"A beautifully understated comic nightmare about an ex-con's misbegotten attempts to tread the straight and narrow outside the slammer... After a series of plot twists worthy of Thomas Pynchon or Joe Orton...Shiner does manage a happy ending as magically unexpected as pulling 23 cats out of a hat."
Dave had been through Bastrop a dozen times on his way from Austin to Houston. Just outside town, the land suddenly rose up and there were pine trees everywhere. The red dirt turned brown with fallen needles, and the air became cool and sweet. The Lost Pines, they were called, because there was nothing else like them for a hundred miles in any direction.
He’d spent a weekend with a girlfriend in Bastrop State Park. They’d rented a log cabin and had sweaty s_x in front of a fireplace with the inscription, “Clever men are good but not best.”
He didn’t know about the federal prison there until he ended up inside it.
The Bastrop Federal Correctional Institute was a few miles north of the main highway, surrounded by forest. There were no signs until the last turnoff. During his six months there, Dave learned a number of things. He found out that the prison’s main products were military helmets and life rafts. The government paid for them with surplus khaki uniforms for the inmates. He learned not to make eye contact in the yard and how to sleep no matter what went on around him.
He also learned that his life, or anybody’s, was like a piece of soft wood. He could shape it to a certain extent, but it could also get dented or even broken beyond repair.
Most of the people Dave got to know there were drug dealers. Some were high enough up in the business to wear tinted gold-rimmed glasses and have manicured nails. They ate better than Dave and they landed the trusty jobs. Then there were the repeat of-fenders, with slurred voices and eyes that didn’t quite focus. Not to mention the prisoners waiting for trial at the federal courthouse in Austin. They were thrown in with the general population, regard-less of what they’d done. It was hard for Dave not to feel sorry for some of them. It was also dangerous to feel very sorry for anybody, himself included. Dave seemed to be the only tax dodger in there among the pushers and kidnappers and serial killers. The IRS had, in short, hung Dave out to dry.
His parole came through on October 15, 1988. It was a Saturday, nine days before his fortieth birthday. There was a prison bus headed for Elgin, Bastrop, and Austin later in the day. Dave had elected not to wait around.
“Who’s picking you up?” the gate guard asked him.
“My ex-girlfriend.” Dave sat on one of the blue plastic chairs in the waiting room. From there he could see out into the parking lot and the surrounding hills. The grass was still a parched yellow from the last days of summer. He could see the road all the way out to the perimeter fence where it curved to the right and met Highway 95.“Haven’t seen her since we split up. That was back before I got busted, more than a year ago.” Dave looked at his watch again, like he’d told himself he wouldn’t do. On the phone she’d said she would be there by 10:30. Here it was nearly 11:00.
“Maybe she’s got fond memories,” the guard said.
“Yeah,” Dave said. “You got to have hope.”
He’d thought about being free so long, he’d milked all the emotion out of it. There was nothing left but nerves. If he turned around, he would see the twin chain-link fences, woven with razor wire, that surrounded the prison yard. He didn’t ever want to see them again.
A red Camaro roared into the visitors’ lot. Dave felt like the guardhouse floor had dropped a couple of stories. He grabbed his cardboard suitcase and headed for the door.
“Good luck,” the guard said.
That was when Dave saw the man sitting next to Patsy in the front seat.
“Thanks,” he said. “I may need it.”