Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eating Crow

By Timothy Pauley

The glass door swung open and a small group of men began shuffling down the sidewalk. They emerged from a massive corrugated steel structure that could have been a warehouse or an airplane hanger. It stood over three stories, one of seven such buildings that made up the prison living units.

With the sun barely peeking out from behind the trees surrounding the institution, the men of H-unit were on their way to the chow hall for breakfast. Most were barely awake, their heads hanging and eyes squinting in the morning light. The only sounds were footsteps on the concrete periodically interspersed with coughing and grumbling.

After a few moments, a figure emerged from the door walking purposefully down the sidewalk. Tom was a morning person and was already wide-awake. No shuffling for him, he was hungry and ready for breakfast.

He’d made it about ten steps down the sidewalk when the call went out. Caw Caw Caw! Tom looked up just in time to see about a dozen crows circling in from the forest that surrounded the facility. Half a dozen lighted on a low fence between the living units with the remainder coming to rest at a safe distance on the wide grass expanse adjacent to the sidewalk.

Most of the crows kept a safe distance from people, but one brave bird landed within inches of the sidewalk, about three feet in front of Tom. As he drew near, the little bird began running along next to him, periodically looking up at Tom as his little claws propelled him along as fast as they could move.

Tom reached in his pocket as he glanced down at his little friend. Percy was his pet crow and this was a morning ritual. A few more steps and Percy became impatient. He launched into the air, circled around behind, then flew across the sidewalk at about eye level, no more than three feet in front of Tom. Percy landed on a dead nm, keeping pace with Tom and looking for attention.

Tom couldn’t help but smile as he pulled a small ball of bread out of his pocket and flipped it in Percy’s path. Before tl1e ball even hit the ground, the rest of the crows were in the air. They cawed loudly as they raced for the scrap of food, but to no avail. As usual, Percy’s courage was rewarded. He snatched it up and took off before the rest could even change course.

In an instant, the flock of crows was chasing Percy in something that resembled a World War II airplane movie. Percy dipped and dodged performing several intricate aerial maneuvers with several birds right on his tail. This continued for a few minutes before he was finally able to gain some ground on the pursuit.

Soon Percy was able to land on the nearby roof, dropping his prize at his feet and hastily pecking at it. In seconds, it was broken up and he’d managed to swallow all but a few stray crumbs before the first of the other crows arrived. By then, Percy was ready to leave them the crumbs and make another pass.

When Percy caught up, Tom was just entering the chow hall. Percy took a perch on a forty-foot light tower outside the front door and waited. People continued to file in and out of the building. All the while Percy waited patiently. Twenty minutes later Tom emerged.

The door didn’t even close behind him before Percy was in the air. There were scores of people in the area near the chow hall. Even a bird as brave as Percy didn’t dare land next to that sidewalk. If something went wrong, he would be boxed in with nowhere to escape. So Percy landed on the roof of a small one story guard shack about thirty feet down the sidewalk.

As Tom approached, Percy cawed several times then swooped down, flying right in front of Tom’s face and landing on a fence twenty feet away. This routine continued as Tom proceeded down the sidewalk. Two blocks later, when the sidewalk branched off toward H-unit, the crowd had thinned out and Percy came in for his final run.

As Tom turned the comer and headed toward H-unit, Percy was already waiting. This time Tom didn’t keep his friend in suspense. He reached in his waistband and pulled out an entire slice of French toast, flinging it like a Frisbee onto the grass directly in front of Percy.

Percy reached the spot the exact moment the slice of French toast did, snatching his prize out of the air and taking flight all in one motion. Once again, the other crows gave chase. This time the package was a little bigger and more cumbersome. Hard as Percy tried, he couldn’t shake the pursuit.

Little more than a minute later Percy landed in the middle of the grass expanse, quickly dropping the prize at his feet and pecking away at it. This time, the rest of the crows were right behind him. In seconds, a tight circle formed around the slice of French toast with five birds furiously pecking and tearing at it, while several others waited nearby for any leftovers.

In no time, the treat was tom to bits. Percy picked up three of the largest pieces and took flight as the rest of his flock continued to peck at what was left. When Percy launched himself into the air, another crow quickly took his place in the circle and several others gave chase.

Again, aerial maneuvers played out as Tom watched from below. Percy would fly as fast as he possibly could toward the building, then veer off sharply at the last instant and circle around, only to launch himself at some other object and repeat the process. In less than a minute, the pursuit gave way and Percy was able to land on a nearby roof and enjoy his French toast breakfast.

Each time Tom left his living unit for any reason, this scene repeated. He made a habit of hiding extra food somewhere in his clothing every time he left the chow hall. Sometimes the cops would see a bulge and make him throw it away but, more often than not, he’d manage to leave with something. His jacket pockets stayed full of anything he could scrounge up for Percy.

It began gradually. First Tom was just throwing a handful of oyster crackers on the lawn on his way back from lunch. The air show caught his attention and soon he was walking out of every meal with a ball of bread clenched in his fist. Before long, he was filling his pockets, waistband, or sometimes even his socks.

Somewhere along the way, Percy took charge of the situation. While the other crows waited at a safe distance, he tempted fate by coming in dangerously close. But with the increased risk came a greater reward. Whenever Tom threw a scrap of something, Percy was right there while those at a safe distance had to fight for the leftovers.

That was about the time it occurred to Tom that they all knew him on sight. Just to make sure, he would stand at the door and watch for the birds from behind the glass. There wouldn’t be a crow in sight, even when the sidewalk was full of prisoners dressed exactly as Tom was. When he finally stepped out the door, Tom wouldn’t make it more than five steps before the call went out. In no time, the flock of crows was perched on the fence or on the grass. Amid a raucous chorus of Caws from the other birds, Percy would come in for a perfect two point landing within a few feet of Tom’s position.

Prison can be a lonely place. In spite of the fact most facilities are severely overcrowded, nobody is ever truly glad to see a person. Each new face merely represents more competition for limited space and resources. Even those one considers friends are unlikely to display a great deal of emotion and a warm welcome is all but unheard of.

Perhaps that’s why Percy captivated Tom`s attention so completely. Every time he walked out the door, Tom felt like there was someone there who was truly glad to see him. Rain, snow, or sweltering heat, it didn’t matter, Percy was always there. It became the talk of the yard. Nobody ever had a pet crow before.

With notoriety came a whole pack of other sentiments better left unexpressed. Some resented the display because they were afraid of catching an errant turd. Others were just jealous that another prisoner was actually able to make a connection with the birds. Whatever the reason, it seemed nobody appreciated the bond Tom had with the crows.

Then there were the guards. It was against the rules to take food out of the chow hall. It was against the rules to feed the birds. It was against the rules to litter. Hell, it was against the rules to do anything that might be considered fun and they didn’t like it one bit when some sorry convict thought he could blatantly break the rules.

Tom first noticed the cop’s new attitude at the chow hall. Upon leaving, predictably a guard would want to search him. Most assumed the intimidation factor would bring a swift end to this whole bird thing. The majority of guards just checked Tom’s pockets. Most were spoiled by scores of boot lickers who would surrender everything they had,just for the asking. To them, offering Tom an opportunity to disclose the contents of his pockets was supposed to trigger in an immediate confession.

For a week, the guards were satisfied to verbally accost Tom. “Do you have anything in your pockets?" They would ask. Tom would shake his head from side to side without even breaking stride. After a while, however, word got back to them that there was still a flock of birds having a party on the lawn in front of H unit after every meal.

The next step was a pat search. The first day they got two pieces of bread, a cupcake, and some crackers from Tom. After that, he merely adjusted his hiding spots to where they hadn’t been checking. It didn’t take long for him to notice that bending down to pat his socks was too much work for a guy sporting a massive belly.

Whatever the guards tried, Tom would adjust his tactics immediately. Percy was never the wiser because there was always something for him. Even when an unusually vigilant guard found his stash, Tom would have a piece of bread balled up in his fist or perhaps in his hat. No matter what, there would always be something for his friend.

The cop problems really mounted when it was time for work. During the week, everyone was headed down the sidewalk when work call was announced. On weekends, however, Tom was often the only prisoner on a long empty sidewalk. Being the only thing the guard at the checkpoint had for entertainment, was not conducive to feeding the birds.

Saturday morning Tom walked out the door and the usual flock of crows took up their positions. Their caws created quite a racket and the guard at the checkpoint was not amused. He situated himself outside the guard shack, standing with his hands on his hips and a disgusted look on his face. How dare those damn birds have the audacity to wake him up.

As nonchalantly as possible, Tom reached in his pocket and grabbed a fist full of dried tortilla pieces. He knew if he started throwing food, it would be an instant bust, so he bided his time. As soon as the guard glanced away for a moment, Tom began dropping them as he walked. Of course, this resulted in quite a melee on the sidewalk behind him. The guard hadn’t seen the move, but he knew.

When Tom passed the checkpoint, Officer Reynolds ordered him to stand for a search. As Tom raised his hands in the air, assuming the position, Reynolds asked if he had anything in his pockets. Tom grunted and shook his head from side to side. The aggravated cop gave him a cursory pat down and sent Tom on his way. He’d made his point. That stupid convict would know better next time.

On Sunday, Tom was relieved to see another officer occupying the checkpoint. This guy was busy on the phone so it was business as usual. Tom got to enjoy the air show once again and the cop didn’t so much as glance up as he walked past the checkpoint.

All week things appeared back to normal. They’d even backed off the chow hall shakedown routine, so Tom was able to stock up on bread and tortillas. By Friday his jacket pockets were full and he had still managed to keep Percy well fed all the while.

Then came Saturday. On his way back from breakfast, Tom glanced at the checkpoint and noticed Reynolds peering back at him. With all the people moving to and from the chow hall, Tom was able to discretely throw a couple pancakes to his friend but the ensuing commotion caught Reynolds attention. He scowled as he watched the crows surround a pancake and peck at it. That insolent bastard had done it again!

Officer Reynolds was an angry man. Life had dealt him a bad hand and the only time he felt good was on that rare occasion he could make someone else more miserable than he was. Prison was a perfect place for this and, in spite of his claims to the contrary, Reynolds loved his job. Where else could a guy pick on people all day long with impunity?

His favorite routine was to catch prisoners with their shirts untucked. Even though many prisoners and staff alike ignored this rule, it was a ripe opportunity to assert some authority. Reynolds knew fat people didn’t like to tuck their shirts in and he lived for the moment one had the audacity to pass his station in such a state. The humiliated look on their faces as he forced them to pull the fabric tight over a massive belly was the highlight of Reynolds’s day.

“Stand for a shakedown” he’d taunt. Once they submitted to a physical groping, Reynolds would demand they produce their identification card. This was guaranteed to intimidate, as it was how a written rule infraction always began. After he scrutinized the identification long and slow, Reynolds would pause to enjoy the discomfort of his mark. After they were noticeably distressed, he’d order them to tuck in their shirt. Handing back the identification Reynolds favorite parting shot was, “don’t let it happen again,” then scoff as they shuffled away.

Most prisoners, particularly fat ones, absolutely hated the guy. He was always condescending and loved it when someone would have the nerve to argue or question his authority. When that happened Reynolds would become threatening. He’d bark orders and hold his finger over the alarm button on his radio. One push of that button and it was a trip to the hole. Nobody wanted that and he knew it. As soon as he’d sufficiently humbled and/or humiliated his mark, Reynolds would post up and begin the search for his next victim.

When Tom heard work call over the loudspeaker system, he grabbed his coat and headed for the door. As he hit the sidewalk, Tom was relieved to see a few other prisoners ahead of him. Hopefully they'd distract Reynolds long enough.

About the time that thought occurred to Tom, his crows began making a racket. This morning there were twenty of them and they must have been hungry. The flock of birds circled Tom like a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie raising such a fuss it would have been impossible not to notice. Even the other prisoners turned to see what the commotion was.

Tom already had both hands full of tortilla pieces. As the crumbs slipped from between his fingers, birds began landing on the sidewalk behind him and fighting over them. Tom did his best to remain nonchalant but he knew trouble was straight ahead. Reynolds was standing outside the checkpoint with his arms folded across his chest and an authoritative smirk on his face.

There would be no distraction or looking away this morning. Tom was the center of attention. As he tamed the corner onto the main sidewalk Tom opened his hands to let the tortilla pieces fall to the ground. This incited a near riot among the crows as they descended on the morsels with a vengeance. Of course Percy was the first in line, but there was so much food the sidewalk was full of cawing thrashing crows struggling to get their piece of the action.

Reynolds could hardly contain himself. This insolence had to be stopped and he was just the man for the job. As Tom approached the checkpoint, Reynolds stepped out and planted himself directly in Tom’s path. “Stand for a shakedown,” Reynolds demanded, his hands on his hips and his jaw tightened into almost a grimace.

Tom turned his back on Reynolds and raised his arms out to his sides to accommodate a pat search. “Do you have anything in your pockets?” Reynolds barked. Tom pulled out a few papers from his pants and held them up in his hand. “Is that all?” Reynolds prodded. Tom shook his head up and down twice with a look of disgust on his face.

In reality, Tom had another couple handfuls of tortilla pieces in his jacket pockets. The fact he was busted was bad enough, but telling on himself was completely out of the question. If this creep wanted Percy’s food, he’d have to find it. Tom still had to walk this sidewalk twice more before he could get any more food. Percy would be expecting something to eat and Tom wasn‘t going to just handover the last of his stash for the asking.

Since Tom’s back was turned, he didn’t see the look of disappointment cross Reynolds’ countenance when he indicated there was nothing in his pockets. The angry guard assumed he’d already given it all to the crows. Now he would find nothing. As he thought about this, his shoulders slumped a little. If he didn’t find anything, there would be little Reynolds could do to torment this insolent scumbag standing in front of him.

Sensing his bust had slipped away, Reynolds determined to make this shakedown extra personal. He would grope and feel every inch of this guy in hopes he could elicit some kind of protest. “Just let this punk say anything stupid,” he thought, “and he’ll be on his way to the hole so fast his head will spin." Maybe he’d lost the bust but at least he could still dish out a little humiliation.

Tom had pulled this move many times before. Even if he had something, there was an even chance the lazy cops around this place wouldn’t find it. Just that morning he’d been shook down with two pancakes in his waistband and the guy hadn’t found them. But the way Reynolds was grabbing and squeezing everywhere, Tom knew his chances of that happening on this occasion were slim to none.

When Reynolds got to Tom’s jacket pockets, his whole posture changed. His disappointed scowl tightened into a beaming grimace, his shoulders squared, and his chest poked out slightly. It was Reynolds’ version of utter delight. He felt a lump, then another lump. He`d caught this stinking perp red handed!

“What’s this?" Reynolds barked. “I thought you didn’t have anything else in your pockets?” he demanded. “ I ought to throw your ass in the hole right now!” Tom knew the abusive guard was looking for any sign of discomfort. If Reynolds thought for a minute Tom was afraid to go to the hole, the belligerent guard would push the alarm button immediately. Later he’d concoct some story about how Tom had done something threatening.

Feeding the animals was a minor offense. The worst that would normally happen was a verbal reprimand or, at worst, a few days of cell confinement. But Reynolds was a different animal entirely. He had a reputation for making up whatever it took to get the result he desired. In the end, it would be his word against that of a prisoner. The prison administration would always side with their guard in such circumstances.

So Tom remained motionless, doing his very best to maintain a blank expression. Reynolds finished the pat search in a manner that could easily have qualified as sexual harassment. When he was done, Reynolds stepped around in front of Tom, who still had his arms raised out to the side and his eyes staring straight ahead. Reynolds eyed the prisoner up and down trying his best to be intimidating.

“I don’t know why I shouldn’t just throw you in the hole right now.” Reynolds barked, his face so close Tom could see the fillings in the guard’s teeth as he spoke. “You lied to me!" “That’s very serious mister.” Tom remained frozen in the shakedown position and kept his same blank expression all the while. Tom’s eyes stared blankly straight ahead as if focusing on some unseen object miles in the distance. Even though this guy clearly needed a beating, Tom was determined to give him as little satisfaction as possible.

Reynolds gave it one more try. He reached out and snatched the laminated identification card clipped to Tom’s collar and stared first at the photo, then at Tom. “So why shouldn’t I throw you in the hole right now, Mr. Parker?” he demanded. Keeping the same expression, Tom shrugged his shoulders as if to indicate he could offer no reason.

This wasn’t going well at all, Reynolds thought. The guy was one of those hard cases. He hated those guys. No matter what you did to them, they’d shut up and take it. Until they snapped that is. Then who knows what would happen. The last time he’d pushed a guy over the edge Reynolds ended up getting a few weeks off with pay, but that was little consolation for the indignity of having to eat through a straw for six weeks.

While doubts were swirling in Reynolds’ head, Tom was becoming impatient. He knew the sadistic guard was trying to trap him into saying or doing something stupid. That wasn’t going to happen, if for no other reason than that is what his adversary wanted him to do. Tom maintained his composure. No matter what, Reynolds wasn’t going to get what he wanted.

Reynolds finally extended his arm, thrusting the identification card in Tom’s direction. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here Mr. Parker, but I’m going to be here every morning from now on.” He paused looking for a reaction. When none came, he continued. “If I see another spectacle like the one this morning, I’ll see to it you spend the rest of your sentence on cell confinement, or worse.”

The lack of reaction was really becoming unsettling. Usually Reynolds would have a guy groveling early on in the encounter. This guy was still standing there with his blank stare. In a last attempt for a response, Reynolds tried demanding a verbal response. “Do we understand each other, Mr. Parker?” He spat. Without averting his glance in the slightest,
Tom shook his head up and down twice.

Empty your pockets in that trash can right now!” Reynolds watched closely as Tom turned his pockets inside out and let the tortilla pieces and crumbs fall into the large metal drum. As Tom pushed the pockets back into his jacket, Reynolds reached out and slapped them with the back of his hand to make sure they were empty.

“That will be all.” Reynolds growled. Without so much as a glance in Reynolds’ direction, Tom began slowly walking away. He knew Reynolds was mad. He also knew the best way to get through the whole ordeal was to shut up and stay cool. Even though his heart was racing, Tom forced himself to take slow even steps as Reynolds stared holes in his back.

When Tom returned from work a few hours later, he half expected Reynolds to be waiting for round two. Much to his relief; the guard had found some other poor soul to torment and Tom moved past without even glancing in that direction. As he turned down the sidewalk to H unit, there was Percy waiting for him.

Tom looked at his friend as he walked past. What could he do? He continued down the sidewalk with Percy racing beside him. Right before he reached the door, Tom pulled his pockets inside out and tried to shake some crumbs out for Percy. If anything fell to the sidewalk, it wasn’t much. When lunch rolled around the same scene unfolded. Five steps down the sidewalk, the call went out. Five steps later Percy was racing beside Tom, waiting for his snack. Before Tom reached the end of the sidewalk, Percy made two flybys. The second one he passed a mere two feet in front of Tom’s face before landing just beyond the edge of the sidewalk.

The one creature on this earth that was actually happy to see Tom coming and all he could do was watch as the little bird tried again and again to get his attention. At lunch, Tom was determined to remedy the situation. After he’d eaten, Tom stuffed a couple pieces of bread into his waistband and headed back to H-unit.

As Tom walked out the door there were half a dozen cops posted up there. In seconds, he could hear their radios crackle with the call. “There’s an offender coming out of the chow hall in a gray sweatshirt.” Squawked the radio, “Better check him close.” Another step and a cop was surrounding Tom for a shakedown.

After the cop confiscated his bread, Tom headed back to his unit. He could see Reynolds standing outside the checkpoint with his radio in one hand and his binoculars in the other. The vindictive guard was wearing an expression that looked to Torn as if the guy just had sex. As Tom passed, Reynolds was beaming, almost giddy.

Once again, Tom had to make the long trek down the H-unit sidewalk with nothing for his little friend. It broke his heart that he had nothing for Percy. The only thing left was to make sure Reynolds didn’t see his disappointment. Tom channeled his anger to that end and his expression never changed until he was back in his cell.

Sunday was a new day. Reynolds would be off today, Tom thought as he tied his shoes. It sucked he wouldn’t have anything for Percy on his way to chow, but he’d hustle up some leftovers and make sure his little friend was well fed the rest of the day. Yesterday had been a nightmare and he looked forward to the new day.

As Tom hit the sidewalk on the way to breakfast, the usual call went out and in moments Percy was racing beside him. The fearless little bird did three flybys before Tom reached the end of the sidewalk. As he turned toward the chow hall, Tom looked up and saw Reynolds standing at the checkpoint, his binoculars in one hand and his radio in the other. He was sporting a toothy grin that sickened Tom.

On the way out of the chow hall, the radio crackled and Tom was subjected to an intense search once again. This time they found a slice of French toast in each sock and four in Tom’s waistband. As Tom walked back to his unit, he felt violated. And as he passed the checkpoint, of course, Reynolds was still wearing that smug grin, almost taunting Tom.

The same scene unfolded the next day, and the next, and the next. Each day Percy would be waiting for Tom, and each day Tom would have nothing for him. He entertained thoughts of just walking up to Reynolds and pummeling him, but that would do little to solve the problem. In the end Percy would not be fed, Reynolds would still be the same, and Tom would be in the hole for the next five years.

In the three weeks it took Percy to finally give up his routine, Tom was thoroughly depressed. Normally he had little difficulty brushing off just about anything they could throw at him, but this was somehow more dehumanizing than anything they’d done to him in the past twenty years. The only part of his day he’d truly looked forward to had been stolen from him for no good reason. Reynolds had done it just to show that he could.

Tom soon found himself in the hole anyway. A guy can’t walk around prison with an attitude problem for very long without ending up in such a place. After a couple months in the hole, they decided Tom ought to be transferred. There was just something unsettling about him and his attitude problem. The administration thought it best to just be rid of him.

As Tom watched the trees rush past the bus window on his way to the next prison, he contemplated the events leading to his transfer. Crows were smart birds, he thought. But then again, if they really were that smart, then Reynolds wouldn’t be able to walk outside without being showered with bird turds. The thought of that scene unfolding brought a smile to Tom’s face for the first time in a month.

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


CS McClellan/Catana said...

Great story. I know it's fiction, but I'd bet anything it's based on someone you knew.

Loren said...

I doubt this is fiction .. see it happen many times at different Washington prisons