured a guy doesn't really expect you to follow up on something like that.

"I guess I never thought--."

"They'd execute me?" Calvery laughed. He ran his fingers through his grizzled black hair.

For the last two years, I had selfishly repressed the idea of his impending death. He refused to be bothered by it; I followed suit. But now, the day had come, and I would have to make good on my promise.

"You forget, I've got a wife and daughter," I said, keeping my eyes off him.

"They won't suspect you. You don't have any connection to me."

"There's money in it for you." Behind the wire, Calvery looked every bit the priest in a confessional. "When you see her, ask her where her grandfather was buried."

"And?"

"That will lead you to the treasure."

Calvery always talked about the treasure, and I indulged him. I knew better than to scoff at a dying man's fantasy. But I didn't believe a word of it. If there were a treasure, surely Calvery wouldn't have ended up on death row.

"I'm not expecting a treasure," I said. Then I added, "Thanks anyhow," because I might have sounded a little dismissive.

"Just the same, you'll find it. I know you will."

"I don't get you," I said. "You've got a good attitude for someone in your position."

"I feel like I'm on the last leg of a long road trip and about to get home to a nice meal, a warm bed and a beautiful wife," he said. "Besides, I know that God sent you to help me. I'm sure of it."

"God wouldn't send me to the mailbox." I tapped the mop bucket with the toe of my shoe.

Any other guy talking like that I'd think he was crazy. But over the last couple years, I had learned Calvery knew the secret to survival, and it wasn't the homemade wine.

"The truth is always unbelievable."

That made sense to me. All the big moments of my life, marrying Brooke, seeing Lacy in her arms, were unbelievable. I turned it over in my mind until across the hall an inmate screamed and startled me. I over-balanced and ended up with the mop handle stabbing my throat. "Poor guy's a taco short of a Mexican plate."

"Solitude does strange things to a man. When it's just you and your soul, you better be friends, " Calvery said.

"I know about that, I guess."

"Look in here." He thumped on his chest.

"I don't imagine I'll find my soul there, either. Not in this godforsaken place," I said, looking down the hall toward the way out.

"You'd be surprised at the places God turns up."

Behind the wire, Calvery's face glowed like a pastor's on Easter Sunday. Was he crazy, or was there something real and true inside him that kept him going? I wasn't sure which answer frightened me more.

Sure as I am here to tell this story, it was the fear of missing out on what Calvery had inside that stopped me from picking up my mop bucket and hoofing it to the guard station. And I counted Calvery as my friend. The number had dwindled over the years, drugs and jail do that to you, and I'd found myself in the regrettable position of having only three--my cellmate, aka Cellie, my pal Jacob in Galveston, and a death row inmate.

Down the hall, a gate rammed into place, the metal clanging like a rear-end collision in downtown Houston. Spud headed toward me. Our conversation had gone on a little too long. I shoved the mop against the baseboard and scrubbed, nonchalently edging away from Calvery's cage. When Spud was in ear shot, I started whistling "Thirty Days in the Hole."

Spud looked over at Calvery, then at me. "Tully, you have a lot of space to cover."

"And I have miles to mop before I sleep, sir," I said, glancing at Calvery who grinned at my joke.

The bulk of Spud disappeared down the hallway. Calvery reached a few fingers through the wire. "She lives in Washington State, in a little town called Clam Harbor."

I put my hand against the wire. His nails were clean and short, his skin smooth and pale. As his fingers closed over mine, a warm charge of electricity pass across my palm and spread through me. The memory still gets to me. I will never forget it, nor the peaceful feeling that passed through me that day in the middle of Texas death row.

"All right then," I said.

"It was nice knowing you, Finn. Thanks for sharing the cup with me. I think this batch is my best ever." He nodded to the trashcan.

His voice sounded distant and garbled. I felt lousy, like I had just dropped off a dog to be put down. In a few minutes, I would be out of this hall, back in my cell, shooting the breeze with Cellie. In a few months, I would be back home in the arms of my wife, my little girl on my lap. Tomorrow Calvery Thomas would be dead.

"Stay cool." I moved my waving hand to my forehead and saluted him. It was a corny way to say goodbye. "See you…" My voice faltered before I could say, on the other side.

"Yes, that's right," Calvery said. "I'll see you in the thin places."

***

On the day of Calvery's execution, my cellmate, Jesús, a Catholic from South Texas, chalked our cinder block with the final touches of his latest Saint-of-the-Month--Joan of Arc. We had been through many saints over the last couple of years. I always looked forward to the next one.

Early on in my time, I had nicknamed Jesús, Cellie. I wasn't about to call anyone mortal Jesus, even if it was a common Mexican name and even if it was pronounced "Hey Soos." Cellie was doing ten years for smuggling a ton of smoke under a truckload of Rio Grande Valley Ruby Reds. He was on the last leg of his sentence.

It had been a few weeks since Cellie had shaved his head. His black hair stood straight up, giving his skull that prickly, nerdy-dude look of a football coach who wears beltless knit pants. I am fairly certain it was not the look Cellie was going for.

I wore my hair as long as they allowed me to, about four inches if I pushed it. With a little gel to slick it back, it looked as dark as Cellie's. He stood five-six to my six-two and kept in tip-top shape. So did I. Not much else to do here. Besides, it was a matter of survival if you wanted to make it through the inevitable fight-of-the-week. I was still skinny, though. If Cellie and I were dogs, he would be a pit bull, and I would be an underfed Great Dane.

For me, Calvery's last day drug on like a Sunday sermon. In fact, everyone seemed on edge, maybe even reflective. Showing respect for those about to be executed was part of our unwritten code--a code that included other universally accepted mores such as smashing on pedophiles and shunning anyone who would dare hurt or con the elderly.

As the execution hour approached, Polunsky geared up for the execution. At five-forty-five, the guards ordered a lockdown. The gates slammed shut, and along with them, the doors to our cells.

"This is it," I said. "You think they'll stay his execution?"

Cellie turned from his drawing and shook his head. "Lo siento."

"Sorry is the word for it all right." I stepped over to my bunk. When I pulled Calvery's wine from beneath my mattress, Cellie's face lit up. "This is the last of it," I said.

"It's too bad. His is always la mejor." Cellie thrust his cup my way.

The wine splashed into his cup. After inhaling a full nose of toilet water--all prison wine is fermented in the toilet tanks--I smelled a hint of oak and blackberry. Calvery was big on Oregon Pinot Noir and always tried to emulate it. I took a sip. For a moment, I thought I was on the outside at some fine steak place, chowing down on a T-Bone with Brooke and Lacy. Somehow, this time, by mixing just the right blend of dried cranberries and fruit juice, Calvery had managed to come up with a wine actually resembling an aged red. Cellie raised his glass to me. I gave him the thumbs up.

Cellie had a little black old school clock with bright red numbers that flipped over as the minutes passed. They hadn't sold those in the commissary for years. When it turned to six o'clock, The Unit quieted down from its usual roar. At least this tier full of no-accounts cared about Calvery's death. That was impressive.

At 6:01, Cellie brushed off his hands, sending a shroud of black dust into our cell, and stowed his chalk under his bunk.

I pictured Calvery sitting there, his arm strapped to a board, the blue-white glare of fluorescent bulbs blinding him, a needle stuck in a vein, as I had done so many times.

Cellie knelt before his altar--a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on one bulging bicep, a tattoo of a topless senorita on the other--praying for a man he had never met. Except for the tattoos, he looked like a bona fide saint.

I turned to the clock--6:04. Was this about the time Calvery said his last words to a sea of unsympathetic strangers? Was there even one friendly face to look at? His last words to me came to mind. See you in the thin places, Calvery had said.

The numbers of the clock flipped over with a sound like a tongue clicking. It was already 6:07. Downing my cup of wine, I wondered about Calvery's daughter and how she coped with all this. "It was a raw deal," I said. "Someone should stop it. He was a good guy. I know he was."

Cellie ripped his St. Christopher's medal from his neck and threw it at his icon of Mary. "It's God's will."

"Cheers to our friend," I said as I filled his cup.

He took it, and when the tension in his bicep released, he somehow passed it to me. He sipped the wine, then gulped it, and his features slowly softened and shriveled like a child's blow-up toy losing air.

It was 6:10. "My friend's dying." I said the words just to see if they sounded true. They didn't. A surge of panic and worthlessness flashed through me; I buried it with a deep breath, thinking of all the times I had come off heroin, thinking of the trouble I was in, knowing I had pissed off every person in my life that had ever given a shit about me.

With my head in my hands, I let things settle in my mind until I heard the snap of the clock again--6:11. Cellie crossed himself. It was too late, I was sure of it. Too damn late. I ran to the bars and yelled out, "Spud! Boss! Somebody!"

The tiers shouted back with a deafening chorus of profanity. And all the shit of my life came back to me. I was younger then, and jolted awake by the skidding of my Ford 150, the hard stop of the front end against a live oak, mesquite brambles scraping at the windows, Lacy howling from her car seat, the blackness of the night setting in on us--a darkness I've lived with ever since.

Just as the deplorable shame of my life elbowed its way toward me through the pitchy gloom, as I recalled the heart-broken look on my mother's face when she saw the police car pull into her drive, as I remembered the hate-filled eyes of Brooke when I walked past her in handcuffs, as I relived my stammering explanation to all of them, Mother, Brooke, little Lacy, trying to explain why I couldn't keep away from the heroin, why it meant more to me than living another day; just when I couldn't stand it any longer, the picture of Mother crying, of Brooke's disgust, and the mask of fear forming on Lacy's face, a warm breeze blew in from the tier. It brushed across my face, raised the hairs on my arms and left through the window carrying my vexation along with it. At the same time, a bell sounded. The pure tones poured through the bars on our window and vibrated in the superheated air until one after another the notes collected, one on top of the other, saturating our cell with a sweet noise that lifted me far away from this place, and now I wonder if somewhere a handful of bell ringers had pulled a quarter peal for Calvery.

When the chimes of the bells stopped, something like a hand, heavy and reassuring, patted me on the shoulder. I reached for it and felt nothing except an odd sense of serenity settling down in my chest. Across the room, Cellie sat on his bunk with his knees folded and the last cup of Calvery's wine between his palms.


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This page contains the first chapter of Thin Places by Diane Owens Prettyman as a sample. This sample has been published with permission from the author and/or publisher of Thin Places, whoever originally submitted the book for review.