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The Leap

06.15.05 | 14 Comments

By Graham Powell

When Kenneth Pennywell first saw the Kentucky State Correctional Center at Paintsville, he knew everything was going to be all right. There was nothing in the chain-link fences topped with razor wire or the low brick buildings to inspire such confidence, but Pennywell had long since given up trying to figure out his feelings. He didn’t care how he knew. He just knew.

The bus wheezed to a stop and the inmates shuffled out into the parking lot. The guards formed them into a ragged line and they stood there, waiting.

A steel double door in the center of the nearest building swung open with a clang to reveal a man in a crisp uniform, complete with Sam Browne belt and Smokey the Bear hat. He strolled out into the sunlight and looked them over as the men before him stared down at the ground.

“My name is Max Borman,” he said, his voice the full-throated baritone of a drill sergeant. “I am the Captain of the Guard here at Paintsville. I don’t know what facilities you have come here from, and I don’t much care. You are here now, and we expect you to obey our rules. Rule number one is very simple: don’t piss off the captain. If you violate rule number one, be assured that the penalties are severe.

“There are many ways you can piss me off. Fighting, for example. I know some of you had some trouble at your last stop. That sort of thing will not be tolerated here. Neither will trading in contraband. Or slacking off work. All of these offenses have their own punishments, and believe me when I say that you do not want to find out what they are. Now tell me that you understand, so that there can be no miscommunication.”

The men mumbled their assent.

“Good. Do not tell me, when you are found breaking our rules, that you did not know, or that our actions are unjust. Endure your sentences like men and your time here will be easy. You may now go.”

Borman turned sharply on his heel and disappeared inside.

The guards herded the rest of them into the dormitories.

* * *

There were four large dorms at Paintsville, each divided into three rooms lined with double bunks. In one corner a curtained doorway led to a shower. Another doorway in the opposite wall led to a row of toilets. Twenty five men lived in each room.

Pennywell was assigned to the third room in Dorm Four.

He chose a bed midway along the rear wall, far enough from the bathroom that the smell didn’t carry much. He had just laid the bag containing his few belongings on the top bunk when a voice said, “Eh, that’s my bunk, mate.”

The muscles bunched in his neck as he turned to face the speaker. “I prefer the top bunk,” he said.

The other man was short, with shaggy black curls hanging down in his face. He flashed a lopsided grin and said, “Spoken for. You understand, eh? No hard feelings?”

Pennywell looked him over. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Nah, from Liverpool. Like the Beatles, ya know?”

“I’m a Stones man myself.”

“Ah. Well, takes all types. You met Super Max, I take it?”

“Yeah, we got the speech. Kind of a hardass for medium security, isn’t he?”

“Oh, he used to be captain at a big lockup outside of Louisville. Some prisoners knocked him on the head and tried to escape, and got themselves dead in the process. So they sent him down to the second division.”

“Minor leagues,” said Pennywell. “Over here it’s the minor leagues.”

“Ya, well.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m James Bentley.”

Pennywell shook. “Alex Cobb,” he said. “No hard feelings. Just have your stuff gone by the time I get back.”

As he turned away from the dumbstruck Bentley, he said, “Oh, and Jim – some advice? Get a haircut, man. You look like a hobbit.”

That night, as he lay in his bunk, Pennywell reflected that a lot had happened in two years.

* * *

His neighbor had been a cop.

Pennywell had settled into a numb routine, staring into his computer screen at work for eight hours during the day, then staring at the ceiling in bed for another eight each night. For variety he stared at a television or down at a cold plate of food.

So when he saw Marko Skouloudes crossing the lawn to his house, it was unexpected and a bit unwelcome.

“We know who he is, Ken,” Marko had said. “We found him.”

Ken stood there, arms crossed. “Why are you telling me this?”

“We can’t arrest him. There’s no evidence. But it’s him for sure.”

“I see. What’s his name?”

Marko shook his head. “You can’t get to him.”

“Why not?” said Pennywell.

So Marko told him.

One good thing about insomnia – you have plenty of time to think. And that night Pennywell had The Idea.

* * *

Pennywell was behind Bentley in the chow line when he was roughly shoved from behind. For the second time in two days he felt the muscles tighten in his neck. He turned to see stupid fucking Larry grinning at him.

“Hey, man!” said Larry. “What are you doing here?”

Pennywell unclenched his fists. “Same as you, I expect. When did you get in?”

“Ten minutes ago. We’re about the last batch, I guess. They’ve shipped out most of the guys from our dorm at Rosedale.”

“After what happened, I don’t blame them.”

“This one of your mates, then?” said Bentley.

Larry frowned. “Who are you?”

“He’s my bunkmate, Larry. Jim Bentley of Liverpool, meet Larry Birch of Lexington.”

“Hullo,” said Jim.

“Whatever,” said Larry. “Let’s get something to eat.”

* * *

They put him to work in the prison laundry.

It had been built in the seventies with technology from the fifties, and was still in use without modification twenty five years later. A row of vats the size of hot tubs lined the wall, filled with boiling water and dirty linen. An inmate stood by each, stirring with an oar-sized paddle. Once clean, the laundry was carted to another room to be dried, sorted, and folded.

Bentley worked at the vat beside him. “Hard work, eh?” he said, dragging a sleeve across his forehead.

“Beats digging turnips,” said Pennywell. “And drop this English Bob shit. If you’re English then I’m Ringo Starr.”

Bentley laid a finger alongside his nose and said, “What the coppers don’t know cain’t hurt them. We’ve all got a secret or two, eh, Cobb?”

Pennywell leaned on his paddle, looked down at the little man. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

* * *

Pennywell had sold his house, sold his car, put everything he owned into storage. Then he caught the first bus to Texas.

He’d read a story once, about an assassin who created a new identity for every job. Find a child who’d died young and a careless clerk at the county records department, and you could become whoever you wanted.

Pennywell found both at the Lampasas courthouse. When he walked out his name was Alexander Cobb.

Later, armed with a copy of Cobb’s birth certificate and a brand new driver’s license, he bought a beat-up Pontiac Firebird, twenty years old but still running. He drove that up to Waco and rented a room at the local truck stop. There he shaved his head and started a goatee.

It grew in white across the scar at the corner of his mouth.

* * *

Pennywell woke up around three in the morning. After a sweaty day in the laundry he must have gulped down a gallon of water with his dinner, and now his bladder pulsed uncomfortably. He shuffled off towards the head but took a wrong turn, and ended up by the shower.

He was turning away when he heard a low mutter. He pulled the curtain open and stepped inside.

Larry knelt on the floor, a well-muscled inmate behind him, pressing down on his shoulders. Before him stood another man, pants around his ankles. The man’s right hand was wrapped around his dick, stroking it slowly.

He scowled when he saw Pennywell. “What the fuck you want?”

“Alex!” said Larry.

Pennywell squared his shoulders and started towards Jerkoff.

“Watch it, Les!” shouted Muscle Man. He shoved Larry to the floor and rushed forward. Without breaking stride Pennywell pivoted and buried a foot in his solar plexus. He doubled over, gagging, and lurched away, stumbling over Larry in the process. His head struck the tile floor with a solid thwack.

Les was struggling to get his pants up. Pennywell feinted a left hook and he scrambled back, cowering in the corner.

“Les,” said Pennywell. “Lester. Iverson?” His hands twitched. He could almost feel them around Iverson’s neck.

Before he could move Larry lunged forward, fists flailing. Pennywell let him mash up Iverson’s face for a few minutes before he said, “All right, Larry, he’s had enough.”

Larry wouldn’t stop, and Pennywell finally had to pull him away.

Beyond the shower curtain the room was dark and silent, though Pennywell knew that half the men had heard the fight. Larry whispered, “Thanks, man, you saved my ass.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” said Pennywell. “This isn’t over.”

He climbed into bed and closed his eyes. Within minutes he was fast asleep.

* * *

He and Larry and Jim were standing around the exercise yard, shooting the bull, when he saw a slender black man heading there way. The man spoke with each of the inmates as he passed, joking and laughing. Some he gave a shake or a high five. When he reached them he looked at Bentley and said, “Take a hike.”

“Right you are, Sheed.” Bentley double-timed to the other side of the yard.

“Your name’s Sheed?” said Pennywell. “Where’s your posse, homie?”

“I’m just here to talk, man,” said Sheed, smiling broadly. “I don’t need a posse for that. Besides, what’s that they say about power? If I have to tell you I am, I ain’t.”

“That’s what they say about being a lady, dude.”

“Funny. My name is Rasheed Rivera. I run this joint.”

“Oh yeah?” said Pennywell. “Does Borman know about that?”

“He’s just the captain, I’m the sheriff. I keep the peace. Now I hear we had an incident last night. You roughed up a couple of my boys. That makes me look bad. What you got to say for yourselves?”

“I say your boys can suck each other’s dicks. Tell them to leave my friend alone.”

Rivera chuckled. “Now, I gotta tell you, I’m not much into fuckin’ another man in the ass, or anywhere else, but some of these boys been here for quite a while, and, you know, they got needs. Sticking up for a friend, though, I can respect that. I hope you can respect where I’m coming from, too.”

“Fuck that shit,” said Pennywell. “Those two come around again, I won’t put them in the infirmary, I’ll plant them in the turnip field. You tell them to stay away.”

Sheed’s smile faded. “Now that’s too bad, because I thought, both of us bein’ real men and all, we could come to some kind of understanding. But if you plan on kicking someone’s ass, you’d better kick mine right now. You won’t get another chance.”

Pennywell glanced around. Men were watching them. A lot of men. And they looked pretty grim. “If you guys are such bad asses, why are you stuck down here in the minors?”

“A lot of people in here, they’ve done worse shit than they got busted for. You keep that in mind and think about what I said.” Sheed headed back across the yard, laughing and slapping hands.

“What do you think?” said Larry.

“I think Rivera is a smart man,” Pennywell replied. “Better watch your ass.”

Larry glared at him. “That’s not funny.”

* * *

Pennywell had worked his way north from Texas, through Arkansas and Missouri, taking odd jobs at truck stops and cheap cafes, never staying more than two or three months in one place. He bought a set of weights and worked out every day. In a year he put on twenty pounds of muscle. He got into fights and spent a night in jail here and there. Because that’s what Cobb would do.

He bought and sold marijuana, never more than a few ounces at a time, usually taking a loss. But he made friends. They trusted him. By the time he crossed into Kentucky he had a reputation as a good guy to know if you needed a smoke.

When he bought a pound of pot in Frankfort, he knew the dealer was a cop.

* * *

Pennywell woke at midnight to find Borman jabbing a nightstick into his ribs. “Let’s go, Cobb,” he said. “Do not resist and you will not be harmed.”

Rivera and half a dozen others were waiting in the TV room at the end of the building. Sheed nodded to Borman and said, “Thanks, Captain, we’ll take it from here.”

Super Max left and two of Sheed’s boys held Pennywell’s arms. He turned to Sheed and said, “You’ve got more pull than I thought. I’m impressed.”

“Yeah, well, I have my fellas back home throw him a few bucks from time to time. Too bad we couldn’t have a meeting of the minds, Cobb. I heard good things about you.”

One of the other inmates was pulling off his pants. “Like I said, I ain’t real big on assfucking,” said Sheed. “But you need a lesson, and I figure Big Ben is the man to deliver it.”

Pennywell looked at the source of Big Ben’s nickname. “Well, bugger me.”

“Sodomy jokes never get old,” said Sheed.

“Yeah, it killed ‘em up at Rosedale.”

The room grew very quiet. “You were at Rosedale?” said Rivera, stone-faced. “You were at the riot?”

“Yeah, I was there.”

“You know a man named Jervis Green?”

Pennywell nodded. “We all knew him. He’s dead now.”

“You know how?”

“I saw it happen. What’s it to you?”

Rivera pulled a shank out of his back pocket. “Get your pants on, Ben.” To Pennywell he said, “You’re from Texas, right? My daddy used to work on the docks in Galveston, skinning fish for the tourists at a dollar each. He showed me how to cut ‘em up real good. His name was Jervis Green, and I swear to God I’ll whittle your dick down to a pencil point if you don’t tell me what happened.”

“It wasn’t much,” said Pennywell. “He had a spot he liked, always sat there when he ate. Everyone knew. One day he came in and another man was in his spot and wouldn’t give it up. They argued, they fought. That man knocked your father to the ground and kicked him to death.”

Rivera didn’t move but the skin on his face was tight and shiny with perspiration. “Who?” he said.

Pennywell lowered his head. “Larry,” he said. “It was Larry Birch.”

The muscles along Rivera’s jaw rippled. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Have Big Ben ask him. I think you’ll get an answer.”

Rivera nodded. “Get him out of here.”

As the men holding Pennywell’s arms pulled him towards the door he said, “Wait. I gave you something, now I want something in return.”

“You got a lot of fucking balls, man asking me right now!” shouted Rivera. “What the fuck do you want?”

For the first time in a long time, Pennywell smiled. “Permission,” he said.

* * *

When the rest of the crew filed out of the laundry the next afternoon, Pennywell stayed behind. He didn’t have long to wait. After only a few minutes Lester Iverson stuck his head in the door, bruises still fresh on his face. He saw Pennywell and slouched inside, scowling.

“Sheed says I have to apologize,” he said. “Sheed says you’re a right guy, and I need to treat you with respect. So I’m sorry we tried to fuck your friend. It won’t happen again.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet it won’t,” said Pennywell. “In fact I’d be very surprised if we saw old Larry around here anymore. I fed Sheed some bullshit about him killing an old man, which is why you’re here. You and I have business, Les.”

Doubt crept into Iverson’s expression. “We do?”

“You don’t know me, but I know you. Lester H. Iverson, small time thief and all around loser. You were in Cincinnati a couple of years ago, remember? I do.”

Iverson’s tongue crept across his lips. “What do you want?”

“You broke into a house up there, took whatever looked like it might be worth stealing. You were just about to leave when the woman walked in.

“Now, you hadn’t planned on a home invasion, but she was there, what’s the difference? So you held a knife to her throat as you pulled off her rings, her bracelet, everything you could grab.

“But you didn’t know her husband was standing right outside, talking to his neighbor. When he walked in and saw you there, he didn’t think, he came after you.” Pennywell ran a thumb down the white streak in his beard. “That’s when you gave me this. My wife jumped on your back, beat her little fists against your worthless head, and you buried that knife in her heart.”

Iverson’s eyes were bulging out of his skull. “Oh, shit!”

Pennywell raised his paddle. “You won’t get away this time.”

Iverson tried to block the blow, and his arm folded in half with a sharp crack. He opened his mouth just as Pennywell swung again, striking him just above the ear. Iverson’s scream died as though switched off.

Pennywell heaved his body into the vat and stirred until it was shrouded in filthy sheets. Then he headed to the dining hall for dinner.

* * *

They called it an accident.

Borman was so angry he was spitting blood, but his record had enough black marks already. A murder would leave him guarding an outhouse in Paducah. Rivera sweet-talked him and he went along.

Larry didn’t turn up for inspection a few days later. They marked him down as an escapee.

When no one claimed Iverson’s personal effects after six months the Paintsville police put them up for auction. By then Pennywell had been on the street for a couple of weeks.

He sat silently through the auction, watching and waiting. The last of his money had gone for another old beater, a Dodge this time.

Iverson’s property turned out to be a small shoebox filled with a watch, his high school wring, a few other beat up trinkets. A neat little man named Rasmussen bought it for less than twenty dollars.

Pennywell followed Rasmussen back to a brick building in what there was of Paintsville’s downtown. A sign over the door said PAYDAY LOANS AND PAWN.

As Rasmussen was opening the door he heard a voice say, “Pardon me…” He looked around sharply but all he saw was the business end of Pennywell’s fist.

Pennywell left him lying in the doorway and drove off with the box.

A few miles outside of town he opened it up and dug in. The locket was there, a simple oval on a gold chain. He opened it up and there she was, Marie, her black hair in the frumpy style she’d worn when they met. It had been nearly three years since he’d seen his wife’s face.

There was another picture there, a photograph of a young man, smiling, clean-cut. Pennywell glanced at it, then snapped the locket shut and hung it around his neck.

The rest of the box he stuffed in a concrete culvert.

The next day, with nothing to do, he drove up to Cincinnati and cruised his old neighborhood. There were children playing in the front yard of his old house. Marko was there too, working in his garden. He eyed Pennywell’s Charger suspiciously.

That night Pennywell went out looking for a woman. It had been a long time and he was tired of jerking off. He cleaned himself up, put on his best clothes, and drove around looking for the right place.

The tavern he chose had several motorcycles lined up outside. It looked a little rough but Pennywell was beyond fear. He got a Bud longneck at the bar and stood looking over the prospects.

There was one blond down the bar, she was cute. He watched her chat with the waitress and flirt with the bartender for a few minutes before taking the seat next to her. “Hey, honey,” he said. “May I buy you a drink?”

She smiled sweetly but said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think-”

“What the fuck are you doing?” came a bellow from behind him. Pennywell turned to see a large man advancing on him, his face beet red.

“I’m sorry,” said Pennywell calmly. “I didn’t realize she was here with someone.” He climbed off the stool, chest to chest with Red. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“Get the fuck away from me, faggot!” Red shoved him against the bar and drew back an arm. Pennywell stepped inside the swing and butted his head into the man’s nose.

As Red clapped his hands to his face Pennywell grabbed his beer and smashed the bottle open against the bar. Without hesitation he jammed it into the man’s neck just behind the hinge of his jaw.

Pennywell stared down at the dying man for a moment, then turned and left the bar. No one moved to stop him.

Driving north into Ohio, he wasn’t worried. The police would check his fingerprints and find Alex Cobb, but he was Kenneth Pennywell. He would move to a new town and start over, shave his beard and grow his hair again. He’d made that leap before, he knew he could do it again if he just tried.

He knew he could.

If he tried.

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