A tall, thin, sinewy man, in over-sized blues, came into my city jail office, and said, “Do you know anything about relieving suffering, Mr. Felix Tadcaster?” He read my nameplate. I was a social worker helping inmates about to be released get federal disability, a job, reconciliation with family and friends who had shunned them, working out the bumps and gouges acquired inside jail and outside in the greater imprisonment
we all daily face.
He had a nasty jagged scar on his cheek, his jailhouse haircut streaked red, jumpy fingers tapping the desk.
“My white mama named me Ahab,” he said. “I know what you college educated, professional types think. Not that one, the other one, evil Ahab in the Bible.”
“Is that your problem, you think you’re here not because of your possession convic-tion, but because your mama laid that name on you?”
He stood up, pulled me across the desk, my head, neck, and shoulders on his side, then put me in a chokehold, the crook of his elbow squeezing my trachea. I could not breathe. My arms flapped like dying salmons, and I began losing consciousness, a world turned dark. Suddenly, he released me. He walked me back behind the desk and slowly I regained my breath. “But I can’t stop the suffering,” he added.
“You could’ve killed me. I could charge you attempted murder. You’d do big prison time.” His eyes bore through me.
“I could get you shanked, you know.” I had been threatened twice but never placed in a chokehold. “You won’t, I’m getting released tomorrow. How about having a drink with me to make amends?”
“I never have contact with ex-inmates outside of here.”
“Don’t worry. I can introduce you to a fine woman.”
Divorced four years ago, my ex, Judith, now in law school studying criminal law, seeing me hopelessly holding her back, my confidence with women at an all-time low, my social life consisting of microbrews and HBO, coming to work with hangovers, friends hers, not mine, never contacted me which isolated me more, my salary nowhere commensurate with my potential. I got anti-depression pills from a psychiatrist I saw. I once took pills and drank bourbon but failed to kill myself. Why not take a chance with Ahab. Nothing to lose except my life.
“Tomorrow’s Saturday. Where would we meet?”
“What’s your address?”
“How about a drinking hole. I make it a rule never to give my address to anyone connected to his place, CO’s and even the warden.” I stood up, he too from the other side of the desk, and then he walked to my side and put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close to him, and whispered, “I’ll bring a sweetheart we could share if you’re game.” I took his offer up.
He came just after I finished my lunch. Dressed in khaki cargo pants, a red and green sport shirt, and wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, he stood outside the door alone. I saw no sweetheart.
“No sweetheart?” I asked. Just then, a car pulled up, and though he partially blocked my view, a woman approached the house. He moved aside and Judith strode confidently up the walk, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt with her university’s name running across her chest.
“Hi, Felix,” she said as she stepped inside followed by Ahab. She saw my expression, how my mouth hung open like a grotesque gargoyle. I was positive it could not ward off evil.
We sat around the living room, she seated in her favorite rocker, and Ahab sat down on the big couch two cushions away from me.
“How’s law school,” I blurted. “Aren’t there enough criminal lawyers?”
She smiled, her eyebrows raised as she rocked methodically, comfortably, and said, “Ask Ahab.” He turned towards me, and said, “She and I were partners in martial arts classes,” he said, unsnapped a pocket, and reached in.
“Jude taught me all the chokeholds,” he said and pulled out a perforated spoon.
“More to education than practicing law,” she said, cracking her knuckles, a habit I hated.
He held the spoon close to his face. “She gifted me this antique absinthe spoon.”
“It looks like you’re behind bars,” I said, hoping my comment passed as humor. He relaxed, his face placid, lips loosening, giving the scar clarity. He pulled a bottle out from is backpack. “I think of everything.”
“What did you mean, ‘Ask Ahab’”? She drank absinthe after Ahab took a few sips and then passed it back to her. She sipped the green spirit.
“I was his attorney. He paid me with money earned selling high potency Cannabis sativa.” She rose, offering me my first absinthe, and I drank a large gulp. Its dreamy hold overcame me. I thought Ahab and Judith my muses, I, great poet of the Western world.
“Why are you telling me this, Jude? Attorney/client relationships are privileged.” I wanted absinthe to wrap me up in its kindness. Ahab drank some more, laid back, not in a stupor, but with keen eyes and tranquil face, listening to his iPod. Judith sat between us on the cushion nearest me.
“Ahab told me he had you in a death grip. He killed a man that way.” She lowered her voice, not so Ahab could not hear, but let her words sink distinctly into my consciousness, as if life depended on every syllable. He flexed his muscles to the beat.
“He brings them to the brink, now.”
“You too?” She answered yes. “What’s the point?” I asked.
“Uses prompto facit,” she said.
“Latin doesn’t impress me, truth does.”
“Practice makes perfect. Truth is the brink,” she said.
She took three glasses from the kitchen, came back, and poured the remainder of absinthe equally into each glass. Ahab sipped his, Judith her, I mine. Ahab put the iPod in his pant pocket, Judith took the glass from his hand, placed hers and his on the low table before us, then my glass. She pulled me up from the couch and walked me to the middle
of the room. She stood in front of me, kissed me on the lips, then bye-bye waved.
Ahab put his right arm around the front of my neck, squeezed hard, then put his left arm between the back of my neck and aside his head, finger-locking his grip with both hands and pushed my head down until I began to lose breath.
“The rear naked choke, wonderful,” she said.
Why? I asked myself, sensing my purple face, breath nearly extinguished.
Ahab abruptly released his hold and I slid onto the carpet.
Hacking, phlegm gagged me, I dry heaved. Judith set me upright and opened a window.
“Good, Ahab. Next time, I’ll be the choker.”
“No harm, no foul, Tadcaster.” Ahab gave me a bottle of water he stashed in the pack.
“H two O, oxygen will bring you back. Friends?” He reached down and shook my twitching hand. Rain pattered the windowpane. I smelled and sucked in ozone on the bushes and when the rain stopped I inhaled the street’s and the concrete driveway’s ozone. Optimism began flowing.
“Next time?” I wanted answers. She stared at me and I could not decipher her expression. Its placebo effect emptied my heart just as it had the day she left me. A dose of nothing swirled inside me. I wanted them to leave, I wanted to be alone, I wanted to quit my small jailhouse office, I wanted to move far away. I wanted out. Ahab pantomimed a chokehold, the air my head and neck. Judith struck poses, moving her
arms, hands, legs and feet like a skilled master must. Each grunt signified another pose, another thrust, all the while her eyes tracked mine.
“Another match, Jude.” He could have asked her ( “Another match, Jude?” ) but he made a statement.
“The leg triangle choke coming up,” Judith said. I thought I would die.
When I recovered and breathed air in the backyard, she asked, “Are you OK?” Ahab towered over me. Sweat poured down my face.
“I’m next,” Ahab stated. “It’s the gator roll choke, Felix. Game, Felix?”
No, I was not. The brink offered no choice.