“I don’t think I can make it, Harry,” The old man said, shuffling around the room, gnawing a nicotine-stained thumb and avoiding eye contact with the halfway house supervisor.
“Sure you can,” Harry Yocum told him. “Don’t be so negative. All you have to do is believe in yourself.”
Ed Schlegel grunted. “Easy for you to say. I ain’t been out more than five years at a stretch since I turned sixteen. There’s so much happened while I been inside I don’t even recognize places where I used to hang out. Even the damned money don’t look the same. I’m scared, Harry.”
Ed knew most cons didn’t arouse Yocum’s sympathy, a fact in keeping with the years he’d spent as a corrections officer before coming to the halfway house. Yocum had said Ed reminded him of his recently deceased father. From what he’d heard, Ed couldn’t see what he and Yocum’s father might have had in common. Yocum’s father never served a day in jail and wouldn’t have dreamed of breaking the law.
Still, for what it was worth, the old man appreciated Yocum’s efforts to help him adjust to life on the outside.
“You should have taken the job, Ed.”
Schlegel shot him a look. “I didn’t wanna wash dishes.”
“Maybe not. But your skills are limited. You can’t afford to turn down jobs. The rules say you got to find a job within fifteen days. You’ve already been here a week and turned down a job we found for you. You don’t want to go back to the house, do you?”
“Maybe I should,” Ed said. “I knew the ropes there.”
It was Yocum’s turn to grunt. “Will you stop walking around like a lost dog?” he growled. “Come over and sit down. I’m trying to help you. You know that, doncha?”
Ed sat on a folding chair next to the supervisor. He stared at Yocum for a long moment without saying anything. Then: “I know. I’m not sure why. But I appreciate it. Nobody ever gave a damn what happened to me before. I’m sorry I turned down that job.”
“No need to apologize. Just listen to what I’m telling you. Follow the rules and you’ll be a free man before you know it. Meanwhile you got a roof over your head, meals and a friend who cares what happens to you. Dig?”
Schlegel nodded, though he still didn’t understand why the younger man cared. Free? He didn’t really understand that either. How many years had it been since he’d been free? At first he’d thought it’d be nice to just walk outside whenever he felt like it. He hadn’t imagined how frightening that would prove to be. How different it was from the routine he’d known for so long.
Later, lying on his bed in the room he shared with another man, Schlegel contemplated the situation. His bunkie was a young punk who’d served a turn on a drugs conviction. The kid thought that taught him everything he needed to know. Yeah, right. Mostly the punk kept to himself, tuned into music on one of those little I-whazits with headphones or lost in another world staring at skin mags. Which suited Schlegel just fine. He didn’t need some know-it-all punk ragging on him. The room, though small and simply furnished with Goodwill cast-offs, was better than anything the old man had known for years. There was even a window, even if it did only look out on the brick wall of another building. Funny thing though, the room didn’t smell right. Was that crazy, or what? Why did he miss the stink of the cell he’d occupied for so many years? If anyone had asked him to describe that smell Ed didn’t think he could have. It was just—what? Something comforting and familiar. It hadn’t even been a nice smell. Just familiar.
The old man shut his eyes and tried to reason with himself. He was out now and he had a buddy who wanted to keep him on the outside. That was a real change. Something he’d never had before. Another person who actually cared what happened to him.
The next morning Yocum had another possible job lined up. “Here’s the address,” he said, handing Ed a slip of paper. “You go there and tell the man I sent you and he’ll get you set up.”
“What kind of job is it?” Ed asked. Nervous. Not wanting to screw up again. He’d decided to take whatever job was offered, yet curiosity prompted the question.
“I’m not sure. I don’t really know this guy. But he has a good rep. Not many employers are willing to take a chance on cons, especially older guys like you, Ed. Just be yourself and don’t worry. You can do it. I know you can.”
“What do you want me to do?”
The man was smoking a thick cigar and working a crossword puzzle. He didn’t respond. Ed thought he might not have heard, so he gave a little cough. The man continued on his puzzle. “You want I should do something?”
The man raised his eyes. “Huh?”
“I said, you want me to do something?”
“You the new guy?”
The old man shrugged. “You want I should cook?”
The boss folded up his paper and looked at him. “You know how to cook?”
“Than what the hell you ask that for?”
The old man shrugged again. “I just thought…”
“I don’t pay you people to think. What did cook tell you?”
“He didn’t. He wasn’t back there when I come in. I thought I’d ask you. I didn’t see nobody else. Last place they had me washin’ dishes. I’d rather not do that.”
The man scrunched up his forehead and chomped on his cigar. “I got a Spic doin’ that. Go back in the kitchen, see what cook wants you to do.” He turned his attention back to his paper.
“So, how’s the new job?” Harry asked.
“It’s okay,” Ed said, not wanting to disappoint his friend.
“What do they have you doing? Something better than washing dishes, I hope.”
Ed averted his gaze. He didn’t want to have this conversation, but Harry was in his path, blocking the stairway. “Nothin’ much. It’s okay.”
“Yeah? Like, what are you doing? Nothing too strenuous I hope.”
“Nah. It’s okay. Swabbin’ the floors, takin’ out the trash. Stuff like that.”
Harry laid a hand on his shoulder, giving him that I’m on your side look. “I know it’s not too exciting,” he said. “But, like I told you, your options aren’t great. They didn’t have all the job-training opportunities they have now for most of the time you were inside. Things will get better. You’ll see, Ed. You have a job now. You’ve met that obligation. Just hang in there, buddy. We’ll find something better for you. Just be patient and enjoy your freedom.”
“Yeah.” He tried to get around Harry.
“You wanna go shoot a game of pool or get something to eat?”
“Nah. I just wanna lay down, get some rest.”
“Sure, pal. Maybe another time.”
The kid was stretched out on his bunk, head tuned into his music device, eyes closed, one foot jiggling to whatever he heard in his head. The boy didn’t open his eyes or otherwise acknowledge Ed as he entered the room.
The old man didn’t care. He didn’t want to talk to the punk anyway. He just wanted to lay down on his own bunk and shut out this new world he was living in. As he stretched out, an odor tingled in his nostrils. The stench of grease, spoiled food, cigar smoke. He swallowed, tasting the stink in his mouth. It clung to his hair, his clothes, his skin. It wasn’t a good, familiar scent like the one he remembered.
Ed grimaced and squeezed shut his eyes. Harry said he’d adjust. It wasn’t happening. He hated the fat, surly son-of-a-bitch who owned the restaurant. He hated the tasks the cook assigned him. He hated the cook and the beaner dishwasher and the slovenly waitresses. They all looked down on him. All of them. And he despised them. If this was freedom they could have it. He longed to go home. Back to what was familiar. What was clean. What smelled good.
Suddenly he experienced an uncomfortable feeling. Opening his eyes he saw the kid staring at him, a silly grin on his mug. “What?”
The kid mumbled something, gave a throaty chuckle.
“Crazy old fart,” the kid said. “You was talkin’ to yourself. You do it all the time. You never talk to me, but you talk to yourself all the time. Nutty from too many years inside.”
Harry accosted him on the stairwell again the next evening. Ed brushed by him. “I got something to do,” he said.
“Aren’t you going to come eat? I thought maybe we’d eat together and then we could play some cards.”
“Nah, nah. Can’t tonight. Got something to do.”
“Okay. If you change your mind…”
Ed didn’t wait for him to finish. He hurried up the stairs. It couldn’t wait. There was something he had to do now. Don’t put off till tomorrow what needs to be done today. Somebody said that once, though he couldn’t remember where he’d heard it. Didn’t matter. He wasn’t putting it off any longer.
“I don’t understand,” Harry said as they brought him downstairs. “I thought you were doing good.” He begged the detective to give him a minute to talk to the old man. The detective nodded to the officer escorting Ed and they paused in the hallway. “Why, Ed? Why’d you do it?”
Ed peered at him. He liked the young man, though he knew he couldn’t explain it to him. He shrugged his thin shoulders. “I just had to, that’s all.”
“Did that kid do something? Did he hurt you?”
“Nah. He was just a punk.”
“Then…I don’t understand. Why’d you stab him?”
Ed gazed at him. Tears welled up in his eyes, but a smile formed on his lips. “Cause it was the only way I could think of.”
Harry frowned. “You’re not making sense, Ed.” He turned to the officer. “See? That’s what I told the detective. He’s messed up in the head. He’s not himself. That’s why he did it.” The officer didn’t say anything.
Neither did Ed. There was nothing more to say. Harry wouldn’t understand. He belonged out here. He fit in. Ed didn’t. He had to do what he did. It was the only way he could go back home.
That familiar smell beckoned.