What He Was Proudest Of
    Michelle Cacho-Negrete
W hat he was proudest of was his year in prison for possession of cocaine in what should have been his sophomore year of community college.

Ricky and his friend had spent the evening drinking while they watched the tube at his friend’s house. Later, his friend, with a sloppy grin, had waved him into his Honda before staggering off to bed, saying, “I’m too shit-faced. Bring the car back tomorrow.” Pretty shit-faced himself, he wove between lanes, squinting against the headlights of oncoming cars, finally attracting the attention of the local cop, bored with the lack of impressive crime in town.

He’d been as surprised as the cop who, on a fishing expedition, discovered an eight-ball under the floormat on the passenger’s side. If the bust hadn’t happened during the district attorney’s drive for reelection, he would have gotten a year, maybe two, of probation. Instead, he was swept up with a bunch of careless college kids in the DA’s attempt to prove he was tough on crime, the new national slogan.

Until his incarceration, Ricky had been considered average; average height, average weight, blue eyes a few shades under compelling. He was a straight C student. “Consistency, something you can count on” he told his parents at the end of every school year, trying to make a joke of it, wanting to bluff it through to ease whatever disappointment they felt.

People were comfortable around Ricky’s all-American niceness. Still, he was the last person called to go to a movie, join a weekend drunk, play impromptu softball. The sudden question would ring out, “Hey, did anybody call Ricky?” and the answer was inevitably “No…forgot.” There’d be a guilty scramble to get hold of him. It puzzled them. “He’s a great guy,” somebody would say. James, the friend he hung with the most, said it was because he blended in too well. “Maybe,” James explained, “You think he’s already here and you just hadn’t noticed him.”

Girls regarded him as a brother, best friend, boy you could trust, shoulder to cry on. He attended the prom with James’s girlfriend, when James got pneumonia. No groping in the back seat or fumbling for a condom, just a thank-you for being a good sport and a dependable friend.

Ironically, it was this average quality that made him a standout in prison, the first place he enjoyed popularity. His nondescript appearance enhanced his reputation as trustworthy. What had been described by a decade of teachers as impassive, even lazy, was now viewed as impartial and he would often be called upon to mediate some disagreement or another. He became the repository of endless, late-night secrets. Placed in charge of the library, two prisoners worked under him without resentment at his authority.

“Him,” the warden said pointing to his name on a list of candidates for trusty in the prison commissary. “Sharp enough to stay out of trouble, gets along with everybody.”

When the heavy, metal door closed behind him twelve months later, and he stood blinking in the sunlight a free man, except for weekly visits to a probation officer, Ricky felt banished. The teary, welcoming hugs of his parents, the new car they’d bought him, the job they’d arranged, the college’s assurance that it would take him back when the semester began, brought no comfort. The engine of the new car started like a dream, but he pulled away with a wistful look at the tall fence and glistening windows of his home for the last twelve months. James was the last friend still around, finishing his business program and working at the only investment firm in town. He’d made new friends but was too loyal to desert Ricky. Also, it had been his car. Ricky had taken the fall for him. He owed him one. “More than one,” he told Ricky over the phone. “More than one, good buddy. One for every day you were there.”

Ricky, invisible again, clerked at the local discount store, daydreaming and miserable. A week after he got out, James invited him to a party. “Just a bunch of friends,” he told Ricky. “Nothing to be self-conscious about. You don’t need to say you’ve been in jail. Say you’ve been away.”

Ricky hesitated at the blast of music and a clutter of dancing bodies as James swung the door open, but James pulled him in and asked, “Can you have a beer?” Ricky thought, what the hell, and nodded. There were about twenty people, equally divided between men and women, nobody he knew. James introduced him to a red-headed, sweaty guy named Russ, or Ross, or Ralph—Ricky couldn’t hear the name over the music, then James surrendered to entreaties of “come dance,” from a diminutive, intense looking brunette. The sensual mix of strangers was jarring after a year of no contact with women and the swirling noise made Ricky dizzy. After a moment Russ shouted, “Nice to meet you,” and vanished off. Ricky found a chair in the corner where he could watch, soon looking out the window at the cool, cloudless night instead. I should leave, he thought.

After a particularly loud number where the dancers shouted out the chorus and slammed hips, a woman carrying a beer wandered over and threw the window open. “Do you mind?” she asked sticking her head out, gathering long hair from her neck with one hand.

“No,” Ricky answered, amused by how superfluous his wishes were. He sipped his beer and examined her rear end, until she pulled her body back in, leaned against the wall and said, “That’s better.” Her hair cascaded damply around her shoulders as she released it.

She glanced at him. “Who the hell are you? I’ve never seen you at one of James’s parties before.” “No,” Ricky answered. “I’m an old friend. I’ve been away”

“Oh yeah,” she said, taking a long sip of her beer without looking at him. She scanned the room, then straightened, turning away dismissively.

“Yeah.” He surprised himself by rising and throwing the bottle out the window. That caught her attention and she looked at him curiously. He imagined it hitting somebody. Maybe he’d be sent back to the joint for assault with a deadly weapon. That amused him also. He thought, I’m a laugh a minute. He stared at the curve of her shoulders, the slim waist and the short-short dress.

He stepped directly in front of her and said “Yeah, away in prison.”

Her eyes widened. He liked the way she looked at him now.

“What for?” she asked.

“Breaking the law.”

“How long were you gone?” she stepped closer to him.

“Too long,” he answered and put his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t shrug it off.

He was surprised at the simplicity of it after that.

He was known as James’s old friend who’d been in prison. Ricky was invited everywhere. The first person thought of. He didn’t drink in public fearing somebody who knew his parole officer could see him. It added to his mystique. Ricky, needing to walk the line. His lack of conversation was regarded as a sign that he was tough, always on guard. His bland, attractive looks proof that you could never tell about people; the boy next door could be a criminal but not, thank heavens, dangerous enough to worry about.

In college, his classmates offered to tutor him after hearing he’d “been away.” He moved in with Sara, the girl with the long brown hair, after a couple of months of hinting at prison life, the schedule, the food, the bunks with their hard mattresses and thin blankets. Once they started living together, he knew he wasn’t what she expected. He bored her. He watched television. He had a nothing job. He studied accounting. He never even speeded.

One important thing Ricky had developed in prison was instinct. He knew like he was telepathic when Sara thought of leaving him and he’d pull out a prison story, something he’d been told during those late, quiet nights. It worked like an aphrodisiac. She’d encourage her skirt to ride up high, lean forward, exposing the slope of her breasts. He’d slide his hands under her skirt over her ass pulling her towards him roughly and watch her eyes narrow.

He rationed those stories, figuring that by the time he ran out, he’d have invented a bunch more.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete


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