THE LIGHTNING BUG
by Adam McCulloch
Everyone has a type. She was mine. I could tell before we even met. I’ve always been good at summing people up. As soon as I walked into a place I knew who was going to hide, who would piss their pants, who’d pull a camera and who’d pull a gun. I’ve only been wrong once… okay, twice. Prison is no different. You need to be able to sum up a person quick-smart or you’ll likely end up with a pencil stuck in your ribs.
I was the god-damn master at first impressions. I had to be. In prison everyone hung out with a car of like-minded psychopaths – everyone except for me and Buddy. We were solo and that meant no one had our backs. We spent most of our time safely racked up in our cells but when the guard called for us to turn out we had to turn out. To Buddy, I was the weatherman. “How’s the weather in the pound?” he’d say. “How’s the weather in the commissary? … the laundry? … the barbershop?”
He never shut up.
And I’d say, “Strong northerly heading south. Hidalgo’s gonna get a soaking,” which meant the Aryan Brotherhood were looking to put some pain on Hidalgo. Or I’d say, “I see folk carrying umbrellas. People gonna get wet,” which meant Folk Nation looked ready to stab holes in People Nation. (They were both black so I could never understand their beef.) “Fine,” meant fine, of course, but the weather was rarely fine. Like I said, I’m not an idiot. I knew how to read people and I knew, from the get-go, that she was my type.
Prison is full of sounds you want to block out but can’t. Fortune and misfortune are two invisible balls that just bounce around the walls all day and night. You want to catch one and avoid the other, especially if you’re solo. You keep an ear out for mumbled plans – especially if you hear your name – and prick your ears up for the rasp of papers (that’s drugs to regular folk) being shuffled between cells. If you’re lucky you’ll hear them being dropped and be Johnny-on-the-spot at turn out before someone else finds them. You learn to tell the difference between the sound of someone doing a regular shit and someone shitting a cell phone. If someone makes a sound like a siren it means the guards are coming and you’d better stop what you’re doing because what you’re doing is probably going to earn you more time. Then there’s the sound of grown men crying and trying not to be heard for it. That’s the worst of it.
So when they offered me education, I was all in. I spent a lot of time in education. It broke up the boredom and hardly anyone got stabbed in education on account of there being so many cameras to stop you stealing things. Mostly I read a lot about insects, not because I had any interest in bugs but just because our library was made up of books people threw away and, well, when was the last time you bought a book on insects? Exactly. They had classes in stuff that nobody cared about too but they were classes all the same and a chance to stare at someone new – someone from outside – someone you hadn’t seen a million fucking times. It didn’t matter what they taught.
The class was telephone etiquette or some-such bullshit. We talked on the phone to instructors pretending to be regular people and they tried to teach us to not sound like common thugs. I figured it was to prep us for work in the call center down the road. Con-men like Buddy used it to hone his skills to find his next mark. Me? I figured maybe I’d get lucky and hear birds or the ocean or music playing in another room. I didn’t expect to hear her voice. So, for five minutes at a time… man, I was in heaven.
Here’s what she taught me about talking on the phone: it’s hard to do well. Some people hold the phone too far away and raise their voice and that just sounds like they’re ordering burgers at a drive-through. Others hold it too close and it sounds like they’re sidling up to shaft you. Plus you have to smile, speak slow and stand up so your voice has energy and never, ever be the first to hang up. That’s how you lure them in. Her voice was never too loud or soft and, man…that accent. I just love a British accent. You could tell her entire life story from just a single sentence. Her words had the briny poetry of East London with just enough plumy-ness to round out her vowels. She’d been poor but had made good, just like me, and she used American words like sidewalk so I knew she’d lived here for a good while too. She said that the key to selling to a cynic was to was to confirm their scepticism, invent a common enemy then offer a solution in the shape of whatever you’re selling, I didn’t believe her at first either, but we were both stuck on the phone and what harm could there be in listening to her talk? See? As easy as that. When I held that greasy receiver to my ear, I heard more than birds in the background – I heard wedding bells.
Here’s something you learn in prison: you can fall in love at first sight without ever having met. Prison is a hive of hate. Everything you love is beyond the walls: real liquor with a label (I’m not talking about the poon they brew in the toilets here); a bunch of keys for you own stuff in your own pocket; king-size beds and toilet doors; faded denims jeans and tieing shoelaces; being ignored, the night sky, but mostly time — everything you love is beyond arm’s reach. For me, love was as simple as this: her breath, her silence. I know it’s not much but morse code is just dots and dashes and I swear she was sending pheromones right down the phone line. Blind people fall in love all the time. They don’t need to see and neither did I.
Buddy said I was talking crap but, in spite of being a friend, he was also the biggest idiot I ever met. Buddy’s favorite hobby was to talk shit about her was while sitting on the can. I figured it was so he could shit on my dream-girl from both ends of his flabby-ass body but that would have been giving him too much credit for understanding metaphor. There were no doors on the toilets facing the sinks and we’d always be there together to mitigate the obvious risk of unwanted stab wounds. He had all these theories: “She’s as big as a whale…She’s a dude… She’s blind and desperate”, he said, “why else would she want to be with you?”
I figured she just loved a man in uniform, even if they were state-issue orange peels.
Buddy was an idiot but he was the first person I met inside. When I was a little fish and didn’t know any better I told him about the robberies. I told him about the money. I guess I was an idiot too back then but I wised up real quick – you have to if you want to survive. But not Buddy. He could have been out three years ago but his big mouth didn’t want him to leave. He’d checked himself into the hole so many times that he could no longer escape whatever drama it was he had coming his way and had to pay it back by getting a savage beat down. When they fixed everything he broke, he came out saying he had some kind of epiphany and that he was a changed man. He latched onto me, figuring he had eight months left to serve and it was safer running his mouth off to me than anyone else. Buddy said opposites attract but that’s bullshit. Birds of a feather fuck together: gulls don’t mate with crows and crows don’t do it with hummingbirds. If they did, they’d be all the wrong shape and would fall out of the sky. I learned that in education too. Animals all have this whole secret code of communication to keep the group strong. Aryan Brotherhood hang with Aryan Brotherhood, Nuestra Familia with Nuestra Familia, Folk Nation with Folk Nation… hell, why do you think they call us jail-birds? No wonder Buddy got beat down so much. Like attracts like and – me and her – we were very much alike.
She asked me what I liked in a girl but I didn’t need to see her to know she was my type. I described my type over the phone and you could hear the joy in her voice as I described her every detail: a psychobilly librarian, with glasses and pale skin. She asked me to draw a picture of her on a piece of paper and I fixed the drawing to my cell wall.
Here’s what else I knew: I had to get to her fast. She had just come out of a long-term relationship and was thinking about dating again. People call it dating but really she was talking about fucking other men but there was anything I could do about it. My cock was serving time too and he wouldn’t be getting his freedom any sooner than I was.
I checked the weather report every day and made sure to not get caught in any sudden downpours. My ninety-eight-day count turned into seventy-three then thirty-one then single digits. The day I got out I said good riddance to Buddy and gave him all my stamps. He needed them – he was broke. He had six months left on his sentence and an ex-wife to beat up on if he ever shook free of Cellblock D. He said he didn’t do that anymore (in prison I guess that made him a real stand-up guy) and that he was in love with some new girl but we both knew we’d never see each other again. My parole officer said I had to stay in Arizona but, fuck that, I knew how to lay low. There was no way I was going back to South Phoenix. The only thing I took with me was the drawing of her, plus the knowledge of what happened to the money I stole.
I headed west.
I rode the bus all night and I bet you everything I ever stole that there never was a happier passenger on that bus. I’d ridden the bus before – I’d done plenty of diesel therapy behind bars. The guards had fitted me with a four-piece suit – leg irons, waist chain… the works – chained me in the back of the truck and had driven me all over Arizona. It doesn’t sound that bad but it’s kind of like the hole on wheels. The first eight hours is easy but after two days, this shit will break you. Nothing could have dampened my spirits on that Greyhound. In prison I’d only ever moved in little circles inside larger ones. This ride was the farthest I’d gone in a straight line in seven years. Every street lamp looked like an Olympic torch and I was on my victory lap.
When I arrived in Pasadena she was standing at the bus stop under a flickering sign. Man, what a sight. She was just as I imagined. Her skin was a little darker but it was night and I was tired and drunk and… hell, I was a free man. She’d been on vacation but her Aruba tan never lasted, she said. She wore cat’s-eye glasses. I hugged her and she smelled of cinnamon.
Buddy thought I was an idiot for blowing my parole on a girl I’d never met but, standing in the rain with my rockabilly chick in my arms, I didn’t care. He said she’d be a big black whale with a hankering for donuts. He was right about one thing: the donuts. Prison commissary wasn’t known for their baked goods. Any zoo-zoos I could have bought tasted like shit and were hardly worth what it took to earn them. I knew she’d like donuts. I may have mentioned it a hundred times on the phone. I may have said, “first thing I’m gonna do is eat donuts and pussy”.
She brought three boxes of donuts to save time and I swear I could have been arrested for indecent exposure right there if it hadn’t a started raining. At her place we fucked and ate until our bellies were full and we lay back in her sheets all sticky with cinnamon. “Do you like my skin?” she’d ask.
“It’s perfect,” I’d say.
“Do I talk funny?” she’d ask.
“I love your accent,” I’d say.
“Do you like my hair?” she’d ask.
“I love it,” I’d say.
“I’m a size six. I can get down to a four if you’d rather?” she’d say.
“You’re perfect,” I’d say.
“What about my boobs? I think one’s bigger than the other. Do you like them?” she’d say.
“Of course, baby. Of course, Baby. Of course, baby,” I’d have to say to keep her quiet.
“It’s just that you came all this way,” she’d say. “I was just worried you wouldn’t like me when you got here.”
“You’re everything I wanted and more,” I said, and then I showed her the drawing.
She seemed happy with that.
For a week we didn’t leave the house but, when we did, I needed new clothes. It’s not like you bring a suitcase of clothes and personal effects to prison with you. She bought me Lee button-fly, boot-leg jeans: the exact style I wore way back when. You might call it instinct but it was more than that. She knew exactly how to get a guy and keep him too. I put the jeans and all the other stuff in her closet and it looked like a god-damn store. I might have moved her dresses a little and I might have looked at the label. She was a size eight not a six but she said they were from England and size eight was different over there and everything she wore seemed brand new.
She set me up with a Facebook page because, I guess I’d been away that long. She told me the movies I would have liked, the music and books we would have read if I’d spent seven years watching movies and listening to music instead of rotting in a cell. I didn’t list my interests as robbing places. I had to remember passwords and pin numbers and mother’s maiden names and stuff I hadn’t thought about in years. She said it was important for starting a new life. She never asked me about the money – Buddy was wrong about that. She never needed to know where it was, what I’d done with it, or if there was any left. All she said was that she loved a self-made man or a man who is ready to make himself. I guess that meant me.
I got a job fixing roads with the Mexicans, and with my first paycheck, I bought her lingerie. I went in the shop on my way home from work and I was covered in tar and dirt and they all looked at me like I was already robbing the place. “Who robs a panty store?” I thought to myself, but it’s not a bad idea if you think about it.
“What size is she,” the girl asked.
“Size six if it’s American. Eight if British.” I told them, feeling smug for showing them that I knew the difference even though I looked like someone who slept in a cave.
“What color eyes?” she said, and I told them blue. I always liked blue eyes. People believe you if you have blue eyes. I never dated a girl with brown eyes – no one trusts brown.
The lingerie fitted as tight as a corset which, I guess was how it was meant to fit. She could hardly breathe but it didn’t matter – not like she spent much time in it. The color was meant to match the color of her eyes but I took a closer look and they looked green to me. She said they were blue but change color in different light or depending on what she’s been eating. I hatched a plan to celebrate our anniversary seeing one of our favorite bands every month until we had caught up to seven years. The first anniversary was the Red Elvises then Switchblade Valentines. Four was Speed Crazy and five and six were both Tiger Army. That was her favorite and she knew the words but got the tune all wrong. She said she was just a bad singer.
Music was my jam, but dancing – I have to tell you – was not. When she was in the ladies, I fell off the stage and broke my hip like some toothless lifer. They gave me drugs and I gave them her name and a description so they could find her in the crowd. She didn’t come for the longest time and when she did, the doctor gave me a look like I must have been thinking of someone else.
After my hip was set she drove me home she carried me into bed. Now, I’m not tall but I’m built like a pit-bull so carrying me upstairs must have been like hauling cement. But I guess love gives people superhuman strength. She was so good to me. In prison they never gave you enough painkillers and any extra nutrition your body needed was passed to you through a tube instead of in the form of pizza which was my preferred method. Prison nurses were always on the lookout for when you were faking it because, at some point you would definitely be faking. It was always far better being in the infirmary than being with your celly, especially if his name was Buddy. I ate pizza and popped pain-killers like candy. I was in heaven.
But on second thoughts it must have been hell because, with all the drugs, I could hear Buddy’s stupid voice going on and on. He was the kind of guy who could breathe and whistle through his nose at the same time. There was no way he could have been here. He had a wife to beat up on in Tallahassee. But then one day he turns up in the doorway.
I guess I always assumed she quit with the call center education as soon as I got out but I guessed wrong. If I could have stormed out right then, I would have. She said she needed to keep at it to pay our bills and, besides, she’s talked with Buddy a whole lot and he didn’t seem so bad. She said I should be grateful for a friend in this world and that Buddy had made it through six months without running his mouth of and that really meant something.
Buddy showed up every day to see how I was doing but he didn’t have much to say – not to me at least. He said he didn’t have anywhere to go on account of his wife having a restraining order against him but, why the court didn’t have the God-given good sense to restrain him from all women, especially mine, I’ll never know. He said he was in love with a girl and that she was leaving her man and he’d be out of my hair pretty soon. He said she was the exact opposite of him, like it proved something. I asked if he meant she was smart, good looking and had a big dick and he just laughed.
When Buddy’s birthday came around I knew I had to do something. He had thirteen birthdays a year most years – more even. He was always greasing up the leg of some poor sap, using his birthday to get better food, easier work, more of the good and less of the bad. By my count his mother had died twenty times already. But no, no, no… today was really his birthday and what did the son-of-a-bitch want? He wanted to go hiking. Buddy liked hiking just about as much as the Aryan Brotherhood like Martin Luther King but this was his birthday wish and he knew I couldn’t join them.
While I stared at the water stains on the ceiling, she and Buddy hiked the canyon and had a damn picnic at the top. Buddy was a lazy slob but he knew about my money, so if he was doing exercise it meant he was working out how to tell her in a way that benefited him the most. I had to tell her before he did.
“Good birthday?” I asked Buddy, trying not to sound too much like I wanted to punch his sweaty face in.
“Great! Birds and all that. I even saw a lightning bug,” he said. “She’s a great girl. I’m surprised you like her. She’s not really your type. Awesome tattoo”.
He was full of shit. I knew more than I cared to know about insects and I knew for a fact that there were no lightning-bugs in California. He was wrong about seeing her the tattoo too but it was clear he planned on hanging around just about long enough to be proved wrong.
He’d go out and leave his music playing in the other room and I’d have to listen to Alicia Keys or some-such shit for hours. She said it wasn’t so bad as background music and that Buddy and his mystery-girl had big plans. Buddy was an idiot – I think I made that clear. The only plan he was capable of was getting swindled into revealing his winnings and ending up right back in Cellblock D. He was a con-man through and through but not a very good one either. Still, he was poisoning her mind. Around me she was one thing. Around him she was something else entirely. I knew I had to tell her about the money before Buddy’s next birthday rolled around.
When my cast came off, I sat her on the bed I told her about the robberies. I explained how you had to be tough in jail. How it wasn’t like I was planning on doing seven years and not have had some kind of retirement plan when I got out. I did the crime, and I sure-as-hell was going to get paid properly for doing the time. I told her the money was in a storage locker in Las Vegas. There was two-hundred grand, maybe even four-hundred including the other jobs. I told her everything.
The only thing I left out was that none of it was true. I didn’t have the money. I didn’t even have a storage locker but I couldn’t let her think that. I had to have a plan.
I did what any red-blooded man in my position would have done: I borrowed money from some crooks and lined up a few jobs to make up the rest. I knew I’d be able to pay them back. I told her I needed three days to get the money from the storage locker in Vegas. After that, we could go anywhere – we’d have to go somewhere. She always wanted to go to Cuba. I didn’t care where.
I bought a cleaner’s uniform because no one remembers cleaners and stayed at the Quality Inn near Bob Hope Airport so that any witnesses would be thousands of miles away by the time I was done. I stole a new car every day and hit the biggest stores within a one-block radius of good-old Bob so the police helicopters couldn’t follow me. When I was through I caught the train back to Pasadena. There’s nothing like carrying three hundred grand on the gold line to make you feel alive. I was sure I’d get rolled for it. It stank like money stinks.
I walked in the door and she was there waiting. She was wearing the lingerie and had a whole dinner laid out. She started to get fresh – and it’s not like me to take a rain-check on pussy – but I smelled like sweat and adrenaline and everyone knows that smell for what it is: fear. I took a shower to get rid of the stink. I could see the dirt and the old me washing down the drain and I knew I’d found the perfect woman and we’d have a good life together with everything I stole. I must have been feeling better because I was getting a little hard so I dropped the towel and headed into the kitchen to see if she wanted a taste of my appetizer.
She was gone and so was the money.
In their place were two of the ugliest cops I’ve ever seen. They didn’t appreciate my excited state, or my having broken parole to go rob half a dozen stores around Bob Hope. They granted me the decency of not arresting me in an indecent state and took me to the station for processing. Now the booking process bores me shitless but when they started asking about her, I sure as hell took notice. She had a sheet longer than mine. I didn’t believe it at first so they showed it to me in all its glory. They said her name was Angela Davis. I said it was Pamela Burns. She was five-eight, 160 pounds and a size 10. I said she must have lost weight because the girl I knew weight 120. They showed me the size tags she had unpicked from her clothes. They showed me the hair dye, the photos, her birth certificate and her passport. They said she was born in Jamaica and that her father was black and her mother white.
I couldn’t see it. I didn’t want to.
Then they showed me all the ex-cons like me and the drawings they had done of her before they got out. The showed me the different outfits she had worn to convince them she was their type. If she had walked in that room right then, I would have been put away for murder, but I had one last trick up my sleeve. I knew how to make a deal.
My lawyer had it all planned. Buddy had been a fish the same time as me and most of what he said didn’t need an answer. But if you listened real hard he said an awful lot without meaning to. It was him who had the storage locker in Las Vegas and him who had stashed if full of winnings. I knew the address and the combination on his lock. There was no way he was going to let that go. His winnings and her takings were enough to set me free.
But as soon as the prosecutor entered the room, I knew I had a whole lot of diesel therapy ahead of me. The prosecutor was five-four, 120 pounds give-or-take, a rockabilly type, and even had the cats-eye glasses. When she spoke her voice was all plums. I was defenseless. I knew right then that Buddy had seen a real life lightning bug and that she was eating him alive right now. I can’t say I blame him. You’ve got to fly to the light that attracts you and there’s not much else to be done about it.
About the Author:
Adam McCulloch is an award-winning fiction writer and NATJA award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Lonely Planet among others. His fiction can be found in Easy Street magazine; Coffin Bell: One; and Tiny Crimes by Electric Literature. He recently won the First Pages Prize at the Stockholm Writers Festival for his unpublished novel The Silver Trail.