Michael P. McManus has published poems and short stories in numerous journals. He has been awarded a writing Fellowship from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Virginia Award and Ocean’s Prize for poetry. He attended Penn State and the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He is a Navy Veteran and service-connected Disabled Veteran. He recently returned home to his native Pennsylvania, where he lives in Millheim.
The prisoner read the letter for the eighth and final time. He lay back on his bedroll that covered the concrete cot. The letter dangled in his left hand. Then he watched it flutter to the floor. It was three hours until lights out.
From the other cells along the block came cacophonies: shouting, murmuring, cussing, explosions of rage. A pulsing din to which he himself had grown immune with time. Like the other cells, his own was a closet-sized space surrounded by cinder block walls, with a stainless steel toilet and lavatory combination secured to the back wall. He had no choice but to look out through the bars of his cell when he shat and he had never gotten used to it—as if the only toilet at his home sat exposed on the front lawn.
Being in prison was like being married to a woman he could not escape. If he possessed anything in this one-sided marriage, it was time to think. He had many questions about life, but one that he asked himself—whether the immortal soul existed—was perpetual.
As a reward for his good behavior, he was permitted to keep novels from the prison library. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, among others, covered his desk. He had first read Hemingway at Dam Neck Naval base in Virginia when he was twenty-one, the gray waves crashing on the far side of the barrier dunes as a storm approached, a cold hard rain pelting the windows of the tiny library. He was now forty-five, a disciplined passionate writer who had been working hard on his craft for the past six years.
He stared at the small light in the white ceiling as if it was a dying star, but one whose brightness was still strong enough to hurt his eyes, which were watering as he closed them. Floaters drifted beneath his lids as if he was privy to something not of this world. He imagined it as the transition between life and death when souls left on their journeys.
He stood up and went to the cell door where he stood listening for the familiar footsteps. As the older guard approached, the prisoner stepped back. He lowered his head in submission because the guards, with good reason, trusted no one—any action by a prisoner, no matter how docile and well-intended it appeared, could be a front—a precursor to violence.
The guard stopped to study the prisoner through deep blue eyes.
“Mr. Leeson, good evening. How are you? How’s the family?” The prisoner’s questions were sincere and spoken in a soft voice.
“They’re doing well, Petcoff. My oldest son, Mark, is returning from Iraq next month. It’s one homecoming I hope he never repeats. What’s with you tonight?”
“Would Father Schwartz be available?” asked the prisoner. “It’s important.”
“Please, come on. It’s important. Yesterday he told me he was staying on the prison grounds until Saturday. He told me he would be available until then. I’m not trying to cause any problems.”
Leeson studied Petcoff’s red eyes. He had never seen Petcoff like this. He had come to know the prisoner as a man who showed little emotion. A man who, when he laughed, did so in a subtle, almost inaudible expression of joy.
Petcoff practiced stoicism because it made his life easier in prison.
“Please, Mr. Leeson. It’s very important. I’m in a bad way. I think you know me. I’ve never been a troublemaker. But now I feel something terrible might happen. I don’t want that. I don’t want any kind of trouble.”
“Petcoff, what is it? We’ve all got problems.”
“I told you. I’m in bad way. I need to speak with Father Schwartz. Mr. Leeson, I’ve always been on the up with you, haven’t I?”
Petcoff believed in Leeson—believed that he trusted him, despite that he was serving time for manslaughter. Many times Petcoff had wondered what the Petcoff would have done to another man he found fucking his wife.
“Let me see what I can do. Is that good enough?”
Twenty minutes later, Leeson and Father Schwartz stood outside Petcoff’s cell where Leeson’s authoritative voice bellowed through the cellblock. “Open forty-two.” The gears clicked, wheeled, and ratcheted as Petcoff’s cell door slid back.”
“Thank you, Mr. Leeson.” Petcoff extended his hand, but Leeson ignored it. He stood off to the side out of sight.
“Father Schwartz, thank you for coming to see me, especially since I am not a Christian or much of anything else.”
The priest smiled. He had green eyes, a weathered face, and thin gray hair combed across his small head. He was a little man; one who Petcoff believed had never known the rush of physical intimidation towards another human being.
“Let’s sit down and talk about why I’m here.”
“Please.” Petcoff, sitting on the edge of his cot, motioned for Schwartz to sit down in the desk chair. He pointed to the floor
“A letter? This is about a letter?”
Petcoff nodded. He stood up and spread his arms as if he was preparing for his crucifixion. “Father, is there something more than this?”
Father Schwartz placed Petcoff back on his cot by moving his hand down to sit. “What do you mean?” he then asked. “Are you talking about eternity?”
“Father, do you believe in soulmates? Not as in a Harlequin romance novel, but something that moves across distance and time. An energy shared by two persons who know it as tangible and real.”
Father Schwartz leaned forward, “Mr. Petcoff, I would not read a Harlequin romance novel even if the Pope ordered me.” He chuckled at his impropriety towards the Vatican. “But, yes, I do believe that humans can be soulmates with Christ.”
“That’s conceptual,” said Petcoff. “It’s patronizing. If I accept Christ, He shall accept me.”
“Mr. Petcoff, you asked a question. I answered. Do you believe in God?”
“Yes, I suppose I do. However, not in your God. I believe in a God that is greater than any definition man can give to Him.”
“These things would serve well in a debate. But what about the letter? Something in it has troubled you?”
Petcoff’s hand brushed across his shaved head. He had had the prison barber shave it his first month in prison and afterwards made a vow to stay bald until his release. Petcoff looked to the priest and back to the floor, where he saw her standing beside a narrow mountain stream winding through pine trees. Dragonflies darted above the cold, clear water. When one tried to land on her hand, she shrieked and stepped back laughing. A cloud moved across the sun and she appeared troubled by the shadow, glancing skyward until it had gone, her blonde hair as bright as the sun. She knelt to dip her hand in the water. She was thinking of him. Long ago, he had married her in his mind. If anyone knew it, she did.
“Father, this letter comes from a very, very, close friend.”
“Your soulmate?” Father Schwartz interrupted.
“Yes it is. She wrote to tell me about her mammogram. It turned up something. I’m not certain what that means, but it can’t be a positive sign.”
“Mr. Petcoff, it’s wonderful to feel such compassion for another human being. Within these walls, compassion has little place, but you have it. And now that you can’t leave this place, you feel the need to help her, but you cannot. Is that correct?”
“Yes. I can do nothing but wait and hope.”
“Yes. Wait. Hope. Still, how can you prove that this woman is your soulmate?”
“Do you care, Father? Do you truly care?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, I can’t prove it. No, I can’t. The only prove I have are those things that Carol and I have shared. Why should it matter to others? In our conversations, Carol and I often answer the other’s sentences. When we talk on the phone, well, words are inadequate, but this tremendous energy passes between us. It leaves me shaking. It’s wholly unique to us. Us, Father. Us. There is a ubiquity in Us. Does that make any sense to you?”
“How long have you known each other?”
“How did you meet?”
“In the hospital, after I had been shot. She worked there as a nurse.”
“And what does she ask from you?”
“To follow my dreams while she waits for me. It sounds so cliché, doesn’t it?”
“Follow your dreams? Conceptually?”
Petcoff laughed. “No, I intend to become a writer.”
“Yes, that. I’ve read some of your published work.”
“Prison stuff, Father. Nothing adequate.”
“Why did you kill him?”
Petcoff first believed that the priest was speaking in a metaphor, asking why Petcoff had forsaken Christ. “Father, are you asking for my confession? You know that I am not a Catholic.”
“No. I want to learn more about you. Perhaps, I want to believe that soulmates can exist in our lives.”
“And you think a killer’s confession might help?”
“Yes, I do.”
Petcoff began to tremble, not from fear or loathing, but because he heard her telling him it was OK to place his trust in this man across from him. “Father, I killed him because he slapped me. Not because I caught him fucking my wife. It didn’t matter to me who she fucked. We were going to divorce. But after he slapped me like I was some little bitch, I punched him in the temple. He fell back against the wall. Maybe he believed I was going to kill him. I wasn’t until he pulled a pocket pistol from his blue jeans. After he shot me in the thigh I killed him.”
Petcoff recalled the rage and anger he felt after he knocked the pistol away and knelt over the smaller man—the pleasure that came with grabbing his windpipe and squeezing until the cartilage crushed between his hand. He had never forgotten forgot the dying man’s blue eyes. One minute they were livid with fear, but still alive, perhaps clinging to hope. Then the light in them went away, as if they belonged to a sinking ship at night on the ocean. Any remaining brightness disappearing into the murky depths.
“I need to go now.”
“That’s it? You hear my confession and then you leave?”
“Mr. Petcoff,” Father Schwartz said as he stood up, “Forty years ago, I loved a woman as much as anything I have loved in this life. She died young. It no longer matters how. But her death convinced me that God did not exist, for why would He allow such suffering? I entered the seminary in search of that truth. Would you believe that I still hear Lisa speaking to me at night? I’d like to think that God has something to do with it. Now, Mr. Petcoff, would you believe any of my truths?”
“I wish you wouldn’t leave. The lights will be out soon.”
“I must leave.”
“Because I do believe in soulmates and in what you have told me. Now I must go and pray that this does not happen again. I will not have others searching as I have searched. I must pray that in your time you will return to your soulmate.”
In the darkness, Petcoff turned on his side. He stared out through the bars. She walked in wearing a black silk robe, which she let slip to the floor. Her toes were painted red and there was the lovely green Celtic chain tattoo circling her left ankle. She opened the windows and the sheer curtains moved from the breeze. She crawled into bed, her stomach flat, firm, and tan. As they made love the wind chimes chinkled outside the window.
Leeson reached into his boxers. He had little time before another guard walked by on his rounds. So little time left if all the fantasies ended.