An Alcatraz guard makes a difficult choice for his future
“I don’t see what’s so great about this job.” Joe’s mother leaned against the sink a dish towel knotted in her hands as she dispensed, once again, her thoughts on his future. “You need to go back to school. Philosophy might not be the best major, but at least you’d have a degree.” Her shoulders heaved in a dramatic sigh. “But this Parks thing. What kind of future is that?”
Joe nudged the remains of his saltenas and eggs across the plate uncertain of what to say. He’d taken the night shift job hoping it would give him time to study and finish his degree. Instead, he’d been drawn into a world he’d not expected, and everything changed. He couldn’t explain it to his mother, at least not in words that made any sense. Joe rose from his seat and wrapped her in a hug.
“I’ll think about it, Mama.”
Dressed In his patrol uniform with its crisp black slacks bloused over a pair of polished boots, his sidearm, radio holster, and badge, Joe towered over his mother’s petite frame. He leaned down and planted a kiss atop of her graying head.
“Fair enough?” he asked.
“Fair enough.” She pouted, reaching up to cup his face in her hand. “I’d just hate for you to throw away all those years of schooling.”
“I know, Mama.”
Joe pulled his black jacket from behind the chair and shucked it on, then scooped up a backpack stuffed to roundness and slung it across one shoulder.
“Say goodnight to Lita,” his mother said, “and make sure she gets this.”
She nudged an aluminum foiled dish across the counter. “I’m sure she hasn’t eaten all day.”
Opening the front door, Joe stepped into the cool of a clear San Francisco night. It was 5:30 on a Bayview Wednesday and the streets buzzed with life. A rap beat thumped from a Honda inching its way down the block, while the excited shouts of children and the calls of parents ushering them to dinner swirled alongside the battered, fried, grilled, and spiced aroma of a hundred recipes whirling on the October wind.
Joe couldn’t imagine living anywhere besides San Francisco. He’d tried LA after high school, moving in with his senior year sweetheart shortly after graduation. Joe found its sprawling suburbs and endless commutes, and his girlfriend’s infidelity, too much to handle and moved back home three months later.
Tugging up his gun belt, he sauntered down the stairs to where a gate opened onto a shadowed alley running between their home and the next. Above the gate’s rusted metal bars hung the only notice of his Abuelita’s business and home in back; a faded wooden marquis with a hand-painted eye at the center. Beneath it were scrawled the words: ‘FORTUNE TELLER’.
At his grandmother’s stoop, Joe tugged open the screen door and stepped inside.
“Lita? Momma sent dinner.”
A table sat at the room’s center and upon it a yellowed crystal ball. The only illumination came from a fringed red lamp on coffee table in the corner. The walls were crammed with floor to ceiling shelves, each loaded with plastic buckets of dried Llama fetus’, stacks of bleached animal skulls, wooden boxes of exotic spices, or jars of dark, unidentifiable liquid. They filled the space with a curious yellow aroma that reminded him of mystical places and faraway lands.
Joe set down his pack before stepping to a door on the far side of the room. He gave it a rap.
“Lita, are you okay?”
From the far side of the scuffed wooden door came a shuffle of movement followed by the sound of a toilet flush. The door swung open and a spot of a woman scurried past. She paused at the edge of a patched green recliner before lowering herself in.
“I thought you was rapists,” she said, “come ta take an’ old woman’s life.”
Her eyes, as bright and dark as pebbles, looked up from a face whose skin was fine as dried parchment. She wriggled in her chair, snugging a rainbowed shawl across her shoulders.
“Lita, no one around here’s gonna bother you.” He set the plate on the table, then dragged over a chair and sat down beside her.
Despite decades of leaving her windows and door unlocked, no one ever broke into Miss Lita’s, as all the neighborhood called her. Besides the bad luck of crossing a witch, there was the persistent rumor of the youth who’d broken in back in the 70s. The young man’s unfortunate demise beneath the wheels of a trolley the next day was enough to discourage even the boldest of thieves.
“You never know.” She lifted the tinfoil cover and peered beneath. A ghost of steam wafted into the air and filled it with the aroma of warm beans and rice. With a grimace, she tucked the cover down and slid the plate away.
“Lita,” Joe pleaded, “Momma said you need to eat.”
“I eat plenty,” the old woman said, leaning back in her chair. “But let’s talk about you.” She raised a brow, staring. “Your mother’s been complaining again, I can tell.” Her eyes narrowed. “About your job …” She paused, tapped thoughtfully at her chin. “And school? Yes, that’s it. She was complaining about school.”
“That woman never learned anything that wasn’t taught in a classroom.” Lita raised a thin hand and waved it dismissively. “Just like your father, God rest his soul.” She made the sign of the cross and went on. “All they ever think about is money.”
Joe huffed his agreement and nodded. “Yeah, but money’s sure a fine thing to have.”
He looked back to the front door and the world beyond. Most of his friends had jobs now or at least degrees. His best friend, Juan, was a Staff Sergeant in the Army. Juan had a wife and kids. What did he have?
Joe contemplated the weight of his pack and the supplies within. He had no idea if his plan would work, but he knew he had to try.
“There’s more ta life than money,” Lita continued. She leveled a crooked finger and sighted along its length. “There’s spiritual riches as well.”
Joe leaned over, elbows on knees, and studied his boots. He’d been thinking his mother was right. That he’d been wasting his time. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“Yeah … I know.”
Her sharp tone raised his eyes.
“There’s few people who possess our gift,” she said. “Fewer still who know how to use it.”
He straightened and met her stare.
“I’ve seen the way you look at the world. How you peer into shadows when the spirits are there. How you listen to their song when it’s threaded on the wind.” She chuckled, more a half-wheezed cough than a laugh. “Did you know it was your great-grandfather who taught me about the gift. A Yatiri of great power back in Bolivia; before the revolution drove us here.”
Joe consulted his watch afraid of another of his grandmother’s extended family tales.
“You’ll be late for work.” She leaned across the table and laid her small, soft hand atop his.
“Just remember, we’re never alone.” She leaned back with a groan. “If you want a career, you can always take over the family business.”
Joe rose from his seat and shouldered his pack.
“Working for Sandra?” he said.
He couldn’t imagine a worse fate than slaving at the family motel beneath his tyrant sister’s thumb.
“No, my child, here.” Her ancient face creased into a smile. “At the family’s original business. The business of sprit.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “I’ll see ya’ in the morning, Lita.” He paused at the door. “And don’t forget your dinner.”
“And you,” she said. “Be careful. The power of the spirits ebb and flow, but tonight is a full moon. The curtain separating us from the other side will be thin tonight; very thin.”
His eyes narrowed. Did she know? How could she?
“You brought books,” she said. “That’s good. They like stories.”
His hand drifted to the pack’s slick nylon sides and the sharp corners beneath.
“Just follow your heart.” She lifted the tinfoil wrapper and frowned. “And maybe try that old one first.”
On the bus ride to the pier, Joe mulled over what his grandmother said. It always amazed him how she knew things it wasn’t possible to know. Like the books.
With a rocking squeal of brakes, the bus eased to a halt and he followed the thin line of riders down Front Street, taking his time along Broadway and onto the waterfront. The westering sun lay shrouded in rising mist as he cut through the lines of ubiquitous tourists and found his way up the ramp to the waiting ship.
Making his way to the open bow, Joe watched as the lines were cast off and the engine’s deep rumble carried through the souls of his boots. Out ahead, Alcatraz stood silhouetted against a swelling bank of fog with only the tower and swooping cables of the Golden Gate bridge still visible above its ghostly fringe. As he stepped across the gangway and onto the island, a portly man in a Park Service green jacket hailed him from the edge of a crowd.
“Joseph, what’s happ’ nin’?”
Being the only passenger aboard, as soon as Joe cleared the ramp, the chains holding back the mass of tourists were opened, and they streamed noisily past.
“I’m good, Mike,” Joe said, joining the big man at the top of the stairs. “Busy day?”
Mike leaned against the railing watching the line of visitors crowd aboard.
“Not bad. A little light for this time of year.” He cast an eye towards the mounting fog then turned his attention back to Joe.
“Gonna be a chilly one.”
Mike dug into his pocket and produced a ring of keys. Most were normal sized, but three were the large brass keys of the original prison. As Joe took them, an electric jolt jumped between them causing the old man’s eyes to widen.
“Whew.” Mike shook his hand. “I felt that.” His gaze roamed the darkening sky. “I don’t see any clouds, but it sure feels like a storm’s comin’.”
“We’re all clear,” a woman called from the ship’s forward ladder.
Mike slapped Joe on the shoulder and strode down the ramp. “Take care, kid. We’ll see ya in the morning.”
By the time Joe dropped his pack at the tee-shirt counter inside the prison and retrieved his flashlight, the fog had wrapped Alcatraz in a damp, murky shroud. Relieved of the heavy pack, Joe left the prison and marched the steep avenues of his patrol, past the gaunt, looming shadow of the water tower, along the guano flecked path beside the powerplant, the air sharp with the ammonia reek of bird droppings and the unseen cry of nesting gulls, past the quay and its splash of cresting waves, and the rainbow-colored glow of San Francisco lost in the fog. He glanced from the colorful rumor of the city to the hulking darkness of the island, and a thread of uncertainty skittering along his spine. He was stalling and he knew it. But what if he were wrong? What if they did mean him harm?
The first time Joe had sensed them was in the wee hours of his first week at work; an ebon, crystalline sparkle had formed round him like reverse fireflies glittering in the night. He could feel them darkling in the distance as he made his way through the long empty halls, past framed pictures of monsters once locked behind these hard iron bars.
On his first full moon, they’d driven him from the prison, their persistent glimmer rising, rising until the terror sent him panting through the halls and rushing outside. Only on the boat ride home, had Joe realize the emotions driving him into the night weren’t anger or malice but an anguished, frustrated cry. A cry for help?
With a grinding rasp, he turned the key and stepped inside once more. Joe hefted the cool metal of his flashlight knowing its light would drive away the specters should the terror submerge him. His gaze drifted to the long dark corridor and what lay ahead. He set the flashlight down afraid he might use it.
Okay, you can do this. Joe’s broad shoulders rose as he sucked in a long breath then slowly let it out. He shouldered the pack and set out along the dark hollow aisles; past vacant cells and the hushed whispers within, to the vast open space of the library.
Even through the fog, the brimming moon crashed through the library’s double storied windows and filled the vast chamber with her alabaster glow. Joe stepped to the spiral staircase in the corner and found a spot on the steps. It had taken months for him to discover the library as the spot where he felt most attuned to their cries. In a way it made sense. Where else could the inmates escape the reality of their broken lives but in the pages of a book?
He could see them now, the dark shadows pressing around in starved anticipation. He swallowed, feeling the hard, dry click at the back of his throat as one by one, he pulled out the books, setting each aside as the moonlight narrowed.
None of them would do.
His eyes darted to the hushed whisper of footsteps. Or was it the rustling scurry of rats? He sat paralyzed, like an actor who’d forgotten his lines; sweating beneath the spotlight as it riveted him to the stage.
At the very bottom of his pack, Joe felt the rough cloth cover of an ancient tome. He knew it to be the one.
He pulled it out and examined the title. Read the old one, isn’t that what Lita said?
A distant metallic clang echoed, echoed through the halls as he flipped open the cover and slowly began to read. Joe sensed their self-loathing and coveted rage break like waves of unshed tears; felt their relief like a parched man’s gulp of water and knew in their eternity of suffering he provided an outlet however brief.
“Call me Ishmael.” He read, his voice rising to fill the void as they settled in around him. “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse ……”