Thursday, August 27, 2015

Alcatraz of the South Part 7 (Redemption in the Mirror)

By Michael Lambrix

To read Part 6, click here

Whether it was the almost guttural rumbling of the diesel generator or that unmistakable sulfuric smell of the exhaust, or the combination of both as I struggled to sleep through it on that chilly late fall morning, I don’t know. But there I was at the edge of that abyss between sleep and consciousness and caught in that moment between time and eternity. I found myself tangled in the perception of the past, and what once was new became a prophetic omen of what my life would be, and in that moment I discovered that redemption is a mirror we all look upon.

Each Wednesday, for as long as I can remember, the same perverse ritual played itself out as a reminder to all of us here that we are caught in a perpetual state of limbo between life and death.  Each day that passes brings us one step closer to that judicially imposed fate. We are condemned to death and if we ever did dare to forget that, the generator served as a not-so-subtle reminder.

Now it seems like a lifetime ago since I was first housed on that north side of what was then known as “R-Wing” (since then re-lettered as G-Wing for reasons I suppose most of us will never know). But merely changing the identifying letter that hangs above that solid steel door opening on to what was then one of four wings at Florida State Prison that housed us condemned to die in the years before they built the “new” unit of Union Correctional won’t change what lies beyond.  Upon entering, one steps into a hell that only the malignant mind of men could ever manifest into reality.

It was late in the summer and I was coming off disciplinary confinement when I was moved over to an empty cell on R-Wing, placed about half way down the tier on the second floor. I was told by the guys around me that it was a quiet floor and a number of the guys made it clear they wanted it to stay that way. I had no problem with that, as the floor I was on had gotten wide open with radios and TVs blasting both night and day and more than a number of the guys yelling to each other so they could be heard above the noise and it never seemed to stop. Now, a little quiet would be welcome.

I moved to the floor on a Friday morning and it took the better part of that weekend to put my property up and arrange my new cell. Only recently were we given large steel footlockers to store all our personal property in. Prior to that, we pretty much just piled the numerous cardboard boxes containing what we called our own in any manner we liked and they left us alone. But the administration claimed the fire marshal warned the boxes were a hazard and had to go.

It was just as well, as the boxes were magnets to the infinite number of both cockroaches and rodents that infested the death row wings. At least with steel locker, it was a little harder for them to get in and out, although it didn’t take too long before they found their ways.

By early that following week I was getting to know the guys I now lived amongst. Funny how that is, every wing on the floor you are housed on seemed to have its own different set of personalities. This particular floor was known to many as the celebrity floor, as it housed a few of the more notorious death row prisoners, such as my new neighbor, Ted Bundy.

While most of those on this particular floor were there by choice, each patiently waiting for a cell to open then requesting to be placed in it as they wanted to be housed on a quiet floor, both me and Ted had no choice. I was placed there for no reason but luck of the draw—when my time in lock-up (disciplinary confinement) was up, it was the only cell open and for Ted, they just liked to keep him on the second floor near the officers’ quarter deck so that when the occasional “four group” of politicians or judges would come through, they could be paraded down the outer catwalk and get their peek at “Bundy.” Most of the time we would know when a tour group was coming and when we heard that outer catwalk door open, we would quickly throw on our headphones and pretend to watch TV as none of us cared to be their entertainment.

At first I didn’t know what to make of it when I realized that I was suddenly housed next door to Ted. In the few years that I had been on death row, I was previously always housed on what was then known as “S-wing,” which was one wing up toward the front of where I now was, but in many ways a whole other world away.

Like everyone else, I had heard of him. And for a good reason he didn’t exactly go out of his way to reach out to those he didn’t know, as too many even in our own little world liked to throw their stones…even those cast down together into this cesspool of the system. I was already aware of how doing time was about being part of a micro-community of various clichés, each of us becoming part of our own little group.

But it didn’t take too long before I found myself standing up at the front of my new cell talking to Ted around that concrete wall that separated us. As coincidence would have it, we shared a lot of common ground, especially when I mentioned that I was born and raised out on the west coast and that Northern California would always be the only place I would truly call “home.”

As the conversation carried on, he had asked if my family still lived out there, but they didn’t, at least not any relatives that mattered. After my parents divorced, when I was still too young to remember, my father gained sole custody of me and my six siblings and then remarried and we gained three more. It was anything but an amicable divorce, and we never were allowed to get to know our mother.

But as I explained the family dynamics, I pulled out a picture of me with my mother and stepfather taken when I finally did get to know them when I was 22. I guess the snow outside the window gave it away, but Ted quickly noticed that detail and commented that he had never seen the snow like that around San Francisco and I then explained that my mom didn’t live in California, as she had moved to Utah and I spent the winter of ’81-’82 with them outside of Salt Lake City.

That caught his attention and after that I couldn’t have shut him up if I had wanted to. For the rest of the evening and into the night he talked about his own time outside of Salt Lake City and as we talked we realized my mom lived only a few blocks from where his mom lived… small world. As two people will do, when reminiscing about common ground, we went on and on about various places we both knew, although neither of us spent more than a few months there. But it brought us together.

In the following months we grew closer through our common interest in the law. At the time I was barely just beginning to learn (Although at that ripe age of 27 I would have sworn I already knew it all). Now twice as old, I look back and realize I didn’t know half as much as I thought I knew and through Ted’s patience I learned what it took to stay alive.

Most of those around here who consider themselves jailhouse lawyers know only what little they might have read in a few law books and then think they know it all. But as I would quickly come to know, only because my new mentor had the patience to teach me, to truly understand the law you must look beyond what the law says and learn how to creatively apply the concepts. And that’s what makes all the difference.

During the time I was next to Ted I was preparing to have my first “clemency” hearing. It’s one of those things we all go through and back then they would schedule us for clemency review after our initial “direct” appeal of the conviction and sentence of death were completed. Only then, by legal definition, does the capital conviction and sentence of death become “final,” if only by word alone.

But nobody actually would get clemency and we all know it was nothing more than a bad joke, a complete pretense. I was still inexcusably naïve, but Ted’s tutorage enlightened me and I dare say that if not for that coincidence of being his neighbor at that particular time in my so-called life, I would have been dead many years ago.

Back at that time, Florida had only recently established a state-funded agency with the statutory responsibility of representing those sentenced to death. But like most else in our “justice” system the creation of this agency was really nothing more than a political pretense never actually intended to accommodate our ability to meaningfully challenge our conviction, but instead existed only to facilitate the greater purpose of expediting executions.

A few years earlier as then Florida Governor “Bloody Bob” Graham aggressively began to push for executions, at the time heading the country in the number put to death, the biggest obstacle was the complete absence of any organized legal agency willing to represent those who faced imminent execution. Repeatedly, lawyers would be assigned only at that last moment and then the courts would be forced to grant a stay of execution until the newly assigned lawyers could familiarize themselves with the case.

In 1985, Governor Graham and then Florida Attorney General Jim Smith joined forces to push through legislative action to create a state agency exclusively responsible for the representation of all death-sentenced prisoners. They believed by doing so, it would speed up executions, as lawyers would no longer be assigned at the last minute. But many others argued that by creating this agency the state would stack the deck by providing only lawyers connected to the state’s own interests.

A compromise was reached in which a former ACLU lawyer known for his advocacy on behalf of death row was hired as the new agency’s first director, and soon after Larry Spalding then hand-picked his own staff. This small group of dedicated advocates quickly succeeded in all but stopping any further executions in Florida and the politicians did not like that, not at all.

For those of us on the Row, it gave us hope. We knew only too well that the insidious politics of death manipulated the process from the very day we were arrested to that final day when we would face execution. Anybody who thinks our judicial system is “fair” has never looked into how the law really works. And with the agency exclusively responsible for representing all those sentenced to death now at the mercy of politically motivated legislative funding, it didn’t take long before the conservative, pro-death politicians in Florida realized that by simply denying the agency adequate funding they would render the work meaningless while still technically complying with the judicial mandate of, at least by statutory definition, providing the necessary legal representation to carry out more executions.

At the time, I had already waited over a year for a lawyer to be assigned to my case, but because of the inadequate funding of the agency, none were available. For the entire Death Row population quickly approached 300, the Florida legislature provided only enough money to hire 3 staff lawyers. It was an impossible job, but they remain committed.

Fortunately, with Ted as my neighbor, I received assistance not available to others, and through his guidance I was able to file the necessary motions requesting assignment of what is known as initial-review collateral counsel. Although none were available, it still built up the record and although like many others who were forced to pursue their initial post-conviction review through such a deliberately corrupted process, at least I was able to get my attempts to have collateral counsel assigned to my case into the permanent record, and although as intended, I was deprived of my meaningful opportunity to pursue this crucial collateral review, thanks to Ted’s assistance, that foundation was laid long ago.

It only took our Supreme Court another 25 years to finally recognize the same constitutional concept that Ted walked me through so long ago—that fundamental fairness and “due process” required the states to provide competent and “effective” assistance of initial-review collateral counsel and if actions attributable to the states deprived a prisoner of that meaningful opportunity to pursue the necessary post-conviction review, then an equitable remedy must be made available. See Martinez v Ryan, 132 Sect. 1309 (2012).

I would say that Ted is probably rolling over in his grave and smiling at all this, but I know he was never buried. It was his choice to be cremated and have his ashes spread in the Cascade Mountains, where he called home.

Perhaps this is one of the lessons I had to learn in those early years when I first came to Death Row. I shared many preconceived opinions that most in our society would. Because of what I heard of Ted Bundy, I had expectations that soon proved to be an illusion. Often over the years I have struggled with the judgments we make of others around us, only too quickly forgetting that while we go through our lives throwing stones, we become blissfully oblivious to the stones being thrown at us.

Maybe we will want to call him a monster, and few would deny the evil that existed within him. But when I look to those who gather outside on the day of yet another state-sanctioned execution, I now see that same evil on the face of those who all but foam at their mouth while screaming for the death of one of us here. That doesn’t make these people evil, per se, but merely reminds me of a truth I came to know only by being condemned to death: that both good and evil do simultaneously co-exist within each of us and only by making that conscious effort every day to rise above it, can each of us truly hold any hope of not succumbing to it and becoming that monster ourselves.

Being condemned to death is often ultimately defined by the evolution of our spiritual consciousness. I know all too well that there will be many who will want to throw stones at me because I dared to find a redeeming quality in someone they see as a monster. And as those stones might fall upon me, I will wear those scars well, knowing that it is easy to see only the evil within another, but by becoming a stronger man I can still find the good. And despite being cast down into the bowels of a hell, that ability, and even more importantly, that willingness to find good in those around me has made me a better man.

It was around that same time that the hands of fate brought me into contact with another man I knew long before I came to Death Row. The thing about this micro-community we are cast down into is that it really is a very segregated world. Unless you get regular visits—which very few ever do—you’re never around any others but those housed on your particular floor.

Not long after I came to be housed on R-wing, I went out to the recreation yard and recognized a familiar face. I knew him as Tony (Anthony Bertolotti) and back in 1982 we did time together at Baker Correctional, a state prison up near the Georgia state line. I was the clerk for the vocational school program at Baker while Tony worked as a staff barber. Because both of us were assigned “administrative” jobs, we were both housed in the same dormitory, just a few cells apart. Although he wasn’t someone I hung out with back then that small measure of familiarity created a bond and we would talk for hours about those we once knew.

But Tony wasn’t doing so well. Like me, he had been sentenced to death in 1984 and in just those few years he had already given up hope. That was common, but few actually acted upon it. Tony was one of these few, and at the time he was beginning to push to force the governor to sing his death warrant, which he did subsequently succeed and became one of Florida’s first “voluntary” executions. His only perception of reality around him was cast within a dark cloud, so dark no sunshine could appear. And his own escape from that reality was to pursue that myth they call “finality” by bringing about his own death.

So, there I lay that early fall morning. If at that moment I were to get out of that bunk and stand at the front of my cell, I know that I could look straight outward a couple hundred feet in the distance and clearly see that grass-green building we know as the generator plant, which stood just on the other side of the rows of fencing crowned with even more rows of glistening razor wire. And then by looking off to my right of the wing, immediately adjacent to the one in which I was housed, I could see the windows on the first floor that I knew would be where the witnesses gathered when they carried out each execution.

Although I knew these sights well, as well as the sound and smell of that generator plant that they cranked up every Wednesday to test the electric chair (long after that electric chair was banished and replaced with lethal injection they continued to crank that generator up), instead I chose to lay there in my bunk with my eyes closed and manipulate those sounds and smell into a memory that didn’t drag me down and even bring about a smile.

There was another time in my life when I would be awoken to the sound and smell of a diesel generator, and it too was all about how I chose to perceive it. When I was 15 years old I left home and found the only kind of job a homeless teen could by working with a traveling carnival, mostly around the Chicago area.

Most people might find it unimaginable that a “child” of 15 would be out on his own, but if they knew what life was like at “home” then they might understand why I can look back at that time and find a measure of happiness I seldom experienced in my so-called life. Leaving home as a teenager was not so much a choice, but a means of survival. I wasn’t alone—all my siblings also dropped out of school and left “home” at their earliest opportunity and so at least for me, finding work with a traveling carnival was a blessing, as the alternative was to live on the streets.

In the spring of 1976, shortly before my 16th birthday, I left Florida with a carnival that had worked the local county fair, assured I would find work when they joined another show in the Chicago area. But it didn’t work out that way as it was still too cold for the carnivals to set up. For the first few weeks I had no work and no place to stay. I had no money for food and tried to find a meal at a Salvation Army kitchen only to be interrogated by the volunteers who insisted they had to send me “home.” I left without being fed and never again went to a shelter.

At that time in my life, while most my age were just starting High School, living on the streets and sleeping on layers of cardboard boxes was better than being forced to return home and once the weather warmed up and the carnival could set up, I found work at a game concession paying twenty dollars a day—and the boss allowed me to sleep at night in the tent.

Each morning when it was time to start opening the show, that generator would crank up and first that distinctive machinery rumbling would be heard followed only a moment later by that sulfuric smell of the diesel exhaust, and when I closed my eyes that same sound and smell still made me smile, is just like waking up to that job I found at 15, it brought me, at least mentally, to a safer place that anything I knew of as “home” and the freedom of being on my own.

Now when I hear (and smell) that generator just as I did the first time on that chilly early fall morning of 1985, I am reminded that whether it be man or machine, it’s all in how we choose to see it, as the evil within anyone or anything can only exist if one chooses to focus on that. But just as I learned from coming to actually know the person that was Ted Bundy, and finding that although evil acts can undoubtedly be attributed to him, he was not all evil, but also possessed that measure of a man within that had good, it is also true for the many years that would follow as if I’ve learned nothing else through this experience, it is that this evil that exists within the manifestation of the men (and women) around us exists on both sides of these bars and no matter what the source of evil might be, it can only touch and tarnish my own soul if I allow it to.

My lesson so long ago was that redemption (especially that of self) is a mirror that we look into and it’s the image that looks back upon us that ultimately defines who we are and more importantly, who we become. I consider myself blessed to have been around those that society has labeled as “monsters” as it has endowed upon me the strength to find something good within each. And I know that as long as I can find a redeemable quality in all others, there will still be the hope that others will find something redeemable within me. 

Michael Lambrix 482053
Union Correctional Institution
7819 NW 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32026

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Three Stooges

A story by Timothy Pauley

When Tom returned to his cubicle from dinner, the line was already forming. He lived in a dorm which consisted of forty 8' x 5' living areas divided by a four foot high partition. When Tom laid down, it was like he had his own area, but he need only stand up and he could see the better part of the other thirty-nine occupants. Still it was better by a long shot from the eight man cell he'd lived in prior to his name coming up on the list for preferred housing. 

Each cubicle contained a bed, locker, small table and a wooden apparatus that held a military style footlocker on the top and had two shelves beneath. Tom was lucky enough to have a wall cube, so he had the luxury of a large window that opened inward. That was the focus of his attention now.

The first night Tom had spent in his cube, he'd discovered there were pets that came with this real estate. Around seven that evening he'd been looking out his window when a full grown raccoon climbed up on the ledge outside and sat there staring back at him. At first Tom didn't know what to do. He'd been in prison for ten years and this was the first time he'd seen an animal any larger than a mouse. But the raccoon knew what to do. When Tom hadn't produced a snack right away, the raccoon put his paws up on the window and started to beg.

It started with sandwich cookies and a near miss at disaster. Tom had pulled out a bag of cookies and opened his window. The raccoon waited for him to hold out a cookie, then snapped it out of his grip, almost taking the tip of Tom's finger with it. Tom was so startled, he didn't know what to do next. His neighbor Sam had seen what happened and advised him of the proper way to approach a raccoon. "You've got to wait 'til they reach out with their hands." Sam said. "If they lead with that snout, you'd best back off and try again." He continued. "They'll take a chunk out of you if you aren't careful."

With these few instructions, Tom was all set and the raccoons made Tom's window a regular stop. Just on the other side of his window, about eighteen inches away, was a network or rebar metal fashioned into somewhat of a grid. The network almost looked like bars actually, and formed one square foot openings. On a busy night there would be a raccoons hanging up side down and two more right beneath them, sitting on their haunches, waiting for a free meal. And Tom tried never to disappoint them.

Although there were more than three raccoons that frequented the dorm windows, eventually Tom observed that the same three made his window their first and most frequent stop. After a while he was even able to notice the different markings, scars and even personalities of these creatures. One night, when they were particularly playful, Tom decided to name them Mo, Curly, and Larry, after the three stooges.

Over the next few months, Tom tried a number of different treats. The best he could tell, the raccoons liked pretty much the same things he did. They weren't big on spicy things, but they loved sweets. Especially chocolate.

He'd found out about their love for chocolate purely by accident. It was the end of the week and his unit was scheduled to go to the store the next day. The raccoons had already polished off everything he'd bought for them the previous evening. He could have saved some, of course, but these little guys were just too entertaining. Before Tom realized it, he was grabbing the last handful of cookies. On this night, all he had was a bag of M&Ms. He'd put them in an empty plastic ice cream container and was sitting on his bunk eating away when the raccoons arrived. Mo, Curly, and Larry all showed up and the longer they waited, the more entertaining their antics became. They were truly emulating their human namesakes. It didn't take Tom long to feel so guilty he soon found himself holding the plastic container out the window.

Curly was the first to react. He reached his little hands into the container and slowly backed away to a safe distance. Seconds later Larry did the same. He was barely a step back, when Mo, hanging upside down from the rebar grid, reached his hands into the tub and grabbed a small handful. They had been almost polite and Tom was laughing to himself about that when he noticed three sets of eyes patiently staring at him again.

This time things went a bit differently. The moment the plastic container emerged from the window, Larry, the biggest of the three, had both hands elbow deep and began shoveling M&Ms in the direction of his mouth at a fevered pace. While he was doing this, Curly leaned over and tried to stick his hands in the tub only to be met with growls and bared fangs. While Curly was being warning off his neighbor, Mo, hanging above, leaned down and put his hands into the container. The instant the container moved, Larry snapped at him so quickly, he bit a small piece out of Mo's ear. 

With Mo and Curly at bay, Larry continued to scoop M&Ms in the general direction of his mouth until the container was completely empty. The other two were left to scavenge the many that had missed his mouth, which proved to be a considerable amount.

Within a few minutes of finishing off the last M&M, all three of them began acting strange. For the next hour, these three raccoons put on quite a show. They tussled with each other, ran up and down the bars outside the window, and Curly even tried to crawl in the window. Soon it occurred to Tom that the small amount of caffeine in the chocolate was having a profound effect on these little creatures. In short, they were wired.

Over the next couple of weeks, Tom tested this theory. When given the choice between chocolate and anything else, the raccoons would always choose the chocolate. And every time they were offered chocolate, they reacted the same as they had the first night, shoveling it in their little mouths as fast as their hands could grab it. Finally Tom reached the conclusion that the raccoons would probably sit there and eat chocolate until they fell over dead, if he kept offering it.
While this research project had been entertaining, particularly when observing his raccoons bouncing off the walls while they were wired on caffeine, Tom decided he had to cut them off. He really loved these creatures and couldn't help but conclude that chocolate was probably harming them. As long as there was a meal waiting for them, the raccoons would continue to show up every night, so they'd just have to get by with a bit more healthy fare, but this too had some interesting consequences.

Tom had a powerlifting competition to prepare for. A team of lifters came into the prison from the free world every six months. On Friday the participants would weigh in and the competition was on Saturday.

Any competition with weight classes encourages participants to compete in the lightest weight class they possibly can. It was a common practice for lifters to dehydrate up to ten percent of their body weight the day of the weigh in, so they could make weight for the lightest class possible.

In Tom's case, that meant sweating off ten pounds. On Thursday, Tom paid a guy to smuggle a small bag of prunes out of the kitchen. That evening he ate as many as he could stand so that he could clean out is system and perhaps drop a few extra pounds. As he was sitting on his bed choking down these prunes, Curly appeared at the window.

There were seven prunes left in the bag, and Tom couldn't stand to eat another. Then the thought occurred to him that his little friend might like them so he began hand them to the little guy one at a time. The first one required an examination. Apparently Curly had never seen a prune before. After a brief check, he finally put it in his mouth and began chewing.

Raccoons really like sweets. The prune fit that bill nicely and he sat there and devoured one after the other until they were gone. A couple handfuls of crackers completed the spread and Tom's little friend waddled away about fifteen minutes later with a full belly.

The next morning, Tom was up early and spent the next ten minutes on the toilet. The prunes had done their job and he was a couple pounds closer to making weight for that afternoon's weigh in. An hour later and he was on his way to work.

Tom worked in the warehouse. The entrance of the warehouse was similar to an open carport, open to the elements but with a corrugated metal roof. The roof was supported by a wooden frame and on one of the corners, Curly had carved out a nest for himself and normally spent the daylight hours snoozing away in his perch. Whenever Tom arrived for work, he'd always look up to see his little friend settling in for his daytime nap.

On this occasion, Tom saw evidence that Curly was home long before he got close enough to see up under the roof. There was a network of sprinkler pipes on the wall for the fire protection system. That was typically how Curly got up to the rafters, was by climbing the sprinkler pipes. On this morning, however, when Tom was still a good ways off, he could see what looked like mud sprayed on the wall for about ten feet, until it disappeared under the roof. As he got closer, it became apparent that it was not mud at all and it was right on and next to the vertical pipe. By the time Tom realized what it was, he was close enough to look up and see Curly. The little raccoon was wide awake and leering back at him as if to say, "You bastard!"

The best Tom could tell, the prunes had worked on Curly, too. Raccoons have a great many more facial expressions than most people might think. Over the past several months, Tom had become familiar with many of them, but the look Curly was giving him this morning was completely new. Apparently the exertion Curly had expended to climb up the pipe had caused a chain reaction in his intestines and Tom could see a new spray begin about every two feet. When he finally walked in the door, Tom was laughing. His boss greeted him with a half friendly outburst about the damn raccoon crapping all over the wall. If he only knew....

In spite of the prune episode, Mo, Larry, and Curly continued to visit Tom every evening like clockwork. Tom's best guess was that he spent about a quarter of his paycheck feeding them, but it was worth it. They were the coolest pets a guy could ask for.

In the spring, Tom was given the opportunity to earn some extra money working overtime. The correctional industries racket provided annual opportunities like that. All state agencies were required to purchase their office furniture from correctional industries. At the end of each fiscal year, anything left in their budget had to be spent or that agency would risk having their funding decreased the following year.

The side effect of these practices was that nearly every state agency that had money left over, would buy new office furniture every year. Even though these items were made to last ten or twenty years, agencies would order more every year and send their "old" furniture to be sold as surplus for pennies on the dollar. For prisoners, however, this was great because it provided the opportunity to log many extra hours every May and June. In Tom's little corner of the operation, that meant working from seven in the morning until seven in the evening. 

The first three nights of overtime, Tom's raccoons were sitting on his windowsill waiting for him when he arrived home from work. Tom's neighbors informed him they had been sitting there and scratching the window for over an hour each night. But once he got home, all was right and they enjoyed their usual meal. 

That all changed on Thursday evening. Officer Wansley didn't like raccoons. He particularly didn't like Tom's raccoons. Technically speaking, Tom was not supposed to be feeding them in the first place. On a normal night that would merely amount to holding off and waiting for Wansley to walk by before resuming the feeding. Wansley didn't like seeing those vermin sitting there on the window sill smacking their lips, but he had never actually witnessed Tom feeding them.

On Thursday night, Wansley go a bright idea. As he was making his rounds, he saw a raccoon sitting on Tom's window sill scratching the glass and acting like he was begging for a handout. An evil grin spread across Wansley's face as it occurred to him what he must do.

The burly officer returned to his desk, looked around to see if anyone was paying attention, then proceeded to the janitor closet. As soon as he opened the door, Wansley could see the spray bottle of window cleaner sitting there on the top shelf. He grabbed it and made his way toward Tom's cubicle.

As Wansley approached the window, the little raccoon sat back on his hind legs and held his little hands out. He didn't recognize Wansley, but a meal was a meal. Wansley reached for the latch and slowly eased the window open. He paused for a few seconds, glancing around the room one more time.

There were actually several prisoners lying on their bunks. But none of them appeared to be paying him any mind. Wansley looked back and the raccoon was now moving closer to the window, wondering what was taking so long. In a flash, Wansley raised the spray bottle and pulled the trigger three times in quick succession, emitting a steady stream of blue ammonia-laced window cleaner directly into the little creature's face. The animal let out a loud hiss and darted through the metal grid. He hit the ground running and did not stop to assess the damage until he was well clear of the building.

Wansley laughed as the raccoon dashed away. He pushed the window shut and began to walk away. As the guard took one more look around the room, he was surprised to see every eye in the room trained on him. This made Wansley very uncomfortable and he hurried away to hide the evidence.

When Tom arrived home an hour later, he was surprised to see his windowsill empty. He was certain his little friends would be waiting for him and couldn't understand why they weren't. Soon his neighbors began coming by to tell him about the spraying incident.

Tom was furious. Initially he wanted to walk right up and sock old Wansley right in the nose. Had Wansley been a real man, he probably would. But Wansley was a coward. Had Tom confronted him like that, the guard would have had him thrown in the hole for a year. No, this would require patience. 

So Tom began paying a lot more attention to Wansley. For his part, the guard was afraid to make another run at the raccoons. He knew he'd been seen and was concerned someone might tell his boss. Harming the animals was actually against the law so Wansley decided to leave well enough alone. He'd had his moment.

But Tom continued to track his every move. He figured out Wansley's routine down to the seconds. Wansley was a retired military man, so there was little deviation in his routine from one day to the next. It didn't take long to figure out an angle; Wansley was lazy and that was how Tom would get him back.

The officer's desk had a telephone. The procedure was that each time an officer got up and left the desk for any reason, they were to lock the telephone in one of the desk drawers. This was a bit of a hassle, but a necessary evil. Couldn't have prisoners getting their hands on a telephone.

But the reality was that the desk was never left unattended for long enough for anyone to make any kind of meaningful call. For this reason, Wansley had been known to forego locking the phone up when he made his routine walk through. Typically he was only away from the desk for about three minutes at a time, so what harm could it do, he thought.

Eventually Tom's patience paid off. There had been several occasions where he could have probably run to the desk and grabbed the phone, but even though Wansley might not have caught him, everyone in the pod would have seen. Chances of that many people keeping their mouths shut was almost zero. So Tom waited.

It was Friday evening and the Sonics were playing. That meant the television room was filled to capacity and the dorm was relatively empty. Tom was on his way to the bathroom, when Wansley got up to make his rounds. Tom couldn't believe his good fortune. The desk was only three steps out of his way and he quickly bent down and removed the cord that attaches the handset to the phone. The move took only about five seconds and Tom was again headed for the bathroom.

He hurried to the last stall and pulled the handle to flush the toilet. When the water was draining from the bowl, Tom threw the phone cord in and watched as it disappeared down the drain. He was laughing so hard it brought tears to his eyes.

Tom composed himself before heading back to his cubicle. He managed to get all the way back before Wansley appeared back at the desk. The surly guard sat back in his chair and picked up his newspaper, completely oblivious to the missing phone cord.

It took a little over thirty minutes before someone called. Wansley picked up on the second ring and said, "Cascade Hall, Wansley speaking." After brief pause, Wansley said, "Hello." He waited for a few moments, then repeated himself, only a little louder. By the third hello, Wansley's jaw was clenched and his knuckles white as he slammed down the receiver and began cursing. Less than a minute after Wansley hung up, the phone began to ring again. Still oblivious to the missing cord, Wansley was certain someone was messing with him.

Less than a minute after Wansley hung up, the phone began to ring again. This time he dispensed with the formalities. "Hello," Wansley barked into the receiver. When no answer was forthcoming, he raised his voice and half hollered, "Hello” one more time before slamming the receiver back in its cradle and unleashing a stream of profanity.

A couple minutes later, officer Slater appeared. He was there to relieve Wansley for his break. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Wansley headed for the door. He was two steps away when Slater said, "The sergeant's been trying to call you. You might want to stop by and see what he wants."

Upon hearing this information, Wansley turned and glanced at the telephone again. The look on his face when he realized the cord was missing was priceless. Tom had to bury his face in his pillow to muffle his laughter.

Now Wansley had a choice. He could fess up and take his punishment or he could just leave and hope Slater took the blame for his incompetence. Being a coward, this was really no choice at all. Wansley turned and headed for the door, double time.

When Wansley returned, Slater had barely walked out the door and Wansley began searching for the missing cord. First the trashcan, then the floor under the desk, and finally a walk around the room. The look on his face was half panic and half contempt as he looked for either the cord or a sign that someone knew. Just let someone smirk at him, and Wansley was fully prepared to blame it all on them. But nobody paid him any mind. The only one in the room who knew buried his face in a book and pretended not to notice as Wansley walked around the room nervously.

When nothing turned up, Wansley sat back down at his desk and continuously scanned the room, all the while trying to come up with some way to blame this all on someone else. By the end of his shift, Wansley still hadn't come up with a convenient victim.

Mrs. Anderson was a motherly-like figure. Everyone loved her. When she arrived to relieve Wansley, he couldn't get out of there fast enough. And he almost made it too. He was two steps from the door when Mrs. Anderson called out, "What happened to the phone cord?"

Wansley froze in his tracks. Even though he'd had three hours to come up with a response, there was really nothing he could say to make the situation any less painful. So Wansley did what any coward would do, he tried to blame it on the previous shift.

This went badly for Wansley. He spent the next two hours filing a report and explaining himself to the shift lieutenant. Wansley botched these tasks so badly that he became somewhat of a laughing stock. Of course he couldn't be fired for such a small thing, but by the next day, everyone knew and Wansley had to endure wise cracks about his incompetence from both prisoners and staff, for the next two months. Eventually he got so disgusted, he transferred to a gun tower.

For the remainder of Tom's stay there, nobody messed with Mo, Curly, and Larry. Eventually he was transferred and it was a sad day when he had to say goodbye to his little friends. For years after he left, each time Tom would think about his raccoons, in his mind he'd see that picture of Curly staring back at him the day after he ate the prunes.

Timothy Pauley 273053 A316
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Memoir to Madness Part Five

By Christian Weaver

To read Part Four, click here

Dear Justin:

You won’t believe what just happened: I finally got a letter…FROM YOU!! Brother, please—and I mean please, don’t ever do that again. If you simply can’t write, then have Lace pen the letter or just send me a note. A simple “I am” would suffice at such times. But of course I didn’t hear from either you or her, your own girlfriend, for 3 or 4 months and so I called Mom and Dad, Debbie, everybody I could think of, and they as well had heard nothing. I started thinking that you were dead and that nobody would tell me out of fear of what I’d do. I got paranoid, crazy…found a pincushion trance (you know what I mean). And now you sit there and wonder how on earth that is possible, how on earth can big bro—Mr. Road to Damascus, Mr. Radically saved—so completely collapse? Just how could he roll to such precipitous depths? Well.…

You’re my Achilles’ heel, my fatal flaw. I have always felt strongly that our fates are entwined. I know that’s cliché, but it should hardly be surprising that two halves of one soul—and I mean that quite literally, physiologically—should perceive it as unthinkable that their lives could diverge, and this includes the moral sphere. Insofar as we’re autonomous, we must trod the same path, whether evil or good. Kind of childish, I know. But I think that the synchronisms are determined as well, independent of our choices, whether healthy and self-actualized or addicted and insane. Perhaps we’ll both perish from a similar ailment? Anyway, this belief is ingrained and immutable; it was suddenly proven false by your plunge into madness and I started falling apart. I deteriorated with guilt. If I loved you, I thought, then your decline would disturb me on such a visceral level that I couldn’t even function. I would fizzle, short circuit. It’s amazing how much our friendship, our soul-hood, resembles Vincent’s and Theo’s. “But of course,” you’ll say bitterly. “You’re the brilliant tortured artist, and I’m the goddam second fiddle, the auxiliary”—but you’d be terribly wrong. You—your humble demeanor, your orphan-like innocence, your terrible fits of madness and even the manner of your prose (naturally polished and lucid, savage, untutored)—are more Gogh-ish than I. Now Theo was the normal brother and Vincent was the failure, the village lunatic. Sound familiar? After Vincent committed suicide Theo simply fell apart. He was unable to run his business and he soon got committed…several years later he too had imploded. “Now that’s love,” my heart gushed. “He couldn’t function without his brother. How much could he have loved him if he’d continued to function normally, as Mr. Swanky Art Dealer and Patron Saint of Struggling Impressionists?” But of course that’s illogical; it’s the opposite of what you’d want. Your love for me would want me to be happy and healthy irrespective of your lot. It would rather that I flourish without you than self-destruct with you. But feelings, of course, are much deeper than thoughts; they’re more nameless and complex. They’re the terrible black well wherein the thought-pennies fall…”Confide in me, love, I’m a well of drowned secrets.”

Your biggest source of torment, besides your illness, of course, is what the cursed thing has done to your artistic potential. Aborted it, in other words, pulled it out with iron tongs and ran a shunt through its brain. In retrospect, it is clear that you were always more creative—more intelligent, as well: you started reading much sooner, became a student who made A’s (instead of A’s, B’s and C’s) and began to study stuff—heavy stuff—before I could possible give a damn. This was you at age ten:

He began to play piano and advanced rather quickly. The ethereal strains of Fur Elise and Chariots of Fire soon mingled with the noise of kids playing in the street. He also started drawing and was soon very good. He could sketch a pair of hands with surprising accuracy (considering his age) and his horses were impressively well-muscled and shaded.

This is what you did while I was playing hide n’ seek and Nerf football and swimming in the neighbors’ pool and climbing palm trees and hurling pine cones at my buddies. Not that you didn’t participate, but with you it was peripheral. As Captain Ahab would say, you had “the little lower layer.” By the time you were fifteen you had converted our closet into a small library, a sanctum sanctorum. It was mostly non-fiction (the exception was classic literature) and was arranged by such topics as serial killers, cult leaders, and abnormal psychology. Light reading, you know.

Mom and Dad enrolled you in a private Christian school. You were dating this rich chick—the principal’s daughter, if I recall—and you were one of the top students. “Which made me cringe,” you later chuckled. “Because I hardly cracked a book. The only kids who scored higher were a couple of Asian students and they studied obsessively.”

Megan, the king’s daughter, loved the dark and handsome prince. “She’s one of us,” he frowned menacingly. “She has stepped outside the bubble.” His habiliments turned to black, and he began to comb his hair (which was already thick and dark) like a junior assassin. His musical predilections were overtly Satanic stuff like “Danzig” and “Deicide.” He started to lift weights and became strong, absurdly strong, for his size. “You know what I’d like to do?” he told Christian one day. “I’d like to rip a man apart with my bare hands. Not just mangle him a bit or even break a few bones—I mean rip him into pieces like you would a small animal. Not that I’d ever hurt an animal, of course.  I’d sooner kill a damn human.”

But the only human he ever mangled that year was himself. He took a large knife and cut his arm to the bone. He stared stoically at the blood and let it soak through his clothing, even poked the yellow fat that, stuffing-like, protruded from the gash. He felt strangely at peace. He’d made the thought go away.

The point is that you’re naturally an artist, a creator, and an innovator of expression. To be incapable of creating is a torment in itself. I think that your ability, like you’re emotional development, was stunted by your illness. Your obsessions took it all. But that didn’t make you less aware of the loss or less degraded by the wreck of your artistic potential.

Someone once said (I think it was Benjamin Franklin) that there are two ways to become famous: either write something worth reading or live the kind of life that’s worth [someone else] writing about. I know you value the latter less, but I totally disagree: if someone’s interesting enough to inspire great art—if they become the artist’s muse, then they’re as interesting as the artist….

My first attempted novel, “Thunderheads on the Horizon,” has a character based on you. As a kid he resembles Damien in “The Omen” or Macaulay Caulkin’s character in “The Good Son”: quiet, calculating and sinister. He has an identical twin brother (never saw that one coming!), whose name is Nilo, derived from the Hebrew “ex nihilo” or “out of nothing.” The brothers were born to a young, unmarried woman in New Orleans and adopted, at three or four, by an equally poor couple who were living in Florida. The twins were messed up: they had medical problems like asthma and bowed legs and they were hopelessly feral and angry. The couple, however, were committed to Christ: they saw it all as God´s plan. They were right. Soon the husband (we´ll call him Craig—or Dad) was making two hundred grand a year and the twins were well-adjusted and healthy. He moved his family to a rural area in Tennessee and they immediately joined the local community. Most of the parents were fundamentalist Christians: and consequently, their children were outrageously sheltered, like the Flanders´ kids on “The Simpsons.” There were homeschooling events perhaps two times a month: picnics, field trips, hayrides, bonfires. Like a Norman Rockwell painting.

Here's some maxims about then:

1) The children of Christians are doomed for a fall. In the Garden of Eden they roam.
2) The children of Christians are blinded from youth. No Road to Damascus awaits.
3) If you must rebel, children, then chart your own course. Don´t leap from the ship for revenge.
4) The Garden of Lies is the Serpent of Truth.

And a poem:

So I'll speak of the link between madness and art. 
And the penchant of youth to partake of the fruit:
“Know ye not that your folly has ravaged my heart?
But your children will recompense you.”

The twins rebelled mightily—and this, combined with their native pathologies and a rough early childhood, sort of doomed them outright. They started acting self-destructively and they totally renounced Christian upbringing. They were the force majeure, the enfant terrible of the Christian community. As Julian later said: “We always rooted for the bad guy and thought insanity was cool.”

At eighteen, they left home and their pathologies grew worse. Nilo stayed inebriated on whatever he could find, and Julian…well, you know. They rejected their bourgeois upbringing and seemed to identify, almost exclusively, with the counterculture. Generation X and all that. At 19 they befriended a charismatic teenager named of Stanley Lyons who was seemingly an expert at paranormal activity. In reality, however, he was addicted to inhalants—particularly gold spray paint—and whoever played his game became a golem in his hands, a mere puppet of his will (Julian was the rare exception). He had a sort of cult following among the town´s young people, who would gather in the woods, or in mutilated apartments, and hallucinate for days. During one of these trips Nilo noticed, with sheer horror, that taunting, number-obsessed personality was hopping back and forth between Julian and Stanley. He believed it was a demon, like Azazel in “Fallen,” and when he spoke to it directly it called itself “Mable the Hag” and claimed to have possessed every other generation of women on the [twins’] biological mother´s family for many generations….

Nilo drove alone to New Orleans to locate bio-mother and investigate his lineage. She was living in the French Quarter with her boyfriend and was in college to be a special needs teacher. She had just moved there from Navarro, California, where she had lived in an Indian reservation as a journalist and columnist for a local newspaper. In her younger years she had backpacked around the world, dabbled in psychedelics (Timothy Leary for president!), and was as bohemian as pot brownies.

Nilo’s mom was racked with guilt about the loss of her twins. She´d been convinced by a DHS lady that it was in their best interest, that the adopters would be of stable, middle-class stock and provide them the opportunities that she never had herself. They could go to college, travel the world, and so on. She said the man the twins were raised to believe was their father—whom they were told, correctly, had died of cirrhosis right before the adoption—was actually the fellow she was with when they were born. Their birth father was still alive and working on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico, as he had for 30 years. “He’s a hermit,” she announced. He had lived alone in a trailer park outside of New Orleans, drank to excess, and smoked filterless Camels.

Nilo meets a motley assortment of bikers, hippies, and offshore workers. They consider him family and remember the twins from before the adoption, when they were sickly and small. (“You could hold them both in the palms of your hands,” said one lady, jabbing with her cane at whoever would listen, “and their skin was translucent!”)

Several months later he´s painting houses in the Garden District, big Victorian mansions, and he lives in a one-room efficiency on Decatur Street. It´s the size of a large bathroom. He starts messing around with heroin and finally meets his bio-dad (also named Craig!) at the annual Shaky Jake´s reunion party. He joins Craig´s crew and does several stints offshore as a sandblaster and painter. He continues with doing heroin and falls in love with the needle. It's a woman, a religion. One morning he awakes with a desire to huff paint. He hasn´t done so for years and he suddenly thinks that Stanly, from many miles away, is controlling his thoughts. He inhales the pungent fumes and is lost in nostalgia….the demon in a sort of green mist, enters through his spinal cord and fills him completely. He finds a package at his feet; it´s a detailed family tree (wrinkled and grumpy, like on the Wizard of Oz) from a company known simply as Hereditary Chains. It encapsulates the lives of every other generation of women on his mother´s side going all the way back to the blood-bathing Mary (nothing but madness, suicide, and missing or dead husbands). He realizes that Sara, who had never had a girl, could only provide a son for the demon to possess. Though Nilo was born first, Mable preferred Julian, who was much more receptive to demonic activity. Mable, in fact, falls in love with young Julian…. Now here is where the tale gets absurdly—and needlessly—complex….

Julian meets a brilliant, eccentric girl names Ashera who later becomes a national champion at barrel-racing and karate. They discover first love…they hold hands and ride horses and spend a lot of time alone. But Julian is troubled: he is jealous and possessive and at times a mere phantom. She finds it easier to talk to Nilo, who is mellow and loquacious. Julian grows jealous and his envy turns to wrath. As he later confessed to Nilo: “Her choosing you is what taught me how to hate.”

Mable becomes as jealous of Ashera as Julian is of Nilo. So she enters a third person, a thuggish fellow in his early twenties, and he brutally rapes Ashera. Nilo learns of Mable´s role because the rapist left a note that spoke in numbers and percentages. Now back to New Orleans….

Meanwhile, Nilo, down in New Orleans, becomes consumed with violent thoughts. His self-destructive anger starts to channel itself outward and he finds himself, and he suddenly, unaccountably, wants to seriously hurt people. He experiments with theosophy and deliberately attacks people on the astral plane (or in his dreams: he isn´t sure if they are products of his mind or are actually the souls of real people while they dream). He beats a fellow senseless by the Mississippi River and nearly strangles his own girlfriend. Something snaps in his mind—the twig of sanity, you might say—and he suddenly thinks that murder is his destiny and salvation….

He does a big blast of heroin and takes a Greyhound back home. He´s been gone for four years. He moves in with Julian and his girlfriend and they, along with Ashera, are appalled at his condition: the formerly harmless stoner is now an empty, grinning skull. He´s a scarecrow, a shell. He starts to carry a loaded pistol and embarks on an orgy of alcohol, pills and acid. He constantly hallucinates and nearly dies on two occasions….

Sailing through the stratosphere
Never coming down from here
Twisting, turning atmosphere
I'll come home tomorrow.

Smashing through the stratosphere
Jesus—take me down from here
Sweating, burning atmosphere
There is no tomorrow.

One morning he is swindled by a drug—dealing teenager. Ole Mable—whom, by this time, he bickers with as constantly as an imaginary wife—talks him into murder. He gets the kid in his car, puts a bullet in his head, and then sets the car on fire to obliterate the evidence. It erupts like a bomb and becomes a roaring inferno. He stumbles down a country back-road (smelling suspiciously of gasoline, incidentally) and passes out along the way. He wakes up in county jail charged with First Degree Murder.

In several months the drugs and their after-effects have dissapated and he is revealed to be a natural intellectual, perspicacious and disciplined. He starts to research the law and find the errors in his case. Mable helps him to file motions and his sudden legal prowess becomes a source of great wonder—and frustration—to the prosecution. Of course it helps that the judiciary system (the “good ole boy” network) is inept and corrupt: the public defender is a plea bargain expert and the county hasn´t had a trial by jury in nearly ten years. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote about the preliminary hearing:

Then the hearing took place, which was basically the D.A. (a wimpy, pig-head man with a head shaped like a dick with ears) blubbering on and on about “high flight risk” and the safety of the community.”

I couldn´t help noticing a comically-retarded element about it all; it reminded me of the mock courtroom scene with all the frivously-inept creatures in Alice in Wonderland. On trial for stealing the tarts, the Jack of Hearts (me) is accosted by the Queen of Hearts herself, who thunderously demands that they have the verdict first (“Off with his head!”) and the verdict afterwards, eliciting sharp laughter from the overgrown Alice. The fawning, frightened cards in the Queen´s courtyard, her retinue, reminded me of the bumbling milquetoasts in the courtroom that morning (“Yes, your Honor! No, your Honor!”).

My public defender and the D.A. reminded me of Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum (“Nowhow! Contrariwise!”), who acted like they were fighting but were actually best friends. The judge reminded me of the ill-tempered, meglomaniacal Queen of Hearts, demanding absolute silence and calling the defendants “my prisoners.”

Mable convinces Nilo that she will get him exonerated. However, once released, he must immediately start killing. She fills him with vivid, logical (well, to a schizophrenic, anyway) and intricate delusions. For example, he extends Darwinism to absurd lengths by concluding that humans must “climb to the top of the human food chain” (i.e. commit serial murder and transform themselves into true omnivores and apex predators) in order to avoid becoming victims themselves. He grows obsessed with the Pentateuch and thinks he needs a “scapegoat” to atone for his life—for his reckless, wasted life—and wash his slate clean. The sacrificial lamb delusion. He thinks that God is a sadist and that the only way to hurt an omnipotent, evil being is to destroy one of his creatures. Though this would be wrong in the conventional sense, the deed would be right, and even courageous, in the larger cosmic sense—like insulting a murderer. Finally, he believes that each person he kills will make him grow a bit stronger. He´ll appropriate their energy and grow brilliant, immortal….

After a year or so in jail he is totally insane. Not legally, of course—that´s damn near impossible—but a clinical poached egg. “Just like his brother,” people whisper.

Had I known how long this'd take I'd have mailed you the whole pile. The whole slush pile, that is—the prose is blocky at best and excretable at worst. So Nile meets this guy in jail. He sees through Nilo´s story, perceives that he's guilty, and predicts that very shortly he will see a “blinding light.” In the next couple days Nilo sharpens his toothbrush and plans to take a guard hostage—preferably an old woman—and ram it through her brainstem if he isn´t released promptly. But that night he is saved. The Holy Spirit fills his cell and he begins to praise God. As he put it, “My hands seemed to rise of their own accord and my tongue, in glossolaic fashion, hurled praises to the ceiling. And suddenly I was flooded with Love, pure Love.” Mable begs him to stay, with much pleadings, tears and threats. In other words, don´t expel her like the demons in Gadarenes. They get in a shouting match and Nilo vomits her in the toilet and hits “flush” with a grin. He´s delivered.

His conversion is as glaring as an axe of sheen lightening. He is, as the Bible puts it, “clothed and in his right mind.” He finally gets a haircut (the first in eight years) and hacks off his beard. He stops fighting his case and startles his lawyer by pleading guilty to First Degree Murder. He even stands up in court and publically apologizes to the family of his victim. The courtroom grows silent with confusion, and then awe. This is not the same person.

The book ends with Nilo talking to Julian through the bullet-proof glass of the visitation chamber. He has just received a life sentence and will soon be transferred to a state prison. Julian says his own illness has mysteriously vanished and is obviously in awe of his brother’s transformation. The whole story is a thinly fictionalized account of our real experiences, even down to the demon (which I believe you still have) and how I reconciled with the family and inspired the community. There´s actually a Patron Saint of Impossible Cases. It´s for schizophrenics, reprobates, the terminally ill….anyone who appears to be beyond all hope: 

There's a statue that weeps through the cracks in her eyes. 
She is striated black…stony fingers outstretched. 
Where the abscesses drain and the memories dry. 
Those who touch her are loosed from addiction and death.

Keep the faith, little bro, and you'll have your own Damascus.


To be continued....

Christian Weaver 271262
BCCX Site 2 14-11B
1045 Horsehead Road
Pikeville, TN 37367