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EXILE TO MAIN STREET
Exile to Main Street
The watchtower on Main Street took 48 steps to climb. Richard Earl felt a shooting pain go up his leg on every one of them. "Consider it pure joy, my brethren," he quoted to himself, "when you face trials of all kinds.", trying to convince himself his girlfriend was right about God having a purpose in his pain. He winced his way to the top and limped toward the gun cabinet to retrieve his .30-'06 rifle. That was standard issue for marksmen IV. He checked to make sure the safety was on. Then he slid the windows open and plopped into the office chair where he would lounge for the majority of his shift.
Turning his head, he grunted hello to Avery Malcom, the dayshift marksman he was replacing. Malcom glanced up from his copy of Corrections Monthly and showed his toothy grin. "What's up, Dick?" he chirped in his ever pleasant tone.
Earl stared blankly at him, "Just preparin' for another day in paradise," he mumbled.
Malcom rose from his chair, continuing to smile, "Oh, you got that right!" he said, gesturing with a sweep of his open hand to the view of the prison yard that filled the window in front of them. From the chair Earl viewed the open space below, vacant during this mealtime. A few inmates would filter out and onto the exercise equipment later, but the yard stayed mostly empty.
The human movement he saw concentrated in the parking lot beyond the fence. It started around 5 pm when the clerks from the office and the suits in regional management left their cubicles and beelined for their vehicles. By 5:30, Earl was left to stare at the lifeless yard.
The flurry of activity caused mixed feelings. It broke the monotony. But he dreaded the sight of Townsend Murray crossing the lot and jumping into his Lexus. Murray was the Regional Head of Personnel Management. His committee recommended the governor appoint Hubert Swank to the warden's job that Earl felt was his. Earl had ten years in as the Assistant Warden at Gillett County Correctional. The past two assistants had been elevated to Warden when the job came open. Earl thought all he need do is apply and it was his. Murray had other ideas.
Malcom stepped back towards his seat.
"Your head in a good place man?" Malcom suddenly said.
Earl squinted at him and cocked his head. " Sure, why wouldn't it be?," he replied, his voice belying his irritation.
"Your buddy Murray lowered himself to writing a piece in here," Malcom offered, tapping his index finger on the magazine that lay open in front of him.
"That so?" Earl replied. "You'd think he'da thought twice before puttin' his name on something grunts like us might pick up."
"Well," Malcom continued, raising an eyebrow, "he couldn't pass on tellin' the world how dangerous 'n stupid we grunts are. Plus he gets'ta promote another of his pet projects."
"Lord knows he's gotta lot of those," Earl snarked. Ten years before, one of Murray's projects had reduced incidents of violence in the DOC by twenty percent. Since then, it seemed he had gotten whatever he wanted from the higher ups in the Department. Earl thought what he wanted was the psychiatrists running the show.
Swank was the Counseling Director for Gillett. His office was just down the hall from Murrays. Earl thought they were two peas in a pod. Two shrinks creating work that didn't exist for their fellow kind, but clueless on what it took to run a prison. The higher ups didn't see it that way. To them Murray was some kind of prophet, the go to guy to solve management's most vexing problems.
"So, what's the latest wisdom from his "Murrayness"?" Earl queried, looking cockeyed at Malcom.
"It's risky to allow us psycho-marksmen to be alone in observation towers. We tend to be antisocial loners who thrive on nursing our pet grudges and see the world in black and white terms. There's a risk we'll decide to act as judge, jury and executioner and pull the trigger on some innocent inmate." Malcom read from the open magazine with his best attempt at a snobby British accent.
"I see," replied Earl. "One could hardly disagree that we are psychopathic loners, but how does the genius propose the Department work a babysitter for us into its budget."
"Well, his Murrayness says budgetary concerns are beyond the scope of his expertise, but a rigorous review of resources is in order to come up with the funds." Malcom finished, raising a fist and thumping it against his expanded chest. "And I'd love to stay around and chat about possible sources of revenue, but Shelly wants steaks on the grill tonight, so I'm leaving this paradise to you loners...have a good one!" He squeezed Earl on the shoulder as he passed him ,disappearing down the stairwell.
Earl had come up the hard way. He started at Gillett six months after high school graduation. He began as a Correctional Guard I in Cell Block X, the segregation wing where the most incorrigible prisoners went after they were written up.
Passing marksmanship training with flying colors earned him a spot in one of the observation towers during the day shift. Later he spent six months attending SWAT team training. There he took down and immobilized inmates that were violent and out of control, escorted them to their temporary home in Cell Block X. It was hard, dangerous work that taxed his physical limits. And Earl loved it.
It gave him an excuse to devote an hour each day to weight training. There he sculpted a body that was intimidating to anyone who cast a glance. He was ripped from head to toe, a real advantage in the macho world of the Department of Corrections. Few inmates challenged a command from his lips, not wanting to go a round with "Earl the Pearl." The rest of the staff was happy to follow the lead of one who had gained the respect of people who normally didn't act like there was such a thing.
Earl climbed quickly through the ranks and was Assistant Warden before his 40th birthday. From there, he thought, it was only a matter of time before he would run the place.
But history ran a different course from what he had in mind. HIs career trajectory changed in the course of a few seconds. While descending a staircase he came upon a massive inmate pinning a smaller man to the stairs. A shank above his head was about to come down into the smaller man's chest. He instinctively leapt at the big man's back, landing squarely on it .The inmate rolled him over his back and tossed him towards the floor below.
Fortunately he landed feet first. But the fall was a good twelve feet. His right leg twisted and snapped, causing a compound fracture at the calf that shocked the watching crowd. Earl spent months in a cast and six more on crutches. Three years had since passed. Chained to his desk by the injury, he was disqualified from SWAT team other than management. No longer able to run or even walk at normal speed, he now had a permanent limp that kept him in pain. His back was compromised in the fall as well. Now he woke nightly with a throbbing spine.
With the constant pain and lack of sleep came a change in Earl's temperament, but it was not what you might expect. He found himself more sympathetic to the claims of the inmates. Suddenly it made sense to him why one might want to strike back at the world over old wounds that lingered years after their cause was gone. A prisoner refusing to get out of his law library chair because he needed twenty more minutes to finish his handwritten brief might have reason to resist the attempts to raise him.
This new empathy didn't translate well into his job performance evaluations. Murray had designed them. Driven by the efficient performance of the core tasks of the job, what counted was how fast the SWAT team got the inmate controlled and onto the seg unit. Whether that occured by negotiation or force didn't count for much. His new attitude that favored talk over take downs didn't score well.
The end result was that when it was time to appoint a new warden, his evaluation scores fell below Swank, who talked for a living. The message, though Earl, was we want grunts for their muscles, not their brains. If you can't use your muscles, then we'll exile you to the Towers, since at least you can still shoot straight.
The daily reminder that he was stuck in this lonely tower was made worse by the appearance of Murray strutting across the asphalt to his shiny sportscar. Swank's bulbous frame meandering across the lot shortly thereafter didn't help matters.
The observation tower job didn't offer much in the way of busy work to distract the mind
from ruminating on the hurts of the past. He kept a daily log of activity,swept the floor and the counter once a week, looked over payroll records and read S.W.A.T. team reports. Otherwise he had to construct his own use of time.
At first he was diligent with his time, submitting proposals to Personnel. None of these ever made it past Murray, who typically dismissed them as "not evidence based." "Shrink-rapped," was how Earl described it. Murray wasn't going to approve anything that didn't come from one of his fellow kind.
Having given up on being productive, Murray spent most of his work days now thumbing through the paperbacks he'd bring with him or the magazines the dayshift left. He'd long ago exhausted the Netflix library on his phone.
He resisted reading through Murray's latest offering, still laying open at Malcom's empty seat. Boredom eventually overtook his resistance and he strolled over and pulled the chair up to the table. It didn't take long for his blood to boil as he read:
"One needn't be a prophet to predict that left untethered to supervision with an immediate source of lethal force in hand, it will only be a matter of time before the practice of sole marksmen manning observation towers results in a tragedy of immense proportions which could leave those in charge of policy at our correctional facilities with a public scandal that could take decades to recover from."
Earl slammed his fist down hard on the table before him. He pushed his chair back and sprang out of it, grabbing the magazine and flinging it against the nearest wall. This was the last straw, the salt pouring into his festering wound that he would not sit still for. He paced the room like a wounded animal, indicting the DOC, Swank, the governor's committee, the shank-wielding inmate and God for leaving him exiled to this isolated prison cell within a prison. But most of his scorn fell on Murray.How dare that bastard pontificate on the mental state of marksman! He'd likely never lifted a gun in his life. When had Murray ever faced down an adrenaline fueled con and forced him into handcuffs? When had he ever stared into the site of a rifle and contemplated whether the target on the other end was so dangerous that his next move would have to result in a bullet being plugged into his brain? Where did he get off condemning marksmen for being black and white in their judgements? What other option did they have?
He dropped to the floor and did fifty pushups. Then he ran in place for five minutes. One of the three-year--old magazines said this was good for helping one cool down. It didn't seem to help much, he was even hotter after the exercise. He pulled out his smart phone and cued up a Key and Peele video. They always made him laugh. But not now.
He looked at his watch and saw it was a quarter to five. Fifteen minutes until the daily parade to the parking lot. Murray's Lexus was in its usual spot toward the end of the lot. His view was unobstructed.
It wasn't the first time he'd fantasized about a clear shot at Murray. His walk to the lot was well within range of the .30-'06. Before he'd laughed it off. "I'd probably miss anyway," he joked to himself. "It wouldn't solve the problem, Swank would just pick up where the prophet left off. My sorry ass would just trade a smaller, lower cell for this dump."
This time it didn't seem like such a joke. He'd considered his future. He was 7 years from the first date he could retire. Prospects for advancement in the DOC seemed small as long as Murray was part of the Personnel hierarchy. His back and leg weren't going to get any better. Physical Therapy had told him they had done all they could do. The daily climb to this prison within a prison nearly devastated him. And what followed wasn't much better- eight hours of sitting and staring at a never changing dull wasteland. How much different would a real prison cell be?
And the thought of witnessing Murray's overvalued cranium explode like a volcano of red on his Joseph E. Bank's special brought a crooked smile to his lips that wasn't going away quickly. He shocked his own conscience with the seriousness he was giving these thoughts.
He knew acting on them would mean a life sentence. The only question would be whether he would live to do his time. If he missed, the marksman in the Oglesby and Logan Street towers would not hesitate to open fire immediately. Then he'd have to decide whether he would remain upright and exposed for another shot, or to go below the window and give up. One shot was all he'd get unhindered
As the clock hands on the tower wall continued ticking towards 5:00, he scanned Murray's article once again for proof that Murray deserved his fate.
"One needn't be a prophet…" he read out loud to himself, shaking his head. "As if you don't think you are...." he mumbled to himself as he paced the room. "I guess it's time the prophecy came to pass!", he shouted, again to no one but himself. He looked to the other towers to see if his noisy pacing and shouting had drawn any attention . Nothing unusal appeared.
As he paced he saw the first cohort from the secretarial pool trotting toward their vehicles. Three of them chatting as they strolled. It would be a while before Murray emerged. He never poked his briefcase-totting frame out the gate until at least a quarter after. "Thinks he proving he works harder than the office grunts I guess," Earl thought. But the women's presence gave him pause, what if they were caught in the crossfire? He pondered on this as the clock continued to tick, edging toward a quarter after.
He thought about what a murder charge would do to his family. He had a teenage son that he rarely saw anymore. He lived two states away with his ex-wife. His folks were both gone, having passed years before. His brother was his closest link, living an hour away. But none of those ties were strong enough to pull him away from the sweet revenge that fulfilling Murray's prophecy would give. Seeing Murray go down and the pool of red forming around his lifeless frame made him smile in ways thinking of his son or brother did not.
A trickle of sweat coursed its way down his forehead and through his eyebrow. He brushed it aside with the back of his palm and noticed for the first time he was sweating profusely. The clock hands moved to 5:11. He could feel his heart beating in his chest. He offered up a prayer, asking God to forgive him for what he had decided to do, but didn't really think that was going to happen.
Suddenly it dawned on him that he hadn't checked to make sure the rifle was loaded. He picked it up and quickly yanked back the bolt. His eyes fell on an empty chamber. He slammed the gun down on his desk and stomped toward the drawers at the bottom of the gun cabinet where the ammo was stored.
From the corner of his eye he caught sight of Bob Franklin, regional director of Vocational training and Murray's suitemate, emerging from the gate and pacing into the lot. Murray was never far behind him. He jogged the remaining few steps to the drawer and yanked on it. It didn't budge. "Damn!" he yelled. The drawer was never locked. The keys were in a drawer on the other side of the room, he bolted for that drawer looking up as Franklin opened his car door in the lot just down the row from Murray's vehicle.
He threw open the drawer that held the keys and found it empty. He slammed his fist down on the table and yanked the drawer open as far as it would go. That revealed no keys, but a piece of copy paper lay at the back of the drawer. On it was a note in the familiar hand of Avery Malcom:
"Dick- If you really need ammo today there's some in the pocket of my S.W.A.T. vest. But let Murray get into his car and out of range before you get it.
I know you too well old friend. Don't be the means the prophet uses to show he knows how psycho us grunts are. That way he wins. Prove him wrong.
Earl drew a deep breath. He dropped the paper and let it fall to the desk. He looked up just in time to see Murray's lanky frame confidently pacing across the lot. He drew another deep breath and picked up his rifle, pulled the bolt down and walked it back to the cabinet. After placing it back in its slot and shutting the glass door, he turned to see Murray's Lexus leaving the lot. He shook his head and wiped a tear from his eye. A small, joyful crease of a smile formed across his lips as he returned to his office chair.
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