“Hey, you; what’s your name?” demanded the young man.
There were only so many ways to survive and over the years Liam had seen them all.
Tilting his head in an ambiguous fashion he shifted a stack of newly folded shirts aside so the fellow could sit if he wished. He was careful, but still one slid from the pile and swished to the ground. Retrieving it, Liam recast the thing carefully on the lines he had established before. It was not too difficult. Once you had creased a thing properly, folding it precisely five times, or a dozen, or a hundred, it practically arranged itself. His nimble fingers did their work. Sometimes he would loan out an article to a needy man and they, with the best intentions in the world, would launder and fold the thing before giving it back, their perceptions for a moment coloring his world. Liam tried not to hold it against them and was getting better at it, the older he became. He supposed it was some sort of cosmic practice, all of life was, learning to be a better... human? Man? Learning to be better.
“Liam,” he said, modulating his voice in the way he had found worked best with that sort, calm, but strong, never passive. “Liam P.”
He did not inquire the other man’s name; did not care. He had seen too many come and go and nowadays trusted his instincts alone, those unknown, perhaps unknowable, impulses which told a man, ‘this one, he will be a comrade, this one, he will understand.’ Liam had not felt that, or anything like, with the slender fellow who now stood on the edge of his space.
A wall existed between them, invisible but unable to be breached, and all the bricks of it were named. One was called age, another ethnicity, another experience. There were more; upbringing and religion and musical preference, hundreds more, bricks to which neither he nor the man standing unconsciously on the other side of the division could even have put a name to. There were bricks which were forced upon one and bricks chosen by hand, bricks endowed by a life lived and those with which the two men had been born. Those bricks were the strongest, those scraped together on playroom floors and in the back rooms of shanties, cured in the heat of old hatreds.
“I need’ta know if it's you,” said the young man huskily, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. He swallowed, his face so rigid it looked like a spasm.
Liam considered answering, but he knew that the newcomer had already been told, if he had even needed to be. It was printed all over him, as plain as day.
“Just take your chance and walk away,” Liam said.
The young man nodded, twice.
“So, it’s true,” he said. “You are that Liam P.”
Liam stood, solely to assert his gravitas. It was part of the game and he knew from experience that it was something which could not be done too slowly, one had to topple upwards like a statue rising from the earth, like Michelangelo’s Moses. His old bones settled into place. One had to let them settle, let the muscles find their places, allow the weight to come as if packing on sails under a full gale.
The man in the doorway swallowed.
It wasn’t a question of whether the young man had a weapon or not; they all had weapons. It wasn’t a question of anything really. Liam knew all there was to know, had seen it all and didn’t care. Not anymore.
“Come in. Sit down,” said Liam, dealing out moral authority with a slow hand, like thunder growling along the road of life.
The young man was on the crux now and wasn’t sure what to do. He had stalked the tiers with the one fixed notion, a cloudy idea of redemption swarming unseen around his vicious blinders, but life had fooled him, as it did them all.
He was trapped.
“You put them in a dungeon, man,” he said.
Liam nodded. He hadn’t been accused in a long time, but understood the misconception.
“Come in or go away,” he said.
“Can’t go away.”
“Because of... them?” Liam waved his hand.
The man frowned.
“They sent you to kill me.”
Liam shrugged, establishing the bald statement as a fact, and turned around, presenting his undefended back. He waited, curious, unafraid, to feel the pressure, the push of a scrap of metal sharpened on a concrete floor. It would be something.
“You put ‘em in a dungeon, man,” repeated the young man.
So, it would be that sort of encounter. Well, so be it. That, too, would be something and this new young man- there had been so many- was more interesting honestly-angry than as a weapon in the hands of forces he neither knew nor understood.
“Come in,” said Liam again, but differently. He knew the difference and so did the young man who, to do him credit, stepped over the metal track. It was a statement of self-possession which he had not known existed in the fellow. There were eyes behind him, all around, but he had made his own choice.
“So,” said Liam.
The man had made a move but his hackles had risen apace, for which Liam could hardly blame him.
“Did you bring your long spoon?” he said.
Liam eased down onto a corner of the tightly made up bunk.
“Your long spoon,” he repeated. “You’re dining with the devil now.”
The young man shook his head, too guarded to think, or perhaps he simply did not know, and not knowing things like that was another brick, another unassailable smoothness in that wall. Well, Liam could round away the corners of this one, it would do no harm.
“‘He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon,’” he quoted. “It’s from an old book, The Canterbury Tales; the squire's, I believe. It means that if you have to-do with bad people you should keep as much distance from them as possible, lest they rub off on you, lest you find yourself guilty by association.”
“You ain’t rubbin’ off on me, you god-damn freak,” spat the young man.
‘There you go; you did bring one,” said Liam, with a little smile.
“You had five little girls chained up in your basement, man. You don’t deserve to live.”
“Well, that’s how they sold the story about me, out there,” said Liam. “But you know how they do; those girls had nowhere else to go and they were hungry. The only rooms I had were down in the basement. What was I going to do? It was a small house.”
“You locked them in, man.”
“Of course I locked them in; locked myself in too. Don’t you lock up when you go to bed at night, when you leave your house?”
“Nah, man, nah; you ain’t peddlin’ it like that. You can’t just lock up five little girls in your basement and not let them leave… besides, you raped ‘em too.”
Liam smoothed a hand along his inseam.
“You seem to know a lot,” he said.
“It was in the papers, bunker boy; everybody knows.”
“Everybody knows a lot of stuff. What does everybody know about you?”
“Hey, I’m in here for drugs, man.”
“Now isn’t that a funny thing,” said Liam. “Two thousand men in here, two thousand, and you know how many are rapists? Zero. Child molesters? Zero. Drunks? Zero. Elder abusers and wife beaters? Zero. That’s funny, isn’t it? All these men in here, just for drugs.”
“What you sayin’?”
“I think you can figure that out… man.”
“Hey, what everybody else did ain’t the point, ma-... it ain’t the point. You raped those little girls and got away with it. It ain’t right.”
“What did I get away with?” said Liam, gesturing around himself at the little cell.
“Should’a been executed.”
“Lot’s of people should have been executed, some who were, shouldn’t.”
“Nah man, you ain’t pullin’ that Gandalf stuff on me. You admitted it on the stand.”
“Of course I did, I was guilty,” said Liam, separating and rejoining his hands. He let a minute pass. “Those girls were grateful, they wanted to show it. They didn’t have any money, how were they supposed to go about paying me back for the food and the rooms? You think it didn’t cost me anything, keeping them there? You think food is free, or electricity, or hot water? Should I have let them do that? I suppose not, but I didn’t check their ID’s either, and a girl of sixteen looks a lot like one who’s just a few years older.”
“Sixteen? Sixteen? Man; that chick was eleven, eleven, and you kept her chained to a bed.”
“Well, that was different, that little one. She had a medical condition. I didn’t want her to hurt herself.”
The young man shook his head, his face pinched in a puzzled squint as if he couldn’t find the words to express himself. Liam waited patiently.
Finally, the man sat down opposite Liam, on the foot of the cot.
“Listen,” he whispered. “I ain’t done nothin’ I’m proud of to get in here.” He pointed to the bare patch on the front of his blues, where the DIN number had been torn off. “Guess you figure what that means.”
Liam nodded. He knew a lot.
“But that don’t mean we the same. Ain’t nobody here the same as you. I might’a slipped some underage bitch some molly cus she was beggin’ and she had to pay me back somehow, but we ain’t the same.”
“Yes, you’re right; I never drugged anyone.”
“Man, you raped and torture five girls! You had them bitches chained up in the basement. You can’t get away from that. There ain’t no medical condition where you need to stick your stuff in an eleven year old!”
“I don’t remember anything like that happening,” said Liam sternly, holding up his hand. “She had an epileptic condition and would fall out of her bed and hurt herself. They use restraints in hospitals every day.”
“You ain’t a doctor.”
“I have a basic medical knowledge.”
“What now; you a certified breast inspector?”
Liam smiled forbearingly.
“Those girls testified against you, man, they said you stole their lives. I seen it on TV.”
“How do you feel about your parents?” said Liam.
“My… what? My parents? What the, what the actual… what that got to do with anything?”
“You figure it out. Ask any man in here what went wrong with their lives and I almost guarantee parents will come into the answer sooner or later.”
“Hell, you sayin’ one of those girls was your kid?” exclaimed the young man, pulling away.
“No, that’s not what I am saying,” said Liam. “But they probably thought of me as a father figure. Now, maybe I wasn’t the greatest. I never had any training, just had to do the best I could. I suppose it’s natural that they should lash out, blame me for things…”
“Their father figure?”
“Who had sex with them?”
“It’s complicated; I wasn't actually any of their fathers and feelings of affection, respect and obligation can get muddled. I never had doings with that eleven year old; she made an error about that, got confused in her mind. Now, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve always admitted that and-”
But the young man had had enough. He leapt to his feet, as if trying to break free of a spell.
“Man, nah,” he said, shaking his head. “You ain’t gettin’ out of this. I came up here to shiv you, ol’ man.”
“I know you did,” said Liam.
“Well, I’m still gonna’, you ain’t getting out of this with all that nonsense you been tellin’ yourself. You a sick freak an’ you deserve to get it.”
“Which brings us back around to Gandalf,” said Liam.
“What you takin’ ‘bout?”
“You should read the books someday; you’ve got lots of time. It might help you get away from a troll… sometime or other.”
“It’s count time.”
“He said, ‘Count time,’” barked the officer standing in the walkway. “Come on Pete; outta’ there an’ back to your cell.”
“But nothin’ Pete, let’s go!”
The young man flung himself out of the cell.
Slowly, Liam rose, crossing the four steps as the door slid shut, latching with a clang. They would not open for him for seven days. The officer was no fool. He glanced down at where the young man had sat. The shirts had been disarranged again, but not badly and picking them up, one at a time, Liam put them back into perfect shape. He hardly had to think about it.