Paul Justison

Englewood, 1969

– a novel excerpt (first chapter)

I kept my eyes on the nine in front of me as we walked into the open cage. Being watchful was a habit I’d picked up early and it was more valuable here than anywhere before. The first gate slid closed behind us, rasping, and clanging. Wasn’t oiled as at it should be, but they liked it that way.

Manion, our crew boss, brought the line up to the next gate. He could have been a quarterback or a point guard somewhere, but his favorite sport had been car theft. The long open roads of Kansas called to him, and the borders of Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, and Oklahoma meant nothing but adventure. To the feds though, driving stolen cars across state lines meant a ticket to federal prison and if you were young, maybe the Youth Correctional Institute in Englewood, Colorado. They sent you somewhere tougher when you hit 21, but it didn’t matter for the outside detail, we all had less than three months to go.

Next gate grated along its metal channel until it clanged to a stop. Outside the cage, Officer Grainger stood by a flatbed truck, his eyes always on the move. His grey uniform must have cost more than our cardboard colored ones, but it was still drab, even with insignias here and there, and places to buckle in his walkie-talkie and long flashlight.

Manion took the driver’s seat. Grainger held his position at the open passenger door, while we clambered up onto the truck bed. The others took seats on two facing benches. They never left a place for me. Bothered me, but it wasn’t wise to show it and I stood at the front, holding on to a rack above the truck cab facing the car thieves and bank robbers as we drove away from the high walls.

A few of them rolled their shirtsleeves way up and tight, forming a pocket just below the shoulder, to hold their unfiltered Camels or Chesterfields. Most of them sported ducktails or some greased variation. Given the quality of barbers in the place, I had a crew cut, which went well with my wire-rims.

Rainey, the well acneed Texan, who’d run out of gas with his hot car five miles into Arkansas, pointed up at me and said to his bench mates, “You know what this fucking hippy did now? He gave away a whole blackberry pie! Fucking idiot just gave it away.”

“I didn’t give it all away. I ate a piece.” I wasn’t that generous.

One of the bank robbers had been in the yard when I’d received a pie liberated from the kitchen in exchange for an old debt. I’d given him a piece and he spoke up. “Tasted almost like my mama’s!”

That confused Rainey. “You didn’t just give it to other hippies?”

“Gave it to whoever was there.”

“You fried your brain with that fuckin acid.”