Note to reader: The following parable serves as a literary reflection alluding to the age-old philosophical question – pondered by Aristotle in the School of Athens, meditated upon by Buddhist monks in ancient cloud forests, discussed extensively by revolutionary thinkers in the European Enlightenment, and contemplated thoroughly by all significant modern philosophers: would a man rather have his soul or his dick?
The Prisoner’s Ultimatum
James Carson gazed out of window of the jail dorm in the Northern California countryside. He watched the winter sun rise and shine over the barbed wire fence and frosted lawn, and the world outside began to stir. His friend and dorm mate awoke and saw James standing at the window.
“Only a couple more hours, James.”
James looked back and said, “That’s right.”
“You’ll have some real coffee.”
“Can’t wait,” said James.
He turned back toward the window and looked outside. Today he would be released after serving an eighteen month jail sentence in the county detention facility for having been found guilty attempted burglary and illegally possessing a firearm.
At chow time James gave away his breakfast and returned to his dorm to pack up. He stripped his bunk and collected his few belongings – some books, court documents, and hygiene products – into a clear plastic bag. At eight A.M James bid farewell to his inmate friends and was led by a guard across the courtyard and into the main building to be processed for release. He turned in his name tag and old razor to the guard who handed him a bag which contained the articles of clothing that James was wearing when he was picked-up the summer before last. James changed out of his jail uniform and put on his shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and sandals. Also returned to him were his empty wallet and house keys.
The guard said, “You look like a goddamn fool.”
James looked at the guard and said, “You know what’s funny? I get to leave, and you have to stay.”
“I’ll get pleasure in seeing your dumb ass back here,” said the guard.
“I’m sure you would,” said James.
James left through a door and entered the jail lobby. He was free. He had no money, no ride, and no warm clothes, yet he smiled as he stepped outside into the cold. He began walking away from the compound and watched his breath rise into the air against a backdrop of distant mountains and blue sky.
The trailer that James resided in was located ten miles away. He spun the plastic bag containing his miscellaneous and insignificant possessions and hurled it off the side of the road. He started jogging in the direction of the freeway, leaping and punching the air in joy. The warmth of the morning sun was thawing out the countryside and birds were singing in the surrounding apple orchards and greater farmland. James heard a car approaching from behind and he turned around out of concern that a cop was coming to confront him about his littering. A black sedan slowed down behind James who watched as it pulled up and stopped beside him. Inside the car was a single driver, a man, who smiled at James as the passenger side window rolled down automatically.
“Need a ride, friend?” said the driver.
James assessed the man, who looked in his mid-fifties and wore a black and white suit and a red tie.
James said, “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so,” said the man, “But my name’s Larry.”
“Good to meet you,” said Larry, “You going far?”
“Just to the freeway,” said James.
“Well hell, that’s a good two miles away. I’m headed down the road to grab a bite to eat, but I don’t mind taking you out to the freeway.”
James looked down the desolate road and then back to the man, “Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure,” said Larry. “You look like you’re dressed for happy hour in Honolulu, for Christ sake, it’s January. Let me guess, you just got released?”
“Yeah,” said James.
“I’ve been in your shoes before, and I try to lend a helping hand to a fellow, former jailbird when I can. Don’t be shy, come on in,” said Larry.
“Alright, well thanks. Much appreciated.” James opened the car door and got in.
Larry rolled the window back up and they started down the road.
“Beautiful morning,” said Larry.
“It sure is. It feels great to be out of that hellhole.”
“I know how you feel. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. When were you in the farm?”
“Oh, I make unexpected visits to that place every now and then, nothing exciting. So, what’s your plan now, James?”
“Well, I’m gonna try to get my feet back on the ground – find a job, try to make amends with the old lady, see what good I can do in this fucked-up world.”
“That’s good, James. Sounds like you got some good intentions.”
Up the road on the right was a solitary diner.
“Say,” said Larry, “You hungry? This is where I was going to eat.”
“I’d love to join you, but maybe another time.”
“Are you sure? They’ve got good coffee and delicious omelets, and waitresses aren’t bad either.”
“That sounds nice, but unfortunately I’m a little short of cash right now.”
“Hey,” said Larry, “This one’s on me. I insist.”
“Well, if you insist, I’ll accept.”
They pulled into the parking lot alongside side a few other cars. Larry took out a black briefcase from his trunk and led James into the diner. Inside was warm and smelled of fresh coffee and pancakes and eggs. From the counter the waitress, a young blond, called out, “Hi Larry. You and your friend can have a seat wherever you’d like.”
“Thanks honey,” replied Larry.
Larry and James sat down at booth near the center of the diner.
“So are you a businessman, Larry?”
“Of sorts – I deal mainly in market transactions and trades.”
“Well, it seems like it’s working out for you.”
“I enjoy what I do, James - that’s the secret. Are you looking for work?”
“I suppose it depends on what kind. What type of things do you trade?”
The waitress approached the table and gave them each a menu. “Hi there, how are you boys doing this morning?”
“We’re perfect. Jezebel, this is my friend James.”
James shook her hand and said, “Pleasure to meet you, young lady.”
She smiled and said, “Nice to meet you, too. I’m just getting a fresh pot of coffee brewing, so it’ll be a couple minutes. Is there anything you need at the moment?”
Larry said, “We’re fine, darling, just bring us some coffee when you can.”
As the waitress walked away James said, “Boy, she’s one ripe tomato.”
“I’m sure it’s been a while for you,” said Larry.
“Eighteen months. I can’t wait to put it to use again.”
“That’s tough. I can get it whenever I want.”
“Are you married,” asked James.
“No, I pay for it.”
“I see. Well, I am looking for work, and need a job before I start paying for anything.”
“You know my company is hiring, we could possibly use a man like you.”
“What do guys do?”
“We rob places.”
“Excuse me?” said James.
“We’re thieves and robbers, James. We steal money.”
“Larry, that’s not the type of work I’m trying to get back into.”
“Sure it is.” Larry opened his briefcase and took a cloth napkin off the table. He used the napkin to conceal an object, placed it on the table, and slid it across to James.
“What’s that?” asked James.
“Take a look.”
James lifted up a side of the napkin and saw a pistol.
“Jesus Christ,” said James, sliding the gun back. “You’re fucking nuts.”
“No,” said Larry, “I’m hiring, and this is the application process.”
“You want us to rob this place?? Fuck that,” James said intensely in a low voice.
“No, I want you to rob this place. You’re going hold up the diner, take the money from the register and these patrons, then pretend to take me hostage, and I’ll drive us out of here.” He slid the handgun under the napkin back to James.
The waitress was returning with the coffee and James took the gun off the table and placed it in his lap.
“Here’s your coffee, boys, nice and fresh. Do you need some more time to order?”
Larry said, “Just give us another minute, Jezebel.”
“Sure thing,” Jezebel said before she walked away.
Using the napkin, James inspected the pistol in his lap. He checked the clip which was loaded, and there was a bullet in the chamber. He looked at the fresh coffee steaming in the mugs on the table.
“Are you ready to wrap up this interview?” asked Larry, who sipped his black coffee.
“Larry, I’ll tell you what I’ll do…”
James leapt out to the side of the booth and pointed the gun at Larry. He announced loudly to the restaurant, “Everybody stay calm, this man here is trying to rob the restaurant!” All eyes were on James. “No ones gonna get hurt!” James yelled to the people in the restaurant, “For your own safety, I want you to leave the diner now and call the police. This man here is a criminal who wants me to rob you.”
The people in the restaurant stared oddly at James as they slowly stood up from their tables and proceeded out the door. The patrons were followed by the waitress, and the last one out was the cook who looked at James and said, “Crazy mother fucker.”
James held the gun pointed at Larry. Larry was shaking his head and said, “I’m sorry, James. You don’t get the job.”
“Fuck your job,” said James. “You think I’m crazy? I just got of jail, and I ain’t doing no more time again. You gotta be kidding me.”
“I just wanted us for us to work together, James. I don’t think you’re crazy, I know you aren’t. But that’s not what everyone else is going to think.”
Police sirens could be heard approaching from down the road.
“You’re a fucking psychopath, man. You’re the one who should be locked up.”
Larry sipped his coffee and set down his mug. “You did the right thing, James. Unfortunately, doing the right thing is not what gets you ahead in this world.”
James glanced up as two police cars pulled into the parking lot where the restaurant crowd has gathered outside.
“Go to Hell, Larry,” said James, his eyes on the cops.
James looked down and Larry was gone. He was dumbfounded. He looked behind him and under the booth. The briefcase was still there. James searched the section of diner, hollering, “Where the fuck did you go?! Get back out here, asshole!”
Outside, an officer announced through his loudspeaker, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Come out with your hands up.” Four more police cars pulled up into the parking lot.
James’s heart was pounding hard. He was frantically searching the diner for Larry. He checked the kitchen and bathroom. He looked out the window and the car they had arrived in was gone.
“No…” said James, looking around, “Where did he fucking go? This is impossible… Where the fuck did he go?”
From outside the police announced, “You’ve got nowhere to run, buddy. Put down the weapon and come out with your hands up!”
James looked down to the gun in his hand. “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ” he said. He looked outside to the six squad cars with their lights flashing, the numerous police aiming guns toward the diner. He set gun on a table, put his hands on his head, and started walking toward the door. As he push the door open with his feet he called out, “I didn’t do anything!”
He cooperatively made his way toward the police, saying, “I didn’t do anything, I swear.” He motion toward the crowd of people, “They’ll tell you!”
The police dived upon him and rode him to the ground. Within seconds he was in handcuffs and then in the back of a police car pleading with the officers. “Check the cameras, ask the waitress!” he was yelling.
As James was being driven back to the detention facility the Larry’s black sedan was coming down the road. “That’s him!” exclaimed James, “That’s the guy who gave me the gun!”
The officer paid James no mind on the way back to jail. The car entered the security gates and James was processed for intake in same the manner as he was one and a half years ago. As he was placed in a temporary cell, he was ensured that his holding time was pending until the diner security camera footage was examined and witnesses were spoken with. James spent the rest of the morning and afternoon contemplating the event, and when his baloney sandwich and milk lunch arrived, he realized that he didn’t even sip his coffee at the diner.
By dusk James had been placed on an involuntarily psychiatric hold and was being moved from his isolated cell in booking to a different cell in a building separate from the main facility.
“What’s happening?!” he asked the guard escorting him.
“They just want to keep you here a little longer,” said the guard.
“But why? I didn’t do anything!”
“You’re being charged for the possession of an illegal firearm.”
“But that wasn’t my gun, it was Larry’s!”
The sun set and James realized that he was not being transported back to the main facility dorms, but to the psychiatric ward.
“Wait, what’s going on here?”
“James, you gotta stay calm, man,” said the guard.
“Why are you taking me to the funny farm? Am I fifty-one-fifty? I am not fifty-one-fifty!”
“They’re gonna help you out, buddy. The easier you make this, the sooner you’ll get back out.”
“They’re gonna help me out with what?!” yelled James, “What the fuck is going on here?”
Inside the main facility, his old dorm mates watched James being reluctantly hauled across the courtyard to the psychiatric ward. They shook their heads in pity, for during communal time in the dayroom an hour ago, they had seen footage of James on the news. The footage was from the diner security cameras and showed James pointing a weapon at an empty seat and ordering everyone out of the restaurant. The news clip was billed as an attempted burglary by an allegedly mentally ill man.
“Poor guy lost his mind,” said his old dorm mate.
As a half-moon hung in the midnight sky James was lying face up in the bunk of his dark cell and reviewing the incidents of the day in his head. He was mumbling to himself about how he was not crazy and occasionally he’d blurt out profanities directed toward the erstwhile Larry.
Suddenly, from the corner of the cell, someone said, “Stop talking to yourself, they’ll think you’re crazy.”
James sprang up in his bunk in fear. He peered toward the dim corner and saw Larry. “You…how did you get in here?” James said.
“Magic,” said Larry, stepping closer to James.
James shuffled back in his bunk until he was pressed against the wall.
Larry came close and said, “You did a bad, bad thing back there at the diner.”
“No. It was you. You made me.”
“I didn’t make you do shit, James. I was going to make you rich, and you turned on me, with my own gun at that.”
“Please,” cried James, “What’s going to happen to me? How come you’re not in the footage? They think I’m crazy!”
“Calm down, James. I want to make you another offer,” said Larry.
“Please, just help me,” pleaded James.
“I can’t do that, but what I can do is take what I came here for.”
“What do you want?”
“Well,” said Larry, “I’d like to walk away with one of two things. It’s your choice: your soul, or your dick.”
The choice was so preposterous that James chuckled slightly through his terror. “You’re fucking crazy,” said James, “Who the fuck do you think you are? Satan?”
“No, I just help him collect souls and dicks. My name’s Larry.”
“Fuck you, Larry, fuck you and your offer.”
“It’s not an offer, it’s an ultimatum.”
Gathering more courage, James moved closer to Larry and said, “I’m not giving you shit.” He then tried to take a swing at Larry but his body was suddenly frozen, as though paralyzed.
Larry said, “You have ten seconds to decide, or else I’m going to kill you.”
James was frightened again and he began to quiver as the gravity of the situation sank in. He was able to talk and he said, “Aren’t you supposed to offer me something tempting or nice in exchange for my soul? You can’t just do this to me…”
“Don’t be stupid, James. I’m evil, and I will kill you. So then, what will it be, your dick or your soul? You have five more seconds.”
James was blown away. Was this a nightmare? Was he truly crazy? Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he struggled to move and considered the ultimatum.
“Three seconds,” said Larry.
“Alright!” cried James.
Larry stepped backed and James slumped down in his bunk.
“What will it be?” asked Larry.
James was incredulous, scared, and uncertain of the future awaiting him in this life and any life thereafter. “Take my dick,” he said, “Take my fucking dick.”
James watched Larry step back and say, “Thank you.” Larry instantaneously disappeared.
James immediately reached toward his dick. He felt through his pants and realized it was gone. Frantically, he reached down in his underwear. The space where his penis used to be was empty, it was just an empty groin.
James inspected his groin in a frenzy, his eyes shifting up in a madden search for Larry. He gasped and gasped, whimpering and tossing his head as he felt the empty space between his legs. In the cell, he cried out in agony, “He took my dick!!! HE TOOK MY FUCKING DICK!!!!!”