Fiction: The Keeper of the Abyss
By James Hanna
Child molesters were rarely harassed at the Indiana Penal Farm, a medium-security prison where I once worked as a counselor. This revelation surprised me at first, but it now seems rather redundant. Molesters are masters of disguise, so their dark deeds are not on display, and many have the sort of job skills a prison is likely to value. Most of the inmate plumbers and carpenters were convicted child molesters as were a lot of the clerks in the prison law library. Passive and well-behaved, they blended seamlessly into the inmate population, respected for their abilities rather than damned for their crimes.
But abusing a child does not lend itself to internal solitude. For this reason, some of them spoke candidly to me in the privacy of my office. They would often admit their modus for courting and seducing minors, and they sometimes volunteered the fact that they were child-abuse victims themselves. I would listen to them politely, unwilling to pass any judgment. I felt as though had fallen into the role of a confessional priest.
Accustomed to discretion on the part of molesters, I was not prepared for Dan Geegax—a serial pedophile from Muncie who ended up on my caseload. Shortly after he arrived at the penal farm, he sent me a request slip. His request was written in a childish script, so I was surprised by his artful language.
To: Thomas Hemmings, Dorm 12 Counselor
Date: July 21, 1979
From: Daniel Geegax, DOC-982251
Location: Law Library
RE: Request to be transferred.
I look forward to meeting you, Mister Hemmings. Sadly, I need a friend. Excuse my penchant for puns, but I’m hoping you’ll do me a solid. As an intellectual, I must admit that I am out of my element here. I’m not saying an honor camp would be much improvement, but in my current position, I am willing to settle for scraps. Please toss me a bone, Mister Hemmings, and I will forever be your amigo.
I could have ignored his presumptuous request, but I decided to call him into my office instead. Since he had just been placed on my caseload, I needed to prepare his visiting list. Besides, as an aspiring wordsmith myself, I looked forward to having a chat with someone so able to turn a phrase. The penal farm was as bare as a moonscape where culture was concerned.
I sent a pass to the law library where he had been assigned to work as a clerk. Minutes later, he entered my office and sat down on the chair by my desk. He was a tall, boney man in his sixties with large uneven teeth, and his clear-blue eyes were enlarged several times by a pair of bottle-thick glasses.
He squinted as though he were looking at me from the bottom of a well, then he smiled solicitously and handed me a pamphlet from the American Man-Boy Society. “Son, don’t look so shocked,” he said in a cheerful, reedy voice. “When karma catches up with a fella, a mission will set him free.”
I tossed the pamphlet into my wastebasket. “I wouldn’t be circulating these,” I warned. “Some of our inmates are touchy when it comes to sex with children. One of them might get pissed off and beat the shit out of you.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he laughed.
“Maybe not. But prison is not a good place to make enemies.”
“Point taken,” he said with a wink. “You seem a bit self-righteous, buddy, but I won’t hold that against ya. I’m always happy to listen to what a young fella has to say.”
“Then hear me out,” I said. “I can’t recommend you for honor camp.”
“You don’t qualify. They don’t take pedophiles there.”
He slapped his chest as though wounded. “Can’tcha pull some strings, Mister Hemmings?”
“No, I can’t bend the rules quite that far.”
He snorted. “You don’t seem like the sort who gets off on enforcing rules.”
As a child of the turbulent sixties, I had no fetish for rules. I had smoked my share of pot, I had protested the Vietnam War, I had even been arrested during the ’68 Siege of Chicago. But rules were not unappealing to me when it came to Daniel Geegax.
“In your case, the rules have their place,” I admitted.
He sat back in the chair and chuckled. “If you’re supposed to be my guru, buddy, what can you do for me?”
I shrugged. “I can make out your visiting list.”
“That ain’t gonna cut it,” he said. “Why would I want anyone to come see me in a place like this?”
“That’s up to you.”
He studied me as though he were taking notes. “Save yer paper, son,” he laughed. “Go scribble a story on it.”
“I’ve written a few short stories,” I confessed since he seemed to know this already. I was not surprised by his astuteness—child molesters are excellent profilers. Still, it made me uncomfortable to make this admission to him.
“Short stories,” he scoffed. “No money in them—they’re like contemplating your navel. What are you, some kind of idealist?”
“I just like to write,” I muttered.
“Well, write for money—that’s what I do. Don’t end up like Herman Melville. He hadda work in a custom house because no one bought his book about whales.”
“So what do you write?”
“I write porn,” he said proudly. “My pen name is Hardy Peters. You’ve probably read some of my books if you’re into that sort of stuff.”
“I hope you’re not talking about kiddie porn.”
He narrowed his eyes like a gunfighter and stared at me woodenly. Whatever his depth of depravity, he was not without limitations. “I would never write porn about children,” he snapped. “Kids are sacred to me.”
“What then?” I asked him, shaking my head.
“Just run-of-the-mill, standard-issue porn. I used to be a journalist, but smut pays a whole lot better. I make two thousand dollars a book, and I can write one in three or four weeks. Jesus, I’ve written dozens of ’em and my publisher keeps asking for more.”
“You’ve written dozens of books?” I said. I could not help but be impressed.
“Naw,” he said. “When it comes to porn, there’s no room for variety. Basically, I wrote the same fucking book a coupla dozen times. Sometimes, I just changed the title and the book sold anyhow.”
“Impressive,” I said sarcastically.
He rolled his eyes and shrugged. “Those books are nothing to brag about. I’ve done better work writing screenplays. Didja ever see Lesbian Lunch? That won a Flint award.”
That the movie was actually familiar to me made me blush to the roots of my hair. Sensing my embarrassment, he patted me on the wrist.
“It ain’t as good as Deep Throat,” he said, “but I’m proud of it anyhow. It was my first stab at a screenplay and it won a Flint award.”
“I haven’t seen Lesbian Lunch,” I lied.
“No, I’m sure you haven’t,” he laughed. “But I got hope for you, buddy. If you ever need an editor, I’ll be happy to look at your stuff.”
After Dan Geegax left my office, I felt a deep despair. Had I given up too much when I became a civil servant? A decade ago, I had dropped out of college and spent seven years roaming Australia. I had herded cattle in the Northern Outback, I had traveled with a carnival, I had even worked on lobster boats off the rugged coast of Tasmania. Had these adventures so exhausted me that I now craved moderation? Was I content to sit in an office all day and make out visiting lists? It was clear that Daniel Geegax pitied me and that his pity had some foundation. My menial scribblings could hardly compete with his many publications, and my waning sense of adventure was dwarfed by his cavalier recklessness.
I was also perturbed that my warning had had no effect upon him. When I walked through the prison yard later that day, I spotted him handing out his pamphlets to inmates. It won’t be long, I thought, until someone beats the shit out of him, and the anticipation of this gave me a hollow satisfaction.
But months went by and nobody held Daniel Geegax to account. This was probably due to the skill he displayed as a hearing advocate. I chaired a conduct adjustment board when I wasn’t making out visiting lists, and most of the inmates facing disciplinary hearings asked that the law library assign them Dan Geegax to help them present their cases. He was remarkable at reviewing writeups and spotting the seams in them, and he was frequently successful in getting charges reduced or thrown out. “Yeah,” he might argue, “Ol’ Bubba here was caught jacking off in his bunk, but the officers who work the midnight shift let him get away with it all the time. If you’re gonna run a prison, ya gotta have consistency.”
Daniel also turned out to be a very reliable snitch—a role for which the prison recruited him after he had been there only a week. To avoid suspicion, he reported to me instead of the office of the investigation sergeant. After providing information about drug trafficking, which I relayed to the investigator, he would give me his car salesman grin and tell me about his day. Once, he said, “Ya know, Mister Hemmings, I think I’ve made a few converts.”
“We have enough pedophiles here,” I said, “without you recruiting more.”
“I’m a man on a mission, son,” he boasted. “Are you going to fault me for that?”
“Why do you need to have converts?” I said. “Can’t you whitewash your crimes on your own?”
“Do you really think I believe that line about teaching boys how to make love?”
“Don’t you?” I asked.
“Naw,” he replied. “I’m just a fucking pervert, and I’m willing to live with that.”
“So why do you pass out those pamphlets?”
“Ya ever read The Scarlet Letter, son—that eighteenth-century chestnut about an adulteress named Hester Prynne. You seem like a literary fella, so I shouldn’t have to spell it out for you.”
“What’s Hester Prynne got to do with it?”
“Be true to yerself—that’s the sage advice with which Hawthorne ends the book. If you wear your sins upon your chest, they’re easier to bear.”
“It seems you’ve thought this through,” I said.
“Exactly,” he replied. “Hester Prynne was a sinner—not that adultery is much of a sin—but she was also the type of person who helped out other people. Now the whole damn town poo-pooed on the bitch for stepping out on her husband, but even those Puritans loved the slut for all the good deeds she did. ‘Be true, be true’—Hawthorne had it right. But be true to your total self. If you keep your sins secret, yer conscience will punish you a lot more than other people will.”
“Incredible,” I said. I was almost impressed. “You’re a modern-day Hester Prynne.”
“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” he laughed, “but I wanna be true to myself. If it’s good enough for ol’ Hester, it’s good enough for me.”
As a prison informant, Daniel spent a great deal of time in my office. He was a constant source of knowledge regarding inmates smuggling in drugs, and, of course, he bartered this information for personal favors. I allowed him to use my office phone to call his publisher and his attorney, and soon he started to treat me as though I were at his beck and call. So great was his sense of entitlement that one day he asked me if I wouldn’t mind storing his pamphlets inside my desk.
“Do me a solid and hide ’em,” he said. “If a dorm officer shakes down my footlocker, he might think they’re contraband.”
I handed the pamphlets back to him. “No big loss,” I replied
“Like hell,” he said with a chuckle. “I need my scarlet letter.”
Having reread The Scarlet Letter, I decided to challenge him. “Your analogy is crap,” I said.
“What are ya saying, buddy?”
“Hester Prynne was beautiful, but you’re not much to look at. She also felt genuine guilt. I’m not so sure you do.”
“That all you got?”
“There’s more,” I replied. “Hester Prynne wasn’t a snitch. The Church wanted her to name her lover, but she protected him. She had too much integrity to throw anyone under the bus.”
“Didja just read that book again, Hemmings? It sounds like she gave you a hard-on.”
“They punished her way too much,” I snapped. “That hardly applies to you.”
Dan cracked his knuckles one by one. “All analogies are crap,” he said. “How come you’re picking on mine?”
“I’m your counselor,” I said, “and it’s obvious you don’t know how to serve time.”
He stuffed his pamphlets back into his shirt then looked at me curiously. “You’re not much of a guru, Hemmings. Ya talk like you’ve lost your nerve.”
“Maybe so, but don’t look to Hawthorne to sanctify your hubris. After her bust, Hester lived out her life in a shack at the edge of town. She didn’t run around preaching adultery and putting her life on the line.”
“Are you suggesting I pick another book? Like maybe Don Quixote.”
“I’m suggesting you check into our segregation dorm before somebody bumps you off.”
“Now who’s exaggerating?” he laughed. “You’re starting to sound like Tom Sawyer.”
“You’re serving four years,” I reminded him, “and you’re drawing the wrong kind of attention. If you keep living in a novel, you’ll be deader than Mark Twain.”
He looked at me as though I were a stranger then drew a labored breath. “Ya mean well, Hemmings,” he said. “I’m grateful to you for that. But I ain’t gonna take no advice from a fella who hides in his office all day.”
Almost a year went by, and Geegax kept serving his time recklessly. He cheerily dropped a dime on inmates possessing pot and cocaine—inmates he later defended in front of the conduct adjustment board. He argued that contraband found in footlockers was no evidence of possession—that the stuff could have easily been planted to set an inmate up. This argument was so persuasive that I threw out dozens of cases, which eventually earned me a letter of reprimand from the warden.
Geegax bragged to me that he charged his clients up to ten dollars a case. These fees were payable in cigarettes and homemade hooch, and he was not above accepting blowjobs from some of his younger clients. When I remarked that these sounded like petty returns for a man who made two grand a book, he laughed and said, “Hemmings, it’s about the hustle. It ain’t about the prize.”
We were sitting in my office, having one of our chats, and our conversation once again drifted to the pitfalls of doing time. “If you want to serve easy time,” I said, “why don’t you just read Proust?”
He pinched his nose as though I had farted. “I’m sure you know all about easy time, Hemmings, but don’t bother bending my ear. I don’t believe in serving time. I think time oughta serve me.”
“A great book will serve you as well as a hustle, and you won’t have to watch your back.”
“I’ve read all the great books, Hemmings,” he said, “so don’t bother suggesting one. Especially not Proust—that long-winded fag will put a fella to sleep.”
“What about Hemingway?”
“Overrated. His writing’s too damn thin.”
“Too fucking preachy. He makes me feel like I’m in church.”
“Have you read Nabokov?”
“I slogged through Lolita. I thought it had racy parts. But there wasn’t a bit of sex in the book—it just dragged on and on about nothing.”
I shrugged. I was out of suggestions.
He said, “Why don’t we talk about you? Ya married, Hemmings?”
“Have ya ever been in a fight?”
“Ya ever had a roll with a hooker or fucked yer neighbor’s wife?”
When I told him I’d rather go fishing, he snorted then grinned like a ghoul. “So whaddya do when the fish ain’t biting? Do ya sit in the boat reading Proust?”
He laughed when I didn’t reply and said, “Ya don’t gotta answer that question. Ya strike me as the sort of fella who’s read a whole lot of Proust.”
My next conversation with Geegax took place in the Special Housing Unit, a starfish-shaped building at the core of the prison where unruly inmates were kept. His dorm officers had shaken his bed area down and had found a shank under his mattress—a footlong piece of metal that had been ground to razor sharpness. I suspected one of the guards had been ordered to plant the shank, but there was nothing I could do about it. Geegax had appeared in front of the conduct adjustment board while I was attending a training session, and the board had found him guilty of possessing a deadly weapon. The board had recommended that he be confined to a cell pending a transfer to the Indiana State Prison. The hearing report described him as a dangerous predator.
After his hearing, Geegax had sent me a request slip asking me to pay him a visit. Although deemed a dangerous predator, his message was typically light.
To: Thomas Hemmings, Counselor Dorm 12
Date: June 23, 1980
From: Daniel Geegax, DOC 982251
RE: I told you so.
Hemmings, I hope you’re not the sort to say, “I told you so.” Not when my saboteurs showed no originality at all. Why couldn’t they have planted a penis stretcher instead of a fucking knife? I’m not well-hung for a predator and could use a couple more inches.
Anyhow, I hope you drop by and see me. I’m in A Range, Cell 17. I’d like to summarize Proust with you before I head for the big house.
As I waited for him in the conference room of the Special Housing Unit, I wished I had picked a better time to stop by for a visit. Some A-Range inmates had blocked up their toilets, which had flooded most of the range, so it was an hour before an officer fetched Geegax from his cell. His hands were linked to a waist chain, he was wearing ankle irons and he stumbled like a drunk as the officer herded him into the room.
He stood as still as a statue while the officer removed his restraints, then he sat on a chair by the conference table and sadly shook his head. “I guess my being a snitch ain’t enough for this fucking place.”
“Being a snitch may have bought you some time, but you were bound to get set up.”
“Spare me the lecture, Hemmings,” he said. “I knew it was gonna happen.”
“If you saw it coming, why didn’t you bail. Why did you keep winning cases?”
“Why did you let me keep winning them, Hemmings? If you had been a hardass conduct board chairman, I wouldn’t have rocked the boat.”
“I hope you appeal the decision.”
He stretched like a feline and smiled. “Your guilt won’t save ya, Hemmings, so let’s just talk about books. I ain’t gonna waste my time bucking a frame-up that the warden probably ordered.”
“Shall I bring you something by Proust?” I joked.
“Naw, I’m rereading Ken Kesey’s book. The chaplain slipped me a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“I’m sure it will keep your attention. It’s got plenty of taboo sex.”
“You’re missing the point,” he laughed. “The point is the hero had enough balls to shake up a looney bin. Get yer mind out of the gutter, Hemmings, if ya wanna discuss a great book.”
“Listen,” I said, “when you get to the State Prison, don’t act like the guy in that book. They kill known child molesters there, so keep out of the main population.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he said.
“You need some sage advice.”
“Ya ain’t acting like a counselor, ya know. You’re acting like a pal. Just ’cause I have a good side don’t mean I wantcha to be my pal.”
“I’m just doing my job,” I insisted. “There’s something you may not know. Every week, we transfer trouble makers to the Indiana State Prison. Most of them know you’re a pedophile and they’re bound to spread the word. A reception will be awaiting you the moment you step into the yard.”
“Hemmings, ya got noble intentions,” he said, “but you’re giving me pussy advice. If you wanna turn me into a wimp, I won’t letcha be my pal.”
“I’m trying to save your life,” I said.
“By making my life not worth saving? What kind of friend are you?”
“You won’t last a day if you don’t check into segregation. There’s going to be a bounty on you.”
He arched his eyebrows in mock alarm then laughed as though watching a skit. “A bounty, my, my. That sounds so cloak-and-dagger, but don’t let it getcha down. At least my life will have value if I end it in the yard.”
The following week, I stood by the watchtower inside the main sally port, and I watched Geegax trip toward a transport van bound for the Indiana State Prison. He was draped in so many chains that he looked like Marley’s ghost, a compatible image since I had little doubt that he was a dead man walking.
He noticed me standing there and grinned. “Hemmings!” he called. “I’ll write cha, and I’ll come see ya after I get out!”
I nodded warily and watched him slip into the van. I wondered, How will it happen if they don’t get him in the yard? Will they corner him on a catwalk? Will they trap him in his cell? Will they gang-jump him in the showers after diverting the guards? I only knew that the hit would be quick—he wouldn’t see it coming—and the knife would be passed off several times before his heart stopped beating.
I relived our last conversation as I watched the van pull away. He had actually had the temerity to recite Nietzsche’s most famous quote. “Hemmings,” he’d said, wagging his head. “What am I gonna do with you? You know, if ya stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”
How unsettling it felt to know that I had opened myself to the abyss and that, despite its villainy, the abyss was just toying with me. “So what did you see?” I muttered.
His face was full of pity, and he dropped his probing gaze. “Son,” he said, “don’t take this wrong, but you’re a hopeless case.”
Three weeks later, my prison mail included a letter from Geegax. That he had lived long enough to write it suggested he might have listened to me. I did not particularly want to credit myself for salvaging his life, and when I read the letter, I was relieved to discover that this had not been the case.
July 23, 1980
I have to say this about karma: it doesn’t sting with precision. From everything you told me, I should be a specter by now. I don’t want to upset your apple cart because I’ll bet you’re disappointed, so let’s just say that the Birdman of Alcatraz hasn’t got much on me. He was a pedophile too, you know, and he thrived like a fucking weed.
They’ve assigned me to the prison library, so I won’t be arguing any more cases. But that’s just as well because it gives me time to court my randy muse. Watch out D.H. Lawrence—that’s all I’ve got to say. I know I can write much classier smut than Lady Chatterley’s Lover—that book is so repetitious it almost put me to sleep.
Do you remember our talk about The Brothers Karamazov? I just read that monster again—the library here has a copy—and I’ve got to say that maybe you got it wrong again, bucko. You said those three brothers were existentially different, but my guess is they’re all Dostoyevsky. Ivan he’s Dostoyevsky’s mind—his powerful, unflinching mind. Alyosha he’s the D Man’s heart because he keeps getting led astray. And Dimitri, that lecherous fucker, has got to be the loins. You’re kind of like Alyosha, a well-meaning ideologue. Me, I’m more like Ivan, but I like Dimitri best.
Hemmings, don’t bother writing me back—I don’t want the brass slapping your wrist. I’ll drop you a line from time to time if my muse abandons me.
It was almost two months before he wrote me again, so his muse must not have strayed far. But how he had managed to stay alive remained a mystery to me. His letter did not show a hint of concern that someone might cut his throat. Like the canny protagonist in The Shawshank Redemption, he was making his time serve him.
September 14, 1980
Today I’m down to ten months. If you factor in the good time I’m earning, that’s all I’ve got left to serve. That means I’ll disenthrall myself a whole lot sooner than you will—I’ll bet you’ve got twenty years to go before you can fish all day.
I’m the head librarian now, so the guards don’t watch me much. I wish they would because I’m buying and smoking too much goddamn weed. Pot blunts my creativity, you know, and my muse is getting lonely.
Yesterday, I took a break and reread The Old Man and the Sea. The book is way too sentimental, but I’ll give ol’ Papa a pass. With all the brain cells he zapped with his boozing, I’m surprised he could write it at all. The book’s supposed to be a tragedy, but I say the old man was blessed. Hell, the marlin was way too big to be lashed to the side of a skiff, and that graybeard was too damned stubborn to cut that fucker loose. If the sharks hadn’t been peckish that day, the skiff would have probably sunk, and the dumb piscator would have ended up in Davey Jones’ chest.
I ain’t quite sure what I’m saying, bucko, but I think there’s a deep message here. And since you’re so fond of fishing, I’m hoping you’ll figure it out.
Although it had deemed me a charity case, the abyss was baiting me still, but I saw no enduring reason to keep on playing the game. Having never fished for anything bigger than crappies and bass, who was I to speculate on the agenda of the abyss?
Five weeks passed before I received another letter from Geegax. He keeps popping up like a jig bait, I thought as I tore open the envelope.
October 20, 1980
On a pedestrian note, I’m going to clue you as to what’s been happening here. Some con shanked a guard and the prison is on lockdown, so I’ve been stuck all week in my cell. The guard was a newbie who was stupid enough to try to be friends with the inmates, and a gang leader must have ordered one of his soldiers to take the asshole out. Most inmates don’t want a guard for a pal—it makes them look like snitches—so take heed, bucko. Don’t make a habit of overstepping your bounds. Still, I wish the gang had just warned the guard instead of knocking him off. Having to sit in my cell all day long is giving me cabin fever.
I’m still the head librarian here, and I’ve managed to hang onto my good time. I’ve even adopted a cat—can you believe that, Hemmings? The cellblocks here are crawling with cats, so it’s not too hard to adopt one. She’s a marmalade-colored tabby and I call her Molly Bloom. I won her over by feeding her guppies from my aquarium. Most cells here have aquariums, but the brass is now hauling them off. It’s too easy to hide a shank in one—you just stick it under the sand. We get to keep our televisions though, and the World Series starts today. I’ve bet an ounce of weed on the Phillies—they oughta win it in six games.
Hemmings, I wish you hadn’t told me your favorite book is Paradise Lost. I dug a copy out of the library just to see what the fuss was about, and I had to blow off three layers of dust before I could open it up. Be honest, is this really your favorite book, or are you just trying to show off? My god, the dead language and Hebraism could drive a reader nuts. I will say this about Milton, though: He knew the Church was corrupt, and that it’s better to be a law unto yourself than to let some priest fuck you up. I just don’t see how that pertains to you—it’s not like you’re bucking the system. If you want to have a favorite book, Hemmings, stick to The Scarlet Letter. Don’t start quoting from Paradise Lost because I think you’ll be out of your depth.
I’ve got to go, for now, Hemmings. My fish-watching days are up. Some guards have stormed the catwalk, and they’re taking the aquariums out. All the damn racket they’re making has upset Molly Bloom, so I’m going to feed her the rest of the guppies and hope that improves her mood.
Three months later, I received yet another letter from Daniel. He had sketched a harpooned marlin on the back of the envelope, and underneath the marlin, he had written, “The jig is up.” The letter was short, the writing looked hurried, and his nonchalance seemed forced.
January 20, 1981
“Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Mercutio couldn’t have said it better after Tybalt ran him through. But don’t bother asking for me, Hemmings—I have no more tomorrows. By the time this letter reaches you, I’ll be pushing up daisies too.
I’m not going to tell you the details—that’s something you don’t need to know. Let’s just say that the interest is due on all my borrowed time. Now I ain’t a fellow to dodge his debts, so I’m not going to check into seg. Hell, what would old Milton think of me if I took the coward’s way out?
Once the piper is paid, and I’ve been planted in the ground, I’m hoping a flock of fallen angels will give me a livelier home. I’m not saying a lake of eternal flame is a perfect place to dwell, but given how fucked-up heaven must be, I’ll be happier in hell.
Six months passed, and I did not receive another letter from Daniel. Given his compulsion to taunt me, I could only conclude he was dead. I did not have enough of Alyosha in me to regret his leaving this world, but I did hope the hit had come quickly and he had not lingered in death.
I found myself watching for Daniel’s ghost when I fished the pond at the prison’s north quarter, a forested preserve where prison staff was allowed to picnic and fish. I compulsively looked for ghosts when I fished there, having recently seen a couple. Staff suicides were not uncommon at the Indiana Penal Farm, and over the years, two guards had drowned themselves in the pond. Their ghosts had approached me a month ago while I was casting from the shore and had gazed at me like gophers before wandering away. Since these shades were without an agenda, I chose to contain my fear. Although chilled by this glimpse of the netherworld, I went on with my fishing.
On a hazy afternoon, six months after Geegax had written me last, I was casting a jig from a dinghy, which I had rowed to the middle of the pond. Since the fish were not biting that afternoon, my eyes drifted toward the shore, and that’s when I spotted a misty figure standing on the dock. The form was as stiff as a sentry and was watching me like a voyeur, so I dipped the blades into the water and pulled toward the dock. It unnerved me to think that this presence had unfinished business with me, but the fog was so thick and cottony that I rowed as though I were drugged.
“Hemmings,” a reedy voice shouted as the prow of the boat touched the dock, “if you’re catching lotsa fish, I hope you’re tossin’ the little ones back.”
“For a spook, you sound rather cheery,” I quipped. I chastised myself as I spoke, hoping the Great Beyond would not fault me for feigning a lack of respect.
The dinghy swayed like a pendulum as Geegax eased himself into it. “Hemmings, don’t be so smug,” he said as he seated himself at the prow. “If I’d had the option to haunt you, I’d have done it before now.”
His face lacked the insularity I associated with ghosts, and the potbelly he had developed suggested he still had a grip on this world. When I realized he was still alive, my pulse began to race. I would have been far less startled if he had come to me as a spook.
“You’re real!” I exclaimed. I started to sweat.
He saluted me and laughed. “Didja have me dead and buried, Hemmings? Yeah, I’ll bet ya did.”
“You told me your time had run out. You put that in your last letter.”
“A moment of weakness,” he shrugged. “We all have ’em now and then. I finished serving my bit last month, and now I’m out on parole.”
“When your letters stopped, I thought your time had run out long ago.”
“Naw, I just got tired of writing you, bucko. You kind of bore me, ya know?”
“So what are you doing here? This is private property.”
“I see ya still have a hard-on for boundaries,” he laughed. “Well, I did drive up to the prison to see you, but the shift captain said you’d gone fishing. He said it was okay with him if I came to see you here.”
“How?” I said.
“How do you think? I took the service road.”
“I mean how did you last a whole year in state prison? There had to be a bounty on you?”
He shook his head and snorted. “There was one for a while. When I wrote ya last, it was after some dickhead lunged at me with a shank. But a coupla shot callers grabbed the fucker and pulled him away from me. They said the gangs would protect me as long as I shared my lewd writing with them.”
“Did you share it?” I said.
“Of course I did, and I wrote ’em a whole bunch more. Since ya can’t buy cock books in prison, my work was in high demand.”
“So you gave them smut and they gave you your life.”
“Hemmings, they gave me more than that. Pot, blowjobs, commissary snacks—whatever I wanted was mine. Just as long as I used the library printer to launch a new book every month.”
“It sounds as though you were inspired.”
“How could I not be, Hemmings? I was writing for my life. Watch for new titles by Hardy Peters because I snuck those books out on disks.”
“Amazing,” I said.
He grinned like a jackal. “I guess you could call it that. Those books are the best damn writing that I have ever done. Fully-fleshed characters, powerful imagery, stunning metaphors. DH Lawrence and Nabokov are gonna be turning in their graves.”
Given my weakness for boundaries, I struggled to catch my breath. It felt as though a steel cable had tightened around my chest. “It’s amazing you’re still alive,” I muttered. “That’s what I meant to say.”
“Don’t ever go into politics, son, if you think criminals can’t be bought.”
“But you bought them with books you call literature?”
“Well, the subtext went over their heads. But as long as I put lots of smut in those books, the dipshits ate ’em up.”
“So why are you here?”
He looked at me sternly—as though I had stood him up. It was then I remembered his pledge to come see me after he got out.
We sat for a minute in silence then he climbed back onto the dock. Standing above me, he arched his eyebrows then chuckled like a clown. “Go back to yer fishing,” he teased. “It seems I’m rocking yer boat. Anyhow, I won’t get my books on the market if I stay here gabbing with you.”
He pushed the boat away from the dock as though ridding himself of a load. I watched as the fog reclaimed him, and then I started to row.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His work has appeared in over thirty journals, including Crack the Spine, Sixfold, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.