Oct 24 2013 2:00pm
Horse of a Different Color (Excerpt)
Check out Horse of a Different Color, a collection of stories from Howard Waldrop available November 12th from Small Beer Press!
Waldrop’s stories are keys to the secret world of the stories behind the stories... or perhaps stories between the known stories. From “The Wolfman of Alcatraz” to a horrifying Hansel and Gretel, from “The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew” to the Vancean richness of a “Frogskin Cap,” this new collection is a wunderkammer of strangeness.
Waldrop also provides an introduction to the book in his inimitable manner as well as Afterwords to most of the stories.
“The Wolf-man of Alcatraz”
“Madame, I regret to say that we of the Bureau are unable to act in cases of lycanthropy, unless they have in some way interfered with interstate commerce.”
—J. Edgar Hoover, 1933
When something loped across the moonlit bridge, the truckdriver slammed on his brakes and swung to the left, taking out three Tri-State Authority tollbooths.
Early one afternoon, they came to take him from his cell in D Block, down to the solitary vault built for him.
“Oh,” said Smitty from the next cell, “that time of the month, huh?”
“Yeah, well,” said the prisoner. He picked up a couple of the astronomy books from his bunkside shelf.
“Uh, warden says we’ll have to get everything out of the place before dark this time, Howlin,” said Sawyer, sergeant of the guards. “Losing too much prison issue. And books.”
“Sorry,” said Howlin. “I just have to check a few things. Be through before evening.”
“That’s okay, then,” said Sawyer.
As he passed Smitty’s cell, he looked at the big calendar on Smitty’s wall, the one marked over with a big X each day, with the lunar phases in the empty squares along the bottom.
“See you—Tuesday, Smitty.”
“Sure thing, Bob. Try to get some shut-eye.”
“Always try,” said Howlin, from down the block.
They took him down from the cells and up the enclosed spiral staircase turrets of the gun gallery with their ports that gave clear fields of fire to every part of the cell blocks and corridors. They crossed down under the maximum-security floor, then went down the freight elevator, out of it, and down another corridor. There was another stairwell at the end that led to the part of the prison under the old military fort.
The hall was like that of the solitary block, but the walls were of smooth finished concrete, forty feet long. Only two doors interrupted it. A guard opened his cell with a key and a combination lock. The cell had a Diebold vault door, twelve inches thick, with a total rim lock of interleaved 1-inch chrome-steel wafers. It could have held King Kong.
“Doc’ll be here to see you around four o’clock, see if there’s anything you want,” said Sawyer. “I’ll pick up everything but the blanket then.”
“Sure thing, Sergeant,” said Howlin.
Sawyer turned and went out. The door swung to behind him; he heard the rim-wafers slam down like teeth.
“You want your shot now?” asked the old doc.
“I guess so,” said Howlin. “Could you make it a little stronger than last time? I think I remembered something.”
“I can’t give you anything much stronger, Bob,” said the doc. “We don’t want you becoming an addict.” He smiled a quick smile.
He readied the hypodermic. “All I can promise you is, I give you this now, it should keep you out for at least four hours. Depending. Sunset—”
“Sunset’s at 5:43 PST; moonrise at 5:45,” said Howlin. “That I know.”
“So you should be out a couple of hours afterwards. By the way, a couple of medical types would like to examine you...”
“When’s my next physical?”
“Next month, I think. I’ll check.”
“If they do it then, I don’t mind. They meat docs or head docs?”
“Long as I don’t have to do a lot of foolishness, like when I first got here.”
He rolled up his prison uniform sleeve. “Shoot,” he said.
The doctor put the needle in. With a sigh, Howlin leaned back on the single blanket on the concrete bunk and put his hands behind his head.
Sergeant Sawyer picked the books up from the floor, stepping around the water bucket and the slop jar.
“Thanks, Doc, Sergeant,” said Howlin. Then his eyes closed, and his chest rose and fell slowly.
Sawyer and the doctor went out into the corridor. The guard closed the vault door like it was the end of a business day at a bank.
The sergeant went back up into the guardroom in the gallery overlooking the hallway and put the books in a small shelf there. The doc followed, and a guard let him out into the stairwell that led back to the elevator.
A little past five, two guards reported to the night sergeant. He went to an armory cabinet, took out two Thompson submachine guns, handed one to each guard. Then he unlocked another cabinet, took out two thirty-round circular magazines marked LYC in silver paint on each drum and handed them to the guards. They slid the bolts back, slipped the drums in the receivers, and let the bolts go forward: one, two.
One of the guards was let out into the hallway and stood near a chair they put there, ten feet from the vault door.
The other one opened the gun port directly across from the door in the gallery and put the barrel of the Thompson through it.
They were attentive till the night sergeant left, then relaxed. The one in the hallway sat down.
“Pretty much like watching paint dry, isn’t it?” asked the one in the gallery, a newer guard.
“In many ways,” said the one in the chair.
“Does anything ever happen?” asked the new man.
“Plenty happens, I understand,” said the guy in the hall. “Nothing so far that affects anybody out here.”
A couple of hours later the two guards thought they began hearing noises through the twelve inches of steel door. The hair on the new guard in the gallery stood straight up under his cap. He knew he would have to listen to eight more hours of this.
No wonder there was a 30 percent turnover in the guard staff on The Rock, he thought.
“Poor bastard,” said the guy down in the corridor. Then he lit a cigarette.
March 4, 1937
Prof. M. H. Nicolson
Dear Professor Nicolson:
I have just finished your article on early Moon voyages in the new Smith College Studies in English. I would like to suggest a line of research for you (since you seem to be ideally suited for it)—for what reason were there so many plays dealing with the Moon (and other planets) in the late 1600s and early 1700s in England—Aphra Behn’s Emperor of the Moon—which I think had its base in an Italian or French farce—of 1687; Thomas D’Urfey’s Wonders in the Sun (1706), Elkanah Settle’s The World in the Moon of 1697? Was it just, as you imply, a reaction to the new worlds revealed in the telescope and microscope, to a world also undergoing violent changes in religion? Or just exuberance at the reopening of the theaters, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution?
And why should the figure of Domingo Gonsales, The Speedy Messenger, figure in so many of them, with his framework raft pulled by swans to the Moon, where they overwinter? Surely it can’t be because Bishop Godwin was an Englishman—the first edition was published anonymously, and most people—because of Domingo’s name and the fictitious biography—took it to be a translation from the Spanish or French?
And why “Speedy Messenger”? Was this Godwin’s sly reference to Galileo’s Starry Messenger?
I’m sure you, too, have thought about some of these things, but that they weren’t in the scope of your article. Perhaps you’re planning more work of this nature, or know of where I can find other articles of this kind? I would appreciate knowing of any forthcoming works on the same subject.
I have to admit I came across your article quite by chance—the Smith College Studies was meant for someone else here and was delivered to me by mistake. But it has been a revelation to me, and I want to thank you.
“I don’t know, Doc,” he said to the visiting psychiatrist. “I don’t remember anything. I wake up weak as a kitten. The first morning’s the worst, because I know it’s going to happen two more times before I’m through with it for the month.”
Dr. Fibidjian looked down at the thick bundle of papers in the file.
“And you still don’t know how it happened?”
“Like it probably says somewhere there. I was in a clip joint. A fight broke out. Somebody used a chair on the lights; somebody else took out the bartender, who I had been talking to, with a bottle. I was pretty busy there in the dark for a few minutes—I think I gave as good as I got. When it was over, there was a couple of big bites out of my left arm. A friend put some caustic balsam on it, and it was fine. Then, come the next full moon, I was like I am.”
“Do you think you belong in a mental institution, rather than here? That your condition is medical, rather than criminal?”
“I don’t think there’s a mental institution that could hold me—look what it says about Atlanta there,” he said. “Besides, they tell me I killed four people—aside from the turnpike thing, I mean.”
“Do you remember the circumstances of—”
“I told you, I don’t remember anything, ever, Doc.” He took a drink of water from the glass by the pitcher on the table of the conference room.
“Would you like a smoke?” asked Fibidjian.
“I don’t smoke, Doc,” he said. “I trade mine for books. I’ve got the book privileges for half the cons in this joint for the next five years. I chew gum, though. Beeman’s Black Jack.”
“Sorry,” said the psychiatrist. “I’m fresh out.”
“I’ve got the supply of that tied up, too,” said Howlin.
The doctor looked over his notes.
“You say you have no memory of the murders of the three—”
“Postmen,” Howlin said. “I seem to have a thing for postmen. What the two postmen were doing out, after dark, in the truck, in the summer, I don’t know. But evidently they were. The wrong guys in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess. Like the one the next night...”
“And the other?”
“They tell me it was a child.” He shrugged. “As far as I know, it could have been Mussolini or Neville Chamberlain.”
He looked at the psychiatrist. “The part that bothers me is there could be others they haven’t found, people who just disappeared one moonlit night. I was bitten in May. I didn’t cause that wreck ’til November. That’s seven months. That seems a long time for only four people, doesn’t it?”
“Uh, I agree,” said the psychiatrist. “But the convictions were for the three postmen, and the turnpike accident. Those are the reasons you’re here.”
Howlin got up and whacked his hand against the thick concrete walls of the room. “The reason I’m here,” he said, “is that this is the only place on Earth that can hold me.”
He rubbed the inside of his right elbow.
“Your other doc friend has jabbed me somewhere every two hours since last night. He’s running out of places to put the needle to draw blood.”
“Maybe we should knock off awhile, then. I want to give you some simple tests this afternoon.”
“All this is fine by me, Doc. You guys are earning me a dozen extra books this year.”
“And that’s what you want?”
“Look, Doc,” he said. “I’m going to be here the rest of my life. Books are the only way I’ll ever get to experience the outside, or see the world, or meet a woman or fish for bluegills in a pond. I can do all that in books. They’re all I have except these walls, those bars, my cell, and the exercise yard.”
“What if we can find some way to cure you?”
“Doc, there is no cure for this but death. There’s nothing you or I or anyone on this planet can do about that. Don’t go dreaming there is.”
Before the next full moon, they had installed, high up in the isolation vault, an 8mm camera, the lens of which was behind a small opening eleven feet up one wall, pointed toward the concrete bunk area.
The two doctors had turned it on at ten-minute intervals throughout the night from within the gun gallery where the second guard with the tommy gun stood.
Before they turned on the camera they turned on the single lightbulb in its reinforced metal cage, which was on the ceiling fifteen feet up.
When they went in with the prison doc the next morning, they found Howlin naked, his clothes and the bedding destroyed, his toes and fingernails bleeding. The prison doc gave him vitamin and painkiller shots, and he was in a deep sleep. They saw that some of the torn bedding had been stuffed into the hole hiding the camera lens, eleven feet up.
They retrieved the camera from its drilled-out space in the wall above the vault door. They took the prison boat over to San Francisco and had the film developed. They returned in six hours. From the boat they watched the ritual of the docking. The lieutenant in charge of the boat took the ignition key out and sent it—via a clothesline pulley—three hundred feet up the hill to the guard tower. It would not be sent down ’til the boat was ready for the return run and the lieutenant gave an “all okay” signal—which changed every day. They went from the boat directly to the warden’s office, where the warden, prison doc, and captain and sergeant of the guards waited with a projector rigged to run on the island’s DC electrical system.
They pulled the blinds, turned off the lights, and started it up.
Fibidjian read off his notes by the light as the leader went through. “First one should be 7:14 p.m., a couple of hours after sunset when the sedatives were wearing off.”
The first scene leapt up. The cell was lit. Howlin wasn’t on the bedding. There was a flash of movement, the move of a shadow at the lower edge of the frame.
Then something came up to cover the lens—the bedding strip. Then the screen went dark.
And stayed that way through the rest of the reel.
“That’s it?” asked the captain of the guards. “Could we see it again, slower maybe?”
Fibidjian rewound the film, showed the scene over, frame by frame.
“Hold it,” said the warden. “Right there.”
It was the bedding coming up. For three frames. At the edge of the cloth in the second frame was the outline of—was it a hand? Was it something else?
The next morning, while Howlin slept, they brought the workmen in. The camera had been destroyed, and the hole around the lens had been chipped away for two inches.
They reconcreted it with a piece of three-inch-in-diameter rebar inside, repoured, and never tried anything like the filming again.
Horse of a Different Color © Howard Waldrop, 2013