A Man Forbid by Jon Sindell

 

“Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his penthouse lid.

He shall live a man forbid.”

 

~ Weird Sister, Macbeth

 

 

Soil rich black and moist yearned like woman awaiting the seed. The sleeper’s lips trembled as the dreamer beheld a single seedling emerging from the soil, teardrop leaves of luminous green arching out from its crotch, the soil black and moist as the gigantic wedges of cake in the magazine ads his mother would paste to the fridge like a dream of home life. In these ads the cake was dark, moist, layered with buttercream, and the edge of the fork sliced into the cake the way the dreaming man’s hoe had cut into the rain-sodden soil of the vegetable garden just an hour before. The dreamer’s mother had made these cakes as a Sunday treat when the dreamer was small and there were still four at home, and he’d gorged on them till his stomach ached. Then, in the hot nasty summer when he was fourteen and there were just the two of them left, she made them all the time, and he shunned them to shun her, and counted out loud each bite that she took, and she’d lower her head to eat in a shamed, petulant way, chewing like a cow masticating; then when she’d finish, he’d skate around the corner and take one toke on a joint and one pull on a beer for every one of her bites.

In the dream she wore the orange-and-yellow flowery thing she called a “muu-muu” because it made her feel as if she were in Hawaii, persisting in spite of Iris’s snide, “It’s a dress, Mama,” in spite of her husband calling it a horse blanket, in spite of her son calling it a tent when he was twelve to raise Papa’s bitter smile. He worked hard every night to copy that smile in the mirror, and when Papa left for good, he perfected it without effort.

In the dream she was thirty or forty, yellow-haired, double-chinned, shapeless in her muu-muu, standing on the bare ground of an ill-defined park scooping moist black earth with her dish-red hands, reaching out mounds of earth with a smile innocent of the heartaches to come–the smile he remembered from when he was four. “Do you like it, Mackey? Do you like it again?” He moaned, “I do like it,” and reached out but the guard smashed his baton against the heavy metal key-plate and Mack shot up screaming. Officer Padik was as big as an offensive lineman, with a round face slitted by eyes that gleamed and thin lips that curled with the pleasure of making Mack scream. Mack sat up at an acute angle to the officer, cradled his face in cracked hands, blinked tears from his eyes. Angered by the lack of eye contact, the guard strummed his baton across the bars the way Mack at fourteen had clattered the wrought-iron fences in “the nice folks’ neighborhood” with his bat, awakening weekend sleepers. One silver-haired man growled “Barefoot trash,” and Mack slashed his tires the next day and fled into the woods, where his friends raised their beers to anoint “Mack The Knife.” “Sleeping in the daytime?” the guard said with mock shock. “How the hell you gonna get ahead in life if you sleep in the daytime?” The guard puffed up with his wit, but Mack didn’t respond. “I’m talking to you!” The officer banged the door, and Mack looked up at him through red eyes sunk into sockets as wide and deep as goldfish bowls. The guard probed the prisoner’s countenance for any sign of dissent, but there had been no dissent since Mack ‘s first night in jail three years before, when the guard had delivered two expert blows to his shins with his baton as he slept, “expert” inasmuch as they delivered great pain without any telltale fracturing of bone. “Lemme show you something,” said the guard. Mack stepped gingerly to the bars, and the guard thrust a wallet photograph at his face. “She’s beautiful. Isn’t she!” It was the shiny black extended-cab pickup that the officer had purchased two months ago. “That didn’t come from sleeping all day.” He snorted contemptuously and peered down at Mack . “Got a surprise for you. You’re gonna get a new roommate! And you’re really gonna like this one, Mack–a new friend to have sleepovers with, a person to tell your secrets to. Hell, Mack, you are such a good friend.”

But the roommate wasn’t due for several more days, and the delay had the effect which Officer Padik intended. Mack was chronically jumpy from lack of sleep to begin with, and this new anxiety wore his nerves wire-thin. In the mess hall, in the library, in the exercise yard, he jerked his head at fellow prisoners in the suspicion that they knew the nature of the new torment that awaited him and were laughing at him. Only in the vegetable garden did he find any peace. He knelt there to the rain-sodden soil and worked it with his trowel, feeling himself the kindly god of the patch of earth shadowed by his body. He had a mellow gardening friend known as Gen’ul G, an enormous reformed dealer from Hunter’s Point who likewise sought solace in the soil. Everything the big man knew about gardening he had learned from Mack, who had learned an enormous amount about the cultivation of veggies–and weed–in his youth in the Ozark foothills. G passed behind Mack with a hoe on his shoulder, and when his enormous shadow covered Mack’s little kingdom, Mack sprung up into a knife-fighter’s crouch with the trowel in his hand. Gen’ul G laughed: “Mac The Trowel, what a fool.”

 

Mack lay on his back like a vampire in his coffin, arms folded across his chest, neck stiff as rigor mortis. He failed to fall asleep for two hours, then slept, then dreamt that a shadow, black and shapeless as a vampire’s cloak, or an oil slick, or a black ectoplasm, or a giant bat ray, or Gen’ul G’s shadow, hovered over his head and began to descend to smother him. He shot up again, and slept no more that night.

Officer Padik shoved the new roommate into the cell the next morning. He was thin and thirtyish, with sallow, pock-marked cheeks, soft, dewy eyes sunk deep in black sockets, and hair dyed artificially black. “You guys are gonna get along like peas in a pod,” Padik snurfled, “like Anthony and Cleopatra. Just don’t turn your backs on each other.” He closed the cell gently in a comic burlesque of a kind father closing his sons’ bedroom door for the night, blew a soft kiss, stepped away–then whirled like a discus-thrower and crashed his baton against the door. The new guy jumped and shrieked.

Mack judged Anthony to be harmless due to his scrawny build, nervousness that was extreme even for a new guy, and especially his eyes. Mack had known dangerous men on the streets of the Tenderloin and in Golden Gate Park, where he’d made his last camp, and this guy’s eyes lacked their menacing glint.

 

And then the guy started talking in a thin, high voice, treating time as a space to cram full of words: “Alright, so, um, like, well–and what are you in for? Uh huh, uh huh. Okay, never mind! That was rude to ask, just please don’t be angry, oh please, honey, won’t you cut me some slack? I mean, imagine how I feel right now. I mean, look: I bet the new meat always chatters like that. Oh, they do? Uh huh, uh huh, see I told you they do, of course they do, sure they do, all like chatter-chat-chat, hey, that’s normal, that’s my own normally-abnormal way anyway, I just roll like that, I chatter like a chipmunk, got to fill my cheeks–“–a ladylike hand covered a naughty mouth–“–let me start over. Okay, I mean: Look. My god. I mean, honestly. And just what the hell else is there to do in a place like this except talk talk talk? A place like this!” he laughed hysterically, “as if there are actually places like this! Well, I suppose we could–I don’t know … decorate, maybe! I mean, gawd, these white walls are just gorgeous with those cute cracks in the plaster, and that picture of–ooh, that’s sort of like–a stock car, right? Wow, I’m rooming with the Duke Of Hazzard! That’s a joke, don’t kill me! Omigod, oh god, I am absolutely gonna die in here!” He snuffled hysterically, gasped for air like an asthmatic, then stood up straight with his chin raised high in perfect dignity. “No, honey, I assure you: you most certifiably did NOT get a fruitcake for your cellmate. A cellmate! Omigod, oh-my-sweet-fucking-god, I’m a cellmate in a prison, and I am fucking going to die! Thank you, you’re sweet–oh, and you gave me a clean tissue, too! Stop looking at me, I was making a joke!” Snufflling turned to sobbing. “I just wanted to say that you’re a fine host, a real country gentleman, and that is no–oh, what’s that fucking word–aspersion, that’s no aspersion on your country background–my god, like I should talk, I’m from Hicksville Oregon, that’s just rednecks with guns. Oh please, god, please, would you please stop looking at me with those cold blue eyes, I don’t even know where you’re from! And if I did know, I’d love it, I love everyone from wherever they come from, don’t you get it? So, where do you come from? Oklahoma? No? Texas? No? Thank gawd it’s not Texas. Arkansas? I knew it! Hey, a president came from there, that’s nothing to be ashamed of at all. Don’t look at me like that! You’re killing me,” he said between sobs, “I didn’t say there’s anything wrong with it at all, I said just the opposite in fact, if you’d care to look up the record. Help me, I’m gonna be sick! I need cigarettes! Thank you … you’re a gent.” A soft furtive hush: “Hey–do you know how to get some coke in this place? Crack, maybe? What’s that shrug mean? No, you can’t get it, or no, you don’t trust me? Never mind, I agree: we just met; we’re not there yet. Sigh. You know, I could get those things out on Polk Street with a snap of my fingers … I’m not bad looking, though this lighting’s from hell. I could … you know … do things … Christ, would you please stop looking at me!”

“I’m listening to you.”

“Oh yeah?” Through narrowed eyes he peered at Mack. “Then listen to this. I may be a queer, but nobody–and I mean, nobody–fucks with me. The last time a john tried to steal my wallet I stuck him right in the ass with a great big fucking pair of kitchen scissors, so–omigod, sit down!” He scurried back up onto his cot and balled himself small against the wall. “Please sit down,” he snuffled, gasping for breath, “I was kidding, just kidding! God, please let me out of this place!” Anthony closed his eyes and shivered all over, then squeaked up in a constricted little voice that barely made it all the way through his windpipe: “Help me, man. I am gonna get murdered in here.”

Mack knit his brow and pondered the circumstances. “No,” he said with a sober air. “You’re not. You got me and G, he’s got pull with the brothers. We give `em extra veggies from the garden. It’s supposed to go to some restaurant or something, but … You’ll be cool. You won’t even have to–.”

“Omigod, how I love you! Omigod, think of that–I love crackers in bed!” Anthony leaned back in alarm. “Omigod, that’s a joke! Don’t you know me by now?” Mack sat back down, and Anthony, calming himself with a visible effort, subdued his tone. “So what did you object to, anyway: the cracker, or the bed? Ah, you smiled! I knew you could smile. See, you just gotta know me, sugar. Every time I open my big pretty mouth it gets me in trouble–oops, I did it again!” this last sung like Brittany Spears. “Change the subject fast, ladybird!” Anthony straightened his back, crossed slender legs and skinny arms and mimed holding a cigarette like a cocktail party hostess. “Okay, so new topic. Tell me, Arky: Do you like marbles?”

“What?”

“Or cheetahs? Or Cheetohs? Or–Christ, I don’t know, do you like — ” Anthony spiraled his fingers as if to pluck conversational fodder like grapes from a vine– “antelopes? Or artichokes? Or spring rolls, perhaps? There’s a Vietnamese place on O’Farrell, and the guy at the counter pretends that he’s straight, but we know he’s queer as a flamingo taquito; and the spring rolls in there–”

 

Hours later Anthony was still talking.

“Jesus,” said Mack, “you are one wired dude.”

“I’m a … wired sister!” trilled Anthony.

“Yeah, well, Wired Sister, I need some sleep.”

Anthony leaned across the space separating the cots. “If I sleep I’ll die.”

“I’ll die if I don’t.”

In a tremulous hush the new prisoner said, “It’s scary in here. Don’t you think I could sort of–you know–just like, creep on over there and get under the covers, snuggle up a little, like a sleepover thing–”

No.”

With stiff-necked dignity the new guy replied, “Then goodnight, Mr.–I don’t believe I caught your last name?”

“Betts. Mack B.” Mack initiated a firm, traditional American man’s handshake, warning Anthony with a hard gaze to respond in kind. “Now go to sleep, man.”

Anthony lay flat on his back with eyes open. He continued to talk, but reduced the volume of the chatter he directed at the phantoms in the ceiling such that Mack could tune it out like a neighbor’s radio.

But Mack couldn’t sleep. In the post-midnight stillness the incessant murmurings of his cellmate came into sharp focus like conversation on the other side of a thin flophouse wall, and he could not tune out the endless stream of words. “Shut up,” he barked, but that switched on muffled sobbing, so he grumbled “forget it” and clamped his eyes shut. He fell asleep hours later, and then dreamed that he lay in Golden Gate Park, in the pup-tent-sized hollow of a gnarled tree that he and Janine had called home for three months, tearing down camp every morning before the park gardeners showed up, making camp at sundown when the civvies were gone. They had just shot up, and he lay face down on his bedroll, resting his splotched face on the puffed-up sleeve of the jacket he’d scored at Goodwill as the drug came on. “Hey,” Janine said with the feather-soft murmur, ragged at the edge, that signaled her desire and aroused his, and he smiled at her–oh, how she loved the way his smile raised the plunging edges of his mustache and made him look boyish. In the dim twilight she looked closer to the twenty-eight that she was than the leathery forty the daylight made her appear, and her dimpled cuteness and mini-Oreo eyes filled him with wild tenderness. He rolled onto his back and closed his eyes in anticipation of receiving her body, but a sudden premonition of evil opened his eyes to the killer from Psycho standing above him with his arm raised high–but it wasn’t a knife but a huge pair of scissors gleaming in the darkness, and it wasn’t a movie killer but Anthony plunging the scissors down towards his heart.

He rolled over violently before the scissors could land, arousing Anthony from a superficial doze. “What’s wrong?” Anthony murmured in a soft maternal tone. Mack stared at him in a catatonic daze, and Anthony insinuated himself to a standing position and took a first tentative step across the floor like a tightrope walker three-hundred feet above ground; when Mack didn’t move, he slide-stepped once more and stood next to his cellmate. Mack looked up at Anthony: the harsh white light from the naked bulb in the corridor directly across from the cell illuminated his deep black death’s-head eye-sockets. Anthony lowered himself with the caution of a bomb squad technician and the delicacy of a ballerina and wrapped his skeletal arms around Mack’s shoulders. Mack shuddered and threw them off.

“I understand,” said Anthony, raising his chin and then his whole body with formal dignity. “It’ll be alright, baby.” He touched a soothing finger to his lips. “If you need me just say so. I don’t ever sleep, really.”

So Mack laid back down and tightened his face in a grim mask fit to scare away demons. He sang Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard tunes in his head for an hour and more, then slept, then dreamed. In the dream he was twelve again, asleep in his bedroom before dawn, and the twelve-year-old sleeper was dreaming too, walking through the nice folks’ neighborhood on the way to the good ballyard with its grass infield, raised pitcher’s mound, and outfield fences. He was walking in the exact center of the street, inhaling the sweet alyssum that grew along the wrought-iron fences of the nice folks’ homes, but he didn’t dare turn his face to the blossoms but looked straight ahead, shielding his eyes from the blinding white light that pervaded the air and burned his lungs; on an impulse he took off running and kept running until he reached a cool green field that was not the ballfield, but was the ballfield. His friend John was there, sitting on his bike–why, oh why had he turned against John? Or was it the reverse? And all of a sudden, it no longer mattered–for John, swathed in golden light, smiled at him, and he dared smile back; but in the outer dream, the dream of a dreamer, his father, in the power company hard hat he wore during Mackey’s twelfth summer, shook him hard by the shoulders. “Get up, candy ass. If I can get my ass outta bed at this god-damned hour, you sure as hell can too,” and the twelve-year-old dreamer looked up at his father with wide-dish eyes and a wide-opened mouth to speak the words he never had dared—”

“Get up, punks!” Officer Padik banged the baton on the lock plate and strummed the bars. A smile bloomed on his face when the cellmates raised themselves bleary-eyed to a sit.

 

In the library, as they called it, there was a psychology section comprised of two textbooks, neither of which answered Mack’s desperate question: How to resume a truncated dream? A middle-aged long-timer with some nebulous claim of a connection to Stanford which was supported by his scholarly appearance–spectral frame, wispy chin, weak blue eyes that beamed out through round wire-frames as if to imply that the man occupied a secret world of knowledge and wisdom to which he’d gladly conduct you, if you were worthy and able (highly doubtful)–stroked his chin and allowed that, yes, certainly, there must be an answer to this fascinating question which has challenged thinkers and seekers throughout the ages. Of course, in ancient Greece, in The Odyssey, as you know (he chuckled ironically but not cruelly), reference is made to the lotus eaters, which is not discordant with historical fact–for there is, indeed, evidence that the ancient Greeks, lofty thinkers and dreamers that they were, used opium, shhhhh (a finger to his lips stifled a chuckle occasioned by the prisoner’s mention of one of the multitude of psychotropic drugs for which he had been imprisoned)–used opium, aka nepenthe, as in, “quaff this nepenthe, help me forget my lost Lenore”–The Raven–of course!–a drug to induce forgetfulness–nepenthe–and is that not akin to dreaming, shutting out external stimuli, allowing the subconscious mind to roam freely? Ah we’re getting somewhere! A plausible means to reenter dreams! Perpend: For as I say, the ancient Greeks utilized various psychotropic drugs as a means of accessing certain portals of the mind, and these portals, as we may call them, may allow access to various points in the mind, points of consciousness; and studies suggest–reveal! that the situs of memory can be geographically mapped in the brain, to the hippocampus–not a college for hippopotami (he chuckled). And is a dream, once dreamed, not a memory too? And so, does it not stand to reason that memories themselves can be mapped, accessed, and retrieved from definite sites, s-i-t-e-s? Now, if you will permit me a brief digression. If we consider certain mind-expanding substances as somewhat analgous to training wheels on a bike–id est, a training device that can ultimately be dispensed with once the desired skill is attained … if you think, for instance, of a musician, a pianist, practicing blindfolded in order to deepen his purely aural awareness of the music–the subtle intonations, reverberations, undertones, harmonics—Gregorian chants come to mind, as do—

Mack slipped off with Anthony trailing five-feet behind: not necessarily close enough to invite a beating by other inmates, but close enough for Anthony to enjoy the illusion of safety.

Mack laid himself down, determined to return to the bright green ballfield and his lost friend John, and lay for hours in his vampire position trying various methods of falling asleep. Merle Haggard couldn’t do it. Johnny Cash couldn’t do it–and, to his horror, he discovered that he couldn’t recall the words to “Long Black Veil,” though he’d sung himself to sleep with the song hundreds of times. So he tried to visualize the most soothing image he could think of, the bright green mustard seedlings that were just then emerging in his prison garden plot–but every time he managed to summon a clear image, he was snapped out of his reverie by the terrified mutterings of his cellmate, who lay flat on his back staring at the ceiling as the harsh white light of the corridor filled the bowls and crevices of his face. He tried tuning out Anthony but that didn’t work, so he tried the opposite, and tuned into Anthony’s words the way he had strained to hear America’s Most Wanted or COPS in his parents’ room after bedtime. That worked for a while, for his mind was drawn away from itself by Anthony’s fragmented mumbling about knives in the ass and thieving johns and god! don’t! no!, but he was jolted into full wakefulness by the recollection of his father snapping, “Get to fuckin’ sleep in there!”, which often preceded the sound of angry rutting. So he decided to count monster trucks rolling over Civics, but the trucks dissolved into switchblade knives hanging in mid-air dripping blood onto his black garden plot, and then the knives became blood-dripping scissors, and the lack of sleep became the physical pain of the skin of his face flaking off like roast pork sliced from the bone.

He shot upright and realized that the whole thing had been a dream of lying there awake.

Hours later he fell back to sleep and dreamed that he was wearing a golden crown like the one from his fifth birthday party, when his dad had passed through the living room snorting, “We all know who’s the real king around here.” But in the dream he was twelve, not five, and he met John again on the grass of the ballfield. He hailed him as “King John!” but John charged off into the woods on his bike, so Mackey took off after him on bare feet flying over the wet grass and dove into the woods as if sliding head-first into second base, landing on the bed of soft leaves that Janine laid beneath their bedrolls in their little encampment in the park every night. “Safe,” said Janine, but there was mockery on her lips and a reproachful hardness in small black eyes, the look she got when she’d been too long without scag–which was always his fault: she could have been a singer, she’d received beer money and twenty bucks cash singing R&B with a band in Stockton last year, and she hadn’t even had to put out–and what the hell was she doing with a loser like him? C’mon, Janine, he told her, flopping onto his back and flashing the grin that she couldn’t resist. But she threw her chin up in the air and shook her head no! no! no!, the terror of being without the drug arousing hysterical laughter that melted into weeping. C’mon, baby, he said, sitting up and wrapping his arms around her heaving body, softly stroking her musty hair. She seemed to calm down, cocked her head at him in a calculating way, pushed him back by the chest and down onto the bedroll and climbed up onto him—but her eyes looked off to the kayak-sized hollow a few feet from theirs in which a college dropout from Michigan had been sleeping for weeks. Mack saw the look and woke up with cold sweats.

He had one tab of acid. It had cost him four bunches of baby carrots, a prize artichoke, five packs of cigarettes and twelve dollars cash, and he’d saved it for a special occasion. The pseudo-Stanford man had spoken of reentering dreams by psychotropic means: it seemed worth a shot. He swallowed the tab and laid down to wait, but the exhaustion from two-plus sleepless nights overcame him and he lapsed into sleep. Whether he came on to the drug before he dreamt or no, he was back in the park and Janine was atop him. She held a forty-ounce can of malt liquor over her head, and extended her tongue below the mouth of the can to catch the last precious drops; then threw the can onto a pile of empties. She lowered her mouth to his ear and softly whispered “loser,” which filled him with swirling anger and desire. She lifted herself up laughing hysterically, shuddered violently, threw her head back. She seemed far above him even before her neck began telescoping upward like Alice’s after eating the cake, and when her head was near the canopy of the eucalyptus trees, she gazed down with red dragon eyes at the kid from Michigan sleeping nearby. Then she was herself again, sexy and cute, and she rocked her hips hard upon him. He tried to pull her down to manuever her into the bedroll, but she thrust a stop-sign hand in his face, then lowered her mouth to his ear and said in a soft, ragged hush, “He’s got scag, man. That stinking slumming rich boy’s been holding out on us, and we’ve fed him for weeks. And you kept him getting rolled by those punks! You know,” she said with an expert modulation down to a soft key, “he’s been eyeing me, man–when you’re not around. You know, he is kinda cute.” She flicked his ear with her tongue, breathed warm breath into his ear. “Called you a cracker.” What a sweet voice she had! And how sweet she smelled–somehow, although homeless, she managed to smell nice. Then she convulsed from the agony of twenty-one hours without smack, seized the neck of his jacket and lifted his head, shook it up and down in rhythm to words barked through ragged tears: “What the hell do you care, man! You never do nothing for me, nothing! And you say you’re a man!” He reached up to grab her but was sluggish from the booze, and she broke away with a fearsome “No!” and rolled off him, turned her back to him, turned instead to the college kid sleeping in the hollow. A black adder within constricted Mack’s intestines, squeezed them tightly in its cold flesh, and Mack moaned aloud, rolled his head wildly, set bleary eyes on a dully gleaming object by his hand: his switchblade: she had opened it for him, laid it next to his hand.

He remembered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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