|4. Go experience something common to others that you have never done before and write about it.
Alcatraz in Dreams
The 8:00 train collected Wendy Sawyer in San Jose and at 10:26 deposited her at the edge of San Francisco, two miles from where she needed to be. As she walked down King Street, tiny, weightless beads of rain came at her from all directions, enveloping her in dampness and rendering her umbrella nothing more than a fashion statement. Her long hair clung to her neck and forehead. Maybe I just should have gone to class today, she thought. But I suppose I picked an appropriate day to fake a cold. Besides, she knew her professors would not notice her absence from their crowded lecture halls as they soliloquized about military history and criminal justice.
A mat of frothy fog unrolled itself over the harbor. She passed the Bay Bridge, anchored concretely to the ground on one end but the rest mysteriously suspended in the distant, opaque sky. It’s like a Salvador Dali painting, she thought as she tried to glimpse the other end of the bridge through the fog. Her concentration was broken when she stepped in an ankle-deep puddle.
Gross. She walked on, her right tennis shoe squishy with cold street water.
When she reached the Ferry Building, she closed her umbrella and ducked into the side door. The building was full of warm, yellow light and vigorous shoppers. Fragrances of all sorts swirled and mixed in the air but were also separately distinguishable: artisan bread and Italian coffee, just-picked basil and rosemary, Napa wine and provincial cheese, rotisserie chicken and morning-caught fish.
She glanced at her watch: 11:15.
She stood on her toes and peered down the hall above the crowd. A dark-haired man in a red windbreaker appeared near the main entrance. That must be the tour leader, Wendy thought. She wove her way through the crowd, stopping only to accept a sample of homemade chocolate that was offered to her by a tall woman in an apron.
Ten minutes later, Wendy was heading toward Sausalito in the cabin of a ferry with eighteen strangers, including the tour leader. He introduced himself as Jason, a San Francisco native, and a twenty-year tour-leading veteran. Wendy listened politely as he profiled the city, but she could not help but think that, for a veteran, his monologue was remarkably ineloquent. You’d think that after twenty years, he could do this in his sleep.
“San Francisco has some of the finest architecture in the world. If you look at the clock tower of the Ferry Building…” He pointed to the enormous clock atop the Ferry Building, right in front of the boat. “…right there…see it?” People nodded. “What other clock does it look like?”
Several people answered, “Big Ben.”
“Right, Big Ben, good,” Jason said. He paused, stuttered the beginnings of a few abandoned sentences, and finally continued. “Well, in 1882, there was…I’m sorry, eighty-nine…”
Wendy’s thoughts slowly drifted to other things as her eyes slowly drifted to the window.
Out of the fog, the foreboding silhouette of Alcatraz Island materialized like an arctic desert mirage. Atop a narrow tower, a red light blinked steadily. With a start, Wendy noticed that its incidence matched her pulse. She stared in awe as the ferry drew closer to the island, though most of its features remained shrouded in gray haze.
“Yeah, that’s Alcatraz,” Jason said over Wendy’s shoulder, close to her ear. Startled, she knocked her head on the window and groaned under her breath.
“Used to be a military prison. Then it was a place for prisoners that weren’t playing nicely in other jails- the worst of the worst were sent there. Then…what happened…Oh yeah, Native Americans took it over and vandalized the entire island. Hollywood ended up fixing it back up for the movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz’…or was it ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’…No, no, it was ‘Escape from Alcatraz.’ That one came later, right? I think…” He squinted his dark eyes in concentration and ran an olive-skinned hand through his slick black hair. Wendy absentmindedly tried to put an age on him. Forty? Fifty? Thirty-five? His happy, oblivious nature took some years off of him, but the fine wrinkles in his face put them back.
He then broke into a disheveled discussion of Coit Tower, which was barely visible through the fog atop a far-off hill, and Wendy wandered back to Alcatraz. Its angled silhouette stood out against the soft, gray fog. She could make out the rough cliffs that rimmed the island, and a patch of fluffy deciduous trees, their round canopy the only curve in the island’s jagged outline. The island appeared to be topped with long, low buildings, and the winking, red-eyed tower loomed over it all.
I wonder what you had to do to get sent there. The worst of the worst... Wendy rested her forehead on the glass and closed her eyes.
She pictured a cliché prison inmate in a black-striped jumpsuit and a long number printed across his back. He was shining bald, tall and rough, with biceps the size of Wendy’s torso and a tattoo that said, “Maria,” in scripted letters through a valentine heart. She named this man Lefty and imagined him quietly filing through the iron bars of his cell in the dead of night. She sent a faceless guard his way and grinned as he jumped to his bunk and feigned sleep. When the echo of the guard’s footsteps was faint enough, Lefty resumed his filing.
His efforts did not seem to be doing any noticeable damage to the bars, and Wendy was getting bored of watching him, so he suddenly found himself standing outside his cell, the bars still intact. He looked around confusedly for a moment, then grinned with self-satisfaction.
He made his way down the hall to the stairs. Most of the other inmates were sleeping, but one scrawny prisoner stuck his arm out of his cell and shook Lefty’s right hand in congratulations.
At the bottom of the staircase, a guard slept in a folding chair. Lefty held his breath as he descended on tiptoe, easing his weight slowly onto each iron step, but the last step betrayed him with an ear-shattering screech. The guard started awake and within an instant was pointing a gun at Lefty, who in the same instant had drawn a gun of his own, the origins of which were a mystery to him.
Neither said a word, but their eyes conversed at length. Lefty backed away slowly while the guard raised his eyebrows in warning. Lefty glared at him maniacally. Then the guard advanced, matching Lefty’s retreat step for step.
Without warning, Lefty fired his gun two times. The first bullet hit the wall behind the guard and ricocheted off the aluminum folding chair with a twang, and the second bullet pierced the guard’s left thigh. He fell to the ground with a whine. Lefty stood frozen. One by one, sleepy inmates began appearing at their cell bars. The fast footsteps of other guards grew louder as they approached.
A nearby prisoner threw a roll of toilet paper through the bars of his cell; it hit Lefty in the face. He turned his head. “Run, dimwit!” the old man shrieked.
Shocked into motion, Lefty sprinted down the hall away from the bleeding guard. Three guards wielding tazers blocked the door at the end of the hall, but Lefty shouldered through them with ease and kept running.
He ran until he was outside the prison compound. He found himself running through a windswept field of clover and daffodils, the sun shining overhead among amorphous puffs of cloud. He had not seen the outside of the prison in a long time, but he could have sworn this field had not been there when he arrived on the island. But since it was there now, he figured he might as well enjoy it.
Suddenly, one of his footsteps seemed to penetrate the ground, and he found himself falling through the earth. Before he knew it, he was treading water through a tempestuous current, the black sky hurling bolts of green lightning all around him. He became acutely aware of another presence in the water, a maliciousness accompanied by rows and rows of spiny teeth. He felt icy skin brush against his leg. His muscles froze in panic, and he sank helplessly beneath the breakers.
* * *
Wendy gasped and opened her eyes. Jason was standing over her again, saying something incoherent. Typical, she thought.
She blinked twice, and Jason slowly morphed into her parole officer. Still in the haze between sleep and wakefulness, she realized how similar the two looked. The ferry cabin gradually faded into her dim prison cell.
“Wendy, get up. Let’s go,” her parole officer said brusquely, shaking her shoulder.
She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and glanced around the cell. A small print of “The Persistence of Memory” hung on the opposite wall above a small wooden desk stacked with textbooks. A thick band of sunlight passed through the high window on the wall to her right and fell heavily on the floor like golden drapes.
“I’ll be in the conference room,” he said, and he left.
Wendy sat on the edge of her bed and rubber-banded her hair into a ponytail. As she walked down the narrow hall, she thought, God, I hope that’s the last time I have that nightmare.
Every night, she became a different person: sometimes a large, burly man; sometimes a waiflike, nearly-invisible woman; sometimes a child. But the nightmare always began with the vivid details Wendy remembered from her first encounter with Alcatraz. She kept the entire day intact in the back of her mind; it was, after all, the key event that ignited her experiments with crime.
Now she had to decide what to tell the panel of arbitrators who would determine whether she was ready to try parole again. The truth would make her sound utterly insane, so she began constructing a lie.
But her mind drifted back to the first time she saw Alcatraz resting in the mist, chillingly still. She had wondered what it would be like to walk its dark halls. A week later, she visited the island and toured the complex, but it all had seemed hollow to her. She remembered feeling that a terrible and enthralling secret was hiding somewhere on the island, perhaps beneath the Hollywood rendition of the place. From that moment, she had been obsessed with finding the truth behind Alcatraz.
She made several more trips to the island, none of which offered any information that satisfied her burning desire for authenticity. Even artifacts that were said to have been taken from the days when Alcatraz was operational never appeased her; she was still certain they were all counterfeit, distorted replicas of a misinterpreted history.
She recalled searching all of her criminal justice and history textbooks for answers and asking all of her professors for any information about the prison, but what they could tell her about the history of Alcatraz sounded like a paraphrased version of the prison’s self-guided audio tour, which she had practically memorized.
Wendy had been fascinated with prisons and crime since she was young, when her father read her stories about characters like Al Capone. But Alcatraz had sparked within her a deep, psychotic fascination with the criminal experience. She found herself committing petty crimes, hoping she would be caught. When she inadvertently proved too sneaky for the local law enforcement, she graduated to more serious crimes, one of which finally landed her in the state penitentiary. It had been a calculated act; she researched criminal law for weeks and finally found a crime that would earn her three years of research experience in the prison system, no more, no less.
Wendy stepped out of her cell block and walked across the grassy quad. The sun washed over everything, sharpening the colors of the prison yard and stinging Wendy’s eyes. She walked up the steps to the administration building and passed through the open door. She took the hallway to the left and found the conference room, third door on the right. She opened the door quietly, as if by doing so she could ward off the attention of the people inside, though she knew they no matter what she did, they would catch her in their collective glare as soon as she entered the room.
She understood that the Alcatraz she craved was no more, but she was certain that if she collected enough prison experience, Alcatraz would reveal its glory days to her the next time she walked its halls, like a god appearing before a worthy prophet.
But her quest was about to end, and far too soon. Her research would be forced to conclude if the parole panel found her fit to walk the streets. But there was so much more she needed to know.
Maybe I should just tell them the truth, Wendy thought with a smile as the doors of the conference room slammed shut behind her.