This story appears in VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue
On the outside, I'd focus on a neighborhood for a month, breaking into a few houses and causing a localized panic. Then I'd go around selling phony home-security contracts.
A lie is in the details. It's in the American-made midsize rental car with the magnetic "MAX STEELE SECURITY" sign stuck to the door. It's in the khaki slacks, the knit polo shirts with the embroidered "MSS" above the heart, and the ostrich-skin Dunhill briefcase I stole from a home outside Philly. It's in the three levels of security systems on offer, and in the white granite Montblanc pen I put in each quivering, home-owning hand to sign the check for the deposit and the first month's fees.
Most people on the outside are liars, too. They go to a bank and buy whole lives they can't afford.
Our cells were two-man, and I'd had the same bunkie for a year. His name was Tim, and he liked to gamble. But when he got too far in, when he owed too much to the wrong people, he "locked up," which means he wrote a letter to a CO saying he feared for his life. If you write it, they have to believe it. So they put him in protective custody, eventually moving him to another joint. I still miss Tim.
Then there was Richard. He'd been here just 48 hours, and we were in the lunch line awaiting fish. The chow hall smelled like high tide. He turned around and said, "The air tastes funny," then dropped dead right there. What could we do? We all went ahead and ate.
Malcolm was next. A dead ringer for a young Charles Manson. Somebody split his head open with a sock full of batteries because he tried to steal someone's boyfriend.
Joe lasted a week before he made an offensive comment to a large female staffer. He cornered her outside the staff restroom, asked if he could go in and take a deep whiff of the toilet seat she'd just sat on.
Brian moved in an hour after Joe. For a week he said absolutely nothing. Then one day he sat calmly at the desk and began eating envelopes until the inside of his mouth was pasty and bloody. So they shipped him to Huron Valley, where the bugs go.
Robert was next, whom I didn't even talk to for a couple of days because I figured, what's the point? He didn't need me to talk anyway. He talked enough on his own, which was remarkable because he had a terrible stutter. The simplest idea would take him five minutes to express.
I kept expecting him to be gone when I got back from lunch, or work, even a shower. But he stayed. On his bulletin board he put up pictures of women he said were old and current girlfriends: thin, blond, angelic-looking women, and then their polar opposites—dark-haired stripper-types flashing black panties from atop custom Harleys. In the middle of this lineup of angels and sluts were the pictures of his house and Hummer.
"That's—I mean, I mean, I mean—um, um, um—my house," he said. It was a perfectly landscaped redbrick ranch, a charming suburban dream home. There were a couple of interior pictures, like the big, beautiful fireplace. The fire crackled and made the brown leather furniture glisten so brightly I could smell it.
Then the garage, with a tall cabinet of Snap-on tools behind that brand-new champagne-colored Hummer. Altogether the pictures must have depicted about 800 grand worth of home, property, and vehicle. It was a horrible lie. Unbelievable to the utmost.
Robert was tattooed in 20 years' worth of fading prison ink that represented the iconic logos and designer names of a millionaire's lifestyle: Mercedes, Gucci, Armani, Ferrari, Rolex, and about 20 more. He was an amateur. He assumed that just because he desired something, that made it real enough. What he didn't know was that even in here, you have to work for it.
I studied Robert for a full month, writing down all the lies he told.
After 30 days I had a list:
He punched a female warden twice.
His ex-wife was once a centerfold in Penthouse.
His father was a submarine captain who was lost at sea.
Julia Roberts was a pen pal.
A famous director—he couldn't remember his name—almost made a movie about him.
He owned four tattoo parlors—which is actually somewhat believable because he did decent tattoos. Still, I kept it on my list. I mean, four?
He used to make heroin from an acre of homegrown poppies and a recipe handed down from Genghis Khan (recently featured on the History Channel).
He died twice and met God both times.
He'd bungee-jumped, parachuted, hot-air-ballooned, and flown an F-15.
There was a gorgeous call girl who used to pay him for sex.
He made a prison bomb out of his color TV, which is why we could only have black-and-white sets.
He murdered a pedophile bunkie, disposing of his body with a Bic razor and his cell's toilet.
He used law-enforcement-grade pepper spray to spice up his pizza.
He was in a coma for a year and a half. He woke up with a nurse humping him.
You get the idea. Whatever Robert wanted to have done, whoever he wanted to have been, whomever he wanted to have known, screwed, or been a relative of, it all suddenly was.
The woman I fell in love with, the woman in the neighborhood on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, had a collection of more than 50 Hummel figurines worth around $18,000. She kept them behind glass doors on four rows of recessed shelves above her dining-room table. They were so bright and clean that their reflections shone on the dark polished wood like photographed images of ghosts.
I spent a long time staring at them, imagining their perfect, stationary lives. They were alpine youth happily engaged in chores and games from a simpler time: a girl jumping rope (the "rope" held the girl aloft, forever defying gravity); a boy in lederhosen leading sheep with his staff; another boy aiming a slingshot at the sky. My favorite was a mischievous little girl lighting the fuse of a waist-high bottle rocket.
I loved the woman, of course, but when I think of her now, I think just as much of the 28 boys and 30 little girls in soothing rows on the wall of her dining room. It even takes a moment for me to remember her name, Mary, but I can picture the 58 little faces with no trouble at all.
Like a pro taking pity on a hopeless amateur, I decided I would teach Robert some lessons in lying. He was writing letters, and every five minutes or so he'd look through the vertical bars out the window. The weather was changing, and the start of spring was only a few days away. There were melting piles of snow outside, shrinking a little bit every day like a time-lapse destruction of distant white mountains.
Robert was going to get back into shape pretty soon, he said. He was going to get back into weightlifting, and then he told me how good of shape he used to be in. "I mean, I mean, I mean—I could do like a hundred—um, um, um—push-ups. Um, without breathing."
"My boxing coach told us push-ups were the best exercise you can ever do," I told him. "Especially when you hold them at the bottom and count to twenty. My coach was an old black guy. You know anything about boxing, Robert?"
"Um, um, um, yeah."
"Then maybe you've heard of him: 'Coffee Machine' Mitchell. He fought Thomas 'the Hit Man' Hearns once in Detroit. Coffee Machine was pro for a few years."
"I mean, I mean, I mean, yeah, I saw that fight. Um, um, um, I remember that fight."
"No, you don't, Robert. No, you didn't."
He looked at me blankly and then down at his faded, tattooed arms, as if there were some answer there. I felt sorry for him, but he had to learn. And learning is often a painful process.
"I made all of that up. There's no 'Coffee Machine' Mitchell, and I've done about fifty push-ups in my entire life. I think you've probably done about the same."
Robert was bigger than me, and I didn't know anything about fighting. It was risky. It was a gamble. The door was shut, and if he wanted to, he could lay down a serious beating on me before a guard could come with a key.
I'd called him a liar, which was serious. Once you become a number, you are nothing but the words you use. If your words aren't real, then neither are you. Being called a liar to your face was just a notch above being called a snitch. But I had learned enough about criminals to know that someone so bad at something subconsciously wanted to get caught. He wanted my help—I could tell.
He didn't say anything for a while after that. It was the quietest he'd been since he'd moved in. It was entirely possible that he couldn't speak. Finally, after about ten minutes, when it was obvious I was out of physical danger, I broke the silence. "Do you know what made that a good lie?"
"Um, um, um," he said, "I believed it. I mean, I mean, I mean, I never thought it was a lie."
"If I say Muhammad Ali coached me, or Sugar Ray Leonard or something, it isn't believable. It's too much, Robert. Though one time I did almost sell Sugar Ray Leonard an alarm system for his new garage. But his wife said they didn't need another alarm because the perimeter was guarded. And his daughter, talk about a knockout."
"Um, um, um, that's pretty cool. Leonard, huh?" He opened up a butterscotch, and as he handed one to me I saw the spark in his eyes die again. "Um, um, um, you just made that up, didn't you?"
"I like you, Robert. And if you want help, I'll help you." I lit up a cigarette and pointed at his bulletin board. "That's not your house, that's not your Hummer, and none of those women are your girlfriends. I've got to tell you—no one here believes a word you say. So let's start over. Let's reset things. How about you don't say another word for 24 hours."
He started to say something, then stopped himself. He was probably going to defend his wall of pictures, his world of lies. But he didn't. He looked out the window at the vanishing piles of snow.
Mary already had an alarm system. I think it was ADT, maybe Brinks, but I stopped by anyway because I always made a point to meet every person in the neighborhood I was working. She invited me in, coffee already brewing. The neighbors had already told her about me. She had pastel Easter-basket earrings dangling from her ears, though it was September.
"I see you're all set on alarms. You haven't been broken into recently, I'll bet." Of course I knew she hadn't—it was good business to steer clear of alarmed houses. It only strengthened my sales at unalarmed places.
"No, I haven't," she said. "But that's OK. I'll get you some coffee." She went into the kitchen. I heard coffee cups rattle and the closing of cabinet doors. "I've had an alarm for a long time. Come in here and I'll show you."
I figured she was going to show me the activation-sequence pad, which meant I'd have to say something like, "Yeah, the 143-Z, that's a good system." You always compliment the competition. But she led me into the dining room instead, where she flipped on the track lights over her shelves.
"I had to protect these," she said, handing me a full cup. "They're Hummels."
"They're beautiful," I said. And they were. I could smell the mountains where they lived. I could hear their small, innocent voices telling me to stay a while, telling me Mary would make a very nice companion.
I sat with her in the dining room, looking out a picture window at three soft volcanoes the color of orange sherbet under the setting sun. We talked mostly about the Hummels, how some were her grandmother's from 60 years ago. She said it was almost like adopting children—the effort that went into deciding which one to buy next.
Every half hour the snow on the volcanoes changed colors. They were purple when she told me she was a set designer. "You mean like plays?" I asked, and she said only occasionally. She mostly built sets for Portland State University's forensics department. She spent weeks outfitting rooms or entire houses, only to have professional arson investigators come up with creative ways to set them on fire. "Burn units," she called them. One was "going up" tomorrow. "They're burning it," she said. "You busy?"
I told her I wasn't.
She was pretty, bright, and animated talking about her job. She was fairly old, though that hardly mattered. It made her more attractive somehow—she knew exactly who she was. She didn't try to cover up her thin face with makeup, which revealed a pale smartness about her eyes that made up for anything she might have lacked. She wore white painter's pants splattered with colorful drips and a Western button-down shirt with vertical strands of silver thread that sparkled when light hit it a certain way. Her long, brown hair wasn't styled so much as restrained in a complex arrangement of bobby pins and elastic ponytail holders.
I looked up at the shelves of Hummels. I didn't know what the word meant, but I thought maybe it was German for "frozen happiness." Not all of them were smiling, but you could tell they were very content, if only for that moment.
"So you gonna show me your goods?" she asked me.
"Your goods. Your systems. I want to take a look. I've been thinking about something more advanced."
We looked through them for about five minutes. "I'll take plan A," she said. "It's got the carbon monoxide sensor. I like that."
Plan A was the most comprehensive of my made-up plans, not to mention the most expensive. "Usually homeowners with children get that one. You know, the 'silent killer' fear."
"Well, I don't have any children, but that doesn't mean I deserve to die in my sleep."
"Of course not," I said, handing her my Montblanc.
"Nice pen," she said. She signed the check, and the eyes of all those happy children glanced past me, as if they were unable to look directly on my guilt.
"Good coffee," I said.
I liked Mary from the start. Maybe I loved her from the start. I don't know—it's a tough call. But I know it wasn't Mary who made me want to live an honest life. It was the Hummels. It was those beautiful, honest little lives under the bright lights in that dining room. My deceitful ways were no match for their purity.
Robert didn't say one word for an entire 24 hours. Then he didn't say another word the next day. After the third day, it became pretty obvious he was making a statement.
People started coming up to me, people who used to gather around Robert just for entertainment. His silence, apparently, was less amusing. "Look," I told four or five of them smoking outside our unit's door, "I told him the truth."
"What do you mean you told him the truth?"
"I told him he was a horrible liar."
"Fuck that," said the spokesman of the Robert fan club. "That wasn't your place, man. It may be bad for both of you if he stays quiet. A person can only go about forty days without talking, and then they die."
I knew he had talking and eating mixed up, but I was outnumbered. And I understood what he meant by missing the old Robert. His silence was unnerving, and in the company of others, his lies were pretty entertaining. Lies are a drug here; prisoners are addicts, and as addicts sink deeper and deeper into their sickness, they seek out people who are worse off than they are so they don't feel so bad about themselves.
I always looked for signs, things I thought of as anchors—sent from the universe to let me know I wasn't forgotten. In a county jail in West Virginia I had found a penny, heads-up, on the floor outside my cell. Some inmates go 30 years without seeing actual money. I took the penny as a good sign and rubbed it with my thumb to a new brightness before flipping it into the wishing well of the toilet the day I headed to Pennsylvania.
Robert hadn't said a word for a week and a half. He had begun carving figurines from bars of Irish Spring for a "girlfriend" on the outside. He used an array of hollow Bic barrels with customized tips, laid out on a green washcloth on his desk like surgical instruments. The results—angels, from what I could tell—looked pretty good in that green-marbled medium. I suggested he could pass himself off as the son of Max Baer Jr., grandson of the former boxing heavyweight champion of the world, Max Baer Sr. He swept a snowy, fragrant pile of soap shavings into our trashcan, then began a new angel, or whatever it was.
I sat up on my bunk with my back against the wall, thinking about that suggestion after I'd made it. "Don't you see?" I said. "It was meant to be." He looked at me with a heavy stare, then quietly dug out a bottle of black shoe polish from his foot locker and began coating his carvings, which apparently weren't angels but chess pieces. I went back to reading.
Mary's deposit check was the third from her neighborhood. I was running out of time.
We drove south on Interstate 5, and I sat in the passenger's seat watching the tall pines blur past, wondering if the rain would stay away long enough to get this fire started. We ended up in a field adjacent to an elementary school named after a locally born former ambassador to Argentina, or so we read on the plaque near the school. The town was called Tualatin, and a sign on the fence read "PRIVATE PROPERTY OF PSU." We walked a good quarter mile to a huge garage-type structure with 30-foot-high sliding hangar doors. Inside, under the tall skeleton of steel beams, was a plain wooden house. There was an air of anticipation, as if a party were about to begin and we were the first to arrive.
The house smelled new: sawn wood and carpeting, wallpaper glue and paint, but the interior looked straight out of 1975. There was thick, orange shag carpeting, a green vinyl chair, a table lamp with a faded shade, and an old blue couch where a female mannequin lay. On the table was a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey that Mary said was actually iced tea. An ashtray full of butts sat on the floor by the couch. The black-haired mannequin was dressed in bright green polyester. Mary said, "She's passed out drunk. I named her Suzy. I picture her a barfly." She realigned one of Suzy's socks, stood back, and looked around, as if checking the scene in preparation for guests. "The students show up later, after everything's wet and cold."
Three men walked through the swinging kitchen door. They could have been from 1975 themselves with their practical WASP haircuts and casual clothes. They congratulated Mary on a fine job, and one of them asked my opinion of the place. "It looks real. It looks like where I grew up. Even her," I said, pointing to Suzy. "She reminds me of my mother." I felt weird after I said it, as if it were some arson-school faux pas, like telling an actor to have a great show. I thought they might feel bad for burning the place with my mother inside it. But I couldn't take it back, and I couldn't think of anything else to say that would make the silence less awkward.
Mary and I stayed out of the way after that. She said this one wasn't going to be an arson—the drunken mannequin was going to set the place on fire with her cigarette. It was an exam equivalent of a trick question, designed to see what the students might come up with. The men checked the sprinkler system above the house and hooked up a fire hose to a bright yellow fire hydrant. We watched through one of the house's side windows. One of the men lit a Winston, smoked an inch of it, then placed it strategically deep in the fibers of the carpet by the couch.
The day was gray—in Oregon, most of them are—and the air was damp, and every once in a while I had to wipe the mist off my face. But it seemed like a beautiful day. When the smoke began filling the house, Mary took my hand in hers. "I love and hate this part," she said.
Robert and I were watching TV. I was lost in the show when Sergeant Baker unlocked the door and told me to grab my ID and turn around. He cuffed me. Robert kept watching the little black-and-white TV. He began to smile, and someone who didn't know him would have thought he was laughing at the show.
"What the hell is this all about?" I asked.
The sarge slipped on a pair of latex gloves, like he was about to perform surgery. He held my cuffs by the small connecting chain, and with his other hand reached over and lifted the pillow from my bed, revealing what looked to be a small, semi-automatic pistol. Sarge picked it up and held it in his open palm, testing its heft, and I could smell the soap and shoe-polish odor it gave off. "Wow," I said, because there was nothing else to say. Sometimes, deep inside, you know that anything you say is going to sound like a lie, no matter how true it is. I had spent so much time working on lies, the truth wouldn't have anything to do with me when I needed it.
"I was just trying to help, Robert," I said.
"Um, um, um, I guess I didn't need no help." He never took his eyes off the TV. "So, so, so long, Steven."
My hand was warm in hers. Smoke was rising from unseen cracks in the roof. I couldn't see any flames yet, but I knew it was only a matter of time.
There were kids at recess in the back of the school. They waited at the fence's edge and some sat atop the monkey bars. I pretended they were watching us. I pretended we were famous and they were all trying to catch a glimpse so they could tell their moms when they raced in the front door from school, cheeks flushed and out of breath. Our presence would cling to them like smoke. "Guess who I saw," they would say.
The interior began to glow orange. "The woman on the couch would be dead already," Mary said. "It's the smoke. Victims never really burn to death. They just choke."
The outside walls steamed and blistered. I could see wave after wave of heat flowing off the roof, and then all at once, the waves flashed into flame. "I guess you'll be leaving town soon. I wish you wouldn't." She was quiet for a moment. "I feel new," she said, watching the house. She got out a stick of gum from her back pocket and began chewing.
"I may stick around, Mary." She was almost double my age, but I felt much older around her and the fire. She popped her gum and smiled at me.
The couch was going strong now, and through the window I could see the mannequin's hair torch and her light brown skin blister. Her clothes were long gone. The window shattered from the heat, and I could hear the children cheering even though the flames gave off a blowtorch roar, louder than I ever thought they could be. "I guess I should tell you the truth about something," she said.
Fire does that to people. Look at campfire. Fireplaces, too. Maybe we see our own end in the flames and want to clean the slate. Maybe it's easier to confess without looking anybody in the eyes. "Technically," she said, "I'm married. Technically. I haven't seen him in ten years."
Pictures, clocks, ceiling tiles crashed to the floor. Flames poked through the roof, and soon the whole place was ablaze in orange flame and black smoke. Mary said the sprinklers were about to come on, but they were actually high-density, state-of-the-art water-delivery nozzles that soaked the house in a matter of minutes. Black water snaked in little steaming rivers away from the ruin.
"Well, as long as we're telling the truth," I said, "I want you to know I haven't cashed your check…"
And I told her I wouldn't. I told her that I would repay her neighbors, too, and I explained to her how the Hummels made me rethink everything about my life. She took my confession as well as anyone could, though it definitely broke the spell of the fire. The flames were out, yet we kept staring at the wet, smoldering char. The only sound was the hiss of the dying heat. "I guess we should go" was all that she said. The kids went back into school, and the fire students came out in white jumpsuits, white booties over their shoes. They wore gas masks, and you could hear the rasping of the air as it pulled through the filters. They walked past with little briefcases, like they were going to work in some poison office.
I was arrested in my room at the Knights Inn that evening.
I'm an optimist, however, and I believe Mary saved me. I don't dislike her in particular, or women in general. I once knew a kid who dreamed of hurting women most every night. What can I say.
Curtis Dawkins earned an MFA in fiction writing from Western Michigan University. He's currently serving a life sentence for murder in a Michigan prison.