Thursday, July 30, 2015

No Mercy For Dogs Chapter 19

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Chapter 18, click here

The genuine Rogelio Ramos, Jr., stayed in Cerralvo for five days. Every hour I spent with him increased my sense of unease, of some innate wrongness. All of his oily charisma was intact, as was his morbid self-absorption that bordered on amusing and his crude sense of humor. I tried to tell myself that something had changed in me since we had last seen one another, that the experiences of the last six months had altered my core to the point that I could simply no longer take Rudy without some help from Mr. Cuervo. This was undoubtedly true, but even after correcting for these shifts I found myself viewing him more and more as I would a very large, very ill-tempered and unmuzzled dog. As his stay lengthened, he began to ask more questions about my relationship with the Hammer, and it struck me by the second night that he was actually jealous of our rapport. If I had been less on my guard, I would have laughed at this, considering it wasn't so very long ago that I had thought it a real possibility that Gelo might make his existence substantially easier by simply shooting me in the face and dumping my body in the desert. 

Fortunately Rudy cared more about getting coked up and chasing the local girls than in hanging out with me. I managed to keep the details of my employment secret from him, as well as my frequent trips to Monterrey. On the morning of his departure back to Texas, he got very serious, and claimed to "care deeply" for me. His concern seemed so counterfeit that I nearly laughed, but I managed to smooth my topography out before turning to face him.

"Oh? I really appreciate that, Rogelio. You've been very good to me. One day, when I am in a better position, I intend to make my appreciation keenly felt," I responded, dangling the lie-soaked carrot in front of his face. As far as I was concerned, I'd already paid him a ridiculous sum of money for taking me across the border, and we were more than even. 

"You could do that now, if you wanted."

"Oh?" I asked, moderately amused that he was about to ask for more money. His coke habit must be getting really out of control, I remember thinking. My amusement was short-lived.

"Still got that Rolex? I always wanted one of those", he asked, his face filled with sudden interest. 

Several things passed through my mind at once: "oh, so that's why he really came," followed swiftly by "is this a request or a threat?" which was in turn trailed rapidly by "no way am I giving him proof of life that he knows where I am." This last link in the chain kicked me into survival mode. I turned and looked right at him, and lied. 

"Sorry, homes. I sold it during my first month down here. I had to eat, you know?" I was suddenly very glad that I had tucked my watch into a hidden pocket in my backpack after my arrival, and had hardly touched it since. This incident troubled me long after Rudy had departed. So much so that I brought it up to the Hammer the next time I saw him at the ranchita. 

"And you theenk he want thees to use as proof of you whereabouts?" he asked me, occupied with a bunch of straps attached to a rather ornate saddle he had purchased that afternoon. I had expected him to respond with some species of keen interest to my concerns, but he appeared about as interested in his son's potential treasonous activities as Lord Byron was towards marriage counseling. Still, I thought about his question, trying to decide what I legitimately felt.

"Not really," I finally answered. "I think he wants it because he's a vain, tiny little man. But how would I know?"

"Look, Rudy—Conrad—whatever you name ees now. He would no send the poleece to Cerralvo, to the place where my family sleeps. Hees mother, she raise a fool, but she no raise a suicide."  The way he said this so matter-of-factly gave me a small chill and I simply nodded and let the matter drop. Surely Gelo was right. I mean, he owned the chief of police, a fact that was not lost on the authentic Rudy. Surely he knew what would happen to him if he implicated his father in anything. I wasn't completely put at ease, but I decided I had little choice but to return to my life, such as it was, and hope that the son knew the father well enough to be terrified of him to the appropriate degree. 

Work at the muebleria was as steady as always, though somewhat random. Don Hector was juggling so many projects at once that he seemed incapable of concentrating on any one of them for more than a few days at a time. Once we had gotten settled in, his ADHD would kick into overdrive and off we went, ping-ponging to another site. We were chasing Hector's ambitions, and, poor mortals that we were, it is not surprising that we never seemed to catch up with them or please him very much. The rest of the workers were accustomed to this electron-esque existence, and most of the non-skilled laborers talked a healthy amount of smack behind the patron's back. About the only two that didn't were the maestro and Adrian, Hector's master carpenter. Adrian was a man of few words, but he was a wizard on the lathe. I had no concept of this for the first few months of our acquaintance, as none of Hector's pending projects needed that sort of work done. I knew Adrian simply as my welding partner. I liked him very much, because he was so transparent. His likes and dislikes were simple, and so long as he worked hard and had his bucket of cold Carta Blancas at the end of the day, he was genuinely content.

If I never seemed to please the patron during work hours, I found the exact opposite to be the case once the day ended. The senora was tickled pink that I seemed to enjoy hanging out with Raul, and beyond elated that Cynthia and I played guitar together most nights. It's true that I genuinely liked both of Hector's two youngest children, that I found them far easier to talk to than pretty much anyone else in the country. They were smart and saw beyond the set ways of life in northeastern Mexico. What I couldn't seem to figure out was why Dona Maria seemed so intent on having me around. If she wasn't inviting me to dinner, she was pushing money into my hands to make sure Raul had enough on our trips to the big city. The biggest shock came one Friday night, when she thrust the keys to her gray Chevrolet Malibu at me and told me that it was too nice outside to sit upstairs and play such "dark music." Before I could quite figure out how it happened, I had been dragooned into service as Cynthia's chauffeur, driving her and three of her friends around town in the customary vuelta. I soon became the only sober person in the car, and, I add, probably the only sober person in any of the hundreds of vehicles engaged in this vast parade of hormones run amok. I don't think anyone paid us much mind, lost as we were in a sea of massive trucks, huge stereo systems blaring Norteno music, and gargantuan egos. 

It isn't always easy to see how habits form, so subtle is the process. Playing guitar somehow morphed into more nights out, which slowly—in the minds of everyone but Cynthia, Raul, their friends, and myself—made us a pair of some sort. I wasn't really connected to the gossip stream of Cerralvo in any way, so the public's general error on this score was unknown to me until the Hammer began gloating over his "prophecy." It all seems very strange to me now when I look back on it; at the same time, at the beginning at least, there were absolutely no illusions held by myself, Cynthia, and her family. I was just an increasingly trusted worker and friend of the family. It was everyone else that had the wrong idea. Over the weeks that passed, I became increasingly convinced that Hector and the senora—especially the senora—wanted more to develop between me and their daughter. They certainly gave us plenty of privacy, to an extent that I found astonishing. I had known parents in Sugar Land who were so absorbed in the dramas of their solipsism that they failed to take notice of what their daughters were up to (and may the gods bless them for it). It was supposed to be different down here, considering how conservative Catholic Mexican parents are when it comes to their daughters. And yet they seemed to be practically begging me to despoil Cynthia, pushing car keys and money into my pocket every night, even going so far as to look the other way when Cynthia disappeared to Monterrey for the weekend. It was all very curious. I mean, I was still pretty messed up over my loss of Her, and so wasn't really in the mood for romance. That said, I happened to be cursed with a Y-chromosome, a fate compounded by the fact of being twenty-four, and thus not exactly a frigging saint. I didn't exactly need or want the temptation, in other words. 

Somehow, completely in the absence of any spoken contract, Cynthia and I fell into a sort of mercenary understanding. I hate to call it a relationship, because we seldom related. We simply both saw the forces at work here—though only she understood them in the beginning—and we both played them to our benefit. For reasons that I would soon discover, Cynthia had almost complete freedom assuming that I was reported to be involved, something she craved very deeply. I got a great deal of job security and a financial cushion that was hard to resist. I wish that I could tell you that I pondered long and hard over the ethics of this, but that would be a lie. Some inner homunculus disgustedly shook his head at me and marveled that one person could manage to get so tangled up in this many deceptions. I did feel some sense of shame, but I continued to justify my actions by claiming that I hadn't set this up, that I was just playing the cards that were dealt to me. I wasn't completely convinced, but this kept me in the game, kept me moving forward. 

I definitely expected some sort of feedback from Raul, something very macho about treating-Cynthia-well-or-else. He said next to nothing, even after our trips to Monterrey continued as before, with Cynthia hanging out with her friends and me with mine. It was on one of these weekend forays in early December that the pieces fell into place for me. I wasn't feeling the ersatz sports bar that Raul had selected for the festivities that night, though I initially found the Mexican attempt at rendering a German bierhaus interesting. I left them there and walked back to San Nicolas rather than take the elevated train. Cynthia hadn't ridden to Monterrey with Raul and I, but I was not surprised to find her at the house when I returned, entourage in tow. The seven or eight girls at the shindig were pretty plastered by this point, and one of them bounded up to give me a big hug as I came through the front door. I had seen the girl before, but couldn't remember ever having heard her name. She was definitely one of the Monterrey gang, someone Cynthia had known from school. I was mostly mentally absent as I tried to extricate myself from her embrace, until she mentioned something about me being a "great fake boyfriend." Actually, the words she used were "novio contrahecho," or "counterfeit boyfriend." I was reflecting on how to respond to this when she left my side and returned to Cynthia on the couch. There was something intimate in the way they folded into each other, something more than the sum of body language. I don't know, a certain form of eye contact, a comfort in closeness that only comes from intimacy. Whatever the limbic cues, you can always tell when two people are in love, and I suddenly understood the whole charade in its entirety in a matter of seconds. Cynthia's eyes flicked from the girl and found mine, and I could see a well of concern blossom through the alcoholic haze. I merely smiled at her and mouthed "goodnight" before retiring to my room. 

I felt like laughing at myself as I lay down to sleep, but I managed to control myself. I laid there thinking for a long time. About what it would be like to grow up gay, especially in a conservative backwater like Cerralvo. About how many lies someone would have to have told to one's father and mother, one's older brothers. About Cynthia's tiny but extremely close circle of friends in Cerralvo, and about how they always seemed to carry around a certain wariness towards everyone else, something that until now I had attributed to hauteur. I now understood why her parents were so interested in fostering some form of relationship between us, and why Raul hadn't seemed concerned about me doing anything dishonorable with his sister. Of course he would know; it struck me that this was why the two weren't closer, despite both of them needing the attention of someone not-Cerralvo. The parents most certainly didn't, I reasoned, but a certain suspicion had to lift its head above the bog of denial from time to time, and I must have seemed like the answer to their unconscious prayers. It was all so very sad. An index of all the ways we humans can hurt one another would surely require the felling of every last tree on the planet. 

More immediate was the question of what I was going to do about the situation. I had grown up in a conservative household in a conservative suburb in a deeply red state. Gays were the Biggest Other imaginable, the living embodiment of all that was liberal and unholy. I had known people in high school that almost certainly were gay, but they weren't really on my radar. It wasn't until my last job that I had any close contact with any totally "out" homosexuals, and aside from a certain degree of latent wariness on my part, I came to like them very much. They were totally normal people with the same nobilities and flaws, the same dreams and fears as the rest of us, and aside from one minor difference in taste, not so different from myself. I've always been an outsider to this culture of ours, so I could sort of understand the distance they sometimes felt towards the rest of America. I wasn't really sure what would be required of me, but I decided it would cost me very little to guarantee some degree of freedom for Cynthia. I would do what I could. I didn't yet see the degree to which Cynthia's affection for me was tied to my compliance or how much bitterness would erupt once I had played my last role and exited stage left. All I saw at the time was that I had a chance to do something nice for someone, and that was a welcome change of pace. Sometimes you can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and the wrong for the right ones, I reflected. I couldn't quite figure out which this was, and decided that it depended upon one's perspective. I went to sleep thinking about how odd "right" and "wrong" could be as concepts, when they blended so softly casual into one another, and, just before I drifted off, that at least I now knew exactly why Cynthia had punched Edgar when he had tried to steal a kiss from her.

The next morning I left a note for Raul saying that I would take the bus back to Cerralvo, and that I would see him again on Monday at work. As I was attaching this to the refrigerator with a magnet Cynthia hugged me from behind. It was the warmest thing she'd ever done to me, and I smiled at her as I turned around.

"You aren't mad?" she asked, still close enough that I could smell the lavender shampoo she used.

"No. But don't make me lie too much," I responded, tucking a wayward strand of hair behind her ear.

“It's just a little lie. And only because the truth would kill them. They will never understand, never, never, never. I wouldn't ask except I think you are good at telling them. Papi says your father has a lie where his heart ought to be."

That saying struck me (it sounds much better in Spanish)."That may be true, but don't put me on the spot," I said, stepping back. I wanted to tell her that there were no little lies, that they snowballed out of control before you knew it, but these are the sorts of truths that one has to learn by experience.

I left her in the glow of relationship security, probably the first time she had ever felt that. Not bad, I thought, for the fake son of a man with a pumping lie at his core. In this, perhaps I was more the Hammer's spiritual son than any of his actual biological progeny.

My mission for the day was to purchase a cell phone. I had decided that having one was worth the cost and the risk, if I seldom used it and limited the circle of those who knew of its existence. During the mid-aughts, none of the major carriers offered phones with contracts, so pay-as-you-go was the model. This was perfect for my needs: no names, no credit cards, just cash. I'd seen about a million Telcel vendors in the immense mercado downtown, so I figured I'd stop for a movie at the cinema and then make my way back to the market and then to the bus station. The only film showing in English with Spanish subtitles (the method I preferred for learning new vocabulary) was "The Chronicles of Riddick," a disappointing sequel with rather dubious translations; I recall thinking that it hadn't really taught me any new useful vocabulary. On the way to the subway I noticed something new: several shops with signs written not only in Spanish and English but also some sort of Asian script. I had never really considered that there might be an Asian community in Mexico, but clearly I was wrong to ignore the possibility because the small district I entered was packed with a Heinz 57 mix of Chinese (mostly Cantonese speakers, for some reason), Koreans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians. I had always enjoyed Houston's various Asian communities so, I ended up walking those avenues and alleyways for some time. 

I ate a very passable meal of crab vermicelli and che pudding at a Vietnamese joint. As I was paying the tab I noticed a gray Audi S8 pull up to a seven or eight story brick building across the street. Three Asian men in suits climbed out quickly and the driver sped off. Two of the three gave the street an icy once-over while the third stubbed a cigarette out with his shoe and entered an unmarked yet garishly painted purple door. The two obvious goons followed on his heels. Everything about procession screamed that I had just witnessed someone near the high end of the food chain of the body economic. When you are running from the law, "dangerous underworld types" are transformed by the alchemy of desperation into potential allies, so I paused on leaving the restaurant to give the adjacent building a closer analysis.

I never saw the occupants of the gray Audi again, but in the alleyway between his building and the next I found a small storefront selling computer equipment, stereo gear, and cellular phones. The selection wasn't large but I wasn't in any position to be picky, and ended up with a nice little handset and 2500 minutes' worth of calling cards. Next door to this shop I came across what had to be the seediest internet cafe in all of Mexico. For starters, it was underground. Literally, I mean: you had to descend a dark, urine-smelling staircase before taking a hard left turn into the facility. I was met in a small atrium by a bored Asian of indeterminate origin who waved me towards a long room when I asked about the rates. I don't think he ever looked up from his comic book once, but I could be wrong. Inside the bunker—for that is what it was—I found two sixty or seventy foot rows of fairly recent Dell, Acer, and Sony PCs, perhaps seventy-five in all (I would soon learn the exact count was 81). There were maybe a dozen people using these machines at this hour, and I selected one towards the rear of the hall. For some time I had been wanting to investigate what had been reported in the  news about my disappearance, but I had been nervous that maybe the FBI had put some tracking software on the Chronicle's website that would alert them to anyone doing keyword searches about my case. Anyways, that is the reason I had been telling myself for months to explain why I wasn't investigating, but the truth is I was too much of a coward to witness potential photographs of the people I had left behind. I could barely stand to be myself at this point, and I felt that having to see the extent of the pain I had caused yet again would surely crack me. I was right—it was going to destroy me. I just didn't yet have the maturity to understand that such an atomization was the requisite first step towards rebirth in the human race. I sat there for a very long time, just staring at the blank screen, flicking through the various horrors that were available to me with the click of a few buttons.

Maybe it was the sinister ambiance of the place, but eventually the part of me that relishes taking risks overpowered the coward and I set about building the software suite that I would need to cloak my presence while I searched the web for traces of the missing Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. I downloaded a free IRC client and then trolled the warez channels, finally coming across nmap, the best port scanner I knew of. What nmap revealed about my workstation was a pretty sad indictment on whoever passed for a sysadmin around that place. I found four active trojans on the first scan, and about a gig of malware. If this Dell had been a patient in the hospital, about the only thing you could prescribe for it would be a bullet. I spent another two hours on warez until I found enough patches and antiviral software to make a go at disinfection. It took me about four hours total, but by the end of the afternoon I had seized root, cleaned out all of the malware and about 90% of the junk on the hard drive, partitioned the drive, and installed a Linux distro called KNOPPIX STD. This last came with a bewildering collection of tools for penetration testing, intrusion detection, vulnerability assessment, network monitoring, digital forensics, and password auditing: everything someone up to no good could ask for. I supplemented this with a few old tools I liked such as Metasploit and Snort. Before I left to return to Cerralvo, I gave the LAN a brief looksee and wasn't surprised at what I found: botnet zombies everywhere. The attack surface of the network was large, and apparently half the script kiddies in the city were taking advantage of the place. Old software, unpatched vulnerabilities, a firewall I could have penetrated with a plastic spork, and no Black Ice at all. I left that afternoon content that at least station number 39 was clean and would remain so until I returned sometime over the next few weeks.

I didn't return, not for a long time. That next week would trip the beginning of the end of my time in Cerralvo. I didn't see this end coming, of course; no one ever does.

While I had been enjoying the big city, yet another of the Hammer's many children returned to Cerralvo. Isabela lived in Roma, Texas, and worked as a secretary for a law firm. She was a few years older than I was, and rather pretty. She spoke some English but almost always spoke in Spanish. She had brought her two young sons to visit the family during the month of December, something which was fairly typical for many of the families in town. None of this gave me pause, save for the fact that the neat little teal house that graced the apex of la curva was hers. This meant that when I had chosen to symbolically move away from Gelo's ranch, I had literally moved in right next door to another of his places. He must have thought my choice of domicile hilarious, though he was wise enough not to mention this fact to me at the time. This also meant that all of the frigid showers I had been taking in the outhouse were unnecessary, because the teal house had a nice shower with a very large, very functional water heater. Isabela seemed very tickled about this fact, and fortunately invited me to use her place whenever I wanted. This was right on time, because the temperatures had been declining rapidly during the month of November, and by the second week of December my showers had become...ah...rather quick, let's say.

I don't know what the Hammer had told her about me, but Isabela assumed from the beginning that I was actively working for her dad, claiming that "it had been years since he'd had an American on his payroll." She was actually a good source of intelligence on both Rogelios. She adored the father and abhorred the son, claiming the latter was an accident waiting to happen. I liked talking to Isabela because she was totally down for her father, even if she was not a part of his empire. She had grown up playing with killers and gun runners, and she legitimately didn't care what I was doing in Mexico. It became apparent over the first week of our chats that she knew I was no narco, and she came to the erroneous conclusion that this meant I had to be a pistolero of some sort. I knew this, and I did nothing to correct her, mostly because that was a better explanation than the truth. And, to be perfectly frank, because she was easy on the eyes and all immature men have some sort of atavistic desire to be perceived as dangerous to pretty women.

No unearned honor goes unpunished. The Friday of the week before Christmas was like any other: I woke, biked to work, slaved away under Don Hector's budding Ozymandias complex, and returned home to huddle under blankets and rest. I had just drifted off to sleep around 11pm when I heard banging on the front door of the taller, a pounding that instantly transmitted distress. Through the spyhole I saw Isabela, her body language radiating trouble.

"What's wrong?" I asked, after unlocking and opening the door. She poured inside, looking behind her anxiously.

"Some men, they follow me from the disco. The Spook, I know him from before."

I needed a minute to unpack this. Isabela's Spanish was normally very clear, but she had obviously downed a Margarita or seven at the discotheque and her words were a little slurred. On top of this, I'd never heard anyone with a nickname like "Spook" before and I was not confident enough with my capacities in the language to jump to quick conclusions.

"'Spook' is a nickname?" I asked, buying time, waking up.

"Si, his name is really Annibel. for a little while last year."

"Ah," I smiled, thinking Annibel was a girlish sort of name, not knowing it was the Spanish equivalent of Hannibal. I probably would have handled everything that came after a little differently had I known that, though maybe not. "And the boys?"

"Ben and Nicolas are spending the night at their abuelos. I wanted to have a little me time, but this bastard, he won't leave me alone, so I leave. And now he is here, following me."

I'd always loved the way English terms like "me-time" got co-opted by the people of northern Mexico, and, stupid as it sounds, it was my pleasure at finally having arrived at a place where I could actually understand most of the people around me that propelled me into action. I could call it chivalry and give it a fancy title, and maybe there was a little bit of that. I know we the condemned aren't supposed to possess any of the cardinal virtues, but even in my darkest of days I would open a door or an umbrella for a woman. You can make of that what you will. As I think back on that night, however, I am increasingly convinced that what really motivated me more than anything else was a sort of desire for annihilation, Freud's todtriebe on steroids. It isn't so much an active suicidal impulse; it's more subtle than that, something numb and warm and hollow, a sense of the emptiness of things, a shadow behind the shadows, a sense that things are already about as messed up as they can get, so you might as well just go ahead and see how the whole business can be tipped over the edge and finished with. There is almost an absurd sort of humor to it, Meursalt's laughter at the priest echoing down the decades and over the ocean to ring quietly in your head.

Of course, things went bad almost from the first second. Isabela had mentioned dating this Spook, but she had neglected to tell me that he was still very much in love with her. She had also omitted the fact that when this Lothario had decided to follow her home, he did so with eight of his friends in three trucks. There wasn't a lot of time to ponder these revelations on my part. Nor do I think I would have retreated back into the taller had I a few ticks to evaluate my position. There's something about fighting that is very pure, very binary. You hit, or you get hit. You rearrange the other guy's face, or he does yours. There's no ambiguity here, no dithering over minutiae, none of the indeterminacy of our postmodern era. A brief, shouted "Quien es ese tipo?" and then a clumsy drunken roundhouse aimed right at your pearly whites. You parry, spin, put your foot into his balls; only people who have never been in a fight think that there are rules for "fairness." No time to think about this, because then red-hat is on you and he's faster or less drunk than Spook and you can't put him down quite fast enough before the rest of the throng arrives and then it doesn't really matter how fast or strong you are because this isn't Hollywood and no one beats up nine dudes in a fight no matter how long they've been drinking. You manage to get some hits in and feel some tiny whisper of satisfaction at the pop goatee-boy's elbow makes when you snap it before the big fucker with the Texans jersey rams his pistol into your forehead two or three times and then the lights go out hard. So totally, in fact, that you don't feel a thing when they kick in three of your ribs. It's a measure of just how far gone you are that even after the x-rays, the stitches, and the headaches, even after you wake up minutes or millennia later on the cold dirt, all you can think to do is spit some blood out on the vampire earth and start to laugh. How you wouldn't have changed a thing.

That's how Isabel found me, however long later. I don't really know what happened to her during the fight, save that she somehow managed to get into her house. After the pack had had its fun it had departed, probably because some of them were sober enough to have started thinking about just how limited their life expectancy might be if Isabela decided to give her padre a ring.

That's actually the thing my rapidly gyrating mind focused on as a lighthouse, guiding me back to the world of color and pain. I knew exactly what the Hammer would do once he found out about this. Even the honor of a fake son had to be avenged, and for some reason I felt overwhelmed by the need to ensure that nothing happened to Spook et al. Later, when they set my ribs, I admit to a few errant moments when I wished otherwise, but what my concussed mind latched onto in those first hours was that this just stop, that I had wanted this and needed it, and that blame and consequences were pointless. There's no such thing as justice in the jungle, and I didn't understand why anyone would want otherwise.

I cannot describe the next twelve or so hours clearly. I know what happened mostly from what other people told me afterwards. This is supplemented by some memories of my own, though I know my brain wasn't in a good state and these must be viewed skeptically. I know I made Isabela promise not to call her father, a promise she broke almost immediately. I know I borrowed the keys to her Ford Contour, and went looking for Spook with the ax handle I lifted from Emilio's workshop. My plan, I think, was to somehow locate Spook, get him alone, introduce him to the wonderful density and feel of white ash, and while he was still mewling and insensate at my feet call the Hammer and show him that I got my own vengeance and he could just let it go. It seemed a wonderful plan.

Of course it didn't work. I did find the collection of trucks that I had seen for a brief few seconds before things got kinetic outside of a local cantina. I even found a lovely and conveniently placed shrub to hide behind near the cantina. That's where el Mochaorejas and Abelardo found me, some unknown amount of time later, talking to myself (or the shrub) and nearly frozen solid. I do remember taking a swing at the Ear Chopper, and I do not believe the speed at which he ducked and seized the ax handle from me is a false memory. The man was a tub of lard but he was a damned fast tub of lard. I vaguely recall the trip to the hospital, and any doubts about the veracity of this memory were eliminated when I woke up the next day. My body was wrapped in gauze and my brain was wrapped in oxycontin, lovely oxycontin, thanks to the bottle I found next to my bed. The little sticker listed one of my many fake names, and I started to laugh at this until my chest gave me about a million reasons not to. The rest of the events of the night before I got from Isabela, when she came by to check on me. She wouldn't give me a straight answer about what Gelo had done to my attackers, save to say that neither of us would be seeing Spook again. She seemed oddly put out by me. I wasn't expecting her to swoon and hover over me all Florence Nightingale fashion, but considering she'd basically gotten my ass kicked I expected something other than barely concealed incivility. I don't know, maybe she expected me to Bruce Lee the whole hoard or something. Maybe she still liked the bastard. Either way, she clearly felt I had failed her in some way, and after several uncomfortable visits I told her I was fine and just wanted to be alone. For the first time since the fight, she seemed pleased.

The Hammer eventually came around later that week. I had called in sick to work, figuring that an inability to walk straight might prevent me from laying block in an orderly manner. My left eye was a brilliant red, which contrasted nicely with the purple bruises which were encircling it. There were shades of greenish-blue on my ribs that were new to science, and I was feeling these and my ribcage when Gelo banged on the door. I hobbled over and threw it open.  For about a nanosecond his face was completely unguarded, and I gave his micro-expression of shock and pity a wicked grin. I mean, I hadn't lost any teeth in the fracas, which was something of a small miracle.

"You are looking well," he recovered quickly.

"You have a heart made of lies."

"Okay, you ees looking like you play a game of cheeken with a Lincoln. On foot."

"Better," I turned, walking back inside.

"I have water and more water," I told him. "If that isn't exciting enough for you, I can spike it with some of these primo opiates. They're pretty grand."

"Maybe next time, when you—"

"What did you do with them, Gelo?" I interrupted, my back still to him.

"They no come back. Thees I promise."

"What does that mean? My brain is swollen, and not in the good way. Be more precise. Did you kill them?"

He moved around the taller, slowly inspecting Emilio's workshop, which, as always, was strewn with speakers in various stages of repair. He took his time.

"I explain to them that thees town is off limits. They come here to visit the family, to flash the American money and have fun weeth the girls. But they always go back to work. Now, they will stay there. Because if they come back, it will be the last theeng they do. I speak to the families, and we are you say, estamos de acuerdo with all thees. They is very appreciative."

I breathed a deep sigh of relief and then wished I hadn't. What a fucked up place, I thought, when a family has to thank the man who decided not to kill their son.

"Ah, the ax," Gelo exclaimed. He had found the handle and had removed it from its peg. "The famous ax. The Mochaorejas, he like thees part of the story very much, you waiting in the bushes to attack nine peoples. He say you ees crazy in the best way."

"Thanks. I'll think of something witty to say to that in a few weeks."

He replaced the handle and turned to look at me for some time. He used to make me very nervous when he did this. By now I understood that this was just his way, and any cat-staring-at-a-mouse feeling that came over you was all in your head.

"There ees a problem."

"I thought they wouldn't be back," I replied, not for the first time noting how his confidence always seemed to be wrapped in a heavy layer of uncertainty.

"Not weeth thees payasos. No, con Rudy." This caused me to go on alert, and the spinning in my head accelerated. "You remember he leave always to go to party? To be with some woman? Isabela, she knows thees girl, runs into her in town. They get to talking, talking about heem, how great he ees, all of thees mierda. Isabela, she plays along. Thees puta, she theenk Rudy love her, ees talking about taking her to los Estados Unidns."

"Telling her how?"

"Exacto. They talk on the phone, several time each week."

"Okay," I stalled, thinking this through.

"Rudy, he has no loyalty. And thees girl, she is no very beauty. You see?"

"He's using her for intel."

"Yes, maybe. Who can say? But I get the feeling, and these feeling I always trust. It ees time you go on a leetle vacation. A chance to heal thees wreck of a face and for heem to lose you."

"I'll go to Monterrey."

"No. If he is move against you, he is move against me tambien I have already report this to...people. They want you moved to someplace else, so we do thees my way."

"Okay. What is your way?”

"I have many places for the hiding."

Of course he did.

"Any one in particular?" I asked, legitimately curious.

"Si. One in the mountains. Ess very nice. Very preety, like a photograph. You leave tonight. In two hour. I already speak to Don Hector. I tell heem I need you for construction project for two month, since you is so handy," he said, smiling. I could tell he enjoyed removing me, a sort of checkmate to Hector's obvious pleasure in bossing around one of his kids.

"Two months? I can do two months," I murmured, mostly to myself.

"Maybe more. We will see how theengs is in Marzo. Thees place, eet is a leetle out of the way. You will like. It ees very cold place." This last sounded strange to me, but I let it go.

I remembered his description of the place for every last second of my time on the mountain. Every single freezing moment. I repeated them often to myself as I sent my ax into frozen ironwood "You weel love eet, ees very nice, very preety." It became a sort of mantra, that and cursing my stupidity for having chosen to toss out the bottle of oxycontin before leaving town. Not even god could have found me on that mountain, so lost was I to the world. It took Abelardo the better part of a night and a morning driving down backroads to arrive at the place, a 500 square foot concrete shack surrounded by oak trees. The Hammer was right about one thing, though: it was cold. The kind of cold that gets in deep inside of your bones, slows everything down to the point that the world appears motionless. The kind of cold that becomes you, redefines you. The kind of cold that makes you a part of it.

To be continued....

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Losing Matthew

By Kenneth Williams

In June of 1998, I was asked to do something that filled me with sorrow, which I´d never been called upon to do before. The request so caught me by surprise, totally unprepared. But then again, who is ever prepared to bury a loved one? I was asked to be a pall bearer for the late Matthew Johnson, a 13 year old boy who had accidentally shot himself in the head while playing with a loaded gun he never should have had. But you know how it is with gang bangers, they’re intoxicated by the tough boy mentality and reputation.

Pistol-packing stimulates the masculine ego. Having an equalizer can make a man feel invisible, even when he´s not. Young Matthew found out the hard way he´s not made out of air, but flesh, bone and blood; his lack of knowledge and understanding of the dangers of a gun cost him his life.

Matthew and I were homies, brothers of what we called “The Struggle.” We grew up in the same gang-infested neighborhood; we both lived as outlaws, who ran the streets of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, living dangerously on the edge. There was an age difference between us: when he was 13, I was 19. He was my apprentice, influenced in like-manner as I had been influenced by other older gang bangers. We were also bonded through a relationship I had with his sister Demetria. Matthew was the uncle to my daughter. Right before Matthew´s death, he lived with Demetria when it was safe to do so. He had run off from his foster home and found shelter there. He no longer attended school, fearing apprehension. The juvenile court had ordered the police to pick him up, therefore he went on the run.

Most of Matthew´s time was spent on the streets where he made his hustle. He burglarized people´s homes and cars, which is where he most likely came into possession of the weapon he used in ending his life. He, along with other delinquents, was kicking up so much dust his sister Demetria grew very concerned about him. She expressed these concerns to me, feeling that I could somehow pull his coat tail.

During one of my visits to pick up my daughter Matthew asked if he could ride along. Seizing the opportunity to converse with him, we turned a few corners during which I encouraged him to slow his roll some. I completely understood the dilemma Matthew faced. His life was a repeat of mine. Staring into his life was like looking into a mirror. I was ten years old the first time I was sentenced to a boy´s school for reform. After my release, I committed recidivism over and over again. I fled just about every foster home my case worker placed me in.

At sixteen years old I was sentenced to prison for first degree escape from “The Arkansas Serious Offender Program” and for second-degree battery. I received two five-year sentences to run concurrently. After serving two years and two months, I was released on April 2, 1998, under parole supervision. Just by having Matthew in the car with me, knowing the police were searching for him, this violated my parole conditions. I felt as if there was only so much I could tell Matthew concerning his behavior. I had no desire to come across as a hypocrite. My life´s choices were far more toxic than his. I spared him the “Do as I say, not as I do” speech. For the most part young people end up doing exactly the opposite: they do as you do, not what you say. But still, I felt obligated to tell him, “Pull back some.” If anyone knew of the dangers he faced living the way he was, that someone was me.

In hindsight, now that I look back, I might have told him enough to satisfy my conscience. To say I did something. And although we always say we could have done more, I could have done much more to deter him from his reckless decision making. Had I done so, perhaps his fate could have been altered. It pains me to say, I and others came up short in the role model category. Notwithstanding, we more than contributed in the “Dropping the Ball” department, and no amount of tears I can shed now will change that!

If only this was an isolated case, perhaps it would be more bearable; regrettably, it´s not. People all around the world struggle with the premature loss of a loved one. And, like myself, they find themselves asking the questions: “Could I have done more?” “Why didn´t I do more?” The guilt of an inadequate performance can be a deal breaker, if not dealt with appropriately. Due to my inaction, I had to look upon the stiff, cold face of Matthew at his funeral. As my eyes were fixated upon his lifeless body in utter disbelief, my ears were filled with the cries of grief which came from those whom loved him. He seemed at peace in his casket, a peace which eluded him in life.

He was only thirteen years old when his life was snuffed out. By his own hand, the blow of death struck him. That very same hand had thrown up the “pitch fork” which represented Gangster Disciple. That hand had greeted me in the manner gang members shake hands. That hand had been used to hold beers and marijuana blunts up to his mouth. That hand was not resting neatly at his side, where it could no longer harm him.

The mourners who participated in Matthew´s funeral did not attend because Matthew was a gangster, but because he was family and a friend. And if, without my knowledge, someone did attend his funeral to pay their respects just because he was a gang member, their presence was so small they went unnoticed in a city like Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where there´s no shortage of gang bangers.

A funeral is the last time to pay final respect to the person who has died. Any true friend would attend, and yet Matthew´s gang family…who pretended to care so much for him…was missing in action. Let this be a sign to all gang members.

I found myself confused and angry behind Matthew´s death. I couldn’t understand why he had died at such a young age, yet not me. My life of crime started way earlier than his, plus I was three times as reckless and rebellious as he was. However, I was the one standing in front of his casket staring down on him. By all reason and logic, the order of death should have been reversed. Tears should have filled his eyes as he stood over my casket. He should have been one of my pall bearers. This enigma plagued me for quite some time. Only now does it become clear to me: God has a calling on my life to minister His Word and to tell of His goodness, His grace, salvation and mercy.

Perhaps you heard it said: “The devil meant it for evil, but God turned it around for my good.” What I have discovered is God has given me a story very dear to my heart, one I can draw experience and wisdom from in order to teach others of the dangers of not warning a brother when you see him headed over a cliff. We are commanded by God to love one another. Love always tells the truth, it´s never selfish, it casts out fear which holds people back from telling others how it is.

Periodically we confess we love somebody; but, is it true love that we have for one another, or is it some other feeling or emotion masquerading inside of us appearing as love? If I truly loved Matthew in the manner that God´s Word describes love in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8, my conversation with Matthew would not have been what it was. It would have been more direct, compassionate; there would have been follow-ups, which came after the intervention. This is what authentic love looks like, and if you don´t find a similar pattern, then you must not have love for your brother—but rather something else, which could end up costing you dearly.

My young apprentice, whom I blindly led astray, is dead. As for me, I´m on Death Row, the closest a person can come to being in a grave without actually being there. Given the way Matthew and I lived our lives—gang banging—was this not to be expected? I walked in darkness. I loved wickedly; Matthew followed. Easily as we did so; we could have been children of the light who walked in righteousness. I don´t claim to have had no choice in how I lived my life. Quite the contrary, we all have free will and will be rightfully held accountable for our actions, or inactions, by the All Mighty God on the day of judgment: Acts 17:31.

Enticement and negative influences are two powerful forces unleashed upon us all to destroy us; nonetheless, they can be effectively resisted. The case I want to make is that not everyone who grows up in the projects, the hood, the ghetto, joins a gang. Therefore no excuses, there´s enough blame to go all around for this gang mess we are in.

Adolescents themselves are partially to blame if they join a gang. Gang recruiters share in the blame. So do parents who neglect to properly supervise and discipline their children. The police are to blame for not caring enough to crack down on gangs in minority communities. Politicians are to blame for their lack of management with this problem. For not adequately funding gang prevention programs, neglecting a hands-on approach, all of which suggest this problem hasn´t been a top priority to them, and finally, a lot of preachers aren´t speaking out enough against gang involvement. They´d rather preach pleasant non-offensive sermons from the safety of their pulpits, when they should be out on the corners, in front of crack, weed, and gambling houses warning those walking in darkness of the coming judgement if they don´t repent of their sinful ways.

We´ve all dropped the ball in some way, and boy does it show unmistakably in our school houses, in our jails, and prisons our rehabs, and yes…most regrettably, our graveyards too. No sir, Matthew and I aren´t alone. We´re not the only ones who´ve paid a hefty price. The gang epidemic, that has declared war on humanity, can no longer be ignored or left unchecked. Like a cancer, it won´t “just go away” but will consume all the good around it, leaving only death and destruction behind. Only if people begin to set aside their indifference will this gang epidemic be put into check.

Writing about Matthew´s life along with my own, telling of the dangers of gang involvement for others to read it and hopefully share what they have learned with others, this is an effective and creative step towards combating our common enemy that has its ugly claws wrapped around the necks of so many they can´t be counted. It´s highly unique of God to strategically use a former gang member such as myself to connect, resonate, enrich and liberate the hearts of gangsters. The Lord revolutionized my life, utilized the knowledge, resources, and standing I have with gang members to reason with them through my writings. He seeks to communicate with all who have an ear to listen and a heart to obey.

You see, God´s grace is sufficient enough to turn anyone´s life around, no matter what sinister or diabolical thing they may have done. He´s still able to use us. I am a living witness, much like the Gadarene demoniac, a man Jesus delivered from demon possession in Luke 8:27.

The only matter which needs to be resolved, will you allow yourself to be used by God? Where does you allegiance lie? In the Kingdom of Light or in the Kingdom of darkness? No one can serve two masters. I chose the Light; I am no longer blind, but now I see. Permit me to lead you out of bondage, out of darkness to Jesus Christ…who is “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.”

Kenneth Williams SK 000957
P.O. Box 400 VSM
Grady AR 71644

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Commissary Day

By Tom Odle

There are about five things that help break prison time down into more manageable situations that allow a person the ability to endure the madness of the penal system. The first thing would be the recreational times, which give you the ability to stay fit, wear yourself out and be able to rest. The second would be phone calls so one can maintain contact with family and loves ones. The third is visits, since it allows you to step into the free world in a way because you are around free people, including your loved ones. Fourth is mail, since it infuses you with important worldly thoughts and emotions to be held in your hand to be read over and over again. The fifth would be what I am going to write about in this article – Commissary.

On the first of every month a memo is distributed to be posted in all the housing units notifying everyone when their housing unit has been slated to “shop,” or go to the Commissary. Of course people are excited about being able to shop because it gives you a sense of freedom to be able to choose what you can eat and purchase other items that you need, such as toothpaste. As the time leading up to Commissary draws close, people begin borrowing with the promise of paying it back “when we go to the store.” We get excited about shopping. Just a lot of things are taking place surrounding Commissary. For many people, they hope that store comes after State pay, which for us is, if you are not working, $10.00 per month. If you are working, $28.80 per month.

So now Commissary Day has arrived. We know when we are scheduled to go and people have begun lining up at the door, like a mad mob gathered around a single door waiting for it to open to be taken to Commissary. There are about 150 people per housing unit – some have more, some have less, but this is a good average, so imagine about 100 people gathered around a door, just waiting for them to call Commissary – they all have on their blues – blue shirt, blue pants – state issued laundry bags in their pockets or around their necks, looking over their shopping list one last time as they keep making changes up until the last minute. People are loud, some unbathed and rude about flatulence, not to mention everyone nearly touching everyone else due to crowding around the magical door that leads to the Commissary.

The wait is over, the Commissary officer has arrived, and word travels throughout the cell house that it is time and those who weren’t waiting run into the crowd which compacts the crowd even more – like packing 100 sardines in a can designed for only 25. So the door opens finally and the sarge begins from the back as people begin shoving everyone in front of them and it reminds you of sand flowing through an hourglass – only it’s people trying to squeeze through a doorway. People yelling at others to stop pushing, officers telling people to stop pushing while counting off between 30 – 50 people. In one instance, the sarge reached 40 and got pissed because of the pushing and only took the first 40 people shoved through the door. Now, those left remain behind complaining about everyone else shoving but how they weren’t, about the remaining people crowded around the door, waiting to do it all over again on the next pick-up of people.

Those that made it out are reborn – feel like they won the lottery and the excitement about having goodies in the cell for tonight sets in. Now we walk to the store, which is a special walk as everyone is trying to get there and get in – an officer has to tell you to slow down at least 4 times along the way. When you get to the Commissary, you stand in line again to give your razors to another officer who checks to see if the blades are there and marks your sheet of how many razors you turned in because you can only get what you turned in back. Once this is all done and finally sorted out, all the slips are turned into the workers behind the fence to write your total down on the slips so when you are called to shop they show you how much your have in your account.

Now you wait to hear your name called to be handed back your slip because you have no money which is pretty embarrassing because, of course, guys are going to laugh and if you owe money, now they know you can’t pay. You are also listening at the front cage to hear your name so you can begin the long process of shopping. Your name has been called and you get up from the bench you have been waiting on for who knows how long. You walk to the first cage where they show you how much money you have on account and ask you what you want from this section. The first section consists of laundry soap, toilet paper, vitamins, shampoo, conditioner and other basic hygiene items. So you get done there and are passed down the line to the next section which consists of what we call the Wet Pack section and chips. There you get your chips, crackers, cheese, BBQ sauce, oatmeal, rice, beans, and wet packs, which are chili in a bag, chicken in a bag, BBQ beef in a bag, ham in a bag shredded beef in a bag, and beef stew in a bag and so forth and so on. But also, this is the most expensive part of the shopping experience. Some wet packs range from $2 - $4.50 and that is for one wet pack. You also have limits as to how much you can buy – only one cereal, six chips, one oatmeal, one peanut butter, four chicken and everything else but you get eight tunas, one cracker and so forth. One has to be extremely careful here or you’ll go broke. You then go to the last section where the packaged meats and candies are along with the Kool Aid, coffee and sodas. Got to be careful here too – things are very expensive in prison due to the 33% mark-up they are allowed to generate income from Commissary, which goes into some fund we never experience the benefits of.

Next, you can get clothing, pillows, sheets and blankets – oh yes, I forgot to mention that because of the prison overcrowding you can purchase your pillow, sheets and blanket if you would like to from the Commissary – they are much better than what the State would supply you with. Once you get to the checkout, you are asked about electronics – Do you want the 13” flat screen TV for $200 plus dollars that sell in the world for what, $50? Once you get rung up, you sign the receipt and ink your thumbprint to prove you received everything and you take your laundry bag full of goodies that you were packing while they were ringing it up and watching your account quickly become depleted. Then you go sit on the bench and wait to leave. But while you wait you watch other people shop – like those who are always asking for stuff like coffee, sugar and noodles – you watch them buy all the cakes and sweets but nothing you know they need and you know they will be walking around, asking for before the day is out. Some people watch you shop so they will know who to ask for things from.

Now it’s time to leave and out the door you go with the people who were beating each other to get there. Now it is a calm, cool and collected line because everybody has what they came for. Once you get to the housing unit you then get to your cell and it is now time to pack your property box, which is 32”x18”x10.” This takes some doing, but if you run out of room perhaps your celly will allow you to put some stuff in his box until you can get it in your box. Now you have shopped and here comes the begging population –do you have? can I get? and usually a person doesn’t mind too much because we are all in the same situation, but it’s the same people same time, same results – so most people play like they aren’t at home, to keep from dealing with these people instead of telling them they were seen shopping and they bought garbage that they ate half of while waiting to come back to the housing unit.

With all that said, and you got a picture of what Commissary day is like, there is also another shopping method, which is what I prefer, and that is you wait until they announce last call for Commissary and by that time it’s only a handful of people left to shop so we just casually walk out, enjoy the walk to Commissary, I’m in and out fairly quick and everybody is so into their own thing when I come back I walk in unnoticed so nobody comes running to my door asking can I get, can I have.

This is Commissary Day in most prisons unless you are fortunate to have Commissary delivered to your door and then it is easy and smooth because they open your door or slide it in through the food slot/bars and that’s it. Hope you enjoyed the journey through Commissary Day.

Tom Odle 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

13 Three-Paragraph Vignettes

By Jeff C.

ONE: Awe is impossible to describe. You just sound like a slack-jawed, foolish charlatan. You just sound like you’re unwise, unblasé, uncool. Yet despite that, if one has an open eye and an honest tongue, awe exists. Or at least it does for me. Here, now. The day that this collection of words is published it will have been one year to the day since I was behind bars. (The nearly six months at Work Release in Seattle ‘tweren’t prison as I knew it.] I woke up on July 9th, 2014, in my cell on a prison tier in Monroe which I’d lived on since January 2000. That, plus the three years plus prior at Walla Walla, and an open eye and unfurled tongue makes me say: I am in awe of freedom.

There will be those blurry, busy days when all those little things that pile upon each other in a cacophony of near control and in a rush of “shit, how am I gonna get all this done,” but then….

Then there are those ambered, flickering moments when one of the cacophony of things wrestles my attention and I imagine it’s akin to that epiphany described by the great authors of our time. But, you know, experienced by a slack-jawed foolatan.


42nd birthday picnic at Gasworks Park in Seattle

TWO: I surrender, at times, to tears. Unexplainable tears. Well, not totally unexplainable.
I don’t have children, but I imagine that a parent—in the sticky satiation of parenthood—has those moments when she can’t help but look back at what she was prior to creating and/or nurturing a small human and gets the wind knocked out of her routine from those unexplainable surrenders to overwhelming emotion.

I am not complaining. After 18.5 years of façading the emotional range of a robot for self-protection—since “kindness is weakness” and, ergo ipso unfacto, any weakness must be hidden so as to not being taken advantage of—I now smile through a bitten bottom lip when the emotion of some particular moment pressures out some happy tears through some otherwise modern mundane moment.


Riding shotgun with my Road Dog, Scooter

THREE: When I was riding the bus home from my second job and I was making my Instagram post in celebration of gay marriage being legal in America (#OneLove #LoveRules #MarriageForAll #ThanksSCOTUS) and I copied and pasted the first few paragraphs of the CNN news story about it, I leaked some tears at these words: “The language of Kennedy’s opinion spoke eloquently of the:  most fundamental values of family, love and liberty.”

I cried at the beauty of rightness. I cried at the wonder of our times. I cried at a love for love.

But this sort of reaction, while not hidden or played to the bleachers, was different than if I would have heard this news from inside prison. My immediate thought was: “I really want to get down to the Seattle Gay Pride Parade tomorrow.” I wanted to, and had the option to, celebrate from anywhere but afar.


Celebrating the SCOTUS ruling for gay marriage on Capitol Hill
FOUR: Smaller moments elicit a reaction. Or maybe more like they force me to pay attention. As I type this I am sitting outside my home, with the half-moon to my three o’clock making its presence known through the tree. I have a dog wandering around waiting for his chance to bark and not get grrrrr’d at. I have petunias to the left of me, dahlias to the right, and here I am, lucky in the middle with freedom.

Some nights ago I was riding my bike up the long-tail hill and the nature, the silence, the…everything coalesced into a blue star intensity of, well, let’s call it appreciation.

That is a good word. A powerful one. One that can impact like a gut punch to the head.


First time Bouncy House user

FIVE: The world out here isn’t all beauty and rainbows, though. I’ve come across pain and I’ve done that social dance around and away from uncomfortable situations. I’m no stranger-hugger. Yet.

It’s a different kind of head butt to the gut to talk to someone on the phone that you’re trying to shill a shiny Vegas vacation to and the word that gets walk-a-thons rears its malignant head.

It’s no picnic to ride the bus home from your second job through White Center, Seattle, and see what in prison are called “Ding Biscuits”—people that shuffle off to the Pill Line to get their next dose of whatever they can get to make the pain and hurt and heartache and daemons abate, if only for one day…or part of one day. The all-consuming addiction of numbing the pain of life.


Making new friends

SIX: On the way home from Bellevue tonight, via Seattle (thankfully that long route is only a Sunday night thing), I saw a woman arrested within five feet of me. Just like in prison, they yelled, “Get down on the ground!” repeatedly. Just like in prison, this person did not. I did my best impression of a wall and hoped that these Seattle police (who don’t exactly have a fantastic reputation for being uber-rational) didn’t pull out their guns. As soon as they handcuffed her I remembered that, unlike in prison, I had a camera and got some shots of them all while she repeatedly said, “What are you arresting me for? What I have done? Why are you detaining me?”

Selfishly, I must admit, that I could only think of myself at the time, “If I get questioned by the cops—especially for having my phone out and taking their pictures—will my CCO understand?” I run that Community Corrections Officer question through more than the most devout WWJDer.

I don’t want to go back to prison. I won’t go back to prison. That’s not some idiotic “Guns ‘a blazin’” mantra; it’s a statement of fact that I won’t go back to prison because I don’t want to go back to prison.” And that may well sound like an empty tautology; but, as they annoyingly say in prison: it is what it is.


Spectating only

SEVEN: I grew up in the suburbs. I lived in a decent-sized city in the Army in Germany. I lived in Seattle for six months on Work Release. Yet I spent summers on a two-cow farm in the dry, forgotten corner of Oregon. Before I was three I chased my older sister with a dead snake. Before I was in high school I kept ant farms. And while I was in Walla Walla I paid the fellas to smuggle live crickets back from the big yard in their chew cans to feed to my praying mantis (and yet the demand was bigger than my supply so, yes, there very well could be descendants of my pet of three weeks who have a developed a taste for human blood, drank from the empty end of a Bic pen, chugging it Greek Week style).

But I have never been in awe of nature until now.

Oh, sure, nature existed in prison (goodness, I took 5 years off my back by working 5 months weeding and sowing and weeding and tilling and weeding stuff I never got to reap), but not like this. Like how women exist in a men’s prison through the guards, counselors, volunteers, nurses, staff, and visitors, nature existed in there; but not like this. Nature that cannot be contained video or stills or panoramas or macro close-ups. Nature that will not be deterred. Nature that is a moon-lit ride that makes me cover up my bike’s headlight and dwell in the serene beauty. Nature that cobwebs my face, daily. Nature that is sticky, scratches, and bites. Nature that will not be suburbanized.


Patiently capturing nature (no bees, or me, was harmed during the shooting of this)

EIGHT: I am impressed by people. My job is, so they tell me, selling myself. Some of my co-workers sell the package and are in-and-off the phone, getting them to show up at their appointment to receive their guaranteed gifts. But mine’s different: I have to convince people 1.) that I’m with a legitimate company, 2.) that I’m an honest person telling them the truth, and, 3.) assure them that it’s okay to give me their credit card over the phone. And, while, yes, I meet a solid contingent of skeptical if not downright screaming whilst sprinting away covering their ears as if I am some sort of Franz Mesmer, going to spirit away their identity, most of the people I meet are willing to listen. And I’m willing to talk.

And so I sell myself. And what’s rather amazing is that if they let down their wall and let me show me and not just the script I have to read, I can, and do, connect with many people. I talked with one guy and told him about how “on the second vacation package you get to choose from”—but all he heard was San Diego and began to start talking about tall ships and how they had this Portuguese ship that had been replicated like it was 200 plus years ago and all I did was use the osmosis knowledge I’d accumulated from sailing I’d picked up from my Dad and suddenly we had talked for 30 minutes. Then the hardest part of my job came (no, not asking for the credit card; I often don’t ask and just let them offer): trying to get ahold of him again. I wasn’t able to and gave up after three voice mail messages. But he called back saying that they weren’t going to go to Vegas this year, but, if it was okay, could he send me a book on tall ships (I had to ask my boss and she said as long as it was sent to work) and he did it: he sent me a $30 brand new coffee table book with $10 shipping. (My boss’ boss, upon hearing this and having been in the business for 20 plus years, said, “No one has ever sent me a book.”)

But my point is that it’s astonishing to “meet” people over the phone or in person and realize 1.) that not everybody is cynicism calcified (not that everyone in prison is; they’re just a higher percentage),
2.) that people will, and do, open up if you genuinely do first (and it’s rather rewarding to do so; often more so than “making the sale”—it’s nice to leave work knowing that you’ve made someone’s day better by just listening), and, 3.) that it’s not all that difficult to be my honest, full self—with just some slightly-creative, um, ways of phrasing what I’ve been doing for the last 19 years; I’m honest because I don’t have the memory to be any other way, I just bend the light around that black hole I survived.


Not spectating

NINE: I decide that I want to go to Seattle. And it’s a three hour plus bike ride. And I do it. Mainly just to know that I can. Maybe because I can. The beautiful Burke-Gilman trail (that used to be a railroad and is now just a bike path along and around the northern hump of Lake Washington) as I stop to take pictures of graffiti and Mt. Rainier and whatever I fancy.

I am not going to meet a friend. I am not needed back home anytime soon. I am just going.

The day wasn’t all that eventful, and I wasn’t even hit on (in my most pastel-y outfit) on Capitol Hill during the ramp-up to Gay Pride, but it was a day out. For just that reason.


Selfie whilst biking naked with 1000 others through Fremont wearing only paint

TEN: It’s my birthday and I’ve been invited by my new friends for a picnic at Gasworks Park (strawberry birthday cake and candle included). Afterwards we bike to the University of Washington and rent a canoe and go swimming.

[Insert obligatory, slack-awed paragraph about how it’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve been underwater and haven’t even taken a bath and how I dove off into the water from an uncompleted highway over the lily pads and be sure to add some clever accounting of all those wasted, idle years by encapsulating them in some unfathomable numerical extrapolation of the total time elapsed.]

But there I am, floating in the water, my exhausted arms impersonating fins as I try to keep just my face (but not my ears) above the water. The distant traffic noise muffles. The conversation between my friends and some friendly strangers dissipates. The volume of my breathing intensifies. It’s not long enough or absent-in-consciousness enough to be meditation. It’s not intense enough to be one of those fabled epiphanies. It’s not unpleasant.


Swimming for the first time in 19 years

ELEVEN: I have plenty of examples in even my current life of what choices I’m presently, conscientiously avoiding.

It seems I was too generous with a new friend and he was not ready for a mature friendship where you are honest and conversate, if you’ll pardon the prison vernacular, with me about, most likely, his addiction level. Of course it cost me nearly a grand to lose that friendship, but after three months and nary an emoticon, and hearing that he is living in the same suburban town as moi, I feel that this friendship has run its course.

It seems that a new co-worker, the one all-too-liberally labeled “the felon” isn’t going to be with us much longer. True, he’s socially stagnated and sadly that likely means that corporate, cubicle life isn’t for him, but it’s been a constant underscore to my chosen sobriety to see him come in drunk and high and not cope unmoodily with being told to come in sober. And it’s a continual italicizing to see how flat his “prison stories” flop. And I’m boldly unimpressed with his institutionalitude towards authority (arguing to prove a stupid point when powerless against the powers that be) when given more chances than, personally (and I admit that this sounds harsh), I think he deserved. I feel like I’m next door to guilty for saying that because I want to be all raised-fist in solidarity for any of my fallen brothers, but his uncouthness bristles my homogenized career-path. I tensed up more than when a woman was arrested in front of me and the cops could have easily pulled their guns on her, with me directly in the line of fire, when he reacts in that all-too-recognizable knuckleheaded way.


Backyard inchworm

TWELVE: Stress is a motherfucker. Damn. I don’t always know how to say no. Which would be all right, I suppose, if I wasn’t trying to consume so much of this free world. All at once. Like there isn’t enough time.

There isn’t enough time.

I want to be the ideal boyfriend. I want to be the best brother/tenant possible. I want to be unselfishly friendly (“No more agendarosity, please”—so goes the Jeffism on my Instagram account). I want to mainline escapist entertainment. I want to ladder climb my way to a career. I want to succeed. At life. I don’t want to let people down. I don’t want to let myself down—or the myself of the last nearly 20 years—who swore like a motherfucker that he wouldn’t waste a second chance. I won’t let the me of this very moment, squeezing out tears as it’s past 2am on the day that this blog piece is due, on the day that he’s got a list of shit to do that, if all done, wouldn’t allow for sleep or escape or reality. So the delays pile up like the mess of my room (I used to be organized; I used to have time to tweak on OCD-colored filing systems; I used to function on 5 or 6 hours of sleep and now I need 8 and the floor is my filing cabinet and I only organize my outfits). And deadlines motivate. And only deadlines motivate. And I try. And I try. And I try. And I am, somehow, succeeding. In most of my life. For all but the people who I’ve let down.


Canoeing on my birthday with new friends

THIRTEEN: To borrow yet one more prisonism (since I don’t use them or anything I might even think sound like it came from the joint), “don’t get it twisted,” I’m not living as pensively as this has been written. But I simply don’t have time for my midnight musings anymore like I used to. I simply don’t sweep out a spot in my internal life for any sort of me-time that this (I apologize, dear reader) certainly is. And this, too, is a part of me—even if it’s not something that gets scheduled in.

I joyfully laugh, I startlingly snort-laugh, I wondrously chuckle, I gladly giggle, I proudly titter, I slyly smirk, I overwhelmingly smile, and I likely guffaw graciously through the still, small moments that I create and throughout the onslaught of everything that won’t destroy me (just look at the pictures above); I am a man of mirth because….

I am living life, freely, in awe.

—July 2015

Jeff C.