By Ben Sumner
It wasn’t that Bart Linton hated people; he was just fine with them when they left him alone. He was the first to admit – at least once he entered his fifties and read a psychology book called “Understanding Yourself” – that the major troubles in his life were a result of him not being able to get along with anyone who hadn’t any meaningful business with him. It was indeed a breakthrough, but he figured that it was still best to keep himself away from everyone. If he had any hope of living the rest of his life as a free man, he knew that he would just have to cope when situations did come up.
Once he got released – again – from Western Montana State Prison, he knew the best thing to do was to tuck himself away in his late aunt’s mountain home and live like a hermit. She had died while he was serving an 18-year sentence for assault and battery, his third conviction. The latest incident occurred when he got into a barroom brawl with a drunken local. Bart served only 15 of the 18 years, and got out for good behavior.
Total, he had served 30 years in prison. When he was 20, he was put away for five after breaking the arm of a Jehovah’s Witness. Bart had actually kept his cool during the missionary’s first visit to the house, but after the third, he got mad and pushed the man off the porch, leaving his lady friend to holler for the sheriff.
When he was 25, Bart moved back in with his mother and got a job at a bakery. The folks in Scranlon, Montana were fairly laid back and didn’t give him much trouble. But one day he had a run-in with a customer who was more interested in insulting him than accepting a refund for an undercooked loaf of bread. Bart slammed the guy’s head with a pan three times before jamming two dollars in change into his mouth.
Bart didn’t so much mind being in WMSP. He got a cell to himself and worked in the library. He even learned how to read there. When he had his eye – he only had one since a snake bit out the other when he was a child – in a book, he was enjoying himself. It took him a couple of years, but he finished The Bible from Genesis to Revelation. He would read anything, even cookbooks. In fact, he liked reading those the most because he could understand everything that was going on. He memorized entire recipes and couldn’t wait to leave prison so he could cook for himself. He also became a fan of nonfiction, everything from history to psychology. He credited those books in particular for keeping him out of trouble.
Western Montana State Prison was that it was one of the few penitentiaries in the country that wasn’t overcrowded. That meant longer sentences. Bart didn’t know what was worse – a little bit of hell or a whole lot of purgatory. The majority of the inmates were local folks who got drunk and careless with a shotgun, farmers who sprayed their crops with illegal chemicals, and hillbilly wife-beaters and rapists who weren’t any threat to real men. During the 80’s, they started bussing in inmates from the highly populated city prisons. Next thing they knew, there was a drug problem going on at WMSP, and racial tensions. More fights broke out and the Correctional Officers didn’t have the staff nor the training to handle the situations.
The experiment was phased out, and prison sentences for the locals got longer again. In 2002, Bart was one of the few who got paroled for good behavior.
That’s when he realized how fortunate he was. His aunt Gertrude died two years before and had left him everything in her will, pending his release. Had her own kids not moved away with their father’s inheritance and became yuppies, Bart knew he wouldn’t have gotten anything. Since his mother died, Aunt Gertie was the only one he could talk to. He wrote her twice a week to send her recipes. He didn’t have much else to say. When she wrote back, she’d write about how his cousins had abandoned her. Bart thought she was overreacting sometimes, considering they did send gifts and pictures of the grandkids. Then again, they rarely came to visit.
Aunt Gertie had money. Her husband, Hank, had owned farmland that he sold for a pretty penny only a year before he died in 1989. Ever since, Gertie had been living in their mountain home, long after the kids split to the cities.
Now, Bart had her share. He couldn’t believe it when the trustee told him the news, considering how little he did to earn it. He spent more than half his life behind bars and the rest not doing much of anything.
When he moved into her house and got everything working again, the first phone call he got was from a salesman trying to sell him some kind of wireless phone. Bart yelled at him, saying he obviously didn’t need a phone if he was talking on one right then. He spent the next few nights angry about that call. He had never heard anything so ridiculous in his life. Perhaps times had changed since 1988. Then again, before that time, he didn’t ever answer the phone – his mother always did.
Because Aunt Gertie’s house was about five miles from the nearest town, Bart had to drive to the Post Office to pick up the mail. Most of it was for Aunt Gertie, who was still on mailing lists for retirement communities and other nonsense. Bart got angry one week when he saw that the entire stack of mail was nothing but junk. He even told the lady behind the desk that he didn’t want any of it. She shrugged and told him not to shoot the messenger.
One day, he found something in a stack of crap that caught his attention. It was a round mirrored disk in a package that said “AOL, 8.0 1025 hours free.” Bart asked the lady what it was, and she told him. It was the thing he needed to get access to the Internet, even way out in the mountains of Montana.
Though she was an elderly woman, Aunt Gertie had a computer – one that her daughter bought her for Christmas. While waiting for his bread to bake or the turkey in the oven to cook, Bart would fiddle around with it. He had learned how to use one in the prison library, where he kept records of all the books. He wanted to give the Internet, which he pronounced “Innernet,” a try. He heard that he could do his shopping on the computer, and have the stuff delivered by mail. That way he wouldn’t have to go anywhere but the Post Office to pick it up. The only other trips he had to make were to the general story and to see his parole officer every now and then.
After tossing the rest of the mail in the trashcan, Bart rushed home to put the compact disk into the computer.
Though he read the instructions several times, he had a hard time installing it. Then he realized that the he had left the phone off the hook. He wanted to cancel his phone service altogether because of those salesmen who kept calling, but he decided against it in case of an emergency.
During the next few days, Bart discovered some amazing things online. He could buy just about anything he wanted – even guns – and have it shipped out there. He didn’t actually need much. But then he found the bookstore website, something called the Amazon.
He had never paid for a book in his life. They all came right from the library. Because money wasn’t an issue anymore, he placed an order. He bought 22 books that day, and even paid a bit extra to have them shipped faster. He even found out that the deliveryman would bring them right to his house – he wouldn’t have to go pick them up. Those books would last him a year or two, maybe even less because he had gotten better at reading over the years. Half of the ones he bought were cookbooks. And no more reading them just for pleasure, he thought. This time, he was going to actually cook something.
The next day, when he went back onto the Internet, he heard a voice talk over the speakers. It said, “You’ve got mail.”
Startled at first, Bart grinned. He grabbed the rat ball – years later he learned it was actually called a mouse – and clicked on the flashing button. There were 20 messages. He clicked on the first.
“Need a Penis Enlargement?”
“What the hell?” he said, pressing the delete button. The next message popped up.
“Thinking about refinancing your home?”
He jammed the delete key. The next message came up. “Breast Enlargements – Cheap!”
Bart didn’t even bother to check the rest of them. He couldn’t believe that he had signed up for a service that delivered crap right to him. If the person responsible for those messages was there, he would have broken his jaw.
Bart turned off the computer and poured himself a glass of water. “Sunuvabitch,” he muttered.
The phone rang. Bart looked at it as it sounded a second and third time before he decided to pick it up.
“Hello?” he said.
“Gertrude Gallow, please.”
“She’s been dead a couple years now.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. But as long as I have you on the line, perhaps I can interest you in interest-free checking…”
Bart slammed down the phone and grabbed his face. He was getting a headache, the kind he only got when he was losing his cool. He hadn’t had one in years. In fact, most of the ones he had came when he wasn’t locked up.
Unbelievable, he thought. Only in prison – in prison of all places, did he feel left alone. Maybe it was his glass eye that scared everyone, or the fact that the inmates stayed away from the library because they couldn’t read. Bart was 6’4, 230 pounds, even at age 60, not anyone a smart man would mess with. There may have been sporadic incidents over the years, but none so bad as outside of the sanctuary of the pen.
And there he was, not even a month out of prison, and it was all catching up with him. He remembered back to grade school, the first fight he got in, when a boy called him a one-eyed freak. Soon enough, everyone was doing it. Several broken bones later – both him and his enemies – he quit going to school and got a job at Uncle Hank’s farm, where he paid him under the table for years to come.
Bart curled up in bed that night, feeling tears running down his left cheek. He didn’t know what life had to be so tough. He didn’t understand why anyone had to mess with him. They just did. And he didn’t know what it upset him so much. Surely he wasn’t the only one who had an abnormality. He was sure that one-legged people had it worse. And he sure as hell wasn’t the only one to get unsolicited messages. And right then, he was sure, utterly certain, that he was capable of flipping out again. Western Montana State Prison wasn’t a prison to him. It was a refuge. And that was the only place he felt at peace.
Now, it was only a matter of what he’d do to get sent back.
. . .
A few days had passed. The phone remained off the hook and he called to cancel his AOL – which he pronounced Owl – account, even though he had another 1012 hours remaining for free. Bart wondered if those fools realized that by giving him that free time, it ended up costing them his business. Had he not known that he would be flooded with insulting – and sometimes obscene – advertisements in his electronic mailbox, he would have gladly paid for the service. Now, they not only lost any chance of getting money, but they gave away several hours of use of their product for nothing.
Yet, somehow Bart knew that wouldn’t hurt them. There was only one reason jerks bothered people – eventually they’d find someone that mattered. Those kids back in school continued to make fun of his eye because he reacted, and a reaction was what he was looking for. Bart figured that out while reading a book. He wondered what would have happened if he just ignored them. Perhaps eventually they would have gotten bored and went about their business. Their goal from the very beginning was to piss him and watch his reaction. Goal achieved.
Of course, that wasn’t the goal of other people who bothered him – they just wanted his business, no matter how ridiculous the offer. And that was insulting. To Bart, that was just as bad as someone making fun of his eye. It was downright offensive that someone had the time to waste someone else’s time and patience by offering something they didn’t want. Perhaps, if they never got a reaction from anybody, they’d eventually quit.
Bart spent the morning cutting the grass. Aunt Gertie had a ride-on mower that she used up until the year she died. As he rode over the hills, catching a cool breeze in his face as he looked at the mountains, he thanked her. If it weren’t for her, he would have had to build a cabin in the deep woods and hunt for a living. He would’ve had to rent the old Kaczynski place.
After lunch, Bart sat on the front porch, resting, wishing he had a book to read. Aunt Gertie didn’t have many. At least, nothing that interested Bart, and he wasn’t the least bit picky.
He could hear a car in the distance, coming up the dirt road. That was the only house up there, so whoever it was had to be looking for him. Either that, or someone looking for Gertie.
Five minutes later, the vehicle came into view. It was a blue pickup with cardboard boxes in the back. It pulled up onto the driveway, right behind Gertie’s old Ford. Bart stood on the porch, staring as the stranger exited the truck.
“Howdy,” the portly man said, sticking out his hand to shake though he was still about 20 feet from Bart. “The name is Gus. Gus Baker.”
“What can I do for you?” Bart asked, standing at an angle so his good eye was front and center on the man.
“The question is, what can I do for you?” The smile slightly faded on Gus’s face when he noticed Bart’s eye. Bart had seen that look a thousand times before, but the man kept walking forward.
“What can you do for me?” Bart asked, feeling his heartbeat jumpstart like a mower when the string was yanked. He knew that wasn’t good for him because there was a history of heart attacks in the family. He wanted to die some day, but certainly not then.
“I’ve got something for you that will literally change your life.”
“Jesus?” Bart interrupted without humor.
Gus chuckled, pointing his stubby little finger. “That’s a good one. Much better, in fact, than what I’ve got. But I’ve got the feeling that you want what I’ve got, too.”
Bart started shaking and his fists tightened. This man drove 15 miles through the mountains to get to that house. If Bart couldn’t live in the mountains and be free of these people, there was nowhere he could go.
The salesman started talking, but Bart didn’t hear. Gus pulled some gadget out of his back pocket but Bart didn’t look to see what it was.
His temperature was rising. Sweat was pouring out of his forehead. But the salesman didn’t even notice. He kept jabbering away, smiling all the while.
Bart suddenly felt lightheaded and all his physical instincts told him that he should lie down. But he couldn’t. This was his chance.
He had to teach this son-of-a-bitch a lesson once and for all. And the consolation prize was that they’d send him back to the pen for the rest of his life, where he could live in peace.
Bart pulled back his fist. The salesman kept talking, pressing a button on his gadget that made some sort of distant motor noise. His apple-red cheeks were primed for a punching.
Bart told himself to swing but his arm didn’t move. In his earlier years, that man would’ve been laid out flat by then.
The salesman pressed the button on the gadget again and dropped it to his side, but the motor sound continued. It was then that Bart noticed a brown truck pull up in the driveway.
A witness. Bart could hit that man and the other one could call the police. Gus didn’t even bother to look at the truck; he was now swinging his arms as if pleading.
Bart was going to kill him or die trying. He clenched his fist again and pulled it back. This time the salesman noticed and stepped back.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“I’ve got a delivery for Bart Linton.” The man in the brown truck came stepping out of the door.
It was as if he said the magic words that would keep Bart’s fist from connecting with the salesman’s double chin. Bart looked over, seeing the deliveryman place three boxes on the ground.
Bart breathed a sigh of relief and hurried over, ripping the package open right there on the driveway.
“Hold on a sec, Mr. Linton, I need your signature and they’re all yours.”
Bart scribbled his name on the pad of paper that the deliveryman held out before him, then went about tearing open the boxes.
“Lemme help you with that,” the man said, pulling out a razor blade and slicing open the other boxes.
“Cookbooks!” Bart said, grinning broadly, giddily. But he tossed those aside. He was looking for something else. Something he needed again, and hadn’t had since his most calm and inspiring moments while tucked away in his cell.
Then he found it. It was “Understanding Yourself,” the one book that explained why things were, the one that made him understand. He held it in both hands like a long-lost talisman he had just found after a painful journey. Before he even flipped through it, he was feeling better. But that day he would open it. He would read it from cover to cover as many times as he had to, until he memorized it and could recite from it at any given moment. That’s what got him through his later years in the pen, and that’s what would get him through the later years of his life, even when people bothered him.
Gus approached the brown truck, where Bart was on his knees looking in the boxes, and the deliveryman was filling out some paperwork.
“Hey, buddy, I’ve got a product here that can change your life.”
The deliveryman looked up. “No thanks.” Then he went back about his business.
Bart stood and walked over to the salesman, still clutching the book, staring him down with his eye. “Hey, I don’t want your product, neither. You can go now. Thanks.”