The gates of Stirling Penitentiary slammed shut. Ernie Mason stood blinking in the morning light, his face relaxing into his habitual scowl. Ernie Mason was solidly built, black and mean.
He heard a couple of screws laughing as the gates shut.
“Fuck you, I’m free,” he muttered to himself.
A black sedan appeared on the horizon, shimmering in the winter sunshine. Mason watched it approach sullenly and pulled his muffler tighter around his neck. He picked up a battered suitcase as the car slithered to a halt and a good looking woman of about thirty-five smiled up at him.
“Well, I kept my promise. Three years to the day.” Marcia Stephenson smiled at Mason. He opened his lips and showed his teeth; the nearest he usually came to smiling.
“You’re lookin’ real good, Marcia. It’s been a long three years.”
“Let’s hope it’s improved your temper, Ernie. I warn you, the first time you lay a finger on me, I’m gonna cut your balls off and tie ’em to the railings.”
Ernie Mason grinned a little wider. “I’m a reformed character, Marcia and besides, you love me, don’t you?”
“Get in, we’ve got three years to make up for.”
Later, back in New York City, Marcia was ignoring the snowflakes that were settling on the sill of her fifth floor apartment in Harlem. She was moaning. Sweat was running down her black skin like jewels glimmering in sunlight. Ernie Mason was caressing her breasts. For all his power and aggression, Mason could be gentle when he wanted to be. And he wanted to be now. It had been three years since he had made love to a woman and he was pent up with desire. But he tortured himself and Marcia. He slowed down, deliberately making Marcia wait for it. And she was begging him to move faster, harder. Ernie moved into her and her body convulsed. Ernie moved his pelvis like the dancer he used to be and slipped his hands under her buttocks pulling them apart. Marcia screamed. Ernie gasped with pleasure.
Back in Stirling Penitentiary, a couple of screws were supervising the craft department as warden Phillips and an inter-state delegation was passing through. A trustee was showing the visitors around. Some sculptures, paintings and woodwork figures were the main exhibits.
A group of paintings had been hung by itself in a prime position. The anarchic images stood out amongst the rest. They were vibrant, idiosyncratic, brilliant, although none of the screws could know that. They caught the eye of the delegation leader.
“Remarkable work,” he said moving closer, “who did these?”
Warden Phillips looked puzzled and turned to one of the screws.
“Johnson, who painted these?”
“Mason, sir, he just got out.”
“Mason, you surprise me.”
“They are brilliant, the man has real talent. They are startling.” The art loving delegate examined them more closely.
“Really,” the warden sounded dubious, his mental picture of Ernie Mason did not include sensitivity or artistic talent.
“What was he in for?” asked another delegate.
“Three years for armed robbery. Mason is an inveterate criminal, hard-core. He’s been in and out of jail since he was a child.”
“A deprived background, obviously,” remarked a woman from out-of-state.
“Guys like Mason don’t have backgrounds, Mrs Dalrymple. They’re just born bad. But we run an enlightened prison here as you can see based on the principle that by showing a caring face to a hardened criminal he, or she, can develop latent talents.”
The two prison offiers looked at each other in amazement. Mrs Dalrymple smiled benignly at warden Phillips.
The first thing Ernie Mason did after getting out of prison, besides screwing Marcia that is, was look up the brothers he used to knock around with. Not many of them were hanging out. Most of them were in prison or dead. The Bronx was still his stomping ground but there were new faces on the block. Mason found he was on the outside. He needed money, he needed a gun and he had been relying on his street contacts to put him back on the fast track.
He hit a couple of bars where some of the guys remembered his face but few of them his reputation for unbridled violence. He found himself in the Aces Club just before Christmas Eve. Ice Man was slouched at the bar, staring into the mirror, checking out each new arrival. The place was full, thick with pungent smoke and dope. A ‘Black Fear’ rap track ricocheted like machine gun fire amid the growl of conversation.
Mason slipped over to the bar and sat next to the Ice Man.
“Been a long time,” the Ice Man said.
“I’m still hot, man,” said Mason. “What’s goin’ down?”
“Nothin’ in your territory. Knockin’ off sweet stores is ancient history.”
“I gotta set myself up,” growled Mason, “so what’s this shit you’re talkin’?”
“Folks around here got long memories, Mason.” The Ice Man turned his heavily scarred face to stare straight into the other man’s eyes. “You got yourself a reputation. You fucked with one of the brothers. No one can prove nothin’ but the word is you left Leroy Holmes dying in the street and didn’t go back for him.”
Mason licked his lips. “That’s white man’s shit. I couldn’t go back for him. Anyway, he was dead meat. That was three years ago.”
“As I said, young brother, folks round here got long memories. I’m gonna give you a piece of advice. If I were you, I would seriously consider emigratin’. As I said, nobody can prove nothin’ but that’s what the word is. And when the word gets around that you’re back on the streets, well, whether there’s proof or not’s no good to you when you’re stiff. You’ll be seein’ heaven before your time.”
“Heaven is a fairy tale,” snapped Mason clenching his fists rapidly.
Ice Man shifted his bulk. “So long, asshole. Watch every shadow.”
Mason didn’t show it but he was nervous. This is not what he had expected. He had to give the situation some serious thought. Ernie Mason was not accustomed to serious thought and it came hard. He looked around the club. Was it his imagination or were there faces glaring at him with sheer hate? For an instant he seemed to see the face of Leroy Holmes staring at him from a dark corner, dead eye sockets full of pent up revenge, brutally mutilated face staring, staring.
Mason downed his tequila gold in one, pulled out a wad of Marcia’s money and ordered another. If what the Ice Man had told him was true, then his life could be snuffed out at any second by new faces looking to make a reputation. There would be no trial. The Bronx was not a democracy. If someone wanted him dead he would have to watch his ass every second. And that wouldn’t be easy.
Some of Mason’s post-prison euphoria evaporated at that moment. He felt alone and isolated. This used to be his domain. Leroy Holmes and Ernie Mason were a team; rising stars. What about the Holmes brothers? Mason jerked himself forward then gulped back his shot. He’d forgotten Leroy’s brothers. Shit! Suddenly all of Mason’s half-formed plans and schemes for his come back took a back seat in his mind. The Holmes family carried respect. Black, white or any shade in the middle, most of the gangs kept uneasy boundaries and reputation was everything.
The Holmes brothers would cut his prick off and fry it in grits if they knew he was back. No one would listen to his side of the story. He had had no choice. He had tried to go back but he’d have been mowed down if he had. But in three years the story would have been carved into street folklore and for all he knew, his return had already been noted and plans were being made.
Even here in the club.
Fuck! He was scared. He hadn’t often been scared before but he was now. He looked around the dark and smoky room. No one was paying him any attention except the bartender. Big Louis kept throwing him looks, the kind of looks a man gives a steer in an abattoir.
Then from the corner of his eye, Mason saw a slickly dressed man enter the club. He was smooth shaven and you could smell his cologne from across the room. Ram John Holmes had arrived. He was lighting a cigar with a gold lighter. He looked good. He looked rich.
When Mason had last seen him he was like the rest of them.
From the corner of his other eye, Mason saw figures appearing to move towards him through the crowd. He didn’t wait to find out if they were selling raffle tickets.
In a smooth movement, Mason slipped from his stool and hustled his way to the exit. He kept a group of guys between himself and Ram John. He glanced back into the half-light. He saw Big Louis watching him. Was the bastard smiling? Mason ran out into a snowstorm. Stumbling through the slush he was soon lost in a blur of snowflakes and road spray.
Abraham was deep in meditation. He was sitting on a hard back chair by his bed in the Refuge. Luckily it was a quiet night. Clyde was snoring in his office. Abraham opened his eyes. They were deep and mysterious and set in a timeless face. For an instant he wondered where he was, then he sighed deeply and looked around.
It was difficult to assess Abraham’s exact age. He could have been late sixties or early seventies. His skin was clear, his beard and hair ragged but there was an inner peace within his expressive features that made him seem like a young boy.
There were about forty beds lined up in regimented rows. At the far end of the hall were folded tables and chairs and beyond that the kitchen and toilets. The Refuge was a simple place but for all its simplicity, it had saved many a soul and given support and encouragement to others.
A man was sobbing in one of the beds. Abraham rose and went to him. The man was white, in his mid thirties although he looked much older. Abraham recognised him. He held the man’s hand while he sobbed, quietly as if not to disturb the others, but painfully, as though nothing he could do would stop the hurt showing.
“Peace, Joseph,” muttered Abraham. He touched the man’s eyelids with his fingers and the sobbing subsided. Abraham glanced around again like a guardian angel. A couple of men were masturbating under the blankets, lost in their own isolated passion. Another man was sitting up in bed, his lips moving continually. Abraham went over to him.
“Angelo, the words won’t help you,” he whispered.
“I have nothing to live for.”
“Trust me, this is only a time phase you are passing through.”
“Mr Madigan gave me somewhere to live. He’s a good man, Mr Madigan. Rosa thinks he’s wonderful, don’t you, Rosa?”
“She is happy, Angelo, believe me.” Abraham paused as though in communication with another time. “Angelo, for a moment you will see her.”
Angelo’s face suddenly broke into smiles and tears rolled down his face. Abraham gently guided him down onto the bed. Angelo closed his eyes.
“Rosa,” he whispered, “my Rosa.”
Mike’s Bar was heaving and full of Christmas spirit. Jack had his arm around Kerry’s shoulders. Bill and Zoe were laughing. Zoe was pouring more wine. Charlie Stenning was there, an old student friend of Jack. So was Mike Liebowitz, a young off-Broadway actor with dark, swarthy good looks. Mike’s girlfriend Lorraine was holding forth.
“Can’t you just picture his face when I told him? Mr Fleming, I said, putting the tip of your finger between the cheeks of my ass does count for sexual harassment in my book. You should have seen his expression. The whole office was listening. He didn’t know where to look. He’s been doing it to all the girls. I told ’em. If that screwball lays a finger on me he’ll know all about it.”
“I’d better watch my step,” laughed Mike.
Jack had surreptitiously placed his hand on Kerry’s stomach. She looked at him and smiled contentedly and popped another olive into her mouth, digging into the soft flesh with her sharp teeth. A trickle of juice ran down her chin. She chuckled. Jack wiped it away with his fingers.
Jack’s fingers traced patterns on the rough stretch fabric of Kerry’s dress. Her eyes said no, not now.
“Here’s a toast,” yelled Charlie Stenning. “Here’s to the spirit of Christmas. Here’s to the way Christmas ought to be.”
They all cheered, drank their wine and poured more. Jack was smiling. This was the way things ought to be, he thought. He looked around the bar, at the dark red decor and walnut timbered counter. Mike’s Bar attracted a mixed bunch of characters, from the avant-garde artists to the sidewalk musicians, from local traders to aspiring socialite business executives. Right now, Jack loved them all he decided. In fact, right now I love the whole goddamn world.
“So, any names yet?” Zoe asked Kerry.
“That’s a sore point. I kind of like Verity for a girl and Daniel for a boy.”
“Verity’s nice,” remarked Charlie. “What’s wrong with Verity, Jack?”
“It’s okay. I’m making no comment on the grounds I might incriminate myself.”
“I wish I was pregnant,” mused Zoe, lost in thought.
“Christ no, all that pain and mess,” blurted out Lorraine, “sorry, Kerry.”
“Don’t worry. All I can say is I feel wonderful,” Kerry looked at Jack.
“So what’s happening, Mike,” Jack turned to the young actor.
“I’m up for a part in a new soap. I play a butler who has an affair with his mistress. Correction, I might play the part. I had a good reading but, I’m not sure if I’m the right type.”
“You’re too modest,” said Bill, while signaling for more wine. “I saw you in that Tennessee Williams trilogy. You were terrific.”
“I think he’d make a great lover,” smiled Lorraine, “he just needs plenty of practice.”
“Look where that gets you,” laughed Zoe pointing to Kerry’s bulging stomach.
“How’s the Refuge going, Jack. How long do you think you’ll stay running the place?” asked Charlie.
“Well, I’ve got to see this insurance deal through, then there’s Christmas, after that I don’t know.”
“You’re not thinking of giving it up?” Kerry asked seriously.
“Well, now I’m about to be a father, with another mouth to feed, maybe the time has come to do something else. We’ve got a good group of trustees. I’m pushing thirty guys, maybe it’s time I started making some money.”
“That’s not like you, Jack, you’ve always been such an idealist,” said Zoe.
The wine arrived. Bill opened it with a flourish and refilled glasses. Kerry seemed thoughtful. Jack glanced at her.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m only scratching the surface of the problem at the Refuge. I was thinking of a national charity or an international relief fund.”
“D’you know what they call Jack down at the Refuge,” said Bill, “Saint Jack. Yeah! Those poor bastards think he’s a saint.”
“He was the same at med school,” smiled Charlie, “always doing things for other people.”
“I think what Jack does is just wonderful,” cooed Lorraine. “It makes working in a brokerage seem so totally selfish.”
Jack glanced at the habituées of the bar again. They all looked well fed. They all had beds to sleep him. Life may have shat on them but they weren’t reduced to the level of animals. He sighed. Sometimes he thought his motives were all screwed up. Saint Jack! He was no saint and he knew it. He just did what he could under the circumstances.
Suddenly from outside rapid gunfire puckered the air. In the near distance, came the sound of a collision. Some people were screaming and sirens sounded close by. Some of the customers ran to the window to look but could see nothing. Mostly they ignored it. This was New York City after all.
Later they all stood on the sidewalk, laughing and hugging each other. Christmas carols blared from a department store as they said their goodbyes.
Jack and Kerry strolled arm and arm amid the lights and the crowds. Lights twinkled from snow-covered trees. Jack was tired. He kissed Kerry’s cheek.
“Love you too,” she said. “Did you mean what you said back there, about doing something else?”
“You don’t have to, you know. My father will always help us.”
“No, I don’t want that. When you give up work, and that’s like right now, we’re going to need more money. Now don’t get on your high horse about capitalist ethics, this has nothing to do with it. I love the Refuge and I want to keep it going, but if I’m honest with myself I can’t stay there forever. I need to do things, maybe they’re important things, I don’t know.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she said.