Volume 23, Number 1

Fly the Yard

Diana Brawley Sussman

One hour a day in the county jail yard, like it’s some reward, more a cage than the cage. Mannon—Mike Mannon, stands still, not a pacer or a player. He’s waiting for the pull-up bar, waiting to get his feet off the ground. Cell block full of men, most fighting to bounce that one basketball off that one rim. Blinding white walls, paint shiny-thick on the cinderblocks, must be thirty, forty feet high and nowhere a foothold, not even a crack anywhere, or a weed poking through. Can’t even tell he’s outside except for the goddamn sun searing through that concentrated blue rectangle of sky, the hot light of it bouncing down on him like he’s an ant sizzling under a magnifying glass.

He once saw his son Michael, about six years ago, holding a plastic magnifier over an ant. “Trying to fry the fucker,” Michael said.

“You’re twelve,” he’d said to Michael. “Not supposed to talk like that, especially to your own Daddy.”

“You do.” Michael had no sense that anyone had any authority over him, still doesn’t. He’d bounced from grandmother to grandmother, from his mother Larissa and her four other kids, and then more and more to Mannon himself once his wife Dana came into the picture and settled him down, cooled everything down, just to think of her now did a little bit to ease the sun. Michael was the worst with Dana.

“Did you clean up your mess in the living room like Dana told you before you came out here to torture the ants?”

“I ain’t gonna listen to no white lady.”

“Listen to you. You sound like a parody of yourself.”

“What’s a parody? You mean like a parrot?”

“Something like that.”

And Michael squawked like a parrot, scootching along the ground to keep the magnifier over that ant as it moved along. Billions of ants he’d seen in his life, killed in his life, and Mannon remembered that one, how it survived the child. “Dang,” Michael said. “It must not be sunny enough.”

“I think it only works if the thing is made of glass.”

“You don’t know everything, Daddy.”

“I know how to give a kid a kick in the pants.”

But the boy just smiled wide over his shoulder like that was a joke, because Mannon never had kicked Michael in the pants. His grandmothers probably had, and his mother surely had, but it never did any good. The boy had figured it out: that pain doesn’t last, that it isn’t really pain they’re aiming for, but something else, something between themselves and him, but the boy didn’t care about things between people, so it had no effect on him.

* * *

In the yard, now, Delron Anderson stumbles into him, basketball in hands. Mannon is far from the court, near the wall, but there are no boundaries to the game. Delron backs further into Mannon, with intention now, trying to move him. Delron is a thief, a home invader, thinks all the space in the world is his to take. Delron barks over his shoulder, “What the fuck are you standing there for?”

“Waiting for the bar,” Mannon says, and he says it like he meant to say, “waiting to shoot you, Delron.”

From the court: “Throw in the fucking ball, Delron.”

And then a man they call Snake mercifully lets go of the pull-up bar and Mannon takes his place, and Delron plunges the ball and himself back into the game, leaving Mannon to pull himself up and down, his legs stretched out to kick anybody who might have it in their heads that it’s their turn.

One pull-up bar, one basketball hoop, one basketball. It’s like an experiment. There must be a professor somewhere who studies this shit: Trap a cell-block of twenty pissed-off murderers, thieves, sex offenders and addicts deprived of their drugs into a concrete cage under the burning sun, give them one ball to play with, one bar to pull up on and see how many noses get busted, arms pulled out of sockets, how many get yanked into solitary, some because they can’t control themselves, others on purpose, to escape the bad company.

Just now, he’s not even looking, pulling up on the bar and minding his own, and he hears it coming on over there from the sound of feet upended, a basketball foul, the whoop of a fight, the “Aaah shit!”

“Oh, no, he didn’t!”

“Saw that comin’!”

“Ooh!...” the suck in of air, “Baby!”

“In the eye, man! In the eye!”

“Warden comin’—Look out, look out, warden comin’, man’s in the yard, y’all.”

And all the while Mannon holds himself, fists around bar, biceps taut, eyes forward and up a little, above the others, on the blank white wall, body in the air, his minute—minute in an hour, in a day, once a day, his minute untouched, in the air.

* * *

It starts with his legs. At night in the upper bunk, Mannon’s legs float above the mattress, not like he is holding his legs there, no. Like his legs are holding him, pulling on him, lifting him. It feels almost like sex, how it opens something up in him. He is free. He’s been awaiting trial for four months and now he is free, here in the cell, in the dark, in the cage. Isn’t that the way, though? Of course. He should have known. Freedom starts in the legs.

* * *

He works with a man—well, he supposes, he worked with a man—guy named Will, Jewish guy, only Jewish guy he ever knew. They talked a lot because most of their time was spent waiting. Their job was to program the lineup of TV shows and commercials to play on the various local channels, then watch the wall of screens and wait for malfunction. They sat on swivel chairs with their legs up on the table in a room buzzing with fans and cramped with equipment.

They each have a son, different schools, one grade apart. A few years ago, Will’s son moved in with Will and his wife when the boy was starting high school. Mannon heard all about it, trying to get the kid to do his homework, pick up his socks and all that. Mannon had no idea at the time that he’d be in the exact same situation a year later, Michael moving in with him and Dana. This was in those first years when Dana was new to him. She was, and is, an ICU nurse, cramming the workweek into three long days and he liked her best at the end of that third day. She’d come home so restless and so tired she couldn’t sleep, like a muscle that won’t let go. He could hover a hand over her belly, not even touch her, and feel that tension shiver in the air, love her, make love to her, and then she’d sleep so hard her body would grow heavy, immovable, he could barely roll out from under her, and when he did she’d reach her arm out, hold him back, hold him down. That’s what she did for him. She settled him, settled into him. She held him down, for the better.

It was almost the exact same situation, spooky-similar, with Will’s kid and with Michael. In both cases the boy’s mother was a wreck, had kids from other fathers, refused to let the son live with his father, not because she didn’t want to give the kid up, but because she didn’t want to give up the child support. In both cases, the mom finally surrendered, handed the kid to his dad because the kid got bad grades, got in fights at school, got suspended for something weird. In Michael’s case it was that he took a desk apart, undid all the screws and the thing collapsed right there in the middle of the classroom. They called it vandalism, said they might not have suspended him, except that he did it with a Swiss army knife, which had a screwdriver on it, but also knives, little knives, a weapon. So, Michael was suspended for vandalism and possession of a weapon. Will’s kid was suspended for getting into a head-butting contest with a girl. “With a girl?” He’d asked Will. With a girl.

“Well,” Will said, “She was kind of a butch girl, you know.”

“And she got in a fight with him?”

“No, no no. A contest. Like a game.”

“Some game,” Mannon said. “Who won?”

Will raised his palms in the air, laughing. “Can you really win a thing like that?”

“They got zero tolerance these days, don’t they?”

“They sure do.”

About a week before Mannon’s arrest Will comes into work beaming, ear to ear, like his mouth was twice the size it had ever been. He says his son got a scholarship, half tuition to U of I. Expensive school. It’ll still cost him a fortune, and he’s worried already that the kid might not fit in to such a big environment, away from home and all, and he’s still a weird kid, smart kid, but weird. Smart kids are like that. Michael’s like that, but in a different way than this kid, resourceful, tricky. He wants Michael to go to college. He’s got no idea how a kid gets a scholarship. Michael’s got good grades now. It’s just coming up quick. He’s eighteen already, about to graduate in a year. They held him back a year in the fifth grade, even though he’s smart. That was his mother’s fault, her fuckup. She kept moving to different school districts. Now it seems like the boy just moved in with him, and already it’s nearly over.

* * *

His legs teach him. They teach him to float the same way Dana taught him to settle. It is the opposite, but it is the same. It’s all about surrendering to something good, admitting that you don’t know everything, allowing yourself to be led, or in this case pulled out of bed, weightless, to float near the ceiling. At first he doesn’t try to move, doesn’t try to roll over and look down at his empty sheet. He just bobs there in the air, his nose sometimes bumping gently on the cold cinderblock ceiling, his breath dampening the ceiling paint, and it feels so good he falls back to sleep, and he supposes in the morning that he drifted back down to his mattress sometime in the night.

* * *

This time Delron Anderson gets him in the yard. He is pinned between two of them—Delron and the new murderer. “What? You think you better than everybody else?” Delron whisper-whines. “Don’t got to move out the way? Don’t got to know nobody? What? You a prince or something? You innocent?” There is nowhere to move to, and that float-away feeling is nowhere in him.

Delron throws an arm around the back of Mannon’s neck and yells, “Hey, Guard! Guard! Look over here! We got a tragedy going on right here. This man’s innocent!”

The guard jokes back, “I thought you were all innocent.”

Delron chuckles a low hot chuckle into Mannon’s ear. “You gotta hook up with somebody, Mannon. Gotta be loyal to somebody.”

Delron is empowered by the new murderer. This guy is a different kind of murderer. This guy is a fat white guy, maybe a little retarded, big bags under his eyes like his skin doesn’t want to be associated with what his eyes have seen, killed his aunt and uncle with a battery-operated power drill, drilled though them, then duct-taped them to the floor once they were weakened. He didn’t do a gang shooting, didn’t shoot a buddy who stole his shit. This made the news. Delron latches to him like a celebrity, figuring this guy will make a powerful friend, guy who makes the wardens visibly nervous, a different kind of animal.

“Can’t be solitary in here,” Delron says.

“Maybe he wants to be in solitary,” the murderer says, and for a second, it sounds like mercy, but he’s a fucking murderer, so Mannon tenses his muscles and waits for the catch. “What would you do to get put in solitary?” This is a whisper straight into his face and the breath on that whisper is a yellow-toothed and sour stench.

Mannon tries to walk, but they keep on him, arms out, fouling him, and he isn’t even in the game. Then one of them, the murderer he’d guess, reaches down quiet and cups Mannon’s crotch, then clenches and pulls as if to rip him from himself and what Mannon does is more of a violent flinch than a punch, a push back, like pushing off the wall of a swimming pool, and they are on him then, and he is on them. He’s ready for this. He’s got no qualms with murdering a murderer. It won’t get that far, but he’ll knock Delron out and get to splitting some fat loose skin beneath his fists.

“Ooh! Shit!”

“Guards in the yard, y’all. Guards in the yard. Man, look at all a them.”

But once he is at it, a kind of inertia kicks in, like he is a vehicle, a boulder, a wave and cannot be stopped by the hands of men. This would be his only fight in here. Freedom is in the arms.

“You about to get tased, man. You about to get tased!”

Even a Taser gun cannot stop him. It feels like a hot smack to the shoulder, a blow he can take. Then there are more, all over him, his legs, his neck, sharp electric fingers. He becomes solidly aware of his whole self divided into parts, his teeth that won’t unclench, his head that cannot turn to see his arm with a life of its own slapping at the air. He falls to his back without bracing himself, lightning reaching in, then pulling back, an uncontrollable trembling.

Hours later, the jail’s chaplain will visit him at his new cell, in solitary. Mannon’s wrist will twitch the way a body twitches in a dream about falling. He’ll look down at his arm as if it isn’t his own. In his mouth, a taste like something burnt—carbon, that pure charred thing that every goddamn thing burns down to.

The chaplain will speak to Mannon through a slit, big enough for a food tray. His voice will come disembodied into the blank gray room. He will ask Mannon to imagine that he could have made a different decision, and Mannon will nod respectfully, although he cannot imagine what that decision would be—drop and roll like a man on fire?

The chaplain says, “Incarceration is all about reexamining decisions.”

So he’s been told. But he has always been a man of instinct. When it gets right down to it, who isn’t?

It’s why his bail is too high for Dana to pay—the fact that he has two priors. Back when they were in high school his cousin Jay opened up a drawer built under a bed and showed Mannon a gun. This was Jay, failing a class or two, his dad riding him, Jay still looking like a twelve-year-old at sixteen and the girl Jay wanted, when he finally asked, said not just no, but never, and laughed. And there Jay is, pointing out the gun in a drawer under his parents’ bed, oily-looking thing, like an animal, like it had its own intentions. At school they were always talking about depression like it was a snake that could be coiled, camouflaged, around anyone. He got to thinking that Jay might have shown him that gun for a reason. So Mannon went back and took it. He walked around with it in his gym bag to keep anybody at home from finding it, and when his basketball team made State Finals, he walked through the metal detectors at some high school in Chicago and didn’t know what the sound was when the gates beeped on him. He’d never seen metal detectors in his life. That gun, it turned out, was old, passed down through the family before anyone was ever told to register a weapon. Old and loaded.

Another time he was pulled over with a little coke in his pocket. The things he hides have a way of outing him. He was twenty and hanging out with college kids even though he wasn’t in college. Michael was a baby. Mannon was still with Larissa, and, yes, he was partying—everybody parties. White kids party too. He was partying with white kids—everybody kind of had a reggae thing going on, knitted caps and drugs and dreadlocks—but not many white kids get caught, they don’t get pulled over, don’t get searched, don’t get convicted. But, hell, it wasn’t even about partying. He just had a baby and a job and a social life, and a girl who was strict about him getting up every other time the baby cried. He was just trying to stay awake.

The chaplain says, soft, through the slit, “Are you saying you don’t deserve consequences for your actions?”

“I haven’t done anything wrong in seventeen years.”

“Then why are you here?”

Everybody thinks you don’t go to jail without a trial, that you’re innocent until proven guilty. It’s what Dana thought. She was shocked. She couldn’t even see him for two days because it was Monday when they arrested him, and visiting hours at the Jackson County Jail are only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, fifteen minutes once a week, you take your pick which day you want. She’d had the news in her head for two whole days and still the shock had not washed off her face. Bail too high to pay, and a speedy trial is 120 days, but expect to sit for at least six months. There’s always a backup. It’s like a toilet this system; like a sewage system, always plugged up.

* * *

In solitary, at first he is so low he’s glued to the ground, but that guy at work, Will, used to talk a lot about meditating. They’d sit there watching the wall of screens, waiting for the weather to scramble a picture. Waiting for the Spanish subtitles to disappear from the secondary signal on the lower right screen and show up everywhere else—catch it before the complaint calls rang—rapid Spanish voices on the line and sometimes a cowboy type going on about the goddamn immigrants. Mannon would complain about the combination of boredom and tension, and Will would teach him how to escape through silent concentration. Together, they meditated on the cacophony of dog food commercials, and game shows spilled out before them, and never stopped thinking about breathing. He tries that now, to think about nothing but the in-and-out of breath. It’s boring. But it helps. The absence of TV screens and company leaves a tangible void, a kind of air pressure, strong enough to push against or ride on. Night blends with day. At some point, he can float freely around his cell, gently bumping his head on the ceiling. He learns to control it, to swan through the air. It is exactly like swimming, except that swimming is the absence of air, and this—this is the presence of air.

Now, if he can only get small. If he can float, maybe he can also shrink to the size of a tray, slip through the slot. He’ll work on that. He’ll breathe and work on that.

* * *

Once he was walking alone at night, Michael would have been about five or six, but Michael would not have been with him. Still, he measured time by Michael’s age, because Michael changed while Mannon almost always seemed the same to himself. Mannon was walking alone, and he saw a wallet on the sidewalk. The streetlight shone down on it, like it had been left for him and the light was God showing it to him. It was a woman’s wallet, not even in a purse, just a wallet full of credit cards and a wrinkled stick of foil-wrapped chewing gum, which made the whole thing smell like spearmint. The wallet was pale green, like the smell, with flowers stitched on it. The license inside was for a girl named Maria, but she didn’t look like a girl named Maria. He assumed a girl named Maria would look Mexican and this girl didn’t look Mexican, although she had dark hair and brown eyes, and who knows, maybe he didn’t know for sure what Mexican always looked like. The address was for a house half a mile away, and he walked there, one story house, unassuming, brown. He put the wallet in the mailbox, and he stood there for a long time, waiting for a sign, for some reward or something, but nothing came—of course nothing came.

He walked by that house sometimes, and he occasionally passed Maria herself on a nearby sidewalk. He recognized her from her ID. He wondered if maybe she’d be his wife someday. She was his first dream of Dana. But Maria just nodded back at him when he said hello to her, and that was that, nothing more. Sometimes we think a thing is meant for us, but it isn’t. He should have told Michael that.

* * *

He does not remember the shrinking and slipping, only the floating up through the jail yard in the center between the white walls. He has never been out here at night, of course, but it looks exactly as he would expect. The rectangle of stars widens as he nears the top and he swims to the edge. He sits on the wall, looking over. The bricks on the other side are red, and the grass below, thirty feet down, is patchy and weedy.

When the box of checks showed up on the porch that Saturday, almost five months ago, he opened them. He didn’t check the name on the front until he’d stood there looking at them for a while, wondering why he’d gotten them, a whole box, perhaps a thousand blank checks like stacks of money, the name on them: Illinois Department of Human Services, looked like blank welfare checks, addressed to the wrong address. He’d have to tape the brown paper back around the box and put it back into the next day’s mail with a note on it. He’d do that on Monday. Too late that Saturday, with the mail come and gone.

He looks up again, at the night. It has been, what? The whole five months since he saw the night? It’s a little like being a dead man risen. The stars. Jesus Christ, the stars. He’s almost grateful for this.

Michael must have woken up around noon that Saturday, knowing him, and considering the timing of things, when the checks started cashing. Mannon was already out of the house, running errands, never one to waste a Saturday sitting around, nothing to do but wait for Dana’s shift to end.

Mannon understood the feeling. You see a thing, and even though it’s irrational, you think it’s for you, that it’s your fate, like a present. Can’t fight fate, it’s wrapped around you. It didn’t take Michael long to dig into that open box on the kitchen table, to start writing and cashing checks all up and down Walnut Street. And it didn’t take them long to catch it. Mannon’s still not sure whether Michael was stupid enough to sign his own name, Michael Mannon, same as his, or if they traced it through the mistyped address, or both. Who knows. Amazing though, how quickly they pieced it together, before four o’clock on Monday.

When they showed up at work he thought his buddy Will was going to get himself arrested too, go right down with him, for interfering with law enforcement. “You cannot take Mannon. This is a mistake. This man works here. You cannot take him.” Sweet, now, in retrospect. What could anyone do, though? What could he do himself? Point to Michael?

By Dana’s third visit she’d figured it out. She said, “You know there’s no lesson in this for him.”

Mannon stared at her like he didn’t know her. “Lesson?” He said. “You think this is kindergarten in here? You think we’re all in here learning something? Killers and thugs in here? Whole life with a felony record, barely able to get a job interview. You think that’ll help him?” And there was no time at that point, fourteen minutes into the fifteen-minute conversation, to heal the look on Dana’s face.

Sitting on top of the wall, he looks down the red brick outside of the building and he knows that he can’t go that way, that he has to stay here. He can’t go home, scoop Dana and Michael up and move away to Mexico, make up false identities, tell her she can never see her mother again.

Now that he’s up here thirty, forty feet in the air, he’s afraid. He doesn’t know how to drop down into the jail yard uninjured. All his floating has been about rising. He doesn’t know how, has no idea how, to fall.