Matthias Mickelson – Age 20 – Occupation: None

           He didn’t give a shit so he packed his electric guitar, two computer monitors, computer, a three-year record collection, his aunt’s ’97 5.1 Dolby Surround speaker system—Garth Brooks CD still in tray from date of transaction, his dead grandfather’s 720 progressive scan Sharp Television, a spoon, a knife, no fork, a half empty or half full or just some measurement if you’re smart enough not to determine character via perception of occupied volumes can of Kirkland Signature Coffee Grounds French Roast diluted about fifty-fifty with some Folgers Decaffeinated French Roast because that’s how his parents made it growing up and that’s how he liked it just thick and syrupy with black and meaningless goo and just enough to give him a good ass blast in the morning to clear out the previous day’s damage so he’s pumped and ready to go literally pumped clean through and ready, and associative technology peripherals—mouse and keyboard stolen from a previous IT stint because they just sat in storage collecting probably not even dust it’s so dark and cold and unknown in there, a black ragworm orgy of AV and USB and RJ-45—and a bag of these condoms lubricated with what felt like IcyHot if he could remember that masturbation scare age twelve correctly, and some plain old lube because the blankets and pillows didn’t really ‘bake the cake’ so to speak or whatever. He packed all this shit into his dead grandpa’s car because he didn’t give a shit what those people thought and hit I-90 due west for Deer Lodge.

           They told him that biology was a dead field, both financially and philosophically re: his test scores:

           “You’ll have to make due with a state education certification—won’t he George? What are they? Fifty dollars? Or move on to get your masters if adjunct professorship isn’t an all too threatening state of economic existence for you, and—what’s that George? An ice cream pathologist? But isn’t that more of a chemist’s profess—oh. It was a joke.”

           “…”

           “A joke, dear. Your father was making a joke.”

           Matthias graduated high school at age sixteen and college at twenty, but with grades that didn’t necessarily reflect his irregular aptitudes. Rather, they were a perfect reflection—like a full-length mirror’s reflection, but first covered with red velvet then removed by a man in a suit and top hat with a grease-curled mustache that says TADA! with violent conviction which makes the crowd go ooooh because it’s so-beautiful-you-just-gotta-see-it and some kid in the front row starts believing in God because How else?—a perfect reflection of Matthias’ ability to, as Coach Kosslyn used to nigh vomit in football-centric existential rage re: hard work, “give a damn.”

           He stopped giving a shit a long time ago, man, and now he’s on his way out. He did some calculations let’s see…twenty miles to the gallon, not bad not bad, tank half full, not bad not bad, and five bucks in my checking account guess I’ll have a coffee, a nice one though like two shots of espresso and Deer Lodge looked within reach. A quick Wikipedia whatfor on that:

Deer Lodge is a city in and the county seat of Powell County, Montana, United States. The population was 3,111 at the 2010 census. The city is perhaps best known as the home of the Montana State Prison, a major local employer. The Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, and former state tuberculosis sanitarium is in nearby Galen are the result of the power the western part of the state held over Montana at statehood due to the copper and mineral wealth in that area.

And it didn’t sound half bad colored history and huh-syntax aside. He thought to himself that most areas probably had sanitariums or prisons or tuberculosis en masse at some point or another, dinosaur cancer or something rabid and stainworthy.

           “Deer Lodge was the site of the College of Montana, the first institution of higher learning in the state.” His Scandinavian eyes caught fire and a liminal grin blinked in and out of existence. Alright now, not bad not bad, good vibes good vibes, poetic poetic. And he hit his piece hard, held the wet smoke in for a good ten seconds, and exhaled out through a crack above the water stained window of his still-dead grandfather’s car.

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Terrence Wright – Age 63 – Occupation: Retired Rancher

            We lost another dog to the road. What calls them out there I wonder? Beyond the latch gate tallern me and through the wooded marsh and up the dust road cloudy forever. What calls them through the belly of nature and survival and onto the weathered blacktop? Only once a man is behind iron and glass does his companion forget him.

           The dog turns her lip up and snaps at tires bent on movement. It seems to me that an environment makes a man and that only those still with a primitive sight can see and understand this. I become something new in a car. I become and obfuscation of myself, a minority in mechanism. Parasitic—

            My dog, she perceives this threat. But why doesn’t she patrol the mouth of a bear den? Prison walkways? The backyard of my ex-wife? The road is a terrible threat in the sight of pups, but no more destructive itself than a basketball court.

            The books say Hungry Horse Dam swallowed a few men in its construction. I don’t know a single road that makes a similar claim.

            But it still spread her guts out like warm butter and the sun beat the blood down and bore it into the asphalt so the highway wears a red smirk for my black frown.

            Nowhere to live these days without a busy road nearby.

            And that kid hopped out of the SUV with a face incredulous with the possibility of mass in contact. I’m more at ease when they just drive off.

            Smell of her hair and dog grease in my lap.

            Another one lost to the road.

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Paul Harper – Age 32 – Occupation: MT State Prison Correctional Officer

            I drive this route every day. Start on Bielenberg, left onto Milwaukee, and ride her on down to the old frontage road before the checkpoint. Hit a dog there once. Came out of nowhere, snarling like a damn whirlwind on a rope.

            Son of a bitch rolled under so smooth I hardly felt her. Still had the winter tires on so I think. Bit of a mutt all speckled and grey-tipped.

            Rode on through to the checkpoint. ID he asks and smiles and says hey Ted and lets up that yellow bar.

            Sitting in the tower ain’t so bad. I watch the yard where the inmates play ball or laugh in semicircles. Pretty view too. I see the valley whole, river cuts through like it’s exposing the wet black muscle below. Mount Deer Lodge and Mount Powell in profile. Tallest in the county or something. Been here my whole life and never climbed her.

            Had a dream about her though. I’m driving into town from god knows where and I look up at the horizon where the mountains meet the sky when right on near the peak of Mount Powell, past the treeline and all, a single rheumy eye splits open out of the mountainside. The eye looks at me without expression but at me and blinks once and when the eye starts to open again, she collapsed into the valley like some film doing a quick cut to a moment far off in the action. She buried the city whole alive. Everyone was “buried alive.” But alive’s how most people start off before they get kilt by the dirt in their lungs. Waste of words. Just say buried.

            Inmates just playing ball and doing pushups in the yard. Some sit in groups and look like they carefully arranged their posture so as to appear large and efficient.

            And I’m just sposed to watch them. Phone and some old TV screens up here filled with murky images or a powerless grey cloud. Just the prison guts and me in my denim watching these damned folks cajole through their lives in comfort.

            One of those posed groups looks up like a school of fish and a bald one about forty pokes a finger my way and mouths my name with a kiss around it.

            So I press a big red button and speak into the microphone big wet words—Possible exchange in the yard all guards report.

            And then when I lean back in the chair life is all right again. I remember I’m in the tower and they’re in the yard. I’m in the tower and they’re in the yard.

            I’ve no debt to my name, no woman to hang off my pants, no dog or cat to lay a bowl out to each night. I’m right alone, but I’m free. No debt to my name. Low salary but a long time ahead and a house can always be built. Once had a friend of my father, worked under the table for Warrington doing foam insulation, big hazmat looking suit and everything—he never said much but was a time he got fair drunk and after a friendly tussle with my father went sour, he turned to me and I was watching Bugs Bunny and he says liquor will kill anything but the American dollar.

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Jerry Nicholson – Age 46 – Occupation: Inmate

            I miss her.

            How she used to come by during visiting hours in nice dress, hair all up and nice. And how before that she fed me food through a tube in the bad times in the infirmary, mouth all chewed up good for spitting blood and scaring the guards. Wired shut and tied down, couldn’t help but listen. That’s how you know a person. Not through an exchange. No, bucko, love is two one-way streets separated by city-hall, laundromats, wall-side cafes, rusted iron and leather and concrete and glass. Love is a nurse.

            Ain’t a goddamn difference between her and I, bucko. She’s locked up too. Why she left. Locked up, chewing her cheeks, looking for that signal light without even knowing the color. Hell, if I spent my days sorting through medicine cabinets, can’t say I’d be well either. Bottles full of pea-bit solutions. Spiritual healing takes on the face of devilry round so much plastic.

            I didn’t get to say a word to her for near six months, jaws locked up and chest tied down. When they finally took ‘em off, I still didn’t speak. She just kept on going herself. But it was just fine, just fine. My self-expression was communicated just fine through absorbing all her outward bound thoughts and ideas, catching ‘em like fireflies in the leaving light. We did this for a year. Her healing without them pills and me, just soaking ‘em up her words and turning ‘em right into love.

            They took me out of solitary. Joe said there was a whisper or two about earning leave to take up the inmate craft shop in town I been ‘so damn fluffy.’

            So when she breaks in sentence for breath, I toss her way—Might get to take up shop, bucko—and her mouth shuts tight and she stares somewhere between the glass and me until the guard says time’s up.

            Now the new nurse bedside hands me a cold towel for my face. “Quite the riot out there,” she says, “Heard some deal busted hard.”

            I say there wasn’t no deal, there never is, and she smiles and applied pressure to the towel on my bloody face. She looks at me with those doe eyes and in light jest of my character she says, “Ah, you’ll be awright, bucko!” but those big browns are just empty and sad and so am I.

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Matthias Mickelson – Age 29 – Occupation: None

           Matthias wrote a poem today. This is how it goes: 

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Theresa Jackson – Age 32 – Occupation: 

            I’d say I’m a cat lady but I downright hate cats. They clog up my insides like butter and dads. And cat ladies get a bad rap, which isn’t fair. I may not like them, but at least I can understand if someone really would, like a lot. Woman or man.

            Mother isn’t doing so well. All those scans and pokes add up, and I’d know. On paper, I’m doing the same job as the doctors in town, but most the inmates just come in with open wounds. Chewing up their cheeks or rubbing their face on the wall so long the friction just takes it clean off after a good while. The other day, we had a guy, not a day older than twenty-five—a young bright friendly guy, with hair looked about ready for a first date somewhere—this guy came in with his femoral artery split wide. He’d taken some jeans he earned on good behavior working the craft shop in town. And he’d taken a single button and sharpened it on concrete fine enough to jab up there somehow. There’s a low-wage, hard-working man or woman out there in a big city working the denim manufacture line that just had a hand in anonymous slaughter. Probably paid for a child’s college with that aleatory blood coin. This is why I find it hard to believe in God.

          Why a man wouldn’t wait out his sentence, especially on such good behavior, escapes me. Some men would rather spill their femoral artery all over the floor than get out and make a life.

            I don’t have the time for Mother, working the shifts I do. She keeps up the bills with her cancer, always says Oh let me go, dear. It isn’t a worry. Just on Jesus’ schedule is all. Says I should just find a man to take care of me. She doesn’t know about the men I’m taking care of everyday, grumbling about my brown eyes and empty hips can I help you with that? I’m fine as I am. This isn’t a lonely life. No. Fine as I am. Mother needs me, even if she doesn’t know it. Her self-assurance about life after—I don’t want to be there when she hits the brick wall at the end of that yellow tunnel. She needs to keep going, to wake up, to find a place where the spirit isn’t dead and gone when she’s dead and gone.

            So I warm up a bath and pour in some scents from mother’s Avon. Today I’ll be reading something simple, pulp. And I wonder why there isn’t some device that hangs from the ceiling so the pages won’t get wet.

            I check on her before bed. Watching Golden Girls, which always seems to be glowing from some CRT as long as someone sixty-plus is around. I dream about sentient chickens that like to chat and getting stabbed.

            And so when I drive to the prison in the morning on I-90 I cry, because that’s a thing I do alone on highways. Must be life in the big city.

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Jed Patterson – Age 46 – Occupation: “Piss-pounder, haw haw.”

            Aint’ been drunk like this in a coon’s age. Fucked my ex again and followed with that bartender from the Montana Bar named affer a meteorological event. Didn’t know what that meant—truly meant—coon’s age, until I was about twenty. Thought it referred to the mammalian specimen, the Procyon lotor, which, as I found thanks to my son’s impeccable Googlin’ means “before-dog washer” which what in the ever-living fuck? Neo-Latin apparently and how the hell does a culture become “neo” instead of something “neo” altogether? A reinvention perhaps? Fuck it. I’m not racist. Fuck it.

            Cats are howling at one another outside. That or urp a baby is crying somewhere.

            She left me because I stopped hugging and kissing and saying I loved her every other minute. And yeah, that’s fair. I refrained from such and kept it intermittent. Why? Because I found myself somewhere else. My life had flipped a notch in the multitudes of urp cogs and wheels and belts and other parts and such and I’d become distracted. And yeah, that wasn’t fair. To her. Only to her. I’d dug around in my own brain for long enough, bouncing those existential whats and ifs left and right twixt poetry—an underscored philosophy—and philosophy—a bland philosophic pretention urp for those that despised pretention—until I found my love barren and dry, like Eastern Montana, heh. Not because of her. Because. Well, because I’d found myself somewhere else.

            Now, I got this job in Pocatello. Industrial. Idaho. Shipping out potatoes. Capitol of the world. For potatoes that is, h-urp-eh. I’ll drive my truck twelve to eighteen a day, audiobooks save me. Hitting I-15 due north until the 90 comes round to say hi in Butte. French fries are fucking im-por-tant. And she’s got a gig up at the U in Dillon teaching kids about matrices and tangents and quadrilaterals and other inevitabilities, something I wished I had the pause to learn seven years prior.

            So she’s far gone and I love her. How do you interrupt a vector? Urp.

Well, shit.

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Matthias Mickelson – Age 34 – Occupation: None

           He bit down on the barrel and the tungsten carbide steel mixed with saline tears and made him remember that time he ran his bike into a one-way sign. A girl from school chased him and asked in the mantratic cadence of pre-puberty, “Who’s your angel? Who’s your angel?” When he turned around to say no one the one-way laid him on the ground.

          The next morning he removed the blackened bandage and licked the scab and it tasted metallic.

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