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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Prison, Crystal, Pants
He keeps a small box in the closet. The bottoms of hanging shirts cover the box like a hiding child. The box is glossy white. Inside is an onyx cube – a crystal the color of midnight with eight smooth sides, a sharp point, and a rough burnt looking end. It’s a black crystal, and it’s the size of the barrel on a guard’s gun.
His name is Pants McDonovan and he shaves slivers off the black crystal on a daily basis. He uses a fifty-hour sharpened spoon kept under his mattress. Gripping the spoon, he carefully uncurls a fingernail-size piece from the crystal. Tapping the edge with his thumb, he makes sure there is a sharp edge to cut the mouth’s flesh.
Someone claps shoes together. Dirt clouds float past the cells.
McDonovan sits on the bed with the black crystal floating in a pool of saliva beneath his tongue. His legs are splayed in a wide V. He throws himself back, aiming for the pillow, but accidentally hits his head against the wooden headboard.
Head on pillow, box resting on his stomach, McDonovan presses his tongue on the crystal until it’s angled against the gums, directly at the roots of his bottom front teeth. He pushes it in, and the sound, like the tearing of cheesecloth, rings his head in multi-colored concentric circles. He sees an image of himself, age seven in the farm, kissing Mom goodnight, the puppy barking nearby. When the family was a family. When he played with Remy in the crystal mines, jogged with Dad through dusty streets. Dinner at 6:00 and everyone getting along. The sun small and innocuous.
Needles stitch his jaw.
The box wobbles with the rising of his breath.
A heat flash pools across his chest and drips from his ribs.
Pants McDonovan sits up and takes a monster-sized inhale – eyes huge and bulging, wanting to escape from their sockets – chest puffed in rash, arms stiff at his sides with fists punched through the mattress. Without looking, he moves the box to his side. For a moment, his fists and feet go numb with pinpricks. Then he leans over the bed, away from the cell bars, and spits a glob of sparkling blood on the cement floor.
More dust clouds from the clapping shoes float by. A vision of healthy Mom in the debris with seven faint-looking crystals glowing inside her chest.
He keeps spitting, the glob a thick shinning stream with no end.
This is a reaction from eating crystal that happens once every two hundred times. A cleansing. When the stream finally detaches from his mouth Pants McDonovan falls to the floor and does 50 pushups – his ponytail wrapped around his neck hitting the floor before his chest. The muscles in his arms tighten, and turning his head, he spit-sprays the wall with final blood.
McDonovan stands. He touches the heat inside his forearms by way of his lips. His shirt, a ridiculously huge white t-shirt hand-me-down with a duck drawing, is sweat-saturated and he pulls the shirt off and whips it a few times around his head before helicoptering the shirt across the room and into a corner near the cell bars. He rolls his neck. He jumps up and down and says in shorts bursts, “Whew! Ho! Whew!”
For the next hour, Pants McDonovan jogs in place inside his cell imagining a burning sunset at his back, the family dog at his side. He runs his hand through the top of his buzz-cut hair before touching the rubber-band holding the ponytail. Once pulled through, he shakes his head, and a flap of blonde hair bounces with the pumping of his legs. He’s on a beach. He’s telling the tide to wait. He’s shouting to Mom that she will live forever. He stops once during the hour, to close the box with the black crystal inside and place it back in the closet under the hanging shirts.
A guard on the PA announces lights out in the prison. Pants leaps into bed and is asleep within seconds, dreaming, back on the beach running. People yell, ask him if he’s okay. It’s not day or night, but some fucked in-between. The sky has been replaced with flat black crystals, and between each black crystal is a fuzzy line of yellow light. Ocean water over his feet is warm with froth. The dog runs at his side and Pants says to him come on, faster boy. Let’s go! Let’s go see Mom and tell her she is fine, that no illness can take her away. That she will always hold one fat crystal deep inside her belly.
Ellsworth Correctional is quiet with only the night-shift steps of patrolling guards.
Shane Jones’s novel Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Penguin) will be published in August. His other books include Light Boxes, The Failure Six, and A Cake Appeared. He lives in upstate New York.