October 4, 2016

CNF/Essay by Michael Gately: "Ghosts"

Michael Gately enjoys hiking, traveling, eating, and spending time with his girlfriend, and cat. 


At sixteen, my wrists were so narrow the cops had to use the plastic zip-tie cuffs so I couldn’t slip out. I looked like a little boy and my tangled pile of blonde hair just made me look like a mop. Sitting Indian style on the side of the road in northwest Indiana, surrounded by smashed cigarette butts and beer cans, I was profoundly terrified the cops would find what I had hidden under the driver’s seat. Hot pavement and dust made it hard to breath. A cloudless, thin blue sky let the sun hammer down unchecked. The bulky, middle aged white cop was on his hands and knees rummaging through my car. A chill shot ice into my bones. Two beats later he stood with a big smile on his face and a plastic bag stuffed with three hundred dollars’ worth of psychedelic mushrooms.

My father played basketball in college while he prepared to enter nursing school. When I was eight, on cold days he would take me to the neighborhood courts to shoot hoops. His jump shots were rusty but always happened just inside the 3-point arc or after he dribbled by an imaginary opponent. I hated the wet ball and only wanted to go home and watch television. We were the only ones out. Those cold days--hammered by winds screaming south from Lake Michigan-- we spent running up and down a faded court.

The back of the squad car was bare and frigid like the moon. The tinny sound of the radio crackled. My cousin had been arrested once and he had sat in his cell screaming obscenities at the officers. I always thought I would be like him if I ever got arrested. “Yeah…” I thought to myself, “…fuck the police.” However, I tried hard to look collected and cordial at the back of the officer’s buzzed head—the same officer who smelled weed in my car and found the mushrooms stuffed under the seat. Hot and sick from nerves, I wished school rules applied. When I got in trouble at school, while being escorted to the principal’s office, I would try to score points with the teacher who would stick in one compliment about my newfound respect before or after they told the principal I was screaming about how my class was somehow in the middle of communist Russia. I was polite to the officer because I thought he would give me a glowing review to the other officers, which would somehow melt their steely hearts, and make them realize they had made an egregious error by arresting me, then, they would apologize and drop me off at my house, which was on the way to the juvenile detention center.

Back in 1928, Grandpa Ed was as tough as the mountains he had to dynamite for coal when he was thirteen years old. The luster of school eluded him so he left Chicago to build roads and put out fires in Grant’s Pass, Oregon. He would send all he made back to his family, keeping $5 for himself to buy candy. Eventually, he found himself jumping out of an airplane over Nazi occupied France. He lived out of a frozen foxhole in Belgium while being shelled daily by artillery. He came home with a hard silence and a German pistol. The pistol was taken by the police when they searched his house after it had been robbed. The silence about the war stayed until his death in 2006.

I was pulled from the police cruiser then shoved through processing. The intake officer was a muscular white guy with a shaved head and tattoos that spiraled up his giant arms. With an air that said he’d done this thousands of times he asked, “Do you have any paraphernalia, drugs, weapons, or needles on you?” I had nothing, but hesitated to speak. Silence was my final comfort. He slouched and looked up. “look, if you don’t tell us now, then we will add a new charge for each piece you don’t tell us about. If it’s on you…, we’ll find it.” He slowed down a blink before I whispered, “No sir.”  
I was taken to the delousing/showering part of the intake process or it may have been the showering/delousing part of the intake process.  The burly officer told me to take off all my clothes. I had wrestled in middle school and was once asked to strip naked in front of my and the other school’s coaches in order to make weight. Six old men stared at a shivering, naked me.  I had stood on top of a digital scale with a locker room full of other wrestlers gawking and sneering at me while they stood in line to have their weight checked. The officer hosed me down with cold water and coated me in delousing powder before rinsing me off. “Hold out your arms and turn in a circle.” The sound of his voice ricocheted all around the walls. The room was the color of wet concrete, windowless and smelled damp with cleaning solvents. After my circle I had to lift up my dick and balls before executing a slow squat. “All right, turn around then bend over,” the intake officer said with a blasé attitude. I did as told.

After processing, I was escorted through two heavy, steel doors and a rec room. There were worn couches upholstered in scratchy fabric, a Ping-Pong table, bookcases filled with books that made the whole room smell like old paper, an old TV with a VHS player, a pool table, windows to other rooms, and then another heavy door, but this one was red. The cellblock was a long rectangle with twenty rooms wrapping around all but one side. I was being walked to my room during solitary quiet time. Pin drop silence.
Little windows crisscrossed with shatterproof wires were on all the doors. Behind the windows were faces. The odd comfort of structure and order from being processed was rapidly vanishing and was replaced with a dread of floating in the middle of an ocean in total darkness. Through a cell window, a face stood stood out more than the others. This face had something under it I could not see but then I realized it was a long finger pointing at me then slowly back at the face behind it. A plug of adrenaline dropped into my gut when I now existed in the heads of the other juvenile delinquents. I was something new to them, a curiosity from a world they’ve been cut off from completely for days or longer. The next moment I was in the middle of my cell still filled with the echo of the heavy door slamming into place. My cell had a plastic bed pad, an itchy blanket, and a stained pillow, which were all framed with clawed-in messages of John loves weed, or Fuck you fag, all the way to, I’m going to kill myself. Also, there was a steel commode to my right.
I kept thinking about that guy who pointed at me. Humiliating scenes of him breaking and beating me into submission played on the concrete walls of my room. A guard’s voice announced quiet time was over. My door swung open. I stepped out.  

When my great uncle Elmer was a teenager, he was doing deep cover special operations in Burma against Japanese forces during WWII. His unit flew two hundred miles in silent gliders into the enemy jungle. It was a one-way ticket and, when they landed, they had to fight, outnumbered, until there was no one left to fight. He had a team of mules that humped supplies through the jungle surrounded by tigers, pythons, giant mosquitoes, malaria, dysentery, and thousands of battle-hardened Japanese infantry. My dad once told me how Elmer was after the war. Always, before bed, Elmer would remind his family to never touch or wake him. He was mortified of killing them.  Those years spent in muddy foxholes in the dark jungle, always with the possibility of getting his throat cut or worse, had conditioned him to strike with a knife he believed he still carried.

The ominous pointer was tall and sunburnt with chapped lips wrapped around sharp, crooked teeth. His eyes looked yellow, like his bleached hair. I squinted and took in his wiry frame as his eyes flared up at the sight of me. His arms were draped out like a bat with that same grin.   “Holy shit, Mike, it’s me…Mike!” The pointer turned out to be a guy I bagged groceries with at our town’s supermarket. “Oh my god, you scared the shit out of me,” I said with relief. Mike had been locked up for trying to steal sixty cases of beer from a grocery store the one we worked at-- but something went wrong for he was telling me what happened in the rec room of a juvenile detention center. I got answers to questions I never asked while in that room, information I would never use,
“yeah man, my girlfriend will only suck my dick if I wear fruit flavored condoms,” “yeah that kid threw his sister down a flight of stairs-- don’t fuck with him” (I did use that piece of advice).
“Chug anything with pseudoephedrine in it and you will trip hard.
More gems existed in that conversation, but for the life of me, I cannot remember, but I took it all in while keeping my mouth shut.

Four days later I was sitting shackled to a wooden bench in front of a judge. My dad was to my right, but separated by an oak railing and the bailiff. Every noise seemed loud and menacing. I could hear every fiber of the lawyer’s and other delinquents’ parents’ clothes scratching against the rough fabric of the chairs. The bailiff’s knee cracked as he shifted his weight. The judge’s shiny robe swished about as she scanned my case file. She was short with tan skin and black hair. Her voice was firm like hard earth. “Michael,” she began, “after reviewing your file the court has decided to release you into the recognizance of your father.” I was frantic to get out. I had not been outside in five days and hadn’t felt the sun on my face without the shatterproof glass casting its crisscross veil over me. The judge continued, “Also, you will be required to complete six-months of supervised probation and fifteen hours of community service. You may go.” My father said nothing to me as we walked to his car. The sun was ferocious and raised swirls of heat from the black asphalt of the parking lot. The thick smell of corn from the fields to the south put the taste of salt on my tongue.

Eleven years later, at the high school where I teach, a student of my own was arrested for drugs. He had pale skin and greasy black hair with fingernails chewed to jagged edges. He walked into class to have me sign his withdrawal form. I signed the form, told him good luck, and then shook his hand. I wondered if he remembered the correct order in which he was showered then deloused. I doubt he does. 

~Michael Gately

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