Monday, April 23, 2018

Dino Doubter by Hassan Riaz

After trying to prove dinosaurs never existed, a CalTech professor ends up spending time behind bars; by Hassan Riaz.

Ernesto was an analytical man, a man who'd built his developing career on protein structures, a man who believed in proof, a man who'd spent enough time around science to know genuine versus hoax, and as such, he was a man who for several months now no longer believed in dinosaurs. For forty-six years, he'd been a wrong man, content to never question the validity of paleontological claims that winged beasts with fanged teeth, lizard skin, and bird bones once ruled the world. But he wasn't fooled anymore.

Illumination came at a price, though, because he was also a man in a holding cell. He sat with his hands cuffed behind him in a tiny room in Central Station on a hard metal bench behind a locked metal door. He stared out the window at the adjoining room at the backs of detectives fiddling with computers. He knew they were typing about him, his break-in and attempted burglary. His glasses slipped down his nose as he shifted on the bench, and he had to lean back and jiggle them back into position. He'd never been to a police station before. In fact, he'd never been to this part of the city, the part of downtown Los Angeles east of the freeway and restaurants. He decided that he would have to find a place in the area upon his release to lead a seminar to educate the masses about the dinohoax. T. rex, brontosaurus, and velociraptor made for good toys, but no man or woman should believe in Santa Claus forever.

The detective, the same one who'd questioned him at the station after the arrest, opened the door. "Sergeant says that we're going to charge you," he said. "Breaking and entering, vandalism, attempted burglary. Bail is set at $25K for now. Prelim hearing will be in a couple of days. When you get to Central Jail, you can call a bondsman. He can get you out this afternoon." He stepped out of the cell, but hesitated, and turned back around. "What the hell did dinosaurs ever do to you anyway?"



Esmi had told him about dinosaurs. Her other two classmates sitting with him at the faculty center laughed, but he maintained a straight face.

"What about the fossil record?" he said.

"What about it?" she said. "I've never carbon dated them. Have you? For all I know, they could be built by Mattel to sell more toys."

"And what about the paleontologists? Why would they all lie?"

"What if you found out that everything you love about enzyme kinetics was wrong? That everything you grew up loving and studying was crap? Would you just let all of your life's work slip away? Or would you hold onto it tighter and force yourself to believe that it's all true?"

In his office that afternoon, he found himself looking up information about dinosaur fossils, and was surprised to find out that all of the completed skeletons on display at the museums were replicas. Very few actual bones existed, and even these were piecemeal. He shut the computer's browser, put on his white coat, and went down the hall to his lab. He still didn't buy Esmi's argument that dinosaurs were a hoax but he found himself thinking about what she'd said nonetheless. As he started work under a fume hood on beta amyloids, he admonished himself. He'd never been one of those professors to get involved with students. He wasn't about to start now.



The detectives passed him back to the arresting officers, who led him out of the holding cell to the telephone at the far end of the adjoining room, where they undid his cuffs. They watched him while he stood, their hands hovering over their batons, as if he were something more than an associate professor of biochemisty and straightforward dino-doubter, as if he were going to suddenly grow an extra six inches in height and pack on an extra fifty pounds in weight and take them down. He called Esmi.

"What happened?" she said. He could hear shuffling through the phone, and knew that she was walking on campus. He could picture her: messenger bag over her shoulder, cell phone to the opposite ear, canvas sneakers on her feet.

"I need bail."

"How much?"

"Twenty-five thousand."

He felt the pause in her step. "For what? You're not a murderer. And how'd you get caught? I didn't even think you were really going to do it."

He glanced at the officers. "I need help, Esmi."

"What do I do?"

"Call a bondsman."

"How do I do that?"

"I'm at the Hill holding facility. Search for one on the internet."

"Okay. I'm at the coffee cart. Call me later."

He hung up. He wasn't sure what 'call me later' meant when someone was in custody and on his way to jail but figured it was habit that had caused her to say that. She was always telling him to call her later, and he always did.



The arresting officers came off of shift, passed him on to two other officers, who were even bigger and had more girth than the previous two, and took him to Central jail. He sat in the back of a squad car for the second time since midnight, and began to feel tired, the adrenaline gone from him now and the life of an associate professor peeking through the fatigue. He looked out the window and watched the city come alive at 8am. People hopped off of busses and cars pulled into lots on another routine Friday morning as if nothing in the world had ever changed. And for the rest of the world, nothing had. He'd been arrested but others were the same, still fighting traffic, still heading to work, still believing that beasts as big as a house once ruled the earth. He wished that he was back in his lab in Pasadena, just another lay person, a believer in dinosaurs. He wished he hadn't gotten into this mess.

But the hesitation was fleeting, because he was a scientist, and no matter what the consequences, he was perpetually interested in unearthing the truth. He chastised himself for floundering in his commitment and forced himself to sit up straight so that these two officers could see that he was in this battle for the long haul. They didn't seem to care though, and talked to each other about their wives, oblivious to truth and his and Esmi's quest to uncover it. When they reached Central jail, they pulled him out of the squad car, led him inside to detention, and left.

An older officer who looked like he was glued into his chair sat behind the counter. He looked over Ernesto's paperwork. "You tried to steal a dinosaur bone?" he said. "Why the hell would you do that?"

"I needed to carbon date it," Ernesto said, muttering, speaking to himself as much as the officer.

"What the hell is that?"

"Find out how old it is."

"You mean that stuff I learned back in high school? That kind of carbon dating?"

"Exactly. Carbon, which is contained in all living things, has a naturally occurring radioactive isotope, and we can study its decay to determine the age of a fossil."

"Your paperwork says you're a professor at Caltech. Aren't you a little too smart to be pulling off these high school pranks?"

"I'm smart enough to know what is real and what is bogus. And dinosaurs, Officer, are bogus."

"Whatever, amigo. Jail isn't bogus. Welcome to my world."

They removed his cuffs and took him to intake. They made him do everything he'd ever seen in a movie: strip down, open his mouth, bend over, spread his butt cheeks, cough. He thought it stupid throughout. He hadn't hidden a T. rex bone up his ass. When they were done inspecting him, they put him in an orange jumpsuit and dumped him off into a cell that was exactly the opposite of the movies - no bars, just a sliding metal door and confined space with a bolted bed, steel toilet, and steel sink.

He heard muffled banging coming from the concrete wall at his head, and then a gravelly voice asking him, "What are you in for, homie?"

He felt nervous, unsure of protocol. "Breaking and entering," he said. "Vandalism. Attempted burglary."

"What'd you lift?" Ernesto could feel the condescension in his neighbor's voice and imagined that he was next to a murderer.

"I broke into the Natural History Museum at Exposition Park and tried to take a hadrosaur femur from the Dino Lab."

"Why the hell would you do that?"

"I needed to carbon date it."

"What the hell is that, homie?"

"Carbon dating allows me to determine the age of a fossil."

"I've been to that museum. I took my kids there the last time I was paroled. Why do you need to see how old a dinosaur bone is?"

"To prove that they aren't as old as paleontologists assert." He hesitated. "Dinosaurs are a conspiracy. Just like the LAPD and DA conspire against you and don't let you live as a free man, the dino industry does the same against me. Against us all. They want us to believe that freakishly large lizards once roamed the earth."

"There was a T. rex and Triceratops skeleton battling it out on the ground floor. How do you explain that, homie?"

"Fake. The Museum calls them 'replicas'."

"Replicas? Man, my daughter thought they were real. I thought they were real too. I even bought her a goddamned dinosaur toy from the gift shop."

"Exactly. It's an industry of deceit. Stealing your money."

"You know what, ese? I can dig what you're saying. I'm Largo."

"I'm Professor Ernesto."

"Fuck the LAPD, fuck the DA, and fuck dinosaurs. It's all bullshit."

Ernesto felt relief. "Exactly, my friend."



Ernesto was awakened by the barking orders of the guards. Ernesto opened his eyes, but lay where he was, confused as to what was happening, forgetting already where he was and why. But the shouting from the guards continued, and he blinked and sat up, and the night and arrest came back to him. He wondered what time it was. They'd taken his watch and locked him away in a cell and he'd lost sense of time. He felt hungry though, and hoped that he would get something to eat. He closed his eyes again, imagined himself in his own bed in his craftsman in Pasadena, eating cereal and texting Esmi on his phone or messengering her on his laptop. He didn't know how long it took for a bondsman to get him out but he figured that it would be soon now.

They'd taken his loafers and given him navy slip-ons and he slipped them on now. He stood up and went to the door of his cell. The guard on the opposite side motioned at him to step back and he did, and the door slid open. "Let's go, asshole," the guard said, and Ernesto stepped out of his cell and into the corridor. He thought that he was being let go, but he looked to his left, and saw Largo, his neighbor, also in the corridor, and realized otherwise. Largo looked every bit his name, a collection of muscle and fat that made him twice Ernesto's size. He had gang tattoos along his arms and neck and an old scar along his cheek. Ernesto felt uneasy, realizing that his neighbor wasn't a casual criminal in on drug charges. Ernesto's glasses slid, and he pushed them up. He forced himself to remember that he would be out of here soon. Other inmates were also stepping out of their cells. Soon he was awash in orange jumpsuits and gang ink. He felt eyes on him again.

The guards led them down the corridor, shouting orders at them to stay in line throughout the short trek to the mess hall, a high-ceilinged, square room that had benches in the center and two manila phones hanging on the far wall. The guards pushed them forward, and he sat down at the first bench to which he came, the one furthest from the phones, unsure of protocol and where the new guy was supposed to be. He watched Largo stride to the front bench and sit near the phones. Others from the line dispersed to the other benches, with a few joining Largo.

He saw Largo turn and look around the room, and before Ernesto could avert his gaze, they made eye contact. Largo pointed at him. He stayed where he was, not convinced that Largo was motioning to him, but Largo repeated himself, and Ernesto realized that he was the only person sitting on this bench and the gesture was definitely intended for him. He felt nervous and wanted to stay where he was, by himself at the far end of the room, in his own corner, but knew that not heeding Largo would likely not be a good thing.

He stood and walked over, and again felt all eyes on him. He'd seen enough movies to know that Largo and his gang were big fish in this place, and could imagine the other inmates wondering what kind of penal beast he was to be invited to sit down with the Largo gang. The eyes followed him as he crossed the room. Largo told him to sit down, and he did with Largo and eight of his crew. The guard nearest the phone nodded at Largo, and Largo nodded at the table, and two of them stood up and went to the phones while two others went to the lunch line. Everyone else sat and watched Ernesto.

"This motherfucker says dinosaurs aren't real," Largo said. "He says that they are all a conspiracy. Just another tool of the Man to fuck with us."

Largo's crew laughed. "How do you explain the fossils, ese?" one of them said.

"Fakes," Ernesto said. "Fancy toys."

"Tell them about the replicas at the Natural History Musuem," Largo said.

He did, and the mood at the table shifted. He could feel the doubt creeping into the minds of Largo's gang.

"I've been there, homie," one of the crew said.

"Me too, carnal."

"I bought toys for my nephews and nieces."

"Me too, ese."

"We all have," Largo said.

"Why would they do that?" one of the crew said.

"The dinosaur industry is huge," Ernesto said. "It's toys, movies, books. It's big money. And the industry starts brainwashing us early. In first grade, back when we're still believing in Santa Claus, they hook us and brainwash us with this idea of behemoths ruling the earth 65 million years ago.

Largo raised his palm. "We're making calls, homie," he said. "You're rolling with us, Professor. Make your phone call. Tonight at dinner, you're telling us more about these fake-ass dinosaurs. Especially T. rex."

Even though he was still confident that he would be out of here by then, he nodded, and told them that illuminating them about dinosaurs at dinner would be his pleasure.



He wasn't out by dinner. Although he'd spoken again to Esmi at lunch, she'd seemed distracted, more concerned about getting to class than getting a bondsman. She hadn't contacted anyone yet, saying that she was occupied with lectures and labs and would try to get in touch with someone soon.

He'd noticed her in his class long before that first lunch in the faculty center, because she was the kind of student that instructors noticed. Not only did she have that look, but he found her challenging of canonical scientific history refreshing. Although he hadn't actually believed or even yet begun to entertain the idea that dinosaurs were a hoax, he found himself regularly leaning before class against the same brick wall as she, taking in her second-hand smoke, and debating dinosaurs. They fell into their roles: he challenged her arguments and she defended herself. And she did so confidently, punctuating every developing argument with an exhalation of smoke out of the side of her lips, such that by the end of the fall term he became almost obsessed with dino talk. He found himself spending time outside of class, away from their interactions, considering the evidence for and against dinosaurs, and by the end of the term, he couldn't help but wonder why all of the dinosaurs had suddenly disappeared. He couldn't buy the commonly perpetuated idea that a meteor wiped out 100% of the dinosaur population because he knew from his own research that nothing in science was ever 100% and that there were always high standard deviation survivals.

He told her the day of the final that he agreed with her that dinosaurs could very well be false pseudo-scientific theory. She crushed her cigarette against the brick wall of the lecture hall. "Congratulations, Professor," she said. "Those paleontologists didn't go to Caltech. They don't understand science the way that we do."

In accordance with university policy, he graded exams anonymously, but wasn't surprised after submitting them to the registrar that she'd gotten an A. He emailed her on winter break: "Congrats on a strong term. Dinner sometime?" And she'd written back: "Yes, Professor Dino-doubter."

He thought about that A during dinner in jail, reassuring himself that she was taking care of her business at school before taking care of the bondsman. He knew that women in the sciences had it harder than men. He couldn't fault her for focusing foremost on her grades. Friday classes were over now, and she would've called the bondsman by now. He didn't know how long the turnaround was from a phone call to release, and wasn't even sure if a phone call sufficed or whether she needed to sign something, meet the bondsman in person, but he remained confident that he would be out soon.

He looked at his food, saw nothing but instant, odorless mush, but dug his spoon into it anyway, because he was hungry. He quickly rewound his day in his head and figured that he hadn't had a real meal in twenty-four hours now.

"Who do you have on the outside?" Largo said. "Homies? A honey?"

He thought about Esmi and liked the thought of her being his honey. She was 'Esmi' to him, which was better than 'Esmeralda' but not nearly as good as 'honey'. "I have a honey," he said.

"Is she springing you?"

"She's working on it."

"Be careful of these girls, homie. Make sure she's not messing with your homies or the bondsman while you're in here."

He considered Largo's age. He'd initially considered him as young, mid-twenties, someone who'd fallen into jail because of youth and indiscretion, but as he listened to him and saw the fatigue in his cheeks and subdued fire in his eyes, he realized that Largo was just as old as he, and that he hadn't fallen in jail accidentally, but had lived a life that had led here and would continue to lead here.

Two crew members returned from the phones and went to the dinner line. "Call your honey, homie," Largo said.

Ernesto left his tray, went to the phone, and dialed Esmi's number and his pin, but instead of the call going through, a message telling him that he'd exceeded his allotted number of phone calls played and that the call would be connected collect. He turned and gave a thumbs up to Largo before turning back to the phone. The call went to her voicemail, and immediately a recording telling the person on the other end to enter credit card information to create a debit account played. He hung up and went back to the table.

"Did you get in contact with her?" Largo said.

He shook his head.

"It's Friday night," Largo said. "She's living it up. Don't worry about it, homie. It happens to all of us. When you get out of here, you'll make her love to her the right way and set her straight and remind her why she's with you. Got it, Professor?"

Largo leaned across the table. Ernesto knew there was only one answer. "Got it," he said.



He woke up before the guards woke them up on Saturday morning, and although he'd thought that he wouldn't sleep, he had. He'd followed the cue of his neighbor and fallen asleep early, much earlier than he went to bed in the outside world. As soon as Ernesto had put his head down on the hard bed in his cell at lights off, he'd heard the snoring on the other side of the wall, and knew that Largo was already out. He closed his own eyes and drifted off thereafter, thinking that life was different in here.

He saw a skirmish during lunch between one of Largo's crew and a tatted newbie who'd appeared overnight, a fight in the mess hall that lasted no more than a minute before the guards intervened but still left the newbie with a bloody cut along his cheek. He asked Largo what the scuffle was about and all that Largo said was, "Wrong ese in the wrong place." He didn't know what that meant but didn't investigate further. He was happy to be on Largo's good side and content to leave the newbie on his bad side. He figured if Largo wanted him to know anything else he would do so on his own accord. The guards took Largo's crewmember to isolation but Largo seemed unperturbed. "Dino talk in the yard, Professor," Largo said. "We have Title 15 time today."

Ernesto nodded, realizing that he'd been nodding a lot recently even though most of the time he wasn't sure what he was nodding about. The yard ended up being the courtyard, a large enclosed concrete rectangle with a half a basketball court, a concrete running track, weights, and a handball court. Largo waved him over to the court, where he and his crew were passing around a beat up basketball and shooting jumpers. Another crew of inmates was congregated around the handball courts, and Largo pointed at them. "Keep an eye on those guys," he said. "Now that they see you with us, now that they know you're with me, they're going to try to mess with you, just like we messed with their wobble head during lunch."

Ernesto stiffened. He wasn't sure he liked the ramifications of Largo's statement. One of the crew tossed him the worn out basketball and he stumbled to catch it. All eyes were on him again. He looked at the basket. He'd played basketball like everyone else in middle school but had never been good. He wasn't tall or athletic. He pushed his glasses against his forehead. The ball felt heavy in his hand. He settled it on his palm and flung it at the basket a dozen feet away and miraculously it went in, no rim, just net, as if he knew what he was doing. He turned and saw that not only were Largo and his crew watching him but the rival crew on the handball court was as well. Largo folded his arms and stared at the handball court and slowly and nonchalantly the handball crew turned back to their game. Ernesto wondered what would've happened if he'd missed the shot, whether his crew - not his crew, he reminded himself, but Ernesto's crew - would've had to have played it off instead. Ernesto was grateful for small miracles.

"See that guy?" Largo said, pointing at the handball court again, this time at the tallest member, a guy with a shaved head and ink that to Ernesto looked similar to Largo's but which he knew was completely different. He wasn't in Pasadena anymore, and for better or worse, life on the inside, behind the chalk, was starting to make sense to him. "Keep your eye out for him. He's not right. He'll try to mess with you. None of his gang is right. His name is Rex. Like Tyrannosaurus rex."

One of the crew passed Ernesto the ball. Largo's interest in dinosaurs made more sense now. Largo handed Ernesto the ball.

Ernesto got it now. "Dinosaurs are fake," Ernesto said, maybe less enthusiastically than before. He bent his knees, cradled the ball in in his palm, and took a shot. The ball found the bottom of the net again.

"Exactly, Professor," Largo said. "Exactly."



At dinner, Largo told him that it was time to bring him into the gang. He wasn't sure how to respond. He put on his poker face but knew that he looked anxious nonetheless. He thought about his options. He could heed Largo's initiation rite, carrying it out and continuing the protection afforded to him by Largo and his gang, or he could disregard it and branch out on his own. He closed his eyes, knowing that the latter option really wasn't one.

It was Saturday night, and earlier in the day, after the yard, he'd called Esmi again and this time had connected with her. He'd waited on the line while she'd followed the prompted directions and entered credit card information to accept the collect call. He asked her what was taking so long, why he hadn't been bailed out yet, and she told him nothing other than she would get around to it tonight. Her reception went poor and they'd disconnected. He hadn't known what she'd meant by 'getting around.' Again he thought about Largo's dismissal of women from the night before. As he sat at Largo's table, he wished more than ever that he was out of this place, because he could feel his life warping, his time in the joint morphing into an amalgamation of illegal activity, starting with whatever Largo's initiation was going to entail. Again he wondered what Esmi had meant when she'd said that she'd get around to it tonight. He was always wondering what she meant, always trying to figure out if she only wanted to talk about dinosaurs and school or expand their relationship to something else.

When he opened his eyes, he saw everybody at the table staring at him. No matter what his brain had figured out, his emotions were taking over and he would do whatever Largo wanted him to do so long as it didn't involve killing a man. He couldn't imagine being on the other side of Largo's gang.

"Go to Rex's table," Largo said. "Sit down and tell them that you want to talk to them. They won't swipe you off. They'll be curious to hear why an ese like you is hanging out with an ese like me and they'll be curious as to what you're going to say."

"What am I going to say?" Ernesto said.

"You're going to tell them everything you've told us. That dinosaurs are fake and T. rex is a fake and never existed."

Ernesto's hand shook as he brought a spoonful of beans to his mouth. The ludicrousness of the moment shone through - he was a professor, not a banger - but lasted only a second because the reality of the moment - he was inmate at Los Angeles Central Jail, just like everyone else here - usurped it. He almost wished that Largo had told him to kill someone because at least the tension of the moment would be less. But by sitting down at a rival gang's table - and he had to catch himself with this thought, because a 'rival gang' meant that he was in a gang, and he wasn't, he was just a professor of protein kinetics - and enduring the buildup of anger and insult by its members as he denied the existence of the symbolic leader of its gang was too much to bear.

"When are we doing it?" he said, hoping again that he would be out of here tonight. "Tomorrow?"

"Tonight," Largo said. "Now."

"I need time to formulate my argument."

"Professor, you got this."

He knew that he didn't have this, but the eight heads, especially Largo's, around the table waiting for him to act convinced him otherwise. He pushed away his tray of food and stood up. He felt eyes on him, like he always did now, but ignored his self-consciousness. He swayed as he walked. The room was a rectangle, about sixty feet by thirty, with two widely spaced rows of five tables, and he walked between the rows, standing as straight as he could. Largo and his gang sat at the table nearest the phone and Rex and his gang sat at the table on the other end of the room. He finally arrived at Rex's table and stood at the edge of it while all six people there inspected him, none of them perturbed or seemingly worried. Their nonchalance irked him. He didn't look like the other inmates and knew that he didn't act like them either, but dammit, he was an inmate nonetheless, rolling with Largo and his gang, and didn't appreciate the relaxed demeanor of Rex and his crew. For all they knew, he was a crazy banger or murderer and here to destroy them all, and he thought that they should be at least a little bit on guard. But they weren't. They looked at him as if he were the entertainment, a curiosity to pass the time.

"May I have a seat please?" Ernesto said.

Nobody moved, and he asked again. Rex grunted and one of his crew on the side opposite him on the bench stood up. Ernesto took his place.

"I'm Ernesto, a professor at Caltech," he said. "And I'm here to talk to you about dinosaurs." And as fast as his tongue could keep up with his anxious mind, he told them everything, all the facts and hypotheses coming out in a gush: how he'd invited Esmi to lunch at the faculty center with other students; how she'd started him on this path of dinosaur doubting; how paleontologists had offered up nothing but crock evidence regarding the extinction; how he'd started liking Esmi; how triceratops and bronchosaurus and velociraptor and tyrannosaurus rex were nothing more than fairy tales meant to entertain kids and prop up a bullshit industry; how Esmi always sent him mixed signals as to what she and he were; how all dinosaurs, especially T. rex, were fake and he knew it and Esmi knew it and now Largo knew it and it was time the world knew it as well and it was his responsibility to let the world know, every free man and inmate combined; how his honey was waiting for him on the outside.

Ernesto saw anger percolate in Rex's face, his cheeks reddening and brow twitching, with every additional blasphemous comment he spat. The sleepy disinterest of the crew morphed to fidgety shock. After hammering home the final point - the dinosaur skeletons on display at the Natural History Museum were by their own admission fakes - Ernesto stood up. The restlessness at the table was unbearable now. He turned and walked back to his own table, his own gang, Largo and his crew. He wanted to run back to safety, forget calm and appearances, but he steadied himself. He expected to be jumped at any second, a massive blow to his torso and the wind being completely knocked out of him, with every agonizingly slow step he took, but the takedown never happened. He arrived back at his table, the same eyes of the guards and inmates on him as before, and Largo smiled, gave him a pound, and said, "Welcome to our world, Professor."



On Sunday, he started to miss her, and when he felt that usual pang of longing he experienced on the outside, he realized that he was probably adjusting to life on the inside, which wasn't a good thing, because up until now, he'd been thinking more about him and his situation than she. But now that his thoughts had transferred to her, he became restless. He hoped that she was all right, that something bad hadn't happened to her, maybe a car accident. Or a gang shooting. He kept thinking about a gang shooting, a drive-by as ordered by Rex for revenge on his speech last night, and wished that he hadn't revealed so much information about Esmi to them. Sure, he'd only told them her first name, but he'd also mentioned where he taught, and knew that there were ways to track someone down. He could picture the cops already outside her apartment, the medics bodybagging her. He focused on this horrendous possibility before shaking his head and refocusing, reminding himself that Caltech wasn't exactly a hotbed of gang related activity. Life behind wire was rubbing off on him too much. Rex didn't care about Esmi. He, though, was another story, and wondered what was going to happen to him at the hands of Rex and what Largo was going to do to protect him.

Breakfast was tense and lunch tenser but Rex stayed at his bench and he and Largo and the gang stayed at theirs, the lower members of each - excluding him, because he just kept looking down at his grub - mad dogging throughout. Sunday was another Title 15 day, another yard day, and for a moment, while he stood outside on the basketball court, practicing layups with his gang beneath the overcast October sky, feeling the first change of weather from the heat of summer to the crispness of fall, he felt alive, okay with his current situation, if not a king of the world at least a prince of it. He knew that he was losing perspective, but couldn't help it. That's what life on the inside did to a man. Or maybe he was gaining perspective. After all, he had the respect of his homies and a honey on the outside. He wasn't three strikes or a lifer, he was just catnapping on the inside, bonding with homies and living real life away from the ivory tower. He wasn't a laureate and didn't have his own parking spot on campus yet but he had people he knew now and street cred and if administration ever tried to mess with him, they'd better check themselves.

For a moment, he felt alive, at least until he saw Rex and his gang wander over from the handball court, and then anxiety, stronger than it'd been yesterday, took hold of him, and instead of shooting another layup, he passed the ball off to one of his crew, because he didn't want anyone to see that his arm had started to shake.

"We want to run," Rex said.

Largo was leaning against the basketball pole. "Fuck off," he said.

"Three on three. Pick your three."

"When did you last beat us? Three years ago?"

"We want to play."

Largo shrugged and nodded at his crew, and the three biggest - Snoopy, Cornbread, and Lil' Sumo - stepped forward. Ernesto breathed a sigh of relief, not only because he was safe, at least for now, but also because those three were good, they never seemed to miss and actually shot the ball from outside the key, unlike him, who'd taken to layups to maintain appearances after hitting those first couple of jumpers yesterday.

"Send out Professor," Rex said. "Let's make this fair."

Largo glanced at his ballers and waved at Cornbread to step back. "You're up, Professor," he said.

Ernesto felt a surge of nervous energy again but stepped forward onto the court, taking solace in the knowledge that Snoopy and Lil' Sumo were good. They were dead-on with their shots, and he hoped he wouldn't have to do much but stand around and watch them lead the gang to victory. Three members from Rex's gang came forward. They were taller than he but the same height as Snoopy and Lil' Sumo and built in the fashion of Largo, an amalgamation of mass and muscle on a wide frame. Largo and Rex stood on opposite sides of the court and their homies joined them. Lil' Sumo shot from the top of the key for outs and sank it.

On the first play, Ernesto got nailed as he tried to set a pick, a shoulder to the sternum, and he staggered backwards, the wind leaving him. It didn't matter, though, because Snoopy swished a jumper, and the gang went up 1-0. The sequence repeated itself: he tried to be useful and set a pick, Rex's homie busted him, and Snoopy nailed the jumper anyway. On defense, he got thumped as well as his guy boxed him out with a forearm to his neck. He fell down three times, jammed fingers on both of his hands, and twisted his ankle. He heard snickers coming from Rex's side - and even once from his own after being taken to the ground by a lowered shoulder, an obvious charge in the outside world - but he stayed playing, kept getting back up and trying, and by the end of the game, Snoopy had scored 9 of the team's 11 points, Lil' Sumo had scored the other two, and his gang had won 11-4. Rex didn't seem perturbed but amused, and led his gang to the handball court afterwards, laughing. Before they left, one of the crew, the one who'd guarded him, said, "Be careful, ese, because today was just a little warm-up." The guards got on the PA system, telling everyone to get back in line. Ernesto did as he was told - he knew the drill now - and as he lined up, Largo gave him another pound.

After dinner that night, he lay on his bed and considered taking a shower, even though he'd avoided doing so thus far. He was sweaty, abraded by the falls, and already sore. He needed hot water and soap. He closed his eyes. In the morning, he would take a shower, he decided. He couldn't hold off forever.

He heard a tap against the wall at his head, the one he shared with Ernesto, and tapped back like he'd learned to do the past couple of days. "You did all right," Largo said, his voice muffled but audible through the concrete. "You represented. But in the future, stick to teaching, Professor." Ernesto could hear him laughing on the other side of the concrete wall. "Catch you on the flip side, homie."

Ernesto tried to fall asleep, but couldn't, and it took him a moment to figure out that he didn't like Largo, protector or not, laughing at him.



The guards woke him up earlier than usual on Monday morning and led him outside the cell and told him to line up. There were two others from the cellblock also in the queue. Largo wasn't in the line and neither was anyone else from the crew. The guards took them to detention, cuffed them, and loaded them and others into a County of Los Angeles Sheriff jail bus. "Court day, ladies," one of the guards said.

Ernesto sat on a hard bench with his hands cuffed behind him, thinking about what court day entailed. He began to get nervous, and could picture his three days in jail stretching out into three months or even three years. He'd been concerned about making bail and getting out of jail but hadn't considered the actual legal ramifications of his situation. He hadn't asked Esmi to line up an attorney for him and he knew no one on the top of his head who dealt with criminal proceedings.

Court was unlike the movies or television. It was crowded, hectic, and filled with police. They sat him in a room with other inmates and the public defender, a lady with frizzy hair who smelled like spearmint gum. She asked him what had happened and listened for a few minutes before her cell phone went off and she stepped away. He waited for her to return but she didn't and he saw her moving on to another inmate thereafter.

They took all of the inmates together into the courtroom, and one by one the public defender presented their pleas and argued their bails on felony assaults, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit, and one by one, the judge, a woman who kept her eyes on the computer screen on her bench instead of on the defendants, listened to the district attorney's office for counterarguments, and sent everyone back to jail without bail reductions. When Ernesto's turn came, he stood at the same place as the inmates before him, behind the defendant's table, and when the charges were introduced by the district attorney and a plea of not guilty entered on his behalf by the public defender, the judge looked up from her computer screen.

"What? Dinosaurs?" the judge said. "What the hell happened?"

And so Ernesto told her. He'd gone into the Natural History Museum on the second Thursday of the month, which was when the museum maintained twilight hours. But instead of filtering out with others at closing at 9pm, he'd hidden inside the museum in a storage room in the Dino Lab exhibit. He'd planned on grabbing the purported hadrosaur femur from the temperature and humidity controlled display unit in the Dino Lab exhibit and then sneak out before the roaming security guard and janitors finished their work and set the museum's alarms at 11pm, but the hinged Plexiglass glass door to the femur exhibit had been jammed and the roaming guard had spotted and then detained him before he could get his hands on the bone.

"Why the hell would you do that?" the judge said.

Standing in front of judge now, he wasn't so sure why. He and Esmi had visited the museum three times over the past couple of months, and each time she'd whispered to him in a conspiratorially tone places that they could hide in the museum to lift a supposedly real dinosaur bone for analysis. Each time, she'd leaned in close to him. Each time, she'd smelt like vanilla and smoke. Each time, she'd laughed and squeezed his arm. "I wanted to study the bones," he said.

The judge leaned back in her chair. "Let him go," she said to the assistant district attorney. "The Court doesn't have time or resources for these charges." She addressed Ernesto. "Don't do it again. You're a professor, for God's sake. Be an example." She turned back to the assistant district attorney. "Bring on the next defendant."

The prosecutor didn't miss a beat. He checked his own laptop and introduced charges against another inmate at Central. "Be careful out there, Professor," the public defender said, and before he knew it, the guards were leading him out of the courtroom and releasing him from the cuffs and handing him a stack of papers telling him from where he could pick up his possessions, and he was a free man.



He thought about texting Esmi that night while sitting in the den of his Pasadena craftsman. He was reviewing notes for lecture the next morning, the same class in which he'd taught Esmi almost two semesters ago, and remembered how she'd been fresh, disruptive, and addicting. He put down his pen and picked up his cell phone, and then after a couple of seconds, shook his head, put down his cell phone again and picked up his pen again. Tonight Esmi didn't matter. If she stayed on her academic track, she would be in his Third Year course, and he would see her then, when the only topics that mattered would be advanced protein folding, amyloid structures, and crystallization. He would catch her on the flip side, when dinosaurs didn't matter.

4 comments:

  1. I liked this story, however improbable that a CalTec professor could be as vacuous. Ernesto might try sending his resume to Oral Roberts U in Tulsa.

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  2. An engaging tale with an original premise. The details make the prison stay believable. Apparently Ernesto has learned his lesson and won’t fall under Esmi’s spell again. Reliability isn’t her strong suit!

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  3. The only way is down - then up - uncertainty salts the heart. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  4. Seeking the truth, smashing the myth, spreading the conspiracy theory? - right up my dinosaur's footprints! I was becoming convinced that Ernesto (the US version of Ian Carmichael) was unwittingly going to bring harmony to the world, to end tribal warfare, but no; it all has to wind up in a basketball game, and the 'unreliable woman'. Still, it's a great story, skillfully told, and it made me laugh.
    B r o o k e

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