Thursday, November 10, 2016

Still Life, with Contraband

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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Look here, kid.  Check the scene: you´ve got guards at your door, and boy, are they ever impatient.  Under normal conditions, your average screw never has enough hours in the day in which to do nothing.  These two are full of piss and vinegar, though, and that means they´ve got very specific orders about having to deal with your ass. It´s a latent thing, but once their institutional something-must-be-donery gene activates, there´s no point in talking, dig? You obey, you fight or you deceive. That´s it.  Shakedown, they´ll say.  Strip out. Right now. They´ve got gas and batons and shields with electric current running through them.  You´ve got no time to prepare, but see, that doesn´t really matter because you´ve been trained to always stay prepared.  You cower appropriately – no, no, like this: see me cowering, pig? Aren´t I affect-appropriate? – and begin removing your clothes.  You do something, something small and innocuous; you see this? You hand them your clothes, do your little dignity-obliterating fingers-to-tongue-to-balls-to-ass dance, then do something else.  You say something, and they laugh.  You say something else, just one of several options you´ve stored away for moments like this, and now they´re really rolling.  The bruiser on the left can´t resist – just like you knew he wouldn´t be able to – and turns to add his own insult to the heavy on the right.  You are laughing, but your eyes are really laser focused on the timing, and as soon as left goon´s face reaches a certain critical angle, you do a third thing, something that is only important because it´s all a part of a sequence.  You get your clothes back, the cuffs go on behind you, and then you are led to the showers.  Your house is being torn apart by Typhoon Thug but it doesn´t matter because you´ve got your ark on you, and they, they´ve got fuck all.  They can shake you down again in the shower, but it´s even easier to beat them there.  Same process, see?  Only now you´ve got solid metal blocking the view from here to your waist, and you can

take it as axiomatic that inside-time can only be understood from within its boundaries.  Somewhere between booking and the long descent into a barred eternity, it stops being chronological, choppy, and begins its presencing as flat, perfectly and impassively immobile.  Weeks pass – months? Years? By Zeus, how they blur so softly casual into one another! – and nothing happens.  Then more nothing happens.  You begin to doubt that you will happen.  You swear you would sell your soul for something kairotic to come to pass, then weeks-months later, you´d trade it happily for something merely pedestrian – so long as it was a kinetic pedestrian.  Your attention snaps towards anything that so much as twitches.  You´ve become a kitten, willing to chase after any ball of yarn that gets tossed your direction.  Others know this, and learn to use it for their benefit.  You try to tamp down on your instincts, but you can´t really help it.  All day you exist in a tense bundle of expectation: desperate, angry, ashamed, yearning for some transcendental guarantee of meaning or value, for some contact with a responsive Super Thou not wearing a uniform.  But God is dead here, replaced by the pack.  Everything is permitted, but everyone is watching, waiting, ready to pounce.

Which is why everyone hears the chirps as if they had been pumped out of a set of massive speakers.  Twenty-four brains instantly calculate their way across the hire-wire chasm of the “did I hear that?/ do I want to acknowledge that I heard that?” paradox.  On some level, you have to hear everything, because you never know when the accidental fall of a pair of handcuffs echoing from down the hall might give you the thirty seconds you need to prepare for a shakedown, or how a sudden cessation of chatter on the rec yard could signal a coming riot.  Of course, the other side of the equation is that you´d really rather not hear any of it: the mindless posturing of mindless hoodlums, the inevitable liturgy of banalities that comes oozing out every time heavy rank bothers to open their collectively poxy mouths, the preaching of incarcerated prophets who manage to find God each and every time they get locked up: the lies, superseded by bigger, stupider lies, immediately eclipsed by even bigger, far stupider ones. You´d carve out your eardrums if it weren´t for the fact that the pack would turn on you instantly.  And because of the birds.  One mustn´t forget the birds.

Those were Bones´s actual words: Mustn´t forget the birds, son.  Considering what was at stake, those of us who had a call didn´t.

All day long, Bones pushed the same sediment-laden puddle of sludge from one end of the hall to the other, all the while crooning old blues tunes that I initially thought were meant to be ironic.  Shows you what I knew, then.  Even if you´ve never been down before, you´ve seen Bones in every prison movie or book ever made.  He´s Red from Shawshank Redemption, Danil from Conquered City, Shukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: he´s the guy that pours fuel into the engine of the black market.  In the real world, more often than not, Bones is usually a tired-looking old black guy, apparently slow in the head, worthless for any job but pushing his old mop around.  The very job that, coincidentally, happens to give him access to nearly every square inch of the building.  The very job that always – always – seems to allow the apex predator of the 6th floor to fly beneath the heavy redneck-band radar that covers the rest of us. I have no idea how this shtick words for some people. Maybe there is still enough casual racism left in the system to allow Bones space to fit into everyone else´s misconceptions. Or maybe the cops see everything clearly and realize that the micro-physics of disciplinary power they beam out on the rest of us is just a macro-politics of spectacle to Bones, that he´d just as soon cut their throats as talk to them.  Whatever the root of his power, Bones had the sort of induced invisibility that most of us covet beyond all else.

Three short trills followed by a warbling sort of croak managed to slip out between the verses of Bones´s latest dirge, and my neighbor Chuco sat up in his bed.

Es nuestra señal, no?”

I nodded placing my bookmark in its place.  “You´re up.”

“I went the last time,” he complained.

“If by ´last time´ you mean the time before the time before, you´re right.”

“Damnit,” he grumbled, slipping on his shoes.  He stretched in a way that was very obviously feigned, and then moved as if at random towards the front of the tank.  There he rested his arms on the bars and gazed longingly down the drab expanse of the east hallway.  I nearly snorted at the obviousness of it all, but instead contented myself by pulling my crate out from under my bed.  I began to remove my bowls and utensils, and started prepping for our nightly ritual.  Hearing this, Cantú ducked his head over the lip of the bunk above me and then quickly dropped down to the floor.  “May I?” he asked, pointing to my bunk.  “Bring your container,” I answered.

Setting our two crates up as a makeshift table, he sat down next to me and helped me divide up all the ingredients we would need.  Most of them were his.  I never asked where he got his money, but he had gatillero stamped all over him.  Once he´d found out my connection to Monterrey, he started treating me like a lost little brother.

“Unless my memory is failing me at my advanced age, today was your turn,” he remarked, nodding towards where Chuco was still posted up.


He laughed.  “You´re learning. Still green as Michoacán, but it´s a duller shade.”  He´d spent the majority of his 54 years incarcerated in one prison system or another, so I took this as a compliment.  An acid-coated, Pyrrhic victory sort of compliment, to be sure, but in this place you take whatever genuine praise as what comes your way.

“Here comes el maestro,” he muttered, sotto voce.

This wasn´t news, as I could clearly hear the volume of Bones´s monody increasing.  I didn´t look towards the gate because I didn´t need to:  this was an old play, something we´d done using a myriad of variations on a nearly daily basis for several months.  As the weary old trustee made the turn in the hallway, his bucket tipped over and splashed a nearly black pool of muck all over the area next to the guard picket.  Everyone glanced his way as Bones kicked the melodrama quotient up a few notches, bemoaning his fate, his clumsy old hands, and his thrice-damned cataracts.  The screw stared at him hard for a long moment, his annoyance clear all the way through the inch-thick security glass.  He then turned and walked towards 6C, not wanting to deal with the old con and his even older con.  He was just beginning his first step when it happened.  If you blinked, you missed it.  Bones was just that fast.  In one fluid movement, he brought the bag out from the compartment he´d had built into the underside of his bucket and lobbed it to Chuco.  Almost instantly, our comrade tossed him a small packet wrapped in paper.

“Oh easy rider, what make you so mean,” Bones wailed as he righted his bucket.  “You sho not the meanest man in the world, but the meanest I done seen.”

Chuco slipped in next to us, plopping the loot down on our makeshift table. “Lessee,” he muttered, combing through the contents.  “We got us

to understand that the biggest part of all of that is classifying the cop in question, see?  You´ve got to learn what motivates each CO, because if he is just trying to work a job and get home to the kiddies, he´s got a totally different level of situational awareness than those fucks on the Extraction Team.  With them, you´ve pretty much got to go to condition black from jump street, but you can work that to your favor, too.  So make a typological system for these people.  Be scientific about it.  Watch them as they work, what they look for specifically when they paw through your clothes, how their vision moves when they come through the crash-gate into the section, how long it takes them to locate a specific inmate on the shower sheet, how they hand you the trays.  All of those are clues about

a dozen fresh jalapeños, two white onions, three limes, two tomatoes…all that other jale.  Here,” he said, passing things around.  I palmed the tomatoes; they were so red that they made my eyes hurt a little.  I then searched through several small packages wrapped in wax paper.  The spices I kept.  The tobacco, weed, and yeast I tossed to Cantú.  Those alone would cover the cost of the produce for a week.  In jail, it´s about as sure a bet as you will ever find that one of your neighbors will be willing to pay ridiculous prices for a smoke and a few bottles of old habits.  Cantú excused himself to go market the dope, as one of his maxims was never to hold onto anything “hot” longer than you needed to.  I always thought this was the sort of sound advice he should have paid attention to while he was still free, but kept such sentiments to myself.

“Say, oh, easy rider, what make you so mean?  I yells for water, padnah, you gives me gasoline,” moaned Bones from the hallway.  Chuco looked at him, annoyed, but I always thought his spiel was amusing.  Dinner and Grand Guignol: what more could a convict ask for?

Cantú soon returned, having procured from our hiding spot my most treasured possession: a homemade stinger.  I had fabbed it out of an old radio cord and some razor blades the night I was first released from 5.5 months in the dungeon.  It´s always kept frigid down in the hole, and I had been fantasizing about hot food to a degree that bordered on the psychotic.  Immersion heaters are simple things, but sort of a big deal in our county jail because of something the guards called “plug justice.”  In each of the several dozen tanks in the building, the wall socket that powered both the television and the microwave was controlled by a switch inside the picket.  Anytime one of the 24 men in the dorm did something that angered an officer – and this could include an infraction as minor as looking at a CO for a second too long – the electricity could be cut almost instantly.  It took me a while to understand the motive behind this serial cluster-bombing punishment strategy; the practical results, on the other hand, were just a wee bit more visible.  With no television, it only took a few hours before the continental shelf supporting various alliances of convenience cracked open, and, depending on a multitude of variables, a victim would be selected for assault.  Sometimes this would be the actual inmate that precipitated the situation in the first place, but more often this explosion took people against whom animosity had been building for weeks.  Bottom line:  someone was going to be converted into a pulsing, sobbing puddle of fractured bones and blood in a matter of seconds, a sacrifice to the uniformed minor gods of the building.  Several things happened after this, without fail.  First off, the victim was dragged – literally, on occasion – down to seg for his “protection”.  Second, Lt. H – got to write up an official incident report.  I saw several of these during my trial.  On every last one of these forms, those of us in the tank were listed under  “victim” or  “participant” in the assault.  There wasn´t even a space for listing “witnesses” because in jail, there are no innocent bystanders.  As soon as the incident report was complete, the electricity to the television and microwave was turned back on.  At first, I was aghast at this.  Couldn´t they see that they were creating this violence?  That they were the catalysts in this reaction? One of the COs explained it to me later:  federal funding is proportional to a facility´s classification as low-, medium-, or high-risk; the rate of violence is the primary metric within this calculus.  The more violence, in other words, the more money from Uncle Sam.  You will come to understand how this makes a certain sense eventually.  It´s inevitable, but once you start to see the world like this, you effectively become unparolable.  Even in their failures, the system finds a way to win.

The stinger gave us a sort of end run around the plug control as I had built it to run via the electricity powering the desk lamps.  People were always begging us to use the thing, and it gave our little association a great deal of leverage in the tank.

“Oh, I hates to see the rider, when he comes so near.  He so cruel and cold-hearted, boy, lo these twenty year.”

It wasn´t long before the roaches showed up.  They´re always there, circling, their sad, hungry eyes following every morsel of food and breaking my heart in ways I thought I had outgrown long ago.  There´s never enough food in prison, so unless you have someone taking care of you with commissary money, you have three options:  hustle, steal, or starve.  Cantú surveyed the group, watching as each one of them tried to edge out the others, all without looking like they were doing anything tactical – they knew Cantú´s ways as well as anyone, after all.  He finally nodded to a skinny dude in his 40’s named Harrison that had been picked up with sixty pounds of weed three weeks before.  The word on the block was that he hadn´t talked – our kind of people.  As soon as he saw the man acknowledge him, he bounded over and sat down on Chuco´s bunk, our fourth for the meal.  At first, I thought this tendency towards generosity spoke highly of Cantú´s character.  Later, I realized it was all calculated.  Loyalty can be expensive in the free-world, but some version of it can be had in jail for the cost of a good meal.  I didn´t feel it was my place to speak on this as I, too, was indigent, surviving off of my little hustles and inventions.  Most of the food I was eating daily came from Cantú in one form or another.

“Tell me another one, Cantú,” begged Chuco as he marinated the chorizo.

“Can´t you see I am busy, fool? Ask Tomas.”

“I don´t know any jokes.  Sorry,” I responded truthfully.  He was a big fan of jokes, was Chuco.

“How about you, güero?” he asked, nodding at Harrison.

“Um, sorry. I guess I know some riddles, though.”

“I fuck up yo riddles, homes,” Chuco laughed.

“I was just reading about this one. It´s not so much a riddle as something just to make you think,” he paused, trying to remember how the story went.

“So, you are on this overpass.  Down below you there´s like two train tracks.  Looking one way, you see six workers.  One dude´s over to the left, working on one track by himself.  The five others are all working on the other.  They´ve got the radio up real loud, some kind of mariachi stuff.”

“It wasn´t mariachi,” Chuco laughed.  “Norteño, maybe.  How come they got to be Mexicanos, homes?”

“Let the man tell his story, pendejo,” Cantú swatted him.  “And of course they were Mexicanos.  He said they were working, recuerdas?”

Harrison followed this exchange, a small, worried smile plastered on his face as he gauged whether he might be losing his chance at a meal.  Seeing that Cantú had cleared his way for him, he continued. “So, there´s these workers.  When you look the other way, you see a trolley coming right at them.  It´s on the track with the five guys, and since they got the mar…uh…that norteño music on, they can´t hear it.  Right in front of you is a switch that diverts the trolley.  So, like, the question is, what do you do?”

“How come there´s a switch right there on the bridge?”  Chuco asked.  “Shit don´t work like that, does it?”

Cantú sighed and looked up towards the ceiling.  Ayúdame, Jesús,” he muttered.  “It´s an ethics thing.  Like, do you get involved, no?”

Harrison nodded.  “Yeah, if you do nothing, five people get killed.  If you do something, only one does, but you are responsible for it.”

“Gotta flip the switch,” I said.  “Simple math.  One is better than five.”

“Maybe the five are all putos,” Chuco said.  “Maybe the one is a cool mothafucker.  Maybe he´s got a hot sister that would be like really appreciative for saving him.”

I laughed. “Touché.”

“I´d shoot the radio,” Chuco continued.  “Wake they stupid ass up.”

“No, that´s not a part of the rid-“ Harrison tried to interject.

“Fuck you mean, homes? I´m always strapped.  And killing a radio is better than letting some raza die from a damn choo-choo.”

The two argued for a few minutes, while Cantú and I continued to make dinner.  When they had finally settled down, I found Cantú´s eyes.  “What would you do?”

He considered the question, nodding as he came to a conclusion.  “Get some popcorn.”

Chuco laughed, a sort of nervous response thing.  I just stared at Cantú for a moment, processing this, trying to figure out if this was posturing or the true gauge of the man.  He was cutting up the tomatoes with his shank, this evil nine inch piece of steel, just as calm as could be.  I decided he was serious about the time his eyes flicked up to scan the front of the dayroom.  I followed his gaze and saw Bones and an older black man from our tank in a huddled conversation.  I turned back around and continued to work on the enchiladas, then raised an eyebrow at Cantú.

He leaned in close and switched to Spanish.  “Old School there bought what he thought was a bag of Bugler from Highside Jones. Turned out to be a bag of pencil shavings.

Pendejo,” chortled Chuco.  “Le impuso una multa de estúpidos.”  Highside Jones was one of the other trustees on the 6th floor, trading mostly in narcotics.  He was universally known to be dirty, only dealing square with men from his set.  The old guy at the bars clearly wasn´t a part of that family, so a big bag of useless is what he got.  He looked calm when he walked back to his bunk, so I figured he´d come to better terms with Bones.  Boy, was I wrong.

We had just finished heating up our dinner when Old School knocked politely on the frame of my bunk.  “Look here, youngster.  May I borrow yonder contrivance for a spell?”

“Uh, sure. You know how to hook it up?” I asked, rolling the cord up before handing it to him.

“Yessir, I´s peeped how it done.”

I returned to my meal as he retired to his mattress.  Bones had finally cleaned up his mess and was slowly moving down the hall.

“I asks him for mercy, he don´t give me none.  He asks me my trouble, and I saids I ain´t got none” he rasped, before whistling seven high chitters, two low as he neared 6E.  I shook my head, laughing inside.  Walking cliché though he may have been, I´ve still never met anyone quite like old Bones.

We had just completed our supper when Cantú placed his hand over my forearm.  I followed his gaze to see the old man carefully mixing some sort of cream into a large cup.  He had my stinger laying inside of his bowl and the water inside was boiling at a fast clip.  I watched as he opened a Milky Way candy bar and then scooped the caramel out with his spoon.  He dumped this into his cup with the cream.

“Lotion?” I asked.  Cantú shook his head.

“Magic Shave. They put that on their face and the hair just falls off.  No razor required.”

“Oh,” I said, before things slid into place. “Oh.”

“ ´Oh´ is right, Cantú said, standing up.  “Hay que estar sobre aviso, mis jóvenes.  Ya ha llegado la hora de mostrarse a la altura de las circunstancias.”

We all quickly cleaned up our mess and then began hiding our contraband.  I didn´t see it, but Chuco later told us that the last thing the old man added to his concoction were the pulverized shards of a small light bulb.  He spent a few minutes bringing the brew to a boil and then returned to us, stinger in hand.  The cup in his other hand was bubbling and smoking angrily.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, handing the heater back to me.

“Sure…uh…what´ve you got there, School?”

“This? Oh, this here is a cup of get-right, son.”  He turned towards the gate before pausing.  “You might want to hides that real good now,” he said, nodding to the stinger.

“You sure you know what you´re doing, homes?” Chuco asked him.

The old man turned narrowing his eyes.  “Don´t get it twisted, young man. I know what I´s about.”

Cantú surveyed his small kingdom before calling

on how analytical they are, how afraid of inmates they are beneath all of the bluster.  You can use that, you have to use that if you want to protect your ark.  You see what they give us?  Humans can´t live on this, so we´ve got two choices:  act like mangy dogs and beg for bones underneath the Master´s table or become something other than human.  Me, I´m too old to learn to do tricks for Snausages, you feel me?  And so we keep these.  See how I did that?  I had it with me the whole time and you never knew it.  They could take me to the dungeon right now, and I´d still have it with me.  These are my tools, all the things that I used to live a life.  None of it is dangerous, none of it designed to wound, but they won´t see it that way.  They understand – okay, maybe not on a philosophical level, but they get it instinctively – that the things inside my ark give me freedom of a sort, and these totalitarian fucks detest that, want to see

a young white kid named Ben over.  More than anyone else, Ben was constantly begging us for our stinger, our magazines, or pretty much anything else we had that would simultaneously occupy his extroverted mind and confer upon him some desperately needed status.  He looked like he was about fourteen.

“Ben, today is your lucky day,” Cantú told him with a stern voice.  “My associates and I have consulted on the issue, and we think you can be trusted to hang on to this stinger for the night.  This is a test, a probation of sorts.  Try to do better for us than you did when the county put you on probation.”

The poor kid giggled and smiled nervously.  “Oh, cool.  Um, thanks.  You guys are all right.  You want to hang out? I got a new book from my mom and –“

“No Ben, I do not wish to hang out.  Run along, now,” Cantú ordered.

“Okay, sure.  I won´t let you guys down, I promise.”

“Ben,” Cantú added, ratcheting up the ominous factor by an order of magnitude.  “You know that will cost you fifty flags if you lose it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know the game.  I got you, man.  I got you!” he responded, starting to plan out how he was going to manage his newfound prestige as the keeper of the Holy Stinger.

I frowned at Cantú after Ben had departed.  “That´s…pretty messed up.  He won´t even have the thing for an hour, unless I´ve badly misjudged his capabilities.”

His face went expressionless and I felt the temperature in the room drop through the basement.  I´ve seen defcon 1 stares before, and I had to admit his was pretty first rate.  “I take it back,” he said finally.  “You´re still green as fuck.  You better get this, considering where you´re going, hombre.  You still have one foot in a world of suburban white people acting all civilized like their mommies and daddies taught them, a world of morals and codes and church and the PTO.  A world of utilitarian  ´one is better than five´ mierda.  Haven´t you figured it out yet?  This is the jungle.  You got tigers, and you got meat.  That´s all.  That stinger, it´s gone.  It was toast the minute aquel abuelito decided to get his respect back.  ´He won´t have it for an hour?´ He won´t have it for fifteen fucking minutes.  So what?  Now I got you the fifty flags you will need to get another cord.  So shut the fuck up with all of that feeling bad, ´pretty messed up´ shit.  Those are human concerns.”

Throughout this entire onslaught he never raised his voice above a whisper.  Still, I felt scoured by the time he had finished, contrite and confused and contrarian and immensely sad all at once, though I had at least learned enough from my time in Mexico to keep all of this from rising to the level of facial features.  I wanted to tell Cantú he was wrong, that life wasn´t a jungle, not even along the frontera, that the waters went deeper than that but my words failed me.  He dismissed me with a glance and swiftly climbed into his bunk and picked up a book.  I did the same, my face turned toward the gate, where I saw Old School pretend to sip from his scalding cup of revenge lava.

It didn´t take long.  Bones had apparently told Highside that someone had some business for him in 6D, because I saw him moving furtively down the hall, pretending to push his broom.  When he saw who had summoned him, he scowled and puffed out his chest.  He didn´t even try to mask either his disdain or his words.

“Fool, I done told you – “ he started.

“Peace, playa, peace.  I´ma old hustlah my own self.  I just wanted to tell you we´s okay, and that there ain´t no hard feelings.  Ya feel me?”

I could see Highside´s face clearly, the very last time that anyone could say such a thing, ever.  As he listened to the old man, he transitioned from “I´m going to have to check this fool” to “listen to this sucker, trying to curry favor from me even after I fleeced him.”  His pride got the better of him, made him see weakness where he should have detected artifice, and he took one more step towards the bars.  That´s when the old man splashed him with the solution in his cup.  It wasn´t a perfect hit.  Highside was a physical monstrosity, six-months deep into an almost insane workout regimen.  He was huge and mean and as fast as blazes.  That speed is the only thing that saved his right eye, or, for that matter, the whole right side of his face.  The left side didn´t fare as well.  I can only theorize about what that concoction did, in practical terms.  The combination of the temperature and the highly acidic pH of the magic shave instantly tenderized his epidermis, while simultaneously obliterating the soft protein of his left eye.  Highside instinctively reached up to paw at the pain, and the caramel ensured that the molten mass was at least partially transferred to the skin of his hand.  The thousands of tiny shards from the light bulb gouged into both the skin of his face and his hand, so when he ripped his now pain-infused hand away, nearly half of the skin on his face simply tore away with it.  That part isn´t theoretical:  I saw it happen, and while I´m pretty sure that the wet slapping sound that my memory keeps insistently inserting into scene is a fabrication, I´m only pretty sure of this.

All of these events took place in a flash, and then Highside screamed.  This wasn´t the howl of the warrior, not the scream of someone enraged.  No, this was closer to what Anselm thought he would enjoy about contemplating Hell in the afterlife, like something out of nightmares or horror movies.  He tore off down the hall, wailing all the way, bumping into the wall and stumbling from the pain.  Only an expanding pool of blood was left of him in a matter of seconds.

Everyone was instantly talking, arguing, high-fiving.  A couple of Crips eyed Old School with evil intent, but made no moves.  I turned and lay back on my pillow, numb.  I should have felt sick, wanted to feel anything other than that all of this was perfectly normal, everything exactly as one could expect.  Mexico had done this to me, partially trained me for this life I was going to have to face.  I just wished that it had left me enough of my humanity to have felt sick.  I would have felt salvageable if I had felt that.  I suspected that once such things left you, they were gone forever, and the years would confirm this.  I finally forced my eyes open once I began to hear the stomping boots of the goon squad approaching.  I looked over to see Cantú´s head peering over the edge of the bed, his eyes locked on mine.  He must have seen something in my topography that indicated the course of my thoughts, because he shook his head.  “Kill those, and you´ll be invincible.”

“Kill what?” I asked, my voice sounding hollow to my ears.

“Human concerns,” he muttered, returning to his book.  I closed my eyes and thought that I

shouldn´t get it twisted, youngster: just because the things I´ve shown you so far have all had material substance, that doesn´t mean they must.  Ideas and techniques go in the ark, too, and are usually your most valuable possessions.  Maybe it will be a new stash spot, a really prime one that nobody else has figured out yet – and kid, trust me when I tell you that I am not talking about inside the binding of a book or underneath the cushions of your trainers.  I hear such insanity all of the time and just shake my head.  You think they don´t know about that shit, don´t teach them all about it at the Academy?  You´ve got to engage in k-step logic here.  Putting contraband inside of something is only thinking one step ahead of them – and there are a few of these screws that can´t figure out how to take a single step, no matter how lazy or indifferent they may be.  Any spot that is so easily rousted by fat piggy fingers is not a true ark and a disgrace to the convicts that came before you that knew this

ain´t gone explode on me, is it?” Jamal asked, eyeing the somewhat dubious looking contraption in his hands.

“No, no, no,” I laughed, inserting a pregnant pause before continuing.  “I´m virtually certain of it.  Like ninety-nine point ninenineninennine percent.”

“Virtually certain, he says,” he grumbled, still turning the thing over in his hands.  “Fuck it.  I never much liked my face no kind of way.” Shielding his eyes, he turned to look through the security glass towards the guard picket.  Once he had finally located the rover team on the other side of the pod, he produced an anemic looking joint from inside his shorts.  “You wanna hit this?”

“That thing looks too pathetic to share,” I responded, not wanting to have to explain why I´d vowed never to ingest intoxicants again in this life.  “Just put the tip between those wires and press them together.”  He eyed the pair of linked double-A batteries skeptically for a moment before placing the joint between his lips.  Bending over the lighter – my newest death row invention, heretofore untested – he muttered something that sounded an awful lot like “virtually certain” before connecting the leads.  I could see the wires begin to glow even through the steel mesh and bars that separated our recreation cages.  A few seconds later I heard him inhale deeply.  “I´ll be damned,” he remarked as he exhaled.  “You have outdone yourself, sir.  I shall have you knighted for this, anon.”

“Okay,” I grinned.  “Sure, so long as it´s ´anon´ and all.”

I turned to walk small circles in my cage while Jamal blazed away.  Once he had reduced his spliff down to a scattering pile of ash, he slumped over to the small triangle of sunlight that penetrated the grating above and laid his long body down.  He sighed contentedly.  “I´m yo niggah, right?”

“…sure…” I responded, never exactly certain how a Caucasian person is supposed to respond in the presence of that most loaded of words.

“I was listening to NPR the other night, on some ´Science Friday´ shit.  They said all humans come out of Africa.  That true?”

I laughed again.  “That´s what the evidence seems to indicate, yes, in successive waves.  So, you are one of those.”

“One of what?”

“One of those people that gets all into science and talking like the 17th Earl of Grantham when they are faded. I´ve never seen you in the dayroom suddenly wanting to discuss the Pleistocene or grouse shooting at Balmoral before.”

“Sheeit.  I got an image to maintain, is all.  I´m already gonna have to eat some shit for coming out here to use the white man´s lighter.”

“Get out of here.”

“Nah, I´m kidding.  Stay with me though on this Africa thing.  I´ve got a point to make.  So we all come up out of there somewhen like seventy thousand years ago.  Sometimes after that, you people made the terrible decision to give up yo melanin and yo rhythm.  Still, for all that, don´t that kind of mean that you my niggah, too?”

“I guess so” I admitted.  “Low blow on the rhythm thing, though.”

“Yeah…” he trailed off, editing out whatever comeback I expected to follow.  I glanced at him and was surprised to see him staring straight up towards the sky, deep sadness writ in the lines of his face.  I leaned back against the wall, not wanting to intrude on whatever process he was

Working through here.  See how I did that?  It works for objects as large as, say, a deck of cards.  Remember to practice this over and over until you can do it without looking at your hands;  you are going to need your eyes elsewhere.  It´s a lie that people “rise to the challenge.”  The reality is that you sink to the level of your training, so practice up.  You´ve got to be able to make shit wink out of existence while you are naked, while half a football team of yokels is poking through your stuff.  I once beat the assistant warden and an entire OJT class in a visitation booth with this trick.  See this?  Now you don´t.  Don´t give me that goofy-ass grin.  Jesus, how old are you?  Look, it´s all angles and occlusions, dig?  That and distraction.  Stop looking at the hand that is moving all over the place.  And stop being so damned loud.  They keep saying you are supposed to be intelligent; I wish you´d prove it to me sometime.  Information is some of the most difficult of things to

work through.

“If they killed you tomorrow, would you miss any of this?” he asked finally.

That wasn´t what I was expecting, but these are old themes for the condemned and I didn´t really need to think about it much.  “Not, really, no.  No disrespect intended.  These moments are nice, but they don´t make up a meaningful life.”

He nodded.  “I won´t miss a bit´ve it,” he said, feigning certainty.

“You should get your stamps back.  That joint was clearly defective.”

“Yeah. Fool sold me some depressing ass shit.” He stood up and slouched his way around the yard for a few laps before suddenly yelping and dropping to his knees.  I watched as he tried to grab something off the ground.  Missing it, he scurried across a few feet of concrete and tried again, finally snatching something with his left hand.  He stared hard at it for a few minutes before turning to walk towards the lattice that separated us.  I tried to focus on what he was holding, but for some reason it wouldn´t resolve until it was nearly held right up to the grate.  A brief flash of panic-envy seized me, and I forced my face to go flat, lest I reveal the depths of my instantaneous despair.  In all of my years of haunting the outside rec yards, in thousands upon thousands of hours spent scouring this tiny patch of crumbling concrete for whatever uber-rare castoffs the wind and fortune might have deposited for my finding, I had never once encountered what Jamal was presenting to me.  For a brief tortured second, I didn´t think he was going to let me hold it, but then I realized how crazy my thoughts had become and I tried to re-center myself.

Until that moment, I would have sworn that the seven oak leaves I had collected over the years were the contraband equivalent of a rare earth metal.  I mean, the things had to float on the wind at least 500 yards at a minimum, drop down right through this tiny fissure into our yard, right at the exact moment that I was out there to seize them before someone else did.  Each one felt like a gift from the universe, some proof of life for life outside of a world entirely composed of steel, rust, and concrete.  I used to keep them pressed between sheets of plastic that I kept hidden deep within my legal work.  Every once in a while, when I felt the weight of all of this hate and shame weigh heavier than usual upon me, I would take one of them out and run the tips of my fingers over a material that I was never supposed to be able to feel again.  I´m not even going to try to explain what that was like for me, because I´m not that good and even if I managed to find the appropriate idiom, you still wouldn´t understand.  Experience is a language and you don´t have mine, don’t understand that I´m not at all kidding when I say that the color green very nearly kills me whenever I am in its presence.  Those leaves were precious to me, so much so that when the officer who eventually took them during a shakedown got arrested for beating an inmate, all I could do was laugh and laugh, this cold, empty thing that should have worried or disgusted me but didn´t.  Now, staring at the light gray, one-inch bird feather that Jamal was holding, those leaves suddenly seemed silly and cheap.  One side of me realized that I was acting like a (psychotic) child, but that didn´t really alter the overwhelming possession – lust that was consuming the other half.  I had to walk away in order to regain my composure.  I´d never really felt envy before I came to this place, never realized that

the fewer the number of people that know the same tricks, the longer they will be useful - but don´t ever hang onto something for years.  None of these things has a shelf life like that.  You´ve got to constantly evolve, because they´re constantly chasing you, you know?  Everything you have access to, kid, every last bloody thing, has been approved by a committee of Ivory Tower pigs and then submitted to the drones to evaluate.  Only then is it passed onto you, assuming you have the cash to pay for any of it.  That means you are going to have to be smarter than the collective intelligence of about fifty security professionals in Huntsville.  And you know what? We pull it off.  We are the masters of conquering necessity.  Drop a dude in the middle of the savannah and he´ll get eaten by a lion or a crocodile in a day or two.  Drop a convict in the same place, he´ll eat both of them and ride a wildebeest to safety.  Yeah, I´m kidding, but only by a little.  Those fools can´t imagine half of what some of us can do back here.  They couldn´t believe you could make a hacksaw blade out of a razor capable of cutting through bars.  Nah, that´s old game, shit they figured out in the 70s.  They´ve got examples of them in the Prison Museum, for god´s sake.  No, I´m talking about stuff that is twenty generations down the path, something

seized by these sorts of emotions.

“You ever seen that before?” he asked quietly, still rubbing the accursed thing across his palm.

“Not in a long time,” I answered, still walking in circles around my section of the yard.  “It´s just a feather, man,” I added cruelly, instantly regretting it.

“Yeah,” he said sadly, before looking up towards the sky. “What´s it come from, you think?”

“I have no idea.  Mockingbird, maybe?”

“I think it came from above,” he said at last.  “Yes, a dove from God.”

“He could have sent the whole bird,” I quipped.  He turned to give me a mournful glare, before studying the feather again.

“I know what you believe.  What you don´t believe, I mean.  But tell me this don´t have power in it.  Tell me it ain´t driving you fucking nuts how bad you want to feel this.”

“That´s got nothing to do with God or anything supernatural,” I answered.  We´re deprived of everything is all, crazy from decades of living in a world with almost no decency or kindness.  Not to mention how we´re evolutionarily programmed for apophenia, for not automatically rejecting null hypothesis in spite of obvious falsehoods.  The cost of believing a false pattern might be real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, so we see meaning everywhere, even though what we´re really seeing is mere wish-fulfillment run amok.”

“That sounds real pretty and all, but don´t tell me you don´t want to feel this.”

“I couldn´t care less,” I lied.

“Sucka, stop being stupid and come get you some of this.  Sheeit.”

I laughed and just barely made sure I didn´t hop on my way to the bars.  As soon as I accepted the feather into the palm of my hand I was filled with the overwhelming certainty that I was going to destroy it somehow, that I had to let it go in order to preserve it.  I´ve been having these thoughts for years, ever since I came to this place, that nothing good can come from my touch, my presence.  It was a pretty little thing, though, this impossibly ephemeral wisp of a world beyond rust and scum and self-righteous redneckery.

“I think I shall see the whole bird before long. Anon, even,” Jamal continued.  I looked up, struck by the resolve I heard in his voice.  He was looking upward again, a small smile on his lips.  In all the years I had known him, I had apparently never seen him in a truly relaxed state before, because everything about the muscles in his face was different now, softer, not so angular.  It was obvious he was looking for more than a bird.

“You think you could be released?” I asked.  “I mean…not, what are the logistics of that, but could any of us make it out there after all this?  Look what a damned feather did to us.  A smoothie might make my heart explode.  A hug… forget about it.”

“I´m about to find out,” he answered quickly, and for a brief second I began to hope that he had received some good news from his attorney.  But then I connected his words to the sadness that had been hovering about him all day and I knew.


“Fools was nice this time.  It´s my second date so´s all they had to give me was 30 days.  I got 60.  Real gents, them boys in the AG´s office.”

I leaned my head forward until it made contact with the steel.  I remember it was warm from the sun.

“I figure this was my last joint before they put me under the cameras.  Now I see God had something else planned.”

I kept my mouth shut, all desire to retrace steps over old debate terrain totally absent.

“A dove to guide me home.  To peace.  Finally,” he chuckled a little.  “You know, I was gonna fight them today.  Right here on the yard, make them suit up and bring it.  I already took a dozen Cold Busters, got my nose so dry right now they gas´d be irrelevant.  I guess He wants me to let them honkies make it.  Dove is peace, right?”

“I´m sorry, Jamal,”  I finally managed.  “If it makes you feel any better, I don´t have that many years left myself.  Here, take this back,” I muttered holding the feather out for him.  Whatever meaning I might have imbued it with was gone now.

“No, it´s time for me to lighten my load, not add to it.  Take this device back.  First, I want to show you something, some CIA type shit that Soldier done showed me years ago.  Watch.”  I looked up to see Jamal lightly gripping the batteries in his left hand.  He slowly moved his right across it, and when the two parted, the lighter was gone.  I blinked.

“That´s crazy good.  Much better than my game,” I admitted.

“Watch again.” He did the maneuver a second time, only now I was watching his right hand, not the left.  I saw enough to know how it must work.  I laid the feather softly on the grate and started the process of having him pass me the lighter.  This was another thing that the pigs in Huntsville wouldn´t have believed was possible, considering the rec cages were separated by enough metal to construct a small office building.  I practiced the move a few times while he watched.

“Left thumb up just a little – no, no, not the tip, the meaty part.  If you can, do some talking, make the pig look around or up at your face. You ever flash them real good?  No? Look, most of these fools is real conservative, they don´t wanna see no man´s junk.  Watch they eyes when you strip in front of them.  They always be looking around at that moment, and that is something you can use.  Just thrust yourself all out there like you proud of what God done gave you, and you will see most of them blanch.  Do that part again with you right hand…good.  You see how you can do it in reverse, too?”

“Yeah, you have to flip the hand over, with this thumb on the bottom.”


I thanked him, placing both the lighter and the legerdemain into my ark. 

“Listen, you mind if I go back to the house?” he asked.  “All of a sudden, I feel like there´s a few things I need to do before they move me to A-pod.”

“Sure.  If there´s anything I can…fuck, you know.”

“I know, homie, I know.  We´s from the same place dig?”  I laughed again as he walked over to the windows and began to pound on them.  A short time later the rovers showed up to see what all of the noise was about, and Jamal explained what he wanted.  They initially didn´t want to bother with the extra work, but most of us learn how to make it look like doing what we want is the easier of the options, and they moved him once reality had been properly explained.  Two days later they shipped him off to Death Watch.  Less than two months after that, he was dead, off chasing his placebo gods.

I remained on the yard, walking in circles.  Every time I reached the 3 o´clock point on my little circuit, my eyes were drawn to the feather, still caught in the cage where I left it.  A precious thing reduced to the merely sacred in the span of a few words.  A salve to allow death to slide over territory that should be fought over.  A grasping at God in a place He had so clearly forgotten about.  A thing I could no longer understand.

Lost in these thoughts, I allowed the rover team to walk right up to the bars before I saw them.

“Offender, recreation time is over.  Submit to restraints and a strip search or chemical agents will be utilized.”  I shot them my best drop-dead stare and instead walked over the feather.  I still hadn´t gotten to really experience it, but now that it was infused with so much nonsense it couldn´t just be what it was.  Taking it between my fingers I approached the officers.  “What´s this?” I asked, letting all of the cold I knew how to summon seep into my words.  They must have noticed, because they shot alarmed looks at each other before turning back to face me.

“It´s…a feather,” one finally said.

“You see nothing odd about it? Nothing beyond the ordinary?”  They shared a look again.

“No, it´s just a feather.”

“Thought so,” I acknowledged, then tore it to pieces.

“Offender…are you…feeling well?”

“Oh, yes,” I lied, stripping naked.  “We´re all going to be fine.”  None of us will ever be fine, you fools, I wanted to yell to him.  We are all damned, because it´s just a feather and it needed to be so much more than that in order to make any of this something other than absurd.  Because we continue to destroy the people and the things we do not understand, because we are even able to convince ourselves that we know what we are doing as we are doing the destroying.  Because we have the audacity to actually

act like we´re the deviants, like anyone pays attention to that old Foucauldian shit anymore.  They read three sentences of Pierre Bourdieu about how to use terror and symbolic violence to mold the individual into the structural and formal demands of the prescribed order, and they think, hey, I like that,  but they´ve never noticed that such works borrow their terminology from a deeper and more powerful situation.  That´s the problem with these so-called conservative “intellectuals”, kid, their knowledge sounds deep until you jam a stick in it and see that water only goes down about six inches.  They´ve never bothered with Arendt or Merleau-Ponty, so they have no idea why their methods have failed them.  The best they can do is to fall back on old favorites, to terrify the public with tales of the rise of the “sociopath” or the “superpredator” as if they wouldn´t act in exactly the same way if they were locked in a box the size of a small closet and given practically nothing to sustain their sanity.  It´s human nature to want to improve your lot a little, to have the tiniest taste of real life from time to time.  I´m not giving you license to act like a damned idiot, though.  If I catch you masturbating on some guard we´re done here.  I´m just saying that you can´t expect to remain completely static behind these walls.  You can´t expect to pick up on

the first thing I noticed when I stepped back into my cage.  That strikes me as odd, now that I think about it, considering what a disaster area my cell was at the time.  It had been roughly two months since a certain jackass inmate had called a certain influential state Senator on his smuggled cell phone, and we were still stumbling about in the dark days of the shakedown fallout.  I had made the mistake of going to rec that morning, and the newly invented and forcefully energized shakedown team had blitzkrieged the pod just as soon as we were safely locked into the dayroom cages.  Thus the disarray upon my return.  Someone had opened up my only bag of coffee and dumped the contents out on my desk in a nice imitation of an ant hill.  My paperwork was everywhere but inside the folders where it belonged.  Even my typewriter was out of place, on its back in the center of my cell, as if it were a gigantic beetle that had gone belly-up and died right there on top of my copy of Philippe Aries´s L´Homme Devant la Mort.

Despite all of the mess, it was the black walkie-talkie on the floor next to my bunk that seized my eyes, even as I was bending down to have the handcuffs removed from my wrists.  I stood there staring at it for a moment, thinking that if I did so, maybe it would vanish like a mirage.  No such luck, I though, as I reached down to pick it up.  I had been seeing these for several years on the belts of the screws.  Their indiscernible squawking had woken me up countless times during the middle of the night, especially when it was a newbie who bore them, as if they were some sort of status symbol where power was proportional to the volume setting.  I flipped the device on and listened for a time.  I could only make out roughly half of each conversation, same as always.  I think maybe they teach these people a new language when they attend the Academy, some sort of grunting, indignant Hickenese that my citified, Volvo-and-vino-set-raised ears just cannot penetrate.  Still, for all that, I was pretty sure they would understand me if I decided to say something over the air.  Oh yes, they would no doubt all hear what I had to say now.

The smile on my face was so wide that I actually noticed it, actually thought about how goofy I must have looked in that moment.  I very clearly remember sitting down on the metal of my bunk and thinking about how long it had been since I had smiled like that.  I honestly couldn´t recall. It had almost certainly been many years, maybe as much as a decade.  Something about that realization made me feel very weird inside, my hands absent-mindedly turning the radio over and over again.  Since when had mischief become my primary source of joy?  I didn´t start out my life feeling like this.  Up until halfway through my high school years, I was the good kid, the one always trying to get people around me to get along, to behave, to be kinder to each other.  When Matt C. had built his first Roman Candle bazooka and started shooting it at the police cruiser that patrolled our neighborhood, I was the one trying to get him to stop, and, once I´d failed at that mission, to get him to run, for God´s sake.  When David threw Matt´s new Air Jordans into the traffic on Highway 59, I was the only one of the group who wasn´t laughing as he dodged traffic to get them back, the only one to have been so distressed that I vomited.  Even later on, after things had started slipping down the spiral at a faster rate, I was the guy that collected the car keys at parties and handled the needles, so none of them mistook dirty for clean or overdosed because they had lost perspective on how much they had already rammed into their veins.  Somewhere in the middle of all of that, something had shifted.  I got tired of looking for acceptance for the real me, exhausted with always being on the outside looking in.  People had gone from something to be protected to something worthy of scorn, of contempt.  What dark alchemy was this?

It wasn’t that simple, though, was it?  I recall thinking.  It was always a gradual process, a slow peeling back of layer after layer of the things I wanted to believe about the world, of seeing only this bog of bullshit that lay underneath everything else.  Of how we are a people that claim to believe in divinely granted free will and the personal responsibility inherent to that concept, yet who simultaneously worship a God that punishes all humans for the sins of Adam and Eve, who committed genocide and ecocide in Noah´s day and again in that of Moses, who killed the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great great-grandchildren of those who worshipped other gods, who murdered twenty-four thousand Jews in Numbers because a few of them had sex with the Baal-worshiping Medianites, who dumped a three year famine on David´s people because of something done by Saul, and who then killed seventy thousand of His own chosen people because David had the temerity to complete a census that God commanded him to undertake in the first place, who killed 42 children because they made fun of Elisha´s bald head, and who condemned future generations of Samarians to having their children dashed to the ground and their pregnant women ripped open for something done by the current one.  These things were always there, waiting for me to notice.  One day, I just couldn´t ignore them anymore.  I couldn´t ignore that we are a people who will always stand foursquare and permanently against any sort of perceived foreign tyranny and yet never even begin to consider that in most of the hundred-plus countries where we have military bases, nearly all of the people there feel we are the tyrants, or how on our own shores we regularly allow a majority to tyrannize a minority in deep, systematic ways, of how the only difference between an ochlocracy and a democracy is spin based on how much of one´s personal identity and economic well-being is wrapped up in the latter, or how we take pride in our rule of law, yet will seldom, if ever, think about how these laws are devised and passed by elected representatives and not by a direct vote of the people, or how we are a people only mildly annoyed by the fact that those same representatives are skillfully cultivated for years by well-funded lobbyists who have not the interests of the people at heart but rather wealthy special interest groups, of how we are a people whose civic ignorance can be guaranteed to mystify the reality that before our vaunted laws can even be voted on in the first place, they have to be reported out of specially arranged committees composed of small numbers of powerful party leaders re-elected over and over again by small numbers of voters in artfully gerrymandered districts where the candidate seldom faces any significant political opposition, or the fact that we live in a land where the cost of campaigning for high national office has ballooned to the point where only wealthy individuals or the whores of wealthy individuals can afford to run or that there’s

one thing you shouldn´t ever try to put in your ark and one thing you simply can´t, no matter how hard you try.  The first is other people.  I know, I know, but you can´t seal up your connections like that, and there are many who seem to be on your side that you will come to see are anything but, and you wouldn´t want them infecting your ark in any case.  You will be tempted to want to secure away certain relationships, to keep them safe from the atmosphere here, but it won´t work and, eventually, it won´t really matter anyway.  The only thing more guaranteed than your death is that nearly all the people you currently love will disappear on you.  You don´t believe me, I can see it.  Unfortunately this is one of those things that have ontological existence whether you believe in them or not, kiddo.  Ask any of these old cats around here, and they´ll tell you the same thing.  People just aren´t wired to handle the pressures of this place, all the distance they carve out between you and the people in the free-world that care about you.  Love really doesn´t conquer all, not even close.  Letters will vanish

in the first place, of how ours is a country where people are constitutionally deemed to be too stupid or untrustworthy to directly vote on the Presidency so electors are substituted, even if this means that a candidate can seize the office after losing the popular vote, a vote wherein not even a majority of eligible voters actually participated, and where, given the laziness of the general public, the primary process will have been hijacked by the most radical, ensuring that the candidates in the general election are likely not to represent the median interests of the country but rather only the extremes, of how we are a people who are actually proud enough of all of this and a million other stupidities to have convinced ourselves of our own exceptionalism to the point that we completely ignore the existence of better practices emerging abroad, of how we have created the impression globally that there is nothing more American than standing firm and resolute in the face of rational thought.

This is what I am supposed to respect, cherish value?  Wouldn´t that be to enable these evils, to put my stamp of approval upon them?  It was so easy for me to feel that we deserve every bit of whatever awful consequences these actions brought upon us.  I couldn´t see a way to fix anything, to help anyone that would rescue them from the real poison coursing through their veins, so instead I abandoned them to this theater of the absurd, to ridicule and disdain.  And these guards, I thought, these witnesses, participants, and instigators of daily cruelties that would shock virtually anyone randomly selected off the street: do they not also deserve every iota of the fear I would engender when my voice began screeching over the wavelengths about an officer down, F-pod, oh god, officer in distress, oh, the blood!  They would come spilling out of the woodworks, falling all over themselves in terror, and, oh, how we would have our cells torn to pieces once they realized what had happened.  And we, too, we in the white jumpsuits, we would deserve all of this reaction, every bit of it, every last one of us but none more than myself, because my existence is just as idiotic as anyone else´s, my absurd life powered by the same absurd lies as that of the officer who would undoubtedly lose his job for leaving the radio in my house in the first place.  Oh, how I would laugh and laugh, and laugh, even as they kicked my teeth down the back of my throat, because it´s the funniest event in all of theater when the Fool doesn´t realize he´s the Fool and actually thinks he´s the star of the show.

All of this and more passed through my mind as I contemplated my move.  It was so easy, I reflected, to hate, so easy to give them a little of the same treatment they gave me every day.  And yet… wouldn´t that make me the same as them?  Wouldn´t that prove that positive change was impossible?  I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew what I ought to do.  There was a time when just knowing these things – just seeing the gap between the two – would have shown me the path, but they had done their work a little too well for all that.  I felt all of us here

lost, others stolen others still intentionally destroyed.  As this place poisons you, they won´t understand what is happening and will come to feel that you are no longer the person they once knew.  They will actually feel that you betrayed them somehow.  Once this happens, it becomes very easy for them to let go.  And you, you will actually twist yourself into ten-dimensional knots figuring out how to see their departure as a good thing.  Fuck ´em, you will think: I´m better off without all of that baggage. For a while yet you will feel the lie there, then even that will fade.  If I have to live with it, you will think, couldn´t they at the very least have had the strength to have heard about it?  Wrong on both counts, kid.  You aren´t “living” this, you are dying within it.  And nobody is strong to experience this place even at one remove without taking some damage.  Eventually you will simply come to accept that you are now a dispensable creature, and had better enjoy whatever contact you have with those in the free-world, no matter how ephemeral.  That all lasts until you feel your

emotions drain through the floor as I recognized the damage done, and that´s when I heard the section gate pop open.  I set the walkie-talkie next to the toilet and moved to the door. Sgt. A- quickly entered  and proceeded to move upstairs.  I watched as he then came down to one-row and moved from cell to cell, peering inside each intently for a few seconds.  I let him look in mine and move on to my neighbor´s before I spoke.

“What´s going on, Sarge?”  He ignored me completely, so I figured I´d play with him a little before I gave him the radio back.  “You have the look of a man who has lost something important.  The sort of thing that, I don´t know, might catalyze a rapid employment transfer to the local Walmart unless located.”  This stopped him, and I smiled at him in a friendly way as he stepped up to my cell.

“Offender, give it to me now,” he ordered, his voice cracking a little.  “Or I swear to God I´m going to fuck you over so bad.”

The muscle under my right eye suddenly started jumping, a sure sign of an impending headache.  I took a slight step back and hung my head.  I had never disrespected this man, had always had civil discussions with him.  Never once had I given him a problem, and this thought slipped into words without my noticing.

“Never. Not once. And that´s how you come at me?”  Bad move, I thought, real bad move.  I might have caved to pity, to a good joke, but he pulled the bully card and I detest a bully.  Taking a deep breath I stepped back to the door.

“Why, whatever are you talking about Sarge?” He blanched, taking a deep breath before he continued.

“Please give it to me.  I´ll…I´ll owe you one.”

Too late, bastard, I thought.  “Man, I´d sure like to help you, Sarge, you know that.” I lied, not even trying to make it sound good.  “This is a real cold world, though, full of people searching in vain for their deepest desires.  I, for instance, would like to live to see my fortieth birthday, but there´s zero chance of that happening.  I really would have liked to have been able to drink that coffee, too,” I said, waving towards my table.  “For that matter,” I added raising an eyebrow, “I´d also really like to have a cup of ice from the kitchen.  Yesiree, with a nice, big cup of ice, I´d feel very…open…to the needs of others.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it.  I could see the battle raging behind the red-rimmed windshields of his eyes.  Finally, he turned on his heels and marched off.  Well, I thought, either he´s back in fifteen with a cup of ice, or back in thirty with the goon squad. Given the likelihood of the latter, I didn´t see any point in cleaning up the mess in my cell, as they would just trash it a second time anyways.  I tried not to notice when the clock passed fifteen minutes, or when it reached thirty.  It was nearing the 45 minute mark when I heard the section gate pop open again. I decided not to put my book down, come what may. A few seconds later Sgt. A- appeared at my door.  He was by himself. He quickly opened my tray slot and slammed down a huge Styrofoam cup.  I stood up slowly and walked to the door, his radio clipped onto the front of my shorts.  I reached down to pull the cup in, and then popped the plastic cup.  Inside, I beheld a small mountain of glistening white shaved ice, the first time I had seen such a thing since my arrest.  I slowly drew the cup to my nostrils, searching for the odor of urine or feces or the gods knew what else.  Detecting nothing, I let a wave of cold air flow over my face.  The pig at the door banged in impatience but I held a finger up to him.  “I would have given this to you for nothing less than a kind word.  You chose to be an asshole.  So do not mess this up for me.”  I slowly tipped the rim of the cup up, and let a few pieces fall onto my tongue.  Cold, so cold.  Something that had once been so commonplace to me, so unnoticed, now somehow morphed into one of a million other items that I could spend 90 days on level 3 for.  I felt like I might start tearing up, so I distracted myself by looking towards the door.  The sergeant was trying to glare, but his body language radiated more anxiety than anger.  We stared at each other for a longer moment.

“You know I could fuck you up right now,” he finally whispered.  “I could gas your ass for failing to obey a direct order, drop a team on you so fast that you wouldn´t heal before Christmas.”

I nodded, finding a point about fifteen feet behind the center of his head to stare at, the secret of my best deadeye stare. I walked right up to the door, summoning up the words of a ghost. I shrugged at him before setting the radio down on the slot.  “Those are human concerns.”

He nearly ran off the section.  He thought I had won that day, and hated me until they fired him 18 months later for providing a dirty urine analysis.  I knew better, though.  There are no winners here, just like the Holocaust had no survivors.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is a mere voyeur, nothing more than

those who think they understand your context, your “plight” might even be worse, though you may come to respect them for their attempts to bridge the unbridgeable.  You will have to weed out the rubbernecks, though, the ones that are in it for a cheap thrill and who think they can understand your existence on an intellectual level because they´ve read Thoreau or Solzhenitsyn.  They´ll quote Mandel to you, kid, trying to justify the pain of Genet and Wilde as being necessary to the development of their craft, that there would have been no Vita of Benvenuto Cellini, no drama or poetry of Torquata Tasso, without the crucible of the gaol.  I always want to dump a truckload of Jack Henry Abbott or Chester Himes on them, watch them struggle to crawl out from under all of that weight, all of that void.  You smarmy fucks, I´d love to shout.  You think because you´ve read some words on a page you

know if you send me back, they are going to kill me,” I told the AFI agent sitting behind his huge desk.

“I have assurances that the death penalty is not to be considered in your case,” he replied, his Spanish crisp and clear, evidence of a first rate education.  He picked up a fax from his desk and waved it to me. I couldn´t read it, but could see some sort of seal with a star affixed to the top-center of the page.  Below this was a small paragraph of text.

“I still invoke my human right to appeal for amnesty and demand that I be allowed to speak with my consular off-“

His laughter interrupted me.

“You really learned nothing about my country during your time down here,” he said, standing.  “In Mexico, only the powerful have rights. Do you not think that they

have any right to talk to me about justice?  What about the law?  Do you know what it´s like to have to concentrate on deflecting blows away from your face and onto your body, just because your family is coming to visit you this week and you´d rather be covered in bruises underneath your clothes and lose than to actually win the fight but have them fretting over a black eye?  Do you know what it is like to be hungry and cold and hated for years at a stretch?  To remake yourself completely and to have all of this effort noticed by no one?  So fucking what if you´ve come to the conclusion that Wilde guessed and Coleridge knew that most murderers either kill the objects of their affection or, by killing, displace the only home they know?  Does any of that intellectual bullshit matter to those of us being gassed daily?  To those of us who can´t get a fair interview to save our necks?  But I

I saw the fax,” I protested.

“They keep telling me that you´re supposed to be intelligent.  I wish you´d prove it to me some time,” my attorney snapped at me.  “The state never took the death penalty off the table.  Period.  I´m not here to listen to your fantasies about-“

“There´s a treaty, man!  Mexico won´t send anyone back to the States unless they have a guarantee that-“

“I guess we´re done here,” he said, standing up to leave.  I tried to think that

the weirdest part is that none of those people even try to justify your confinement as somehow serving the regulatory capacity of modern society a la Adorno and Horkheimer.  There was something to that back in the day when Philadelphia elites were terrified that the revolutionary fires might blaze towards anarchy if left unstructured, but those days are dead, dead, dead.  No more republican machines, no more pedagogic regimes, just millions of broken and broken-hearted fools who failed to understand their place in all of this mess and who now get to pay for all of the social evils we regularly ignore.  You´d think this reality would demand they question whether

They get Little D?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “They got him.”
“Fourth this month.”
“Yeah, this was my 42nd execution and I wonder if this

would foster some real solidarity between all of us, some sort of cross-cultural identification or compassion, but this seldom happens.  War breaks and scatters us, transforms us into something we can´t even recognize, kid, something we wouldn´t want to be able to recognize in the mirror even if we had the option.  They sentenced us to civil and then bodily death, but they kill us all a dozen times over again in a much more complete way before it´s all over.  I mean, look around you, son, don’t you think about how

many is this for you?”
“This was number 97 for me.” I responded
“Damn, you keep that kind of track?”
“I remember every one, bro.  Every single one. And try

as hard as you might, you can´t fit yourself into your ark. It doesn´t work like that; it only preserves that which can be saved, not that which is destined for annihilation.  You think I haven´t tried to fit a part of me in there?  I used to…god, how much I used to feel things.  I was so stupid, so young, that I actually thought that all of that pain was the worst thing there was, that I would do anything to make it stop, even the worst thing that I could think of.  Now I know that this pain connected me to the rest of humanity, that so long as I felt it I could understand and reach out to others, that we could meet on an even field backgrounded by that pain and work to change things for the better.  Once that´s gone, once these people burn it out to you, you are likely to

say something on the news?” I asked hopefully
“They killed him. Sometime after 9 p.m.,” he answered.  “Don´t know what the three hour delay was for.”
I closed my eyes.  “He was my163rd.”
“Newbie.  I´ve been here for more than 400.”
“Jesus. How do you…deal with all of that?”
“What difference does it make? he answered angrily.  “Another day, another body.  You get used to it. If you can’t, you are

gone, done for.  You think I´m telling you all of this because I´m “nice”?  Because I “love” you?  Open your fucking eyes, kiddo.  I was nice once.  You wouldn´t believe this, but I used to be funny, used to laugh my eyes closed.  I used to love so deeply sometimes it scared me, used to quote Shakespeare and Hume and get carried away by Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi, used to say things in foreign languages just to see the strange looks on the faces of the Other.  Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l´autre, vous êtez foutu. It doesn´t do anything for me anymore.  Those days are gone, and I´m not taking you through the anti-Academy because I like you.  I want you to know these things because every time someone uses one of my tricks, I remain alive.  Every fool pig you beat is a testament to my resistance, to my will, to the idea that though they may have killed me a thousand times before they killed me, they never beat me.  I´m not telling you all of this because I care about you.  I´m doing it so that I will haunt you.  In this world, the only thing that is eternal is revenge.  That´s the biggest lesson they teach you in this place, and by god, I am nothing if not a diligent pupil.

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

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Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Excellent entry, Thomas. One of your better pieces. I printed this to read at home.

I think I am not alone in wishing you would continue the "Dog" series as well.

Anonymous said...

Aside from Whitikars horrific involvement in his crime, it is a damn shame he did not realize his talents before committing them.

Anonymous said...

Clever and revealing.

Jenneke said...

Thank you Thomas for another piece of your work. Just like another poster said I hope that you will someday finish "No mercy for dogs", as it sure it a favourite among your readers here. In addition, I hope you'll have more succes with your add on WAP this time. Take care, and I/we look forward to your next piece.

Joe said...

Another PEN winner for sure.


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