Once a month, an aging ex-priest and I traveled from Madison to Waupun to teach English Comp. Patrick, suffering what he described as a crisis of faith, did penance, I supposed. I performed community service, on probation for a DUI arrest. According to Patrick, I got off easy and deserved hard time in Waupun for running a light, T-boning another vehicle, and sending a family man to the hospital.
Most of the prisoners struggled to put two words together. Plus, they wrote only a slightly different version of the same piece every month regardless the assignment. They wrote about their crimes, arrests, and trials, blaming victims and lawyers, never mind every prisoner had been through several trials and plenty of lawyers before reaching Waupun.
Muller was one of the smarter prisoners. The only murderer in class and master of the brown-nose, he attended due to what passed for good behavior. A balding white guy with a paunch and a merry grin, he looked more like the bookkeeper he’d been on the outside than a murderer.
That grin hadn’t prevented him from butchering several young women in his hometown. With investigators closing in, he went on quite the spree, eventually taking hostages and holing up in a cabin near Tomahawk. Before killing a mother and daughter, he raped and tortured them for days.
One morning, four months into our six-month stint, Patrick picks me up at my girlfriend’s place. It’s snowing big, fluffy flakes that promise more on the way, but we’re used to snow, and Patrick drives an SUV.
Behind his white beard, he looks like a mountain man, projecting rugged and tough, not what you’d expect of a priest or even an ex-priest. He’s offering coffee from a thermos. I pour two cups and hold the wheel while he seasons his with a shot from a flask kept under the seat. He winks and offers the flask, knowing my probation requires me to remain sober, knowing my girlfriend will kick me to the curb if I don’t. I tell him thanks, but no thanks.
Then he asks my opinion of Muller’s essay, the most detailed and celebratory account yet of the man’s crimes. But what do I know? Patrick’s the guy who reads books, dabbles in poetry, and takes on the heavy lifting for the class.
In his view, Muller’s work is outright pornographic. It’s evil, and he won’t stand for such. Besides, Muller is testing him.
I remind him that disciplinary matters are to be taken up with the warden, but Patrick won’t hear it. He insists on confronting Muller, mano a mano.
“You think I’m afraid of Muller?”
That’s not the point, and we both know it.
It’s snowing harder by the time we arrive. Castle-like, with high walls and turrets, Waupun floats, a ghostly apparition on the southern tip of Great Horicon Marsh. Patrick takes two snorts in the parking lot, offering his flask again, taunting with his wink and acting offended when I decline.
Muller’s eyes are light blue slits set in his pale, round face. His eyes have seen terrible things, and now they see us enter the classroom. His lips wear that grin, but his eyes never grin.
Patrick says he’d like a word, and they step into the hall while I call roll. With a weapon, against a weaker party, Muller is no doubt lethal, but with armed guards in walkways overhead and Patrick leaning over him, he looks harmless. I catch the words — inexcusable, disrespectful. When Muller attempts a defense, Patrick growls, “Horseshit.”
Nothing goes unnoticed here. The entire class has overheard the dressing down.
Muller returns to the classroom, surly and grim. Patrick winks, smug and self-righteous. I’m watching Roosevelt, this skinny, black guy in for aggravated rape. He claims the woman was a prostitute and he acted in self-defense. His story’s doubtful, but he doesn’t come across as violent here, more like the class clown. Roosevelt makes the mistake of giggling when Muller passes behind him.
That quick, Muller clamps him in a headlock, grabs a number two pencil off the desk and plunges the business end into his ear. Roosevelt screams as Muller stabs repeatedly before guards pull him off. Blood spurts and pools on the concrete floor while we wait for medics. Roosevelt convulses, and someone says, “Pretty fucked up.”
Waupun goes on lockdown, the warden suspends our class indefinitely, and we head home in a blizzard, the temperature dropping fast in the wake of an Alberta Clipper.
We creep along a deserted two-lane, drifts mounting high as fence posts. I’m forced to listen while Patrick disavows responsibility for inciting Muller and claims Roosevelt had it coming. An ex-priest says this.
We haven’t gone far when he pulls to the shoulder. He steps free of the SUV, trudges to the middle of the road, and takes a leak, staining the pristine white with his foul yellow. He lifts flask to lips and draws hard, saving the dregs for me. He waggles, winking.
I slide across the seat and lock the doors. He’s left keys in the ignition, the SUV running. I drop her into gear and pull forward. Panicked, Patrick starts after me, only to slip and fall. I slow to a stop, wait for him to regain his feet. About the time he catches up, I pull ahead again.
The man I T-boned suffers job loss and chronic back pain. The on-scene cop remarked it never fails, us drunks slide by with cuts and bruises. Well, I’m no drunk now. I’m no Muller, either, and I don’t deserve hard time in Waupun.
I play our little game until Patrick’s too gassed to play.
I unlock the door, and he collapses next to me, snot frozen in his beard.
I ask if we’re good, and he nods we are.
I wink and recommend a prayer for Roosevelt.
Breathing heavy, Patrick nods again. That settled, I drive on, into a blur of dancing, white pinpoints.
A former lawyer, Gary V. Powell is currently a stay-at-home dad, cook, housekeeper, and handy-man. His short stories and flash fiction can be read in in various venues including the Thomas Wolfe Review, Carvezine, Fiction Southeast, Atticus Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, Best New Writing 2015 (Eric Hoffer Foundation), and Pisgah Review 2017. His first novel, Lucky Bastard, was published by Main Street Rag Publishing (2012). A recently-completed second novel, Whole Life, is in search of a publisher.
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