Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Coffee Man is the only one who says he can see them. Other inmates have stayed up dead into the night, pressing their ears to the concrete of the floor or the walls, slipping their hands through the bars and waiting for something to touch them in the darkness, and yet nobody has experienced anything like what Coffee Man reports.
At least, what Coffee Man used to report.
The guards have cracked down on us sharing the stories about the Pembrooke Wanderers. The guards didn’t listen too much to what we talked about before, but once we started coming together and stopped trying to shank each other, once we found something that actually unites us, that’s when they start giving a shit. That’s when they clank their batons against the bars and tell us to break it up, and that if we keep running our mouths, they’re going to shut them for us.
Just the other day, I saw them yank Storyteller out of the Chow Hall by the back of his shirt. They threw Storyteller into solitary confinement just for gathering up a group and talking about the Pembrooke Wanderers. Three days later, when I saw Storyteller eating at his section of the long gray chow table, his hands raised against the bright lights from the kitchen, he wouldn’t speak a word to any of us, no matter how much we told him we had his back.
And Storyteller was a dude I didn’t think you could ever shut up.
So now nobody speaks about the Pembrooke Wanderers. But you look around at the other guys stuck in here, and see guys still trying to conjure them. These guys take long showers, walk around in the corners of the courtyard, and get drunk on the potato vodka we brewed in a plastic bag, then meditate in their cells.
We all want to see the Wanderers, yet nobody talks about them.
Nobody, but Coffee Man. He’ll tell you everything you want to know, but it’ll cost you. What they look like, what they sound like, what they say to you, Coffee Man knows it all, and if you want in on what’s up with the Pembrooke Wanderers, then you need to pay Coffee Man in the one currency that matters most to him– coffee.
One day, it’s really eating at me, wondering what’s out there that I can’t see. Me, I’m laying at the dumbbell bench, firing off chest press reps, and I’m thinking, what’s got the guards all upset that we can’t even so much as talk about it?
Later, I’m at the Commissary buying myself some gummy bears and soda, the kind of stuff that makes me feel like I’m a kid again before I wound up here, and I run into Storyteller. He’s paler than when he got out of solitary, and I say to him, “Yo, ST, what the hell happened to you?”
He glances my way, then at Storeman, the guy working behind the chain and plexiglass of the Commissary window. Storyteller, he’s got this bad shake to his leg, and he’s sweating profusely, more so than any guy working out in the summer heat.
“Storyteller,” I say, slugging a gentle fist to his shoulder, “What’s up with you, dude?”
Storyteller gives me a wicked crooked smile, turns to Storeman, and tells him, “I’ll take a bag of salt and vinegar chips from the top shelf there.”
Storeman shrugs and drags his feet over to the shelf, his belly poking out from his shirt as he grabs the chips for Storyteller.
Then Storyteller rushes over to me, and while Storeman isn’t looking Storyteller whispers in my ear, his breath warm, “I’ve seen them. The Wanderers. Coffee Man showed me. Just give him a bag of coffee, and he’ll show you too.”
Storeman returns with the chips and Storyteller slides him some cash. He pops open the bag, shoves a handful of salty chips into his mouth, and dashes off.
I sure as hell don’t want to end up looking ghostly like Storyteller, but this is an itch I can’t scratch and have to. I need to know what’s happening in the prison.
I approach Storeman and say, “Give me a few bags of coffee.”
That night, I’m thinking of a way I can get to Coffee Man, how I can experience the full story with him. I don’t want him to skip out any details, and I don’t want the guards to break up our discussion.
So the next morning, when I wake up to my cellmate leaving and being replaced by Coffee Man, I know there’s some sort of fate at play. I’m not religious, and I’ve never thought of a higher power outside of the man who can sign the papers to get me out of this place, but right then, as the guards bring in Coffee Man, a little white paper cup of coffee jittering between his hand, me, I’m thinking there might be something out there greater than all of us.
The guards shut the cell and Coffee Man nods at me and says, “What’s good, Loud Dog?”
“Chilling, man,” I tell him. I peer through the cell’s bars and wait for the guards to walk away. Coffee Man takes a loud sip.
“Listen,” I say, “I want to see them. The Wanderers.”
Coffee Man perks up from his cup.
I ask him, softly, and with my heart racing, “What can you do for me?”
I flash him a bag of coffee from the Commissary, and Coffee Man’s eyes widen. His yellow teeth poke out from his pink lips while he grins, and he nods his bald, sweating head at me.
“I can show you everything,” he says, and I notice how yellow his once white shirt is with sweat. “But you have to drink the whole bag to see them. Drink the whole thing in less than an hour.”
I shake my head and say, “Man, forget that. My heart will stop. This ain’t some Folger’s shit. This is that instant shit they give to soldiers. It’s for tough motherfuckers.”
Coffee Man, still smirking, takes another loud sip from his white cup.
“Suit yourself, bro,” he says.
“Wait,” I sigh. A thousand images run through my mind of spirits, ghosts, demons, all the things that could make Storyteller turn paper-pale.
I tell Coffee Man, “I have to know.”
Coffee Man slurps down the rest of his cup, smiles his yellow teeth again, and when he says, “Let’s heat the water up then, baby,” I can smell the way caffeine lingers to the spaces between his teeth, begging to be brushed.
Still, we’re both bringing bowls of water down to the Recreation Room when the cell bars open. We’re both standing around the microwave waiting for the water to boil. There we are, waiting in front of the microwave’s glow as the television on the other side of the room plays some shitty action movie, and I’m whispering to Coffee Man, “Are they ghosts?”
Coffee Man laughs, shakes his head, and takes our bowls of hot water out from the microwave. He carries them carefully by the edges of the ceramic, his lanky fingers spread like spider legs, and he sets the bowls down on the tiny plastic fold-out table.
“Alright Loud Dog,” he says, “Let’s see the Wanderers.”
Coffee Man takes two 4 oz bags of the instant coffee, and pours one each into a bowl of the hot water. The grains dissolve in the water, and the coffee in the bowls look like mud. Coffee Man, he starts to blow the steam from his bowl of coffee, and he points to the clock above the television the other guys are watching.
“We got one hour,” Coffee Man says, scratching his thin neck, and allowing the beads of sweat to drip down the sides of his head. He starts to rock back and forth, all while blowing on his coffee, and he takes a big, steaming, gulp.
I’m sick just looking at my bowl of brown sludge.
“Brother,” I say, “How in the fuck is this meant to make me see shit?”
“Trust me, man,” Coffee Man says, licking his lips. His teeth remind me of corn.
“No dude,” I tell him. “Drop that hippie shit. Give me the real talk.”
Coffee Man scoots closer, then looks over his shoulder.
There’s nobody around so he points to the side of his head and says, “I got it figured out, man. It’s the caffeine. It gets our wires crossed if you have a lot of it fast enough.”
I’m looking at him like he’s crazy, but he continues and tells me, “Your heart beats because blood flows, but the blood flows because there’s electricity in your body. You accelerate that electricity, then you’re seeing and acting on another level.”
I wave a hand at him and say, “Sounds like you’re trying to sell me healing crystals or some bullshit. What’s next? You’re going to tell me my horoscope?”
Coffee Man gets real serious, and his smile slithers to a snarl, and he says, “Just drink it, and fast, before it gets cold. It won’t work if it’s too cold.”
Maybe I’m just bored. Maybe I’m tired of having nothing to do all day but read. Once, after I got in a fight in the yard, I was in solitary for a day. That’s long enough to want to die of boredom, but not long enough to go nuts. So there I was, bored as all hell, and I started making my own fireworks. Yeah, you can do this by shutting your eyes real hard for a long time. You’ll start to see all sorts of colors fly around, take shapes, and explode. It’s beautiful.
Then, I’m thinking, maybe those prison fireworks, those were just a product of the electricity Coffee Man is talking about. Maybe that was just a way to get closer to the Wanderers.
Next thing I know, I’m halfway down my bowl of coffee. It tastes terrible, is way too strong, and is like drinking warm, bitter pudding. But I get it down. My heart is pounding. My head is throbbing. Both my legs are bouncing up and down underneath the table. Sweat clings to my shirt and pants, and I can barely breath as I gulp down the last bit of coffee.
Coffee Man finishes his bowl too, checks the clock behind us, and grins.
“56 minutes,” he says. “Not bad.”
I hold my shaking hands out in front of me.
“What now?” I ask.
“Now,” Coffee Man says, “Hold your breath.”
When I was a kid, we used to spin around in circles and stick our heads between our legs, just to get a mean high. That’s how I feel now, plugging my nose and clasping my lips together, feeling my heart ramming in my chest.
“Keep going,” Coffee Man says. “Just like that.”
My chest is scalding and I’m ready to scream, but I keep everything choked down inside my lungs. Naturally, my eyes shut together as I rattle in agony. But dammit, I’ve come this far, and I’ve got to see this thing through.
A high-pitched noise starts to ring in my ear, fading all the other noises out from the room. The last thing I hear is Coffee Man snickering, and then it’s like I’m in front of a lightning storm. There’s sparks of electricity all around me, and I want to open my eyes but I don’t want to look away from what’s happening while they’re shut.
I see these outlines of blue sparks, misshapen like amoebas, and they’re flickering around, just like the explosions I’ve seen during my prison fireworks show, except looking at these sparks makes me feel so lonely. I see these dozens of squiggly, blue electrical lines, some close to me, some far away, some above, others below, but all around me, and they make me feel like I am encircled in grief. They don’t have faces, and I don’t think they are looking at me, or even know that I am able to observe them.
All they do is exactly what Coffee Man has called them– the blue, sparking outlines wander, moving sluggishly about.
And maybe I’m feeling so bad because whatever these things are, they’re stuck in here with us, in this shitty jail, and it zaps away any feeling of hope that there is something for me outside of these concrete walls.
Suddenly, I’m jolted out of that grief, that feeling of loneliness, and I’m on the floor of the Recreation Room, batting my tearing eyes. Coffee Man is over me and smiling his yellow teeth. My breathing is shallow, my mouth dry, and I wish I was out of this prison and a kid again, so I could run up to my mother, hug her leg, and have someone to make me feel better about whatever the hell I just saw.
Coffee Man leans in real close to me, supports the back of my head, and whispers, “Did you see them?”
And before I can ask him what I just saw, he says, “That’s what we all really look like.”
He drops my head against the hard floor, and for a second my vision flashes, and Coffee Man is only a blue, sparking outline of his lanky self.
The outline wanders around, then says, in Coffee Man’s voice, “We’re all just electricity, and this is what we look like when we die.”
Credit : attackofthegio
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