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Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Brief Reign of the “Quarry Queen”

By Burl N. Corbett

In 1971, as the “Swingin’ Sixties” were taking their last at bats, there were still plenty of hippies waiting on the bench to get their cuts. As I drove home from work one summer day, I saw a pair of longhairs – a skinny male and a very well-designed female – thumbing for a ride along a country road just outside of French Creek State Park. Four years earlier, I had hitchhiked twice across the country, so strictly out of professional courtesy, you understand, I stopped. When they hopped in the front seat of my ’59 Chevy, I noticed that the girl and her bra-less wonders hurried to get in first.

“Where are you going?” I asked, ogling her twin treasures. 

“With the flow, man,” the man answered, happily grinning at their good fortune. “We’re looking for a place to camp,” he confided, patting his backpack as if it were a favored pet. “We have plenty of dried food and canteens for water and a carton of smokes and a little you-know-what to help pass the time.”

“Regular pioneers, huh?” I said, scheming how I could lose him and frolic among her bounteous breasts like a frisky pup. “Well, there’s a state park nearby, but they charge a lot of bread to camp,” I lied. “If you don’t mind staying in my dad’s barn tonight, tomorrow when I get home from work I’ll show you a spot where you can camp for free.”

“Wow, man, that would be cool!” the unwitting dupe gushed. “You sure your old man won’t get, like, uptight?”

“Hell, no!” I lied again. “He often lets hitchhikers stay there overnight.”

“Groovy, man!” the luscious little dirty-blonde temptress pronounced with a smile. “He must be a cool dude, like you,” she added, patting my thigh for emphasis.

Well, that made my nubbin twitch in anticipation, I gotta tell you! Right away, I began plotting how to separate them, maybe send the guy off on a wild goose chase while I worked my magic on his chick, convince her that I was just the man she needed, and dip my wick in the bargain.

“Yeah, he’s OK, but you won’t get a chance to meet him, I’m afraid, because he works second shift,” I explained, praying to the Great God of Lechery that he didn’t see them when he came home that night and queer my plans.

“Oh, that’s a shame. But maybe I can meet your mom instead,” said the cunning little vixen, who was doubtlessly contriving a scheme of her own.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea. I think it’s best if you and your, uh, boyfriend stay out of sight until my dad talks to my mom. You know how paranoid some of these old women can get, especially after the Manson scene went down.”

They agreed, and I took them straight to the barn, which was almost a hundred yards from my parents’ home. I led them into the hayloft, returned home to shower and eat, told my mom nothing, and went back to check on my guests, who were sitting outside the barn, hidden from view, smoking a joint.

“Don’t smoke in the barn,” I warned. “That’s number one on Emily Post’s list of no-nos.”

“Who’s she, man?” asked the hippie fifth wheel. “Smoky the Bear’s old lady?”

“Don’t be silly,” the curvaceous cutie admonished. “She’s like the authority on everything! Don’t worry, we’ll smoke out here,” she assured me.

“Look, I got a few things to do,” I said, “but I’ll be back later with some beer. We’ll party a little,” I promised.

“Like, we aren’t juicers, man,” the man informed me, “but thanks anyway.”

“I’ll drink a few,” said the sly seductress, giving me an encouraging wink. “I’ll wait up for you.”

I bet you will, I thought, and off I went to my favorite bar. When I returned around eleven, half-drunk and totally horny, she was waiting outside, smoking a cigarette.

“What’s your name?” I asked, handing her a beer.

“Lori,” she replied, accepting it.

“Where’s what’s-his-name?” I wondered, hoping he’d been taken by aliens.

“Oh, him? He’s asleep. You want me to wake him?” she teased.

“No, no, no, that’s OK! But I thought maybe we could take a walk up the hill, if you want. I know a lookout where you can see for miles and miles.”

“Far out!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands merrily. “I’d dig that a lot!”

I took her hand and led her up the road, beers in hand. Before we got fifty feet, her boyfriend poked his shaggy head out the barn door and asked where we were going.

“Sean’s taking me to a lookout where we can see for miles,” she replied. “We thought that you were asleep.”

“Wow, that sounds groovy!” he adjudged. “I’ll come along!”

Seeing my plans going south, I thought quickly. “I dunno, man. You better wait here at the barn. One of my friends is coming by with some dynamite hash.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll stay here. Is it really that good, man?” he asked, his bullshit radar registering a faint blip.

“It’s the fucking best, man. The absolute tops!”

That settled it. Lori and I left for the nonexistent lookout and her boyfriend waited for the nonexistent hash that my nonexistent friend wasn’t bringing. As soon as we were out of her nosy boyfriend’s sight, I put my arm around her waist, and like any self-respecting hippie earth mama, she giggled with delight. I led her into a hay field gone to weeds, dropped my beer, and kissed her.

“Where’s the lookout?” she murmured, as I gently tugged her to the ground.

“First things first,” I whispered, pulling down her jeans and panties. As thousands of stars winked at our impetuousness, I lifted her tee shirt, revealing two more glorious orbs. “Look up at the stars, Lori,” I urged. “It’s just like I promised – you can see for millions and millions of miles!”

An hour later, minus the beers and her panties, which she had lost in the dark, we returned to the barn to find her boyfriend squatting unhappily outside the door. “Your friend never showed up, man,” he peevishly complained. “Just how far away is this lookout? You were gone long enough.”

“I’ll show it to you tomorrow,” Lori assured him. “I gotta go back anyhow.”

“Why?” the unhappy camper asked suspiciously.

She smiled at me, then turned to her boyfriend. “Come on, let’s hit the hay. It’s been a long day and I’m beat.”

I went home, too, and the next day at work I told all my buddies about my good luck. Naturally, they wanted in on the action, but I wasn’t about to ruin a good thing. I hurried home with the intention of dropping off the sand-in-the-gears boyfriend at a far corner of the park and then speeding off with Lori before he knew what was going down. But when I got home, I saw Lori and doofus sitting on the porch swing! Apparently, my mother had seen them outside the barn, gave them the third-degree, and then invited them to supper, during which she told them that they had to leave – so sorry and all that, blah, blah, blah. So, I had to abandon my devious scheme and dropped both of them off at the park, never expecting to see either one of them again. But that was all right; I had gotten what I wanted. And Lori had even gotten her panties back when she had taken her naïve boyfriend back to the “lookout”.

“I don’t see any lookout,” he carped. “All I see is a damn field!”

Lori tut-tutted his foolish concern. “I can’t find it now. You know how things look different in the daylight,” she explained, poking around in the tall grass for her lost panties, which she discovered peeking shyly, like a frightened bunny, from under a tuft of buck grass.

“What are your panties doing there?” he demanded. “Did you ball him last night?”

“Don’t be silly,” she scoffed. “They must’ve fallen off when I had to piss.”

Whether he swallowed whole that heaping load of codswallop is lost to history, but he never brought it up when we said goodbye at the park.

My life went on post-Lori, and I resumed my routine of working, drinking, and doing my bit in the sexual revolution, trying to make the world a friendlier place for pretty, willing women. I was twenty-four, in my prime. About a month later as I drove home from work, who do I see walking along the road again but Lori, sans her irritating, whiny, fun-killing boyfriend! I stopped my car, she happily leapt in, and that quickly I fell back into lust. While I sped home to shower and grab a bite to eat, she explained that her stick-in-the-mud boyfriend had took exception to her free-spirited ways, and they parted. Now she had returned for some more “two-backed beast” action and lots of that good old Schmidts beer. Ever the gentleman, I obliged her.

After I cleaned up and wolfed down a quick burger, we visited the “lookout”, where with jolly abandon we flattened a patch of grass. Then we went drinking at a nearby bar. An hour later, we came back to our special place and made like minks. Back at the bar, I began to fret that my semi-steady girlfriend, Mary, would get wind of my amorous shenanigans with her usually infallible radar. But for once, I lucked out. For our third go-round, I chose another parking spot, although the overhanging boughs prevented Lori from witnessing any stars except the ones caused by her repeated orgasms. I had to work the next day, or we might have drank and made merry all night. So, around midnight I stashed her in the barn again and bid her a good night.

It was obvious that she couldn’t stay there, soon my mother or Mary would discover our little intrigue with unpleasant results. So, the next day at work I discussed my dilemma with a friend who had been panting to meet Lori since he had heard the “lookout” story. That evening, after a successful introduction, he decided to take her home to meet the folks, whereupon Lori ingratiated herself into the good graces of my friend’s mother and earned a bed upon the living room couch. My friend’s father worked with me on the same construction crew and was hip to Lori’s amatory proclivities, so he raised no objections. That very evening, she moved in. The next day at work, I asked my friend how Lori was getting along with her new family. With a disturbed expression, he led me away from the other workers and explained what had happened. 

“I figured I’d wait until everyone was asleep, then sneak downstairs and fuck her. But when I got to the bottom step, I saw my dad and her going at it!”

“Beat you to the punch, huh?” I chuckled. “Why didn’t you come back later?”

What, are you crazy? I’m not taking my own dad’s sloppy seconds!”

“Well,” I advised, “in that case, you better sneak down earlier.”

Unfortunately, he never had the chance. His mother had her radar on, and chased Lori out the next day. My friend drove her to an abandoned quarry and set her up in one of the old wooden buildings that hadn’t been burned up, board by board, for bonfires. It was still August, but he gave her an old quilt and a few ratty blankets for the chilly nights. The flooded quarry was fed by pure spring water fit for bathing and drinking, and once the local horndogs got hip to her presence, they brought her hoagies and kept her well-stocked with cigarettes, booze, and weed, doubtlessly fucking the bejesus out of her in return. She was living a hippie’s fantasy, and before long she went completely native, running around topless and worse. She adopted a menagerie of beasties: box turtles, frogs, crippled birds, and even the odd garter snake or two. Out of respect for my cock, I no longer balled her, but there were plenty of others not so fastidious. 

Eventually her notoriety caught the ear of a reporter from The Reading Record, a tabloid rag sheet popular with the soap opera/‘rasslin’ set, and he penned a lurid story of how a wild, naked hippie woman had become the “Queen of the Quarry” by bestowing sexual favors upon her multitudinous consorts. Although this article marked the height of her celebrity, it initiated the beginning of her decline.

The quarry was a well-known party spot that attracted not only the local red-necks, but occasional hordes of outlaw bikers. As it was on private land, and a quarter-mile from the nearest road, the state cops pretty much ignored the revelry, figuring accurately enough that it was preferable for all concerned to have a host of rowdy drunks off the highways and out of the public eye. But the sensational article caught their attention, and under the pretense of checking for stolen cars they began dropping in a little too often to suit us. We usually had a choice entourage of luscious under-twenty-one female drinkers cavorting shamelessly in scanty clothing, and we didn’t need any “contributing to the delinquency of minors” beefs.

But then she vanished without a trace. I never learned if she had been picked up on an old warrant, or if someone had won her heart and swept her away. Perhaps she had simply tired of living for real the hippie earth momma role, but she was gone, leaving us free to party in peace without looking over our shoulders for nosy, spoilsport cops.

Two years later, a morel hunter found an unclothed woman’s skeleton lying on a rock in the state park, not a mile from the quarry. When I read the newspaper article, I shuddered, fearing the worst. But then another woman’s partly decomposed body was found not two miles away, and through DNA tests proved to be the sister of the first victim. Apparently they had run away from home the year before, looking for kicks, like my old lover, Lori. When photos of the two dead sisters were found in the clubhouse of an outlaw motorcycle club, the police thought that they had solved the case, but no individual biker was linked to the murders. The case is long “cold”, but still open.

All that remains of that long-ago summer are my memories and an 8x10 photo of Lori posing on the trunk lid of my white ’59 Chevy, taken the mad evening when we bounced between the bar and the “lookout”. All is gone, fled like my youth and sweet, crazy Lori.

But I lift an occasional glass to your memory, my Lady! Yours was a memorable reign, and you were the queen that the times required. So, long live the queen, my dear, wherever you are! (And I pray that there isn’t another scattered skeleton lying undiscovered in the park.)

The end.




SMART Communications
PA DOC # HZ6518
Burl N. Corbett 
SCI Albion
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won seven PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first, four honorable mentions, and one second); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, are available at Xlibris.com or Amazon.com.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Book

By Steve Bartholomew

It's mid-June, and while you've been sheltering in place for the past couple of months, I've been placed in shelter. I've been on ad-seg in IMU (Intensive Management Unit) ever since a riot, or disturbance, broke out at the prison camp where I was housed while we were under quarantine lockdown. Initially, I was under investigation for being an actual rioter, or more likely just a disturber; flattering to be on the shortlist of nominees, sure, but worrisome given that I never so much as protested, peacefully or otherwise. Between you and me, I wouldn't roll a raisin to a food fight, so close to the gate I am. 

But, as sometimes happens in prison, my dog got wagged by their tale. I've since been accused, and found guilty, of engaging in a group demonstration and refusing to disperse while being out of bounds – all for evacuating during (what turned out to be) a bogus fire drill a half hour prior to the riot, and engaging a sergeant in a short conversation. I was later astounded by the prescience of the hearings officer, who had his findings of guilt written before I had even argued my case. For saving the State tens of tax dollars by slashing that pork belly of disciplinary budgets, due process, he stands to earn a plaque engraved with the words "Frontline Hero."

I'm currently resting assured that there was nothing personal in their giving me the business. The pressure originated clear up in the Governor's tower, to hammer smash anyone with whom there was any staff interaction during, or even before, the riot – a reflexive sweep meant, I suppose, to save some face after letting all the rioters evacuate with the crowd of uninvolved. Well, Gov, you must be proud, because your minions nailed me like a stranded cheerleader on Pornhub. And I'm one of about a dozen subjected to such an outpouring of unrequited affection. Justice may be blind, but retribution is deaf and dumb.

Staying mentally fit in solitary confinement requires some creative strategizing – not unlike, I imagine, some of what you had never hoped to discover personally about quarantining. Waking hours stripped of novel stimuli or (desirable) human interactions are easier to digest when broken up into spoon-size chunks. In prison, you're accustomed to gauging the passage of time against the duration of happenings – activities you've initiated, or things that happen to you: your job, a visit. Bereft of texturizing events, you routinize whatever is left and cling to that schedule as if your very sanity depends on it. Because it just might. 

Out there, you might end up binging an entire season of Stranger Things one drizzly lockdown Tuesday, but television seasons are portioned into episodes because not too many folks would commit upfront to spending twelve continuous hours as a couch emblem, mentally divorced from trifling downers like exercise and pants. And so the day erodes into Cheetos crumbs, one perfectly paced cliffhanger at a time. My day in IMU is a season of reruns, recurring episodes of mental conflict and nimble physicality. Think Jon Snow in a pumpkin jumpsuit. Although slightly less epic, some might say, than the actual Game of Thrones, the nail-biting suspense between endeavors functions to break an otherwise interminable day into manageable segments. What happens next? Another thousand pushups? A hundred pages? Find out in next hour's episode.

Out there, you might punctuate an afternoon squandered on Zoom – teleconferencing about what should have warranted two emails – or by ordering some Panda Express. Here, DoorDash keys the cuffport in my front door at around 5:30 AM, banging it open so they can contactlessly deliver my sack breakfast onto the floor. They're forever innovating ways to place my safety front and center, just like my sack breakfast, which must be why they don't just drop it off the night before. I have to wake up early anyway if I want enough time to count all my blessings, and the first clink-clank-kababang they make at the cuffport on the far end of the tier is my Pavlovian cue to jump into action. I toss aside my lightweight racing blanket and take the three steps to the door. Catching this savory sackful of wholesome carb-dust packets, rather than watching it skid across the concrete floor, gives me exactly one middle finger of control over one event. And so begins another day, indistinguishable from any of the past seventy.

Don't think I'm about to bore you to snot bubbles by dragging you alongside me through a typical day in the Hole, hour by feckless, minuteful hour. Besides, from what I hear, after the past few months, I might be able to learn a thing or two from you about managing the doldrums. 

Just as books reclaimed their lost status and potential to many newly reacquainted readers out there in Pandemerica, so too is the written word particularly revered by prisoners in segregation. It's not uncommon to hear drop-forged convicts offering each other critical reviews of novels recently read, snap-cases with tattoos tougher than you ever were discussing through steel doors the nuances of literary works with a gusto usually befitting gang hits or a hundred-paper of meth. Books are the sole reprieve from an environment uniquely ribbed for your displeasure, one whose lone nod toward comfort is the A/C howling from the wall vent like Madonna at a Trump family picnic. I'm touched, truly, at how thoughtful they are toward us, ensuring the temperature hovers just north of a meat locker – even on days such as this one, when the summer sun glares brightly (and with dangerous warmth, no doubt) through my four-inch window. Reading is the mind's only refuge from a sequestered pocket of our reality perversely engineered to make regular prison feel comparable to being released. 

I see no need to converse much, if at all, with the intelligentsia housed on this tier. But just because I practice antisocial distancing doesn’t mean I don’t hear more than I would like to most of the time. Nowhere else is it more evident that any intelligent designer would have thought of earlids. Yesterday I listened to two prisoners spend well over an hour trying to “fish” a David Baldacci novel from one to the other – they are two cells apart, a distance of about 20 feet – using lines made from elastic string harvested from the waistbands of their boxers. In the land of 70s pulp westerns and romance novels, a Baldacci is a windfall indeed. The meaty bestseller got hung up on the cell door between them, which caused the line to snap. Their spirits sagged like, I imagine, their elastic-deprived boxer shorts. At stake: two solid days of page-churning legal thrills, undoubtedly even more “Adrenaline-fueled…” for a prisoner whose triggers include judges, courtrooms, attorneys, and the law in general.

But they rallied against defeat and, like a couple of noisy Baldacci protagonists, persevered in the face of great adversity. One of them bravely subtracted several yards of string from his already threadbare blanket for another line, which he then attached to a Harlequin romance that finally gained critical acclaim as a grappling book. By the time they finally wrangled the stranded Baldacci free, a guard came by on rounds and gleefully kicked it across the dayroom. There it languishes, mocking them from 25 feet away until, most likely, a night porter sweeps it out of the pod. The intended recipient, a self-avowed meth-head, spent the hour following their failure, tearing his hairs and gnashing his tooth. I am thankful that my loved ones regularly send me books, which are delivered to my cell by guards.

This morning I’ve gone to yard, a Benchmark Event foundational to the tone of my entire day. The “yard” is a small concrete room with a screened opening in the outer wall and which contains a pull-up bar, dip bars and a phone. I get one hour of yard (alone) per day, usually from 7-8 AM, five days a week. I spend most of this time on the phone – my only meaningful human interaction for the day. On three of those days, I get a 20-minute shower afterward. Today isn’t one of them. From scarcity springs veneration. Despite being locked into a mildewy stainless steel box, it’s dribbly showerhead activated for 16 seconds at a time by a button on the wall, tomorrow I will revel in the sheer act of showering more than you likely ever could. Anytime I leave the cell I am cuffed, leashed by said cuffs, and accompanied by two guards, both of whom keep at least one hand wrapped around my upper arm at all times, presumably to monitor my biceps for proper atrophy. My well-being is their passion. After yard today, as my entourage and I stand before my cell waiting for the booth guard to open it, I notice sitting on the ledge beside the door a small package neatly wrapped in brown paper, my name and DOC number adorning it. A book.

While being escorted in IMU you are prohibited from turning your head to the side – a rule whose provenance can more likely be traced to some sergeant of yesteryear catching a loogie with his ear than to any inherent self-consciousness of IMU guards. That would be ridiculous of me to suppose, especially given the streams of adulation consistently leveled at such paragons of human refinement. Facing the cell door, I say, as if to the numbers stenciled there, “Looks like I have a book waiting for me.”

Now, everyone knows that personal books are to be handed out by swing shift staff, usually an hour or so after regular mail, around 9 PM. Because they also have extrinsic, quantifiable value and are shipped by vendors who can track and prove their existence, books have to be signed for upon receipt, both by mailroom staff and the prisoner. Like any protocol worth the paper it wastes, this one was intended to protect the prison from liability, I’m sure. But it also usually serves to discourage guards from misdelivering books, liberating them, or undelivering them to the small ledge atop the lock mechanism that signals the activation of an IMU cell door. A bulwark of accountability typically lorded about by way of the mail-receipt log, which is pushed toward you as a condition for receiving your book. But the system is broken. Or at least badly sprained.

Evidently, such flagrant departures from procedure are easier for some to process than others. Both guards – one male, one female – make muffled sounds of disbelief. I can sense their masked lips pursing in consternation, at once nonplussed at the prospect of a task and suspicious of the unauthorized presence of a personal book about who-knows-what outside the cell, where the stuff of training videos might happen.

“Why is it there?” asks the guard gripping my left arm. He looks like a young Dolph Lundgren stunt double in a prison guard costume that shouldn’t have been machine dried but was. Because my head is not allowed to turn, I can’t tell whom he is talking to. Maybe the lady guard has personal knowledge germane to the mystery at hand, I think, so I remain silent for the excruciating sixty seconds the three of us spend collectively staring down at my book, at the door, then back at my book. I’ve already framed a working hypothesis involving swing shift guards, a predictable flair for distractibility, and unswerving apathy. But I know what makes Dolph tick. He has the soul of a smug meter maid, the type to masturbate to DOC field directive manuals and have a tattoo of filigreed handcuffs for a tramp stamp. Beneath the uniform he wears even to the grocery store on his day off is a bedazzled T-shirt that reads: Make Prison Great Again. I’m better off letting Dolph feel like he has deductified his own way to a conclusion.

The door finally slides open and Dolph, ever assistive, directs me to step forward because, given my questionable choices of late, who knows what direction I might step if left to my own devices. Once through the door, I stand facing forward until the door slams shut behind me. Then I back up to the cuffport, executing a passable working man's curtsy while extending my cuffed hands through the port. Dolph twists my wrists inward, a brightly nerve-wrenching hold that thoroughly prevents me from doing heart-hands at all. He is working his key into each cuff lock absently, stiffly, as if preoccupied. If I had to guess, he is either calculating how best to lay the blame for this out-of-bounds book on me or wondering how much Microsoft will pay him for his genius idea, which is to combine the two greatest things ever into one: a video game about strip searches. Withdrawing my hands, I stand and turn around to face him. He slams shut the cuffport.

"Do you suppose I could get my book?" 

He untapes the brown paper bag wrapping the novel and lets it slide out into his hands. He turns it over slowly to methodically inspect each plane and corner, using his firm grasp of correctional methodology to literally judge a book by its cover. He looks up from his detecting and makes interrogatory eye contact, which, he was told in training, was the second most penetrative out of his entire graduating class. "Why wouldn't the floor officer issue this to you last night?"

"Great question. I have no idea. Maybe I was out."

He seems to ponder the likelihood of my being anywhere but in this cell at nine the previous, or any, evening. The muscles surrounding his eyes cinch up, a pair of crime-repellant sphincters. He is searching my countenance for one twitch of deception or mockery. But I have been playing truth-poker with his ilk since he was getting kept in at recess for conducting pat-searches as hall monitor. Unrewarded, he rewraps the book, sets it back on the ledge, and says, "Before I give you this, I need to do some further checking."

"Look, CO," I say, holding up my hands, palms outward, a universal gesture of compliance. We're in this together, Dolph. I nod toward the stack of 19 personal books on the floor beside the small concrete desk, "My people order me books all the time. I promise you it's legit."

"Oh, I'm sure it's fine..." he lies, eyeing the book mistrustfully.

"Then why not just let me have it?"

"I could, I suppose," he says, his tone so closely mimicking sympathetic that for one second I start to think we can file this misunderstanding under Past Bonding Experiences. Stupid me, forgetting how fine is the line between Dolph and Adolph. He straightens to full parade-height and gives me his angular profile; once again resolute in his choice to pursue wholeheartedly his dream of criminal justice wherever it may lead, danger be damned. Only one dish fit to serve an undisputed criminal like me, and that's a side-order of justice. "But I'm going to do a little digging first," he says as he marches off the unit.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program in progress. In this hour's episode, our hero confronts, against lunch-defying odds, a sinister number of pushups, etcetera. 

In IMU, guards walk the tier every 30 minutes and sometimes once in between, zealously safeguarding against threats to security such as Baldacci fishing, or, even more unsufferable, someone taking the law into their own hands. I let one tier walk elapse without saying anything. In your world the squeaky wheel might get the grease, but in here it gets the lug wrench. When I hear Dolph walking an hour later, I try to make myself subtly noticeable by standing where I feel most apparent: three feet from the cell door, the sack-breakfast drop zone. His face fills the window with tanning bed correctitude.

"I haven't forgotten. I'm just waiting to hear back right now."

By now, some might be wondering whether I actually know better than to ask him from whom. I do, just barely.

"Okay. Uh, keep me posted?"

"Ten-four," he says over his epaulette as he walks away.

For some, the isolation of solitary confinement can be mind-shattering. I've known a prisoner who deteriorated into psychosis after 30 days. But not everyone is wired to be so socially dependent. My dear friend Johnny Martin was kept in IMU for seven years and twenty eight days, and you'd never have known it save for the pure and perfect hatred he quietly harbored for all correctional staff, right up until one shot and killed him while trying to escape from the hospital. Speaking strictly for myself, the isolation, alongside the constant cold, lack of desirable stimuli and gnawing hunger – these things simply are what they are. The punitive muscle of IMU most underestimated is felt inwardly, squeezing your very identity. We've invented a machine that trivializes you, anonymizes you, then works to convince you that any notions you had regarding status were, sadly, illusory. You are no one here. Right away you figure out that if you do succumb to the abyss and disintegrate, you will disappear into utter obscurity on your own. In IMU, like in the zombie apocalypse, No Lives Matter. 

An imprisoned life, though circumscribed, is nevertheless shaped by actions and interactions, tiny course-corrections that determine (much of the time) how you're treated – by your peers for sure, and likely by staff. My life may not yet have any of the trappings associated with your definition of living, but I do have social capital, a reputation I have jealously guarded my entire adult life – out there and in here. Generally, I live a better than average prison life (how quickly I'm hired for what job, who I live with, where I'm allowed to go, what information I can access, and so forth) because I know how to create the least undesirable outcome in most given situations. But IMU is like a woke valet, which, of course, checks your privilege for you. 

(Obviously, the present at-bat skews my overall average, but my decision to evacuate for the fire drill was based on incomplete information. Had I known a think tank of gang members was about to riot, I would have risked the fire.)

Here is where Effect runs over Cause, and keeps going. A construct of pure unyielding consequence, IMU inflicts itself upon you, period. That’s the point, some might say. To be clear, my present circumstance is not totally beyond my influencing. If I really wanted to, I could make it a little worse. I could nudge my own misery index upward by, say, covering the window in the cell door. I would then be pepper-sprayed, beat up, extracted and left naked in a strip cell for a week – where the only thing allowed in the cell is the ten squares of toilet paper issued per day. But otherwise, there’s no way to affect this ongoing outcome. It simply is. In here, I am considered no different than the guy two cells away who spent all of yesterday kicking his door and sobbing like Roseanne’s agent about how fucking unfair this shit life is. (Right now he is regaling us all with his slam poetry, performed at top volume. If I close my eyes I can pretend I’m locked in Kanye’s bathroom.)

I hear the pod slider open, another tier walk. It is the lady guard from my yard excursion, the one intimately familiar with my right biceps. She has the magnetism of Nancy Grace and the voice of gonorrhea. I feel the extra mile is her lifeblood, so I elect to solicit her help. Upon her approach I note she is gunning for sergeant by coloring her hair with Brass No.1.

“CO,” I say, as she peeks in my window, “any chance I could get my book, since it’s right there and you’re right here?”

“Have to ask your lead floor staff. I’m just a floater.” I realize now that Nancy Grace’s charm is surpassed only by her uncanny adherence to policy. She is a barnacle on a ship of rules, impervious to the elements and reason. I turn away as if there was never anyone there.

Another episode ensues, this one focused on character development. We find our hero perched on the short concrete post that serves as a stool, hunkered over the small concrete desk, his spaghetti pen (a three-inch long, ball-point al dente rubber tube) in hand. He is writing and deeply pondering his own arc, etcetera. Two more tier walks occur, another hour elapses.

Prison has instilled in me the patience of the senile. In managing my expectations toward the time scale of receiving ordered items, I am more liberal than Bernie Sanders’ hairdresser. But this book was ordered twenty-two days ago, each one a season of hours. King Bezos and his info hoovers may snarf up every cookie crumb of data this side of The Seven Kingdoms, but evidently, it takes a small folk in a carrot athleisure jumper to inform His Grace as to just how goddamn “essential” books are in IMU.

Finally, Dolph reappears. By now, 84% of my thoughts are mentally shouted in Samuel Jackson’s TV-edit voice and involve getting that melon-farming book in this melon-farming cell.

“Have you heard back yet?”

“Not yet,” he says, picking up the book. “No one ever got back to me.” He turns to narrow-eye the front of the pod, scouring the barren dayroom for any challenge to his authority while slapping the book against his hand. “What I’ll do is leave it with swing shift. They usually handle books anyway. It’s not really in my…”

“Skill set?”

“Job description, for this shift,” he says and walks off, tapping my book on the hand railing to signify the executive nature of his decision-making. I am replaying the end of Rocky IV, fantasizing for the first time ever about being Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double.

Confiscation is an expected, if not predictable, part of prison life. You learn the art of letting go because it’s taught to you so well, so many times. Any guard has the power to deprive you of your property, and the onus is on you to prove it isn’t contraband. Outrage is a free world luxury. I’ve let go of so much, so many times. But not today.

A swing shift guard makes his first tier walk. I ask him if he’s seen my book. Surely Dolph left it somewhere awesome, I tell him; some well-thought out place where swing shift couldn’t help but find it.

“Do you know where he put it?” he asks.

I look about pointedly, demonstrating the limitations of my direct knowledge about anything more than four feet from me in any direction. “Yeah, I really wouldn’t know.”

“Let me do some digging. I’ll make a call and…”

My faith in his willingness to sustain so much effort is crushed beneath the weight of decades spent marveling at the spirit of indolence central to the prison guard culture. Assuming prison is the closest actual thing we have to Hell, idle hands truly do the Devil’s work.

In this hour’s episode, our hero is reading. On a typical day he will forage through 300 pages, but he’s been rationing himself lately. There are 156 unread pages left in the entire cell. The question of running out is at least as suspenseful as the novel he is finishing.

Four tier walks elapse. As the guard nears my cell I brace myself for what’s sure to be an enlightening exchange.

“Any sign of my book?”

“Nothing yet. Keep the faith, man.” Even easier done than said, since I’m certain we believe in exactly opposite things. Maybe my book can be tracked by the Amazonians, even here. Maybe I’d rather not bother my people with such things. I finish my last page and consider which book to re-read.

A few tier walks later, at around 9 PM, a guard appears at my window. He keys the cuffport and waves the receipt form, then slides it through. I quickly sign it. He unwraps the book in his hand and, upon seeing the cover, does a double-take.

“Hmmm. Didn’t I drop off this same book to you last night?”

“It’s so good, I ordered two copies.”

He accepts this as a reasonable testament. Book finally in hand, I back away.

Stay tuned for today’s finale, where we find our hero victoriously reading, etcetera.


Steve Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Penitentiary
1313 North 13th Avenue
Walla Walla WA 99362