On the Other Side of the Fence

          It always makes me thoughtful, driving on the 101 freeway past the prison at Soledad, past the chain link fences and razor wire, the guard towers, the buildings—many buildings, laid out in a kind of campus, with lawns and exercise yards and flag poles and parking lots.
          Looks nice from the outside, despite its hardcore rep. I might even slow down a little. I guess there’s an element of morbid curiosity involved, like slowing down to look for the bodies when there’s been an accident. The inmates’ lives are so blighted, they do seem a bit like the mangled victims of a crash.
          I know some of them are watching the traffic; one of them might be watching my car go by, and wishing he was in it, instead of in jail: yearning for the freedom of the open road, to be headed for a destination he voluntarily chose—but able to change his mind if he wants—or just out for a ride with the top down, feeling the wind in his hair and sun on his neck. But he can’t, because he’s stuck in prison, where every part of his life is regimented: the one place most carefully calculated to affront his sensibilities and suck all the joy out of life. Perhaps he goes to his prison job, making road signs. He picks up a blank—a sheet of metal the right shape for the kind of sign he’s making—and sprays on the background color and sets it aside to dry; then after a bit he lays a stencil across it and sprays on the symbol or lettering the sign needs. Perhaps it’s one of those squiggly arrow signs that mean the road ahead is curvy, and you better watch your speed so you don’t end up in the ditch. And he imagines that he’s there, on a two-lane mountain road on his motorcycle, and sees the twisty-arrow sign and knows he’s got the whole road to himself and can go as fast as he dares without risking a ticket.
          He wants to enter the first curve at just the right speed, which he can maintain or maybe even accelerate a little through the curve, because braking in the curve would throw off his balance and reduce traction—which would be even more exciting, but not in a good way. If he doesn’t know the road, he has to consider that a blind curve might tighten its radius of curvature as he goes through it, making his safe speed unsafe; but that kind of curve is pretty rare, so he’ll chance it, and he speeds up a little, and slips into the curve, leaning hard toward the inside; and if he’s lucky he hits that sweet, sweet spot, so smooth it’s like an external system of control, like the roller coaster track precisely banked so as to push you straight down into your seat—but it’s all him, tilting his bike over to that exact angle, using his skill and daring to balance all those forces at that greatest possible speed. And if the next curve comes up fast and twists the other way, he feels the sublimely anarchic thrill of heaving his weight quickly from one side to the other and slipping into the next curve, what a blast!
          Then he comes back to reality and paints some more signs.
          I guess I’d daydream a lot if I was in prison. I daydreamed incessantly when I was a kid. I was one of those shy, quiet kids who’s often overlooked, and in my daydreams I always did something heroic, and was acclaimed and rewarded with attention and love. While I daydreamed, I was actually happy: I could shut out the real world and live happily in the dream, on the other side of the dream fence. It was better than opium dreams. I don’t know if adults can even do that; maybe it’s just a kid thing.
          Pretty soon, we pass the last razor-wired fences and revert to the cultivated fields of Salinas Valley, fields separated by dirt roads and windbreaks of eucalyptus trees, with their backdrop, the low mountains of the Coast Ranges to the West, and the pneumatic hills to the East. It would be nice to see what’s over those horizons, away from the high speed traffic and the noisy confinement of the car, in the sun-warmed silence of the hills.

Tim Walker

3 Questions for Tim

What was your process for creating this work?

It came to me wholly formed, but as I wrote it I substituted an imagined motorcycle ride for an imagined car ride. I'd been riding a motor scooter around a lot, and often I'd scoot along with an idiotic grin on my face, under the helmet, exhilarated by the freedom and novelty. So it really clicked for me when I made that change. Revisions after the first draft were entirely focused on word choices to make the tone consistent and the language fresh.

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

My prose writing is almost entirely in the realm of the personal essay. It's a form that uniquely engages my imagination, both as reader and writer. The nonfiction writer seems to me to have some skin in the game, while the fiction writer could be just making stuff up. A note about the structure of the piece: the only real action, as opposed to rumination, takes place in the first and last paragraphs, which comprise what Brenda Miller calls a "container scene," a unifying device that "becomes the 'occasion' for both writing and reading the essay. What sets us on our way? Where are we, and why?" (A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form).

What is the significance of this work to you?

It's a meditation on empathy. I like to imagine other people's lives, and also to see myself, or my situation, from their point of view. This leads me to often write from and about shifting perspectives, and I love the symmetry of two people viewing each other from afar and/or from very different life experiences. There's the motorist and the prisoner; then in the last paragraph, where I imagine what it's like in the silence of the hills, there's implicitly someone there, glad that he's not stuck in a car on the freeway. In an ideal evocation of this pattern, you'd see both the truths and the errors/limitations of this perception at a distance, as in the third and final section of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, but in this short essay I've kept it simple.

Tim Walker read, for pleasure, the complete novels of Charles Dickens while earning a BA in Environmental Studies, and the complete novels of Anthony Trollope while earning a PhD in Geological Sciences, and has since worked as a computer programmer, healthcare data analyst, used book seller, and pet sitter. He lives largely in his own head, while he corporeally resides in Santa Barbara with his son and their cat. His essays and poems appeared most recently in Entropy Magazine, DIAGRAM, pacificREVIEW, Coastal Shelf (forthcoming), American Writers Review (forthcoming), and Rat's Ass Review.

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