Nancy Taylor Day


Michael Ellis sat on his tall stool at the front of Hobbies trying to ignore the noise from hand tools and radio static while he read the prison newspaper.

"Hey, Mr. Ellis," an inmate called to him, waving to attract his attention.

Michael walked between the rows of hobby tables. "What do you want?"

"These nails split my goddamned guitar pin. Now what?"

"They're too large. I told you to use the little brass ones. Who's got the brass nails?"

"Pachecho probably swiped them," someone mumbled.

"Yeah, try Pachecho's corner," another inmate said, tapping the head of a leather-working tool with his hammer.

Back against the wall, Joseph Pachecho stood on a ladder and welded a spoke for the wing of his towering sculpture, an iron and pipe and sheet metal piece he called Freebird. The joint sizzled. Pachecho flipped up his welder's visor and, holding the torch out in front of him like a pointer, counted the spokes. Pachecho either hadn't heard the accusation or didn't care.

"We get tables; Pachecho gets the whole fucking corner. He gets whatever he wants. Probably has the nails."

"What's your problem?" Michael asked.

"Privilege," the man said. "Pachecho's got privilege."

"Everyone here has privilege. He's just got more room. That clear?"

"Yeah," the guy said as he drove the point of his leather punch through the belt with a blow from the hammer.

An inmate called Stag ambled back to the corner and propped his foot against a step on Pachecho's ladder. "You ever going to finish back here?" Stag asked.

"None of your business, man," Pachecho said.

"Hey, I asked you." Stag jiggled the ladder.

"I told you." Pachecho swung around, sweeping the welding flame across the top of Stag's bald head. "Leave me alone, man. I don't fuck with your goddamned souvenirs, you don't fuck with my bird." Pachecho held a welding rod at his side.

Stag pulled his foot off the ladder but did not retreat.

Michael started down the aisle, shouting. "Knock it off! Cut this shit out!" Before he could get to the back of the room, inmates, some still clutching their tools, crowded into the aisle. From his perch on the ladder, Pachecho pointed the torch at Stag's face. Stag clenched his fists.

Only the radio crackled.

"Knock it off!" Michael shouted.

Pachecho tilted up the torch and increased the flame.

Michael pushed through the cluster of spectators. "Move." He shoved someone out of his way. "Move, move. Cool your jets, Pachecho." Michael grabbed Stag's arm, pulling him away from the ladder, then spoke in a low voice, "Temper time's over."

A long blue flame roared from the welding torch.

Michael looked up at Pachecho and shouted. "Now! Pachecho."

The flame roared.

"Don't be an idiot, Pachecho," Michael said. He stared at the reflections of the blue, vertical flame in the centers of Pachecho's black eyes. Michael shivered. "Come on, Pachecho, now."

Pachecho turned the torch toward Michael and Stag. Michael felt the heat; he heard the group of men behind him shifting positions.

"Don't do it, Pachecho," Michael whispered and shook his head. He watched the eyes.

Pachecho grinned as he turned down the torch. Michael looked around at Stag, who backed off, palms up in a gesture of surrender. One group of inmates cheered; another group hissed.

"Clean up!" Michael shouted. "Hobbies closed. Check-out line now." When he turned, Pachecho had flipped down the visor on the mask and turned up the torch, putting the flame to a joint on his sculpture.

"You, too, Pachecho," Michael said. "Hobbies closed."

Pachecho's welding rod crashed onto the concrete floor and the torch hissed off. "Pendejo."

"Tomorrow, too," Michael said.

Someone slammed a chair into the work table, tools clattered where men tossed them.

Pachecho called down to Michael from the ladder, "How can I finish, man, if you keep closing Hobbies?"

"You've got more than enough time, Pachecho. You'll finish."

After the inmates left, Michael locked himself in the hobby room. His shirt stuck to his back, his knees trembled and his bladder ached. He switched off the radio and sat on his stool. Sawdust hung in the air and the smell of hot metal from Pachecho's welding irritated Michael's nostrils. Pipes and wires and flat iron for Freebird lay in a stack on the floor.

Back under Table Four, a box of brass nails had spilled where some asshole had kicked them--maybe on purpose, maybe not. Who knew in Hobbies? Michael took a deep breath and wiped his forehead on his khaki sleeve.

The next day Michael wrote his report to justify closing Hobbies, a decision which, as Hobby Officer, was at his discretion. He flipped through his file. Five, six times before, he'd closed up for a day. Pachecho's name appeared on every report, always Pachecho.

For more than a year, Michael had watched Pachecho build Freebird. Pachecho established his space with electrical tape on the floor in the back corner and as the bird grew, so did Pachecho's space.

Sometimes Pachecho sat silently in front of the bird for days, gazing at his work or the wall. Who knew? Sometimes he'd rant around the bird, talking, cursing loud enough for everyone to hear him over the other hobby noises.

None of that bothered Michael; the name, Freebird, did.

"Why torture yourself?" Michael had asked Pachecho. "Freebird's not torture, man, he's my vision. You know about a vision? The image gets in your brain, man, in there, and you watch until the thing becomes real. When I fly, man, Freebird stays here and becomes their vision, the believers."

Pachecho's files left no question in Michael's mind that the man would not fly through pardon or parole. The bad kid who had turned twenty-one behind bars, whose unbridled arrogance kept him on constant report, would fly only in the midst of great turbulence. Michael had studied Pachecho's files. The clerks at Adult Authority hadn't missed much: reports from psychiatrists--paranoid, sociopathic; social workers--dysfunctional family, children abused; school--truant, trouble-maker; local police--theft, burglary, suspected murder, suspected rape, finally murder while committing armed robbery. Adult Authority recorded the familiar litany. Adult Authority hadn't recorded anything about vision or artistic genius.

An art school dropout, Michael knew about visions; he'd had his visions: fame, esteem, wealth, adulation. Michael's art major had gotten him as far as Hobbies and until Pachecho showed up, no one had done anything in that room except work off frustration and use up their time. Until Pachecho. Michael and Pachecho both understood vision, but, only Pachecho had genius.

And in exchange for the company of genius, Michael would give Pachecho the whole damn room for the next twenty years if he wanted it, even if he had to close Hobbies from time to time while Pachecho defused.

Michael walked between the tables and picked up scraps that littered the floor: strips of copper foil, silver wire, some turquoise-colored tiles, wood scraps from someone's cedar chest project and leather trimmings. He locked up and left the valley, and drove to town, where he kept an efficiency apartment with a fold-out sofa bed just until he could find a house. He'd lived there four years and the place wore on him, like a cell; the cluttered room pressed too close. But houses never seemed right, didn't have a view, or cost too much.

As the TV news ran into black and white reruns of Groucho Marx, Michael fixed himself dinner. He ate standing up at the breakfast bar and opened a screw-top bottle of local red wine, which he carried over to his home craft corner when he'd finished eating.

Michael emptied the hobby scraps from his pockets and sorted them onto a large sheet of oak-stained plywood set up on a pair of sawhorses. His project occupied half his living space. On the wall behind the plywood, he'd stuck the blueprint for his design next to two sketches of Freebird that Pachecho had given him. He planned to seal his pastoral mosaic with polymer and attach legs for a dining table. He glued the silver wire along a rippled line, then did the same with the leather. He set the chips of stone in place and overlapped the wood chips in a fan shape at one corner but did not glue them.

Michael stretched out on his bed with a copy of the current American Artist magazine which he finished Sunday night and took to Hobbies on Monday for the Reference Shelf. Michael supplied how-to books, patterns, craft manuals and magazines for the men in Hobbies, but they rarely read the manuals; never read the magazines. Stag said he'd read Hustler if Michael brought it.

Pachecho called Michael back to the corner.

"The welds aren't holding, man. Look, pull down on that wing," Pachecho said.

"That joint needs reinforcement," Michael said, standing up inside the superstructure of the bird, wiggling a long piece of flat iron. "Here." He pointed. "And here."

"I need some threaded 'L' joints, man, that's what I need."

Pachecho walked around the bird, and when Michael headed back down the aisle, Pachecho pulled on the wing, stressing the weld until the metal spoke crashed to the floor.

"Pendejo!" he raged, stomping around the bird. "Madre de Dios, esta pajaro no es mas de pendejo!"

Michael requisitioned the pipe from the physical plant and they were glad to help out. Pachecho spent the next month reinforcing Freebird's joints. He labeled the dozen joints and everyday before he left, stacked them next to his pile of scraps and parts on the floor. He left the back corner of Hobbies looking like a natural history museum reconstruction studio.

All around Michael, inmates worked leather, wood, metal and wire. They painted and carved. Michael sat on the edge of his desk in the noise and watched, then collected their scraps and filled in the design on his table.

Pachecho attached the wing spokes, welded sheet metal to form Freebird's body, then painted Freebird with flat black paint that made the sculpture look soft like velvet.

That night Michael painted the last coat of polymer on his table, freezing twisted pieces of metal and leather, wood and stone under the hard plastic.

The next day Pachecho draped Freebird's wings with black lisle which shivered in a draft. Freebird seemed alive.

Michael paced around the sculpture. From every side it looked alive, towering up into the corner of the faded green room, wings ready for flight. Michael coughed; tears backed up across his eyes. "We need a picture of this. You and Freebird on the front page. We need an official unveiling, Pachecho." In Michael's memory, his table turned to clumps of refuse, stuck at random on a piece of unstained plywood, dumped sideways in a scrap warehouse.

Stag stood on a chair behind Michael. "It's about goddamned time. Cheers to the bird!" he shouted. Everyone in Hobbies applauded.

"No celebration," Pachecho mumbled. He turned to Michael as they stood at the base of the sculpture. "Maybe I'm not done, man. Not yet."

Michael's head throbbed: Decide, you bastard. Don't mess it up again. But when Michael left for the day, one of Freebird's wings dangled, and the reinforcing joints lay on the floor under a veil of black fabric.

For the next two days, Pachecho sat in front of the bird messing with one piece, then another: drilling holes, sanding, welding, routing, blowing into the pipe, looking through it, holding it up to the bird, mumbling to himself.

Michael tried to ignore Pachecho. Goddamn prima donna, arrogant bastard. Michael wanted to punch Pachecho in the nose; he wanted to hang Pachecho by his thumbs--anything to get Pachecho's attention, to make him quit before he fucked up his masterpiece. Michael kept busy gathering crafts for the Ready Shelf. He sorted souvenirs that visitors to the prison could buy at the gift shop, talk about and discard in a fraction of a lifetime. His men had made a set of guitar pins, pink with white flowers; one hammered silver bracelet and earring set; snake rings in copper and silver; wire sculptures of a guard, a cowboy and a rattlesnake mounted on slices of varnished redwood; covered wagon night lights; note cards with water color paintings of the prison. Michael finished pricing his inventory, then sat on the edge of his desk. The radio crackled. Banging, buzzing tools and conversation, sawdust and paint fumes filled the room.

Pachecho fiddled with Freebird, and Michael, in a rigid, self-imposed haze, watched everything but Pachecho.

Friday, Pachecho didn't show up for Hobbies.

Someone banged on Michael's door early Sunday morning waking him.

As he rolled off his sofa bed, Michael pulled on his shorts and sweatshirt then hurried past his table, where the night before he'd left an empty wine bottle and the unplugged phone.

"Ellis, we got a problem over in the valley," the guard on the step said.

"Hobbies go up in smoke?" Michael let the man into his place. The guard walked over to the table, rubbed it with his hand and looked at the design sideways through the plastic. "This the kind of shit you doing down in Hobbies?"


"What is this anyway? Seen this stuff at the pizza place."

"What's the problem in the valley?" Michael asked, picking grit out of the corners of his eyes.

"One of the boys got a gun, took the padre and's holding up in Visitors' Lounge. They think it's a homemade piece, maybe just a dummy. They think he got the stuff from Hobbies."

"Who? You know who?"

"Con called Pachecho."

Michael sat down on the vinyl chair and propped his elbows on the table. "Pachecho. Damn you, Pachecho."

The guard asked again, "Anything missing he might have used?"

"Where'd you say they are now?"

"Visitors' Lounge."

"I'll get dressed and come in with you."

"Nah, you don't have to do that. They just want to know if he could've gotten the stuff in Hobbies. They're trying to figure out what they're up against."

"Give me a minute. I'll go back with you."

"Don't waste your day off."

"No waste. That bastard's going to get himself killed." Michael yanked his jeans off the closet door knob and pulled them on over his shorts. He bent down to put on his shoes.

"As long as he doesn't take the padre with him, who cares?"

Michael stopped tying his sneaker only for a moment, glanced up at the guard who peered into the table top, then continued dressing. "I care. He doesn't need to die now. You know how young he is? You know how pathetic his life's been?" You know he's a genius?

"I don't give a fuck about that little prick, Ellis. You coming or not?"

"I'm coming." Michael tucked in his sweat shirt, ran his fingers through his hair and collected his ID and keys from the top of his dresser.

Michael gritted his teeth and left his place, his pulse hissing in his ears. He heard his pulse, still, as he approached the main gate, where nothing seemed unusual. A quiet Sunday, too early for visitors. Michael hurried inside, called up to the officer in command and got clearance and an escort to an area outside Visitors' Lounge.

"Can I get close enough to talk to him?"

"You might as well try." Capt. Johnson called over the bull horn, "Pachecho, Ellis is coming in. No shots, agreed?"

"Good!" Pachecho shouted.

"Pachecho, Mr. Ellis here," Michael said as he knocked on the door.

"You took your time, man. I thought I'd have to celebrate alone."

"Pachecho, listen. Let me in there. We have to talk." Michael tried the door. The knob turned but the inside bolt had been locked.

"No, man. We had our talk. We're just here to celebrate. Congratulate me, man. I'm finished now."

"There's so much more you can do. You've got the talent." I'd sell my soul for your talent, you damned bastard.

"Sure I do, man. Talent ain't worth shit. Celebrate my vision."

"Let me come in, Pachecho."

Over the bull horn: "Ellis, everything okay?"

Michael waved.

"Listen, Pachecho," Michael spoke quietly at the door, "give yourself up."

"To who, man? How could I do that?"

"Pachecho, listen."

Capt. Johnson called again, "Ellis, hostage status."

"Pachecho, let the padre out. Let him go. I'll take him away from here; I'll take his place. You choose."

"No, man. He's okay. You have my word. He's okay."

"We could talk."

"No more talk. Celebrate, man."

The captain's voice called Michael again, "Ellis, get back here."

"Pachecho, listen. Listen to me. Keep making art, keep the corner, keep the vision--but not like this."

"Hey, man, this is the vision. This is the vision."

"Damn you, Pachecho."

"You don't get it, do you? Go on, man. The bird's yours. I'll celebrate myself. Talk closed."


"Talk closed."

Michael walked back from the lounge, back out through the barred way into the hall.

"What's the situation, Ellis?" Capt. Johnson asked as he paced behind the barrier, fidgeting with his holstered side arm.

"He said Padre's okay."

"What's the chance he's telling the truth?" the captain stopped and looked at Michael.

Michael thought about Freebird, about Pachecho's files. "Even odds," Michael said. "What now?"

"We wait him out or gas him out," the captain said.

Michael ran his fingers through his hair and rested his forehead against his palm. "He won't come."

"He say that?"

"No. But I know. He won't ever come out."

"He'll come." Capt. Johnson nodded toward two men who squatted across from the lounge windows, ready with tear gas canisters. "What'd he say about the padre?"

The shot came from inside Visitors' Lounge.

"Shit," a guard said, "he shot him."

"Pachecho!" the captain shouted through the bull horn. "Pachecho!"

"He won't answer," Michael said. Goddamned genius.

The captain called again over the horn, "Pachecho. Pachecho."

Michael heard the amplified voice all the way down the hall to Hobbies. He let himself into the room, silent for the weekend, and walked back to where the crippled bird stood. He counted the spokes on Freebird's wings. He leaned down, tucked the black lisle under his arm and counted the 'L' joints stacked on the floor. His count showed one joint short, the one Pachecho had tooled into his freedom gun. Michael Ellis wept.

Last updated: 1999-02-15