An Alcatraz guard makes a difficult choice for his future
Why was his mother such a bitch? Joe slammed the door behind him and stepped into the fading glory of a clear, San Francisco dusk. A wave of guilt flooded him, and he banished the accusation as quickly as it came.
It was 5:30 on a Bayview Wednesday night 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 calls of parents ushering them to dinner swirled alongside the battered, fried, grilled, and spiced aroma of a hundred recipes whirling on the October breeze.
Snugging his Park Service jacket against the chill, Joe sauntered down the stairs to where a gate opened onto a shadowed alleyway running between his home and the next. Above the gate’s rusted bars, hung the only notice of his Abuelita’s home in back; a faded marquis with a hand-painted eye at the center. Beneath were scrawled the words:
At his grandmother’s stoop, Joe tugged open the door and stepped inside. “Lita? I’m headed to work.”
A table sat at the room’s center and upon it a yellowed crystal ball. The only illumination came from a fringed lamp atop a corner table. 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 opaque, unidentifiable liquid. They filled the space with a curious yellow aroma, evoking images of mystical places and faraway lands.
Joe set down his heavy pack before stepping to a door on the far side of the room. He gave it a rap.
“Lita. You okay?”
From the far side of the scuffed 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 wrinkled face with skin was fine as dried parchment. She wriggled into her chair and snugged a rainbowed shawl across her shoulders.
“Lita, no one’s gonna bother you.” Joe dragged over a chair and sat down.
No one dared breaking into Miss Lita’s, as generations of children 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 demise beneath the wheels of a trolley the next day was enough to discourage even the boldest of thieves.
“Mmm, mmm, mmm. I always did like a man in uniform.” A smile curled the old woman’s lips as she cocked her head and considered him. “I’ll bet you need all that weaponry ta fight off the ladies. Am I right?” She chuckled, more a half-wheezed cough than a laugh.
Joe glanced down at his crisp black slacks bloused over a pair of polished boots, his sidearm, radio-holster, and cuffs. He had to admit a feeling of pride when he put on the uniform and pinned on his Park Service Police badge. He leaned over and planted a kiss atop of her graying head.
“Not as many as you’d think.” He forced a smile.
The old woman leaned back bringing a finger to her lips. “Something’s botherin’ you tonight.” Her eyes narrowed. “Your mother’s been complaining again ... about work.” She paused, nodding thoughtfully. “And school? Yes, that’s it. She want’s you back in school.”
“Phht, that woman never learned anything that wasn’t taught in a classroom.” Lita waived her thin hand dismissively. “Just like your father, God rest his soul.” She made the sign of the cross and went on. “All those two ever thought about was money.”
Joe huffed his agreement. “Yeah, but money’s a fine thing ta have.”
He looked back to the front door and the world beyond. Most of his friends had jobs 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 his stuffed pack and the supplies within. He had no idea if his plan would work, but 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.”
“Yeah … I know.”
Joe leaned over studying his boots. He’d been thinking his mother was right. That he’d been wasting his time and needed to finish his degree. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
Her sharp tone raised his eyes.
“There’s few people who possess our gift, Joseph. Fewer still know how ta 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 leaned close, her breath both sour and sweet. “It was your great-grandfather who taught me about the gift, and his mother before him.”
Joe consulted his watch, afraid of another of his grandmother’s extended tales.
“You’re late.” She leaned across the table and laid her small, soft hand atop his.
“Just remember, you’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 couldn’t imagine a worse fate than slaving at the family motel beneath his tyrant sister’s thumb.
“No, my child, here.” Her lips creased into a smile. “At the family’s original business. The business of spirit.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “I’ll see ya’ in the morning, Lita.” He paused at the door. “And close your windows, there’s a fog coming in.”
“And you be careful too,” she said. “The spirit’s power ebb and flow, but tonight’s a full moon. The curtain separating the spirit world is thin.”
Did she know? Joe’s eyes narrowed. How could she?
“You brought books,” she said. “That’s good. They like stories.”
Joe’s hand drifted to the pack’s slick nylon and the squared corners beneath.
“Just follow your heart.” She smiled. “And try that old one first.”
On the bus ride to the pier, Joe mulled over what his grandmother said. It 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, and onto the waterfront. The westering sun lay shrouded in mist as he cut through the lines of tourists and found his way up the ramp to the waiting ship.
Making his way to the bow, Joe watched as the lines were cast off and the engine’s throaty rumble carried through his boots. Out ahead, Alcatraz lay silhouetted against a swelling bank of fog with only the towers and swooping cables of the Golden Gate bridge 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, 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 joined 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.
“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.
“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 inside the prison and retrieved his flashlight, fog wrapped Alcatraz in a damp, murky shroud. Relieved of his load, Joe left the prison to march 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 gulls, past the quay and its splash of cresting waves, and the rainbow-colored glow of San Francisco lost in the fog. As he glanced from the colorful rumor of the city to the hulking darkness of the island, a thread of uncertainty skittered along his spine. He was stalling and knew it. But what if he were wrong? What if they did mean him harm?
The first time he’d sensed them, was in the wee hours that first week of work. An ebon, crystalline sparkle had formed round him like reverse fireflies glittering in the night. Joe 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, and rising until the terror sent him panting through the halls and rushing outside. Only on the boat ride home, had Joe realized 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 dark corridors and what lay beyond.
He set the flashlight down.
Okay, you can do this. Joe’s shoulders rose as he sucked in a long breath then slowly let it out. He shouldered the pack and set off along the hollow aisles; past vacant cells and the whispered voices 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 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. Then one by one, he drew out the books, setting each aside as the moonlight narrowed.
His eyes darted to the hushed whisper of footsteps. Or was it the rustled 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 pack’s bottom, Joe felt the rough cloth cover of an ancient tome. He knew it to be the one.
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 as they settled in around him. “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse ……”