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Panoptico

Second Place Prose Winner

Panoptico

by Dustin Springer


Elroy hadn’t shaved in three weeks and four days or had a hair cut in eight months.  To cover it up he usually wore a ball cap everywhere he went. He wore white t-shirts for days and had a problem with sweating — they were always stained with massive yellow rings around the collar and pits with a small circle on his lower back. He’d often go days without a shower and if he had it his way showering is just something he wouldn’t do. It felt like a waste of time, until he smelled himself or someone made a comment, or he developed some kind of fungus on his inner thigh or lower stomach. He never knew why he sweated so much, never knew it was a real medical condition and developed a complex about it around the same time most boys started bragging about how far they made it with girls.  

When high school passed and it still hadn’t happened for him, and then when he turned twenty-one and all his friends departed to raise kids or move to some interesting place because they said they didn’t want to be boring all their life, he realized it may never happen for him, that he may never know what it’s like to lay next to a woman or feel her body press into his or feel lips on his, so he sort of just gave up. He was very tall and round, but he felt small until someone said something about how big he is or made a joke about being afraid of making him angry, and he did beat up two guys once because they were bothering his friend outside a bar downtown.  

Since then he knew he had a power, a power to intimidate, a power he really didn’t like or want. When he got angry because the line he’d been standing in was too long, or someone messed up his food, or someone was especially rude to him, or he was just drunk and belligerent and he simply expressed his dissatisfaction or allowed himself to vent, people quivered in fear and treated even a minor harsh word as an extremely hostile threat against their life, so he learned to restrain himself and his anger in most situations. Maybe it was because of his size or the sound of his voice booming out of his huge neck, but people always assumed he was dumb when he spoke and treated him like a child, or just intellectually inferior anyway, so then, around twenty-three, he gave up on that too and always tried to say as little as possible in all situations. Living alone, with no friends, no place to go, no women, never speaking, and working as a forklift driver for all the major manufacturers in the area at one point or another with only a few beers or shots of liquor to ease the loneliness (along with of course television which had all his conversations for him). He had managed to live a relatively simple life and keep to himself for his thirty adult years and didn’t even go to prison until he was forty-seven.  

In prison it’s nearly impossible to not speak because everyone gets into your business at some point. Being quiet was still an advantage though because nobody likes a smartass and even though Elroy was too big to mess with (but of course the gangs could have made sure he knew who was the real “big guy”) under pressure he actually managed to crack a joke and everyone knew that even though he could crush their skull like a grapefruit, he was all right. They left him alone. He even managed to make friends with his celly, Nick, who was in for writing bad checks and forging an opioid prescription. Elroy made it through his little one-year stint without a fight or being messed with in any sort of gay way or having any trouble at all really (except when the correctional officers wanted to remind everyone that even a guy as big as Elroy was under their control they of course would make scene with Elroy front and center, but ole Elroy was so easy-going about it and just played along so well that even they couldn’t help but like the guy after a couple of months) and he actually even made a friend, so, fortunately for Elroy, he got out pretty quickly and served the rest of his three-year sentence on parole.

So, oh yeah, Elroy was sitting at home one night, uninterested in the new programs that had come on since he’d been away, being unable to jump into the middle of a series because all the shows had become long-running serial dramas like in the old days, but he was still trying his best to get into whatever the plot was supposed to be (something about asteroids bring viruses or aliens — he couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be — to earth while there was also some kind of famine and a crooked oligarchy everyone liked because they were forced to sing on TV and the audience called in to vote on who’s be in charge every week) when he ran out of beer.  

He didn’t think twice about how the rest of the evening should go. He just put on his ball cap and denim coat and drove down to the convenience store. He grabbed a cold thirty-pack of Miller Highlife and got in line. There were nine or ten people ahead of him, and this was a store that prided itself on speed and service. The guy in front of him was standing without any beer or food and maybe no reason to even be there, but he seemed like the type to stop the line to complain or flirt or cause some kind of scene because maybe he was all about himself or wanted something for free. A couple was in front of him, probably stoned—they were buying all candy and sweet coffees and being very withdrawn and their eyes were puffy.  

A Mexican guy was in front of them with a bag of beef jerky, but he looked nervous, probably because of the cop the store had standing by the counter at all times, or because the money changers were there in their bullet-proof vests and tank-like containers they carried around on dollies, loading up tens of thousands of dollars out of the safe below the counter while the cop looked on. The scene made Elroy’s heart beat loader too, of course sweat dripping off his nose, running down his hand, making the beer’s cardboard handle mushy. He looked down at his stamp: T6. The noise in the room sounded thinned out like underwater or music blasting through a wall. His eyes felt puffy and focused over his flushed face. The cop made some banal joke to the money guys about getting rich or something. Elroy felt the handle on the beer rip a little, the sweat was dissolving the cardboard.

One night after lights out Nick asked him about his life outside—who his friends were and what they were like, what kind of women he likes (women came up a lot actually which wasn’t that hard to talk about, but Nick got suspicious when he realized the only women Elroy talked about were the perfect-figure/perfect-10 types, like all the women on TV), and who his girlfriend was.

Nick realized he was probably Elroy’s only friend in, at least, a very long time and felt the significance of their relationship and kind of started to even honor its importance to Elroy, thinking he would never betray or hurt Elroy in any way, a sort of brotherhood like people only find in their deepest youth, but also, deep down, he knew he didn’t care as much as he knew Elroy thought he did and wasn’t beyond giving him up for a little better spot in life. But really Elroy wasn’t as naive as Nick thought he was maybe and, deep down, knew Nick wasn’t ever going to get that opportunity and decided Nick was safe as long as they both believe he was. So, he told him everything.

“What? Never? You never been with a woman? Goddamn,” his hand hung over the side of the bunk. It was stamped AF3. “I mean you know what prison is right? Haha, I guess some of us never are free…”

The guy in the front of the line holding everything up was pleading with the clerk. The clerk was busy working the register, talking to the money guys, keeping an eye on everybody, and trying to shoot the shit with the cop all while listening to something on the TV behind the counter; he would look at the guy and shrug and then look around and talk and then point at something for the other guy to do and then return to the story the cop was telling.  

The TV was saying something about force or enforcement, about protection and need, about a nation. The Mexican guy set his jerky on the rack he was next to and went to leave. The cop noticed. He radioed something into the mic he had on his chest, some code, and dropped the conversation with the clerk, becoming very serious all of the sudden. Elroy knew that song and dance too well—it was never benign. There was a woman with potato chips and soda pop standing almost at the counter. She was wearing a denim skirt and yellow blouse she filled in with a few little frumps around her hips and chest and her sleeves were full of her loose upper arm. Her hair was blond and done up big with hairspray. Her face was a little puffy, a little saggy, and had a few lines. But she still looked good in makeup, and Elroy could smell her heavy perfume from where he was standing. GTA1 was on her hand. The handle ripped a little more. The Mexican man took off running as soon as he was out the door. Red and blue lights flashed outside the window and down the street. Elroy took the beer back to the fridge and put it away, slipping out the side door unnoticed.

He drove around a little while not knowing what to do with himself. He could have just called it a night, the beer wasn’t even important to him anymore, but the thought of going back to his apartment, probably with a sack of McDonald’s Double Cheeseburgers and the pale flicker of the TV, just felt so empty, at least empty without refreshment.

He felt the need to go, to get away, to put some space between himself and…he didn’t know what. Something at that store, or maybe it wasn’t something in the store at all, maybe it was something he’d forgotten about or something out in the night. He drove under the soft orange light of the street lamps making right and left turns whenever he came to a crossroads so he wouldn’t be going in circles. The city is all concrete and dirt—nothing here for him; nothing here for anyone.  

The streets are empty, mostly. Around every corner Elroy plays a game, guessing whether or not he’ll see police lights somewhere down the road. The safe bet is that he will. The cheat is to look at the houses. If there’s a wall around the house, or even around the neighborhood, the road is usually safe, usually. The size is an indicator too, when the houses get small and the buildings are kind of far apart and dilapidated, there’s usually some kind of police action going on somewhere along the road.  

He turned the radio on to maybe drown out the lost feeling, the worry about whatever wasn’t there, the empty confusion; some guy was talking about the death of America, the potential to destroy everything, and the virtue of caution. A helicopter flew overhead, shining a light into the neighborhood off to his right. The guy on the radio kept saying “security” over and over and something about his father. He said he liked the drills, that that was part of his duty as a citizen and that they filled him with pride. He was yelling and getting more and more excited, more impassioned, and Elroy didn’t know whether he agreed with him or not, but it felt good.

He found a bar down on a corner of a deserted shopping mall.  

He wasn’t sure about going in, sort of knew there would be some guy in there who’d want to fight him just because he’ll be the biggest guy there, but also thought it felt better than going back home. The inside was almost empty except the three guys playing pool and the four guys on the corner of the bar and a couple at a table and some lady dancing by herself in front of the jukebox. The bartender was short and round and kind of cute, she put some blond color in her black hair, but had it pulled behind her head and wore glasses, but for some reason he knew that of course she was off limits. Without making eye contact with anyone, he sat himself at the end of the bar, as far away from everybody as he could possibly get.

“Hey big guy, what’ll it be?”

“Miller Highlife…”

“You wanna slide down a few?  Make my job a lot easier; they won’t bite I promise…”

He would drink one beer, just drink a beer and then go home, maybe two.

He moved himself down closer to the guys on the corner, keeping a seat open between, not wanting to be in anyone’s space.  She sat the beer down on the bar; her hand was marked AB4. The stamp reminded him he had to see his parole officer in the morning and had a court date, a final court date in three weeks or so.

The guy closest of course turned to him and had something loaded and ready: “How’ll the bar’ll hole ya?”

One beer. Just one.

“You doe talk?  Margie, he doe talk…”

“You’d better watch it Boyd, he don’ look like he like you much…”

“Yeah, join the club,” and just like that he turned back to his buddies.  

There was always a moment near the beginning he felt passed by, like he would be left behind by everyone and everything going on if he just held to himself and didn’t say anything. Now he was free to finish his beer. A jet flew overhead, drowning out all the noise so that everyone had to stare and hold their tongue for just a moment until it passed and then of course the old men complained about the drills, about it being the middle of the night. Everyone was tired of the drills, but more people, at least younger people, complained mostly about the complaining.

A is for addict.

Just before he took his last gulp, the dancer came over.  

She sat right next to him in the stool between him and the drunk. She tapped the drunk on the shoulder and he turned and gave her a cigarette without much fair and returned to his buddies talking about the old days and people they knew, bursting into laughter every few lines. She lit it and took a couple drags then turned to Elroy with a certain attitude of impression.

“My daddy used to sweat like that, well probably not that bad,” she took a drag and studied his unease – he wouldn’t even look at her. Shy men aren’t all that unique, and more trouble than they’re ever worth. He wants to sit alone, let him sit alone. She took the ashtray from the far side of the bar and carefully put out her cigarette, keeping the snipe, and got up. Before she left, she turned to him with her full body and stuck out her hand, “I’m Debra.”

Elroy shook her hand meekly, feeling like she was making some joke about him, and mumbled his name. The skin on the back of her hand was loose and soft, and she held his with light affection. Her hand was stamped H8.

She left him to go see what the guys playing pool where like, they were at least trying to have a good time. Elroy finished his beer, then ordered another.

He drank it quickly and ordered another, then had another beer after that. Debra gave up on the guys playing pool, they were more interested in the game than her. She came over to one of the guys sitting on the corner, the guy on the far side, and bummed a dollar from him to put in the jukebox. She danced alone in the little space between the bar and pool table; Elroy watched her the entire time.  

She was maybe a little older than he was, or maybe not, maybe she’d just been living hard. Her hair was pink, probably dyed red a long time ago, and stood up and away and was matted a little in some spots where she’d been asleep not too long ago. She was skinny but sort of round in some places too. Her face was puffy like the woman from the store, but her makeup was done up too much, too red and everywhere. Something about her eyes were like she wasn’t all there, or not there in the room at all, but not gone, just empty. She danced slowly to all the songs, not keeping to any beat, repeating the same moves over and over, rocking her hips from side to side, occasionally clapping over her head like it was a grand gesture. Elroy ordered another beer. It was getting late…. The couple went home. The guys playing pool settled down to a table, one or two of the old men left. Elroy eyed those old men with suspicion, wondering which one she belonged to. Elroy ordered another beer and Margie said, “Last Call….”

Elroy finished his last beer slowly, letting everyone else leave the bar, trying to time it, so that he and Debra would find the door at the same time.

Debra was going around to everybody saying goodbye with hugs like they all must be good friends. The last one she came over to was Elroy. She told him goodbye and gave him a hug, when he wouldn’t let go, she pecked him on the cheek. She got away from him and went over to the old drunk. Something was said, and she got upset, stamped her feet and cussed and then started yelling. Everyone seemed used to it. The old drunk left without her. She went back over to Elroy; no one else was there.

B is for battery.

“I know you don’t know me or anything, but could you just give me a ride home?”

“Sure,” he said.

T is for theft.

They walked out together to his truck.

“It’s Central Manor, you know where that’s at? They’ve been doing ICCE raids there, and I’ve been trying to stay out of it; I mean how many times can you listen to all that guns goin’ off and screamin’ and cryin’ and kids; I know it ain’t fair but you know that’s what you get when you mess around an threaten us; to be honest I really don’t care for ‘em anyway; I’m just worried they’re going to Hiroshima our ass into last century, haha, like just let me stay out of the way; you know they keep running these drills, calling them drills and all that but you know the drill is over like it’s real now; they’re really doing it now; but I just get the heck out of dodge, like I am not one of these people like the rest of ‘em….”

Her apartment was lit up like Christmas when they pulled up, red and blue flashing all over the street and in the parking lot from the ICCE vehicles. They pulled around to her apartment. She said he can come inside but that she threw out all the furniture because she’s getting all new stuff tomorrow.  

Elroy came in and sat on one of those folding camping chairs that was barely big enough hold him, sank down into it, the thing nearly collapsing under the stress of his size. Debra sat herself on the carpet in front of him to show him this old magazine collection she had that belonged to her father. She didn’t know why, but Elroy reminded her of her dad, and she was just following the feeling. In one of the magazines, her father published a poem, but she never could figure out which magazine it was in. It was about loneliness or togetherness or something, about the magic of finding someone really special or about how nobody is really special at all or something; something about acceptability, or maybe it was rejection.  

Elroy didn’t know what to say so he just sat there and smiled awkwardly when he thought she wanted him to. There was banging on the apartment next door, someone yelling to open up and lights from a flashlight would flash onto the wall through the blinds sometimes. Elroy’s hands started shaking uncontrollably, he never thought he cared, never thought he’d care about being alone with a woman but now that the time had come his heart wouldn’t rest or leave him alone; he tried to conceal his hands by crossing his arms.  

Debra put a magazine back and got another one. Oh yeah, she remembered, the poem was called “Panoptico.” She crawled over on her hands and knees from the stack of magazines at the bottom of her bookshelf to sit right in front of Elroy again. A helicopter was circling overhead, the noise drowned everything out. For what to Elroy seemed like no reason, and maybe a little out of the blue, she took her sweater off. The helicopter shot its searchlight right down on the apartment; the window lit up white and blinding. With a bang the door next door got kicked in.  

Large red splotchy patches covered most of the skin Elroy could see on her shoulders and belly and probably under her bra. She found a bottle next to the bookshelf and turned it up over her mouth to drink. Next door they came marching in, barking orders, their guns pointed. A woman screamed. Debra moved in closer to Elroy, putting her hands on his knees. The helicopter drowned everything out.

“What does H stand for again?” Elroy asked.

The woman next door screamed and screamed, and a man’s voice barked some order and a baby started crying and the woman never stopped screaming.

“Oh,” the room was flashing red and blue, the walls lit with solid white light; overhead a helicopter circled, “It doesn’t matter… as long as we’re together.”

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