The Fat Lady Sings
By David Scott Milton
Published by iUniverse 
February 2001; 0595147488; 268 pages

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The Fat Lady Sings by David Scott MiltonCHAPTER ONE

I was running through fog. I could see nothing. Thick brush slapped at my face. The ground was a marsh beneath me and I stumbled as I ran. The air was crisp with early morning chill. Muck and water filled my shoes and it was cold. Gunfire cracked the air, growing more insistent. I'm dead, I thought. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!

I opened my eyes. I was sitting in a chair at my desk. My reflection in the window opposite stared back at me. I glanced at my watch. It was still early night, not yet eight. I had nodded off for less than a minute.

A wide, white river of fog, poured through the valley. I could see the lights of the prison below floating in and out. It felt as though I were on the shore of fast rushing waters, which parted from time to time to reveal a ghost city.

I sat trembling, chilled. I had been here for hours, drinking, staring at the sea of fog below, trying to figure out what I would do with my life. At some point, a curtain had fallen behind my eyes. And a nightmare had then come to me, as it did every night.
It was a horrendous period in my life. I felt as if I would never come out of it whole. I realized I must examine all that I had done in my life and live with it or cast it away.
A year before, my wife had come to me to announce that our marriage was over. She shrugged, no big deal. Not your fault, not mine. I'm just out of here.

She took off with our two kids and I was alone in a mountaintop home with nothing to do but lacerate myself with all the stupidity and weakness that had infected my life for as long as I could remember. I would go over and over everything I had done and said, or not done, not said, regrets upon regrets. I was judge and jury, prosecutor and defense attorney, and the verdict was always the same. No one ever got off in that court. And I would watch television, drink, and stare at the prison lights.

After she broke the news, it took a few weeks for her to get everything together to go. I thought I could salvage the marriage. We would sit at dinner and I would look at her and she was a stranger; and she behaved toward me as though I were a stranger. We had been together eleven years and suddenly we did not know each other. In those tense days before she left, I would tell stupid, self-serving stories to this woman I no longer knew, desperately trying to impress her. She was no longer impressed, not by my stories, not by anything I had done in my life. I no longer existed for her. Nothing I could say would move her. Just as when someone dies and the body no longer seems to be that person, so it was with our love. It was foreign, strange, an object. We were objects to each other.

And now, night after night I would sit in the dark, drink Irish whiskey, and stare at the prison lights.

After my wife left, I talked to my friend, Phil Kleinmutz, a local lawyer with contacts at the prison about teaching a class there. I would encourage the prisoners to tell the stories of their lives. They must have interesting tales to tell, I reasoned. I wanted to get to know them and learn what it's like to have your freedom bounded by real walls instead of the walls inside your head.

I'm a writer: that is I'd been paid for my stuff, even if I had done it only fitfully in recent times. I had had one or two things to say and I had said them and now I was a kind of glorified con man, pitching tales for anyone who could come up with some bucks for me. It was a dog and pony show. I was hustling for my next payday, a man who cared for nothing, who believed in nothing.

I had begun to despise myself, the things I said, the same empty phrases, tired stories, not just in my work but in my life as well. What at one time had been original and promising and deeply felt was now flaccid and boring. I was an old pitchman weary of my own bullshit.

My days had a sameness to them that was brutal. I would rise late, then call my agent in Los Angeles. He wouldn't take the call. I knew he wouldn't, but hoped that before the day was over he'd get back to me. While shaving, I'd watch the end of the Kathy Lee and Regis television show; then with "The Price Is Right" on, I'd have my first cup of coffee of the day. I'd move to my desk and try to write.

You may know my first book, "Funhouse Mirrors." It had respectable sales and they made a godawful movie from it, "Call for Heroes." The film brought me out to California. Every year or so I would sell a film script and the money was good, but the films never were made, and the novels I wrote after "Funhouse Mirrors" sold poorly and so it was a matter of churning the things out for increasingly less money and satisfaction.

"Mirrors" had been written out of my experiences in Vietnam. I had gone into the war as a young man. I had fought with a Special Forces unit. In late 1967 I was involved in a singularly vicious and bloody incident in Kien Hoa Province, the Plain of Reeds. We had been working with a group of peasants in the area around Moc Hoa to locate and eliminate a Viet Cong regiment. The V.C. found out what we were up to and swept into the town and wiped out everyone.

They arranged to make it look as though it had been our doing-they had captured American weapons and used them in the attack and scattered around other captured items and spread the word through the region that we had perpetrated the atrocity.

I was the captain who ran the operation and there was a great deal of publicity growing out of the whole thing-the American media jumped on the story like a raven on a road kill and I spent a good deal of effort trying to get the thing straight. There was an inquiry and our unit was exonerated but the accusation stuck in popular memory.

I hadn't been able to tell everything, not out of mendacity, but ignorance. Flashes of memory would come back at odd times, catch me when I shaved or showered or watched television, rise up in my dreams, stuff I had either blocked out, misunderstood, or hadn't fully known. The bad dreams had started then and they never really stopped.

I came out of the army in '72, drifted, drank, walked a thin line of sanity. Then one day I sat down and began to write about what had happened, wrote it as honestly as I could, and the book was published as "Funhouse Mirrors." I thought my dreams would end. They didn't.

The movie occasionally comes on television, usually in the middle of the night. In the T.V. Guide it gets two stars. I only watch it when I'm very drunk.

But I had a profession now, a writer, and I went at it with more diligence than talent or inspiration. As I said, I had had one story to tell and I had told it and if I had any deep moral center I would have given up writing at that point. But Hollywood kept throwing money at me and I took the easy way out. I earned a good living. I married. I was nearly forty by then. We built a house in the mountains where I thought I'd write a great book. We had two kids.

My wife, who had been a model before our marriage, took a part-time job selling real estate. She met a Fedex driver on the job who looked like a road show Elvis and they had an affair and she suddenly decided that the brooding gaze with which I fixed the world was not as interesting as the smoldering looks the truck driver radiated and one day she informed me she no longer wanted to be married; she took our two kids, a boy four years old and a girl of six, and moved with Elvis to Bakersfield, the largest city near our town, Tehachapi. Roval was his name, actually, a large man with tattoos who favored sleeveless undershirts, chain-smoked Camels, and drank malt liquor by the quart.

 

 

It was something I never could have imagined. But I had learned long ago in war to take nothing for granted, not your next day, not your next hour.

Life was a wildcat poised to leap in your face.

I stayed in the house we had built on the mountain just outside Tehachapi, the house that was supposed to feed my inspiration. I promised myself I'd only write books that wound and stab, axes for the frozen sea inside all of us.

I took to drinking a lot of Bushmill's thinking about that. Halfway into the bottle, television seemed pretty good, a lot of good things being done there. I watched much television, news mainly. I'd watch it ten, twelve hours a day, the same stories over and over. In one month I learned more about what was going on in the world than my grandfather had been exposed to in his whole life. And the more I saw, the less real knowledge I possessed. It was a geometric progression. I knew more and more about less and less.

I suffered for my kids. I saw them every other weekend or so and it wasn't enough. How did they get along when I'm wasn't there? Were they treated well? When you're only marginally in their lives, everything related to them becomes magnified. You're an outsider who messes up the rhythm of their lives. You show up and the boyfriend hides and their mother is nasty and you feel like a stranger with your own kids. It takes you most of the time they're with you to get them to warm up to you and then its time to return them.

It's been said that a parent is a hostage to fate. I had heard this as a young man. I hadn't understood it, then, but I knew it now, the helplessness you feel in the face of all that can visit a child in this world.

They were so needy, clinging: "Hold me, daddy. Tell me a story. Sleep here with me. Leave the light on, daddy. I'm afraid."

After taking them back to my wife, (beer-bellied, tattooed Roval bolting at my arrival, secreting himself among the bougainvillea in the backyard) I would travel out to a baseball batting range near Sam Lynn ballpark, home of the Double A Bakersfield Blaze, and hit baseballs by the hour. I became quite good and prided myself on being the oldest batter in the cages who could belt out an eighty mile an hour fastball.

I spent great chunks of time imagining my life as a screenplay where I could go back and re-write the second act. I would go over and over it, from the end of the war in Vietnam to the day when my wife walked out on me, polishing it, perfecting it, erasing stupidities, wasted opportunities, harsh words. I promised myself that I would go over it until I got the damn thing right.

I had starting off writing consumed by what I had to say. I lived to write. Now I wrote so that I wouldn't die.

I would go round and round in my head about the whole thing, not only the writing, but my career. Why had I taken this job, why had I dealt with that producer? How had I allowed myself to fall into such a sinkhole of mediocrity? And then I turned that back on myself and began to attack the very act of writing for a living: why was I worried about fiction when life was so oppressive? What did it matter to me what 'characters' did? What stories did I have to tell? Life was eating me up and there was no room for fiction.

I knew I was now very drunk. I would end up getting sick. I would throw up.
I thought of the fatuous producers whose only real interest in the project was the bottom line-how much money would it earn for; the mendacity, the viciousness, where everybody went to bed with a single prayer: that those doing well have their lives shattered before morning. It wasn't just that they wanted what you had. They wanted that, yes, but more: they didn't want you to have it. They didn't just want you to fail: they wanted you to die. No one rooted for you unless they knew you were dying. And only then if they had seen the lab reports.

There was the story about the agent who was visited by the Devil. He was told that he would guarantee him Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson, and Tom Cruise as clients. But the agent must sacrifice his wife and children forever to him. The agent eyed Satan narrowly. "What's the catch?"

Staring past my reflection now, I gazed inward, a spectator at my own existence. I was thinking: life is godawful. And anything else is a lie. Stories are lies. I'm not interested in that anymore.

I was overcome by an awful realization: my mind had stopped absorbing the new. It refused to retain anything it didn't once already know. And so I knew that I was doomed to writing what I'd already written, only doing it more proficiently, cleanly, without guts and blood and soul. I was lost.

There was a manuscript on my desk, a novel I had been working on for years, another novel about war. In it I had tried, without success, to come to terms with what had really happened in Moc Hoa. The events in the gunfire, chaos, fog, death, formed a mystery, mute, impenetrable, a body frozen beneath ice, staring up at me. I could not reach it or bring it alive.

I spread the manuscript out on the desk. A paragraph caught my eye: "My men knew well how to kill. And the bodies were piled high that afternoon piled in a huge pyre, children, old people. And it was set on fire."

I took a pen and pressed as hard as I could on it and ripped the paragraph and crossed it out. I tore the paper with the pen. I phoned up Kleinmutz. We talked every evening, sometimes two or three times, two drunks with lousy, lost lives. His marriage had recently gone into the crapper, also, and he was taking it hard.
He had handled my divorce and at that time seemed to be the most happy of husbands. A year after my break-up, he, too, was visited by the devil of deceit: returning from a business trip, he discovered his wife and a refrigerator mechanic from Keene, a town down the road, passionately practicing the beast with two backs in his marriage bed. Desperate, humiliated soul, he had spied out the deed by scaling a tree outside the bedroom window.

As things transpired, while he was gone, wifie had brought the mechanic in to fix the Kelvinator. The man never left. All the house locks had been changed, their bank account gutted, and Kleinmutz' motorhome spirited away.

He confronted her at the local diner, The Mountain Inn, and she threw a fork at him; it stuck in his cheek; he belted her; she got an injunction against him.

Kleinmutz called me to try to help him figure it out. "We never even had an argument," he said, blubbering. By then he knew all the details and was frantically trying to bury assets and an old Judge from up near Fresno had offered him advice. "He said to me, 'I understand exactly Phil. But don't jump to conclusions because the conclusion you jump to just might be your own. This woman is disturbed. She has a fine husband in you. And she has a chemical imbalance in her brain now that presents her from realizing this. You have to get your dauber up."

"What's a dauber?" I had asked.

"Who the fuck knows? Dauber. Some nautical thing. 'Don't let this get under your skin,' he said. 'In a month or so her illness will pass and she's going to come crawling back to you because she knows deep down that she has a great home with you, you're a good provider and a kind man and she'll realize what she's done and come back beggin' your forgiveness.'"

Kleinmutz, in telling me this obvious fiction, was creating what he really wanted to see happen.

At one time he had been in the D.A' s office in Bakersfield. He couldn't take the politics. "You could be kissing the wrong ass for months," he once told me. "Everybody's nightmare who works in that office is to ride the wrong political horse. One fart and they call you stinky the rest of your life."

He transferred out of prosecuting into defense work; he built a successful small-town practice; he now had a lot to lose and was frantically trying to salvage what was rapidly turning into a nightmare. His wife was after blood and Kleinmutz was falling apart.

She was living in the house with the mechanic and the two of them had recently vacationed in Big Sur in the motorhome. He had taken to downing a fifth of Scotch every night. In addition, he would polish off a large pizza and a quart of beer. He had gained forty pounds and he was not small to begin with.

He answered the phone and his voice was thick and I could tell he was deep into the bottle. When he was in his cups he would babble for hours about love and the human condition and his divorce and the state of his bowels. (I once pointed out his alimentary looniness, the energy spent on fecal movement; he replied that since his life had turned to shit, why not?) I could either hang up or wait him out. "You know the stages of the decline of a relationship? First romantic love, that idiotic interlude between when you think she's beautiful and when she begins to look like a mackerel. Then you're living together. Then you marry. Next kids. Now she's disgusted with you cause you watch television all the time. Next comes separation so she can hump whomever, grease monkey, I don't know. Then divorce. Then the real woman, the real revelation. Now you really get to know her. You've known nothing. You know nothing about a woman until you meet her in court."

"Did you set up my appointment?"

"Your appointment's set up," he slurred. "I have the fucking time somewhere..." I could hear heavy breathing. "Eleven. Do not wear denim. The prisoners wear denim and if you come in with denim you might not get out. We have to talk first."

"Okay."

"Breakfast at the Inn. Did you know Doug Filiberti?"

"Yes."

"A prince. Died, you know? Pancreatic cancer."

"Yes."

"Keeps banging around in my head: the Cat, Death, will one day decide to have fun with the Mouse, us. Thinking about Doug. Dead."

"Yes."

"He was on his way out." When drinking, Kleinmutz had a magical way with voices. He would switch back and forth between them and you'd swear there were two or three other people in the room. He now spoke in Doug Filiberti's voice, hoarse, New York Italian: "'I gotta tussle with this thing, fuck it in the ass, go into the medical history books.'" Doug Filiberti! A felon, yes, but never a bore. 'I want to get this cancer here, nearby, so I can deal with it, eat it up before it eats me.' 'Kleinmutz,' he used to say to me, 'two guys, you and me, just trying to make an honest living and all these thieves trying to take it from us.' Remember his brother, Jerry?"

"Auto supply? Up in Tulare?"

"Up in Tulare. Buy all my batteries, tires, that stuff, from him."

"Good price?"

"The best! Anyway, Jerry would say to him, he couldn't understand it, Doug rested back and the money rolled in and Jerry had to work his tail off. 'Things you get away with,' he told him--" This was in Jerry's voice, which was just like Doug's but an octave higher. "'-- I'd get an ax in the head for.' Doug said he told him, 'You get an ax in the head, you just pull it out and keep on going.' This was his philosophy, take an ax in the head, keep on going. Couldn't do that with your career."

"No." There was silence on the other end of the line except for Phil's deep breathing. For a moment I thought he had fallen asleep. I realized he was crying softly. "I get emotional," he said at last. "He was a scamp, but I loved him. I miss him. He would say to me,' I go into a meeting with an honest businessman and he has an AK-47 behind the desk,'He's telling me what business has become. This is all a rationalization for his own larceny." He was back speaking like Doug Filiberti, hushed, confidential, thick Bronx accent: "'I see it and get up close to him and tell him what a great suit he has on. Can you believe this, Kleinmutz? An AK-47! And he's supposedly an honest guy and he's going to take it away from you and me with an AK-47! I'll tell you, Kleinmutz, I don't know what the world's coming to! Look, you and me are going to get something really big. I have to make it big now for myself or at least leave something for my family.' He died not long after, and left his wife $750,000 in debt." Kleinmutz didn't speak for a minute. "Vale of tears."

"I think you're right," I said.

"You don't want to hear about business," he said. "You're an artist." He liked to chide me about being a writer.

"I admire businessmen," I said.

"You have disdain for them."

"No," I said. "Businessmen are much maligned. They should receive medals. Is there anything we do in this life more boring than business?"

"You're pulling my woodie."

"Much more fun to be an artist or a revolutionary, a bank robber, an athlete-even a day laborer. Give your businessman a medal, condemning himself to eternal boredom!"

"You have contempt," Phil said. I heard the receiver fall. It banged around for a while. Then he hung it up.

I returned to my Bushmill's and thought about how sad and silly it was for two middle aged men to mourn loves and lives that were probably never what we thought they had been.

There was a guy I hung with years before-- this was a time when I did some boxing and we sparred together and in that game things rarely go the way you'd like them to, and he would say, "what you want in this life and what you get don't always come on the same bus," and after all these years I had come to realize how true this was.

I was exhausted but I couldn't bring myself to go to bed because I would dream. Lately it had been about being lost in an unknown city. I didn't remember the name of the street where I lived, or I couldn't find my way home because I was really in some other land. I was lost because the world was meaningless.

And I would awaken in a sweat aware that we lived in chaos with glimmers now and then of some secret order in the universe. And I would think that perhaps after death I'll discover that secret order.

I leaned back in my desk chair and stared at the fog. The wind was blowing now and the fog streamed past the window glass. It was racing. I was being swept along by it. I was drowning in it. The world was fog and illusion and the fog was consuming us all, illusion was consuming us all. And I fell asleep in the chair.

I was with the director of "Call for Heroes," a tall, drunken Englishman who always had a starlet or two stashed away in his trailer. He told me a girl working on our film had just mutilated herself in a terrible way. She had been depressed and just as shooting was completed she chopped off both of her hands, then ground the stumps against a stone lathe.

I was on a boulevard and it was thronged with people and I realized it was Tu Do Street, the red light district in Saigon. I saw the girl. I could not be sure that she had only stumps where her hands should have been-she was wearing a long-sleeve jacket, which covered the ends of her arms. But I did see blood dripping there. I attempted to hurry away from her but she wandered after me. She was not following me particularly. She was just wandering aimlessly in despair, but somehow, no matter what I did to try to evade her-I rushed up and down the boulevard, changed directions abruptly, crossed and re-crossed my own path-she was always near me. And then I saw one hand-fingers closed in a fist. So there had been exaggeration-she had not ground both hands to stumps. But what of the other one?

I awoke staring at the fog outside my window, shaken.

I had a headache. I felt nauseated. I forced myself to throw up but that didn't help and I swore I would never drink again which I knew was a lie.

Phil was waiting for me when I arrived at the Mountain Inn Diner. With a piece of sourdough toast, he was slopping up bacon and eggs and hash browns. The whole mess was drowned in ketchup. He was still half in the bag, dribbling egg yolk and ketchup all over himself.

The diner, decorated like a railroad station, with a lot of rough wood and railroad crossing signs and warning lights, was filled with ranch hands, prison guards, and workers at the cement plant just outside of town. They were either going to or coming off work. The air was thick with cigarette smoke.

There was a model train on display that replicated in miniature the Tehachapi Loop, a famous railroad landmark in the area. For a quarter you could watch it chug up and around plaster-of-Paris mountains, through tunnels, switch tracks, back up, blow its horn, chug on back down the loop. The display was tacky and rundown, the landscape crumbling, the glass case that held it littered with candy and chewing gum wrappers.

I slid into the booth opposite Kleinmutz. He looked like hell. I'm sure he had slept in his clothes, black sweat pants and a black knit sweater. He hadn't shaved. "Anyone seeing you, Phil, would have to say, there goes an ex-athlete."

Kleinmutz was pleased. "Really?" He studied his image in the mirror opposite the booth. "What is it, the sweater?"

"Could be the sweater. Just the look--"

"Must be the sweater. Looks like one of those varsity sweaters."

"I was pulling your dick. You look godawful. Keep this up, you're never going to live long enough to look your age."

"What is it?" He studied himself in the mirror. He wiped some egg yolk and ketchup off his chin. "I'm turning a leaf. You'll see how healthy I'm going to be. Going to this woman over on Union. Colonics. They clean you out. All the old shit. I'll take your there sometime. It'll be my treat."

The waitress came to the table and I ordered toast and coffee. Phil returned to the egg mess, scarfing it down with a greed and ferocity that was frightening. We didn't talk for a while.

Suddenly Kleinmutz pushed his plate away. "You're a real asshole," he said, disgusted. "Why do you want to do such a stupid fucking thing as this? These guys are all assholes. They do this, they do that, they lie, cheat. I'm telling you I know these guys."

"They're your clients."

"That's right. Had this thing up in Joshua Crest. Guy's accused of killing-- who the fuck knows? Who even wants to touch it?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You know Joshua Crest? Out in the desert. A scorpion's nest. Rotten place. Rotten, corrupt people. Young guy convicted of murder. They want me to handle his appeal. Fuck 'em. Can't get involved out there. God I hate that place! Fuck 'em! Deceiving fucks. I've had it up to my eyeballs with this shit! And you're putting yourself in with them--"

"I just want to learn their stories."

"Asshole."

"Does the prison want me?"

"Department of Corrections've completed a background check on you. They like you."

"That's good."

"Yeah, yeah. They're impressed by the military stuff, the fact that you were a government killer. They like that idea. Feel military people do well working for the Department of Corrections."

He studied himself for a while in the mirror. "I played football in high school," he said after a while. "I was all-Chicago, second team."

"You've told me."

"I'm worried about you. I just don't understand it. Why do you want to get involved with these fucks?"

"These are your clients I'll be teaching."

"That's what I mean. And these are my failures. You ought to meet the ones I get off. And I get most of them off. I'm good."

"We know this."

"I work on this theory: Tell enough people over enough time that a duck is a swan, they'll be someone who'll finally say, 'hey, I heard the swan quack.' Got a real sleaze bag as a witness? You tell the jury, 'When you have a crime that occurs in hell, you're not going to have any angels as witnesses.' This is the way we do these things."

I finished my toast and paid the check. We walked out to Phil's battered '78 Ramcharger. The exhaust was cracked and when he started it up, the truck sounded like a rocket going off. We drove out onto Valley Boulevard and headed west toward Cummings Valley.

The prison is set in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains. You drive through a picturesque valley of small ranches and orchards and you come to a row of small houses, which belong to the warden and other of the prison hierarchy. There are neat little lawns in front and rose bushes and it all looks very sweet and pastoral.

A short way beyond the houses is a guard building and a gate. Kleinmutz identified himself to the uniformed officer and we drove through the gate and down a long narrow road to the farthest section of the prison, up against the mountains. We got out of the truck just opposite the personnel office and entered the building. Kleinmutz told me he'd wait here for me. He made a joke about them not letting me out and no one laughed.

The guards were all business. I was put through a search with a metal detector, then passed off to a large muscular Chicano who led me away. I was taken on to the Maximum Security Yard, to the administration building where I met with a middle-aged woman with kinky gray hair and a light moustache whose I.D. tag identified her as "Mrs. Ramos, Program Administrator." She told me how pleased they were to have someone of my background to work with their long-term prisoners.

"What have they done?" I asked.

"Most are murderers," she said. "Life sentences with no parole."

"I'll be in a room with them-"

"Alone," Ramos said

"No guard?"

"We call them Correctional Officers," she said. "They're professionals and, well, we just don't call them guards these days. No. We'll give you an electronic alarm, but to be very honest, it won't do you much good if they want to harm you. It's primarily there in case there're problems between the men. Does that bother you?"

"Not everyone is suited for this job. I thought with your background you'd be good at taking care of yourself."

She took me onto the yard to show me where I'd be teaching. In order to get onto the yard proper you had to go through four checkpoints with guards behind bulletproof glass and heavy metal doors. "You'll be given a permanent badge with your picture on it," Mrs. Ramos said.

Above us were high wire fences, concrete walls, razor-sharp barbed wire, manned towers.

She pointed out the electronic fence that ran along a no-man's land between the double outside fences. "Sometimes you come down here in the morning," Mrs. Ramos said, "And there's a rabbit or a squirrel cooking on the wire there. The electric force just sucks them in."

The library, a concrete-block room about the size of a large living room, was part of a building that housed several cramped offices for the correctional officer brass. There was a thick yellow line, which ran the length of the walk alongside the building. There was a painted warning next to the line: "Out of Bounds."

Several inmates in blue denim were doing work in the prison yard, tending a bed of flowers, sweeping the walks. They looked lumpy and sullen in their heavy denim outfits. There were blacks, Chicanos, whites, and what they mostly seemed to have in common was bad teeth and worse complexions.

At the far end of the yard I could see a weight pit, several handball and basketball courts. The men were heavily muscled and it struck me as peculiar that we take the meanest members of our society, cage them and then put them to work lifting weights so that they could become ever larger and meaner than they were to begin with.

There was only a handful of guards on the yard and half were women and I was surprised at this. It seemed odd and cruel that prisoners with no likelihood of ever having a life with a woman should be faced with them day in and day out, have to watch them, smell them, be tempted by them.

And I wondered at the women having to ride herd on a group of frustrated, sullen, murdering men.

The women guards on the yard were thick and dikey-looking, but the officer at the library area was attractive, a lithe blonde whose black plastic name tag read "Macklin." "Mr. Dogolov here will be teaching creative writing," Mrs. Ramos said to Macklin.

"Shouldn't someone teach them how to read first?" Macklin said. I laughed, but she did not. I could see she was tough one.

She was not beautiful, but there was something about her that stirred me, a coldness that was sexual. She'd do you. She might count the pattern on the wallpaper while she was at it, but she'd do you good.

At first glance, she reminded me of the women who worked the check-out lines in the local supermarket; in their off hours they helped out at the family ranch, drove thick-tired pick-ups, wore cowboy boots and hats, jeans, flannel shirts: regular shit-kickers who liked nothing better on a Saturday night than to go out Country and Western two-step dancing with their men and get into a good, knock-down fight. But there was something else there, something more complex.

Mrs. Ramos was busying herself with the lieutenant of the yard on some paperwork to do with my class. It was decided the first class would be the next Monday. I'd come in to teach twice a week.

I asked Macklin what most of the men who would be in my class had done.

"You don't want to know." She was staring at me, her light blue eyes like ice. "Don't go down that road," she said. "Don't delve. They'll look to manipulate. Don't tell them anything about yourself."

"My name?"

"I'd rather they called me asshole, than by my name," she said.

I looked from the guard office to the mountains beyond the prison. With a shock I realized that my house was the only view of civilization these men had. I imagined that as I was staring down at them wondering what their lives were, they were gazing up at my house wondering what my life was like.

Now we would both have the chance to find out.

Copyright 2001 David Scott Milton
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

A hard-boiled detective thriller in the tradition of Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard.

Gamblers, convicts, strippers, and killers--The Fat Lady rocks! A sledgehammer to the heart!
Paul Dogolov, divorced Vietnam War hero and novelist, teaches a writing class in a maximum-security prison. Convinced that one of his students, serving a life sentence for brutal murder, is innocent, he sets out to find the real killer. The search leads him to a remote, dust-blasted California desert town and a scorpion's nest of bizarre and vicious characters. The result is a tale of intrigue, corruption, and savage humor, in which Dogolov, through his encounter with the horrific, yet wildly comic Fat Lady of the title, learns about terror, degradation, and ultimately love in a funhouse-mirror world where illusion is reality, reality, a chimera.

Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

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Author

David Scott MiltonDavid Scott Milton was an early member of the avant-garde Theater Genesis, along with Sam Shepherd, Leonard Melfi and Murray Mednick. He has had more than a dozen plays performed Off Off Broadway. "Scraping Bottom," under the title of "Born To Win," became the Czech director Ivan Passer's first American film, and starred George Segal, Karen Black and Paula Prentiss. In Los Angeles, "Skin," for which Mr. Milton won the Neil Simon Playwrights Award, ran for nearly a year at The Odyssey Theater.

He has written three screenplays for the director, Peter Bogdanovich: "I'll Remember April" for CBS Theatrical Films, "Paradise Road," for Dino DeLaurentis, "Saturday, Sunday, Monday," for Warner Bros. In addition to Mr. Bogdanovich and Ivan Passer, he has worked with Sidney Pollack, Dick Richards, Irv Kershner, Milos Forman, John Cassavetes, and others. He recently completed the screen adaptation of Jack Valenti's novel, "Protect and Defend" for Laura Pels-Peter Bogdanovich Productions.

He has also published five novels. "Paradise Road" was given the Mark Twain Journal award "for significant contribution to American literature."

For the past number of years Milton has been a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Adjunct Professor in Professional Writing (graduate level) at the University of Southern California. He also teaches screenwriting at the graduate level in the cinema department.

In the past, Milton has been a special lecturer at Goddard College and at Cal Arts, as well as consultant to the creative writing program at the University of South Alabama and literary consultant to Scott, Foresman Publishers, and Warner Books. In February of this year he conducted a screenwriting seminar at The German Film and Television Academy in Berlin.

Since 1992 he has run a writers' workshop on the Maximum Security Yard of the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi where his class consists of a dozen murderers. A one man show, “Murderers Are My Life,” based on his prison experiences will open in Los Angeles and New York.

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