Friday, July 27, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part 4

by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 3 can be read HERE

In an essay on Proust, Samuel Beckett wrote that habit substitutes the boredom of living for the suffering of being. That statement ranks pretty high on the list of things I know to be demonstrably true about being human, but is also somewhat incomplete. Under normal circumstances, mowing the lawn on Saturday mornings or leaving for work at exactly 8:15 might take some of the edge off a creeping sensation of pointlessness or abject failure, but no amount of routine can ever completely cover up the misery of having become something that you cannot explain. It is easy to dismiss greeting card metaphors for the heart as being merely collections of trite nonsense, but I was discovering that the heart really can hurt in physical terms as well as emotional ones. Pushed hard enough, it really can break.

Deprived of any direction or guidance, my life fell into a steady routine, beginning sometime around daybreak when the chickens began to flutter about. I still didn't know which of them was "the King," and the royal court didn't seem inclined towards spilling the secret. Aside from the frenzied excitement, which greeted my dumping of dried corn on the ground, they didn't seem overly interested in paying me much mind. The three horses eventually started to grace me with their presence, and I discovered quickly that this was solely because their trough was empty. Filling it was a hassle, as the hose from the well only reached about 1/10th of the way to the trough. As I fumed about bad estate logistics, I filled painters bucket after bucket and lugged them 100 yards into the back section of the ranch. I distracted myself by calculating the weight of each trip: a gallon of water equals 8 pounds, times 6 gallons per bucket, times 29 trips... Once I had satisfied them, they went back to ignoring me. The army of cats never stopped disregarding me, being cats. Only Blackie paid me any attention, and he did so to a degree that seemed to indicate he was attempting to make up for the inhospitality of his fellow animals.

This was both reassuring and humorous, but also a little annoying. After my frigid morning shower, he was waiting for me outside the cabin door. When I started mixing concrete, he was trying to bite the water as it rushed out of the hose. When I set my plumb lines, he bit them and ran off with them; when I laid a new line of block, he would try to climb on top of them. Actually, I was coming to understand that Blackie had a sort of pathological compulsion about climbing on top of things, and this included the wall surrounding the well. When I saw him stumbling around on top of it, one slip from a very long and fatal drop, I stopped working on the cabins and added about two feet of height to the partition. He didn't look pleased by this development. Those of us not born with great intelligence seldom notice or appreciate the things other people do for us.

While I worked, I memorized my dictionary. Everything I touched, I looked up: mortar, mezcla; hose, manguera. At night, I would make lists of important words by candlelight, to use the next day: Buenas tardes, me llamo es .... Before long, I was forcing myself to think in Spanish and not say anything out loud unless I could also say it in both languages. Never before or since have I felt so incompetent, so weak and impotent. You don't realize just how monstrously complex a thing language is until you lose it.

After making my lists, I roamed the desert, trying to ignore the increasingly violent hunger pangs radiating out from my belly. I didn't know how long I was to be ignored by Mr. Ramos, but the tacos he left me only lasted for three days before they started to smell off. Each night it became increasingly difficult not to roam closer and closer to the distant glow of lights that was Cerralvo. I began to reason that perhaps it might be a good idea to do a little reconnaissance, just in case. Yes, recon, and I'd better take some money with me, just in case. I slapped these thoughts down as soon as they popped up, but before long they started to make progressively more sense. Reason is a fine thing when you are ensconced in a leather chair in your study, perusing a work on Kant or Gettier. In the desert, the sand can wear it away, just like everything else.

On one such excursion, I located a soccer field maintained by the city. There was no grass, no markings, just dirt, two goals, and a set of aluminum bleachers covered by a rusting metal awning. Before I realized that a decision had been made, my legs were moving, and I was circling the field in laps. Blackie joined me for a time, then lost interest and wandered off to meet one of his girlfriends. I had always enjoyed running, but this was something else, a desperate, ugly thing: an obvious desire to obliterate the last vestiges of consciousness. My memory of that night is hazy. I know that I ran for hours, past the cramps in my side and pains in my knee. I know that I vomited at least twice, never stopping. I know that at some point I passed out, and didn't wake up until the sun backlit the mountains in the distance. My legs were on fire, and I quickly discovered that this was because they were covered in large red ants. The last thing I remember is that I did the exact same thing every night for nearly four months (minus the ants).

By my fifth day in Mexico, the tacos were a distant memory, and I was down to my last 5 or so ounces of water. I couldn't remember how long a person could go without eating, but knew it wasn't long without water. It wasn't helping matters that I had an entire well of the stuff right in front of me, and yet couldn't touch any of it without running the risk of microbe-induced misery. By mid-afternoon, I realized that the dull ache in my head was probably caused by serious dehydration and that I had simply run out of options. It was time for a drink. I remembered that the Love Shack had a small collection of five or six cups, so I went and retrieved one. I filled it with surprisingly clean, ice-cold water, and toasted Blackie before downing it. It may have been filled to the brim with tiny monsters soon to blitzkrieg my immune system, but it tasted better going down than any Chateau Petrus. I suspected that it would taste markedly worse making the return trip.

I also resolved that I was going into town that night, if I could be pried away from the toilet. I didn't know what the chances were that someone might recognize my face from a news story seen on the internet, but I knew that they had to be significantly less than the odds of me dying from hunger in the near future, which were starting to trend towards one hundred percent. By nightfall, my stomach was still situated inside my body, and I put on a clean t-shirt and a hat and started off towards town. I only took ten dollars, because I knew it was never a good idea to go shopping for food when you are hungry, and I was on a budget. I was uneasy during the hike, and more than a little angry. Angry at myself for being here, at the bloody Hammer for dumping me in the boonies, and at my stomach for shredding my willpower. All day, my eyes had been finding words in my dictionary dealing with food, which probably had not helped matters any. The road leading to the Ramos' ranch exited onto the main highway near an area known as "la curva," a notorious example of bad highway engineering that caused at least several drunken accidents each weekend, as the highway took an irrational and apparently unexpected curve eastward for no reason whatsoever. I paused at the edge of the macadam, surveying my options. From this vantage, I could see three depositos within walking distance, bright Carta Blanca and Corona signs blazing in the dark. None of them looked particularly busy, but I decided to walk to the second one because it looked the least prosperous, which I reasoned equated to less well traveled.

Depositos come in all shapes and sizes. Many are large enough to drive through (like this one owned by "associates" of Mr. Ramos).

Image by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

All of them have names, and the one I had chosen went by the identifier of "Las Lomas," or, the hills. The establishment was very modest, consisting of a single large room divided by a large partition. The wares were displayed along two walls, and consisted entirely in mass-market comfort food. A large soda cooler dominated the far wall, and made an unnatural wheezing noise that sounded roughly like someone with tuberculosis. As I took the scene in, I noticed that the concrete behind the shelving units was stained, and I could follow these tracks up the ceiling. There was so much water damage that I figured the place must look like a stream after a good rain. I couldn't see anyone from the front door, and wasn't really sure how to proceed. I decided it seemed proper to identify myself, lest someone think I was trying to steal something.

"Ah, buenas noches?"

The wheezing ceased and I realized with a start that it wasn't the soda cooler making the noise, but rather something alive on the other side of the partition. Something massive, by the sounds it was making, which reminded me of the squeaking noise my grandfather used to make when he pried himself out of his leather chair, times a million. An enormously fat woman in her mid-40's soon squeezed through the partition, attempting to set a pair of bifocals on her nose. Perhaps "fat" is not the correct adjective here, but my mind cannot summon a word corpulent enough to describe the Senora Castillo. She was continental, planetary, and I am still amazed to this day that a mass that large didn't possess its own gravity well heavy enough to suck the bags of chips and pastries off the wall and put them into orbit. Still, for all that, her face lit up in the most guileless, genuine smile I had seen in years, and she launched into a rapid-fire sequence of Spanish that I tried to snatch out of the air and inspect.

I didn't understand more than one word in seven or eight, but I definitely managed to comprehend "Don Gelo's American son,” which complicated things a bit. It was obvious that the Hammer had expected my arrival here and had prepared a legend of sorts, but hadn't bothered to include me in those he told it to. I didn't know how to play this, so I mostly smiled and nodded like a buffoon. Secretly I had hoped that I would find someone that evening to converse with, because for all of his energy, Blackie wasn't much of a talker. The Senora didn't seem troubled by the fact that I obviously wasn't participating in the platica, but in truth her demeanor was so positive I instantly felt better merely being around her. She wasted no time grabbing a plastic sack and began filling it with food. She didn't seem to consider that I might have likes or dislikes, but by that point I probably would have eaten her shoe so I said nothing. When I tried to pay, she refused to take my money, and said that my "father" had pre-paid. I insisted, and she merely pushed my cash off the counter onto the floor, and blew a jet of air out her nose, as if dismissing it. I looked down at my feet, and back at her, before thanking her and walking off. I returned to that deposito many times over the next months, and she always made me feel welcome. Hardly anyone ever stood up to her, so my refusal to pick up my money somehow endeared me to her. Within a year, I would have resealed her concrete roof, and she would try to marry me off to three of her daughters.

I finished the southern wall of cabin one two days later. There was still a large hole needing to be filled with a window, but now the block went all of the way up to where the roofline would one day be, and I was pleased. As I took a break to appreciate my handiwork, I noticed that Blackie was standing up facing the city, and had his ears cocked at a curious angle. I couldn't see or hear anything at first, but within a few seconds I began to detect a faint bass line approaching. Thinking that perhaps El Smiley might be returning to pick me up, I retrieved my knife from where I had secured it under my cot and slid it into my back pocket.

By the time I had returned to the front of the ranch, a discernible dust cloud had developed on the prairie, and within seconds a silver late model BMW 3-Series coupe slid to a stop in front of the gate. The windows were down, and I couldn't see how the driver still had intact eardrums given the decibel level of the music pouring out of them. The car was parked at such an angle that the sun was reflecting off of the glass windshield, so I couldn't tell how many passengers were inside. Whoever it was, they seemed content to merely watch me for a time. Having no other options, I returned the gaze.

After perhaps two minutes of this, the music clicked off, and a short man with a neat beard stepped out. He was wearing a suit of all things, an expensive double-vented three-button affair sans a tie. His boots were what drew your attention, some sort of pointy-toed cowboy affair, done up in electric blue ostrich skin. They were stupendous, the sort of thing a Mexican rock star might wear. He approached the gate at a comfortable pace, and vaulted the fence with such ease that I could tell this was a man very much aware of his physical abilities. His smile was broad, his teeth white. Still, there was something just slightly off about him, like seeing a very good counterfeit copy of the Mona Lisa; you couldn't tell exactly what was wrong, but you knew that something was out of place. As he approached, his eyes flicked over to the now completed wall of the cabin.

"The fuck you fixing this shithole up for? The old man tell you to do that? You know he's gonna turn this into a whorehouse? Fucker thinks he's still 18."

I was expecting something else, anything else, in Spanish. It took me a moment to switch gears back into English mode. Even then, I wasn't really sure how to respond. Finally I just sighed and shrugged. "It seemed like it needed to be done."

"So, that's you, then? Mr. Tough Guy, who can ‘get things done.” That your deal?"

Again, I didn't really know how to take this character so I just stared at him.

"Yeah, yeah, easy, Tough Guy. I'm just messin’ with you. The name's Chespy." He paused. "And you are?"

I scratched my nose and looked off over his shoulder for a second. "Well, Chespy, to be honest with you, that seems to be something of an unsettled matter at present."

"See, there you are wrong. Your name is Rogelio "Rudy" Ramos, Jr. Your mother was some American whore that your pops fucked back in Orlando in the early 70s, which is pretty much what he did to every broad in the state. You just discovered your dad was a Mexican, and had to fucking 'figure yourself out' or some such whiny Americano sensitive bullshit. Here's your identity back."

He slipped a manila folder from his back pocket with a royal flourish and tossed it to me. Inside was a Texas driver’s license and birth certificate, both with my photo attached to someone else's name. I looked close, but couldn't see any flaws. If these were forgeries, they were the best I'd ever seen. I would learn later that they were most certainly not fakes, but genuine documents.

"Those are temporaries. We will invent a new you in a few months, get you the whole deal: federal driver's license, IFE card, military service card, passport, everything. We might get you a second set of Canadian papers just to play it safe."

"You can do that?"

His faced changed - somehow. I cannot explain it. Maybe his facial muscles relaxed or tightened, or perhaps the muscle under his right eye twitched, or something. I can only say that something shifted, something nearly nameless and unspeakable but very much real, and the temperature level in the air around him dropped out of the basement. It was at this moment that I first realized that Blackie was nowhere to be seen.

"We can do anything."

I swallowed and was suddenly very happy that I had my sunglasses on and that he couldn't see my eyes. I flailed about for something to say.

"Nice car."

His faced changed again - back to normal. “Ah, she's fucking beautiful, isn't she? I have to take her to Monterrey this weekend to sell her."

"That's a pity."

"Yes, it is always rough when I see her drive off."

Something about the way he said this sounded wrong, and I cycled it through a few times before responding. "You've sold it more than once?

He nodded. "Oh yes, this will be the 17th time."

I closed my eyes for a moment. "I don't suppose you ever remember to tell the potential buyers about the onboard GPS unit, then?"

He feigned ditziness. "You know, I always seem to forget to mention that little selling point. Or that I have a spare set of keys I'm not turning over. How careless of me. But hey, I always let them have at least one weekend with it."

"You're a saint, clearly."

"Fuck yes, that is what I keep trying to tell everyone."

Chespy stayed for about an hour. Blackie never returned. Later I would realize that he never allowed me to get close to him. It wasn't obvious, he just always managed to shift around so that he had about 20 feet between us. I guessed that El Smiley had told him about my knife, and he was keeping enough space between us to be able to pull a pistol from his waistband if I got frisky. I eventually figured out why he had come to see me.

"Look, Chespy, let's cut to the chase. You are here to read my jacket, and I'm fine with that. I've played along with you, answered your questions freely. Make your report, your decisions, do whatever you need to do. But this situation has got to change. If Ramos doesn't want me here, give me the papers we agreed to at the border and I'm gone. If not, you have to at least clue me in to the story, because I'm a risk to everyone when you keep me in the dark like this."

He stared at me for a moment before nodding. "Fair enough. You will get your answer soon enough."

With that he bid me a good day and departed. It would be more than a year before I came to fully understand just how much danger I had been in, that Chespy was not a car thief or a coyote or even a drug dealer, but rather a serial killer in the prime of his career for the cartels. When the military caught up with him in June of 2005 in Piedras Negras, he mowed down 8 soldiers with some sort of automatic cannon he had propped up on his balcony's railing. When commandos stormed his condo, he detonated enough Semtex 2 to send a portion of his building's roof into the swimming pool of a building two blocks away. It made all of the news programs in the nation for at a few days.

The next day Papa Ramos, my new father, apparently, graced me with his presence. I couldn't read anything in his expression, and I was coming to understand he did not speak often. Instead of trying to engage him, I dove into the silence and lost myself in its stream for a bit, before he pulled me back up.

"I think eez time we take a ride."

I nodded, suddenly extremely tired. I didn't know what "take a ride meant," but I was about done with trying to swallow down all of this fear. Wherever we were headed, it had to be better than here. I was officially throwing in the towel, if it came to that. I half expected him to point the truck further into the desert. Instead, we drove into town, to meet the rest of my new family.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Circuitous Route of Books

By Reginald S. Lewis

A cold, blustery wind blew furiously through Graterford maximum-security prison in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. I lowered my gaze and turned my face away from the violent gale that tossed a million sharp daggers past the stern-faced guards escorting me to the separate visiting room for death-row inmates.

The steel door slammed shut behind me and the loud jangling of keys and chains muffled the hissing sound of the wind as the young Corrections Officer struggled to remove the handcuffs attached to the thick leather belt looped around my waist.

My heart thumped with the voluminous thunder of African drums as I waited for my visitors to arrive. I thought about the mission we were about to fulfill. Several weeks earlier, my request had been granted for the visitors to be issued a "gate pass." They had volunteered for the task- and fully supported my decision- to donate my extensive collection of books to the library at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice in Philadelphia's Mount Airy section.

I had been constantly reminded to reduce my cell content, although prisoners on death row didn't have much of anything. During impromptu shakedowns, they seized my typewriter, my notes and manuscripts, and all my books (even the three I‘d written). It stifled my creativity and intellectual freedom to soar over the high stone walls of an oppressive prison.

Had a crime been committed that these books had been written? I wondered. These books were now crammed into small cardboard boxes and condemned to a sedentary life in the dust-covered property room of Graterford prison.

There had to be a better life for the books, I thought.

I began searching for a school or library or charitable organization that would take my books- a home that would properly care for them and provide a loving, stable environment where they'd be read, valued, discussed, and debated.

I found a list of local schools and their "Donation Wish List 2007"- Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice needs “books in good condition and up-to-date for our library.“ I contacted the school's principle. "Yes. We are very interested in your book donations. Our library is still in its infancy. Your contributions would be greatly appreciated," they replied.

I then performed the slow, laborious task of selecting books to be donated. My heart sunk as I picked up Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (signed by great best selling writer Sol Stein - Baldwin‘s childhood friend and editor). I ran my fingers over the smooth, white glossy cover of Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. I put into another box Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, and plopped down Wrapped in Rainbows- the biography of Zora Neale Hurston and my old tattered original copy of Claude McKay's Selected Poems. I even tossed in my first book of poems, entitled Leaving Death Row.

The paucity of books in Parkway's school library can only be attributed to the lack of available resources in the Pennsylvania School System underfunded by a staggering $4.8 billion, according to a recent study released on November l5 2007 that was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Legislature. With a 207,893 student body enrollment, only a mere $9,047 is being spent annually per student. So few dollars are invested in educating the minds of our children, while the state would rather spend $36,000 to $40,000 a year to house a single inmate in a cell in the prison system!

The notion that my charitable gesture would, somehow, further enhance the education of these exceptionally bright young students filled me with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Could the words between the covers of these bound books spur the genius of some neophyte young writer who'd go on to contribute great works in the annals of American letters?

Could Obama's book fuel the political aspirations of some dreamy-eyed youth contemplating public service?

I gazed through the dusky window of the visiting room as the van carrying my books sped away.

As I said goodbye to my books, I tried to imagine the sense of wonder on the faces of school children as they opened them.

Reginald S. Lewis #AY2902
SCI – Graterford
Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Ring

by Christi Buchanan

Adoption is a cold, sterile thing. No pomp. No ceremony. A child is born, a paper is signed, and lives are changed forever.

Sixteen years ago, in police custody, I gave birth to a baby boy. I named him Scott. My circumstances dictated my decisions and I gave him up for adoption. There was no choice. I was facing life in prison.

I was afraid to hold him or even look at him. I knew if I did I would not be able to let go. But how could I keep him? It was practically guaranteed that I would be going to prison for a very long time. His adoptive parents said if I wrote him a letter they would be sure to give it to him when he was old enough. So I did, but that was all. There was nothing else. Forty-eight hours after he got here, he was gone. I never laid eyes on him.

Sometime later I received a health report and two photos of him from his parents through the adoption agency. However, by law, after he was six months old there could be no further communication between us. I was a felon.

One night, right before I had the baby, a friend came to see me at the jail. She gave me a tiny, gold band and suggested I put it on the baby as soon as I had it. Then when it was time for him to leave, I could put it on my pinky. That way I would always have something of his. The ring fit securely just below the last joint of my left pinky finger. I thought it was a great idea. Initially, I intended to hold my child, thinking I could handle it with no problem. I was very good at shoving stuff and ignoring reality, but Scott’s arrival was too huge. I think my mind cracked when I signed the adoption papers. I know my heart broke. I asked the nurse not to bring him to me. I thought it would be better that way. Easier.

Some of the nurses were nice to me and some were not. I was in police custody after all, waiting trial—waiting to go to prison. And because of this I was not going to be in the hospital very long at all. Scott would only be there two days himself. He was hidden in the neonatal unit because of all the publicity surrounding me. One of the nice nurses agreed to put the ring on Scott’s tiny little finger and then bring it back to me when his parents came to get him. She said it fit nicely on his thumb. And there it stayed for about thirty-seven hours. When he left the hospital, the ring was on my pinky.

I wore that ring everyday for the next sixteen years. It never came off my finger—for any reason. And I never worried about losing it, either. It was just always there, part of my hand. Every time I looked at it I thought about Scott. He was always with me.

Then one night it was just gone. Game six of the World Series was on and I had been talking to C.O. Yearly about the seventh inning. I had a habit of rubbing the ring with my thumb. That’s why I realized it was gone.

Hoping it was on my desk, I flew back to my room. Nothing. So I charged back to the spot of my conversation with Mr. Yearly. We’d been on the top tier and I thought, “Oh man, if it fell from up here who knows where it wound up. It’s so small and light it could collide and bounce a mile.”

I was trying not to panic as I ran down the stairs but I could feel my grip slipping. Tears ran down my face as I stood there helplessly staring at the floor, overwhelmed by how big it looked and how small the ring was.

I don’t remember going back upstairs or what I told my roommate. Trio and I had been friends/roommates for a long time. She knew all about my ring. What I do remember is standing in the middle of my room suffocating under the enormous sense of loss I was felling. I was barely aware of the edges of what was going on around me and truthfully I can’t say I actually helped look for it. The compassion of God filled the wing that night and touched the hearts of fifty-five women.

I had no idea everyone knew I lost my ring. Word travels fast in a place like this. One of my best friends, Dorian, came upstairs and helped Trio tear our room apart. They stripped the beds, emptied the trunks, took everything out of the desks, all the while reassuring me it was going to turn up—that they were going to find it. Those sweet souls literally went through every piece of everything in that room trying to love that ring back to my finger.

That’s only part of it. While Trio and Dorian were shaking down the room (and I was standing still, crying), more of the same was happening downstairs. Those girls crawled over every inch of the dayroom floor. They dumped out the trash and sifted through it. They sifted through butt cans. Mr. Yearly gave them a flash light so they could look in the shower drains. The washers and dryers were moved. People were even checking in their rooms in case it bounced and rolled under the door.

It’s difficult to write this now, years later, because of the odd mix of emotions it brings up. I hadn’t dealt with giving up my son. I knew it was the right thing to do for his sake, but emotionally I was completely incapable of dealing with it. So I didn’t. Losing that tiny, little ring jerked me into reality so fast I was instantly crushed by the ugliness of it. And it wasn’t that I’d just lost a ring. That ring was my only connection to my little boy. I messed up so bad I couldn’t keep him—but I could keep his ring. Losing it was betrayal somehow and it devastated me.

I am also touched again by the out-pouring of genuine compassion those women showed me. Their actions were driven by something I dare not try to describe. I am encouraged and renewed by the love in the memories.

In the middle of all that chaos, someone let out a shout that was nothing shy of victorious. It tore through my despair completely. What happened next is a blur. I don’t remember going downstairs or what was going on around me. I only remember Darlene standing in front of me, holding out my ring. The look on her face was wonderful—awed. People were cheering and hugging when she carefully handed it to me. It was unbelievable. All I could do was hug her tight and tell her I would always be grateful.

You may think this is just a story about a piece of jewelry with sentimental value, but it’s not. Not entirely. It’s also about the power that little ring held and how it brought a group of the most unlikely women together.

Prisons are a world of their own with codes and rules you’ll not find in any book. The worse of the absolute worst are thrown together and forgotten. Survive or succumb. Kindness does not exist because people have to look out for themselves. Caring is weakness to be preyed upon.

Most women here are severely damaged. They come from lives of violence, drugs and poverty. They learn to be cold and hard because that’s how they survive. Not all women here stay that way, though. Doing time is damn hard. It forces you to change. And if you’re even remotely honest with yourself, those changes bring out the good stuff. That’s what happened that night in the lifers’ wing. The good stuff came out in such a glorious way we all gave thanks to God. Everyone was hugging—some were crying. It felt good—we felt good, for one shining moment because of a ring.

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Correctional Center 8D
Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

Friday, July 6, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"Hunter," a guard shoved mail through my cell bars.

No one knows I'm here, I thought, as I glanced at the unfamiliar name and return address on the envelope.

Yesterday morning, I had been in the county jail and attended court for a pretrial hearing.

"Need to push back the trial date," my lead attorney stated bluntly, he knew he was in for an argument.

My death sentence had been overturned a year ago, and I had been in the county jail the entire time awaiting trial. Locked inside 23 hours a day with no chance to go outside to breathe fresh air or soak in the sun during the one hour out of cell time each day, I felt myself turning gray, fading away, so I felt rebellious about the prospect of more jail time.

"How much more time?" I bit off each word.


"That's five more months," I exclaimed. "I'l1 lose another summer.”

"If we want a good result," my attorney argued, "you need to let me prepare properly for trial.”

"No." I shook my head. "I'm not waiving time."

"If you don't want to go back to death row," my attorney rasped harshly, "you need to listen to me."

"No, you listen to me," I shot back. "I'l1 waive time if the judge agrees to sign an order sending me back to San Quentin. Transport me back here when you're ready for trial.”

"Penal Code 4005 allows pretrial detainees to be housed in state prison for the safety and security of the jail," my attorney said thoughtfully. 'But you'll be housed in the hole not on death row.”

"Get me back to the Q, I'll take care of my housing."

The judge signed the order, I waived time, and the next morning at 5am I was on my way back to San Quentin. Not enough time to let anyone out in the unbarred world know I was gone from the jail.

When I hit San Quentin, I was warehoused right back on death row. Although my property was still in storage until I attended classification committee, my buddies hooked me up with a radio, coffee, and some food. Now, just a few hours later, a letter was coming through my cell bars.

The letter was from Rene who was taking a college class and writing a paper about Dave Mason, a friend of mine, who had waived his federal appeal and allowed his execution to go forward. Rene had read an essay I'd written about Dave and how an embrace of death could be attractive to a condemned prisoner, and she had some questions. Pretty much I try to answer every letter that comes to me since the goal is communication. Besides, Dave was dead, so nothing I said could hurt him. I borrowed some paper, pen, answered every question, and tossed my words out into the world and never expected to hear from Rene again.

Rene wrote back, thanked me, asked more questions, and I wrote again. Letters led to phone calls. Rene spoke in a quick, animated voice that at first I had trouble following. At most I caught one word out of every three or so and had to keep asking her to slow down, and then she'd burst out laughing in an infectious, mischievous way and that made her even harder to understand, but I always left the phone call smiling and looking forward to the next one. We did not exchange photos and Rene was not my girlfriend; my girlfriend was Lynn, a librarian on the San Francisco peninsula who I saw nearly every weekend.

This was an exciting time for me. Not only had my death sentence been overturned, No Quarter, my first novel-length manuscript had been optioned by a Los Angeles movie producer. A screenplay had been written, and if the film was made a publisher had agreed to release my book. While I waited to go back to court, I started work on my second novel, Just Jail.

September came and went and I did not return to the jail for trial while my attorney sought more time to prepare, and I was on death row for another entire year hanging with my hoodlum friends, soaking up sunshine, seeing Lynn on weekends, and I finished Just Jail and mailed it to my literary agency.

The week I returned to the county jail, Lynn broke up with me with really no explanation and moved to Oregon. Breakups are tough, one just before a death penalty trial was kind of brutal.

I phoned Rene from the county jail and let her know about Lynn. Rene was really angry with Lynn, and oddly I found myself defending Lynn, saying relationships are challenging enough and one with someone who had spent nearly two decades on death row is probably impossible.

I started phoning Rene everyday before trial, and she sent me a photo of herself for the very first time. Blonde, dancing green eyes, she was gorgeous. She was my lifeline, she kept me going over the next six months through pretrial motions and trial. The jury came back with life without possibility of parole, and I was sentenced and sent back to death row to await transfer.

Rene flew to San Francisco and then on to San Quentin to see me. When I saw her, I realized the photo had only revealed her surface beauty. Rene gathered light, sparkling like a deeply faceted diamond. Hugging me, she said fiercely with a piercing look in her clear eyes, "Don't ever settle! You settled with Lynn, and don't settle with me. You are someone who deserves to be loved and be in love. Don't you dare settle!"

From that moment on, Rene was no longer my good friend; she was simply mine. I wrote to Rene everyday. When I transferred to Salinas Valley Prison, she travelled every other weekend to see me.

Insightful, she would describe in eerily accurate detail aspects of Dave's personality, someone I'd known for years but she had never met but simply studied. Athletic, she kick boxed, and also had a background in dance. While we waited in line in the visiting room to buy lunch, I'd take her hand and spin her around and around and she'd happily giggle.

But my best memories are when we sat closely together, and I could feel her heartbeat, her every breath, we would whisper for hours inside an intimate bubble filled with good intentions and love. Time would fly by, and I felt strong, confident simply because I was near her.

The option ran out on my movie deal without any filming, the book was dead as well, and my literary agency let my agreement lapse without renewal. I was writing for only a few dollars a month for a street sheet sold by the homeless on the New York subway. Rene asked me why I continued to write for almost nothing when she would take care of anything that I needed. I told her I had a commitment to the project, the editors published everything I sent them and placed great artwork with my stories. I loved the paper. Rene said okay in a dubious tone and I could tell she wished I wouldn't write anymore.

After a couple years, I transferred to Pleasant Valley Prison, the street sheet folded, so I enrolled in the college program and Rene generously bought my textbooks. I wrote scores of college papers on my way to my two year degree, but no longer for publication.

I had an appeal going in California Appellate Court asserting prosecutorial misconduct, the same issue that had led to my first retrial, and the three-judge panel had asked for additional briefings, so I had hopes I might soon be returning to court and maybe a life with Rene outside of prison.

Rene lived in a townhouse and almost all the residents had several decades before converted their garages into dens. The city said the conversions were illegal and threatened litigation if they weren't converted back into garages. Since she had to have construction done anyway, Rene decided to have a new kitchen installed along with other renovations. Months and then a year went by without a visit from Rene, as she essentially babysat her house as the construction workers came and went and the work went on and on.

My appeal was denied. One of the three judges wrote that clearly misconduct had taken place, but deemed the misconduct harmless. Harmless error: the judicial eraser that wipes away misdeeds.

“Honey," Rene said to me on the phone, "with all the work going on here your letters are just in the way and I have to keep moving them from room to room. Is it okay if I throw them away?"

"Sure," I said uneasily.

Soon after, I phoned, Rene accepted the call and told me to wait for a minute. She was gone for five minutes before she finally clicked back, a substantial amount of time in a call limited to just fifteen minutes, so I was alarmed, and asked, "What was that all about?"

"None of your business," she snapped.

“Okay," I said neutrally, face turning red.

“I was just ordering pants," she explained casually.

“Couldn't you have just called them back?"

"I didn't want to," she said curtly.

This seemed crazy to me, Rene was the woman who used to panic if my call was even a few minutes late, and then would anxiously ask, "When can you call again?" Her casual off-hand attitude stunned me, and I felt like a seventh grade boy wanting to yell at an indifferent girl, "Why don't you love me?!"

But I didn't yell, I just felt humbled and sad. I missed her so much, seemed like eons since her last visit. There are only a few things I know for sure, and one thing I had known for years was that Rene was my bliss, but now she seemed to be slipping away.

Out of the blue, Angel wrote me and urged me to start writing again for a blog, MINUTES BEFORE SIX, after my seven year absence from the engaging arena of written ideas.

“What do you think about me writing again?" I asked Rene on the phone.

“NO," she said sharply.

“This isn't like the newspapers and magazines I wrote for before when I had to deal with editors. I'd be able to write anything I want. I think it's good opportunity.”

"I don't want you writing.”

"It's not just essays," I argued. “I spent almost a year of my life writing my novel, No Quarter, about San Quentin's death row. I could have it digitized and placed on iBooks, give it a chance to be read.”

"I don't want you to do it," she cut me off.

After thinking it over for a couple of weeks, I told Rene I was going ahead with the writing project. In response, Rene told me she wanted my four box writing file with all my articles, essays, manuscripts out of her townhouse right away and demanded 120 dollars to ship it. I sent 275 stamps and she sent it on to my lawyer.

While I started writing for MINUTES BEFORE SIX, my birthday and Christmas passed by without cards from Rene.

I didn't phone for a while to give her space and hoped she'd come around and support my writing.

When I finally phoned, she said she'd found MINUTES BEFORE SIX on the internet, and she'd read several of my new stories.

I felt great, thought maybe she was coming around. After all, anger doesn't kill off relationships as thoroughly as apathy.

“I read First Week. I don't like it when you write about me," she complained bitterly and my hope ended.

“I'm just trying to write about my experiences," I tried to explain, "and you are a major part of them.”

"I don't like it. Stop!"

Silence reigned for a few heartbeats before I asked, "Do you want me to call again?"

After a long pause, Rene in a very soft almost inaudible voice said, "Yes.”

Weeks went by as I wrote new stories, edited No Quarter, and simply dealt with the day-to-day drama of maximum-security prison.

When I phoned Rene accepted the call and said in a distant matter-of-fact voice, "I didn't think your call would ring through. I didn't transfer any money into the long distance account.”
I almost asked, "Why not?" But I knew why not, she didn't want to hear from me anymore.

Rene seemed brittle, all surface, no longer the deeply thoughtful woman I had come to know and adore. So we filled the fifteen minutes by simply chatting like a couple of friendly acquaintances about her family, and I didn't mention anything about my latest writing.

At the end of the call, I said almost involuntarily, "I love you.”

Rene was quiet but then simply said good-bye.

The phone call and our relationship was over

-The End-