Thursday, January 5, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"One day you'll slip," Woody shouted at a guard up high, manning a control tower at Salinas Valley Prison, "and I'll get you."

"Yeah, yeah," the guard replied in a bored with it all voice. "Go about your business."

"I'm serious."

"Trying to get off the yard?" the guard asked calmly, casually.

"Punk ass bitch!" Woody shook his fist.

Sighing, the guard activated his alarm, the yard went down, and Wood was gaffled away.

"Drug debts," my cellie, Cannibal, clued me. "Guess he couldn't pay them, so he hit the gate."

Months later, I boarded the gray goose, the California Department of Corrections bus transporting me to Pleasant Valley Prison, resolved to keep quiet my eighteen years on San Quentin's Death Row. I wanted to just fade into the background.

"Death Row Mike," I heard someone say.

So much for obscurity. Looking around I saw Woody.

Going through the Orientation process at Pleasant Valley, I lost track of Woody and considered myself lucky.

"Death Row Mike," Easy got at me on the yard. Six foot five or so about 270 pounds, he was the dollar bill shotcaller. A white clique mostly from Sacramento and Stockton, they tatted dollar bills on their hands. Their motto: "WE GET PAID."

Although athletic as hell, dominating the handball wall, Easy walked with a limp courtesy of a 9mm capping his knee. Making his way to me, he said, "Got something going with Woody. Said you jailed with him at Salinas and would co-sign he's a good wood."

Silence reigned for a minute or two before I replied, "I'm not representing."

"Just you and me, Mike, no one else listening."

"Woody hit the gate owing."

Heard about all that. Woody said he was on a mission for the woodpile and they were s'pose to clear the debt."

"That so? Never heard of a mission that called for hollering at a cop in a tower."

"No, no," Easy interjected, "he hit a snake in the grass."

"All he hit was the gate."


"Yep. Spoke harsh to a cop and was gone."

"All right." He tilted his head back and forth and then seemed to come to a decision. "Jus' keep this 'tween you and me."

Over the next few months, Woody was mixing with the dollar bills. Figured Woody had something they wanted, no doubt a drug pipeline. I waited for the wreck and all of a sudden Woody was gone.

"Woody screwed me," Easy got at me.

"That was predictable."

"Said he needed some sharpened steel to take care of some bizness."

"Didn't think Woody was really going to hit someone?" I tried and failed to keep the merriment out of my voice.

"No, thought he was just going to show it to someone, run a bluff. Showed it to someone all right, he turned it into the sergeant, gave up my name, and locked up."

"Why your name? There's a whole lot of guys I'd rather have mad at me than you?"

"Wants me on his enemy list, so we won't jail again. Rat bastard owes me. You screwed up, Mike."

"I told you he was no good."

"Shoulda pushed the issue."

"Told you what I knew. Next time you want me to make something up?"

"No, no, all you bring in here is your word. You're right."

Hesitating, he added, "Woody was golden, for awhile, any wood who says he needs a shank has one coming." Shrugging, he laughed and said, "I'm not locked up, so I guess they know he's full of lies. It's all good."

"Cool." I started to move away. "Catch you around, Easy."

"Wait up. Think you owe me one. Need you to move my homie, Smiley, in your house."

My cellie had just moved in with an ink slinger to have his chest blasted with tatts, so I had an empty bunk.

"My cellie is falling back after his tattoos are done."

"Take Smiley in until then."

I didn't want Smiley. Thirtyish, five foot seven or eight inches and about three to four hundred pounds. As wide as he was tall, a cube. Some of the worst jailhouse tattoos covered his face and body. My only contact with him to date was when he'd holler from another table in the chow hall, "Gonna eat that?" "Yes," I'd always tell him, even if I didn't want it. I hate bad manners.

Food sharking was more than a past time for Smiley, it was a primary aspect of his belief system. He didn't view it as bad manners. Living together would be a severe culture clash.

"Easy, I don't think we would be a good fit."

"Not 'zactly a News Flash, no one wants to live with Smiley. But he's my Sac homeboy, we jailed at High Desert. Jus' do me a favor and talk to him. Okay?"

Reluctantly, I nodded.

"Easy's my dawg," Smiley eagerly volunteered. "We were loaded 24/7 at High Desert."

"That's not my life style." I tried to get Smiley to reject me. "No alcohol in the house. If the cops crack it, I'll have to ride the beef with you and I'm not down for it."

"I'll take the heat," Smiley insisted.

"A bag of wine is too large, the cops won't b'lieve I don't know about it."

"How about substances?"

"Guess if I don't know I don't care. I'm gone most of the day to Office Services and when I'm home I'm studying college courses. I need a cellie that can chill. Are you able to kick back?"

"Don't have no appliances. Can I watch your TV?"

It's no disgrace to be broke. When I was at San Quentin, I went through a divorce. I had given control of my bank account to my soon to be ex-wife, so while we went through the divorce process I had no access to money for almost a year. I had a radio, TV, to fill the empty hours, but over the months my shoes got real beat up. Without telling me, my condemned buddies on Death Row had new ones sent to me. "Glad you got some decent kicks," my friend Bill, whose mom had sent the shoes, said, "you were a dam embarrassment."

"I have to watch college videos on my TV," I answered Smiley. "Easy asked me to get at you, that's done, I'll get back to him."

"We're definitely not a good fit," I laid it on Easy.

"Just bring him in for a minute." Easy clapped his huge paw on my shoulder. "If it's no good, I'll move him on."

"He has no appliances. I'll find him a TV, but his homies have to chip in."

"We got you. Smiley's got game, Mike, he'll find a hustle."

Taking precious time from my studies, I checked out some idiot boxes. First one I could have for free, but multiple patched together repairs made it a fire waiting to happen. Pass. The second was thirty-five dollars and a huge improvement, but all the buttons had fallen off, so a pencil turned it on and off and changed the channels. Maybe. The third was fifty dollars and was pristine. The guy selling was about to parole and wanted food for a farewell feast. I hit the prison store and traded for the set.

"Right on," Smiley said happily when I delivered the set. "Am I moving in?"

I shrugged, found Easy, and asked him for four jars of Folgers for his share. Taking them from his shelf, he handed them over.

"I'm not paying the clerk to move him in."

"Drifter's a homeboy. I got it," Easy assured.

Smiley showed at my door with the TV and damn little else, a couple of large plastic bags full of what looked like trash.

"What's that?"

"Hook up letters," he answered and slid the bags under the bed. "I have trouble getting onto the top bunk. Can you move up?"

"I'm old, not going to get any younger. 'You're fat, you can lose weight."

Disgruntled, he set his TV on the top locker and climbed onto the upper bunk.

"Coffee?" I asked. He brightened a bit. Filling my hot pot, I said, “You can use it, but it's got a short. When it's plugged in, don't move it or the power will blow. We have to be careful until the new one I ordered gets here."

"Mike," he said sarcastically, "I know how to use a hot pot."

"Just be careful. Don't blow the power."

"I won't. Hey, it's stuffy up here, can you move your fan so I can get more air?"


Smiley pouted but didn't say anything and sipped the coffee I handed up to him.

After awhile, dayroom was called and we went out. I headed for the phone, Smiley went directly to the officers' podium and started chopping it up with Officer Fernandez. The fat man was bouncing up and down like a beach ball, they were laughing. Smiley as court jester.
On the phone, I told Rene about Smiley's weight and request for air.

"If he'll exercise, just walk twenty minutes or so a day, I'll send him a fan," she offered.

"I'll let him know."

"Rene would do that for me?" Smiley exclaimed when we were back in the cell.

"Only if you exercise."

Settling onto my bunk, I started reading political science.

"Mike, where are soups on this canteen list?"

"There." I pointed.

"And coffee?"

Setting aside my book, I asked, "Can you read?"

"A little. Can puzzle things out."

We went over the entire list, and Smiley was able to memorize where every item was located. Amazing.

"My homie, Risky, is hooking me a case of soup and a jar of coffee."

"Good of him." I started to open my book again.

"What you reading?"

"How laws are made in Washington."

Hesitantly, he said, "I know Washington is up north somewhere, but sometimes on TV it seems it's way east."

"The state of Washington is north. Washington D.C. is east, it's the United States capitol.

"I seen it on the weather map," Smiley acknowledged. "But why's the capitol way over there? Sacramento is California's capitol and it's kind of in the middle. Why not put Washington in the middle?"

"It was sort of in the middle when there were thirteen states. George Washington was from Virginia, the capitol is near his home, Mount Vernon."

Smiley looked confused but didn't ask anything.

"How far did you get in school?"

"Not far. My dad was a biker, in and out of prison, so we lived in Section 8 housing in the ghetto. I was the only white kid in school, so I was in fights a lot. By the seventh grade, I stopped going."

"What did you do?"

"Ran the streets, shoplifted, sold drugs, when I got older stole cars. Wasn't 'til after my first term I started robbing. My dad died in prison from AIDS he got from a dirty needle. My mom went back to Iowa. I was in prison then, but when I got out I went there too."

"Why did you come back?"

"Robbed a liquor store. The cops that busted me found out I was wanted in California, so they didn't bother charging me. I was shipped on the first thing smoking back. All California wanted me for was failing to report to my parole agent, so I did a six-month violation and was back out. But my mom told me to stay outta Iowa," he said sadly. "Guess it was for the best, probably woulda charged me for the robbery if'n I'd gone back there."

"All right, Smiles."

It occurred to me that except for a side trip to Iowa, all Smiley knew was a few square blocks of Sacramento ghetto and assorted prison yards.

When I came to Pleasant Valley, they didn't have my education history, so they placed me in G.E.D. class. How in the hell did Smiley slip past?

Lying on his bunk, Smiley slid his hands under his belly fat and they disappeared from view. Black hole.

After dinner, Smiley peeled off to pick up his psych meds. "Get depressed sometimes," he said.

When he caught up to me, he reached under his belly and pulled out a clear plastic bag full of pills. "Like my safety deposit box?" He patted his stomach.

"Thought they were crushing pills?"

"Easy got a legal beagle in the law library to file some court papers. So far got back the Morphine pills and Neurotins. Not legal to crush time release meds."

In the morning, I made Smiley a cup of coffee and went out early with education release.

On the morning break from school, I saw Smiley spinning laps on the yard. "Tell Rene," he called as he sped by.

Right on, Smiley, I thought and went about my day.

After school, I went home to a dark cell. Power blown.

"Risky dropped off the soups and coffee," Smiley explained. "When I tried to use the hot pot, the power went off."

The guards won't flip the breaker unless you turn in the faulty appliance, so I took a toothpaste off my shelf and bought from Boxer a burned out homemade stinger. After I turned it in at the officers' podium, Officer Fernandez went into our cell's chase and flipped the switch.

"Thanks, Fernie," I heard Smiley say, "my cellie's fuckin' up." They laughed together.

Walking silently away, I hit the showers and tried to cool off.

"Look," I said to Smiley when we were back in the cell, "I told you the hot pot..."

"Been jailin' a long time," Smiley cut me off. "Don't need no schoolin’.”

About to go nuclear, I noticed for the first time his glazed eyes. Swiftly glancing around, I spotted at the end of his bunk pill residue left from smashed and snorted pills.

"Sure you're right," I rasped, "no use schooling a pill head. From now on don't touch my stuff or we're going to have problems."

"Got my own stuff coming," Smiley replied cryptically.

After dinner, our cell door popped open and Smiley seemed to be expecting it and took off. Looking out, I watched Officer Fernandez unlock the guards' office door and Smiley went in and started cleaning.

What the hell? Deciding just to feel blessed he was out of the cell, I started studying.

"Mike," Smiley was at the door. "Need to borrow a CD."


"It's not for me, Fernie has a boom box in the office and we're going to bang it."

I handed him my least favorite CD.

"Not that one," Smiley objected. "Fernie wants to listen to your Led Zeppelin CD.

"How in the hell does he know I got a Led Zep CD?" I asked sharply.

"Uh," Smiley stuttered, "you don't have to loan it."

"Oh, yeah, he can just come up here and take everything I got. Here!" I thrust mighty Led Zep at Smiley. "Do not come home without it!"

Smiley came back a few hours later with the CD and a hot pot and a fan.

"Where did the appliances come from?"

"Staff  bathroom. They got all kinds of stuff they've confiscated in there."

Apparently cleaning the guards' office and staff bathroom made Smiley hungry, he cooked four Top Ramen noodle soups and then ate two more raw before he went to bed.

Since he had his own fan, Smiley stopped walking and seemed to grow bigger day by day. When I came home from School, he would be writing letters, seemingly copied from a form letter he got somewhere and then would post them nightly. Most of his letters came back marked UNDELIVERABLE, but when he received a response he'd quickly take it to Easy and they'd confer sometimes for hours.

After dinner, Smiley would fall by the pill line and come home with pills, sometimes several bags of them, hidden under belly fat. The nights Officer Fernandez worked, Smiley would head out and come home most nights with appliances such as fans, radios, TVs, hot pots, one time a typewriter. I was cool with it since he'd be gone and I could study in peace.

"Where are all the appliances going?" I asked, they were always gone by the time I came home from school the next day.

Smiley ran down all one hundred cells in our building, named the prisoners in them, what appliances they had in the cell and what they might want to buy. I was in awe. No doubt he would've been a great used car salesman, especially since he had a singular lack of ethics. Someone got at Smiley about a specific type of radio, he found one in a cell and had Fernandez confiscate it.

"Are you crazy?" I asked Smiley. "That radio is all that guy had in the world. Not only is it just plain wrong, he might get it into his head to stab you."

"Don't know I got it, it's sold and gone," Smiley said off-handedly.

When Smiley was making his rounds looking for product and customers, sometimes the tower officer would tell him to take it home. With a great flurry of arms and legs, he would look like he was obeying, but really wasn't moving at all. When the tower officer's attention went elsewhere, he would continue his rounds.

Drifter and Risky got at Smiley. "I want the digital radio you got last night," Risky said, "but ten dollars is too much. How about six?"

"Price is ten." Smiley was firm.

"Risky been buying you soups and coffee every month," Drifter argued.

"He's your homeboy, need to give him a break."

"Need to respect my hustle."

"The appliances the cops confiscate is my hustle," Drifter said sharply, starting to get angry. "I'm the damn building clerk. Only let it 'cuz you're a homeboy."

"I'm going to get Easy," Smiley threatened and took off.

"What's the deal with Easy and Smiley?" I wondered.

"Smiley's unsearchable," Drifter clued and Risky nodded.


"If Smiley picks up dope in the Visiting Room, he's got so many folds in his fat he's unsearchable. Easy and Smiley had some hood rat muling at High Desert. They had it going on."

"Smiley hasn't been getting visits here."

"Smiley paroled and within twenty four hours strangled the mule. That's what he fell for this time. Now they got to find a new hook up to mule."

"So that's what all the letters are about?"

"Yeah, Smiley's writing every crack house in the hood, looking for a crack whore with a clean enough record she can be approved for visits. Once they find one, they'll be rolling."

"What's with Smiley and Fernandez? Is he telling?"

"Naw," Drifter denied. "Cops like a fool and Smiley plays one for 'em”

Easy came up with Smiley. "What's the problem?"

"No problem," echoed Risky and Drifter. Smiley looked on with a triumphant grin.

As the days passed, Smiley spun more and more wildly, loaded on Pharma Bliss. Often, I'd come home and he'd be sitting naked in the cell with the lights off, staring blankly at something only he could see. Disturbing.

"Bringing an ink slinger into the house on Saturday," Smiley let me know, "getting a dollar bill tatt."

"Go to his house."

"Not asking, tellin' you."

"And I'm telling you no."

"I'm gonna tell Easy."

"I'll tell him."

I caught up with Easy and let him know it's not working, he needed to find another place for Smiley.

"What's wrong now," he said with a deep sigh.

"Don't really care that much about the pills, but..."

“What pills?"

I ran down the story of a naked, spun Smiley in a darkened cell.

Face tight with anger, Easy sent Risky to find Smiley.

"Tol' you to stay straight 'til you get a hook up!" Easy got into Smiley's face.

"I'm straight," Smiley lied.

"Bet he's got pills hidden in his belly," I interjected. "Maybe we can find them there, maybe not, but check the end of his bunk. It's caked with crushed pills, he's too damn lazy to clean up."

"You crushed the pills," Smiley said desperately.

I shook my head, and Easy said, "Everyone knows Mike doesn't use. That's why I put you in there."

Turning toward me, Easy said, "I got this, Mike." I took off.

A chastened Smiley came home. "Easy tol' me I was wrong and I'm through if I lie to him again. Why'd you tell on me?"

"Wouldn't have to worry if you didn't lie to your homies. You're not bringing anyone in this house on Saturday or any other day. Hear me?"

Eyes on the ground, Smiley nodded.

Evil got at me in school. "Your cellie's been no paying on a fifty dollar paper of heroin. Know you weren't there when the deal went down, but you will be there when the vato locos come in your house to collect."

Just great, Smiley been doing big things. "Thanks for the head's up, Evil. Keep the vato locos out of my cell and I'll get back at you with something tomorrow."

"Taking over the debt?"

"No way." I shook my head. "Smiley will pay or I'll slow drag from yard and give the vato locos a clear shot at my cellie."


Walking into my house, I pushed up on Smiley. "Clear your heroin debt now!"

“I need some time."

"Sell your TV, get at Fernandez for a boom box, borrow from your homies. Clear the debt and start looking for a new cell."

"No one likes to live with me," Smiley said ever so sadly.

"No kidding. Clear the debt or some really bad things are going to happen to you."

"I'll take care of it tonight, jus' don't tell Easy."

"lf I don't hear tomorrow morning the debt has been paid, I'm giving the vato locos a free pass into the house to collect and I'm going to tell Easy you're getting ill instead of taking care of business."

"I am takin' care of bizness!"

"Then where's your hook up? Guess it would easier to find one if you didn't strangle them."

Smiley's mouth dropped open, realizing I knew his one and only asset to the Dollar Bills was he's unsearchable, a talent that's worthless if no mule would come near him.

Smiley took off in a hurry when Fernandez let him out that night, and Evil confirmed the next morning he had cleared the debt. But I just wanted him out.

My friend John who I shared a computer with at school, showed up in class with a Dollar Bill tattoo on his hand.

"Always thought you had a good head on your shoulders," I spoke to him, "why in the world would you join the Dollar Bills?"

Looking kind of embarrassed, he just shrugged.

"Are you clean?" Easy asked Smiley at our cell door a week or so later.

"Yes, yes," his head bobbed up and down, "I told you I'd stay clean 'til I got a hook up. Bizness first."

"Fill this." Easy slid a urine sample vial under our door. "I'm on the random drug test list today. I need a clean sample."

A month went by and Smiley had written letter after letter, but still hadn't enticed a rock star, some burned out babe, who would do anything for rock cocaine to mule for the Dollar Bills.

"Depressed," he'd mutter and dig through his bag of letters, frantically searching for the right paper that would lead to treasure.

Spinning further and further out on substances, decompensating, his comic routine faded. Officer Fernandez stopped looking out for him. Still using despite his promises to Easy, his money started getting funny. Sharks circled wanting to get paid for fronted Pharma Bliss. I wasn't going to wait for the inevitable train wreck.

"Smiley's strung out, he's in debt to scum, I want him out," I laid it out to Easy.

"I'm dealing with him," Easy assured.

"Good. I'll tell him to pack."

"Don't!" Easy grabbed my arm. "If you kick him out, he'll hit the gate."

"That's fine."

Hand tightening on my arm. "You need to hear me and stay real quiet. Even the hood rats won't deal with a stranglin' Smiley, he's bad bizness."

"Cut him loose then."

"No. The lab report came back. The urine he gave me was dirty. I got a rules violation report, and I'm going to lose my visits for a year and have mandatory monthly drug testing. I tol' 'im if he lied to me again, he'd be through. Gonna git his face sliced up, so he'l1 remember me every time he looks in the mirror. Got me?"

"Got you, Easy."

Smiley had been basking in the Easy sun for a long time and if he got burned now, so be it.

Spinning laps on break from school, three Dollar Bills jumped on a random white boy. I had no idea of the why of the beat down.

Gaffling up the three Dollar Bills, the guards went looking for more. Every white hand was checked for a dollar bill, any found were off to the hole. Easy was escorted by two guards, followed by Risky, Drifter, John his hand still healing from the dollar bill tattoo, the entire crew went away.

After an hour or so, the yard came back up and I went home. Smiley was not there. I assumed he'd been taken in the sweep and breathed freely for the first time in awhile.

The door opened, Smiley came in and jumped on me while I was lying on my bunk. "Not getting my hand tattooed saved me. Thank you, Mike," he exclaimed and hugged me. Although I was grateful he was wearing clothes, his weight compressed, suffocated me.

"Get the hell off me, Smiley."

Beaming, he got to his feet and bounced around the cell.

Our cell door opened again, Officer Fernandez looked in. "Going with your homies?" he asked Smiley.

"Don't even know those guys."

After the door closed, I said seriously, "Easy's urine came back dirty and he was going to have your face sliced open. Everyone knew about it but you. You know I'm telling the truth because you knew you were dirty when you gave Easy the urine sample and lied and said you were clean. Any other Dollar Bills around like you without a tattoo? Seems like you still might get your face sliced open, Smiley."

Fear flashed, Smiley quickly went to the door, short stopped Fernandez and went away.

-The End-

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Wayne Hunter. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Dolmance said...

I really do enjoy the Smiley chronicles and think an approach like this really is a fine way to go with prison stories.

Please, bring us more Smiley stories, or others like them. There are so many memorable people in lockup.