This story is by Alex Klarke and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Read ‘em and weep fellas,” Jake says and reveals his hand, a full-house. The players at the table groan in discontent as Jake scoops the mound of winnings. There are three packs of cigarettes, an unopened tube of toothpaste, crumpled cash, and one button. Jake is most excited about the button, his broke days ago and considering his job as a mess cook, it’s been maddening. Every five minutes, Jake must pause what he’s doing in the kitchen and pull up his pants. And unlike the majority here, Jake enjoys his assignment especially when there’s an overstock of ingredients and the opportunity to create arises. Last month, he concocted a mixed fruit pie with a surplus of canned fruit cocktail. It looked like shit but his friends ate it anyway.
“Good game, now I gotta go sew up these pants.” Jake stands, jiggling his waistband up and down his midsection. The table laughs knowing Jake desperately needed a button. They had scrounged an extra and tossed it into the pot for the added stake, taunting Jake throughout the game.
“A’ight, see ya later Jakey.”
Returning to his cell, Jake digs out his makeshift sewing-kit, a sharpened pencil and one segment of floss, and begins to affix the button to where it belongs. His cellmate, Ray, is sleeping. Passed out cold with a deep snore that Jake has become accustomed to, it’s soothing even. Ray hasn’t looked well in the past week with a mild fever and heavy cough and it worries Jake. Ray has a wife and a toddler on the outside. They visit every Friday and occasionally, are accompanied by Ray’s parents.
Jake never knew his father and while his mother was physically present, she was otherwise absent in all facets of his life as if she didn’t have a drop of maternal instinct. Her motivations were occupied wholly by her addiction. Jake’s upbringing, the lack of supervision and poor role models, had skewed his young moral compass. He supposes he was predestined for a life in prison. Society does not find his situation surprising but fitting.
In the corner, Ray’s snore turns uneven and he cough-chokes. His body shoots up and propels forward, heaving for air as if his lungs were full of water.
“Woah, hey there buddy.” Jake sets aside his task, shuffles across the room, and gives Ray several stern smacks on the back. “Ya, good?”
Ray emphasizes a nod as his throat clears and rubs his eyes. “Where the hell are your pants?”
“I’m sewing the button back on,” Jake replies, returning to his bunk.
“What day is it?” Ray asks.
“Oh good, so I didn’t sleep through visitation.” Ray forces another cough and reaches for his glass of water.
“No, sir, you didn’t.”
“And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Big day is Monday then?”
Jake ignores him, weaving the floss through the buttonhole even though in four days, his current efforts will be pointless.
“Heya, you hear me old man? Monday, right?”
Jake nods loosely and mutters, “Yeah, yeah.”
Monday is his release date; Jake isn’t looking forward to it. In contrast to Ray, there will be no one to receive him on the outside. Only the system with two months scheduled in a halfway house.
“Jacob Clarkson?” The front attendant reads his name from a laptop screen, comparing the original mugshot photo to his current face. The age difference is drastic.
“Okay, please sign.”
The attendant nods at the counter, but Jake doesn’t see a pen or paper.
“Right there,” they nod again, focusing their gaze on a numerical keypad and a small screen resting on the counter.
“Yes, that,” they roll their eyes at him, impatiently peering at the line that’s behind. “Sign.”
“Uh, may I have a pen?”
“Just use your finger.”
“Yea,” the attendant confirms and points their index finger at Jake, squiggling it in the air. “You sign directly on the screen.”
Slowly, Jake attempts to trace his name on the pad. It’s less of a signature and more a shakily drawn line.
“And here’s your room key, 308, up the stairs and turn left.”
The attendant slides him a plastic card. Again, it puzzles Jake.
“This is the key?”
“Yea, you swipe it.”
“Swipe? Like a credit card?”
“Not like that, just wave it in front of the reader and it’ll turn green. Then you can open the door.”
Jake doesn’t understand, but the attendant doesn’t care and gestures a shooing wave. “You’ll see, go on. Next!”
The stairs creak as much as his knees, there is no elevator, and the hallways waft of old garbage and something Jake hasn’t smelled in a long time. It’s reminiscent of the trailer he grew up in, a combination of cigarette smoke, stale alcohol, and sex.
After several futile swipes, Jake gains entry. It’s furnished with the basics: a twin bed, desk, and one chair. He sits and stares into the room.
It’s so still, silent and empty. Jake thinks of the inmates who have passed through here and reintegrated into society. Although, can you reintegrate if you’ve never been a part of society? The loom of outside life has arrived. While Jake can claim freedom for the first time in thirty years, he has nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no one to see.
Jake reminisces on his past morning routine when he began each day with breakfast preparations, stirring commercial-sized pots of oatmeal and rehydrating powdered eggs. Come serving time, he’d be the first to greet the line. Jake knew each face, name, and crime. And they knew his. After the morning rush, Jake would make his plate and join the rest. He had a seat at every table and a place within the community, all lost in a single day.
That night, Jake wept.
Guns have not changed much since he last wielded one. Jake inspects the pistol, it’s similar to the one responsible for his imprisonment, and he slots in the first bullet.
Stepping outside, the sun beats overhead and the air is muggy. Despite the humidity, Jake pulls his jacket tighter, shoving his hands deep into the corner of the pockets. The city has changed dramatically. The buildings are taller, roads traffic-jammed, and sidewalks shrinking in on themselves.
Though Jake has no destination in mind, he walks with a sense of urgency, unsure if he’s running away from this life in desperation or toward the one he once knew, eager for a reunion. It takes time to gather the courage, to come to terms with what he’s about to do. Before, it was circumstantial, this time, Jake must actively create the means. Once decided, Jake turns a quick corner and arbitrarily enters the shop adjacent. The entry bell dings and Jake is greeted by a cool rush of air-conditioning.
“Hello,” says the woman behind the counter.
Jake nods, making brief eye contact before tipping his head down.
“My name is Rey, is there something I can help you with?”
He shakes his head but that’s a lie. Jake tightens his hand around the pistol; he will be needing her help.
“Just so you know, the men’s section is toward the back,” Rey gestures.
As a courtesy, Jake glances toward the back. The clothes are nice and a display manikin dressed in a suit catches his attention. The ensemble invites Jake to the back of the store. He has never known clothes like these. They’re for the professional working class, the educated and well-achieved. Still, he elects to briefly entertain the idea. Bypassing the front counter, Jake touches the soft fabric, brushing his left fingers along a seam while his right grips the pistol.
“You’re welcome to try anything on the floor,” Rey adds. “And we can tailor any fabric that you might like.”
Jake pretends to be interested and she approaches with a fat binder from the counter, splaying a sample of colors and materials before him. It’s too easy, she’s busy flipping pages with her back toward him. Through the back of the head would probably be best. She would never see it coming. No anticipation, no panic, no pain. As soon as it’s done, Jake can go home. His heart swells at the thought wondering how soon he could be back.
Slowly, Jake shifts his elbow, about to draw the gun when she turns to a page stitched with buttons. So many buttons. He images them red-stained and blood splattered.
“Sir?” She turns around.
Jake’s eyes dart up to Rey’s. She looks at him in a wide, clueless stare.
“Did you see anything you liked?”
He looks back down to the buttons and now sees them in a mound, piled high like winnings in a poker game. It’s the cost of his return.
“Oh um, no. No, thank you,” Jake replies and leaves the store.
That night, Jake begins a game of solitaire.