We made a raft and life preservers out of fifty raincoats. It was Frank’s idea. We got out of there while our toilet paper and soap crafted heads went on sleeping and the guards felt satisfied. We were tucked in, alright – tucked into icy water in our homemade raft, and by God and all the celestial beings waiting at Angel Island, it held us up and carried us across the deadly current to freedom. But before that, back while we hovered near the prison, pumping air into the raft with the concertina, we were so jumpy our breaths came quick and we thought the wind surely carried our thundering hearts like drumbeats back over the 50 foot wall in coded signals that announced we were leaving.
My brother Clarence said something then — something so strange, given where we’d been and what we’d done throughout our lives up to that point, that I’ve remembered it for these many years. “I hope we don’t have bad luck because we stole this thing,” he said, meaning the concertina that we used for its bellows. It seems he thought it a greater crime to steal a musical instrument from a convict than to hold up banks or escape from Alcatraz. I would have laughed if I’d had the breath. It was true, though, that our fellow inmate and his friends would miss his private folk revival concerts, and when there isn’t much to live for, a little music can be a salvation.
It didn’t worry me much because after we stole a car and made it to the Mexican border, my crimes and sins rarely occupied my mind; I was too busy figuring out how to get through the next day and feed myself. Frank went his own way, and my brother and I slowly found a way to live as men with different names and silent histories. Now, though, Clarence is gone, and I’m slowing down so much I guess I’m coming to my end.
I’ll go out of here free. Still, my mind hasn’t been settled of late. I’m restless, uneasy… and haunted by distant music. I think they call it a sea shanty, a song for working crewmen on the old ships. This is the only part I know, and I can’t get it out of my head, so I sing it out loud now on purpose, for the company: “Come get your duds in order / For we're going to cross the water / Heave away me jolly boys, we're all bound away.”
Before long, I’ll be climbing over another wall and swimming out, I hope, straight to glory … because this time I have neither raft nor raincoat nor brother to carry me, and the body I leave here in this bed will be my only goodbye letter.