Friday, April 26, 2013

Cherchez la Femme

by Jeff C.


It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in." 
--Ursula K. Le Guinn, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

So this doctor--Dr. T. has a Ph.D. and requires us to call her Dr. T. and requires all of us to refer to each other by our last names preceded by mister--is telling our classroom of prisoners: "I'm against allowing you to marry in here and propagate." This from the same woman who said being in prison "is just as normal as any life out there" outside of prison.

This was during weekend two of three in a volunteer self-betterment course on how to have Honorable Relationships. This Sunday's session was the one I'd been waiting on for two months. It was in January when I'd first met Dr. T. when the classroom started with 27 guys, not the now only seven of us--that she said, afterwards, was "an intentional culling."

Dr. T. is abrasive--she admits this. Abrasive I often don't mind. Abrasive can be interesting. Abrasive can scour down past the pristine politically over-correctness and, if backed by things like logic and avoids assholism for the sake of an entertaining reaction, abrasiveness can get at some deep, capital-T truths.

Because of my argumentative history I have a rather personal high tolerance, as both a giver and a receiver, for that sort of abrasiveness that grinds down past the seventh layer of skin like rock salt under a boot heel. So I could accept Dr. T.'s rough talk that didn't coddle. Besides, she's self-aware about it all, stating, "I have been known to make men cry--sorry." I saw her probe a husband and father, who was complaining about not being able to support his wife and kid, "Before you came in [to prison], did you contribute to your family--not just cash?" He didn't seem to know how to respond to this.

I had been waiting for the section on Intimate Relationships after wading through the rather obvious workbook sections on family, the workplace, and friends. I'd been waiting for two months to ask my two-month old question that was now a two-part question that seemed to go along with her opinion that guys in Washington State shouldn't be able to get trailer visits with their wives and have children--or rather, as she said, propagate.

Washington State is one of only two or three states that still have 24 or 48 hours conjugal visits. Or, in my case as an unmarried man, I have trailer visits with my Mom and my step-Dad and, separately, with my Dad. These trailer visits are intended to maintain strong, positive family connections so that, for example, guys like me who are getting out soon after doing what will have been 18.5 years, we're not, say, wretchedly uncouth. And it does feel like an escape from prison--though the trailers are behind the walls. But cooking together, as a family, is like nothing else. And certainly nothing else like the normal visiting room constant scrutiny.

My main question for Dr. T. was about her admonition two months ago that "none of you getting out should get in any relationships because I know how disastrous this can be." But she hadn't said for how long we should be alone. Or why.

Her initial answer to this only restated that us propagating was not a good thing. But, again, she did not say why. My friend, Atif, later informed me that this was a common belief--that we prisoners should not be allowed to have children. I was not aware--having only known about it directly from the guys who have fathered and raised their sons, daughters, and grandkids in these trailers and oftentimes having more contact with them, and certainly more positive contact, than many fathers not in prison have with their kids. Barbecuing, playing ball or other games, tickle- and water-fights, and even sometimes helping them with their homework.

But I tried again. I asked Dr. T. again to explain her admonition against us getting into relationships and why. Her answer was that she had "tracked four men for four years who'd served 20 years each and interviewed them multiple times" and she summarized that "women became the problem in all four instances."

Man #1 met a woman while in prison and got out and discovered her living conditions were so filthy that he didn't even stay there at all, despite a relationship being established already. Then he met a professional woman and prison advocate and became dependent on her, but "he started to feel used in her cause as a poster child." After a year with her he left, but he had lost his confidence and is now living with another professional woman and, Dr. T. said, "is being infantilized."

Man #2 put his wife that he married in prison through college, supported his step-daughter from age two to thirteen, but a year prior to his release his wife said she wanted a divorce because she was, Dr. T. said, suddenly afraid of him.

Man #3 was bipolar, ostracized, and bright, but after getting out of prison, he had trouble adjusting to life with the woman he married, who had been a volunteer in prison. He would, Dr. T. said, piss off the end of the bed as if he was still in prison with his toilet right there and he couldn't go grocery shopping because there were too many choices. And though he had an excellent job, he overdosed on heroin and died.

Man #4 was seduced by an officer and though she got fired they got married. But after being released, Dr. T. said, he once "grabbed the Alpha child" and was turned in for violence. Later he met another beautiful woman with children but she knew she had all the power and during an altercation she called the cops and he lost his good job.

But, to me, the retelling of those men's regressions was not helpful. Nor did it justify her dismissal of any of us having an honorable, intimate relationship.

When I asked her my follow-up question and almost insisted that she qualify her statement that we shouldn't get in relationships, she still wouldn't put a length of time to her ban. I even mentioned the Alcoholics Anonymous adage that if you feel like you're ready for a relationship once you're clean and sober you should get a plant--if you can keep it alive for a year then get a pet--if a year later it's still alive then, and only then, should you get in a relationship. But Dr. T. wouldn't agree with this or prescribe her own time limit before we should get involved with women. She just warned "how disastrous relationships with women would be," but otherwise she didn't seem to know how to respond to this further probing. But the impression I got from her wasn't that she was protecting our fragile and vulnerable psyches from the wiles of well-meaning and/or wild women. No, Dr. T. distinctly made me feel like she believed that we are broken men that time cannot heal--at least after all this hurtful time.

This attitude shouldn't bother me so much after so much time. I'm well aware of the negative attitudes towards all us prisoners, as if there were no distinctions between any of us. As if a felony--or at least a violent felony--meant that there was nothing human in us anymore. As if we were incapable of honor. And unworthy of intimate relationships.

But I'm not only all too aware of this attitude of people like Dr. T.; I perpetuate an even worse one towards myself.

My perpetual hope is that I'll be immune to all these negative attitudes and that when I get out I can, somehow, prove that I am distinct. That I am capable of more than dishonor. That I can be worthy of an intimate relationship.

All that sounds vaguely wistful, but the problem is that for far too long I've done merely that--hope that my future will be better than others. Hope without action. Hope as some sort of fog bank that lets you see what you want to see, but keeps you standing still. Hope that hides what you're afraid of unless you're willing to go bumbling along.


He'd known, once, what to do and feel around human beings."
--C.J. Cherryh, "Foreigner"

I don't know how to be around women anymore. I overanalyze and stand apart from myself, ever-gauging if what I'm saying, if what I'm expressing unconsciously with my body language, if what I'm touching with my gaze, is appropriate. Whether or not I'm offending, I'm objectifying, or even if I'm slightly discomforting. I am, again, an awkward adolescent.

When I was in middle and high school I didn't know how to be anything but awfully awkward around girls. From afar I was often so devoutly smitten with a girl that when standing in front of her I was whatever is two steps beyond merely self-conscious.

I had prescription-level acne and I was so embarrassed of my scrawny arms that I would only wear T-shirts that went past my elbows. Once, in a Grand Gesture to let a girl know I liked her, I sent her a dozen roses with only my phone number on it, and then, after begging my step-Dad to get off the phone and quit questioning her about why she was calling and asking who lived there, I had to explain who I was to her. In detail.

Another time, via the distancing, protective written word, I had a note passed to a girl actually asking, "Do you like me? Check Yes or No." Both of these examples were when I was fifteen.

But that immature, skinny boy blossomed in the Army and not only did the pimples recede, but I gained self-assurance to go along with my new unembarrassing body. Unfortunately I then immaturely overcompensated in "the land of beer and honeys," as my pack of friends and I called it, and dated almost every willing fraulein in Germany. But all that--and the flirting and just talking with woman--allowed the socially stunted shy boy that I was to thrive in confidence.

But then came prison.

And now almost the entirety of my every day existence is estrogen-free.

Oh, sure, there are a few female guards here. But personally I'm scared to be personal with them, or any guards, actually. It is all too easy to either get accused of being in a sexual relationship with a female guard or get accused of "compromising staff." And in here an accusation can cause the same reaction as being guilty. So in this state if you care at all about the privilege of remaining at the only prison close to your family, the only prison with ample single-man cells, the only prison with a collegiate atmosphere, you'd best not even think sideways at a female guard or "poof"--into the not-here ether you will go.

Proprietary jealousy from male guards that will flex their authority all over your life, anonymous prisoner lonesome jealously that will kite their suspicions into your central file, or an attitudinal shift from the female guard that for some reason no longer enjoys the added attention can all cause this reaction, this disappearing. So even if I were attracted to any of the women who work here I keep a professional distance from even the possible appearance of impropriety.

And as for what few other women there are with whom I come into contact, not only is that fear of being infracted, shipped out, and losing Good Time over a look or a misunderstood word ever-present from anybody with a pen, but with the programs in which I participate, I'd never want to put these women in jeopardy of losing their volunteer privileges. More importantly, though, I wouldn't want to risk making them feel uncomfortable in any way if I can help it.

Unlike others.

Yes, I've seen it happen, far too often. The crass attempt at a double entendre: as a volunteer takes off her sweatshirt to reveal an "I [heart] Seattle" T-shirt the loud, "I'm Seattle" declaration while staring, hard, at her lettering. The lecherous male gaze more penetrative of privacy than it is respectfully appreciative of beauty: as a teacher writes on the board the elbow into the ribs of his partner to giggly get a group ogling going. And the way of making every interaction as if it is only ever visual- and vocal-foreplay: as in saying something ostensibly innocuous but in a sleazy way, or the way an introduction or greeting becomes a blatant visual declaration of "I'm checking you out and I want you to watch me do it--and accept it."

I've seen our volunteers react in very different ways. The attempt to ignore and suppress the inappropriate: as a topic change or a continuing on as if the disrespect never happened and as if her sudden clenching jaw and brittle posture was natural. The refusal to wear any flattering clothing: as an attempt which not only goes far beyond the DOC orientation/indoctrination guidelines but seems designed to obscure all signs of femininity. And, on unfortunately rare occasions, the direct confrontational reproaches in which a volunteer declaratively demands that she will not tolerate such obvious rudeness: as when she states, "What I'm wearing is not a subject for class discussion."

My own reactions while witnessing these discourteous situations have ranged from empathetic unease when my own glaring at him to behave civilized doesn't work, irritation that makes me itch to intervene, or a desire to applaud when she calls him out on his disrespect.

Most of these situations arose from forced, intentional attempts to elicit a response. But I've also seen interactions with prisoners who have been locked up and away from women for too long cause unintended discomfort as well. And because of those all-too common situations I'm perhaps overly ever-wary of causing the same sort of cringe-inducing harassment. Mostly because my oh-so-clever wit has, on occasion, outrun my atrophied sense of appropriateness.

Because of this awareness, my wariness binds upon itself and accumulates into a skittish awkweirdness when confronted with the prospect of any sort of non-regular, personal, face-to-face contact with women. I feel uncomfortable, all too often.

What's so chilling about this is that the mature man I am now remembers what it was like to be socially stunted as a skinny teenager around girls I was afraid to talk to and then--after gaining the self-assurance and biceps that came with success in the Army--actually succeeding in talking and flirting quite well with actual, receptive women. But now I am, in some ways, startled, spooked, and scared by some women. Especially professional and/or attractive women. Even more so when alone with them.

Oh, I know why this is. But sometimes knowing isn't enough to slap all the stupid outta me.

This beyond-nervousness dwarfs those intense little feelings that used to pock my acned youth. I get caught in a mental echo feedback loop of worry about saying the inappropriate thing, then worrying about whether my worry is warranted. Or showing.

But what's really distressing is that this wariness drifts into my friendships with women outside of prison. I catch myself overly hesitant to broach certain subjects or say certain things. And I wonder if this skittishness will undercut all my future relationships.

Because, to be sure, like a teenage at an all-boys, or perhaps reform, school, I'm sure I've spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating being in an intimate relationship. So much time that it may not have been healthy.


“Not until we're totally crushed do we show what we're made of."
--Bohumil Hrabal, "Too Loud a Solitude”

Over 14 years ago, when I was at the penitentiary in Walla Walla, there was a teacher there who said something that stuck with me. She said that guys in prison typically come to think of women in one of two ways: as all bitches that they objectify and vilify, or as angels that they put on a pedestal and daydream about. At the time she said this I had an old girlfriend who was a new fiancee that I believed was going to stick with me and wait for me during all my time--this was before I'd learned about, or was eligible for, the trailer visiting program. I joked with my fiancee about what this teacher said and even crafted an elaborate drawing of my fiancee's name, atop a Corinthian pedestal with fluting and flueronic detailing.

About a year later that joke wasn't funny anymore when my fiancee disappeared from my life without even a "Dear John" missive fired from the ether. But neither prison nor my hurt and painfully slow emotional recovery made me into a misogynist.

No, instead, many television years later, I eventually tried to insinuate myself in a romantic relationship with almost every pen-pal that gave me any sort of friendship. I was, again, easily infatuated and continually trying to lay the groundwork for something more than what I thought of then as mere friendship. As if all my elaborately decorated envelopes and brutally long letters would make her magically want more than a friendship.

One woman, in particular, got to me so pervasively that I almost couldn't take it. Many frustrated months of journaling later, I, eventually, simply had to make my big, awkward Grand Gesture which, of course, failed so miserably that it ruined the friendship. But that's to be expected when you compile all the diary extracts and uncensored emotional ventings about the irregularity of intercontinental mail and ambiguities in the friendship and send them to her as some sort of "proof" of how much she affects you. Oh, I was ugly. Brutal. Immature. And, sadly, hurtful.

But that's what happened to me as a result of all this time secluded from the full spectrum of society. Well, one of the things that happened to me. I'm not claiming such things happen to everyone who has to do a grip o' time, but I do see, on many of us who have, that dichotomy. Some of us try to hold up some woman as the panacea for all our ailments and others yell, curse, and hang-up on the women who love them--and then call them right back up, collect. And, sadly, they accept.

What I personally cannot accept, though, is that bipolar dichotomy being my only two opposing options for my future. I want to view women as they are, not as caricatured vessels into which I can pour all my issues.

Last year I confessed most of this to one of my friends--via the distancing, protective written word, but of course. I explained, in detail, my desire to build an emotional relationship with one willing woman through sharing and honest revelations about our pasts as a way of laying some foundation to then build a relationship on when I get out. She suggested that I should focus on other things. Instead of clinging to that off chance, I should focus on getting out, getting employed, and bettering myself. Fair enough, of course. But even though I know that this decade-long desire to build a friendship into potentially something more is based on my monstrous hate of the waste of my time in prison, I get her concern, even if I'm not convinced self-betterment and a desire to have an intimate relationship are mutually exclusive.

But after so many years of suppressing most meaningful, even just beyond professional and merely friendly, face-to-face contact with women maybe it's natural to cling to anything that might allow me to deal with this impending world-shift. This transition that is going to evoke some freakishly doubleplusuncool feelings. Maybe it's natural to dream, to hope, to even better yourself for that off chance of starting life while in this time-out from it.

Because when I'm suddenly thrust into a world with not 1.5 but 51 percent of women, I fear that I'll often feel like a slack-jawed, unblinking, guileless goof. Like being merely off-kilter is an attitude to aspire to. At least until my confidence heals. Assuming it's not all stigmatized scar tissue.

The thing that has helped me far, far more than any seminar on how to have an honorable relationship, of course, is the fact that I'm now able to have women friends. I no longer see each as a potential wife, if given the right specific circumstances, if I continue to read into any compliment that I can then pet bald. Strangely--in that it's new for me--I can actually enjoy my friendships with women without expecting or hoping for more. That might not seem like much, but for in here, for me, that's a world-shift in itself. And I have, now, perhaps as a result of this attitude, some amazing friends.

Not that I'm fully healed or immune to sporadic flare-ups of emphatic doubt around women in prison, but like those first ten thousand struggling push-ups for a scrawny boy, every little bit helps. And bumbling along in every healthy friendship not motivated by agendarosity, and even in every abrasive seminar, is better than simply blindly hoping that the future will be better.

---April 2013

Jeff C.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Matters of Life and Death

Set the Lifers Free

By Reginald S. Lewis

They are mostly sickly old cats now. Their noble gait is slower and measured but their minds far more keen and sharply focused.  In the criminal ecology of the underworld they were ruthless Gombas or shrewd Black Mafia Kings cold-eyed bandoleros or former members of some of the baaadest largest fiercest crews in gangdom. Decades spent in the interminable shuttle of one state prison after another has significantly softened their   moods as well as their hardened exteriors

On June 25, 2012 in the companion cases known as Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs the United States Supreme Court held mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of the crime violates the Eighth Amendments prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Lifers in the state of Pennsylvania collectively believe that the language in these cases (as well as the mandates in the prior U.S. Supreme Court precedents) gives them legal justification to challenge their convictions for First and Second degree murder. If age is clearly not a distinguishing factor in the Pennsylvania murder statute the logic goes that juveniles and adults are in a “single statutory class.” This is because the Equal Protection Clause forbids “age discrimination.”

And we wholeheartedly agree with the dissenters in Miller/Jackson that this “… decision invalidates the laws of dozens of Legislatures and Congress.” For in Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court wisely noted: “The penalty when imposed on a teenager as compared with an older person is therefore the same “… in name only.” The Court observed in Eddings v Oklahoma (1982) that “youth is more than a chronological fact.”

In reaching its conclusion in Miller/Jackson they stated, "This court had not relied on legislative enactments in the same way.” Instead they chose to rely on the scientific findings that a child’s biological and developmental process and maturation is not complete until they reach their mid-twenties. It cannot be ignored that there are studies in the annals of American Psychiatry which are riddled with evidence of mental abnormalities in adults

In U.S. jurisdictions the doctrine of diminished capacity can be offered to make the offender less deserving of a harsher sentence.  In some cases courts have found that due to drugs and intoxication combined with a mental defect a defendant could not form the capacity to maturely and appreciatively reflect on his acts. The court in Miller/Jackson identifies the mitigating factors that can be considered in each case.

Today many reformed lifers serve as mentors to troubled at risk youth We read stories of them raising funds for college scholarships to poor needy students. Most have undergone a most sincere religious conversion that wed them in a beautiful spiritual fellowship with the Creator

Extending mercy and justice and forgiveness to these long forgotten men and women in the wisdom of the Supremes comports with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.

Reginald Lewis
Reginald S. Lewis is a widely published African-American poet, essayist, and a playwright, recently transferred from Pennsylvania's Death Row to general population after almost three decades in total isolation.  Information about Reggie Lewis's case is posted on He won first prize for poetry in the 1988 PEN American Center Prison Writing Contest. He is the author of two collections of poetry, entitled, Leaving Death Row (Author House, 2000), and Inside My Head, (www.iUniverse 2002). His third book is entitled, Where I'm Writing From: Essays from Pennsylvania's Death Row (Publish America, 2005).

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

The Good Fight

By Donald Ray Young

Proposition 34, the Savings Accountability and Full Enforcement Act, failed by a narrow 52-48 percent split in California in November 2012.  This is just enough to expose the execution chamber, but not enough for us to forget the wise people on the right side of history – the 48 percent.  Death Penalty Focus, American Civil Liberties Union, and Friends Committee on Legislation of California fought the good fight, unified by dedicated organizations, groups and individuals.  To the hundreds of volunteers who collected over 800,000 signatures to put the SAFE Act on the ballot, to the people who graciously sacrificed their time, energy, and treasure, we honor you and your commitment to abolition.  Thank you!

If this were the last bus, we missed it.  We were double-crossed by a faction of our base.  Where there is execution, hope and parole cannot exist.  You are either against capital punishment or for state-sponsored lynching.  It is truly that simple, no matter how confusing obstructionists wish it to be.  A YES vote on Proposition 34 would have abolished capital punishment in California. . . PERMANENTLY!

Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) lives and exists in every state, with or without capital punishment. The people of California voted in the current Death Penalty (Proposition 7) on November 7, 1978, and now only we, the people of California, can vote it out.  California would have been the first state to abolish capital punishment via the ballot box.  The first rule of abolition is to protect life by eradicating capital punishment.  Only then can we remove LWOP from the equation.  Even parole-eligible lifers are more likely to die in prison than be paroled.  Wake up, California!  Let us dismantle this killing machine . . . or is it too late?

Death row is where innocence takes a final breath.  Capital punishment has never been concerned with morality; it has always been about brutality.  Conscious people know that America has preserved a legal system that puts people to death, even innocent ones.  You do not need to be an expert to understand that killing is wrong and capital punishment must be abolished by any means.  When chattel slavery was abolished in the 19th Century my ancestors were greeted with Black Codes, Exclusionary Laws, Share Cropping, the Convict Lease System, Chain Gangs, Jim Crow Laws, the Ku Klux Klan... and lynching.  They courageously traveled this torturous path for all of humanity.

The death penalty makes killers out of judges, prosecutors, jurors, prison staff, and the people of the state as a whole.   The courts openly admit that the death penalty is racially biased (McKleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279.)   The two major organizations that were opposed to Proposition 34 were The California District Attorneys Association and the California Sheriffs’ Association.  These are the very entities that overwhelm the justice system with police misconduct, dishonest forensic experts, prosecutorial misconduct and false confessions.  Basic math and history tell us that very few if any California death row prisoners will ever see society.  The district attorneys are calling for the immediate execution of the 20 or so who have fully exhausted their appeals.

Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U. S. Supreme Court wrote in his concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, the case that abolished the death penalty in the United States in 1972, “If people were familiar with the truth about the death penalty they would want to abolish it.”  In November 2012 the Campaign to End the Death Penalty declared, “After much thoughtful debate, the CEDP board of directors voted not to endorse supporting the SAFE Act.”  The building is on fire.  We are pulling people out of the flames, while attempting to put the fire out.  Instead of assisting us save lives... delusional minds and organizations selected this moment to discuss the adequacy of fire alarms. If you consider yourself an abolitionist but refuse to abolish, the least you can do is step out of the way! We have work to do and it is a matter of life and death.

Abolitionists are obligated to galvanize the base, persuade the undecided, and engage the opposition.  If you are an abolitionist in fact as well as deed and not just in theory, you would have voted YES on Proposition 34.  If you care about human rights, you voted YES on Proposition 34.  If you wanted to save $1 billion over the next five years and create a healthy economy, you voted YES on Proposition 34.  California is 47 out of 50 states in per pupil spending, so if you care about the education of our youth and wanted to spend more on education than on prison, you voted YES on Proposition 34.  If you believe in your heart that the State does not have the right to legally lynch in your name – leaving blood on your hands – you voted YES on Proposition 34.

We fought the good fight!  And it’s not over.  The struggle will never end!

Donald Ray Young

Donald Ray Young is an innocent man erroneously convicted and sentenced to San Quentin’s Death Row in 2006.  Donald is a paralegal with an Associate of Arts degree in Sociology. He hopes to pursue further education, including a law degree that will aid him in achieving his exoneration. His first book is scheduled for release this year, and he blogs at:

Donald Ray Young
E78474 East Block
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA  94974

Friday, April 12, 2013

Quietus - Chapter Two

Admin Note: Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013
By William Van Poyck

Click here for Chapter One

In the rising chop Danny found the inflatable as maneuverable as a hard-mouthed horse, bucking in the ebb tide, slamming the waves, spraying salty curtains overhead. Hunkered down, straining at the tiller, he peered into the darkness, urging the boat forward. Twenty wet and tense minutes later he rounded the island’s tip, turned south and motored into the broad, restless Atlantic, unfolding ceaselessly all the way to Africa. The marching swells were rougher here, relentless, thumping, striking broadside, hurling the craft about perilously. Suddenly the plan did not seem so clever and, for a brief moment, as doubt stole in, Danny considered aborting the trip. But this was a carefully chosen night, marked by a favorable synchrony of events. First, there was no moon. Second, Von Scharnhorst was hosting a lavish dinner party benefitting a local charity that adopted out retired polo ponies. Danny preferred working when the occupants were home and most alarms were off. Tonight, he knew, The German would be very busy. It was now or never. With knotted stomach he pushed away all doubt and willed himself onward.

To Danny’s left lay darkness, black as Styx. To his right, stretching away like gobbets of sparkling gems on a great bejeweled kebab, a continuous chain of mansions slid by, their lights reaching out like pearly fingers probing the parlous sea. Squinting like a gunfighter into the blowing salt spray, Danny porpoised through the waves, motoring on, relentless as a rockslide, adrenaline surging through his veins. When the brilliantly lit Kennedy compound finally hove into view Danny knew he was close. Minutes later he steered toward shore.

Cutting the engine at the last moment he crouched low as curling surf propelled him onto the beach. The dinghy’s bottom scraped roughly across the wet sand. Bounding out, Danny tugged the boat up into a thick grove of sweetly scented hibiscus bushes. Kneeling in the dirt, forcing himself to breathe slow and deep, fighting to calm his racing heart, he surveyed the brightly lit main residence, every fiber of his being hyper-alert. He was on the farthest, darkest corner of the beach and the house sat a hundred yards up a gently sloping lawn dotted with majestic royal palms. Danny pulled a black ski mask down over his face, zipped open his bag and retrieved a small battery-powered electronic dog zapper, which he hung around his neck by a nylon cord. The ultra-high frequency sound emitter, inaudible to humans, would drive off The German’s three Rottweilers if they appeared. It’d better work, he often mused, because he didn’t like or carry guns. Sliding the duffel bag out of the garbage bag Danny hung the strap on his shoulder and jogged up the lawn toward the house. Trotting across a coquina stone driveway running along the side of the villa, he ducked down at the base of a thick hedge pressing against the house. He duck walked down the hedge line until he reached a corner where the garage jutted out. It was dark and quiet and exactly where he wanted to be.

Standing up, Danny examined the sheet metal junction box attached to the wall, his eyes following the telephone wires leaving the house, up to a pole, and on down the property line toward the street. Using a screwdriver he removed the box cover, revealing the conduit pipe containing the main trunk line. Wielding a plumber’s pipe cutter and small hacksaw, Danny cut away the conduit, exposing a bundle of colorful wires. Working swiftly he stripped away the insulation on each wire until they all gleamed like new gold. From his bag he pulled out a small, homemade black box. Technically known as a Wheatstone bridge, it was a digital galvanic equalizer, built by Danny from Radio Shack parts. Designed to match impedance using half taps, it measured incoming signals to the alarm system, as well as the corresponding outgoing signals, and generated an exact duplicate signal. This bridged the system, fooling it into believing that every contact was intact, no matter how many interior wires or contacts were broken or tripped. With a digital voltmeter and alligator clips Danny carefully read the voltage for each wire—incoming and outgoing—then adjusted his black box accordingly. When every wire was connected to the box he held his breath and flipped the switch. When the row of tiny red lights blinked on Danny exhaled in relief. The system was now bypassed. The house belonged to him.

Nestling the black box deep into the hedge Danny shouldered his bag and moved past the big triple-bay garage, idly noting Von Scharnhorst’s two-tone, brown-on-tan Rolls Royce. Much farther down the drive a gaggle of parked cars spilled across the front lawn. Darting through the shadows Danny stopped beneath a second floor balcony. Somewhere in the distance he heard faint strains of chamber music. From his bag Danny pulled a small, cloth-wrapped steel grappling hook and knotted nylon rope. Without hesitation he tossed the hook up and over the ornate stone balustrade, pulling the rope tight until the hook caught. With practiced ease he climbed the rope and pulled himself over the balcony, dropping onto the cool Spanish tile floor. Squatting down, he examined the French door. It was locked. Rummaging in his bag he found a small, thin-bladed steel pry bar. Within seconds he gently popped the door open, crawled inside and closed the door behind him.

Cool, conditioned air, freighted with a faint metallic scent, washed over Danny. Eyes closed, he concentrated to orient himself. He was, he knew, in an unused bedroom, dark as the inside of an oil barrel. Moving decisively he crossed the room, stopped to listen at the door, then stepped out into a hallway. Faint murmurs of conversation, fractured by occasional laughs, drifted up from Danny’s left. The party was downstairs, in that direction. Turning right, he strode down the carpeted hallway, counting doors, mentally calculating. Turning left he stepped through an archway and squarely faced a heavy, elaborately carved wooden double door. This was it, the study. Danny’s gloved hand gripped the bronze handle. Locked.

Kneeling down, acutely conscious of his vulnerability, Danny quickly examined the lock, then unzipped a small vinyl case holding an assortment of lock picks. Knowing the average-quality door lock in front of him could probably be raked—a cruder, less time-consuming version of picking—Danny slid an L-shaped tension bar into the keyhole with his left hand and inserted a slim spring steel rake with his right hand. Applying a light, steady pressure with the tension bar he rapidly raked the tumblers, back to front. Beaded sweat dripped from his nose as the metallic rasp seemed to fill the hall. Suddenly the tension bar swung in an arc and the lock gently opened. A familiar thrill of victory washed over Danny as he slipped inside and closed the door.

The scent of stale cigar smoke tickled his nostrils as Danny crossed a large room oozing richly paneled mahogany like an exclusive men’s club. Snapping on a desk lamp he searched the paneled wall behind the massive desk, feeling for the barely discernible handle supposedly there. Finding it, he slid open the well hidden pocket door. Squatting before him, as expected, was a vintage one-ton, six-foot-tall, double-door Heidelberg, a hulking brute of a safe crafted from the finest pre-war German steel. Given unlimited time and a seven-foot wrecking bar, Danny could peel this safe, but he had a better plan. Grabbing the double handles he first determined that it was, in fact, locked. Then he dropped his satchel and set to work.

Removing a special high-speed drill, and extension cord, from his bag Danny plugged it in. Then he carefully taped a large paper template to the right hand door, adjusting the cutouts to fit over the dial and handle. With a white magic marker he meticulously marked the three spots indicated on the template, then removed the template and picked up the drill. Leaning into the gleaming safe he pressed the carbide steel, diamond-tipped drill bit against the first white spot and began drilling.

After ten tense, nerve-wracking minutes, Danny had drilled the three holes. From his bag he removed a slim, twelve-inch-long steel tool, notched near the end, and inserted it into the first hole. Holding his breath, straining his ears, he blindly fished around inside the door until he hooked the steel rod he was searching for. Pulling firmly, he felt the rod snap forward with a metallic click. Danny repeated the process at the other two holes, using a differently sized and notched tool for each one. Danny stopped and replaced his tools into the satchel, carefully accounting for each one. Rolling up the extension cord he idly noted a beautiful Monet hanging on a wall, a vibrant floral burst of blue flowers and placid water. He’d already seen a Van Gogh and a Cézanne, which even he, a mediocre student of art, recognized. Danny ignored the priceless paintings. Stepping before the safe he grabbed and yanked down the two heavy handles. A muffled clunk! Heavy with authority, echoed dully. Pulling both handles upward, a softer thunk! Resonated, and almost imperceptibly the doors cracked open. Bracing his feet Danny drew the handles toward him and the heavy steel doors slowly swung open as the safe reluctantly revealed its secrets to an audience of one.

* * * * *

Precisely at that moment Deputy Maceo Alvarez was easing his Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office squad car down a sandy trail on the mainland. On routine patrol, he was checking out remote back roads. Nearing the end of one particular trail he was preparing to turn around when his headlights reflected off a vehicle. Looking more closely, he saw a large SUV, almost invisible in the shadows, parked with its nose poked into some bushes. It was black, shiny and looked brand new. Suddenly cautious, aware of his isolation, Alvarez eased his car up behind the vehicle. It was a Yukon, he noted. Picking up his radio transmitter he called in his location and the Yukon’s license plate numbers, requesting a check, then filled out a field report listing the vehicle’s make, model and license tag number. Then, flashlight in hand, Alvarez stepped out of his car and looked around, playing the light across the shadowy vegetation. Feeling uneasy, he un-holstered his pistol and slowly approached the dark Yukon.

Shining his light throughout the vehicle he quickly determined that it was unoccupied. And, the doors were locked. This is strange, the deputy thought, looking around, again throwing his light over the weeds, probing the bushes. A new, forty-thousand-dollar vehicle doing sitting in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Stepping around front, splashing through puddles, he shined his light back inside. For the first time he saw the crudely written sign, scribbled on a ragged piece of cardboard, lying on the dashboard: Out of Gas. Will be back. By the sign was a scattering of fishing lures and two rolls of monofilament fishing line. In the rear he saw two fishing poles and a tackle box. Alvarez visibly relaxed, his tensed muscles unknotting. It’s nothing. His squawking radio interrupted his thinking and he returned to his squad car. Inside he listened as the dispatcher related that the Yukon was not reported stolen. It was registered to a Jackson Benson, from Miami. Benson had no record, no outstanding warrants. With a sigh of relief Alvarez completed his field report. He didn’t like sitting there, exposed in a lighted interior, and he was suddenly anxious to leave. An owl hooted somewhere close by and an involuntary chill ran up Alvarez’s spine. This place is creepy, he decided as he tossed his clipboard down. Giving one final look around the darkened clearing he turned his car around and returned to his beat, roaring off a little faster than necessary.

* * * * *

When the safe doors opened, Danny took a moment to digest the scene. His heart pounded with excitement, the familiar thrill that always accompanied such moments. A safe could be totally empty or full of riches—he’d encountered both—which was why it was like winning the lottery. Scanning the overflowing shelves, Danny saw that the old Heidelberg was a veritable cornucopia. With experienced swiftness, and a real sense of urgency, he began pulling items from the interior, working from top to bottom. With quick glances he had to make instantaneous decisions about what to toss and what to keep. Toss or keep. Toss or keep. Working rapidly he tossed aside obviously useless items, stuffing everything else into his bag. With a satisfied grunt he found a bundle of zippered bank pouches, each one stuffed with green money. One by one they went into his satchel; he stopped counting at ten and stopped looking inside to check for money. Reams of paperwork were tossed aside. Toss or keep. Danny’s hands flew over the merchandise, his heart racing with excitement. This is a good score. Danny concentrated on suppressing his rising excitement, willing himself to remain calm and clearheaded, fighting the fear, that familiar temptation to split with a victory in hand before something went wrong. Toss or keep. Toss or keep.

On the second shelf Danny found a small, carved wood chest of drawers. Opening the first drawer he was stunned to see dozens of huge, loose diamonds glittering on the velvet lining. He immediately pulled the drawer out, prepared to dump it into the satchel. At the last moment, looking back and forth, he made a snap decision. Removing all of his tools from the bag, he decided to leave them behind. They were untraceable and he needed the room. Sliding the drawer back into the jewelry chest he stuffed the entire chest into the satchel. Back at the safe Danny’s hands flew like a shuttle. Toss or keep. A matte black Glock 9mm pistol and a sheaf of stock certificates joined the growing pile on the floor. Toss or keep.

On the third shelf Danny found a metal box. Pulling it toward him, surprised at its weight, he opened the lid. Gold! He dumped the jumble of gold ingots into the satchel. Another metal box sat on the shelf. It wasn’t as heavy, but it was locked. Danny dumped it into the bag. Toss or keep.
Finally, the entire floor of the safe was lined with large, leather-bound, photo album-like folders, arrayed like books on a shelf. Flipping one open Danny saw coins, each one bound in a thick, clear plastic page, each carefully identified. Eureka! Danny swiftly stuffed the folders into his satchel, anxiously wondering if they were going to fit, until he finally squeezed the last album in. Zipping up the bulging bag he shouldered it quickly, surprised at its weight. This was, he knew, a heavy-duty score, certainly the biggest in his life, and his thumping heart echoed in his ears. He snapped off the light and moved toward the door, looking about one last time. Suddenly his hand froze above the doorknob. There was something in the corner he had not noticed before. Peering curiously into the shadows he was startled to finally recognize it. On impulse he moved toward it, inexplicably feeling that it was something he had to do.

When Danny finally eased out into the hallway, raw silence greeted his ears. He trotted back down to the unused bedroom, counting doors as he went, the heavy bag banging against his hip. He slipped into the bedroom and strode directly out onto the balcony, closing the French doors behind him. Pausing to ensure that nobody was on the grounds below, he hung over the balcony and dropped the satchel onto the hedge. Climbing over, he hung down and dropped, rolling when he hit the ground. Shouldering the bag he jogged down the lawn, not even looking back. So close! Please don’t let anything go wrong now!

With his eyes locked onto the hibiscus stand hiding his boat, Danny abandoned all caution and broke into a full run for the last hundred feet, sliding into the bushes like a man stealing home plate. Dragging the dinghy down into the water he tumbled inside and started the engine, desperately trying to catch his breath. As he puttered away into the darkness, nosing through the foamy surf, Danny looked back at the brightly lit, slowly receding mansion, seemingly bobbing on the horizon in cadence with the waves, and felt a tremendous rush of raw exhilaration. Then, turning into the darkness, he steered the boat toward his new life, assuredly one thickly populated with great slices of good luck.

* * * * *

Ninety minutes later Danny trudged into the bedroom of his rented house, soaking wet and thoroughly exhausted. Normally this was the best time of any score, when he dumped his new treasures out and calculated his riches. It was intoxicating, like the score itself, unlike anything else—tasting the sharp piquant flavor of ultimate risk and boundless reward. But tonight Danny was dead tired. The return trip in the dinghy had been rough and he’d almost been swamped several times. Physically drained, mentally numb, Danny wearily decided to wait until morning. Tomorrow would be a big day, for he had to pack up and return to his home in Miami. Danny stripped and stepped into the shower, letting the steaming water melt away his fatigue. Toweling off he gave one final glance at the hulking satchel sitting on the floor, bulging with promises of dreams yet to be fulfilled. That bag, he mused, represented his future, containing enough money to allow him to go straight. It was an old story among thieves, but tonight Danny had achieved that goal. Turning off the lights he climbed into bed, sliding between the crisp, cool sheets. And there he lay, staring at the ceiling, savoring his success, his future now a buffet line of choices, spread before him in all directions like an evanescent constellation of exquisite possibilities, until sleep finally descended upon him like a benediction.

Bill Van Poyck

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

If you enjoyed reading this chapter of Bill's book, you can purchase Quietus HERE
And you can read more from Bill at his blog HERE

Friday, April 5, 2013

Son of The District (Part 2 of 2)*

By Steve Bartholomew

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

Read Part 1 Here

I was wary of Heavy after the Green Fleece incident. More of being associated with him than of his physical presence, this is what I told myself. It had been a month or so--a long time in street years--and in that time we had not spoken of what happened. Some days Heavy would score a gram or two off me, holding the money out while he asked, a gesture intended to short-circuit my uneasiness. I had glimpsed his unmasked nature and afterward felt a twinge of guilt at how awestruck I was by such methodical violence. A clash of lower-tier thinking, admiration where you know revulsion should be.

But to simply lie to him about whether I was holding would have violated the nameless bond between us now, the queasy sort of knot where our two histories were forcibly combined. I held a dim loyalty toward him, like I'd been through an ordeal with, not because of him. Maybe I enjoyed feeling sorry for someone more outcast than I was. No Ave Rat would deal with him, not even Goatee Rick, who had no detectable fear of anything, including johnny law.

I had no more illusions of a carefree life on the Ave. Cops weren't the only threat anymore; they were only one of a thousand. The District contained everything outside of me now. I was a city of one on a narrow planet of charades, motives hidden and hostile to my being. I distrusted humanity on its smiling face because social fictions were only tactics that could disarm you. I scurried past alleyways as a general habit. I would not get into cars or deal with anyone unless they were alone, nor would I direct sales to anyone when I ran out, not even to Angel. Our main interaction was the looks we traded--she regarded me like an insinuation not quite rating a remark, and I tried to memorize her geometry, one side-eyeing at a time.

When I bought the pistol a few days after the alleyway incident, I knew on some unthinking level it was only a fantasy of safety, the way you know the rabbit's foot in your pocket won't really steer you away from harm any better than it did the rabbit, but you lug it around anyway. I could not pack my lucky charm on the street, not with a barrel so ridiculously long you half expected one of those "Bang!" flags to pop out. Johnny law'd vamp on that like the time Squash Josh tried serving grams on roller skates, all seven feet of him, broomstick arms whipping the sky.

Sitting on enough for an ounce meant you were more likely to get robbed than to actually score. You couldn't just ask around until you found one, because once word got out, you could get caught slipping by anybody with a partner or a pocketknife. Just when you dismiss vigilance as paranoia, your blind spot creeps up on you and peels you back proper. A street kid wandering around with a couple hundred bucks is a pork chop at the pitbull fair.

If Goatee Rick was the eldest of the District, Stormin’ Norman was its favorite uncle, the non-creepy one. They said he predated any Ave Rat and most of the buildings. He held down whatever spot he chose in Moses sandals and rainbow socks, a sort of peaceful demonstration held against winter and fashion sense. His blockish trunk and thick limbs put a rolling efficiency in his stride. A ponytail, long, gray and missing a strip up top, a face you could not pick out of a line-up in The Shire. I‘d heard him called The Beard by people unsure of his name, referring to the grizzled bib of fur that shaded most of his belly and which suggested a pipe be stoked on any given occasion. He carried a black velvet panel hung with beadwork in all forms pinnable. Although peds would stop and buy his merchandise, the colory trinkets on the panel were only a side-gig.

It had taken me weeks to learn that Stormin’ Norman was more than an old hippy beadsmith. He did not watch the faces of needers, nor did he pace the Ave or bother to get ghost when vice was rolling. He had regulars that went back decades who would talk to no one else except to ask if they‘d seen Stormin’ around. They would buy an earring and do the blind man handshake openly, in a way that was difficult to spot as anything unbeadlike. I had only ever made the smallest talk with him--the unquestioning respect owed an ancient street merchant--like whether it was supposed to rain, or if he'd seen that candy apple chopper.

"How they hangin, Stormin’?" I asked, pointing at his display.

"Lower than my standards, boyo, and that's saying something. But all in all," he said and then shrugged.

"Think we could talk something besides beads?"

"You‘re saying my cufflinks don't accessorize your smoking jacket," he said, his forehead folding in mock hurt. A smile centering in the eyes, redrawing the lines there, an upward drift of the beard. "Let's walk."

In an alley two blocks off-Ave, he pulled out a handful of baggies such as you might've brown-bagged sandwiches to school in. "All I got's these eighths," he said. "They ain‘t the toast of no town. But then again if they were, or if you was choosy, neither of us'd be here, huh?" He held out eight loosely rolled baggies, a wilted cellophane bouquet. "These ought to add up near an oh zee, give or take. Don't quote me."

I did not feel the need to unroll the bags. You just trust beards of a certain caliber. He gave me a price break for buying so many and I thanked him and began counting out two hundred in fives and tens. Re-copping with ones was like a raspberry fart on a first date.

"Listen," he said, "I seen you around for what, a month? You seem a little, I don't know, lost. Wide-eyed. I mean, I don't see you mixing it up."

"It takes me a while, I guess. With some people."

"They ain‘t down here to bond--them Ave Rats. You want them to notice, you gotta make ‘em." He arranged the bills carefully into bank order, folded them and slipped the wad into a beaded leather pouch hung beneath his shirt.
"Make them?"

"Like the man says, if you can't be with the one you love, well then, show the ones you're with. Meaning that you‘re about something. Bit of unsolicited counsel, this."

"But I'm down here everyday, all day."

"Eating your brussel sprouts last don't make ‘em dessert. You gotta be more than just around. Them skate punks are down here much as you, see where that gets them."

"But you're not one of them, right? An Ave Rat."

"They ain‘t one of me, is more like it. Listen, I know most what‘s worth knowing bout this street, and much that isn't. People see what they need to. Don't think they ain‘t keeping score. Can't take no shit, is all I'm saying."


He turned and set off toward the Ave, veering half a sidewalk this way and that around puddles. I stayed on Brooklyn, the street paralleling the Ave, and headed toward a parking garage at the bottom end of the District, where there was a maintenance closet that was sometimes unlocked. I thought it was unknown to anyone else and the coils of garden hoses weren‘t bad to nap on if you arranged them right. My office.

As I was crossing the street in front of the parking garage, Heavy rounded the corner. I gave him the usual eyebrow raise, in case of surveillance. Only you should know who all you know. I would lap the block once now, before going in.

"What is it, youngsta. Let me holler at you?"

I stopped. He'd never spoken to me this way before. Almost like an equal.

"Lookee here, dog," he said. "Real talk. I needs work. I'm fixin to roll legit, feel me?" I caught myself mid-nod. He sidled back and forth in what might have been his version of squirming. To work for someone meant walking with however much weed your credit limit allowed and then returning with the money before they had to come looking. "I needs to work with a few of them thangs. Broke as a joke up in here."

"You're trying to actually turn? You mean, instead of."

He nodded soulfully. "But ain‘t nobody tryin to hear that. That‘s real. Muthafuckas is scary, playa. Straight trippin like I'm five-oh." His eyes spoke for the first time. Please.

"Look, Heavy," I said, glancing up then down the street, "I mean, I got a few eighths, but."

The rest of my sentence hung in the air between us, loud and unmistakable.

"Cuz, on my mama. I got you tomorrow. I keep it real with you. Ain't tryin to move nobody no more."

I weighed the possibility of drama now against drama later. The risk of my misgivings being read correctly and taken personally and where that would take us. My next words should be chosen for their balance, for safety.

I imagined what he saw when he looked at me. A lesser being, spectacularly smaller and undeserving of anything I was incapable of taking, or keeping, by force. Even my own clothes had grown flappy on me, but I could use one of his pant legs as a sleeping bag. Paying me would be an afterthought, like leaving a tip in a jar or giving a smoke to a bum. But maybe he really did want to go legit. His money had always been proper with me. Then there is the matter of having to see me all the time if he didn't pay me, which, on the other hand, might only matter to me. He did pretty much jack fools for a living. But he saved my ass when he didn't have to. I slid out an eighth from my sleeve.

"Alright," I said. "But, Heavy?"

He tilted that Easter Islandish head to one side as I handed him the baggie and said, "Don't rip me off."

"Sheeit, cuz. Don‘t even trip. You my dude. I got you."

He walked off and I waited a full cigarette before going into my office.

The next day there was a notable lack of Heavy on the Ave. Chilled sunlight streamed through cloud gaps and needers were streaming from wherever it was they came from. Actual homes, probably. I ended up thirty bucks ahead, which meant Heavy owed me half my profit, more or less. Even still, his absence took up little mental space among the countless reflex measures taken to keep yourself out of jail in a given hour.

The following day I came out of Phuc Ngo Market and spotted Heavy across the street, crouched beside a blue Celica, either selling or storytelling to the couple inside with great hand motions. I walked to the crosswalk half a block down because jaywalkinq would get you vamped for sure. The couple pulled away slowly as I approached.

"Heavy. Got them duckets? I'm trying to re-cop."

He thug-eyed the top of the Ave like I definitely had not said anything. I edged around into his stare, a tentatively determined pace and a half back. A quick wuff of air escaped his nostrils like how a rhino does when his cleaner birds peck too hard.

"Look, man, I--"

He stepped forward and an improbably thick hand hovered in front of my face, creased and scarred. My old softball mit with fingernails.

"Get out my face, white boy. I ain‘t tryin to hear you right now." The serrated warning in his voice told me everything before all his words were out.

I hadn't felt so small since the night of deadbolts and frozen newspapers. I walked away because what else could I do. I went to the upper end of the Ave, thinking I could focus on serving to needers but the eight blocks between us was not enough. The money Heavy had set me back belonged far down the list of survival questions. I tried to convince myself to chalk it up to experience, but experience can load the blood like a toxin, dose after dose, undetectable until it isn‘t.

Shame has a wormy way of running a film of your cowardly moments behind all the thoughts you make yourself think. The mental white noise of powerless rage. Every time I heard his voice dubbed over the gassy rumble of a bus my pulse jerked in my throat and I felt littler, lamer.

I walked up onto the University campus and into the second stand of trees from the building with the greenhouse and found the madrona where JH hearts KM. I sat down in the leaf mulch guarded by rhododendrons, my solitude haunt where I could go to dwell on matters too private to think about in front of strangers. When you're away from people by choice, loneliness has less muscle to it, like something you have control over. I pulled from the dirt the wad of grocery bags and began unwrapping. I sat there cross-legged with my dull pistol gleaming in my filthy hands. An elemental comfort in its unbalanced weight, the metallic fact that in this particular frame of time and space, no one could get away with shit.

I would swagger up to Heavy, draw down on him and have one of those unlikely hero-to-villain dialogues where he grovels and I belittle him in a high-chinned manner before deciding his fate.

I would wear a clever disguise and do a walk-by shooting on him right on the Ave, and then, confident in my ruse, I'd watch with a knowing smirk while johnny law searched for my alter ago.

I would lure him into an alley and kill him in cold blood, mainly because I liked that term, the ridiculous way it sounded. I would get vamped for sure. I would spend eternity in jail, which if it was anything like juvie, I hated even more than Heavy. All my fantasies were hands down--and skirt up--as batshit as one of Crazy Mary's masturbatory monologues given atop the post office wall.

I slid the pistol down the front of my pants, a mobster carry, and asked the madrona if it had a fucking problem with me. The gunsight at the end of the barrel made a narrow tent almost to my knee, absurd to consider on the Ave. I sat back down in the dead leaves.
I longed for teenaged days, when the main concern involved a gir1's phone number or a ride to the beach. I considered the void where there had been schedules and yes, chores--regularity imposed on a life that gave it direction, the framework shoring up days into functional shapes, the small components of a meaningful future. I even missed curfew because of all it implied, not only that you had somewhere to be but also that it mattered to someone. I remembered less and less why I had disliked these things and what I'd found so appealing about aimlessness and the idea of disarray. My warm and pillowed bedroom did not seem so oppressive from where I sat.

I could feel the soft-soul laze of suburbia slowly draining from me. I knew I should care more about what the replacement ingredient meant, who it would make out of me.
I found that if you lean against a maple long enough, hidden and alone, your thoughts can go as sappy as the tree. No telling which was more useless, my self- pity or my piece. I wrapped up both and buried them.

The sky had gone pewter with hardline clouds you couldn't read into, tiny snow shavings atwirl when you looked at dark objects. I went into Sloppy’s Seconds on the upper Ave and dipped into my profit for long underwear, unmatched wool socks, and a faded mold-green army jacket. A greatcoat they called it. It was impervious to snow, confirming its greatness.

I spent the following morning at the top of the Ave because I had not seen Heavy there since the Green Fleece incident. It had been bleak since dawn, like the sky was hungover. The number seven bus had gone by four, maybe five times since I'd made a sale. I walked south.

In the parking lot of Mayhem on Rye, Adam stood in front of an unmarked car, a silver Omni. An ample cop in uniform stood beside him, another sat behind the wheel. On the hood was a large array of grams from which he was slowly choosing one. He peeled it open and stuffed the contents into his mouth and began chewing laboriously, his eyes streaming. The cop handed him a Styrofoam cup with a straw. Adam drank and then swallowed, gagged, gulped it down and coughed. His overbite was biting more over than usual but I was fairly sure he was not smiling, even though he had chosen this option over jail.

You could keep your freedom and your weed so long as you ate the entirety of the latter. Irony enforcement, if that is the right word. Possession of over forty grams was a felony, so Ave Rats kept thirty-nine or less on them, as a rule. By eating it raw, you missed out on most of the desired effects because THC only breaks down in oil of some kind, but thirty-nine grams of manicured bud is two feet of pungent rope, more or less. Enough to hang yourself. Your guts react pretty much as you might expect. Adam would be in toilet orbit with woolly eyes for two days. The cop in the driver seat cackled a comment to his partner about Adam's gag reflex. I passed from view, thankfully unnoticed.

It was that part of day when the sun finally does its business, working down in between buildings and into your layers of clothes. Bad air thick with the grinding of noonish travels. Traffic was tidal at 45th, compressed for a block in either direction, clogged while the crosswise current ebbed by. All four corners were stocked with pads waiting to cross.

Standing next to the signal box in front of Space Port was Heavy in a baby-blue jogging suit. His image throbbed away from the scenery, making me look and not look, a dozen Ave Rats standing or leaning nearby. I considered turning around before he saw me and how this could become my truth, the swallowing of fact after bitter fact laid out on the cosmic hood of a snickering god who sounded pretty much like a cop to me anyway.

I let the surge of peds lead me along. I pulled up close beside Heavy and said, low so as not to front him off, "Heavy, wanna kick me down my duckets?"

He cocked his head and his eyes showed too much white at the top. "You think I'm playin, boy? I ain‘t the one. You got shit comin. That‘s real talk, cuz."

He stared down at me but he did not stare me down. His nostrils unfurled and he got a foot taller and closer. Even his voice was enormous. "What you wanna do, homeboy? You done forgot I will peel your wig back, white boy."

I did not move. I had prepared a profound statement, something pointed and persuasive, establishing the fact of moral high grounds and so forth.

"Okay," I said. I turned away and took two steps.

How these things separate from the fabric of random happenings. If I took one more step I would be accepting publicly his chosen ending. It would become an element of my character, my entry in the Ave Rat ledger, in my own. The heat of a dozen awarenesses focused on my back, on a moment shedding its generic quality, unfolding into something singular. A mover's truck cut the corner by a foot, creaking up onto the curb. The door to Ship the Bed Imports jingled open and a car radio howled about a barracuda. A sun glint walked along slow moving chrome. I felt the shattering of something small and secret, my hesitator. Between courage and shit-smearing whacko is the will to do that which you only later weigh out completely.

I unbuttoned my greatcoat and wrestled the pistol up out of my pants. I turned back around, revolver hanging among the open drapery at my side. Heavy had made a point of dismissing me, a broadcast of my irrelevance, and had gone back to neederspotting. I came up beside him as if to whisper in his ear.

I held the muzzle against the sky-blue expanse of his left butt-cheek and squeezed the trigger twice, fast.

Heavy was jolted, an electric jerk sideways, away from me. And then he shrieked.

I quickly backed out of jab range. His leg buckled and he embraced the signal box like it was long lost, screaming vowels and the word Muthafucka, over and over .

The shots had been bright and sharp, foreign. But they had drowned in the mid-day noise soup of the District. There was no collective gasp from the city, traffic did not squeal its tires in horror, no cops came rappelling from the rooftops. No one on the corner but Heavy made a sound.

I stood bonestill, leveling the gun at his blued middle like Clint Eastwood in his cowboy phase. I felt the urge to soapbox, to express my unwillingness to accept one more slighting, and then realized I'd done just that.

His face was flexing strangely like it wasn't used to making pain and fear shapes. I stared deadpan at him and chambered the notion of one round to the chest if he lunged, of addressing his charge chestally, if that is even a word. He was no longer, apparently, in the mood to stare back.

He looked down at my hand and around us at the enthralled faces and than took off in a wobbly, dipping sort of jog, how people do when they keep counting on an unreliable leg. He cut a drunken path down the sidewalk, bouncing off storefronts and into peds. I could hear murder vows being wailed for half a block.

I remembered the gun now hanging at my side. Goatee Rick's stare glittered above a pirate grin. Squash Josh and his small entourage were still taking the scene in, their cigarettes remembered and coming up all at once for drags. Angel stood facing me with her feet spread and there was no telling what her look meant. This was street history in the present tense and I could see written across faces the recognition of a man inventing himself.

I worked the barrel back into my waistband and turned the corner onto 45th. I did not hurry. I heard Goatee Rick bark, "Did you see that shit?" and someone else answered, "It‘s about time."

*    *    *

It was another autumn afternoon, an edgeless day where everything mentioned by the weatherman was partly. I came out of The Chill Pill and turned south, a white drugstore bag disguising me as no one. I watched him stroll among the peds across the Ave, easily picking him out by the buoyant steps of a kid eager to be going anywhere, a side-flip of the hair every other upbeat of the song only he could hear. What you'd call strawberry blond if he were a girl, yarn-straight and fobbed across one blushy cheek between tosses. I knew he would page me the minute he sold out because he was obnoxiously honest, almost nervous with my money. I walked the side seldom used by Ave Rats now and it gave me a feeling of polished distance, something I could mould into a sense of achievement that I would never admit.

My pager buzzed, a string of numbers that meant vice was crawling out of the North Precinct. I horse-whistled a short and two longs to the kid and crossed, heading back up. Every Friday I left an ounce with the manager of the C'est Moo ice cream shop. His cousin was the cop you hoped would only arrest you, the District's most hated. This cop‘s wife happened to prefer my usual strain of weed over others, which kind he‘d first brought home last winter after busting me and two of my ribs. I gave her some, she gave him some, and he and I each got about ten minutes at a time out of the deal. This was street Darwinism, and you can‘t argue with science.

I thought of when the kid showed up, during the longest days of summer, when the sidewalk was still warm at midnight. One of the good ones fleeing one bad circumstance only to find another, underfed and overjoyed at the promise of no longer facing whatever he‘d run away from. He'd come to me malty-eyed and owning exactly the items of clothing he had on, and I found something endearing in the extent of his raggediness. You could see his toes through his Chuck Taylors. He had heard about me, the swirl of half-fictions as stubborn as a shadow, and asked for work.

The other four in my crew, kids I also called mine, came along after. I gave them each an ounce every morning and tried to instill in them the mental scaffolding to avoid the Green Fleeces, the Heavys and johnny law. I felt the flowery pride never known by my own father, even though at sixteen, I was the oldest by maybe two years. This was my family now, a truth I recognized because I wanted things to be better for them even when they pissed me off, and isn't that what family is. I had lofty plans for them, spare ambition to toss around, but the underpinnings of lasting structure were beyond me.

I provided creature comforts and material things, making them street urchins of privilege in their concert shirts and Reeboks. Walkmans and endless pizza. I kept a second motel room for them next to my own, a palace of screwed-down yellowy landscapes and balding towels. I let myself believe this was nurturing, the guise of a figure in a hollow plot about redemption.

A pastel green sweatsuit filled the corner of my eye and reminded me of Heavy.
How memory toys with your take on the world, reshaping the material of beliefs. Or disbelief. I doubted anyone could be as fearsome as my mind‘s eye claimed Heavy had been. Not now, anyway. I wondered who, in fact, would be more afraid of whom. No one said his name anymore, but I stayed ready, my gun more compact and less buried. Heavy had not been seen in the District in the three or four seasons since the incident. I would have known. Ave Rats kept point for one another.

I walked past a doorway and a hand flashed pale in the shadows, a swanny gesture urging me into You Got Framed.

"Come look at these posters with me," Angel said. Magazine-type eyes that could soften my worldview or make me want to do things in a rented room. She looked at me as if I were the only mystery worth solving. She saw me not as The Man, but her man, as if there had never been a time when I was in any way undeserving. Whether I belonged with her or to her was something I was not brave enough to consider. We stayed up nights, cross-legged on the scratchy floral bedspread, the conversation wandering in a way that felt like taking my soul out for a walk. She listened with a whole-brained sturdiness that drew clarity from the parts of me I had not known to unstop. I listened even when I didn‘t want to.

Or we stayed up not talking, but just as open to ideas. And afterward a million things whispered, shaping the question of permanence from the folded space between us, because Future was the f-word I was afraid to ask of her. She looked famous in just the neon leaking through nicotined drapes. I breathed her in and out with the city night, tangled and dewy in a mess of cheap sheets, telling her funny stories in the dark. You are never more intimate than when you laugh naked with someone.

She tugged me into the shop and out of my reverie.

"You got time?" she asked. "I just want something to make our room more homey."


Well-crafted thoughts burned to the ground every time she slid her hands inside my coat. I exchanged a single nod with the owner standing behind the counter. He was good for a half ounce twice a month.

"Did you pay the rent for another week?" she asked the side of my neck, where my pulse was. "I like it there."

"Two more," I said. "So do I."

She pushed her front against me, an R-rated movement that left me oblong and of a creaturely mind. She tipped her head toward a Zeppelin poster, The Song Remains the Same. It was hued for a blacklight. "I think that one's my favorite. Can we get it?"

She could have had them all.

Steven Bartholomew with his son

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