When Leonard stepped off of the Greyhound bus, he quickly noticed that he was not the only one with sleeve tattoos. College-aged adults, both male and female, had intricate designs woven and webbed up and down their biceps and forearms. He stepped inside a coffee shop unfamiliar to him. It was all unfamiliar to him. He reached in his front pocket and pulled out a crumpled five-dollar bill, some of his last money from his commissary account. He plopped the cash on the counter and sullenly yet politely asked for regular black coffee. The largest size. No sugar or cream. Nothing fancy like a cappuccino.
“Ah yeah, sorry man, a large drip coffee is actually five-fifty.”
Leonard’s appallingly disappointed facial expression convinced the skinny barista to take pity on him.
“Hey, yeah, I’ll let one go for five bucks; I get it. Shit’s expensive now, and you must be new here. Don’t worry about a tip, either.”
Leonard accepted the deal, but he wasn’t sure what level of bewilderment to feel. One, regular coffee, the most basic of beverages, now apparently costs more than five dollars which seemed outrageous no matter the size. Two, the pathetic little twig behind the counter dared suggest that he deserved a tip just for handing him a cup of coffee. And three, he brazenly assumed that he wasn’t born and raised in this god-forsaken town. He had to pause for a moment and remember to breathe. Just what the counselor taught him in his anger management sessions back in Central Pen.
He walked back out on the street, taking slow sips from the tiny hole in the plastic lid. Nothing was the same here anymore. The old welding shop was now a microbrewery. The dentist’s office where his mom would take him as a kid whenever they could afford it was now a kombucha bar, whatever the hell kombucha is. The drug store with the lunch counter with tiles stained from decades of cigarette smoke was now a farm-to-table organic restaurant that had well-to-do tourists sifting in and out of it. The people on the streets were not the forlorn roughneck mountain folk who were spending their earnings from their burley tobacco allotment anymore. They still wore boots and overalls, but now the outfits were stylized and fashionable. Hairdos of all shapes and sizes bobbed up and down the street. Everybody seemed to be entranced with their smartphone and not engaging with one another or their surroundings. He heard about smartphones and got to see a couple that were snuck into General Population, but he still struggled with the concept.
The surrounding mountains that used to be calm and pristine were now pockmarked with luxury apartments and condos. There were billboards for wellness facilities and meditation retreats. Even the old Methodist church was transformed into an art gallery.
He tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone though he couldn’t help but notice the surreal unfamiliarity of the populace. He just needed to get to the nearest cheap motel and fast. Back in the pen, he longed for not having to sleep with one eye open and waking up at four AM. He wanted to sleep for as long as he pleased in a bed that didn’t feel like used socks stuffed in a duffel bag and straightened out with a crowbar. He wanted to watch cable TV and be able to pick the channels himself. He especially wanted to take a shower in peace, without the fear of having his innards slashed out of him like a white-tailed deer being field dressed in the bed of a pickup truck. The kind of activity he would dream about doing with his dad as a kid. If only he ever knew him. As much as everything in this sorry town had changed in 239 months and three days, at least the Mountain View Motor Lodge was still its crappy old dilapidated self, still advertising coin-operated massage beds and still featuring preachers peeping out of cracked doors, making sure the coast was clear so they could get back to business with their mistresses. That, at least, brought him a little bit of comfort earlier in the evening as he peered out of the window of the Greyhound on his way into town.
Still looking down towards the ground, he shuffled quickly towards the edge of town with his few personal belongings slung across his shoulder. He didn’t want to be here, yet he had nowhere else to go. He focused so hard on the ground that he lost track of his surroundings and bumped into a stranger.
Leonard's kneejerk reaction was to make himself look unafraid. Stay pokerfaced. Don’t let them smell fear. He quickly reminded himself that they were harmless.
“I just love your tattoos. They are so authentic. The vibes are just so real.”
Leonard looked up to see two young women ogling over his arms. One was dark-haired and had a pixie cut. The other one had long blonde hair on one side of her head and had shaved the other. They both had full body tattoos, both sported septum piercings, and horn-rimmed librarian glasses.
He really did not want to engage the women, especially since he hadn’t talked to a female in an unofficial capacity in two decades. He didn’t want to screw up his chance at a free world. He didn’t want to make any wrong moves. He tried to keep walking.
“Are those stick-and-poke tats? That’s like the best homegrown ink I’ve seen in a long time.”
The women wouldn’t let their interest fade.
“Yeah, I designed ‘em myself.”
Leonard decided to ease up a bit.
“You want to come down to the yoga studio with us? Tonight is half-off if you have ink.”
Leonard thought the gesture was amusing; two young women asking an ex-convict fresh out of prison if he wanted to go do yoga. Any man doing yoga twenty years ago in this town would have been deemed gay and shunned away from this town for good. But this was the new normal.
“Uh, sorry, ladies. I got to crash for the night.”
“Oh but you should. It will be so rad. You’ll love how you’ll feel afterward.”
“Nah, sorry ladies, that type of stuff isn’t for me.”
“We’d like to show you the studio, at least. So many awesome people come down there.”
Leonard figured why not, so he accompanied the women down the street.
As they were walking to the yoga studio, Leonard noticed how much quieter cars were now. The audible racket of the old souped-up rattle traps no longer rumbled and backfired their way down the streets. He recalled the first time he was handcuffed, the time he was fifteen and had taken his mom’s Cavalier out for a joyride and blew out the four-cylinder engine drag racing his friend’s Impala. Of course, he didn’t stand a chance. He never really knew if she forgave him for having to catch rides with the neighbor to work night shifts at the hospital for the next year to make a down payment on another car. She died years ago, and it didn’t really matter anymore.
They entered the studio. Leonard knew this storefront well. To the left would have been the counter where Old Man Tilley was scolding another customer for trying to buy a weedeater on credit. He was too busy yammering on about how he didn’t give anything away for free to notice 20-year-old Leonard pocketing a box of 12-gauge shotgun shells. He remembered that old hardware store smelling of stale popcorn and motor oil as Mr. Tilley was a small engine repairman on the side.
Leonard caught a whiff of sandalwood incense and heard the stereo play soft music that had the rhythm of ocean waves crashing on a distant shoreline. The women he came in with gently unrolled their yoga mats and laid them on the floor. Other women and a few men followed suit, all calmly acknowledging each other’s presence with a bow and a smile. Leonard may as well have been a tomato trying to ripen in a winter garden for how out of place he felt. But that’s when he saw the instructor and noticed one of the tattoos on the instructor’s elbow. A black widow spider. And not one any self-respecting parlor would have done. That one was homegrown. Leonard knew the ins and outs of that tattoo. Every stick and every poke.
“You know what, ladies? I think I’ll stay for a lesson.”
The two women looked at each other and grinned with satisfaction.
They gestured to Leonard to come sit next to them.
“We laid out a mat for you.”
“Maybe this isn’t for me.”
“Are you scared? You shouldn’t be. Yoga is good for the soul.”
Leonard just sighed and sat cross-legged and barefoot among the skinny twenty-somethings who were all centering themselves by breathing slowly and deeply. He found this to be comfortable and familiar because of the exercises that he learned in Anger Management.
The instructor walked in and sat down on his mat. He made eye contact with Leonard for a moment but chose not to acknowledge the new student. He calmly led them through downward dog, bridge, camel, and warrior. The women whispered to Leonard that these poses were extra calming and could help reduce tension. The soothing music and incense seemed to waft together through the air in harmony. Briefly losing focus,
The yoga instructor tirelessly wrapped up the evening’s session and his students trickled one-by-one out the door.
Leonard rolled up his mat and told the two women who accompanied him into the studio that he liked the session so much that he would like to stay a while and chat with the instructor.
“Okay! Awesome! Glad you’re into it! See you next week?”
“Sure ladies, sure.”
He mozied up to the instructor.
“Your lesson was so… refreshing.”
“Thanks, man. Glad you enjoyed it.”
The instructor at first looked appreciative but then noticed Leonard’s piercing blue eyes which he then found familiar. He thought that it couldn’t be. He was twenty years more hardened and far more muscular. He had an ominous presence that loomed over him like a moon shadow at midnight.
“Leonard, I wasn’t…”
“Expecting me to get out of the Pen so soon? I did my time, Russel. I paid my debt to society. And look at you. A successful teacher and a business man. We should both be proud of ourselves.”
Russel just stood there frozen.
“How about the two of us go out for a celebratory night on the town? For old time’s sake?”
“Leonard, I don’t drink or use any more. I’ve been clean now for twelve years.”
“A changed man, are you now? Well Russ, ain’t that something else to be proud of? We could just drive around and catch up. I know you’ve got a lot to say to a man who’s starting fresh. You could tell me all about your business success.”
“I…I’m afraid I can’t do that. My family’s expecting me home for dinner.”
“A wife and kids? Man, you sure have grown up in these twenty years. Here, I’ll help your yoga gear to your car.”
Nervously, Russel obliged. He locked up his studio, and he and Leonard walked around back. Russel darted his eyes back and forth, and his spinal cord was as stiff as a brick.
“This town sure has changed, Russ. It’s nothing like the old crap hole that it used to be. I reckon it’s on account of folks like you who made it better for all of us. Yoga? I tell ya, could you imagine doing that twenty years ago?”
Russel didn’t reply to the small talk.
“Is this your car Russell? What’s it called, a Prius? Man, that’s something. I heard those things can go to the other end of the state and back on less than one tank of gas. You’ve always knew how to save a nickel here and there, haven’t you? Say, can I ask for a ride to the Mountain View?”
“Leonard, I’m not going in that direction.”
“Aww, now it won’t be but five minutes out of your way. Where are you headed anyway? Your folks still live up in that holler up on rattlesnake ridge? That was quite the hell-raising homestead back in the day.”
Russel had no desire to tell Leonard where he lived or anything about his wife and children.
As Russel got in his car, Leonard opened the car door behind him and climbed into the back seat. Russel forgot that since he pressed the unlock button on his key twice the entire car was unlocked, not just the driver’s door.
“Now, Russ, don’t tell me you’re nervous about giving an old friend a ride down the road a little ways?”
Russell gulped and froze.
“Ever since that dreadful night when I was hauled off to jail knowing that you had ratted me out after that hold-up at the Citizen’s Bank uptown, I wondered what became of you. Such a fine, upstanding citizen to make sure old polecat scat like me is taken off the street. I get it though, you had your life to live, and you were younger. I had to learn my lesson. Well, I did you a favor by not confessing your part of it, anyway.”
Leonard started unlacing his right boot. Russell was still frozen.
“Favors come in many forms, Russ. I’m glad you’re successful now. You deserve all of this. This fancy town, your fancy yoga studio. That wife and kids of yours.”
Leonard reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. He hovered it right over Russel’s neck.
“But it’s time for you to repay your debts, Russel. One little ride down the road isn’t too much to ask, now is it? But really, twenty years is a long time, so I may need a little bit more than that. Luckily, the gas won’t cost much since we’ll be taking this fancy hybrid car of yours.”
Leonard kept the knife nestled against Russel’s jugular. He directed Russel to drive out past town, down towards the lake. Russel put the small car in gear and did as he was told. The lights became dimmer as they edged toward the countryside until they were in total darkness. Then eventually the only light was the moon reflecting off of the soft ripples of the lake water.
“Remember this spot, Russel? Remember how we almost made it scot-free out here? We could have camped out here for ages before anyone knew the wiser.”
Leonard reached around Russel’s seat and grabbed his arms and jerked them behind the driver’s seat. Leonard used his boot lace to bind Russel’s hands together.
“We could have made off with the whole loot but you had to go running back home. You just couldn’t stand the idea of a new normal.”
Russel began to scream but Leonard had found a neck gaitor in the back seat flopped it over his face. Leonard used his other boot lace to tie gaiter tight around his face.
“You and me, partners in crime. Boy, here we were. It was way past our bedtime on what should have been a school night. But back then, we didn’t care none about school, didn’t we, Russ? We knew we didn’t need no kind of diploma to find easy money. And look at you now. Successful business man. Built up this sorry ass town into something nice. Something folks from miles around can come and take their wives and kids and admire all day and night.”
The Prius was at the edge of the lake, at an angle. Crickets were humming in the sultry summer humidity. Cicadas were buzzing all around. The air was still. Leonard pulled the Prius out of Park and put in Drive.
“Russ, every good businessman knows that if you rack up a debt, you got to pay it back. We’ll I did you a favor. Now you got to do me a solid.”
The tires of the Prius started to roll slowly. Leonard casually opened the back driver’s side door and stepped out and closed it. Muffled screams could be heard from the inside.
“I sure do respect a man who can pay back a debt. A gentleman you are indeed. A fine friend.”
The prius silently rolled into the lake. Leonard stood on the hill observing nonchalantly as it submerged into the water and became one with the gentle ripples illuminated by the moon.