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Friday, August 31, 2012

The Aftermath of Absurdity

By Christi Buchanan

It’s Friday and we just came off lock.  I’ve had a flaming headache all week.  Monday after work my roommate, Sharon turned on the little fans to block out the noise from the dayroom and I was in bed before dinner.  Somewhere around eleven an officer woke me up yelling about getting dressed.  I sleep in sweats and a T-Shirt so I was royally confused, but I climbed down off the top bunk with Sharon’s help and slid my feet into my slippers.  Then we just waited.  Eventually the officer came back, took one look at us and hollered, “Didn’t I tell you to get dressed?”  She punctuated this by slamming the door.  So I struggled into my tennis shoes and continued waiting for further instructions.  On her third trip to our cell I heard the officer ask Sharon, “What the hell is wrong with her?”  In response I cracked an eyelid at her.  She yelled at us to get our hats and coats but didn’t slam the door.

It was nearly midnight when she returned for a fourth and final time.  She pulled us out of our cells, cuffed us behind our backs, and lined us up along the wall with the other eight women from the lower left.  We were single file at the wing door…in coats and hats…at midnight.  What the hell?

Everybody was looking at each other with constipated expressions.  I was clinging to the vertical by my fingernails.  Out of nowhere, Lt. Mann popped up, pacing back and forth in front of us with this bizarre, rectangular, sharky grin on her pinched little face.  In a low, gravelly voice she addressed the line

“Ladies, you are on lockdown.”

Duh.

“You will be escorted outside and stripped.”

Shot? Did she say shot?

“At that time my officers will be tossing your cells. Do you understand?

What?! No – Wait!

After dismissing us with a flap of her shark fin, she did an about-face right into a bathroom stall.  Of course, I laughed.  My head hurt and this was just absurd.  Thankfully, my laughter helped the lieutenant realize my cuffs weren’t secured properly because she came over and graciously tightened them up.

Looking across the dayroom I could see concerned faces in the cell-door windows.  We could only shrug in response to their questions.  They were waving frantically at us and I was struck again by how absurd all this was.  Normally our shakedowns last five days start to finish.  At some point a mob of popo come in, tear up everything in sight and leave as quickly as they arrived.  We don’t come out of our cells for anything but said destruction.  Nor do we get stripped (or shot) outside.

At this point I was still relatively calm though.  I couldn’t see very well because of the migraine and some part of me believed this to be a pain-induced weird dream.  Then the cold December’s midnight air hits me slam in the face and I couldn’t close my eyes no matter how hard I tried.

We exited the building lined up between two rookies who actually argued over where to take us.  People started questioning the legality of this.

“You can’t strip us outside in the yard!”

“I am not getting butterball naked outside!”

“I’m calling my lawyer.”

“I’m calling Nancy Grace!”

The banter seemed to alarm the corrections officers, who then banded together and dragged us off into the night.  I said, in what I thought was a stage whisper, “They’re taking us out back to shoot us!”  Thinking I was deliberately yelling, Erin laughed – a nervous sound that skittered through the darkness like a verbal tumbleweed.

As we traipsed along I kept telling myself these were decent people who were just doing their jobs and who wouldn’t plant drugs in my drawers.  I had to repeat it like a mantra though, because this had, in fact, actually happened to me at the commencement of my sentence.  True story.  Another time. Maybe.

We got to the gym, of all places, and were dumped in a big ugly, drafty room full of you guessed it – more rookies.  We each fell into a sectioned off area and got to strippin’.  Lt. Mann showed up and started layin’ out the rookies because she “did not approve the configuration of this room!”  Everything came to a screeching halt because of all the screaming.  That woman is mean.

War waged on between all those uniforms for a good five minutes (which felt like an hour because I was nude and in serious need of a couple Excedrin).  Finally the lieutenant stormed out taking all the air in the room with her.  The rookies consoled each other while I struggled back in my clothes, stopping periodically to take deep breaths because the nausea from my headache was so bad.

The walk back was tense as hell but uneventful.  We were all wondering what we were going to find in our cells.  A swarm of five – oh had been running amok in there.  I could see faces in the windows overlooking the yard, fingers wagging ‘welcome back’!  We just jiggled our jewelry at them and entered the building.  I was fourth in a line of ten.  As the people in front of me strolled into the wing I heard an officer say everyone could go in except 102.  Shit!  I knew it.  They planted something in my stuff and now I was gonna pay.

“Why not 102”, I gurgled through the nausea.

“Where’s your roommate?” He asked.

I didn’t see her anywhere, and unsure of what she was up to I did not want to answer the man.  He growled the question at me again so I said the dumbest thing I could think of.

“Around here somewhere.”

He grabbed my handcuffs and roughly steered me to my door where he promptly smashed them down even tighter.  He checked and rechecked every pocket of his multi-pocketed uniform for the cuff key.

“Thanks,” I grimaced brightly when he finally took them off.

Then I turned and faced the national disaster area formerly known as my room.  The door literally hit me in the butt when he shut it.  I was stunned by what I saw in front of me.  I couldn’t move.  Sharon was sitting on her bunk (the metal shelf that holds the “mattress”) staring at it, too.  Everything we owned, everything, was in a Mount Trashmore sort of pile in the middle of the room.  The mattresses were folded on the beds, the trunks were emptied and upended, and the desks were void of their contents as well.

I have never, in all my years, seen anything like it.  Most corrections officers will plow through your stuff trying to get it over with.  They don’t want the hassle any more than we do.  But at least they would leave stuff where it was (or close to it) even if it is tore up.  Typically, you’ll find your clothes on the bed and books stacked haphazardly.  But this…this was a crime scene.

Sharon made my bunk for me so I could comfortably pass out.

When I got up hours later, everything was back where it belonged as if nothing happened.  The effect was so startling I suffered a moment or two of complete disorientation.  Sharon and I are both lifers and we have a lot of stuff.  But she had put it all up.  I cried again, of course.  She told me it was Tuesday evening.  Day 2 of the lockdown.  We’re the honor wing so they usually hit us last because they never find anything good.  But according to “inmate.com,” Lt. Mann was drunk with self-imposed power.  She made some bizarre decisions because of it, too.  I was glad she decided to lead off with our wing.  It was over and I intended to sleep off the headache and the reminder of lockdown.




Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Correctional Center 1A
Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974
USA

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Day God Died

By C. Michael Lambrix
July 2012

Never thought a common barnyard turkey would cause me to question my faith but there I was that last week of November 1988 watching a small T.V. through the bars of my cage as President Reagan proudly performed his time honored traditional ceremony of formally “pardoning” a big, white turkey there on the meticulously manicured front lawn of the White House, and yet all the while that big dumb bird just stood there completely oblivious to how the hands of fate had spared him an almost certain fate and he would be whisked away to live happily ever after on a farm in upstate New York.  Ignorance truly is bliss and that was one blissful turkey.

The irony of this is that as I watched this spectacle unfold, there I sat in a solitary cell on the bottom floor of “Q-wing” at Florida State Prison only feet away from the solid steel door that led into that chamber where ole Sparky awaited.  I was to be executed that following Wednesday, November 30 and unlike that lucky bird, there would be no hope for that last minute pardon as the politics of death eliminated any possibility of clemency.

I thought a lot about that turkey over the following days, even when I feasted on one of its brethren when they brought me my holiday meal.  Time is a funny thing.  Mostly when we look ahead, anxiously awaiting a particular event, time drags on forever…but not on Death Watch.  Each time I looked at the clock on the wall, it seemed like too much time had already passed and with each tick that clock pushed me that much closer to my final fate.

Before I knew it, there were no more days and the final 24-hour countdown was upon me.  Early the morning of that last full day the warden came down, pulled up a chair in front of my cell and even offered me a cup of coffee.  Then, with what seemed like genuine concern, the old man asked me how I was doing.  I didn’t expect that and I didn’t really know how to answer.  I had known Warden Tom Barton for a few years and never thought of him as a friend.

But there I sat face to face, separated only by a wall of steel bars as the warden proceeded to patiently explain how my last day on earth would go.  It wasn’t confrontational and there was no malice in his voice.  He was simply doing his job and it wasn’t necessarily a job he wanted to do. I wasn’t the first one that he had this conversation with, and I wouldn’t be the last.

Just as the warden had explained, shortly after he left, someone else came down to measure me for the new suit they intended to kill me in.  It was to be a special suit, with custom cutouts of the bottom of each leg where they would attach the electrode to the shaved area just above my ankle.  I felt almost obligated to thank them (but I didn’t) as they advised me that if I liked, I could also be buried in this new suit. 

Not long after that, the kitchen supervisor came down to ask me what I wanted for my last meal.  Back then, you could order pretty much anything you wanted and what I wanted was a pizza – a thick deep dish Sicilian style pan pizza loaded up with everything but anchovies – and while they were at it, I asked that they throw on an extra helping of cheese, as a man cannot get enough cheese on his pizza, especially when it is his last meal.

That was a long day as I anxiously waited to hear from my lawyer, hoping that the court had come to its senses and ordered my execution stopped.  But that call never came and the morning passed on into the afternoon and then that afternoon quickly approached the evening hours.

The prison had arranged for a last visit with family at 6:00 p.m. that evening and I was told to get ready.  For reasons I don’t understand, anytime a Death Watch prisoner was escorted from Q-wing to the front of the prison, they would lock down the entire prison and the condemned would then be placed in full restraints and leg shackles and led down the long hallway to the front of the prison, slowly shuffling by as countless other prisoners stared through the glass windows of the dayrooms, each fully aware that they were watching a dead man walking, and even when a familiar face was spotted, their eyes would turn away.

It was simply assumed that I would have that last visit as every condemned man had a last visit so they trussed me up and escorted me down that endless main hall and to the front where the visits would take place.  I was led to a small room where the sergeant stayed with me as the lieutenant went to see who would come.  It seemed like hours had passed before he returned and told me that no one was there yet but they would wait a little longer just in case someone showed up.  I wasn’t that surprised, as in the almost 4 years that I had already been there, my family had only visited once and I didn’t have many friends. A part of me knew that just as it was my fate to live alone, so too was it my fate to die alone.  After a while, they led me back down that long hall towards my Death Watch cell.  Nobody had come to say goodbye.

Once securely in my cell again, I noticed that according to the clock on the wall, I now had less than twelve hours to go.  It would be a long night.  I sat silently in my cell as the guard sat just outside watching my TV.  I could see through the cracks in the venetian blinds that covered the distant window out on the catwalk that it was dark, and I remember wondering when the sun would come up and then realizing that I would be gone before it did.

I was lying on my bunk silently staring up at the cracks in the ceiling of my cell when the phone on the Death Watch sergeant’s desk suddenly rang, and I impulsively almost jumped from my bunk.  I watched as the sergeant opened the gate leading into the cellblock area, dragging the phone cord towards my cell, then handed the receiver to me through the bars, announcing only that it was my lawyer.  Suddenly my hand was so sweaty that it was almost difficult to hold the receiver as I raised it up to my ear.  “Hello,” I said…my voice was low, but noticeably trembling.

“Mike?” the voice asked.  It was Billy Nolas, my recently appointed lawyer who I had met only once before.  Cutting through the unnecessary formalities, Mr. Nolas quickly told me that the Florida Supreme Court has ordered a “stay of execution.” I would not die that next morning.  But then he paused, and struggling to find the words, Mr. Nolas then continued, “The court denied your appeal by a 4 to 3 vote and only granted a 48 hour stay of execution.”  He didn’t have to explain what that meant, as I already knew.  The Florida Supreme Court didn’t do me any favors.  I now had less than 48 hours to write up a new federal appeal and hope that the Federal Court could grant relief.  If not, by written order of the Florida Supreme Court, my temporary stay of execution would expire at noon on Friday, December 2, 1988 and the State of Florida would then proceed to put me to death.

Although I tried to lie down again, there would be no sleep that night. Then breakfast came and as the guard handed me my breakfast tray and a small half pint carton of milk, I could not help but notice that the expiration date stamped on the top edge of that small carton…December 4, 1988.  I was to expire before that milk.  I don’t know why, but that struck me deeply, branding itself into my memory.  I set the milk aside, sparing it a premature death and perhaps unconsciously showing it a measure of mercy and compassion that would not be shown to me.

Through the cracks in the blinds that hung over that distant window I did watch as the world outside slowly lit up in early morning light.  I asked the guard if he could open those blinds so I could see outside, but was told that the blinds cannot be open when anyone is on “Phase II” Death Watch for “security reasons.”  Imagine that. Mere sunlight was somehow a threat to the security of the institution when they planned to kill a man.

I couldn’t actually see the sun as it rose, but it was still a beautiful sunrise.  And as that nearby clock on the wall closed in on 7:00 a.m., I watched and held my breath in that moment, knowing only too well that was the moment I was supposed to have been put to death.  But the moment passed and the clock ticked once more and it was then 7:01 a.m. and I breathed again.

Although spared that particular fate, the next was once again closing in too fast.  I did not have days, as I only had hours and just as it had been a long, sleepless night, so too would it be a long and anxious day.

Shortly before lunch I again felt that distinctive hum hum through the concrete floor that I had come to know only too well – they were once again testing the electric chair on the other side of that solid steel door to ensure that it was working properly in preparation for my once again scheduled execution.  I could not hear what they were doing in that nearby room, but each time they hit the switch to send that cycle of lethal electricity to the chair, I could feel the hum on the soles of my feet as it raced through the floor, and knew what it was, as did the officer and sergeant who sat nearby.  Then there would be silence, a long and unnatural silence as if the world was holding its breath.

Even the seemingly ever-present pigeons outside went eerily silent.  But nobody said a word, and then just as quickly that moment passed and we all went back to what we were doing as if nothing had happened.

Although a part of me knew that my assigned lawyer was already down in Fort Lauderdale desperately assembling that crucial habeas appeal that had to be hastily handwritten and presented to the Federal Court before the stay of execution expired at noon on Friday, I still sat there alone, struggling with the lack of knowledge and the uncertainty of my still undecided fate, and it was that not knowing whether I would live or die that made my day unbearable.  But that day did slowly pass and once again night approached and that world outside the cracks in those blinds went dark again.

That was Wednesday night, November 30, 1988 and that was the day God died.  I had not slept in days and I would not sleep that night.  I cannot begin to describe how overwhelmed and abandoned I felt, and in those hours as I sat alone I knew that even God had abandoned me.  I knew only too well that if the Federal Court denied that request for a full stay of execution, then I would die.  Perhaps my hope had already died as I found myself not only struggling with my faith, but with even accepting my fate.  And then there was that damned turkey that I just could not get out of my head.

Perhaps if only I had committed the crime I was convicted of and condemned to die for, I could have embraced my fate as the will of God, but I knew that I had not. (Please check out www.southerninjustice.com).  The depth of my despair was and continues to be beyond comprehension, as I could not understand how it was at the age of 28 (in 1988) I sat in that solitary cell only a few feet away from the solid steel door that led into the execution chamber while the final hours of my mortal existence methodically slipped away.  How could this be?

“At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour and at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Elio, Elio, lama sabachthami?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (NIV, Mark 15: 33-34)

From the time that I was old enough to remember, I never once questioned whether God existed. I was always taught that He did and in the earliest days of Sunday school I was told that God created Santa Claus, which explained the miraculous manifestation of presents under the tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus, so I knew that God had to exist.

While growing up in the suburbs at Marin County, California it was our Sunday morning family tradition to dress up in our best and pile up in the station wagon, and off to church we would go.  Following the service we would jump back into the wagon and often head over to my grandparents’ house on the shores of San Pablo Bay (for those unfamiliar, the northern part of San Francisco Bay) just up from the infamous San Quentin State Prison, for a Sunday brunch. Grandpa would say grace as we all gathered around to eat, carefully avoiding the cardinal sin of staining our starched white shirts and yet seeming to always find a way to do so.

From the very first day that I attended grade school, the entire class would stand as one as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, proudly crossing our hearts and pledging our faith and loyalty to both God and country.

After school would come our scout meetings, where once again we would stand united and swear our oath to God.  How could I have any doubt that this God existed when nothing in my early life ever compelled me to question this existence?

But what is faith if it is never truly tested?  And where do we draw the line between the intellectual indoctrination of “belief” and a true faith and understanding of God?  In the years to come, I would search for answers and a truth I could believe in. But in that moment, in my heart, I had only the God that I was taught to believe in and a God that in my heart and very soul I truly did believe in. I now know that the more profound truth is, as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “If there wasn’t a God, man would have to create one.” I now know the substantial distinction between the God that we create out of our inherent need to commune with something greater than us, and a God of spiritual substance beyond that taught to a child.

When I look back today and read the words I had written long ago in a futile attempt to define my own spirituality – “Life is the mortal condemnation of an eternal soul” – I smile.  How simplistic, how pathetically convenient, and yet, how true, but completely inadequate in the years that followed, as I have discovered that life itself is a spiritual journey and that with each experience we encounter, our spirituality evolves.  What we once believed without question as a child now humors us as we’ve grown.

The God that I believed in as a child, the God that I was taught to never question, died the night of November 30, 1988 and yet in that death arose something far greater that remains and continues to evolve.

There I was that night, exhausted and overwhelmed, both psychologically and physically and I did not recall actually falling asleep, but in my attempt to understand what next transpired, I must assume that I did.

Nothing ever before and never since has seemed so real as that light that completely enveloped me as I was catapulted into complete consciousness.  The cell that I was in and all the tangible steel and stone that surrounded me disappeared and that light engulfed all that was.  I cannot explain it, nor can I deny it.

There, as I lay on that bunk a beaten and broken man forced to confront my own mortality, that unexplainable light appeared and in that moment I felt not pain or despair, but an overwhelming and all-consuming sense of peace and tranquility.  And although not an audible word was spoken, I “heard” a voice that then assured me that it would all be alright and that I was not alone; that I never would be alone.

I felt the presence of God.  Not that indoctrinated image I was taught to intellectually believe in, but a spiritual presence that in that instance instilled within me the knowledge that whether I would live or die did not matter as my mortal existence was just a small step on this eternal journey and that there was something far greater awaiting me beyond this physical prison we dare to call “life!”

For the first time, I knew with absolute certainty and a spiritual clarify beyond that words can possibly convey, that God did exist but that it was not this God that man has manipulated and conveniently created in our own image.  That not only I, but that all of us truly are “created” in His image, but that “image” is not the churches we build on or the idols we create; it is one of a spiritual consciousness that transcends our mortality.  We are all one – and that one is of all.

I spent the rest of that night in that Death Watch cell sitting quietly at the edge of my bunk.  But I no longer felt overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness and no longer tormented myself with the uncertainty of my fate.  Rather, my now imminent execution became irrelevant and I sat there only trying to understand that experience.

Then morning came and I ate like I hadn’t eaten in months, and I drank that little carton of milk without any further thought of that expiration date stamped upon it.  The Death Watch sergeant noticed the change in my attitude and demeanor and came over to the cell front and talked to me.  It was a long conversation of no substance, and I cannot recall what was said, but it didn’t really matter.  Something within me had changed, even transformed, and it was projected outward.

Again, I spent that day of Thursday, December 1, 1988 there in that Death Watch cell awaiting word from my lawyers as to whether I would live or die – but it no longer mattered.  That sense of peace and tranquility became part of me and I wasn’t abandoned or afraid.  I knew that, although in a solitary cell, I was not alone.

The day passed on into the evening and the evening gave way to the night and no word had yet come. Time ticked on my temporary stay of execution, which was to automatically expire at noon that following day.  But that night I lay down on my bunk and I slept and although it may very well have been my last night in this mortal life, I slept like a baby.

The following morning, what was to be my last morning, was just another morning.  The warden came down to talk to me again and only did I find out that even if the Federal Court denied my stay of execution, they had no plans to carry out my execution that day as it was a Friday, so the warden told me that it would be early that next week.  And remarkably, I was alright with that.

Later that morning the phone call came, and my lawyer advised me that the Federal District Judge William Zloch had entered an “emergency order,” granting me a full stay of execution and went to extraordinary lengths to have that order served upon all parties to ensure that my execution would not be carried out.  Within hours I was removed from Death Watch and moved back to the regular Death Row wing among the men that I came to regard as my family.

In the coming years that followed, I often struggled to understand my experience and attempted to share that experience with others, such as in the book “Welcome to Hell” (edited/compiled by Jan W. Arriens, 1991)

But I found that most are at best unreceptive, and often even hostile.  I learned to keep my experience to myself and find comfort in the knowledge that what I felt was real.  Those few who knew me best before I was placed on Death Watch and the person I was (and am) after that experience know this has transformed me at a fundamental level.

I am not a “holy-roller,” nor am I compelled to force my faith upon others, as few can understand why that dogmatic structurism of organized religion simply doesn’t matter – the physical churches and pretentious congregations are not what God is about.  They are merely manifestations of our futile attempt to understand God in that image we have so desperately created.  Only when one confronts and overcomes that intellectual indoctrination of what we are taught to believe God is, and embraces the spiritual essence and substance of what God truly is, can one then find true peace and tranquility and continue on this eternal journey of spiritual evolution.

I write this today only because someone familiar with what I wrote about my experience many years ago asked me how I felt this affected who I am today.  And the answer is an easy one – I am still a mortal man condemned by the imperfections that plague us all, and perhaps that is all I will be in this life.  Regretfully, I still respond in anger when I know I have the strength to rise above it and I still succumb to the temptations and weaknesses that inherently define our humanity.  Quite simply, I remain an imperfect man in an imperfect world struggling to justify my condemnation.  But the reality is that we are all condemned, and at the end of the day, mortal death is an absolute certainty.  Nobody gets out alive.

But even as much as that unique spiritual experience remains a part of me and always will, there’s also a part of me that now feels betrayed by that implied promise that was never kept and after all these years, almost a quarter century now since that Death Watch experience, I remain in a solitary cell on Florida’s death row, still condemned to death for a crime I know I did not commit and my mortal fate remains uncertain.

When I realize that, I do again feel an increasing bitterness towards the never-ending injustice so deliberately perpetuated against me, and anger towards the malicious mistreatment of all of us here on Death Row. I find myself questioning my experience, but when I do, I find confirmation and that sense of peace and tranquility and I’m reminded that it’s alright to question my faith, as only when faith is truly tested can it remain a true faith.

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017






Friday, August 17, 2012

Old Diaz

By Michael Wayne Hunter

"Lock up! Lock up!" Officer Diaz, a squat, aging man, gratingly bellowed, shattering my early morning pacific state of mind.

"Do I come into your living room and yell?" I snapped without thinking, already knowing confronting a badged buffoon was a mistake.

"This isn't recreation," he barked. "Inmates returning from the chow hall will proceed directly to their cells."

Almost every prisoner was standing in front of their cell waiting for the Control Officer to hit the unlock and open the door, only a handful were hanging on the water fountain.

Absolutely knew I should simply move on, but sometimes you just got to say something. "Pull out your flashlight," I emphasized each syllable as if I was speaking to a preschooler, "hit them with some lumens and they'll go home."

Diaz lit them up and they scattered for their cells.

Giving Diaz a half-wave, half-salute, I walked on but after a beat I heard Diaz holler, "Hunter don't like my orders, but I like 'em and know you like 'em..." He was still mouthing off when I locked up.

"What was that about?" my cellie questioned.

I ran it down to him.

"Watch yourself," he warned. "When I pick up my psych meds, Diaz monitors the line and crowds the med window. Some guys taking meds are unsteady on their feet and if they even slightly brush past him he hits the alarm and takes them down to the dirt."

"That's crazy!"

"Sure you're right. I walk all the way around him. Once he told me to walk a straight line, and I told him they tried to make me walk a straight line in grade school and failed, doubt they'll succeed here either."

Chuckling, I said, "Probably both of us shoulda stayed quiet."

"Lots of things we should do and don't," my cellie said idly. "Rather be myself and in prison then Diaz out in the world. Probably has multiple ex-wives and a dozen or so children that hate him. Bet all his money goes to alimony and child support, so he has to live in a basement apartment in Fresno with only a hot plate. Our cells are probably a step way up to him and that's why he's so miserable and angry."

Laughing, I brushed my teeth and got ready for work.

Awhile later, my door opened and wearing my state blues, I started for the law library. A flashlight beam found me, and Diaz motioned me over the officers' podium.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Work," I replied neutrally.

"Giving you the day off. Lock your ass in the cell."

"Cool."

Changing into gym clothes, I cranked rock on the radio and started working out in my cell. Ten minutes went by and my door opened up. Walking to the Control Tower in my gym clothes, I called up, "What?"

"Going to work?"

"Diaz gave me the day off."

"Hunter needs some cell time to reflect on his sins," Diaz rasped.

Tiny and Chukes, pet prisoners of Diaz, laughed, and Diaz basked in their faux approval.

I went back home, started to workout again and the door opened.

"Hunter," the Control Office announced over the loudspeaker. "Per Sergeant Grey's orders, you are to report to work."

Taking my time, I washed up, donned my blues and went to the library.

"Where you been?" Mr. Kay, the Law Librarian and my boss, asked.

"Officer Diaz gave me the day off."

"So that's why I had to call the Program Sergeant to get you released? Mr. Hunter, you work for me."

"Tell Diaz."

"I'll make sure he gets the message."

Legal pleadings were stacked all over my workstation. I started scanning them into the memory of the copy machine; the number of copies I'd have to generate depended on the court and how many parties have to be served. Logging the copies, most of them I handed to prisoners in the library, but a few have to be delivered to cells.

In my housing unit, I slid an original and three copies to Caspar.

"Give this to Patrick next door," Caspar said and sent under the door and administrative appeal. When I gave it to Patrick, a light beam hit me.

Reporting to the Officers' Podium, I felt somewhat gratified Officer Diaz had mastered the flashlight technique so quickly from my sparse instruction.

"Stand here." Diaz pointed to a spot right next to his chair.

Thinking about my cellie's words of caution about how Diaz liked to hit his alarm and take prisoners down, I said, "I'm just fine right here," and stood on the other side of the podium from him.

Montes, a female guard, also at the podium looked at both of us warily but didn't say a thing.

"Know you sniveled your way to work," Diaz said caustically, "so what you doing in here?"

Holding up legal documents, I said, "Delivering copies."

"Suppose to deliver from the law library not pass cell to cell. Saw you pass from cell 133 to 132."

Looking around, I could see Chukes and Tiny openly passing tumblers of homemade wine and whiskey to cells and collecting payment in canteen.

"I passed a legal document," I said impassively. "That's my job."

"Don't do it again."

No doubt I should've just agreed and move on, but my mouth started out running my brain again. "Caspar's a monster. Guy's got staff assaults and beaten down bigger guys than you and me added together. If he asks me to pass a legal document, think I'm going to do it, Diaz."

"Ordering you not to pass in my house."

"Going to protect me, Diaz?" I taunted. "Going to follow me around with your alarm?"

"Scared?"

"Hell, yeah, and so would you if you didn't have that alarm button to call for help."

"Hunter, just go back to work," Montes interjected.

"Not done with Hunter yet," Diaz objected.

"Go," she said to me.

I went.

A few days later, Gonzo asked me to bring a music CD to work. Gonzo's former cellie, Jose, was in a fight in the dayroom, so the cops moved him to another housing unit and the CD was left behind by accident.

"Jose will drop by the library after school," Gonzo said.

"Okay."

On my way out of the building in the morning, Diaz hit me with his flashlight and I reluctantly went to the podium.

"What's that?" he pointed at the CD

I explained.

"Hand it over."

I gave it to him, expecting him to search it and give it back. I knew there wasn't any contraband in the case. I'd already checked it myself before agreeing to mule it. Diaz didn't search it; he took it into his office and locked it up.

"Confiscating?" I questioned Diaz.

"Yep."

"Need a receipt!"

"Said it wasn't yours," he clowned me, "why would you need a receipt?”

"You know I need a receipt so no one will think I clucked it."

"Not my problem."

"Diaz, I'm just going to stand here 'til I get a receipt. Don't care how long it takes."

"Go to work."

"No." I shook my head. "This might not go down the way I want, but it's not going to go down the way you want either. If I don't get a receipt, I'd rather wreck right here with you then later with Jose. You see I kind of like Jose."

Taking his time, Diaz eventually wrote a receipt and dropped it on the floor. As I reached down to pick it up, he planted his black boot on it. Straightening up, I waited to see how bad this was going to end.

With contempt, he said, "Don't forget your receipt.” and kicked it toward me.

As I walked away, I kept my face impassive. I knew he was trying to humiliate me, but kind of thought I wasn't the one who had lost his dignity.

I gave the receipt to Jose and told him to get at Diaz about the CD.

The next day, Jose told me Diaz said the receipt was made out to me so I would have to pick it up. At lunch, I got at Diaz and he said the CD belonged to Jose so he would have to collect it.

I got at Sergeant Grey. "Got a problem with Officer Diaz."

"Which Diaz? Young or Old Diaz?"

"Old Diaz. Think he's trying to wreck me with the Mexicans."

"Really think you got a racial conflict?" Sergeant Grey questioned sharply.

"No. No, I don't," I confessed.

"Just threw it out there to catch my attention?" he quizzed. "Trying to manipulate me, Hunter?"

"Yeah. Something like that."

Relaxing, nodding, Sergeant Grey heard me out, took the receipt and collected the CD from Officer Diaz. Case closed.

Kicking back on Saturday, lying on bunk reading, light hit my eyes. Diaz.

"Hunter," he hollered. "We do this every damn day. Why aren't you up for Count?"

"Only Close 'A' prisoners are counted at noon on weekends."

"That's a damn lie!" he yelled. "You're a liar, Hunter. Just trying to get me in more trouble with the sarge. Won't work."

Thought he might just be messing with my head, but a closer look let me know his rage was real.

"Check your Count Board." I pointed at the clipboard in his hand. "My cellie and I aren't on this Count."

Angrily checking the board, Diaz muttered, "How in the hell was I s'pose to know you're not Close 'A'?"

Maybe the big Close 'B' sign taped to the cell door, I thought, and wondered what was really going on with Diaz. Drugs? Alcohol? Senility? Insanity? What?!

"Evil," I got at a friend I'd been jailing with for awhile, "Diaz is driving me nuts. What's his deal?"

"Don't know nothin' 'bout 'im," Evil tried to gaff me off.

"Not going for that. Your homies, Chukes and Tiny, got keys to the dayroom. They’re Diaz's boys. You know something."

"Just you and me?" Evil asked.

"No one else here."

"Gonna deny it all day 'cuz it's for sure gonna end in a train wreck, but on the real, Diaz likes a shot of prison whiskey in his coffee. Gets a shot and lets the homies run 'round. Used to be a shot of whiskey in a mug of coffee. Nowadays it's a shot of coffee in a mug of whiskey. Diaz is a half step from the gutter."

Explains a whole lot. "All right, Evil, I'll keep it on the quiet."

Picking up a pass for a visit mid-morning on Sunday, flashlight lit me up again.

"Hunter," Diaz called, "you gotta fill a bottle before you go anywhere." He held up a urine sample vial. Drug test.

"I'll take the bottle to Visiting with me."

"You must give a specimen under direct observation."

"Sure, I'll give the bottle to the Visiting Officer and fill it when I use the bathroom."

"No." Diaz shook his head. "Not going 'til you fill it."

"Look, Officer Diaz, I know we been on the wrong track. It's my bad and I apologize. But my visitor came from a long way to see me, she's waiting, and I need to go."

"Not going anywhere 'til you fill the bottle."

"This's bullshit! I'm a lifer and don't go to the parole board. Dirty test don't mean a thing to me."

"Stop crying."

"Know what, Diaz? You been here for four hours and it seems kind of odd that all of a sudden you're in a hurry to throw a bottle on me. Bet it's bogus. Bet my name's not on any list. I got a pass for Visiting, I'm going to report to Visiting, and if the bottle is legit you can test me later. Got a problem with that, take it up with the sergeant."

"Sergeant has nothing to do with this."

"Sergeant will have everything to do with this if you try to stop me. Only way you're going to stop me from leaving is to take me down. The Control Officer will have to hit his alarm and the sergeant will come running and we'll let him sort this out."

Diaz didn't respond, so I turned away, went to my visit and never filled a bottle.

Days went by and Diaz seemed to forget about me and I stayed well away from him.

"Look at this," my cellie said one morning as he looked out the cell window. Chukes and Diaz were nose-to-nose screaming at each other.

Officer Montes came out of the office, spoke urgently to Chukes and he walked away.

With a leer, Diaz patted Montes on the butt. Face blazing, Montes stalked out of the housing unit.

Strutting off with his coffee mug, Diaz went into Chukes cell.

"Think Diaz went to get some whiskey," I murmured to my cellie.

Chukes bounced from nowhere, slammed the cell door shut, automatically locking Diaz inside.

Banging the door, Diaz caught the Control Officer's attention. Seeing Diaz locked in a cell, the Control Officer hit the alarm and the cell door unlock.

Prisoners in the dayroom got down, badges flooded into the housing unit, and Diaz screamed at Chukes, "You shut the door!"

A guard ordered Chukes to roll onto his stomach and handcuffed him behind his back.

Officer Montes reappeared and started talking seriously with Sergeant Grey. Patting herself on the butt, she pointed at Diaz. Sergeant Grey called over Diaz, and started barking at him. From the floor, Chukes started yelling something at Sergeant Grey, Diaz, and Montes. Spinning, Diaz ran at Chukes and booted him in the head a couple of times. Guards swarmed, pulled Diaz away and then picked up Chukes from the floor and gaffled him out of the housing unit.

Sergeant Grey spoke harshly to Officer Diaz. Head and shoulders slumping, Diaz went away.

Never saw Diaz again, heard at first he retired. Much later, I heard Officer Montes say Diaz was working weddings as a disc jockey. Apparently, he's real popular; his signature is hitting people with a flashlight to pull them out on the dance floor to shake that thang.

-The End-





Friday, August 10, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Lifer... I Gotta Say It Was A Good Day


By Santonio D. Murff

A sunny blue sky and a cool summer breeze greeted me as I bounced out of bed with an exaggerated stretch and a tarzanic yawn that notified the world that I was high on life and ready to face a new day. The chirping wrens at play and the fluffy white clouds floating by outside the wide, nearly floor-to-ceiling window at the head of my bed added marvelously to the ambience. Ms. Wilson added that touch of sexiness that always made a day special to me.

“Well, someone sure seems to have waken up on the right side of the bunk this morning," she cracked, pausing in front of my cubicle with a smile.

"How could I not, waking up to someone as beautiful as you?" I winked, bouncing to the back of the dormitory to handle my hygienic needs.

I greeted a couple of the other brothers in passing and paused before the middle mirror above one of the three sinks that the twenty-two men in the dorm shared. I struck a couple of narcissistic poses and blew myself a kiss. "Still handsome as ever. Boy, I love you!" I cooed to my reflection as Ms. Wilson passed me by, bubbling with laughter.

“You are so crazy," she shot over her shoulder with a chuckle.

“About you," I shot right back at her.

Hygienic needs handled, I strolled back to my cubicle and peeled out my tight-whited best uniform. Freshly pressed from me sleeping with them beneath my mat all night and faintly scented from the magazine sample of Cool Water Cologne that I'd sprinkled with a couple of drops of water and left in the breast pocket overnight -- they had me feeling so fresh and so clean as I slid into them. A new white tee, white socks, and my brand new New Balance Tennis shoes completed the ensemble.

“Tell the truth and shame the devil," I crowed as I strutted up to the front table where Ms. Wilson had taken a seat, "I'm looking and smelling good! You want me, don't you?"

She cracked up at that and waved me away with a promising, "Get out and we'll talk about it."

I took a seat at the table and turned to pick up the phone receiver beside it. I punched in my mommie's digits and went through all of the necessary formalities to hear her smooth, rich as molasses voice. My spirits leaped for the heavens when I did. "Happy Mother's Day!" I boomed loud enough for the world to hear.  "You knows, I loves me some you!"

"Thank you, I love too, baby.” She was already laughing. For the next 15 minutes I kept her doing so. We reminisced about the joys of the past and thanked God for the joys of the present. I thanked her for always being there and let her know that she is the very best gift that God ever gave me.

"I can't wait to pick you up and swang you around," I joked.

“We'll be there," she promised.

We exchanged love and hung up before the operator could cut our conversation short.

I punched in some more digits, went through the formalities again and waited. As soon as Joy came on the line, I was on her, "I don't know who he is and I don't care, but you better wake him up and get him outta there--NOW!" I had to yell over her and the ear-hustling Ms. Wilson's laughter.

“Boy, ain't nobody at this house," she chuckled with sleep still heavy in her voice.

“Well, Happy Mother's Day then!"

“Thank you, San. How are you doing?"

“Betterl Now that I know somebody ain't sleepin' in my bed," I butchered an old Dru Hill song; singing with all I had, which wasn't much.

“Still can't sing," she laughed.

“No, but still trying," I laughed too.

Joy and I had been high school sweethearts. We shared a child. I was exceedingly proud of the woman that she'd grown into and made it a point to tell her that often. Now, nearly twenty years since we'd separated, we were friends with over two decades of memories between us.

“I'll get Pooh," she broke the reverie.

“I don't want to talk to that ungrateful child of yours! I'm still waiting on his letter." We shared another laugh at our son's procrastinating ways. "I called to talk to my first love!"

We talked, flirted, and laughed for ten minutes. Then I fussed at Pooh for two minutes, before letting him know how much he was loved and missed for the last three.

I hung up the phone and spun to Ms. Wilson. "And now to my greatest love, Happy Mother's Day, baby!"

“You ain't nothing but a flirt, San-Man," she shook her head with a knowing smile.

“And you ain't nothing but FINE!" I nodded my head with a knowing smile, biting down on my bottom lip with passion.

She gave me the laugh I wanted and we talked about everything beneath the sun, and tripped out on the daily dose of Jerry Springer drama that the dorm stayed tuned- in to. Hours later, at 1p.m., my name was called for a visit.

“Mama here, to see her baby!" I cried to much laughter.

We'd been blessed with an outside contact visit. I stepped out into the invigorating breeze and kept my promise. I scooped up my beautiful mother and swung her around as she shrieked with glee and laughter. "Happy Mother's Day, Mama! You are looking good," I settled her back to her feet and got a swat on my shoulder for my troubles. "What's up, lil brother?" I gave my brother Ken a big hug.

“What up, bro?" He was the first to take a seat at the picnic table we’d been assigned for the visit. We followed suit and the fun began.

Mama told stories about me and my mischief as a child. I told stories about him and his. We laughed, reminisced, and snacked our way through the first half of the visit. I explained to them my intentions of pushing my Righteous Movement to educate and empower the next generation to survive and succeed forward. We talked of me possibly winning the nationwide PEN Prison Writing Contest for my memoir “Retired From the Game Two” and the publishing of my first novel “The San-Man: 7 Days of Hell.” I could only cheese at the pride I saw in my mother's eyes.

That's what I lived for, to bring her joy.

They delivered other family members love and support. Ken promised to bring Pooh down soon. There was another round of hugs, another twirl for my mother, and an exchanging of "I love you’s" before they headed to the car to head home. I smiled all the way back to the dorm. The day had started out good. It had become great.

“What's up, San-Man?" Marty, one of my co-workers from the kitchen, hollered as I passed through the inmate dining hall. "You have a good-one?"

"It was more than marvelous," I assured him, passing on through the chow hall, still full of root beers, chips, and candy from the visit that indeed was a good one.

“It's days like this that make you realize it ain't all bad, huh bruh?" Some brother who I didn't even know chuckled behind me after noticing my jubilant move. I turned and met his eyes with a smile. "It's days like this that make you realize it ain’t all bad," I answered his question and echoed his sentiments exactly.

I bounded up the 20 concrete steps that led up to A-8 dorm, where I resided, two at a time. Ms. Wilson had left at 2p.m., but the fabulously fine Ms. Walters had filled her position nicely. The seductive aroma of her perfume caressed my nostrils and played with my emotions as I paused at the top of the stairs with my hands on my hips and a flirtatious smirk on my lips to savor her beauty for a second. The woman had the most luscious promising lips I've ever seen.

"Don't even go there, Murff," she stopped me before I got started.

"Yeeeah, I better not," I drawled, "I may not ever make it back if I do."

Her carefree laughter rung out as I made my way to my cubicle. I confirmed to a couple of the brothers that I had had a good visit and I immediately broke out my best friend, my new typewriter, to record May 13, 2012 for all posterity--well, at least so I could go back and relive it at will.

"What are you working on now?" Ms. Walters had snuck up on me.

"Our pre-nup. I know what your plans are!"

“To take you for your typewriter?" She fed right in to my foolishness.

"I knew it! You are so transparent."

We shared a laugh and then quickly got caught up in the drama going on around the unit. The Stringfellow Unit was better than any soap opera ever written. The latest greatest scandal was about a new female officer who'd broken the "walked-off" record. She'd started in mid-March, been in an intimate relationship with an offender by April, and had gotten walked-off (fired) by May. Another victim of “The Game." (Note:  “The Game” is a prison term for officers and offenders living outside of the rules, rather that be by hustling together or engaging in an illicit relationship.)

“My next project is going to be a how-to manual called ‘Surviving The Game’” I joked.

"I can't wait to read that one," she said earnestly.

"Let me find out," I arched a scrutinizing brow.

"It's just entertainment to me; I bettin' not!" She swung her ponytail side to side with a frown of dismissal.

"You bettin---NOT!" I echoed with the passion of the jealous hearted and set-off her laughter once more.

Hours later, after she had departed for home, and the short-short memoir had been completed and put away, I lie back on my mat with my hands folded together to make a cradle behind my head, looking up to the golden moon and sparkling stars that had risen to take the long set sun's place and I had to say, "It was a good day".

The End.



Commentary… A Day In The Life Of A Lifer

This short-short was inspired by, and this commentary is in response to, the young lady who inquired of Thomas, “If prison life is so horrible, why then is nearly everyone on Death Row trying to get their death sentence commuted to Life Without the Possibility of Parole?'

Beyond what to me are the two most obvious reasons: most people out there and in here do not want to die (no matter their current conditions) and the fact that as long as you're breathing, you have a chance--a chance to laugh again, a chance to love again, a chance, no matter how minute, to be free again--a chance at a many things that death denies you; I think the most honest and simple answer to your question is that prison life is NOT as horrendous an ordeal, for most, as we make it out to be.

In Texas, where I've been incarcerated for nearly two decades, rapes and murders have not been the norm for at least ten years. Not only have they implemented a zero tolerance policy concerning any extortion activities and sexual abuse, but they've created over a dozen "Safe Prisons' for offenders with sex crimes, ex-gang affiliations, or any other histories that could possibly put their lives in danger. If you even feel threatened, all it takes is one word to any officer and you will immediately be whisked away to safety as the matter is investigated.

So the fear factor has pretty much been factored out.

Next, you must understand that a person with a Capital Life Sentence like myself or LWOP has the same privileges, opportunities, and freedoms (for the most part) as an offender with five years. The only exception being that Lifers can not work outside the prison gates, they can't be housed outside the gates at the camp, and it is usually harder for him or her to get any funding for college or trades through the state. We walk the same halls. Shower in the same stalls. Use the same phones. Have access to the same law and recreational libraries.  We lift weights, play ball, and walk the same gyms and recreational yards. We live together and we eat together. We are allotted the same contact visits with our families

All of these freedoms, opportunities, and privileges are the benefits that will be immediately reaped by an offender who has his death sentence commuted to LWOP. Then, there is the opportunity to sit at a table in the dayroom, or catch a secluded spot in your work area, and conversate, laugh, and flirt--ENJOY--the company of a beautiful woman! THAT has never failed to lift my spirits and brighten even the darkest of days. AND, WE CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT AND STRESS RELIEF THAT COMES FROM HAVING THAT HANGMAN'S NOOSE TAKEN FROM AROUND YOUR NECK!

I could go on and on about the joy your continuing to breath will bring to your family and loved ones. I could speak of all of the good you could do from behind prison walls. I could give you example after example of people who even from Death Row chose to use their stumbling blocks as steppingstones for others. People like Stanley "Big Tookie" Williams who was nominated for three Nobel Peace Prizes while on Death Row. But instead, I'll merely tell you to try not to have such a self-centered outlook on the matter, and you'll see that a whole world of opportunities (and chances) remain as long as you continue to draw a breath. It's up to you to take advantage of the opportunities and make it happen.

"Don't make excuses. Make a difference!" is the Righteous Movement philosophy that I live by and that I share with my son and others. As Thomas said, we don't live in a vacuum. Our deaths will affect many people. I say, our lives can too! I try to live everyday to make sure that that is a positive productive effect.

In the end, young sister, it is not where you are physically or financially that matters most. It is where you are mentally and spiritually that will truly define what you will do with your remaining time. It doesn't matter if that time is on Death Row. It doesn't matter if it is spent in general population as a Lifer. It doesn't matter if that time is spent in Beverly Hills or Bed-stuy. What matters is what you do with it!

SURVIVE AND SUCCEED!!!

S.D. Murff --5/29/12

Santonio Murff #0352714
Tarrent County Correction Center
100 N. Lamar Street- 60 A
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
USA

Friday, August 3, 2012

Death by Dominoes

A Short Story By William Van Poyck

When the assassins come they kill everyone. That is what you must understand. Death is coming at the door. Though uttered weeks earlier, on a different cellblock, I still recall leaning forward in concentration, struggling to hear the words, striving to discern the meaning, if any conveyed by Wannamaker’s frog-like voice. The old man didn’t speak his words so much as he breathed them out in a guttural rasp as weak as a politician’s promise, like a man talking reluctantly through a mouthful of marbles. Weeks later, perched on an overturned mop bucket wedged in the open doorway of my single-man cell, Wannamaker’s enigmatic words were still gnawing along the margins of my mind. Those whispered words... how was I to know they’d be so prescient?

It was on the eighteenth day after I’d arrived on the medical wing cellblock that I knew someone was going to die.  I’m able to recall the number with confidence because I’d been counting each day like precious pearls, earnestly marking them off on my Salvation Army calendar, like an anxious Chinaman working the emperor’s abacus. After seventeen years in more or less maximum custody for a robbery so stupid I’m embarrassed to own up to it, I was finally on my way out.

Seventeen years! When you say it fast it doesn’t sound like so long. Don’t be fooled. An old-school maximum-security prison is a locus of Darwinism, its signature Neanderthal, and time endured therein is best measured in dog years. Seventeen years inside is akin to a century spent elsewhere. They’re long, bitter years that can dull the soul and anneal the spirit, sealing up your heart as sure and tight as the sewn-up lips of a carnival shrunken head. If you let it. Still, after seventeen course and caustic years that had sanded much of the grain off of my heart, after four presidents, five governors and seven wardens, after almost two decades inhabiting a world of imagined threats and real danger, I couldn’t think of a time I felt more alive. Finally, the end of despair was at hand for I’d telescoped down to just twenty-two days until my parole date.

Twenty-two days! When you say it fast it doesn’t sound like so long. Don’t be fooled. A lot can happen in twenty-two days. Wars have been fought, and lost, in less. And I was down to twenty-two days - so close that it made me scared - when life turned skinny on me. I fractured my foot on the handball court, stretching out to reach one of Peca’s rocket serves. In a finger snap a fiberglass cast was strangling not just my swollen ankle but was throttling the marrow from my nascent dreams. This joint has a lot of rules but suddenly only two of them mattered: Anyone with a cast must be transferred to the medical wing. And, nobody wearing a cast can be paroled.

Yeah, I should have been on my regular cellblock, hanging out with the fellas and counting down my days in the time-honored chain gang tradition. Shoulda been. Instead I was squatting on a rusty mop bucket, forlornly inspecting my shiny cast, wondering which was the most pressing imperative: Cutting the cast off to make parole, then just four days away? Or removing it simply to leave the wing and avoid the murder I knew was about to rock the cellblock? But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was a quick, saffron sunrise and a pale champagne light angled in through my window, casting a ladder of cell bar shadows across the polished concrete floor. Outside, hemmed in by the tall double-fences topped by triple-strand concertina wire, the cooing pigeons strutted about, bobbing and weaving, cocking their heads, scratching around on the gravel-covered roofs. The maximum-security prison was a depraved place, a hermetic kingdom of the damned, haunted by its own terrible spirit. It was a hulking brute of a building, stout as a crusader fortress, whose puke-green paint miserably failed to soften its cruel edges. Constructed less of steel and stone than with ossified layers of malevolent history and vile memories, it was a marginalized slice off the bottom of society’s loaf where half-made men spent their wounded lives chained to the past. I called it home.

I was stretched out on my bunk, having just made my first cup of coffee and stashed away my hot water bug. Staring up at my pitted steel ceiling, the mottled canvas upon which I was mentally painting my future life, my restless eyes marched back and forth, jumping, darting, to and fro, hypnotic as a metronome, compulsively counting the big, rusty rivets-sixteen up, sixteen down - parsing out my remaining days to hours to minutes to seconds. Submerged in a blissful daydream, I barely registered the shriek of the morning steam whistle signaling another round on the karmic daily grind-insightfully characterized by Keroauc as The Meat Wheel. I’ve learned a lot about karmic cycles since that morning.

I was still negotiating with the buxom redheaded Mercedes- Benz saleswoman - damn, she was fine!-when a faint bustling commotion piqued my curiosity. Rising from my neatly made bunk, I reflexively yanked the skinny cord - just a long strip of torn cotton bed sheet – snapping on the naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. I slid open my solid steel door just in time to see a stranger drop his personal property onto the quarterdeck floor. He was medium height, old, lean, and angular, as spindly as one of those Giacometti sculptures I’d seen in the rolled-up Arts and Antiques magazine propping open my cell window. With badger-gray hair and gingerbread skin, his lightly stubbled face was lined like the cracked mud in a dried riverbed. A ragged scar climbed like a briar from the corner of his mouth, past his temple, disappearing into white caterpillar eyebrows. An aquiline nose was silhouetted in relief, hinting at a patrician presence. His face was like a map of a leanly lived life, sketched with a first-hand knowledge of suffering. Yet his lively blue eyes seemed to smile impishly. The prisoner stood with one foot resting upon a ragged, duct-taped cardboard box, while slung over his shoulder, à la Santa Claus, was a bulging bundle of property, tied up in a bed sheet. Wearing an incongruous loopy grin, he triumphantly surveyed the four-story, open-pit wing, like Christopher Columbus just disembarked from the Santa Maria to claim a new territory.

“Winky Wannamaker.” Startled, I turned to see my neighbor, Dilly, casually refilling his Harley-Davidson Zippo lighter from a small blue can of lighter fluid. “He’s a bug. Crazy as a coot,” Dilly explained, pointing his chin at the newcomer. “Been on Bug Row for years. I don`t know what the hell he’s doing in open population." Dilly snapped his lighter closed then stared at me evenly. “He won’t last long."   

As I watched Dilly’s retreating back I considered his words. Bug Row, adjacent to Death Row, was the given name for the wing housing the prison bugs-the terminally crazy guys--nominally a psychiatric wing, minus the psychiatrists, doctors, or nurses. Minus anyone who gave a damn. The bugs, some stripped naked, were confined in dirty, barren, burned-out cells, where they were given over to their most savage impulses, ranting, howling, and banging their bars, day and night, to the amusement of Lester Bibbs, the staggeringly amoral inmate runaround permanently assigned to Bug Row.

A notorious informant possessing a muscular stupidity, unable to live in open pop, Lester left a wake of grief wherever he went. With hatred wafting from him like steam off a Clydesdale, Lester strutted the floors like a wannabe High Sheriff, poking the bugs through the bars with sharpened broomsticks, knocking them upside their heads with brick-hard bars of lye state soap, bombarding them with crumpled up balls of flaming newspaper. Lester fed the ones he wanted to and used food to pit one bug against another, coaxing them to throw shit and piss on each other, encouraging others to give up and hang themselves. I won’t even describe what he did to the young and pretty ones. Lester`s morning ritual, conducted under the observation of the grinning wing sergeant, was to don rubber hip boots, drag a tire hose down each floor and spray down those who grieved him most, particularly those he declared to be possessed by demons. I’d visited Bug Row several times when I worked on the plumbing squad, and I never left the wing without reflecting on how much I’d enjoy killing Lester Bibbs.

I turned back to see our wing officer point up in my direction, steering Wannamaker toward his new fourth-floor home. The only empty cell was directly across from me, off our quarterdeck, so I knew where he was headed. As I studied the sinewy old man trudging up the stairs, loaded down like a government mule, I realized that he was stronger than he looked. Though sporting a puckish expression there was a definite flintiness underlying his disheveled appearance, and he moved with a certain limberness. As he crossed the fourth-floor quarterdeck he offered me a gummy smile and I nodded politely in return. When he stepped into his new cell I recalled hearing something about a federal lawsuit, followed by some court order designed to change conditions on Bug Row.  Hell, they’re just releasing the bugs out into pop, I belatedly realized. I hope they’re medicated.

Imagine a small, rectangular four-story apartment building with each unit facing inwards onto an open, rooted courtyard. That’s what the wings look like. There are one hundred twenty, one-man cells per wing, fourteen wings. You do the math. Population wings have solid steel doors with small barred windows, as opposed to the barred doors on the max wings. It’s fifty-two feet from the bottom floor up to the concrete ceiling spanning the open central pit. Each floor has catwalks running around the chasm, with a quarterdeck and stairwell at one end. You get in a fight on the upper floors and you’re always in danger of being thrown over the rail. It’s something to think about.

I’ve seen guys tossed off the top floor with and without crimson knife slits puncturing their hides, and I’ve seen others voluntarily jump over the rails to avoid a knife-wielding attacker. In seventeen years I’ve witnessed every kind of murder: stabbed, speared, shot, strangled (manually and by garrote), poisoned, and bludgeoned. Mostly stabbed. I have a reel of these images looping constantly in my head. For me, personally, the worst is by fire. Someone slips into your cell, fills your light bulb with gasoline or lighter fluid, and when you come in and yank your light cord a vaporous explosive fireball fills your cell, sucking the oxygen from your lungs and melting your flesh like cheap plastic. That’s when you realize that someone has jammed your door closed behind you. Yeah, the fire’s the worst. The inhuman screams go on and on until your falling heart reaches that null point where you stop hoping that he will live and begin praying that he won’t. There are things worse than death. You never forget those screams, and the smell, well, it never leaves that cell; I don’t care how many times you paint it.

I cannot explain why he began gravitating towards me. I was idly staring out through the dayroom window, mentally calculating the hours until my release date when I felt a presence behind me. Before I could fully turn I heard his gravelly voice.

"There is no being except in a mode of being."

I stared at Wannamaker, taking his measure, uncertain if he was addressing me. He stared back, smiling tightly, his cornflower-blue eyes twinkling with squirrelly energy. “Huh'?"

“Those birds." he replied, “are they real?"

I turned back toward the barred window. On the ground below a huddle of multi-hued pigeons were pecking at breadcrumbs thrown out by prisoners.

“They look real to me." I responded, wondering why I was even answering. I wasn’t interested in making new friends. All I was thinking about was the streets.

“Don’t you know?"

"They’re real," I countered.

“We make our own reality," he said to my back. “You see what you expect to see. Open your eyes of perception, and what is real will be limited only by your imagination.”

“Really?“ My skepticism was probably evident.

"All is Maya. Perception is creation."

"Maya, huh? Sounds like quantum physics to me,” I remarked, turning back to face him, wondering where the conversation was going. He smiled brightly, a grizzled icon of Bug Row, grinning through broken teeth, and despite myself I smiled back.

“Ask and you shall receive. Knock and the door shall be opened for you. Whether you enter or not is up to you."

I nodded non-committally. As the pigeons fed, we stood around, engaging in the type of small talk you make in the joint. At least I did. For his part the old man mostly spewed Delphic pronouncements. I did learn that he’d been in the joint for either twelve, fifteen, or twenty-one years, beginning with a two-year stretch for breaking into a church, which was extended repeatedly for a series of short-lived escapes. Now he was serving over seventy years. I also learned that he’d taught in Korea in the same Marine battalion as my Uncle Al. Wannamaker proved to be an endearing character, bubbling with cheerful illogic and unreason, his fevered mind conducting its own energetic symphony. But though his thinking may have been hidden behind an opaque curtain of seeming irrationality, his incessant stream of addled maxims contained just enough fragments of seemingly profound acuity as to cause a listener to hesitate, pausing to consider their possible meaning. Still, you didn’t know if his words really meant anything because you had him pigeonholed in that place in your head where the crazy people are.

"Seek your own guru,” he earnestly proclaimed, as he suddenly reached out towards me.

I felt an odd buzz of something - energy? - when he lightly touched my shoulder.

“Invest your coin in the guru principle," he added, staring at me intently. His electric blue eyes burned strangely, shifting shades.

"I don’t have any coin,” I replied lamely, suddenly reeling awkward and unsure of myself.

"You must work on your Kundalini Shakti."

“Shakti?”

“Power. Shakti. Shaktipat. Your power has been eroded since birth. Seek to rebuild it.”

“How do I do that?" I asked, not really wanting to know.

"You need only meditate under the Wish-Fulfilling Tree.”

“Why don’t you just tell me?” I argued, even as I wondered why I was continuing the conversation.

“You cannot learn music by worshiping at Mozart’s tomb.”

Not wanting to sound patronizing I chose to say nothing.

“That other bird.” Wannamaker said nodding toward the window. “Is it real or not?"

Turning, I was surprised to see a handsome speckled owl standing amidst the pigeons. Amazingly, the mingling pigeons seemed oblivious to their mortal enemy. The owl slowly swiveled its ruffled head, left and right, surveying the flock, its enormous eyes, all black and yellow, glittering like polished gems.

“Real,” I finally allowed, tiring of the old man’s dialogue. I was turning to leave when I felt his hand again touch my shoulder.

"Watch,” he suggested, directing my attention towards the ground. The feeding pigeons milled aimlessly, occasionally pausing to flap their wings or preen their feathers. Suddenly, the owl stiffened, then toppled over, as if struck dead by a hidden hand. I stared in astonishment. The owl lay on its side, motionless, as if frozen in time. The pigeons ignored the fallen owl. I stared at the owl for a full minute but it appeared to be rigor mortis dead.

“What” - I wondered aloud, turning to face Wannamaker. He inclined his head slightly, a gentle smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. When I looked back out the window the owl was gone. I scanned the ground, the rooftops, then the sky, but it had vanished as surely as if it had never existed. My mind raced with the implications.

“Explode the secret and the truth shall rain upon your heart," he said, squeezing my shoulder. He suddenly appeared very lucid. “Act now," he added. “Even a saint cannot reclaim a wasted minute.” Then he pivoted and left the dayroom. It was around that time that I started taking notes.

The next time I saw Winky Wannamaker was the following morning. He was sitting cross-legged at the end of the wing, bare-chested, wearing shorts, with his back erect and eyes closed, going through some type of rapid, deep breathing routine that I figured had something to do with yoga. His breaths were long, deep and violent and a light sheen of sweat coated his lean torso. I was surprised he didn’t pass out from hyperventilation, like I used to do when I tempted fate as a kid. Dilly wandered out of his cell carrying a cup of coffee and joined me at the rail.

“I told you he was a bug,” Dilly said, motioning with his coffee mug. I didn’t reply.

Other prisoners were shooting Wannamaker strange looks, some smirking, others indifferent. When the old man finally stopped power breathing he began chanting a long, continuous one-syllable mantra. “Oooooommmm Oooooommmm." The chant resonated across the wing. More gawking prisoners lined the tiers, gazing up at the crazy man.

After a time Wannamaker stood up and stretched, oblivious to the curious spectators. Then, leaning forward he grabbed the top rail with both hands and with a perfect insouciance he sprang up, quick as a cat, and unfolded into a handstand. A solemn hush fell upon the wing as each of us, mouths agape, digested the scene. Wannamaker was perched precariously on the top rail, locked into place with a white-knuckled grip, upside down, toes toward the ceiling, teetering on the edge of a four-story free fall. One errant move and he was certified dead. I watched intently, as if in a dream, as seconds ticked into minutes, and all I heard was the thump of my heart as I stood transfixed in that vertiginous moment. The old man remained perfectly perpendicular and ramrod straight, never wavering. No shake. No shimmy. No tremble. His taut skin rippled over corded muscles like braided ropes beneath old, polished leather. Everything about him exuded supreme confidence, as if he knew with absolute certainty that it was utterly impossible for him to fail. Nobody spoke the unasked question. Who among us would dare such a feat? It was magnificent.

“Yeah, he’s crazy," Dilly volunteered, draining his coffee.

But the truth, as usual was more complicated. I didn’t see a crazy man. I saw a man who seemed mad simply because others could not hear his music.

Over the next few days Wannamaker settled in, seemingly getting along with most everyone. My job in the library kept me off the wing most of the day, so I didn’t see him a lot. But I got reports from others. Occasionally the old man engaged me in conversation, but usually it was just long enough to drop off a few nuggets of esoteric wisdom. “Deny the truth and you deny yourself" he might proclaim. Or, "only power can handle power. To him who has it so shall it be given.” Once, he suddenly appeared in my doorway. “Perfect wholeness cannot be grasped," he pontificated. “You must be grasped by it.”

“Huh‘?" I replied, lowering my National Geographic.

“To grasp you must be capable of being grasped.”

“That’s a tautology,” I countered after a moment’s consideration. But Wannamaker just grinned and skipped away.

In the space of a week, though, things got dicey. I was sitting on my bunk, flipping through a Car and Driver, admiring a lipstick red 1960 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso. I was just appreciating how the photographer’s lights emphasized the graceful swoop from stubby tail past clean flanks to the rising, powerful nose, when Dilly leaned through my open door and rapped his knuckles on the steel door frame.

“Your boy is bugging out.” he remarked, jerking his head toward the rear of the wing. I stepped out onto the catwalk and peered over the rail to see Wannamaker, down on the bottom floor, marching back and forth in a rapid, herky-jerky cadence. He was butt-naked, except for a sheet tied around his neck, trailing behind him like Superman’s cape. I strained to make out the words that he was spitting out like machine gun bullets.

"Error-correction-error-correction-error…” 

I watched him march thirty feet, then spin around and retrace his steps, stomping and muttering like a wind-up toy.

“Error-correction-error-correction-error...”

I glanced around the interior of the wing, a cyclorama of  indignant human motes witnessing a spectacle, clots of scowling prisoners, standing around, arms crossed, glaring at Wannamaker. "He’s been doing that for twenty minutes." Dilly observed. “He’s off his medication."

Later that evening I cornered Wannamaker and casually asked him what the naked marching was about.

"This place has a karmic deficit that must be balanced,” he barked. His eyes were unusually dark and glittered unnaturally. “Terra is speaking, if you will just listen. I must balance the karma."

“Yeah, well, just be careful," I replied, rubbing my jaw. “Parading around naked and talking shit isn’t cool. You’re going to piss people off.”

“An instrument for dispensing the fire of the gods must be a fiery instrument." The old man turned and marched away before I could add anything.

The following afternoon after work I returned to find water streaming down the stairway, from the fourth floor to the main second-floor quarterdeck. A crew of angry housemen was mopping up the mess.

“That crazy old man barricaded himself in his cell and flooded out," someone told me when I inquired.

"Did he go to jail‘?”

“Hell, no,” he snorted. “Lieutenant came in and rapped with him, then told Sergeant Gates to let him be. If  it’d been you or me, we woulda got our asses kicked. Stupid bastard’s still up there,” he said, jerking his thumb toward my floor.

Upstairs, my nose wrinkled at the acrid odor of burnt paper and the sour scent of urine.

The quarterdeck was puddled with dirty water. I saw Wannamaker, disheveled and wild-eyed, his face smeared with soot and blood, locked inside his darkened cell, staring out through the door’s small barred window. He resembled a beast peering out of a cave. He was whimpering faintly. When I finally approached he growled ominously, then began barking in an unfriendly manner.

“Don’t retard my progress!” he suddenly hissed, staring me down.

I hesitated, and then walked to my cell.

"Man, somebody’s gonna kill that fool," Dilly opined. “He was stomping around the wing all day, waving a broken-off broomstick, kicking people’s doors, barking at everyone. Real stupid shit." Dilly lit up a hand-rolled cigarette, then peered at me through a cloud of blue smoke.

“He’s paranoid. Claims everyone is plotting on him. Clown needs to go back to Bug Row. The wing officers see what’s going on, but they’re just letting it slide.” Dilly looked around through hooded eyes. “I think they want some shit to jump off” he growled.

I looked over at Wannamaker’s cell, saddened to see the dismal trajectory his life had assumed. With his splintered mind caught in a tightening vice he had two serious strikes against him for a convict-he was old and crazy. But his most fatal handicap was that he had no real friends. And, combined with an escalating overload of enemies there was a dreadful sense of toxic inevitability to the perilous glide path he was navigating.

 “I don’t want to kill the old man,” Octavio declared with grim earnestness. “Really.”

Those were his words, even as I watched him sitting on the white porcelain toilet, bent over in concentration as his busy hands strapped the knife to his calf with an elastic ace bandage. And I believed him, because I understood the circumstances, even as I understood why, in Octavio’s mind, Wannamaker had to die. It was only two days after the old man had flooded out his cell and his delusional paranoia had metastasized into a full-blown psychotic breakdown. Incredibly, the guards had not locked him up, and the raw tension permeating the wing resonated like a plucked banjo string.

Wannamaker had been relentlessly stalking the fourth-floor quarterdeck like it was the Serengeti Plains, sometimes armed with his broken-off broom stick, other times waving a razor blade melted on the end of a toothbrush. Muttering to himself, screaming at ghosts, he made feinting thrusts at all who walked by. No longer viewed as an amusing eccentric, he was now seen as a potential threat. A collective anger filled the air, as though a slow and secret poison seeped throughout the wing. Fear, like hate, tends to magnify perceptions, and because maximum-security prisons are stocked with men who believe in preemptively eliminating threats before the threats eliminate them, Wannamaker’s paranoid delusions had morphed into self-fulfilling prophecy. Now men really were plotting on him.

Moments earlier an incoherent Wannamaker, stick in one hand, razor in the other, had chased a startled Octavio out of the shower. As prickly as a strand of barbed wire, Octavio was a no-nonsense guy with a well-defined mean streak. Years before I’d seen him stab a guy in the gym over a perceived insult. When Octavio finally got out of solitary he tracked the guy down and stabbed him again. So, there I stood in Octavio’s cell, propelled by a sense of urgency on what was surely a fool’s errand, desperately trying to convince him not to put Wannamaker down like a rabid dog. I stared at the long-bladed knife. The cruel steel gleamed dully. The air in the cell pressed down hot and thick and the expanded silence was broken only by the forlorn tapping of a buzzing fly head-butting the windowpane. My gut felt empty and my mouth was dry. Octavio sat on his toilet, enveloped in sullen anger, his dark eyes glistening with punitive intent.

“I’ll tell you what." he finally muttered after I’d marshaled my most persuasive arguments. “You get that son of a bitch off this wing and I’ll let it slide. If I ever see him again I’m gonna cut him up."

I nodded and stepped out onto the catwalk, wondering why I’d gotten involved. In twenty-two days I’d be walking out of that stinking joint a free man. But I’ve always been a sucker for lost causes. And the old man didn’t deserve to die. I looked around, bereft of ideas. Wannamaker stood in front of his cell, staring at me oddly. Even then, in the midst of his madness, he possessed an inherent dignity, as though his disheveled, befuddled exterior concealed some fundamental cosmic truth. I wished desperately that he could read my mind and appreciate my benevolent intentions. As if on cue he bared his teeth and snarled at me, raising his stick menacingly. Suddenly, I had a quickening thought.

I strode down the catwalk to the quarterdeck then ducked into the utility closet. Snatching a damp mop out of the rack I leaned it against the wall at an acute angle, then stomped it just above the mop head. The stout wooden handle snapped like a tree limb. I emerged with the mop handle raised overhead, swinging it like a cavalry saber. Without hesitation I charged Wannamaker, who faced me squarely. We crashed together violently, neither of us saying a word. Standing toe-to-toe we battled like gladiators. The only sound was our ragged breaths and the clattering of our swords as we beat each other relentlessly. Slowly, inexorably, strike-by-strike and blow-by-blow, I drove him backwards, until he was framed in his cell’s open doorway.

Then I bull-rushed him, pushing him deep into his cell. When I stepped out I slid his door closed, automatically locking it. The only way for him to get out was for a guard to come upstairs, open the panel and pull his cell’s lever.

“I’m doing this for your own good,” I gasped, struggling to catch my breath.

Wannamaker stared at me through the door’s barred window, his expression inscrutable. Then he dropped his stick and stepped forward.

"Are you worthy?" he breathed, in a hushed, gravely voice. “For the great and majestic tasks yet to come?”

“Look, you’re gonna get killed.”

He cut me off with a dismissive gesture. “I told you. Only power can handle power. Keep working on your Shakti, your power. Walk the path and the mighty power of Kundalini will rise and open the chakra jewels of your higher bodies."

"Look," I repeated, "You don’t seem to understand. You’re gonna get murdered-"

Wannamaker cut me off again. His face suddenly relaxed and he smiled benignly, as though he was dealing with an especially obtuse pupil. “When the assassins come they kill everyone. That is what you must understand. Death is coming. It’s at the door."

That was the last time I saw Winky Wannamaker on that wing. I turned and walked downstairs to confront the wing sergeant. "You’ve got to move Wannamaker off this wing," I said forcefully. "You all know he’s crazy. He don’t belong in pop. You’re forcing someone to kill him, and he absolutely will be killed if he stays here." The sergeant didn’t argue the point.

 “Yeah, we know. We’ll take care of it,” he replied, looking away.

I returned to my cell, feeling the tension drain away. Dilly was leaning on the rail, munching on fried pork rinds. He raised his eyebrows as I passed him. “I`m going to the gym," I volunteered. "I think I’ll get in a few games of handball.”  I was much relieved that the trouble was finally over.

An hour later I was sprawled on the handball court clutching my broken foot. An hour after that I was wearing a cast, and before the evening count I’d been transferred to the medical wing.

It was one of those dense, vaguely unfulfilling short stories that draws attention to itself where every erudite sentence appears written not so much to advance a story line but rather as an exercise calculated to showcase the author’s cleverness, the kind of borderline pretentious story you might expect to find in an overpriced, high brow literary journal, full of  like stories, written and published by like people, a sort of self-congratulatory private club where they stand around, preening and posing, pointing at their glossy magazine, bragging that they’d been published. The kind of story you sorta wish you were clever enough to write, but were glad you didn’t. When I finished reading it I was left with the nagging impression that the writer had crafted what he believed was an exceptionally witty and well-written paragraph and had gone on from there, building outward in expanding concentric circles until he had a sufficient word count to call it a completion. Damn the plot, or even the point. It would have made a sophisticated literary editor proud.

"Well written,” I offered, "but I missed the plot somewhere.” I handed the pages back to Suzy Wong, the gossipy but engaging little brunette sissy living three cells down from me. Ever since I’d moved onto the medical wing, little plump-cheeked Suzy with the Ivory soap complexion had been eagerly pressing his stories upon me, seeking a measure of validation.

“Sometimes plots are a distraction,” Suzy petulantly assured me, brushing his bangs from his kohl-traced eyes.

"Distraction from what?’”

"The writing."

“I see."

I watched dreamy-eyed Suzy sashay away, his soft pageboy flouncing with each step.

Suzy was just another knot in the parade of sad stories and suffering souls filling the medical wing - a converted population cellblock of wheelchairs and walking canes serving as a dumping ground for those wounded bodies enduring the travails of modern prison health care. Prison health care. Now there’s an oxymoron. The prison’s detritus surrounded me: the blind, paralyzed, and feeble, but especially the dying. And die they did, almost daily, in wretched anonymity, from a smorgasbord of medical maladies, from full-blown AIDS, hepatitis C, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diseases I’d never heard of. They died alone and abandoned, thrashing around on their bunks, often gripped by excruciating pain - you do understand that pain medication is verboten in prisons? – infrequently attended to by indifferent med techs who seldom spoke English. They were all consigned to the bone heap. Suzy’s trial by fire would soon be upon him, for he was being squeezed by the Fist of Cushing’s syndrome, a vexing disease that basically makes you fat and weak, not a good thing in the joint. Moreover, he’d just been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematous which, Suzy explained in layman’s terms, meant that his immune system was relentlessly attacking his own body.

Settling back on my overturned mop bucket, my thoughts returned to the remaining four days separating me from freedom. I resumed the fantasy I’d been mentally playing out, before being interrupted by Suzy, visualizing a long dreamt about South Florida fishing trip, south of Chokoloskee, past the Rod & Gun Club in Everglades City, deep into the swaying expanse of emerald saw-grass prairies. I pictured the soft morning light blushing faint pink above my aluminum skiff as I meandered down a winding, tannin-stained creek, the mist-shrouded banks flanked by loblolly pines, stands of silvery cypress and, where the creek merged with the bay, tangled thickets of red mangrove, with their webs of gnarly roots and salt-crusted leaves. Along the banks I saw the whirligig beetles ruffling the creek’s velvet surface, and glistening black-and- red salamanders nosing through the mud. There were emerald leopard frogs jack-kicking through the mossy duckweed, their Crayola-yellow spots flashing like semaphores. I saw the egret, the white ibis, and the green heron patrolling the shallows, and the roseate spoonbills, languidly lifting up from the water like ephemeral apparitions, rising puffs of strawberry and cream. Up in the trees I saw the drab anhingas, claws tightly gripping the swaying branches, patiently drying their feathers, their wings opened up like Dracula’s cape. I heard the buzz of summer insects, and the screech of the rare Everglades snail kite, skimming above the swamp, an elegant willowy-winged, tuxedo-black bird boasting an ivory patch above the tail. I saw the drifting alligators, the basking turtles, and the toothy gar hovering in tepid waters, and I smelled the rich, decaying muck permeating the sultry air. And out past the flats of the shallow bay, its aquamarine water glittering like crushed glass, stretching off towards the Keys, I saw the Gulf studded with sailboats, their pastel sails blooming like orchids from the cobalt blue sea. If I closed my eyes I could-

"Here,” Suzy commanded, handing me another sheaf of handwritten pages. “Read this one."

I looked up ruefully. Before l could comment I absently focused on the hulking, bald-headed inmate strolling across the bottom floor. It was Lester Bibbs. Upon moving to the medical wing I’d been mildly surprised to learn that Lester, the infamous informant runaround, the cellblock tyrant and paragon of thuggery, had been transferred from Bug Row. Something about the Bug Row lawsuit. Now he was the runner on the medical wing.

“He’s a beast," Suzy announced for the hundredth time, following my gaze downstairs.

Soon after meeting me Suzy had breathlessly chronicled Lester’s rawest exploits. Predictably Lester was terrorizing with abandon. “You know the kid from Connecticut?” Suzy had asked me, referring to a young, retarded guy on the bottom floor dying from Huntington’s disease. “He goes in his cell and rapes him every night."

Before I could read Suzy’s latest literary opus I heard the big, steel king door swing open and a prisoner toting a tattered, taped-up cardboard box of personal property stepped spryly onto the quarterdeck. To say I was surprised to see Winky Wannamaker would be a severe understatement. But there he was, as ragged and enigmatic as ever. He stood alone, seemingly detached and abandoned, as though a lifetime of personal pain had been poured into his spare frame. He looked up to the third floor and we briefly locked eyes. I tried to read his face, but it was closed. When he offered up a tight, spontaneous smile I reciprocated with honest affection.

Not for the first time I vaguely sensed that somehow our lives were braided together. I watched silently as Wannamaker solemnly made his way to his new second-floor cell.

“Do you know him?" Suzy asked, his eyes narrowed.

“Yes," I replied, without elaboration.

“He lacks huggability.“ Suzy decided.

“He’s a good man," I countered.

“I’m going to meet him," Suzy announced, plucking his story out of my hands. “I hope he’s nice.”

I sat on my overturned mop bucket, inspecting my cast - I had four days to lose it one way or another - lost in idle moments of reflection. When I looked up again Suzy was standing before me.

“He’s in his cell doing yoga exercises, and chanting. He said he was raising the vibrations in the ethers around the earth.” Suzy waved a sheet of paper. “I wrote it down,” he added.

“He said he’s channeling spiritual energy into Mother Earth’s psychic centers, into her chakras.” He continued, consulting the paper. “He says he’s here addressing Mother Earth’s spiritual crisis. It has nothing to do with oil or gas or petroleum products." Suzy paused, cutting his eyes toward me, then continued reading. “He claims he’s here to perform a crucial karmic manipulation and maintain the terrestrial balance.” Suzy looked up skeptically. “What do you think‘?” he asked, chewing on his lower lip.

"Sounds like it would make a good short story." I replied without thinking. Just then Wannamaker stepped out of his cell. He was butt naked, wearing his cape, and holding something in his hand. Standing at the rail rigidly, his face contorted into an inscrutable mask, he began breathing deep and rhythmically - that yogic Pranayama stuff he’d once showed me - while intently staring down at the bottom floor. I searched his face, trying to discern his intentions. What I recognized was a volcano of rage, and with laser-like intensity it was locked and focused upon a singular object: Lester Bibbs.

Things happened very quickly after that. With calm deliberateness Wannamaker reared back like a major league pitcher and slung a small black object downstairs. The whistling domino caught Lester on the side of his face with the suddenness of a pistol shot and surprisingly, lifted him up off  his feet. He rose and pirouetted, like a cat stung by a bee, and came down shaking his head, a howl escaping through his clenched teeth, a hand pressed to his bleeding temple, his hooded eyes scanning the tiers. Their eyes met and locked. Lester dodged the second domino, but the third one smacked him on the bridge of the nose and a diaphanous curtain of crimson misted the air. The next one shattered a front tooth and Lester yelped like a kicked dog. Who knew dominoes could be so hazardous?

Lester ducked into his cell, emerging moments later with a shank in his hand and murder in his heart. He bounded up the stairs two at a time, a lion charging a lamb. Wannamaker turned and resolutely stood his ground, rock solid and utterly fearless, his face gilded with intangible determination, his cape hanging limply behind him. His profile, limned by a strange, pearl-blue luminous light, manifested an unmistakable aura of power, and suddenly I understood, without any shadings of ambiguity, the meaning of Shakti. As Lester rushed down the catwalk everyone held their breath, and I offered up a silent, heartfelt Angelus for my odd and valiant friend.

At the last possible moment Wannamaker backed up, retreating into his cell. Without hesitation Lester barreled in, with the reckless confidence of Custer at the Little Bighorn. And it was in that brief nanosecond, that half a heartbeat between seeing and comprehending, just as Lester crashed into the old man in the rear of the cell, that I saw Wannamaker reach up and yank down on his light cord.

The sudden radiance, bright as a solar flare, momentarily blinded me. A deep, low woooomp shook the air as an incandescent fireball filled Wannamaker’s cell. I was standing now, seemingly outside of time, my heart caught on the steel hooks of reality. Shielding my face with my hand I strained to see through the billowing orange flames and roiling black smoke. I recognized Lester’s blood-curdling screams even as the fug of lighter fluid and burnt flesh washed my face. I stood tensely while every thought in my mind seemed to coalesce, crystalize and then shatter like glass, falling away and leaving nothing behind but an awful vacuum. Eventually the screams died away. The fire seemed to burn forever. Wannamaker never uttered a sound.

They found the bodies melted together with Lester wrapped up in Wannamaker’s death grip. Now, sitting here on my mop bucket, I struggle to make sense of it all. Life is flush with endings and ironies that are simply inscrutable, immune to any known dialectic. And the penitentiary is guided by its own peculiar values. In a place like this, what is the measure of what we are? Wannamaker was his own man, lamed internally, yet possessed of a many-sided courage, a quixotic paladin eternally seeking satori, stubbornly persisting against the inevitable tides of fate. His was a life that had known suffering on a biblical scale, yet he was destined to never be free. Maybe it was really dirt simple. In a violent, structured realm devoid of choices a man can still select the manner of his death. And perhaps Suzy Wong had it right after all. Not every story has a clear plot or moral in its weave and sometimes the tale is simply in the telling.

-The End-



Bill and his sister Lisa



William Van Poyck  #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street, 
Raiford, FL 32026-1160
USA