There is no way for me to determine the amount of time that passed during this particular period of my life. In hindsight I can only recall the order of significant events that transpired. I cannot with any reasonable degree of accuracy establish the length of time that passed between when I delivered Bull to the doors of the NewLife facility that he would call home for an indeterminate length of time and my discovery of the unspectacular, final result of Rhonda’s unremarkable life. The upheaval that both events provided in my already fucked-up life could have occurred within the same, exact moment in time and I wouldn’t be able to tell you any differently. By the time I discovered Rhonda’s lifeless, purple corpse I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had closed my eyes for longer than an hour.
Bull’s delivery from the Littleton County Jail to the NewLife facility in an otherwise forgotten town in central Illinois proved challenging enough without disclosing the gruesome discovery I encountered upon returning to Rhonda’s apartment later that day. Shortly after daybreak on Monday morning I was signing the necessary paperwork provided to me by a sleepy sheriff’s deputy in order to secure Bull’s release from the jail and into my custody for transport to NewLife’s facility. It was located three hours north of Littleton County. By signing my name multiple times through a stack of official looking paperwork I became responsible 'under penalty of law' for his delivery to NewLife’s reception coordinator within four hours of his release. The sleepy sheriff’s deputy reiterated the importance of my responsibility in this matter and the possible penalties if I failed to do so. He had finally appear to grow tired of trying to come up with different ways to say the same thing shortly before he collected the paperwork through a sliding, metal drawer beneath the bulletproof glass separating us.
“Alright then… I guess I’ll go get Gunville," he said. "Have a seat.” He yawned and disappeared around a corner.
I took a seat in one of the metal folding chairs in the tiny lobby and waited. A short time later I heard Bull’s voice as he was talking to the sleepy jailer. He sounded like he was in good spirits. I stood up when I saw him appear behind the bulletproof glass of the door separating the jail from the lobby. His hair had grown out into a shaggy crown above his ears and around his head. It appeared as if he had given up shaving his face altogether. He carried only a shoebox stuffed with letters and paperwork. The deputy opened the door and Bull walked into the lobby. He looked me over as he walked through and frowned momentarily. Then he turned back to the deputy and extended his hand.
“Thanks for the hospitality, deputy.” He smiled widely at the surprised officer, who warily extended his hand in return.
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t ask you to come back real soon and visit, right?” The deputy smiled half-heartedly and closed the door behind Bull. Through the glass he met my eyes and pointed to the watch on his wrist. “Clock is running boys… get moving. You’ve got four hours to get there. That doesn’t leave much time for fucking off or flat tires.”
“C’mon brother, he ain’t kiddin’ around,” Bull said and patted me on the back as we moved through the lobby and out of the jail. As we walked through the parking lot towards Rhonda’s car he paused and pulled at the shirt he was wearing.
“These are the goddamned fucking clothes I was arrested in,” he brushed his hands on his grimy jeans. “Please tell me I have something clean to wear.”
“You bet boss,” I replied. “You’ve got everything I could think of that you might need in the bag in the backseat.”
“Good… I’ll ride back there until I get changed.” He opened the passenger door and slid into the back of the car. “Holy shit!”
“What?” I asked.
“Is this bag big enough?” He asked sarcastically. “Never mind… lets fucking go.”
“You bet.” I dropped into the driver’s seat, started the car and we were on our way. Bull rummaged around in the bag for fresh clothes that appealed to him and began changing.
“You didn’t happen to get me a shaver, did you?” He asked while he maneuvered his legs into a pair of jeans from my collection.
“Yeah boss. I boosted a brand new, expensive, grooming kit for you the other day.” I offered a guilty smile in the rear view mirror. “It’s all charged up at the bottom of the bag.”
He rolled his eyes at me as his arm dove deep into the bag. Shoplifting wasn’t high on Bull’s list of respectable skills. “It’s all the way at the fucking bottom, man?”
“Yeah… sorry. It’s in a hard plastic case.” I smiled to myself as he searched and grumbled under his breath.
“Figures…” He pulled his arm out of the bag, wielding the hard, black plastic case with the grooming kit. “Think Rhonda would mind if I clip myself in her car?” He watched me shrug in the rear view mirror. “Probably, huh?” he asked in response to his own question. I shrugged again, returning my eyes to the road.
“Boss, I’m gonna stop for gas when we get out of Littleton County. I’ll help you get the job done if you can wait for a bit.” I looked at him through the mirror.
“Alright…” he agreed. “I’m not riding in this cramped-ass backseat until then though.” He maneuvered himself awkwardly into the front seat and began to get comfortable.
“Seatbelt…” I insisted. “We don’t need to get pulled over for some stupid shit today.” He obliged my request.
“Did you bring me some smokes?” he asked. “This is probably the last opportunity I’ll have to burn a couple…” I could feel him looking at me. Hard.
“Check the glove compartment,” I replied. I kept my eyes on the road. He opened the glove compartment and retrieved a new pack of cigarettes. I felt his eyes examining me while he packed the box of cigarettes on the dashboard. I tried to ignore the weight of his stare, but I eventually lost this battle of wills.
“What are you looking at?” I finally blurted out.
“I dunno… I guess it just looks to me like you’ve been running on empty for awhile.” He dropped his gaze and opened the pack of smokes. “Am I wrong?”
“Probably not as wrong as I’d like you to think.” I offered.
“Bring any of that shit with you?” He asked while fishing a lighter from the center console and lighting his cigarette.
“No,” I replied. “Hell no.”
“Good. At least you thought that much about what we were doing today.” He directed his stare back towards me. I looked at him quickly and then back to the road ahead of me. His eyes weren’t half as hard as I had expected.
“They’re probably gonna piss-test you when you walk through the door anyways.” I fumbled for my own cigarettes and lit one.
“Yeah, but that’s not the reason I’m glad you aren’t holding at the moment.” An awkward silence filled the car.
I finally responded, “I wouldn’t want to fuck this up for you Bull. Not me... and definitely not on account of fucking dope.”
He was silent for a long time. The buzzing sound of the tires connecting with the road was broken only by the occasional sound we made while inhaling and exhaling smoke. As he took the last drag of his cigarette and cracked the window to dispose of the butt, he finally broke the silence.
“I think I know the answer… but I want you to hear yourself say it, so I’ve gotta ask,” he made room in the seatbelt and turned towards me. “If you feel that strongly about fucking me up, then why are you in the shape you’re in?”
“Fuck, Bull…” I was unprepared for this kind of direct inquisition. “I guess I just can’t think of a reason to quit anymore.”
“Well, apparently you put it down long enough to come do this thing for me today,” he offered. The inflection in his voice made it sound like a question.
“You told me that I needed to be straight if I was going to help you, so here I am,” I replied.
“Yeah, here you are...” In a flash he reached up and broke the rearview mirror off of its hinge and held it below my line of sight. I was startled and snapped immediately to attention. I avoided looking in the mirror and instead looked in his direction for a moment. “Look at yourself goddammit!” he yelled and then lowered his voice, “You’re a shade improved from fucking death! Go ahead… have a fucking look!” He dropped the mirror into my lap and shook his head. I ignored the mirror and cracked my window to flick my cigarette out of the car. My hands were shaking.
“Boss, I don’t know what you want me to say,” I offered quietly.
“I want you to say that you’ll be alive when and if I get through this NewLife bullshit,” he said sharply. “If you’re intentions are otherwise, then I want you to tell me now.”
We sat in silence. I suddenly felt exhausted. My arms and legs began to feel tingly and on the verge of going numb. I was suddenly afraid that I might fall asleep at any moment. But then as quickly as the feeling was upon me, it disappeared when I suddenly found myself wide awake and fighting the urge to break down and cry. There was nothing I wanted less than for Bull to see me cry.
“Okay,” I felt myself becoming animated. “I’ll tell you what I know about myself, alright?” I picked the mirror up out of my lap and looked at myself purposefully before dropping it onto the floorboard. Bull lit another cigarette. His gaze never left me. I continued. “That guy I see in the mirror can’t imagine his life beyond the next moment.” Tears were building on my eyelashes. I could do little to stop them. “I guess my ability to think beyond today died along with her, okay?” My voice was getting loud and shaky. “When she died I lost the last person in my life who expected me to be anything more than what I am right now.” I angrily clawed the damp trail of tears from my face. “Nobody back there gives a shit about how or even if I exist! And now you want me to believe that it somehow makes a difference to Bull Motherfucking Gunville whether or not I intend to be alive in eighteen months? Fuck… I don’t even remember how long eighteen months is…”
Bull continued to stare at me… almost through me, as I alternated using the back of my hands to dry my face. I looked at him briefly before continuing, “Motherfucker, look at what a mess I am…” I laughed in spite of myself. “I thought I was happy to see your ass, and look at me now…”
“I am looking at you, asshole. What I guess I didn’t realize is how well I know what you’re going through. I’ve never really talked about it before with anyone, but when I was listening to you just now I realized that I might know a little more than I have ever tried to understand about how it feels to lose the last person in your life whose expectations made you try to be a better person than you might otherwise be. You lost your wife…” he stopped and took a drag off of his cigarette, “I lost my dad…” He paused for awhile filling the car with silence accompanied only by the drone of tires on the road. Whatever he was thinking, he was thinking hard about it. “Fuck…” The word resonated with the sound of revelation. “Do you know how long it was after my dad died until I went to prison the first time?”
“Do you expect me to answer that? Because I really don’t know…” I answered quietly.
Bull was still deep in thought and ignored my reply. He continued, “It was less than a year.” He looked at me as if I was suddenly a part of the conversation again. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head, “I was trying to work out the timeline. You see, throughout my life… even after the school teachers gave up on me in seventh grade, I guess my dad’s expectations of me kept me out of the bigger trouble I got into after he died. I got used to disappointing everybody else but I never wanted to disappoint him. Then he died and I lost my perspective. I guess I didn’t know how to exist without him constantly reminding me that he expected me to be better than what anybody else thought... 'and fuck ‘em anyways,' he'd say.” He smiled at the memory and pushed his cigarette butt through the cracked window to his right. “I was really lost after he died. Maybe it was grief, but I don’t have anything to compare it with. I remember feeling bad and confused," he paused and cracked his knuckles. "But only because the one feeling I recognized at the time was…relief.”
“Relief?” I asked.
“Yeah, ain’t that some fucked up shit?” I had brought a few bottles of water along, and he grabbed one from the center console and drank from it. “I remember mostly feeling bad due to this feeling of relief that settled over me shortly after we put him in the ground. I guess it was relief… but it was emptier than it should have been if that was the case. I must’ve chalked those empty feelings up to him being gone. I just remember feeling like for the first time in my life I didn’t have to worry about disappointing him. He was gone... so there was nothing to stop me from cooking dope on the farm. I was confused over how I felt about his death. I was avoiding the idea, so it didn’t take long for things to get out of hand after that.” He emptied the water bottle and dropped it near his feet. “You know how you said that you don’t remember how long eighteen months is?”
“Yeah… I really don’t,” I replied.
“That’s kind of how I felt until I was sentenced. I guess after my dad died I stopped thinking about what was coming next," he sighed. "At least until they hung that ten-year sentence on me.”
“I guess nothing makes time feel more tangible than when it’s taken away from you, right?” I offered vacantly.
“Something like that, I guess…” Bull replied. “But it shouldn’t have to be that way. I don’t think you should be in such a hurry to pay the same price that I did to learn something that you just as easily could have learned from my experience.”
He lit another cigarette and smoked for a couple of minutes before he returned to the conversation. I was just about to light a cigarette of my own when he started talking.
“I’m done,” He stated.
“Done what? Done talking?” I asked.
“Hell no, it’s too long of a trip to be done talking yet. I meant that I’m done with dope.” He was looking intently at me to gauge my response.
I sat silently.
“I mean it,” he began again, “I don’t think that I’ll come away from NewLife born-again like I suspect they intend I will… but if I’m lucky enough to earn my freedom after this, I don’t want dope to be any part of what’s left of my future.”
“Okay,” I offered. It sounded like a question.
“I think we should still be friends when my time at NewLife is done,” he added.
“Okay…” I hesitated and continued, “I hope that would be a given.”
“Well, it is… but I want you to quit doing dope too,” he replied. “I’m expecting you to quit while I’m gone... without the assistance of a prison cell... or a funeral director.”
I thought about it for a moment.
“Okay Bull,” I answered.
“Alright then… Didn’t you say we were stopping for gas? I need to shave my face and head. The razors in jail are for shit. I almost bled out the first time I tried to use one.”
Just like that, the weight of our initial conversation was lifted and we barely revisited the subject again. The gas station we stopped at was combined with a fast food joint, so I treated Bull to several hamburgers, some fries and a large chocolate milkshake after he used their bathroom to shave the hair from his face and head. He spent the next few hours of our journey talking about jail, his infrequent cell-mates, and the mischief he caused. I imagined the jail staff were all high-fiving each other as they changed shifts today and shared the news of his departure. Our spirits remained high until the GPS announced the approaching city limits signaling an end to Bull’s role in this part of my journey today. As the highway turned to streets and the expanses of farmland turned to buildings and homes, Bull’s mood became sullen.
“I gotta tell you, brother…” Bull began as he lit a final cigarette, “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked in disbelief.
“This place sounds like it’s gonna be way harder for me than prison,” he replied.
“Okay… listen, motherfucker…” The car came to rest at a stop sign and I turned towards him, “Keep in mind that I’m all alone out here, okay? My wife died and I don’t have a single person that I can call a real friend. The only idea that even remotely keeps me grounded is that sooner rather than later, you’re coming back. You’re the closest thing to family that I’ve got right now so you can and you will do this… if for no other reason than give me something to look forward to.”
“Alright… shit," he said. "Get going before I’m late.”
Less than ten minutes later we arrived at our destination. I parked the car and carried his bag to the entrance. The doors were locked and we had to buzz the intercom to announce Bull’s arrival. While we waited for a member of the staff to arrive I wished him luck and promised to write after he sent word that he was settled in. When the stiff-looking staffer arrived to take custody of Bull we shared a handshake and said goodbye. I walked back to the car and began the trip back to Rhonda’s.
After an uneventful few hours I was finally navigating the familiar gravel roads of rural Ft. Justice. The sun was trying to burn through the hazy, overcast, afternoon sky as I pulled into Rhonda’s parking spot just outside of her apartment. I climbed the stairs to her door and was a little surprised to find it slightly ajar. I pushed it open and announced my arrival.
I was greeted by a disappointing silence. I thought about my agreement with Bull to quit doing dope before his return, but I had no intentions of quitting today. If Rhonda had gone gallivanting with the Randos then my only satisfaction would come from a small stash I had hidden in a DVD case until she returned. I called out a few more times as I made my way through the apartment.
As I entered the living room the sight that greeted me caused me to scream in blind terror for a moment. Rhonda sat lifelessly in her recliner. There were used needles scattered on the floor and table. The visible areas of her flesh were pale shades of purple and her eyes were wide open and glazed. A crusty, white, froth had oozed from the corners of her open mouth where it has solidified like mortar. The front of her loose-fitting pants was stained with piss and it smelled like she had shit herself as well.
I was frozen with fear. My first instinct was to leave and put as much distance between me and this place as I could. My abandoned house was more than fifteen miles from here. I thought that I could probably make it home sometime after dark. The idea of walking the lonely roads between here and there after dark with the image of Rhonda’s corpse fresh on my brain gave that idea significant pause. My mind was racing as I tried to figure a way out of this without having to involve myself with the authorities.
In the end, my conscience got the best of me. Rhonda’s cell phone was lying next to her body on the arm of the recliner. I walked slowly towards the chair trying to keep my focus on the phone and not Rhonda’s corpse. When I was barely within reach of the device I snatched it away quickly as if there was a very clear danger that my movements would somehow reanimate Rhonda’s dead, pale, purple flesh. With the phone in hand I backed away from her body, but refused to turn my back on it. My terror was crippling and I heard the sound of my voice murmuring, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God…”
I flipped the phone open and after several failed attempts, my fingers finally dialed 9-1-1. I pushed the send key…
This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo