Uncle Pennybags

My brother sent me a Get Out of Jail Free card in the mail. The copy read, Just in case your birthday celebration gets out of hand!

Mark himself just got out on bond. On that first phone call I made to him after his release he told me how awful the food in county jail had been, how for breakfast they had served him watery oatmeal without salt for seven days, how he was so hungry that by the third day he wolfed down anything they set in front of him, and how he had developed a habit of hoarding for later the apples and oranges that came in his lunches.

"I've done that too," I said.

I showed Joe the Get Out of Jail Free card with its gold embossing of a winged Uncle Pennybags fluttering free from a cage. "Just hand it to the officer at the gate," I said, "and he'll let you through." Joe laughed but pointed out that we're in prison, not jail, and therefore the card is technically invalid.

Though I urged him not to, Joe insisted on making nachos to celebrate my birthday. He bought a filched tomato and onion off a kitchen worker and had me dice them up along with a pickle to create a salsa. The pickle juice he reserved and added to the secret sauce, which also contained, he was kind enough to share, Velveeta squeeze cheese, Sriracha, and mayo. While I gave the sauce a vigorous shaking, Joe layered our bowls with Doritos, tuna, summer sausage, and mozzarella which he grated with the perforated top of a Comet can. If only such ingenuity and culinary talent could be put toward a legitimate venture, a restaurant or food truck. But Joe's latest post-prison scheme is to grow weed hydroponically (the brothel idea having been apparently nixed). Jack, who has a green thumb and some experience in the matter, was happy to share some pointers. He recommended that Joe set up shop in a rented house in a remote area and to pay his first and last months' rent up front to keep the landlord at bay. Then during his first two months' tenancy, before beginning any production, he should turn on all appliances in the house—stove, lights, AC—and leave them running around the clock so later, when the grow lights are brought online, his electricity bill won't spike and tip off the police. Jack also said it might be a good idea to line the attic with sheets of steel so that any thermal spy cams flying overhead won't detect the grow lights' intense and telltale heat signature.

After layering on the salsa, Joe drizzled the nachos with the road cone-orange secret sauce. He handed me a bowl and a Coke. "Happy twenty-ninth," he said.

Later that evening I called my brother to thank him for the card.

"Sorry it was late," Mark said. "It's been hectic around here, what with the kids and dealing with the realtor."

After his arrest and subsequent bail, Mark and his wife decided it would be best for them to sell their house and skip town. The small community in which they live was scandalized when it came out that one of their residents had been charged with having sex with a minor. And he a police officer no less! People stared in line at the grocer. Cars slowed in front of the house. On one occasion Mark actually ran into the father of the young girl. Mark was at the police station settling some last detail of his bond when the girl's father stepped up to the adjacent window. Neither man acknowledged the other. Mark simply looked on, his hand pressed flat against the counter, while the clerk went about futzing with the printer. The machine, which by all accounts had been working fine all morning, had suddenly refused to print Mark's receipt. The clerk mashed some buttons, peered into the printer's nether regions (the poor dear admitted she wasn't very good with computers). Was is a paper jam? A faulty driver? A loose cable? She ducked beneath the desk and clucked at the mess of wires there. In his peripheral Mark observed the girl's father scribbling his signature across a stack of ominous legal documents, presumably the affidavit and testimonies that would eventually send Mark to prison. The printer meanwhile yawned into life—a loose cable after all—and proceeded through a slow and rigorous battery of tests and maintenance checks: a realigning of the print head, a cleaning of the nozzle, a priming of the belts, springs, and pulleys. Mark stared ahead, palms sweating. Finally, to confirm the integrity of its labors the printer produced, not a receipt, but a test page, a methodically plotted epistle proudly emblazoned with the manufacturer's logo and a full-color stock image of a young girl—a girl whose resemblance to the one Mark fingered in his patrol car was only passing—blowing out a forest of birthday candles, her petite blonde head enveloped in a billowing cloud of yellow, cerulean, and magenta balloons, an image specifically selected by the manufacturer to exploit the printer's impressive color capabilities, its crisp 600 dpi output, its stunning lifelike reproduction of skin tones, which, it should be said, is no easy task when dealing with the subtle hues and transparencies of youthful flesh. Meanwhile the girl's father (that of the victim, not of the model) continued to condemn with his pen the perpetrator standing at his elbow, whose moist brow had then begun to itch, though Mark dared not scratch, dared not move, for his hands felt as though they rested not on a simple countertop but on the pressure-sensitive detonation switch of a bomb that would, upon so much as a hastily drawn breath, blow himself and the entire building sky-high, which, come to think of it, might have been preferable.

"Ah, here we are," said the clerk sliding Mark his receipt. He took the document, wished the woman a good day, and fled.

"I have to get out of this town," Mark said on the phone. "It's getting to where I can't pump gas without running into someone."

"Is the house packed?"

"We still lack the attic and the kids' toys. Lucy's got it in her head that we should take the deck. She doesn't think it's very fair that we should leave behind a brand new deck that we never had the chance to enjoy. I told her you can't just rip up a deck and take it with you. For Christ's sake, it's flagstone."

I resisted the urge to ask my brother what he intended to do with my own furniture. Before coming to prison I left in his care several pieces, including the heavy, Italian-made drafting table our father once labored over as a young advertising artist. Instead I asked if he'd heard from his lawyer.

"No, I haven't heard from anybody."

"Well, maybe this is a case of no news is good news," I offered, though he didn't hear me because just then his three-year-old daughter had begun to cry.

"No," he continued, putting the phone back to his ear. "The only time I hear from the lawyer is when he's asking for more money. I don't know where he pulls these figures from—$15,000 for representation, another five grand per charge."

"It's nothing like what we remember from our civics textbooks in high school, is it, Mark. All those pretty diagrams with the legislative and judicial and executive branches of government stacked neatly one on top of the other. Checks and balances. The books never mentioned lawyers, sentencing guidelines, or probation. No mention of a sex offender registry."

On the other line the girl's screaming rose to decibels usually associated with murder. Mark seemed not to notice. I read once that mothers are programmed to recognize their children's cries. I wondered if the inverse is true too, if parents aren't equally capable of tuning out their children.

"The more I research prison," Mark said, "the less I understand it."


"I mean it's basically a long timeout. They put you in this tiny box and say, 'Okay, now you wait here.' And then you sit around on your ass, eating your three meals a day, until the time comes when someone taps you on the shoulder and says, 'All right, you can leave now.' It's bizarre when you think about it."

Beside the phone, beneath the placard forbidding vandalism, someone had begun to peel back paint from the wall.

"And these sentences they hand out are so arbitrary. You're basically at the mercy of whatever judge you get. This one cop molested his teenage daughter and got probation."

The paint was high-gloss, institution gray, a shade whose sole purpose lies in its ability to conceal dirt. It peeled away in large springy patches like dead skin off a sunburn. "Probation, huh?"

"And then I read about this other guy with a charge similar to mine. The girl was sixteen. The judge sentenced him to eight years in the state."

"That's not so bad. That's only—what?—four years served."

"Only four years! I can't be away from my kids for four years."

"No, I guess not," I said. The swatch I'd been working on had grown to the size of a dollar bill. I noticed last week at visitation while my father was feeding bills into the vending machine that the fives are now purple. They looked like foreign currency, like Monopoly money. When had they changed to purple?

"Then again," Mark said, "probation may just as well be a jail sentence. From what I've read online, probation is basically the same as prison."

"They're not the same."

"That's not what I read. I read probation's rough. You're not even allowed to drink when you're on probation. I mean, how can they possibly expect you not to—"

"Prison is nothing like probation, Mark." I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder and began pulling at the paint with both hands as though it were saran wrap. "They aren't the same at all. Not even close. I've been on probation, Mark, back before sentencing. Remember? I had an ankle monitor and a nine o'clock curfew. I know what probation is like, and it's nothing like prison, okay? Twelve years, Mark. The judge gave me twelve years, for pictures, and life probation on top of that."

"Well, I read you can probably get that changed—"

"And stop with the research, already. You're like one of those people who Googles their pimple and walks away convinced he's dying of cancer. Just relax. It's out of your hands."

"Maybe," Mark said. "But this not knowing is killing me."

The paint finally snapped off in my hands, knocking me back a step. "Don't worry," I said. "Whatever they give you will be far less than what I got."

I wiped the dry-wall dust from my hands. The line went quiet. Even his little girl had shut up.

"I'm a good father," he said finally. "I can't lose my kids."

"You're not going to lose them, Mark."

"It's not fair, for their sakes. It's not fair to the kids."

To the kids who call him Dad. To the girl he laid with. To the boys whose pictures I collected.