Friday, November 22, 2013

A High Price to Pay: Prison Food and Its Costly Effects

By Chasity West

In prison, justice is served over mashed potatoes, pasta, rice, or between two slices of white bread. It might fill us up, but at what price for the incarcerated and at what cost to the public? Healthier meal choices in correctional facilities would not only improve the health of the imprisoned, but would ultimately be more cost-effective for taxpayers and create positive community relations.

Poor nutrition and obesity-related diseases are often among the privations that come with prison life. As a whole, non-incarcerated people neither know nor care what happens behind prison walls, and there seems to be even less awareness and concern about the health and nutrition of the imprisoned. However, since what a person eats can directly affect her health, and health has become a public concern, anyone who pays taxes should care about what correctional institutions are serving.

The primary objective of the Department of Corrections (D.O.C.) dietician is to meet the minimum daily caloric intake required to sustain a human being. Doing this cheaply is a paramount concern. This means procuring and producing large volumes of foodstuff at minimal cost. Cheap, easy-to-prepare meals generally consist of simple carbohydrates served alongside a processed meat product drowned in gelatinous gravy. And correctional institutions are smart when it comes to stretching a buck: larger slices of cornbread and bigger scoops of rice mean fewer vegetables. In the book, “A Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women,” Erin George, a resident at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Virginia, makes a similar observation. She notes, “The staples of the prison meal are foods that fill you up but don’t substantially enhance your nutritional intake: watery, unpeeled boiled potatoes; gummy spaghetti noodles; rice the omnipresent bread... [and] unidentifiable meat known as the “patty": meatloaf patty, pork patty, chicken patty, or sausage patty. Vegetables are scarce and frequently range from merely aged to the obviously moldy. The same goes for the fruit” (88-9).

Oftentimes, the felon’s fare is so disagreeable that people will bypass the dining tables and make a beeline to the trash receptacle. In the same book, Robert Johnson, Professor of Justice, Law, and Society in the School of Public Affairs at American University observes: “The food is bland and starchy, measured in small portions and served in unappealing ways. In these days of cost cutting, prisons are becoming less hospitable by the day, sometimes serving food that is inedible by free world standards” (85). No one (not even the people who have to eat it) expects prison food to be overly appetizing, but it should be an identifiable member (or close relative of) one of the five food groups and contain more food than chemicals, fillers or byproducts. This way, we know not only what we are eating, but also what we are not.

In Connecticut prisons, hunks of cake are served for breakfast. Syrupy drinks fill Styrofoam cups at dinner. Even otherwise nutrient-rich foods like vegetables and legumes are boiled down to mush and, along with fillers, added to sauces, roux or thickened stocks and served over any given starch. These types of foods and the way in which they are prepared create spikes in blood glucose levels, elevate the blood pressure, clog arteries, and increase adipose tissue, including belly fat - a known contributor to heart disease. A prisoner’s provisions can create and/or exacerbate these conditions. However, rather than averting illnesses, the preference seems to be to treat them with expensive medications once they occur. This does not save taxpayers money when comparing the cost of medication and medical treatment to healthy vegetables or fruit choices.

The problem of obesity in prison has become endemic. Often with weight gain, especially among women, come body image issues and depression - yet another condition that may require costly treatment. In her essay, “Fat is a Feminist Issue,” Susan Orbach empathizes with the overweight woman, "Being fat isolates and invalidates a woman. Almost inevitably, the explanations offered for fatness point a finger at the failure of women to control their weight, control their appetites and control their impulses” (4-49). In prison, it is not so much a matter of self-control as it is limited options and accessibility to healthy foods - key factors in managing one’s diet so that obesity and obesity-related conditions never develop in the first place. Jonathan Cohn emphasizes the costly physical and financial effects of unhealthy foods in his essay, Body Politics. Cohn writes, “Economists agree that the treatment of these conditions - whether through prescription drugs to treat high blood pressure or angioplasty to open up clogged arteries - is very expensive." He continues, “As taxpayers, we all bear the burden of higher medical costs. So, when some people choose to eat poorly, we all end up bearing the financial burden for their decisions" (6). Chances are, most incarcerated people would eat healthier if healthier foods were available. After all, we eat what is provided to us.

In “Remarks to the NAACP,” addressing the epidemic of childhood obesity, Michelle Obama proposed four practical solution that we can translate to correctional facilities, as obesity is not just a problem in schools but an institutional issue.

1) Take responsibility and make manageable changes
2) Find ways to increase exercise during everyday living
3) Replace sugary drinks with water
4) Be more thoughtful about food preparation (428-9)

Adopting these small changes can make a significant difference in incarcerated people’s long-term health and taxpayers’ long-term savings. Skeptics may wonder how this can be accomplished. But the answer is simple: citizens need to urge the government to employ an agricultural development program in every prison statewide that would teach incarcerated people how to grow fruits and vegetables right on prison grounds,
Volunteers can be found in the community and in local colleges that participate in agricultural training programs. Encouraging the incarcerated to grow their own food would not only solve the issue of poor nutrition and nutrition related-health issues, but creating gardens would also:

1) Increase self-esteem
2) Provide exercise
3) Alleviate certain forms of depression
4) Instill a positive work ethic
5) Supply a job skill
6) Defray the cost of food that would otherwise be purchased from an outside vendor

Moreover, by developing good nutrition patterns, incarcerated parents will be able to start a new health trend for their children, thereby breaking the cycle of poor eating habits that cause weight gain and health problems. As Obama said, “And this isn’t just about the example that we set as individuals and families, but about the lifestyle we’re promoting in our communities as well" (430). Statewide on-ground prison gardening programs could be that simple, cost-effective change to “establish strong community partnerships” (430) Gardens would build a link between the inside and outside community by creating an avenue through which incarcerated people could donate produce to soup kitchens, food pantries and other organizations that assist disadvantaged members of society. The economic aspects of this program lie in the fact that seeds are recyclable, vegetation waste can be composted, and labor could be supplied simply by reallocating incarcerated workers. A program such as this would quickly pay for itself. And it is possible: Back in 1917, before attitudes shifted from rehabilitative leanings to punitive, the renamed Janet S. York Correctional Institution was a successful work farm.

Radley Balko, in “What You Eat is Your Business," shares Michelle Obama’s sentiments in the matter of personal responsibility. He writes, “Our government ought to be willing to foster a sense of responsibility in and ownership of our own health and well-being” (396). Shifting the same concern and responsibility to prisons would synthesize personal responsibility with governmental accountability. The good thing is obesity - and most of the medical problems that go with it - is reversible. Undoing obesity-related diseases start with awareness and action. A good place to begin is by pressuring state-funded institutions to eliminate unhealthy menu items and insisting that the current staples served in these facilities be substituted with foods of a higher nutritional content. Swapping harmful foods with foods packed with vitamins and fiber can make a world of difference when it comes to both disease and the almighty dollar. Holding the government responsible for elevating the nutritional standards in prison will save money and lives.

I have been thin my entire life. I have tried my best to manage my weight, to eat healthy and to exercise regularly; still, over time, the weight has crept up on me. Although I am not obese, the scale now registers twenty-five pounds more than it did when I came to prison fifteen-years ago. I look around at the bloated women with multiple chins, puffy faces and swollen bellies pregnant from carbs and fat, and I wonder in another fifteen-years from now if I will have my own double chin. Will I look as if I have a bun in my oven? Will I have hypertension, diabetes, plaque-coated arteries or be cancer-riddled from ingesting chemicals and preservatives; problems that could have been avoided simply by eating differently? When these prison doors open for me, will I walk or wobble out of them? After being done in by prison food, how much will it have cost me? How much will it have cost you?

If we readjust our thinking and recognize how indifference, unawareness and the current management of diet and nutrition within correctional facilities are costing taxpayers, perhaps people would begin to care more about what goes on in prison and what goes into our prisoners. Prison food does not have to be delicious, but it should not be deadly either. As long as the state and federal government are allowed to serve unhealthy food to the incarcerated, we will be getting far more than our just deserts. And you will be the one picking up the tab.

Work Cited

Balko, Radley. f‘What You Eat is Your Business.” Cato. Institute, Cato. Org, 23 May2004. Rpt. Graff, Gerald, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2" Edition New York: W.W. Norton & Company (395-399). Print.

Cohn, Jonathan. “Body Politics.” The New Republic, 8 August 2005. Academic Search Premier. Web 10 March 2013.

George, Erin. A Woman Doing LW: Notes from a Prison for Women. Ed. Robert Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Johnson, Robert. “Hard time: Understanding and reforming the prison.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002. 85. Rpt. in A Woman Doing LW: Notes from a Prison for Women. By Erin George. Ed. Robert Johnson. New York: Oxford University / Press. 2010.

Obama, Michelle. “Remarks to the NAACP” National Convention, Kansas City, MO. 12 July 2010 Rpt. in Graff et al. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2"d Edition New York: W.W. Norton & Company (417-433) Print.

Orbach, Susan. “Fat Is a Feminist Issue.” (1978) Rpt. in Graff et al. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2nd Edition New York: W. W. Norton & Company (448-453).

Fish Patties (makes apx 18)

You`ll need:
3 packages of fish cakes: mackerel or tuna fish-do not drain (any kind of packaged fish can be used)
2 tbsp dried onion flakes
2 tbsp hot sauce
Lemon pepper
1 tsp oregano
1-bag potato chips
apx 6 crackers finely crushed (any kind)
1/2 bar provolone cheese (shaved)
2 tbsp squeeze cheese
I tbsp Sazon

Crush potato chips in bag. Set aside. In a bowl, empty fish packets and break apart with fork. Add in all ingredients. Mix well. Spoon fish into the chip bag and combine. Check consistency. Since this depends on how much liquid the fish is packed in (tuna tends to have much less liquid than other packaged fish) you might have to adjust the content in order to attain the right consistency. It should hold together nicely without being wet or dry and crumbly, If it`s too wet, add in more cracker crumbs, if too dry add in small amounts of hot water until it holds together without crumbling. Smooth mixture flat in bag. Split chip bag along the seam and cut flattened mixture into equal squares (apx 18-20). Form each square into a patty and return to opened chip bag. Once patties are formed, slide chip bag into an insulated brown paper bag and cook 25 minutes on each side (or until crisp) with a hairdryer. Great with buttered rice or cheesy grits!

No-fry Fried Rice and Cabbage Rolls (serves 4)

You'll need:
1 bag of rice
1 hot sausage (cubed-small)
1 package pepperoni (cut into pieces)
1 package of chicken (may use chicken parties. If you use chicken patties, you`ll need apx. 3.diced small)
Hot sauce
1 tbsp butter
Apx 4 tbsp dried onion flakes
2 hot & spicy packets or chili (from Ramen Noodles)
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Chili powder (unsalted)
(* recipe can be modified for those who don`t like spicy food. Just substitute hot sauce for bbq sauce and spicy packets for chicken or beef and use a milder sausage instead of hot).

For Cabbage Rolls you'll need:
4 tortillas
2 cups coleslaw (rinsed and drained)
3 tbsp chipotle seasoning
2 tbsp lemon pepper
apx. 2 tsp each of garlic and onion powder
apx 3 tbsp. mustard
l package chicken (drained)

For Rice:
Drain liquid from packaged chicken (set aside to add to rice) and place chicken in a plastic bag. If using diced chicken patties, just place in bag. Pour hot sauce over chicken to cover. Be generous. Sprinkle sugar over chicken (apx 6 tbsp. May use sugar substitute). Add sausage and pepperoni. Place in hot water to heat while preparing rice.

In a separate plastic bag, empty bag of rice. Add in seasoning packets, onion flakes, butter, chili, garlic and onion powder and reserved chicken stock. Sprinkle a small amount of hot sauce on dry rice and a little sugar, apx. 5 or 6 tbsps (or 2-3 packets of sugar twin). Add in hot water per cooking instructions. When rice is cooked, add chicken mixture to bag and toss well. Divide into servings and drizzle with honey. Cabbage rolls compliment this dish well.

For Cabbage Rolls:
Set aside 4 tortillas
Place coleslaw in bag with chicken and all wet and dry ingredients. Mix well. Divide mixture into apx 1/2 cup servings and place into tortillas. Roll tightly. Butter outside of tortillas and place into an insulated brown bag. With a hairdryer, cook apx 15 minutes on each side. (Helpful hint: lay cabbage rolls down on seam side during firs rotation so that they will seal shut before flipping them). A delicious dipping sauce can be made by combining 8-tbsp grape jelly, 2 tsp sugar (or l sugar twin) 4 tsp hot sauce or just honey and a little mustard.

Both the fish patties and the fried rice are dishes that I “invented” (although I’m sure others before me have come up with similar recipes) and are the most requested and enjoyed foods that I make for myself and for my friends.

Chasity West 266589
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357

My name is Chasity West and I’m a lifelong native of Connecticut.  Prior to my arrest I worked as a licensed nurse.  In 1998 I was sentenced to life without parole on a first offense. Since my imprisonment I have written dozens of short stories, memoirs, essays and poems.  I have immersed myself in many projects and programs, including writing workshops, dance and yoga classes, college courses, gardening and agriculture and drama classes. I think that prison can be a catalyst for self-reform.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Alcatraz of the South Part 4: Between Life and Death

By Michael Lambrix

Part 3 can be read here

In the classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens begins his fictional story with the words: “It was the best of times and the worst of times,” and those words could apply as equally to that first year I spent on Florida’s Death Row.  I suppose it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest that my first year as a condemned man was the best of times by any measure. But everything is relative and what I soon discovered after coming to The Row is that even in the worst of times it is the importance of holding on to hope not only when you have reason to, but even more importantly, when that reason is taken from you.

Charles Dickens wrote his story around the French Revolution, which I doubt many would have thought of as the best of times.  It was a dark day in history, when death came to many, and yet for those who survived, it brought hope.  And it wasn’t that much different on The Row. That first year the stench of death was always around us, yet in the very midst of the darkness and despair, there was hope and it was that hope that gave each of us the strength to survive another day.

I came to The Row in early 1984, at a time in which Florida only too proudly claimed the record not only for the largest number of people condemned to death, but, the most executed.

This is the dark side of the Sunshine State. Its zeal to kill is only exceeded by its indifference towards sending the innocent to Death Row.  When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in the 1972 landmark decision of Furman vs. Georgia by a marginal vote, the Court allowed the states to rewrite their death penalty statutes with the misplaced presumption that if the states would establish statutory provisions that “genuinely narrowed” the class of individuals eligible for the death penalty through the adoption of aggravating and mitigating circumstances applicable to each case, then the imposition of the death penalty would not be unconstitutionally arbitrary.

Florida was the first state to quickly adopt new laws that complied with the Supreme Court’s criteria before most other death penalty states could adopt new laws of their own.  By 1973, Florida was already sending men to their new Death Row – as I write this today (February 2013) one man a few cells down from me (Gary Alvord) has now been here on Florida’s death row for 40 years as of this year. (Admin note:  Gary Alvord died of natural causes after this essay was submitted).

But adopting new death penalty statutes was not enough.  In the years before I came, Florida quickly became the poster child for state-sanctioned death, with its Death Row growing by dozens every year.  And the politicians running for elected office shamelessly exploited the public’s unquenchable thirst for vengeance, fanatically promising to put those condemned to a quick death.

By the time I came along, Florida was intoxicated by its politically driven blood lust and as I joined the ranks of the condemned, the cold machinery of death had already been cranked up and killing the condemned became a statewide obsession.

John Spenkelink was the first one to be involuntarily executed after the new death penalty was re-instated.  Although some might argue that Gary Gilmore (in Utah), upon which the book and then movie The Executioner’s Song was the first one after Furman v Georgia, Gilmore was a “voluntary” execution – he effectively used the death penalty to commit suicide and made no meaningful attempt to challenge his death sentence.

Florida was determined to be the first state to carry out an execution upon someone who was not willing to voluntarily die, and in May 1979 they succeeded in putting John Spenkelink to death.  Texas wouldn’t carry out its first post-Furman execution for a number of years after that, and by the early 1980’s a diabolically perverse competition arose between the states to see who could kill the most condemned prisoners – and at least in those early years, Florida easily won.

Florida carried out its next execution in November 1983 when they put Robert Sullivan to death.  Within just a few more months, Florida killed Anthony Antone in January 1984, ignoring the fact that Antone did not commit any act of murder himself, and evidence that he did not participate in the act of murder – the co-defendant who was convicted of that killing actually was sentenced to life.

I came to The Row that last week of March 1984 and quickly learned of the ritual of death.  In the first year following my arrival, Florida executed nine men.  Florida was perversely proud of “Ole Sparky,” its handmade electric chair, and each execution brought on a spectacle not unlike that of a circus – a contemporary lynching in the old town square, with the crowds gathered outside the prison, openly cheering, drowning out the smaller segregated group of those who opposed the state taking a life.  And the media would come from around the state to cover the event.

Inside the prison, this ritual brought on another layer of despair, as the prison officials seemed to go to great lengths to make sure that each of us knew they were killing one of us.

For reasons I cannot be sure of, the State of Florida was not allowed to use the public power source to electrocute its condemned.  I have been told that the electric company would not allow it, but I’ve also been told that it was a “security precaution.  The state didn’t want to risk not being able to carry out an intended execution if someone simply cut the power off.  Where the truth actually lies, only they know.  But what I do know is that each time Florida carried out an execution, they would crank up the huge generator just outside the prison office near the wing of the prison where executions took place, and the whole prison would be taken off the public electrical source, and temporarily switched over to generator power.

Within a few weeks of my arrival to Death Row, Florida focused its attention on Arthur Goode, scheduled to be executed on April 5, 1984.  I didn’t know Goode, as he had already been moved to Q-Wing Death Watch a few weeks before I came to The Row, but this was the first execution actually carried out since I arrived, so that first experience remains branded upon me.

Back then the executions were carried out around sunrise of the scheduled day, but the ritual would begin long before they got around to actually killing the condemned man.  Although we typically would be fed breakfast (in our cells) early every day, on execution days it would come at least an hour earlier, often as early as 5:00 a.m. as they had to first feed us then collect the food trays and get them back to the kitchen up front before they locked down the whole prison during the execution itself.

Feeding us before they carried out the execution also made sure we didn’t try to sleep through it.  Because it would still be dark outside, each of us would have our own cell light on at the time, which back then was a crude single incandescent light bulb hanging down by two wired from the ceiling of the cell.

At some point between passing out the breakfast trays and picking them back up, all the lights would momentarily go off, leaving us in darkness.  In the distance we could hear that generator come to life and then the cell lights would flicker just a bit before coming back on.  We knew what this meant as other than the periodical test of the generator during the afternoon a few times a month, when they switched over to generator power in the early morning hours we knew that it meant whoever was on death watch did not get a last minute’s stay of execution and they were now preparing to put him to death.

We would not be allowed to escape our own involuntary participation in this ritual of death, and most of us on The Row would turn on our small black and white TV’s, tuning in the Jacksonville stations to watch the live coverage from outside the prison, each hoping that a last minute stay of execution would come and each of us would continue to watch in collective silence until the TV would show someone emerging from the rear of Q-Wing and waving a white towel, which meant that they had carried out the execution. That was the pre-arranged signal.

Barely a month after Arthur Goode was put to death, Florida killed Aubrey Adams and it was this second execution since my arrival that had an even greater impact, not only on me, but on others around me.  The execution of Adams was a reality check for many of us who held on to the hope that our own wrongful convictions would be corrected, and truth and justice would be allowed to prevail.

It’s one thing to execute someone who has confessed to a heinous murder, but it’s another thing entirely to put someone to death who may very well be innocent.  Out there in the real world this is a never-ending source of intellectual debate, but in here it really hits home as for those of us who have maintained our innocence and have only our hope to cling to.  The execution of someone who has substantial evidence of actual innocence undermines our own ability to keep that hope alive, and it drives home a truth that each of us try desperately to avoid…the politics of death that drive each execution do not care whether you’re innocent or not, and only the hopelessly naïve would think that each man put to death was guilty.  Our judicial process is not that perfect and inherently lacks the moral character or professional integrity to admit to its own mistakes.

The execution of Aubrey Adams illustrated this truth and for the first time it caused me to question “the system.” Until that time, I remained blinded by my own disillusion, telling myself that our legal system would correct its own mistakes, and as a society we would never allow an innocent person to be put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.  Looking back, I can now only smile at just how incredibly green I was, as the execution of Aubrey Adams and others that followed forced me to accept the reality that they will put the innocent to death, and even worse, as a society we really don’t even care.

A month after Aubrey Adams, Florida put Carl Shriner to death, and the month following that they killed David Washington.  It seemed that each month since I came to The Row they killed another one, and that dark cloud of death hung heavy over us condemned.  But then that cycle was broken – no executions were carried out in August of 1984 and it seemed that the Courts were becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of adequate legal representation made available to those facing imminent execution.

But such an inconvenience as the lack of qualified lawyers to represent the condemned would not be enough to deter Florida’s ritualistic lynchings, and although nobody died in August 1984, Florida made up for this lapse by killing both Earnest Dobbert and James Dupree Henry in September of 1984.

That dark blanket of death hung heavy and it seemed that if they were not actually killing one of us on the next wing over, they were counting down to that next execution.  But this pace of executions could not be sustained as Florida continued to refuse to establish any meaningful process for the timely appointment of qualified lawyers, instead relying upon a small group of committed volunteers who labored continuously to find lawyers willing to represent the condemned – and few, very few, were willing.

By the latter half of 1984 the Florida Supreme Court finally began to take a stand against the arbitrary and dysfunctional system of recruiting volunteer lawyers only at the last minute and began to issue stays of execution to send a long overdue message that unless Florida established a means in which to provide competent legal representation to the condemned before their death warrant was signed, the Court would not allow executions to proceed and this unconscionable machinery of death would grind to a halt. 

Almost immediately, the pace of executions dropped by at least half.  In early November of 1984 Florida put Timothy Palmes (who we knew as “Milkman”) to death, then it wasn’t until the end of January of 1985 that the next was killed.

That execution of James Raulerson hit especially close to home for me, as from the time I came to The Row. J.D., as I knew him, was my cell neighbor.  He was the first person I actually knew on The Row that had been killed.  J.D. had been convicted of robbery and the murder of a police officer in Jacksonville, although there was no intent to kill anyone.  Like the majority of cases in which the death penalty is imposed, J.D. was convicted under Florida’s felony murder law, which allowed a person to be convicted of capital murder for the death of anyone if it was the result of the commission of another crime…no intent to kill is necessary.

In J.D. Raulerson’s case, he and his cousin had decided to rob a restaurant and were still inside when the police came and surrounded the place. A gunfight ensued and a police officer was killed.  J.D. consistently insisted that he never shot at the police, and that the officer died by “friendly fire” – another cop’s bullet hit him in the heat of combat.

But it didn’t matter.  Under Florida law someone died during the robbery – and J.D.’s own cousin was shot and killed during that gunfight, and that made J.D. legally culpable for both the death of the police officer and his own cousin’s death – even though there was no question that the police had shot his cousin.  When it came time for the State of Florida to execute J.D. on that cold winter morning of January 30, 1985, hundreds of police officers gathered outside the prison gleefully cheering on his death while wearing custom made t-shirts that said “burn, baby, burn.”

That was the first time that I saw just how low we can go as a society, and why, despite pretense, we really have not evolved beyond that image of the old west lynch mobs.  That’s just what it was that day, only it wasn’t ignorant villagers intoxicated by their blood-lust and joyfully cheering on the death of another human being; it was those representing law enforcement that created this circus atmosphere.

Within that first year that I was on The Row, Florida put nine men to death.  But for each one they executed, at least two more men came to The Row, and the ranks of the condemned continued to grow.  It didn’t take long before I was no longer one of the new guys and became part of the greater whole.

By 1985 the pace of executions dropped dramatically as politicians struggled to find a solution to the problem of the condemned having no reliable means of securing legal representation.  Florida was determined to lead the country in executions, and soon it was the politicians themselves advocating for the first-ever state funded agency established exclusively to provide post-conviction legal representation to the condemned.  The argument in favor of establishing this proposed agency was simple; by providing state-funded lawyers, the Courts would allow executions to continue.

With this cloud of death hanging over all of us, it was only too easy to abandon all hope and accept our fate.  But even there in that shadow of death, there was reason to hold on.  The particular tier I was housed on that first year housed a total of 16 condemned prisoners, as although each tier had 17 cells at that time, an “inmate runner” occupied the first cell on each death row tier.  It was his job to pass out meals, then collect the food trays, and distribute cleaning supplies each day.

Of the nine men put to death that first year, I only personally know one, and during that same period of time on my floor alone there were five men who would walk off death row and back into the real world.

That’s what hope is all about:  finding reason to sustain the strength within.  Although each execution brought home the reality that I was condemned to die and death was a very real possibility, I found my own strength sustained by the hope that came when another man won his freedom.

It’s easy to assume that every person sentenced to death has to be guilty, but our legal system is plagued with the imperfections inherent to all men.  In Florida’s over-zealous push to lead the country in bringing back the death penalty, the legal system itself became corrupted by prosecutors who openly competed with each other to convict and condemn as many as they could, and by any means necessary.  It didn’t take long before Florida lead the country (at times) in both the number of men and women sentenced to death, and in number of executions.  And with this political corruption of the process came another distinction. To this day Florida continues to lead the country in the number of wrongfully convicted (innocent) men and women sentenced to death.

Not long after I came to Death Row, the Courts began to vacate a number of these wrongful convictions.  Although it would still take a few more years before they would walk free, on that tier I was housed on that first year, one out of every three men I housed among would be exonerated and released from prison. My neighbor, Louie Virango won a new trial and pled out to a lesser charge that resulted in him being set free.  Joseph Green Brown was exonerated by new evidence after coming within hours of execution, and Juan Ramos walked out of a courtroom in Miami after it was revealed that the bite mark evidence used to convict and condemn him for a crime he consistently pled innocence of was not what the state had led the jury to believe it was.

A few cells down the other way towards the back of that tier were Larry Troy and Bama Brown, convicted and condemned to death for allegedly killing another prisoner at The Rock (Union Correctional Institution).  Their convictions were based primarily upon the testimony of another inmate, and there was evidence to suggest that inmate actually committed the murder.  Years after sending them to The Row, this inmate tried to extort money from the girlfriend of one of the condemned men – if she would pay him thousands of dollars, he would tell the truth.

Instead of being manipulated, she went to the state police and told them of the attempt to extort her.  They worked with her to secretly take communications between her and the prisoner, then arrested him for perjury in a capital case and attempted extortion.  Soon after, both Larry Troy and Bama Brown were exonerated of the murder they were wrongfully convicted of and condemned to death for.

Many more would be put to death, and many more would walk free, and I struggled constantly to find that balance between the reality that was Death Row and that hope that sustained my strength.  It was more than just a tug-o’-war between opposing sides.  No matter which way I might be pulled at a particular moment, even when I clung desperately to that elusive wisp of hope brought about by relief another man won, I still awoke each morning in my own concrete cage and each night I struggled to sleep through the never-ending nightmare that was my own condemnation.

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

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Sky of Dimmer Stars

By Steve Bartholomew

Then Willard twisted around and levered his torso over the front seat, a laborious and ungraceful maneuver accompanied by the groans and nostril grunts that pre-empted what he'd been saying. I could tell by the surface tension of his polo shirt he'd been gaining weight. His size was already a scandal of the scene, a matter of comment among the earnestly gaunt. He tried to seem untouched by the opinion of others, part of the act he had to perform as a dealer.

He heaved himself back behind the wheel, a box of Red Vines in his fist. He gnawed one end open and with an expert jostle the first vine began its climb, a snakely burrowing into his mouth. He pulled away from the curb, small sounds escaping his throat on the tail of each breath. He had a way of eating mournfully, a second language in which he could lament the theft of his other car, one of the two things on the planet that mattered to him. I knew he also harbored a deeper grief, a dark swirl of doubt and possible betrayal surrounding the incident and its authorship.

I had commandeered the passenger side mirror, through which I stared into the city behind us, although nothing moved. These were the sketching hours, the long exhale between the last bar closers and the stirring of the first sleepers to their alarm clocks and coffee, those symbols marking the birth of a new day. Or so I distantly remembered. For me, a day lasted from sleep to sleep, which right now was a week away in either direction, more or less.

"Let's check Terry's," Willard said between cudlike chews, the wet snicks of plastic suction placing commas every two words or so. "She knows that bitch. They got like a thing."

"You looking for the girl then. Not the car," I said. "You plan on talking nice-like to her in front of, say, ten witnesses? Otherwise I'm out."

"No. I only care about finding the car. It's just, we been everywhere. And I heard--"

"We chasing rumors? Or you wanna stick to how I do this? If you got rumors, I got other things."

"I just keep thinking," he assured me and then drifted vacant.

"It won't be where you think to look."

"How do you know?"

"This is why I‘m here. Why you're not trying this solo. These are things you have to consider, fact versus rumor."

"Where would you of tooken it?"

"Somewhere you'd never find it. That's why I know it ain‘t there," I said. He had a chirp-laugh that surfaced in tense times, like a politician being asked about an allegation, and he spaghetti'd in another vine and laughed around it. I let him chew my stated fact also.  "Then again, they are not me. Swing by anyway, if you want. But take Greenwood, will you?"

I indulged his ideas for the same reason I let him drive, even though I worked better alone. If he was to save any face after being outwitted by a girl known for her electroshock impersonations, it would be by taking an active role in finding his own car, whether or not we ever actually found it. Locating the car was one thing, retrieving it another altogether, and both happened to be among my dismayingly few talents.

Make no mistake. I am an outlaw. I prefer this word to its synonyms, the romantic way it rolls off the tongue, the longstood tradition of misread capering. What you call yourself has a curious effect on the distance between you and your vocation. The matter of maintaining a self-conscious barrier, like a costume held at arm's length, even though you are only dressing up as yourself. Words like criminal and thief and junkie fit too snugly.

What's in a name, indeed. I could relate on some level with Willard's name shuffling in the past. Years before, he had gone by Bill. This became Fat Bill because in our world last names are rarely used, but you still have to differentiate between all the Bills, most of whom seemed to peddle something. Since he would not call himself Fat Bill, confusion ensued over the phonelines as to which Bill exactly was calling. He then started calling himself Will, an accident of cruel self-mockery, given that his last name was Powers. It took some months for him to recognize his own name as the punchline for a missing joke. Willard it is, then.

A few sleeps back, he had asked me to meet him at Jeannie's, the girl he tried to charm with all the subtlety of a mime. Willard was something between friend and connection to me, suitor and stalker to her. Jeannie and I stood in the kitchen comparing days long gone, which always seem simpler and less disquieting with distance. I liked listening to her because she risked the searing ordinariness of honesty. She was well-keeled of spirit and frame, a long-haul composure that made her attractive once you knew her, but in an investigation, you might tell the sketch artist to draw a dissatisfied girl. I could not often spot her motives among the weary drifts of her face, the downward shadows around her mouth making me fall for her dry humor, something she took fleeting glee in. We half-monitored the assembly in her living room, which had been transformed into Willard‘s waiting room. Narrow faces drawn from the wrong sides of tan lines, eight sets of incurious eyes twitchily watching the door for him and his miniature ziplocs of sleep deprivation.

Jeannie had a sister who had a sporadic lover who had a problem. Dominique was bent on her own unweaving, but within minutes of doing a line--only if it was good, she said--she would corkscrew into a panic fit, a rigid tantrum that felt to me like watching an inverted orgasm. A rapture of dark revelations, hallucinatory subplots both extravagant and centering entirely around her peril, because paranoia is mostly ego stretched thin. Episodes exhausting in their duration and which begged certain open-ended questions regarding recreational drug use. 

I had tried once to ease Dominique's crisis with my company, sitting beside her and speaking in a reassuring way, avoiding provocative words during her throes. But when I offered what was meant to be a comforting arm around her shoulders, she bit me above the wrist, which made me, as they say, twice shy. Otherwise Dominique had about her a layered pathos, a barefoot allure splattered with pity.

This night she sat perched on the arm of Jeannie's love seat but would share it with no one, a token statement that struck me as thematic when I thought about it. If not for her skivvy skin tone she could have been a model for no-nonsense American products like anti-depressants. The fact that my brand of genitalia made her unattainable lent her brooding a mysterious air.

Eventually Willard arrived and transacted with everyone except Jeannie, who never had to pay. Before I could spot a polite exit, Dominique had helped herself, apparently, to a good enough line. She was potato-bugged in a corner, keening into her fists and eyeing the roomful of sudden suspects in the ongoing plot against her. Nothing makes you so conscious of your own trajectory as watching the disintegration of someone more or less in the same orbit.

I edged toward the door, looking anywhere but the corner. I knew that acknowledging her with direct eye contact would only cinch my role in the conspiracy. I watched people contemplate leaving even though rain shimmered against the rattling windows. Departure flies in the face of tweaker logic, which says that if you prematurely evacuate wherever you got high, you might just leave your high there too. I could see Jeannie pondering the ambience of a room emptied of all but Willard, Dominique and herself. She turned toward Willard, placing him squarely in the crosshairs of her cleavage.

"Can she sit in your car for a minute?" she asked, trailing her hand across Willard's knee, a ritual gesture sure to conjure her desired answer. "She will only be like this maybe a half hour. Annie's supposed to come get her anytime. It's pouring out there, and I can't have her in here ruining everyone‘s high like this."

Unwilling to risk her further displeasure, Willard nodded, hunching over to one side and digging from his pocket his keys. He placed them in her other palm in a manner not unlike the first half of a transaction.

Jeannie got up, crossed the room and squatted beside the trembling girl. She held the keys by the proper one, thumb and forefinger. "Dominique? Hey, Willard is letting you sit in his car, where it's safe. Alright? Just go chill in his backseat and get yourself together. Don't touch nothing, okay?"
Dominique nodded, took the keys carefully, and with a great snuffly inhale looked from Jeannie to Willard and back again. She stood and sidled out the door without turning her back on anyone.

Hours passed. The weather had cried itself to sleep in time for me to go see what the storm had washed open. Willard was on the couch, rubbing the feet laid across his lap with the singular focus of someone who believes that sometimes the lamp pops out of the Jeannie. As I began my see-ya-laters, his head tilted, hands gone still, his expression folded into one of sudden realization. He went to the window and pulled back the drapes. His car was gone. Everyone present knew this because he shouted as much at the glass. We all ran outside and stood around the empty parking spot, seemingly looking it over for clues while Willard vented off vendetta rhetoric.

He ran back inside and seconds later began bellowing at great volume. Someone, evidently Dominique, had taken the title to the car from the small desk safe Willard had left in Jeannie's bedroom either for safekeeping or as an excuse to gain entry, depending on who you asked. How likely it was that Dominique could have done this without help was something we did not talk about.

She called Jeannie the next day and said she had fallen asleep in the backseat, the ignition left on for the radio, and awoken to someone stealing the car and her with it. This brazenly alleged car thief had, she said, dropped her off a few blocks away but she was too frightened to come back and not be believed. Tweakers have perfected the diet story, which typically contains less than half the truth of chronicles of actual events. But this one tasted especially watery with no witness but her, and when you considered the title had been transferred the day before into some other person's name. Willard could not report the car stolen even if he'd wanted to--something not done, as a rule, in our world because it involves the police. Word was, it had been sold in the meantime for a few thousand to someone either unwitting or foolish.

We were creeping southward, Willard and I, on Greenwood Avenue, a main artery in North Seattle. The night air was cold and smeared with fog. I thought about why I felt compelled to spend precious chunks of crimetime hours every night hunting Willard‘s car, when I knew he would never do the same for me. It wasn't out of a sense of loyalty to him as either dealer or friend, neither of which he was very good at. I would accept nothing in trade from him because I did not like the implied obligation.

Darkened structures slipped past and I let my eyes graze across car after car without really seeing them. The novelty had long faded in this, the tracking down of various items taken from tweakers by tweakers, something that--shockingly--happens from time to time. Oh, the indignation of the thief whose stolen property comes up missing. What I do requires less Scooby Dooing than one might imagine, since people with habits are people of habit, travelling in circuits dismally narrow and unimaginative. It really comes down to having a shameless level of familiarity with places that, for our society, have replaced the world. Our networks are self-referring and convoluted, a social origami folded into meaningless shapes. We cling to tenuous connections and tasteless alliances because we are unwelcome and inaccessible to outsiders. To the sleeper-world, we are the secrets no one wants to keep.

My past repo exploits had led me to believe I had either a knack or someone else's misplaced luck. I wondered if I could square my willingness to risk greatly with some supreme effort to swing the karmic scale my way a couple degrees, this righting of wrongs, a mild west notion of justice outside the law. Detergent for the soul. But the less noble and more likely truth was that these were the rare moments when I got to be what we all want to be: needed.

I peered out the window and into the mirror. Ours was the only moving vehicle in sight.

"Willard," I said, holding my hand up in a caution gesture, "don't swerve or hit the brakes. We just passed it. Your car."

"Oh, jeez. Are you sure? I mean, I didn't even see it. Are you--could you see the plate? Oh God, what is it? PWH something. Shit." His speech came whispered with the full-bladder urgency of a tardy salesman. "Shit. What are we gonna do? I mean, how you wanna do it? Want me to help?"

"First, I'm pretty sure we don't need to whisper. I don't think they can't hear us. Second, relax. If you go all asthmatic on me, you are no help at all. I checked the plate," I recited it correctly for his benefit. "Just pull over up here. Calmly. Turn the car off. Take the key off your ring. Give it to me." It seemed important to give him instructions in the proper order.

He parked drunkardly a block farther down, jumping the curb before tremoring the key from his ring. He was sucking air and furiously stroking his mustache, which he tended avidly, its distance above his lip particular to movie villains. I urged him to just breathe and listen carefully, worrying that the emotional racketry of zero hour would put him in a state.

I held the key in my teeth and thugged up, black gloves and hoodie. I told him what to expect, how I hoped this would go. I did not tell him the other way it could go. Then I pushed open the door and in one motion became the silent piece of night that moves things without asking.

It is in these coiled moments, the prior stillness, that I wonder how far the inertia of resolve might carry me. Once you commit to such an act, once you put your word and the threshold behind you, your reputation says turning back is no option. Arrested panic takes lodging beneath your heart muscle, the multiplied self-awareness that means even your toes are living this. Because this is not some smoke-inflated living room full of torn-apart computers and knotted jaw muscles, where slick-skinned afficionados stew in their stillborn plans, their borrowed fictions swashing about, masquerading as actual deeds.

There are no retakes on this stage, where if you are not good enough to cope with randomness on the fly, you get shot or stomped out, you get stabbed. You only get arrested if you're lucky. The flimsy plan coating my mind was really just improvised hope. If only there were no difference between unflinching courage and living up to an expectation. If only I were as brave as they assume I am.

I took the last drag of my cigarette and flicked it. My exhale joined the fog and was lost. But for the ruckus in my ribcage, silence. A toenail moon cast a nicotine glow. Night graphics, the visible world illustrated in sodium yellows and black, streetlamps halo'd in the murk. I sank into the shadow of a low-slung evergreen where I might be mistaken for an inkblot, because I know how to be still. I waited for my eyes to pull apart the mosaic darkness.

It was an ex-police LTD, a midsized car with an oversized motor, an interceptor into which he had funneled a great deal of illicit funds. Willard believed money laundering meant investing three times what something was actually worth. The LTD was still cop-white, and I remembered it to be cop-fast.

I could see it nosed in halfway beneath the apartment building. The type where the lowest balconies are just above the parking area, as if the building has its skirt pulled up. The first floor curtains above the car were all lit up. I figured whoever was moving around behind them was, too.

Willard's parting words had been: "Dude, I don't know who lives there. Be careful. That car ain‘t worth getting hurt over." He said this emphatically as if he thought my plan was to yell a hearty Neener Neener before taking the car they believed was theirs. I knew the occupants remotely, second or third order acquaintances. A couple in their thirties and passionate only about their disputes, endlessly indulgent providing their visitors were providing, so to speak. No telling who else could be in there. Or how many. Silhouettes are never as clear and easy to count as in the movies.

I saw myself being spotted during my approach and how that could play out, either a short foot chase in which I would have the advantage, or they wait until I am in the car to act. I saw myself gain the driver seat only to discover that someone had installed a killswitch, a failsafe I always install in my own cars, a spendthrift precaution against these very moments.

I saw myself succeed in starting the car only to have them call the police, who can descend upon Greenwood Ave with staggering quickness. I tried to imagine success without incident, but could not. Somewhere a cat yowled like an infant cursing.

I slunk along the neighboring building's wall, where streetlamps wouldn't reach me. I never took my eyes from those windows, and in this manner I ran heel and toe across the dark parking lot. A sodium lamp flickered on as I passed beneath it and I felt suddenly out of context, like a ninja evicted at noon. No one saw me reach the driver-side of the car.
I unlocked the door and pulled it open. From its hinges came the squawk of some fabled metallic night bird. Your entry-level tweaker car alarm. I cringed and slipped behind the wheel, praying it had only been that loud to my nerved-up ears.

The stagnant spice of someone else's brand of cigarettes and another smell--a scent whose nature I marked as feminine and expensive, making it twice as out of place in Willard‘s car.

I shoved the key into the ignition. It would not turn. The spare key was cut only on one side, and true to form I had inverted a thing of great moment. I pulled it out and a glitch in my fingers made me drop it. As I ran my fingertips in frantic search patterns on the filthy carpet I heard, coming from beyond my own set of breathed profanities and thief-sized noises, the indistinct sounds of movement. Finally I found the key, lifted it to the light, turned it the correct way, jammed it in and turned it.

The ignition switch is the car thief's line of scrimmage.

The starter clawed and howled, a dim memory surfacing of this car being coldblooded and ticklish to start in general. Some performance quirk in the tricked-out fuel injection. Shadows waved across the top of the windshield. I wiped the fog away with my left hand. Lower extremities descending from the balcony. They were lowering onto the hood.

They seemed a mob to my odds-making instinct, those three sets of feet dangling and dropping the short distance. They were in hightops and skater shoes, they were in boots. They were attached to howling fury. The impact made the car curtsy. A sticker on the dashboard read: I'll sleep when I'm dead. I pumped the accelerator and then questioned the mechanical reasonableness of doing that. One of the hightop sneakers was untied, a safety issue in these scenarios. Everything, every thought, occurred at the same time.

Two of the men crouched like gargoyles on the hood. So much murder scrunched into two faces. The starter whelped and yipped, a plaintive tone matching my idiot prayers. I made sweeping deals with gods, anyone listening, just in case one was real. I apologized to the car for ever calling it a bacon-bucket.

Eyes black as bullet holes glared from one of their faces a foot away. He flailed his bony fists at the windshield and it cracked. A noodle of snot hung into his chin beard, flecks of spittle sprayed from his mouth as he roared, an animal display of injured rage. His teeth could have been gravestones for hamsters. He seemed the most emotionally invested in what was happening, so I pegged him as the one who figured he owned the car.

The second one was checking door handles. For the first time in 28 years, I hoped a stranger had locked their doors. Another one was on the trunk, bouncing the car's suspension, a mildly distracting squander of energy that missed entirely the spirit of the encounter.

I realized that my life dangled from spark plug wires. They say death rides a white horse, but this night it might ride a faulty distributor cap or one of a thousand parts made in factories by sweaty people whose names I will never know.

The engine caught, stumbled, misfired, caught again. And it screamed the thunder of four hundred agitated horses.

The suspected owner leapt off the hood and ran to my side of the car, punching glass and howling uncreative threats. A knife blade protruded from his fist. He must not have had the presence of mind to slash his own tires, something sure to be on his list of should'ves to be reviewed later.

More figures were dropping from the balcony.

I slipped it into reverse. Floored it. A shrieking mess of tire smoke dragged the car across the lot and onto Greenwood, where I spun the front end around and aimed it south. Speed may indeed kill, but it doesn't beat you to death, which seemed the intent of the six or eight men running across the lot and jumping into cars. I would take my chances with speed.

Mr. Ford designed this LTD to outspeed speeders, in a word, to intercept. This function had only been improved since the factory. Its acceleration was mechanical violence. Half a block in a breath, and I must get off this road, this thoroughfare, where I am visible to them and to the cops who lurk along here like spiders. Behind the wheel I am not so ill-equipped to face the world. When eluding police becomes a occasional part of your reality, you become intimate with limits--the vehicle's and your own--or you go to jail. I'd only ever been arrested on foot.

A nudge of the e-brake to set a proper drift and I unbent the first right turn, threading the parked cars lining both sides of the street. Through the radio speakers, Jonathan Davis chanted that he could see, he could see he was going blind. Three blocks in a blur and another right turn. Twinkle of lights on chrome behind me.

I fed as much fuel as traction would permit, piling speed upon speed. Listening for a telltale knock or shimmy, a part fatiguing, the checkered flag thrown. Listening for sirens, my heart bucking like an escape artist. Exhaust howl, the dominant note in an ascending chord.

A northbound flight on a two lane road, velocity befitting a takeoff. That road, though curveless, undulates as if it were laid upon the back of some great sea beast. Toward the mythical end of the speedometer, the tires beneath me were all but airborne at each crest. The rebodying squash of exaggerated gravity at each belly.

Lights off, the rule of evasion. My eyes were sacs of turmoil, the blur of trees, houses and power poles, the micro-glances sideways at intersections cleared at the speed of felonies. Vision sucked raw from the socket and spat upon the cascading darkness, scanning for cops, for pursuers, and for Willard. I'd told him to keep flashing his high beams in bursts of three so that I would know if he was behind me. Otherwise I'd assume anyone behind me was a hostile.

Road scan, side-road glance, rearview check. Repeat non-stop, a neurotic bobblehead. Stop signs fluttered past, emerging suggestions to be ignored. I tried to find the you-are-here dot on my mental map, where and now this road would peter out. Road scan, side-road glance. This time the rearview was filled with the pale eyes of the girl in the backseat.

I clamped down on my startle before it became a swerve.

"Who are you?" she asked in a conversational tone I might expect if the wrong roommate answered the phone.

It seemed too deep-seated a moment for an alias, so I answered honestly.

"Who are you?" '

"I'm Jessica." She said this as if it should clear everything up.

I slowed to a thoughtful, and more social, ninety. I thought about how this event had evolved from a repo ,which was technically a theft of a motor vehicle into what was now a kidnapping of some degree. My criminal calculus subtracted no awkwardness whatsoever from the air.

"Look, Jessica, I‘m not actually stealing this car. You're in no danger from me."

"You don't seem dangerous to me anyway."

I took mild offense at this. What kind of a priss seems a harmless stranger to a girl in the dark, even when hooded up and gloved sinisterly while committing a dramatic series of illegal acts at obscene speeds? "It actually belongs to a guy named Willard. Sort of a friend of mine. Somebody peeled it, with the title."

She climbed catlike over the seat. A willowy girl, runway legs in runaway jeans. She leaned forward and swept her hair behind her so she could see, an unrehearsable poise in her movements. "Is he the fat one?"


"I‘ve heard of him."

She arranged herself facing me, one leg folded beneath her, a prim half lotus at a hundred miles an hour. She had finespun skin, the angles of her face following a pert symmetry, a confident mouth she held just open as if about to say something. The kind of pretty that seemed determined to endure whatever she was subjecting herself to. Dirty-blonde hair that might actually have been dirty.

"I really don't know nothing about this car," she offered, and yawned. She checked her nails by the streetlights strobing past. "I mean, my boyfriend bought it like a week ago. He is gonna be pissed."

"Let me guess. With the long chin beard?"

"God, I hate that thing. He won't even trim it. It's like a squirrel tail hanging in your face, all wagging around, know what I mean?"

I did not, and then I did, and I was not grateful.

"I think he already is," I said. "Pissed, I mean."

"Why do you got the headlights off?"

So we cannot be seen by the ones looking for you. "So I can see. Oncoming crosstraffic, their lights."

"I wish they were on."

"Your eyes'll get used to it."

"Okay. Where are we going?"

"Why the hell were you in the backseat?"

"I was crashed out. Better than festering in that apartment. Him and his buddies taking car stereos apart all night. Or I thought it was. Whatever, right?"

"Sorry." There seemed to be nothing more worth saying, in terms of etiquette.

A dismissive shrug. I wondered when she'd woken up and how she could have slept through any of it. I reflected on Dominique's claim of being sleepjacked, and how alleged I would sound to anyone not living this story.

"We‘re going to meet up with Willard soon, and I’ll have him take you back there, to the apartment," I said, "but my cut in these deals is whatever I find in the car. You tell me what's yours, and you can keep it. But your boyfriend‘s stuff... you can tell him I'm sorry about that, if you want."

"I just got like a backpack in the trunk."

"You got it. Soon as we stop."
I watched the rearview. Headlights creating a rise a mile, maybe two, behind us. I could not gauge their speed but they seemed too fast to be coincidental. And not flashing. If I were her boyfriend, I would unleash all manner of krakens in coming after her, but I did have his car. He could be back there in someone else's, because I would be. I would have followed Willard, who knew my general route.

"So..." she let the syllable trail off. When she continued, she spoke as if to the windshield. "What about me?"

"I told you."

"Well. I mean, technically, you did find me in the car."

I eyed her profile in studious intervals before answering, because oftentimes what a girl says out loud has little to do with what she means. The depths of a stately pose, and all that it concealed was lost on me.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't really want to go back there. He's an asshole. And he‘ll probably blame me for this, for not doing nothing. His gun‘s on the floor behind you. I guess I sleep heavy, so."

"I guess. Where do you want to go?"

"How about wherever you're going?"

She looked at me then. She looked, and I saw what she meant. I jerked my face forward and we were in the wrong lane.

"Jessica. How old are you?"

"Old enough."

This is one of those phrases that calls itself into question by its very utterance.

"I kind of need a number."


I slowed to a conflicted eighty.

"Listen, You‘re a very pretty girl, no doubt about that. But I'm about a decade older than you. And if I go back to the joint for any of what happened tonight, your name will not be on my paperwork. I better take you back where I found you."

"I'm almost eighteen."
"And I‘m almost out of judgment for the night, so we should probably table this at least until your birthday."

A deep sigh then, that expulsion of female exasperation with which I am familiar.

In the rear distance highbeams flashed three times, then again. Willard. I slowed to a speed I felt was more appropriate for transporting an underage girl in a stolen car. Turned right and then left and parked on a side street. Willard pulled up beside us, his little Pontiac smoking and ticking. His passenger window whirred down and he leaned into the opening,

"Dude, that was so awesome. You should've seen--"

His face went still and hovered like an onion on a stick. He stared at Jessica, who already had about her an air of tolerant disenchantment, an affect not uncommonly observed in the girls I date. I could see him processing the event and its aftermath, the admiration dawning thickly. Because in order for me to have had time to stop and pick up a girl in the middle of fleeing the scene--well, I must really be as fast as they say I am.

I got out and popped the trunk, lifted out Jessica's backpack, a vastly- zippered titan festooned with witty pins and trinkets, the heft of much clothing inside. I handed it to her and opened Willard's passenger door. She got in silently and did not directly look my way even as the car pulled away.

I sat behind the wheel for some time, waiting for the small tide of accomplishment from an account settled, the glow common to the afterward hush. But it never came. I watched the night thin in silence, a condition in accord with my own sense of solitariness, the feeling I kept outside myself. I‘d learned to stop noticing the soured hollowness, the mental aftertaste from a life baked with mislabeled ingredients. I thought about this thing I was doing, the way you can sneak up on certain articles of self-knowledge when your circumstance seems borrowed. I listened for something besides the sandbag pulse behind my eyes.

I reached behind the driver-seat, felt the pistol on the floor, closed my hand carefully around the grip. A Chinese .380, unremarkable and unmistakably chambered with the safety set to exciting. How differently this could have gone. I rolled down the window before lighting a cigarette, a dumbly conscientious reflex because this was once again Willard's car and he did not smoke. A gray scatter of traffical murmurs on the scrubbed air, the collective scratch and yawn of a city going about the business of daybreak. I was inclined to stop reflecting on Jessica's semi-sound return to whatever awaited, her own autobiography of dentally ramshackle men with ownership eyes, backpacks and draggle apartments. A bleak forecast I wanted to blame on my own lack of imagination. I was not quite fool enough to mistake my own mental makeup for the noble, damsel-savior sort, but even outlaws can turn wistful when sealed off and durably alone. At least her story had been witnessed, at least she would be believed.

A woman in a maroon Camry slowed while driving past and I could read in her face that she thought I looked dangerous. I took small satisfaction in this before starting the engine and turning on the headlights even though I did not need them.

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