Saturday, June 30, 2012

So Much for Decency...

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Several months ago, I had to write a short paper on the 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell for my ENG 319 class. In order to get a more well-rounded perspective on the man's politics, I had a friend send me some of his works not included in the anthology I possess. An Horatian Ode: Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland was amongst them. I certainly enjoyed this selection to a greater degree than his "carpe diem" love poems, which so reek of desperation that I have come to believe that he was actually publishing satirical parodies of the entire genre. At any rate, the last quatrain of the ode has stuck with me, as random and generally useless information is wont to do:

Besides the force it has to fright
The spirits of the shady night,
The same arts that did gain
A power must it maintain.

The last two lines are, I think, an allusion to a maxim written by Machiavelli, which mean that a kingdom won by force must for some time be maintained by force. It is pretty much the same in modern politics: people who lie and cheat their way into office must continue to do so in order to stay in power.

I received a few letters recently from individuals responding to my post explaining my current LAWSUIT AGAINST THE STATE. One common thread running through several of these letters was the opinion that I ought to treat the TDCJ with a bit more decency in general, and in particular I should refrain from labeling officers as "rednecks." Fair enough. A few points in response: firstly, although I do obviously use the term in the pejorative sense, most true rednecks take pride in the term and use it freely amongst themselves. I could call virtually every single one of them here by that term, and they would take it as a compliment. In other words, this is not a term I use in order to deliver a fatal wound; quite the opposite, actually. I certainly have other instruments in my toolbox, should that ever become my intention Still, I will tone it down a bit out of respect for those of you who took the time to reach out to me with advice; you deserve at least that much, it seems to me. In the more general sense, I actually think you would be hard-pressed to find a more respectful inmate than myself, at least when I am dealing with the rank-and-file COS. I have said repeatedly that I respect many of them, and a few of them I actually admire. That said, I feel no moral obligation to be kind to the aggregate organization which intends to one day strap me down to a table and pump lethal chemicals into my veins, a group of people that lies and cheats and steals from you, the tax-paying public, on a daily basis. I have no pity for bureaucratic structures, and I never shall.

I took it as axiomatic that the activist community would understand me on this point. That you did not makes it apparent that I have not been doing my job when it comes to describing the true nature of this place. Despite the fact that virtually no one in this nation presently thinks that government can do much of anything correctly, I find it curious that so many of you are willing to grant the TDCJ (both in the senses of being a government agency and also in the specific cases of actual human officers) the benefit of the doubt. You are deluded in taking this view, but I cannot fault you completely, for they have striven to their upmost to keep you from seeing past the barbed wire. In addition, the embedded media seems to have a very low limit on how many criminal justice reform stories they decide to talk about on a weekly basis, so perhaps many of you are too busy to pay attention. Or maybe you just don't care. Since I can do nothing in response to that last option, and because I am trying very hard to be a bit less cynical these days, I will focus on the first two possibilities and seek to bring your attention to a few recent events, which may have evaded you. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest benefits of the blogosphere; that it can take facts and opinions from virtually unknown sources and disseminate them to new audiences of incredibly diversity. Every day, important things happen all over this planet that none of us would be aware of otherwise. Consider the following a short list of a few of these, as examples of the true character of the TDCJ and as reasons why I will never for one second consider "decency" as an appropriate response to their activities and behavior.

First, and perhaps most importantly, a 400-page article released by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review has pretty much conclusively proven that Carlos DeLuna was innocent of the crime for which he was executed in 1989. You can read the report HERE It seems like every week there is yet another exoneration in this country, and yet the public still seems to have faith that our system of criminal justice is fundamentally sound. It isn't. These exonerations are not the system self-correcting; on the contrary, they are the results of incredibly rare and costly investigations done by external groups of reporters, lawyers, and students who are impeded and harassed by the authorities at every pass. Only the most serious and competent of convicts can manage to push their cases in front of innocence organizations, and only a tiny percentage of these get the funds necessary to fight the battle to free them. These exonerations reveal systemic flaws, but only a tiny percentage of those that exist. At some point, every American citizen of conscience is going to have to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves why they maintained their silence for so long in the face of one of the greatest human rights violations in modern history. There are innocent men here now. I live in the same section as one of them who is about to blow a certain DA from Houston out of the water with his federal court filing.

If you look at some of the news stories regarding the DeLuna report, you will notice that Governor Perry never insists on DeLuna's guilt, the way he did in regards to Willingham. Instead, he simply reasserts that the death penalty is legal. The legality of a thing doesn't make it moral or even right (or sane), and the careful word-play involved in the Governor's response ought to trouble at least a few of you. The man knows. Everyone knows. They just can't admit that they know.

In this same vein, and since I already mentioned Cameron Todd Willingham, it recently came out that the Texas judge who reviewed his 2004 execution wrote up an official exoneration, but it was never filed because the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and Governor Goodhair blocked the Forensic Science Commission from ruling on the case. Think about that: the judge initially tasked with reviewing the case considered Willingham's innocence "overwhelming," and blasted the judicial system and Perry for ignoring reality and basic science. And then this same system deep-sixed the inquest. If this happened in, say, Russia, you wouldn't be advising continued trust in the system, or for me to treat it decently; you'd be wondering out loud why voters didn't toss the bums out on their bloated backsides. It should be noted as a final point that the guy Perry appointed as chairman of the Willingham Commission is the DA for Williamson County; his name is John Bradley. He happens to have found himself smack dab in the middle of a wrongful conviction case involving his former boss, now a judge. The exoneree's name is Michael Morton, and his case is just starting to make trouble for the state. You can read an article about it HERE . Maybe there is some justice to be found in this state, after all.

As I prepared to send this article out, I heard on the radio that Billy Frederick Allen - yet another exoneree- is going to be receiving a very overdue 2 million dollar check from the state for the 26 years he spent behind bars. This is important because there was no DNA involved in the case, the lack of which had caused the state to attempt to get out of paying him anything. Many of you think that the content on this site does not apply to your life in any way. Who, pray tell, do you think paid for that check? (Or, for that matter, the millions of dollars in tax revenue required by the TDCJ to incarcerate Allen for nearly three decades?) "The same arts that did gain..." etc, etc.

Last month, Texas attempted to execute Steven Staley, by first forcefully administering psychtropic drugs in order to bring him back into the real world long enough for the Nembutol to take effect. Emily Bazelon wrote an excellent article on (which you can read HERE) on the matter, so I will leave it to her to lay out the facts. It should bother you that A) the state has admitted for more than a decade that Staley is a paranoid schizophrenic totally out of touch with reality and B) thus cannot be legally executed, yet they are still attempting to do exactly that. Again, if this were happening in some foreign land, you'd be denigrating officials in that nation and thanking your lucky stars that you were born in America. Turn your hypocrisy off, people: this is real, and it is happening in the here and now, just up the road. We have to be better than this. I know that we are. I am not ashamed to admit that I did not sleep the night before Staley's date, not having heard that he had been given a stay of execution the day before. I've lived around him twice briefly, and he is completely gone. Men like him should be in a state hospital for the criminally insane, not wasting away in a cell, spending his day talking to himself and banging his head against the wall. Bazelon's story will break your heart, if you have one.

Better living killing through chemistry is a topic much in the news of late. In March, Lundbeck Pharmaceutical signed the Pharmaceutical Hippocratic Oath," which states:

"We dedicate our work to developing and distributing pharmaceuticals to the service of humanity; we will practice our profession with conscience and dignity; the right to health of the patient will be our first consideration; we condemn the use of any of our pharmaceuticals in the execution of human beings."

Lundbeck currently makes the murder cocktail du jour preferred by most states (but not Missouri, notably, which has decided to use Propofol to murder its murders; if that drug sounds familiar it is the chemical that killed Michael Jackson), so this is a significant development. Because similar companies are taking drastic steps to prevent their products from being used in executions, many jurisdictions have been unable to get their fix. I've written about this BEFORE (and BEFORE THAT). Also in March, federal judge Richard Leon condemned the virtually unregulated importation of such chemicals, blasting the FDA for its current protocols which allowed fly-by-the-night companies to export expired drugs to states (the decision, Beaty v FDA, can be read HERE). While most states are having problems finding vendors, Texas has apparently not been so constrained, having spent $50,000 on Nembutol late last year. When the abolitionist group Reprieve filed a Freedom of Information Act request to determine the number of doses acquired and the name of the vendor, the TDCJ sent a letter to Attorney General of Texas Greg Abbott (potentially our next Governor, come 2014), making the absurd claim that Reprieve's request was in some way equivalent to violent prison gangs. Their words: Reprieve's methods "present classic, hallmark practices comparable to practices by gangs incarcerated in the TDCJ who intimidate and coerce rival gang members and which have erupted into prison riots." They say that Reprieve "crosses the line from social activists dedicated to their cause to authoritarian ideologues who menace and harass private citizens who decline to submit to Reprieve's opinion on the morality of capital punishment by lethal injection." They conclude this attack by ominously claiming that "it is not a question of if but when Reprieve's unrestrained harassment will escalate into violence against a supplier."

Let me see if I have this straight. For insisting that governments are required to disclose information on how it spends public funds, for backing businesses whose products are being bought under false pretense and then used in ways that violate medical ethics, and finally for having the temerity to oppose the state in press releases, Reprieve is acting in the manner of a violent prison gang? Man, I wish the gangs I know acted like this; and here I thought they simply stabbed people. Shows what I know! I find the mental image of a tattooed thug laboriously filing FOIA requests and swearing to uphold the UN's charter on human rights to be rather amusing. In any case, Lundbeck Pharma pretty much destroys the TDCJ's point of view, saying, "We acted because we are a company that wants to help save people's lives, and we are against the misuse of our drugs in prisons. We took our stance long before we were contacted by Reprieve."

Do you ever watch the History Channel? I used to, all of the time. I recall statements made by the governments of Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin that made ridiculous claims similar to this one. I can, in a certain sense, respect a very meticulous and crafty liar, a wordsmith of consummate skill and confidence. But lies like the one lobbed at Reprieve were never meant to be believed by anyone. They were a stalling tactic, plain and simple, to deny a legally approved process of government oversight. Who amongst the left, right or center would possibly have a problem with more clarity in the public realm? You ought to pay attention when government does things like this, for this is a huge milestone on the path to totalitarianism. I'm just saying…

The culture of corruption within the TDCJ has gotten so endemic that the COS are nearly as angry with it as the convicts. I am in no way speaking in hyperbole. Most of the officers here are in total and complete agreement with the stated goals of my lawsuit. That, too, ought to say something. A contact recently sent me an article from a site called THE BACKGATE. This is apparently a news site designed for employees of the TDCJ. I'd like to direct your attention to a story from May 10th, regarding the resignation of the long-time chief propaganda officer for the system, Ms. Michelle Lyons. I am tempted to feel very little sympathy for this woman, as she has freely chosen to act as the chief flak for this place for years, and she pretty much admits herself that she said anything required of her "...9 times out of 10, I'm saying what they tell me to say, so if anything, I'm only a mouthpiece for the real lightning rods .... " Read the ARTICLE (it's short). Ms. Lyons states that the retaliation against her "began as soon as (she) questioned the way TDCJ required employees to track their time and how they appear to be circumventing federal labor laws .... " If they can act this dishonorably with an employee of such a high grade of pay, you think they won't lie or mistreat the rank-and-file? I think what is even more interesting than the article itself is the accumulated response in the comments section. Keep in mind, this is a site for employees. If they are saying things like "TDCJ is the most corrupt agency I have ever dealt with," you can imagine what they are doing to those of us in white. (While there, you might also want to stroll over to the article wherein the policy of requiring employees to freely give up their Facebook passwords is discussed. A state government agency requiring its employees to hand over their federally-protected privacy interests? Maybe some of you will now finally give me a pass for having called them fascists for years, eh?)

I could easily go on. These stories abound, with fresh examples springing up anew every few days. I think that it is fair that you ask me to continue to treat individual officers in the system humanely. But why on earth would I expand that upward to the collective? Does their behavior seem worthy of respect? Of kindness? They lie. They cheat. They steal billions of dollars, and cover this up by filling you with exaggerated fears of the boogieman. And they murder people, and have the gall to claim that their enemies are dangerously close to provoking violence. I am all for dialogue and debate and moderation. But at some point, you have to recognize when an entity has grown so rancid with corruption that repair has ceased to be an option, and that all that is left is to dismantle the entire substructure and start over. We crossed that line a very long time ago. I am confident that you do not have to take my word on any of this. Any honest investigation you undertake will inevitably lead you to the same conclusion. The only choice you have to decide is how many lives are going to be ground into dust before you finally decide to pay attention.

The first two lines of the quatrain I quoted at the start of this article deal with the traditional belief that the spirits of the dead could be frightened away by the raising of metal arms. Well, I am the dead, and your blades do not scare me, System.

You keep acting the way you have been, and the public is eventually going to take them away from you.

To see how the Lone Star state scored on the State Integrity Investigation's Corruption Risk Report card, click HERE

And to see an excellent report on the state of the death penalty by McKinney and Associates, click HERE.

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Friday, June 22, 2012

Retired from the Game

by Santonio Murff

“Umm . . . excuse me, miss.”  I halted the sensuous stride of the six-feet beauty of a correctional officer.

“Yes?” she snapped, pausing with an attitude, no doubt tired of the horny, the heat, and the hot exchanges that all come with working a 12-hour shift at a men’s correctional facility in the summer in East Texas.

I gave her my most disarming smile. “Ahh…I don’t mean any disrespect, but does that 'thang' taste as good as it looks?” I raised my eyes from her crotch with an elevated brow of utter innocence, mischief dancing on my lips.

Her rosy cheeks gave her vanilla complexion a healthy glow of radiance. Her green eyes sparkled. Her lips twitched. She fought valiantly to fight the blossoming grin, finally giving in to a colgate smile of even white teeth. “You’ll never know!” she tossed her dusty-blond ponytail with sass, sashaying on down the four-row run. She put an extra dose of nasty in her stride, feeling like the delicious sex-kitten that society would never deem her six feet, 235 pounds of voluptuousness.

“Work it baaby!” I drawled out behind her in a long southern twang of rich molasses.

The run of offenders erupted with cheers, hoots, and catcalls. She stopped, turning to meet my eye in my peep-mirror (a stamp-sized piece of reflective glass that offenders glue to a popsickle stick to extend through the holes in their cell doors so that they can see down the run). Loving the attention, she couldn’t fight the smile as she met my eye and flipped me the bird. She exited Three Row like a plus-sized runway model. Working it.

I fell back on my bunk, pleased with the exchange. We have a saying in prison: ‘If she grin, she in.'  The thought being that if you can get a female officer comfortable enough to relax, smile, and laugh with you then you can possibly get her over that hump of becoming your Piece of Game, or P.O.G., for short.

A  P.O.G. is coveted by an offender like gold by a leprechaun. And a P.O.G. is just as valuable if not more so than that mythical pot of gold. A properly managed P.O.G. does not only mean an elevated status in the prison hierarchy of convicts; a properly managed P.O.G. can mean the difference from you being in heaven or hell as you do your bid. Money, commissary, narcotics, favorite foods, phones to contact love ones with, sex, and sex, and more sex, and just the conversation and companionship of a real woman who cares enough for you to risk it all to make your situation better. The benefits are immeasurable. The rewards undefinable, especially in a Texas prison where phones, conjugal visits, tobacco, and even the erotic pictures of one’s wife are forbidden contraband that are unavailable to offenders.

“Murff!” She called my name from beneath me on Three Row. Just that quick she’d learned my name. A very good sign. I waited. Played the game how it is supposed to be played. “Muurff!” She sang my name with impatience.

I stood up at my door to look down into her dancing eyes and smirk.

“I just wanted to give you these!” she sent me two birds and bounced off laughing.

“Promises! Promises!” I shot to her retreating back.

Wasn’t a doubt in my mind that she was going to be mine.

*** ***

Good society would be appalled to realize that more relationships have been consummated in prison than in any motel, hotel, or inn in the continental United States of America. The topic of homosexuality in prisons has been covered to death. It exists. But what of the seldom spoke upon, never examined heterosexual romances that do blossom and bloom behind the barbed-wire? What of the illicit relationships that do occur between male offenders and the female correctional officers who are paid by the State to secure and supervise them?

I’ve been incarcerated and was “in the game” (what offenders call living outside of the rules) for well over a decade. I’ve bore witness to it all. Oral copulation, anal, threesomes, gangbangs—it all occurs. Often. With women!

Imagine for one second: a single mother with two or more children. She has little education and low self-esteem. She comes from a poverty-stricken environment where the rebels reign supreme. Imagine her being placed in a dangerous sexually-charged taboo place of employment for 12 hours a day to supervise thousands of the very same scantily clad bad boys that she’s grown up lusting behind most of her life. Imagine her being able to pick and choose from hundreds of suitors of pretty words and promises who want to keep her hair and nails done, send her shopping, pay her rent, take care of her kids, and plan that illustrious happy-ever-after with her. You understand that these are the defining character traits of the vast majority of the females that are hired by The Texas Department of Corrections and you begin to grasp just how many P.O.G.’s are won daily. You begin to understand just how prevalent these sexcapes are. How often the forbidden fruit is tasted.

*** ***

Sometimes personalities just click. The attraction is mutual. The female is as rebellious as the offender. She needs no coercion or con. The conversations flow smoothly. Hours seem like minutes. The laughs come fast and free. The passion is slower due to the spying eyes and prying ears. It boils like stewing vegetables, only the restraints of the environment and the consequences keep it subdued like a top on the pot. Until want turns to need and a window of opportunity opens for the top to be lifted. We all know what happens then . . .

Me and my babygirl had that kind of rare chemistry. Our relationship progressed quickly, because we both knew what we wanted and neither of us was afraid to grab it. We didn’t play games. Our greatest restraint was my being in administrative segregation. Our greatest hindrance was hating black women and white males who obviously weren’t feeling the “jungle fever” that we’d broken out with. Still we shared endlessly with each other: my mistakes and her goals, my past relationships and her present one, our children (my two and her one), our dreams, our fears. Endlessly. We just clicked on all cylinders.

“God made you too beautiful to be walking around with your head down.” I was in the front recreational room at the front of the run on Three Row.

She was coming from the middle of Three Row after having placed another offender in the shower. She lifted her head with a “no-I’m-not” frown creasing her lips.

“I don’t say things that I don’t mean.” I met her eyes, willing her to me.

Her emerald eyes fell to the floor as she stepped closer to hear me. By habit, I only speak in a serious whisper. “Look at me.” She met my eyes. “I don’t play no games,” I growled with consternation. “I asked you a question several weeks ago and you still ain’t let me know what’s up?”

“What?” she looked puzzled, an arched brow cocked at my tone.

“Does or does not, that-damn-thang,” I dipped my eyes quickly to her crotch and back up, “taste as deeelicious as it look?!!”

“Screw you!” she burst into giggles, turning to go up the steps to Four Row to pull out her next shower.

I watched the sensuous sway of her hips, knowing it was for me. She stopped at the top of Four Row to smile down at me. “And that wasn't no promise!” she lobbed.

“Tease!” I tossed back as she giggled on down Four Row. My eyes trailed her like a hungry lion’s on a gazelle. She didn’t know it just yet, but she was already mine.

*** *** ***

The administration tries to convince every female officer that every offender is a lowdown, lying, cheating, snake-in-the-grass whose only intentions are to use and abuse them. Many years ago a Captain on the Ferguson Unit was giving such a speech at the officer’s meeting before their shift started, and a promiscuous female officer looked around the room with distaste before saying, “Well, hell, Captain, you just described most of the men in this room!” The female officers laughed hard. The male officers didn’t.

Prisons are like a small village. Everyone knows everyone else . . . and their business. Most units have officers working 12 hours a day, four days a week. Over half of the officers scramble for as much overtime as they can get in an attempt to keep their heads above the poverty line. Due to long commutes and skyrocketing gas prices, most officers reside together in the officer’s barracks on their four days on call. All factored, they spend more time with offenders than they do with their families. They spend more time in this sexually-charged environment with their co-workers than they do with their spouses. The officers' barracks become a porn palace at the end of the day. A promiscuous place of employment is an understatement. As one older woman once put it, “Everybody’s screwing everybody!”

So how much weight do such words from a ranking officer carry when he is the man who he’s just described. When he is guilty of leaving several of these female officers scorned himself. On most units it becomes a them versus us thing. Them being the uncorrupted but far from righteous rank and their braindead underachieving flunkies, and us offenders and officers that are “in the game”. Us who are incarcerated, trying to make the best (bending the rules though we may be) out of a bad situation. And those officers who choose to take advantage of all of the fringe benefits (bending the rules they may be) that T.D.C. offers for one working long hectic hours for minimal compensation. Us who choose to take a chance on love wherever it is found. The consequence be damned, just let the love be real.


She pulled her fingers back out of the holes in my cell door. Her eyes darting to the rotunda where the doors are rolled from. No prying eyes.

"Ummm . . . l gotta call it a draw,” I whispered.

“A draw?” she giggled.

“Yep,” I nodded, “You most definitely taste every bit as good as you look. You ain’t babygirl no more.”

“Oh no? Who am I now?” she frowned, looking even younger than her 21 years.

“V.C.B.: my Vanilla Cream Baby!” I smacked my lips. “Bluebell ain’t got nothing on you.”

Her smile would’ve shamed the sun. Our eyes met through the steel and conveyed volumes. “I want—” she started.

“Ms. Brickhouse,” an offender janitor who kept the wings cleaned swept up on us in a hurry. I bobbed my head as he cut his eyes to me with a knowing smirk. “Ms. Real say that Holmes just went told the rank that you’ve been at this offender’s door for way too long.”

We both issued expletives. It was unanimous Holmes was a two-faced hater. She left to go and speak with Ms. Real and investigate the situation. I glanced at my radio clock. She’d been at my door for over three hours. It seemed like only minutes. The janitor tried to conversate. I blew him off and away.

I fell back on my bunk. I’m slipping. Over three hours. I knew better. Female officers especially are reprimanded for being at an offender’s door for five minutes. Due to my knowing that Ms. Real was in the game and would be looking out, I’d gotten comfortable, lost in those pretty green eyes and the moment. Now Officer Holmes had spied us from the rotunda and went snitched. I spit a few choice words of distaste for the goofy whiteboy who’d met and married his black wife on the Coffield Unit. I’d thought that he was cool. I could blame no one but myself though.

“You mad?” My babygirl was back. Obviously amused at my scowl.

“You gotta chill. You know we’re the most hated back here.” I tried to hold the frown, knowing that she should not be back, but happy that she was.

“Screw them! That’s what up!” A young beautiful rebel, that was her favorite phrase. “I had to bring you this,” she continued, grabbing something from her pocket then hesitating. “That guy is looking over here.” She nodded in his direction.

She was speaking of my neighbor a couple cells down. “He’s cool,” I assured her.

She slid me a huge Symphony Bar through the side of the door. “Get rid of the package. Everyone knows that I love those.”

I laughed, just basking in the beauty of her. She’d asked me earlier had I ever had one. I hadn’t. She’d laughed because I didn’t even know what a Symphony Bar was. I hadn’t asked her for anything! Hadn’t expected anything. She’d made no promises. A surprise. “I really appreciate that, Brook.” I used her first name affectionately.

"Screw them. You my boo,” she laughed, sashaying away.

I fell back on my bunk truly smitten. Holmes forgotten. I was violating all the rules of the game. Couldn’t help it. I realized then that she definitely was mine. But I was hers too. We belonged to each other. I smacked my lips around that first block of rich Symphony chocolate. Not quite as delicious as my Vanilla Cream Baby, but very good.

*** *** ***

Most females who never get “in the game” are just too chicken-hearted or they’ve been convinced that every offender is only out to get something from them. Morality is never an issue.

“Ya’ll are just trying to get what ya’ll can get,” a female once challenged. “All of ya’ll are out for something.”

“First off, I am not a ya’ll. I’m an individual,” I chastized. “And what but a fool enters a relationship with no expectations. If a relationship is not mutually beneficial then one of us is playing the fool. I’m not going to play the fool. And I don’t expect you to either.” I smiled.

“But you know ya’ll—”

“There you go again,” I cut her short.

“But what makes you so different, San-Man?” She used my nickname mockingly, violating the rules and unknowingly opening a door.

“The same thing that makes you so special to me, Christie,” I used her first name mockingly, causing her to smile and look around for ear-hustling co-workers. “How I carry and conduct myself. How I refuse to allow an adolescent mistake to define my future. How I confabulate. How I’ll never allow this environment to define my character . . .and . . ."

I could see all of her teeth as she waited for more. “And what?”

I went to rotating my hips and thrust my mid-section at her. “And I BRANG it, baby!”

She burst into loud guffaws. “You are so full of it!” She left rocking with laughter.

The truth is most offenders are full of it. The truth is most females know it. They don’t care. For a little while she is able to live out her fantasy of being truly loved and cherished. She is that beautiful, desirable sex-kitten. The dream may end with termination of her employment today or his getting out tomorrow. But that’s an “if” of the future. For “now” she has manifested the dream.

Most people, rather they be residents or employees, end up in prison because they live every day for today, overlooking their tomorrows until they finally came. They did not worry about the consequences of committing crimes or not paying attention in school or not going to college. They’ve lived for the thrill of the moment. The pleasures and rewards of the now. Why change now? She, like he, enjoys it while it lasts. Praying, hoping, wishing tomorrow’s “ifs” to never arrive.

But don’t be fooled. True love does blossom between male offenders and female officers. I know of quite a few acquaintances who have gotten out and taken up with their once forbidden fruit. I know of a couple secret lovers that have since married. Can name a few females on this very unit who have been terminated for improprieties and braved embarrassment and dirty looks to return to visit their "friend”.

The truth of the matter is love could care less about color, religion, finances, housing, rules, regulations, or risks. It comes like a thief in the night, stealing your heart away and bestowing it to another before you even become truly aware of where that feeling of euphoria is coming from. Why do you smile like a loon the moment that you see her? Why is she smiling? Why does her not working on your wing for her four days on leave you so down in the dumps? Why does just the sound of her voice send your spirits soaring and send your once weary body rolling from the bunk to tend to hygenic needs, throw on your tight-whited best gear, and yes, leave you smiling like a loon. Love. It’s an amazing thing.

*** ***

"I love you.”

“You’ve said that to someone before,” she smiled.

“So have you, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

“You always have the right words, don’t you.” She really does have a beautiful smile.

“The right words are easy, when you’re speaking from your heart.” I was.

I’d finished drying off. Turned and let her cuff my hands behind my back. “12 cell!” she hollered to the officer rolling the doors at the end of the run.

The door rolled. I stepped out of the shower with water still glistening on my shoulders, chest, and back. She likes me like that. I purposely dropped my towel as I stepped across the threshold of my cell door. She stooped half in my cell to pick it up. Just a half-step from the sight of offenders with their peep-mirrors on the run and the officer in the rotunda, we kissed with the deep intensity of lovers who know that they may never see each other again. The seconds seemed like seconds. We never wanted to stop. Had to. Had to make it do until the next window of opportunity opened.

My door rolled closed. She removed the cuffs with a hearty-sigh. Gave me a look of longing that I returned twice-fold. She started for her next shower.

“Damn, I love you.”

“I love you more,” she whispered huskily.

No games. No cons. No lie. I meant every word.

***  ** ***

We all know that loose lips sink ships. A word to the wise, haters are just as deadly. Locked down in a cell for 23 hours a day on a run with 21 other offenders who think that it is a time for celebration when any female walks the run, it is impossible for an offender in administrative segregation to keep his relationship with a female officer a secret. So then it’s not so much keeping the illicit relationship a secret or prohibiting the gossip, but protecting the secret from the ranking officers and their minions that do care and limiting gossip.

A female correctional officer can survive and prosper “in the game” indefinately as long as she is well-liked by her co-workers and the majority of the offender population. Why? Because everyone is looking out for her. Her co-workers do not want to see her lose her job and the offenders like her because she leaves them and their limited possessions alone (don’t shakedown their cells for contraband as policy dictates when they come out for recreation and showers).

Unfortunately, my babygirl was not of that creed. The vast majority of her co-workers could not stand her. She let them know with a scathing tongue that the feeling was mutual. She didn’t hesitate to give offenders that riled her the same tongue lashing of abuse. Unmanageable to say the least. She was a wild stallion on a concrete plain. She could not be tamed. I knew it would all come tumbling down sooner rather than later due to her disposition.

A wild stallion of rebellion. All you can do is hold on, feel alive, and enjoy the ride or get off. I wasn’t getting off . . .

*** *** ***

It is 5:45 a.m. The wing is silent but for the humming of an unseen fan.  I’m naked as a newborn, freshly scrubbed, baby-oiled, and baby-powdered down. Rock hard with anticipation.

Five minutes ago, Babygirl had darted down the run to whisper in a husky voice for me to “Get ready.”

“I’d rolled out of bed without a word and ran through a quick scrubbing and hygenic drill. Prepped for the mission ahead.

Not nary another word needed be said. I needed no instructions. I had laced her up on how we’d manifest the dream and satiate the longing when that window opened. This morning all was obviously in alignment.

I peeped down the run to see Ms. Real in the rotunda at the control box. She waved a naughty finger at me. A tremor of need raced through me as my Vanilla Cream Baby rocketed up the stairs, said a quick word to Ms. Real that got a nod, and then jetted down to my cell. My cell door eased open.

Her hand was on me, my tongue was in her mouth before she crossed the threshold good.

Then we were both lost. Past the point of no return. For ten blissful minutes before the other officers made it to their assigned post for the day, we got as close to paradise as a male offender and female correctional officer in love can hope to get behind the barbed-wire. The top was lifted off the pot and passion exploded and bubbled over. I bit into the forbidden fruit. Delicious . . .

*** ***

A wise man once said, “All good things must come to an end." I wish someone would’ve asked him why.

I’d been in from the dayroom for a couple of hours. I’d fallen into an easy smile of slumber. My babygirl had been in the rotunda and I’d enjoyed her smile, her fresh out of the shower fragrance, everything about her. She’d shown me her sunburned shoulder. Delicious. She’d shared with me her and a girlfriend of hers' getaway to Galveston beach. “You are so scary,” she’d teased, because I refused to give her a note of contraband that I had for her.

"My first priority is to always wake sure that YOU are taken care of.” I’d pointed a scholarly finger at her. “They already got me. I can’t never let them get you. I’ll send it to you right before you’re about to leave.”

BAM! BAM! BAM! “San-Man!” My neighbor pounded on the wall that separated our cells.

"What!” I grabbed the note of contraband from the head of my bunk, instantly awake and alert.

“Man, I don’t know what’s going on, but Purple is up here with the Sarge and Lieutenant.” My neighbor put me on point.

Instincts kicked in. Destroy all evidence. No evidence, no case. I hit my toilet to make sure that it was still operational. If your cell is about to be raided, it is standard operating procedures to turn off your water first, leaving limited ways for an offender to get rid of contraband. Leaving no means of getting rid of some contraband like weapons, phones, and large supplies of hard narcotics.

“Damn! There’s a hundred laws up here now!” My neighbor bellowed and sent my heart to drumming.

I grabbed my peep-mirror and extended it through a hole in my cell door just as Purple stepped angrily in front of my cell. He tried to snatch my peep. Was too slow. Imagine the biggest, blackest, ugliest Uncle Thomas Bo-Bo negro you can. That’s Purple.

“Shit!” I leaped back with the note now burning up my fist, my heart raging against my chest like a mad parrot wanting out of his cage.

“Get naked and don’t touch shit!” Purple commanded.

He may as well have been talking ancient Hebrew. I turned my back to him, facing the toilet. “Okay, just let me use the restroom real quick, sir,” I said too respectfully.

“Uh-uhnn!” he screamed as I hit the toilet button and dropped the note.

The toilet only bubbled. They’d turned off the water!

“Now get your slick ass over here before you get gassed!” he laughed.

I grabbed a towel and thrust it before my face like I was blocking a spray of gas. “Hold up, man!” I yelled, snaking my other hand into the toilet to retrieve the tightly glued note of contraband. I couldn’t risk them getting that. My only thoughts at the moment was of Babygirl. Her child. Her job. Without it, we both lost in a major way.

“Dammit! Get over here!” One of the ranking officers stepped up to the door, shaking his cannister of pepper spray threateningly.

“Gas his ass, Sarge!” Uncle Bo-Bo screamed. “He got something! He bullshittin’!”

The note was too thick to swallow. I tried to tear it up with one hand while keeping the towel before me. “Gas me for what? Ya’ll see I ain’t doing nothing, but trying to get my shower shoes on.” I kneeled to shove my shower shoes under my bunk then grope for them, realizing that it is impossible to tear up a thick wad of paper with one hand.

“You don’t need no shoes!? Let me gas him, Searge. He bulishittin’!” I don’t think it’s possible to dislike anyone more than I did Purple at that moment.

“Man, what you acting like I got some weapons of mass destruction in here for?" I broke another rule of the game, losing my temper, and trying to argue with an officer when I know I’m in the wrong and got no win.

The Seargent aimed the gas cannister right at my face. “Let’s go with it! Now! That’s your last warning.”

I threw the towel back before my face.

“Alright, alright, Searge,” I checked myself. "Let me just slip on my shoes.” I did the only thing I could with the kite. Chunked it, toilet water and all, in my mouth. Damn, I love you.

I dropped the towel and turned to let Uncle Bo-Bo cuff me. My door rolled and I stepped out onto the run. “You get the name off of it?” He was all up in my face like there was a personal grievance between us. I met his eyes with suppressed fury. All these caucasian officers of rank and the one black-as-one-can-get negro doing all of the hollering and yelling for violence against a brother.

“He got something in his shoes!” Bo-Bo took my shoes. Found nothing. “He must’ve swallowed it then. He had something. Open your mouth!” he commanded. I jerked away from him with a frown of distaste. His eyes lit up like he’d just hit a Texas Lotto.

I did the impossible. Swallowed the evidence.

He reached for me as the other officers closed in on me. I let him know exactly how I felt about him as I complied fully, opening my mouth and wiggling my tongue for all to see that I had nothing in my mouth. “He must’ve swallowed it,” he said defeatedly like it was a personal loss for him.

Barefoot, with my head down to mask my watering eyes, and valiantly fighting my gag reflex every step of the way, knowing that if I threw up the note there would be no way to retrieve it with my hands cuffed behind my back, I was marched down to a small legal cage and left as they returned to ransack and pack up all of my property for a thorough search. Babygirl, Purple, and all was forgotten now. My mind was total consumed with one thought; I will be very dead in a few minutes if I don’t find a way to get this wad from the wedge in my esophagus.

I coughed hard. Choked harder. Swallowed and swallowed to no avail. Through tears I coerced an offender janitor to slide me a bottle of tea. Blessedly, a few powerful gulps got the wad down. I fell back in the legal cage with a deep sigh of relief.

Babygirl had been taken to the Warden’s office for questioning. Someone had reportedly seen us pass something. She now blew out of his office and down the hallway like a profane tsunami. Neither offenders nor co-workers were spared her wrath. She slammed on the brakes to sling her walkie talkie and wing keys into the control booth across from me. Up until that moment I’d avoided eye-contact with her, knowing that all in the vicinity was watching us.

“All of ya’ll can kiss my fat ass!”

I knew then that she wasn’t coming back. I threw my right hand to the sky with enthusiasm, drawing her fiery green eyes. “Uhhm…I’ll start it off if you don’t mind.” I smiled, “Kissing your sweet-as-cream fatabulous ass!” I clarified with a laugh.

Her eyes softened. She laughed. Gave me a sad shake of regret and started back down the hallway.

“Screw’em all! That’s what’s up!” I echoed her favorite phrase. A couple of her co-workers were listening hard now. I didn’t even care.

“Screw them all.” She never broke stride. She didn’t even care.

I recorded her every step. Remembered every curve of her voluptuous frame. Watched her ponytail bouncing on her back. Rocked my head to the sensuous sway of her ample hips. I didn’t want her to go. Missed her already. She was nearly to the end of the corridor when I stood up in the cage and screamed in an extra syrupy down-south baritone for all to hear, “Work it, Baaby!”

She paused for a second but didn’t look back. I knew that she was smiling and probably crying as she cleared the corridor like a plus-sized runaway model putting an extra dose of nasty in it just for me. Through misty eyes I watched my untameable vanilla stallion gallop away. Damn, I love you.

*** *** ***

They found nothing in my property. No evidence, no case. No one talked to me. No need to. Over a decade in the system they knew I didn’t know nothing about nothing.

I was returned to my trashed cell later that evening. Lying back on my bunk with only a sheet that I’d borrowed from my neighbor acting as a buffer, I contemplated my dire predicament. My cell is bare. The Major has all of my property locked up in his office. I’ll get it back tomorrow after hijacking the shower, but for now I have nothing but a borrowed sheet, a dull ache, and some soothing memories.

Just that quick it’s all over. It’s all gone. I’m all alone with nothing and no one. I am a prisoner in hell. My Vanilla Cream Baby quit. My P.O.G. is gone. With this life sentence that I have, I will probably never see her again. My heart hurts.

I worry about her and her child. I remember her abusive husband. The one who likes to use her for a punching bag. I worry some more.

An hour or so later I’m back to my own dire dilemma. A bad situation made worse. All of my property is gone. All eyes are on me now. I contemplate the months that lie ahead on L-wing where the baddest of the baddest are housed. L-wing, the hole within the hole. L-wing, where cells are flooded daily by the ignorant and bored. L-wing, where urine and feces are thrown daily by the mentally-ill and just plain nasty. No commissary spends but hygiene and postage. Limited recreational time. No radio. No hot pot. The harassment and headaches that come with being a hot boy caught “in the game”.

You can’t do the time don’t do the crime. I suck it up. It’s all part of the game. It ain’t nothing that I can’t handle. It ain’t nothing that I haven’t handled before. But, oh, how I wish that I could just quit it all too.

It was the next morning in the shower, being threatened with chemical agents for the second time in less than 24 hours, trying to get my property back that I realized: I’m too old for this foolishness. Yes, it is all part of the game, and I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t worth it, because there is absolutely nothing on Earth as precious and priceless as a good woman, but after 14 years in the system and over a decade “in the game” that is no longer a game that I’m interested in playing. And that’s why I remain to this day retired from the game.

*Retired From The Game won second place in the 2009 PEN Prison Writing Contest in the memoir category

Santonio D. Murff 773394
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601

Santonio D. Murff is a seven-time PEN Prison Writing Contest winner, award-winning novelist and essayist who is searching the planet for the right agent/publishing house for his anthology of rehabilitated prisoners’ memoirs and essays, Apologies From Within. He’s become the go-to author for dealing with prisoners’ rehabilitation and prison reform.
Santonio and his family THANK YOU for your support!!!

Friday, June 15, 2012

In That Moment

By C. Michael Lambrix

They haven’t come yet, but I know they will.  For days now I’ve anxiously awaited their arrival, each day just as today, arising early and making myself a cup of coffee and patiently listening. As I slowly sip the warm dark but sweetened liquid my mind wanders away from where I am, just aimlessly drifting through the now fading memories of a life that once was.  The quiet of these early morning hours is comforting and I find my strength in these stolen moments of time before the world around me comes to life and my momentary solitude is invaded by the chaos that this world is.

As I stand to stretch my eyes catch that plastic mirror that now hangs from the narrow steel beam that separates the wall of bars from the door of my cage. It’s familiar sight, as countless times have I looked within myself through that simple reflection and through that reflection confronted my inner self and the truths that only too often are only too elusive.  The man in the mirror is not a stranger and yet I continue to discover new unpeeled layers of that familiar reflection, and the man I am within.

But at this moment, it’s not about the mirror, but what hangs just beneath that mirror that causes me to pause and reflect.  It is a message, perhaps even a mantra, that I long ago wrote to myself, and although I have read it countless times, each time those few words put my world into perspective.

“I’ve been through the dark side of hell and back again,
I’ve journeyed through life with nary a friend,
I’ve laughed and I’ve cried; I’ve lived and I’ve died
And each day I am condemned to do it again and again!” 

It has now been over two decades since I wrote those words to myself not long after coming within hours of my own execution.  The words came so easily as if inspired by something greater within me.  I doubt many could truly understand what those words mean, but I didn’t write them for anyone but myself and I know what they mean, and to me those words are a source of strength, not despair.

Through the many years friends have come and gone and although I am truly blessed by a handful of friends who have faithfully stood by my side even during the darkest days, at the end of each day I still go to sleep alone and at the beginning of every new day I still wake alone.  In the endless hours between, I remain in my solitaire cage – alone when I laugh, I laugh alone, and when I cry, I cry alone.  If this life I live could be called living, then I live alone and when my final hour comes, I know I will die alone.

To say that I have journeyed through life with nary a friend is not to say that I have never been blessed by friendship, but only that at the end of the day they live in their world and I live in mine.  No matter how much we both might try to meet in the middle and find that common ground we can walk together, it is like an eagle soaring in the skies above, looking down and longing to swim with the fish below…we are of two different worlds.

Inevitably the friends drift away, even the very best of friends as that’s just how it is when the months pass on to years and the years pass on to decades.  I’ve come to accept that and choose to enjoy the time we can share together.  My fate is not their fault and I am truly blessed by those who can reach out as they become a source of strength even if only in passing.

I now smile when each will ask that same question.  Those of the real world will always ask of those of us in this world… “How do you survive and even stay sane after so many, many years in solitary confinement, condemned to death?”  Some will go a step further and express their admiration for my strength and perseverance.  But if only they knew what a coward I am as I did not survive over a quarter of century in a cold and solitary cage because of my own strength – I only wish I had the strength to end this eternal nightmare long ago, but I know that I do not.

No, I deserve no credit as I know only too well that the only reason I have survived is because I didn’t have a choice.  All I can do each day for an infinite number of never ending days is remind myself that each day is only one day and no matter what might happen in that one day, it will pass and tomorrow I will awake to yet another new day and it too will pass, again and again.

But then there are those days such as today as finally I can hear them somewhere off in the distance, slowly, but methodically moving my way.  My coffee cup is now empty and anxiously I stand at the front of my cell door straining to catch that first glimpse of them coming around the far end of the wing.  They are getting closer, the distant hum now becoming a more distinct sound not unlike that of a squadron of kamikazes descending upon Pearl Harbor – only I know they are coming and I await them.

Then I see them coming around the corner towards my area, about eight wide in almost perfect formation.  They are still a few hundred feet out but closing in quickly.  I close my eyes and just stand there breathing and breathing until I can begin to smell them…first the overpowering stench of their exhaust, that aroma of oil mixed with gasoline that almost overpowers the now drowning wound of the formation of mowers moving across that narrow strip of grass between the wing I’m on and the next wing over and just as quickly as they come, they are already past and moving on beyond the far corner towards the next strip of grass, but I am thankful that the noise is now fading away as it’s not the noise that I enjoy.

Breathing slowly and deeply, I now find my moment that I awaited as the first scent of that freshly cut grass finally reaches me.  It’s funny how such a simple smell can so easily transport both body and mind far beyond this solitary cage, yet in that moment I can imagine myself back out in the real world, lying there in that freshly cut grass. Although it has not been almost 30 years since I have touched a blade of grass, in that moment I am free from the steel and stone that has entombed my body but not my mind.

It is in that moment that I find the answer to that inevitable question of how I survived so long in a solitary cage as for that one passing moment I am again free and even once passes, I am reminded that no matter how much steel and stone man can build up around my body, they can never imprison my spirit and it is that moment that no matter how alone I might feel, I am one with the world again.

The End

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017

Monday, June 11, 2012

Worse Than Senseless

A critique by, and of, Jeff C.

"You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things."

Maybe it was the irony of hearing that particular biting line from the stage that drew my attention to the crowd I was sitting amongst. There were well over a hundred and fifty of us khaki-clad convicts seated, sprawled, and splayed upon the gymnasium floor for the Freehold's Engaged Theatre Program production of the bard's "Julius Caesar." In the middle of the fourth row of carefully laid out dyed grey DOC sheets that we normally sleep on, I was close enough to hear nearly all of the action of the partially amplified and modern interpretation of the play. But after hearing that specific line of the play, my focus remained ever diverted by the addled crowd--especially after the first time they responded, en masse (and evidently sans irony) with raucous laughter to their own collective comforting cognizance to Casca's line, "For mine own part, it was Greek to me." Finally, a bon mot they could all digest.

During Brutus' eloquent soliloquy, the fine flock of gentlemen directly in front of me had their attention diverted by the actors "offstage" when their facially-tattooed doyen fingered past the stage and my unresponsive eyes reluctantly followed along with the drove. With not much of a backstage, some of the actors stood still in the far back, facing the wall, as the action on the stage played on. I had already noticed this, and thought nothing of it, except that because they stood absolutely still and then ultimately moved at t'ai chi ch'uan speed, they possessed an enviable level of self-control. But this particular patrician pointed not at this feat, but at the actor in the corner, near the placid punching bags, who was changing her clothes unhurriedly in front of the gated emergency door. Nothing emerged as to why this was worth noting--let alone worth snickering about--until I saw that the emerging sunshine made her dress almost pellucid.

Trying to tune out the audience's confabulations--and the eminently respectful fellow who was evidently compelled to throw balled up bits of the program at his colleague in front of him throughout the play, I wondered if the Globe Theater's crowds (who were, according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature's Hallet Smith, accused by the Puritans of "riot, fire, accidents, ungodliness and the spread of the plague") would have comported themselves in such an elegant manner or if, as I suspect, most of our crowd would not have patronized the Globe, but would have crossed the Thames and slavered at the bull- and bear-baiting instead.

I held my breath in concentration during the dueling dialogue between Portia and Brutus not only to appreciate the acting, but also to test if I had any psychokinetic powers that would allow me to carefully control the crowd from making the expected august miscegenation remarks about Sarah Hartlett and Reginald André Jackson when they embraced. Astonishingly, at least in my section of the crowd, my powers proved potent. But with my newly acquired extrasensory aptitude unequivocally fatigued, once Brutus dismissed Portia and commanded, "Portia, go to bed," the multitude boisterously guffawed and guffawed. In fact, one stentoriously voiced grandee with an undoubtedly refined sense of humor felt that this comment was worth echoing for well over a minute, repeating this phrase long after even his obsequious minions stopped chortling at his hilarious resonating impersonation. I wondered--after he had trailed off and then began amusing himself yet again, reprising this fresh joke--if he somehow envied Brutus or if, to him, the subjugation of women is inherently hysterical.

After the first hour, during the institution movement period, many of the more urbane folk left and inevitably interrupted the climactic scene--but Portia and Brutus managed the astonishing feat of ignoring their insolence. Perhaps appropriately, it was shortly after the exiting crowd's cacophony that I noticed that the three Butoh dancers had slowly moved off the top of the prepossessingly decorated scaffolding and Eris, the goddess of discord--played with a quiet subtlety by Vanessa Skantze--delicately clung to the scafolding; while Ares, the god of war--played by the lithe Lin Lucas--with her navel aimed skyward, suggested the St. Louis Gateway Arch. But my quiet appreciation of the company's coryphées was sullied by two callow youths--who had a lean and hungry look about them--who chortled behind me with salacious and uncouth pantings in reference to how flexible the Butoh dancers were--but said in such a sordidly indecorous manner that I was disgusted by the inelegance, ignorance, and lack of imagination.

Since it must surely have been taxing holding up the sides of the buildings with their lustrous jackboots and costive stares, some of the more corpulent correctional officers retired forward--away from the opportunity to see anything but some peripheral action--to their guard cage commissioned to protect them at their action desk from errant convict handballs and basketballs. Minutes later, when Caesar--played by the redoubtable Kevin McKeon--was stabbed, even I chuckled briefly at the proffered witticism, "Somebody call a code"--which is prisonspeak for, "Call 911." However, the artful subtlety of this sole wry observation was drowned out by the frothy frenzy over the subsequent stabbings and then a riot of boisterous, boyish belly laughs at Calpurnia's bloodcurdling scream over her husband's dead body. Kjerstine Anderson's cool composure under the assailment of such protracted childish laughter was veritably laudable.

Indubitably, the gracious gentlemen's glorious glee gained vigor in Act III after Marc Antony cried, "'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war" and their already inordinate response crescendoed when the Butoh dancers growled. For some reason I was reminded of observing the nervous laughter of immigrants who do not know the language well and simper at any recognizable phrase or tone that might be meant to be comical--even if it couldn't possibly be classified as funny. More of this lovely rabid cachinnation broke out when the Roman plebeians, dressed in black coats, hemmed along the side of the crowd and one young woman talked to a hoary Hispano who gaped at her in amazement that was seemingly--to the vast swell of the roaring audience--the epitome of hilarity.

During the resplendent Sylvester F. Kamara's Marc Antony speech, the institution's prisoner-address system squawked "Med lines are open," and I naively hoped nearly all of the gabbling gaggle would arise and chevy after their colloquially called "ding biscuit" antipsychotic pills. Regrettably, they remained--obviously yet another dereliction of the croaker community to properly diagnosticate--but my hope recrudesced with the glorious thought that the imminent DSM-V will alleviate what ails them and, therefore, aggravates me.

When Marc Antony pointed out the bloodstains on Caesar's robe (which disappointly looked like it came from a picnic lunch) I heard the inevitable and I earnestly hope rhetorical question, "Is he TELLING right now?" As if Marc Antony were the despicable big house rat that so many in this place have a caustic phobia of--or possibly a terror of merely being labeled as such and therefore exclaim the initial, "J'accuse!"

While I admired the immediate Che Guevara T-shirt quasi-merchandising of Caesar's image strung up onstage, and I thought how it must be meant to symbolize the gullible despotism of the bleating masses, the Jesse Sherfey-Hinds choreographed chaos of combat began. Behind me one of the canaille barked piercingly at one of the actors, "Yeah, muck her up!" Although, unquestionably, it was a significantly more repugnant word that that oh so honorable man thought was appropriate to ejaculate into our ears.

Later, when Gaius Cassius--reimagined as Cassia in a way that worked in all ways except for making her the sister of Brutus--unfastened the top button of what could pass for a state-issued khaki "work shirt," she pleaded for her dagger to be plunged into her breast, I was subjected to the ignominy of hearing how one genteel gentleman wished that the actor playing Cassia was better endowed--though, of course in verbiage that contained the subtle grace and class of an aspiring shock jock. I forcibly refocused my attention back on the action onstage and noted that the DOC red visitor badges actually added to the military effect of uniforms that the director, Robin Lynn Smith, afterwards admitted aiming for--although with more of a post-bin Laden era than a post-Hitler era effect. Others, however, interpreted the current action a bit more liberally than I felt comfortable doing, such as when Cassia was being embraced by another female actor in response to her plea for death, and one coxcomb declared, "Dude, they're making out right now.”

After the second hour, during the next movement, the Butoh dancers answered my stilly prayers and space opened up in the second row, away from my dear, dear new friends whom I'll forever regret never getting to fully bond with as it is quite apparent from their insightful and apropos comments that we've so much in common. The musicians, Beth Fleenor and Whitney Lyman, distracted me from this grievous thought and continued to provide a nearly flawless accompaniment to all the scenes, perhaps only drowning out the more timid voices. Or in the case of Metalla Cimber, played by Kirsten McCory--who didn't project into the tumultuous crowd enough from the start--they overpowered her with their musical enhancement. But the musicians more than made up for this unavoidable occurance in the echoingly interfering gymnasium with their beautifully haunting vocalizations at Brutus' death. It was after the speeches following Brutus' death that the prisoner-address system again shrilled--this time with the fitting and surreal irony, "Movement is closed." Undeniably so.

Once the merited standing ovation ended--which wasn't entirely the result of four score men reluctantly rising from the comfort of resting on the padding of nearly twenty thread count sheets on top of a basketball court--the first audible eloquence from the first row, and thus clearly heard by the entired gathered cast, was the meticulously deliberate, "That was pretty darn good." The probing supplemental question by the same estimable savant was accompanied by a stained, stubby, sausage-fingered jab at the Butoh dancers and a mumbled, "What's up with these guys?" Thankfully the director was trained to recognize the disparate types of savants and parried with the answer of "What do you think?"

Further superbly sagacious questions were asked--including the haplessly obligatory, "Do you know karate?" to one of the Butoh dancers. Perhaps due to these initial stunted questions, which included a smattering of straightforward questions that were actually answered, the director and others resorted to the immediately annoying refrain of "How do YOU think that question should be answered?" Therefore, when I asked what the press symbolized (played with appropriate vulturous verve by Lori Ellen--with the intriguing technological ingenuity of a distorted amplified microphone), I prefaced my question with the riposte, "Without asking me to answer it myself" statement. Mercifully, this worked and Robin Lynn Smith proved she was clearly capable of doing that thing that artists often--and directors always--do best: explaining their art. In this case she justified the press' anachronism as a way to amplify and symbolize Caesar's celebrity.

But all too soon the pablum interrogations recommenced. One such quizzical query was, "Why do you do this?"--meaning act. To which Reginald Andrè Jackson quipped, "Because I can't do anything else." But then the banality of the questions and comments from the crowd elicited the obsequious praising by the director of "amazing audiences like yourselves"--a repugnant conceit, if true. Although, to be equitable, the director did mention that they had previously performed at, I believe, a children's hospital, so knowing which audience inevitably had more immature outbursts and callow cackles, I refused to blame the director for this polite prevarication. Besides, when pressed by a rare audience member who wanted an actual answer--not just a chance to talk--about the ambiguity of Marc Antony, Robin Lynn Smith admitted that, "to me, he learns a lesson over the course of this play." I only wish that our own amazing audience was capable of such a faculty as well.

I am concerned that the Freehold's Engaged Theatre Program will discover during the forthcoming "writer's workshop" that without the movement, sounds, and colors of the stage, many of their captive audience will reveal themselves as lecherous curs that do not deserve--because they cannot appreciate--the elaborate production that was generously given to us.

As a postscript, when I entered the living unit I asked an acquaintance of mine what he thought of the play and aside from his universal praise he asked me if I could write a play as good as that one. Not sure if he even knew who had actually written the play, I said, "No. He's considered by many to be the best author in the English language, ever." This comment was met with silence. A silence that I wish there had been more of during the actual play.

"Back home, broad-minded is just another way of saying a feller is too lazy to form an opinion."--Will Rogers

KICK MY ASS? Was it possible that this little critique could incite such a response as that? Would somebody really "lay hands on me" for a bunch of words about a play and the response to it?

These were my jittery thoughts during the week after letting that review be released into this little prison community of ours. It wasn't even intended to be either a final draft or mass distributed, though it never was revised and it absolutely got passed along.

What was also passed along was that I'd infuriated some convicts and I'd better "get ready.”

It started of simply enough. In the Advanced Creative Writing class, our teacher, Carol Estes, asked what we thought about starting a newsletter for the University Beyond Bars with some original content. We talked about different features and suddenly I found myself nominated for editor. To be sure, it was a self-nomination.

I knew we had the "Julius Caesar" production in a couple of weeks and I wasted no time in flexing my bulging new editorial muscles and gave my erudite friend Atif the "assignment" to write a review of the play. During the play I took copious notes as well, scheming for an editorial column.

I had no idea what my topic might be since Atif was going to cover the actual play. Then the theme literally screamed out at me.

I admit I came under the influence of this new little power. This was accelerated by the intoxicating rush of the introduction into my life of a new-to-me Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. This potency, mixed liberally with access to the absolute best digital thesaurus in existence, created a blissful buzz. (The Encyclopaedia Brittanica comes with a cheesy Webster's dictionary but an insanely addictive thesaurus; you've been warned, logophiles - beware of succumbing to unrepentant epeolatry.)

At our next Advanced Creative Writing class I had done what we normally do: I passed out about ten copies of my critique for the writers and Carol to read and mark up with any comments and constructive criticism for the following week. They knew what it was intended for, but we'd all previously agreed that we'd have a consensus before anything went in the newsletter.

I heard about the impending confrontation before it happened.

On the other side of the prison, Sam, one of the writers in our class was flying from cell to cell making all sorts of guys read my critique, some who didn't know me--let alone anyone in the writing class. While they read it, Sam asked each one, "Can you believe the arrogance of this guy?"

Before the next class my good friend PJ approached me about it, willing to listen to my side, but clearly upset by what he'd been shown. This wasn't easy for me because I deeply respect PJ. (Not only is he my art-sensei, but I look up to this years-younger-than-me man on how one should do time.)

With a distinct discomfort, I explained as best I could, there on the spot, what I had intended and why. Atif was doing the "normal" review, I was attempting a social commentary critique. I tried to justify the vocabulary and the amplified, ironically affected style as an attempt to...well, it's difficult to know what I initially explained to PJ that finally convinced him that it was worth getting past this, and that I didn't think I was better than him.

That is certainly a healthy percentage of what bothered most people that reacted to my critique. That I, like others, was setting myself above them all. Society, the media, politicians--they (mostly) all look down on us here in prison, but there's a (mostly) accepted common justification for that. The same thing, of course, occurs in prison in how many differentiate from others in here. To be clear, I'm not defending any of this.

In all the "How to be a Better Writer" books I've devoured they often talk about how an antagonist never thinks of himself as totally evil, worthless, and irredeemable. Whether or not they're right, that does seem to be how many people operate in here: I may have committed the act of attempted murder but at least I'm not a --.

Fill in the blank with whatever that heinous guy over there is that in comparison makes you feel incrementally better about yourself. Not that that's a conscious thing in all this self-segregation by one's crime, for one example. Call it a defense mechanism. Call it the "natural" way humans behave. Or simply say that it's emotionally dangerous to allow yourself to be considered--rightly or no--as the lowest of the low without putting someone else below. Again, not defending this (he added, perhaps defensively).

But talking with PJ let me know that if my friends were this concerned then guys like Sam (who isn't exactly someone I "kick it with") would require more than a rambling, disjointed explanation--let alone a completely unwaverable "justified" stance.

I arrived at that next writing class prepared to defend myself, in whatever way necessary. In whatever way I could. Because there weren't enough classrooms we had to share the room with another class, so we had to keep our voices down--likely a good thing. Especially considering it's not as if I ever have to be asked to assert my opinion or to do so with more volume.

We were crammed close around a round table in the corner, about eight guys and Carol. Sam was there, visibly eager and happy to admit it, along with a couple of younger guys that nodded at everything he said.

Sam is a very intentionally laid-back guy with a slightly affected swagger (even while sitting, if you can picture that posture). He seldom fully joins the group, but keeps an eye on everyone from a distance and from behind his amber-tinted glasses. If I consciously remember not to slouch and stretch to my full height of 6'1", I would say Sam isn't all that much bigger than I am, but he carries his broad-shouldered bulk with a calculated detachment that can be intimidating.

What's really intimidating about Sam and convicts like him is that I can't figure them out. I don't know when that "cool" veneer will crack or snap--or what will cause it. When I encounter this attitude outside the classroom comfort of the UBB (where the Convict Code is dramatically lessened) I tend to control myself more, as a few misplaced syllables can and does incite violence.

Unlike normal when he'd hardly say anything at all, Sam started the class by reading from a short, anonymous, typed critique of my critique and his own longer critique while Carol (who had mislaid her copy) was catching up by reading an extra one. As I was taking notes I noticed (and I believe that only I noticed) that the adrenaline caused my hands to shake.

With a distinct smile, Sam's typed and additional comments poured forth, with echoing interjections by a few others. I was an arrogant prick. I was showing off by using thirty words that needed to be looked up. I think I'm better than everybody else. I had been seen checking women out on the "breezeway" so I'm in no position to judge. I wasn't really that offended by the crowd's behavior. I'm a judgmental snob. My pretentiousness only shows my own insecurity. I'm a hypocrite. It wasn't fair of me to criticize these guys who had never seen that type of language before. There's something missing or wrong with me for needing to lash out like that. I shouldn't blame them for how they act because what I expect of them just isn't what's common or normal. And when I confirmed that I had indeed given a copy of my review to the director at the "writer's workshop" we'd just had, I was the one making the crowd look bad and why we'll never have this kind of thing again.

While this all poured out, I corrected the belief that I had used some of the words incorrectly by referring to my prepared list, thinking that might be needed. I did, in fact, know what "cur" meant. And "pablum" is an accepted alternate spelling to "pabulum"--one with an ironic secondary definition. But otherwise I allowed all that to wash over me, uninterrupted.

Carol had completed reading it during all this and clearly thought it was funny. Her laughter during this onslaught quelled my hand some. As did her adding that she felt it was less harsh than some of the others thought. Though to be fair, she didn't need it pointed out that lines like the "two callow-youths" weren't my wording, but were borrowed from the play. She later added that, "What Jeff's doing is being a critic."

My friend Atif had helped me focus what I'd written in an earlier draft to be tighter, more consistent, and even actually convinced me to tone it down some (rightly claiming that I wasn't a good enough writer to pull off my initial full satirical stance). He pointed out to the table that no one was claiming that these things didn't happen. And no one was defending the behavior of those select crowd members because it was indefensible.

Carol and Atif didn't seem to convince them, though.

Nor did my not exactly well-reasoned but consciously calm explanation.

I absolutely do enjoy the whimsical play of language (I like to think that that does show--even if sometimes annoyingly so). Following the examples of many authors (like Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, and David Foster Wallace) I believe any word in the dictionary is fair game, if used for a precise purpose.

You would have to have a pretty low opinion of yourself not to think that you're better than some in here who are not only defiantly proud of what they did to get here, but hope to do it again. And any sort of politically correct pleading that we're all equal is either monumentally misinformed or simply disingenuous.

One inevitably makes judgments in everything. "Non-judgmental" and "judgmental" are not genuine alternatives; they are words used when someone dislikes the judgments somebody else makes. In fact (and this is a well-worn point I love to riposte with) not to judge what's right or wrong or socially acceptable is impossible--that is, the common ways in which these words are used are incoherent. It's typical for people to have judgments that their knowledge doesn't warrant, and if they never air them they will never be available for criticism from others. Judgment that escapes the crucible of social criticism will never develop into judicious discernment. And that's how we, collectively, improve ourselves and our behavior.

To be sure, I have looked at attractive women and "checked them out." But I believe there's a difference between an appreciative glance from afar and disrespectful, juvenile catcalls. Or worse. But even if there's not a distinct enough difference, does that really negate my right to say anything about anyone else's behavior? Even though I'm not perfect, should my fear of being accused of hypocrisy silence my criticisms?

Regardless of whether one has ever heard Shakespearian language or been to any play, anyone older than twelve knows what's considerate, polite, appropriate behavior--and this is true even if they, individually, disregard that knowledge when in the safety of a large crowd.

As for my giving a copy of my critique to the Freehold's Engaged Theatre people, I had no defense. But Carol later said the director appreciated both Atif's and my reviews (though we didn't know that then).

Certainly the "discussion" wasn't this linear, but even with interruptions and leading questions we never drew attention to ourselves among the other class in the room. No (severely) raised voices. No threats, vocalized or otherwise. And little actual critique of my writing (as opposed to the obvious opposition of my content, vocabulary, and arrogance). Though they may not have been convinced by any rebuttals to their complaints, they seemed pacified. Their fuss and fury fizzled.

Then our time was up and so too, right around that time, was our collective motivation for our newsletter. At least in that form, for then.

But as for my critique, it's still known and spoken of some nearly two years later, legendary in its notoriety.

"(W)e've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious, and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands." --Neal Stephenson,"In the Beginning...Was the Command Line"

WHAT STUCK MORE than the potential physical and the actual verbal confrontation and more than the reverberating reactions I elicited is my own questioning of what my motives were for writing that piece. Or rather, whether or not that particular critique was all that it was accused of being, why do I derive pleasure out of arguing, debating, and all those related confrontations?

I hate that I actually can enjoy these sorts of verbal and mental battles--at least I hate how willing I am to attack. So I am trying--always consciously and sometimes desperately--not to be the argumentative asshole that I know I can be. That I can be phenomenally well.

I don't know if I learned it from my father, but I certainly can default into that whole attitude of finding some lone line, some illogical belief, some frayed thread of conversation and pull on that perceived flaw until it unravels. But what's worse than succumbing to that character flaw is knowing why, exactly, I have done that.

Because it's one thing to honestly believe that someone else is wrong and go about in a non-hurtful attempt to correct that behavior or attitude or belief, if only even slightly. But it's an entirely different thing to lay in wait for some weakness to present itself (or to intentionally, methodically, drop depth charges searching out those submersed vulnerabilities) all in order to relieve some boredom. Or worse.

There's something in particular that scares me about this. I've been locked up, essentially, since before the internet burst forth. Yes, my sister kindly prints out copies of some of her favorites, funny blogs. And I see on TV and read what's to be found on all those shiny corporate sites advertised on the surface of the internet. But what's intimidating is what lurks deeper, where corporate sponsorship dare not dwell, where bottom feeding bullies pray for the chance to prey on the weak.

It's the concept of those predatory fanatical diatribes that scare me the most. Oh, not what they say, because I'm assuming that it's easy enough to avoid those sometimes anonymous angry people spewing vitriolic venom in the dark.

No, what scares me is that I know that, if I so let myself, I could become one of those shrill, ranting, bitter men lashing out from the comforting safety of the darkness. I can disassemble a series of statements down to their raw nerves and grind rock salt in the wounds. I can lay verbal traps and then pounce in "victory." Better than even my own well-experienced father.

I have used arguments as entertainment. And the only thing more disgusting than my deft destructiveness in that is the temporary selfish pleasure it has given me.

Perhaps an illustration will not only prove what I'm capable of, but also get you to feel as disgusted with my (hopefully only) former self as I am.

A few years ago I had an office job where we had more time to talk and debate than do much of that "work" stuff.

I had, some years prior, made a decidedly sharp break from my adult-onset Christianity experiment here in prison. It didn't take. Like a mismatched transplanted organ, my body eventually rejected this foreign tissue, violently.

I've since stabilized down to an accepting, calm, and unobtrusive agnostic/atheist--a vacillation that depends on my willingness to commit to something so intangible as an absolute emphatic declaration of non-. But back then, after not only no longer being a Christian anymore, but also gladly renouncing being a (reluctant) Bible Study teacher, I was rinsing out some of the acerbic aftertaste. Unfortunately for the people around me then, I spat some of that vile bile out at them.

One day, a couple of co-workers and I got to talking about rape and/or religion. And as fast as the thought flashed, I declared, "God's a rapist."

I outlined my reasons for this and I was then challenged, "I bet you won't tell that theory to Dave."

I'm not one who often succumbs to such social pressure. I certainly could have backed down under such an accusation. But even knowing the discomfort (if not pain) I was about to inflict didn't stop me. I sent for our extremely Christian friend. Dave's a hard guy not to like: always asleep, or happy. And he's the rare human who gives you his full, undivided attention all the time. Plus, he never forces his religion on anyone, even though he's an emphatic capital-B Believer.

When he arrived, expectantly, I restarted my theory. I asked the question, "If you could wave a magic wand over a sleeping woman and without touching her in any way yet still get her pregnant, then would that be a type of rape?"

It doesn't take much to get from that premise to the Holy Spirit committing a type of rape on the Virgin Mary, if and only if she didn't give her permission. (And add to that the prison stigma of rape for an extra twist of the knife.)

But what was so gut-twistingly horrible to me was watching my likely-not-for-long friend's face go from happy and smiling to tight and red. Even as I was laying out my unhumble claim I wanted to stop, but I either couldn't or wouldn't let myself.

Coercing an answer to my hypothesis, as I did, likely could've killed the friendship between Dave and I except that overnight somebody performed that unheard of check-the-source research feat and I was shown that Mary was, indeed, asked and she was all kinds of willing. So I took that verse to Dave and apologized. Being who he is, he of course forgave me. (Though I should have apologized without that verse.)

Now, some years later, I no longer have such a spirited enmity with that religion. I believe I fully entrusted myself to it for many futile years, but then I came to believe that it not only gave nothing back, but that it couldn't. So I eventually spewed it all out like the proverbial lukewarm water.

But my point here isn't about religion, it's that no matter the topic I now know I must be wary of those potential arguments that are so often pointless (because my oh so sage counsel convinces none), and destructive (to healthy relationships), and mean (because of how hard I'm capable of hitting).

I don't resort of arguing out of boredom anymore (I'm not only far too busy for that, I have learned to recognize the warning signs and defuse that dangerous powder keg). But I still have to consciously control myself from ever getting personal, vicious, or just plain disrespectful in any "legitimate" debates or disagreements that I allow myself to enter cautiously.

More than that, though, I know that going forward in my conversation or writing I'm okay with having and expressing my (yes, judgmental) opinions--and, of course, willing to defend them if, indeed, they're justifiable--but there's nothing wrong with pulling my punches some. There's nothing wrong with making sure I'm not carpet bombing, with nukes, a pesky flea in the rug. And there's nothing wrong with realizing that such hollow, bland "victories"--in person or on paper--have a half-life shorter than any half-chuckles my logical or literary loop-de-loops might've elicited.

I can't say that I'm now "saved" from all this bestial behavior or that I'll never backslide, but no matter how mawkish it might seem or trite it actually is, I know that what's important to me is wanting to be a better, not a bitter, man. Right now and going forward. Because not to want to continually strive to be more kind and compassionate and empathetic (even if right reason might be on your side) is truly to be senseless. Or worse.

          --May 2012

Jeff C.

Friday, June 8, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part 3

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 2 can be read HERE

The Greeks believed that the realm of Tartarus held five rivers. The first, the river of Hate, is more commonly known as the Styx. I had paid the ferryman his due on December 10th, and from that point forward was officially a citizen of the chthonian realms. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I vaulted Mr. Ramos’s steel fence I was also leaping across the Acheron, the river of woe. In Mexico, nearly every street can be the Acheron, if you aren’t careful.

There are about 1,650 species of cactus worldwide, and most of these can be found in Mexico. As it so happens, a significant portion of this subset could also be found precisely where I landed when I hopped the fence. In the beginning was the word, and the word was holyfuckingshit! I don’t suppose that I have ever been especially graceful, but that moment counts as one of the most markedly inelegant of my entire life. After disentangling myself from nature’s cruel and pointy embrace, I dropped my pack in the dirt and picked a few spines from various sensitive portions of my anatomy. As I did this, I also surveyed my new kingdom. Immediately to my right was a large mesquite tree, its boughs teeming with yellowish seedpods that I would eventually learn to chew on for sustenance. Just beyond this was a long line of bamboo shoots that reached 30 or 40 feet into the air, which had been laid down following the fence line. This green wall extended for perhaps 100 feet or so, and made an odd creaking noise in the breeze. It was the shadows from the bamboo fence and mesquite tree which had conspired with the twilight to give cover to my murderous cactus, and I could only shake my head at my own stupidity for having picked this portion of the enclosure to cross.

Immediately beyond the mesquite tree was a metal tower crowned with a windmill. I walked up to this first, as I did not recall having ever seen one in person. The frame extended perhaps 60 feet into the air, and was set into a cinderblock base that prevented anyone from falling headlong into the well. I picked up a small stone and let it drop, and a few seconds later I was rewarded with a small splash. The air coming from the well felt wondrously cool. A hammock was strung out nearby from what I believed were two laurel trees. My gaze shifted to the large barn-like structure in the distance, and almost immediately a dark form detached itself from the shadows pooling about its base.

Some part of my weary brain must have detected the gait of a large dog, because I quickly removed my jacket and began wrapping it around my arm, in case it became necessary. It didn’t. Almost immediately I recognized the signs of a creature immensely pleased with my arrival: the helicopter tail  flapping about with a violence that took its entire backside along for the ride, a carefree pace totally lacking in wariness, and a tongue that lolled about goofily. I held out my hand, fingers tucked in, and it gave my fist a quick lick before it started dancing around me crazily. I dropped down on my haunches and began rubbing the beast on the head and ears, while it gave me a good sniffing.

He - I checked - seemed to be a black Labrador, though one crossed with something much larger, like a mastiff or an elephant. I had grown up with labs, and knew their temperament as well as any animal, including human beings. Actually, Labradors pretty much constituted all of the experience I had with animals of the wild, so I considered this a very lucky break. Had he been a Rottweiler, I probably would have re-initiated my romance with the cactus.

It didn’t look like he got a lot of attention, because almost instantly he fell on his side and exposed his tummy, which I dutifully scratched. As I did, the rest of the ranch slowly came to life. I didn’t know if my arrival had caused my fellow denizens of Chez Benzoylmethylecgonine to silence themselves, or if I were simply waking up to signs that had first eluded me. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I began to see cats stalking around everywhere. I would eventually find seven of them, which Mr. Ramos dubbed his anti-snake security system. In the distance I could hear what I took to be horses clomping about, though Rudy’s story of his father’s tame bull suddenly flashed through my mind. Needless to say, I proceeded with caution. The building, which I had taken to be some sort of barn, was actually two rows of small rooms, lined up in parallel rows. On the left side were five compartments, which were obviously stables of some sort. In the dim light I could make out names painted in white on the cinder block walls: El Blanca, Blackie, El Marrano, El Rey de los Pollos, and El Bastardo. I reached into my pack for my dictionary, and translated these: White One, Blackie, the Pig, and the King of Chickens.

I hardly needed to look up the last.

“You must be Blackie, right?” The lab was still happily bounding about in my wake, so I took this as an affirmative. The other row of rooms was larger, and consisted of four domiciles. The first three of these were only partially completed, and two lacked even a roof. The final cabin had windows and a metal door. I took my lighter out of my pocket and flicked it to life as I stepped inside. A queen-sized bed sat in one corner of the room, which was perhaps 225 sq. ft. Next to the bed was a set of drawers and a large igloo cooler, which was empty. On the wall to my right was a light switch, which stubbornly ignored my attempts to summon Prometheus’ gift. However, I did notice an old-fashioned oil lamp sitting on the top of a bedside table, which I lit before continuing my inspection. In the drawers I found a large assortment of lotions, aromatherapy candles, essential oils, a set of fuzzy pink handcuffs, and a steel blue .380 pistol. Under the bed I located a military style cot folded in on itself, which I decided to use. Whatever went on in this room, I wanted no part of it.

Around the back of the complex was a park with wooden tables and around twenty mesquite trees. Underneath several of these, I found masses of construction equipment covered in blue tarps. I also found a small cottage, which was stacked with saddles and ropes of a bewildering variety. Leaning against one corner of the cabin was a massive, 15 by 10 foot metal sign, which reflected the light of my lantern fiercely. I reached out and ran my fingers over the surface, which appeared to be similar to that of highway signs in the US. I retrieved my dictionary again, and slowly translated the text. It read: Vote PRI! We’re the Safest Choice! I paused for a moment, trying to imagine the nature of a political party that would choose an election slogan more appropriate to that of a brand of condoms. As to why this obviously costly behemoth was hidden behind an equipment shed high in the Sierra Madre Occidental, I hadn’t a clue.

Neither did I have a clue as to the whereabouts of the men who could provide me with answers to these riddles. Rudy and his father had clearly been waylaid, but I didn’t have nearly enough information at hand to know whether I should be concerned about this fact. I was hundreds of miles from any landmark I could identify, in a country whose tongue was foreign to me, and my only guides were a lamp that was ancient when Darwin was aboard the Beagle and a dog that seemed to have Red Bull for blood. There are many synonyms for lost and I was one with all of them.

The final river in Hades is the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. In the Aeneid, Anchises shows Aeneas and the Sibyl how souls purified of sin and error would congregate on its shores, and drink of its waters. This act wiped their memories clean, and they would then ascend into the bright world above to be reborn. I knew nothing of this at the time but I was desperately in need of these waters, to have a mind free from contemplation and reflection and the cancer of reminiscence. Having nothing else to do, I moved the cot into Blackie’s stable and set about reorganizing the room. As always, Blackie seemed tickled pink by this, at least until I produced a broom and began sweeping out the dust. Upon sight of this instrument, he vanished, tail between his legs. When I stuck my head out the door to see where he had gone, I saw him huddled against the wall, his head down. His look was so forlorn that it nearly broke through the wall of ice that I needed to separate myself from the emotions of what I had done and how I had ended up here. I put the broom down and began to rub on him again, and he licked my palm a few times.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I told him. “I won’t hit you with anything, so long as you don’t leave me alone here, ok?”

He kept licking my hand, which I took to be the doggy equivalent of a handshake. Of course he didn’t understand my words; but in almost two years down there he never broke our deal. Neither did I.

Neither Mr. Ramos nor Rudy showed up that night. Tormented by visions of the potential permutations of the events unfolding in Houston, visions of Her, sleep was nowhere on my radar. I ended up taking my tennis shoes out of my pack, and placed my Ferragamo loafers in the bottom dresser drawer in the Love Shack. Aside from a few events like weddings and quinceneras, I would never touch them again, just one of many items from my old life that mattered until they didn’t anymore.

The desert sprawled out around the ranch, battling for territorial dominance with the mountains. I wandered through it in ever-widening circles until well past 3 AM, guided only by the light of the Milky Way sprawled out above me. I was a city boy through and through, more comfortable with forays into the deep end of a wine list than an alien wasteland filled with all manner of clever and painful ways to die. I didn‘t know it, but these were the first messy steps on a long journey that would eventually see me become a true creature of the desert.

After hours of trying to run from myself, Blackie and I returned to the ranch. My new friend had a curious habit, which I was to discover after I had laid down. He would plant his huge stone of a head down on my chest, sometimes completely sideways. At first I thought he simply wanted his ears scratched, but after a few nights I realized that it was something else, something deeper. In fact, Blackie could not get sleepy until he had done this ritual for at least a few minutes, after which he would sprawl out beside the cot and fall instantly into dreamland. Growing up, my family had purchased a black lab puppy from a close friend of mine. She was the runt of the litter, which for some reason was important to me. I had wanted to name her Shadow, but was voted down by my brother’s choice, Susie.

When we first brought Susie home, she whined and yelped piteously for hours on end. A neighbor recommended that we take an old analog clock, wrap it in a blanket, and set it beside her in her house. It worked like a charm, the steady cadence of the clock reminiscent of her mother’s heart. I didn’t know it that first night, but the both of us were searching in the dark for some trace of my own heart, a shriveled and wounded creature long ago listed on the endangered species list. No vestige of it had been seen for years, and few signs of it would be found for many months yet. I eventually fell asleep with my hand hanging off the side of the cot, resting on the gentle tide of Blackie’s stomach.

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of chickens scrabbling around in the dirt outside my door. I must have only slept for a few hours, but once I realized where I was I couldn’t rest. The land around the ranch was somehow more fearsome in the full light of day, the craggy peaks more forbidding. I decided to take a shower, and soon discovered that, in addition to a distinct lack of electricity, Papa Ramos’s ranch was devoid of a water heater. As unpleasant as this fact was, my primary concern was ensuring that I didn’t swallow any of the water. The last thing I needed was for Montezuma to get his revenge while I was still effectively clueless as to what the afternoon might bring.

Afterwards, I explored the ranch again, and found the horses in the back pasture. They didn’t seem terribly interested in getting to know me, and this relieved me a bit. The cats managed to simultaneously glare at and ignore me, in that manner that cats have. By midday, I had started to grow hungry. I had found bags of dog and cat food, and oats for the horses, but nothing remotely resembling people food. I recalled that there were several depositos back at the edge of town, but I didn’t think it a good idea to expose myself to the natives just yet. After wandering around in circles for hours, I had become in dire need of some amnesiac activities. In my youth, I had worked summers for my family’s masonry business, lugging mortar up scaffolds, laying brick and block, and installing thousands upon thousands (upon thousands) of wall ties. It was obvious from the wreckage that no one had even contemplated finishing the work on the other cabins in years. Exploring the materials I found under the tarps, I realized that there were no gaps in my knowledge that would prevent me from working on this.

I had never had to mix concrete by hand, and it took me some time to work out the best way to manage this with one arm still smarting from a 9-millimeter hollow point injection. Perhaps my largest problem was that Blackie seemed incapable of staying out of the mortar. Each time he buried his snout in it, or pranced on top of it, or laid down in it to cool himself off, I had to drag him to the windmill, where a spigot pumped up ice-cold water through a hose. By the time Papa Ramos eventually showed up - alone - I had added three layers of Cinder block to one wall, and was in the process of trying to clean concrete off of 120lbs of wriggling dog. What he must have thought of his idiot dog and even more idiotic illegal alien ward I cannot say, because we did not speak. By the time I had washed Blackie off the Hammer had departed again. In the finished cabin I found a small plastic bag with several orders of tacos and a few bottles of water. Not knowing how long I would have to make these last, I ate two tacos and set the rest in the igloo. It is a good thing that I did, because I wouldn’t see him again for another 8 days.

To be continued…

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