Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
A few excerpts…
There’s a guy like me in every state and federal prision in America, I guess – I’m the guy who can get it for you. Tailor-made cigarettes, a bag of reefer, if you’re partial to that, a bottle of brandy to celebrate your son or daughter’s high school graduation, or almost anything else… within reason, that is.
Have I rehabilitated myself, you ask? I don’t know what that word means, at least as far as prisons and corrections go. I think it’s a politician’s word. It may have some other meaning, and it may be that I will have a chance to find out, but that is the future… something cons teach themselves not to think about.
Yeah, I’m a regular Nieman-Marcus. And so when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked if I could smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I said it would be no problem at all. And it wasn’t.
As I believe I have said, everyone in prison is an innocent man. Oh, they read the scripture the way those holy rollers on TV read the Book of Revelations. They were the victims of judges with hearts of stone and balls to match, or incompetent lawyers, or police frame-ups, or bad luck. They read the scripture, but you can see a different scripture in their faces. Most cons are a low sort, no good to themselves or anyone else, and their worst luck was that their mothers carried them to term.
“Fair enough. I’ll tell you what it is and why I want it. A rock-hammer looks like a miniature pickaxe – about so long… It’s got a small sharp pick on one end and a flat, blunt hammerhead on the other. I want it because I like rocks.”
The prison administration knows about the black market, in case you were wondering. Sure they do. They probably know as much about my business as I do myself. They live with it because they know that a prison is like a big pressure cooker, and there have to be vents somewhere to let off steam. They make the occasional bust, and I’ve done time in solitary a time or three over the years, but when it’s something like posters, they wink. Live and let live. And when a big Rita Hayworth went up in some fishie’s cell, the assumption was that it came in the mail from a friend or a relative. Of course all the care-packages from friends and relatives are opened and the contents inventoried, but who goes back and re-checks the inventory sheets for something as harmless as a Rita Hayworth or an Ava Gardner pin-up? When you’re in a pressure-cooker you learn to live and let live or somebody will carve you a brand-new mouth just above the Adam’s apple. You learn to make allowances.
“… I only ask for three beers apiece for my co-workers, if that seems fair. I think a man feels more like a man when he’s working out of doors in the springtime if he can have a bottle of suds. That’s only my opinion. It would go down smooth, and I’m sure you’d have their gratitude.”
That’s how, on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate-factory roof in 1950 ending up sitting in a row at ten o’clock on a spring morning, drinking Black Label beer supplied by the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank Prison. That beer was piss-warm, but it was still the best I ever had in my life. We sat and drank it and felt the sun on our shoulders, and not even the expression of half-amusement, half-contempt on Hadley’s face – as if he was watching apes drink beer instead of men – could spoil it. It lasted twenty minutes, that beer-break, and for those twenty minutes we felt like free men. We could have been drinking beer and tarring the roof of one of our own houses.
“… what I’m doing in here isn’t all that different from what I was doing outside. I’ll hand you a pretty cynical axiom: the amount of financial help an individual or company needs rises in direct proportion to how many people that person or business is screwing.
The people who run this place are stupid, brutal monsters for the most part. The people who run the straight world are brutal and monstrous, but they happen not to be quite as stupid, because the standard of competence out there is a little higher. Not much, but a little.”
“There’s a fine line there. What it comes down to, Red, is some people refuse to get their hands dirty at all. That’s called sainthood, and the pigeons land on your shoulders and crap all over your shirt. The other extreme is to take a bath in the dirt and deal any goddamned thing that will turn a dollar – guns, switchblades, big H, what the hell. You ever have a con come up to you and offer you a contract?”
I nodded. It’s happened a lot of time over the years. You are, after all, the man who can get it. And they figure if you can get them a nine-bolt battery for their transistor radio or a carton of Luckies or a lid of reefer, you can put them in touch with a guy who’ll use a knife.
“Sure you have,” Andy agreed. “But you don’t do it. Because guys like us, Red, we know there’s a third choice. An alternative to staying simon-pure or bathing in the filth and the slime. It’s the alternative that grown-ups all over the world pick. You balance off your walk through the hog-wallow against what it gains you. You choose the lesser of two evils and try to keep your good intentions in front of you. And I guess you judge how well you’re doing by how well you sleep at night… and what your dreams are like.”
We had another warden by then, a man named Samuel Norton… His major innovation as the head of our happy family was to make sure that each incoming prisoner had a New Testament. He had a small plaque on his desk, gold letter inlaid in teakwood, which said CHRIST IS MY SAVIOUR. A sampler on the wall, made by his wife, read: HIS JUDGMENT COMETH AND THAT RIGHT EARLY. The latter sentiment cut zero ice with most of us. We felt that the judgment had already occurred, and we would be willing to testify with the best of them that the rock would not hide us nor the dead tree give us shelter. He had a Bible quote for every occasion, did Mr Sam Norton, and whenever you meet a man like that, my best advice to you would be to grin big and cover your balls with both hands.
… it was as if Tommy had produced a key which fitted a cage in the back of his mind, a cage like his own cell. Only instead of holding a man, that cage held a tiger, and that tiger’s name was Hope. Williams had produced the key that unlocked the cage and the tiger was out, willy-nilly, to roam his brain.
To get to Solitary Wing, you were led down twenty-three steps to a basement level where the only sound was the drip of water. The only light was supplied by a series of dangling sixty-watt bulbs. The cells were keg-shaped, like those wallsafes rich people sometimes hide behind a picture. Like a safe, the round doorways were hinged, and solid instead of barred. You get ventilation from above, but no light except for your own sixty-watt bulb, which was turned off from a master-switch promptly at eight p.m., an hour before lights out in the rest of the prison. The wire wasn’t in a wire mesh cage or anything like that. The feeling was that if you wanted to exist down there in the dark, you were welcome to it. Not many did… but after eight, of course, you had no choice. You had a bunk bolted to the wall and a can with no toilet seat. You had three ways to spend your time: sitting, shitting, or sleeping. Big choice. Twenty days could get to seem like a year. Thirty days could seem like two, and forty days like ten. Sometimes you could hear rats in the ventilation system. In a situation like that, subdivisions of terrible tend to get lost.
Time continued to pass – the oldest trick in the world, and maybe the only one that really is magic.
“When I get out of here,” Andy said finally, “I’m going where it’s warm all the time.” He spoke with such calm assurance you would have thought he had only a month or so left to serve. “You know where I’m goin’, Red?”
“Zihuatanejo,” he said, rolling the word softly from his tongue like music. “Down in Mexico. It’s a little place maybe twenty miles from Playa Azul and Mexico Highway 37. It’s a hundred miles north-east of Acapulco on the Pacific Ocean. You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?”
I told him I didn’t.
“They say it has no memory. And that’s where I want to finish out my life, Red. In a warm place that has no memory.”
“Zihuatenejo. I’m going to have a little hotel down there. Six cabanas along the beach, and six more set further back, for the highway trade. I’ll have a guy who’ll take my guests out charter fishing. There’ll be a trophy for the guy who catches the biggest marlin of the season, and I’ll put his picture up in the lobby. It won’t be a family place. It’ll be a place for people on their honeymoon… first or second varieties.”
“There are really only two types of men in the world when it comes to bad trouble,” Andy said, cupping a match between his hands and lighting a cigarette. “Suppose there was a house full of rare paintings and sculptures and fine old antiques, Red? And suppose the guy who owned the house heard that there was a monster of a hurricane headed right at it. One of those two kinds of men just hopes for the best. The hurricane will change course, he says to himself. No right-thinking hurricane would ever dare wipe out all these Rembrandts, my two Degas horses, my Jackons Pollocks and my Paul Klees. Furthermore, God wouldn’t allow it. And if worst comes to worst, they’re insured. That’s one sort of man. The other sort just assumes that hurricane is going to tear right through the middle of his house. If the weather bureau says the hurricane just changed course, this guy assumes it’ll change back in order to put his house on ground zero again. This second type of guy knows there’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”
“He was close friend,” Andy said. “We were in the war together. France, Germany, the occupation. He was a good friend. He knew it was illegal, but he also knew that setting up a false identity in this country is very easy and very safe. He took my money – my money with all taxes on it paid so the IRS wouldn’t get too interested – and invested it for Peter Stevens. He did that in 1950 and 1951. Today it amounts to three hundred and seventy thousand dollars, plus change.”
I guess my jaw made a thump when it dropped against my chest, because he smiled.
“Think of all the things people wish they’d invested in since 1950 or so, and two or three of them will be things Peter Stevens was into. If I hadn’t ended up in here, I’d probably be worth seven or eight millions bucks by now. I’d have a Rolls… and probably an ulcer as big as a portable radio.”
“I’ll tell you how it is, Red. There’s a big hayfield in the town of Buxton. You know where Buxton is at, don’t you?”
I said I did. It lies right next door to Scarborough.
“That’s right. And at the north end of this particular hayfield there’s a rock wall, right out of a Robert Frost poem. And somewhere along the base of that wall is a rock that has no business in a Maine hayfeld. It’s a piece of volcanic glass, and until 1947 it was a paperweight on my office desk. My friend Jim put it in that wall. There’s a key underneath it. The key opens a safe deposit box in the Portland branch of the Casco Bank.”
“I just can’t afford to wait that long. I leep thinking about Zihuatanejo and that small hotel. That’s all I want from my life now, Red, and I don’t think that’s too much to want. I didn’t kill Glenn Quentin and I didn’t kill my wife, and that hotel… it’s not too much to want. To swim and get a tan and sleep in a room with open windows and space… that’s not too much to want.
“You know, Red,” he said in an offhand voice, “a place like that… I’d have to have a man who knows how to get things.”
“I couldn’t do it,” I said. “I couldn’t get along on the outside. I’m what they call an institutional man now. In here I’m the man who can get it for you, yeah. But out there, anyone can get it for you. Out there, if you want posters or rock-hammers or one particular record or a boat-in-a-bottle model kit, you can use the fucking Yellow Pages. In here. I’m the fucking Yellow Pages. I wouldn’t know how to begin. Or where.”
… you do get institutionalized. When you take away a man’s freedom and teach him to live in a cell, he seems to lose his ability to think in dimensions. He’s like that jackrabbit I mentioned, frozen in the oncoming lights of the track that is bound to kill it. More often than not a con who’s just out will pull some dumb job that hasn’t a chance in hell of succeeding… and why? Because it’ll get him back inside. Back where he understands how things work.
In 1975, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank.
“Warden, it smell pretty damn bad.”
“Never mind, I said! Norton cried.
Colorously, Tremont’s voice floated back: “Smells like shit. Oh God, that’s what it is, it’s shit, of my God lemme outta here I’m gonna blow my groceries oh shit it’s shit oh my Gawwwwd -” And then came the unmistakable sound of Rory Trement losing his last couple of meals.
Well, that was it for me. I couldn’t help myself. The whole day – hell no, the last thirty years – all came up on me at once and I started laughing fit to split, a laugh such as I’d never had since I was a free man, the kind of laugh I never expected to have inside these grey walls. And oh dear God didn’t it feel good!
Well, friends and neighbours, I was the one who went. Straight down to solitary, and there I stayed for fifteen days. A long shot. But every now and then I’d think about poor old not-too-bright Rory Tremont bellowing oh shit it’s shit, and then I’d think about Andy Dufresne heading south in his own car, dressed in a nice suit, and I’d just have to laugh. I did that fifteen days in solitary practically standing on my head. Maybe because half of me was with Andy Dufresne, Andy Dufresne who has waded in shit and came out clean on the other side, Andy Dufresne, headed for the Pacific.
Five hundred yards. The length of five football fields. Just shy of a mile.
For all I know, Sam Norton is down there in Eliot now, attending services at the Baptist church every Sunday, and wondering how the hell Andy Dufresne ever could have gotten the better of him.
I could have told him; the answer to the quesion is simplicity itself. Some have got it, Sam. And some don’t, and never will.
Geology had, in fact, become his chief hobby. I imagined it appealed to his patient, meticulous nature. A ten-thousand-year ice age here. A million years of mountain-building there. Tectonic plates grinding against each other deep under the earth’s skin over the millennia. Pressure. Andy told me once that all of geology is the study of pressure.
And time, of course.
Very late in the summer of 1975, on 15 September to be exact, I got a postcard which had been mailed from the tiny town of McNary, Texas. That town is on the American side of the border, directly across from El Porvenir. The message side of the card was totally blank. But I know. I know it in my heart as surely as I know that we’re all going to die someday.
McNary was where he crossed. McNary Texas.
We’re glad he’s gone, but a little sad, too. Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.
That’s the story and I’m glad I told it, even if it is a bit inconclusive and even though some of the memories that pencil prodded up (like that branch poking up the river-mud) made me feel a little sad and even older than I am. Thank you for listening. And Andy: If you’re really down there, as I believe you are, look at the stars for me just after sunset, and touch the sand, and wade in the water, and feel free.
After hardly knowing that they were half of the human race for forty years, I was suddenly working in a store filled with them. Old women, pregnant women wearing T-shirts with arrows pointing downward and the printed motto reading BABY HERE, skinny women with their nipples poking out of their shirts – a woman wearing something like that when I went in would have gotten arrested and then had a sanity hearing – women of every shape and size. I found myself going with a semi-hard almost all the time and cursing myself for being a dirty old man.
Music on the radio. When I went in, the big bands were just getting up a good head of steam. Now every song sounds like it’s about fucking. So many cars. At first I felt like I was taking my life into my hands every time I crossed the street.
If you’re reading this, then you’re out. One way or another, you’re out. And if you’ve followed along this far, you might be willing to come a little further. I think you remember the name of the town, don’t you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels.
Meantime, have a drink on me – and do think it over. I will be keepnig an eye out for you. Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and find you well.
Sure I remember the name. Zihuatanejo. A name like that is just too pretty to forget.
I find I am excited, so excited I can hardly hold the pencil in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion in uncertain.
I hope Andy is down there.
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
From The Citrus Report
Posted By The Citrus Report