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Song of the Jailbird

The sweet lament of the harmonica was our only means of comfort. The whistling falsetto that coasted in and out of the cold steel bars rendered each prisoner’s eyes nothing more than soaped windows. Today was no different than any other day; I still awoke with a juicy thumper of a headache. I still felt more like a paper cutout of myself rather flesh and blood; with time Alcatraz will do that to a man. And as I gazed into the grimy pool of water sloshing in my boots on the cell floor, once again I still couldn’t believe how far Emmett R. Danton had fallen.

My shining silver mane of hair that had once been the pride of my old age had sprouted six or seven inches taking the configuration of a grubby mop. Wrinkles knitted the very patchwork of my skin and my teeth scissored together like yellow sea glass. My blue eyes had long since sunken into the back of my skull as a result of the ever-present cloud of mosquitoes ricocheting off them and feeding on collected eye residue. To be plastered in this clownish orange jumpsuit is the worst though. Darlene would have gone catatonic at the sight of her once renowned English professor of a husband now rotting in a hell hole of festering diseases, lingering ghosts, and everlasting darkness alongside hundreds of other lost souls that altogether define Alcatraz.

I shook my head halfheartedly and my shabby, mildew-bathed boots scraped against the cell bars, echoing like nails on a chalkboard as I traipsed back to my cot. Carter Ridgemont raised his head at the sound and grinned toothlessly at me from his cell adjacent to mine. He fit in as far as looks go as he too appeared decades older than he actually was; but unlike the rest of us he was new here, arriving only the day before yesterday. My eyes locked with this younger but grizzled fellow prisoner wallowing in self-pity before my glazing over our adjoining cells. Suddenly my recumbent professor’s brain sprang into action as I noticed the shackles choking our swollen feet were linked through the bars; two jailbirds may dawn the evening sky yet.

I hissed over to him. “Carter! Look old friend, our chains are connected! If we work together we should be able to cut loose!”

Carter arched his eyebrows and a soft twinkle Alcatraz had not yet extinguished escaped his eyes while he nodded, than began twisting his beard thoughtfully.
“What we need is a great feat of strength,” he murmured back.

It was almost too easy.
“Carter you son of a gun! Don’t you see; now that you are here, together we have great strength of feet!”

Never before had I seen a man smile like Carter did just then. It had the unmistakable mixture of all the absurdity you would expect from a criminal marked with the brand of innocence you would expect from the Artful Dodger. It was brilliant though for you see the shackles binding our gnarled boots were too tough for one man to break through, but with two it just might be enough. I remembered the guards walked by this hallway every twenty minutes or so and that meant we would have to work in increments. After informing Carter of this, for four solid hours we battered away at our braces, just two men with one common desire: the sweet, salty smell of unrestricted American freedom. We mumbled occasionally about our sentences while we worked. He had been convicted as an accomplice to a murder down in Sacramento while I had been stuffed in here some twenty odd years against my will. He had a wife and three kids expecting him for supper tonight; they had no idea about his whereabouts or woebegone fate. I thought to myself about how long it had been since I’d seen Darlene.

Just then the chain yielded to our incessant mauling and made a loud crack as it caked in two, like I knew it would in its rust-soaked condition. We held our breath and listened but unbelievably no guards came. Slick as a mongoose running from a fox we slipped out of our chains than quick as a fox chasing a mongoose, we dashed out the spacious back window and at last we were free as birds! Until all of a sudden, we weren’t.

Carter yelped as a guard anticipatingly snatched his flailing ankles and tugged him down into three other guards’ outstretched hands. They came for me just as placidly, as if nothing were out of the ordinary here, as if they were expecting us. A band of guards dragged us through the front iron doors and back to our separate dungeons, all the while the picture of monotony. I glanced at Carter and he appeared just as dumbstruck as me.

As the head guard refashioned our fetters once more around both pairs of exhausted boots, I could hear a chorus of laughter all around us from neighboring cells.

“Don’t sweat it kid,” croaked an old hermit from across the way to Carter, “that’s what happens when you’re neighbors with ‘déjà vu Danton’.”

Who does this guy think he is addressing me as-?

CRACK! Carter Ridgemont flinched as the guard’s wooden stick came crashing down on his newfound partner in crime’s head.

The sweet lament of the harmonica was our only means of comfort…



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