SentientFood

You Can Keep The Dime (1994)

The dust mound grew with each sweep. Peter moved through the room, sweeping from end to end, making his way from one side to the other, moving the dust into a long mound on one side of the room.

He pushed the dust mop slowly, taking slow strides, stepping, stepping, stepping, stepping, turning, stepping, stepping, stepping, stepping, shaking the dust mop over the ever growing mound.

Peter looked up, through the bars, to the sky, and stare at the blue, into the bright morning light.

“Hey, you, keep moving.”

“But it is a beautiful morning. I was just admiring it for a moment. No harm in that, is there?”

“No harm, but you have to finish this room and all the others in this wing before the warden comes in to see how you’re doing. You don’t want him to think you’re slacking, do you?” The guard grinned through the gate.

“No, I guess not.”

“Then you’d better get back to sweeping. And besides, you’re getting sloppy. Look over there, that side of the room. As the guard pointed, he threw the wrapper from his candy bar into the corner of the room. “Sloppy, I say. Can’t even get all the trash off the floor. Don’t know how you expect to impress the warden with work like that.” The guard laughed and moved back to the chair where he could watch Peter work.

Peter moved over and picked up the candy wrapper. “You like chocolate?” he called to the guard. “Me too.” Peter unfolded the paper and sniffed it. “I can’t get the candy in here, you know.”

“Heh, yeah, I know.”

Peter folded the paper into a small square and placed it in his pocket. “I’ll make sure it gets thrown away, so the warden doesn’t see it on the floor.”

“You do that, jailbird.” The guard laughed again, then walked down the hall. “Hey, you down there, get back to work!” The words trailed off the further the guard walked from Peter. He craned his neck to peer around some bars to see just where the guard was, then removed the paper from his pocket.

“Hey, Christ, what are you doing there?”

The paper dropped from Peters’s hands. He spun to face a different guard.

“What is that on your face? Candy? Where did you get that?”

“Um, well, it’s not really candy, you see, there was some trash on the floor, it was a candy wrapper, you know?”

“No I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”

“Well, there was this candy wrapper on the floor, well, I had to pick it up so the floor was clean, so the warden will see what a good job I’m doing, helping keep the prison clean, you know, and well, the wrapper was on the floor, and… well,” he picked up the wrapper and looked into it,”there was still some candy left on the paper. I had to clean it up before I threw it in the trash, I wouldn’t want rats or ants or anything to get into the trash because there was candy there, you know?”

“What’s going on here, Johnson?” The second guard whipped himself straight when the warden approached. “This prisoner is cleaning the floors in this section sir.”

“That’s a good thing, I think. Let the inmates take pride in their surroundings, I always say.”

“Except, this one seems to feel the need to eat the trash.”

Peter was shaking his head violently, his eyes were the size of silver dollars.

“Eat the trash?” The warden eyed Peter.

“Yes sir. I was just asking him about it when you came up. Seems he feels the need to take papers he finds on the floor and taste them. Why don’t you tell the warden the story you just told me, Peter? I’m sure he’d like to hear about the rats and ants in our trash.”

“Yes, Peter is it? Tell me. You think we have rats and ants in our trash, do you? What is this all about?”

Peter stood there, leaning on his broom, looking at the floor. “I wanted to be able to make a phone call,” was his response.

“What has that got to do with anything?” The warden looked at Peter then Johnson. Johnson shrugged his shoulders.

“I just wanted to be able to make a telephone call. I wanted to be able to call Teresa. I wanted to clean up, to help get things in order around here, then maybe you’d let me make a telephone call, well, I just wanted to show that I could be trusted, you know, make good, so I could call, you know, call Teresa. Then there was this piece of paper, the other guard threw it at me, well , not at me, at the floor, but it was for me to clean up, because I was cleaning up in there, the other guard threw it in there when he was done with it, and, well, you know, it had some chocolate on it, and well, I don’t ever get candy in here, and well,” he handed the paper to the warden through the bars of the room-cell Peter was in, “it had chocolate on it.” Peter looked at the warden and Johnson through the bars. “It had chocolate on it.”

The warden echoed the statement, “It had chocolate on it.” He handed the paper to Johnson. “Do we get all the fucking loonies in here or what? Deal with him, will you? Oh, and when he gets done, let him have his damn phone call. It can’t hurt. This block does look pretty good after all. Jeez.” The warden shot a look at Peter then quickly walked to the gate for the next section.

“Looks like the warden likes you, Peter. He wants you to make your phone call. But first, you gotta finish your work.”

“Chocolate?”

“Huh?”

“Chocolate?” Peter repeated, holding his hand out, palm up.

“Oh, heh, here, take your candy. I’d hate to deprive you.”

Peter refolded the paper and replaced it in his pocket.

“Now come on, you got to get back to work, if you want to be able to make that call you wanted.”

Peter started sweeping the line of dirt and dust into a pile.

* * *

“Do I get to make my call now?”

“What are you babbling about, Peter?”

“The warden told me I could make a telephone call when I was done with my work. I got done, over there, see? I put the dirt in the trash and all. Now can I make my call?”

“You know the rules, phone calls are only allowed in the mornings. It’s already four in the afternoon. No good trying now. You’ll have to wait. Sorry.”

“But, but he told me I could!”

“Rules are rules. You know that. If he said you could make a call, then I guess you’ll get to make a call. Just not until the rules say you can. Now, get on over there and find something to do, before I put you to work cleaning up the other section of this block.”

“Maybe I should?”

“Should what?”

“Clean up the other section. I mean, I don’t have anything else to do right now, and it’d look good to the warden, you know. It’d make me look good, maybe he’d let me make more phone calls, if I help out, make the place look good, help him look good.”

“I don’t think he much cares about how you help him look, but if you really want to work, I’ll let you into the closet to get the stuff.”

“Would you, please? It’d help me, help me pass the time, pass the time until I can make the phone call I already can make.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” The guard opened the supply closet and Peter moved in to get his equipment. “Who is it that’s so important to you to call, anyway?”

“Just someone, someone special. Someone I haven’t talked to in a while.” Peter grinned.

“You’re not going to tell me, huh? You’ll have to tell me tomorrow, or at least the number. We can’t let you be playing on the phones. So why don’t you just go ahead and tell me now who you’re going to be calling.”

“Someone special. I want very much to be able to talk to her. I love her very much.”

“Your wife? Your daughter?” Peter fell silent and began sweeping. He paced up one side of the section, down the other, stopping sometimes to shake the dust mop.

* * *

Peter jumped at the sound of the bars on his cell being banged on.

“Come on, time to get up. You wanted to make a phone call, well, get your ass out of bed. The warden said this was when you get to do it, so come on. Get up!”

There were several yells from adjoining cells, all directed at the guard, many asking if he knew the time.

“Yeah, it’s four thirty in the morning. You got a problem?” he yelled back and banged on the cell bars some more. “C’mon Peter, get up.”

Peter was sitting in his bunk, one foot on the floor, the opposite eye open, looking at the guard. “My phone call?”

“That’s why I’m your personal alarm clock this AM. Why else would I feel the need to rouse you from your much needed beauty sleep. Now are you just going to sit there, or are you going to get up, get some clothes on, and come with me?”

Moments later, the cell door opened to allow Peter through. “This way.” The guard pointed to the far end of the hall. The door on that end was open, with another guard standing at it. “That’s Joel. He’s going to take you to the phone. Go on down there.” The guard waited for only a second for Peter to start. He grabbed Peter by the arm and threw him down the hallway. “Go on!” Peter continued down the hall under his own volition, slowly, sleepwalking. The guard locked Peter’s cell and walked the other way, amidst more complaining from the other inmates. “Aw, blow it out ‘cher asses, that is, unless you want toilet details for the next month!” The complaining changed from direct abuse to grumbling, giving the guard a smirk of satisfaction.

“Telephone?” Peter asked into the eyes of Joel.

“Yes,” Joel sighed. “This way.”

“You know, I’ve wanted to make this call for a while. I really wanted to make this call, so I cleaned and cleaned, and made sure I did the work around here. You know?”

“Yeah, I heard. I heard you’re just a real workaholic when it comes to scrubbing toilets. You must really want this phone call.”

“More than just about anything. I really want to talk to her.”

“Who is her? I mean, if you don’t mind my asking.”

“Her. She. The love of my life. The one I really need to talk to.”

“Oh, thanks. That clears it up, a whole bunch,” Joel sneered at Peter. “This way, no, over here. This way.” Joel grabbed Peter by the arm and pulled him back from one corridor, taking him into another.

“So, this love of yours, she’s waiting for you to get out?”

“Sure, she must be.”

Joel’s voice rose in pitch. “What, she must be? What do you mean? Why would she have to be waiting for you?”

“Because she is the love of my life.”

“Again, words of wisdom. Over there.” Joel pointed and Peter looked. “That’s the phone room. It’s plexiglass on all the other sides, you’ll be being watched. It is private, though, besides that. I mean, no one’ll be in there with you.”

“Good, I want to be alone with her.”

“Well, have at it, there it is.”

Peter stood looking at the door to the telephone room. He moved closer to it, looked closely at the door, traced the outline with his eyes. He stepped up to it, felt the edges with his fingers, rested his palms against the cold steel surface. He paused, stepped up to the door, placed his body against it, kissed the metal, then swung it open with a flourish. The room beyond showed through the plexiglass, revealing the people on the other side, the people who would be watching him, the people who disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Peter had let the door close without his entering the phone room.

“Are you going to go in, or just stand there playing with the door?” the guard asked. Peter ignored him and swung the door again.

“Look, you loony, either go in there and make your call or I’m taking you back to your cell and you’ll not get to make your call.”

“Ok,” was the reply. The door opened once more and Peter disappeared behind it.

* * *

Peter was seated in seconds. The chair was low, the telephone loomed over him, beckoning him to it. He lifted the receiver, then set it back in its cradle. He looked around the booth to find there was nothing there but the phone, the chair, and him. No paper, no phone book, no nothing. He lifted the receiver again and placed it to his ear. The dial tone was its usual, raspy, noise. The numbers he dialed seem to magically come from his head through his fingers, to the buttons on the phone. Shortly, there was a click then the ringing tones came through the receiver.

“Hel-” Click. Peter hung up the phone. One of the observers leaned into a microphone. “Everything ok in there?” she asked. Peter nodded his head and picked up the receiver once again. The number dialed itself with ease.

“Hello? Hello, is there anyone there?” came the voice on the other end.

Peter coughed as he began to speak. “Oh sorry about that. Teresa?”

“Who is this?” was the cryptic reply.

“Teresa, is it really you? I’ve wanted so much to talk to you.”

“If you don’t tell me who this is, I am going to hang up.”

“No, Teresa, don’t! This is Peter. This is Peter, honey.” There was a silence on the phone line. “Teresa, they let me call you. I’ve wanted to call you for so long, I wanted to talk to you, to tell you how much I love you. Teresa, I do love you.”

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t hang up on you right now.”

“Because I finally can call you. I wanted to do this for so long, but they wouldn’t let me. Now I can, and it is so good to hear your voice.”

Click. “Hello? Oh, sorry Teresa. I didn’t realize you were on the phone.”

“Wait, Ray. You’ll never guess who I am talking to.”

“Ray? Ray! It’s me, Peter! How are you? I was wondering how you were doing.”

“Peter? Uh, um… Teresa, how ’bout I let you finish your phone call. Nice talking to you, Peter.” Click.

“Ray? Ray?”

“He hung up, Peter. It is just you and me again.”

“I didn’t know you and Ray were still together.”

“Yeah, it’s worked out. He and I are happy together. He does the things for me that you never could, or would, I don’t know which. He takes me places, takes me out to dinner, to the movies, you know, things normal people do.”

“I can do all those things for you, honey, really.”

“You never did, and what are you going to do now, fly across the country just to take me to a movie?”

“Would it work?”

“Get real, Peter. I left you, remember? That means I didn’t want to be with you, I wanted to be with Ray more. He made me feel like I was someone special. Someone cares about me, Peter, and it is not you, it is Ray. When are you going to realize that?”

“I care about you, Teresa. I do! Really!”

“No, Peter, it is the idea of us you care about. I am just a detail to that idea. I might as well not even exist, as long as the idea is alive. To you, it is all just making sure things are like they should be, not the way we really want them to be. If you really cared, you would have remembered all those holidays, you would have been able to spend more time with me when I really needed you to. Dammit, Peter, you just would have been there for me, plain and simple.”

“But, but I could be again. I really want to be. If you help me, I could learn to be what you want me to be. I could learn.”

“Peter, dear sweet Peter. You just don’t get it. I am in love with Ray. He loves me. We are happy together. You are not a part of that. You are not a part of my life anymore. When are you going to realize that and let me out of your life. You are not in my life and I am not in yours anymore, however much you might imagine that I am.”

“But honey, Teresa–”

“No more. Say goodbye now, Peter.” Peter remained silent. “Ok, have it your way. Goodbye, Peter. This is it, now. Really. Goodbye.” Click. The dial tone returned after a few seconds. Peter returned the receiver to the cradle and exited the booth.

“Ok let’s go back,” the guard said.

Peter sighed twice, then started walking.

* * *

Peter twisted in the wet sheets. To the left, then the right, he got tangled in the sheet to the point where he could not move his right arm. It was caught in the fabric.

“C’mon, dammit. Get up. It’s time for your phone call.”

Peter opened his eyes to the upside-down image of Johnson standing at the doorway of his cell, motioning for Peter to get up.

“Oh, come on.” Johnson pulled on the sheet, unrolling Peter from the linen. “Let’s go. It’s time for your call.” Peter’s eyes opened and lit up. “Well, if you get going, you’ll actually get to make the call. Come on.” Johnson motioned, sweeping his arms toward the door. He stepped out to wait on Peter.

“You know, I dreamt about this last night.”

“That’s nice. I’m glad you have something in your life to look forward to. Too bad I don’t have something like that, something so important to me that I’ll drop almost anything, just so I make sure I have that thing. You know, I almost envy you.” Johnson stared at Peter for a second than laughed out loud. “No, on the other hand, no I don’t. You’re a miserable excuse for a man, whining all the time, moping around. Nope, I am glad I am not you.”

“We all have our crosses to bear. Mine is made that much lighter when I get to use the telephone, Johnson. May something lighten your load one of these days.” Peter bowed in Johnson’s direction, then walked out of the cell.

The telephone room was at the end of the second hallway. Johnson opened the door for him, but Peter hesitated.

“Something wrong?” Johnson asked.

“No, just taking a second. I’ve got to control my excitement, you know?”

“Yeah, ok, whatever. Just don’t take too long, you’ve only got twenty minutes.”

Peter slipped into the room and closed the door. There was a small window to the right of the telephone, looking into an observation room, and another window in the door behind him. The only interior light was a naked, incandescent bulb hanging from the wiring in the ceiling. Peter picked up the receiver and dialed zero.

“Operator. Can I help you?”

“Can you help connecting me to Teresa Harwood, in Los Angeles?”

“I’ll connect you to information. Please hold.” Click. There was silence on the telephone line. “Information, this is Denise. What city?”

“Uh, I’m sorry, what?”

“What city, please?”

“Oh, Los Angeles.”

“Name please?”

“Peter. Peter Spencer.”

“One moment. I have no listing for Peter Spencer in Los Angeles.”

“No, no, my name is Peter Spencer. Sorry ’bout that. I am looking for the number for Teresa Harwood.”

“Please hold.” The observer looked up from her magazine to watch Peter. “I’m sorry, I show no listing for any Harwoods that might match.”

“Ok, I hate to be a bother, but could you try one more, please? Is there a number for a Mr. Ray Pittman?”

“Please hold again.” Johnson looked in through the window in the door.

“No, I’m sorry no listing there either.”

“Well, ok. Thanks.”

“Thank you. Have a good day.” Click. Peter looked around to see Johnson was no longer at the window in the door, but the observer was still watching. Peter hung up the phone, then lifted the receiver again and dialed several numbers.

* * *

A second guard strolled up beside Johnson.

“You know,” Johnson started, “it’s really a shame.”

“What do you mean?” the second asked.

“This guy, Peter Spencer. He’s in there right now, ‘making a phone call to the woman he loves’.”

“Sounds pretty normal for a con to want to do. What’s the problem?”

“She’s the reason he’s in here. He only took her legs and arms off and made lamp stands out of them. She ran off with a friend of his. Ol’ Peter here took care of that guy too. From what I heard, it took the guy a week to die, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, either. Apparently, Peter set up some sort of torture table, hanging bags of hydrochloric acid over this guy, except the bags had holes in them, and the acid dripped. Onto this guy. By the time this poor guy was found there were holes all the way through his body. Acid just ate him up. What killed him, though, and this is the awful part, is there was another bag, rigged to start dripping after the others finished. It was hanging over the guy’s face. So here he is, bleeding to death from these other holes eaten by acid, and the last bag starts dripping. Ate all the way through his skill and into the brain. Wasn’t much grey matter left to examine, from what I heard.

Anyway, he gets on these kicks, about every year or so. Goes on and on about how he wants to call her, talk to her. All he ever does is call information, find out there is no number for the people he wants to talk to, then dials some random shit, hangs up on it, and has a grand old conversation all by himself. The warden lets him do it every so often, it seems to help calm the guy down. Besides, it’s helpful. Peter gets a lot of work done when he is trying to earn the telephone calls. Eh, it’s harmless. Uh oh, it’s time to go back.”

Peter was standing at the door, facing out through the window. Johnson opened the door and Peter bounded out.

“So, how is Teresa?”

“Thanks for asking, Johnson. She’s doing wonderfully. She still loves me. She is still waiting for me to get out. Can you believe it? Ain’t love grand?” The second guard shook his head.

“It sure is, Peter. It sure is. Come on, let’s go back to your cell.”

“Ok. When do you think the warden will let me make another call?”

“Don’t know, Peter. But I’m sure it’ll have something to do with how well you work.”

“Yeah, it probably will.” The two men walked down the hallway. The second guard closed the door to the telephone booth.

END