“What are you in for?”
Now, I had a real Alice’s Restaurant moment here. Except I didn’t get arrested for littering; I got arrested for picking up litter. I was an unlitterer. You cannot possibly get more pansy than that. I almost laughed. But, as it often happens, while my brain was working on the perfect thing to say, my mouth was already running. I heard myself saying “Being free.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell sheer dumb luck from genius. He looked at me. Everybody looked at me. You could’ve heard those cops fart in the interrogation room over at the police station, it was so quiet. He reached out a hand and put it on my shoulder and all I was thinking was, if I ever get out of this, I will never bemoan not being a pretty man again. He smiled down at me and with his other hand pointed to the lunch line. “Get yer grub, come sit with us.” It was then that I could see the Live Free or Die tattoo on his bicep. I did what he said and sat with my new friend, Earl, and listened to some pretty good stories at lunch. Like, when they arrested him, they took his Harley. Some dude outbid his club member for it at auction. “Shit man, that sucks, I’m sorry.”
He just laughed. “That man saved me from buying my own bike. My buddy got his address, when I get out, I’ll just go pick it up.” I didn’t know if he was putting me on or not. So I told them my story and man, they just fell out all around the table. I think the part about the kids got them though, and after that, I got along pretty good. One of the dudes asked me what the deal was with the socks and I explained it to him. The table was quiet. “You were going to fight Earl?”
“I was going to keep standing up until I couldn’t.” I looked around the table. This didn’t get any laughs at all. Just some nods and smiles. Earl looked at me and grinned. “I got that. I really like you, man.”
For the country with the most incarcerated population in the world, I got to tell you, they are not very good at what they do. It took me like a week to get to trial for picking up litter. I spent a lot of time playing cribbage and chess. This one guy, he was teaching us all how to hip hop. Man, I got serious crunk. I got snap and pop. Not like Earl, but he’d been practicing for three months when I got in. Except for the lack of beer and fish, it wasn’t so different from my regular days, which is maybe the saddest thought I ever had. Of course it got sadder when I realized that before I’d walked off the job, I wasn’t really fishing any more then, either. Most people, though, I bet you put them in jail and it wouldn’t really make a hell of a lot of difference to them. Somebody to house and feed them, well hell, that’s why you went to work, wasn’t it? Except I got in trouble for playing chess at the Mill, and I never saw nobody dance there.
I finally got to court. They gave me a lawyer. Some girl just out of law school in a cheap skirt suit thing, her blond hair up to look professional but it was coming out all over the place and really she just looked harried, and maybe a little bit sexy. She came panting up to the long table where I sat in my orange suit with my hands cuffed in front of me, because us litter thieves, we can be a hard lot, you know.
“I haven’t read your file.”
I looked at her and smiled. I had long ago decided that somewhere Fellini was filming this with a hidden cam and I had given into the script. Honestly, I think I was a bit mad. I had to be because surely the world was not sane. “That’s okay. I stole litter.”
“I cleaned up all of the garbage out of a polluted creek.”
She had big glasses and gray eyes and I thought if she didn’t live on vending machine food and gut-wrenching courthouse coffee she might’ve been okay-looking, even pretty.
“You were in the paper!” Then looked at me so earnestly I could’ve kissed her. Does that make me a bad man? Sexist? I shrugged. I smiled. “Did they cover the grizzly criminal details of how I had separated my load into tiny pieces to dispose of it and paid to recycle it? That was the real crime, you ask me.”
She was leafing frantically through her papers. “This makes no sense.”
Right then they did the whole rising for the judge stuff and then the prosecutor stepped up and laid out how I had taken resources from the city property, which added up to enough money to be grand larceny, corrupting youth and all of the rest of it. When he was done, I felt like Dillinger.
She looked at me, frazzled. She spoke to the judge about “lost, mislaid, and abandoned property.” She said something like “A finder of property acquires no rights in mislaid property, is entitled to possession of lost property against everyone except the true owner, and is entitled to keep abandoned property.”
The other guy countered with “titled owner,” “Escheat,” and the “commonwealth’s right of eminent domain.” He threw that bit about interfering with a public waterway, criminal mischief, and alluded to hauling my ass back into court as soon as they found the boys for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, three counts. I got an instant headache. I could tell she had lost, but I thought she must be a pretty good lawyer to rattle that stuff off the top of her head when clearly the other guy had spent a long time preparing. The judge listened to both sides, like he hadn’t already made up his mind, asked if they were done and said he was ready to give his ruling. They made me stand up.
“Sir, do you have anything to say for yourself.”
“Your honor, I have never been in trouble before and certainly never have I gotten into so much trouble for trying to do what seemed like the right thing. I listened to all of this back and forth here and I still don’t see how any reasonable person could make me out to be a criminal. I already spent a week in jail, and that seems like more than enough for unlittering.” Hillary was tugging on my sleeve something fierce.
He looked at me for a long time. “I don’t like your unrepentant attitude. Clearly, you have learned nothing from this process.” He looked down at his notes. “Do you have a job, young man?”
I felt like telling him it was none of his business, but instead I lifted my chin up and said “I do not.”
“This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to sentence you to six weeks house arrest, minus time served, and 100 hours of community service. Plus you will have to show proof to the court that you have a job within 60 days, or I will give you 30 days in the county jail. Do you understand?” Like he was doing me some kind of favor.
I looked at him for a minute, doing a little math. I was thinking of asking him how I was supposed to get a job while I was on house arrest, except when I was working full time for free, and if maybe they could just send me back to my friends in jail and cut out all of this penance bullshit. I think I might’ve drifted off and started day dreaming.
“Do you understand?”
More sleeve tugging. “I understand.” My chin was still up. The judge banged his gavel and dismissed us. Hillary looked up at me. “I’m so sorry!” I looked down at her and smiled. “Actually, I think you did pretty good, and if you’d had time, you’d a whopped that pompous ass.” The prosecutor was shuffling papers but looked over at me under a lowered brow. He was going to say something but they hustled me out of there. I didn’t even get a chance to ask her if maybe, after I’d repaid my debt to society, she might take a chance on an unrepentant unlitterer.
It turns out that getting set free by a judge doesn’t mean you get to go home. It took them two days to process me, and then they woke me up just before midnight and kicked my ass out on the street. Something to do with budget, and if you are there past midnight then they have to pay for another day or something. At least they gave me a shirt and some pants. I walked barefoot to my house, but I was used to being barefoot now. When I got to my car, the passenger side window had been smashed in, and there on the seat was the Eagle Claw broken into pieces. There weren’t going to be any more memories made with that rod.
I had to wear this bracelet thing and show up five days a week to – get this – pick up litter by the river in my bright orange jump suit. Supposedly if I didn’t go right home after work, then the nice policemen would come knocking on my door and lock me up, taking me away from the very valuable service of picking up the very litter which for which I had been sentenced for picking up on my own. I rolled the irony around in my head for a while, but the edges never got knocked off and finally I just had to give in.
One day on the way home, I was walking by the creek and I saw a bunch of construction going on. The boys were leaning on the bridge’s parapet watching the work below. Paulie saw me first and I saw him hunch his shoulders and clench his jaw.
“I see you broke the rod,” I said by way of greeting. His eyes narrowed. “Must’ve been a hell of a fish.”
Darryl looked around from beside him. “You’re not mad?”
“Hell, you break rods all the time. That’s just fishing.”
“His dad did it!” blurted Louie and Paulie gave him the stink eye.
“You guys get in trouble?”
“No, but the cops came looking for us and showed my dad the picture.” I leaned forward and could see he had a black eye.
“That was why you lied, huh.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, I don’t care what happened, I’m proud of what we did, and I’m proud of all of you.” I looked down into the hole which was now a busy area of orange mesh fence, baby bobcats, and men in yellow hard hats wearing striped orange shirts that made them look like road barrels. “What’s this?”
“Farrel McWhirter Park,” said Paulie.
“Farrel McWhirter Park? Who the hell is Farrel McWhirter? Sounds like a Muppet lawnmower.”
“Some politician saw the story and decided this ‘spawning tributary’ should be rehabilitated,” added Darryl. “Then he named it after himself.”
“If he wanted to rehabilitate something, be nice if he got me out of jail. I mean it was my idea, after all. Looks nice though.”
”‘Cept first thing they did was put up NO FISHING signs,” said Louie.
I laughed. “Oh, man. It just gets better and better.”
“You on work release?” asked Darryl.
“Yeah. They got me picking up litter by the river.”
They all looked at me. And then we all started to laugh. The guys in the hole looked up, pissed like maybe we was making fun of them.
“I got a few dollars left, you want to go to Dairy Queen?” And with that, off we went.
A few days after my house arrest was over, I was driving out of town, my window taped up and everything I owned in the car. I saw them walking along and pulled over.
“Where you going?” Paulie asked suspiciously.
“Up to Berlin,” which in New Hampshire is pronounced as two distinct syllables BURR-lin on account of the War. “Seems like they are putting software shops in the old mills up there, too.”
“You said to never let nobody put you in a cage, and an office is just another kind of cage.”
“I did say that, but having nothing on your own is different than when somebody takes it all away and can tell you what to do. I let them do this to me once, and so now, I got no way out.”
“Liar!” said Darryl. I was shocked at his vehemence.
I looked at them. Louie had tears streaming down his face. “You can’t leave.”
I knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, just don’t start playing the game, and nobody can never tell you what to do. Once you start, you can’t win.”
I looked around at the three of them, trying to be brave. “The mill’s right on the Androscoggin, best trout water in the state, and I saw a little house up in Milton. Not much, but I can afford it. When I get settled you can come visit.”
“Ain’t never going to leave this town,” said Paulie.
“Paulie, I don’t think this town can hold you.”
“Yeah, and what about them? Who will take care of them?” I looked at them, all three of them. I walked around to the back of my car and popped the trunk. There in the back was my backpack with every piece of fly fishing gear I owned: my boots, my waders, all of my fly boxes, and my entire quiver of rods. Enough for each of them. I lifted it out.
“I was wrong before; I do have enough for all of you. I’m going to lend this to you. You need to find me someday and bring it back.” Paulie wouldn’t reach for it, so I gave it to Darryl and Louie. “I’ll see you soon.”
I got in the car and watched them and the pile of gear get smaller and smaller in the mirror. When they were gone, I turned on the radio and started singing along with Molly Hatchet’s Danny Joe Brown growling out their version of the Allman Brothers song, “I got dreams I’ll never see:”
Just one more morning, I have to wake up with the blues.
Pull myself outta bed, yeah, put on my walkin’ shoes.
Climb up on a hilltop, baby, see what I can see, yeah.
The whole world’s fallin’ down oh babe, right down in front of me.
Cause I’m hung up, on dreams, I’m never gonna see, yeah.
Lord help me baby, dreams get the best of me yet.
Pull myself together, gonna put on a new face, yeah.
Gonna climb down from the hilltop, baby, Lord, get back in the race.
Cause I got dreams, I got my dreams, to remember, the love we had.
I got dreams, I got my dreams, to remember, the love we had.
Cause I’m hung up, on dreams, I’m never gonna see, yeah.
Lord help me baby, dreams get the best of me yet.
That closing riff, it gets me every time.