The privileges of being unpublished and having a swiftly dwindling blog readership: I can moan and whine about being unread without worrying about tons of people rolling their eyes at my pity party…
(In case anybody is worried, I wrote this at home, comfortably curled on the couch, and no blood was involved.)
When the novella, the collection of short stories and the eight different magazine articles didn’t sell, Jack was unperturbed; he didn’t expect many publishers to be excited about publishing a convict. When his paper ran out, he used a day’s food money to bribe the prison guard for more paper. When he ran out of ink he didn’t eat for two days to save enough to bribe the guard to bring more and when he did get it the ink was watery. But he didn’t complain.
Jack wasn’t much of a talker; and when he did speak, he stuttered. He was big and lumpish and always moved as if he was afraid he might break something, but any time he was in his cell, he was writing. Word in the prison was that Jack had stabbed his last cellmate after the cellmate had torn up some papers Jack at been using to write. Jack had been there so long nobody knew if it was true, but he certainly looked like the kind of person who would kill over something stupid like a book.
The only person Jack ever had conversations with was with the guard that patrolled the lower dungeon on Tuesdays and Thursdays, one Roland Ellison, a skinny man over fond of brilliantine and his own wit.
One Tuesday afternoon, Jack shuffled up to the window as the guard marched past. He held out a sheaf of paper. “Will you t-t-t-ake this to Handson and Tarrow’s? And,” he mumbled, his ears red, “I n-need more ink.”
The guard stopped and stared down his nose at him, twirling his moustaches idly. “Two days of bread money.”
“Well, take it or leave it, your choice…” Ellison continued walking. Jack gritted his teeth, clenched his fists and raised his voice, “Alright!”
The guard stepped back and put a hand on his hip, surveying the massive, lumpish person standing on the other side of the bars. He raised an eyebrow, waiting.
Jack scowled and muttered, “Please.” He held the papers forward, through the bars. “It’s a b-b-b-book.”
“A whole book this time?” The guard snatched them out of his hand a thumbed through them with his lip curled. He waved them at Jack. “Why do you do this? Nobody cares. Nobody’s going to read anything you have to say.”
Jack’s bulgy face showed no emotion, but he twisted his hands in front of him like a bashful schoolboy. “Mebbe something I say will h-help somebody. Mebbe somebody’ll think the words are…b-b-b-beautiful.” His voice faded away as the guard’s face spasmed with suppressed laughter.
“Buh-buh-buh-yewtiful. If that isn’t the stupidest…. Beauty? Who cares? And who cares what you think about beauty? And…can I just reiterate here—nobody wants to read you!”
He shook his head, rolled the papers into a scroll and stuck them in his back pocket. “Have the money by Thursday.” He said. “And I’ll bring you ink..”
Jack nodded and watched the curl of his book sticking out of Ellison’s coat pocket as he walked on down the corridor.
Thursday came and went. Ellison didn’t come. All of Jack’s ink was gone. The other guards just laughed at him or ignored him. On Tuesday, Jack was at his cell door again, waiting for Ellison’s shift to begin, desperate to hear about his novel and get his new pot of ink. A dim figure in guard’s clothes started down the corridor and Jack stuck his hand out of the bars, uncaring that Ellison hated to be hailed by the prisoners. “Hey! Ellison!”
But a strange man stopped and peered in at him and Jack withdrew his hand, momentarily confused. “I-I thought you were Ellison. H-he had…ink for me.”
The unfamiliar guard snorted. “Yeah, you know why Ellison isn’t here anymore? Illegal bartering with prisoners.”
Jack blinked and then stumbled into more words than he was accustomed to. “But…He’s not here? D-d-did he say anything about my book? He was sup-p-posed to take my book. Can you get me ink?”
The guard chuckled. “Oh, right…you’re the madman who writes all the time. You know what they found in Ellison’s cupboard when he left? A three foot high stack of papers with writing all over them. We used them for kindling yesterday. Thanks to you, my toes were toasty warm last night.”
He spun around and continued down the hall, his boots clicking on the flagstones. Jack stood at the cell door and stared through the bars, unseeing.
After the echoes of the guard’s footsteps had faded and the only noises were the skitter of rats and the drip of water, Jack walked the exactly nine steps to the back of his cell and sat down in the grit and dirt on the floor. He stared at the wall, moving something from hand to hand methodically. The afternoon light from the cubbyhole on the wall fell into the room and made the object visible—a shiv, fashioned out of a spoon.
Jack held out his hand in front of him. It trembled slightly. And then he sliced the shiv across his finger, squeezed it until the blood welled up, raised his finger to the wall, and began to write.