Saturday, April 28, 2012

No Mercy For Dogs Part 2

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 1 can be read HERE

What people believe to be real is real in its consequences. This was the axiom that I kept repeating to myself, as the Hammer led his son and I out to the parking lot. Somewhere deep inside, fault lines were buckling, continents shifting. I had been mostly somnambulating my way from day to day for the last six months, avoiding all the mirrors I could manage, especially the human variety. Somewhere beneath this dense layer of numbing grayness, klaxons were going off in my hypothalamus, danger signals attempting to overthrow my inanition and push up through the fog to warn me of my peril. This internal tug-of-war was causing me to lurch from states of extreme lethargy and fatalism to ones of severe anxiety, the lack of stability itself an aggravating factor contributing to my disorientation. I knew very well that I had dumped myself directly into the lion‘s den, and not for the last time would I wonder how Rudy had managed to convince me to take this mad journey.

A (large) part of me felt that getting torn to pieces was precisely what I deserved, while another attempted to motivate me to look for some exit strategy that did not involve a shallow grave hastily dug in the anonymous desert. The best I could hope for, I recall thinking, was to try to act dangerous - even crazy - and hope that the act was convincing. Batesian mimicry is a sorry defense when the predator in the equation is a serious player in a vertically integrated poly-drug operation, but I had been running for so long on an empty tank that it was all I could manage. The Hammer’s eyes were like hard autobiographies, and he had not blinked a single time during our meeting, classic Alpha-male behavior. Unfocusing one’s eyes in order to stare out at the middle-distance is an old trick that I knew well, and even in my crumbling state I felt I could pull it off. The result is that not only do you not blink, your eyes go kind of flat and dead inside, like those of a fish. I wouldn’t know just how unnerved I had made the Hammer for many weeks.

In the parking lot, I was introduced to Senior’s driver, a 350lb slab of a man called Smiley. People carting around adjectives instead of proper names always managed to annoy me a little bit, but I decided that we could debate trends in nomenclature at a later time. Like, say, when I had a howitzer handy. Rudy popped the trunk of his car, and removed my pack.

“Ok, mira, El Smiley is going to take you along some back roads, ones used by los coyotes to smuggle immigrants. No one will question you there, ok? I will go with my father and we will meet tonight in Cerralvo, ok?”

I scanned the situation, not liking it much. But this was the proverbial middle ground between rocks and hard places, and if it came down to me facing death at the hands of a misnamed Neanderthal in the middle of nowhere, I would fight it, but would never argue that it was less than I deserved.

“Why is he called ‘Smiley’?” I asked, stalling for time. The man looked singularly incapable of pulling off any facial expression beyond a menacing glower, of which he appeared to have a varied and expansive selection. Hearing his name, the behemoth squinted his eyes at me. They looked like snuffed out candles.

“Because,” answered Papa Ramos, in heavily accented English, a language he was not supposed to speak, “when he coots the troats the hole look like a green from the ear to ear.”

Staring at him, the totality of the scene overwhelmed me. How had my life come to this? The pressures of 24 years of a life lived poorly and without reason compressed, and I felt all at once that the tenuous, fingernails-dug-in grasp on sanity that had sustained me since December 10th had begun to slip. I am not wired to be a crier; the last time I shed tears for myself had probably happened when I was 4 or 5 years old. My death-spiraling mind did the next best thing, instead.

I started laughing.

No part of this situation was humorous in the least, but I couldn’t help myself. Despair, hope, and a desire for salvation collided violently in my core, and I was nauseated by the absurdity of the context, by this pint-sized kingpin and his comically over-juiced and apparently murderous bodyguard; by the idiot son so obviously desperate to be a babushka doll of the same series as his father, to obtain the affections of a man seemingly incapable of such; and the fact that somehow - inexplicably, it seemed to me at the time- I was the hub around which all of these twisted spokes spun. Finally, finally, I understood what Camus’ character Meursault meant when he concluded L‘etranger with the words: Pour que tout soit consomme, pour que je me sente moins seul, il me restait a souhaiter qu’il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon execution et qu’ils m’accueillent avec des cris de haine (So that all will be consumed, for that I feel less alone, I had a wish that there were a lot of spectators on the day of my execution and they welcomed me with cries of hatred).

Some part of me had to have known that the others were staring at me, and when I blinked the tears out of my eyes, Rudy’s mouth was agape and he was looking at me like he had never seen me before (in truth, he hadn’t). This fact amused me even more, and I could feel another chain of laughter bubbling up from inside of my chest. Ah well, fuck it, I thought. Mors certa, vita incerta. I clapped Rudy on the shoulder, and picked up my satchel and pack, slinging them over my shoulder. Still chuckling, I nodded to the Hammer and shouted one of the few Spanish commands I knew at Smiley: “Vamanos!” As I stowed my pack in the bed of the mid- 80’s Ford F-350 that was to be my conveyance, I caught Smiley looking from me to Papa Ramos, and back again. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that the gorilla looked…worried.

The moment passed as soon as I shut the passenger door of the truck, some treasonous switch flipping into the off position. I felt drained, like I was descending back into myself from a great distance. I tried to take some deep breaths, focusing on the rotting derelict of a half-finished structure in the distance. It looked as sandblasted as I felt, and I wiped the tears off my face before Smiley could open the driver‘s door. The truck lurched to the left as he heaved himself into the cockpit, his gut brushing the steering wheel as he attempted to get comfortable. To his credit, he didn’t waste any time attempting to figure me out. I was to learn that all of Papa’s men were like that, totally devoted to their function.

The highway (if it can charitably be called that) leading towards the mountains was in a wretched state of disrepair. On several occasions, we passed around several potholes large enough to have swallowed an 18-wheeler. I kept checking my watch, trying to divine the events unfolding in Houston, will competing against memory, one pushing me forward, the other pulling me backwards. Only in retrospect do I realize how close I was to completely losing my mind. If there was anything that saved me, grounded me, it was the scenery, which began to open up around us as we left the city behind. The macadam and bitumen quickly converted to gravel, and this again transformed into dirt when we pulled off the main thoroughfare for what looked like a goat‘s path. There had been hundreds - if not thousands - of these pathways leading off like capillaries for the past half an hour, and I have no idea how El Smiley knew which one to take. We soon passed an immense herd of several hundred white and brown goats, and Smiley waved and shouted at an old man who was tending to them. He did not respond.

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, the Nobel Prize winning essayist and poet Octavio Paz described his countrymen as remote, reticent, and defensive. While I would eventually come to disagree with this assessment, he seemed spot on in regards to Smiley, who appeared to feel little desire to engage in chitchat. That was fine with me, and I concentrated on the scenery. Before long, the foothills began to turn into real mountains, the pathways getting a bit more perilous. At one point, my chauffeur began to reach under the dashboard, and I tensed up, my right hand quickly moving to my left wrist, where my Oxford’s sleeve covered my blade. He sensed this and froze, his hand going up into the universally understood position of “hold on.” He slowed the truck, and eventually came to a stop. I watched him carefully, and he held up his hand in front of his face, pretending to talk into a radio. I pointed to the dashboard, questioning. He nodded, and I signaled that he could proceed. What he removed was, in fact, a radio, but one unlike anything I had ever seen before. The truck we were riding in was only a few years younger than me, but this thing was brand new, with a digital screen, flat black matte finish, and a very oddly shaped antenna of considerable thickness. He flipped it on, and a reddish display lit up, the words “Access Code” flashing across in a military-looking font. Smiley quickly typed in: -273.150, and I laughed, this time a less insane and perhaps more genuine version of my previous outburst.

“Zero, right?” My mind flailed about for a moment, searching for the right term. “Eh…el cero absoluto, no?”

The beast actually smiled, a curiously disarming thing in all truthfulness, and nodded. He then pointed a question at my left wrist. I thought about it for a second, and quickly flipped out the Halo, its black blade flicking out like silent death.

“Ah la verga!” He shouted, admiringly. “Esta con madre, esa jalecito.” I didn’t entirely understand the words, but I got the gist of his meaning.

After our brief if psychotic bonding experience, Smiley continued on. At several points in the journey, he would type in a certain frequency on the radio, which would respond with a long chain of hexadecimal notation, finally reading “synchronizing” on the screen. After a blue light flashed on, he would say a few words, and wait for the “transmitting” icon to disappear. Within 30 seconds, a response would come. Each time it did, another line of hex code would scroll across the screen, eventually changing to read “new spectrum localized.” After seeing this for the first time, l knew exactly what I was looking at: a frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio. Only the military is supposed to have these things, and I suspected that - on the spreadsheets, at least - only the military still did.

On one such occasion, the response from whoever was out there was lengthier than usual, and Smiley quickly gunned the truck, sending gravel flying out behind. After a few minutes of fate-tempting hairpin turns, we sped past a tiny gate and parked next to a cinder-block ranch house. Smiley nodded to me, and we got out of the truck, moving past the building to a path which eventually led to a sheer cliff face. The valley below us spread out for kilometers, one unending vista of a million shades of brown, interrupted only by clumps of mesquite trees. I couldn’t tell why Smiley was so intent on the view, until he grunted and pointed. 4 or 5 kilometers distant, a dust trail was emerging from a large valley. To create such a pall, I knew many vehicles would be needed, maybe as many as 15 or 20. When I looked inquisitively at my guide, he mimed doing a military march, his rifle slung up to his shoulder. He finished this improv performance with a snappy salute.


“Si, el pinche ejercito.” Something clearly derogatory was added to this comment, because he concluded his speech by grabbing his crotch and spitting in their general direction.

This episode gave me plenty to think about. These people dressed like peasants. They drove ancient, though functional, vehicles. And yet, they had access to mil-spec equipment, and had an entire portion of northeastern Mexico populated with observers to the point of being able to track and evade random military patrols. Strength usually depends on the weakness of other people, but I began to suspect that this maxim did not apply to the Hammer or his people.

After a 20-minute wait, we headed back to the truck and resumed the voyage. It took us about 4 hours to reach another highway, which quickly led us to the city of Cerralvo, Nuevo Leon. We skirted the city, and once again headed up into the mountains. Eventually, Smiley pulled up to a large chain-link fence, and nodded towards a gray structure in the distance.

“You. Home.”

I nodded to him, and got out of the truck. Slinging my pack over the edge of the bed, I took a look around me. Smiley wasted no time in speeding away, leaving me a cloud of dust in place of a farewell. The evening had set in, and my new place of residence was bathed in an enervated sort of light, producing more shadows than definition. The only structure appeared to be some sort of barn, an observation confirmed by the smell of farm animals wafting in on the breeze. I knew even less about animals than I did about the Spanish language, but there really wasn’t anything for it but to press forward. Re-settling my bag over my shoulder, I climbed the fence, and dropped into shadow.

…to be continued…

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Time to Learn

By Jeff C.

I. The Ostrich Approach

"Somewhere behind a partition a clock was wheezing as if under some strong pressure, as though someone were strangling it." --Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

IN THE BEGINNING I...well, after doing all this time, you might think I'd have something resoundingly profound to say about time, but the subject of time comes up in prison less than you might think. Less than I would've thought anyway. No hash marks on the wall, no X-ed out calendars. Time both expands out so far it makes outer space seem infinitely finite, as though its vastness were suffocating you; and time can also shrink down to the next paycheck, the next commissary day, the next palliative television show, or just the next escapist nap. Usually.

Even though I'm bombarded by the ever-present "having" to get through the days here (surely the overwhelming dogma) I belong to a sub-community that strives for a different take on this life.

Granted, I flail and fail in my attempts to ever stave off all such rancid tasting waste. I succumb to all the typical frittering fancies that provide that endorphin rush a square like me can handle. Everything from your rapt goober-stare at comforting re-runs whose punch lines I already know before the set-up, to your other numbing over-indulgences too numerous to list. But I genuinely feel bad for wasting a day in prison by not always preparing for my days out of prison. So that guilt ought to count for something.

Here's an example: I've little in common with Henry, one of the guys I eat meals with in the chow-hall. Certainly on the surface it might seem like we're alike in that we're both clean cut (me a little more clean, him a little more cut), tall white guys in decent physical shape in our thirties (me a little more on towards 40, he more near 30), we've both made some ridiculously poor choices to earn our bunks here (but thankfully we didn't physically hurt anyone), and we're both not complete idiots. Usually.

But time divides us.

About a month ago when the "lifer" that usually sits with us wasn't there I finally asked Henry how many days he had left.

"Under a hundred," he said and then, after a bite added, "or a couple of years."

Washington state felons convicted after 1984 are no longer under the parole system and as a result we know coming in our time range exactly: the Earliest Possible Release Date (EPRD), based on "earning" any "Good Time" and (if we so choose to embrace full knucklehead-dom) we know what our max date could be. For me that three years and three months of Good Time the DOC could thrust upon me for idiocy at any time has helped keep my overlarge nose overly clean. Shiny, squeaky clean.

But Henry's answer didn't make sense because unless he had a serious infraction impending he'd know one way or the other if he'd lost any Good Time--and they usually only break off six month chunks; and besides, if all that was hanging over him he'd likely be in Segregation.

When I asked Henry what he meant he explained that he had a "retainer" on him in California that was still pending. Meaning that after he's done his twelve years here, he might or might not get picked up and taken down to a "real" prison.

Certainly to the uninitiated, Washington state's little green and growing starter-kit prison industrial complex might seem like a "real" prison (what with all the concertina wire draped about, the 30 foot imposing walls between erect AR-15-toting guard towers, and the whole warehousing of society's undesirables), but compared to the massive overcrowding, real gang violence, and daily fear-for-your-life existence of a California, a Texas, or a down South "real" prison, our little prison seems like...well, last year on the local (I suppose we'll call it) "news," this place was called "PrisneyLand." "Happiest place on earth," indeed. At least compared to one of those California prisons one could gawk at, if one so chose, on the weekends during MSNBC's never-ending series "Lock Up," et al. Even at our state's two "hardcore" "Closed Custody" prisons there are fights, but generally quickly stopped fistfights, rarely stabbings. Rarer still, rapes. Much less murders. Thankfully guys like Henry and I don't need--or want--to join any sort of supposedly protective, clearly manipulative gang; we can just be. In those "real" prisons where men fight, shank, rape, and murder on an, apparently, regular basis such "opting out" of that cycle isn't allowed. Usually.

But what mostly makes Henry and me so different isn't his lack of knowing when his ultimate release date will be or from where, but in how we, separately, face that looming date.

I asked Henry if he had been taking any of the few pre-release programs that are offered (mostly by outside volunteers; not DOC organized and paid-for). He dismissed the topic with a "joke" because his subterranean fear of "what's next" was too sensitive of a subject. I know this because I do this. But what I also do to break free from that wheezing pressure of my own future is something more than burying my head in the sand.

II. Assailing Entropy

"It is a greater advantage to be honestly educated than honorably born."--Desiderius Erasmus.

I'm not sure if it's "in spite of" or as a way to "earn" all those entertaining over-indulgences I can submerge into and sometimes claw my way back out of, but I am able to look at myself in my scratched and literally triple-knuckle-dented stainless steel mirror (not from my fist, mind you), and I'm able to feel like my days aren't totally wasted because of how I assail time. That's about the right image: attacking time by creating, building, and caressing that lovely mistress called learning.

I wish that I was one of those freaks that disdained all "popular" entertainment and devoured whole shelves of the library's non-fiction section. I wish that the siren song of high-gloss, high-production value, and highly addicting entertaining distractions didn't, well, distract me from--among other things--completing my bachelor's degree. And I wish that the one program that keeps our collegiate coterie interested in bettering ourselves wasn't going through some torturous growing pains.

I haven't left this small hilltop prison in Monroe, Washington, or so much as been in a vehicle since I arrived here from the "hardcore" State Penitentiary in Walla Walla back in the fall of 1999, but I have been able to see this prison change in hundreds of confusing and insane ways. But by far the best thing about it all has been the opportunity to watch and be a small part of what has become a welcoming community of convicts and volunteers who, as that weathered but worthwhile phrase goes, help us help ourselves.

The various acronymed Anonymous folks are great, the local "Lifers" group is always amazingly ambitious, and we're all but drowned in volunteers who only want to "save our souls," but for those of us who don't partake of those particular flavors of Kool-Aid, we're lucky/blessed enough to be able to exercise that usually atrophied grey muscle behind our thick skulls and actually earn a college education.

Actually, we earn something more than just that.

My memory's a little fuzzy at the edges on when and how I first heard about academic--not vocational--college classes being offered free here at the Reformatory. But I remember crisply the absolute joy those first few classes offered. A pleasure and excitement to get to class that I'd never experienced before.

Certainly these were not my first college classes. I'd had a few night classes in the military, I'd shuffled through nearly a year of mornings-before-work classes at a community college, and I'd been using my Montgomery G.I. Bill money to putter through some correspondence courses. But these classes were different.

These classes were "outside" and "inside" people coming together in what has always felt to me like a group involvement, not some top-down, sit-down-and-shuddup classroom.

Likely that's because one of our group's two founders is an amazingly generous person. The first class Carol Estes taught that I joined was a Small Business Management course that she was entirely unqualified to teach. She knew nothing of the subject and it showed. Repeatedly. What's also shown over the ten years that I've been privileged to know her is that she's an expert in almost every other subject.

As an English major with writing and editing credentials she's deftly taught English Composition and has carefully exhausted entire red pens on my rough first drafts in Advanced Creative Writing. Repeatedly. She's brought in her own keyboards to teach a music course (the only course that I've ever "dropped") and as a trained concert pianist she has dumfounded us with her artistry. She's far more fluent in German than I--and I lived there for nearly four years (though we've yet to offer that class). And she's a prison reform lobbyist who genuinely cares about us, which is proven every time she takes the long and not inexpensive ferry ride to and from her home across the Puget Sound to get here. I could praise the estimable Carol like I only could my own mother--to give a hint of the unending generosity of them both. But during that first business class we floundered along well enough with our co-founder, helping each other out (a pattern that's never stopped expanding), and taking what we could from our resident "expert" who regaled us with stories of the small business incubator he ran--even through our jokes about his Ben Stein delivery.

What sealed my love for this community, however, was the Humanities: Great Books class taught by Carol Estes who, in this class, was at home. I'll be kind and not torture anyone with a summary of my multi-faceted and multi-twisted points, but defending my theory that Franz Kafka's character in The Metamorphosis had not, in fact, actually become a man-sized bug, earned me--over the course of that hour--an amiable debate partner and close friend. Atif (a well-read, slight Canadian import of Pakistani extraction, with an increasing portfolio of inspiring writing) of course proclaimed I'm ridiculous for thinking that. Repeatedly. And for about twelve dozen other quixotic theories over the years in everything from Shakespeare to philosophy and auteur film theory to the supposed genius of his beloved Nietzsche and his infallible Kubrick. In short, Atif is a green tea sipping snob (I use the word affectionately) who is "cultured"--I'm just not sure if it's through classical music, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books (NYRB), or if he's cultured á la a Petri dish. (If you suspect me of hyperbole, consider this: I once asked him to go walk in the Big Yard with me and he responded, without missing a beat, "Walk? What am I--a peasant?") But to be fair, anybody who intro'd me to David Foster Wallace, Nabakov, and most especially the Oxford English Dictionary will always warm the cockles of my heart.

But that's exactly what makes this collegiate atmosphere so enriching. We get to gather and rub our ideas together about subjects that are a better form of escape than even the most engaging story arcs of modern televised classics like the labyrinthine "Lost," the shiny "Firefly," or the pun-tastic "Arrested Development," to honor some fallen (i.e. cancelled) soldiers. (Focus, Jeffrey, focus.)

As it's said all too often around here though, "don't get it twisted"; this is no pristine Elysian utopian oasis hidden in the grooves between whatever circles of hell where prison likely dwells. Absolutely, we don't discriminate with standards, nor with what a guy's crime may be. Nor whether he's got a release date. Many prison college programs across the country--of which there's few--don't allow lifers to participate, or only if there's space available; here they make up the core of our TAs and internal "Advisory Committee."

It's not all pinky-raised tea parties and fuzzy rainbow inclusions though. There's a convict cliquishness that isn't totally crushed and it occasionally lurks in some of our classrooms. But where on "mainline," many of us emphatically don't interact or only give that respectful nod of recognition in passing, in class everyone gets to proffer their not-always coherent theories (even when others roll their eyes inwardly at, say, the belief in Gregor Samsa's metaphoric--not literal--bugdom).

III. "What the frick, Frick?"

"Criticism isn't the tough part; it's how you react to it."--Ernest Hemingway

It's not as if the only friction that's frothed up comes from members of differing literary theories or--forgive the term--"classes" of convicts. (Don't get me started on that particular issue.) Just as the offering has grown from a sporadic class when possible, to a smattering of classes at the same time, to now a (possibly) too-full spectrum of courses, the guys have grown as well.

During our teething stage we collectively were transitioning away from that old comfort of The Convict Code where "disrespect" rules all and any loss of "face" thoughtlessly demands the smashing of someone's. My memory's a bit befuzzled on the exact when of this particular incident (let's call it that vague "a while ago"), but I certainly remember the how--though I disdain to name the who, as we've grown so much since that time.

Our classes are in the same building as our library, law library, and various bureaucratic offices in fluorescent-lit, security-camera-eyed, and down-the-hall correctional-guarded rooms with butt-numbing chairs and old school green chalkboards. A typical class is anywhere between 25 students to an attritioned-down and more manageable half- or full-dozen students sitting behind tables that are usually circled up or pushed together. (Certainly the Spanish, Human Geography, and Math classes all tend to face frontwards towards our new gleaming whiteboards; yes, we've only recently joined the 90s in school supplies.)

I believe it was an Advanced Creative Writing class where this tense-inducing "incident" occurred. It was with our sponsor, Carol--who, I must say, handled it all with aplomb. It was a somewhat typical prison pecking order bit o' barking in response to what he believed was a criticism of him, not his writing, and Big Frick got all loud and aggro against the smaller Frack (not that Frack couldn't, as the term goes, "handle himself"). But what disturbed me on a visceral level more than the whole social awkwardness that all public displays of aggression make me, a child of divorce (who often quotes Rodney King--sans irony), cringe-up from my coccyx to my neck and shoulders and through to my jaw was that this, I'll admit, relatively minor incident occurred in front of our venerated sponsor and in our sacred zone of what feels like "not-prison." As if you tried to bully-pick a fight with someone in front of your beloved grandmother, at church.

After it escalated and Frick stood up, as if he was going to do something, I said, "Congratulations, you've established your alpha maleness. Now can we get back to the discussion?"

Obviously this didn't immediately end it, but with all the other various comments from the room, it was enough to get Frick to simmer down and realize that he was in the wrong.

Now, I don't relate this to show how my "brilliant negotiating skills" swooped in to save the day (mainly because usually my mouth gets me in far more trouble than it's ever gotten me out of) but that's because I don't believe it really would've come to anything more than the growling. Granted, if when Frick had stood up across the table, Frack would've stood up to his chin, then it's possible that it could've accelerated beyond any stopping it. Thankfully it not only didn't, but we've never had any violence happen in our little university of ours that truly transports us beyond these bars of prison.

No, I only digress to this point to show these two men now some 6-8-10 blurry odd years later: both active "Advisory Board" members who offer up competing and complementary ideas and who have remained "infraction-free" for all of this time because--I believe--this University Beyond Bars (UBB) has given them, and all of us, something to cling to besides Big Yard machismo and a Convict Code that takes from our futures but never gives back to it--the exact opposite of what the University Beyond Bars does.

IV. A Few Good Teachers

"'10 percent of the people inside these walls still have minds, but there is nothing for these minds to play with. So this place is twice as painful for them as it is for the rest. A good teacher just might be able to give their minds new toys, Math or Astronomy or History, or who knows what, which would make the passage of time just a little more bearable.'"--Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Hocus Pocus

Perhaps an examination of a typical week will elucidate how much the University Beyond Bars lights up on this otherwise drab, dark place.

On Thursday I had two hours of always awesomeness with Roger Sale, professor emeritus of the University of Washington. Every class I'm amazed at the recall, wit, and insight of this published author (of books and manifold other publications, like the aforementioned NYRB) who casually says things like, "I've not thought about/read that" (poet, author, play) "in 25 years..." and then he'll close his eyes and in a matter of moments out of his near-octogenarian mouth and through his wavy white full beard he'll pour forth a dozen lines, with nary a pause. He's also been known to break out into song. His lines from "Kiss Me, Kate" during our reading of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing was mesmerizing; who knew that show-tunes could enthrall a class of supposedly hardened convicts.

Normally we'd get three hours of Roger's witticisms. My little buddy Atif and I are hoping to collect his best bon mots to bind and gift to him on his 80th this summer (here's two of my recent favorites: "Hemingway, who did not, by the way, have a great IQ" and of Stephen Crane: "There's a word-maker who says, 'Watch me, see what I can do.'"). But this week we had to share Roger as he volunteered to give a brief little intro to Shakespeare in preparation for an upcoming outside theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. And he was, as ever, charming to not only an additional twenty guys--nearly all of whom he's never met--but also to another volunteer (who's young enough to be his granddaughter) when he said he'd do the palm to palm miming as Romeo to her Juliet when the star-cross'd lovers first meet, "but not the lips to lips bit, as we're both happily married."

On Saturday I had intended to go to our twice-weekly Study Lab. A large room that breaks up into groups not by "class," but by course, where it's common to see tables of guys going at their far, far, far beyond-me math (I'm an English dude who doesn't even recognize some of them thar newfangled symbol-like thangs they use in their Cal-cu-lus; as I crested in Algebra and Logic). Another table will often have men dissecting their most recent English Composition essays (something I actually can help with since it uses symbols I've learned how to at least pronounce) or some Spanish II or even a tiny island of Japanese as well (unfortunately the Japanese hasn't been offered for any credit--yet).

All the other classes (the Supreme Court seminar, Sociology of Media in the Digital Age, Sociology of Deviance, Intro to Ethics, History of Western Civilization I, African American History, Biology, and Astronomy) are represented as well, and it's a sight that often astounds volunteer, convict, and guard alike. Not because, of course, we're not capable, but because we're such a dichotomous contrast to how the rest of this prison "does their time"; for the few of them not in the UBB that are into (let's call it) self-betterment, the form that that usually takes is exclusively and repeatedly pushing, pulling, and tugging around not unheavy weights. So to see decidedly former gang members and immigrants and the ostensibly "cool" fellas, among others, all working together is disarming at first. But we all get used to it and forget how unusual it is until, say, a new volunteer comes in to (as I like to joke) "babysit" us during our Study Lab and comments on it.

But this particular Saturday I skipped out on the Study Lab to be able to join a rare weekend inside Advisory Board meeting where we on the "inside," um, "advise" the UBB on what we, collectively, need or any issues and we all come up with ideas how to do better and, of course, offer any fundraiser ideas (suggestions always welcome--just saying).

During this weekend's Advisory Board meeting we got to meet a volunteer at "Purdy"--the only large and long-term prison for females in the state. He explained to us how "The Village" sprang up there at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in the town of Purdy. The Village's education branch is similar, it sounds like, to our inside Advisory Board for the University Beyond Bars. But where we've had the benefit of over a decade of letting the outside UBB volunteers know of the bureaucratic, ah, maneuvers one must thread carefully in order to accomplish anything in a timely manner (and always in an almost obeisant manner to the obesely middle-managed DOC), The Village is starting from scratch after the UBB was able to only offer one for-credit course there at Purdy before financial obligations constricted us. But the women sound like us: fanatically desirous to learn--and willing to work for it. Though they've no funds--yet--for any for-credit classes, they're learning the material and assembling portfolios that they hope to someday be able to turn in to some accredited university to earn some credit.

Money has always been an issue with the UBB, now more than ever. But what the UBB has always done to save on the ever-increasing cost of tuition for our ever-increasing number of students is take Course Credit by Examination (CCE) tests for half the price of a typical $720 correspondence course through Ohio University's College Program for the Incarcerated--the only (known to us) program that accommodates a lack of internet access for its distance learning. But the trouble with CCE tests is that they're all about the final. Oh, certainly, each student has to show up to class, do the assigned homework, and then take a "pre-test" that's made up by the UBB to qualify for that final Ohio University CCE test where whatever you get on the final is whatever you get for the course. And for many of our students who earned their GEDs after coming to prison, that's a recipe ripe for performance anxiety.

But because nobody in the UBB has ever wanted to waste any of the limited UBB money (not to mention the fact that, ahem, some of us are always in competition to get the A when our snobby friends "only" get an A-), we combat that inherent test stress as much as we can. Our Study Lab times help, as do our TAs that live for this stuff. And for some of us who enjoy playing Alex Trebek (okay, just me), it's worth the effort to make up an entire "Jeopardy" game and have a study session that incorporates all the course's info into two rounds, plus Final Jeopardy; and yes, if you don't put it in the form of a question you lose your turn--even if you've already blurted out the right answer. Actions have consequences. (This much we've all--or at least ought to've--learned.)

But our strongest asset in preparing our student body for these not exactly inexpensive tests is our faculty of volunteer teachers. They drive up to this not exactly centrally located prison from all across the Pacific Northwest. None are paid and all continue to do a rather difficult thing: prepare students for a test that they, the teachers, have never seen. But since our teachers are mostly professors, teachers, and grad students from various colleges and universities they're adept enough to adapt to this rather odd situation. Plus, of course, a certain level of camaraderie develops since it's us, the students and our teachers, facing-off against some faceless Ohio test-designer's best. We're winning--not only great grades, but against our former, wasteful selves.

Not all of what the UBB does, however, is strictly about for-credit AA degrees and bachelor degrees. We also offer many not-for-credit purely edifying opportunities. We have on select Saturday evenings our "Salon Series" (the name derives from the gathering of artists' work at the Salon d'Apollon of the Louvre Palace in Paris from long before we were even a country) where guest speakers come in and share their expertise. We've had a cellist perform, a history of unions lesson, a class on relativity; and many other guests who give seminars on fascinating subjects. Usually.

Ever other Friday afternoon a University of Washington professor (the always entertaining and dedicated Gillian Harkins) and a still somewhat overly reverential grad student gather a gaggle of us guys to gab about books like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and my boy Kafka's The Trial, to name a few. And we "close read" them and discuss them for a not-for-credit Literature and Society class that I, as a perspiring writer, gladly forfeit a half day's pay to soak in all that juicy good stuff (to put a vivid visual to it).

This Sunday I spent the afternoon in our Documentary/Film not-for-credit class facilitated by a new volunteer with a contagiously positive outlook on everything. This week's film, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, wasn't nearly as riveting as the documentaries we've had like Taxi to the Dark Side and Inside Job ("a disturbing, in-depth look at the highly questionable interrogation practices used by US military guards on prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay in the years following 9/11"--truly real "real" prisons; and "the definitive film about the economic crisis of 2008 and the role of Wall Street in modern society," to quote their back flaps). The documentaries provide livelier group discussions afterwards--but I'm a political wonk, so please excuse my lack of "culture" in this.

There's one other essential not-for-credit service that the UBB continually provides that needs credit: transitioning students from state-funded and mandated GED classes and testing (done separately through a local community college contracted and paid for by the state) to our no-tax dollars UBB college classes (Pell Grants were killed off long ago). Though it's essential that guys are getting their GEDs (a prerequisite before joining the UBB), we offer both Math and English Prep classes to get new students (that can't "test out") up to the level of taking our demanding college classes and writing essays--things that many here have never done--plus that whole “math” thing. As with many of our classes, it's a constant tag-team of teachers and convict TAs that bring these guys up to speed--never leaving anyone who tries behind.

I don't know if all of this is a utopian model or not, but it is an idyllic island of interest- and intellect-building in an otherwise insanely ignorant institution.

V. "More money, more problems, please"

"(R)esearch indicates that college-level programs have the greatest impact of any correctional programs on reducing recidivism and they pay for themselves over time. (Stephen) Duguid deduced that 'the key factor in employment may not be skills or training, but the ability of the individual to sustain a stable employment record, and that is more concerned with self-esteem, communication skills, the development of good work habits, and cognitive abilities associated with a liberal education than a result of vocational training.'"--Osa D. Coffey "A View from Corrections" in Higher Education in Prisons: A Contradiction in Terms?, Miriam Williford, ed.

Due to manifold "inside baseball" reasons but mostly because of our current not exactly thriving economy and as a result of a private grant that didn't last like we had hoped and expected, the University Beyond Bars expanded too quick, too fast. As a result, I inadvertently lied to many of our new students when they asked me about the obligatory "warning" we give each new semester that "Funds may not exist to be able to pay for any for-credit tests." I told them the truth: that the UBB has always said that but they'd never not come up with the money, even if it was a bit delayed (we once did some film classes and completed our portfolios--an option not usually available--but didn't get credit for our work for over a year; once we'd fundraised the money). I told these fresh faces to not worry about it, adding, "Just study and be ready to take the test--ignore all the rumors."

What I wasn't ready for was the fact that this time the rumors turned out to be true. With visibly broken hearts from our volunteers we were told that there was no money to pay for the current semester's tests but if anybody had funds or family/friends to pay the $310 per class, they could do so. But otherwise, for now, the UBB is operating only with enough funds to pay for the not inexpensive books for our next semester.

Obviously this news has come to us as a disappointment and for the guys who were just starting their postsecondary educational careers, I worry that this will be an all-too devastating defeat. Unfortunately some have dropped their classes, even though the semester is almost over; but most of us are sticking to it--even if the not-knowing what comes next aspect of this bleak future makes those ostrich-head sized holes look rather inviting.

We in the UBB are brainstorming on even more fundraising ideas and our outside volunteers are doing the piles of paperwork for potential grants. (Anybody out there got an "in" with one of Warren Buffet's wife's "Sunshine Ladies?" They're funding Walla Walla's prison education program. Just asking.)

And we've scaled back, considerably, on what we are offering for the immediate future such as the number and types of classes (we'll be reusing books for sure, where possible). Though it's fantastic that the ladies at Purdy are forging ahead with the Freedom Education Project of the Puget Sound, I hate that we can't expand there (and to the other prisons in Washington) as we'd hoped--at least for now. But at least we're going to work in concert with FEPPS, sharing books, newsletter/website space, and Salon Series speakers, where possible. We know all too well how difficult it is to get a program like this instituted in an institution that, by default, is reluctant towards change--this type of change anyway. We just hope our learning experiences--including the one we're currently in--will help them as they grow.

The UBB has too many dedicated people--both "inside" and "outside"--to be anything close to dead. Two more new future teachers showed up this week to Study Lab to introduce themselves and none of our current volunteer faculty are going anywhere. But we're well aware that we need to grow considerably stronger before we try to expand again. The current question we're asking ourselves is "How can we make ourselves attractive to funders?"

On a personal level though, I don't want to hide from these all-too-common fiscal realities that so often we're sheltered from in here. But the question of what to do on an individual level provides a different type of anxiety.

After this news broke I asked a close friend, whom I deeply respect, how his studying was going and he told me that he was losing motivation. Without being able to take the tests for two or three or sometimes four classes it is difficult to study with the same level of commitment. He, like me, is still going to his classes (I'm only in one for-credit course right now: American Literature, 1865-1918 because as a senior with only about seven courses to go for my bachelor's, I can't use any under 300 level courses--which is all we're offering except the American Lit one). But that acquisitional oomph has been drained some. Knowing about his family situation I asked him if he could ask them for the money--which for his three or four classes would be between $930 to $1240--not exactly the same as asking for a pair of $40 kicks, of which he's not the kind of guy who would ask anyway.

He softly said, "I've put them through enough."

He didn't have to say anything more, I knew exactly what he meant: I've burdened them enough on a constant basis by my choosing prison. I've disappointed them too many times. I've asked too much of them. I don't want to hurt them anymore. I'll suffer this alone.

Perhaps there's an element of pride in this, because I know his family and I know that they'd want to help; but I also respect his choice to find another, slower (and possibly not successful) way. There's no doubt that I want to write them for him--knowing that they'd be happy to sacrifice some for him--but it's not my place.

As for me and my family, I feel all the same things but I have an option he doesn't. The ten-year time limit on my G.I. Bill ran out long ago, but I at least saved some of the money I made, as one of the lucky few, when we had minimum wage paying jobs years ago. I had intended to save that as my re-start-up fund when I get out (so that I wouldn't have to lean on my family so much for all those same reasons stated above). But I know that my chances are slight to slim to earn a living wage straight out of prison, even less so without that one line on a résumé that proves to an employer that I'm capable of sticking to something that isn't easy but requires sacrifice. So I'll use that nest egg now and hope that the future will take care of itself.

But the vast majority of UBB students don't have such options, difficult or no. Some don't have families; most don't have any that can spare hundreds of dollars. And virtually all jobs in the prison (of which there's not enough of) top out at a salary of $55 a month, less deductions.

Since hearing this news about the UBB I also heard that my table-mate, Henry, found out that despite its insane debt and prison overcrowding and Henry already doing 12 years in this state, California wants its pound of flesh from him too. I reminded him that no matter how hard it gets down there to keep his nose clean because we hear they've got "Half Time" down there (while up here violent felons like Henry and I only get 15% off for good behavior--or the now new standard of 10%). So he'll only have to endure that real, all too real, prison system for likely a year or two--assuming that he can avoid trouble down there; never a guarantee no matter how square one tries to be. Though I wish I could, I can't do anything for Henry.

But in this drab, dark regimented routine "Reformatory" that gnaws days and years off of us I can (and will) continue to help support with my time and art-donations the University Beyond Bars in order to create a positive community that does that rarely done but often proclaimed thing of reform.

If you'd like to learn more about the UBB, visit, a 501(c) non-profit organization.

Comments, critique, conversation, and cease-and-desists cordially welcome at:

Jeff C.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"Hey, Mike," Golden, an Education Clerk, called. Walking across the soccer field, he added, "Got a minute?"

Taking a break from picking up trash, I pulled off my gloves and took a seat on a wooden bench. "What's up?"

"Some floater cop came out of the Program Office and saw copies of porno in a student's hands. After he ordered the class down, he radioed Officer Cope. Man! Cope's really mad. Pulled Rey and me into his office, said one of us had to cop to making the copies or we're both fired. Rey's taking the bullet. Mrs. Kitt wants you to take Rey's spot."

"Got a job."

"You're joking. Picking up trash on the yard crew is not a job. Don't even got a pay number."

I had just graduated from the prison college program with an Associate's degree and completed the Office Services and Related Technology training, so walking around on the yard in the sunshine picking up trash was kind of cool. I wasn't in any hurry to return to Education.

"I like Mrs. Kitt," I said lazily. "If she needs someone to fill in for awhile, I'll do it. But you need to recruit someone else, I only want to do it for a month or so."

"Good deal."

Pulling my gloves back on, I picked up the plastic bag and walked more meandering circles picking up wrappers. Eventually, the yard opened, prisoners came flooding out of housing units, and I dropped the plastic bag into a trashcan and hung out with my hoodlum friends.

"Mike, Mike," Rey got at me and told me the same story, except his version had Golden taking the bullet.

Keeping the conflict to myself, I agreed to fill in very temporarily.

In the morning, I was on the early education release list and went off to breakfast before reporting to school.

"What's up, Cope?"

"You're taking Anderson's place," Officer Cope clued me.
"Thought I was working for Mrs. Kitt?"

"Caught Anderson copying tattoo patterns, so he's falling for the porno too. You're working for Mr. Less."

Stopping by the janitorial closet, I stuck my head inside. "What's up, Evil?"

I first met Evil when I was assigned to the G.E.D. class as a student. Now graduated, he stayed on working for Officer Cope, keeping the place clean When he wasn't cleaning, he had a desk in the janitorial closet where he worked on drawings.

"Heard you were back. Big mistake working for Mr. Less."


"Man's got problems. Need anything?"

"No. You?"

"Could use a couple of pencils."

"Got you."

In the classroom, I met Mr. Less. Late thirties, early forties, pudgy, red face, and although his breath smelled of mints, it didn't disguise the sour smell of alcohol boiling out of the pores of his skin. A hardcore drinker.

Introducing myself, I fell into the chair next to Timm, my fellow education clerk. A tall but slight prisoner, he moved in a quick, nervous way.

"Johnson," Timm called to a teenaged prisoner with fresh prison tattoos on his neck and arms, "where's your I.D.?"

"I'm holding onto it. Trying to get into the canteen at break."

"I'll try to get it to you at break." Timm held out his hand for the I.D.

"Are you deaf? Not giving it to you." Johnson turned and walked away.

"Hate this," Timm whispered to me. "Cope will flip if all the identification cards aren't turned in."

"Count is safety and security of the institution," I replied. "Prisoners aren't s'pose to collect I.D.'s."

"Mr. Less won't do it."

Shaking my head, I started going through student files and found a haphazard mess. Files for students no longer on the class roster, no files for students on the roster. No file was complete. Sighing, I started typing termination chronos for the students no longer in the class and created files for the students who didn't have one. As I typed, I glanced around the classroom. No assignments had been handed out. One student, apparently on his own, was studying from the G.E.D. math book. The rest of the students were socializing, the noise was a living, breathing entity, prowling 'round the room. Not exactly an academic atmosphere. Mr. Less opened a diet soda, but did not lift the drink to his lips. Bending, he brought his lips to the drink. The alcoholics trick to thwart trembling hands.

"Keep it down," Officer Cope ordered from the classroom door. Noise died away. "Where's the count?" 

"Johnson's I.D. isn't there," Timm flat out told.

"Johnson," Cope barked and held out his hand and received an I.D. from Johnson.

"Fuckin' rat!" Johnson growled at Timm after Cope was gone.

"Cope would've seen your I.D. wasn't there and come back for it," Timm defended himself.

Mr. Less kept drinking diet soda with a single-minded focus and ignored everything going on around him.

"We're not the I.D. police," I said dismissively to Timm. "Just write I.D.'s on a box, put it on the side of your desk and have the students drop them off. Any I.D.'s not in the box aren't your problem."

Timm looked stubborn, but didn't say anything although he did place a box marked I.D. on his desk.

"Mr. Less," I approached him awhile later and he was on a third or fourth diet soda, "I've updated the student files and need you to sign the termination chronos."

"Don't sign 'em."


"Don't sign anything."

"Really? I shouldn't send the files to the Education Office without your signature."

"Bastards are always out to get you," he said harshly with a distant look on his face. "Can't get you for what you don't sign." Didn't seem angry, just full of poison eating away his mind.

Shrugging, I packed up the dead files without his signature and addressed the routing slip to the Education Office. Slipping a few pencils in my pocket, I dropped them with Evil and delivered the files to Officer Cope's office for the interdepartmental mailbox.

"How's it going in there?" Office Cope asked.

"Zoo. I'm not down for this job."

"Well, you're mine for now. Don't do too much."

As I went back to class, I wondered, what in the hell does, "Don't do too much" mean?"

"Where are the class assignment sheets?" I asked Timm.

"We don't have any."

"No lessons? This is a classroom. How do you generate quarterly progress reports? Hell, how do you teach anything?"

Helplessly, Timm raised his hands palms up.

You need to worry a little less about Count, I thought, and a bit more about educating someone. A student came up and asked me for paper, and I gave him a half dozen sheets.

"Mr. Hunter," Mr. Less stopped drinking soda and called me over.

"Yes, sir."

"Do not hand out supplies without authorization."

"Just some paper for a student."

"Don't do it again."

As I went back to my desk, I noticed the paper I had handed out was morphing into airplanes and soon they were soaring around the room.

"Screwed me," I got at Golden and Rey during break. "Said I would help Mrs. Kitt and now I'm stuck with a drunk. I think Anderson got caught on purpose and rode your beef just to get out of there."

Golden and Rey grinned and did not deny.

Hitting the yard, I asked the yard crew officer for my job back, but she said not unless Officer Cope released me.

Alarm. The yard went down. I looked around and Timm was getting bombed on by one of our students. Hitting the ground, Timm curled up in fetal position, pummeled until guards came, chemically sprayed, stopping the beating.

Alarm cleared, I went back to class. Only a handful of students were there, the rest were hiding out on the yard. Less didn't seem to notice or care.

The sole student who had been studying approached Mr. Less with his math book. Jerking his chair back, Mr. Less said, "Mr. Hunter, tell the students not to come to my desk unless ordered."

Waving the student over. "Mike," I introduced myself, "What's up?"

"Terry," he replied and we shook hands. "Having trouble memorizing the geometry formulas. Is there a trick to it?"

"Don't have to memorize them. When you test, they give you a formula sheet."

"Mr. Less said I had to memorize them."

I had Terry pull up a chair to my desk, and we worked through the G.E.D. math book. Not the best or worst student, but Terry worked hard.

Officer Cope told me Timm had locked up over safety concerns. I was on my own with Mr. Less. I did the Count and turned in whatever I.D.'s were in the box. If someone held their I.D., that was Cope's problem.

A series of prospective clerks came and went. The ones who were qualified took one look at Mr. Less and didn't want it; the ones who wanted the job weren't qualified. 

Rene came to visit me and I told her I was about to quit. If they wrote me up for refusing an assignment, so be it.

"Didn't you say a student was working hard, preparing for the G.E.D. exam?"

"Just one."

"People aren't apples or oranges, you don't quantify them with numbers. One student is as valuable as a whole class. If you have a student who wants to learn, you have to teach him. If not you, Michael, who?"

I went back to work. Evil came to the classroom and let me know the class's supplies were in Officer Cope's office. In the hallway, Evil told me, "Two of the reams in your box aren't on your inventory. They're cardstock for my drawings."

Checking the inventory form, Evil was right, two of the reams weren't listed. Evil showed me three red dots on the labels his homeboy in supply had placed to identify his reams.

"Where did he get the cardstock?"

"Graphic arts print shop," Evil said easily. "Rewraps them as typing paper and puts them in your box."

Handing over the reams to Evil, I brought the rest of the supplies to our classroom and had difficulty placing them in our supply cabinet because it was filled to overflowing with paper, pencils, markers, highlighters, folders, envelopes, typewriter ribbons, erasers, glue sticks and much, much more. Mr. Less never issued anything.

"Where are the other two reams?" Mr. Less paused from guzzling diet soda.

"This matches our inventory."

"Thought there were two more reams in our box."

"Thought I was going to work for Mrs. Kitt," I said somewhat offensively, "guess that's why they're called thoughts not facts."

Over the next few weeks a series of event kept cancelling class. Mr. Less' alarm broke, the classroom power blew, the bolts on the door latch sheared off, we missed day after day.

Studying carefully the sheared bolts, Officer Cope told Mr. Less, "Just prop the door open and have class."

"This's a safety and security issue," Mr. Less argued.

"Yes, you're right, and I'm in charge of safety and security. You're having class."

"Those bolts must have been deliberately sheared off," I observed.

"But I don't see how a student could have done it."

"It was on purpose, but not by a student," Officer Cope said levelly.

Mr. Less turned even redder than usual, closed his eyes and slumped in his chair.

"Oh," I said.
Quarterly progress tests were dropped off by Mrs. Wells, the testing coordinator, and Mr. Less locked them in his desk.

"Think we should hand the tests out now," I told Mr. Less, thinking how most of the class didn't return from break.

"You have our roles confused, Mr. Hunter. I'm in charge here."

A few days later, Mrs. Wells came back for the tests and they weren't done. After Mrs. Wells and Mr. Less argued for a few minutes, Mrs. Wells turned to me. "Didn't you do the testing for Miss Mills?"


"Can you have them by Friday?"

"If I'm given access to them."

Under her intense stare, Mr. Less unlocked his desk and gave me the tests. Using the student files, I started filling out the student test registration forms.

"Mr. Hunter," Mr. Less said 'tween sucking sips of soda, "the students need to fill out the forms."

"You want the forms filled out by the students or correctly?"

"Filled out correctly by the students."

Rising out of my chair, I stood over Mr. Less and he visibly shrank back. "I'd like you to fill out my time card correctly," I said sharply.

"Even with the days off due to the mysterious sabotage, I worked 97 hours and you paid me for 73 hours."

"Can't prove that."

"Sure, I can. I do the Count sheets and have the records right here. You stole exactly four dollars and thirty two cents from me."

"Maybe, I need another clerk."

Putting aside the test forms, I typed an unassignment chrono for myself, gave it to Mr. Less for his signature, and then went back to work.

At the end of the day, Mr. Less gave me back the chrono, and said, "I can’t sign it without cause. You could appeal unassignment and win."
Placing it on his desk, I replied, "Guarantee you I won't appeal. Unassignment would be a blessing. Anytime you want me gone, just sign it and send it in."

Less never did sign the chrono nor did he stop shorting hours on my time card.

Predictably, the only one to take the testing seriously was Terry. Although the test only had 38 questions, the scantron had 50 answer blanks and most students randomly filled in all fifty. Packing up the test materials, I sent them to Mrs. Wells.

Johnson was caught smuggling supplies out of Education. Handing the confiscated bag of supplies to me, Officer Cope said, "Looked like he'd gained weight around the middle so I searched him."

The bag had Elmer's glue, packing tape, and a few other items I knew hadn't come from our supply cabinet, but I put them away anyway.

"Give me back my stuff!" Johnson pressed up on me the next day at my desk.

"Back up!" I snapped.

"Deal with this in the bathroom," he challenged me.

Sliding a sharp brand new pencil in my back pocket, I reluctantly followed him.

Knuckling up, Johnson advanced on me in the bathroom threatening, "Give me my stuff. Not telling you again."

"You all right, Mike?" Evil came out of the janitorial closet.

"Don't concern you," Johnson barked.

"This's my house," Evil said evenly, almost disinterestedly.

Looking back and forth at each of us, Johnson finally pleaded, "Look, I got debts. Need the stuff back."

"You need something, ask," I said, "don't start demanding."

“Just like Timm,” Johnson replied angrily and started stomping out. "Covering for Less."

"Strapped?" Evil inquired.

Feeling really foolish, I showed him the pencil.

Laughing, Evil lifted his shirt, displaying a six-inch stainless steel bone crusher.

"Pencil was all I could get in a hurry," I explained defensively.

"Next time stop by, I'll front you steel."

"This's crazy! Lots of drama over some tape and glue worth maybe twenty dollars on the yard."

"Twenty is a lot if you owe and don't got it," Evil observed. "Mike, why you sweating state supplies?"

"Not," I denied, but as the words came out I realized I'd been sitting on supplies for Less. For what? I wondered.

"Always got your back, but remember you're not Less' boy."

Nodding, walking out, Officer Cope short stopped me. "Johnson just checked in for drug debts."


"I'm close to retirement. Don't wreck yourself or me."

"Got you, Cope."

As I started to walk by, he added, "Don't do too much, but that classroom is your house."

"Hear you."

I loosened up on supplies. After all the cabinet was bursting at the seams. As I handed out paper, I told them I better not see any paper airplanes. Only Terry studied, but other students drew, wrote letters or rap lyrics. Others created origami figures and turned them into mobiles. The chaos got a bit calmer. Of course Mr. Less objected to it all, but I ignored him and he gave up and focused on his sodas.

"Mr. Hunter, are you a spiritual man?" Mr. Less asked one day, he seemed a bit clearer than usual.

Thought about telling him it was none of his business, but then said, "I'm a Deist."

"A reasoned belief in God," he mused in an abstract way. "The clockwork universe fits you. I studied Deism in seminary."

Seminary? Never thought of Mr. Less as spiritual. Communing with a glass of spirits, but never the Holy Spirit. What path led him here? But then what path led any of us here?

Terry passed the G.E.D. and I planned on attending his graduation.
"Once again you're confused about your role," Mr. Less said pompously when I told him my plans, "I'm canceling class and attending as his teacher. You're not invited."

Your title is teacher, I thought savagely, but Socrates would not recognize you as one.

With Terry graduated and not one student preparing for exams, I was ready to bounce, but Mr. Less beat me to it. Transferred to a position at a minimum-security prison.

"How do you think he'll do there?" Office Cope asked, as I closed out student files.

"Well, Mr. Less is taking himself with him, so I suspect it will be all bad."

Through the interdepartmental mail, an evaluation came to my cell.

Perhaps the only one Mr. Less had ever written. Fighting the impulse to throw it away unread, I must confess I peeked. "Mr. Hunter is an excellent education clerk..."
My eyes drifted downward, it was unsigned.

Laughing, I threw it away.

-The End-

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Wayne Hunter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part l

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

The following is a true story….

Roughly 300 kilometers north of the narco-Mecca of Culiacan lies the portion of the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains known as Las Barrancas del Cobre. The land is an angry gash of ochre-hued canyons, some of which are significantly deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Once a source of vast copper wealth, the land has reverted into an arid wasteland, the hegemony of the sun once again triumphant. Anyone foolish enough to wander in uninvited quickly learns the rule of the day: aestivate or die. The only residents of this land are the Raramuri, or "the people who run." In their language, the word for anyone not of the eight tribes translates as a "person with spider webbing across the face." They believe that men have three souls and women four, and that when one of their numbers dies they become the stars in the sky. They tell of a legend, as old as any in a land pregnant with old myths, of the dark days when the old gods were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Nazarene and his man-horses made of metal. After wandering for eight years, their flight took them to Las Barrancas del Cobre, where they made their final bargain with the Great Earth Mother: in place of nurturing the land in spirit-form, they would become men and replenish it with their sweat and blood, until the age came to a close and the time of running came to a close. They chose to fall, to till the earth and to become it, and then rise to the heavens again when the time of trials was over. To the Raramuri, the difference between men and gods is smaller than a grain of sand, quieter than a whisper. To the Raramuri, one cannot truly exist until one has fallen.

I expected gun towers. Howling dogs. Imposing concrete ramparts endlessly stretched out to the horizon, a testament to all that divides mankind from itself. I expected 1984. What l got was a traffic light. In theory, there are two halves to the puente. First you pass through the American checkpoint, where an aging and slightly rusted traffic light randomly determines which cars get searched. Red indicates questions. Green means Pasale Ud. Rudy and I had been watching the bridge tor the past fifteen minutes from the porch of an abandoned apartment building, and had yet to see the red light blink on a single time. As far as we could tell, the three Border Patrol officers in charge of the Roma-Miguel Aleman crossing were far more concerned with a deep analysis of the undersides of their cowboy hats than with any of the vehicles in the outgoing lanes. Had I been slightly less numb at the time, I would have recognized that Washington DC and its rhetoric were a world away, and that nothing that passes between worlds survives the transition intact. But that was a lesson for later.

I could tell Rudy was nervous. Always loquacious, the machine gun tempo of his chatter had been pounding into me for more than six hours. Six hours and 37 minutes since I had left my Yukon in the middle of one of the most crime-ridden apartment complexes in Houston, along with the transmitter that SLPD had affixed to the underside of the fuse box. Six hours...I wondered if they knew I was gone yet? Had they tried to call my cell phone? Had That was not a road I could allow myself to go down. Not then, or tor many months yet. The one ahead was hard enough to contemplate, without looking in the rear-view mirror.

We would only get one opportunity to attempt the bridge. I had always suspected that second chances only occurred in the movies and in dreams, and now I felt this hypothesis confirmed. My ID was good, as such things go. I had been using it to buy beer since I was 18, and it had never failed me. Even after I turned 21, I had it renewed with the same guy in Little Saigon, just in case. I never expected "just in case" would ever mean... this.

As we approached the bridge, Rudy kept up the tempo, trying to lose himself in the lie. I envied him that. The lie lost itself in me so long ago we were inseparable.

Green light. As we passed the checkpoint, I noticed a wall of laminated photographs, one long chain of homogenous mug shots. Mine would be up there soon, I knew. I wondered how long it would be before the Erinyes were on to me, and I suspected that I was already running on borrowed time. With the officers deep into their siestas, I don’t suppose it really mattered at the moment.

The Mexican checkpoint didn’t even bother with a light. The true customs entry into La Republica isn’t the bridge, but rather a series of toll-booth-esque buildings straddling all of the major thoroughfares exactly 22 kilometers past the river, euphemistically known as "el veinte-dos." The chunk of land sandwiched between these lines of demarcation is la Zona del Commercio, the purest expression of laissez-faire government I have ever seen. It`s not that the laws are extinct. It's that they never evolved in the first place.

Getting around the 22 could be problematic, and for that Rudy had reached out to his father. Rogelio Ramos, Sr., was a mid-level player in the Gulf Cartel, exactly the type of guy who knows how to evade government checkpoints. On the drive towards the border, a significant percentage of the contents of Rudy’s verbal diarrhea consisted in stories about his father. Instead of riding in Cerralvo's Fiestas Patrias parade on a horse – like all of the other narco-donors - he bred and broke a bull. All of his father's friends called him El Martillo - the Hammer. To hear the son tell it, his father was a Mexican Alexander, the type of man that could whisper in a crowded room and be heard. Calling yourself "the Hammer" tends to have that effect, I remember saying at the time. Rudy looked at me sideways for a moment, before responding that I shouldn’t joke about things like that until I learned how he got the name. Touché. I shut my mouth.

As far as I could tell, Miguel Aleman was owned almost entirely by Los Zetas, at that time the Gulf Cartel's enforcement and assassination wing. In the late 90's, Osiel Cardenas Guillen recruited members of the elite Airborne Special Forces Group (GAFES) to serve as his private army of hit men. Trained by the Delta Force at Fort Bragg, these defectors brought with them real tradecraft, mil-spec weaponry including Javelin anti-tank missiles and attack helicopters, and a sociopathic work ethic. Not long after I passed through town, the new mayor of Nuevo Laredo stood confidently on the steps of City Hall and declared that he was beholden to no one. Six hours later, the vampire earth sipped at his curdling blood. Thirty bullets will do that to you, the modern interpretation of Judas' bargain.

Shortly after crossing the bridge, Rudy stopped in front of a cinder-block building, which appeared to be a taqueria. He motioned for me to wait while he went inside. I stepped out of the car and moved to a point where I could see the entire street. I could feel the Micro-tech Halo velcroed to the inside of my left wrist, and I wondered if I would have enough time to get one throw in before the bullet came. A scrawny grayish-brown dog with noticeable ribs sniffed the air in my direction before changing his mind and loping off down the street. It appeared that there were more dogs than people in Miguel Aleman. If my two years in Mexico taught me anything, it was how correct that assessment truly was.

Instead of a fusillade, Rudy returned with two orders of tacos, two glass-bottled Joya sodas, and a pre-paid cellular phone. He had arranged for his father to meet him in town today, but The Hammer had survived in some very deep waters by never being where he could be found. Bowing to the forces of cliché, we were set to meet in a cantina in la colonia El Jardin. The place was difficult to find, mostly due to the fact that I have had walk-in closets that were larger than this establishment. A tomb would have been livelier. The bartender didn’t even look up at us when we walked in. While Rudy attempted to locate his father on the cell phone, I attempted to read the various nearly colorless signs on the wall. The only one my poor Spanish could decipher was the rather obvious one about not smoking. I casually looked down at my feet, where the floor looked like an ashtray. After 15 minutes, Papa Ramos changed the meet. I left my sunglasses on my stool when we left, and then pretended to remember them and ran back in the bar. The bartender was talking rapidly into a cell phone, pointing out the door we had just used. He smiled when he saw me watching him. He had as many teeth as customers.

Now that I knew the score, I settled in. Over the course of the morning, we were maneuvered around the board of Miguel Aleman until we were finally ordered to stop at a small western clothing store on the outskirts of town. Along one wall were scores of cowboy hats, in all styles and materials. Along the other were stacks of boots, some looking to be handmade. In the back of this section sat a small man, relaxing and so inconspicuous that I didn’t notice him until he tilted his head slightly to the right, watching us intently. His eyes were stethoscopic, boring into us. Rudy hadn‘t detected him yet, but I knew from less than two seconds of eye contact that we would not be ordered to another location. Papa Ramos, the Hammer, was a short man with goofily large ears and a simple, functional sort of attire. His boots were sturdy but not expensive, and his watch was a plastic affair that probably cost 1/300th of what my Rolex did. He didn’t look like much of anything, let alone a professional dealer of illegal narcotics; poor tradesmen perhaps, or a farmer. That was the first inkling I had as to just how dangerous the man really was. The first thing most dealers do after making a big score is to run out and buy mountains of ostentatious shit, all designed to scream “look at me!" This man was worth millions, but he looked like the only line he flirted with was the poverty one. A man without the slightest hint of vanity is a fearsome thing.

Father and son embraced, and then fell into a rapid conversation. Even though I had bought an English/Spanish dictionary the week before and had spent the last seven days memorizing vocabulary, I understood precisely nothing of what was said. The entire time, the Hammer kept his eyes on me, never blinking once. I returned the favor, but began to get the strange impression that I was not seeing all of him, that the largest part of him coiled back into another dimension, unseen but very much felt. That was my first real impression of him, and it was one that would recur many times over the next two years. By the time their negotiation ended, I had bought a straw vaquero hat, and Papa Ramos had bought me. Neither of us seemed terribly pleased with the bargain.

To be continued...

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved