FEATS OF DERRING-DO
peter rawlings


I had crashed my car into a tree and, in a fit of anger, decided to punch out the police officer who had stopped to survey the damage. So I was now in a holding cell in the county jail, in solitary confinement.

The cell was small and windowless, about six by six feet. Just enough room for me to stretch out on the concrete floor. I had to make do without a bed, though, and I had trouble falling asleep.

I marked time by means of the tuna fish sandwiches that were delivered to me twice daily through a little slot in the metal door of the cell. The sandwiches were wrapped in cellophane. They were a bit crusty and stale, but they tasted pretty good. My second evening sandwich was always accompanied by a nice, soft sugar cookie, which was how I knew when the sun had set outside and another day had passed. Eventually I learned that the guards would provide me with an extra sandwich or two if I asked. I left these excess sandwiches in their wrappers and stacked them on the floor in one corner of the room. I used them as my pillow and then I slept just fine.

I had grown accustomed to the eerie calm of that room, and had even begun to enjoy the uninterrupted time it allowed me to sit and stew and think my angry thoughts. So after several days of silent sulking, I was surprised to hear a deep, gruff voice singing a jaunty song from somewhere in the darkness nearby. The voice was singing an old British folk ditty. It was a sad song about ghosts and lost love and I couldn't make out the words. The voice repeated the song several times, and then it stopped.

“That’s a nice song,” I croaked. My vocal cords were a bit out of practice and I was startled by the loudness of my voice.

The voice asked, “What?”
“I said that’s a nice song.”
“That’s a nice a song?” asked the voice. “Did I hear that correctly?”
“Yes, you did.”

I stood there for a few minutes awaiting a reply, but the voice didn’t respond. It was done singing for now. I sprawled out on the floor and nestled my head into my thicket of tuna fish sandwiches and was soon asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the voice started singing again. Or rather, not singing, but moaning in a vaguely tuneful and rhythmic manner, repeating a few tired phrases of lament. The cell was cold. The floor was hard. That sort of thing.

The voice abruptly stopped singing. “Are you asleep?” it asked, adopting the familiar tone and inflection of conversational English.

“Yes, I am,” I said.
“How can you be asleep?” asked the voice.
“I’m tired.”
“I’ve been here three days now and I haven’t slept a wink. The floor is so cold.”
“I have extra sandwiches,” I said. “I’m using them as a pillow.”

The voice introduced itself to me. It belonged to a man named Abraham. He said some interesting things. He proposed several ill-conceived escape plans. He complained of a skin rash. He had an ex-wife, or at least a girlfriend of some sort, with whom he had fathered twin boys. He was expecting a visit from his children the following morning. When I asked by what crime he had arrived in this cell he claimed to have “lived too long amongst these tribes of men.”

I had my ear to an air vent, taking all this in. This vent was forever piping cold, stale air into our cells, despite this being December and our rooms already quite chilly. The hum of the machine-driven air caused his voice to reach my ear with a strange, warbly timbre. Perhaps this effect is why his gentle crooning had been so unsettling.

I heard a rattling sound echo through the vent and then Abraham said, “I’m coming over there.”

“What?” I asked.
“I’m going to crawl over to your cell,” said Abraham.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“I need to talk,” he said. “I need some company.”
“We’re talking right now,” I said, “through this vent. I can hear you fine from over there.”
“I can’t sleep over here. I don’t have any sandwiches.”

“I think you should stay in your cell,” I told him. “The guards will be coming through again soon.”

Truthfully, there were probably still several hours before breakfast, but I guessed that Abraham had not devised my same elaborate time-telling methods.

“It’s okay,” said Abraham. “I just need a little shuteye. Two men can lie together and that doesn’t make them gay.”

The slotted metal frame at Abraham’s end of the vent clanged to the floor and he grunted and wheezed as he hoisted himself into the narrow passage. I stepped back and looked at that vent. It didn’t look wide enough for a grown man. Abraham huffed and puffed as he struggled to squeeze his way to my cell.

“Are you alright?” I asked him.
“Oof,” he said. “Almost there.”

I unclasped the grate that covered the opening of my end of the vent and leaned it against the wall. I stood on my tiptoes and peered into the darkness. Cold air blew in my eyes. Then Abraham’s big, beery face emerged from the void. His face was large and completely filled the hole in my wall. He was slithering towards me with his arms at his side like a snake. A snake has no arms, though.

“Oh, hi,” I said.
“Ahoy,” said Abraham.

His head protruded from the wall now, the way you sometimes see a moose or some other such great game beast mounted magnificently over a roaring fire or a leather chair. His shoulders were still pinned behind him in that vent, however, and it was clear he had not anticipated an armless descent.

“How are you going to get down from there?” I asked him. “Do you want me to try to catch you?”

I said this to be friendly. I seriously doubt I could have caught what I figured to be the quite hefty body hidden behind that gigantic head of his.

“Maybe,” Abraham said. He jostled his shoulders back and forth. “Wait a minute. I think I’m stuck.”

“Do you need help?” I asked him.
“Hold on,” he said.
“Should I try to tug you out?”

He made a second attempt to wrest himself free. Then he said, “No. Okay. Let her rip.”

I stood below his head and reached up and clasped my hands around his neck. Poor Abraham, I thought. This plump old man, trapped like Santa himself, trying to sneak down some unlucky child’s chimney. He looked exactly like Santa Claus as a matter of fact, with his dry, rosy cheeks and his big, fluffy beard, which was now dangling above my head, obscuring my view and making it difficult to get a good hold on his fleshy neck. He was wedged in there pretty good.

“This isn’t going to work,” I told him.
“You mean I’m stuck here?” he asked.
“I think so.”
After a few minutes he asked, “Could you bring me a sandwich, then?”
“You want something to eat?”
“Yes, please.”
I fetched one of the sandwiches from my stack and unwrapped it.
“You want me to feed you?” I asked.
“Please,” said Abraham.

I tore the sandwich into chunks and stood beneath his head, feeding him occasional handfuls of food. When it was gone he asked for another. I fetched one for myself, too. Abraham polished his off and I wiped the crumbs from his mouth with my sleeve.

We talked for a while. He told me some more things about his children, the twins. He referred to them somewhat derisively as Heckle and Jeckle. He had been right; it was good to see another human being in the flesh. He serenaded me with another one of his tunes and I drifted happily to sleep.

A little while later I awoke to find my cell door open and somebody’s knee stuck between my shoulder blades. Two prison guards were working a ladder, extracting Abraham from the vent. The third guard, of course, was the one pinning me to the ground.

To my surprise, the guards had no trouble removing Abraham from his perch. They had a pair of over-sized pliers and a tub of thick, yellow jelly at the ready. They had probably seen this sort of thing before. Soon they had him lubed up and out of there.

We were handcuffed and escorted to separate rooms and set down in folding chairs in front of long, wooden tables. I assume Abraham’s room was similar to my own. I did not see it. As I said, we were separated. But every single room in these places is always exactly the same.

A thin, hairless officer sat down across from me. He asked me some questions about what he referred to as our devious escape attempt.
“Is that your friend in there?” he asked.
“I just met him last night,” I said.
“I see. So you two concocted this plot together?”
“He wasn’t trying to escape,” I explained. “He wanted some company.”
“And what, exactly, did you think this would accomplish?” asked the officer. “These walls are impenetrable.” He gestured grandly with a sweep of his arm.
“I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything,” I said. “I was just trying to be friendly.”

He asked me to explain what had happened from the beginning and I told him for the most part what I’ve told you here. For some reason, this seemed to satisfy him. He offered me a sandwich, which I refused out of spite. I was hungry and regretted doing that.

The officer exited the room and left me to sit for a few hours. That was fine with me. I was used to sitting.

Eventually, I was taken to the front desk of the prison, where, to my astonishment, I was released. Perhaps I had awed them into submission with my feats of derring-do, I thought. But no, this was not the case. I guess they decided I hadn’t been trying to escape after all. In any case, I was out on bail. I gave them eighty dollars. When I handed over the money, they swore they would give it back to me at some point if I promised not to cross state lines.

Abraham was out of luck, however. He was back in his cell and there he would stay. The officers had determined that he was to blame for our shenanigans. Is it wrong, do you think, that I thought this was somehow fair?

There were many people milling around the entrance to the county jail. They were coming and going. I picked my way through the hustle and bustle towards the exit. My car was parked only a few blocks away, where I had crashed it. Luckily, it still ran okay.

Near the doorway I spotted two boys. They had brown hair and round, chubby faces. I recognized them immediately as Heckle and Jeckle. Abraham’s girlfriend or ex-wife must have dropped them off there at some point. I did not see their mother around, though. I sidled up to them and said hello. I thought maybe they could use a ride home, now that a visit with Abraham was out of the question. If they’d had a different father they might have known better than to accept offers of car rides from people like me.

So we walked together into the great, wide world outside. Bright, multi-colored lights hung from the trees and the houses. It was night again. It was Christmas Eve.

 

Peter Rawlings is twenty-three years old and lives in upstate New York.