Chapter Fifty-six

   I have to keep it very low -- you can understand why -- the others are listening. They're always listening. You can actually hear them listening. In any case, whatever I say or think is irrelevant. I'm a number now, a number, that's all.
   See? I better whisper. Boy, it's cold in here. And dark. It's too dark to read. It's so dark I can't even read what the hell I'm writing, which might account for irregularities in the text -- but I promise, I won't be in here forever. And, once I'm out, I know just what I'll do. I'll take a few million out of my lottery winnings and buy this place and turn it into the historic birthplace of some famous person, I haven't decided who yet, and sit back and watch the tourist dollars roll in. (That was the idea I had just before the cab was about to hit me.) What will happen to all the inmates? you ask. I'd let them go. And I'd give each one a million dollars, tax free, to do with as he pleases.
   "Yaayyyyyy!" came the chorus.
   And then, with the money pouring in and my future secure, Maureen and I would take a drive across this great big land of ours. I'd try to soak up some of the native culture out there, to please readers like that fellow from Togoland, and we'd definitely stop at the Sizzler in Albuquerque that Uncle Lupo stops at many years from now and amaze them with my ability to see way into the future. And then, I don't know, maybe we'd play miniature golf or something. We'd also probably visit a lot of those roadside novelty attractions, if they still have them, places like "The Thing" or the "Vortex" or "The Mystery House." Or, we'd check into a motel, one of those small six-unit places that seem to anchor every truck stop in the southwest. The kind of place that caters exclusively to moody psychopaths and serial killers on the lam, so popular with that crowd in fact that a moody psychopath bought a place a few years ago and is turning a profit as of last month.
   "Hey, Breachy Boy!" hollered an inmate -- that's what they called me, Breachy Boy -- "We've got a plan. Are you in or out?"
   A plan? What kind of plan?
   "An escape plan! We're breakin' out of here. Are you in?"
   Uh, sure, but this isn't exactly a drunk tank. It looks pretty secure.
   "There's always a way."
   Then how can I help?
   "Can you make yourself invisible?"
   "That's all right, we've got someone else who can. How are you at scaling walls?"
   I don't know. Average, I guess.
   "Then you're on the assault team."
   Assault team? This is organized, isn't it?
   "Absolutely, we've got every -- Sh!" He shushed as the guard's heavy steps were making their way down the floor.
   "What's goin' on here, Reynolds?" he asked me in the worst Irish accent I've ever heard. "You stirrin' up the other prisoners, are ya?"
   I denied it.
   "Speak to me directly, Reynolds!"
   Oh, sorry. I deny it.
   "You know, Reynolds, these other fellas are in here for some pretty serious stuff. Murder, attempted murder, mayhem, attempted mayhem, you name it. If I were you, I wouldn't take any chances. Don't trust 'em. If they ask you to go in with 'em on an escape plan, don't fall for it, it's the oldest trick in the book. Keep to yourself, if you want to get out of here alive. That's all. Lights out!"
   The lights were extinguished and the guard walked slowly away and locked, and latched and bolted, and barred the massive door to the corridor. And left me there, with my thoughts. But now, after what he just said, I had to wonder who to believe? The inmates, or the guard?
   "Don't listen to him, Breachy Boy, he's just tryin' to assert his authority. By the way, just what kinda contract did you breach to get thrown in the clink with such unsavory types like us?"
   I was writing a novel -- this novel -- and I was supposed to return the few bucks they fronted me, barely enough to cover three months back rent and some assorted debts which, if I didn't pay them off would have landed me in here anyway, so I guess you can't win.
   "Why'd they want the money back?"
   I hadn't (and still haven't) finished this book.
   "What'd you say? You said something in there I didn't get."
   Oh, what, inside the parentheses? That was for the readers.
   "Readers? What readers?"
   The readers. The people (and some chimps, perhaps) reading this at this very moment.
   "You mean, right now, at this very moment, someone is reading this?"
   Yes. I hope.
   "Then, let's take advantage of it, Breachy Boy. Ask one of your reader friends to skip ahead and see if our escape plan works -- and if it doesn't we can do something else."
   I don't know if that's possible, but --
   "Hello? Hello? I'm a reader -- and I skipped ahead to the next chapter and read where you almost escaped successfully, all of you, except that Mr. Reynolds here dropped the keys. If Mr. Reynolds doesn't drop the keys you'd have made it out easily."
   Hmm. So, then what happened?
   "Well, the guard wakes up and alerts the gunners in the turrets and the flood lights are turned on and you're all mowed down like it was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre."
   Ouch. Well, I guess if I don't drop the keys we'll be getting out of here tonight, boys! (Ever the optimist.)
   Escaping was easy. Maureen met me on the outside in the Aston-Martin and had the good sense to bring a valise loaded with money. I gave a million dollars each to my fellow ex-inmates and then it was off to the State Department of Prisons where I purchased the pertinent penitentiary in question and set about converting it into "The Birthplace of Harry Truman." A few million bucks in renovating costs later, plus another million or two in Truman memorabilia, and at least another three hundred million in publicity and legal fees -- and the place was thriving. A public opinion poll even had it as one of the top five tourist attractions in New Mexico, even though Truman was from Missouri. We were set for life. It was then that I proposed a car trip across this great land of ours.
   "Sure," she answered immediately. And we were off. First stop? Where else, but...
   "Sizzler!" Maureen screamed in reverie, at which point I reminded her -- by miming eating a really tough piece of meat -- that Sizzler was not Chez Fantastique. Nonetheless we soon found ourselves pulling into the crowded Sizzler parking lot and before you knew it we were on line to place our orders.
   Just give me a baked potato, I told the kid behind the counter.
   "Just a potato? I'm sorry, sir, I can't do that."
   Of course you can.
   "I'll have to charge you for an entire dinner."
   "You can have my potato," Maureen volunteered, ever the mature, reasonable, understanding, supporting character.
   No thanks. Give me a cup of coffee.
   "That's it?"
   That's it. He rang up sixty-five cents, I paid him, and sat down at the nearest unoccupied clean table. Maureen then ordered enough for both of us. She got steak, ribs, lobster, chicken. She got two baked potatoes and two soups and two desserts. And don't forget the salad bar.
   "Here, Jim, I got extra for you. You can't go all day on just coffee."
   Why not? I snapped, pumped up on coffee. How are those potatoes?
   "Have one. Have both. I don't eat baked potatoes."
   I couldn't.
   "Please, go ahead. I got them for you. I got all of this for you. I'm not even hungry. I'm saving my appetite for that pecan shake I've seen advertised along the highway for the last five hundred miles."
   I started on one of the baked potatoes, mashing in a little sour cream, some chives, sprinkled on some pepper, some salt -- it was good. I ate the other potato the same way. And then, my appetite whetted, I ate the lobster, and then the steak, and the chicken, and the ribs. And then, when Maureen left to go to the bathroom, I took advantage of the all-you-can-eat salad bar and filled several plates with a good sampling of everything from jello salad to jello. I was about to go back for seconds when she returned.
   "Jim -- you finished everything?"
   "Have you ever thought about entering an eating contest? I'd bet the store on you."
   When I'm hungry I can eat, that's for sure.
   "No, I'm serious, you should enter one."
   What, you want me to do a chapter on an eating contest?
   "Why not?"
   That's ridiculous.
   "The bowling vignette wasn't bad."
   Did I write that? Or was that Vonnegut?
   "I don't remember. Anyway, what's the difference? Just do it."
   All right, all right.

(This ends Chapter Fifty-six.)

Chapter Fifty-seven