Just Plain Mary – An Alcatraz Story

Year after year, since 1973 when the doors were opened to the public, over a million visitors pass through the dull military gray double metal gates that serve as an entrance to Alcatraz. They come for many reasons… curiosity, thrill seeking, an academic interest in prisons and reform, writers of all genres. They come at all hours. Day tours. Night tours. Self-guided tours. I blend in to the background, an unnoticed presence. They are each too caught up in their own gratifications that the shade I cast into the room does not penetrate their awareness. I observe them though, witnessing the barely perceptible changes of the expressions on their faces that even they are not aware of. I feel their anxiety rise and see the slightest ripples of trepidation tremble under their skin when the tour guide suddenly slams shut one of the cell doors, bringing the reality of those former prisoners into their safe little cocoons. I can smell the fear in their nervous laughter as they try to cover the embarrassment of their reaction.

They serve a limited usefulness, offering a modicum of entertainment to what has become a long and tedious existence.

And then there are those who I refer to as The Others. They only come at night in small exclusive groups, often years apart, granted the rare and much sought after privilege of setting up all of their electronic gadgets and wandering through the darkness in search of those who passed long ago.

Ghost hunters. Paranormal investigators. Parapsychologists. It doesn’t matter what they call themselves. They all have one thing in common. Their arrival always causes my spirit to soar with hope, as I chant a familiar mantra in my mind…‘This time. THIS time, they will get it right!’

Tonight is one of those special nights when The Others will be here. I lurk on the periphery of their vision, waiting patiently as they prepare for their journey into the mysteries that lurk within these thick concrete walls.

As they split off into smaller groups I dart from one to the other, trying to keep up. I rest my hand on a plasma ball, enjoying the lightning show inside the globe as I feel the tingle of hundreds of tiny bolts of electricity shoot up my arm and then suffuse the rest of my being in it’s gentle warmth. I feel invigorated. Alive. Let’s get this party started!

I glide silently along in the shadows, listening as the first group argues among themselves about which cell could have been Al Capone’s. The fact is, nobody knows. Well, that’s not exactly true. I know. I could lead them right to it. I choose not to. I’d spent enough time in that cell with him, until he was carted off for an extended stay in a hospital isolation cell. He was bat-shit crazy from the syphilis eating away at his mind and body, but I supposed I helped it along a bit. Or a lot. I was Al’s “Jimmy.” He thought he had left the ghost of Jimmy behind at Eastern State Penitentiary. Okay, he did, but I decided to resurrect “Jimmy.” At first it was just a lark, meant for a quick laugh, but I grew to despise Al so much that terrorizing him into full-blown insanity became my mission. He was just a mean, nasty little man. I don’t understand why these people want anything to do with contacting Crazy Al, but they do, and just as I have come to expect, one of the group turns on an audio recorder as another calls out… “Mr. Capone, are you here with us? Can you give us a sign? Make a noise or touch one of us.” Mr. Capone? I laugh silently into my hand, and then I walk over to one of the cells, lift my foot, and kick one of the bars, causing a sharp “TING” sound to be heard ringing in the dark. The little group of ghost hunters are thrilled. They think they’ve contacted Al. Wish I could tell them the truth, that Al is a quivering coward who avoids this place. He hangs out in the swankier environs of Palm Beach in Florida. I grow bored here and go in search of the other group.

I kneel down and press an ear to the ground, using the subtle vibrations to guide me to my next location. The slight whistling of the wind that tickles my earlobe tells me they are in the former recreation yard. I make my way through the stygian darkness, no need for lights in the heavy black murkiness. I know these silent walls and cold floors better than anyone. I truly am the mistress of my own domain, the uncontested queen of my lonely kingdom. Wandering through the doorway to the recreation yard I take a moment to pause at the top of the steps, throw my head back and take in the dizzying array of stars in the night sky above me. A cool breeze goes through me with the softness of a newborn babe’s sleeping exhalations, the salty tang of the ocean in my nose bringing back memories of a time when love was new and Death’s embrace seemed so far away. If I could cry, I would, savoring the slow, warm passage of a tear as it caressed the contours of my face, coming to a trembling rest on the end of my chin until dropping with a gentle “plop” between my feet. A close my eyes, lightly shake my head, and reground myself in the here and now. Avoiding the narrow flight of stairs, I instead walk down from one level to the next of the concrete bleachers, nine giant steps in all, until my feet touch the ground of the yard. Off to my right I see the cluster of three people standing by the wall under the old water tower. I stick to the shadows as I make my way towards them. The older woman in the group stands with eyes closed, her tightly curled brown hair forming a nest around the fingers that are lightly pressed to her temples. Ah! This must be their team psychic. The other two team members focus their attention on her like puppies anticipating a treat, their barely reigned in excitement causing a heavy pressure in the air, a feeling reminiscent of the bunched up muscles of a night predator ready to pounce on its prey.

Breaking away from the shadows I move to stand behind the self-proclaimed ghost-whisperer. Reaching out, I run a hand down her spine. She shivers, opens her eyes, and, snapping her hands away from her head, begins to vigorously rub her arms where thousands of tiny hairs are standing at attention. “Do you feel that?” she asks her companions. Whether they do or not, they nod their heads indicating that they do. Suddenly, she slaps the palm of her right hand to her chest, looks around, and then focuses her laser-beam eyes on a point just under one of the cell block windows. “He’s here! Robert Stroud has joined us. I hear… birds. Hundreds of birds! He’s worried that nobody is caring for his beloved canaries!” Unable to stop myself, I burst forth with a loud laugh that is close to a hysterical howl. I can’t help it. Robert Stroud never had birds here. Little known fact, which shows how little research most did… Stroud’s actual nickname was “Bird Doctor of Leavenworth.” Hell, he didn’t even die here. That distinction rightfully belongs to a prison in Missouri. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood has portrayed him as this gentle little man who just wanted to play with birds. The truth is that he was an angry, sullen and dangerous psychopath. Hence, my uncontrolled mirth at the stupidity of this so-called psychic. The entire group stopped dead, eyes wide in shock, mouths hanging open. They begin to chatter at once, their competing voices a discordant cacophony in the velvety night. “Did you hear that?” “I heard it!” “It was a laugh. A WOMAN’S laugh!” “But, but, there weren’t any women prisoners here.” “There were women here from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.” “Yes, but they were the wives and daughters of the guards and none of them died here.” Listening to the chaotic back and forth of their confusion was almost painful. Yet, it also gave me hope. My laugh was loud and clear, They had heard me. Maybe. Just maybe.

I wait with growing expectancy, my eyes burning holes in the back of the psychic’s head, willing her to speak. Finally, she did.

“Robert Stroud, is there a woman spirit with you? Or are you playing a trick on us?” She stops, tilting her head as if listening to a voice only she can hear. Snapping her head up straight she solemnly, and with great dramatic effect, proclaims…“It’s a Demon! Mr. Stroud has warned us to leave. Now!” Shaking my head back and forth as I watch them run for the safety of the cell blocks, eager to share their gloriously frightening encounter with their fellow team mates, I fight back the temptation to launch a rock at the large target the psychic’s posterior presents.

Slowly, I drag myself back to the cell block, head down, despondent. Thinking. Thinking. Try as I might, I can find no other solution. I am drained. Done. As always, the night ends with crushing disappointment.

As the first faint fingers of a light pink dawn begin to touch the quickening blue sky I watch from a dark corner as the team begins the task of packing up their cameras, digital audio recorders and EMF meters. Exhausted, they talk in low tones about the success of their night, of their contact with Al, Robert and The Demon. I experience that familiar rising of frustration, rage. Disgust. I scream silently in the prison of my own head, utterly helpless to do anything else, because every attempt to show them the truth has failed. I have depleted my energy, unable to release the smallest of sighs into a now tired ear.

Just one more phony ‘psychic’ and a group of glory seeking ghost hunters wanting to tell the world about “meeting” famous criminals and being chased by demons. The truth isn’t exciting enough for them, and with their narrow minds they come with preconceived ideas, completely missing the truth.

The Truth.

The truth is, there are no malevolent, vengeful former prisoners haunting these corridors and cell blocks, waiting for the chance to get revenge on the unwary visitor. Those convicts who died here, their spirits departed as soon as they sucked in their last rattling death breath, flying over the water to San Francisco. Those who died elsewhere have never come back to this place of their personal terrors.

It’s just me, wandering alone. Forgotten. I come from a time whose history has been buried under the concrete slabs of Alcatraz. Just the wife of a soldier who was stationed here after the civil war that divided our nation. My death was an unremarkable one for the time, an unfortunate drowning. I stayed because I was happy here.

So, it’s just me.

Just plain Mary.

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