The only mp3 player that is not contraband is manufactured by a French corporation with a name that is an anagram of the company’s founder and also the Greek word for master.
The list of Controlled Items include non-dangerous sports equipment, musical instruments, and dental floss. Under direct supervision of staff, patients may use art supplies, nail polish remover, and plastic utensils other than sporks. Patients cannot use talcum powder without supervision, as it can activate fire alarms and facilitate a possible escape.
She studies the picture on the website, a still life of plastic-packaged foods and personal care items. Ramen noodles, microwave popcorn decorated with a full moon and a mountain lake. A bottle of anonymous shampoo. As they talk, she scrolls through the online catalog. Cross-thong slip-on sandals cost $1.63, a full dollar less than an 8 ounce bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
She hasn’t asked him about the weather. He hardly gets to go outside and, besides, the forecast for San Bernardino is a persistent line of identical bright yellow circles, temperatures in the 90s. Last week, he told her that “they closed the outside” because it was too hot. She can hear people talking behind him, the scrape of a chair being briefly pushed across the floor.
“Is there anything you want me to order for you from this website? They send it right to you and everything is pre-approved.” She tells him about the picture on the popcorn, says it’s pretty and then feels dumb for saying so. The nighttime and the moon and the evergreen trees fringing the lake remind her of Big Bear, where he lived when he moved back to California. She had never been to Big Bear, or even seen a picture, except for on the internet.
It’s always nighttime in Big Bear when she imagines the place, but she doesn’t tell him any of this as she waits to find out if he wants popcorn.
“What? Oh, um…no, I get my 12.00 dollars a month and I already spent it. I accidentally got pork rinds somehow. I thought they were something else. Besides, I am going back to jail soon, to wait until trial. I think in a couple of days. I don’t know.”
He trails off, pauses.
She clicks a link and scrolls down the page, learns that aluminum foil is not allowed, because it can be used for arcing, which creates a small spark by applying a conductive material to a battery or some other power-holding source. According to the Allowable/Contraband Items List, arcing can start fires and/or light cigarettes, so foil is contraband.
When he speaks again, he tells her that he’d like to find an old mall somewhere. “You know, one those ghost malls, and I could use the space to make a series of installations that are specific to my life and memory and perception. Instead of a dead department store, I could have two floors devoted to different associations with the color blue.”
She can call him anytime between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm, Pacific Time. He can call her, too, but outgoing calls come with a fee, a pleasant robotic voice giving instructions to press 1 to accept charges. They have it worked out so that if he wants to get in touch with her, he calls and hangs up, then she calls back for free.
“No,” she hears him speak away from the phone, talking to someone in the hall. “I’m going to stay in today.”
“Oh!” There is an urgent edge in her voice. “You should go outside! I can call back.”
“I don’t want to go outside. It’s fine. Last time I went out there some guy yelled at me for wearing a jacket and told me I had to take the jacket off, even though it’s none of his business if I am wearing a jacket or not. Anyway, like I was saying, I think it’s like a mistake in the transmission of dopamine or something. Like if a person believes in something, they get the feeling of a dopamine reward and if the dopamine is really flowing, then everything feels like the truth.”
He thinks about radiation when he goes outside, worries about radiation from Fukushima seeping across the Pacific, being carried in the water cycle. “At least it hardly ever rains here, I guess.”
“You should have gone outside.” Her eyes are grainy and she closes the computer. “I don’t have anything to say.”
He sounds like he is telling the truth when he says it doesn’t matter, and so they sit on the phone without saying anything until someone else needs to use it.
The next time she calls, the phone rings until a recorded message tells her that all circuits are busy, she should try the call again later. For two weeks, he hasn’t said anything about time travel or the hydrogenerator that the city of Portland stole his idea for through surveillance of Facebook messages.
When she calls back, someone answers after three rings and says they’ll go get him. She listens to the sounds of people walking by, talking like muttering, a door closing. His voice is sharper than it has been, but still flat as he tells her he can’t talk long, explains that he has to return a library book by 6:30pm because tomorrow he is going back to the jail to wait for trial. “I’ll probably get sent back here, or to some other place like this. We’ll be able to talk again.”
He doesn’t sound insane, but he also doesn’t sound concerned. She wonders if this means he is insane and, if so, what that means. Mustering a feeling that makes her pulse feel tight in her throat, something alive trying to get out, she takes a deep breath and silently lets it loose to arc across the mountains, a thin, electric blue all the way to the radioactive ocean.
There is nothing else to say.
[RIP S. Hoffman ♾]