But Beautiful

High up on one wall the bars of the small window threw zebra stripes of light and shadow across the floor. He paced the cell and glanced at the figure stretched out on the top bunk before slumping down onto the lower bed, the tracks of the shadows falling over him. Head in his hands, elbows on thighs. His left hand reached around his right shoulder, scratching a spot just below the armhole of the sweat-stained singlet before massaging the biceps of each arm with the hand of the other. His legs protruded thin and white from grayish shorts, the unlaced boots on his feet making his legs seem scrawny. All over one wall were pictures torn from Playboy of grinning women, pale and naked except for the glisten of lipstick and gold sheets, satin, silk. He stretched out on the bunk, shut his eyes for several minutes, and then climbed off the bed and paced the cell again. Every gesture he made was slow: his movements had shrunk, cramped themselves to the confines of the cell, but they had also expanded to fill the hours that took weeks to pass, the afternoons that felt like months. He glanced at the makeshift calendar taped to one wall as often as a man waiting for a train looks at his watch.

Grasping the bars of the window, he hauled himself up, muscles straining in his arms, a vein swelling in his neck. All he could see was an angle of sky and sun, but pulling himself higher, he could see the refineries and warehouses near the beach. Feet anchored against the wall, trying to ease the weight on his arms, he heaved himself still higher, twisting his head into the angle of wall and ceiling. At least a third of the view was obstructed by the prison wall but, from this difficult perch, he could make out the beach clearly: people lounging in deck chairs, waves slapping in. Scanning further along, he saw an old wharf, a woman, tanned, spreading out a towel and stripping off. She was a long way off but the light was so perfect he could make her out clearly. Slipping out of her blouse and skirt, a red bathing suit underneath. Heat, blue water, spray. She stretched out on the towel. One leg raised, digging into her bag for something—cigarettes, sun lotion . . . He hung for as long as he could and then dropped to the floor, breathing heavily, striped by shadows.

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