From the Minutes of the 458,734th Meeting of the Intergalactic Exploration Society |
by Fred Russell

   At our last session we spoke in very general terms of the creatures who inhabited the dead planet called Earth 500,000 years ago. Our aim was to describe the social climate that prevailed there, particularly in the region known as the United States of America, which, owing to the peculiarities of its doomed society, throws everything pertaining to that planet into bold relief and makes it easier to understand why the civilization of the Earth came to an end. We noted that there were two forms of intelligent life there, designated Console I and Console II, the latter prevailing after a period of apparent coexistence, and a race of drones who served them, enslaved as a kind of domestic animal and organized into a hierarchy of "orders." These can be identified in the texts under their "medieval" nomenclatures, namely, "talkers" (oratores), "entertainers" (stultores), "businessmen" (mercatores et negotiatores), "warriors" (bellatores) and "workers" (laboratores). Each order was exploited by the consoles to further their aims and rewarded in accordance with a system that cannot be rationally explained at this point.
   The talkers and the stultores were the "aristocracy" of drone society, the mercatores clearly a kind of "middle class," with the exception of a small number of well-connected negotiatores, and the bellatores and laboratores the unfortunate "lower" class, though hardly more unfortunate than the members of the middle class in that the latter were controlled no less strictly than the former, albeit with a few more rewards thrown in "to sweeten the pot."
   The elevation of a drone from one order to another, though infrequent, was highly publicized, with the aim of creating the illusion that all drones could advance in this way. To foster this illusion, and keep the drones "glued to their seats," occasional competitions were organized in which a worker drone was chosen by "judges" to become an entertainer after demonstrating his ability to "sing songs." The judges were generally stultores who had become "talkers." Occasionally ordinary drones were allowed to vote for their favorite stultor, in much the same way as they voted for the producer consoles who would control them. The results of these competitions were announced with great fanfare after the general drone population was reminded to imbibe their pacifying beverages, lest their excitement exceed acceptable bounds. Worker drones could also be elevated in this manner and become stultors by demonstrating their prowess at hitting a ball with a stick or pretending to be a hero in the various "morality tales" worked up by the consoles to instruct the drones.
   Though it is not clear how and when the consoles established their primacy, it is in fact possible to reconstruct the history of the United States of America, however tentatively, through closer examination of these very same "morality tales," so prominently featured on the memory disks we have uncovered. While the aim of these tales was to instruct and pacify the drones, they incidentally offer fascinating glimpses into the origins of this society and its unspoken assumptions. Though genres vary, the central themes remain the same, most often depicting the triumph of the "hero," which allows the drone to live vicariously through a surrogate self and forget his sorry condition for a while. In these tales we are also able to observe the drone in various geographical and temporal settings and in his daily occupations. One of these settings is generally referred to as the Wild West and clearly belongs to a relatively early time when land was still being "grabbed" and the consoles were apparently just beginning the process of expropriating the country's resources. This is a "pre-industrial" age where drones were allotted "homesteads" that the consoles often stole from them. Sometimes the "hero" was a sheriff or marshal with a colorful "sidekick." Sometimes the sheriff or marshal was a villain himself, "in cahoots" with the landgrabbers, in which case he would not have a colorful sidekick. The "hero" might then be a "stranger" or "loner" with a mysterious past. He would inevitably fall in love with the beautiful and virginal daughter of one of the homesteaders, or perhaps with a buxom "widow" struggling to keep her farm going, in which case it would be made clear that the said widow had not interfaced in quite some time, so that for all practical purposes she could also be thought of as virginal, or at least starved for sex, which the hero would provide after a decent interval. It can easily be imagined how satisfying these spectacles must have been for the drones clustered around the consoles watching them and enjoying the snacks they had been instructed to purchase. The "hero" would also be depicted as not having interfaced for a while, if at all, being "pure" or bashful or nursing some terrible wound, his wife murdered by "Injuns" or even by the cronies of the villainous sheriff or marshal who did not have a colorful sidekick. In the ensuing land war the landgrabbers would at first have the upper hand. The hero might then sign on as a farmhand, being remote but respectful toward the virgin's father or the widow's uncle, always addressing his elders as "sir" and thereby establishing his credentials as someone who subscribed to cherished American values and was therefore worthy of being a hero. In the climactic shootout the hero would take on the landgrabber's "gang," who would be depicted falling off roofs and crashing through windows. The villainous landgrabber would be the last to get his, perhaps taking the virgin or widow hostage, perhaps handling her inappropriately to stimulate the sexual appetite of the drones gathered around the consoles with their mouths hanging open, which stimulation was most often achieved by allowing the drones to catch a glimpse of her long, bare leg or plump breast as she struggled against the villain, at which point the hero would put a bullet through his head.
   The myth of the hero was clearly the great myth of American life. The moral rectitude and sexual purity of the classic hero were ideals "whitewashing" the moral baseness and sexual impurity of the common drone. The solitariness and self-reliance of the classic hero embodied the drone's dream of freedom from the controls of society. The terrible wound that the hero often bore in his breast fed the drone's fantasies of healing love. The triumph of the hero against console-like types reflected the drone's resentment of his "betters."
   However, not all heroes were perfect. Within these morality tales a "modern" hero evolved who was seldom pure and often morally flawed. He was a tough cop whose wife had left him because he drank too much. He was a former commando who had been booted out of Special Forces for disobeying orders and causing the death of his best friend. He drank too much because his partner had been shot while the hero was sleeping with some stripper or even shaking down a drug dealer. He disobeyed orders because his commanding officer was corrupt or a coward. Back on the street he hooks up with a tough broad who is trying to get out from under the thumb of a mobster, or maybe with an innocent midwestern type trying to find out how her brother was killed in the big city, or maybe with his best friend's widow, or maybe with his own estranged wife. The flawed hero is morally more like the drone and more vocal in his resentment of authority, so the identification is stronger. He is the kind of redeemed hero the drone would like to be. In the end he wreaks havoc, just as the drone would like to do, and gets to interface with the tough broad or the midwestern type or his friend's widow or his own wife, making a fresh start.
   The production of morality tales and other forms of entertainment comprised an industry no less important to the American economy than the production of acidic beverages and "processed" foods. Though no one would have missed or desired the products of these industries had they not been habituated to them, their existence was essential, for the American economy would have collapsed without them, forcing Americans to go back to an earlier time when "consumers" ate healthy foods and entertained themselves. This would have put a big hole in the pockets of the consoles, so their leaders arranged generous tax cuts and other incentives to enable them to produce more unnecessary commodities and employ more drones at the minimum wage.
   Some have claimed that the pictures produced for the "viewing enjoyment" of the drones in the all-seeing eye of the consoles do not reflect reality, that the "actors" neither speak nor act like actual drones, let alone like consoles, that the dramas invented by the producers do not represent the actual conditions of life in America and that the "reports" presented by solemn "reporters" are distorted and superficial versions of undigested events. In this respect it may be noted parenthetically that the failure of reporters to report accurately and meaningfully is not necessarily a result of bad intentions. Most often it is a result of lack of talent, for if they could see deeper or write better they would not be reporters, they would be historians and even novelists. As for the actors and producers associated with the morality tales presented to the drones, we have already noted the mythological nature of these extravaganzas and should therefore not expect to find in them a literal reflection of reality but rather a guide to the "dreams" of the audience to which they are addressed.
   The drone, as we have suggested, was ignorant, that is, totally dependent on "reporters," "analysts," and talk show "experts" for his understanding of the world around him. He could not read anything longer than a column or two of newsprint. He could not find his own country on an unmarked map. He could not describe at any length the most important events of his own history or explain the most elementary scientific principles or speak intelligently about the cultural achievements of his race. However, it cannot be said that keeping the drones ignorant was an express aim of the consoles, though there were of course a great many things that the consoles did not wish the drones to know. On the contrary, wishing to inculcate values beneficial to themselves and prepare the drones to serve them, the consoles organized an "educational" system for this very purpose and certainly would have been surprised when it turned out that the drones learned very little within this system and indeed developed a strong aversion to learning as such as a result of being put through it. This was in marked contrast to the ease with which messages and instructions were absorbed when shown in the all-seeing eye of the consoles, though of course this entailed endless repetition, which in itself was not very different from the methods employed by the "schools." Yet in one case the drones, and particularly the young, sat transfixed and did precisely what they were told to do while in the other they fidgeted and couldn't even get their multiplication table straight.
   Clearly the writers of messages and instructions were more sophisticated than the "educators." We cannot say why one type of console was drawn to "education" and another to message writing. We can only speculate about the failure of the educator to educate when he had before him the successful model of the message writer. Our own researchers have indeed detected a fatal flaw in the methodology of these ancient educators. For unlike the message writers, who recognized and were able to exploit the passivity of the drone, not to mention his unconscious drives, the educators only recognized what they regarded as the "evil" in him and therefore concluded, inappropriately, that the drone must be forced to do what is "good," in this case to learn, an attitude that derives directly from the primitive religion of these creatures. The young drone was thus made to sit perfectly still and ingest huge volumes of "material," memorize it and repeat it. The immediate effect of this bludgeonlike method was to destroy the innate curiosity of the drone and transform him from a creature who wanted to know everything into a creature who wanted to know nothing, except for a scholarly few whose ability and ambition could not be destroyed by the system and therefore survived it.  
   The consoles thus exploited the laziness and passivity of the drone to fill his head with artfully designed messages and instructions while the educator overwhelmed him with information that bored him to death instead of devising methods that captured his attention. Thus the drones were "shortchanged," being made to "pay" for an education they did not receive and becoming easy marks for reporters and analysts who were only slightly less ignorant than themselves, seldom even understanding the languages of the countries they reported from or commented on.
   The consoles are said to have arrived in America from a foreign shore, at some indeterminate date. We do not know if they brought the drones with them or found them already there on the new continent. Proponents of the latter view identify the drones with the so-called "Injuns" who are occasionally observed in the morality tales on view in the all-seeing eye of the consoles. However, it is more likely that the drones and "Injuns" were rivals, for they are often viewed destroying one another, though it may be assumed that the consoles had a hand in this. In any case, we do not know of a time when the consoles were without drones to serve them. From the outset the consoles asserted themselves, "grabbing," as we have said, whatever they laid their eyes on and soon establishing their hegemony, though formally they were ruled by a "king" who sat in a distant place, across the great sea. When the said king interfered with Commerce, well-heeled Americans "rebelled," instructing the drones to do the same, which they eagerly did. Everyone "took up arms," and apparently did not put them down until their civilization was itself destroyed.
   It is in this context that we first encounter George Washington Bush, though it is not known precisely when he came to prominence. What is known is that at a certain point America declared its "independence" and produced a Constitution establishing the property rights of the consoles and the means by which they would maintain power and control the drone population. The consoles then seated themselves in various "houses" and assemblies and proceeded to oversee a system that maintained the existing inequalities. These "houses" were often magnificent edifices built to accommodate the rather squat figures of the console "representatives," who held forth at great length and enacted laws in such profusion that only trained "lawyers" could keep track of them and these lawyers incessantly argued among themselves about the meaning of these laws which even the legislators did not fully understand so that "judges" were often required to intervene while the  poor drones sat hat in hand waiting for their fate to be decided. Naturally enough, since these laws were made by the country's most powerful individuals, they were most lenient in regard to their own crimes and most severe in regard to the crimes of others. Thus the powerful permitted themselves to "grab" as much land as they wished but punished mercilessly those unfortunate creatures led by circumstance to "grab" a loaf of bread.
   In the eight years of his life, before being recycled, George Washington Bush doggedly enforced the laws of this land and conducted its wars, transferring "money" from the poor to the rich and taking care of his good friends the Havemores, a family that apparently had close ties with his own. Frequently he took long vacations on his plantation with his wife, Martha, where he liked to ride and shoot. Occasionally he made a brief visit to the troops and assured them that one way or another his wars were going to be won, neglecting to tell them by whom.
   The Havemores had probably arrived in America together with the Bushes, soon carving out little empires for themselves and sticking up thousands of signs saying keep out private property trespassers will be shot on sight or failing that prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They also got fat government contracts and big tax writeoffs. They ate well and had black maids and Spanish-speaking gardeners. Money wasn't a problem. Dick Havemore was fixed up with a little board chairmanship between stints as a public "servant." That netted him millions. Ditto for Don Havemore.
   In managing American society, the dilemma of the consoles was clear: by instructing the drones, among other things, to consume "foodstuffs" that would ultimately kill them they were in effect "cutting off the branch" they were sitting on, much like skydiving instructors who knowingly supply their students with defective parachutes. However, this does not seem to have disturbed them in the least, as the "little ones" soon enough replaced the "senior citizens" as eager and pliant consumers, so that a kind of natural cycle was established and no carcinogen-bearing "chow" or fat-saturated "grub" went uneaten, even by the toothless. The producers of these harmful substances were apparently connected in some way with the ubiquitous Havemore family and therefore received certain privileges denied to other "pushers." Ditto for polluters of the air and poisoners of the soil.
   Some researchers have claimed that the drones were subjected to a special surgical procedure in infancy to remove part of their brain and ensure their docility, much like the "neutering" of domestic animals. Though this did not prevent the frequent outbursts of violence among these creatures it ensured their receptivity to messages and instructions, making it nearly impossible for them to form thoughts outside the system of concepts to which they were trained to respond. With a complete brain, it is argued, the drones would immediately have "seen through" the messages they received just as they saw through "glass" and understood clearly what was hidden on the other side. This is merely a supposition, and as we have found no evidence to support such an argument we are inclined to look elsewhere for an explanation of this phenomenon. In fact there is a school of thought that maintains that the drones did understand the deceptive nature of the messages they received and yet were still compelled to respond to them, which perhaps indicates elements inherent in their "psychological" or even biological makeup that caused them to "buckle under," like sheep being led to the slaughter. In the "animal kingdom" such herd instincts along with the primacy of dominant males generally ensured the health and prosperity of the species but among the drones these same instincts made them easy prey for the consoles as well as for their own kind. Not only "weak" individuals were weeded out to preserve the vigor of the herd, but in fact most individuals were weeded out, becoming true drones in the service of the strong, whose polished language mesmerized them like the language of "commercial messages," though, as we have noted, they were more than likely able to "see through" these messages. In the latter case the message writer addressed the subconscious of the drone and thereby animated drives and forces that the drone could not control while in the former case the strong merely asserted their authority and exploited the primitive need of the drone to follow a leader.
   At the same time, as mentioned, the consoles encouraged the drones to affirm the values that served their own interests, such as patriotism to ensure that they would be prepared to fight in the wars organized by the consoles, free enterprise to ensure that the consoles would not be hindered in their rapacious pursuit of wealth, democracy to ensure that the vast majority of Americans who lost the big races would be "good sports" about it and accept the dominance of the few, and of course "hard work," "tenacity," "honesty," "decency," "modesty" and "respect for authority" to ensure that they would keep their noses to the grindstone. So successful were the consoles in inculcating these values that the drones who suffered the most in this system invoked them as evidence of the superiority of the American way of life, unless they were color-coded black and consequently not really privy to the American way of life, despite the frequent casting of blacks as judges and police captains in the morality tales, which was conceivably a subtle counterweight to the black criminals in these tales as much as a gratuitous crumb tossed to the disinherited.
   Many of the drones used to transmit commercial messages seem to have been trained as ventriloquists, utilizing a variety of "voices" to encourage ordinary drones to acquire commodities. Sometimes they spoke "sincerely," sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes even "humorously" to endear themselves to the drone family gathered around the console by pretending not to take the commodity seriously. Clearly a great deal of thought was invested in the selection of these voices and the elaboration of the little dramas played out in the all-seeing eye of the consoles in order to get around the natural defenses of the drone and lead him by the nose, though the fact that huge sums of "money" seem to have been invested in this endeavor leads us to believe that the consoles were confident of a positive result, counting on the stupidity of the drone to ensure his ultimate acquiescence to whatever messages and instructions they transmitted. There is no question that they "studied" the drones quite closely and therefore understood their weaknesses, which they cynically exploited in order to enrich themselves, feeling, we imagine, considerable contempt for creatures who were taken in so easily and perhaps making a few "jokes" at their expense as they sat around the office dreaming up new messages. We can also understand the enormous satisfaction such consoles must have experienced in getting tens of millions of drones to memorize and even repeat their inane slogans and jingles. The commercial message, together with the three-minute video clip, seems to have been the great art form of late American civilization, superseding literature, painting, sculpture and classical music and clearly tailored to the waning attention span of the drone.  
   In addition to appearing in the "news" broadcasts, most often as criminals or victims, ordinary drones also appeared occasionally on the "talk shows" alongside the experts and analysts to complain about their misery or display a certain quality of freakishness which the experts and analysts might then discuss in a learned manner. Freakishness and misery were also the leading motifs in the confessional or confrontational shows in which a "host" egged on the guests until a fistfight broke out. These were rare opportunities for the drones to "have their day" and get an all expenses paid trip to Hollywood or New York in the bargain. Granted these drones were generally "bellatores" and "laboratores," and as such didn't count for much, but as they comprised at least a third of the American population there were plenty of them around, so producers had little trouble finding large numbers who were freakish or miserable enough to appear on daytime and even prime time TV. The freakish and the miserable were also brought into the competitions to give the "studio audience" and viewers at home a good laugh before getting down to the serious business of upgrading a worker drone into an entertainment drone. The criminals among them had their own day on "cop" shows and were usually last seen with their faces in the gutter and their hands cuffed behind their backs.
   Many of these criminals were housed in "prisons," which were sometimes the subject of the morality tales, as were law courts and hospitals, and if the confrontations in these tales were less convincing than the "live" confrontations in the "reality" shows, they at least had the advantage of being bloodier and were therefore suitable vehicles for peddling sanitary products and pain killers. Though many of the drones were squeamish, the thirst for blood among them was always present in varying degrees and therefore the producers of sanitary products and pain killers made sure they got plenty of it and deliberated solemnly about which of the bloodbaths would "move" their products more quickly. Mr. Bush was proud to be associated with such producers, the producers of bloodbaths and the producers of sanitary products, and assured the drones that they helped make America great, like the Havemores.
   Other nations tried to imitate the American way of life, but with less success, being perhaps less "materialistic" or having less stupid populations. The Europeans, for example, had historically never found it necessary to foster the illusion that their "orders" were fluid and that anyone could improve his lot through ambition and hard work. Everyone knew his place and consequently there were fewer disappointments and fewer mental breakdowns. The illusion of freedom and social or economic mobility left tens of millions of "middling" Americans with the uncomfortable feeling that they had no one to blame but themselves for their lack of success. Some therefore pretended to be successful, "aping" the manner of prominent drones, reading book reviews instead of books and filling their homes with fake antiques. Some just talked big. The poor, on the other hand, knew better and understandably became bitter. Nonetheless, in the latter part of the 20th century, many Europeans became infected by the democratic "bug" and began to dream of prominence in the American tradition, becoming easy prey for the European consoles who let loose hosts of reporters, message writers, experts and analysts to control and manipulate them.
   All this being said, we cannot deny the possibility that we are "misreading" the materials at hand. Certain scholars have argued that it is inconceivable that a society should function in the manner that the United States of America seems to have functioned, that "leaders" should engage in such flagrant deceptions and communicate in a language consisting substantially of meaningless rhetorical devices, that wealth should be hoarded by the few, and that the many should consent to and even celebrate a system that strangles them. We too acknowledged that the images projected in the all-seeing eye of the consoles often had  hidden meanings, so that while the "news" broadcasts were distorted narratives and the "talk shows" were forums for idle chatter, the morality tales were mostly parables. We believed that we perceived a purpose in these spectacles and the messages that accompanied them, which were designed to control and manipulate the drones. And yet at the same time we found it difficult to understand how the drones could be so stupid as to be taken in by them and organize their lives precisely in accordance with the instructions they received from the consoles. Accordingly, we concluded that certain "psychological" and even biological factors must be at work making the drones such easy prey. Many of these factors were apparently "selected out" in the monkeys who succeeded the drones and conceivably form the "link" between the drones and the consoles. It is also conceivable that the consoles themselves are linked in some way to us, though if this is the case there have obviously been many significant intermediate stages in the evolutionary process.
   This is the most reasonable interpretation of the materials at hand. However, certain other interpretations have been put forward which it may be profitable to examine. One is that it was the drones who originally were the masters of the consoles and became their slaves in a "coup" of some kind, or perhaps through some insidious process in which the positions of slave and master were reversed without the drones fully understanding what had occurred. Proponents of this view argue that this reversal of positions must have occurred in a very early stage of their common history because it is inconceivable that drones would have subjected their own kind to the atrocities commonplace in this society and conspired to cheat, starve and poison their brethren, stepping over bodies, as it were, in pursuit of their own ends. Only creatures of another species, it is argued, would be capable of such "inhumanity."
   This is a compelling argument, but the fact is we see many prominent drones behaving no less callously than the consoles, such as "reporters" in pursuit of "stories" or "mercatores" and "negotiatores" in pursuit of "money." In essence there is no great difference between the behavior of drones and consoles aside from the fact that the consoles are smarter and more powerful. Nor are we convinced that a "rebellion" of the kind described took place. It seems far more likely that the consoles were the masters of the drones from the moment these two species came into contact with one another, though we concede that there may have been a time when the drones ruled themselves, in a society not much different in principle, if far less sophisticated and far less vicious, from the one organized by the consoles as soon as they established their dominance, or were perhaps ruled by the monkeys until the consoles came along. In the latter case it is also doubtful if the cruelty that characterized relations between master and slave would have been so marked, despite the natural aggressiveness of the monkey. The mind of the monkey ran along less fiendish lines and he certainly would not have known how to run a whorehouse or an advertising agency.
   Though we are inclined to believe that the consoles ruled the drones from the outset, we acknowledge that the entrenchment of this rule may have occurred over a certain period of time during which the consoles devised ever more sophisticated methods with which to enslave the drones. However, as we can see from what we believe to be early disks belonging to Console I, their methods were quite sophisticated to begin with and the drones sat at the feet of the consoles with the same rapt attention as they displayed in a later period, consuming the same acidic beverages and breakfast cereals and no doubt dreaming the same dreams of acquiring commodities, pinning females on the ground and destroying other drones in the name of freedom and democracy. The only significant differences seem to have been in the depiction of the way drones interfaced and in the system of color coding. With respect to color coding the early disks restrict themselves to a simple "black and white" differentiation while later disks display a greater variety of "colored" drones in positions of prominence, like the judges and police captains mentioned above and even an occasional brain surgeon or nuclear physicist. With respect to interfacing the early disks rarely displayed females with long, bare legs or any other provocatively exposed body parts, unless they were "beauty queens" in "swimsuits" or "ladies" in handsome gowns that showed some "cleavage," or perhaps "loose women" flaunting their wares or innocent "girls" bathing in the nude and offering a tantalizing glimpse of their rosy flesh or well-endowed females being seized and pinned on the ground, or anything else the producers could get away with to excite the drones and capture their attention. The later disks are less coy and undoubtedly lost some of their effect, forcing the producers to go to greater lengths "to get a rise" out of the jaded drone though of course without offending "public taste."
   The system of seemingly flexible boundaries that in fact enclosed a series of rigidly constructed boxes "channeling" the movement of the drones from one prison to the other – from the home to the school, from the workplace to the mall, and finally to the grave – with numerous "sidetrips" on circular byways that led back to their starting point, comprised the whole of dronish society. The few who rebelled against it became outcasts or outlaws, deprived of its meager material rewards and the comfort of the herd. They gathered "on the other side," in an undefined space, beyond the reach of the messages and instructions that rained down on the heads of the drones from morning to night, and consequently ruled themselves. The consoles despised them, persecuted them, tempted them, or simply ignored them, pretending they didn't exist. The drones, for their part, feared them, thinking they would shatter the illusions on which their peace of mind was based and divert the thoughts of the "little ones" from the games and snacks that nurtured them. Such rebels were called "beatniks" and "hippies" by some and sociopaths by others. Fortunately the former generally "grew up" and recanted while the latter generally ended up in prison. In this way American society was able to endure for a while longer, until the final catastrophe that ended human civilization, paving the way for more rational beings like ourselves.

___

Fred Russell is the author of the novels The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) and Death (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015) and has published stories and essays in over 150 journals, including TriQuarterly, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Gargoyle, Literary House Review, Words & Images, Third Coast, Polluto, Underground Voices, and The Recusant

The Suicide of Danny Tompkins |
by Tommy Scanlan

            On the third Tuesday of every month the guys from work and I got together at Harry's in Middleboro for the best wings in Massachusetts and a couple of drinks. The tradition involved three guys I came up with in the same academy class, and two brothers made along the way. It was a break from wives, kids, responsibilities, and though we talked about work often, a sane reminder that we were friends out of uniform and out of the institution.
We sat out on the patio around a glass table bordered with green plastic patchwork enjoying the sun after a long winter behind the walls and sitting inside.
I decided to toast Danny Tompkins with our fifth round of beers after the meal. All of us knew him and revered him in certain ways. Our glasses climbed and after I said a few simple words the mood became reflective. We shared with Danny Tompkins that odd, dark bond that came with understanding the stresses of our work, of knowing what it was we truly did and the ways it changed you. I wasn't the only one who realized that in the right circumstances we too were vulnerable.
"I've been thinking about making some changes," I said. My audience shifted in their chairs. "The thing with Tompkins really got me to thinking that other than a few things I'm not that happy. I don't do much outside of work and it's not like work's fulfilling. Bill, you've got the bike; Alex, you've got carpentry on the side; Paul's got his car restoration; every one of you have something that makes you forget about all the job's bullshit. I don't. And sometimes I feel it building up. This thing with Tompkins made me realize I had to take control. Dave Harris told me about a 5k he's doing in June, and I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna start running."
The faces at the table were unreadable for a moment. I looked at Bill, a close friend, but also a cynical prick. Everyone at the table anticipated the dry, bitter comment that was sure to come.

"I give it one week," he said. He punctuated the point with a drink and the table laughed.
"Well, I'm gonna start tomorrow."
"A week."
"Good for you, Bobby," Alex said. "You're not the only one here who was upset about Tompkins. I think it hit home with everybody in its own way."
 "It's true. If you can't do it for yourself than do it for him," Bill said. ""Is the wife gonna start running with you, too?"
"No, if I know my wonderful wife, she'll think it's just a phase."
"How long does it take something to become a habit, like three weeks?" Bill said.
"She could use a jog, too," I said.
"I'd fuck her over my wife any day," another one said. "You just let me know, and I'll get the day off and come see her."
I laughed.
"Have you guys ever stopped and thought about all of them, though...the suicides?" I didn't need to cite statistics, disturbing enough alone, the cold percentages on discarded employee assistance pamphlets in trash cans all over the DOC. Over the years we'd seen, even at our institution alone, two flesh and blood suicides annually. Men and women with stories we knew. "With Danny I started thinking about reasons. My take is it's bound to happen if you prioritize all the wrong shit and have nothing to fall back on. Talking to Harris the other day, it struck me that I live to work and that I'm not healthy."
"I've got the same fifteen years in you do," Bill said. "You don't see me hanging in a closet do you?"
"What if you got hurt and fell on tough times and had to get rid of the Harley?"
"I can't even think of something so horrible. Good God, you take it back."
I'd grant you that you'd be surprised with the amount of sensitivity this issue got at our institution. You'd also be shocked at the amount of typical responses you'd get: "Why would you kill yourself over a bitch?" was almost a poetic refrain at this point, what the unseen chorus contributed to the tragedy. The usual cowardice associated with these things.
Dave Harris had said it best in the days after, that even in the Department of Correction where the fruits of oblivion were ripe for the picking, you didn't expect to hear about a guy like Danny Tompkins. He was the jolly big-guy type, quick to make you laugh, and somehow not miserable after twenty-five years in the Department. He had this habit of staring at your food when your fork slowed down and saying, "You need any help with that?"
In 1996 there was an orchestrated race riot at our institution. At noon it all popped off in the cell blocks, at the gym, and in the yard: hundreds of men fighting with weapons, fires being set, property being destroyed and thrown off the tiers. When most officers locked themselves somewhere, opting to let the riot tire itself out, Danny Tompkins ran into the fray. He possessed a fearlessness gained through a decade of inmate violence, a trained handle on adrenaline after a time period that long hemming the edges of anarchy. Screams of agony and primal joy coursed through the institution’s veins. The music of sending a fist into the soft, glass jaw of The Man clanged around him, rose in heat from the flooring and bled through the walls.
He assisted three officers being assaulted along the institution's main corridor on his way to becoming a myth.
Elisa Ridge, a brave and hardened woman, who worked the units unlike most of her female peers, had been pulled into a cell by a vicious sex offender when the melee broke out. Danny Tompkins beat the inmate to death and prevented unspeakable things from befalling her.
The story was that he'd arrived before anything happened, though that seemed improbable. Elisa was an imploded version of herself afterward, the body language and eye contact of the once in-your-face woman different. She no longer worked the units and softened. She loved Tompkins from that point on. They dated for a while, but it hadn’t worked out. He ended up meeting the woman he would marry and have three kids with soon after.
Fifteen years later this woman would throw the sort of curve ball some people can't connect with later in life, cheating with the man she would leave him for. And so, despite his teenaged children, the great Danny Tompkins took the Smith and Wesson .45 out of his gun locker, drove his truck to a Walmart parking lot, and then shot a sizable, all-business caliber round through his temple.
People spoke of Elisa, who would've happily been his second wife, wailing over him and kissing the closed casket at his wake.
"A part of me thinks that if Danny Tompkins could be a statistic, any of us could."
They agreed. I could tell by the way their beers lingered at their mouths and how the conversation petered out with long sips and serious looks. Things like this happened, and they were unpleasant. Like most guys we worked with, they wanted to shake their heads and ask why for a week, and then have time scrub the blemish off. He clearly had some issues, they and others will think. It sucks, but it really isn't my problem. 
I wasn't inclined to agree.


#
The living room couch demanded that I relax when I got home from work the next day. It did everything short of turning on Sox coverage for me and grabbing a Bud light out of the fridge, but I made it by. I found navy blue sweatpants, a white tee in a bedroom drawer, and a pair of Asics.
I felt bulky and foolish at the local high school track as I stretched near the bleachers. There was a field hockey practice happening on the field the track circled, dozens of young, fit high school girls and coaches all over the place. I remembered back to a time when I'd catch a few interested looks doing something like this.
Dave Harris would've felt different in this position, the mastermind behind my being at the track. Even rookies looked at Harris, a man in his thirties, and got self-conscious about the shape they were in, the way his arms, chest, and shoulders pressed the seams.
Harris and I had got to talking about how Danny Tompkin's suicide was making me re-evaluate my life. He gave me the stock advice he gave everyone first, not to drink.
"Drinking breeds more drinking," he'd said. "It's an easy cycle to get stuck in. Why should adult life only be about drinking? Everyone thinks that. There are millions of things people can do to relieve stress."
"I don't have any stress relievers or hobbies. I work, keep the wife happy, and drink."
"You have to take care of that."
"How?"
Then came his suggestion. He told me he was running a 5k to support the Wounded Warrior Project at the beginning of June, and that I should do it with him. We'd run in memory of Danny Tompkins.
"Don't give yourself time to find reasons why you shouldn't. It's April right now. You have over a month to get ready. Start training."
There was a group of three attractive women my age, decked out in colorful athletic clothing and sunglasses that covered their faces, who walked the track. They seemed to walk at the pace I ran.
Half a mile came pretty easy, but as soon as I hit a mile my body realized how foreign the act of running was to it. The breeze which had been pleasant, drying the sweat that formed on my hairline, turned on me. Now the cool wind was intent on forcing itself down my throat. It burned and prevented me from taking it in. The rubber track caught fire and burnt the arches of my feet, headed up my calves and shins, hinted at cramping my quads.
"You're a goddamn C.O.," I told myself. "Tougher than this. Better than this."
My adrenaline was through the roof at a mile and a half. At one end of the oval track a dizziness hit me. My vision went yellow and wouldn’t stop turning yellow. I tried to deep-breathe it away. I staggered off the track, onto the field, where the darkness that came after the yellow exploded into white and gravity brought me to rest in the grass.
I had a full panorama of endless blue sky above me, and the smell of grass filled my lungs that could breathe again. I was alert and felt spiritually alive, a space between happy and silly that confused me. An angelic face, with subtle tan lines where her sunglasses had been, appeared before me, one of the walking women.
"Hon, are you okay? You took a spill there."
She knelt down and waved her hand in front of my eyes. I smiled.
"Can we lay here for a while?" I said.
"You're still out of it. Do you want me to call 911?"
"No, no, look." I braced myself with my hands. "See? I actually feel good. I must've pushed a little too hard."
I thanked her for helping me and she left.
I told my wife about running the 5k with Dave Harris when she got home. I still hadn't told her about Danny Tompkins, because she hated things like that. She said I was lucky when I told her what happened at the track.
"I'm surprised you didn't have a heart attack."
"No, I just pushed too hard. I'm not that big."
"No, you aren't that big."
"I'm not dead yet either. I felt great once I caught my breath. It'll only get easier."
"Good for you, Bobby. It'll be good for you."
"Why do you say it like that?"
"Like what?"
"Sarcastic." I called it sarcastic even though it wasn't. It was that flat, neutral tone women use to humor men.
"No, I mean it. Don't hurt yourself, though, we need that paycheck. And don't let it interfere with our time together."
"Anything else?"
"Nope."
"Okay, thanks for the support."
"It's too bad it's May, if you'd started a month earlier you could've ran the marathon. What? I'm kidding."
Elisa and I worked a unit together later that week. The air conditioning provided comfort during a quiet morning. The unit workers were cleaning, and a wave of inmates had left for their institutional employment. The tables bolted down in the unit flats, the common area in the center of the space, where come night chess, cards, and pinochle would be played with the passions of men with nothing else to be passionate about, were empty.
She talked about Danny Tompkins even weeks after the fact, maybe because she had a fresh pair of ears to listen. I hadn't gotten a chance to sit down with her yet. She'd taken time off after it. She told stories of laughs at work, stories about them together at work outings, stories about the two of them on his boat.
"I didn't realize you two were that good of friends. I knew about what happened, but I guess I didn't know."
"Danny was a special breed. One of the good ones. Fuck, he was the prince that little girls think about going to balls with when they're little."
"He was definitely a good man."
"Bobby, we know each other pretty well....I trust you enough where we can talk about things."
"And with good reason."
Her eyes welled up, and for the first time I noticed the purple signs of sleepless nights below them.
"Danny and I loved each other. We've been romantically involved for fifteen years. It's an open secret around here."
"What? His wife and kids, though. He's been cheating on his wife this whole time?"
"Cheating? No, it wasn't cheating. As I got older those naive outlooks on life changed. There's on the one hand a love that works. It's stable and safe, family, waiting on Medicare and the kids to take care of you. Then on the other there's something much more real. A true love that means more than any of the important administrative bullshit in life. A reckless love that's unavoidable. I think we’re all entitled to it."
"But—"
"But what?”
"You guys couldn't have both of those?"
"I guess some people find that. We never talked about it. It went without saying that reality outside the walls would crush what we had. We had our institutional love, one night a week together, and our yearly trip to the Nassau Resort."
"Wait, if Danny had you to kind of fall back on, then why'd he do it?"
"I'll never understand the suicide of Danny Tompkins. There's only one thing I understand now: that my husband and I are retiring to Florida. Twenty seven years is enough is in this business. And with nothing keeping me here I can't do it."
#

The workouts went well, my distances inching farther in length, my energy up. It was a Wednesday, the same day that I'd gone to the track for the first time. When you work in a prison for any amount of time you start thinking in repetitive cycles, also known as becoming institutionalized. Behind the walls there are things that happen at the same time daily, weekly, and monthly, to the minute. The same has a tendency to happen in your personal life.
I had a feeling as I parked that the girls' field hockey team would be practicing, and that the women who'd been walking would be there, too. I knew that the one I'd asked to lay with me would be there.
I came at them from the rear a lap in, and I was surprised to see the woman who'd helped me slow down as I neared. She put her hands on her hips, maybe trying to look winded, as her friends carried on. I felt nervous around her, the type of nerves my body had forgotten. What I knew was the uncertainty that came with confronting inmates. I knew the adrenaline that reminded you that there was no plan, and that flooded you with the violent, base human emotions as felt by an ancestor outside the cave.
The woman's hair, dyed or not, was a blonde with twice the sun's splendor. Her skin was bronze and healthy and glowed in contrast to her pink sports bra. She looked our age, but had the presence of a woman in her twenties, a quality of aliveness. I stared at the hollow in the small of her back between the pink top and the waistband on her black leggings.
A lazy noon rain shower had laundered the day, and on the freshened air I could smell her perfume, her exotic, feminine energy.
I ran a few yards beyond where she'd slowed to a stop, and smiled back at her.
"Oh, you were expecting me to stop?"
Her eyes crinkled up as she tried not to smile. Within several steps beside her, a cloud passing overhead went by and we walked together into a stretch of sunlight.
"You can keep going if you want."
"I think I'll stay."
"Sure."
"Thank you," I said. "Last week when I was having a tough time."
"For a second when you came to, I thought you were, uh, special."
"Special? As in special ed special?"
Her voice fell to a mocking impression of my own.
"Can you lay with me for a while?"
"Now you'll be surprised as I get smarter and smarter before your eyes. My strategy is to arrive at the bottom so I have nowhere to go but up."
"What a go-getter....I'm kidding, I thought it was childish and adorable. You reminded me of my kids."
"Uh oh, you say it like you have many."
"I'm a nurse. I work with children going through cancer treatment. You reminded me of one of them, holding my hand bed-side and asking me to stay with them. The last thing a child wants is to be left alone."
"Do you have kids of your own?"
"No, my hus—ex-husband—and I never got around to it. It's quite possible that he has children with other women, though, if it makes you feel better."
"It does not."
Her friends rounded the far side of the track, watching us without being obvious. Part of me wanted to make a joke about a possible plan being at hand, a "Do your friends always let you talk to strange men?" but I could tell from her body language, a slight perceptible tremble, that she was far from the safe inertia of her comfort zone. Instead I told a lie, that in the moment felt like the truth.
"My wife and I just separated. This is me getting back into shape for the single life."
She pinched at my side, the love handle, and frowned. "A little work to do, but you look good,—."
"Bobby."
"Bobby, I'm Hannah. It's nice to meet you standing up."
"Maybe I'll get to know you lying down."
"Do you have a phone on you? Okay, I'm giving you my number because I see something in you," she said. "It could be bullshit, but it also could be something. I did not give it to you so you could get to know me lying down, just so that’s clear. Now goodbye."
She walked away after that with the caricatured strides of a power walker, her arms tomahawking by her sides, off to reunite with her friends.
Good god, I said to myself as I watched her go, you might've just fallen out of and in love again within a span of five minutes.
#
I hugged my wife longer than usual when she got home that night, kissed her cheeks and forehead, hamming it up a bit but being sincere at the same time.
"We're having a nice dinner tonight," I said. "I went to Stop and Shop for ingredients. How does Parmesan-crusted salmon and a salad with a fruity dressing sound?"
I watched the pleasant surprise on her face turn to a genuine smile.
"No, baby. Work was awful today. The last thing I want to do right now is cook. But I'm glad you found the grocery store. How about Chinese?"
"No, I'm gonna cook."
"Do you know what you're doing? I can't even cook salmon."
"Look, it's baking in the oven right now."
"It smells good. If you're trying to turn me on tonight, I'll tell you what: it's working. I think I have a bottle of Yellowtail in the fridge."
"This is what the new me is gonna be like," I began, as she pulled the cork stopper out of the bottle and gave the liquid a weary sniff. She went to hunt down wine glasses in the cabinet above the stove. "I can run all I want, but I also have to start making better food choices to get myself back in shape."
She wet her lips with a sip of wine.
"I like you with a little meat on you."
"Well I don't want any meat on me anymore. I want to lose some weight and do this 5k and from now on live a healthy lifestyle."
"Ugh, you sound like a vegan or something. I don't want you to turn into a health Nazi. You're not gonna go vegan are you?"
"Vegan? No. I made salmon for Christ's sake. Listen, I really need to do this."
"Why all of a sudden? You've been fine with the way things have been for years. Don't get upset with me, Bobby, I'm just curious."
"I just want to change for the better, I guess. To feel good, look good. I want to get at it every day so it becomes routine, and I'd like you to have my back."
"I've never seen you like this."
"Like I said, it's gonna be the new me."
"Okay," she said. She took another sip from her glass, wrinkled her face at it, and then poured the rest in the sink. "Don't be annoying about it and it's fine. I'll support you." She gave me a one-armed hug, and turned to walk to the living room. "We all go through phases," she said, as her hips sauntered out of the kitchen.
The disappointment in my heart was severe. When you tell the grown man you're married to that a life change he wants to make is a phase, what you're saying is that you don't take him serious. All a man asks for is to be taken seriously. Here I'd been, thinking the lifestyle proposal plus a nice dinner and a good lay for both of us could provide the new start we needed.
The salmon ended up overcooked and dry, but the raspberry vinaigrette and the crispness of the romaine lettuce complemented it.
I was rehearsing a phone call to Hannah as we lied in bed. I heard my wife move and then turn on her side. We couldn't see each other in the dark.
"Are you mad at me about this?" she said.
"No, it's fine."
"Are you sure? You'd tell me, right?"
"Yeah."
"Okay. That's it?"
"That's it."
"I can't stand you sometimes, Bobby. Honestly, if you are mad at me get over it. I'm used to us being a certain way, and doing things a certain way, so I don't have time for this. I'm not gonna change up what's been working for five years."
"Okay."
"I can't," she said. "Oh my God, I can't. I'm tired. Good night."
#
Once again we were at Harry's. I was excited to bring up the topic of Hannah with them, and could see that they were waiting for me to come out with whatever had been putting a smile on my face. We weren't even a beer in.
"I think I need some advice," I said. "It's about a chick."
Skeptical looks. One muttered, "Like...a chick, chick?"
"Her name's Hannah."
At the name Hannah an abrupt clatter of metal chairs stuttering across the patio's concrete slabs began. They all leaned in closer, attent and ready for details.
"Go on," Bill said.
"Hannah," I said. "She's a divorcee I met at the track."
He pointed a finger at me.
"Did you bang her?"
"No."
I could speak freely with these guys. The divorce rate at the table was high—Bill at two and counting.
"Do you guys think I should give her a call? She's gorgeous. We've been working out together for a few weeks. Perfect body, looks great for our age."
"I don't know," Alex said.
"I need to start going to the track," Bill said. "Does she have any friends?"
"What don't you know, Alex?"
"You're not built that way," Alex said. "I can't picture you cheating on your wife."
"I think I'm done. The other night something just clicked and I knew I didn't love her anymore. I think I should go for this."
"You're just gonna pull the rug out from under her?"
"I think I have to."
"Holy shit," Bill said. "I hear what you're saying, man. I honestly do, but people can't just change their lives. You're thirty-eight years old, for God's sake. What're you gonna do next, quit the DOC and run away? I don't know, man."
"It's a new start."
"It's messed up," Alex said.
"Listen, if you want to go for a few jogs and break a sweat to get your rocks off, be my guest. But think long and hard about leaving the wife because a Hannah smiled at you. Trust me, divorces suck."
"I almost rather you just cheat," Alex said, and gave an awkward laugh. "You two have been a good team for five years."
"Wait a minute....How would you assholes know that? No, hold on, listen. Have you all been flies on the wall this whole time? Or watching secret security cameras I didn't know about? You, you, none of you, have any right to pass an opinion on another marriage, so shut the fuck up. My wife doesn't take me seriously. It's been like that for a while. When I told her about my new plan she might as well've laughed in my face, cut my balls off, cooked them medium well with a little garlic salt, and fed them to me. What that woman wants is for me to stay doing exactly what I'm doing: nothing with my life but bringing home a fat paycheck. She doesn't value my happiness at all. We don't have any kids and I'm not throwing a custody battle at her, so if I want a new start in life running with Hannah and shopping at Whole Foods it's my fucking prerogative."
The response was a whispered chorus of "Jesus."
I finished the rest of my beer and left. Hannah's number was ready to call before I got to my car. I needed to turn my feelings of rage into something positive.
Hannah and I met at Davio's a few nights later, an Italian steakhouse at Patriot's Place in Foxboro. She wore a dark blue dress that fitted to her hips with a white shawl over her shoulders and in the bright end of dusk she looked elegant. I smoothed out my striped button-up as I walked up and hugged her.
We bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, which Hannah said went well with seafood since I wanted seafood.
"This is so strange," she said.
"Oh, that's good to hear."
"No, I'm happy to be here with you. More than happy. It's just that a marriage can be so...so isolating, I guess. You were married for five years, I was married for twelve. So here I am on my first date, and I keep wanting to do things my ex-husband liked: do mannerisms he thought were cute, or tell our inside jokes."
"It's like you have to undo a marriage's worth of habits."
"That's exactly it. So much of myself was wrapped up in it."
"Just be whatever version of yourself you want, and I feel like I'll like it. Or, if you want, we can drink this bottle of wine in silence and smile at each other."
"I don't know if my jaw could handle all that smiling."
"Let's try it. Don't even stop when the waiter comes back to take our order."
"No, that's ridiculous."
"Just try it."
"What are we ten?"
The waiter came back to the table and pulled a notepad out of his black apron. He hid his confusion well when he saw both of us showing all of our teeth, and when we ordered our meals through clenched teeth, still all smiles.
"Okay," I said. "He's gone now. I'm going to stop so I can take another sip."
"Quitter."
"I said the plan was to smile at each other and drink the bottle of wine."
"That was fun. You're such a kid at heart. I kind of love it."
"Whoa, did you just throw out the L word on our first date?"
"I didn't mean it like that, not like I love you. I just meant I love that you're—"
"I'm kidding. My wife used to love it, too. I feel like everyone loves it until they realize you're an actual man-child. Trust me, you'll get sick of it, too."
"I don't think I would. My ex-husband was serious and moody all the time. I'm not used to any fun. Therefore, sir, I would have a high threshold for your immaturity and manchildery."
"Then I think we'll be a good team."
"Me, too. Life can be hard, and all I really ask for is to feel young at heart. You make me feel young again."
"I'd say we still are young."
"I'd say you're right."
We went to the track together the following Monday. The weather was wonderful. Summer had arrived early and forgot to pack its humidity. My stamina had improved over the weeks, and we ran at a pretty good pace.
The goal for the day was to run two miles, walk one, and then run the fastest mile possible. Hannah's body glistened with a sheen of sweat as we slowed down for the walking portion.
"You're doing the 5k with me in a few weeks," I said. She didn't answer. "Wouldn't it be fun to accomplish it together?"
"I want to do it, don't worry....You would've thought that you were proposing to me or something the way you said it."
"I think it's a little soon for you to bring up marriage, since you did already use the L word on our first date."
"Shut up, shithead. I'm happy you want me to be part of it with you."
"You've technically been there since day one, as far as my running goes, so it makes sense."
She put an arm around my waist. Her hair blew into my face when her head hit my shoulder and the scent of windblown lavender stunned me. I kissed her on the temple, and then we stopped walking, and began kissing. The lonesome track loop surrounded by fields and more fields and in the distance the high school up on the hill receded away from us. When I kissed her there was a warmth and a life affirming connection that I wanted more of. I wanted her in different ways.
"Did you say your husband has the kids this week?"
"Ex-husband, but yes."
"So there's an empty house and a bed where we could do this, is there not?" I stroked an invisible beard, a detective deducing the facts at hand.
She took a step back and her jaw dropped open.
"Get your mind out of the gutter," she said. The thought that my suggestion turned her off terrified and caught me of guard. "Do you think I'm just a hot piece of ass you can fuck and chuck?"
"Fuck and chuck? Fuck and chuck? I've never heard you talk like that."
"Is that all this is?"
"No, no, of course—"
"You're too easy...last one to the car buys dinner after."
She fled from me at a sprint, laughing at my shock, toward our side-by-side cars in the rock dust lot.
#
The following weekend Elisa Ridge made an innocent mistake. She called me from the institution because she was trying to figure out the time off she would need for her summer calendar.
I was putting together a combination futon/day bed for my wife, a cute idea she'd had for our spare bedroom that she wanted to turn into a guest room. "We aren't gonna have kids any time soon," she said. "I guess some visits from friends would be nice."
There were other things I would've rather been doing than forcing the arched wooden supports into the bed frame, so when my wife held out the home phone and said it was Elisa, I told her to take a message.
"She says she didn't want to bother Dave Harris because he's on vacation, but she's just curious when you're doing the 5k. She says she wants to do it in memory of Danny Tompkins, too."
I stopped working on the shitty futon and dealt with Elisa.
"Why didn't you tell me Danny Tompkins died?" my wife said.
"You're busy. I didn't think you would care."
"I know that you knew him, Bobby. I'm not gonna pretend I knew him, but I wish that you would tell me things. What happened to him?"
"He committed suicide. That's why I didn't tell you, I know you hate that stuff."
"You should've told me, though. It explains a lot."
"Don't."
"Don't what?" Her voice rose, a just noticeable rise at first, but on its way to a high-pitched feverish madness. "If you can't tell your wife something like that, what can you tell her? Don't you understand that I want to know this stuff so I can be there for you? Now I understand why you've been running and wanting to make changes. If you'd just been up front with me in the first place we could've dealt with this together."
That was the last thing I wanted. I tried to think of the perfect thing to say to her in an awful conversation like this to end it. I ran through the database of my wife's moods and emotions, of her self-righteous principles and expectations, to find what she wanted to hear.
"I do want to deal with this together. It's just that it's so fresh to me. Can I have a little time to process it, and then we can talk?"
I watched her absorb that.
"Were you guys that close?"
I felt myself grimace, but forced a smile.
"Yes," she said, and hugged me. "Do you promise to tell me when you're ready, though? Take the time you need, but remember how healthy it is to open up like this."
"I promise."
Hannah and I met at her house for an early dinner that Monday, after we got off work at three. The two-story house sat at the entrance to a cul-de-sac, and the backyard had seen a lot of work put into it. There was a concrete patio behind the house with an outdoor sectional and a stone island grill, and farther back an in-ground pool. The afternoon air was still and comfortable.
Hannah lay on the sofa, her head propped up by a hand, enjoying me work my magic on the grill. The onions, red and green peppers, and steaks cooked.
"Did you notice how empty the house feels? I didn't realize how much of our stuff was my ex-husband's. Isn't it eerie?"
"It might be a little too big."
"This yard is great, though, and the pool's nice. I wouldn't want to give that up."
"Why is it still closed? Don't most people open their pools on Memorial Day?"
"Do you want to open it for me? I didn't think so. I'll get around to it."
There was a bite in her words that made me turn toward her.
"Is everything all right there, beautiful?"
She sat up and forced a big smile.
"Oh, yeah. Everything's fine."
"Are you sure? You look like somebody kicked your puppy."
"It's just, I don't know....Can we talk about something?"
"Out with it."
"I feel like I keep bringing these really serious things up with you, and I don't mean to, because it isn't like me to be so...clingy, but I have been wondering about this. I know you and your wife are separated, but we haven't exactly talked about your living situation."
"I moved into an apartment, for now at least."
"You know I'm not naive, right? I know that there are a couple of reasons a man wouldn't want to bring me back to his place, and a woman's one of them."
I put the spatula on the serving dish and sat down next to her on the sofa.
"Hannah, I don't think you understand how happy you've been making me. I wouldn't do that to you." Half-truths and half-lies seemed to make for less painful pretenses in the moment. "This means a lot to me."
"It means a lot to me. I like where this is going and I trust you. I just wanted to give you a chance to be up front with me about anything you need to be up front about. If you had something—anything at all—to tell me, we could talk about it and move forward from there."
I stood up.
Innumerable instances of lying came to mind, almost all of them at the institution. A thing I was so accustomed to that it had become an oversight. The learning curve in the early years, having inmates lie to your face about everything, everything, never a straight word, and finding out from others with experience they had lied. The jaded lessons learned through experience: spotting lies, not believing anything secondhand, telling lies of your own with the same grace that convicts had. I almost smiled, possessing the twisted knowledge that regardless of my sincere feelings for this woman I could believe anything I said.
"Why are you so hell bent on there being something I have to tell you?"
"That's not what I'm trying to say. I obviously just have a hard time trusting since my husband, so of course I'm going to be skeptical if something seems too good to be true."
"You're right. I would be, too."
"Tell me I'm wrong and I'll shut up."
"You're not wrong for being smart. But you are wrong if you don't think I'm committed to you."
She hugged me. Her eyes were misty when she pulled away.
"If we're committed to each other then I don't want you living in some crappy apartment, not when I have all this space here. What do you think?" She watched me.  "Bobby? Does that sound good to you?"
"I mean, yeah, I should just talk to my landlord."
"He'll be fine. Tell him he'll find another tenant in no time. Are you sure you want to? I felt like we were on the same page, but if not—"
"No, I do."
The grill's flames had engulfed the peppers and onions, started to char the steak, and we heard the loud sizzling.
"Look, don't burn our food," she said.
I psyched myself up for the conversation with my wife on the way home. She was still in her work clothes, setting the table for supper, two paper plates and a bag with two subs in it.
"I hope subs are okay. It's not the healthiest, but today's been hectic."
"I agree, today has been hectic."
"I just finished a project and already got assigned a new one. 'It's because we know you can handle it,' they say. I could also handle a raise. How are you? What's on your mind?"
"Nothing, I'm just starving."
I didn't have it in me.
#
Dave Harris picked me up on the morning of the race in his dark blue Jeep Wrangler. The doors were off for the season and a warm southwestern wind roared around as we drove on the highway. The sky was a bright gray overcast, the light behind the clouds almost able to burn them off.
"I am really impressed, man," Dave said. "Can I be honest with you? I thought you'd go running a couple of times, maybe struggle through the race with me, and then everything would go back to the same as it was before. But now that I see what you're turning into, I can tell you're serious."
"You gave me the idea, you stud."
"No, take the credit you deserve."
"I invited somebody else, if that's alright."
"The more the merrier."
"She's a new friend of mine, a lady friend."
He laughed at that.
"A lady friend? I don't think I've ever been around somebody who could say that with a straight face before."
"Her name's Hannah."
"Okay then," he said with a couple of nods. "Who am I to judge, right?"
"Yeah?"
"Yeah, don't worry about it, man. It's not like I know your wife...plus you're in the DOC."
"That's fucked up, isn't it?"
"It makes sense. After enough time—hell, I think it only took me two years—the rules, you know, the rules rules, start to go out the window for us. We put ourselves in harm's way every single day, to deal with the people society can't handle. We help them live, just to live, and do their time, even though they're ungrateful pimples on the ass of life. Sure we signed up, but how the hell are we not supposed to get a little bitter toward the world for the sacrifice? And we don't get any of the respect or pomp cops get, either. I'm a firm believer in taking what we want in life, Bobby. You're not gonna find me sitting here thumbing down my nose at you for a little side tail, brother. No, sir."
"I've never really thought about the DOC like that before."
"Explains a lot, doesn't it?"
"Sure."
The race course started at Mansfield High School and looped through a main road and a couple of nearby neighborhoods. The run was in support of the Wounded Warrior Project, and there were uniformed military personnel who would run the race with full gear and boots. A class from the police academy was there also, along with many other supporters.
Dave and I met Elisa and Hannah at the registration table. Elisa, who looked much younger and healthier out of uniform, was ecstatic to meet Hannah.
"You're the reason that Bobby's been in such a good mood lately. I think I'd be in a good mood, too, and I'm straight," was the way she'd put it.
The race was set to start in ten minutes, and people already began to crowd at the starting line.
My phone rang and it was my wife. I walked out of ear shot from the others.
"I have a surprise," she said.
"Excuse me?"
"I said I have a surprise. Turn around and find me in the parking lot."
I must've stammered. Hannah flashed me that healthy smile of hers as I backed toward the parking lot. I held up a finger.
"I know you've been acting differently lately because you want me to be a part of this with you. So here I am."
"You wait until today to make a big romantic gesture?"
"Late is better than never."
She was indeed there in the parking lot, her face present and surreal amid the hoods and trunks and windshields...in a place that in my mind I'd reserved for Hannah and I. She stood by her car, parked miraculously far away from the starting line because of how late she was.
"Baby." She pulled me into a warm hug. "Aren't you glad to see me? Can you believe I did this?"
She looked pleased with herself, and also a little ridiculous in the tight athletic clothing she'd materialized.
“I’m shocked.”
I turned back and did a quick scan of the cluster of people at the starting line. Hannah wasn't looking my way, not at the moment at least. She talked to Elisa and Dave.
There was no way she hadn't been looking, though, wondering why I'd walked past Dave's Jeep.
"I have to talk to you about something," I said. I led her behind her car. A view of us from the starting line was now obscured by an SUV in front of her. "This is such a surprise. No, don't smile. Listen, I'm running the race with other people that you know, but one of them is a new friend."
"A new friend."
"Her name's Hannah."
"Like a lady friend?"
"Yes."
"Why else wouldn't I know about one of your friends? Did we not just talk about how you need to tell me—your wife—these things? Did we not—?"
"Lower your voice."
"No, I will not lower my voice."
"I beg you not to make a scene."
"You're seriously telling me that you're cheating on me? This is really happening?"
"Please stop."
"No." Her voice was loud at this point, head-turning loud. "Fuck you. What am I supposed to be mature about this?"
"You know what? No, fuck you. Too little, too late. I wasn't happy with you. I've already decided to leave you."
I took a step back, expecting shrapnel from that explosion.
"This is how you do it?" she said.
"Well—"
I looked. I made eye contact with Hannah and watched as Elisa turned her away with a firm hold on her shoulders.
"You're running the race with her," my wife said. "She's here right now. Oh my God, I'm gonna be sick. She staggered and I went to help her. "Don't touch me, you jerk, you asshole scumbag. I can't believe this."
The tears came, the hyperventilation, the whole act. I thought to back away.
"Where is she? She can have you but I want her to know how much of a scumbag Bobby Hanlon is. Tell me, where is she? Oh my God, Bobby, I knew this had nothing to do with Danny Tompkins. I knew it." She let out a long, low moan. "You've always been selfish, always," she said with sad conviction.
The runners at the starting line had their knees bent and looked primed for the race to begin. I had not wanted to deal with any of this, and now that it was here, I wanted even less to be a part of it. I thought that I'd be able to have a foot in both worlds, old and new, and that a reconciliation of the two would just happen. I never wanted them to split like this, and in turn force me into a split, rip me apart. My wife looked like she might give chase as I began to back away toward the starting line.
There was a moment of near silence, complete if not for my wife's defeated moans, before the overcast sky let go. Thick rain drops began to make hollow thuds on the hoods around us, apart from one another at first, and then together. The stream was soon constant.
Then a crack went off, the starting gun. I took off toward the others, flooding past the starting line. When I caught up I watched amazed as the rain streamed down Hannah's face, the natural beauty of it, no makeup, no flaws. Hundreds of us ran like kids playing in the rain. Hannah smiled, maybe at me or maybe at the adult thrill of being caught in a torrential downpour you don't mind. I may have been reading into that smile, but it didn't seem as full. I wondered how disappointed she was.
The farther we got from the high school the more the clouds dissipated, the shower passing and being replaced by sun. Hannah remained by my side, and my legs felt great as I ran next to her, but...but I found myself disappointed. I wondered about a woman who'd seen what she'd seen and not gone home, not left me. It struck me as desperate. Yes, she needed me to be the resolution for her husband…but still.
I felt uncertain again. This was another type of uncertainty than the one I’d known before, which she’d briefly sent into remission. The base emotions that came with situations not foreseen, fight or flight with only false catharses and effects that lingered. Those would always seethe within me. In regretful tones this new uncertainty whispered to me its opinion that no matter how many drinks I skipped, how many healthy choices I made, or how many Hannahs there were, I may forever run a loop, threading a noose around my used up time.

My heart beat a little fast now, but I reminded myself to breathe and go at an easy pace.


___
Tommy Scanlan is a correction officer in the Massachusetts Department of Correction. He is also a part-time freelancer. He received his B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts in 2012.