In Alexander Parsons's Leaving Disneyland, Doc Kane is sixteen years into a twenty-year murder sentence. Days away from a parole hearing, he means to get out and start a new life as a Square John--a law-abiding citizen. Within the predatory confines of Tyburn Penitentiary, however, he has debts to pay. To start, Doc has his duties as a "heavy" in the D.C. Blacks, a gang that has protected him. Then there is his new cellmate, a young dealer doing life without parole whose ignorance of the prison's code threatens them both. Finally, there are the guards: Sergeant Grippe, who is bent on "rehabilitating" Doc, and Raven, whose intentions are veiled but no less menacing.
Beyond these dangers, Doc faces a deeper dilemma, one embodied by Dead Earl, a thumbless junkie and reminder of a past Doc would deny. The experience of sixteen years surviving in a violent prison has shaped Doc as profoundly as a river does its course. And if character is fate, Doc's chances for a life on the straight-and-narrow are slim unless he can reshape himself. This, he discovers, is the real struggle. If he's to have any hope for his future, he must first confront his past.
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About the Author
Alexander Parsons is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He currently lives in Austin, Texas. Leaving Disneyland is his first novel.
Alexander Parsons is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the author of Leaving Disneyland and In the Shadows of the Sun, and currently lives in Austin, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
By Alexander Parsons
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Alexander Parsons
All rights reserved.
I wasn't put out of the house. I left when I was fourteen. When my granddaddy died I went to living with a lady named Odessa. She was a queen of the whores, ran a gambling joint. I go to school, I come back, I got to clean up her place. I make sure the potatoes are peeled, mop the floors, any work she needs for my room and board.
"My father come past one time to bet, gave me a pair of white buck shoes. Only thing he ever gave me, and I cherished them.
"One day there was a fella in Odessa's who had gotten broke. He was drunk, and he wanted to tear up."
In Cellblock B, Doc sits in the recesses of his third-tier bunk, watching his new cellmate and thinking about parole. He studies the kid, who leans against the barred cell door. "Bouncer tried to put him out," Doc continues. "He turns around, knocks the bouncer out. Odessa tried to get around the bar to her gun. He grabs her and shakes her. I'm standing in the doorway peeling potatoes with a knife. When I seen him shake her I jump on his back and start hitting and hitting."
In his mind's eye a series of images shutter past: the broad back of a man in a cream-colored shirt, the fabric taut over the muscled shoulders; a knife blade driving into the meat of a deltoid; the white roll of a backward-glancing eye. Doc has told this story so often that at times it seems a recitation devoid of all association, abstract words linked to an abstract past. But tonight he pauses, waiting for the unsettling, vivid images to sink from view before continuing. He clears his throat.
"When all of this confusion's over they say, 'Hey man, you worked him like a doctor.' Got blood on my white shoes. Potato knife's still in my hand. That's where my name come from. I wasn't no Billy after that. Just Doc. Doc didn't have no feelings, no sympathy, no fear. Doc was, 'Hey, I'm not no sucker, no punk, no weakling.' Doc was, 'So what they gave me twenty years, so what.'"
The kid's lanky arms are looped loosely through the cell door's crossbars, stretched to either side, the long-fingered hands hanging like broken wings. His head is shaved, the effect that of an eggshell delicacy that belies the cultivated hardness to his expression. Doc wonders how the kid expects to get by now that he is no longer in the D.C. jail, now that his reputation counts for less than nothing. Good looks and naiveté smell like blood in the waters of the prison. The sharks are near and neither Doc nor the cellbars will keep them at bay.
"Started jumping out after that," Doc says. "Reform school at sixteen. Served four of a six-year bit for armed robbery at twenty-four. Been almost thirty years in prisons." He kneads the skin around the joints of his fingers. "I got respect," he says. "Spend thirty years fighting for who you is and not getting beat and you get that. But you — you a mark and fellas is gonna move on you. Come into Bone Hill and you got to know who you is. Got to have certainty of who you is and what you stand for." He tilts his head right and left, feeling the vertebrae pop and loosen beneath the thick cords of his neck. "I'm Doc. No sucker, no punk, no weakling. And if you here to fuck up my shit you best think twice."
The kid drops his arms. "I ain't want nothing to do with you." He gestures around him dismissively. "With none of this."
Maybe it don't matter what you want, Doc thinks. He has never been so anxious over a parole hearing, never been so close to getting out, not in sixteen years. He stares at the kid. Been here almost as long as you been alive, boy.
The kid turns to look out past the walkway. Doc rubs his sweat-slicked face, the outlines of the kid's view from the cell long etched in his own memory. The outer cellblock wall rises seventy feet, set twenty feet out from the fenced-in walkways of the tiers. The stone is scored with narrow windows, each revealing a vertical strip of sky now tinged with red, the sun's furnace heat and color spilling across the flat of the land to wash against the prison and soak into its mortared stone. Indoors, dust motes caught in the cellblock's convection currents spiral past the five tiers where prisoners lie varnished with sweat, and swirl lazily in the air trapped beneath the ceiling.
The temperature has built all day, and as Doc looks into the cool shadow of his cupped palms he notes that the heat has silenced most of the cons. The clatter and echo of the inmates has slowed, the white noise of the prison separating out into a spectrum: shouts, the wet rumble of plumbing, the whir of fans, muted conversations, and behind each a deep desert silence. He hears a screw walking the tier, checking each locked cell for Four Count. The slap of boots is loud enough that Doc knows it's one of the overweight hacks, Bayler or Grippe. In a few moments his guess is borne out. Grippe appears, a flush of red in his dark face, as if it is anger and not the heat that bothers him. Cell count is not a job many of the sergeants perform, but Grippe makes a habit of it. He clicks his counter twice and pauses. "Stand up for count," he says, looking past the kid's shoulder to Doc.
"You the one responsible for this?" Doc says with a nod to the kid.
"World works in mysterious ways, Kane. Stand for count." Grippe's voice is cigarette-raspy.
Doc withdraws into the shadows of the bunk. "Can see me fine, 'less you going blind." Irritated by the heat, he adds, "Maybe you ought to think 'bout retiring, your eyes getting so bad." Standing for cell count is a regulation usually overlooked by the guards; in this heat any movement seems a great imposition.
"I ain't the one that's too old to get up off my ass. Ain't too old to beat yours, neither."
Doc fixes Grippe with a look. "We can step outside the walls to clear up that misconception. You and me on neutral ground."
Grippe's laugh is a guttural bark. "Don't never give up, do you? Just another nigger angling to get out."
"Angling to kick your Uncle Tom ass," Doc says. "Just happens to be I want to do it outdoors."
"You going to stand for count?" Grippe shifts forward, his stolid form blocking the light lancing into the cell. He has the dense mass of a bulldog; his legs are short and slightly bowed from carrying the weight of his thick torso.
"Can see I ain't escaped," Doc says. He points to Grippe's counter. "Anyway, you already counted us."
"I can just write up a conduct report, Kane. Put you on punishment, cut your good time — ain't going to be much for the Parole Commission to reconsider."
Doc flushes. Grippe has attended his previous parole hearings, testified, and in each Doc's character has been classed deficient, wanting, unrehabilitated.
Grippe reaches an arm through the cell door and grabs the kid by the front of his shirt in a startlingly swift and accurate motion. He yanks him forward hard enough that the kid's forehead strikes the metal with a bony knock before lodging in the gap between two bars. "Stand and count off," Grippe says to Doc. The kid works at Grippe's hand, trying to loosen the fingers clamped to his collar, the fabric cutting into his thin neck.
"125630," Doc says, standing.
Grippe grimaces against the weight of his jowls, his teeth the nicotine yellow of old bone. He is breathing heavily. "Ain't so bad, is it? Just got to follow the rules. Sixteen years and you still can't follow routine."
"No point you hearing it every night," Doc says.
"Count off," Grippe says to the kid.
"36 — 366633," the kid grunts, the tendons of his neck rigid as he strains against Grippe. The guard unclenches his hand, the release sending the kid sprawling back into the center of the cell.
"That's your God-given name, understand?"
The kid coughs. "Ain't no God give me it." He massages his neck.
"Bureau of Prisons, shitbird. We give you six numbers that'll last longer than any name you had before. We name you and make you. That is God." He shifts his gaze to Doc. "Six numbers — only name you'll ever know or ever have."
"Ain't no number following me outside," Doc says quietly.
"Closest you get to the outside is the parole hearing room, Kane."
"You ain't the board," Doc says.
Grippe smiles wider. "Only one God in here." He turns away. "Forgetting it just makes life harder."
Doc sits back on his bunk, eyes fixed on a white piece of stuffing hanging from the underside of the top mattress. He pinches the bridge of his nose and breathes deeply, slowly, willing the muscles of his back to soften.
The kid stands looking out at the tier, rubbing distractedly at his neck. He turns to climb into the upper bunk.
"Shake the sheets."
"Scorpions," Doc says. "They curl up where they can."
"Damn." The kid pulls the top sheet from his bed and snaps it in the air. "You die if you get bit?"
"Just dizzy. Bite you on the toe and it gets all swole up. Remember that when you go to put on your shoes."
The kid gingerly climbs into his bed. "Can't they call no exterminators?"
"Just as soon as they finish the Olympic-size pool."
"They got a pool?"
"What the fuck you think? And stand back from the bars when the hacks is around, like you got to with the monkeys at the zoo. Especially with that nigger Grippe. He'll fuck you up."
"He don't pump no fear," the kid says.
"Only 'cause you stupid."
"I ain't stupid."
"Whyn't you quiet down? Go back to dreaming 'bout that swimming pool," Doc says.
* * *
The last of the evening light fades as the cells are reopened following the completed Four Count and the ring of the Quiet Bell. The convicts are free to roam within their own cellblocks until ten, when the cells are locked down for the night at Five Count. Through the night they will be counted at midnight, three A.M., and five-thirty A.M., when the cells will again be unlocked. Doc doesn't have the energy to rise and make his way to the TV room; nor does he feel like visiting others on the tier.
The kid stays in the cell with Doc, perhaps afraid to wander. The first weeks spent in the prison's receiving unit are difficult. The guards haze the arrivals, looking for a chance to abuse their disoriented prey, intent on establishing a respect for the Byzantine rules governing the prison's hierarchy.
The kid shifts, the sagging springs above Doc's head creaking. Has he realized that this cell will be home for the rest of his life? Doc thinks it unlikely. There are facts, monolithic and unforgiving, that eclipse the light of hope if acknowledged. Facts best ignored in the manner that a child hides: covering the eyes in the belief that what is not seen does not exist.
Old Man Ellis warned Doc of the cell transfer two days earlier, revealing bits from his new cellmate's file. Byron Cripps. Twenty-one. Prisoner number 366633, to serve a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Ellis had visited him early in the morning, finding Doc eating alone in the cafeteria. His stiff, thin body was suggestive of a weather-bleached tree, the kind that endures decades clinging to a barren ledge, its limbs hardened and gnarled by sun and wind. "You know you due for a move," he'd said.
Doc hadn't, though in a couple of hours the guards would come and wait for him to pack his possessions in two cardboard boxes and escort him to the new cell.
"It don't fit," Doc had said.
Ellis twisted a wiry forefinger into his ear like an auger, wiped it on his pantleg and continued, his eyes roving. More on Byron: that he ran a D.C.-based drug crew, fought violent turf wars, that he ordered the deaths of witnesses subpoenaed for his trial.
Doc had shrugged, more concerned with the location of his new cell. "They going to put me up on a higher tier? Can't take that heat."
"Ain't you listening?"
"He ain't nothing new here," Doc said. "Just another punk full of himself He was so smooth and he wouldn't be coming here for a life jolt."
"That ain't what I'm talking about." Ellis tapped the table with a carefully manicured nail. "How you think I got this information?"
"Shit, Ellis, I don't know. You always nosing around."
"You keep your eyes open, Doc. That folder was on Raven's desk when I was due to clean. Raven ain't careless." He'd stood to leave. "And those witnesses that boy had killed? One was a D.C. Black. Cornelius's little brother."
"Ahh fuck," Doc said. I don't deserve this shit.
Now, with the kid ensconced in his cell, Doc's thoughts circle this exchange. He wonders, too, whether the kid has any idea of how tenuous his position is. What will he do when he realizes that he's bunking with a member of the D.C. Blacks? The law of escalating retribution is not to be denied, not by Doc, not by the kid.
Doc sighs, feeling as if the burden of his experience is pressing the air from his lungs. To have a young punk foisted on him reads like a sign declaring the administration's displeasure. Yet as best Doc can recall, he's given no offense. Coincidence, he thinks. Or habit. They just in the habit of fucking with you. Motherfuckers don't give it no thought. Do it as natural as breathing or shitting.
* * *
The heat lingers, intense, enervating. After dinner, Doc drifts in and out of sleep before waking fully for Five Count and the night's final lockup. From below he hears the electric buzz as the cellblock gate lurches into motion, a deep rumbling audible through the concrete, the hammer-strike of the gate locking into place, punctuating the arrival of night.
The closing of the gate has never lost its note of finality. It has marked his every day in prison as today it marks the kid's. The reverberations of the gate loom like something physical, crowding the air with their heavy black geometry. Doc listens, the sound bookending sixteen years. It surprises him that such a slight lull in the noise level of the cellblock is so apparent, makes him momentarily aware of how utterly connected he is to the rhythms of the prison. So many years in the crucible of the desert have fused him with the penitentiary, binding them at some basic level. A disquieting observation, more so because the same fate awaits this new arrival — a kid almost twenty years younger than Doc was when he arrived at Bone Hill.
He has spent sixteen years inside, but the details of riding the chain, of arrival, are fresh: the wire mesh crushed into the windows of the transport bus, the silence of the other cons catching their last glimpses of the outside world as the bus rocked over the buckled access road. Through the warped lens of desert air, Tyburn was, at first, indistinguishable from the desertscape. The sun had bleached the ground and bushes a sere spectrum of bone and ivory and potsherd brown, and in the midst of this, the coloring of the prison was no different: a trembling mass of granite, yellowed limestone, and burnt brick, a mirage as yet indistinct. He'd had the impossible hope that the B-More Crew would flash into sight, firing into the tires of the bus, the world suddenly full of possibility as he and Jake and Rebo escaped into the backdrop of the horizon in Jake's burgundy Impala.
But the bus continued its approach. The prison's silver dome glinted dully in the uncertain light, and the structure beneath firmed into a version of the Capitol, as if in the wake of some apocalyptic occurrence the landmark building now crowned an empty wasteland. Closer and the forbidding mass of the building was apparent in the heavy limestone blocks of the facade, in the deep shadows of recessed windows.
Doc can still picture the ornate lettering above the gaping entrance, the name spelled out in rust-fuzzed iron set into the massive lintel stone. Tyburn Federal Penitentiary.
Doc's hands and feet were deadened by the shackles long before arrival. In the bus each con was chained to a partner and each pair of seats was separately caged, a taste of the awaiting confinement. He'd been lucky; Stirling Bison had been paired with him. Stirling — his first friend, and still his best. The bus passed the front entrance to the prison, pulling to a side wall, where a shuttered metal gate opened to admit it — a servants' entrance, he'd thought.
Descending from the bus, Doc's unfeeling feet tripped him, clipped hands useless to break the fall. He landed facedown in the open-air holding pen, pulling Stirling with him, furious at the humiliation though the guards took no notice, not even bothering to haul them to their feet. The handcuffs and leg irons were linked by a chain running between them, this chain in turn clipped to a belly chain, the knotted loops forcing him into a bent, shuffling gait, unable even to mimic a defiant stance or carriage as he ascended the broad fan of steps leading to the barred entrance of the sally port.
Inside, they'd waited in the holding cell for the Receiving Unit, a featureless room with a raised gunwalk where three guards paced with sawed-off shotguns at the ready, low enough and close enough that they could rap the newly shaved head of a con with a blued muzzle. Most of the arrivals had done time: you could tell by the way they held themselves — self-contained, not making much small talk, many with inked forearms. It took time to earn your way into Tyburn. The joke went,
Q: How does a con graduate to Bone Hill?
A: He fucks up everywhere else.
Two shakedowns — pant cuffs and shoes, a pat beneath the arms and up the legs; strip ... check under scrotum, between ass cheeks, in mouth, between toes. Grippe, Doc remembers, had searched him: Grippe had been merely stocky then, a young guard with fashionable sideburns and an afro tamed by a tight hat, his nose not yet swollen from too much drink, job new enough that he still enjoyed swaggering among the inmates. He'd run his hands up the insides of Doc's legs in a cursory, clinical manner, yet eyed Doc's body with greater scrutiny than that of any lover, the search an unsettling juxtaposition of intimacy and impersonal examination to which Doc has never become accustomed.
Excerpted from Leaving Disneyland by Alexander Parsons. Copyright © 2001 Alexander Parsons. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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