Silver Apartments, Nowhere, and Tin Cells

by Katie Haemmerle

He was told to think about the crime he had committed, as though he regretted his decision.   But the familiar sounds of county jail spoons stirring bland soup and forks and knives attempting to cut rubbery meat and waxen vegetables permeated through his mind.  The noises from the metal utensils were familiar for two reasons, with great distance between them.  The first reason came from his recent lifestyle, and the second was nothing but a vague strand of memory from a part of his life that seemed to belong to someone else.  He felt as though instead of developing into one experienced adult, he had diverged into two separate people.  Not much of an adult, he thought, and certainly not an experienced one.  The veteran homeless were probably laughing at him right now as they gathered behind the dumpster wedged between the edge of the park and the back of the local ice cream shop.

            “Stupid kid,” one would say, the others shaking their heads at his mistake that brought him to jail. “He doesn’t know the territory well enough yet.”

            It was his second time in county jail, both times for stealing.  Breaking into a business in town was a poor decision, he agreed with the veteran homeless on that.  But his recent crime?  Not a bad choice, he only made one mistake afterwards that brought the familiar clinking of thin metal, probably tin, to his ears.  At least I have consistent meals now, he thought. 

            Hearing the other prisoners’ utensils scrape the bowls and plates conjured up his single memory and only evidence of living with his parents. Like a dream where vision is blurred and only splotches of people can be made out, he remembered eating dinner with his parents as a boy.  To draw the memory, he had to rely on sounds and vague movements since his mother and father were mere water color portraits painted with extremely diluted pigments.  His mother loved to cook, and besides her son, it was the only part of her life she seemed to enjoy.  The apartment was in a run-down section of the city, a part dominated by rough crowds and garbage.  They lived on the top floor of an old brick building with a rusted fire escape snaking down toward the alley that gave off a stench tolerable only to the stray cats with bald spots rough fur.  The living room, bedrooms (if you could call his room a bedroom, it was more of a pantry) weren’t much to look at.  Torn curtains, fading in spots that received ample sunlight, hung from a crooked rod above the two living room windows.  The grayish wood floor sloped in certain places and was so old it was hard to believe it had been a light wood at one time.  His mother put all her home-decorating efforts into her kitchen.  New appliances were installed and the cabinets were filled with high quality pots and pans.  She always placed a vase of fresh flowers on the table and made sure the old floors were swept after each meal.  But her favorite kitchen item was her set of silverware.  It was an expensive set that had once been her grandmother’s, and if there had been a fire, that set would have been the first thing to go down the fire escape after her son.  She loved to cook and often began her day planning out dinner, and her meals would be the only thing that proved she cared for her son.

            He remembered how the first few minutes of dinner were dominated by the furious scraping of his father’s fork, overcoming his mother’s average fork speed and discouraging any conversation.  After the fork and knife were dropped onto the plate with a thin film of leftover sauce, his father would push back his chair, adding to the city sounds outside a screeching noise and surely leaving a trail of scratches in the old wood floors.  He also remembered how his father would pat his khaki pants after standing up, perhaps brushing crumbs off or checking for his wallet.  A few steps and creaks of the floorboards later and the door swung open to be quickly shut.  His mother’s fork would stop moving and the shape of her head would turn towards the door for a few moments.  There would be a brief moment of silence, where the pulse in his ears would drown out the staccato car horns and wailing police sirens.  But suddenly, as if he were breaking the surface from underwater, the sounds rushed back, but not loud enough to cover the lonely silence of his mother’s fine silverware slowly engraving scratches in her plate.

            They, the orphanage directors, said his father was found in the river, arms splayed out at his sides, bloated face bobbing on the surface, looking towards the depths of the river, probably searching for the bottle he most likely dropped over the bridge.  They also said his mother died of an illness and that she had been sick for years but refused medical help.  But, many years later, he overheard them talking about visiting a mental institution to “check on the boy’s mother.”  From then on he understood the first lie, not a complete lie, but lying by omission.  His mother was alive, but her mind was slowly ebbing away and had been doing so for years ever since the first scratches in the floor and plates were made.  He never asked about his insane mother, and they never offered to take him for a visit.  They all believed it best not to disturb a woman like that by bringing a reminder of her past off the shelf and back into her life.

            “Sjostrom.  Sjostrom!”

            One of the prison guards was shouting at him, pulling his thoughts away from that old apartment and back to jail.

            “Dinner’s over, kid. Get back to your cell,” the guard said pulling him up by the arm. 

“So what’d ya do this time, Sjostrom?”

            They passed by the other cells where prisoners flipped through magazines and shuffled decks of cards.  He was embarrassed to tell the guard his crime, especially with his inmates in hearing distance. Eyes shifting to the sides, he checked to be sure no one else was listening and finally mumbled, “I stole a bike.”

            The guard looked at him, held back a smile, and simply raised an eyebrow.  He suddenly regretted telling the guard his crime.

            “Don’t try to escape,” the guard jokingly warned as he locked the cell and walked away, the click from his boots fading down the hall.

            He stood there for a few minutes, eyes wide, staring so hard through the bars that they became blurred metal framing the dirty tile of the hall.  After blinking once and rubbing his right eye, he lay on his cot on his back, hands clasped under his head, arms sticking out like wings.  Examining the cement ceiling was the only thing to do to pass time in his cell, and he memorized every scratch, dent, and chip in that ceiling.  It was smooth directly above him, but then sloped like an upside down snowy hill before reaching the corner with the chipped white paint that resembled melting snow.  Prison wasn’t too bad, considering he always had food and shelter, but he began to miss his unpredictable homeless lifestyle.  There was always something to do.  Like steal a bike. 

            He  began to think about the crime he had committed, just as the guards had demanded of him.  Thinking, however, meant simply musing, not evaluating his mistake as they wished him to do. It was raining the day he decided to steal the bike that brought him to prison again. Leaning against the sheltered brick wall of the train station, he watched the commuters react to the afternoon storm.  The light drizzle caused little concern, but then a curtain of rain fell, filling pot holes and giving off summer storm’s damp, earthy smell.  A slow roll of thunder could barely be heard above the train engine.  He laughed to himself as the men and women in business suits and pencil skirts and heels fumbled through their briefcases for umbrellas.  Some ran with newspapers over their heads, but the pages quickly absorbed the drops and the pages folded down, ink staining hands.  Those with umbrellas walked with short quick strides to avoid slipping on the soaked pavement.  The chaos of a rain shower always reminded him of the ant hills he had seen the children at the park destroy.  Laughing with mischievous grins, they poured pitchers of water over the ants’ very own Egyptian pyramids.  The ants bolted out of their tomb, angry and disturbed, only to be drowned in water and their carefully placed building blocks of sand.  That’s all people really become, he thought, disturbed ants.

            The air turned cold and he was thankful for the warmth the red bricks provided from the day’s heat.  It would be a comfortable night to sleep by the train station, as long as the police didn’t prod him awake with a night stick and order him to sleep somewhere else.  Parks would be coated in rain, so the dry shelter seemed ideal for the night.  A young boy rode by on a bike, muddy water spewing out from the wheels as he rode through the quickly-forming puddles.  The orphanage had bikes to ride, but he had never owned one before.  Suddenly, he wanted a bike, more than he wanted food or shelter.  There was an abandoned shed in a yard beside the Lutheran church where the other young homeless sometimes met.  Sometimes they watched a family that lived on the other side of the church parking lot.  The kids occasionally had water balloon fights, hiding near the crooked shed, oblivious to the eyes inside.  Cars of family members and friends often filled the lot at holidays and family celebrations.  A black car always parked there too, and each time a boy or girl always stepped out of the driver seat, followed by one or two more passengers.  He had been to that old shed so many times he figured out who drove when.  The tallest boy always drove, but when he was absent, the girl drove.  Sometimes she would come by herself or with two other boys.  One October night, he saw those four kids from the black car and the two older kids from the house run to the parking lot with a flaming rag torch.  The flame perilously cut through the dark, threatening to catch fire to the piles of dry leaves, until it was finally put out.  The kids had walked back to the house where they paused as one of them stooped to the ground and lifted a latch to pull the garage door open.  No lock, he thought.  That was something he had learned from living in the parks and streets; noticing small details.

            The rain had stopped and the dark grey sky was to the east.  The sky above him and to the west was a light, piercing grey, the thin grey shade the sun burns right through like tissue paper.  Early morning, he would set out to that unlocked garage, but until then, he may as well sleep.  Lying on his side, his back to the street and sidewalk, he curled up and fell asleep. 

            The whistle of the 1 A.M. freight entered his dream but seemed faded and far away.  But when he woke, the whistle made his shoulders hunch up toward his ears and his eyes squint shut. Angry at the freight for its rude interruption, he flicked off the driver as the front car slid along the rails past the station, knowing the driver most likely wouldn’t even see him.  Just as he was about to mutter a string of curses toward the train, he remembered the bike.  Instead, he thanked the train for its perfect timing. 

            He walked through town down the main road, the only light coming from the tall black street lamps and occasionally the blue glow of headlights.  All of the shops and restaurants were closed, doors locked and chairs stacked on tables.  The street with the Lutheran church came into sight, and he turned onto it.  Looking down the street from the corner, the ancient, full oaks and elms formed a tunnel over the pavement, thick branches from one side meeting in the middle to touch extended branches from the other side.  The canopy of the tunnel blocked out any moonlight, causing him to stumble over a crack in the sidewalk.  He noticed one light on in the house with the unlocked garage, so he went straight to the abandoned shed.  No other homeless were in there.  He stared at the upstairs light while a moth beat against the cracked shed window.  Moonlight poured through the window and he noticed the silver twine of a spider web in the upper corner of the window.  Drops of rain had found their way through the shattered glass, and the web was littered with them, making it look like an elaborate diamond necklace.  When he looked back toward the light in the house, it was gone. 

            Outside the shed, he paused to listen to the silence of the night. Even the crickets were mute, most likely spying on him as he walked across the church lot and approached the garage from the side.  Checking once more to be sure the lights were out, he stepped towards the door and stooped to pull the latch, just as the kid had done that October night.  He realized he had been holding his breath until the latch came loose, and his lungs welcomed the much missed burst of summer air.  After slipping inside the garage, he relied on moonlight from the single window to find a bike.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a patch of yellow unfold across the yard just outside the garage window.  He jerked his head up, inhaled a quick breath and froze.  Light was spilling out of the same window he had watched from the shed.  Someone had heard him.  He grabbed the first bike he could find and took off, not bothering to shut the garage door. 

            On his way out of the tree tunnel, a car was coming towards him.  The brights weren’t on so he doubted the driver could see him on the sidewalk.  He kept riding to where the residential street collided with the main road through town.  Testing out the breaks, he stopped at the corner to look back toward the Lutheran church.  The car pulled into the driveway to the house he had just left. 

            The lights of the prison shut off, and he felt like he really was immersed in his thoughts, back on the tunnel-like street.  A light jingle of metal passed by as a prison guard inspected the cells.  Looking back up toward the ceiling, he thought of his one mistake he had made after stealing the bike.  Of course he knew the family would call the police to report the missing bike.  It wasn’t hard to imagine how the conversation would have gone.  The police man would calmly ask for a description of the bike while the enraged husband complained about the increasing number of homeless and how the town isn’t doing anything about it.  When something is stolen, all fingers seem to point to the homeless person.  He made a poor choice and decided to stay in the same town with his new bike.  One of the veteran homeless would have moved a couple towns east or west instead of risking an encounter with the police.  So they weren’t surprised when they saw the cop pull him aside from the crowd gathered outside the coffee shop. 

            He must have fallen asleep on his cot below the chipped ceiling because he woke up to the clinks of silverware as the prisoners ate breakfast.  The scraping of tin against plate once again brought him back to that damp city apartment and this cement cell.  The clinking and scraping filled his ears, louder and louder, his memory controlling the volume of his surroundings.  He heard his mother call him to the table to eat.

            “Sjostrom.  Sjostrom!”

            His memory muted the volume.  The prison guard from last night was outside his cell.

            “C’mon, kid, they’ve been in there ten minutes already.  You better eat fast.”

Following the guard into the cafeteria, his memory worked up the volume in a slow crescendo; mouths moving without sound, metal, scraping, and finally, loud voices as the jail commotion rushed back.  The metal scraping overpowered the other noises.  He felt comfortable.  At ease.  At home.