38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl): Chapter Eleven
Author’s Note: This is Part 11 of a series of posts serializing my novella 38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl). For more information on the origins of this novella, including all disclaimers, and a complete chapter list, please see the announcement regarding this series.
Like I said, I was living at home, and working down at Falcon in ’73. On that particular Friday night, I was staying in, being good. Mom, Dad and I were planning an early morning trip to Millhaven. Not sure why, exactly, that we had to do it early in the morning. It only took a few minutes to get there, and visiting hours didn’t start till 9:00 and ran till 4:30 on Saturdays. But Mom always wanted to be there first thing. There was nothing more important than her Mikey, and she wanted him to know that, every week.
That Saturday, the phone rang a little before five in the morning. The walls hadn’t gotten any thicker with time, and I could hear every word of Dad’s side of the conversation.
“Yeah?” he said with a sleepy voice.
“What time is it?”
“No… I’m sure he’s fine.”
The phone jingled slightly as he set the receiver down.
“Who was that?” Mom asked.
I pulled on a pair of jeans from a chair beside my bed. I missed the next part of the conversation as my belt clanked and the change in my pocket rattled. Pop and I met in the kitchen as he came out. Mom followed quickly behind him, pulling on that same old pink bathrobe as she walked. Years of smoking added to the creases on her face created by all the worrying. Mom had not aged well.
“What happened?” I asked Dad. “What did Doris say?”
“Something’s happened at Millhaven.” Dad reached for the radio. Mom stood there with her hand over her mouth. Her fingers twitched and searched for something to grab onto. She eyed the pack of Camels on the counter-top, but didn’t move. The station came out of a commercial break to some crappy Mama’s and the Papa’s tune. We all looked at the clock. It was two minutes to five. The news would be up next if we didn’t screw with the dial. We stood there listening to the warble of a bad song grating on a low power radio, like fingernails on a chalkboard. I stepped over to the stove, turned on a burner, and filled the kettle with water. I needed coffee. We all needed coffee.
The newscaster began talking before the lyrics of the song had faded, with a special bulletin. There had been a breakout at Millhaven. Reports were that as many as fifteen convicts had escaped, by unknown means. They were considered dangerous, and everyone in the area was advised to remain inside their homes, with doors and windows locked. Anyone who saw anything suspicious should immediately call the police. Because Millhaven was a federal penitentiary, the Mounties would be running the show. They were calling in reinforcements from all over the province to track these criminals down. There would be more updates as information became available.
That was the top, and only item on the news. The anchor repeated the story, with slightly different words to make it sound even more dire than it was. We listened to every word like it was new material, trying to glean whether or not Mikey was involved from the tone of the announcer’s voice.
They cut back to a commercial after that, and we stared at the radio, waiting for more information. No one said a word. The commercial ended, and the newscaster gave a brief update on the weather. It was sixty-four degrees outside. Temps expected to be in the high eighties by noon with the possibility of ninety away from the water. That weather update, for some reason, stuck in my mind for years. There was nothing more on the breakout. The station cut back to music—something by the Temptations, I think.
We stood there until the kettle boiled. I turned off the burner, set three cups on the counter, and doled out three teaspoons of Maxwell House instant, added sugar to mine, added hot water to them all, and stirred with one spoon. Pop picked up his coffee and sat down, elbows on the table and his head in his hands. It was the same table we’d had as long as I could remember, though we’d been able to pull the two expansion leaves out of it with only the three of us there. The rest of the chairs were scattered about the house, except one spare, which sat empty at every meal, just in case. Mom said she was leaving room in case someone dropped by for dinner at the last moment. But I think she kept it out those last few years in the hope that it would one day be Mikey sitting there.
Mom didn’t pick up her coffee until it was cold. She stared at it much the same way she had looked at the pack of camels just a few minutes before. It was as if she was drinking it, and smoking those menthols, without even exerting the effort required to actually do it. Whatever sanity Mom had held back in reserve those eighteen years, departed in those twenty four hours after that phone call.
I debated calling Ricky and Tony, but even the slightest move towards the phone raised an eyebrow from my father. The line was to be kept clear, just in case. We didn’t know what’ just in case’ might imply, but no one was going near the phone unless it rang first. There wasn’t such a thing as caller id or call-waiting back then. If the line was busy, you didn’t get through. If Mikey needed to get a hold of us, it would be through that black device with the tangled cord hanging from the wall.
After the second update at the bottom of the hour told us nothing the first hadn’t, I relaxed a little, and managed to scrounge up some cereal and milk. Mom looked at me like I was blaspheming. I really wanted a shower and some fresh air. But I wasn’t leaving them alone until we heard more news.
Shortly after six, the phone finally rang. Pop snatched it off the wall before the second sound. It was Ricky. Dad kept the conversation short, and had Ricky call the rest of the family to let them know what was going on, and to not call home unless they heard something from Mikey.
Tony called a few minutes later. Ricky hadn’t reached him yet. Dad set him straight right quick, and hung up the phone, gritting his teeth.
Thirty seconds after he hung up with Tony, the phone rang again. I knew right away from Pop’s voice, that it wasn’t a member of the family.
“Oh.” His face collapsed. His fingers ran through his thin and graying hair. He didn’t look at Mom or me. He stared at the table.
“No. We haven’t heard anything. Just what we got from the radio.”
“Yes, sir. Of course. I’ll give you a call if we hear anything.”
“Thanks for calling.” He hung up the phone, and swallowed hard.
“That was the chief.” He took a look at mom to see if she was in danger of falling down if he said what he needed to say. She sat down without him even asking.
“Not sure. They said twelve guys weren’t there at morning roll call. Michael was one of the missing.”
“Oh, Good Lord!” Mom clasped her hand over her mouth.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath. Mom didn’t even bat an eyelash at me.
“He wants us to call him if we hear from Michael.” It sounded like the chief had made a request, but I, and most likely Pop, knew it wasn’t a request. It was an order. I doubted I could ever call the cops on my own brother. Mom, I was sure wouldn’t. She wanted him home so damn bad that she would have risked everything to see him back here safe.
Pop, well Pop was another matter. He wanted Mikey home, and home safe, but he also had a pretty good head on his shoulders for figuring out what was right and what was wrong. He had taken it more than a little personal that Mikey had ended up in prison in the first place. It hadn’t been Mikey’s fault, in his opinion. Pop had failed Mikey, and Cathy, as a father. And that was far worse than any sentence that any judge could hand him. He held a belief that Mike was doing the time he had earned, and that if he was a man, he would serve it like a man. It wasn’t something I totally agreed with him about, but I understood it. Mikey going over the wall was another sign to Pop that he had failed as a father. It still had nothing to do with Mike. This was about Pop, his honesty, and his integrity. If Mikey had come in the door right then, I figured it was a fifty-fifty shot that Dad called the chief.
The phone rang on and off all morning. First it was friends and family. Dad wasted no time with them. The line was to be kept open for Mike. Next was Mike’s lawyer, Robert Laidlaw, now a partner in a private law firm down the road in Bowmanville. He hadn’t worked on Mikey’s case since the additional sentence was added for the beating of the inmate who killed Billy. He told Pop to call him if Mikey did turn up. It would be better for Mikey if he had legal representation as soon as possible. Pop thanked him, and gingerly set down the phone. I knew part of him was already thinking about the legal bills. The last one had cleaned out Pop’s savings, and they weren’t chasing me out of the house yet because they needed the money I brought in to help pay the bills.
The photos were plastered all over the television by 8:00 AM. Mom cried when she saw the mug shot of Mikey grouped with the mug shots of the other convicts who had escaped. The news showed the faces one at a time, with larger images of each, and a short description. They spent a few extra moments rehashing Mike’s crime and punishment. Then they cut to a hastily arranged press conference held by the Mounties and the prison warden at a command post set up at the local police station.
The black and white images on our TV were grainy and low quality, filmed by local camera men with cheap gear. The big boys hadn’t arrived from Toronto yet. They’d soon be bringing in the new color cameras and the satellite trucks usually reserved for visits from the Queen. This was big news in the province. The RCMP were out in full force. The local police department had been pushed aside by a river incoming Mountie and Ontario Provincial Police cars. And yes, the Mounties even brought some horses. They were used to cover some of the rural areas. The Mounties, they said, always got their man. In this case, there were twelve. From the look of the weapons they brought, and the number of men carrying them, this wasn’t a manhunt. It was a war.
The lead Mountie constable gave the rundown on who had escaped, but never said how. I don’t think they figured it out till they started recapturing some of the guys. They had gone out through a utility tunnel that connected the laundry to the outside world. There had been bars on the tunnel, but two of the convicts had spent months sawing through them with broken saw blades taken from the metal shop where they made door hinges for the local public school buildings.
Most of the men who escaped were from elsewhere in the province, and from other provinces—Quebec mainly. ’73 was right after the FLQ dustup, and some of the guys from that mess were in Millhaven. The Mountie constable pointed to pictures of the men tacked to the bulletin board and gave each one’s name, hometown, weight, height, hair color and identifying marks. He paused briefly before reading Mikey’s name. He didn’t know Mikey, didn’t know the story, but did look to the chief briefly to see if there were any worries about this particular criminal. The chief, standing in the background of the picture, shook his head slightly.
“Folks, we need everyone to keep an eye out for anything suspicious, but there’s probably nothing to worry about. Most of these guys are from other places, and the last they’ll want to do is to hang around here. But if you do see anything, please call us. Immediately.”
The press conference wrapped up with a few questions from the reporters, who were mainly focused on how the convicts had escaped, or whether they were considered armed and dangerous. They were dangerous, the Mountie said, but not considered to be armed at this time. Folks should not approach them, however. They were to call the police first.
The news coverage flipped back to the studio, and the anchor rehashed the story. The pictures were put back on the screen again. Pop waited for them to show Mikey’s picture one more time, as if he didn’t believe it the first three times they had shown it, then snapped the TV off as soon as that part of the story completed.
My stomach ran hot with acid. I set my coffee cup down and headed back to my room to grab some clean clothes and a shower. My mother’s eyes dug into my back as soon as I moved, as if there was no way in hell that I should be doing anything but worrying at that point in time. I didn’t look back to confirm my suspicion—I knew it to be true, and closed the door.