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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Tangled Up in Blue

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Pascal's wager is alive and well on Death Watch, I am happy to report. To my count, there are now at least three recently "reborn" (or re-re-reborn, as the case may be) Christians next door, and one man who - according to the news reports at any rate - genuinely believes himself to be god's most recently anointed prophet. I was moved to A-Pod, B-Section in early October, meaning that I am literally two cells and one crossover door away from A-Section, the fourteen cells where they house all of the men with dates. It is presently full, which is to say that despite reports to the contrary, the machinery of death is in fine form as soon-to-be-Presidential-candidate Perry hands the controls over to Governor-in-waiting Abbott. The King is dead, long live the King, etc, etc.

Given my position on the second floor, I have a sort of birds-eye view of everything that goes on next door, including the metaphysical meanderings that take place as the condemned come to terms with the fact that the food in their cells will last longer than they will. I have learned over the years that it is better to keep my views on religion to myself, but this last minute switching of teams I find very confusing. I truly do not mean to offend people when I talk about faith and ask my questions; this is what seekers do, and I guess I have come to terms with the fact that this title applies to me (though that doesn't mean I find it any less annoying than I once did). Still, offense seems to be inevitable, as the epistemological standards I demand are quite simply above and beyond what any faith-based system could ever hope to meet. I have a difficult time understanding why at least intelligent believers do not recognize the significance of this, or, to come back on topic, why it is perceived to be a victory when someone completely changes their stance on the makeup of the entire universe just because of a fear of imminent demise. I tried discussing this with my dad recently, and l don't think we were ever really communicating on the same frequency, a thing I find happens often when I try to discuss topics like this. To him, it doesn't matter what motivation a person (or the Holy Spirit) utilizes when they come to god, so long as the desire is there. This seemed obvious to him, as obvious as could be, and he was confused that I should think otherwise. For my part, I cannot imagine waiting until one feels the Eternal Footman's gaze to finally realize that one is mortal; one's entire existence should be an examination of such concepts. I further cannot imagine any deity accepting that someone's beliefs are genuine if they came to them just because they were terrified. Fear does not seem to me a proper motivation for believing in anything. And though I can still recall some of my Sunday School rhymes ("Fear of the lord is the heart of love, makes straight the path from below to above"), I doubt that I ever really felt fear to be inspiring towards anything positive. Neither, I add, do cowardice or dishonesty seem like genuine motivations for one's beliefs. I try to envision what it would be like to stand in front of a deity and explain how, because of a sickness or a date in Huntsville, I had switched my position on virtually every belief that I had spent a lifetime developing. How is that real? Genuine? Would said deity not vastly prefer an honest skepticism to a belief based on either fear or a banal desire for paradise? When I said this to my dad, I could tell that he had no idea what to do with me, so I dropped the subject. It's a look I'm more or less accustomed to by this point.

The core issue to me is whether or not these sorts of last-minute changes are genuine. I have known many men who got bit hard by the religion bug during their time on Death Watch - men who practically drowned in ritual and meme- who were granted stays and then quietly reverted to their old ways. I've seen this too often to count. I was recently forced to contrast this sort of quackery with something more authentic when the state killed my friend Miguel. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miguel's conversion was a process that began several years ago. More importantly - to me, at any rate - was the fact that he actually tried to do something with his beliefs, namely the dismantling of one of the most violent prison gangs we have on the Row. We thought that this sort of courage might mean something to the parole board, but we were wrong, yet again.  Over his last weeks, I had a chance to speak to Miguel often, and to his credit he only tried to save me a few times. I think on some level he recognized that I had come by my apostasy honestly, that I had done my searching and am a nonbeliever not because I need to learn more about his religion, but because I know far too much about it. When he made his last appeal for my immortal soul, I did for a brief second think about telling him something that would put him at ease. In the end, I felt that the only way to truly honor our relationship was to be honest with him, so I told him the truth: that I thought his logic sucked. He smiled, I smiled, and then he was gone. As such things go, it wasn't the worst way to say goodbye to a friend.

Miguel's views were somewhat mystical in nature, but more or less in line with much of Christian dogma. I've heard of far stranger systems over the years. The last time I lived this close to Death Watch was in 2010. I had a chance to converse with K-, who, alone among those I spoke with, seemed genuinely non-troubled by his quickly approaching death. I expected to learn that this was due to some belief in the afterlife, but K- told me instead that he wasn't scared because he'd already died thousands of times before.

"Ah," I said, already starting to distance myself. "Reincarnation, then?"

He shook his head, and instead asked me to imagine that we lived in some future time where a person could have their consciousness (whatever that is) downloaded into a computer. Immediately I perked up. He asked me to imagine myself lying on a bed, where some device would be hooked up to my cranium so it could map out all of the states of the cells in my brain and then make a copy. The computer would wake up and seem to be me, complete with all of my memories, loves, goals, etc. If I were still lying on the bed seeing this, however, the computer-me couldn't be me, because identity requires a psychological continuity that only I would possess. But if the process destroyed my brain as it was being copied, no one would be around to object to the computer-me claiming to actually be me. It would be completely convinced it had made the transfer, and it would be convincing to anyone who had known me in the past. K-'s view was that this was basically what happens every single day, that each morning a person's brain newly manufactures the self-based on old memories. Included in this is the belief that we are the same person that we were yesterday, even though we are full of new atoms that were not a part of us yesterday. His view was that every night was a death, every morning a birth. I saw some errors in this logic at the time, but I was nonetheless astonished by his views. This was a guy who had come nowhere close to graduating high school, and yet his belief system was way more interesting than most of the people I've met in this life. I gave him points for originality, at least, and I still think about him often, especially as I am falling asleep.

Last week, I was feeling nostalgic and I asked a few of the guys on my row if they remembered K-. Only one of them did, which made me incredibly sad. This man had lived for more than a decade back here. He made great art and knew hundreds of rap songs by heart. He had a wife and children, though he hadn't spoken to them in years. I can't help but wonder if they ever think about him. Despite all of that, no one but me could remember what his face looked like. I feel like I am storing up all of these memories of dead men, and I do not know to what purpose I am to utilize them. Surely I must do something with them, but I feel totally inadequate as a messenger. K- was the 64th man killed here in Texas during my stay, Miguel the 131st. I sit by their absence and am humbled, for they taught me much that I am largely unable to distill for publication in these pages. In ancient Greek, the word for truth was alatheia, literally "not forgetting." That, at least, I think I can manage.


1) My prime of youth is a frost of cares, my feast of joy but a dish of pain:
2) My crop of corn is a field of tares, my wealth no more than dreams of gain;
3) My day is fled, yet I saw no sun; and though I live, my life is done.
4) My spring is past, but not yet sprung; the fruit is dead, with leaves still green;
5) My youth is past, though I still young; I saw the world, myself unseen.
6) My thread is cut, though not yet spun; and though I live, my life is done.
7) I sought for death, it was the womb; I looked for life, it was a shade;
8) I tread the ground, which is my tomb; and now I die, though just new made.
9) The glass is full, yet my glass is run; and though I live, my life is done.
(Lamentations, Chapter 4, The Good Book, compiled by AC Grayling)

For many years, I didn't like Donnie at all. I wouldn't go so far as to call us enemies, but there was no love lost between us. Way back when I started writing for MB6 in 2007, I published something regarding communication methods among convicts that I probably should have kept to myself. The woodpile "ran court" on me and basically gave me a pass, saying that my intentions were good and that I was new to prison and allowances needed to be made for that. I took the article down, made my mea culpas, and moved on. For whatever reason, Donnie couldn't do this. For years, I heard rumors of things he supposedly said during my "court process" and I simultaneously held desires to have it out with him or to never have to see him again. The gods love conflict, so naturally they placed us in adjacent cells in October of 2011.

For three days we didn't say a word to each other. This detente probably would have lasted for weeks if not for a conversation I was having with Big T, the man on the other side of Donnie's cell. This guy had just lost an appeal. One of his most promising issues dealt with the fact that during his trial, some quack the state hired testified that it was his belief that black defendants were simply more dangerous than Caucasian ones. We were discussing exactly what type of schooling a person would need to obtain in order to be considered an expert witness in a state district court. As we were talking, this buffoon of an inmate named Peanut was cavorting about in the dayroom, gloating that he had jacked twenty big stamps from some fool on one-row dumb enough to try to use him to pass kites. Seeing this, I remarked that I, too, studied criminal minds. I paused a moment before adding: "It's called watching the dayrooms." Donnie came to the door and looked down on Peanut for a moment. He then turned to me and said, "Yeah, you study the criminal mind. It's called introspection." Big T started cracking up, and for a brief moment I thought I was going to have to cuss Donnie out. The truth of it is, I am a sucker for a nice piece of wit, and I rather liked his comment. We eventually got what we needed to off our chests and Donnie became one of the better friends I've made during my time back here.

Pretty much everyone thought this was odd. It was odd. Donnie was from the bayous of Louisiana. He was a country type and far more conservative than I am. I'm a city boy and a closet Marxist and...well, just kind of weird. We synced up on a deeper level, though, that of the prankster. Camus once wrote that no fate was incapable of being overcome through scorn; I don't know if this is true, but we made a spirited attempt at proving him right. Donnie made easily the best gumbo on the Row, a recipe I still make from time to time when I have the money. He also made some of the best prison hooch I've ever tasted. You know... hypothetically speaking. More importantly, he taught me that the things that bind people together are always stronger than the things separating them, and that it is always better to deal with tension head on rather than letting it fester.

Eventually our time together came to an end, and we were both moved. Fortunately, they stuck me right below him during the Summer of 2012. Within a few minutes of my arrival he sent me a kite, which said that his prosecutor was being a real "ghoul" and had set his execution date for 6pm, Halloween. He closed the letter by saying he was going to go trick-or-treating as a corpse. I smiled at his attempts at humor, but I felt sick.

Despite having become a finalist in whatever sort of race life is supposed to be, Donnie never stopped being Donnie. No massive religious changes for him. That was one of the things I liked best about Donnie, his steadiness. He might stab you repeatedly in the chest, but he'd never do so from behind. The day they moved him to Death Watch is one I'll never forget. The guy in dayroom was another real wanker, a person that neither Donnie nor I cared for very much. This guy - we'll call him Bleat, as that is pretty much the sum total of what came out of his mouth - was big on posturing. He liked to think of himself as a real stand up con - at least until it was time to actually do something, at which point he always managed to be occupied. Anyways, Bleat was...uh...bleating...about something or other, and I could just feel Donnie staring at him with loathing. I drew a tic-tac-toe grid on a sheet of paper, placed my X, and wrote "your move" on it. I then folded this up, wrote Donnie's cell number on the front, and shot it out to the dayroom. I could hear him chuckle when he received it. So that you know, every single time a kite is passed, all three people involved risk a downgrade of level. Kites are therefore supposed to only contain important information, business. This does not generally include completely pointless games of tic-tac-toe.

Within a few minutes I heard Bleat calling my name, and I shot my line to the dayroom to pick up the kite. In addition to his move, Donnie had simply written "you are an ass." The kite managed to go back and forth five or six times (we were on our second game) before Bleat had had enough and started bumping his gums about us taking advantage of him. I told him he could read the kite, as it technically pertained to him. He looked at me suspiciously before his curiosity got the better of him. As soon as he saw what was inside he went ballistic. Despite all of his yelling I could still hear Donnie cackling. When they came to get him, he left with a smile, mouthing the word “asshole" to me. I was going to tell him that it took one to know one, but I couldn't find my voice. 

My recollections of Donnie will forever be tempered by the fact that he should never have been killed. I don't mean that in the sense that 1 usually do, where I am talking about how the death penalty is always morally wrong. I mean it in the technical, legal sense. Donnie killed his common law wife. Obviously, I do not condone this. They upgraded his case to capital murder because after he shot her, he panicked and took some things from their house and ran. They called this theft in the commission of a murder, i.e., capital murder. Except, you can't steal from yourself, can you? The property he "stole" was held in common. The state literally got away with executing someone who was really only guilty of second-degree murder. This is what passes for justice down here, especially when the victim of a crime is the daughter of a cop. Donnie was the 1312th human being killed during the “modern" era in this country, and the 102nd in Texas during my time. He had a woman that loved him very much and 1 am thankful that I knew him.


I can live with my regrets
Still raise a smile, still raise my head
And a stranger god can be so cruel
And a holy fool is still a fool
But this is all I can say
I have lost my way

But you only you only disappear
You only you only disappear
(Tom McRae, "You Only Disappear")

I think that most people suspect that it is the loss of freedom that kills the soul of prisoners, numbs us out to the point where we become the sociopaths the state claimed we were from the start. Or maybe it is the violence that we see everyday, or the institutional-grade stupidity, or the constant heat and cold, or maybe it’s just the shitty food. These are the surface issues, the things that activists talk about and claim to understand, though they probably don't. The root of all of these things is the lethal absurdity of prison life. Camus seems to be on my mind this evening (how could he not be?), so here is another quote of his: "Absurdity does not liberate; it binds." he was definitely right about this one. It numbs, it scours, it washes away everything until you are so featureless that nothing matters to you anymore. It's a process, a Zeno's paradox of small events that add up to a mass of such gravity that not even light can escape it. I remember the first time I realized this truth, the first time I knew that no matter what would come to pass in future years, I was ruined. I saw clearly that no matter who was proven innocent, made parole, or cut themselves out one vein at a time, this would all end without anyone being free.

While I was awaiting trial, the authorities decided that I was apparently not as dangerous as the prosecutors claimed and shipped me off to several different facilities to help with their overcrowding problems. I've written about this in other places. Sometime during the summer of 2006, I was called from one such unit back to Fort Bend to attend some pointless hearing. Only one other man took the trip with me, an alleged murderer who went by the nickname of Bugs. He was a hulking brute of a man with curiously red skin and the remnants of what had probably been a very substantial beard before he was forced to shave it down to meet prison standards. If they have spent more than a few months behind bars, newly introduced prisoners are always a little wary of each other. Consequently, even though we were alone in a van for more than four hours, Bugs and I said little to each other beyond a brief greeting.

We arrived at the county jail at around 7pm on a Friday night, meaning the booking area was overflowing and the guards completely drained of patience. Bugs and I were shunted into a small holding cell by ourselves, where we prepared to wait for assignment to a tank upstairs. We finally began speaking thanks to a drugged-up young Mexican in a pscyh cell across the hallway. This vato had been staring hard at us for several hours, his angry facial tattoos on full display. He finally snapped and began yelling at a passing screw.

"Hey, puto! I'm talking to you, hijo de la chingada! Why don't you put those two white boys in here so I can knock em' out pronto-quick!"

The officer paused to look him over for several seconds before kicking the door hard, right where the guy's fingers looped through the metal mesh. The kid stumbled back.

"Why don't you shut your punk ass up before we come in there and tase you like we did yesterday!" After yelling this, the guard stomped off, apparently satisfied.

The Mexican returned to the door, rubbing his fingers. "Hey ese, you can't talk to me like that! I've got constitutional rights!"

Bugs almost fell on the urine-soaked floor, he was laughing so hard. I nearly joined him. The incongruity, the sheer violation of context, was absurdity defined. For the roughly twenty-four hours we were kept in the holding area, this became our official motto. Any time I hear some politician wax idiotic about the Constitution I can't help but think of the kid with the bruised fingers and plentiful facial tats; they somehow seem equally suited to talk about things so obviously beyond their ken.

Bugs and I were finally processed sometime late Saturday night. Eventually four guards and a corporal came to escort us to our tank on the second floor. I'd never been on this particular end of the hall before, but I didn't think that this meant much of anything. It wasn't until we were led into 2E that a little voice in my head began to whisper that something was off.

The tanks in Fort Bend contain 24 cells laid out in the shape of an L, with ten cells on the first floor and fourteen above. In front of this L is the dayroom and the guard picket, a long line of windows that make every corner of the tank visible from within. If one were to look through these windows, one could see most of 2F, the tank on the other side of the picket. As it happened, this was exactly what about a dozen dudes were doing when we walked in. This was the first thing I noticed. The second was that the guards actually came into the tank with us, instead of slamming the door and leaving us to whatever violence awaited. The third thing I noticed was that the guys at the windows were oddly draped in their blankets, almost like they were wearing robes to a religious ceremony. Bugs and I gave each other a confused look before we set our property boxes down on the floor and headed to share the view.

Having been incarcerated for nearly a year by this point, it took me a moment to process what I was seeing. On the stairs and the elevated walkway leading to the cells on the second floor were four women wearing bras and panties. Not so amazing a sight, really, save for the fact that one does not generally see such things on the maximum-security floor of an all-male lock- up. The women were housed in a completely different building, a fact that my brain offered up to me after the first few stunned seconds. The association-chain then moved rather quickly to: oh, those are dudes to: oh, those are transvestites to: oh, they seriously put them in a tank next to regular inmates? to: oh, no way would they put them next to regular inmates. I turned to again look over the group of men gathered at the windows, and from this angle noticed for the first time what they were doing with their hands under their blankets.

I whirled around to face the guards. Their obvious leader was the corporal, an overweight man in his late 40’s who sported a rather gratuitous Wyatt Earp-style mustache. This he was chewing nervously as he watched my reaction. My eyes continued to narrow as I connected the dots.

"You didn't," I finally spit at him, at a loss for what more to say.

"Now Whitaker, it's only going to be for the weekend. Come Monday morning you'll get yourselves moved upstairs. We simply ain't got nowhere else to put ya. It were either here or next door in the punk tank."

Bugs had noticed my state, and kept looking from me to the guards and back again at the other inmates. He made this circuit several times before he came to stand to my right, asking simply, "What?" 

I was fuming, still trying to find my words and then figure out how to get the hell out of there. I finally managed to tell Bugs that this "was the rapo tank," the place where they pool the serious sexual assault perps. They tend to do this in most jails, as "normal" inmates can forgive most any sort of deviance but that of the sexual variety. (Polunsky's general population, as it happens, is just such a gathering spot for what is referred to in the patois as "tree jumpers." I'm not explaining that one. Work it out yourselves.) Bugs took this in stride, looking back over the group for a moment. He then turned to look at me directly, and in one of the few instances where such has taken place in my life, 1 knew exactly what another human being was thinking.

"You got room in seg, Chief?" I asked the head cop, who was still fidgeting by the exit door. He thought about this for a moment before answering. "Ayup. I got a few cells open in seg. But you only got to stay here for..." 

I never heard him finish. I took one last look at the tank, with its motley collection of rapists, pedophiles, and worse, and did the only appropriate convict-ish thing I could think of.

I socked Bugs right in the jaw.

True enough, I pulled my punch, but it still connected with a satisfying crunching sounds. Bugs’ head rocked backwards, and he stumbled for a moment before lunging into me, where he promptly began slamming his fists into my stomach. I had time to note that the pervs at the window all began yelling, the evening's entertainment suddenly and rudely interrupted, before Bugs had forced me back into the wall separating the tank from the picket. Even though I felt certain that Bugs was not using all of his strength to wail on me, it sure felt like he was hitting me a hell of a lot harder than I had him. All I could do was wrap my arm around his neck and bring my knee repeatedly into his stomach. We wrestled like that for a few minutes before we both paused to look back to where the guards were standing. They hadn't moved, and I can only imagine what the two of us looked like: one moment we were locked in mortal combat, the next peering curiously (and probably guiltily) back at them.

The screws were mostly just fingering their batons, but the corporal had turned a frightening shade of scarlet. For a moment - a very long moment - I wondered if the man was going to have an aneurism, and how much trouble I was going to get into for having caused this. His lips worked angrily on the tips of his mustache before snarling at us. 

"Okay. You fuckers got jokes. I got jokes too. C'mon you sonsabitches, pack your shit!"

I disengaged from Bugs and merely pointed at our property boxes. I guess the guard was so accustomed to yelling at offenders to pack their stuff that he'd forgotten we had just walked in the place. This fact made him turn even redder, a thing I would not have thought possible. He threw his hands up in the air and stormed off. We followed him meekly, not wanting to mess up the fact that we were getting more or less exactly what we wanted. Within 90 seconds we were evaluating the insides of our new accommodations in the solitary confinement wing.

"Hey pardner! How's that for 'constitutional rights'?" I heard Bugs yell through the vent.

"I think you broke one of my ribs, jackass," I yelled back, rubbing my increasingly sore chest.

We would not be there long. By Monday afternoon Bugs had flagged down a sergeant and explained what had happened. Once the rank heard who the weekend staff had tried to cell us with, they moved us up to a regular tank within hours. Neither of us even got written up. Still, it was enough time for me to face some very ugly truths about myself and the world I had entered into. Although this is an obvious point, it took me some minutes to fully work my way through all of the implications of the authorities' decision to intentionally place the most violent sexual offenders directly next door to the most vulnerable. Day in and day out, three shifts of guards bore witness to this interaction, and they must have gotten some sort of perverse amusement out of the set-up or it would have been altered. A guard would later tell me that the rapos would occasionally oil themselves up and wrestle in the dayroom for the "ladies," a fact which Bugs' jaw is better off for me not having known at the time. I also learned that about a dozen "punks" (homosexuals) were kept in 2F, though they were not in evidence on that first evening. I was never able to take seriously any correctional professional's talk about safety and rehabilitation after my brief stay in 2E.

Beyond that, I came to see that while I told myself I was not the sort of man to judge another for his crimes, the truth was that this world was going to require me to do just that continuously in order to survive. Had I stayed in the rapists' tank, someone would have made a move on me, and I would have had to hurt them, maybe very badly, a fact which would no doubt have been twisted around at my trial to make me look like a monster. Had I taken the corporal up on it and moved myself into the "punk tank," I would have been labeled as such, which means that the next time I was placed elsewhere, I'd definitely have been tested, and not in a good way. The truth is I like nearly every gay person I've ever met. I'm very much behind marriage equality, and was before the cause became popular. I had gay friends, two of whom held a fake and immensely heretical "wedding" at a bar in 2002, which I attended. And yet, faced with the realities of prison, I was forced to witness the pathetic half-life of my idealism. Since my arrival on the Row, I have come to view hell as the state of having hope but no choices. Only marginally better than this is the have no hope and only awful choices.

I only saw Bugs a few more times after that evening. I heard he pled out to a forty-year sentence. It was lucky that he came down when he did, because if the FBDAs office hadn't been spending all of their money on prosecuting me, I'd be writing that he was the such-and-such inmate killed by the state in my time. I'm thankful that I knew him, though I'd have been slightly more thankful if he hadn't had fists the size of hams.


And some there be...who are perished, as though
they had never been; and become as though they
had never been born...
(Ecclesiasticus)

In this place, it is easy to feel like everything valuable is the last of its kind. You learn to hide well all of the unique items you pick up over time: the freeworld paintbrushes that inmates were allowed to purchase back in the 90s that you have picked up one by one on the black market, the books which have since been banned and are now disguised with the cover of something innocuous, the thousands of things I can't write about in a public forum or I'd get stabbed. One of my most precious items is a small purple bowl given to me by my best friend Arnold Prieto on the day last May when he learned he'd been set an execution date. The bowls they have been selling us for years are obscenely large and crack when you glance at them the wrong way,

so this purple bowl is quite handy. I am not an overly sentimental person, but even so the bowl has shown me that the word "holy" is not completely devoid of meaning. You see, this bowl has a story. It was first purchased from the commissary by an inmate named Carlos Deluna way back in the mid-80s. If you recognize that name, that is because DeLuna is one of those men executed by Texas who have since been proven innocent. Deluna was the 120th man executed in the US in the "modern” era. Before his death, he gave the bowl to Little J, who in turn gave it to Arnold in 1995. Little J was the 656th inmate killed in the US in this era, and he followed the 655th (Brian K. Roberson) by only a few minutes. That was, I think, the last time Texas killed two men on the same night. It was just too hard on the guards, you see. I am hoping beyond hope that I won't have to write a number after Arnold's name in the near future. I do know that when it is my time to mosey on towards the clearing at the end of the path, I will hand the bowl off to one of the newly arrived, and explain the history and the Brotherhood of the Bowl. I've never really had many friends in this life, but I feel like I am a part of something bigger when I hold this weird, purple bowl. I am thankful to have been responsible for it for a brief time, and for the man who gave me that honor.


Something is found
Something is lost
Went looking for clues
On the streets of old New York
And I spilled someone's blood
I broke someone's heart again
Someone you know
You're looking at him my friend
And the people in our lives
we all leave behind
leave behind
Here we are
In the darkest place

To keep from forgetting
I picture your face
And I wonder
While we count the cost
Which is sweeter
Love or its loss
(Tom McRae, "My Vampire Heart")

I never knew Bobby well. We had many of the same friends, and from everything I've heard I very strongly suspect that I would have liked him. He went by "Bob Dylan," and l never got to question him as to how he managed to get tagged with such a nickname. Shortly before he was killed, I happened to have a legal visit with some law students from UofH. After their brief tour of losersville, I was left in the visitation room waiting for an escort team to take me back to 12-Building. Across the way, Bobby was having a visit with his wife. I have been on record as saying some very negative things about these sorts of inside/outside romances. It is certainly true that many involve the inmate taking advantage of a naive woman, usually a foreigner. Sometimes they are using each other, a co-dependency Mobius strip of drama and pointlessness. If one wants to be cynical about these sorts of “loves," one will find much low-hanging fruit ready for the picking.

It's generally considered a faux pas to look at another man's visitor while you are waiting for a ride home. I wasn't intentionally watching them, just sort of staring off into space, when his wife stood up and twirled around for him. It was the unexpected motion that drew my eye. I tell you honestly that I do not have the facility with words to describe what I read in their faces. The best I can come up with this late in the evening is that his eyes were aglow with love and appreciation and desire and grief, and I could almost feel him want to reach for her through the thick plate of glass that separated them. In her eyes I saw the joy that comes from feeling beautiful when feeling beautiful is not a common occurrence. Who among us has not felt this? On some rational level you are aware that you are still just as plug-ugly as you were yesterday, but for some reason, some unknowable reason, this enchanting creature in front of you has some love stuck in her eye and can't see you clearly. All of this I took in with a glance before turning away to face the other direction. I felt like an intruder, but I don't think they even knew I was there.

I ended up having to wait roughly an hour before someone came to get me. By the time they showed up, I had vowed never to automatically discount the value of a relationship, even if that relationship has an outward topography that I do not understand. Because what Bobby and his wife had was real, as real as any other love. I think this was a softening that made others possible in my life, for which I am immensely grateful. Bob Dylan was the 101st person killed by Texas during my time here, and the l310th in this nation since the Gregg decision. I never had the chance to thank him for the lesson learned.


So now I'm goin' back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter's wives.
Don‘t know how it all got started,
I don‘t know what they're doin' with their lives.
But me, I'm still on the road
headin' for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.
(Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up In Blue")

This has gone on for much longer than I had intended. I have a list of names locked into my head, and with each name comes a bridge to a broad continent of shared history. I still have no idea what to do with this list, or if it means anything to anyone but those of us here who walked their paths with them. I hope, in some way, that it means something to you. I would be very thankful for that.


And I keep my secrets well
Move on and never tell
Some day they'll show
And you raised me to be cruel
You raised me like a bruise
I'm bleeding still
(Tom McRae, "For the Restless”)

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

Thomas' birthday is December 31.
Cards and good wishes are welcome!




3 comments:

Lilred said...

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

I'm sure you have heard this many times before, (or at least I can hope you have) you are a fantastic writer! Being the curious person that I am and fervent observer of human nature I keep a little file of quotes I find especially insightful or poetic. In just this one article, I found 2 passages "save" worthy. Which is an extremely unusual find amongst blogger type articles. I love what you said about absurdity. And the passage you wrote about Bob Dylan. Thank you for showing me some new "truths".
Take care, Red.

Bonnie Hall said...

Beautifully written... sending love to you Thomas

parsecer said...

Couldn't stop reading. You're a good writter. I wish you're OK.