That day in particular I was hanging around in museum jail. I had come to see if I could jumpstart some kind of spiritual awakening, some silent epiphany. Instead a guy I had gone to high school with showed up outside the gates and I recognized him. His name was Sam. He had become famous or made a lot of money after high school but I couldn't remember why, or how, I knew this. I seemed to recall he’d won an award on TV that my friends and I had made fun of while thick with jealousy over his money, which we inferred from his clothes. He had on really nice shoes when he accepted the award. None of us had shoes like that. It was an uncomfortable feeling, like jelly in your blood, and it made our throats ache. We were nineteen and twenty at the time, and now we rarely saw each other.
At museum jail Sam stood outside the iron grate underneath a magnolia tree and asked if I had seen his girlfriend. He described her, a dark-haired girl with a pink floral print dress. I told him I had not. It was 2:17 on a Wednesday afternoon and nobody else had come to museum jail so far.
Oh, ok, he said.
Don't I know you? I said.
He looked skittish. People with money always look this way when you ask them direct questions.
Sorry, he said.
I was confused as to why he was apologizing. He looked down, like he didn’t want me to know him. Sorry I couldn’t give you want you wanted, rich boy? I said this in my head. I said it like a question. This was passive aggressive. Museum jail was having its effect on me.
What? I said.
No, he said. Just, sorry I bothered you.
I didn’t answer. He looked a little chagrinned and walked away.
To be clear: there were no physical circumstances keeping me holed up without bail. In fact I was just in Monterey for the day. I’d already been to the aquarium, which was sticky with blue light and gaping children, and then wandered out into the grey day until I arrived at the jail’s iron gate, by the statehouse.
I was at a crossroads, of sorts. Sometimes when you hit a crossroads it's good to get out of your element, your time frame. I thought the aquarium would do it, but it was all wrong, full of blue light and the smell of captive bat rays, their stingers removed. I wanted something starker, to match my mood. I wanted that element of romantic decay. Anything written about in novels was romantic, according to my mother. My father had thought this was absurd, but I hadn’t spoken to him in a long time, so I didn’t remember his rationale. I stood by the bat rays, defeated of their own biology, and thought of my mother declaring her love of romantic events in novels at the dinner table, over a glass of red wine, her mouth as purple as an English Poet’s.
Even death, she said, is romantic.
What about death is romantic? my father had said. He was drinking beer.
It’s not love romantic, she’d said. It’s tragic romantic. Like Romeo and Juliet. A decaying sort of romance. Like ours, she said, chuckling. She clinked her wine glass with my father’s beer. It hovered above the table in his hand.
You do like a story, he said. He tipped his beer glass back.
My mother looked down into her wine glass and swirled the sediment around at the bottom. I’m not the only one, she said.
That’s what I wanted: romantic decay. Monterey, having been made famous in several novels, and museum jail, when it was an actual jail, having been featured in those novels, plus being covered in fog, plus all if it made extra famous by James Dean and his celluloid glory, in addition to his tragic demise, made it just the ticket. Despite the aquarium, it seemed better to stay, knowing all that history, than getting back in my car and going north to Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock sanctioned birds to attack Tippi Hendron.
No one was around after the guy from my high school left, so I felt around in my pocket for a pen, to see if I had something sharp enough to make an etching, to leave a mark. If I was stuck in a cell block, I would carve my name on the wall, establish some record of my existence while the outside light changed and I was sealed off in the dark with the cell's iron cover. Leave some mark of truth. Little plaques outside the cells explained the historical significance of the location, but they didn’t give you the down and dirty. They did not name names. I supposed this info must have been passed down somehow—court records, logs, graffiti. The plaques didn't say anything about women, which was often the nice thing about museums when you needed to make up your own story. Probably there were hookers.
My pocket was empty of etching tools, so I just pressed my hand against the wall, and then my forehead, and breathed in like a Buddha. The wall was satisfying. Cool to the touch. I was feeling almost cleansed when the guy from my high school came back.
The scuff of his sneakers sounded in the doorway, and he cast a long shadow across the floor, dreadlocks tied neatly at the nape of his neck. He was beautiful. I observed this from far away, somewhere in the back of my mind, like an old thought I’d had frequently, or the way my hands felt driving at night, as though they weren’t quite part of my body. They felt that way now, against the wall.
I think I do recognize you, he said. Allison, right?
And? I was still feeling snubbed, and wanted him to know it.
So, um, sorry about before.
It's fine, I said, to show I could be the bigger person. Spiritual awakening had passed. I still had a chip on my shoulder.
I don't usually see people I know. I didn’t place you at first, he said. He looked earnest, but the line sounded canned. My father had taught me to listen for this.
I thought you were looking for your girlfriend, I said. Don't you know her?
Yes. I think she left.
You were supposed to meet her here? This is sort of a weird place to meet.
No. The aquarium, he said.
This is far away from the aquarium, I said.
It was on the other side of town from the aquarium, practically. I had only managed to find it because museum jail was on the historical tour and because I happened to walk across one of the little yellow markers embedded in the sidewalk when I was leaving the aquarium, and also because my father had left another message on the answering machine, and I followed those markers like a beacon, to where I was not thinking about what awaited him in the appeals process in terms of house arrest or sentence reduction. I was thinking that this was a real museum where I could think about monks and not my father's voice on the answering machine, the image of his white plastic ankle bracelet cutting into his flesh.
Now I was thinking about Sam, and why he felt the need to talk to a woman who was sitting by herself in the dark. Some kernel of defense cracked in my mind, and a desire for gentleness surged up in me. I wanted to give in, get played, whatever the scheme.
It says on the description no one ever escaped, I offered.
Really, he said.
Yup. Test the door, see how heavy it is.
Sam grabbed the door. It squeaked, kind of a wheeze, really. He pushed it back and forth between his open palms, as though he was testing its presentation, a museum surveyor.
What are you doing here, anyway? he asked.
I was looking for spiritual guidance, I said. Arms open. Guard down. Ready to receive.
In jail? he asked. He looked at the iron gate, at its hinges, as if there might be some symbol there, a marker on the door I might have touched in prayer. Not finding it, he looked back at me.
I enjoy the romance of history, I said. I gestured to the plaque on the wall, the one that described how, in 1854, people were housed here for actual, historical crimes, like armed robbery, or public drunkenness, although probably not multiple counts of corrupt endeavors to obstruct and impede the IRS.
Sam squinted, but did not see. Apparently museum jail was not rife with romantic legend. Apparently that was only in my head. My kernel of defense began to reattach itself, seal up its crack, as I knew it would. We fool ourselves so well.
Lock me in, I said.
Behind the squint. There. Something. A flare. In my mind he came out of the television set I had placed him in and stood in a long hall. It must have been high school, although that was wrong, because we didn’t have halls, only walkways with overhangs lining little cement courtyards, because it was California, and no one wanted to admit it rained.
Sam put his hands on the iron grate, but didn’t move it, just looked at me. We waited for the other to finish the set-up, move the game along.
Go on then, I said.
Why do you want me to do this?
I want the full experience, the full ceremony. You need another person for that.
He closed the gate. I noted a flash of enthusiasm at its clank. There was, after all, a mean streak in him, but then he adopted a slouch, hanging on the gate with both hands, as though his legs were about to buckle, as though that moment of glee had drained him with its menace.
What's wrong? I asked.
It doesn't lock, he said. He shrugged, but left the gate latched.
We looked at each other through the little squares of sunlight. I felt myself receding into the dark corridor of the jail, and knew he couldn’t see me as well as I could see him. I felt again that twinge of animal brain in my palms, that need to lay myself bare in front of strangers, to let out the snarl and whip of fright that seized my heart.
Actually I'm feeling a little claustrophobic now, I said.
Sam opened the gate.
Do you want coffee? he asked me.
Yeah, ok, I said, and left my thoughts to echo along the small alley of the jail's granite floor.
That was the first thing. The second thing was that Sam was more forthcoming once we began to walk. He was often recognized, he explained, and it made him cautious. He had apparently been on a TV show in the late nineties that was now in syndication, sometimes on IFC. My impressions of money were correct.
He had also recognized me.
You beat up that kid in high school, he said, as we walked down Lighthouse Ave.
I want you to know, I said, that intimate story swapping from our troubled childhoods is not going to lead to romance.
He glanced over, I think to check if I was joking, or trying to change the subject. I was sort of joking. People sometimes just needed clarification on the matter, and I wanted to get it out of the way. At any rate, he seemed more at ease.
Where is your girlfriend, anyway? I asked.
I think she went along to the aquarium, he said. It wasn't just the two of us.
There were others?
Yes. Her brother, and some of our friends.
I bet her brother is really pissed at you right now.
I bet he is.
Danny, I said.
It's Sam. Or did you mean her brother? That's Eric.
No, the kid I beat up was Danny.
Oh! he said. That's right. Danny McLean.
I punched him right in the center of his face and broke his nose.
He nodded. I imagined Sam picturing a scene: me, played by some ethereal girl who had gotten press for the bravery of chopping her hair for the role, Elle Fanning, maybe, and Danny, played by a River Phoenix look-alike, a kid channeling the haunting spirit of the dead, dressed in a white t-shirt full of fake blood, and the two of them surrounded by ninth graders on mountain bikes in a circle in the middle of a movie-set street, complete with rose gardens and maple trees and drain gutters. The kids whoop and holler until River-Phoenix-Danny calls for silence. Somewhere, the sounds of a creek, a crow. Maybe a siren. Brave-Elle-Fanning looks deep into River-Phoenix-Danny’s eyes, already swelling with the effect of the punch, and then spits.
Why did you do that? Sam asked.
What? Punch him?
Punch him that hard, he said.
This question was too intimate. I opted not to speak for a block. We approached a coffee shop, which was also a jam shop, and I gestured to it.
Here, I said.
Ok, he said.
He held the door for me. I looked into his face, searching for his intent, to see if he was disappointed in himself for not really locking me in. Sometimes it was difficult for me to get a read. My father liked to say that when you met someone you should simply read them and then deliver what you know what they want to hear. As though he could see directly through them, as though their bodies were not made of heart and ligament and blood and bone but printouts of their DNA coded along their skin.
I found a table for us and we sat down. The barista eyed us from his sandwich station. On the other side of the counter from him a child of about five sat on a stool. He was offering her a peanut butter and jam sandwich with the crusts cut off on a square paper towel.
I think we're in Pacific Grove now, I said to Sam. We had walked pretty far. I looked around the shop. It was a cavernous building. In all likelihood it was built in the seventies as a shoe store, or a pet store, and before that it was nothing, just a swath of tumbleweed and dirt and sea grass. The shop's ceiling stretched fifteen feet above us and was covered with pipes that seem to draw the maze of my life, and of Sam's life, and the strange overlap we were in.
Are you running away from your girlfriend? I asked.
In high school, he said, I think maybe we were in math class together.
Art, I corrected him.
I took art?
You took one semester of art, I said. I knew this because I only took one semester of art, and we both failed the final crit. But my work was much worse than his, so in a sense I won that contest.
I don't remember, he said.
Memory is a funny thing, I answered.
I'll get us coffees, he said, standing.
I made for the long hall of the bathroom, which was lined with painted wicker chairs that looked like they had been hauled in from a street corner. While I was on the pot I looked at the wall of old canning labels and vaudeville posters and ads for the bookstore down the street with the Chinese herbalist. If I closed my eyes I could almost imagine I believed in herbal remedies, or drum circles, or reparative therapy of any kind, which I do not, because I am cynical as fuck.
When I came out of the bathroom, there was Sam, holding two coffees in great big mugs.
I would like to discuss the problem at hand, he said. I think we could help each other.
The problem which led you to jail.
I mean which coffee is mine.
Oh, he said. This one.
He handed me the coffee, and said again, calmly, So, the problem which led you to jail.
I was rattled. By his persistence. By the caffeine. By the fog outside, which was growing thicker by the minute, pressing its face against the glass.
Museum jail, I corrected him. There's no problem.
It's not really a museum.
It's kind of a museum.
You were sitting on the floor in the dark, he observed.
Greg, I said. I called my father Greg, as a general rule. It made things clear.
Is that your boyfriend?
No. It's my father.
Hmmm, said Sam.
What about you? I asked. I was not going to give up. I was not going to surrender. What, I asked, leaning forward, led you to jail?
Seahorses, he said.
To answer the question, since we’re all yearning for intimacy now: In general, when a family member has been imprisoned, it feels a little like someone has died, in the sense that they are no longer there every day, and there are little ghosts of their presence around the house, in the form of toothbrushes and dirty socks and coffee stains. These things make you sad. Also, people, the ones who try to save you, will invite you to water parks with their kids, whom they've told about you being the daughter of a tax-evading con man. Those kids will then ask you questions like, "Did your dad get hosed down and deloused when he went in?" and you won't know, so you'll punch them right before they go down the water slide, hoping they might drown, although they don't, and the punch is surprising to everyone, because you're a girl. Only then you're a girl with anger issues. Everyone grows fearful, and you build a thick coating over your tongue, and learn to control your rage by not speaking. This is what happens.
Oh, said Sam.
Right, I said.
Where is your father now? he asked.
It's hard to say. Officially, Bend.
Why is it hard to say?
He's a little hard to pin down, I said. Also I haven’t spoken to him in thirteen years, and I don’t know where he lives, besides the caller id.
Isn't he like being monitored or something? Sam asked.
How do you know that?
He stole a lot of money, said Sam. It was kind of a big deal.
You're selling him short, I said. He did much more than that.
THE HISTORICAL PLAQUE OF GREGORY ALLEN, 1987, AFFIXED BY THE CITY OF SACRAMENTO TO MARK THIS MACINTOSH COMPUTER AS A HISTORICAL ARTIFACT
Gregory Allen is, indeed, hard to pin down. Gregory Allen is a minister. Gregory Allen is a lawyer. Gregory Allen is an architect. Gregory Allen is a real estate broker. Gregory Allen is a golf pro, an art handler, an investment banker. Gregory Allen is an expert at identity theft. Gregory Allen is on the internet. Gregory Allen is the father of one, the husband of three, the bachelor of many different names. Gregory Allen lives in Sacramento, in Chicago, in San Diego, in Houston. Gregory Allen has been in the trenches, he has been to Africa, he has been to Europe, he has been to Sweden, he has been to the Meridian, he has been to Sheridan, Oregon, he has been on the volleyball team there, he has been in prison greens for emergency counts, he has taught computer classes. Gregory Allen has been convicted of multiple counts of tax fraud, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and perjury. Gregory Allen has been sentenced to twelve years imprisonment and a further fifteen years of supervised release. Gregory Allen is off the internet, for the time being. Gregory Allen is not allowed to leave the country, especially not to Sweden. Gregory Allen is not a real hacker, according to the internet. Gregory Allen has had his rights violated. Gregory Allen is the nicest man wilmab347 has ever had the pleasure of doing business with, and she can't believe he ever defrauded anyone, but if he did, the government must have done something to provoke him, and we have too much government anyway, so good for Gregory Allen. Gregory Allen is incredibly good at volleyball, according to anonymous sources on the internet. Gregory Allen is a true Christian. Gregory Allen is a dog. Gregory Allen is a con artist. Gregory Allen is my father. Gregory Allen has been to camp cupcake. Gregory Allen has done hard time. I have not been to see Gregory Allen, and he has not been to see me.
You admire him, said Sam. We were eating sandwiches. The jam shop only had one sandwich, peanut butter and jam. I asked for the crusts cut off on mine but the guy looked at me like I was patronizing him, and the little girl he'd cut the crusts off for looked at me like, Grow up, lady, so I said I was joking. In fact I was not. I cut my own crusts off.
I don't admire him, I said. He's just on my answering machine.
So he's been calling you? Sam asks.
Yes, I said. By then there were four calls, four times in which he left messages promising restitution of the father-daughter relationship. The last message said, I heard you clocked Danny McLean for saying things about me after I went in. You're a good kid, Allison.
Sam didn't think it was much of a problem that Greg was calling. He thought it was normal.
Why? I asked. Why is it normal?
I think he's trying to reconstruct his support network.
Like he's in AA, or something?
No, but, you know. He was inside, and now he's out.
I'm sure there's a volleyball team somewhere he can join, I offered.
It's just a thing you do, Sam said.
Why do you know so much about prison? I asked. Why does everybody suddenly know so much about prison but me?
I've been in jail, Sam said.
You mean on TV. Not real jail. You were in jail in a movie. I think I saw it on TNT.
I got arrested once for protesting a chain restaurant, he said.
Yeah. Well, Santa Cruz.
Ethical Fishing practices. They were netting some sharks.
When was this? Did they hold you overnight?
Just one, he said. It was in college.
Hmm, I said.I pause. Was it cold?
You really want to know what it's like, don't you?
Maybe that's it, I say. Maybe I need to get arrested.
Sam scoffed. That's the dumbest thing you've ever said.
You haven’t known me that long, I said. You’ve only known me like forty-five minutes.
I’m right, though, he said.
I didn't want to know what prison was like. I hated the idea of prison. But something else was there, growing next to it, a stinger reasserting its shape.
And I’ve known you longer than that, he added, in a way that made me look up, in a way that said he had, in fact, known me, and there it was, that streak of recognition that could move a person to violence, to lock a gate, to punch a boy in the center of his face and break his nose. He had it, too.
Show me yours, I said, if you know me so well.
He was feeling disoriented. Olivia held his hand as he watched the water flicker light streaks along the walls, as he saw the turtles stretched wide, distorted through the thick glass of their tank. He imagined leaks. The smell of the puffins wafted through the halls. He let go of her hand and when he looked around Olivia was gone, swallowed by a crowd near the otters. The click of professional camera shutters rattled him, tourists snapping pictures through the glass, past the gummy handprints of children. All those fingerprints. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, with bright eyes and long-fingers and light brown skin. He was used to standing out, being noticed, eyes lingering a little long over his features. But he felt dwarfed in this room, under water. A man dressed for a safari pushed a little boy aside to get closer to the puffins. The boy's sandal fell off on the carpet, green plastic against the blue floor. He saw Olivia's brother then, baseball cap, sports watch, his thumb swiping across his phone through the photos he'd taken.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw me.
He felt himself stepping back, into the sea of schoolchildren moving past the anchovies, past the jellyfish deep sea exhibit, those floating, pulsing lights, and followed. I turned a corner. He turned the same corner, and found himself face to face with a great pile of kelp, that moved, that twisted, that breathed, the strangest creature he had ever seen. As if its bones had grown outward, bending its ribcage into a pattern of ribboned sand, a bright yellow skeleton, a tree. It writhed under the flicker and flash of bulbs, and danced, and twisted in its small blue tank. And for a split second, Sam's throat closed up with anger, and then with grief, and then he was outside, standing below the low sky of the sea.
I didn't speak for a little while after I heard him tell it. I couldn't understand why you would cry for something like that, a grown man, a recognizable man, crying in front of all those cameras. I had not read that on him, I had not learned to read that way.
You followed me, I finally said. From the aquarium.
Sure I followed you.
I don’t get it.
You looked sad, he said.
I thought you were the one who felt sad, I said. Have you been following me all this time?
Not all day. Just a little bit.
My mind seemed to float above me, with a prickling feeling, little air bubbles against my forehead, until they resolved into an image of him, standing in a hall with a linoleum floor and the brown wooden doors of a courthouse.
You sure do like a story, I said. Sam’s face was a map upon which I drew out the day with yellow markers. I put my coffee cup down and threw my chair back from the table, and raised my fists.
Whoa. Whoa, Sam said. Put down your dukes, girl. He glanced at the barista, who held a towel in his hand, a limp and useless weapon.
Hey, said the barista. Hey, are you guys going to like, fight?
Is the girlfriend real? Olivia?
There’s jars in here, said the barista, a little louder. Glass jars, yeah? Could you guys be careful? Seriously, could we tone it down?
The girlfriend is real—look, are you ok?
I hated that he wasn’t threatened. I hated that I looked violent and crazy and that the violence was crackling under my skin, squirming to get out.
Fight me, I said, and let’s get this over with.
I don’t want to hurt you.
Don’t patronize me, I said. I broke a man’s nose.
In ninth grade, he said. And he was shorter than you.
You followed me all day, I said.
Take it outside! said the barista. The little girl giggled, then.
You’re an asshole, I said. You’re a liar, too.
Oh, I think you know the difference between me and a liar, he said.
I thought I was going to be sick. I thought I might faint. My squirming rage had turned itself into a flat wall of shame. I held my head in my hands. The barista was approaching with his towel.
I picked up my bag and walked out. Sam left behind me, still following, not speaking. The barista locked the door behind us. I heard the lock click, and when I turned, saw the round, captivated eyes of the girl, leaning her head flat against the pane, her hands leaving jam-colored prints on the cold glass of the window.
We went down to the water. I walked along Oceanview, with Sam following me, in single file. I walked around the knuckle of the peninsula until we reached a path that led down to the rocks, and I climbed out onto the tide pools, with the dark choppy water flashing its blue undercoat at us, just beyond the rocks. I went far, past starfish and pools of crabs and piles of kelp covered with little black sand flies. Sam stayed with me. Behind us the boulevard was lined with RVs and slow-moving station wagons, crammed with families. I walked until I could see nothing but horizon, and the chop of waves on rock.
Did my dad rip off your dad? I asked. I was surefooted out here. It was windy and there was salt in my teeth.
Sam, who towered above me, tucked his hands in his pockets.
Yes, he said.
I thought so, I said. I thought you seemed more familiar than that.
I wasn’t sure it was you, he said.
You were at the trial, I said.
You stopped coming, he said.
He did it, I said. There was nothing left to see.
I was surprised by that.
Huh, I said. We’re not always what other people expect of us.
No, he said. But it’s lonely.
We stood there contemplating the sea, and I reflected that he was right, and that it was true, the loneliness, and that I had always known this.
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