Friday, February 22, 2013

Son of The District*

By Steve Bartholomew

*This story won first prize in the memoir category of the 2014 Annual PEN Prison Writing Contest

It was after eleven when my father opened the door to my room and, same as every night, stepped in to set the alarm and say goodnight. But instead, he paused and said, “Get out. Get out of my house.” On my dresser was my pipe, a tiny weed pipe made of tin foil. I had forgotten to throw it away because, well, I had used it earlier.

He held it out, thumb and forefinger, pointing at it. The instrument of unforgivable trespass. A crime committed in and against his house. I begged damply to please, let me wait until morning because I have nowhere to go this late and it is freezing, there is snow.

But my appeals could not budge their verdict, his and my stepmother's. They would not listen to nor spend another word. So said the padlock resolve in their faces.

Your Honor, the State would offer into evidence the defendant's sorrowful history of nitwitteries.

Guilty on all counts. Bang.

My posters glowed farewell in the blacklight. I thought of taking my favorite, Zeppelin‘s Swan Song. But no, they could have them all.

I stuffed a change of clothes into my backpack, emptied my piggy bank and went out my father's door for the last time.

Cold. Through your sweatshirt and down your back. Ice packs where your nerves had just been sweating, cold that makes you think about your lungs. I stood in the driveway a minute, hoping they'd call me back inside and ground me forever. This time I would take it to heart because you don‘t forget the lesson with a punchline that lands on your chin. But none of these things happened. Finality is a deadbolt at midnight. I trudged past the yard and then down the middle of the silvery moonlit road, charged up and muddled from my sudden overdose of independence.

I walked until my feet felt deadish, a few miles. I looked down at my hightops and imagined my toes blackening and then lopped off with tin snips. I climbed into a recycling bin and made the best nest I could. All my life I wanted to be my dad, but he wasn‘t around enough to show me much besides how to dial in a carburetor or do a donut. My one year of living with him had been, as they say, too little too late. I could own the fact that I was a disappointment. But the clunky knowledge that your father has no use for you can make your DNA ache. I lay shivering under a pile of newspapers until dawn, wondering how I could be brainwaved so differently from my dad that he would scrap any future that included me.

The last remaining bridge had met with my fiery knack for failure.

The next day was buses and transfers, traveling 30 miles north to Seattle. The University District. I knew of nowhere else where I could get by without the boojy stuff you need for a job, like an address, phone, or laundered clothes. I stared at my reflection in the darkening bus window. My sideburns were coming in fat. At fifteen and some months, facial hairs have almost individual worth--the more of them you have, the less you have to do to prove you‘re not a kid. It’s street science, and you can't argue with science.

I'd been written out of a story where I'd thought I was a main character, and here I was now, one of those blurry extras in the background who don't figure into the plot. In the credits: Spindly Youth with Tragic Hair #3.

You looked up at the buildings and they were towering stacks of unknowable facts, as sealed off from your reality as buildings on a postcard from a city you'1l never visit. Like monochrome middle fingers the world had raised sky-high against the likes of you, grim heights of tinted glass guaranteeing certain narratives would remain at a tidy distance. And how small and adrift that made you feel when you thought about it, so you wouldn't, mostly. I wandered University Avenue all day, watching. The way Ave Rats curb-served grams of weed was foreign to me, a secret in the open. I eavesdropped on their exchanges, studying tactics the best I could without someone thinking I was Narksville. I did not eat because I only had 31 dollars and food turns no profit. The next day I scored three of the fattest grams I could find off an Ave Rat named Adam who had slack, waxy hair and overgrown Indian corn incisors that made you think he was smiling even when he wasn't. I split them into five flat ones and clocked them in under three blocks. My 51 dollars got me 6 more, which I stretched into 12 that were so wispy I had to include a sob-story and an apology for the going price. In an afternoon my 31 bucks had become 115, a pack of smokes and a burger. I needed numbers to make sense at least, and finally, here was a story problem worth solving. Beginner‘s luck can seem like the American dream when you‘re hungry enough.

A week later I bought a piece from a guy sporting an Earp mustache and a faded peace sign t-shirt that might have fit when you could still see his lip. He had an assortment of pistols and ammo in a small gym bag. We dipped into the alley behind Lox, Stock and Bagels. He pulled them out one at a time, displaying each on a crate between two dumpsters. I gave him 50 bucks for a .22 revolver that had a clonky cylinder and a long barrel with rust acne. A target pistol, he told me, and I traded him a gram for some bullets, a detail that seemed germane, like having a lighter if you plan on smoking something. I walked the two blocks up to the campus woods and crawled into a thicket of rhododendrons. I sat on the rotting leaves, cherishing my pistola grande. The rush of newfound adulthood, a word that means the world better think twice before kicking your ass. I wished I could share the moment, but I had no friends in these parts and none anywhere who would understand. I wrapped it up in greasy rags and plastic grocery bags and buried it near the madrona that says JH hearts KW.

I wasn‘t the gangster type, all loco to draw down on some fools, but you've got to protect your interests, and I was mainly interested in not getting peeled by somebody bigger or tougher, which in truth meant anybody. You can't be too cautious when you're el solo, and the only thing more cautious than owning a gun is owning a buried one. These were the thoughts of a suburban white kid schooled in the art of manhood mostly by westerns.

I stood on the corner of 45th and the Ave, waiting for the walk symbol to light up for maybe the dozenth time since morning. The sky was low and blank as frosted glass, not one shade grayer than my thoughts. It had been slow all day, which happens when it's witch-nipple cold out, but I kept walking to pass the time. I couldn't expect the needers to track me down and besides, loitering would get you vamped by the cops for sure.

The wind, fumed with exhaust grime and waffle cones, scoured my dripping nose. A small herd of maybe a dozen peds also stood waiting for the light, their hands gloved or stuffed into pockets of winter coats, their breath wisked off in skinny clouds. Serious faces and shopping bags, the kind of fixed expressions that say you have somewhere to be and when you get there matters. I hunched against the wind, lit a cigarette behind cupped hands and exhaled impatiently as if I had places to go too, but really this sidewalk was it. Hustle and bustle, I'd heard it called, but I didn't know anything about bustling.
I took a drag like I was installing the filter into my lip and cinched up my eyes toward the lower Ave, trying to give off a less-than-criminal interest vibe. I had been cop-spotting along that ten-block stretch of the Ave for just long enough to know they could creep with the quickness. Close-set buildings, an uneven roofline laying shadow-bands onto pavements, awning signs jammed end to dirt-streaked end forever, small restaurants that leave A-shaped signs on the sidewalk.

Traffic lined up single file in either direction on the Ave, crawling along at a pace set by electric buses and jaywalkers. A flat commotion of singing brakes and mufflers overlapped with human hubbub. Dead leaves chased a magazine page past the storm drain at my feet and a yellow cab blew by on 45th, its underparts skitching heavy against the lumpy intersection. The cold swirl it whipped up bit through my windbreaker. The dead of winter. In Seattle that term might've been a stretch, but you curb-serve from dawn to midnight on the daily and you could still find yourself admiring a pretty girl less than the coat she was wearing, or pretend-shopping in a toasty store until they tell you to beat it.

The light changed but I waited to cross until I was mostly alone, because needers were kind of sketchy about showing the signal when you're in a swarm of peds. I walked south past the import shop with its stacks of baskets and plant hangers on the sidewalk--a statement, I thought, in favor of my theory that no one steals wicker. I skimmed the passing faces, not really seeing them, just watching for a signal: eye contact jutting out a little that meant, I am definitely shopping for non-wicker items. Your response had to be low key but quick—too obvious and they scare off, too slow and someone else swoops on them. The rest of the peds studiously unsaw me as they passed by.

I ducked into a defunct doorway stale with the tang of urine varnish, dug out from my front pocket a deceptively thick wad of small bills and counted it again just to make sure it was still there, the sense of adding up to more than nothing. Behind the long window in Pearl Harbor Teriyaki across the Ave, a lady seated at a small table hitched up her face at me like she'd caught wind of my socks and then turned away. Sometimes you could offend an eye into seeing you. I was finally sitting on enough to cop an ounce, which is a milestone one precious notch up from the whitening dogshit nuggets adorning the would-be flowerbed in front of Spun Out Records. But I had no connect for an ounce, or any real weight.

If you weren’t an Ave Rat, you were pretty much stuck buying a few grams at a time and splitting them up, nickel-and-dimebagging, which is what I'd been doing. And that meant you wouldn‘t make much and you'd have the saddest, airiest sacks since middle school. It was not hard to imagine myself years from now, still sleeping in a Formica seat bolted to the Laundromat floor, my only other shirt hang-drying on the coatrack because it's fifty cents cheaper that way. I would fail at this life too, if I did not figure out this business of street business. I knew I did not have the nerve for stealing, and would be too embarrassed to panhandle. I stepped out of the doorway and the soy-sauced exhaust mingled with incense wafting out the entrance of Inhale to the Chief, a medley that confused my stomach.

The Space Port arcade was the center of the known universe. Its gravity field was inescapable to needers and Ave Rats alike. I stood at the bus stop in front-- the path of least courage, because nobody can lay claim to a bus stop. Some of the usual heads were posted up on either side of entrance. Rocker Jay leaned against the wall, one casually defiant foot up behind him, his hair teased out with a rebel gel and draped over the studded lapels of his black leather. He was blessed with at least the ego and jacket of a rock star. He was checking his pager while Squash Josh reminisced about another muscle car he‘d probably never had, hands held out at the exact width of unlikely tires. His stories never came out the same way twice, the sign of an untreated truth impediment. Squash Josh was pushing seven feet tall and wanted you to believe he was monied in, which no one would question if only his cars were not still in the shop becoming even more muscular. He licked his lips compulsively and looked everywhere except your eyes when he talked to you, but he could spot johnny law like he had a built in radio. Adam was a few feet farther down, possibly smiling.

And in the fire-exit doorway stood Angel, fatal in thigh boots and jeans every inch as elegant and tormenting as algebra. The only Ave Ratess, she could throw down a traffic-affecting strut just standing there, high-assed and gumptious, her Cleopatra hair stealing stray color glints from nowhere. She set her prices higher than everybody else, and up close she even smelled expensive. She would tell a needer how much her grams were and you'd see him frown at the news, a refusal working its way out of his chest until she fastened on him, flashing twisty smiles and dark trashed-up eyes. And then out comes his money like one of those snakes in a basket.

I scored off her once and ended up twenty bucks lighter afterwards. She'd seen me serve to some needers and asked me how much I was sitting on. I answered before I could help it, and she said I should buy her last four dimebags for "only" fifty, so she could recop. They were even peedlier than mine. I knew better at first, but she ganged up on my sensibilities until I was mentally naked. One silk jounce of her sideboob against my arm and my thoughts went hormonal. Never mind the money, there's always more somewhere, but that face, that is a face I cannot put into words, that is a face I cannot put any words into that add up to no.

I walked away a little fuzzy on whose idea was whose.

I'd read about falling in love, and it had sounded strange, a state of dopiness overblown in print. But this had to be what they meant, something you would gush about if only you weren‘t friendless, even if she is more or less indifferent to your existence.

Goatee Rick was standing a few feet away, holding down the newspaper box. He was different than the rest. His notched and whittled face was home to such joylessness that your mind edged him past forty but word was he wasn‘t even thirty. An elder of the District. He was maybe a foot shorter than me and junkie sleek, but you would not call him small--at least not to where he could hear. I'd seen his goatee before in a book about the devil. He was unimaginable in any gentler setting and I was a little frightened by how much I admired him.

Street lore had him killing a man at twelve and spending the next nine years in Green Hill, where he incited mayhem until they‘d had enough and let him out. I believed it.

I‘d watched him demolish a guy, some fool unlucky enough to pick up a paper sack Goatee Rick had set next to the newspaper box. In it was a burnt spoon and some used rigs. The guy made it halfway through the crosswalk before someone said, Hey Rick, that dude just peeled your works. This ped must have outweighed him by a hundred pounds, easy.

Goatee Rick flew at him, jumped up and head-butted him in the nose. The ped reeled and put his hands out like this was something he could stop. Goatee Rick fired three or four combinations at crazy speed, what you'd call a barrage of knuckle sandwiches served a la carte. It was lights out fifteen seconds into the first and only round. Rick tromped back to the newspaper box, screaming at the city in general to never, not ever, touch his shit. He set his bag down right where it'd been. Cars honked and drove around the man-shaped mess in the crosswalk until he got up and shambled away, dribbling a blood trail down the sidewalk.

Two minutes later johnny law vamped with the quickness, six cars deep. They half-listened to about a dozen versions of how the gigantic attacker came at Little Rick out of nowhere and Little Rick was left with no choice and so forth. The other guy was apparently too ashamed to formally own his victimhood, and over a lunch sack of biohazard. They pissily snapped shut their notebooks and drove away.

Against such a backdrop of mugshots, I could only pose the awkward fact that, as unwelcome as I was, I didn't belong anywhere else. Superfluous was the word that came to me often. I remembered it from a life ago, when I'd dreamt of being a writer and owned a dictionary. Adjectives can become more uncomfortable the better they fit.
I waited until no peds were in earshot, at least of me. Goatee Rick had a voice not unlike a seal.

"Rick, you know anybody has a decent zip?" I asked, meaning an ounce.

His narrow eyes flexed at me real carnivore-like, the way they did most of the time. An unspoken hatred the world had coming, I guessed, for outgrowing him. "You want doses, I got blotter, four-way. Five bucks you got a party."

"I was just thinking if you were gonna recop yourself." I knew he could definitely get it, maybe even had it himself.

"You were just thinking. Know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking I'm trying to get paid, Eddie. Dig?" My name was not Eddie, a fact meaning more or less shinola to anyone but me. Eddie was just what he called needers.

"Sorry, man. I just--"

"You just what. You just deaf, Eddie?" he pronounced the word deaf to rhyme with leaf, his tone sharpened enough to quash Squash Josh's car story. "Or you stupid? Doses. You ain't spending, get the fuck off my porch." I could feel eyes at my back, hoping I'd say the wrong thing and become first a show and then subtracted from the landscape.

"Okay," I said.

I sauntered off like I'd remembered something that needed attending to.

I came to the post office on 43rd, which was surrounded on two sides by a short, wide wall that, whatever the architect had in mind, had become a perch for skate punks. The southern boundary of the thick of the Ave. It was painted an off-mailbox blue, but graffiti writers reclaimed it tag by tag until the mailman would slap on another coat. There were no Ave Rats on the wall, just some panhandler kids and Crazy Mary, who was interesting to talk to, but would sometimes yank up her dress right on the sidewalk and start rubbing one out, and that made conversations awkward. I looked back at Space Port and it too was Ave Ratless. This meant vice was probably rolling. The Ave Rats kept point for one another and had a system, some way to pass the alert that would outpace the unmarked car. They knew how to disappear with the quickness, which would leave you spotlit, centerstage. The few grams left in my sleeve glowed red hot. The stacked rows of windows lining the Ave suddenly felt like those fake mirrors the cops hide behind at the precinct when they're up in your business about some alleged thing that got boosted.

I high-stepped it past the post office and ducked into Phuc Ngo Market. The tiny old lady behind the counter crinkled her nose at me and said, "You come in here all day, ten time, you know that? Buy ten-piece candy, no good. You teeth fall down maybe next week, you know that?"

I gave her a toothy smile while I still had one and placed a dime with a Bit-o-Honey on the counter.

I waited until vice had swept through. I needed to reset my nerves, so I turned south. I caught sight of one of The Others, a wildcard that even Ave Rats tried to sidestep.

He made his rounds along the lower reaches of the Ave, where it peters out beyond 43rd before making a T at the canal. I knew he was stalking the next easy mark.

Heavy did not wait for signals from needers. His was the flagrant bizarre method, gesturing to passing cars and asking peds what, not if, they needed. In the animal kingdom, a predator of his size would have built their bulk from great unlucky lengths of food chain. He moved along the opposite curb half a block down, among the peds but easily pegged as not one of them, loping at times with the sort of disregard that comes to someone unaccustomed to yielding the right of way.

I knew he played a game of numbers, some brute force strategy involving a low percentage of a high volume and so forth. Neither stealth nor cops were a factor because he did not sell any actual substance.

A tan Accord slowed and Heavy motioned to pull over and park and then hunkered down at the passenger window for maybe a minute before loading himself into the backseat. The car squatted and rolled away with the left turn signal blinking dumbly. I made a mental note to come back here in about an hour because there might be a show.

I’d met Heavy my second day. He had been posted up in front of Holy Cow ("Burgers almost too divine to eat"), at the top of the Ave. He reminded me distantly of a grown-up Fat Albert in a lime green Adidas jogging suit and visor. I'd always put great store in Fat Albert for his moral compass, so I asked him if the number 43 had gone by yet, just to see if he had the same voice, which he didn‘t.

"Youngsta, I ain't watching no bus. I‘m trying to get off this here chronic. Feel me?"

I nodded that I did, in fact. Little scars trimmed the ridges of his squarish face. If he were a carving, you'd think they got the nose wrong, ineptly flattened and off-kilter. I still had my piggybank account of 31 dollars, and the burgered breeze was sending my stomach into sissy shivers. If I did not invest soon, I could end up with an armload of Trinities with cheese. "You got like an eighth?"

"Cuz, I be having whatever.  Oh zees for real. The icky dank bud," he said.

I thought about this revelation and decided that, sure, people must run into real connects down here sometimes, connects who had ounces like he was saying. No reason I couldn't be that lucky.

"Oh. I don‘t got it like that yet," I said. "But I know I can turn quick. If you wanna break one up?"

"I ain‘t trippin. I got you. Where your car at?"

"I don‘t got one. I‘m walking."

"Ain‘t walking to the crib for no eighth no how. Believe that."

"You don't got none on you?"

"Sheeit. Po-po ain‘t no joke out here, dog. Feel me?"

I felt obligated to nod again even though this time I did not feel him exactly, why stand around on a corner then? In the District you could get vamped with the quickness, so you did not, as a rule, pocket your felonies because johnny law wouldn't strip you out on the sidewalk. But ounces were probably harder to fit in your sleeve or down the front of your underwear. His eyes worked the street, swiveling from car to car and face to face as each passed. He seemed to be pondering my carelessness. I doubted I would ever be so in-tune with my surroundings. I noticed his gold chain was greening in spots where it sank between neck rolls.

"I could try to get us a ride," I said, a little crunchy at the prospect of complicating yet another person‘s afternoon over so little. "I really need to turn."

"Where you stay at?" he asked, finally looking all the way at me, an expression that said nothing on a face without an age. I could not tell if he was twenty-five or forty.

"Here, pretty much."

"Ain't seen you round."

"I mean, I only been here a couple days, so that's maybe why."

I could feel myself becoming less of a novelty, my smallfry money more hassle than hustle. Something told me not to pursue the issue, that this might be a route not on my map of how these things should go down. My sincere belief was that street business should be conducted on the street, not willy nillying off to who knows. I paced the front of Holy Cow.

A needer in a green fleece stopped me and asked if I was holding. He had a slicked-back ponytail and was old, like in his late thirties.

"I'm out," I said in a way that implied I often was not. I felt an idea wag its tail. "But we can get it if you got a car."

"Where you gotta go?"

I walked Breen Fleece over to Heavy.

"Hey, this guy's got a ride," I told him.

Heavy asked him how much he was looking for, which turned out to be a half-ounce, or a dozen grams if they were nice. Heavy assured him that he had all that and a side of fries, the best in Seattle. Green Fleece motioned toward a backset parking lot and they set off in that direction. I trailed a few feet behind.

They were in a silver Jetta double-parked in the farthest corner of the lot, two flanneled guys smoking cigarettes with the windows down and giving off a whiff of illegal uneasiness. Green Fleece gestured and Blue Flannel hopped out and climbed in back with Red Flannel and Heavy dropped into the passenger seat, leaving no room for me. The engine started and they all peered out the windows at me like I might offer a satisfying reason for still being there. I mumbled that I’d see them later. They drove off.

About an hour later the silver Jetta swerved around me as I was crossing 47th. It lurched over the curb and parked wonky in a loading zone. Green Fleece and the Flannels jumped out and came at me, the malice in their faces simple enough to read but not to place into context. I thought maybe they had me confused with some other shaggy vagabond. My feet stopped and my limbs went cold even before Blue Flannel grabbed my arm. "Where the fuck we find your nigger friend?" he said in a half hiss, injecting menace into hate. The fusty steam of bourbon and mouth neglect. He had the parted blond hair of a Biff.

"He's not my friend. I--"

Green Fleece‘s face loomed within kissing distance, hard-staring me down with saggy eyes. Punctuating with finger jabs to my chest, he said, "You, Fucking. Set us up. With him. Now you. Owe us a hundred. And twenty. Bucks."

Gulpy-voiced, I asked what had happened. They assumed I already knew that they had let Heavy run into an apartment building with their money. On the street, this is one way the word backdoor can become a verb.

They looked around and maybe it dawned on them how this would appear, the three of them up in my bathwater out in the open. They walked me toward the gaping slot of alley connecting to 50th, Blue Flannel clamped on one arm and Red Flannel on the other. As they yarded me off the sidewalk, I strained to see down the shadowy stretch behind all those buildings, hoping for a delivery truck, or a cop, a bum, anyone. A picture of urban desolation. Dark loading bays, large dumpsters I could easily be stuffed into, or behind if they were locked. I would not even make it onto the back of a milk carton because I would be missing from no one's life. I tried to break loose and run but they were too strong. How to fight well was another thing nobody had taught me. They shoved me into the alley, skidding along in front of them.

"So you're saying you can't find him, your partner. You're telling us this," said Green Fleece.

"He's not my partner and I don‘t know where. Really," I said in too girly a register to be taken completely serious. "I don‘t even know him hardly."

"He's lying. Look at him."

"He‘s the wingman. Probably gets half."

"Why the fuck you hook us up with him?"

I shrugged and of course Green Fleece hit me hard in the mouth. The brick wall behind him lit up. Someone rifled through my pockets, which held only a lighter and a few generic cigarettes in a pack. A hand threw these onto the asphalt and a foot stomped on them. Someone pulled my head back by its hair and a fist slogged into my stomach. Two potted ferns waved from the fire escape landing.

I had just scored off Adam and my net worth of three grams was in the liner of my coat sleeve. I thought of offering it up, but I could tell this situation had built up more than three grams of momentum. Besides, after enough humiliation of the spirit you can find yourself strangely unwilling to plea-bargain anymore.

"Think you can just scam us, punk?" asked Green Fleece. I said, No, but he drilled me in the nose anyway. Apparently I was unconvincing. I needed to spit blood but couldn't without getting it on one of them. We were by now deep in the alley, traffic and witnesses a mile off in either direction. We stopped beside a row of dumpsters. Green Fleece shovel-hooked me in the gut. I doubled over and spit a rope of stomach water and blood onto my shoes. Someone clipped me in the ear.

I stood straight as I could and stared deadpan, a counterfeit surface assumed half for my own sake, eyes fixed to a point somewhere in the street beyond Green Fleece. A Seattle Police cruiser rolled by with traffic, two patrol cops unperturbed in profile. Displacing thought was the chorus of an Iron Maiden song, Run to the Hills, a loop of sanity to clutch like lyric prayer-beads with killer drum rolls. No way would they milk another cringe out of me. Red Flannel cocked back his right arm and bared a jaundice grin, shy one tooth. Below the middle knuckle was one of those football rings both gaudy and dull. The fists fell here and there without much gusto, like they wanted to drag it out: eye, mouth, gut, nose, repeat.

A column of lime green crossed my narrow view of sidewalk. Heavy. He would glance down the alley for sure, because in the District you always scoped for creeper cops when you passed one. But he would keep it pushing, maybe even get ghost from the Ave for a while. He wouldn't want anything to do with this, his own fallout, because isn't that the point. Or so my thoughts went. But he stopped midstride and stared. Maybe we made eye contact, maybe we didn‘t. One of the Flannels said, Hey there he is, and Green Fleece turned.

"Hey," he yelled, and set off toward Heavy in a half run, half swagger. Heavy looked side to side and then strolled stone cool toward us, a matter of Adidas'd fact forging the center of the alley. There was no posturing in his stride, no gestures of superiority, but neither was there the faintest Fat Albertish thing about him anymore. The Flannels let go my arms and rallied around their fleeced friend, a flank maneuver. I thought of running but it didn't seem so pressing now.

Green Fleece stopped and said, "You got our fucking money... boy?"

Heavy eyed them each, flicking from one to the next, as blank as a cinderblock. He shot a glance to where I was bent over, steadied by a dumpster. "Y'all some coward-ass bitches up in here."

Green Fleece hitched himself up and did the head-tilt thing, cracking his neck knuckles. "Keep thinking that while we stomp your black ass out," and then he ratcheted up a splat of phlegm, what you'd call a lung cookie, and launched it to the side, "nigger."

Heavy covered the distance between them in two strides and posted up southpaw, bouncing lightly side to side with his fists up and swaying restless, the hugest pugilist ever. Blue Flannel strayed too close and Heavy lunged and knocked him out with a jab. Green Fleece came inside swinging wildly and Heavy rewrote his future, a rhythm of grace and concussion, brief and unanswered. The meaty racket volleyed in the brick narrows. The green visor never budged. This was not how fights looked in the movies. Green Fleece lay on his ponytail, arms out like Jesus, snoring rapidly. A sound unsettling to hear coming from someone so recently standing.

Red Flannel took off in a dead sprint away from Heavy. He must have forgotten to look back.

Heavy stood straddling Green Fleece. He leaned down and swung one fist then the other, a motion from a chain gang scene. He stood looking down for a moment before stepping over to Blue Flannel. He stomped twice on his ribcage, maybe as a memento, in case he‘d dislodged the actual memory. Green Fleece's jaw was a drastic shape and bunched off to one side, a medical quantity of blood. The snoring stopped.

"I run this muthafucka," he roared at them both--really at the world. A wavelength in that voice to make you rethink your views on urban life, an element forcing its own acknowledgement, some half-burst organ hurling fury through asphalt veins. He turned his back to me, lifted his sweatshirt and tucked it under his chin. The stream of urine clattered as thick as a keg tap, sweeping across both faces and chests. Steam vapors flicked with the breeze. He turned and walked past me, his face gone unreadable again. I scampered after the greater of two evils.

"Thanks, man," I said. My mouth was clumsy how only one thoroughly clobbered can be. The relief washing over me was muddied by the sheer consequence of this man, the collision course he had plotted and its byproducts.

"Don't even trip," he said, breathing hard. "I likes when they come back."

"Why'd you rob those guys?"

"I ain't rob nobody. They give me they money."

I told him my name and held out my hand.

He shook it more or less daintily, pulling up short. His knuckles looked like spilled concrete that someone daubed with red.

"Heavy," he said.

"You're telling me."

Click here to read part two

Steven Bartholomew with his son

Steven Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Friday, February 15, 2013

The DOC Does Not Have a Sense of Humor

Slightly Pre-chewed Anecdotes by Jeff C.

I am the veriest varlet [worst scoundrel] that ever chewed with a tooth.
--William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, 2.2.22-23

'Twas the night before the night before Christmas and all through the Big House not a creature was one jolly pack-rat going full-on freak-organized trying to exactly evenly divide over $200 worth of nearly every kind of sugary substance sold by the prison commissary.

And a commissary is what my single-man room looked like when the two guards came by for midnight count and saw (it's easy to remember as I've since seen the Polaroid "evidence" photos in my Permanent Record file) 16 nefarious packages of Red Vines, 3 cases of soda, 14 six-pack boxes of Nutty Bars, 14 six-pack boxes of Swiss Cake Rolls, 35 bouquets of seven-packs of Tootsie Pops, bunches of butterscotch, and boxes of all sizes filled with opened M&Ms (plain and peanut; segregated), Milk Duds, Whoppers, Jelly Belly jelly beans (all the colors co-mingling), caramels, and various other assorted candies--each and every one with a Post-It on it with a Sharpied number, all the better to exactly evenly divide all these purchased empty calories between the four score convicts on what I (now clandestinely) label my Prayer List.

The counting duo saw all this opened, sugary, ready-to-be-assembly-lined order laid out on my bed, my desk, and on the top bunk, and the immediate question in their halted count was, "You're not going to EAT all that, are you?"

Ah, no, the siren song of suicide by sugar does not sweetly summon me.

Instead of saying this, or laughing, I slowly said, "Nooooo."

This was not enough for their inquiring minds.

What I intentionally did NOT say was what I hoped these Graveyard Shift guards would figure out without me confessing: that it was two days before Christmas, so....

But though I gently resisted, they persisted. Eventually I spoke the truth, and a pretty much truth: "It's not a gambling thing, and I've got receipts for it all."

After skeptically scanning said receipts for the last six or more weeks of Store, they handed them back and, I thought, continued merrily along their counting way.

Phew, I thought.

Not even 30 minutes later, when the six or more Correctional Guards arrived, en masse, at my cell door as I was bagging up my twelfth sack (with 3.5 Red Vines, 1 Swiss Cake Roll, 1 Nutty Bar, 4 butterscotch, 3 caramels, 3 Tootsie Pops, 1 can of soda, and specific numbers of all the other delicious delectables--including, of course, the personalized name tag stickers in each plastic goodie bag), something else entirely occurred to me at the sight of this Goon Squad:

Shit, I thought.

These guards were not the questioning sort.

"Turn around and get on your knees," the most muscular one calmly instructed me.

This I obeyed, without resisting.

But before they reached through the bars to cuff my hands I asked if I could grab the receipts. This was permitted.

Not even 3 minutes later, when this personal escort gripped me past the now awakened unit, firmly clenching my biceps to guide me as if I was both sugar-blind and diabeticly enfeebled, I was sitting--still cuffed, but of course--in front of the Lieutenant's desk.

This seemed like a good time to tell the truth, the whole truth, and pretty much the truth.

"They're Christmas gifts, I paid for them, and I--I've got the receipts," I confessed.

I explained to this rather soothing (and dare I say) Santa-esque Lieutenant that I do this every year and that I don't expect anything in return, it's just my way of spreading Christmas joy. I rambled at this, hoping persistently for a--cue the inspirational music--Christmas miracle.

I could not afford another $3000 infraction.

He looked up from scrutinizing the disordered and incomplete stack of receipts and maybe my subtle allusions to the Christmas Spirit worked or maybe he just didn't care because he said he was going to let me go (which turned out to be after the Goon Squad went into my room, flashing their, I'm told, loud Polaroid, and scooping up every last juju and wham-wham into garbage bags--all while I was held in the Segregation's shower stall). He said, "I'm going to let your Sergeant and CUS figure this out in the morning."

Shit, I thought.

I thought this because the Custody Unit Supervisor (essentially the manager of each unit) was a pleather-jacketed, speechifying, micro-manager who was as easy to talk to as a pack of Dum-Dums.

After breakfast (where I was assailed with what-the interrogations by all those who'd seen me get led out in cuffs and heard my room being packed-up, but didn't see me get to walk, unassisted, alone, quietly back to my cell nearly two hours later), I got called into the Sergeant's office.

It was there I was scolded by the thin-lipped, cheaply clothed CUS about how and why "borrowing, lending, trading, and"--news to me--"giving" were oh-so very, horribly wrong. It was there where it was repeatedly pointed out that, yes, I had receipts for 95% of these items, but not all of them. It was there that Red Vines became, ever-after, the candied culprit that cost us convicts Christmas because though I could prove I'd bought 10 packs of them, "What about these other six packs of Red Vines--where's the receipts for these, Mr. Conner?" It was there, staring at his too-short pants and proffering up possible reasons for this apparent inconsistency that I stood, with my arms behind my back, rigid as a Butterfinger, in apparent respect.

But all I could think about, while standing in front of the CUS at Parade Rest, was what he'd told me my last Yearly Custody Review, six months prior.

I've only ever gotten two Major Infraction write-ups. At the time of this Christmas Scolding I was actually still suffering from the second one: I had a bunch of magazines I didn't want and I traded them for some O'Boy Oberto meat packages. But I stupidly kept the "here's what I got, here's what I want" list and when it was found during a cell search I earned myself a "Borrowing, Lending, or Trading over $10" Major Infraction that cost me, oh, about $3000 because I lost my Gate 7 Clearance card for a then six months when I had a minimum-wage paying job. So I was anxious to avoid another such infraction as I was on month five of my sanction and champing at the Bit-o-Honey to get back to work.

My first Major Infraction was what had got me shipped out of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. I'd been co-running, as a TA/worker, the closed circuit TV station, KWSP (the Joint Channel), and I thought it'd be cute to, on the evening after we had a Food Strike, play the song "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog (a one album tribute group formed by the members of the amazing Pearl Jam and the awesome Soundgarden) underneath the video the panicked counselors had us film of them that afternoon. The Food Strike had a, scary-to-them, 95% participation (only the diabetics and the oblivious went to the Chow Hall that day). The short, soothing video was of three counselors saying that the rumors about them taking away tobacco and personal clothes simply weren't true (which was true, until it wasn't; we no longer have tobacco or personal clothes).

But I'd stupidly "forgotten," as I looped this three-minute video on the Joint Channel, that besides the 2,500 convicts who watched KWSP, there were also guards who watched too. And even though the song was only on every other playing, and only in the background (well, until the end where I raised the volume while the video faded to black with the "I'm going hungry" chorus blaring), the Goon Squad came forth with a fury.

I immediately admitted the truth: it was moi, all moi.

In front of an anxious Lieutenant with hard little Gobstopper eyeballs, I listened as he told me that, "If any officer is hurt this weekend you'll be taken downtown and charged with assault." And though I calmly told him what he clearly didn't know: that the Food Strike was only a one-day thing, and I didn't make the video until after dinner, he was swallowing none of it. He demanded, "Do you know how long a Superintendent stays at a prison?"

I mumbled, "No."

He gleefully declared, "Six years--and you're gonna see six of them!"

(By the by, I was sanctioned not to an additional threatened 18 years in prison but instead to 10 days in Segregation with a six-month suspended sentence of six months loss of Good Time--which I never lost a day of--and was sent across the state, next to my family, as "punishment," where I soon had a minimum-wage paying job. Oh, and I was told that, "Walla Walla doesn't want you back." Thank you kindly for the "punishment," good sirs.)

But for years, until I had the infraction for "Borrowing, Lending, or Trading" (or, as I like to call it, the Capitalism write-up), only the "Inciting in or Participating in a Group Demonstration" / "Inciting in or Participating in a Hunger Strike" dual write-ups showed up on the computer during my Yearly Custody Reviews.

And it was during my last review prior to the kerfuffle at Christmas, that the pleather-jacketed CUS chewed me out about my "Hunger Strike" (or, dare I say, my Freedom of Speech) write-up of years prior. And when I tried to explain that it was just a joke, he cut me off—

"The DOC does not have a sense of humor."

No shit, I thought.

Months later, still standing at Parade Rest, I was still listening to this same middling manager drone about how wrong my actions were to give away anything. He was careful to break it down in bite-sized pieces for me, saying how it would be wrong even if he "wanted to give a cup of coffee to her, to give it to my Sergeant here," and he thumbed behind him at her, unable to see her roll her eyes in agreement.

As he kept re-explaining his super-subtle point, I kept glancing behind the Sergeant at the evidence lockers, seeing the color poster of all the prescription pills and details and stats about them--they reminded me of the Enemy Aircraft identification cards we had in the Army. From my distance and through my attempt to keep following the assorted samples of hypothetical wrongs laid out by the CUS, even though all the colors and shapes of the illegal pills looked like little candies, I saw no M&Ms, butterscotch, or any other of the candy they'd confiscated.

Eventually he listened to his Sergeant that maybe I did pay for all of these items and the proof was on the missing receipts, as I'd been suggesting. Of course my suggestion was pretty much not the truth--those darn 6 packs of Red Vines and the other 5% of the "evidence" was bought by friends for me in exchange for coffee to get around the weekly item limits (and me stupidly not planning ahead enough).

Strangely, the pleather-jacketed CUS was not concerned with my confessed plans for it all--aside from lecturing me about the evils of giving gifts--merely the items I couldn't prove, then, that I'd bought. Certainly stating my Intent to Deliver on behalf of Santa (though not in those words) would have been enough for a write-up.

Strangely, he listened to his Sergeant who said she'd send off to the commissary for the miraculously missing receipts that could prove my story true. Though I neglected to mention that they'd have to go back to the previous year to find 6 packs of Red Vines. But if I have gleaned anything from my Dad, it's that when you tell a lie, you must commit to it: lie, lie, deny.

Strangely, for once, my Dad was right, because it worked.

Oh, sure, by holding hostage my garbage sacks full of edible goodies the pleathery Grinch cancelled Christmas, but a month later, when I was working again and when the CUS was on vacation, his Sergeant told me to come "get that crap out of [her] office."

And, sure, I was only allowed "whatever you can fit in one box" to haul out of there (leaving two-thirds of it, I'm sure, for her guards), but my "Yes, sir, bought it all, sir" stalling for "proof" worked. It took too long for the receipts to arrive from the commissary, apparently, because I never got the Illegal Gifting write-up.

EPILOGUE (aka "Lessons Learned"):

Now, ten successful Christmas Capers later, I've learned to be a bit more subtle. And plan ahead. And keep receipts. And pass the goodies out only a few at a time (always less than the now-more-strict $5 cut-off amount for a Major Infraction).

I've also learned a bit about human nature doing this. No, it wasn't any chewy epiphany inside of these candy-coated, regurgitated anecdotes about the unthinking enforcement of misapplied rules--I already knew that. I've actually learned that some men simply cannot accept a simple gift--despite my "not necessary" protests; maybe 5% will force on me whatever they scrounge in their room--be it Top Ramen noodles or hygiene items. And I've learned to not buy potential comfort food too early--until this lovely winter, Decembers and impulsively eating my emotions were an expensive combination because depression could tear through and discard self-control as easy as a candy wrapper.

Oh, one other thing I learned: how to make "Death by Chocolate," the perfect Christmas treat. Who knew that a faux-Oreo and milk chocolate concoction could elicit not only request for the recipe, but perhaps the best response ever to any Christmas gift: I was told by an acquaintance and convicted felon, after he asked around to find out where it came from, he said, in all sincerity, "You restored my faith in humanity."

RECIPE (for "Death by Chocolate"):

1.)    Break apart any sort of Oreo-type cookie into a pan (I use an empty case of Top Ramen noodles and line it with clean plastic). No need for "double stuffed" or "candy corn stuffed" Oreos, or anything fancy like that. Just plain Oreos or any generic "duplex" cookie with the two "plain" and "dry" outer layers and the creamy white stuff on the inside. I have a friend (whose recipe this was, but I love it so much I've adopted it as my own), who likes to really just break the cookies all the way up (making a practical powder out of them--and it's good, but it makes more of a fudge-type thing--my recipe is different), I take the cookies and break them up into roughly quarters, leaving, if they stay that way, the two sandwiched parts together. It doesn't matter though--it's a texture choice, not a taste difference. Then you spread the whole package of the cookies (about 20 ounces), broken up, in the bottom of your "pan" (no need to "grease" the pan, though).

2.)    Melt 3-5 (5 ounce) bars of decent quality chocolate (it doesn't have to be super fancy stuff). I prefer to use a double boiler, not a microwave (as it can too easily burn), but I don't have access to a stove. So I put a bowl in rolling boiling water and break up the chocolate in that bowl and let it begin to melt--then stir. It'll take some effort to get it to that creamy consistency, but it's worth it.

3.)    Pour the chocolate all over the cookies, trying as best as possible to cover the cookies during the pouring (you'll save yourself some work later if you do this now). Scrape out as much of that chocolate as you can (oh, by the way, I use Sweet Obsession milk chocolate; but I’m not a fan of dark chocolate--but feel free to experiment), but be sure to lick whatever's left in the bowl; waste not and what not.

4.)    Stir and don't be gentle--you'll want to have the concoction clump together--the chocolate will act like concrete. And all that chocolate will fall in between the cookies (it should really only take a minute or two) and get as much covered as possible. You can use less cookies or more chocolate--but it's going to be, trust me, rich enough as it is, so don't do too much chocolate (that's junk food hangover experience talking here).

5.)    Spread evenly and let cool. I put a big bag of ice in my sink and then wrap the plastic from the inside of the soup box around itself, sort of swaddling this chocolate baby and I put it on the ice bag--then put another ice bag on top of the chocolate cookie concoction and let cool for like 30 minutes. You, however, might want to use that newfangled freezer thing I've heard so much about.

6.)    After it's a solid brick of a mass try to break it up (it ends up being, for me, about 9" x 13" and about 3/4" to 1.5" thick). And this brick of chocolately scrumptiousness will be difficult to break up. I take it, still in plastic, and use my whole body weight to lean into it at the edge of my desk's sharp edge and it breaks into irregular geometric shapes. You, however, might want to use one of those things I've heard about that you might have access to: a knife. I actually think a good WHACK! from a meat cleaver might be best (any stray pieces can be eaten up as the baker's bonus).

7.)    Serve to people and watch them enjoy an orgasm in their mouth (the good kind). And then shock them when you tell them how cheap it is (and easy) to make. I can make a batch in 40 minutes--start to on ice. Be careful, though--it's extremely addicting and once you start eating it, it's hard to stop and if you care at all about dieting or anything like that just skip the whole frickin' thing because, in a batch that I make, which serves 4 to 6 (huge) portions, it's got only like 1100 to 1800 calories per serving. But oh, it is good.

8.)    Once it's done I don't feel a need to refrigerate--it's just chocolate and cookies and unless it's super hot out it's not going to re-melt. Besides, if refrigerated it becomes almost too hard to eat. But I don't like my chocolate frozen or in the fridge, so maybe that's just me.

9.)    Oh, before giving away, be sure that you're not violating any local laws or regulations restricting any and all gifting.

--February 2013

Jeff C.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Quietus - Chapter One

by William Van Poyck


The loneliest moment in life is when you have just accomplished what you thought would deliver the ultimate and it has let you down. No longer lashed by obscurity or shadowed by fear, I know I should feel better. Rocking lazily in the easy swell of Curaçao’s Willemstad harbor, the seafoam-green Caribbean lapping my steel-hulled ketch, I should feel more sanguine, feel a deeper sense of fulfillment. My first novel, The Third Pillar of Wisdom, its glossy cover reflecting the soft equatorial moonlight, occupies my desk and bookstore shelves across the USA, inhabiting a modest niche on the bestsellers list. My agent dutifully mails me the generally favorable reviews along with sales statements and royalty checks, while urging me to undertake the obligatory book-signing tours. He doesn’t understand that there would be questions—too many questions—I won’t be able to answer. Still, I should feel better. But the past never leaves you alone and all I feel is that pebble in my shoe, that achingly familiar restlessness that has perpetually defined the contours of my life. Like Gilgamesh’s relentless quest for eternal life I am forever treading unbeaten paths, still searching for answers, still seeking a measure of grace.

“It’s a good story.” I speak aloud, defensively, as if my book is accusing me. Through the starboard porthole, past my own refection, below a carpet of twinkling stars, I casually inspect the glimmering necklace of lights arcing around the harbor like a gleaming scimitar, illuminating ranks of quaint Dutch Colonial architecture fronting cobblestone streets, a scene so sublime it could be a dream. Impossibly cute storybook buildings with distinctive red clay roofs—a mélange of saltwater taffy blues, greens and pinks—hug the shoreline like pastel wedding cakes. Across the water wafts the clinking glasses and drunken laughter of cruise ship tourists enjoying their Love and Champagne package tours. “It’s a good story,” I repeat, and Spanky lifts his head, tail wagging hopefully. I scratch his ear and his tail thumps softly against the teak deck while I settle back to reflect. Two years earlier I’d been sailing the islands, prodded by nostalgic yearnings, an ex-Miami Herald reporter turned wannabe novelist, seeking my literary El Dorado. Slowly, inexorably, like a cheap pulp fiction plot, I’d eased into the embrace of rum and gin as my means of excoriating my chronic writer’s block until I was finally caught up in the deadly laugh of terminal stage alcoholism. And not just any alcohol, but island-brewed absinthe straight out of Haiti, that hypnotic, opalescent-green, wormwood-flavored liqueur promising mystical inspiration but delivering only hallucinations, convulsions, insanity and death, turning my psyche inside out like a discarded glove. In the end it was like walking around inside the head of a madman.

How to explain that my inspiration—hell, the source of my story—was an enigmatic, peripatetic ex-convict named Earl, a man on the lam who rescued me and my unraveling life from a squalid Mexican nightclub and the wretched death in a Third World mental hospital that inevitably lay ahead? “You’re on your own hegira,” Earl had counseled me, “your own journey of escape. I once knew a man like you. My best friend. It ended badly for him.”

Earl, a man in love with knowledge, gulping life like others inhale air. Earl, flush with astounding true stories that he dealt out like cards at a poker table, described with an unerring scalpel, told with his panoramic vocabulary and an immutable certitude that seemingly rose up from his very marrow. The words resided deep within him, an inexhaustible supply of sharp, vivid words carrying such weight and import it was as if they were cut out with a razor, so heartbreakingly nuanced, so shining, pure and right that you could feel their power, measure their strength. Earl spoke the way I wanted to write, clear, succinct and true, and he freely shared his tales—provided I didn’t drink.

“It’s a fine story,” I assure Spanky, my fingers brushing across the book cover. Yet I know I can do better. I have my sea legs now and I can do much better. But, now I need Earl and the magic of his stories like I’d once needed that voodoo, glow-in-the-dark liqueur. The boat suddenly rocks unnaturally and Spanky’s tail stops wagging. My hand falls to the pistol in the half-open drawer.

An imposing, tensile figure fills the doorway bathed in slanting moonlight, a man not tall but sturdily built, with the thick hands of a stonemason, quick, powerful hands now hanging loosely at his sides.

“Let me know if that dog ever answers you.”

The voice is like a stretch of badly paved road, authoritative, compelling, with a hint of menace. But his face is where his power lies—square and true, with weathered, rawhide skin the color and texture of unfired clay pottery, a sinewy tangle of shifting lines and planes topped by thick brown-to-silver hair cut short in a vaguely military fashion. His nose has been broken and an angry scar runs through one eyebrow. Cornflower-blue eyes, alert and watchful, shine like opals in the clear, pale light.

“Hello, Earl,” I say, my hand relaxing. I see him glance, as he habitually does, at the dusty, still-unopened bottle of absinthe kept in plain view on the shelf, my constant reminder, motivator and disciplinary tool to daily test and strengthen my resolve. That was Earl’s idea.

“I need another one,” I croak, grimacing as my words tumble out, nakedly eager. Earl cocks his head, saying nothing, that Cheshire Cat grin flashing like a slice of the moon. I again consider Earl’s striking watchfulness. Despite a perpetual crooked smile suggesting delight, Earl wears a carapace of wariness. There is something distant about Earl, even as he shares his stories, as if the most important part of himself is held in reserve.

“Another story,” I quickly add, regretting my tone of urgency. Moving like a sorcerer Earl silently slides into a chair, eyeing the stacks of scribbled story drafts that litter my desk, seemingly standing sentinel over my unrealized dreams. Even seated Earl appears coiled, as if perpetually ready to spring into action. Being on escape does that to a man. “I need something really good, something heavy—.” I pause, my mind suddenly racing. “Earl, do you recall once telling me how you had a real good friend, your best friend—”

“—Danny Sullivan.”

“—Yeah. Danny Sullivan. You once told me that I reminded you of him. You said something really heavy happened with him. Those were your exact words. Remember?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Yes. Yes, I will. Sure I will. Everything you’ve told me has checked out. Everything.” Silence fills the small cabin, pressing into every shadowy corner.

“Okay,” Earl finally replies, his voice carefully measured. “I’ll tell you the story.”

I feel the rush of pleasure as adrenaline surges through my body, every fiber of my being screaming that this will be good, very good. This might be the big one. Even Spanky looks up at Earl with bright, expectant eyes, tail motionless in anticipation. Snapping on a sconce light I turn on my tape recorder and begin scribbling furiously on a legal pad as Earl calmly speaks, his eyes distantly focused on forever.

“His name was Danny Sullivan,” Earl continued, his words painting a quiet, evocative portrait, “and this is what happened. . . .”

PART ONE      

This life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole,
And goads you to believe a lie,
When you see with and not through the eye.
– William Blake

Chapter One

You never forget the taste of your own spinal fluid. The unbidden refrain scrolled through Danny Sullivan’s mind with unconscious subtlety, a gentle reproach navigating the margins of his perception. Danny nosed the big GMC Yukon through a soft, quiet summer night rain, his quick hands, sure in their movements, guiding the vehicle with a surgeon’s precision through the rain-slicked streets of West Palm Beach. Through windshield wipers swinging like a chrome-and-rubber metronome, Danny’s roaming glances drew in the smallest details, his candid green eyes alertly skipping left and right, fore and aft, seemingly in cadence with the wiper’s hypnotic meter. You never forget the taste. . . A throwaway comment he’d once heard from Petey’s lips—an old friend, paralyzed by a police bullet following a burglary gone bad—Danny long ago appropriated it as his own shibboleth, his test word invoked in time of high danger to reinforce the need for vigilance, conjured up to guard against that fatal flaw, complacency, that implacable enemy, overconfidence. Having repeatedly proven its worth, now indelibly etched into his psyche, the mantra possessed the comfortable, well worn patina of an old, trusted talisman. Danny savored the words as he silently mouthed them, gaining confidence from the mere act of repetition. Focusing on the moment at hand, Danny’s resolute scrutiny took in everything offered—the shiny pavement stretching away like silky ribbons of gleaming anthracite; the occasional headlights, fractured and suffused by the rain-streaked windshield, reflecting the iridescent rainbow colors streaking the oil-speckled puddles; the ruby taillights glistening in the diffused light, winking as sudden and bright as blood on snow; the spectral shadows huddled together down dark side streets. And, no police.

Danny appreciated rain when working. Fewer people venturing out meant fewer prying eyes, fewer nosey neighbors. Every edge was important. He glanced at his wristwatch: 8:45. Right on schedule. He maneuvered the Yukon carefully, staying precisely within the speed limits, obeying all traffic laws. The Yukon was not registered in his true name—one of Danny’s inviolable rules was to never use or carry anything while working that was traceable back to him—but instead, as a vehicle bought expressly for such purposes, was registered under one of his “throw-away” identities. The name, like that on his driver’s license, was Jackson Benson, born thirty-eight years earlier in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but dying two years later in a California plane crash. A solid I.D., which would thoroughly check out, with a legitimately assigned Social Security number that, like the license, Danny had obtained himself. Both license and registration listed the same innocuous address, a private mail box store in Miami, a business Danny had set up for Petey after he emerged from jail in a wheelchair. It was an easy, quiet business; Petey would never get rich, but it paid the bills, and it beat catching bullets. Danny, in turn, had perpetual use of the address.

Turning off of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, Danny scanned for cops, keen not to be pulled over. Even if his tools and peculiar equipment were not discovered in a routine traffic stop, it was sloppy to have your face officially noticed prior to working, to possibly end up in a stack of field reports that some tenacious detective might later comb through and pursue. You could never be too careful; in his line of work the police could make reams of mistakes, but Danny could afford not one. As the rain ceased Danny checked his watch again.

His tires hummed on wet pavement as Danny, resolutely hugging his secret, turned again, heading northeast toward the shoreline. The city lights gradually receded. After several more turns even the houses faded into occasional dark smudges before yielding completely to dense walls of dark vegetation. Danny slowed, squinted, then turned, his tires settling into wet dirt with a soft sigh. The white, sandy trail was a tree-root-lumpy gash winding through secluded palmetto scrubland and patches of stunted cypress trees, a de facto dump strewn with car batteries, wet newspapers, empty paint cans, discarded furniture, battered automobile hulks and bullet-ridden appliances overgrown with weeds, forlorn in abandonment. Countless spent shotgun shells—red, yellow, green—and shiny brass cartridge cases, littered the ground like confetti. Danny eased the Yukon forward, listening to the faint rasp of tires moving over wet naked dirt, until coming upon the water’s edge amid a rough tangle of mangrove hammocks. Cutting off the engine he sat in silence, patiently attentive to the night sounds, inhaling the aromatic softness of old, wet leaves. Satisfied, he stepped out, straining to see through assorted shades of darkness. Standing still as a heron, dressed entirely in black, Danny listened to the water lapping against mangrove roots and the soft whisper of Australian pines swaying in the gentle breeze. The murmur of serenading crickets highlighted the silence and the occasional splash told Danny that the mullets were running. Heavy with moisture, the warm night air filled Danny’s lungs with the primeval smell of oozing mud and salt marsh. The moonless night swarmed with twinkling stars, a vast luminous carpet stretching away, suspended in a velvety sky.

Danny quietly paced a hundred yards up the trail, alert for others. Satisfied, he returned to his vehicle, checked his watch, then perched on an overturned 55-gallon drum. It was still too early. Melting into the dark landscape Danny listened to the stealthy scuffling of blue land crabs scuttling in and out of muddy burrows, their claws clicking softly like castanets. Silhouetted against the white sand a fat raccoon suddenly waddled by, then disappeared into a sea grape thicket. Stretching his legs, Danny settled back, reflecting on the work ahead. Directly across the dark water from him, glowing in the distance stretched the long, narrow island of Palm Beach, an exceptionally wealthy enclave. Separated from West Palm Beach, its poorer mainland cousin, by the Intracoastal Waterway, there were only a handful of bridges connecting the two. Palm Beach was an old-money town of gated communities and guarded palatial compounds, with access tightly controlled. Strange cars were viewed suspiciously, strangers even more so. Following major crimes the police were known to raise the drawbridges to isolate the island, then conduct car-to-car searches. Yet Danny, who’d inherited the extreme gene, entertained no fear. As a youth, in some odd cosmic shift in consciousness, Danny had suddenly recognized death as a foregone conclusion—not in the abstract but as an unconditional fact, something that, somewhere in the gradient of time, had already occurred and already resided somewhere within him—and thereby gained his sure sense of invulnerability, his fearless certitude that in those heightened moments when he imposed his will, he could not be threatened by the possibility of death or harm. It was a matter of relinquishing fear and doubt, a matter of superseding death. Fear was the enemy. This perception gave Danny complete confidence in the power of his sheer force of will and bestowed upon him an exhilarating sense of freedom—an absolute freedom from fear. So far it had proven true. Now, convinced he had fate in his hip pocket, Danny stared intently at the incandescent island, seeing beyond the superficial—the verdant landscaping, luxurious cars, posh shops and opulent estates; what he saw, with a singular clarity, was a sweeping panorama of vast and tangled possibilities, as dangerous as a combat zone, as promising as Ali Baba’s cave. He was alive to its dangers large and small, but more alive to its opportunities.

Standing up, Danny considered his subject. Frederick Helmuth Von Scharnhorst was a wealthy businessman who’d made Palm Beach his home decades ago, an intensely private, enigmatic old man about whom much was assumed but little was known. His money came from his privately held company, Inkster-Braun Industrial Corporation, renowned for its ultra high quality, precision-made ball bearings and exotic specialty metal alloys. Born in Königsberg—then the capital of East Prussia—he was reputedly related to a long line of Prussian kings and princes, stretching back to the Teutonic Knights of the thirteenth century. Just prior to World War II, he fled to Switzerland, making his way to America in 1946.

From the moment he arrived in the United States, Von Scharnhorst began making real money. Buying up surplus steel mills—redundant in the post-war era—he focused on high-precision fabrication and specialty alloys. The Korean War made him seriously wealthy when the War Department awarded him a series of exclusive contracts. Importing a steady stream of well trained engineers from war-torn Germany, Von Scharnhorst maintained a constant technical edge in the narrow industrial niche he dominated. A shrewd businessman, as secretive as he was rich, his privately held company had no public shareholders to answer to; the extent of his wealth could only be estimated. Nevertheless, Forbes magazine routinely listed him among the nation’s top 400 wealthiest people. It was through reading Forbes, Fortune, Barron’s and Business Week that Danny had first learned of Von Scharnhorst’s existence.

Yet it wasn’t simply the German’s wealth that intrigued Danny—the country was flush with rich folks—but rather the persistent rumors of a fabulous coin collection. Professionally, Danny was concerned only with cash, jewelry, gems and precious metals. Paintings, art work, furs, firearms, electronic devices—anything inherently traceable—did not interest him. Coin collections occupied a vague middle ground; with a strong connection for fencing rare coins, Danny occasionally targeted them. Now, based upon what Danny had unequivocally confirmed, he knew Von Scharnhorst’s collection was literally priceless. Danny conservatively estimated his end at five million dollars—enough to make this his last score.

Von Scharnhorst occupied a sprawling, multi-level, Addison Mizner-designed Mediterranean-style villa—Spanish Eclectic style, to be architecturally precise—a broad, wedding-cake swath of creamy stucco, large round Roman-arched windows and doors, pointed Moorish archways, bell towers, decorative parapets, columned balconies and low-pitched red tile roofs; eighteen rooms, twenty-one bathrooms, two pools, a tennis court and an immense greenhouse where he cultured the rarest of orchids. Along with a detached guest house and servants’ quarters, the mansion sat in a lushly landscaped ten-acre walled compound on the island’s east side, fronting the Atlantic Ocean. Stretching south to north lay a thousand feet of porcelain-white beach—Danny’s immediate goal. He’d spent months reconnoitering the compound, utilizing county maps, land plats and aerial photos from a rented Cessna 210, before cruising up the coast in a power boat to snap pictures with a telephoto lens. The estate now awaited him, as familiar as a lover’s body.

Yet Danny’s most crucial source of information was local attorney Howard Yancy, a wisecracking urban dandy, long on greed and short on scruples. He’d visited the villa numerous times, initially to broker the estate sale of several rare coins, but eventually becoming friends, of a sort, with The German, based upon Yancy’s ability to deliver more sordid goods. On rare occasions Yancy secretly worked with a select crew of thieves, selling valuable inside details concerning wealthy clients. From experience Danny knew Yancy’s information was invariably solid—uncommon in Danny’s line of work—so he’d paid Yancy the requested $10,000 for the sketches and notes delivered six months ago.

Danny checked his watch. It was time. Opening the tailgate he dragged out a deflated rubber dinghy, then plugged a portable air pump into the Yukon’s cigarette lighter. Kneeling in the dirt, working earnestly, he quickly inflated the boat, ignoring the clammy sweat drenching his shirt. Danny wrestled with the small gasoline motor, with its oversized, custom fabricated ultra-quiet muffler, attaching it to the aft motor mount. He slid the large, heavy-duty black nylon flight bag containing his tools into a plastic garbage bag, tied it closed, then dropped it into the boat with a muffled metallic clank. Inside the Yukon he flipped a hidden toggle switch, disconnecting the electrical system. He gave the interior one final wipedown, then locked the door. Dropping his wallet and keys into a ziplock bag he jammed them in the wet weeds beneath the 55-gallon drum. Tugging the boat across the mud he slid it into the water, where it bobbed in the darkness, gleaming faintly. It was graveyard quiet, as if the whole world had paused, holding its breath. Looking up, Danny saw a shooting star suddenly crease the sky like a burning fuse, and an acute apprehension came over him like a sudden fever. He paused, then steeled himself, corralling his emotions, and with one final look around he stepped into the boat and pushed off from the shore.

Bill Van Poyck

William Van Poyck  #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street, 
Raiford, FL 32026-1160

If you enjoyed reading this first chapter of Bill's book, you can purchase Quietus HERE

And you can read more from Bill at his blog HERE

Art By William Gregory

Rose/vase with woods screen painted on side made out of paper

First 3-sided vase with rose made out of paper

Kyla's 10th birthday rose made out of paper

The first rose/vase I ever made (out of paper)!

Wishing Well I made out of popsicle sticks and the hand crank actually works!

Mountain Alpine Waterfall (12 x9)

Mountain Alpine Creek/Pond (12x9)

Cliffs of Moher Happy Birthday Kayleigh!

Ocean Scene (9x9)

Deep Woods Alpine Mountain Pond (9x12)

Mountain River (9x12)

Erin's Rose/Vase with Waterfall Scene

Kayleigh's Rose/Vase with Mountain Scene

My First Alpine Mountain Lake (12x9)

Deep Woods Creek (12x9)

Alpine Cabin (12x9)

My First Ocean/Lighthouse Scene (12x9)

Kayleigh's Greeting Card (6x9)

Ruby's Card (6x9)

Ocean Sunrise (6x9)

Cabin in the Woods (12x9)

Light House on the Ocean (12x9)

William Gregory V19522
Union Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 1000 (P-2108)
Raiford, FL 32083

My name is Billy and I have been on death row for a crime I did not commit since 2011 and been fighting for my life since then. I have never been an official artist but have recently gotten into painting and drawing. It helps maintain my sanity, gives those I care about something to look upon and helps me feel productive.  My daughter loves everything I paint, draw and make and while she does I will keep doing it. She means the world to me.  I am a self taught artist and I'm always surprised when my art comes out as well as it does. I hope you enjoy looking at it. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

No Mercy For Dogs Part 11

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 10 can be read here

By the time Pedro and I had finished his homework, Staci had returned to her usual cheery self. Too much of her, I decided, might give you diabetes. True to her word, she made us chocolate chip cookies for dessert. It's hard not to love someone that makes you cookies just a little, and not for the first time I wondered how she had ended up falling in love with a drug kingpin. She placed several of these in a wax paper sack for me to take home, and I knew without a doubt that I was going to be coming back to Pedro's house as often as I could. Even though I was exhausted from a full day of attempting to force-feed vocabulary into my weary brain, I decided not to accept Staci's offer to drive me back to the ranch. Doubtless, the Hammer was going to learn that I had spent all evening at his mistress' house. I didn't think it wise for him to be receiving reports that she had driven me home on top of that, especially when you consider that home was basically a place that he took women to in order to get away from his wife. I think that Staci understood immediately, as she seemed a bit relieved. I kept having to remind myself that she was a bit ditzy, but she was not stupid. Still, I did ask for directions to the small grocery store that she had mentioned She took a white paper napkin from the kitchen table and drew a surprisingly detailed map of the 5 or 6 block area surrounding La Curva. It was so good, I ended up keeping it for months. It showed not only the ranch and how it related to the town, but also the hospital, two depositos, and the road to the Placita. The desert was covered with cacti, including one with a tap in it, which was dripping a liquid directly into a drunken vaquero's mouth. Another had a label, which read "ouch" with a big arrow pointing to some of the spines. That part I had figured out on my own, but the thought was nice.

Next to a large "X" she had written "Tienda de Abarrotes La Juerguista," and I asked her about that.

"The first part means 'grocery store', mijo, and you will want to memorize it for the future, unless you plan to go on a very long diet. A 'juerguista' is a 'merrymaker' or a 'reveler', or something like that. Female tense, of course." She sighed. "The owner is Emilio, and he is a very curious man. You will see why if you spend much time with him. The store is not fancy, like those in the centro. Emilio has no money for non-essentials. But what they have is as fresh as anything you will find in town and much cheaper, especially this late at night."

The evenings in Cerralvo tended to cool off far more rapidly than they did in Houston, the winds flowing down from the mountains in the west making a mockery of my t-shirt. I settled into an easy lope to warm myself up. I had been running every night now for weeks, and my body was starting to become accustomed to the punishment. In the ten or twelve minutes it took me to reach Emilio`s place, my rate of breathing had barely increased, and I wasn't sweating at all.

I paused for a few minutes outside of the store, taking it all in. Staci had not been exaggerating when she said that the store sported no non-essentials. The place had all of the charm of a fallout shelter, and none of the strength. The only concession made to aesthetics or advertising was a 2-foot by 2-foot section of plaster applied to a section of the front wall to the right of the door. On this was painted a cartoonishly buxom female seen from behind. Tilted slightly to the left, she was looking back over her shoulder in a coquettish way, though her eyes looked to be a bit unfocused. Explaining part of this was a bottle of Corona in her right hand. Making somewhat less sense, she carried a bunch of bananas in her left. I'm not sure what sort of "merrymaking" one can do with a banana, but her look clearly implied that she knew things I could only guess at.

The interior of the store was divided into two sections. The area to the right contained a small grill and concrete bar. I had been eating tacos nearly non-stop now for more than a month, so I recognized the set-up immediately. The left half of the store contained metal shelves loaded with various comestibles. A few pieces of produce sat in small plastic baskets to my left, and it was to these that I initially headed. I couldn't see anyone from here, but someone was running a sink behind the grill's counter so I figured that I wasn't alone.

I would later learn that Emilio's wife bought produce from the Mexican equivalent of a farmer's market every morning, and what they had left at the end of the day was eaten by the family. By this point in the evening the place was pretty picked over. I ended up with the last six carrots, three small apples, and two oblong yellowish-orange fruits, which I thought to be mangos. From the freezer I selected a small bottle of milk and a carton of orange juice. A small television set rested at the end of the bar, which showed an aerial shot of the Parthenon in Greece. With a shock I realized that the 2004 Olympic games had begun, and I hadn't even known it. I had been aware that they were coming, of course, but somehow the entire month of July had melted away from me. As lost as I was in this confusion, I failed to notice the thin man to my right until the smoke from his cigarette engulfed me.

I must have jumped a little, and he showed me his teeth in response.

"Que onda, guero?"

This was a bit of a moment for me, the first time I can recall actually comprehending someone's greeting in all of its subtleties. What's up, white boy? Hell yes, I thought: I'm getting somewhere. My response was less graceful, and caused him to raise his left eyebrow, but he moved behind the counter nonetheless and picked up a small portable calculator. I nodded to the television. "How many medals do you think Mexico will win?"

"Me vale madres."

I must have looked confused, because he gave me his toothy, nicotine-laden grin again, before answering in broken English.

"I no geeve a fock. Me vale madres."

"Ah," I said, laughing. "Eh...gracias." My eyes strayed to the grill, where he had obviously been chopping up a huge slab of cow for the next day's tacos. Having recently learned the word for bones, I asked him what he did with them.

What followed was a hodgepodge of Spanglish and hand gestures, but eventually we made it to Boardwalk and he bagged a few of the still meaty bones in a small plastic sack. It took me another small eternity to haggle over the bill, but overall I was pleased: the progress was slow, but I was getting the hang of this. At least I now knew how to say that I didn't give a fock.

The ranch was a mile from the nearest power line, and as soon as I left the highway night enveloped me. I have had a fascination with the stars since I was old enough to lift my head upwards in wonder. My first and fastest friends came to me from the pages of Heinlein and Asimov and Harrison, Pohl and Brin and Bradbury. Later, when I was nine, I read Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy, to this day still my favorite book. In it, the young Myrddin Emrys looked up at the Empyrean and tried in vain to hear the music rumored to come from all of those tiny dots.

A year or so later, I read in an astronomy book that there are less than ten thousand stars visible to the naked eye from Earth, and only around 1,500 or so from any one point in the northern hemisphere. I know that this is probably true, but I will never believe it, because...sometimes the fantasy is too important to let go. I don't know how many times I snuck out at night onto the roof of my childhood home, hoping to hear the music of the stars.

The Milky Way was a cottony band stretching out above me, and for a time I stopped simply to stare. I have had people tell me that all of that empty space terrifies them, but I have never understood this. When I look at the night sky, I feel like I am home. Every atom in the human body was born in a star, so maybe this makes some sense.

The thing about dreamers is that while our heads are up in the heavens, our feet are still planted on the ground. Which, as it happens, is where hungry coyotes live. (The four-legged kind, I mean.) I first clued to the fact that I wasn't alone by the rustling of the tall weeds about 50 feet to my left. I had pretty much run into all manner of beasts on my nightly runs including coyotes. For the most part, they wanted nothing to do with me, and I would occasionally see their eyes flash in some stray beam of light before they scampered off. The one that was edging cautiously out of the brush before me didn't seem to be in any mood to run, however. Mostly it sniffed the air, and I realized that it was picking up on the bones I had bought for Blackie. Who, I remember thinking at the time, would be awfully useful in the present situation. The coyote soon advanced about
15 feet, and it was at this point that I flicked out my knife, still not expecting the thing to attack.

Attack it did not. Instead, it danced: frontwards and backwards, and then tilted its head down to the ground. Each time it did this, it emitted a small yelp. What the hell? I thought? Is it domesticated? Is it begging? The thing looked pathetic, silly, and almost... it was trying to hold my attention.

You are being hunted, you moron, a voice I only later recognized as my own chimed in, and I spun to my right. Sure enough, not 30 feet away were three more of the creatures, advancing slowly. Some genetic memory from my caveman ancestors must have kicked in at this point, because before I had really had a chance to think the situation out I was dipping my right hand to the ground and coming up with a stone. This went zinging towards the pack, missing the first but causing the rest to panic and turn tail. My second stone landed with an immensely satisfying yelp, and I laughed hysterically up at the sky. Anyone watching would have thought they were watching a man come unglued, the way I shouted and taunted and stomped my feet on the tall grass. Savaging four scrawny, starved coyotes is hardly a feat worthy of a war dance, and in retrospect I think I must have actually trying to dispel the memory of the last nine months. Looking back, the whole event feels like a discharge of something fundamental, something that was never going to stay buried. A small madness in a time of greater madness, perhaps. A tiny victory in a time of greater failures. Whatever you call it, it made me feel alive for the first time in years.

I strolled into the ranch like I owned the place, and set most of my goodies in the icebox. The milk I took to the back stall, where I left it in a bowl for the cats. Blackie was nowhere to be seen, but I left his bones heaped atop his bowl. I could only imagine the slobber and the noises of pleasure that were going to be produced upon his discovery of this treasure, and I hoped that I was here to witness it. For myself, I left out one of the I-think-its-a-mango for a post-run snack.

My après-battle euphoria had waned a bit, so I decided to change my circuit from the open desert to a slightly more civilized locale. After stretching, I headed towards the highway. Not wanting to be seen, I stayed a few hundred feet outside of the lights cast by the businesses that ran along it. Eventually a piece of macadam broke off of the main route and headed SSE. A sign on the highway soon read: Melchor Ocampo - 12km. That seemed like a good distance, so I started off and soon lost myself in the cool night air.

Small homesteads dotted the highway, but for the most part the space between Cerralvo and Melchor Ocampo was desolate. The road curved around large mesas and hillocks, though their exact topography was impossible to detect in the darkness. Several of these seemed like easy climbs, and I took advantage of a few of them to look out over the country. The town of Melchor Ocampo appeared to be far smaller than Cerralvo, little more than perhaps 150 homes, laid out in a small, neat grid. I never went into town that night, but from a nearly bluff I had an excellent view of the small park situated at the center of town. Being a Friday night, I could see people walking around the plaza, the "vuelta" of Cerralvo on a smaller, calmer scale.

After twenty minutes of this, I turned to my right to go but ended up freezing in half-step. Something down near the bottom of the slope had moved - or so I thought. For a moment I had a panicky thought that the damned coyotes had gone for reinforcements and were back to finish the job, but I quickly put this down. Eventually the breeze shifted and I saw it again: a tiny light. I would never have noted it, had it not been for the total and complete gloom that covered the rest of the terrain. I couldn‘t see any sort of driveway leading off of the main road that would indicate a home of some sort. It was this incongruous fact, I think, which caused me to walk down the hill in the direction of the light, rather than to the road.

Before long I found a small path, which gently curved down the incline. Large trees crowded the space - mesquites, perhaps, though it was impossible to tell in the darkness. At the center of the grove was a small rectangular building, totally devoid of windows. One solitary candle sat on a tiny pedestal to the right of the door. The place had a peaceful way about it, and I realized with a certainty that this had to be one of the country shrines that Papa Ramos had mentioned in passing. Pushing open the metal door, I was struck blind by heat and light, and my hand immediately went up to my face.

Inside stood a huge altar, which was draped all around by a heavy purple fabric strung from the ceiling to the floor. On every conceivable inch of space sat a candle - hundreds, thousands of them, each seemingly unique. I had never seen anything like it before. I was not a Catholic, but it seemed appropriate to cross myself as I entered. 15 or 20 figures made of plaster, plastic, and stone crowded about the altar, but two were obviously given priority of place: a balding monk with his hand raised in a position of blessing, and a female which I guessed to be la Virgin de Guadalupe. I wasn't sure if this person was the same as Mary the mother of Jesus, but I figured it had to be. The shadows made some of the figures seem like they were moving and blinking, and the overall effect was quite powerful.

I must have stood there for half an hour, trying to take it all in. I had grown up in the church, and had mostly been a believer in some version of Christianity my entire life. Even in the midst of my worst moments, I was praying to some god to stop me. Since December 10th, I had not really been able to face the god of my childhood in any honest way, the hypocrisy of the act too great even for me. I would eventually come to understand that the conflict between the Nazarene and the information presented to me by empirical observation had been fundamental to how I had allowed myself to have fallen so far, but that was a revelation for another time. In those moments, I was simply lost in the simple mess of faith and fear.

Many of the candles had gone out, for whatever reason. I eventually approached the altar with the idea of relighting some of them. A few steps from my destination, though, I stopped. I hadn't noticed it from my position by the door, but the room simply wasn't right. Instead I walked around the mass of candles and pulled back the veil on the left, only to stare at a blank wall. When I did the same on the right, however, I found a small door set into the partition. This was unlocked, but when I stepped through it I found myself in a space smaller than most closets. If I was shocked upon entering the shrine's front door, its back one caused an even greater reaction.

This chamber was totally unadorned, save for ten or twelve candles and a two-foot wooden plinth set against the back wall. Two figures stood upon this. The lesser of the two was a cowboy of some sort, broad sombrero hanging from his neck by a cord. Across his chest was a bandolier of shells, and he had a sword raised in his right hand. Stuck on the sword were pieces of paper – requests? prayers? - and his mouth was open in a shout of victory or pain. It was not this man that had inspired my knife to appear uncalled for in my hand, or which had caused all of the hair on my forearm to stand on end.

Atop the vaquero stood another figure, this one tall and thin, entirely covered in black robes. Nothing could be seen of this person, save for one skeletal hand that tightly gripped a scythe. Above the figure, in red capital letters, were the words: LA MUERTE INVICTO.

I was overwhelmed by a feeling of malice, of being in a place I ought not to be. In my time in Mexico, I would be attacked numerous times by dogs, coyotes, and people. I would stare down drug dealers and crooked police officers. In none of these situations would I feel the raw terror that assailed me inside the dark chapel. I had dropped into a sort of semi-crouch, my blade down in a defensive position, but the only clear message my beleaguered brain was able to process was: get the fuck out of here. And that is what I did. I don't even recall if I shut the door on my way out, and may the small gods of that place forgive me.

If you had bet money that any of the distance runners then competing in Athens could have run the 12kms back to Cerralvo faster than me, you would have lost. I doubt even the coyotes would have made a second attempt, had they seen me.

It was my first visit to a country shrine. It was also my last.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

“Solitary 101”

Solitary Watch's “Solitary 101″ PowerPoint, developed for the recent Midwest Coalition for Human Rights conference on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, can be viewed HERE (printed version). The 60-slide PowerPoint includes sections on the history of solitary confinement, solitary as it is practiced in the United States today, and the growing movement against solitary confinement.