by Jason Hardung

The automated voice on the other end says, “burlywood.” This is my color! My heart pounds like I won something. Then I remember who I called and my heart pounds even harder.

A few weeks ago, I was let out on bond. The state assigned me a probation officer. The probation officer assigned me this color, burlywood. “Remember it with your life,” she said. She also wrote down a phone number and said “Call this number every single morning. Weekends and holidays included. If your color is listed on that day, you will have until five p.m. to get to a testing center to give them a urine sample. If you don’t show up, if you can’t provide a sample or if you test positive for narcotics, your probation will be revoked. It’s that simple. Can you handle that?” I told her I could. And today is the first time that color has been called since I was let out and placed on pre-trial probation.

It’s not like I’m an addict or anything. Some people like to kick back with a couple of beers to relax. Me, I’d much rather snort a pill. Sometimes I just need a break from my head, to be numb to a world that gets a little bit crazier by the day. I’m not worried about the test coming up positive. The last time I used was over a week ago. The internet says it takes three to five days for opiates to be completely out of your system. I’m good.

I down two glasses of water, get dressed, make sure the window is locked because my cat likes to break out and I see the sun out there just raining down on the houses and the cars and there’s some birds and insects flying around. After a long, godawful winter, spring is really here. It’s refreshing. I feel good and alive. I figure I’ll walk to the clinic.

Leaves seemed to have unfurled overnight. Green vibrates against the soft blue sky. Photosynthesis, that’s what it’s called. I try to remember what I was taught in school. Leaves rely on sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to make their own food? They exhale the oxygen that we then inhale into our own lungs? Something like that. These plants keep us alive. I know that much. All this growth. All this chlorophyl. Oxygen and sugars and rebirth. And these flowers popping-off along the sidewalk, the purple ones are my favorite, the lilacs. Their sweet fragrance brings me back to when I was little. When I dug holes in my grandma’s yard with a spoon. Grandma died years ago and I can’t remember what I did yesterday but the memories of back then are still very vivid. This is why I yank lilacs from the bushes as I walk by. To cup them in my hand and inhale. This olfactory trip transports me to a time when any dream still held the possibility of becoming true.

A mile down the road I find it, a non-descript store-front, Rocky Mountain Behavioral Services. It’s sandwiched between Vape Station and Coloradical Kush and Wellness. Just a quick piss and you’ll be out of here, I tell myself going in. A little bell goes dingle, ding above the door. At the front desk I check in and grudgingly hand over the twenty bucks for the test. This leaves me only twenty to live on for the rest of the week. It’s not ideal, but I’m used to being broke. The waiting room is a menagerie of repeat offenders along with their moms, siblings, friends and children. The few who are alone sit hunched over in their chairs, staring down at their phones. They all seem like they belong. Like they do this all the time. I am nothing like these people. I’m no criminal.

There’s one open seat. A woman sets her bag on it so I don’t sit by her. She’s hoping I’m the type of person who will just move on and today I am. I just want to get this over with so I can enjoy the rejuvenation the new season brings. I stand against the wall. Fluorescent lights above buzz like fat flies. A person is called back for their test. I hurry and take their seat.

In my short time dealing with the court system, I’ve learned to tread carefully. Make eye-contact with any of these people and they think you are as lonely as they are. They’ll pluck your heart strings with some sob story. They’ll zone in on your vulnerabilities, prey on those vulnerabilities. They’ll ask for cigarettes or a couple of dollars. They’ll talk you into hopping in a car with expired plates to score narcotics. From one side of the city to the other the fan belt will screech like a massive bird. You’ll burn up the streets, from apartment building to bar to trailer park to motel. You think maybe this was a bad idea and want to bail, but you’re invested now, so you stay. You figure you’ll probably get ripped off. But if you don’t, and you actually get what you paid for, well, that’s what makes life worth living. The smell of lilacs in your palm.

And it isn’t long before I’m ensnared in the gaze of a blue-eyed boy. A baby squirming around on the floor. Diaper dragging between his legs, this boy crawls straight over like I’m his daddy. His tiny hands grab onto my pants and he pulls himself to his feet.

The baby’s mother claps and cheers him on. She’s wearing a Sturgis tank top under a leather vest and tight jeans tucked into moccasin boots laced up to her knees. Covering her head is a bandana. She’s saying “You can do it Baby Eric! Show him how you can almost walk! Member what Uncle Ducky taught you.” She speaks loudly. I assume she’s used to talking from the backseat of a Harley. Bobbling Baby Eric stands between my legs. His hands clutch my knees. Breathing heavy he slobbers from plump lips. His stare makes me self-conscious. Burns a hole through my god-damned soul.

These people are hoping he’ll take his first steps. Anything to make their wait less mundane. And by the way they are watching me, I’m pretty sure they want me to be a miracle worker, an extension of God. Some feel-good story, I guess. The pressure of all these eyeballs is overwhelming and I think, Okay fine. I’ll give the people what they want. So, loud enough for all to hear, I go, “C’mon Baby Eric. You got this.”

“C’mon Baby Eric. My chunky monkey. Walk over to momma,” his mother says, down on her knees, arms wide-open.

I’m feeling it now. I say, “Baby Eric is a strong little man, aren’t you? One foot in front of the other. Let’s do this!”

He doesn’t let go of my legs. Can’t take his eyes off of me. I lean in and whisper, “C’mon man. Don’t make me look stupid.” He wobbles. I peel his fingers from my knee and nudge him, hoping he’ll get to stepping. He gives me this look like I just pushed him down a flight of stairs and a long-drawn-out cry begins. Facedown, he falls onto the carpet, throws a fit. That Baby Eric, he’s got some lungs. Screaming and wailing in the waiting room like that.

It’s not that I hate babies, I just know that they’ll become adults one day. The window of adorability isn’t very long. Maybe four years? Five at the most? Babies are like those Magic Gro capsules that you put in water and they balloon into an animal ten times bigger than when they began. They soak up everything, including evil. They may have bright futures, but they will surely do terrible things to arrive at those bright futures. They’ll steal ideas, money, drugs, love. Some will blame Mercury in retrograde for the consequences of their actions, instead of themselves. Others will consider Joe Rogan a famous philosopher. They’ll idolize wealth, power and reality television stars. They’ll blame their problems on people with darker skin, people with different beliefs, people of different genders. They’ll become cops, boy scout leaders, clergy men, multi-level marketing consultants, Instagram poets. They’ll coerce another person into a dark room and force them to do things they don’t want to do. They’ll become another person’s PTSD. And when all the terrible things catch up to these babies and they have nowhere else to run, they’ll find God. They’ll find God and they’ll say, “only God can judge me.” With God on their side, they’ll be empowered to do more disgusting things. They will reproduce, dumping more of themselves into an already fragile ecosystem. Babies and more babies. Hungry babies sleeping on sidewalks. Babies fucking and gaslighting and robbing from other babies. Babies taking their first steps in the waiting rooms of the prison industrial complex.

Mom rushes over, pulls Baby Eric up by his arms. “You knocked my baby down! Keep your hands off my kid you creep!” Out comes her phone, she begins filming me.

“I didn’t push him,” I say, hiding my face with my hand. “I was trying to help.” She’s hoping I’ll do something wrong so she can put me on Facebook and ruin my life, while she gets millions of likes, brand deals and a large Go Fund Me account for her suffering. Like she wasn’t egging me on two minutes ago.

Because of all the screaming, I barely hear when a man peeks his head out of the hallway and calls my name. “You’re up,” he says and I’m so glad to get out of there. He slaps a plastic jar into my hand. He points the way and follows me down the hall.

When I get to the restroom, I go to close the door, the guy sticks his arm out to stop it. He steps in right behind me. His name tag says Mike. Mike has a thin mustache and a long black pony tail. If I saw him on the street, I’d think he was a magician or a bass player. Mike tells me to pull my pants down and hold my shirt up with my chin. He stands just inches away, eyes trained down on my penis. My heart is up in my throat, more like a ball of phlegm than a muscle. Nobody asks if I’m okay with this; I am not okay with this.

No matter how hard I try to urinate, it doesn’t happen. And it’s not like I don’t need to go. My bladder is so full it scrapes the back side of my bones. My brain won’t let my body do what it needs to do. I close my eyes. I conjure oceans, rivers and rain. I try to recall noteworthy pisses from the past and one comes to mind: Back when I was ten or eleven, staying over at my aunt Deb’s place while Mom was bartending downtown. Asleep in the spare bedroom, I fell into one of those dreams that seem to drag on all night. In the dream I had to pee really bad and the whole plot of the dream was me looking for a place to do it. I slipped behind a massive tree, alone, but as soon as I yanked my pants down, a crowd of people materialized. Strange faces cackling and pointing. Frustrated, I pulled up my pants and moved on. And this game of tag went on and on. I’d try to pee, people would appear out of thin air, I’d get stage fright, zip back up and move to the next spot.

Then I found myself in an abandoned farmhouse. I surveyed the room, didn’t see any signs of life. Light came in through a window faintly. As I was about to pee, a woman materialized out of the shadows. She was nude, hair flowing over her shoulders and down her back. Slowly, she turned to face me. Under that beautiful hair I was shocked to see the head of a cat. I was terrified. I took off running. My body weighed a thousand pounds. I ran in slow-motion into a thick forest. I ran until I came to a stream. I stepped in up to my waist. The water was serene and strangely familiar. The bottom-half of my body became one with the water. Only then was I able to relieve myself and it was the best piss I’d ever had in my life.

I awoke to my aunt’s face in mine, her eyes full of venom. I was standing. “What in the hell is wrong with you?” She screamed.

See, one wall in her basement was wall-papered, a wall-sized photo of a stream rolling through the woods and I was peeing in it. Piss ran down the wall onto the carpet. Aunt Deb grabbed me by the back of my neck and forced my nose into it. “You want to act like a dog, I’ll treat you like one,” she said.

This memory doesn’t help me go either. If anything, it leaves me more agitated than before. I ask Mike if I could come back tomorrow and try. Tell him how I’ve never had to do this before, tell him how hard it is.

“You never peed before?” He asks.

“Not with a complete stranger staring at my junk. Why do you have to be so close?”

“You trying to hide something?”

“Just my frustration.”

“Ah, you’re angry with me. Perhaps I should recommend you for our anger management class. I’m sure your P.O. would agree with me.”

“I’m not angry. And I can’t afford to pay you guys for anything else. I already have to pay for the drug and alcohol class, and these tests and probation fees. Even though, my arrest had nothing to do with drugs.”

“What’s the problem then? Worried you’re going to fail?”

“I don’t do drugs.”

“That’s what they all say.”

I despise him so much, treating me the same as a murderer. “Can’t you wait outside the door for two seconds? Or turn around?”

“That’s the law dude. I have to watch,” he says, and the way he says “dude,” he’s talking down to me in a language he assumes is my language. And maybe it is, but it’s not like I have a tattoo of an energy drink on my back.

“Watch me from behind or something.”

“No can do. You guys try to get away with anything you can. The opiate epidemic has become a fake penis epidemic,” he says.

“That makes no sense,” I say.

“They sell rubber penises that look just like the real thing. The veins, everything. You get clean urine from somebody, put it in these things. They have little heaters in them that keep the liquid at 98 degrees. So, I have to remain vigilant. I’m not going to lose my job because you’re scared to go wee wee. Go sit in the waiting room, drink some water. Let the receptionist know when you’re ready. There’s a lot of people to get through and you’re holding things up,” he says.

I go back to the waiting room, fill a small paper cup with water and sit on the floor under a plastic tree where Baby Eric and his crew can’t see me. I try to lose myself in photosynthesis again, but I am too angry.

I look over and Baby Eric is standing. He’s holding onto a woman’s fingers as she shuffles backwards. “You’re so smart,” she says. Of course, everybody is doating over them. Baby Eric looks happier than he ever was with me. I’m thinking, That was supposed to be me. This betrayal is too much and I can’t hold it anymore. “Please get Mike,” I say to the receptionist. “I need to go right now.”

Mike appears, the same as before, with his jar and his pony-tail. As soon as we get in the restroom, I rip my pants down. It’s right there, I can feel it. But before I have a chance, Mike opens his mouth. “There’s a little trick to get things flowing. Try rubbing the tip,” he says.

That’s all it takes, I can’t go, again. I feel violated. I want to strangle him. “You’ve disrespected me since I’ve been here,” I say.

“Why do you deserve respect? You aren’t here for being an upstanding citizen. You’re a felon. Rub the head or don’t rub the head, doesn’t matter to me,” he says.

“You must get off on this,” I say and I pull my pants up and storm out of the bathroom. I storm through the waiting room out the door. I storm through teenage vapers blowing rings of smoke in front of the vape store. They stick their arms through the rings and wear them like bracelets. The bracelets disappear into the sky. I storm across the parking lot. I lean against a tree and light a cigarette. My shadow has long legs and a tiny head. I cup my eyes, bitch to the sun, “Who does that guy think he is? Fucking pervert, that’s what. I should sue him for sexual harassment.” I’m saying stuff like this and a form materializes out of the sunlight, floats towards me. “You got a smoke?” The form asks.

As my eyes adjust, I see that it’s not God, but Baby Eric’s mom. My stomach drops. She’s the last person I want to see. “I only have creep cigarettes,” I say.

“That’s not fair, okay. You’re not a creep. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. When he fell, it felt like I had to blame you or all those people would think I was a bad mother. I’m tired of people thinking I’m a bad mother” she says.

I toss her a cigarette. She bites down on the filter and lights it. “He freaks out easily. Really hard to deal with sometimes. I think he’s autistic. I saw a post on Facebook about it and he has all the symptoms.”

I have my doubts about her Facebook diagnosis of Baby Eric’s autism, but I don’t want to argue. “I was just trying to help,” I say.

She pulls her bandana off and combs her fingers through her hair. “I can tell you’ve never been here before. I mean, I’ve never seen you. What did you do?” she asks.

“I didn’t do what they charged me with, that’s for sure. My lawyer says it has a good chance of being dropped,” I tell her.

“A lawyer telling you what you want to hear. Imagine that. They popped me with sale of a controlled substance. Right after Baby Eric was born, my old man split. Just left me and the boys with nothing. I’ve got two more besides Eric, both older, ten and seven. And I can’t work because of my pancreatitis. All I had to my name were the pain pills I was prescribed. People were trying all the time to buy them from me, but I held on to them, I needed them for my own pain. Finally, I go, ‘you know what? My kids deserve better. For them, I’ll suffer if I have to.’ So, I decided to sell part of my prescription every month. Twenty bucks a pop. Anyway, it was working. Then one of my customers, this woman, turned into a real fiend. She’d come over with old lawnmowers, DVD players, shit she found on the side of the road. It’s like, ‘I’m not a fucking pawn shop lady.’ I had to cut her off. Well, she didn’t like that. She called the cops on me. My kids were taken away. The two older ones are in a foster home, for now. Luckily, they let Baby Eric go with my sister, the woman sitting with me in there. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I finally go to trial. Sometimes I think they’d be better off without me,” she says. Her voice has lost its bite and I see that her eyes are tearing up. And it’s like my arm has a mind of its own when I reach over to wipe the mascara from her face. She moves out of the way. “What are you doing?” She asks.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I change the subject. “Second-degree burglary. That’s what they charged me with.”

“Damn, you’re a felon felon.”

“I’m pretty sure you are too.”

“Yeah, but only fourth-degree. You’re screwed.”

“Well, mine isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s not like I did a home-invasion or anything. I was stealing my own cat.”

“I’ve never met a cat burglar before,” she says. We look at each other and laugh, a genuine laugh. For a moment, I picture myself on the back of her motorcycle. My hands around her waist. Her hair whipping me in the face. “You know that was cheesy? You do realize this?” I ask.

She grins and blows cigarette smoke in my face.

“He was missing for three days, my cat. I was heartbroken. I know it’s sad, but that cat is my best friend. I walked around for hours screaming out for him. Hung missing posters around the neighborhood. On the third day I was walking home, calling for him and I hear a meow. I know his meow anywhere. It came from the upstairs window of a neighbor’s house. I knew an older couple lived there. I’d seen them out in the yard before. And my cat was up there rubbing against the screen, crying like crazy. Nobody answered when I knocked. I kept banging, and nothing. I didn’t know if they were trying to kidnap him, or if they even knew the cat was in there, but there was no way I was going to leave without it. So, I kind of just turned the doorknob just to see, and the door popped open. I hollered inside many times, ‘Hello? Is anybody here?’ Nothing. It’s not like I was being sneaky about it. Finally, I said, fuck it. My cat needs me. I slipped inside, ran upstairs, grabbed him and slipped out. It was like I was never there, or so I thought. A couple hours later the police show up at my apartment and arrest me. The guy across the street saw me coming out of the house and decided to be some kind of hero. Said he watched me carry a bag of stuff out of the house. When I told them it was my cat, not a bag of loot, they didn’t care. They said I still broke into somebody else’s home without permission. I spent four days in jail before posting bail. And now I’m here, my first U.A. and I can’t go with that guy, Mike, watching me. He actually told me to rub the head. Weirdo.”

“Rub the head? Jesus Christ, was he trying to get in your pants?”

“It wouldn’t be hard. They were already pulled down,” I say.

“My first time, the woman was in the bathroom with me, but she was looking at her phone the whole time. She never told me to finger myself or anything.”

“That guy has it in for me. I’m thinking of telling my P.O. how uncomfortable he makes me.”

She laughs. “Cause that’ll work. We aren’t in kindergarten, we’re in the American judicial system. They don’t care how you feel, as long as they get enough bodies coming through the doors. And if you complain, Mike will make sure your color pops up all the time. You’re already here. Just smoke another cigarette and go back in, forget about your pride. You’ll be good for a couple of weeks until your color gets called again.”

Talking with her has soothed me. She’s easy to talk to and it’s been so long since I’ve had a real conversation with anybody, especially a woman. I want to talk to her about a million different things. Want to ask if she knows what photosynthesis is.

“When I get out of here, I’m going to grab a couple oxys. If we put our money together we can get a better deal,” she says.

“I’ve got a twenty,” I say and I wish I didn’t respond so quickly. Now I seem desperate.

“More would be better, but that will work. Meet me at my sister’s car when you’re done. Over in that parking lot. Hurry up. And when we go back in, don’t act like you know me,” she says and heads inside.

I’m embarrassed to show my face, but I smoke another cigarette and go back in. Mike happens to be up front. He doesn’t look happy to see me. Against my better judgement, I apologize. He seems annoyed, doesn’t reciprocate. In the bathroom I pull down my pants. I’m thinking of Baby Eric’s mom and the prize that awaits as soon as I get out of here. I fill the cup and keep going into the toilet for another minute.

“Why didn’t you do this before?” Mike asks.

“I guess I enjoyed your company too much,” I say.

When I return to the waiting room, Baby Eric’s mom is picking Baby Eric into her arms. She mouths, “Meet us across the street.” Her sister must have an idea of what’s going on, she glares in my direction. After a few minutes I walk out the door. A lilac bush pokes through a fence. I detour to it, pinch a flower off and hold it gently in my hand. Baby Eric’s mom is climbing into the passenger seat of a beat-up car. The aunt buckles Baby Eric into his car seat, motions for me to hop in the back. So, I get in next to him and I can see that his eyes are two pink slits, his head is lolling backwards. He’s exhausted. Such a meek creature. I wonder if he’ll remember any of this. And if he’s too young perhaps he’ll soak it up on a cellular level and one day he’ll remember himself as a baby, in a car, with a strange man beside him, going somewhere they shouldn’t go.

I don’t want to be remembered this way.

Baby Eric’s aunt goes to start the car. The ignition grinds.

I make a show of smacking my pockets.

She turns the key again, same thing.

“Hold up,” I say. “I guess I don’t have any cash on me. I thought I did.” I’m getting out of the car when the engine finally cranks over.

“Maybe next time,” Baby Eric’s mom says.

“Yeah, maybe,” I say.

The car leaves a trail of black smoke as it jerks down the road.

I drop the lilac on the ground and start walking.

Jason Hardung began writing after a fifteen-year heroin addiction. Since then, his work has appeared in many journals including: Hobart, Grist, Juked, Cimarron Review, 3AM, Evergreen Review, The Common and Word Riot. He has published two books of poetry with Epic Rites Press and Lummox Press. In 2013 he was named Poet Laureate of Fort Collins. He also teaches the therapeutic value of writing in juvenile detention facilities, jails, and rehabs in Colorado and southern Wyoming.