Recent winner of Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” contest, Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals (Publication Studio / Pilot Editions 2014) and the codex White Horses (Nada 2010). His other work appears in McSweeney’s, Slice, The Believer and elsewhere. “Arena” was written as part of a fellowship with the I-Park Foundation and first appeared in Issue Seven of Tincture Journal, available for purchase here. Visit Douglas at www.douglaswmilliken.com.
The old man sleeps through the night and in the morning, remains in bed. The bunk above him is empty, as are those on the other side of his cell. No pictures on the walls. From the one high window, white light pours between the bars as a milky steam while down the block, other men stir awake. But they are quiet in their waking. The old man lifts his lined and tired face from the pillow just once, sees that everything is exactly as it’s been, turns back toward the wall, and sleeps.
The boy considers himself lucky. Until now, he’s never had to serve. Not too bad a streak. He’d taken the ferry over because he’d heard there were old military bunkers on the island’s far side, tunnels and unlit chambers where he could squat and read books and occasionally wander into the hamlets for food. But the local constabulary picked him up almost immediately on charges of vagrancy. Which, he had a hard time denying, was precisely his arena of guilt.
The island’s jail is huge given it’s small population. It will only later occur to the boy that this is part of the facility he was seeking. The prison van rolls past the gates and he’s led through the halls inside, where he is struck by the interior silence. Barely a sound above the echoing footfalls landing on damp concrete. He’s deloused and given fresh clothes, blankets, and a bedroll, then is escorted to a cell with two empty bunk beds and a latrine in between, and it’s only after he’s heaved his roll onto a vacant bunk that he notices the old man, curled beneath a blanket and—with a startled “oh!”—now no longer asleep.
High above the concrete box of the prison, seagulls turn lazily in the sky, wings outstretched and gliding. Only their gun-turret heads are at work, seeking any scrap to eat for which they will not have to work. The light of the sun paints the whole sky white and in some places the water shines pure and white as well. As if ocean and sky have become the same thing. An island afloat in flawless white. These are the things the boy saw before being led into prison. They’re things the old man has forgotten.
The boy winces an apology when he sees the old man startled and blinking from within his woollen nest of blanket. Both men are dressed in grey pants and grey button-up shirts. The old man’s clothes are more threadbare than the boy’s. The boy unrolls his bedroll on the opposing top bunk, strips down to his white undershirt and clambers up into his berth, springs singing rustily beneath his weight. In motions synchronised and blindly incidental, the boy leans back and folds his arms behind his head while the old man sits up to press his bare feet into the floor.
One last quiet moment of aloneness passes in their cell. The boy fixes his eyes on the ceiling and sees neither concrete nor stone but a remembered girl, waded knee-deep from the shore and bent in half to splash salt water in her hair. The old man breathes deeply and rubs his eyes, itchy with sleep, and scrapes his bare feet against the concrete floor for warmth. Outside, the sound of flocking seabirds ebbs and fades through the window. Then the boy speaks, and their individual solitude becomes shared.
“So how’d you land here?” The question is not an idle politeness. He really wants to know. But the old man only holds an extended finger to his lips and hisses. When the boy looks down at him, surprised, he winks.
The prison contains only a couple dozen men; most of the cells are empty. Those that are occupied usually hold two men. It’s considered good policy not to keep anyone too alone. It is healthy, the warden believes, to have another man to whisper to. Whenever possible, an even number of prisoners is maintained.
Among the population, not one man feels he’s been wrongly accused. Each is certain: this is where he belongs.
In whispers, the old man and the boy exchange names. But these are not the names they knew and used when these two men last met. Nearly twenty years have passed since either has seen the other, and they are changed, especially the boy. When he tells the old man his age, the old man just hums and nods. He does not speak his thoughts. Instead, after a moment’s internal disambiguation, he says, “When I was your age, my pop caught me in the barn with my cousin Ethylene. Dragged me through the yard by my ear while I hollered and flopped like a fish. Then he tossed me in the compost.”
“Seems to me you’d’ve been old enough to decide for yourself whether or not to plow that field.”
“Seemed that way to me, too. Yet all evidence suggests I was wrong on that account.”
“Your pop,” the boy says, “sounds like a prick.”
But the old man says, “I liked him,” and both are surprised by this revelation. He really hadn’t known he meant it until it was said. The old man smiles at his memory. “He taught me lots of stuff.”
The boy had enjoyed being on his own. He liked travelling around. There were people everywhere and most were interesting and those who weren’t could be walked away from. His patience and high tolerance for bad luck would have, in another life, made him a fine teacher. But he liked the life he’d chosen. He could always find work when he needed it because he was strong and learned quickly and didn’t care how hard or dirty a job could become. His employers—mostly farmers or men who ran warehouses—were always sad to see him go. But isn’t leaving what you know just as exciting as finding something new? He’d wander to the next town or the town after that and roost for a while in an empty barn or farmhouse forgotten by time. These places are invisible, he learned, and they are everywhere. He could buy food or steal food and it all felt the same. The money he had mostly went to books. Those, he believed, were a crime to steal, though he felt no qualms about leaving them behind.
“I came out here on some bum advice,” he explains. He’s moved his bedroll to the lower bunk so they can keep talking in lower tones. In this way—the conscious silence—the jail is like a library. As if it were a fine hard candy, the boy savours the whisper of their words. “I’d been told by this guy that I could live easy out here in the old Army barracks. But the cops picked me up almost as soon as I got off the boat.”
The old man smiles but says nothing. The boy will figure it out. In his hand, the old man holds a yo-yo. Now and then he does a little trick.
“How about you?” the boy asks. “How long you been here?”
It’s the way branches move with the wind, the way the old man’s shoulders shrug. “Long enough to grow a beard, I guess.” He’d lived on the island for a while, having moved here after things stopped working with his wife back on land. He’d married late in a poorly-timed moment of forgetfulness, his memory of wilful solitude and drifting returning only after he’d sworn himself to the company of a quick and iron-eyed girl. It was a sad, ugly time between that remembering and when he finally gave up on land. He prefers to think the land gave up on him. He crossed the water and for a time held a job replacing shingles on the roofs of people’s homes. It was a task that appeared simple to those who’d never tried it: it took a certain finesse to do it right. Repairing a leak correctly without drawing attention to the repair. He enjoyed accruing that finesse. He became a master at a thing he cared nothing about. As a result, he did not have many repeat customers. And that was OK. A validation. But one day he didn’t feel like doing that anymore. What he wanted to do instead was drink brandy. It was a means to lie on a rock by the beach for days without feeling too guilty. He’d close his eyes with the bottle pressed to his lips and think “this is the life”. Then he’d fall asleep in the sun. Now and then, he wishes he could have made it last. But something must have happened because shortly after making the choice to drink instead of work, he found himself being led to a cell. He remembers: it felt right when they locked the door. He was grateful. But he doesn’t tell any of this to the boy.
The boy watches the old man make a sort of pendulum with the yo-yo. He watches its clutch skitter like an animal, tugging against its leash across the floor. Then he asks:
“So how long’s your sentence?”
The old man snaps the clutch back up into his hand.
“How long is yours?”
But to this, the boy says nothing. It hadn’t occurred to him to ask when they brought him in.
Through the window comes the sound of many seagulls crying all at once. Someone’s found something that everyone wants. The two men listen to the raucous storm of bird call build and reside, until only white light pours in through the window.
“I imagine,” the old man finally says, “we can leave when it seems we’re ready.” He dips his yo-yo down. He dips the clutch back up.
There’s an exercise yard at the centre of the prison, but the old man does not like to go out there. It’s better to stay inside. He’s not sure how he came to this conclusion—all his life, he has loved to work or laze outdoors, in the woods or by the water—but it’s unquestionable how right it now feels to stay in. As if maybe it’s a correction, something he’d always got wrong: running from the oppression of houses.
“I got a ma somewhere,” the boy says when the old man asks after his family. “I don’t know where she is. I doubt she’d’ve stayed put waiting for me to come home. Or if she did, she’d’ve gotten tired of waiting and moved on years ago. She’d stick around somewhere for a good thing, but if something wasn’t good, she’d go. I can’t imagine waiting for me was anything she’d consider good.”
While the boy speaks, the old man bungles a trick. Now his yo-yo’s a mess.
“No,” the old man says. “I doubt she would.” He likes the way this woman sounds. The sort of resolute personality with whom he could easily spend some time.
“How about you?” the boy asks. “You got anyone out there?”
The old man thinks for a moment with the yo-yo’s string tangled in his hands. It’s like the knots contain an answer, the way he studies their cinches and loops. But when he speaks, all he says is, “I had a boy”.
In a while, the cells are opened to the faint scent of food threading through the air. It is lunchtime in the cafeteria. Slowly, the inmates shuffle into the corridor. They concur without words: it’ll be good to eat and see their friends eating. This is the guiding impulse when the boy and old man stand to go, and in the narrows of their cell their bodies are all but touching. They are nearly the same height but of course the boy, being younger, is less bent, less worn down by time, and so looks taller. Standing so closely, they look at each other and smile, their bodies in proximity expressing some sort of agreement. Just as easily as we lose each other, we find one another too. How much does it matter if we know who it is we’ve found? The old man and the boy walk out together to seek their lunch. Neither notices that the other is also duck-footed while outside in the white, where sea and sky fade mercifully one into the other, the seagulls holler, and spiral, and fall.