Prison without Bars



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by Phil Slattery



All Eric could remember of the prison was one large, open bay made of white concrete blocks and holding over a hundred men, who were all young and strong and milled about in dirty white prison uniforms of the same material house painters wear.   The   walls of the bay extended up about twenty feet and joined to a dirty white ceiling.  The far wall of the bay faded into darkness.  Instead of cells, there were low walls of maybe knee height, which divided the bay into corridors and cell-size enclosures.  In the wall that opened onto a corridor, each enclosure had a gap to serve as a door.  Eric was in an enclosure against the bay’s southern wall, which was made of plate glass.  At its eastern end the wall had a short flight of steps leading down to a door to a large, grassy prison yard surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.  Eric sat on a bench with his back to the south wall and a man of about sixty and with white hair sat on the bench a few feet to Eric’s right.

Eric could not remember his conversation with the man.  They might have spoken of women.  But Eric knew what had brought him there.   His recollection was of shadowy, blurred men in white suits and black ties, who were with the government and were giving him and the old man an assignment to go undercover and find someone in the prison.

The old man handed Eric a photo of a bearded, black man he had hidden in a book.  He was their assignment.  Soon it would be time for lights out. They would find the man tomorrow.  A tall, black man resembling the man in the photo came to the gap in the wall of Eric’s enclosure and spoke to Eric and the old man for a few minutes before moving on.  As the man spoke, Eric watched the men going down the steps and out into the courtyard. 

It was Eric’s and the old man’s first night in the prison.  He wondered what the night held for them after the lights were out.  He wondered how long he and the old man would be there.  He dreaded the thought of communal showers.

Eric awoke in his bed at home and lay on his back trying to recall the details of the dream for several minutes.   He did not think about it later when he took a shower or brushed his teeth, but as he was toweling off he remembered it.

It was his day off from work, so Eric put on his pajamas back on, checked his e-mail, and lay on his couch to make his plans for the day.  The dream still bothered him.  He wondered what psychological force had caused him to dream of being in prison.  He had dreamed of being in prison before, so maybe it was better to think of the dream’s origin as a psychological tide, which returned periodically with subtle but overwhelming force, rather than a single event.   

Eric’s theory was that dreams reflect unresolved emotions and feelings from our waking lives.  The first feeling he associated with prison was that of confinement.  So it was probably a feeling of confinement in his life that inspired the dream.  Eric dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, and then picked up a tin of small cigars and a cigarette lighter and went out to the lounge chair on his front porch to think about what was confining in his life.

Looking at the shabby condition of the stairs leading from the ground to his apartment made him think first of living in an apartment.  A lot of college students lived in complex and music often played loudly until late into the night, unless Eric called the police now and then. And if Eric played his music too loud, he would usually hear about it from the apartment management.

Eric coughed.  The cigars were limiting his breathing, he thought.  Although he usually kept in decent physical shape, over the last few months he had let himself go and he had indulged in some of his favorite weaknesses:  cigars, martinis, high-caloric food, et cetera.  Now he did not have the stamina he had had several months ago.

Within the last few years Eric had also developed a passion for writing that had replaced his passion for outdoor photography.  Now, instead of getting exercise and fresh air in his time off, he spent his time sitting on his ass in front of a computer monitor becoming paler with each day as an innate drive compelled him to finish one story and immediately move on to another.  His passionate drive for success chained him to his desk.

Finally, his job was a low-paying job in the federal government.  Sure, the benefits were good, but benefits did not pay the bills and would not pay for a vacation outside the state once in a while.  He had barely enough money to pay his bills and go out on the town, albeit cheaply, once in a while.  Lack of money also limited his social life and he had not had a serious girlfriend in over three years.  Unfortunately, in his office there were no more higher pay grades in his field.   In order to earn more, Eric would have to relocate at least several hundred miles to find another position for which he was qualified. But Eric loved this city and did not want to leave.

He did not want to leave.  That was the confining factor.   He loved the warm winters in south Texas and had established a few friendships and had grown to love the town and its people.  He did not want to leave.   The things that would bring relief to his situation, he did not want to do.

Eric coughed again.  He looked at the cigar in his hand.  What did he really get out of smoking?  In exchange for a couple of hours of pleasure, he sacrificed his lungs. Wasn’t that what he was doing with his lifeburning it away for pleasure in the short term?

Eric stubbed the cigar out in his ashtray.  Leaving his cigars and lighter behind on the balcony, Eric rose and went back into the apartment.  He went to his desk, switched on the computer, and started rooting around in the bottom drawer of his file cabinet until he found the floppy disk labeled “Prospective Jobs”.  He put it in the computer, opened the proper file, and began updating his résumé.