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Thursday, January 31, 2019

No Mercy For Dogs Chapter 24

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Chapter 23 click here

The month of June seemed determined to cook me in my own juices.  The relative mildness of May morphed suddenly, angrily, into the hottest weather I’d experienced in la Republica.  Hector, incapable of feeling pity for anyone not smart enough to find someone else to work for, drove us harder.  We finished the structural expansion of the furniture store during the first week of the month, and he divided the crew.  Most of the guys were tasked with finishing the ground floor level, everything from laying tile to painting the walls and running the electrical system and lighting.  He assigned me to Don Adrian, his master carpenter.  We spent a day taking careful measurements of the kitchen, where we were going to build and install shelves and cabinets.  We then moved into the living room and bedrooms, doing the same.

Hector respected Adrian, but he didn’t like him very much.  A man like him could never understand the carpenter’s silences, the way he let his craft speak for him.  I think Hector assigned me to him because he thought I would be miserable as his apprentice, only proving how little he understood other people.  Adrian’s workshop was situated in the back of the home he shared with his adult daughter.  It was a simple space, but it had the aura of a temple of sorts, a place where a great deal of attention was given to very small details.  I discovered that Adrian’s work with Hector was actually his side job, and that he made far more money fabricating furniture.  He showed me how none of his chairs, desks, or armoires used screws or nails.  I couldn’t imagine how this could be, so he brought out some samples and illustrated to me how he managed to create joins that were so perfectly aligned that they slid into each other like puzzle pieces.  After a little time had passed, moisture in the air would swell the wood, locking everything into place.

He also made clocks, though mostly for his own amusement.  When he showed me the one he was working on, it looked more like a piece of art than anything one would put on a shelf.  Instead of hiding all of the gears behind a shell, Adrian left the innards completely exposed.  There was very little metal involved: almost everything was made of wood, beautifully sculpted and detailed.  There was something eerily beautiful about them, and about the quiet genius of a man building such things at night, mere hours after having to toil for a man who’d never had a creative or beautiful thought in his life.  My respect for Adrian soared.

I’d never worked with wood before, but Adrian carefully introduced me to the world of lathes, planers, and adzes.  We did most of the work for the kitchen off-site, because Hector didn’t want sawdust getting into all of Jr’s stuff.  This was not an ideal situation, but Adrian never complained.  After our first day of working together, Adrian invited me to have dinner with him.  I accepted, and was introduced to his daughter, Maria.  I’d seen her around town, but I’d never had any cause to speak to her.  She was a secretary of some sort at the city’s administrative building.  I discovered rather quickly that she had clearly inherited her father’s quiet ways.  There was something sad about Maria.  Already well into her thirties, she had never married, and I doubted very much that any callers would be arriving soon.  After dinner Adrian led me through the house to the front door.  I promised to bring the beer the next day. 

I don’t know if it was the wood itself or if I was merely absorbing some of Don Adrian’s love for the medium, but I really fell into carpentry.  Hours would disappear in a fog as I churned out doors and shelves.  Every day around 3pm we’d hear Hector’s honk from out on the street, and we’d load everything up to be transported to the jobsite.  Such was the skill of the man that we never had to make more than the tiniest of adjustments once we set about installing everything.  After work I’d buy some beers and we’d sit on Adrian’s porch, unless he had an order to finish, in which case I’d help him with that.  I usually only had a single beer, which the Maestro didn’t seem to mind much, considering this meant that the rest were for him.  I never stayed for long, and we never said much.  It wasn’t that kind of relationship.  I once asked Maria how long he stayed out there, and she merely smiled and said “until the beer is gone.”

I noticed after about a week of working with the Maestro that the cold tension that had settled in my soul the last few months had begun to thaw.  My life was simple for all of a week or so.  I knew on some level that this was never going to last, so I felt a sort of grim satisfaction the evening I approached my taller on a bicycle and found the Hammer’s white Chevrolet truck parked out front.

True to my request, he’d kept his distance from me since my return to Cerralvo.  I’d seen him around town a few times, but he simply nodded or touched his finger to his hat.  I found him sitting on the bench I’d built in Adrian’s workshop on my third night working overtime.

“You could at least fake the smile to see me, cabron.”

“I was considering my options in case that thing collapses underneath you.  Do drug kingpins even bother with insurance?”  A little smile crept over his face.

“Should I be concerned?” he asked, looking down in fake alarm.

“It was my first attempt.  I should probably put a warning on it or something.”

He extended his hand out and ran it across the surface of the handrail.  “I may have you make me one.”

“You can have that one.  Gelo?”

“Si?”

“What do you want?”

That got a bigger smile.  “I need for you to see sometheeng.”

He drove me back to the ranchita, parking out front.  Something was wrong; my radar was pinging like mad, but I couldn’t tell what I was hitting.  I stayed behind him a few paces as he led me back to the barn, where he paused before opening the gate.  Inside was Chespy’s metallic grey Land Rover.  I scanned about rapidly for the man but saw nothing.

“I had to move eet from the front.  The keys were left in the cabeen, along weeth thees,” he said, handing a white envelope with my name printed on the face, and a key ring with a futuristic fob attached to it.  I cursed and took the things from him.  He left me there, warring with the urge to toss the keys down the well.  I finally ripped open the envelope and found what appeared to be a Santander credit card that I knew to be an RFID chip in disguise, a series of vehicle registration and insurance forms all listing the name on my Mexican ID package as the owner of the vehicle, and a handwritten note.  The light was fading, so I had to step out of the shadows of the barn to get a better view.  In a messy hand that I knew instantly had to be Chespy’s, I found a quote from what I later learned was Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: 

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgement I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

I flipped the page over, looking for some kind of personal message or explanation for the truck having been left there in the first place.  He had once promised to give the Rover to me, but I thought he was kidding.  I stalked over to one of the picnic tables and sat, staring at the note in frustration.  The cipher was not a complicated one to crack: he was telling me that he knew my soul better than I did, and that at some point I was going to come back to him.  Well, fuck all kinds of that mess, I thought angrily.  We may indeed all live in a deterministic universe, but he wasn’t the spider at the center of the causal web.  I went to close the barn and stopped.  I looked back towards the ranchita’s main buildings and saw the Hammer screwing around with one of his horses.  I turned back around and clicked the button on the fob to deactivate the alarm.  Climbing inside, I closed my eyes and thought back over the months to when Chespy had picked me up from the mountain hideout.  First, seat, I remembered.  Second, close the doors.  I sealed the cabin, then placed the key into the ignition.  I then found the defroster and activated it.  It took me a few minutes to remember the XM station for the radio, but I got there eventually.  With my left hand I pulled up on the toggles for the driver and passenger windows, while waving the fake credit card across the face of the radio.  I heard the click and reached out, lifting up the lid of the contraband well hidden in the dashboard.  Inside I found almost 30 thousand dollars in US currency and yet another pistol.  I sat back in the seat and mulled over what was very obviously a promise of more Chespy in my life.  I sighed and sealed the well, leaving the “gifts” inside.

I found the Hammer standing by the well.  One of his cats watched us from nearby.  He turned when he heard me approaching, but didn’t say anything.  The silence grew into a living thing between us.

“It’s bait,” I said, finally.

“The car?”

“And other things in the car.”

He nodded. “You see the hook?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Don’t be so sure.  Hees people, they have you fight the bait, then the hook come at you from behind.”

“Can I leave the bloody thing here for awhile?”

Por supuesto. As long as you like.”

“Thanks,” I called, starting to walk back to my place.

“Rudy,” I turned to look back at him, saw him staring down the well.  He started to say something else, then shook his head.  “Buenas noches,” he said quietly, then headed back towards the complex.  I walked home.

Adrian and I finished installing the cabinets in the kitchen that following week, and the painters took over.  Hector had decided on a horribly garish color scheme, all golden glazes and royal blue accents.  It was almost a travesty to have done this to the functional beauty of the Maestro’s work, but aside from a tiny grimace from Adrian, he said nothing.  I shrugged my shoulders and followed him into the den, where we were building an entertainment center.

Cynthia had been fairly cold to me since my return to Cerralvo.  I had for a  time been an object used by both daughter and parents to pretend that perhaps she could have a normal, acceptable life after all.  While I sympathized with her situation – growing up gay in a conservative town in Mexico was not an easy childhood – I was barely holding together all of my own lies and I simply couldn’t carry hers as well.  Raul tried to mend fences.  Cynthia wasn’t having any of it.  She starting “dating” a friend from Monterrey, a man called Rodrigo who seemed to encapsulate pretty much every negative trait possible in her parents’ worldview.  For starters, he was about as goth as it was possible to be: he owned a seemingly endless supply of black heavy metal band t-shirts, all of which seemed to feature a variety of skulls, monsters, demons, and wicked bishops; he had chains draped all over his body, for no apparent reason; he had so many facial piercings that it appeared that someone had booby-trapped his jewelry drawer/box/whatever with plastic explosives.  On top of all of that, he was abundantly, flamboyantly gay.  He was clearly calculated to enrage Don Hector, and in this he did not disappoint.  Rodrigo seemed to relish the role of pissing off Cynthia’s father.  I suppose I ought to give him points for that.  He had stones.  Probably pierced ones.  With chains attached.  Whatever. 

He was a hell of a musician, too.  The first time I met him he was playing some kind of long-necked mandolin looking thing he called a theorbo.  He was studying piano at a conservatory in Monterrey, but was also incredibly gifted at the guitar and cello.  I played with them once, but I couldn’t keep up.  That night, he was showing Cynthia how to get the Rolling Stones’ sound.  She’d never toyed with open five-string tuning before, and it wasn’t natural to her.  She wasn’t all that into theory, so “open G tuning” meant nothing to her.  I, on the other hand, was fascinated.  All of a sudden “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “Flash” sounded like they were supposed to.  Rodrigo could tell I liked it.

“Bo Diddley,” I said, smiling.  “Lo conoces?”

“Oh, si, si. Tambien Don Everly.  Sabes?”

I played around with putting a capo on the fifth and seventh frets, and we jammed for a few hours. I was clearly not worthy to hang with either of them, but Rodrigo was gracious. Cynthia remained cold, but I ignored her.  I set the guitar aside that evening with a strange mixture of satisfaction and regret.  I had already decided that I wasn’t going to play with them again, or play any of Cynthia’s games any longer.  Music is full of silences.  I added mine.

On the way downstairs I stopped by Raul’s room to say goodnight.  He was on the phone with his fiancée, but held his finger to tell me to wait.  I turned and faced the television.  The news was talking about yet another violent confrontation between narcos and the military, in some place called Piedras Negras.  Incidents with automatic weapons exchanges were growing frighteningly common, and would grow more so over the next few years.  This battle apparently featured explosives as well, but it was unclear whether these had been deployed by the cartel or the police.  Some Sheriff from a place called Eagle Pass, Texas was also interviewed, for some reason, but he had nothing intelligent to add.  I turned away, not understanding what I was looking at.  Raul hung up the phone and we talked for a while.  They had decided there was no reason to wait on the wedding, so they had scheduled it for the second week of July.  We were all pretending that this in no way implied that Elizabeta was pregnant, but I think we all knew.  It wasn’t going to be a fancy affair, just a brief (or so I was told) church ceremony followed by a party at the San Nicolas house.

The Hammer found me at work the next day.  I was unloading some of Don Adrian’s tools from Hector’s truck when I saw his Chevy pull up across the street.  I sighed and excused myself, walking across to him.  Instead of heading back to the ranch, he took me to the Plaza Grande.  I followed him into the restaurant of the largest hotel in town, where he took a table.

“Get one of the periodicos, mijo, one of the ones from Monterrey,” he said to me as he sat. I went into the lobby and bought a newspaper.  He unfolded this after I set it down on the table and took my seat.  I was tense and kept scanning the room, trying to notice what he wanted me to observe.  People avoided my stare, something that always seemed to happen when I was with Papa Ramos.  Gelo laid the paper out and pointed to an article on the front page.  I looked down, read the headline.

“I saw that on the news last night,” I said at last.

“For a man who just lose hees beeg problem, you no seem very happy.”

“What does that mess have to do with me?” I asked, then leaned over to start reading the story in full.  The Hammer said nothing to me, just let me read while he ordered a late breakfast.  I finished the article just as confused as when I had started it.

“So what, Gelo?  The cops caught up with some nut, he guns a bunch of them down and then blows himself up.  I’ve seen this movie before.”

“You don’t know the name of thees person?”

I looked at the newspaper again, found the name, and tried to recall ever having heard it before.  “I don’t know this fool from Adam.”

The Hammer nodded, clearly enjoying this.  “Ah, ah, yes you do, senor!  He has more name than even you.  You know heem as Chespy.”

His words arrived like a physical blow.  I exhaled and sat back in my chair, wrestling to master myself.  Gelo grinned at me. “Eet was only a matter of time, Rudy.  He toy with la Santisima too much.” I said nothing as he ate his eggs, and then let him take me back to work.  I felt numb all day.  I excused myself when Adrian asked me to eat with him and rode back to the ranch.  I opened the barn and felt along the top of the back tire on the driver’s side for the keys.  I sat down in the driver’s seat, retrieved the note he had left me from the center console, and leaned the seat back.

Did Chespy know he was going to his death?  The whole time I was reading the article, it felt like a sort of trap, the way the gunman had selected a room with a balcony that looked down on the street, the fact that he’d obviously brought enough explosives with him to send pieces of the roof flying over the neighborhoods for hundreds of feet.  I’d never seen Chespy tote about bags full of plastic explosives before, though I suppose he wouldn’t have told me if he had.  I suddenly felt an overpowering need to search the vehicle I was sitting in thoroughly, which I did.  Half an hour later I was left staring at his note.  When I had first read it, I had assumed he was saying that I was the leaf, he the wind.  If he knew he was on a suicide mission, then perhaps he was saying that he was the leaf, the wind forces beyond our comprehension.  If so, the car was…what?  A gift?  A warning?  Something to use to get the hell out of dodge?  Was his interest in me purely professional, as I had always guessed, or was he saying that there was some part of him that actually liked me?  I thought of the barrels of pozole being wheeled out of the alley and jerked away from the Rover.  I left his note on the seat, activated the alarm, and rode back to the taller.  I felt like there were worms crawling around in my stomach, inching their way up my spine and into my brain.  I buried myself under my blanket and tried to find oblivion.

I ghostwalked through the world during the weeks preceding Raul’s wedding.  Whatever mental salve Adrian’s craft had previously offered me disappeared.  I think he knew it too, because his smiles began to be inflected with touches of concern.  I tried to find the calm I’d located in the mountains, but those moments were ephemeral, numbness blending rarely into the freedom from the self and all of its strange gravity that I had achieved mere months before.

The supposedly short wedding mentioned by Raul turned out to be a more than three hour affair.  Elizabeta’s dress didn’t show any signs of her pregnancy, but you could tell by the relief on the faces of the bride’s parents that they felt they had dodged a bullet.  The pair left that night for a honeymoon in San Luis Potosi.  I never saw either of them again.

Something was coming.  I felt it.  This isn’t memory playing an elaborate trick on me, not some sort of revisionist history informed by later knowledge.  For several days before Raton showed up at the taller looking like he’d seen a ghost, I’d been looking over my shoulder or glancing up at the sky, wondering why it felt like a storm was coming.  I knew it by his eyes, the way Edgar looked like he’d been let off the hook only to be lodged on an even bigger one.  He tried to smile, but I knew that something was ending.

“Papa wants you.”

“Of course he does,” I sighed, and started walking towards his truck.  “What’s happened?”

“Blackie killed all the chickens.”

I stopped.  “Edgar, who the fuck cares about a dozen hens?  What’s this got to do with me?”

He shook his head.  “Not the hens.  Well, them too, but that’s not…it’s the gallos, even the prize one, the one he bets with.”

I sighed again and got into the truck.  I never understood the appeal of rooster fighting, but it was almost a religious pursuit amongst the narcos.  “Why’d he do that?  Blackie, I mean.”

Pues, quien sabe?  He went crazy, killed all of them in the night.  It’s not good.  Gelo se puso furioso.” 

When we pulled up to the front of the ranch we found the Hammer pacing back and forth near the gate.  He had a pistol shoved into his waistband.  Raton dropped me off and then left, and I silently cursed his cowardice even while I envied him for his good sense.  Lacking other options, I entered the gate and walked towards Gelo.

He wasted no time, yanking the pistol from his pants and handing it to me by the barrel.  “Shoot that maldito perro.

I looked down at my hand, surprised to find a gun there.  “Uh...hello to you as well.  Why am I shooting your dog?”

“Thees stupeed crazy mongrel, he keel twenty thousand doolar in cheeken!”

I gaped.  “Those…birds…are worth 20k?”

“Si, si, the rey, he is worth thees,  in thees year alone.  The rest are no important.”

“You owned a chicken worth a car.”

“I tell you thees already, yes.”

“I feel like I ought to shoot you for paying that much for a bird.”

That, as it turns out, was pretty much the worst possible thing to say at this particular juncture.  The ice in his eyes could have solved global warming.  “Okay, okay,” I said, taking a small step back.  “Where is…Blackie?”

He pointed angrily to the right, into the scrubland that stretched out for miles to the east of the ranch.  “He ees tied to a mesquite about 200 yard.  You weel see.  Go do thees for me. I can no shoot thees stupeed perro.  A man should no keel hees own dog, even when the stupeed hijo de su puta madre keel the king of rooster.”

I’d never seen Gelo like this, but Blackie clearly wasn’t the only sentient being in the neighborhood that wasn’t thinking clearly.  I started walking in the direction the Hammer pointed, twice pausing to make sure he was still standing back by the gate.  He’d called me to do this thing, I reflected.  Not one of his goons, not his own son.  Despite everything, he needed me.  That was worth something.  It meant something.  Still…I wasn’t going to shoot Blackie, was I?  The wacky buffoon had hovered about my life in this crazy town for more than a year, had stood watch over me that night when I had passed out in the desert.  Did I have a choice?  What would Gelo do to me if I refused?  I suddenly began to appreciate the numbness of the previous weeks.

I found him after a few minutes of searching. He was lying completely still on the ground. His tail spasmed twice when he saw me, but he didn’t even lift his head off the ground.  I could see that his pitch black fur was wet with blood; the Hammer must have thrashed the hell out of him before dragging him out here.  He knew he had messed up, and stared at me mournfully, begging for absolution.  I looked up at the sky for a long moment, reflecting on the choices I’d made in my life, how they all seemed weirdly to have funnelled me to this one moment.  Everything, I knew, depended on this.  Everything.  As usual, the skies were silent, and I found no answer there.

“Sorry, Blackie,” I said, looking down finally.  I raised the pistol, took aim, and then fired two shots.

I stood over him for a long moment, letting the echoes fly towards the mountains in the distance.  Then I turned and walked away.

I found the Hammer still by the gate.  I handed the pistol back to him.

“Thank you, Rudy.  A man no should-“

“Gelo, I don’t really want to talk to you right now, okay?  I’m going to go and get a shovel and bury your fucking dog.  I’d appreciate it if you found somewhere else to be for a while.”

He didn’t argue with me, even though it was a little absurd, me evicting him from his own ranch.  I stalked back to the main buildings and paused to watch his truck disappear in the distance.  I counted to one hundred, then sprinted to the barn.  I flung the door open, got into the Rover, and backed it out.  I stopped by the cabins.  Entering the main one, I removed the extra comforter from the chest at the foot of the bed, tossed it into the passenger seat.  I closed the gate to the ranch behind me, drove to the east fifty yards.  I popped open the back seat, grabbed the comforter, and started running.

Blackie was still laying where I had left him, beaten and terrified by the sound of the shots. I reached down to lightly pat his thick skull, and he tentatively licked my hand a few times. I moved to the mesquite, and started to untie his leash from the trunk.  The holes where the bullets had entered the thick bark were barely visible.  It took me a few minutes to get Blackie wrapped up in the comforter, but eventually I was able to heft his immense bulk up and carry him back to the SUV.  Under normal conditions, that dog loved a car ride to a degree that is impossible to describe.  You could barely keep him in the car, the way he bounced around.  I had no idea how badly he was hurt, but given that he simply closed his eyes after I laid him in the backseat, I figured he was in a lot of pain.

I pulled in to the front of the taller, cut the engine off.  It only took me a moment to load all of my clothes into my pack, which I tossed into the back of the Rover along with my satchel.  I then grabbed a shovel from Emilio’s workbench and dug up the coffee canisters where I’d buried my money,  I climbed to the rafters, where I’d hidden the pair of pistols Chespy had given me in Monterrey, and returned to the car, unlocking the contraband trap.  I hid the pistols inside, removed a thousand dollars of my money before dumping the rest inside, then removed a clean stack of five thousand from Chespy’s hoard, betting that the serial numbers on his cash were cleaner than my own.  I then searched through Emilio’s desk until I found a pen and paper, plus some brown paper sacks and a cotton rag.  I wrote two notes, one to Emilio, the other to Adrian.  In the first, I thanked him for renting me the office, and said that the enclosed money was for back rent.  I asked him to please give the second package to Don Adrian, the carpenter, and that Emilio was now the owner of all of the furniture I had left behind.  I wrapped the five thousand in this, then sealed the bundle up in brown paper and twine.  I finished by writing his name on the top.  In the second, I wrapped my Rolex up in the rag.  I wrote a note thanking the Master for taking me on as an apprentice, and then explained the kinetic movement and how to wind the watch manually. I wrapped all of this up in brown paper and wrote his name on the exterior.  I left both packages sitting on top of his workbench, in a place that would be impossible to miss.  If, on some strange event, Emilio ever reads these paragraphs, he’ll get the joke hidden in the previous sentence.

On the way out the door I froze, then returned to the car, removed the cell phone that I’d bought in Monterrey and seldom used, and brought it back into the taller.  Searching through Emilio’s toolbox I found a hammer.  I placed the phone on the cement floor and then bashed it to pieces.  Out of the rubble I removed the SIM chip, which I broke into pieces.  The debris went into the trash can, and I locked the door behind me.

Chespy’s truck parted for me the security cordons of the Mexican military just as it had for him, the survival instincts of the soldiers trumping their professionalism.  I stopped twice on the road to Monterrey to check on Blackie, who seemed to be recovering slightly.  He walked around outside of a cemetery for a few minutes, before urinating.  He then laid back down, obviously spent.  I loaded him back into the SUV and continued driving.  I’d never actually driven a car in Monterrey before.  From the back seat of a cab, the suicidal tendencies of the average driver were merely terrifying.  From the driver’s seat of an 80 thousand dollar luxury SUV that might or might not belong to a massive and ruthless narcotics cartel, they are infuriating.  My knuckles remained tightly gripped to the wheel the entire way downtown, which was the part of the city I was most familiar with.  I stopped in front of a luxury hotel, told the valet I would be right back, and then found the concierge.  He was talking on the phone when I walked up to his desk.

“Telephone directory,” I demanded.  He looked up from his phone in surprise, and then held up a finger, motioning for me to wait.  I took a deep breath, looking up at the large lobby.  I then jammed my finger down on the phone, disconnecting his call.  “Telephone directory. Now.”  His mouth hung open but he quickly reached into a drawer of his desk and plopped down a thick book.  I took this and left.  I heard him call out to me once but no one tried to stop me.  Still in the line of vehicles either picking up or dropping off guests, I searched for a veterinarian.  I finally found one on a street I knew, only a few blocks from the Macroplaza. The tires squelched once as I took off.  It really was a beautifully well-made car.

The vet’s office was in an upscale mixed-residential district, not so different from the one in which I had lived while working for el Lobo.  The gods must love dogs, because I was able to find a parking space only a few doors down from the entrance.  Blackie’s tail flopped around a little more this time when I woke him up. He licked my hand a few more times as I gathered him up and closed the door behind me with my hip.  A woman in her forties looked up from the reception area when I came through the door, and then immediately came around to meet me, the concern obvious on her face.  She assessed the situation at once, gave me an evil glare, then told me to follow her.  She led me to a clean room in the back that contained an immense stainless steel table.  Motioning to the table, she darted back out of the room.

I set Blackie down and then unwrapped the comforter.  The blood on his fur looked to be completely dry by this point, but he was still obviously not right.  The normal Blackie would have already stuck his nose into pretty much every drawer in the room by this point, but he just lay there, not even mildly curious.  If I didn’t know any better, I would have said he was…depressed.  He closed his eyes as I rubbed his head lightly.  I didn’t think I had any heart left to break, but I was wrong.

The assistant/receptionist was back a few seconds later, following the veterinarian.  He too gave me a critical stare and then started inspecting Blackie.  Even though the answer was abundantly self-evident, after a moment he looked up at me and ask: “What happened here?”

“He was beaten.”

“Yes, I see that.  Did you do this?  What did you use?”

I stared at him hard, touching the zero, channelling Chespy, el Martillo, el Cachas, every last blood-soaked one of them.  The doctor shut his mouth and took a step back.  I closed my eyes.  Everything depends on this, I repeated.  I opened my eyes, tried to soften them.  “The only crime I’ve ever committed in regards to this dog is the fact that I stole him from his rightful owner this morning.”

“Very well,” he answered at last, and began working on Blackie.  I didn’t understand all of the medical Spanish he utilized in his inspection, but I got the gist of it.  They were going to clean him up, give him some X-rays, make sure that none of his organs were ruptured. They wanted to observe him overnight, and unless they discovered a major problem, I could pick him up the next morning any time after 10 o’clock.

“You…do not intend to return him to…the man that did this?” the nurse asked me as I settled the bill.

“He won’t ever see that man again,” I promised.  Neither will I.

I returned to the Rover and sat behind the wheel, deep in thought.  I had already known what I was going to do, in those first few seconds of my freedom, as I watched the Hammer’s truck drive away from the ranch.  Now I plotted the details. Two stops, I decided. I could do all of it in just two stops.  I flipped through the directory again, first for the addresses of the city’s Home Depot stores.  I compared these to the many listings for Walmarts and found a conjunction.  Thirty seconds later I was off.

A diesel generator.  A twelve-piece Black and Decker electric hand tool kit that weighed as much as I did and came in three large boxes.  Every tool I could think of, and then some that the staff suggested.  Nails; screws; electrical equipment; LED light bulbs; a cool looking first aid kit; a hand-cranked flashlight; a lighter that the makers claimed would work under water, though why anyone would ever need to do this was beyond me; leatherwork tools; a Gerber multi-tool; a titanium folding shovel that I kind of wanted for myself, though I wasn’t even completely sure why; a heavy duty extension cord; tools for laying brick or block; and dozens of other useful and useless items that escape memory now.  I can only imagine what the staff thought of me, the crazy American who was willing to drop a little over 15k on random hardware in a single visit.  Four hours later, several employees helped me wheel everything out to the truck.  I spent twenty minutes wedging everything into the tightest possible configuration in the cargo space.  Satisfied, I tipped the staff with 50 dollars each. It’s a kind of magic trick, I decided.  Dirty money to clean in the span of a human heartbeat.

The parking lot for the Walmart adjoined that of the Home Depot, so it only took me a few minutes to find a parking spot immediately in front of a bank of security cameras.  I then spent the next three hours buying everything I could think of to supply a home: pots, pans, sheets, utensils, plates; the biggest, baddest stereo system in the building; a decent 20-something inch television, plus the most advanced multi-band antenna set in stock; five thick fleece blankets; a sturdy steel mirror; a set of wicked looking kitchen knives; a gigantic container of Motrin; an elaborate sewing kit; a mammoth bag of dog food.  I had to guess the sizes of the jackets and clothing items, but I think I mostly got it right.  I spent at least 45 minutes in the section of the store picking out school supplies, everything from paper and pens to a calculator.  I probably forgot some items that would be obvious to someone else, I know.  But it really was a mountain of stuff.  Once you have filled up four carts and are looking for a fifth, you start to feel like everyone in the place is judging you as some sort of spoiled rich asshole, even if it is someone else’s money you are spending.

Somehow I managed to squeeze everything into the cargo hold and the back seat.  The rear view mirror was now worthless.  All told, I’d spent just under $20,000 in less than seven hours.

Sleeping somewhere was going to be an issue.  There was no way I was going to park a luxury SUV filled to the roof with gear in the parking lot of the dive hotels I usually stayed in. After spending such an obscene amount of money, all of my genes for cheapness suddenly kicked into high gear.  I seriously thought about sleeping in the truck with one of Chespy’s pistols in my lap, but I ended up back in the Macroplaza district, moving from hotel to hotel until I found one that had a reasonably secure parking garage.  The lobby was full of white people, and I found myself watching them as if they were foreigners.  Which they were, of course, but foreign from me in a way that I wouldn’t have expected.  The obese gringo in front of me in line couldn’t seem to stop wheezing like a bullet-riddled accordion.  He seemed calculated to annoy me.  He was wearing a strange purple shirt that looked like it had been fashioned out of an old parachute.  I tried to ignore him, but he kept moving about and invading my sightlines, apparently in a great rush to get to his room.  He kept fanning himself, even though the hotel’s AC was currently attempting to freeze the blood in my veins.  This is how they see us all, I thought.  No wonder they hate us.  At one point he turned, caught my eye, and leaned back, making a mildly derogatory comment about the female clerk having obviously missed her siesta.  “Maybe so, but at least she doesn’t look like an enormous fucking macaw.”  He suddenly found more interesting things to look at in front of him.

The room was pleasingly boring and very clean.  The smell of chemicals draped in a lavender overcoat greeted me at the door.  I plopped my pack down on the bed and stared out the window for a few minutes, watching the sky fade from lilac to indigo.  Later I took a shower, found some grapefruit juice in the fridge that Chespy paid four dollars for, and pushed a chair in front of the window.  I turned the light off and watched the avenues pulse with traffic.  Some hours later I found my way to bed.

The Rover was unmolested the next morning when I checked out of the hotel.  I went to the vet’s office early.  I wanted to be there first in order to see them coming.  I spent at least twenty minutes reviewing the maps I had bought, and wrote out some notes on the route I wanted to take.  The 10 o’clock hour eventually came and went, and no teams of SWAT-esque troopers swarmed the place, so I let myself in.  The same nurse/assistant greeted me, this time with a marginally less frosty demeanor.  Not surprisingly, they had found a way to tack on some extra charges, which I paid.  I placed fifty dollars in the donation box for the local equivalent of the pound, which seemed to warm her up a few degrees.

They brought the chicken-slayer out from the back a few minutes later, along with the comforter, which someone had washed.  Blackie seemed to have recovered somewhat, though he still wasn’t his usual, energetic self.  He was happy to see me, though, and I dropped down on my haunches to say hello.  The combination of my action and Blackie’s response seemed to conclude things on a happy note for the nurse, who finally gave me a smile that contained some actual warmth. The veterinarian gave me a quick run down of Blackie’s injuries: myriad contusions, inflicted with a whip-like object – most likely a belt, I thought, though I didn’t inform the doctor of this suspicion – no internal injuries of note, and one cracked tooth, though this last could have happened at any point over the past week, he thought.  I took all of this in, watched Blackie for a moment, and decided his subdued posture probably really had more to do with fear than anything else.  I knew how to fix that.

Before I loaded him into the passenger seat of the Rover, I laid the comforter down on the seat.  He hopped in without trouble, giving the console a good sniffing.  He perked up some more once we got moving, his head stuck completely out the window, which I had to raise a bit in order to keep him from what seemed to be serious consideration on his part of perhaps diving out at some point.  He settled down when we reached the highway, ultimately deciding he preferred the floorboard in front of his seat.  He curled up and seemed to fall asleep almost instantly.

The last time I’d made the drive in this direction, I’d been concussed.  When I’d last seen it in reverse, Mexico was still gripped in winter’s fist.  What had been grey and dim was now green and full of life.  It wasn’t a complicated route – not until the end, at least – and I enjoyed it.  The journey felt like a sort of last crusade.  On some level I realized that I was intentionally not thinking about what would happen after this evening, but this seemed okay to me, the way this was meant to be.  I pulled off the highway into some back roads a few times for Blackie to wander around and stretch his legs.  On one of these stops, he took off after something brown and swift in the underbrush, and this made me feel better.  The restaurant options weren’t great, but fortunately for me Blackie was not exactly gastropedantically inclined and pretty much inhaled everything I set down in front of him.  After destroying his third order of plain beef tacos, he climbed back into the passenger seat, laid his head on the center console, and let me scratch behind his ears until he fell asleep.

The afternoon was beginning to wane by the time we reached the point on the map where the directions got a little fuzzy.  I had paid attention when Chespy exited the dirt road that led to the mountain hideout, but everything looked different now, all of these months later.  I didn’t start to doubt myself until the sun started to descend far enough that I had to use the visor.  I was seriously considering turning around at some point and backtracking when I saw them: a henge of several rows of jet-black solar panels, all angled upwards toward the sky, tracking the sun.  I’d seen those before, I knew; I had even joked with Juan el Chivero about him having stolen some of the panels on his roof from the drug dealer that owned this very array.  I sighed in relief, knowing the cut-off towards Juan’s place was less than ten miles down the road.

It’s strange the way thoughts connect, the speed of the associations that the brain jams together.  Something about the thought of el Chivero scurrying about in the dark with solar panels draped over his back morphed into the realization – somehow overlooked until now – that I was bringing to Juan quite a few new electronic gadgets, and the panels he was currently utilizing were probably not going to provide enough juice to run everything.  Just like that, I knew exactly what I was going to do, and how I was going to do it.

“Blackie,” I said as I turned the truck around.  He opened his eyes at the sound of his name, and then yawned.  “You up for some mischief?  Yeah?  Thought so.”

It wasn’t exactly a tactical strike.  There were a thousand ways it could have gone wrong.  It took me a minute to find the wire clippers amongst the pile of tools loaded into the SUV, and another to locate the wrench set.  Blackie just assumed I knew what I was about as I cut through the barbed wire fence.  I needed almost a full half-hour to disconnect the four panels and lug them back to the Rover.  It took me another fifteen minutes to unload the fleece blankets and webbing and lash the panels to the roof.  God knows how many cars passed by during this process.  I remember at least five or six, but it could have been many more. Fortunately, nobody was dumb enough to say anything to me.

I drove slowly down the dirt road leading to Juan’s place.  I paused for a moment at the turn-off to the hideout, then continued on.  Evening was settling in by the time I pulled up to Juan’s gate.  The Rover’s ice-white headlights had clicked on automatically some time before, and they ignited little stars in the distance, where the goats were peering out at me from their pens.  I honked the horn twice, and waited.  Long minutes passed.  I knew they were watching me from the house, trying to figure out who in the world was at their gate.  Finally, the door opened and Juan stepped outside.  He appeared slightly hunched over as he neared the gate, his hand held over his eyes, attempting to get a view of who was in the car.  I stepped out and met him at the gate.

“Did you find the bottle I left you?  And the note?”

His face broke into a wide grin when he recognized my voice.  “Oh, Conrad, it is you!  Mi mujer, she give me such a yelling the day I find the mezcal, I tell you even the chickens hide for two days.  Not even the food I take from your house is enough para cerrar su pinche boca.”

I laughed and shook his hand through the gate.  “Open this up.  Maybe we can figure out a way to make her happy tonight.”

“Que tenga suerte Ud con eso,” he murmured, setting about the task.  “If nuestra Senor come back tonight, she find a way to criticize him for taking 2000 years.”

I pulled up to the house, and then backed up to the porch.  Juan caught up with me and gave me a confused look as I opened the passenger door and let Blackie out.  The beast bounded around with close to his old amphetaminic comportment for a few minutes, giving everything a close inspection.  I saw several of Juan’s dogs whimper and flee behind the house.  “Who is this?” Juan asked grinning.

“A friend of mine that needs a new home.  You know of someone that might have need of an extra guard dog?”

“I think I might, si,” he answered, approaching Blackie.  I let them get introduced, and returned to the SUV, opening the cargo bay door.  I had unloaded several boxes before Juan noticed.

Y todo eso?

“This all belongs to Blackie.  He said you could use some of it if you like.”  It took Juan a few seconds longer than I would have liked to get the joke, but eventually he grinned and helped me unload the truck.  His girls came out eventually, proceeding shyly at first, but they enlivened when it became clear that quite a lot of the loot was for them.  Juan seemed both grateful and confused, an emotional mixture I remembered from my youth, when my parents took gifts to the children of some of the family business’s employees.  The connection flowed through me like a cold wave, and I turned my back on them, busying myself with the panels on the roof.

The Senora even put in an appearance at one point.  I watched her through the window of the SUV as she noted the contents of the haul.  For a brief second she looked actually pleased, happy even.  Then her eyes snapped back towards me and her affect went flat.  I knew what she thought I represented, and, I supposed, she wasn’t all that far off.  Once Juan and I had the panels off and I had explained to him where I’d gotten them from, I stepped back to the driver’s seat.  I watched as the family carried items inside, and then opened the contraband well.  I removed the last unbroken stack of $5000 from Chespy’s haul, and the three pistols.

“Juan, can I speak with you?” I asked, exiting the cab.  He came around the side of the truck and stopped in his tracks when he saw the weapons.  “Do you want these?  I have no use for them.”

His mouth opened and closed, and then his eyes darted back to his front door.

“I remember you telling me once about having to kill the wild dog. I thought these might help.  If nothing else, they’re bound to be worth quite a lot of money.”

Juan approached me slowly, looking me in the eyes.  “You say you do not need them any longer?”

I merely nodded in response.

“Then I say to you that your place has a well.  These things belong to the devil.  You should send them back to him.”

“Okay,” I said, setting the three down on the seat.  “What about this?” I asked, taking out the cash and flipping the bundle to him.  “I’m told that money belongs to the darkness, too.”

He thumbed through the stack, before looking back up to me “You know…eh…el diablo. He probably get a bad rap sometimes, sabes?”  This cracked me up, and I clapped him on the shoulder.  I made sure everything was out of the truck, and then closed the back gate. Juan’s wife had retired inside with two of the daughters, and I could hear them speaking in muffled tones.  The third daughter, the young one with the huge eyes, had Blackie on the ground by the porch and was rubbing his stomach.  Juan was busy looking through the box of tools, little exclamations of contentment as he figured out what each was for.  It was good.  It was enough.  “Bye Blackie,” I whispered, then climbed back into the Rover.  I didn’t look back as I drove off and through the gate.  

The Hammer’s cabin in the mountains looked diminished in the darkness.  I turned off the car and sat for a time, letting my eyes adjust.  Then I bundled the pistols together and stepped outside.  The stars were a gaudy splash of diamonds overhead as I wandered over to the well.  I sat on the edge, looking up.  Between my position and the Milky Way jutted the pipe that I once used to take some incredibly invigorating showers.  I smiled at the memory, then looked down at the weapons in my lap.  They, too, carried memories.  I closed my eyes and let them wash over me, submerge me, grind down upon me until I knew I was too far down to ever reach the surface again before I drowned.  Then I opened my eyes, held the pistols over the edge, and let them go.  Everything depended upon that, I knew.  Then I got back in the Rover, fired up the engine, and started the long drive back to Monterrey.

Less than two weeks after my sudden departure, a joint taskforce of AFI and the military descended upon Cerralvo, acting on information provided by the FBI.  The real Rudy Ramos, disappointed by his inability to milk any more money out of me, and envious over the relationship I had developed with his father, contacted the police in an attempt to obtain the Crime Stoppers reward offered for my capture.  Several of the Hammer’s thugs were arrested on weapons charges, though these were eventually paid off.  Dozens of people were interviewed, and my identity was confirmed.  An immense manhunt was initiated, though the government managed to keep this out of the press.  I knew nothing about this at the time.  In the AFI report generated after this raid, the word “disappeared” appears no less than six times.

To read Chapter 25 click here

Thomas Whitaker 02179411
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Roots Between Stones, Part. 2: Cracking the Convict Code

By Steve Bartholomew
(To read part one, click here)

The Convict Commandments:
1) Thou shalt not rat
2) Thou shalt not have on your jacket sex offenses nor violence toward children
3) Thou shalt not break your word (to your fellow prisoner)
4) Thou shalt not steal (from your fellow prisoner)
5) Thou shalt mind your own damn business
6) Thou shalt not seek protection from staff for any reason whatsoever
7) Thou shalt not shirk a debt, nor forgive your debtor
8) Thou shalt not tolerate disrespect or aggression, nor back down from a fight
9) Thou shalt neither sympathize nor fraternize with The Enemy, your keeper
10) Thou shalt forsake whosoever breaks these commandments

I began my first prison sentence 24 years ago, a short stint for drug-related nitwittery.  I learned a fair amount during that year, but not how to stay out. Since then I have spent less than four years in the free world, a tally I own with no small amount of regret.  I returned for a fourth time in January of 2003. As a historical reference, two months later the U.S.  Invaded Iraq, looking for WMDs and Saddam.  I’ve never held a smart phone. To me, Facebook mght as well be outer spacebook and a “cellfie” stick is a paintbrush. What I know of your world is mediated through either a TV screen or whomever I’m asking whether the thing in question is still the way I remember it to be.  Too often it isn’t. Most of my interesting memories are attached to what no longer exists. But I know a thing or two about what it means to be a convict. 

A dying breed, the old school yard dog invokes in his pursuits the only gods he cares to acknowledge: hustle and muscle.  Inured to his adopted habitat, he remains outwardly unaffected by all but the passage of time. Indominable no matter the correctional tactics employed against him, he admires in others the potential for violence, and truly respects only the rare capacity for violence that exceeds his own. To him, inscrutability is a virtue, a mechanism crucial to his safekeeping of personal information, including his own mindstate. His expectations are drafted by decades of confiscation, occasional betrayal, and punishment.  He endures out of sheer spite for the very same ones who would piss on his gravestone.  Particularly ferocious when provoked in the modern convict you see the Will to Power locked in a death roll with a destructive principle, rendering him incorrigible even in the face of brutal consequence. A magnate of cellcraft, he is ingenious and resourceful, making him a genuine threat to the power structure. He is, in a word, unbendable.

The convicts I met all those years ago as a wide-eyed duck inspired me to minimize liabilities such as fear, attachment and compassion. I’ve adhered to much of the code since I was a street kid, intuitively for the most part. But even after having spent half my life in here, an inner quirk keeps me from defining myself as wholly convict.

A dozen years ago I set for myself the unattainable goal of living authentically, such as I can while being held captive in the kingdom of artificial imposition.  I say unattainable because authenticity is best defined by what we do when we are free to externalize our passions, to realize our possibilities. Aside from practical matters of what I’m willing to accept or how I might express myself, my outer life contains few choices.  I am left with only the free play of ideas, my commitment to the spirit of freedom entertained internally. I don’t want the truths I accept to be situational ones. In here, dogmatic norms masquerade as ethics to be held aloft like a guiding light. I refuse to believe that truth is a matter of consensus. 

Big Chuck became a free man this morning, after being told for 24 years that he would die in prison. (To understand why he was released from a life-without-parole sentence, please read “Roots Between Stones, Part  1.”) He had to spend the past six months at this camp, as a “transitional step.”  Although not as visibly shunned as he was in the Reformatory, he still felt for the most part socially repelled, not quite accepted.

Because everyone here has less than 4 years left to serve (the average is 18 months), most feel less invested in prison politics than they would in a real joint. Here, those of us who’ve done real time are in the minority, to be sure. And ironically, the short timers seemed to be the ones whispering things like “Captain Save-a-Pig” behind his back. In this facility I have the most seniority of any “solid” white prisoner, an unenviable distinction that affords me, if nothing else, a little deference. Prior to his transfer I’d gotten wind that Chuck was heading out here. I was able to present his side of the story to the fellas ahead of time, which I’d like to think helped to soften some hearts and minds towards him. 

Our former boss from the maintenance department in the Reformatory volunteered to pick Big Chuck up at 2 AM this morning and drive him to SeaTac Airport.  His flight departed at 6:02.  Destination: Florida, and the remainder of his newly restored life. 

Big Chuck’s actions—principled on a fundamentally human duty, the “categorical imperative” to save the life of a person in peril—have run afoul of the rule of law in this land.  Risking one’s own safety to stop a violent act is the sort of thing that earns one labels such as “hero” and “Samaritan” out there.  In here, his actions made him a pariah.  After giving much thought to the rift between the social norms of this forlorn backwater and those of the freeworld, I am faced with the conclusion that some members of my tribe may be incompatible with yours. 

Big Chuck’s story, moving though it may be, carries with it larger, darker implications. How vast must be the divergence between a natural social environment and one capable of recalibrating the moral compass to magnetic west. In the same way that Omerta (the Mafia’s infamous code of silence) evolved to preserve a power structure against an opposing force, the convict code emerged as a behavioral pattern conferring an adaptive advantage to a population under extreme selection pressure. A population trapped in an environment whose features include a bureaucratized rationale for psychological and physical violence, the negation of individuality, carefully codified oppression, and weaponized isolation, to name but a few. Here, punishment is the often the ends, not the means. 

At some point the corporate gaze affixed itself to prison as an untapped market, and human storage became commodified, monetized. The sheer profitability of the prison industry incentivized legislation calling for harsher sentences which would, of course, require expansion of the prison complex.  Claims used to justify the funding of ever more severe prisons and their extensive staffing had to be legitimized, giving rise to the modern correctional facility in all its soul-remaking glory.  In this parallel universe, betrayal is a form of currency and pathological bullies are rewarded, often with promotions. The convict is a byproduct of the collision between the pleasure principle and a reality stripped of pleasurable experiences.  We learn to minimize our pain at any cost. 

Evolutionary theory makes some interesting predictions about competitors and compromise—namely that arms races are expensive. Cheetahs gave up the ability to fight and climb trees in exchange for bursts of speed sufficient to run down gazelles at an acceptable rate of probability. Gazelles gave up the sturdiness of their slower cousins to be able to elude cheetahs often enough to survive as a species. And so, it goes. Granted, human nature isn’t exactly a logical construct with tidy lines of causation. It isn’t my job to prove these things away.  I can only attest to what I’ve observed as a rational person who pays attention. Convicts surrender certain hallmarks of humanity in favor of antibodies against a dehumanizing pathogen. 

Acknowledging that a systemic pattern of behavior provides an adaptive edge in a specific environment is not to say that that attribute is universally beneficial, in the sense of conferrting overall well-being. We watch drop-forged convicts release after serving sentences lengthy enough to “serve as a lesson,” or so we would imagine. And yet here they are, returning at a rate you may find alarming, and I find dismaying.  Legislators look to ever-increasing penalties for the answer, believing that a convict can be prosecuted into a citizen. Law enforcement sees in the sorrowful rate of recidivism their needed evidence for increased funding and further militarization. Both have succeeded only in filling new prisons as fast as they can be built. Correctional staff refer openly to recidivism as “job security,” a euphemism aptly summing up in two words the reason the American prison complex seems geared against reform. Modern prison is a wasteland of opportunity - - few restorative programs except those that are religion-based, no transferable jobskill training or opportunities for betterment—simply because prison is exactly as it is meant to be. Ignored in the recidivism conversation is the link between released convicts and a remodeled worldview at odds with that of society: a warped perspective owing its genesis to the very place where we are sent to be “reformed.” And reformed we are, indeed. 

This subculture goes to work on us immediately upon our arrival, fashioning a tolerably shaped being so that our social structure can preserve itself.  Where the dominant is suffering, we are socialized to think anti-socially, acculturated to be apathetic.  Resculpting one’s social conscience is critical to maintaining mental health: either you are affected by what you see, or you protect your inner life, your sanity.  You can’t do both. The atmosphere is always toxic, sometimes turbulent, and always pressurized. Were we to feel and react like you do, we wouldn’t outlast our bid. 

We are subjected to two extreme, and at times competing, forms of panopticism – that awareness of being constantly watched that leads one hostage to one’s own visibility.  For most of my sentence, cameras were a constant presence, day and night.  There was even one watching me through the bars of my cell, recording for posterity some the most boring footage ever purchased by your tax dollar. The likelihood of getting away with violence nowadays is almost nil. We are surveilled constantly and often sanctioned remotely for rule violations observed by a guard in a booth behind a wall of video screens. And we watch one another. Constantly scrutinizing the actions of one another for deviations of the code, we keep score like no other social machine: in here, transgressions never wash. For any given situation, there are two sets of rules - - the administration’s “thesis”, and our “anti-thesis” - - and oftentimes the outcome depends on which set of laws you hold most dear.  Out of such an ungainly dialect emerges a misshapen entity, benumbed and dysfunctional “synthesis”. The modern convict.

It might be tempting to pigeonhole the hardliners who blacklisted Big Chuck as simply amoral and institutionalized, emblematic of the antisocial stereotype. But that isn’t the case. The relatively few who were most vocal in censuring Big Chuck are, for the most part, men who pride themselves in behaving nobly. Striving for betterment through self-education, these are family-oriented men. A few of them I would trust to look in on my Mother were they to get out before me. And yet they would banish a man for actions considered by society as heroic. 

Ethical paradoxes suggest more about a person’s social environment than the person himself.  Nazi soldiers tasked with manning the gas showers were often devoted family men. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned hundreds of human beings. These were men otherwise considered paragons of virtue. Simply put, their moral community had been shrunken to longer include the other. After all, in times of war, we never hear the news anchor announce how many Iraqis or Afghanis were killed during the prior month. 

How we approach questions of right and wrong has much to do with precisely whose happiness and suffering matters to us, the set of those with whom we identify.  A distinction once made at the entrance to our cave, where “us” ended and “them” began. The notion of bright-line ethical borders has been elemental to phenomena such as colonialism, slavery, Trump’s rise and the penal system. A defining ideal of modernity is the outward push of our moral community to include (nearly) all humankind, toward sentient creatures in general. How we’ve progressed since the 16th century, when Parisians turned out in droves to watch cat burnings: dozens of cats gathered in a net, hoisted into the air and lowered slowly onto a bonfire for the crowd’s amusement. More recently scientists performed vivisections (live dissection) on dogs, believing Christian claims that since animals were soulless automata, they could feel no pain. In a post-Blackfish world, we can no longer revel in the antics of captive orcas because our knowledge of their emotional suffering imbues us with moral outrage. We are unwilling to contribute to the infliction of a woeful existence driven by our demand for entertainment. We’ve come so far - in some ways.

With each glance over our shoulder at former ethical blind spots comes a wave of revolt, and maybe shame. How could we? We wonder, recoiling. How could we have been so cruel?  I want to avoid bogging down here, so I’ll skirt the common resort of relativism: that right and wrong are normative aspects of culture, subject to social or religious whimsy. It makes more sense to me that we tend to build our identities on certain premises (American; Christian; Democrat; or white convict, etc.). It follows that we also tend to withdraw our moral concern for anyone (or anything) that we perceive as not sharing those defining premises, who is therefore the Other.  

Even if I could, I would not exonerate the convict as simply a product of his environment. But I would indict the overfed and diseased institution that gave birth to him. The cognitive offspring of American prison is a species of moral chauvinism. Psychologists involved in “mortal salience” studies have isolated the causal relationship between threat and the winnowing of perception. They’ve found that when primed with images of potential danger (guns, knives, fatal car accidents) our minds go immediately into “us or them” mode. It makes sound evolutionary sense that in the presence of peril we would extend protection to our own clan - - those perceived to be “like” us - - and disregard outlanders. We are hardwired, it seems, to discriminate under extreme stress in a binary manner: you are either from my cave or you are Other. Threat stirs an instinct to side with those - - and only those - - with whom we share familial bonds (considering that there is more than one way to define family).  A drive that evolved in the interest of promoting genetic survival, goes the argument. 

When stresses are chronic, rather than acute, you may find your identity circumscribed to no longer include all sentient creatures as objects of moral concern. Not all humans earn empathy, nor even all prisoners.  “Few lives matter”, is your moto. Your boundary of concern might be limited by principle to include other convicts with whom you share a sense of communality.  In any serious dealing with another there is another subtle calculus that informs your behavior in real time, a labyrinth of logic shaped around alliances, elements of folk-biology, known prior missteps, whether you share beliefs, and how you’ll be perceived, against the need to reinforce solidarity. 

Our community is more fragile than it appears. Kinship metaphors permeate our social sphere, mechanisms to implant and foster communal thinking. Crips call one another “cuz” or “nephew,” Bloods are either “Blood” or “fam”, and whites have cliched “brother” or “bruder” (German for brother). A universal tool of sympathetic politeness is the term “bro”, a generic appeal to familial leeway. Eventually, we become callous to the plight of an ever-expanding subset of humanity until sentiments similar to those expressed by Chuck’s arbiters are held toward all living creatures, save the vanishingly few considered members of our ingroup. The narrowing of the mind is the narrowing of my world. 

I enjoy reading about brain science, maybe for the fuzzy illusion of self-awareness I get when I learn the clinical name of some lumpy whorl in my own brainthat must have misfired in the past, leading me here. Anyway, it turns out the nosey folks in neuroscience have ferreted out the brain structures where empathy is rooted. A cluster of brain stuff nestled behind the forehead and known as “resonance circuitry” (the superior temporal and middle prefrontal cortices, to sound smarter than I am) is responsible for creating mental maps of the internal states of others: the “intentional stance” explored by philosophers of mind. The intentional stance represented in my mind allows me to divine your motives from simply observing your actions, a critical skill in here. What I find particularly interesting is that these regions are all tied to “mirror neurons,” an area in the parietal lobe with a specific function. Mirror neurons allow us to mentally represent the intentional actions of others. A perfect receiver for modelling behavior, mirror neurons allow us to imitate or predict from experience an act performed by someone else. They also account for the contagiousness of yawns, laughter, and - - I believe - - the sense of shared mystical energy peculiar to religious practitioners when gathered and acting in unison. Perception of the inner states of those around us seems to happen cross-modally, that is, not limited to sight. We’ve all “felt” the sorrow of another through the phone, some of us more than others.

“Resonance” implies more than simply aping the acts of others. How shallow we’d be if that were the case.  Those of us with intact resonance circuitry absorb or become attuned to the emotional state underlying the behavior of others. Survivors of head trauma resulting in injuries to resonance circuits have described themselves as feeling “soulless.” A sort of sociopathic affect, mothers with damaged resonance circuitry have lost all but a passing interest in their own children. In a bleak sub-world where the zeitgeist fosters emotive states between apathy and antipathy, where behavior patterns are born of indifference and often embedded with contempt, the mental maps of others we create are distorted by a warped lens. We cannot help but internalize the intentional stance of those whose behavior has the greatest impact: our keepers. The dehumanizing pathogen becomes a contagion. 

Over time, the physical changes that take place in our brains relate to our focus of attention. Neuroplasticity (new connections among neurons) seems to occur in brain regions responsible for the actions into which we pour our energy.  Brain imaging of violinists, for instance, show increased synaptic growth and connections in the area controlling the left hand. There seems to be an emotional component to neuroplasticity as well. Brain reshaping is not simply incidental to repetitive behavior - - it occurs when what is practiced is also meaningful. How has my brain changed shape after decades of paying attention to stony disregard laced with malice?

Albert Einstein, when asked about human integration, has this to say:
“[A human being] experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation…”

Rehabilitation involves more than forcing prisoners into cognitive-behavioral therapy crash courses and remedial adult education.  Like any other type of growth, human transformation requires an environment that will sustain it. One in which a human being may retain his humanity, where betterment is incentivized and rewarded. An environment capable of nurturing basic human principles: compassion, empathy, and understanding, allowing the circle of moral concern to include those with whom we do not identify. Maybe one day our system will take a page from the European model, socially remodeling prison communities to represent the macrocosm beyond, rather than stand as its antithesis. In the meantime, some of us shake our heads in dismay as we watch our convict cohort return to prison one by one after serving decades. Time enough one would think, to learn that this life is no life.  It isn’t the lessons learned that brings them back. It’s the failure to unlearn the convict code.


Steve Bartholomew 978300
MCC/MSU
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272
To view Steve's artwork, click here

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Months Before Six – Part Two

By Billy Tracy

To read Part One, click here

Death Watch Update: September 29th, 2018

It is September 29th, 2018. I have been on Death Row – housed on the Death Watch section with men who have execution dates – for ten and a half months. I have watched eleven men be marched off of this morbid, dank and dreary section of the condemned to be pumped full of poison (which the State of Texas still procures in some obscure way), with ten of those men now having been extinguished.

I have some things on my mind to share with you.

Most importantly, I want all who read this to know that I hold enormous guilt and remorse in my heart for the prison guard I am responsible for killing. This is also true of every Death Row inmate – except John Battaglia and those who have maintained their innocence – who has come through this Death Watch section. Each expressed tremendous guilt and remorse for what he did. Countless times I have talked with these men about our guilt for what we have caused our victims and their families to endure.

The vast majority of Death Row inmates I have met are wracked with guilt. I try to express this in most of the farewells I write. However, these tributes are for those men who have been killed by the State of Texas and for those who loved them.

This is also my attempt to show the world another side of Death Row men, to humanize us and to show the barbarity of this so-called Justice System.

In doing so it is NOT my intention to minimize our responsibility for our crimes. I hope the majority can understand this.

On September 26th and 27th, 2018, we had the back-to-back executions of Troy Clark and Daniel Acker (rest in peace, my friends). This is the second time in 2018 that there were back-to-back executions.

The first time this occurred I was very new to Death Row and hadn't had the time to know the men on the Death Watch section well enough to tell how hard it was on everyone. This time I'd become close with all the guys and could tell when something wasn't right with them – when something was upsetting them.

The week leading up to Clark and Acker’s executions you could feel the tension level increasing – a little bit – every day. I heard more voiced frustrations about pretty much everything and anything. Usually the fellas are pretty positive and not prone to complaints because they know their time may be short and they usually want to stay in a positive frame of mind. There was also a lot of nervous energy released by a big increase in conversations amongst us. This nervous energy infected me too. I was more frustrated, talkative and feeling very aggressive and I couldn't figure out WHAT the cause of all of this was (even though in hindsight it was obvious) until Daniel Acker’s last day. Once he left, the pent up tension just melted away and you could tell everyone had relaxed again. Then I finally understood. We were all like the nervous cattle in the pens outside the Slaughter House. We had been doing the human version of milling, mooing and stamping hooves.

Leading up to a single execution I have not seen anything close to this level of unrest amongst us but two executions back-to-back created a lot of anxiety.

The second most striking thing about the double executions of Troy Clark and Daniel Acker was how looming death affected them so differently. Troy wanted released from his life. He'd flat out had enough of this boxed existence and he wasn't afraid to die. Daniel, on the other hand, was not ready to go and was nervous and unprepared. It was really sad to see that big gentle man struggle so hard with his fate. I'll never forget our conversation when he realized he would likely soon be dead. Until the end he hoped for a stay. Troy, however, would cuss at anyone if they told him they hoped he get a stay. I found it so HUMAN that two people could each experience almost twenty years on Death Row and the experience affect them so differently.

On each execution day (when I am a Level 1 and have my radio) starting at 6:00PM I will turn my radio to 90.1 KPFT and listen to “The Execution Show,” until they announce if the condemned man has been killed or gotten a stay. This show was started by Ray Hill who was a former Texas inmate from decades ago and got his life together and became an activist concerning prison reform and the Death Penalty. “The Execution Show” and his “Prison Show” – also on 90.1 KPFT – is in support of Texas inmates.

(Admin note: Ray Hill passed away on November 24, 2018, after this part of Billy’s essay was written. Rest in peace Ray)

On “The Execution Show,” the host, Ray Hill, and several lawyers discuss the condemned man’s crime and rehash what they read about the case in the trial records. Three lawyers are usually on the show. Jack Lee, Mike Gillespie and Larry. Jack and Larry – especially Jack Lee – act like they are auditioning to be the next “Kill 'em All” Governor of Texas. They take an extremely hard line against the condemned men and seem to take pleasure in presenting the “facts” of the cases in as unflattering a way as possible and ALWAYS coming down on the same side as the Prosecutors, Judges and the defense attorneys and AGAINST any decision, or action, the defendant made at trial.

The only attorney who is reasonable or open to a possibility of a miscarriage of justice is Mike Gillespie. He's also the only one who seems to be against the Death Penalty and not planning to run for office.

Jack Lee actually stated that usually any “ineffective assistance of counsel” appeal claim is a last ditch effort to get a new trial and that lawyers the accused are given are ... “the best of the best of us... “That is absurd.

Court appointed Death Penalty qualified attorneys in Texas are well known to be the worst of the worst. Texas is WORLD famous for its horrible court appointed Death Penalty attorneys. It is preposterous to insinuate for a defendant to claim they had an incompetent “free” lawyer is “just” an attempt to get a new trial and not based on the effort level, talent and competence of the lawyer. To insinuate that is to disregard history and to blindly side with lawyers you don't know and about trial you have not read the records of. If that is not being biased, what is?

He was right about one thing ... In Texas to claim “ineffective assistance of counsel” is a lost cause when it is almost impossible to get an appeal court to agree your attorney sucked when they've denied claims of “ineffective assistance of counsel” for defendants whose lawyers fell asleep multiple times during trial, were drunk at trial and were sleeping with the defendant’s wife.

I asked around and all of the Death Row men I talked to say that “The Execution Show” is no longer objective and has become yet another tool to justify the Texas Death Machine and they can no longer stomach listening to it.

It is just galling to us to listen to a show that is supposed to be operated by Death Penalty activists be so biased against us.

“The Execution Show” has lost its way and good luck getting Jack or Larry elected as Governor.

On a lighter note ...

Memories of Troy Clark – also known as “Pennywise”

The air vent to Pennywise and my cells were connected so we could stand on top of our sinks and talk to each other. One day Pennywise calls me and I climb up onto my sink and say “What’s up, Old Fella?”

He starts talking about something I cannot recall and then stops and says, “Billy we have cameras in our cells and I wonder what “they” think when “they” see me standing on my sink talking into my vent wearing underwear on my head?“

I said “At this point they've seen you do EVERYTHING so they probably don't even think about it ... but is there something we need to talk about Pennywise? Is there something you need to tell me about why you're talking to another man with underwear on your head?”

“Awwwww Billy”, Pennywise said, “It ain't anything gay. It’s just when I put my ear to the vent the air blows into my hearing aid and distorts the sound. The underwear blocks the wind.

“Yeah dude – you're definitely an original!” I said.

This next conversation was also held through the vents.

“Billy!” Pennywise called.

“Eh!” I answered.

“Check this out” Pennywise began, “I just got back from seeing Nurse Mudd at the infirmary about this ear infection and Mudd looks into my ear with that little lighted scope and she tells me that my eardrum looks perfectly healthy and nothing is wrong with me. I told her that I suggested she looks again because that ear doesn't have an eardrum in it so how could my nonexistent ear drum be “just fine.” So she looks again and decides her ass better get me in to see a doctor”

Laughter was my response. Only in Texas.

The Sunday before Pennywise’s execution Oregon State police came to the prison (Polunsky) to do a Polygraph test with him because a criminal up there was trying to blame a murder he was accused of on Pennywise and Pennywise wanted to prove he hadn't been involved in it.

He was taken off the Death Watch section and up to the visitation building at noon and about 3:00PM we started wondering why he was gone so long. And than 5.30PM, when he still wasn't back, the following conversation took place between me, Joseph Garcia and Blaine Milam. Beware reader that this conversation is very politically incorrect and, basically, your typical prison humor.

Billy: “Y'all ever heard of a Polygraph taking five hours?”

Joseph: “It depends where they put the sensors.”

Billy: “You freaky Bastard.”

Joseph: “I heard 8-Building’s close custody inmates are acting real bad.” “So?”

Blaine: “They probably told Rank they'd behave if they brought them someone with a date so they could all have a date.”

Billy: “You freaky Bastard.”

Joseph: “Yeah, Pennywise is getting a REAL test right now ...”

Blaine: “A sausage eating test.”

Billy: “Well, we'll know if that’s true when he comes back. If he's walking funny or not.”

Joseph: “You freaky bastard.”

Blaine: “They'll bring him back on a stretcher.” 

Joseph: “Laying face down.”

Billy: “With lock jaw.”

Joseph: “I'm never going to get a polygraph.”

Blaine: “Me neither.”

Billy: “Hell nah, me neither”.

Blaine: “I can't believe Pennywise fell for that. Those 8-Building boys are happy though.”

At this point Pennywise is being brought back to the section.

Blaine: “How was your trip to 8-Building?” 

No response.

Joseph: “What's that spot on the back of your jumper?” 

No response

Billy: “Why are you walking so slow, Pennywise?” 

Without missing a beat Pennywise says: “My ass is sore.”

Billy: “You freaky bastard!”

He made all of us ROAR with laughter playing into our nonsense and we all miss Pennywise’s awesome sense of humor and extremely sharp wit.


Troy Clark (Executed: September 26th, 2018)

Long before Troy, or “Pennywise” as he was called by us on Death Row, got his execution date and was moved to the Death Watch section, where I am housed, I had heard about him.
People always had something to say about Pennywise and I was thinking to myself, “What the hell is REALLY the deal with Pennywise?” 
I paid little mind to the gossip – I rarely do anyway – but I was interested in meeting the infamous Pennywise. It’s usually people whom others talk about all the time who are the most interesting. The most polarizing… charismatic… intelligent…
The day Pennywise was brought to the Death Watch section, I happened to be standing at my cell door and was able to watch him as he took his first steps onto the section of Death. I immediately knew he was new to Death Watch and had just gotten his execution date. I was instantly locked in on him, trying to read how he was feeling – what his mood was, if he was someone I needed to help – just any clue I could decipher from him. I was struck by several things as I initially observed him. He was a short, middle aged white man, with thinning light colored hair, a goatee more white than not, a little chubby but walking with the grace of a former athlete. He carried himself like an old school warrior – in prison what we call a “peckerwood,” with head cocked back, eyes blazing directly at you, shoulders tensed, chest thrust out with that ”Uh, what ya' gonna' do about it?”-strut. You were not going to mess with this old Kat without him putting a stop to it. And most distinguishing of all was the complete lack of fear radiating from him. This was someone not afraid to die. It made me wonder why.
He was here about a week before I knew he was “Pennywise.” What I found interesting was that those who'd gossiped about him behind his back (calling him a snitch) did not repeat a word of it to him once he was here. Instead they all acted like his friend and that told me quite a lot.
Over the next couple of months I got to know Pennywise through personal conversations and by observing his interactions with others. He is a very hard person to write a tribute for that properly captures who he was. He was such a polarizing person.  He was a bit of an asshole – someone who'd make you mad and make you laugh, all within 10 minutes. He had a flair about him that was fun to be around, even when you knew he was full of shit. He was entertaining, goofy, funny, smart and an asshole – but – an asshole that you liked.

It was very easy to see how he generated so much gossip. His personality was LARGE, he could rub you the wrong way – sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. He would do things, occasionally, that were shady, but he did many more good things than bad. That is why you couldn't help but like him. It was so easy to see the humanity in him – the good and the bad … He was a living example of all of our own inner struggles.

For the majority of his time on the Death Watch section he had no radio and spent most of his time reading novels a multitude of his supporters in the free world sent through Amazon. When he finished reading these novels, he'd give them to an inmate he could not stand, to an inmate who'd once spat in his face, so this person could trade them for commissary: coffee, candy ramen soups and hygiene.

I asked Pennywise why he gave anything to someone he couldn't stand and who'd spat on him. He looked at me very seriously and said, “Man, we're all about to die over here, it’s no time for grudges. That guy has nobody at all to help him – so I will.”

My favorite story about Pennywise shows you what I mean about how he could piss you off and make you laugh all at once.  Years back Pennywise was on Level 3 (for breaking some prison rule or another). This meant he couldn't buy food from the prison commissary. On Level 3 you are always hungry and desperate for food. One day Pennywise was inside of his cell and hollered to his friend “John,” who was housed just two cells away, and asked him if he'd like a sandwich. John says, “Yes.” Pennywise and John then “running line” together, as we call it back here, or “fishing.” They each have a homemade string line with a weight made out of paper attached to one end. They throw the weighted end under their doors and cross lines. In this instance Pennywise “hooks” Johns' line and pulls it into his cell. Then Pennywise takes the sandwich he had wrapped up in paper and ties it onto Johns' line and pushes it outside of his cell and tells John to pull it. John greedily pulls the line in, eager for some extra food. As he begins taking the sandwich out of the paper hundreds of ants swarm out and John has to immediately flush the sandwich down the toilet and begin frantically trying to kill the remaining ants, all the while hearing Pennywise laugh.

Pennywise had been on the section a couple of months before we really began to become friends. He was housed directly above me so we shared the same air vents and could stand on our sinks and talk into the vents and hear each other well. We played scrabble and chess – telling each other our moves through the vent and basically just shooting the shit.

He told me about his Mother, who he loved, his rough childhood, his brother’s suicide, about the huge amount of supporters and friends he'd met while incarcerated and how much he loved them. They meant the world to him. He told me about how he ended up on Death Row and how his live-in girlfriend originally confessed to the crime, until the police convinced her to change her confession and blame him. He told me how he got the nickname “Pennywise” because when he was trying to learn how to tattoo he was told the best way to learn was to tattoo on yourself… So, he tattooed – on his thigh – the clown from the Stephen King novel and movie “It.” Someone noticed that tattoo and began calling him Pennywise and it stuck. Pennywise and I went though his life story, and mine. We had a lot in common and it was fun getting to know him – it was also hard.

Pennywise did not want to exist like this anymore. He had spent almost twenty years living in Solitary Confinement and did not want to continue living like an animal in a cage. He wasn't so much sick of life as sick of this life.  Had he been housed in a more humane way, and not stuck in Solitary Confinement, he'd be happy to keep going. But not if it meant continuing to live in a tiny concrete box where the only entertainment he had was an AM/FM radio, books and some board games. There was no access to nature and no movement at all. Learning how he felt, I finally understood why he radiated no fear of death when he arrived on Death Watch. He was ready for death.

Pennywise had a big spirit. He was a man born to roam, to travel, to explore. He was an adventure-seeker. His soul did not exist to live inside of a box. He was meant to soar, to climb mountains, sail oceans, and ride motorcycles across the country, to walk fields of grass and flowers, sit up in a tree and watch the world below, dance in the wind and rain of a storm, run through a forest, climb a tree high up in a mountain and spy on the night, sit by a fire next to an ocean and listen to the waves, drive an old muscle car as fast as it could go, to make love to his woman under a star lit sky.  To howl at the moon …
Pennywise was a free spirit made to fly in the wind. He was also meant to be around people he loved, to be able to touch them and be touched by them. Instead he got twenty years of soul-squashing solitude without even a window he could open to smell and feel the night and without any physical contact from his loved ones.
Getting to know him was hard because it also meant understanding what he'd endured all these years. Seclusion is unnatural for some spirits. It was torture for his.

He endured for so long and allowed his appeals to play out until he got his execution date because of all of the love and support from his pen pals and his Mom. Ya'll know how much you meant to him and how much he loved you. You made his journey endurable.


You're free to howl at the moon now my friend. 


Daniel Acker (Executed: September 27th, 2018)

Daniel was a large man, around 6 feet tall and over 300 pounds. He had a big-boned frame and enormous calves and thighs, with a stomach that would make Santa jealous.

In spite of his size his most arresting physical attribute were his eyes. His eyes were spaced wide apart, deeply set and a piercing dark color. When he looked at you it was with laser focus, penetrating and direct. He spoke in a very calm easy-going way, with a thick country-boy accent. He couldn't say ten words without everyone knowing he was from the country. And he looked as country as he sounded. It was easy for me to imagine him in coveralls, with no shirt on, wearing scuffed cowboy boots as he labored away out in a field full of cattle. Whomever you are reading this, you've driven past a country farm and seen men out in their fields just like Daniel.

Eight days before Daniel's execution date, he found out at mail call that the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin Texas (C.C.A.) denied his last appeal and that his only hope now was for the Supreme Court – a long shot – to intervene. 

He stayed up all that long night after he found out he was likely going to be dead in a week. He said it was among the longest nights of his life. He tried to distract himself by doing legal work to prepare for the Supreme Court but he said it didn’t help, and that the night staggered slowly along.

Early the following morning we spoke, and he told me everything he'd found out about his appeal being shot down, and that in the nineteen years he's been fighting this Death Sentence he'd never believed he would be killed. And so he'd never prepared himself to be killed. He just always known he'd get off of Death Row. So when he found out the C.C.A. denied him, it finally hit him full force that he could actually be dead on Thursday the 27th of September. He stated to me, “Billy, after nineteen years of believing I'd live, I now have to prepare to die.”

I was standing at my cell door talking to him. He was three cells down the run, standing at his cell door, and when he told me that I had no idea what to say. I was overwhelmed by the weight of his words.

What can you say when a man is telling you he's JUST NOW realizing he really may be killed in a week’s time? I told him the truth, which was that I had no idea what to say and his words had totally stunned me. I was thinking that I wished my friend Dawn were here, she is a talking machine and would find the right words. Me? I had nothing.  All I could think of was to just keep him talking. So “we” talked and talked until he finally, maybe, felt better and stopped. This quiet, stoic, big old country man talked more that day than all of the combined days he'd been on Death Watch. It was the saddest thing I’d ever experienced, keeping a conversation going so a man could cope with dying.

After this sad conversation trailed off and ended, I stood there thinking about earlier conversations I'd had with Daniel after he'd gotten his execution date and was moved to the Death Watch section to live out his last days that had made me think he was afraid of dying. I cannot pinpoint what he'd said exactly that made me feel that way, but after his recent conversation I finally understood.  It wasn't that Daniel was so much afraid of death as that he'd refused to prepare for death because this big old country giant didn’t give up HOPE on life.

Rest in peace, Daniel.


Robert Moreno Ramos (Executed: November 14th, 2018)

Aside from Roberts' hilarious personality ,what I liked most about him was that you would never forget the first time you saw him – or – heard him talking. His appearance and his voice were one of a kind and only amplified how funny he naturally was. 

Robert stood, perhaps, 5 foot 4 inches tall and weighed, by his account, 280 glorious pounds. Being that short and that heavy gave him the distinct appearance of the fictional character, “Humpty Dumpty” from the children’s books.
Imagine a Hispanic Humpty Dumpty character in his 60’s, with an enormous shiny bald spot at the back of his head, large ears and nose, happy, clear and dark eyes, an average sized mouth, no discernable neck, a belly that seemed to wrap around his body and never end, with very short bowed legs and tiny feet. 
His voice … I loved his voice. You could hear the mirth of life in it. It was loud, slightly high pitched and twangy. For those of you old enough to recall Tattoo from the TV show “Fantasy Island” who was famous for his line, “The Plane! The Plane! The Plane!”, this was what Roberts' voice was like. All raspy and wrapped around an accent so thick you thought he had to be kidding around with you and exaggerating it.
That voice and accent, coupled with his appearance, were a recipe for fortune and fame as a comedian – if backed it up with charm, wit and humor.  Robert had that to spare.
He looked funny – and I mean that in both senses – his appearance was funny and he looked like he could make you laugh. He made the most of it and used it like a gift to lighten the atmosphere in this place and make us all forget where we were for a little while.

One afternoon Robert decided to go to recreation in the dayroom on our section. The dayroom is just another barred cage located in front of our cells. It has a blue exercise matt, a pull-up bar affixed to the concrete wall, a stainless steel toilet/sink combo and a four-seated table in it. Being that it was the middle of the afternoon, mostly everyone was awake, but nobody was talking. Robert was quietly sitting on top of the table, his little legs dangling off the edge, and idly kicking to and fro. Then, all of the sudden, he breaks the silence in a booming heavily accented voice. “Humpty Dumpty sat on de wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. And all of de Kings' Men’s couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back togeder again.”
When he finished it was like you could sense everyone in their individual cells pausing and catching their breath … and then EVERYONE erupted in spontaneous laughter, laughter full of the same mirth you heard in Ramos' voice!

With his self-deprecating humor that came out of the blue on an otherwise unmemorable day, he made everyone feel a moment of joy and allowed us to briefly escape this place.
When you are about to get executed in Texas, you get to have “all day” visits from 8:00AM to 5:00PM several days in a row leading up to your execution and from 8:00AM to noon the day of your execution. The only “good-bye” Robert received was a twenty minute visit the day before his execution. For some reason his visitor showed up at 4:40PM and had to leave at 5:00PM. It was sad to me that he had no visits, except that short one, and I was worried about him being depressed.

Because he had no visit scheduled on his last day he was forced to go to the dayroom just after 8:00AM and would stay there until he was taken out just before noon to be driven to the “Death House” in Huntsville, about an hour’s drive away. The administration will not allow an inmate with no visits on his last day to just hang out in his own cell until noon. The reason? It can take hours and hours to force open a cell door. A prolonged cell extraction would disrupt the execution time line. The dayroom door cannot be rigged to prevent it from being opened – so it’s easier to get us out of the dayroom than a cell, in case we refuse to come out willingly.

Here was a man with only hours to live. How would he be feeling? Would he be nervous? Angry? Bitter? Afraid? How do you think you would feel if you were hours from death and stuck in a cage where everyone was watching your every move, analyzing you, scrutinizing you? Where most of these watchers were men just potentially days from their own deaths and you know that if you're overly emotional, you'll serve to make their time harder – make their anticipation that much worse. Imagine it was you put on display like that. How do you think you would handle it?

I'll tell you how Robert Moreno Ramos handled it. He sat atop the dayroom table, dangling his fat, short legs off of the edge, absently kicking them about while he talked to Richard Tabler and Joseph Garcia for the bulk of the time. He had them laughing continuously, telling stories and having fun. Those three had known each other for years and it was nice to see them spending these last moments together. Ramos wasn't fazed by the circumstances and I was proud of him for how he was handling things and the strength of his spirit, to not only laugh in the face of death but be able to make others laugh too.
I did not insert myself in the conversation because I didn't know Robert well and I didn't want to interfere with the goodbyes of men who did. I was surprised when, shortly before he was to be taken out of the dayroom, he called me and told me goodbye and said he hoped that I was eventually put in a normal cell off of Death Watch and treated better. This caught me off guard more than I can properly articulate. This man was about to be taken to the Death House and he was worried about me? Wishing me good luck? What kind of man can face death like that? 

I don't know what I said back to him. Whatever words I uttered in response to his unexpected farewell were words that didn't express the impact he had on me. He surprised me too much with his grace and class. His farewell to me far surpassed any farewell I've ever written.

Robert Moreno Ramos was a Christian. His King has put him back together again.

Rest in peace, Humpty Dumpty.


Joseph Garcia (Executed: December 4th, 2018)

Joseph Christopher Garcia was born November 6, 1971 In San Antonio, Texas to his 19 year old Mother, Juanita Frances Trevino and Louis Bermudez who he never knew. The father he knew was Louie Negron, who was there in his very early childhood.

On February 8, 1996 Joseph was arrested for the murder of Miguel Luna. He contends this was self-defense. Miguel Luna was unknown to him and they only met by chance through Joseph’s best friend, Bobby Lugo, who had driven Luna to an ex-girlfriends apartment. Joseph arrived behind them in his own car. While visiting the woman, Luna scared her and she asked Joseph to make sure he left. When Lugo abruptly left and drove away Joseph decided he was responsible for Luna and offered him a ride home. During the ride home Luna demanded to be taken back to the woman’s home, and when Joseph refused, he attacked Joseph. In the prolonged fight Luna died.

Joseph turned himself in and was still charged, convicted and sentenced to fifty aggravated years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) where he had to serve twenty-five years straight – continuously – to become eligible for parole.

On December 13, 2000 Joseph and six other Texas inmates escaped from the “Connally” prison in spectacular fashion and became branded by the nation media as the “Texas 7”.

On December 24, 2000 during a robbery of the “Oshmans” sporting goods store in Dallas, Texas, where over $100,000, was stolen, Dallas Police officer, Aubrey Hawkins, was killed in a shootout behind the store. Joseph was inside the store at the time.

January 22, 2001, in Colorado, six of the “Texas 7” were captured alive. Larry Harper killed himself.

On February 13, 2003 Joseph was sentenced to death in Dallas County. All six of the captured “Texas 7” members were individually sentenced to death. Three have been executed; George Rivas, Michael Rodriguez and Donald Newberry. Three are still alive; Joseph, Randy Halprin and Patrick Murphy. Joseph is scheduled to die on December 4, 2018.

Joseph gave the following interview on Thanksgiving Day November 22, 2018 with Billy Joel Tracy and Blaine Milam, who are both on Death Row and housed with Joseph on the Death Watch section. The Death Watch section is where Texas keeps those Death Row offenders who have received their execution dates. This interview was conducted when Joseph was in the dayroom, which is a cage used to recreate the inmates and is directly in front of both Billy and Blaine’s cells.

Interview with Joseph Garcia, also known as Joey, by Billy Tracy and Blaine Milam

Billy:  Thanks for doing this interview with Blaine and me ... It’s our way to say goodbye, if you don't make it, and to share you – who you really are – with the public.

Joseph: It means a lot to me that you and Blaine are doing this for me. I even told my lawyers about this interview and they would like to read it.

Blaine: Happy Thanksgiving Joey!

Joseph: Happy Thanksgiving to you and Billy.

Billy: Happy Thanksgiving to both... You've spent almost six months on Death Watch, since receiving your execution date, embattled in a fight for your very life. What have these last months been like emotionally?

Joseph: A lot of sleepless nights ... crying a lot ... praying.

Billy: Right now you're less than two weeks away from your execution date. What are you thinking and feeling?

Joseph: I'm sad. My soul is torn in two. I am worried about my loved ones and how my death will affect them. It breaks my heart to live in a society that kills its own people. I'm aware of death looming and I don't want to sleep. I don't want to waste my remaining time. I find myself thinking about God all the time because in my religion - I am a Messianic Jew – we're taught that death means we sleep until Jesus' resurrection. If I'm asleep I can't worship my God. I don't know ... I think about Aubrey Hawkins and his family. I wish he were alive.

Blaine: Joey, tell us about where you grew up and what life was like for you in those times. (When Joey was asked this question it looked like he'd been hit in the stomach. It was plain to see it hurt him to think back to these times).

Joseph: Well, I was born in San Antonio Texas, then two months later, we moved to New York City. We stayed there until I turned nine, then moved back to San Antonio. It was a culture shock moving back to San Antonio. In San Antonio I lived in poverty – while in NYC my mom was a real estate investor and my stepfather was an army nurse. We actually had money then, but due to my mom’s drug addiction she took me back to Texas while my stepdad and sister, Arlene, stayed in NYC.

I remember this all so well ... My mother just dropped me off at her mother's house ... I was dumped there ... My grandmother was the mistress of a car dealership owner and not provided well for – while that man’s wife lived in luxury.

I was not ever given new clothes. I was made to wear hand-me-downs and thrift store underwear. Often times I had to fend for myself for food. They didn't want me there. They were already half starving and begrudged having to feed me. They would beat me if I ate too much ... I did not understand why I was unwanted – only the fact that I was.

I'd overheard my aunt and grandmother talking and saying things like “Why is he here?” “When will he go?” “Why can't his mother take care of him?”.

I began collecting glass bottles and recycling them for $0.10 each. I'd run the streets collecting them and take the money and buy bread, bologna and juice. That’s how I usually ate.

One day my grandfather came home and lay down on the couch in the living room where I was laying on the floor watching TV. He was a big, big man, 6 foot 4 at least and around 250 pounds. He laid there on the couch in silence reading the paper.

Then his kids and grandkid came running in and asked him for money to go to the store and buy snacks and things with. One by one I watched, from the floor, as he gave each of them dollar bills and they ran off. I'd watched this process before and when he gave them the usual amount and left, I thought about some bubblegum and I worked up my courage to finally ask him for one quarter, not a bill, just a quarter and wh-- ..

(at this point Joey chokes up, rests his hand on top of his head and walks away, tearing up ... when he comes back, we continue)

…and when I asked him for a quarter, so I could go to the store with the other kids and buy some bubblegum – which I hadn't had since leaving NYC -  he sat up on the couch and I sat next to him and he looked down at me and said in Spanish, “Tell me, why would I ever give my money to a little piece of trash like you?”

(Joey wipes tears from his face).

I just walked away. From that day forward when he was home I would not come inside until his car was gone. He'd be gone by 8:00AM and I'd go in and my grandma would give me left over food if there was any.

He died right on that couch two months later from a heart attack. I remember going to see if his car was there and seeing the emergency lights flashing and my family in the yard hugging and crying.

(We pause the interview for a few minutes)

Billy: Joey, that was a shitty old man. I'll leave it at that. Now let me ask you a serious question. Would you like to tell everyone about the time that guard sucked your tongue through the screen of your cell door?

Joseph: LAUGHING - NO!

Billy: Would you like to tell everyone what you did at visitation with your girlfriend and that salad?

Joseph: No. No. No. No. NO!

Billy: What went through your mind when you were sentenced to death?

Joseph: I knew I would be found guilty and be sentenced to death. I wasn't surprised.
More than anything I was thinking about my frustration with the trial process and my suspicion that my appointed attorneys had sold me out. One particular incident kept bothering me. When we were selecting the Jury, the first forty people were white and we questioned every single one of them. I noticed jurors #41 through #46 were both Hispanic and I pointed this out to my third chair attorney, Brad Lollar, and stated I hope we got one of them on the Jury. He immediately gets up and talks with the District Attorney who then immediately asks the Judge for an early lunch break and for a meeting in the Judge’s chambers with him and my attorneys.

When we came back from break the Judge begins talking about a deal that they all made to strike potential Jurors for cause and then the struck Jurors are called out. I check the master list and see that my attorney had agreed to strike the next six Hispanics # 41 - # 46. I couldn't believe it. Up to that point every Juror had been questioned and we finally get a minority and my attorneys let them go – six of them? In a row?

Things like that were going through my mind as I was sentenced because I was afraid I would get appeal lawyers who would be as shady as my trial lawyers. I was right to be afraid.

Blaine: Tell us about your mother.

Joseph:  My mother, Juanita, was a Messianic Jew so I did not celebrate “Pagan” holidays unless my stepfather, Louie, insisted his daughter, Arlene, and I do so. Let’s see ... I also remember as a kid my mother was always stealing my toys and I did not understand why she did this. One day I'd have a cool Spiderman doll and then the next day I wouldn't ... I found out later that she did this because she didn't want me to play with toys – but with my sister who was diagnosed with cancer at two years old – terminal cancer. She wanted me to be with her, for my world to be her, so Arlene wasn't alone. So we'd spend our time together – our time that was short. The toys my mom stole were gifts, but she ended up giving me the best gift of all – an unbreakable love and bond with my sister.

Blaine: What is your favorite memory from your childhood, one that you have always held close to your heart?

Joseph: That’s easy, playing with Arlene. She was my world. I was devastated when we moved to Texas without her. They took away my best friend. They trained me to care for her every need, to be with her all of the time and then she was gone... Well, my stepdad brought Arlene to Texas and we regrouped as a family in a little apartment – me, mom, Arlene and stepdad. This did not last long. Arlene’s cancer spread to her spine and she ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair. My mom’s heroin addiction got worse and she abandoned Arlene and me. We ended up in a shelter. I was watching TV, Arlene was behind me in her wheelchair and she needed to use the restroom. I was going to take her but a lady who worked there told me she would do it and Arlene and I agreed that was okay. After the show I go looking for Arlene and she was gone. They had tricked me and stole her from me. They took her to a foster home where she could be properly cared for. Again I was all alone.

A few months later I was taken to where she was staying and the foster care family set up a tent in the backyard for just her and me to sleep in for a night. We slept out there together. That is my favorite memory. We had a great time and that was the last time I saw her. Two years later, on March 14, 1983, Arlene, my beautiful sister died.

Billy: That was the saddest “favorite” memory I have ever heard... Blaine! Don’t make him cry anymore, man!

Blaine: That was supposed to be a happy answer!

Billy: Joey, this got pretty deep pretty fast. Your openness is incredible. Are you ready to continue?

Joseph: Yeah, I'm ready.

Billy: On the off chance that your daughter, Arlene, reads this what would you like to say to her?

Joseph: (He answers in a thick voice.) Baby, I wish none of this would of happened and that I had been, and could be, there for you. I love you. I'll see you at the resurrection and I'll have eternity to make it up to you.

Billy: Is it true that you published an autobiography and donated all of the money the book made and ever will make, to Aubrey Hawkins' son and to your daughter? Why?

Joseph: Yes. Half to Arlene and half to Hawkins’ son. I didn't care about the proceeds... I didn't know what to say to Hawkins' family ... What COULD I say? Sorry doesn't cut it. I wanted to do something to show I was remorseful. I wanted to try to support my daughter financially, if possible, and let her know even though I failed her, I loved her.

Billy: If you had a chance to talk to Aubrey Hawkins right now, what would you say?

Joseph: (He dropped his head and thought for several minutes.) I don’t know what I would say right now. The next time I see him will be at the resurrection. I will hug him and apologize and ask for forgiveness for everything I caused him and his family.

Billy: You were not present when Aubrey Hawkins was killed. What did you think when you found out?

Joseph: Oh God, no.

Blaine: Who was your very first girlfriend and where and how did y’all meet? 

Joseph: Debra. I was living at a group home and we went to the Corneyville Festival in Helotis Texas. I married her not long after that and we named our only child after my sister Arlene.

Billy: When you realized the escape was a success, how did you feel and what were you thinking?

Joseph: Elated. But I was thinking ... Oh, shit, how do we stay out? We had a meticulous short-term plan, but no long-term plan. Once we were out we didn't know what to do to stay out. Every day was a struggle.

Billy: How did you feel when you were captured?

Joseph: Relief. I no longer had to pretend to be someone else. I no longer had to look over my shoulder and wonder if I'd been recognized. I could be me again.

Billy: You're a part of Texas history as a member of the “Texas 7”. How do you feel about being reviled by the general public and glorified by the criminal element?

Joseph: I don't think what I did was all that special. I think that anyone in my shoes would of done what I did. It was an opportunity to take back the freedom I never should of lost. “Civilized society” reviles me because they don't know me and only know what the media says about me. If they knew me, how I came to prison, why I escaped and that I didn't shoot Aubrey Hawkins they wouldn't revile me.

As for the criminal element looking up to me ... I never planned to be a role model in that sense and I am not proud of it at all.

Billy: What did you mean just now about you never should of lost your freedom to begin with and if the public knew why you escaped they wouldn't revile you?

Joseph: I came to prison for killing a stranger who tried to kill me and take my car. I never should have been convicted. That is just the truth. I had never been in any trouble with the Law before. Despite my poverty and rough start I didn't do drugs, commit crimes or anything. I escaped because I was another poor person that was run over by the “justice” system.

Blaine: What is your favorite food and movie?

Joseph: “Forrest Gump,” tacos and pizza. I like flour tortillas, New York style pizza and Pizza Hut. But tacos are Numero Uno.

Blaine: What celebrity would you spend a whole day with and why?

Joseph: Bruce Lee! I loved Martial Arts movies. He just seemed so interesting. I'd like to pick his mind to see who he is.

Billy: You've been living in Solitary Confinement for eighteen years straight. Can you try to briefly explain what that has been like?

Joseph: Were you ever told as a kid to go to your room when you got into trouble? Imagine that and then never getting to come out again. Imagine all you have to maintain your sanity is a cheap AM/FM radio that you listen to with cheap plastic headphones, books, magazines, letters, one 2-hour visit a week – if anyone comes – and some junk food from the prison store – if anyone cares enough to send you money. Week after week... month in and month out ... Year after long monotonous year you're in that little bitty, drab, dull room... My God got me through it with my sanity.

Billy: While on Death Watch you've lived with a camera in your cell, have been up close and personal as several men you've know over a decade have lived out their last days and then were executed. What has this experience been like to you?

Joseph: It is sad because I have become emotionally numb to this whole process. To them killing us. When someone is taken to the Death House to be killed, it’s just another day in the slaughter house.

Once someone is taken away, it’s back to the guards asking “Garcia, you going to recreation? To shower?” When someone leaves I pray they come back. When they don't my mourning stops and it’s on to the next guy.

Billy: On November 14th 2018 Robert Ramos was executed. Before he left the Death Watch section, he was in our dayroom for several hours. You talked to him the whole time and kept offering him food ... M&M's, snickers, cookies, mint sticks and tacos. Why did you do that?

Joseph: To comfort him. It was my way to be supportive and show him he wasn't alone. Food is special to me, and sharing it means a lot. A long time ago I cussed out Ramos and I wasn't civil to him for a long time. When he arrived on Death Watch I apologized and we were cool again. Death Watch isn't the place for tension and stress, but peace and unity. I was talking to him and trying to feed him so he would leave here feeling loved.

Blaine: If Marty McFly pulled up in the DeLorean with the flux capacitor charged up and said “Jump in!” what year would you go back to and what difference would you try to make?

Joseph: I'd go back to my freshman year and encourage myself to be more productive, to not be so angry and depressed over being abandoned. Oh – and I'd tell myself “Do not stop playing tennis!”

Billy: What happened to your family? To your mother, daughter, grandmother and wife?

Joseph: (Big, big sigh) I haven't heard from my daughter since the 90’s. She's just a dream now. My mother died of AIDS in February 1994. I spent two years in the US Coast Guards and got out January 1994 and I saw my mother, who knew she was dying and came and found me. She died a week or so later. My grandmother is gone too. Before the escape my wife left me and I've rarely had contact with her since.

Billy: Your mother’s last name was Trevino and your father’s last name was Bermudez; yet your last name is Garcia. How'd that happen?

Joseph: I was my mothers fourth child. Her first were with Danny Garcia, she abandoned those three kids with him, but kept me because it was believed Louis Bermudez was my father. By the time all of this was sorted out, I had the last name Garcia and not Trevino or Bermudez.

Billy: I know you've had a lot of support from pen pals you met after your escape. Is there anything you'd like to say to everyone for being there for you?

Joseph: Yes. Thank you to everyone for being there when I needed you most. Even those who fell off and disappeared, you all mattered so much to me and made me stronger. Thank you.

Billy: You are a practicing Messianic Jew, how has your faith helped you while living on Death Row?

Joseph: My faith has helped me understand what death and inner peace is. It has allowed me to understand the gospel and want to help others and show them the glory of God. My God has protected me from insanity from living this way – the way we do on Death Row.

Billy: Is it true you wrote a poem about Tacos?

Joseph:  YES!

TACO LOVER

T” stands for “Tacos!”
A” stands for “Already, Tacos!!” 
C” stands for “Cha-Ching! Tacos!!” 
O” stands for “OMG More Tacos!!!”
L” stands for “Let go of my Tacos!”
O” stands for “Oh shit, did you say Tacos?”
V” stands for “Very slowly step away from my Tacos.” 
E” stands for “Eat my Tacos and your ass is mine!” 
R” stands for “Refried Bean Tacos are the best!”

TACO LOVER FOR LIFE!

Billy: What do you think the tacos in Heaven are like?

Joseph: Heavenly!

Billy: BLAINE!

Blaine: Yeah?

Billy: Close this interview down for us, will ya?

Blaine: Alright. Joey, if the Warden were to pull you out right now and tell you that
you would be set free ... Under one condition, that condition being you would have to make gay porn for the rest of your life, what would you say?

Joseph: This is off the record.

Farewell, our friend. May you have plenty of quarters, gum and tacos in Heaven. And tell Arlene we said hi.

Admin note:  The day after Christmas, an envelope arrived with a letter from Joey asking me to share the enclosed photos with Billy and Blaine's farewell.  It is an honor to fulfill his last request.


Carmen and Arlene

My mother and Aunt Sylvia

Me and my baby sister

Arlene and grandmother

My stepfather Louie and sister Arlene

Baby Sis Arlene - 2 years old

My mother Frances and stepfather Louie and family

My mother Frances, stepfather Louie, sister Arlene and me

My mother, sister,  grandmother and cousin in New York 1970's

Arlene and Louie

My cousin Michael, sister Arlene and me

Joseph G. 1988-89 Adolescent Group Home  17 years old

I graduated in 1992.  I had dropped out but went back after a year and  a half.
I was supposed to graduate in 1990.

This is me at age 20.  I was at a family reunion with my ex-wife.
Man, how awesome would it be to relive those years...



1997 Before escape
2000 Awaiting extradition back to Texas.
This was taken in a Colorado courtroom.


Alvin Braziel (Executed: December 11th, 2018)

Alvin was a short, lightly muscled, dark skinned black man, with a shiny, smoothly shaven bald head, a narrow, ruggedly-lined but not unattractive face, pearly white teeth, dark eyes and was possessed of an athlete’s grace.
He was a quiet person who rarely engaged in socializing with those around him. His reclusive nature made getting to know him difficult.
In spite of his desire to be disengaged from the Death Row community I couldn't help but come to know him a little and become aware that he was dealing with a severe mental illness. Though our cells were not close to each other. I could still hear him talking to himself daily – about what, I couldn't decipher. When he went to recreation in the dayroom, which is directly in front of our cells, he would jog and walk backwards while mumbling to himself. On the rare occasions he spoke to us, he would accuse others of trying to harm him, as he did when Joseph Garcia bought everyone on Death Watch an M&M ice cream sandwich as a goodbye gift shortly before his execution. Alvin refused to accept his because he was concerned it was poisoned or sabotaged.
Most everyone understood he was ill and were patient and understanding with him and didn't take his paranoia personally.
His last day alive was disquieting and disturbing. He received no visits – why, I do not know – and due to having no visitors, he was placed in the dayroom at 7:30 am, where he stayed until noon, when he was taken to the Death House in Huntsville.

When he got into the dayroom, he stood there looking all about like he'd never been inside of it before and wasn't sure where he was. He looked so alone, so lost, like a small child. He just stood in the middle of the dayroom floor, his bald head gleaming in the fluorescent light, blinking his dark eyes slowly and staring dazedly off into space.
Nobody tried to talk to him for a long time. I wasn't sure how to approach him, aware that he preferred to be left alone. I didn't want my own desires to “help” to cause him to become agitated. Finally someone spoke to him, trying to coax him to talk, but that didn't get anywhere.
A little while later I decided I'd try to speak with him and I walked to my door. I found Alvin standing at the dayroom bars directly in front of me, staring straight at me. We locked eyes for what seemed an eternity, but was probably only 10-15 seconds, before he slowly turned around and walked away …

What I saw in his eyes will haunt my mind until my own end comes.

His eyes reminded me of a passage in a Greg Isles novel.

“He had never seen such eyes before, not even in the faces of soldiers unmanned in the midst of great carnage. Eyes like black mirrors, at once shallow and bottomless. He had the feeling that if he pressed his finger to one of those eyes, it would shatter and fall inward through a black cavern of grief and loss that could never be filled.”

I'll never know exactly what I saw in his eyes that last day. It was something far beyond true description, something that encompassed madness and inner pain so profound that I cannot imagine how he endured it.

Your painful journey is over now. May you rest in peace.


Death Watch Update: December 19th, 2018

I do not often encounter prison guards who will admit to me that they become fond of any of the incarcerated men they deal with regularly – often dealing with some men for years and years.
Since my arrival on Death Row, thirteen months ago, I've asked numerous guards if working on Death Row bothers them when it comes down to an execution day and they realize they are a participant in another persons death.
“Nah”. And  “I'm just doing my job.” have been the responses I've gotten each time.
I've wanted to get a real answer out of someone so badly that when they blow me off I want to yell at them - “You're not a robot. You're not so tough you can't feel … We're not all so monstrous you can't see our humanity … It’s not “unprofessional” to see us as real human beings!” But I never did.
I can imagine that the majority of the time being a Death Row guard doesn't bother them and its nothing more than “just a job,” but on an execution day, there is no more thinking this is just a regular job. Not when they have to actively participate in leading a man out of his cell and off of the prison to be taken to the Death House and obliterated from existence. That has to bother them, at least, occasionally. 
One day recently I asked a guard this question expecting the same brush off as usual. Instead I got this:

“Does it ever bother you to watch any of us be taken away to be executed?” I asked.

After a brief pause this guard said. “Yes. Some it does. Some it doesn't at all.”
“You're the first guard who's admitted to me they are affected at all,” I replied.
“Rayford bothered me,” they said.
“Old Man William Rayford?” I asked
“Yes. He was not a bad person,” They responded.
“I know. Losing him was hard on me too. What was it like for you to be a participant in someone’s death that you feel that way about?” I asked.

They looked down for a long time and quietly said: “On that day I was not a proud or happy person.”
This conversation had a major impact on me. In my writing about Death Row I look to humanize my fellow inmates and it never dawned on me to also try to capture the humanity in the guards. From now on when moments like these occur I will share them with you all too.

To read Part Three click here


Billy Tracy 999607
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Billy Joel Tracy was born in Janesville, Wisconsin in 1977 and almost immediately moved with his family to Texas.  He grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area – minus three years in Colorado in the mid-80s.

He enjoys reading about ancient European history, science, psychology, neurology, politics, fantasy, action adventure and mysteries.  He enjoys doing arts and crafts, exercising, writing, participating in activism and learning about other cultures.

He has been on Death Row in Texas since November 2017 at the Polunsky Unit.  And no, his parents were not Billy Joel fans.  He is thankful he wasn’t named after his parent’s favorite band, Pink Floyd.