Anyways (January 2022)
By John Bukowski
“I can see you don’t believe me.”
“It’s not that,” I said.
And it wasn’t — not really. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him; I didn’t believe any of them. Not anymore. Working with prisoners, especially those on death row, you learned to hang onto your incredulity. They were God’s children of course. But they were also, almost without exception, first-class liars, manipulators, conmen, and worse.
I used to think, back when I was a new priest and a new psychologist, that men on death row, those facing the prospect of meeting the Lord sooner than most of us (or so we hope), were more likely to be truthful, especially to a priest. After all, they had nothing to lose and eternal salvation to gain. But time and happenstance were good teachers. And twenty years of lessons had taught me to doubt even the most ardent inmate’s story told in the most ardent fashion. Even stories that seemed plausible, which this one most definitely did not. In fact, this one seemed so implausible that I assumed J. Robert Coswell was setting up an insanity defense, hitching his hopes of changing the needle into life in a mental hospital onto my professional credentials rather than my clerical ones.
“Why didn’t this come up at your trial, Bob? Surely your attorney could have set up … well … a different defense strategy.”
I smiled sadly in reply.
“My public defender thought it was, well, too incredible to be believable. Do you remember an old movie, Father? Had Jimmy Stewart in it. Anatomy of a Murder?”
“Sorry, it doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Anyways, Ben Gazzara has been arrested for murdering the man who raped his wife. Up in some place in northern Michigan, I think. Anyways, he knew right from wrong, so he wasn’t insane — not legally. But he still gets off.”
“How did he do that?”
“Irresistible impulse. After all, the man had just raped his wife. He was a soldier, reacting to stress the way soldiers react.” Bob shrugged. “He really had no choice, no conscious choice.”
“And how does this apply to your case?” I asked.
“It doesn’t. My point is his defense was plausible. Old Ben wove a tale of feeling out of body. Not really remembering the deed. Distant shots. Coming out of it later, seeing the empty gun.” He shrugged again. “Plausible.” His eyes smiled, so that the scar above his right one crinkled. “That’s the problem with telling the truth when the truth is unbelievable. It’s the truth, and you’re stuck with it.”
“Well,” I said, “people can have delusions too. Couldn’t that be a plausible defense.”
“Delusions yes,” he replied. “Hearing voices. Thinking the IRS has bugged your refrigerator. Thinking your wife is a p art of a communist conspiracy. Your typical, run-of-the-mill delusions.” He waved his arms wide. “Not … not this.”
I watched as he lit a cigarette from the pack on the bed, tendrils of smoke turning the incandescent light into a saintly halo. He offered me the pack. I refused, politely.
“Anyways, I was examined by two psychiatrists, one a prison doc, the other a friend of my PD. Both found that I knew right from wrong.” He smiled. “And both found my story to be, let’s say farfetched. So farfetched as to be made up. Not imagined, envisioned by a disturbed mind, but concocted. Spun out of whole cloth by a desperate man without the smarts to come up with something plausible.” He blew more smoke into the already misty cell and smiled his weary smile. “Too original to be trusted. In a word — unbelievable. As unbelievable as you’d find it if you heard it all.”
“Why don’t you try me?”
And so, he did.
It was fifteen months ago. I’d been walking on Main in downtown, Dayton. Just north of the community college. Maybe you know it. Anyways, I hadn’t eaten in a couple days, so I was going to try panhandling by the traffic light up ahead. It’s a long light, and if the cops don’t see you, you can guilt some teacher or student into rolling down the window, passing over a buck or half a rock or thirty-six cents — something (today’s kids have more spare cash than I did as a kid). Anyways, it adds up. Eventually, it adds up to a Big Mac or a Whopper, or a bottle of Wild Irish Rose.
There was a trash bin outside the QuickPick with some cardboard sticking out of it, sticking straight up like a stiff prick. Scuse me, Father. Anyways, I had a crayon in my pocket, a kind of purple. What was left of the paper had only ‘magent’ printed below the worn-down wax. I found it outside Denny’s; they hand them out to go with the puzzle place mats for the kiddies. Anyways, I was going to make a sign with the crayon and cardboard. You know, one of those pathetic signs you see, like ‘Haven’t eaten’ or ‘Disabled vet’ or ‘Will work for food,’ which I always thought was stupid cause if you were willing to work, you wouldn’t be panhandling. I was going to try ‘Please help me.’ It’s simple, to the point, and don’t require no lying.
Anyways, I was heading to this trash barrel, the wire kind, with this stiff … this cardboard sticking out of it. There was nobody watching, I remember because I was thinking I could rifle the can for any goodies that might be tossed out. Still kinda embarrassing doing that when people are watching, although thinking back, I kinda wish someone had been watching.
Anyways, I had just reached the barrel when I hear this popping sound. Two pops, real fast, like somebody poked a pin into a bunch of balloons. “Pop! Pop!” I remember thinking maybe that’s what happened, somebody in the QuickPick popped a couple of balloons.
Anyways, I turned toward the store and the door flew open. And this guy comes tumbling out - that’s the only way I can describe it. It was like he was running and falling all at the same time. He was dressed in this kinda shabby gray coat, just like I had on, and these beat-to-shit jeans, scuse me again Father, just like mine. And he goes sprawling onto the sidewalk, flat on his can. I hear this clanking sound of something hitting the concrete, and then I see the bag he was holding. Did I mention he had a paper bag? Anyways, the bag he was holding goes flying. It hits the lamppost next to the trash barrel and a bunch of green puffs out, like someone blew on a dandelion. Poof!
At first, I don’t know what it is, but as I’m reaching to give him a hand up, wiping my hand on my jeans first cause people sometimes don’t want to take the dirty hand of a bum, even when they’re on their prat. Anyways, I reach down to help him up, and I see the green is money. There’s a five, a twenty, and two tens lying there next to the bag. Anyways, the guy takes my hand and I pull him up, still looking at the lettuce on the sidewalk, not him. Then I hear this voice that sounds familiar, but not quite familiar, like you’re talking to your brother on a phone with a bad earpiece. And he says, “Thanks.” Just that one word, kind of matter of fact. Then I look at his face. Figure I’ll hit him up for a loan. Bear in mind, at this point I’m not thinking about those two pops or a robbery maybe just took place. I’m still thinking about that cash on the ground and maybe scoring a Hamilton or even a Jackson out of the deal. Anyways, I look at his face, my eyes a little downcast but still, you know, looking at his face, and I start to say, “No problem, mister. You think maybe …”
And that’s as far as I get when I realize his face is familiar, even more familiar than his voice. So familiar that at first, I don’t recognize him, like the way you don’t recognize a friend when you see him someplace unexpected like AA or the unemployment line. Anyways, it takes me a second, but it finally dawns. It’s me. Get that? Me. Not somebody who looks like me, maybe a cousin or brother, but me, me right down to the same color hair, same grey flecks in it, same five-O shadow, hell even same scar above the right eye where the bottle hit me that time. Me. He’s even dressed like me, Nikes with a hole by the left toe and everything.
So anyways, I don’t know what to say, I just stand there looking, him holding my hand, me staring. We probably stood that way for just a few seconds, but it seemed longer in my head, minutes maybe, me staring, us holding hands. And then he smiles. Just like that. And I think to myself, he even has my chipped tooth. Then he reaches down and snatches up the bag. And then he turns and runs down the street and around the corner.
What did I do? I just stood there, staring, listening to a distant siren get louder, thinking what the hell happened. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like a dream. Like maybe I dreamed it or hallucinated it or something. The more I thought like that, the more it felt like that, until part of me believed that it was that; I’d hallucinated it. But another part, a part buried under the first part, knew it wasn’t no hallucination.
Anyways, I finally tear my eyes away from where he, I mean I, used to be standing. Mind you, by this time, I’m not even sure that what happened did happen. Then I look down and see the four bills still lying there on the concrete. Without even thinking about it, I stoop down and scoop em up. It was instinct, ya know? When you been on the bum awhile, you’re always looking down for spare change, a greenback, bottle deposit, whatever. And when you see something, you scoop it up, without even thinking. Which is what I did. I mean forty-five bucks is quite a score for a morning’s bum.
But as I’m reaching to stuff the money in my jeans, I see something else lying on the sidewalk, about ten feet or so in front of me. It’s blackish blue and got a rubber handle. That’s when I realize it’s a gun, one of those snubby-nosed ones the detectives used to carry on TV. Now (finally, you’re probably thinking) I realize what just went down. I’m also realizing maybe it’s time to get out of Dodge while the getting’s good. So, I look behind me, kind of sly-like to see if anybody’s watching. Nobody was, which seemed good at the time, but which later seemed a real shame.
So, anyways, I start to walk away when that distant siren becomes a cop cruiser barreling down the street, wigwags flashing. I stop and the car stops, right in front of me, the bumper over the curb. I kind of step back, hands out, kind a startled like whoa what is this, and two cops come busting out of the car yelling. One has his gun on me over the roof of the cruiser. The other has me against the wall, hands behind my back sporting a brand-new set of bracelets courtesy of Dayton PD. The cash I was holding hits the sidewalk. The cop scoops it up, just like I done, and breathes this bad breath, smelled like steak and cheese burrito with hot sauce, against my face, real close like he was gonna kiss me. Then he says, “Lookee what we got here!”
“And that’s my story, Father. I told you you wouldn’t believe it.”
“What about the gun?” I said. “Surely there were fingerprints.”
He nodded. “Yep. Good ones. Matched mine exactly.” He snubbed his butt next to the others sitting in the ashtray, then lit another cigarette from the pack I’d brought. “Twenty-five points of similarity. That’s what the DA said. Only takes twenty to do a spot-on match.”
“And the security camera in the store?”
He laughed. “It was working fine. Had a nice picture of me stealing cash and popping the clerk two times.” He shook his head. “I don’t blame you for not believing me. I’m no longer sure I believe me.”
“You have to admit, Bob, it is rather hard to believe.” He just smiled. “But if that’s what happened, how do you account for it?”
He blew a jet through his nose, then wiped eyes that were either crying or smoke stung.
“I remember seeing a Twilight Zone rerun when I was a kid,” he said. “It was on WDTY, one of the free stations you could get on rabbit ears. We didn’t have no cable. Anyways, it was about this woman in a bus depot. Kept thinking she’d done one thing, when the night clerk tells her she did other things. She gets real confused at first, but then gets scared. She tells this guy, it was that actor from Adam 12, she tells him that she’d read that once in a while, hell, once in a blue moon, our dimension connects with another, parallel one. Kind of a door opens where they butt heads. And ...” He pointed his cigarette at me, “this is the interesting part. Somebody from that dimension can come busting into ours. And since that dimension is like ours, almost identical, well then, the people are almost identical. There’s another you, another me. But they’re not quite the same, just a little different. Maybe in that one, you became a banker instead of a priest. Maybe I became a criminal instead of just a bum.” He shrugged. “Something to think about.”
“And is that what you think happened?” I asked.
He smiled. “You tell me.”
“Good night, Father.”
“Good night, Jeanine,” I said to the gate guard behind her bulletproof plastic.
“Did you forget something?”
“I was just wondering what you went back for.”
“Back? Back where?”
“Back to C block.”
“Back to C block?” I asked. “I didn’t go back to C block. I just left C block.”
She laughed, her large bosom quivering under the uniform shirt like a minor tremor on the Richter scale. “I don’t mean to doubt your word, Father. But you came past here about fifteen minutes ago, kind of in a hurry. I waved a goodnight, then went back to my paperwork. So, I figured you went back for something while I was looking down, wondered what it was.”
“Well, it wasn’t me.”
Her laughter kind of trailed off, like someone does when the leg pulling has gone a little too far. “Then it was some other priest who looks just like you and walks just like you. I guess that must have been it, huh?” She winked.
Strange? Yes. But I chalked it up to the inattention of a guard who was focused on her paperwork (or crossword puzzle, more likely). She’d obviously seen a blur of someone approximately my build, perhaps a visiting lawyer in a black suit. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had dismissed it, as we tend to do with anything we don’t understand.
I’d parked my Toyota next to the State of Ohio DOC van, a big van that was easy to spot, a parking place that was easy to remember. The big van was still there, it hadn’t moved, but my little car was gone, leaving only an oil stain on the macadam. I hunted around the lot a bit, even though I knew where I’d parked it, had made a mental note in fact, but it was nowhere to be found.
I reported it stolen to the police of course. Seeing that it was state prison, that was easy enough to do. I was informed a few days later that it was seen leaving the prison by two persons. Both were sober and reliable, a tower guard and a maintenance man I’d spoken with on a few occasions. Both were certain that I had been behind the wheel.
That was ten years ago, back when I had a certain standing in the church and in the professional community. Back when I had a thriving practice with patients ranging from high-school students to senior citizens, from inmates to corporate CEOs. Back before the three charges of sexual misconduct, before the accusations of embezzlement. The church tried to hush it up, but there was only so much the bishop could do. So, I got to experience prison life from the inside. I protested my innocence of course, despite the implausibility of my tale, despite the credible eyewitnesses, despite the unimpeachable DNA evidence. But as the late J. Robert Coswell so aptly said, that’s the problem with telling the truth when the truth is unbelievable. You’re stuck with it.
So, that’s my story. Probably not the one you expected buying for the price of a drink. If you don’t believe it, buy me another and I’ll make one up. Actually, I don’t blame you if you don’t believe me. You can chalk it up to the ravings of a drunken, defrocked ex-con if you like. After all, you know what they say about us ex-cons, we are, almost without exception, first-class liars, manipulators, con men … and worse.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: John Bukowski (website / Facebook) is a health researcher and medical writer with myriad technical publications such as journal articles, op-eds, consumer handbooks, radio scripts, and website content. Published short stories include Days of our Lives (The Rabbit Hole: Weird Tales v.1), Gentleman Caller (Digitally Disturbed), Ways of Love (Frost Zone Zine), The Journey (TL;DR Press), A Special Occasion (Makarelle), and Take me to your Lowenbrau (Of Rust and Glass). Favorite authors include Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Stephen Hunter, Robert Parker, Poe, Lovecraft, and Hemingway. Hobbies include old movies, singing, acting, military history, jazz, and Facebooking. He’s currently working on the great American thriller novel in the Tennessee home he shares with his wife and a dysfunctional dog named Alfie.