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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Manufacturing Anomie*

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

*This story won first prize in the fiction category of the 2014 Annual PEN Prison Writing Contest


Which one of you OJTs is Adams?

That's me, Sarge.

Adams, you with me for the rest of the mornin’. Come along, now.

Yes, sir.

Oh, and I know how that wall was done built by the lowest bidder and all that shit, but do you think the rest of you fucks could find somethin' constructive to do besides keepin’ it upright? You got twelve trustees in this hall. What's the point of having free labor if'n you ain't using it. Get me?

Yes sir.

Sorry sir.

We're on it, Sarge.

You, Adams, how long you been trainin’?

This is my fourth day, sir.

Fourth day, is it? Well, yer in for a treat. The sumbitch who had a date next Tuesday went and offed hisself last night, so we got to take this here PROP-O5 and inventory his junk before we can release it to his kin. I hope you is the nosy type.

Um...I guess I can do nosy if you need me to. What did you mean about a date next Tuesday?

Look at me son, and stop for a second. This is death row. You understand what that means? We ain't the commonwealth of Massa-fucking-chusetts. When we says we gonna kill a man, we do it. 'Date' means execution date, you understand?

And this guy...he killed himself before his date? Like suicide?Why would he do that?

Fuck me, Adams, I couldn't tell ya. And I couldn't be hogtied into carin’, truth be told. The good Lord made this world fulla different folks, and I got enough trouble lookin’ after my own without inquiring into the strokes of some crazy bastards. Ain't for us to wonder about, son. What is for us to wonder about is makin’ sure there ain't no contraband in this property, and that's what we're about. Come on, A-pod is this way.

I never been on A-pod before.

We on the way to DeathWatch. You just stick to your task and ignore the Offenders. They all got they backs against the wall now so don't take none of ‘em at their word, and don't take none of their shit, neither. ‘Member you is an officer of the State of Texas, and act like it.

Ain't they behind steel doors?

Pfft, you think that'd stop any of 'em if they decided to up and harpoon your fat ass? Eyes front son. Here we go. Look out, Picket officer! Roll A-section crash-gate and 3-cage!

Looks like somebody already bagged up his stuff, Sarge.

Yeah, Schlemiel did, before he cut his throat.

Oh...that's his name? Was his name, I mean?

I guess he was packed and ready to go. Peter was one neat and tidy Offender, I will give him that. Even died clean, looks like. Mostly.

Jesus, is that...

Now you just watch where you stand. We'll get us some disinfectant in here and clean all that right up. Every cell in this place has had its share of blood, so don't you go all squeamish on me now. You going to make it?

Yes...yes, sir.

Good. Now, I'm going to divide these bags up. These here look like hygiene items, so they won't take long. Just dump this shit out over there on the bed. Now, when you take apart some of this stuff, run this here metal-wand over it. I'll show you. Hand me that




                                                                                        toothpaste and soap. That was sure unexpected and very kind of you, Mrs Hoffen. It was really a surprise to find money on my books because I usually only get a little from my Ma at Christmas-time. I been here two Christmases now, but maybe you already know that. I know all sorts of information is out there on the internets but I never really got on too well with the technology so when people talk about all of these "double-Us-this” and "applications-that” it's mostly over my head. I was told when I got here that random people would pop up outta nowhere to write me but so far you are really the first normal person what done so. I don't mean to be rude to the others, but ain't none of ‘em smell right to me, if you know what I mean. It's like they addicted to death and they wanna get real close to it while stayin’ safe, if that makes any sense. I don't really know what to write about, to be honest with you. I never really wrote much in the freeworld. Didn't do so great with books and school and all that. I can take apart and put back together most anything mechanical that I can get my hands on, though I guess that ain't worth a hill of beans when you is livin’ in solitary confinement. So, I'm 23. I have a brother and a sister, both older, but I don't really hear from ‘em much these days. I ain't seen hide nor hair of my Pa since I was 6 and to hear my Ma tell it, I ain't missin’ much. She works at the feed lot in town, so I don't see her much because the hours are so long. Plus, Livingston is a real drive from Moil Springs, which is about where I used to live. I had a wife but I ain't heard from her since I was in the County Jail when she mailed me the papers. I didn't contest nothin’ cuz there ain't no kids or money and anyhow I had tried to tell her three years ago when we got hitched that I was a losin’ proposition but you know how some women is when they get an idea in their heads. No offense, I mean. You seem right normal and I don't get no weird feeling from your card so I guess if you want you can drop me a



                                                                                                               line they use to send shit tween cells. You put that to one side, away from the rest of the stuff.

How do they make ‘em, Sarge?

They pull apart the sheets, one strand at a time, and then braid ‘em together.

And we let them do that?

Hell no we don't let them do that. That's Destruction of State Property and also Trafficing and Trading when they use ‘em. Those are both Major Cases. You write em up and send em to the hole for 90 days.

But all the cells is already solitary...ain't the whole building the hole?

Well...yeah...but...look here, Level 3 is a whole hell of a lot worse.

Oh...but what if they are just sending food to someone who can't get...

Look here, Adams. You seem a bit citified to me, so l'm gonna tell you to check your damned pansy-ass GPS device. You in Polunsky, boy. This the big time, you follow me? Some officers'll wait years to get a transfer to this prison. Maybe one day the offenders'll be sending tacos, but the next it will be a shank with a sharp-ass tip and your name floatin’ across the eyes of some sociopath sumbitch. After a few years back here ain't none of them got any human left in ‘em. You remember that. This place kills ‘em long afore they get dead. Now, you see passin’ from one cell to the next and you just write ‘em up. We clear on this?

Yes sir. I'm done with this sack.

Go through it again. Major's orders: we check everything twice.

Okay...sir.

Look, the Major is like your pappy. No, he's like God, okay? He don't hafta’ make sense. He tells you to go through somethin’ twice, we do it twice ‘cause we love and respect him. We don't want him embarrassed ‘cause if he looks stupid to someone in the warden's office there'll be hell to pay and I've got five grades on your CO-1 ass. You follow me?

Yes sir. It looks like in this sack all we got is some papers and some letters and photo




                                                                                                                                   graphs of the beach. I'm a little embarrassed to tell you this, but I've never seen the ocean before. I guess the furthest I've ever been from the town I grew up in was a trip to Dallas we took when I was 9. Before I came down here, I mean, and that weren't by choice. Oh, sorry...I meant "wasn't by choice," right? See? I told you I was using that dictionary and grammar book you sent. I'm still not giving up "ain't" yet, though. I know it's not proper but you Yanks are going to have to pry that one out of my cold dead hands, as they seem to be saying a lot down here of late. Anyways, I want to confess something to you so please don't laugh. Those photos of the bay have been on my wall for a few days now and I keep looking at them and they make me feel kinda strange but a good strange, you know? So I read somewhere that the water has lots of salt in it so I traded for some salt packets from my neighbor and filled up my cup with warm water and just dumped that salt in there and put the whole thing up to my nose. Now when I stare at those photos it feels like I'm kinda there. Sometimes the officers'll ask what I'm about and I just tell them I'm going to the beach for the day and they look at me all weird but I’m used to that. I've never seen fireflies before either, but I haven't figured out how to rig up some of them in my cell as of yet. Anyways, I don't know if you noticed this Mrs. Hoffen but I received your first letter exactly two years ago next Friday, so happy anniversary and all that. And I mean no offense to Frank about all that neither. He's been a blessing to me, too, a real blessing. I don't know why but anniversaries seem to stick in my head better now than they did when I was free. Maybe because I only know a few people now? They killed Hacksaw Blue a year ago last Wednesday. He was 26, a year older than I am now. So was Flint. 26, I mean. They seem old to me in memory but I am almost their age. I guess only the dead stay young forever. I don't feel 25, though. Sometimes I don't feel I’ve aged none - any, sorry - since my arrest. I was 21 then, and in this world of bars and all this concrete you always feel like you are falling behind the people your own age.  I mean, I don't know anything about taxes or politics or...fuck (sorry) anything, really. It's like they cemented me at 21. In other ways I feel old, real old. What is worse? Knowing that I'm stuck at 21 or being ignorant of it like most of these guys? To feel 85 even though I've never really seen anything of life? I don't know if this comes through so well in my letters, but you are one of the few things in my life that makes me happy. If it weren't for you and the books you have sent me, I think I'd have lost my mind and become like so many of these loonies. It seems like some kind of cruel prank that I had to come to death row to meet someone who actually wanted to be kind to me. Sometimes...I...I think there is a part of me that wants to get so sad that death would be welcome. Does that make any sense?
I don't seem to ever know how to say what I mean; stuff just comes out all wrong. But at least I know how to use a semi-colon now, and I hope that you noticed it. Look out, Jonathan Franzen, I'm gunnin' for you! Yee haw! I bet that is the first time in the English language that "yee haw" and "Franzen" were used in the same sentence. To think that I once thought books weren't for me, or that the

                                                                    count 

on those candy bars, Adams?

I see six, Sarge.

Go ahead and put zero on the PROP-O5 and help yourself. All this sortin’ is hard work, ain't it?

Uh...I'm gonna pass. You take ‘em.

Well don't say I didn't give you a chance for ‘em.

How long you been at this, Sarge?

I'm comin up on 21 years, son. 13 of that here on the Row.

How many...executions you witnessed?

Hell, I don't count. I don't know. A couple of hundred, I expect. And I can tell where you're going next with this, so don't even start down that road. They's guilty and there ain't no two ways about it. Our job is to obey the orders of our bosses, to follow the Chain of Command. For you, that's me. For me, that's my Lieutenants. They obey the Captain, and that chain goes on up until you get to the Governor. You got to trust we know what we are about or else the whole damned thing comes a crashin’ down and then we got some Harvard sumbitch from the federal guvment sippin’ a latte in his Prius tellin’ us how to live our lives. Leave the business of the inmates to the courts. Anything beyond that is between them and God. Now, it looks like we are done with the property. Now we gotta go through these letters, make sure there ain't no suicide note or some kinda message to his people about revenge. You take this stack, and hand me one of those Snicker




                                                                                                                    bars and bars and bars, that's all I see anymore. If you took them away, I think I'd still see them. I can't explain it better than that. Until recently you have been very careful about not treading into forbidden territory since I told you She had written, and I appreciate it. I just...look, I know I minimized what She meant to me in the past. I made a joke or used a loaded "anyway" to change the subject, but some things just don't get any better by talking about them. So why are you asking all of these questions now? She was my angel, and then she was a set of divorce papers and about 40 returned letters and a gateway to loneliness and self-hatred. She was my first kiss, my first everything. I can't even remember what it is like to touch anyone anymore, so what good is talking about this stuff? You've led a good life. Your parents seemed to care for you, you had a good experience at college and then met Frank and I guess the stars were always lined up for you two because you've never looked away. That is great. I'm sure there were rough patches and I don't mean to minimize that but you've been really lucky. Please understand that I am not mad at you for your charmed life. I'm envious but not angry. But you could never know what it is to go the first 17 years of your life not knowing what it felt like to feel safe anywhere or be accepted by anyone. That is not something that can be explained, only experienced. You can't understand what it feels like to know that you are so broken inside that you will never be loved by anyone, ever. When you walk into a room everyone looks at you and appreciates you because you are beautiful and you carry yourself with confidence. Hell, men have probably been staring at you since you were about 13 or so and you have gotten so used to this that you take it for granted. You could never understand what it is to be ugly, to have everyone in a room look at you and then through you because what is there isn't worth noticing or remembering. And then to know what it feels like for someone to come out of the dark like She did and to really see you and tell you all of those things that you hear in the dreams you won't even allow yourself to remember in the morning, it's like...I read in that physics book you sent me that you would never know if a nearby star went into supernova, because the blast would be moving at the speed of light. Just -boom- and this entire corner of the galaxy would be reduced to its component atoms. She came into my life like that. I didn't know what hit me. There was light for a time and then I evaporated. And then there was nothing left after she was gone. Is that what you wanted me to admit? That when my sister sends me photographs off of Facebook of my angel with her kids and her new husband who is everything I could never be and her perfect little life all laid out how I never could have managed for her I don't feel anything for weeks, anything at all? Is that what you wanted to hear? That I'm a coward and a loser and that I still love her and...look, we've been writing now for close to four years and you know how I feel for you. But please don't think that because you are my only friend that this gives you license to

                                                                 look at this little girlie, would ya?

I see her, Sarge.

Doesn't it just toast your grits to see some punk in a cage with a fine piece of ass like that?

I think she was his wife. I saw a bunch of her photos in with some letters.

Stupid broads...I'll never understand em. They've been messed up since Eve. They always seem to

searching for an answer to your question for years now, but I still haven't come to a satisfactory place. I know I killed Mr. Lurdan but I don't really know why I did it. Everyone pretends like all we do is planned but it seems to me that we mostly just act and then justify our actions in hindsight. The things he said to me that night were things I've been hearing all my life. They were bad but they weren't any worse than what I got at home as a kid. I don't even really remember how it happened. What I mostly remember is what they said happened in court. I was drinking but I wasn't drunk. I just remember him and that other one, the one they call Timmet that showed up at my trial in the snakeskin boots and that bolo tie, they were just laughing and saying those things about me not having big hands and what that meant and about how no wonder She always snuck out to the bar when I was working and the red neon Budweiser sign over the bar got all bright and suddenly all the world was neon red light and then everyone was screaming and I was laughing and crying at the same time and my arms were tired and bleeding and broken and everything smelled like copper pennies and I still smell and taste that sometimes and then I sat down at the bar and finished my beer and I knew Mr.Lurdan was dead or dying on the floor and my pocket knife was stuck in his chest and I guess I knew that all of that was my fault but it just wouldn't connect at the moment. They said I was cold-blooded at trial just to sit down and drink a beer like that but I wasn't even there, I tell you. Anyways, if I can't feel anything like they said, why does everything always hurt so bad? And the thing is, I don't know how it came to that. I can piece some of it together, but nothing adds up when you step back and look at it in sequence. When I was 9, I saw this older neighborhood boy catching dragonflies and then tearing their wings off. I started crying and punching him and he beat me up pretty good and everyone made fun of me for caring about a stupid insect and how I deserved my two black eyes. How did I get from that to this? I feel like there must be an answer somewhere, some way to connect these two dots on the graph of my life, but I can't find the




                               letters in this pile we toss out.

Why, Sarge?

Too much talk about prison life, son. The public, they don't understand the things we got to do to protect ‘em. They want to be safe, but they don't want to know what it takes to get that safety. So we do what we hafta’ and protect ‘em from knowin’ the nature of the beast. I don't think his people'd mind much if some of them photos go missin, neither. Let me see. Oh yeah, howdy there little missus, with you and your



                        bad manners not to have written you by now. I am truly sorry, Mrs. Hoffen. I know you must have freaked out when you saw I had a date set, and I should have sent you something. Well, I am now. Better late than never, right? I am sending this to you through my attorney because there is no way they are going to let this letter out of the unit. By the time you read this, it will be too late to stop me from doing what I know I need to do. You have been my only friend these last six years so I feel I owe you an explanation. I didn't read any of the letters you sent me the last 9 months, but I can imagine what was in them. I don't really know where to begin. I'm not feeling very clear these days about much of anything, but I shall make an attempt. I haven't really been right for years now, but I guess you know that. The catalyst for my present decision started with the rec yard, of all things. You know we recreate alone, always alone. On a few of the yards, the ones that face the outer wall of 12-building, there are these little square indentions cut into the pre-fab concrete at regular intervals at ground level. I couldn't ever figure out what they were for, until one day I realized that they were spots for drains to be installed. Obviously the unit never got around to cutting them out. I don't know how to put this...those holes...they just possessed me. This isn't rational, I know, but I couldn't get them and what they meant out of my mind. I started cutting into one near the toilet with the metal rod of my hot-pot, a little each day. I had a piece of 2x2 concrete that plugged the hole up real nice and I worked on this hole for more than three months. Well, during the first week of October - they tell me it was on the 3rd, but I don't remember any of this - I must have felt like I was getting close and I guess I tuned the rest of the world out because they tell me when they came to get me I was just lying there with my arm stuck through the wall and my hand was gripping the grass on the other side. I wish I could remember it because I haven't touched anything soft in more than 9 years now and I guess when I managed it I went to some other place. They gassed me, so they say, but I didn't move, just laid there. They came in with the goon-squad and tried to carry me off but I started kicking and screaming nonsense and wouldn't let go of the hole and it took nine of them to get me on the gurney. My fingers on my right hand are still all bent up so I think one of them must have gone to the other side of the wall and broken them but it doesn't matter now. I absolutely don't recall my first 40 days or so of my time on Level 3. I must have eaten sometime and all of that, but the rest of the time they tell me I just sat there, staring at the wall or the floor. They wouldn't give me any clothes or a mattress so I must have slept on the metal bunk or the concrete or something. The first thing I really remembered was your photographs of the ocean and the taste of salt water. I was crying and I don't know why but I remember thinking that maybe that's where the oceans came from. If you tallied up all of the tears that fell down from the faces of all the humans that ever lived, I bet it would add up to the oceans and then some, a real ocean of tears. And that's the thing: I don't understand any of this. I don't understand why no one ever liked me much or why I was never good at anything. It seems like everyone should be at least okay at something, but I never was. I don't understand why they say I am evil and why everyone in my life just accepted this and left me. I guess they must be right because they say it so loudly but I don't think I can take it anymore. I'm tired, Mrs. Hoffen. Just so tired. Everyone says that I owe them a life so I guess I'm going to give it to them. It never did me any good so I think they are getting a worse deal than they imagine. I haven't had any real choices in so long that this feels right. They were going to kill me anyways but this way they get to save some gasoline and some overtime hours and whatever the poison costs. I'm sorry. I don't know what comes after this place but it's got to be better than this. Even if it's nothing, it would be better than this. Maybe they will have fireflies there? I hope that you will understand me and that you can carry

    on with those four bags and I'll take these here two and we will get these to the property officer to release to the family. You done good, Adams.

Thank you, sir.

Watch that crash-gate now. It's about to be lunchtime, so after we drop this shit off you can sign out. You want to catch some Whataburger with me? They give a discount to prison guards.

No, I don't think...I'm not real hungry right now.

Your loss, I tell you.

Sir...do you...I mean...do you ever...

Ever what, Adams?

Oh...nevermind. It was nothing. Nothing at all.




Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

2 comments:

CS McClellan/Catana said...

I try to look at the way you wrote this as a literary device, extremely well done, but I can't. Objectivity can't survive in the face of so much pain.

denise mcnamee said...

One of the best posts you have written Thomas. Thankyou