By Richard Gatica
I’m serving life in prison, but today I will be as free as any man can be. I climb out of bed and check my window for fog. There is none. If there was, for security purposes, there’d be no yard.
I turn on both light and radio. Linkin Park sings of personal change. I’m a morning person, so I rock it, loud and proud. I wash my face and brush my grill. My head is shaved so no further grooming is necessary. I make a cup of coffee using warm tap water. I fold my covers and clean my floor.
All is lovely.
Meals are served inside our cell and at 6:28 my breakfast is delivered by porters. They’re nosey so I wait for them to push down the tier before I get down to business.
I separate the items necessary for my freedom. Today I use pancakes, six slices of wheat bread, Rice Krispies, sunflower seeds and chocolate chip cookies. I crumble it up on a small space of floor. The crumbs must be small. It’s tedious work and takes me thirty minutes but it brings me peace.
I spread the crumbs at the base of my door. The airflow passes over the pancake portion of the crumbs, reducing its moisture content. I scoop up all the crumbs, place them in an old tortilla bag and hide the bag in the folds of my prison-issued jacket – smuggling it to the yard the way many have done with shanks.
I pace back and forth, beaming on coffee, listening to the radio and loving life. Every 20 laps or so I’m sure to sneak some mirror time.
At 8:27 I get dressed for work. At 8:40 my door opens. I work the yard crew. I go outside and collect food and trash carts from the housing units. I’m paid four dollars a month, but the job allows me to go outside while other prisoners remain in their cell.
It’s bitterly cold this morning. I’m nervous about being stopped, searched and the crumbs discovered. But I’ve been doing this for nine months. The key to invisibility is to speak only when spoken to. The guards pay me little attention.
The yard is huge and empty. The guards in towers occasionally look down at me as I work. I wear sunglasses to mask the direction in which I cast my eyes.
As I push a cart across the yard, I see my beautiful sparrows. At first, I had only one. Now I have forty-six. They are perched in a cluster inside loops concertina wire atop a 16-foot wall in a corner of the yard. The loops protect them from larger birds.
As soon as the sparrows see me, they start chirping and flapping their wings. I wish they’d quiet down; they’re attracting the guards’ attention.
I pass and wonder if this confuses or depresses them. But feeding them is forbidden and if I’m caught I will lose my job and won’t be able to feed them any more.
I sweep and pick up trash. I set out basketballs, footballs, soccer balls and Frisbees for the prisoners.
The sparrows’ song travels across the field. They’re anxious for me to finish. I tell the guard I’m ready for yard release. He looks around briefly, inspecting my work.
“Yard release – five minutes,” he says into his radio.
I start walking around the track. Behind my sunglasses my eyes shift from sparrows to guards to the housing units.
I’ve trained the sparrows to perch in the same spot at the far end, the least used part, of the yard. I walk the track toward them. As I near, my hand slips inside my jacket and I remove the tortilla bag. My timing must be perfect. I need to be directly under the sparrows when the unit doors open. At that moment, the guards will have their backs to me as they focus on the prisoners.
I’m slightly off pace. I slow. The gates open.
The sparrows go wild. In this commotion I make my move. I open the bag and scatter the crumbs beneath the sparrows. Their beautiful song is the only sound I hear. It is lovely.
I walk twenty yards farther along the oval track, then turn to face them. There is now so much movement on the yard that I go unnoticed.
I stand and watch the sparrows. Lil Sergio is the boldest of all. He has two dark patches on an otherwise light-grey chest. He looks down at the crumbs then looks at me. He tilts his head sideways as if asking me if it’s time.
Then he dives. My heart pounds in my chest. It’s a 16-foot vertical drop. Four feet before he hits the ground, he pulls his chest muscles back, extends his wings, pivots his tail and lands gracefully atop the field of crumbs. I laugh and clap.
Lil Sergio looks at me again, then pecks the crumbs. The sparrows above him sing. Then they dive. First two. Then five. Then twenty. Then all.
Other prisoners see what I do. Most mock me. It’s silly, even crazy, they say, for me to waste such time and effort feeding dumb birds. But their eyes are not mine.
I walk to the opposite end of the yard. I find a spot on the wall and lean against it. Across the yards, the sparrows are pecking away. They fly back to the wire each time someone passes and dive again once it’s clear.
As their stomachs fill, some fly off for the morning. I select one and close my eyes. No one can tell that my eyes are closed. I lean my head against the wall and I imagine myself to be that sparrow. I rise and I fly and I am free. I fly six miles north. I come to a house and land on the open kitchen windowsill. Inside an old woman sits at a table drinking coffee. I chirp. She sees me and beams. Her pale-blue eyes fill with compassion. The valley of wrinkles that covers her face is a sign of hard work and wisdom.
“There you are! Eat your breakfast.”
At my feet are bagel crumbs. I peck until it’s gone. She smiles at me. I realize she needs me as much as I need her. I turn my head sideways and chirp. She smiles.
“See you tomorrow, sweetie.”
I fly away.
I open my eyes. I am back on the prison yard against that wall. Guys are playing basketball and handball. Some are jogging. Others do pull-ups. Most walk in small groups gossiping like schoolgirls.
None of this interests me.
I look across the yard and select another sparrow. I close my eyes and with his image in my mind I lean against the wall behind my sunglasses.
I fly eight miles west to a schoolyard and see children at play. I land on a low branch of a tree near a chubby boy. He sits alone – rejected by the other children.
He looks up and sees me. I rise and I fly and I spin. I zip past him and return to the branch. I look at him sideways.
He smiles and claps.
“How beautiful you are.”
I chip and hop.
Deep in his eyes is the pain of loneliness. Tomorrow I will visit the same spot. He is new to me, but I can see his heart is warm and in no time he will dig into his lunch sack and offer me a Frito. I will sing for him and he will smile and I will fly and someday he will, too.
My radar beeps. I sense movement to my right. I open my eyes. Sergio has joined me on the wall – the guy I named the sparrow for. His nickname is Bird. I guess someone thought he looked like one, but his real name is Sergio and, like I was saying, he’s the one I named the little sparrow after.
Sergio is going home in six months. He’s in for drugs or guns or something. I forgot. He’s tall, handsome, slim and athletic, charismatic and funny. He’s kept his heart warm in a cold prison. Tattoos cover his body. He also has a sexy girlfriend. I’ve seen her pictures and I’m looking for an excuse to see them again, but I think he’s on to me. She’s lovely.
I flip up my sunglasses so he can see the direction of my eyes.
“Do you wish you could dive like that?”
Sergio watches the sparrows dive and climb, like fighter jets.
His voice is barely audible, but I detect passion. We watch the sparrows in silence. Sergio knows when words are unnecessary. He’s the only person on the yard I’m comfortable with.
I’m a loner, an outcast, an oddball. I can’t connect with most people. I find them dull and without depth. Sergio is the opposite and I wonder why we even connect. He’s extroverted, a socializer and popular among the other inmates. Sergio ponders the words of Plato and can digest Socratic dialogues. But he is surrounded by tiny men with limited thought processes. They are twice his age and struggle to obtain their GEDs. I met him in the prison library one afternoon. He reached across a book cart and handed me The Alchemist. It opened my mind to a realm that I did not know existed.
Sergio’s mind is mature enough to understand that I’m not crazy. Everyone deals with a lifetime of incarceration in their own way and Sergio sees that peace I find through sparrows is my way of grasping life.
Sergio suggests we walk and we do. The sky is partially cloudy. I look up and see the outline of the full moon ahead.
“How many people on this yard do you think even realize the moon is there?”
“Probably none,” he says.
We soon find ourselves near a patch of sun. The patch is next to the bed of crumbs. As we talk I notice that the sparrows are watching him from atop the sixteen-foot wall. They’re reading his body language. I’ve provided food for many months. When few people are on the yard, some will come so close that I could touch them. But Sergio is a stranger, so they watch him.
Finally, they dive and land nearby and eat from the field of crumbs. They consume crumbs in comfort. Then they rise and sing songs of gratitude and soon yard is recalled.
That night, I turn off my radio and climb into bed, time to be alone with myself. I had a wonderful day and can’t wait for tomorrow.
They serve Fruit Loops tomorrow and my sparrows love those.
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