A Very Unfriendly Vice: Part 1— Inside In

Mystic Island JailJust north of the geographic center of Mystic Island, is Springback Prison. There aren’t many inmates in the prison anymore. Most of the facility’s wings now vacant. The only people incarcerated there are pretty much those that committed crimes on the island, or those temporarily locked up in the wing of the prison now used as the island’s police station. The prison, opened in 1913, was an anomaly to most. No one quite understood where the name came from, or why a prison was built on an island which was essentially envisioned as a summer vacation destination. Most figured it was because the prison would be less prone to break-outs, being that the only ways off the island were by boat or by bridge. Unfortunately, in 1918, three convicts did break out, causing a havoc few want to admit ever occurred. But this story isn’t about those three men (all of whom at their individual trials, swore a mysterious figure in the The Old Stone Church had precipitated each of their crimes which landed them at Springback). This story is about Cornell Philips. Cornell’s story is one of those tales that tightrope lucidity and madness. Cornell might tell you it was actually an over-lucidity that had hastened his crime. Now it is always quiet at night. And that’s all he ever wanted. He has a lot of time to reflect on things. In fact, more time than he needs, really. He… Well, maybe I’ll just let Cornell tell his own story. Like most people locked away in a prison, and although they never admit to it, Cornell is always eager to talk to someone. Especially anyone who will listen.

When I lay down and the sheet is still cool, I consider getting some shut-eye. But that rarely works out and the sheet warms up around my legs and torso—before you know it, I’m kicking it off and laying there, my eyes tracing the slatted shapes cast into my cell from the cold corridor. Nighttime sounds have a mysterious quality here and each imprints its own stamp into the thin silence. Most times the sources of these sounds are indecipherable— retches of vomit, the crest and release of distant snores, the punctuation of a head bouncing against concrete during some conflict—yet, I am grateful for the buffer of bars between us.

I learned to savor nighttime quiet at a young age; in our family it never came without resistance. The only times I had a chance at peace were the nights at Half Moon Pond, and even then I needed to wait out my mom’s monologues about the crappy hand life had dealt her or my little brother, Jesse, whining that he wasn’t tired and didn’t want to sleep in a tent. It didn’t take me long to learn that the dark line inside mom’s screw top wine bottle was the sand of an hourglass and as soon as it was drained she’d be off to the tent with him and I’d advance a step toward peace. While Half Moon was certainly not Club Med, I cherished those nights. We didn’t get many vacations when I was a kid and if mom took us camping I knew that was about as good as it was going to get. Like anything else my family did, these trips were threaded together by a fragile budget and mom’s vacillating whims.

The first time we ever camped at Half Moon, it was a fragile time for our family. Even though I was only eight, I knew when dad left us it was going to weave complexity into our lives. I didn’t doubt that he loved Jesse and me—hell, he probably even still loved mom—it was himself that he came to despise. And a small piece of eight year old me felt guilty when I watched out my window through a scrim of fog when he finally drove away. It followed one of their fights, the words muffled by my bedroom door, a toxic finality sealed when he walked out. I knew that mom intended for the camping trip to heal us as a family, a unit of three. And in a lot of ways it served that healing purpose, but it also sort of excised me from childhood and left me longing to touch something forever beyond my reach.

When we arrived at Half Moon, I didn’t really know what to expect. My imagined camping experience consisted of neatly erected tents, marshmallows and spooky stories by the fire. I figured mom would take care of the work—cooking over the fire, tidying the ground near our tent, tending to Jesse—and I’d be free to roam the edge of the pond to trap frogs beneath my palms or venture off into the woods to test my fear of snakes. Reality hit hard once we started searching for our site and she started riveting me with chores. A thin strip of dirt road bisected the campground and she drove way too cautiously and charged me with finding a good site on the pond side. Our car crawled along at a speed I’d expect if we were looking for a lost earring in the tall grass. A sheen of sweat blossomed on her forehead and I wondered why it was so important to her to find a site near the pond. The vacant wooded sites we passed looked perfectly fine from my perspective. She explained that you needed to arrive early in the day to score one of the pond sites and that we may have missed our chance. I looked out at the water where a cluster of pale bodies splashed around or floated on chintzy rafts beneath the noontime sun and I thought that the wooded sites might actually be more attractive since we wouldn’t have to listen to them out there horsing around. But just as I made that assessment, she chirped excitedly and pounded the steering wheel with her fist. Our car nosed into the empty pond side site and we all tumbled out, Jesse already starting to whimper his complaints from the car seat.

Before we even unloaded the gear from the car, I looked out at the pond and was glad that we’d persevered for that site. A small row boat, roped to a nearby buoy, bobbed an invitation to me from the water’s surface. I didn’t know if someone had left it there and would be back to retrieve it or if it actually came with the site. I knew better, though, than to show any interest in front of mom. Even if I had a life jacket, there was no way she’d let me go on the boat by myself and she also wouldn’t trust herself with a two year old out on the water. Jesse would anchor her to the shore for the duration of our camping trip. So I bookmarked the row boat in my mind and went to unload the car.

I suppose as an adult, I could’ve lived with the sounds of what the police later called “just plain life noises”—a  patter of Mr. Morris’s footsteps through the ceiling above my living room or the occasional barks from downstairs when Hilda’s mutt took exception to the postman on the front porch. But, the disturbances weren’t so benign. And that’s why I considered measures to make them all go away.

To be Continued