There’s this huge bird, flies in circles way up there over the hillside outside my cell. All the time I watched him, I think he may have flapped his wings twice. He just glides, real lazy, around and around, just under the clouds. I never seen him take off or land, neither. He’ll just show up, high over the West Tower, at cruising altitude already, tracing that circle just a little further to the east with each pass. Takes him about an hour, going in those circles all the while, before he disappears over the trees along the eastern ridge.
I talked to Guillermo in the laundry about it. He’s seen it too, said it’s probably a bald eagle. Schilling overheard us, said no, it’s a condor. He’s got the badge, so a condor it is. “He’s lookin’ for food,” Schilling said. “He can spot a mouse a mile below, then he’ll swoop down and grab it, take it back to his nest and chow down.” I never seen him take a dive in my patch of sky, though.
Anyway, in that hour between the West Tower and the eastern ridge, that condor’s got an audience. That time of the morning I’ve got no chores, no mealtime coming up, nobody coming to see me, so he’s got my undivided attention. And it’s good, ‘cause it’s one of the only times I get a break from thinking about that bitch Cynthia. I watch that bird dip a little in a downdraft, and I’m not thinking about those creamy-white legs, or what she cost me when she locked them shut. He soars back up to where he was before, banking left the way he does, and my mind’s off our little reunion and how it put me here for good.
It’s funny, though, and you learn this on the inside: it’s when a guy’s forced to sit still that he’ll think the hardest about where he’s going. So while the condor glides by, if I do think of that whore, it’s only in passing, in terms of all our karma.
Karma. The blacks don’t usually go for that. Normally if they’re leaning toward God, there’s a crew in here ready to bring ‘em back to the Lord, or there’s the Islam crowd aiming to pluck ‘em out of Jesus’ arms and give ‘em over to Mo-hammed. That gang, the Islams, are funny. I’ve actually had them try and convert me my first year in prison. I guess they thought that with my dark complexion I might pass for an A-rab or something. I didn’t go for that shit, though, and neither did Lamont, even though he’s a dead ringer for Malcolm X. No, they tried to get Lamont, for quite a while as I understand it, but Lamont had other ideas; his ‘spiritual path,’ as he put it, didn’t lead to God or Allah. He went for the Buddha, and what the Buddha told Lamont made a lot of sense to me, too.
Karma. You rack it up in your life like cash, or maybe more like air miles or a credit score, you know? You do something good, like give a bum a twenty, you get good karma. Do something bad, say, con an old lady, you get bad karma. Get to the end of your life, you get reincarnated, and they figure out what your new life is from what kind of karma you’ve built up. So if you’re really good, you’ll come back as a great king or a lion or something. And if you’re bad, you’ll be something low, say, a crip or a slug.
And, you see, I’m hip to that. I’ve always been hip to that. I’d put a lot of thought into Cynthia’s bad karma, years before I knew the name for it. I mean, when she stiffed me that summer after graduation, I just saw it as wrong. You don’t build a reputation for being easy and then just decide one day to stop putting out. You don’t let a fella order you filet mignon steak, the most expensive thing on the menu, fifteen-fucking-seventy-five, and then kiss him off an hour later with ‘Maybe we should just be friends’ — especially when you’re headed away to college and you know damn well you’ll never see your ‘friend’ again. It took Lamont to put it into a word, but I’ve always known it. Karma.
And all that bad karma she put on herself all those years back, the hurt she put on me, she had a chance to wipe it away. The fuckin’ Buddha arranged our reunion last year, I know it. The perfect setup lining itself up like that — me and her, on that same stretch of path at that time of night, with no one around to hear her scream — it couldn’t have happened just by chance. Lamont’s tried to talk me out of this thinking since I told him this story. He says that the Buddha wouldn’t go for rebalancing karma at knife-point. But I disagree. No one got hurt in the end. Sure, at the trial they went on and on about her ‘injuries,’ but what’s a few scratches here and there compared to the dents her sin made on her soul? The only mistake I made was to remind her who I was. Even in the rush of the moment, I felt like she needed to know why this was happening to her. I jogged her memory for her own spiritual benefit, not getting it that she might not mind dragging around the weight of all that karma.
Walking away from the scene, I really felt like with that one act, I’d cured a part of me that had been sick for years. I could hear her sobbing from as far out as the park gate, but I thought, She’s fine, she’ll be fine. She’s just getting it out of her system. I figured she’d go home, wipe off the tears and feel, you know, righted, like I did.
I sure never expected the cops at my doorstep two days later. I actually thought someone must have fingered me for something totally different, till they mentioned the park. “That bitch,” the first words out of my mouth, when I knew I had the right to remain silent, probably didn’t help my case much.
Neither did all my explanations, to the cops booking me, to the arraigning judge, to the lawyer they tried to give me. If I’d just denied it all, I may have had a prayer. But the whole principle of it just got me so fucking riled up. I’m tasting acid just thinking about it now.
Maybe if I’d known the word ‘karma’ at the trial, I could have convinced the bastards. It would have come in handy from the start: “How do you plead?” “Karma.” “Case dismissed!” But no, even with that, this country doesn’t work that way. ‘Three strikes’ is the only term they’d listen to. California law beats the Buddha any day in these parts.
And how fucking unfair was that? Never mind that those first two convictions were from bust-ups where I was settling scores as well. This fucking third strike. She was the one in the wrong, but there she was, sitting in the witness stand, drenching a Kleenex as she stabbed her finger at me, and she had the power to put me away for life. Over fifteen-fucking-seventy-five!
And that high-and-mighty judge, sustaining the DA’s objection to shut me up when I tried to explain things once and for all. I didn’t get much past that important piece of evidence, that fifteen-fucking-seventy-five — that old man started banging his gavel right then. He kept on pounding for another minute before setting the bailiffs on me, but I’d seen where the whole thing was leading, and I had no reason to hold back. The bitch owed me, didn’t they see? I had to use the knife; it was the only thing that would hold her still and keep her quiet.
And the cuts to her neck — grazes, they hardly broke skin, they looked like paper-cuts in the police photos — she did them to herself. She was the one who’d started struggling near the end. You try counting out four-twenty-five from your pocket with one hand while you’ve got a knife to a chick’s neck with the other. See what kind of marks you leave when she starts to act up. Anyway, we wouldn’t be talking about her scars today if she’d had exact change instead of just a twenty.
Something kept me talking, and looking back today, I know what it was. The judge, the court, the State of California, had stopped listening. I was still on trial, though, and before that gavel fell for the last time I needed to lay out my case for a higher power to judge. And over the shouted legalese, over the banging of wood on marble, out of reach from the hands that finally restrained me, I got it all out.
And now, in my cell, imprisoned for the rest of this lifetime, I hear my defense going through my head and I can’t keep from smiling. My grandma used to say something funny, whenever we talked about my dreams. If I told her I wanted a new bike, or a new G.I. Joe toy, whatever, she’d say, “From your lips to God’s ears.” In my head these days I think of my stand in court, and Grandma’s voice comes back. “From your lips...” Only now Lamont takes it up from there. From Lamont I hear “... to Buddha’s ears,” and my smile grows.
And some days I’ll be standing at that little window, smiling at my situation, smiling more at Grandma, at Lamont, at the good old Buddha, and I’ll see that bird creep into my patch of sky. And those times, I’ll laugh — not so much a chuckle, like at something funny or stupid — it'll be more of an ‘A-ha!’ Because that’s it! That’s what the Buddha wants me to see! That’s what the Buddha has in store for me. I’ll live and die inside this cage they put me in — Cynthia, the judge, the State — they’ve got me till this body gives out. But the Buddha has another body in store for me. My karma’s already bought me a pair of wings for my next life. A pair of wings for soaring high up in the free air, maybe over this same hillside I see from my cell. And a pair of eyes for seeing that tiny, pathetic, defenseless field mouse scurrying across the grass.
And I hope the Buddha leaves me with some memory of this life, so that I’ll know just who that bitch field mouse really is. And I’ll screech as I swoop in on the fucker, and that screech will say “Karma!” And with my new claws I’ll dig into her as I climb back up toward the clouds. I’ll dig those talons in and she’ll feel all the pain I carry today. She’ll feel it good — fifteen-fucking-seventy-five worth of it, before her lights go out. And later, in my nest, as I dig in with my sharp beak, rip her to pieces and swallow the chunks without chewing, I bet every shred will taste like steak.
Brett Marie's stories have appeared in Words & Images Press, New Plains Review and the online journal Bookanista. He is currently shopping his first novel.