1

 

Sergeant Tom

 

They tossed me in a cell with an old redneck jailbird from north of Payson on my first day at Arizona’s Winslow Prison. Flat on his back in the top bunk, hands clasped behind his head, he didn’t bother to look down when the door clanged closed behind me. An hour passed before he acknowledged my presence.

“They’re shipping me down to Perryville in the morning,” he said. A smoker’s rasp underscored his country drawl.

Having no idea what he was talking about, I made no reply. 

“You know, back in ‘eighty-one, I was on the first busload of convicts into Perryville,” he said. “It was all shiny and new back then.”

He turned on his side and looked down at me for the first time.

“Now, ten years later, here they go hauling me back down there. It’s hotter than blue blazes in that hell-hole too, I can tell you that—it sure don’t seem like I'm makin' a whole lot of progress,” he said.

“Judging from what you’ve told me, no, it doesn’t seem that you are,” I said.

I think in jest, the old jailbird bristled some and said he was making a statement, not asking for my opinion. He said my opinion wasn’t worth a hill of beans to him and that I should consider keeping it to myself in the future.

“What’s your name, son?” he asked.

“Gille—Gille Barker.”

The old man bugged his bloodshot eyes in mock dismay.

“Jill, you say; never met a man named Jill,” he said. “Your folks must have been a little twisted.” He choked on a snorted chortle.

Not wanting to sound disagreeable, I said, “I never asked where they came up with the name and they never told. One thing though–it's spelled G-i-l-l-e, not J-i-l-l, like you might suppose—French I think.”

“Well, you do realize most of us in here ain’t too culturally inclined,” the old man said. “I sure wish I could be around long enough to hear you explain that French connection to the boys in the yard—you're liable to get some mixed reviews.

“Safe to say some of ‘em won't take too kindly to a spelling bee either, so you might want to take that into consideration.”

He snorted another chortle and lobbed a tobacco chaw from his jaw into a rusty old coffee can, inches from my toes.

“What kind of time you look’n at, Gille?”

“Three years.”

I was plenty scared now, and he knew it.

“You should be all right, son; just stay with the Caucasians and——”

He paused in mid-sentence and strip-searched me with his eyes, an experience only slightly less humiliating than the real thing I endured two hours before.

“You are a white boy, aren’t you?” he finally asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Well then, like I was saying, stay close to your own kind. Blacks and beaners might be considered good company where you’re from, but this is your world now. Best you don’t make eye contact either, at least not until you get the hang of things. And, whatever you do, don’t cut in on any kind of line.”

He fell back on his bunk and was soon asleep.

Although his ‘blacks and beaners' reference was disagreeable, it did make sense behavior familiar to me may not be viewed in a favorable light by everyone behind these prison walls. Weighing the options and considering the gravity of my situation, I decided to take his advice on all counts. A few months later I heard the old jailbird dropped dead in the Perryville yard. I never had a chance to thank him.

**

Surviving Winslow prison is no longer a concern of mine as I walk down this stark white corridor with Sergeant Tom Haynes close by my side. The Sergeant fiddles with buttons on his walky-talky, barking reports of our progress to guards in the prison tower. The monotonous clap of his leather-soled shoes bounces off the concrete floor and echoes down the corridor. Harsh fluorescent light turns our flesh ghostly gray.

We approach a massive steel door. An actor in a play of his own design, Sergeant Haynes holds the walky-talky against his lips and feigns a whisper.

“Opening corridor gate one.”

The salt and pepper hairs of the Sergeant’s walrus mustache rustle with each breath, a breath textured, moist and pungent, like the smell of rotting fish that garnered him his Tommy Tuna moniker among the inmates. His incessant popping of cinnamon Tic-Tacs has scant influence on the unpleasant aroma of Carp in decay.

Crackles and screeches from the walky-talky fall into a static calm.

Ron, my old friend from planet Zargon in the galaxy of Dargo that is hundreds of millions of light years but only a short wormhole away, glides along just paces ahead. He looks back. He nods and transmits a smile before passing through the prison’s steel door with the ease of a knife slicing through opaque Jell-O.

Ron visited me seven times while I was stuck in a cage on Winslow’s high desert plateau. He stayed over on occasion, lounging on the empty bunk in my cell, jabbering through the night about this and that in his telepathic way. He was carefree as a weekend vacationer at one of the elite resorts of Wailea on the island of Maui, my home before the State of Arizona saw fit to make me a felon worthy of spending endless days in the company of petty thieves, drug dealers, psychopaths of every stripe, and my fellow victims of circumstance.

**

Sergeant Tom and I stand quietly in front of the prison exit door. A high-pitched garbled voice from his walky-talky breaks the silence.

“Copy that, Sergeant. Opening gate one.”

“Ten-four,” Sergeant Tom replies.

He clips the walky-talky to his breast pocket and pulls out a double ring of keys bolted to his belt on a retractable spool. He unlocks a metal box mounted to the wall and pushes a red button that begins flashing like a traffic stoplight. A deafening beeping echoes down the corridor as the exit door grinds open on its slider tracks. The spooler snaps the Sergeant’s keys back against his belt like jangling trinkets on a yo-yo’s yo.

I grip my bag in front of me, my duffle full of odds and ends I’ve collected during the last nine hundred fourteen days, and step over a bright red line painted across the threshold.

“Good luck, Gille.” Sergeant Tom shakes my hand with both of his. He smiles, revealing teeth that show the nicotine stains of a two pack a day man double-timing his way toward the undertaker’s metal slab.

“Why thank you, Sergeant,” I say.

But I know Tommy Tuna’s wish of ‘good luck’ has no chance of bringing me any such thing. Luck has nothing more to do with the future than the past, or the present for that matter–it has no meaning in the reality of things.

I have known this truth since Ron, my friend from Zargon, dropped many of life’s secrets on me while explaining the workings of the Zargonian evolutionary game–the initial purpose for human existence on this planet. That was soon after our first encounter more than thirty years ago, two nights before my eighth Christmas, in nineteen hundred and sixty-two.

**

I raise my hand above my shoulder and wave a casual Hawaiian shaka of farewell toward Sergeant Tom Haynes as I walk away from the prison for the first and last time. I don’t look back. Making that sign of friendship toward my captor after these hundreds of days under his lock and key must seem strange to him, as it would to me if I weren’t aware that my programming calls for a polite manner and a civil disposition.

The door grinds back across the slider track and slams shut against its metal casing. I have heard that sound, muffled by prison walls, hundreds of times before while sitting on a bench in the exercise yard, or sipping a cup of coffee in the cafeteria, or lying on my back in my cell divining the secrets of time as it fluttered by. It is the sound of a prisoner’s return to the real world–a swindler turned back on his prey–a mugger on the loose once more–a new dawn for those of us not criminally inclined. Yes, I know the sound well.

My time to walk out that door had finally come. Now I rejoin those of you on the other side. I scan across the horizon. Zargon Ron has disappeared for now.

I find myself thinking of Sergeant Tom Haynes, a captive of his own fate. As I consider the mindset that must be in place for a man like the Sergeant to spend thirty years of ten-hour days in voluntary confinement behind Winslow's prison walls, a conversation we once had comes to mind.

**

It was on one of the more tolerable days at Winslow Prison, after I had been locked away for the better part of a year that seemed like ten. I was sitting on the gray hard-pan and gravel of the prison yard, my back against a concrete pillar, my thoughts lost somewhere between the chain-link fence, fifteen-feet high, topped with coiled razor-wire that surrounded me and framed puffs of clouds floating free across the cerulean sky.

Sergeant Tom strolled down the fence-line and stopped next to me.

He patted the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and scanned the horizon, and, for that moment, we might have been kindred spirits with thoughts somehow intertwined.

“Nice day, a hot one though,” Tommy said.

“Yes sir. It sure is that.”

I stood and dusted the dirt from the back of my pants.

“How long you been doing this, Sergeant?” I asked.

“Doing what? Oh, you mean how long have I been a prison guard?”

I nodded.

“A little over twenty-seven years now—only three to go. Think of that, Gille,” said Sergeant Tom, “you’ll be out of here before I am.”

His crooked smile betrayed the irony of his condition.

I told the Sergeant it didn’t seem as though he was looking forward to his retirement, and he said that might be so. What was he going to do on the 'outside'? His pension would barely make his house payments. What job was he qualified to do in the real world?

“Who the hell’s going to hire an old prison guard?” he said.

Tommy had the same fears as those of a lifer up for parole after spending most of his days locked behind prison walls. Life without his peculiar prison in it was going to be a scary thing for Sergeant Haynes. Turn a thief or drug dealer back on the streets and he can always find a liquor store to stick up or someone willing to pay for a gram or two, but what can the future hold for an old prison guard?

Greeter positions at Walmart are in short supply.

Behind the walls of Winslow Prison Tommy was ‘Sergeant Haynes’, a position that gave him at least the semblance of self-respect most can only seek.

Those days would be gone.

“Gene over at the Standard station said he might have a job for me pumping gas,” said Sergeant Tom. “If that doesn’t work out, I could probably bag groceries part time at the Safeway. There’s not much more I can hope for.”

**

As dire as his situation seemed to him that day, I knew Tommy’s fate will be far more grim than he suspected.

You see, there are times that I’m transported as an observer to the site of future events in other people’s lives as well as my own.

I’ve been blessed or damned with this ability since that first meeting with Zargon Ron thirty some years ago. At that time Ron told me I would learn to embrace my new powers of ‘selective omniscience', as he called it— ‘it’s a gift’, he said. But, because of this ‘gift’, I often, and without warning, find myself hurled through spacetime to places I don’t want to go.

My travels are into the past as well as the future and even alternate realities of present spacetime. You might say I am omniscient, all-knowing, for those moments, but these events are random, unexpected, and beyond my control. There is nothing ‘selective’, as I had been led to believe, about the process unless it is from the Zargonian point of view.

Whatever you want to call it, what I see is often disconcerting, as it was when I saw three years into Sergeant Tom’s future while he stood there next to me in the prison yard.

 

Sergeant Tom, Billy Jean, and Polaris

 

My venture into Sergeant Tom’s future began on the day before the new year of nineteen ninety-three, two months after his retirement dinner where Warden Jacobs handed the Sergeant a silver-plated watch before escorting him to the prison’s exit door.

**

An orange sun sits on the dusty horizon as Tom pulls his old Ford pickup into Winslow’s Kentucky Fried Chicken take out lane. He would have chosen the Safeway across the road; it was half the price, but Kentucky Fried had always been his wife, Billy Jean’s, favorite, and her favorite is what he wants on this night.

Sarah Bale hands Tom his box of fried chicken parts through the Colonel’s pick-up window. Tom has known Sarah since she was no more than six or seven and her daddy began to bring her along on his Saturday afternoon jaunts to Bucky’s Billiards Parlor.

“Happy new year, Sarah,” Tommy says, “and tell your daddy I said hello.”

“I sure will, and you have a Happy New Year too, Mister Haynes.”

**

Tom plops the box of Kentucky Fried on his living room coffee table. He grabs the last can of Blue-Ribbon beer from his refrigerator. He clicks the television on and a head babbling news materializes on the screen.

Tom sits on the sofa, pops the top on his beer, and opens the Colonel’s cardboard box to reveal, a tub of mashed potatoes and two chicken legs, extra crispy.

I ordered original recipe. Couldn’t they get it right this one time?

Tom stirs the mashed potatoes with a Colonel’s plastic fork. He stares blankly past the reporter affecting his concern for a dozen or so butchered Bosnian bodies scattered across a burning field that appears to be at his back on the television screen but is a world away from his green screen in reality.

Tom sips from his can of beer. The talking head cuts to commercial. A blue-eyed woman with sparkling teeth tells Tom he will be in good hands if he buys insurance from Allstate.

Sergeant Tom walks across the living room to the entry closet and puts on his old uniform jacket, adjusting it just so in the hallway mirror. From a shoebox on the closet shelf, he takes his loaded S&W Model 10 revolver and stuffs it in his pants pocket. He walks out the back door to the patio deck he built sixteen years ago for his beautiful bride, Billy Jean.

Not more than a month after Tom hammered the last nail into that patio deck, Billy Jean felt a lump the size of a popcorn seed below the nipple of her breast– probably nothing. Billy Jean died in his arms in the early days of that Spring. They were sitting on the same wooden bench swing he is sitting on now.

Tom rests his heels against the deck floor and rocks the swing. He swivels his head back in search of the Big Dipper in the clear northern Arizona sky, the way he had on his last night with Billy Jean when she asked him to point it out for her again, the way she had asked him many times before.

“I miss you, sweetheart,” Tommy says to the Big Dipper and Polaris as they speed away in the ever-expanding Universe.

**

All my trip into the future of Tom Haynes came to me in moments. I didn't tell the Sergeant what I was seeing as we stood there near the fence-line of the prison yard. Warning him of his fate would have been pointless. I was aware there was no way to change the course of things. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

 

It all fell back to what Zargon Ron had said to me soon after we first met— “I would advise that you tell no one of our conversations,” Ron said. “Ridicule is the only reward you will receive from people with no memory of a similar experience if you mention your contact with alien beings.”

Ron wasn’t kidding about that. With only one disastrous exception, when I was very young and new to the game, I have followed Ron’s advice. My lips have remained sealed.

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much Sergeant,” is what I did say that day in the yard when Tom Haynes voiced his concern about what retirement might bring. “Something always turns up, you know.”

Sergeant Tom folded his arms in front of him and stood there for a moment gazing up at those puffs of clouds floating free above Winslow State Prison. He turned and slowly walked away.

“Take care of yourself, Gille,” he said.

“You too, Sergeant—you too.”

**

Back on my trip into Sergeant Tom’s future, wind whistles through the patio bench swing chains.

The Sergeant shudders.

With no sign of recognition, he stares at the revolver in his hand that has been his since before he became a guard at Winslow Prison.

The nearly full moon glistens against the gun's barrel.

In my all-seeing, but impotent, state, I can only watch Sergeant Tom stick the end of that barrel under his chin and squeeze the trigger. I am witness to that moment of doubt that flickers in a man’s eyes when he realizes he has reached a point of no return. Powder explodes as the hammer strikes down. It’s the first shot Tommy Tuna has ever fired at a living thing.

 

Bull’s-eye.

 

 

2

 

Lightfoot

 

For the first time in nine hundred and fifty-four days no wall or barbed wire separates me from you. But I’m still in Winslow, Arizona, and would be hard pressed to tell this side of the wall from the other if not for the simultaneous feelings of relief and anxiety that accompany my return to freedom.

The sky disappears as a bone-chilling Winslow winter gale blows clouds of powdered clay across the high desert plateau. I lean into the wind. A sudden gust struggles to wrest my duffel from my grasp.

Holding my free arm up to shield my eyes, I push on, lumbering up the entry road toward the last guard station between the prison confines and the ‘real’ world. Outside the station, a taxi should be waiting to take me the few miles to Winslow’s La Posada Hotel, where I plan to spend my precious first night as a free man.

**

Approaching the guard station, I take note of an old four-door Chevy Impala flattop sedan parked to the side. A classic model, it appears someone is in the process of turning this one into a homage to bad taste.

There’s chrome everywhere and huge whitewall tires on fancy wire rims. Dueling antennae slant back at sixty-degree angles from each rear fender. Recently painted, the hood and flattop sparkle like metallic blueberries, even though covered by a dusty glaze. Since the rest of the Chevy’s body is still under repair, I can only imagine what the owner has in mind.

When I reach the gate a guard waves me through without question. Other than a prison wagon, the blueberry Chevrolet is the only car there. Seeing that I’m looking his way, a lanky young man propped against the Chevy’s front fender stands and adjusts the brim of his well-seasoned Stetson off his brow.

“You Mister Barker?” he says.

I nod. “Yes, I’m Gille Barker.”

“Nice to meet you, sir,” he says. “I’m Jeff–Jeff Lightfoot, your driver.” He shakes my hand. “Here, let me take that.”

He pulls my treasured leather duffel, my sole companion in travels from Maui to Mykonos and so many stops between, from my grip. He tosses it on top of rust-spotted tools and oily car parts scattered across the car trunk’s grungy floor. He fastens a bungee that had been dangling from the back pocket of his jeans to the trunk’s latch, loops it around the back bumper, and pulls the lid closed. He opens the back driver-side door.

“Here you go, Mister Barker”, he says, motioning for me to get in. He doesn't wait for me to take my seat before climbing behind the wheel.

As I’m sliding onto the seat, Lightfoot hits the gas. The car lurches in reverse. The door slams closed as I reach to pull it shut. I’m pitched forward. My forehead bangs against the beaded trim on the front seat as the classic old Impala careens toward the highway a hundred yards behind us.

Bone white gravel and dust fly from the tires and pepper two guards leaning against the exit gate portico. Their arms remain folded across their bellies. Their heads swivel only slightly as we speed away. I can feel the slow-burning rage in their eyes through the silver plating of their aviator glasses.

Jeff spins the steering wheel hard left, and the Chevy sways into a ninety-degree turn onto the highway. He slams on the brakes as he steps on the clutch and throws the stick-shift arm hanging from the steering column into first gear. He plunges the gas pedal toward the floor.

On the nose of the blueberry hood is a bare-breasted chrome goddess with angel’s wings spread wide. As the Chevy squats low on its rear tires, the chrome lady rises and points north toward a bank of dark clouds hanging on the horizon above Winslow town. Matching black plumes of burned rubber float up behind the Chevy’s rear tires and meld into the leaden gray sky.

Lightfoot reaches for the nub of a lit Marlboro cigarette clinched between his teeth with the same studied motion he saw James Dean use in a couple of movies Dean managed to make before accidentally bumping himself off when his time came due.

Sparks fly as the cigarette paper sticks to Lightfoot’s lip and his fingers slip down across the fire. The cigarette, flaming ashes hanging from its tip, falls between his legs. With smoke curling up from his crotch, Lightfoot thrusts himself up from the seat, his right foot driving the gas pedal to the floor.

“Jesus Christ!” he says.

The engine screams for Lightfoot to shift gears before it blows into so many pieces of metal rubble. He scrambles for the cigarette butt and quickly flicks it out the window. His foot slips off the clutch pedal as he grinds into third gear. I lean back in my seat and look to my sides—there is no seat belt.

“My sister’s brat kid cut all the buckles off the straps with a straight razor.”

I look up and see Lightfoot’s crooked smile looking back at me in the rear-view mirror.

“I stuck what was left down that crack in the seat,” he says. “You can dig them out and tie yourself in if you want. I never really saw much use for the things myself.”

“Yes, they can be a nuisance,” I say while anxiously attempting to tie the belt straps together across my lap.

“How long are you staying at the Posada, Mister Barker?” Lightfoot asks while adjusting his mirror to better view me while awaiting my reply.

I answer quickly, hoping to encourage his focus on the highway ahead rather than my mirrored image.

“I’m not sure,” I say.

 

Visions of me crashing through the front window and flipping end over end when Lightfoot smashes his taxi head-long into the John Deere tractor rapidly closing on us from the north reel through my mind.

Splat! I look out the side window in time to see my head explode against one of the creosote telephone poles rushing by at rapidly increasing speeds. My body slowly slides down the pole and collapses at its base in a pile of jumbled parts like Ray Bolger’s scarecrow after a run-in with the wicked witch. Music crescendos—Judy Garland and the Tin Man skip by on a yellow brick road.

 

“Not more than a few days though,” I say.

 

My head snaps around to watch through the rear window as the John Deere whisks by in a bright green and yellow blur. The Cowardly Lion hangs from the back of the tractor’s seat by one front paw. Wind blows his mane over his shoulders and into his eyes. He smiles and acknowledges me with a boy-scout three-claw salute before the tractor fades into a distant swirl of dust and sage.

 

“Well, if you need a driver or help finding something special in this neck of the woods, I’m your man,” says Lightfoot. He winks at me in the rear-view mirror and hands me his ‘business card’, a piece of white construction paper cut to size with his name and a phone number printed neatly in black ink on one side.

“I can find about anything you want found around these parts, and I know Flagstaff better than the back of my hand—you know what I mean?” He shows me the back of his hand.

**

I’m certain I know what he means, and yes, I do need a driver, but not for what Lightfoot has in mind. If I plan to legally cross an Arizona state line, I’ll need a ride to Flagstaff for my parole office appointment in eight days, and before I return home to Maui, I should take a trip to Scottsdale. Despite my gallery director’s best efforts there, painting sales have taken a harder hit than expected during my stay in Winslow prison.

I could handle all of that on my own if my driver's license hadn’t expired seven months ago while I was out skidding on my knees across the prison yard baseball diamond’s center field of rock shards, clay, and stones in a fortuitously vain attempt to retrieve a pop-up off the bat of our cell block’s only known serial murderer.

Crownose Crocket was his unlikely name. Crownose was doing life without parole for throttling his neighbor, a preacher's wife, with her own clothesline cord. At his sentencing Crownose made it clear that, although he found her snooty attitude disturbing, he had no real quarrel with the woman. He offered no apology.

**

Sticking Lightfoot’s card in my jacket pocket with one hand, I brace against the door with the other as he makes a sharp right turn up the steep drive into La Posada’s parking lot. He skids the car to a stop at the front entry. Dust blows past the Chevy to powder a row of Porches and Honda rental cars with out-of-state licenses and Ford pickups sporting Arizona plates with racked shotguns across their back windows.

My bag from the trunk already in his hand, Jeff unlatches the passenger door.

“Here we go, Mister Barker,” he says.

**

I had been to La Posada before, but not as a free man, and never at the front door. I had helped program the computers in La Posada’s cellar offices on a convict work release program arranged by the new liberal-leaning hotel owners, who, although beautiful people, suffered in the belief there was more good than bad in the worst of human beings. Understanding and a show of respect would put any strayed soul back on the right track. They had most certainly never met a Crownose Crocket.

The hoteliers came from Southern California to this wide spot on a high desert road and turned a once treasured relic of a railroad waystation, only days from the wrecker’s ball, into a first-class hotel. They did that in a town with little going for it other than faded memories of the glory days of Route 66 and an anthem by the Eagles and Jackson Browne that made Winslow a symbol of last resort for a generation of dreamers and disenchanted souls.

I had even sampled a mesquite-grilled hamburger smothered in goat cheese with Kula onions and sweet pickles and fresh-sliced red tomato from the kitchen of La Posada’s world-class chef. His wife, Patricia, a computer illiterate then, smuggled the burger to my desk as a reward for allowing her to drain what little knowledge I had of the workings of a computer from my brain into her own.

Having not been there, you couldn’t know how good that hamburger was to me after nearly a year of generically bland prison chow made more so by the necessity for mediocrity in the effort to please every special interest group on the planet. There were Blacks, Whites, Mexicans, and American Indians on my cell block. There were twin brothers from the Philippines. There was a snake worshiper. There were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and plenty of atheists to go around.

All of them, even the atheists, had their own champion insisting there be nothing on the prison menu that might risk offending their charges. The prison kitchen couldn’t put out a decent meal even if the powers-that-be had been so inclined.

But, though I had been treated to that most wonderful of ground meat treats in the bowels of La Posada, I had never seen the elegantly carved front entry doors, or anything else a guest might have seen, unless they had accidentally stumbled across our cellar entrance in the back of the hotel next to the garbage man’s slop barrels of left over elk medallions in cherry sauce, wild turkey pâté, churl lamb, and black bean soup awaiting his rounds.

**

That garbage man, as Jeff Lightfoot would soon inform me, is his cousin, Luke.

Luke has picked up those containers every other day since La Posada reopened its doors three years ago. Luke slops the gourmet scraps scraped from the Turquoise Dining room’s sated patron’s plates into a pair of wooden troughs, each twenty feet long, for the dining pleasure of his farm’s hundred squealing pigs. The pigs are more than happy to line up on cue for their daily sampling of Arizona’s finest regional fare.

“Let me tell you, those are some happy pigs,” Jeff would soon tell me. “At least they’re happy till Cousin Luke turns them into pork chops and slabs of bacon and pickled pig’s feet. Best damned bacon you ever tasted, I can tell you that, Mister Barker. No need to take my word for it though—you can sample some when they recycle those porkers back through the kitchen with your scrambled eggs in the morning.”

Jeff thought that was funny. I had to smile.

**

As we approach, the massive double entry doors to La Posada silently swing open.

“This is for sure one beautiful place. Don’t you think so, Mister Barker?” Lightfoot says.

We cross the front entry corridor on large random-shaped flagstone slabs surrounded by stucco walls in shades of pastel green, Indian orange, and pearl. Rising to a peak of thirty feet, the creamy white ceiling is trimmed with rustic wooden beams and elaborate chandeliers of silver, painted metal, and precious desert stones.

Large, Bosch-like paintings of wonderfully eccentric characters and unexpected places in tinted cadmiums and shimmering shades of gray adorn the walls. It is beautiful all right.

“Yes, Mister Lightfoot, it certainly is,” I say.

A young Indian woman, her jet-black hair in a single braid that hangs to her lower back, watches our approach from behind the high counter at the registration desk. She smiles to greet us. Deep dimples crease her cheeks. Anna Towahongva is her name, and she is as stunningly beautiful as any artist’s portrayal.

**

Undeterred by harsh winters and crippling summer droughts, Anna’s Hopi ancestors endured for hundreds of years on these northern Arizona mesas. Despite their grim reality, Anna's father and his father and his father before him fired beautiful pieces of clay that told stories of their Maker’s love for the earth and the sky and the eagles that glide on the wind. They voiced praise for the spirits who had seen fit to provide for their survival, and they did survive, and in their way flourish on this high desert plateau.

All of that was before the white man came to town. These days, unless you go to one of the reservation casinos, a Hopi Indian is about as hard to find in Arizona as a pure-blooded Hawaiian in Waikiki.

**

“Good morning,” Anna says. Her face is the color of light chocolate cream. Her gaze stops for only a moment on Jeff Lightfoot before moving to me. She nods and her smile widens, as if in recognition of a long-lost friend. Anna glances at her watch. It is a quarter past noon.

“Or, good afternoon, I should say.” The coal black pupils of her eyes sparkle with rubles and sapphires in light filtered through a stained-glass dining room window, thirty feet away.

Without taking his eyes from Anna, Lightfoot gives a slight tip of his head toward me.

“This is Mister Barker,” he says to Anna. “I think you’re expecting him.”

Lightfoot drops my duffel to the floor with a thud. A cloud of Chevrolet trunk dust rises from the bag ever so slightly before falling to the freshly polished flagstone floor.

I reach across the counter to shake Anna’s hand.

“Good afternoon, Anna,” I say.

“Welcome to the La Posada, Mister Barker,” she replies.

Anna knows who I am. She knows the state saw fit to release me from prison this morning after almost three years behind bars. She knows I’m a somewhat famous artist from the island paradise of Maui, three thousand miles and an ocean away from the Arizona home where her Hopi Indian tribe was left to the dust bowl north of Winslow town.

She knows how I came to be a jailbird. She knows the cop who plowed his squad car into the rear of the Oldsmobile I was driving the night of my arrest was full of vodka. She knows it was fortunate I fired my incompetent attorney and took it on myself to point out to the court the cop was intoxicated at the time of the crash that took his and his partner’s lives.

When I think about how close I came to a lifetime behind bars cold sweat collects on my brow. It’s collecting there right now, even though I know that scenario just wasn’t meant to be.

In this small town where most of the population owes its paycheck to the human incarceration game, it isn’t surprising that Anna, or anyone else living in Winslow, would know these things about me. My story was already circulating through Winslow’s gossip mills before the bus dropped me, cuffed and shackled, at the prison’s front gate.

But now, since Anna and I have met, she knows something about me the other citizens of Winslow do not. Anna knows I am one of the few earthlings allowed by our creators from planet Zargon to retain conscious knowledge of the Zargonian evolutionary game, the true reason for life on this planet.

It takes one to know one.

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