Fiction by Jack Bragen
He remembered being at the supermarket, being thrown to the floor by a man in a uniform, a foot digging in heavy between his shoulder blades. He had barely been able to breathe, and the pain was unbearable. He had believed he was about to die…
“Can I call you John?” The jailhouse trustee was permitted to wear jeans and a T-shirt. He was thin and sinewy, and his leathery, sunburned skin was covered with tattoos. He had been an inmate for a while. Guards had brought him in to see if he could get the recently detained man to say something more.
Authorities noted that the detainee could hear and speak. He had said little things like, “yes,” “no” and “thank you.”
“Yes, you can call me John.” John spoke in a slow, deliberate manner —almost too slow. His voice was neither deep nor high-pitched. He paused while the trustee stared and said nothing. “Can you explain to me ‘punishment’?”
“I do not understand it.”
“You were arrested because you were guilty of shoplifting.”
“Guilty of…” John’s bony, angular face appeared quizzical.
“You did that,” the trustee replied. “There were witnesses. You were seen eating avocados and bananas off the shelf.”
John said, “This room is not comfortable. Is this a customary accommodation?”
The trustee said, “Wow. You’re really out to lunch.”
John, sounding miffed, replied, “I am not disoriented.”
“I’m going to ask the sheriff if you can be transferred to Napa.” The trustee took a step back from the cell opening.
A guard who had been standing nearby, out of John’s sight, appeared and said something in a mocking tone under his breath, and closed the heavy iron door. John could hear it resoundingly slam shut and latch.
He made a futile attempt to get comfortable on a metal-and-wood bench, which was bolted to the floor, and was the only furniture in the cell other than a toilet clogged with shit, vomit and toilet paper.
He was thirsty, but there was no sink in his cell. As a guard checked on John, peering through the iron-barred opening in the cell door, John asked for water.
“You already had water with your breakfast.”
John didn’t reply to that. He was beginning to gain some understanding of the protocol; yet, he was astonished.
The jail staff had decided to give John his own cell rather than putting him among fellow detainees, among whom he wouldn’t last. Deputies wanted more information, and they could not release him with a court date unless they could get him to identify himself and provide an address.
They believed he was either guilty of something very big, or, more likely, he was mentally compromised in some way. They decided to transfer John to the locked psychiatric facility at Highland Hospital in Oakland, and they placed a couple of undercover men in his three-person room, men who posed as fellow psych patients in legal jeopardy.
Meanwhile, word of this episode had gotten to a judge, who believed this was far too much punishment for someone who may have merely been very hungry and disoriented. Judge Hopkins drove to Highland Hospital to meet with John.
John found himself in a small room, handcuffed to a chair, across from and facing the judge. “I am not being treated well and this is intentional,” John said. “What is the purpose?”
Hopkins said, “This is the way the system works. You need to tell us who you are and where you are from. You need to give us identifying information and clear a check for warrants. You need to explain to us why you have six fingers on one hand and seven on the other. That’s not normal. Can you please talk to us?”
“You are not my judge,” he replied. “The name you have given me is John. I live here in this room. Why is that not sufficient?”
Judge Hopkins paused, mustering self-restraint. “I’m going to order staff to do some testing on you…”
“No!” said John. Hopkins appeared startled by John’s strong reaction. The judge was exhausting his supply of tact and was bending over backwards to accommodate this man, quite a feat for someone accustomed to issuing orders. “Sir, I’m trying to help you. I can’t help you unless I see some cooperation.”
“I refuse medical tests done on me.”
Hopkins said, “I’m ordering it. The tests will happen.” At that, Judge Hopkins had reached his limit, and he went home for the day.
Tests were done on John, but they were inconclusive. The detainee’s blood lacked any traces of any type of drugs, be they illicit substances or over the counter.
The judge hadn’t ordered the lab to do blood tests other than for the presence of substances. The phlebotomist noted that the detainee’s veins were in the wrong places on his arms.
If the lab had performed routine medical tests on John’s blood, it would have raised more than a few eyebrows, and would have ensured that the detainee would have been put into the hands of government scientists, and most likely never heard from again.
John’s brain, and in fact, the entire bone structure of his head, appeared abnormal on the MRI, and this information was given to Judge Hopkins.
The judge concluded that the detainee was mentally disabled and disoriented, but not a threat to the public. He ordered John released. He was driven back to the building where he’d been divested of clothing, keys and personal belongings.
John was put into a holding cell pending his release. There were three other inmates in the cell, two of them hugely bulked up from constant workouts. None were hostile. One of them, a black man, approached John.
“They’re letting you out. How long have you been in here?”
John replied, “I’ve been without my chronometer. I am not sure.”
“I’ve been in here for three solid months, and finally the judge threw out the case. If I could get a lawyer, I would sue the bastards for false imprisonment.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” John replied.
“You’ve only been in here for three weeks. They’re letting you out because you’re not black, you have seven fingers on your hands, and you’re brain is wrongly developed. No, sir, I am sorry for you.”
A police car drove him back to the supermarket where he’d been arrested. The officer handed John 35 dollars in cash and cautioned him to pay for his food.
His father had been looking for him, and spotted him leaving the market with a bag of groceries. John and his father hugged.
They got into the father’s car, and his father said, “Don’t disappear like that anymore. We’ve been worried about you.”
“I am John,” replied John.
“They gave you a name. What else did you do?”
“People intentionally inflicted pain on me. I was locked in uncomfortable rooms. I couldn’t get water when I asked for it. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Men in uniforms had projectile devices that were intended to render people injured or deceased. Everyone was irrational.”
“This is one of the defective systems on this planet…” John’s father paused and began to weep, even while he prepared to stop the car at a stoplight that had gone red. “This is intended to make people act according to the rules.”
John replied, “I do not understand.”
John’s father scratched his head, and made a left turn, within a block of their house. “The species may not be salvageable and could become a threat to the region. You’ve barely scratched the surface of the problems they have.”
“What is to be done about them?”
John’s father did not reply. He parked the car in the driveway. Father and son went inside where dinner was ready, and John was glad, for now, to be back home.