Thursday, June 28, 2018

No Way Out

By Terry Daniel McDonald

“Mike, are you ready?” I asked.

We were seated around a table in the dayroom. Mike was to my right. Don was across from me. Being in the same section made it easy to communicate and plan, even with blaring TVs and overlapping conservations. 

“Yeah, I was up a bit late perfecting the strap for my leg.” As usual, Mike’s hair was wet. Every morning he would walk over to the sink and splash water on his face. He’d then wet his hair and finger comb it. He was in his normal, rumpled state as well: baggy, paint-spattered pants, a loose shirt, boots unlaced.

Don was more orderly, but then twenty plus years in the Army had a lot to do with that. Other differences existed – most notably with size. Mike was 5’10”-5’11”, 230 pounds or so; Don might have crested 5’6”, weighing in at around 165 pounds. I was somewhere in the middle. I guess you could say we averaged each other out.

Lowering the newspaper, Don inquired of me, “Did you finish them?”

I nodded. No one was really close enough to hear, but you could never be too cautious. Commercials on the TV played their part too. What had I finished, though? Nylon-wrapping hilts and wire-wrapping rods to make weapons. I also needed to make some last-minute alterations to a Balaclava made from a pair of gray socks.

After a few more pointed questions, the conversation became more casual. Not that anyone around us knew the difference. Everything was in order. It was January 29, 2010, the day we planned to escape. 

The day passed quickly, as expected.  After midday outside recreation, we began the process of getting dressed.  Specialized gear had been kept sewn inside our mattresses: reinforced leather gloves, and a few pairs of stainless steel mesh gloves pilfered from the kitchen; camouflage clothing; weapons.  A potent pepper-elixir had been premixed and stored in bottles – a scent masker.  And finally, selected paperwork.

Don wasn’t my cell mate, but he “fell out of place” so I could help him dress.  The camo clothes were the first layer.  Wrist sheathes held homemade shanks.  Then came the braided rope I helped Don secure about his midriff – held in place by a back wrap. Wide, custom-tailored pockets in the camo pants held our masks, extra gloves, and other assorted items.  The last thing I added was a vitamin pack.  A few pouches would provide an after-action meal to keep me going.

Over it all were whites.  A bit baggier, but not too noticeable.  Especially with a coat on.  It was nice and cold outside.  That, too, was part of the plan.

“How do I look?” Don asked.  He was bundled up, but not too bulky.

“Looks fine; how does it feel?”  It had taken some time to coil the rope and secure it with the back brace (really just an elastic wrap that Velcro held closed).

Don patted his chest and turned.  Bent.  He went through some other motions to test mobility.  “Feels good, not too tight.”

“Make sure.  There won’t be time to fix it later.” It was an obvious statement, but both of us had been in the Army.  Redundancy could save your life.  Once dressed, all that was left…  was to hope our plans went smoothly.

“Let’s go.” Don was near the door. We’d taken nearly an hour to dress and cover some contingencies. The officer on the floor was coming around as the doors rolled.

I followed Don out after grabbing my hat – a full head-covering. A pull-on that shielded the neck, ears, and cheeks. Mike exited his cell, which was nearby, and followed us down the run.

Once again, we took our seats at the table. Talk was light. Mike assured me that he was ready, but he looked tense. All of us had our doubts and concerns. Only one task was left before we were fully committed: paying “The Fool.”

Don made his way over to another guy we all knew well. One of the ever-present crash-dummies willing to do just about anything – for a price. Don had made a deal with The Fool… to run interference for us.

Soon we would walk to chow. On the outside walkways an officer would be waiting, wand in hand. Our “Fool” was going to zig and zag and make a scene, if necessary. All to draw interest away from us – from the possibility of being called out randomly and searched.

None of that was necessary, though. Our walk was uneventful. The officer with the wand had the air of a man just waiting to go home. Not even The Fool could entice him to do extra work.

Even so, our plans were about to change.

Everyone understood that a point-of-no-return existed. So, if any significant issue arose before then, we could abort. Several weeks before, we completed a trial run, testing how smoothly we could move about – which became necessary after the mass migration from 3-building. 

In mid- to late-2009, the Administration decided to have everyone in 7-building (on B-side) and everyone in 3-building (on A-side) pack up and switch. Try to imagine it: a whole building of offenders carrying, or having property carted (if lucky), from one side of the unit to the other. 7-building was first. They packed those guys into 3-4 Gym like sardines, property and all. When it was our turn… ugh! I no doubt looked like a cross between a donkey and a camel, with the towel-linked bags draped over my shoulders, and other bags gripped in my hands as I waddled along.

Later we learned that the offenders from 7-building (all overflow with minimum custody status) had been complaining about their continued confinement on the more restrictive side of the unit. So, instead of a few moves here and there, the Administration figured “all at one time” was a good idea. 

Well… fine. Smirk if you want to. I certainly did, and worse when I got to my destination. 7-building sucked! One guy’s cell was completely wall-papered with pictures of half-naked women. Not a horrible thing, but what about the missing mirrors and broken co-axial connectors? Paint-chipped walls, mold, and trash? It was like walking into a warzone. 

The security was definitely more restrictive too. Don, Mike and I spent many hours rethinking our plans. You see, A-side had been easier to navigate. Our new home on B-side required us to exit 7-building, make a long walk, hang a left, then snake around to the Chow Hall. More security restrictions meant we were going to be subject to more random searches. But the worst part was the need to go through Central – a guard post between locking gates that divided the two sides of the unit.

Our access to Central was right outside the Chow Hall, but that was hardly the point. Once through the first gate, we’d be temporarily locked in. Officers at the desk would want to see our IDs. Walking in front of ODR (the Officer’s Dining Room) would open us up to more scrutiny.

More problems.

Thankfully, our test run was a success. Once done with chow, we immediately passed through Central. From there it was an easy walk to 3-4 Gym where church services were held. All of us had been “ready to go” then, but we decided to test security in a “live” manner instead.

The second, real time was different. If it was necessary to abort on the 29th of January, our whole plan would have been scratched. Soon, a major lockdown/shakedown would take place. Keeping all the necessary contraband – so central to the plan – in our cells was too risky. Even worse, more and more Veterans were starting to be employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. We didn’t know how they might affect/improve security. 

We didn’t want to find out.

“I think we have a problem.” Don was facing the Chow Hall entrance. From his vantage point at the table, he’d been providing a play-by-play.

Officers' movements.

Which Ranks were about.

And how other offenders were being prevented from going through Central. We knew who planned to attend Church that evening.

“You’re sure?” I asked, after eating the last spoonful of vegetables.

Many conversations swirled about us, so Don answered directly. “Four more who usually go to Church were denied. Now a Sergeant is posted over there.”


“So, we go back?” To the average person, Mike’s question would be taken as an obvious reaction. But we knew better. Mike was really asking whether we were aborting.

Which was ultimately up to Don. We had all agreed, all five of us, that Don would make those decisions. The other two members of our escape group were seated at a different table. They also lived in a different section. Whatever the decision was, they would follow our lead.

Just as we finished, and were ready to get up, Don replied, “No, we’ll play it by ear.”

Murphy’s Law: When or if anything could possibly go wrong, it probably will. You can’t really plan for such events. You either work through them or fail. We were already committed, so it was no problem to file out of the Chow Hall and walk back to 7-building. Luckily, because it was late and cold, no officers were posted to do random searches. We also learned that church services would be called out.

The wait was on.

But it didn’t take too long.

The sliding door was a familiar, but unwelcome sight. So too were the plexiglass windows, three-tiers of cells, and the tension that exists within an overcrowded dayroom. I sat at our table. Don and Mike, separately, found a secluded place to make a few adjustments. Mike’s strap had slipped a bit – the strap holding the sheathed knife to his right thigh.

Nearly a forearm in length, the iron was sharp-edged and pointy, and had a wrapped hilt. It was the largest weapon our group carried. One of Mike’s tree-trunk-like legs made a perfect resting place.

Don wanted to re-center the rope.

All of us took turns using the restroom. Back at the table, conversation was at a minimum. Mostly, we just watched TV – one of the Spanish soap operas other guys were fond of. At that moment, a woman in panties and a bra bounced across the screen.

Then they called for Church.

Once again we left the section, hopefully for the last time. In the communal walk-space we met up with the other two members. Beyond the central picket, we passed through a series of sliding doors. A line formed from the front desk; we staggered ourselves and hoped for the best.

Don’s words echoed in my mind: “If any of us get searched, the game is up.  Don’t react. Try to get back to the section and offload.” We had reached a point when Murphy’s Law would either make or break us.

4-Gym was set up to handle a full house. And it was already loud. There were rows of chairs. Instruments up front where a band would play. As we walked in, after having our names checked off a roster, we passed the computer room. A guy was in there, in low-light, working on the programming for the evening. A glowing computer screen gave him a ghostly pallor. 

The large projector screen was draped on the wall. From its stand in the center of the room, the projector flashed images – welcoming messages. Christian rock music played in the background.

Men milled about, shaking hands and patting backs. Those in my group knew many there, so we mingled. I caught the scents of cheap aftershave, and myriad types of cologne from the strips guys would rub on their clothes. I evaded one guy with dragon-breath, and watched another guy pull a radio out from under his shirt and pass it to his buddy. Finally, we found some seats on the left side of the Gym and settled down to enjoy the evening.

Polunsky Unit always offered communal services on weekends. A Spanish version on Friday, and an English one Saturday night. We had remained flexible about which to use as a launch-point. The likelihood of appearing out of place wasn’t really an issue, either, because the other two members were Mexican. Well, one was – the other was from a country like Columbia. 

Only one of the pair spoke English.

We’ll call “him” Alex (because I don’t remember his real name). Alex was from Mexico illegally, from what I understood. He killed a cop, narrowly escaping death row. As part of the planning – as a result of all the “favors” we needed – we were “told” to include him. Evidently, he had either molested or sexually assaulted a girl/woman associated with a Cartel member. Alex absolutely did not want to return to Mexico, so he killed the cop to avoid extradition. I guess he felt his chances to “live” were better in the United States.

Alex was on a short leash; he didn’t know he was expendable. 

The other non-English speaking guy was Alex’s handler. As part of a South American paramilitary group, he supposedly had the connections linked to those who wanted Alex back. Even in an escape plan there were political ramifications. 

And they wondered why I carried a shank…

Church was, by all accounts, uneventful. The visuals were nice. The music was good. Especially when the saxophone got involved. Outside groups normally came in to minister and socialize. That night was no different. In the past there had been skits and plays, even short movies as filler, but the services on January 29, 2010 were fairly standard. And they passed quickly.

Soon we were all standing – members in the crowd waiting to be let out. Outside, night had fallen. It was definitely colder. All five of us moved about together, fitting into the press of bodies – letting the mass carry us forward. I put the stainless-steel mesh gloves on, which looked like any other white gloves in low lighting. Random snippets of conversations pierced my awareness, but mostly I was focused on what we had to do. 

It was a brief conversation I had with Don that whispered in my mind.

“What are the chances we will make it?” Don had leaned over and whispered during the service.

“Good. We’ll be fine.” My response had been automatic, because I had given it a ton of thought. I was still considering it when I pulled my head gear on and exited the Gym to stand in the caged holding space. 

Which is where Murphy and his retarded Law decided to strike again.

Had I been talking to Mike – an Odinist – he would’ve told me that the spinners of fate beneath the tree of life, Yggdrasil, already knew our path. We would succeed or fail by their whim. Or he’d quote the Hávamál: “Never walk away from home ahead of your axe and sword. You can’t feel a battle in your bones or foresee a fight.”

Don would’ve been less theoretical, more direct. Perhaps severe. “Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.” Well, thank you Euripides, but wisdom could hardly dispel fear and uncertainty. 

Definitely not mine.

Fear had made it easy for me to join this endeavor. To bond with a ready-made group for some semblance of stability and protection. I was a young Buddhist practitioner back then, broken and battered. I had yet to find my way onto the middle path of controlling desires. Balancing cravings and needs to lessen suffering. My Dharmic wheel was less about purpose in life, but simply how to survive.  I was adrift on a sea of many indecisions. Trying to escape became a focus, a mission.

Before the night ended, that mission just might kill me.

We needed to best Murphy, because he was bound and determined to break us up.  Each time the officer opened the gate a random number of offenders were let out. I tried to calculate our best chances to make it out together, but it was impossible to know which offenders would go right – to 3- or 4-building. The chaos should’ve worked in our favor, until it nearly didn’t. 

When the gate opened again, I was near the front. Don made it out with me. Mike and the others weren’t so lucky. Some last-minute pushing and reordering, and officer intervention, had pushed them back. That meant Don and I would have to stall. We headed left, slowly. All of us wore wristbands that “indicated” where we lived, but we needed to move together.

Despite our marginal pace, Don and I soon reached the wall near the access-gate to the laundry. We waited with a few other guys. The line was ragged, so it was easy to maneuver until we were near the end. Once the walkway was clear, the officer near the dorm access-gate unlocked and opened it.

The men ahead of us moved automatically, filing passed the guard.

“If you’re going, come on,” the officer urged.

Don and I didn’t move.

The officer gave us a pointed look. “What are you waiting for?”

What could I say? I just shook my head and stamped my feet in an effort to warm up. The officer closed the gate in frustration. The tension rose, but luckily Mike and the others were in the next wave. They quickly fell in with us. We chatted with them to give the impression that we’d simply been waiting on friends.

A few men extended our line, prompting the officer to open the gate again. We didn’t hesitate. As we passed the guard, he said, “Make up your minds sooner next time.”

I just nodded as the cloud from his words chased us down the pathway. Behind us the gate closed and locked. There was no way out.

We had reached the point-of-no-return. 

“Hi, Mike,” some random guy said. I cringed. Mike was in several programs, which made him fairly popular. It wasn’t surprising that someone noticed him, but the timing… Murphy!

We would just have to hope that guy didn’t become too curious – thinking like: “I know Mike doesn’t live in the dorms, so why is he out there?” I gritted my teeth and glanced around.

All five of us were loosely huddled near the crash gate, a service gate between the dorms and maintenance. All chain-link with razor-wire on top, the gate could be opened from both sides; but, when not in use, a rod pinned everything in place, all secured by lock and chain. 

A quick evaluation, and Don’s furtive “test”, revealed that another change was necessary. We had hoped to be able to bend one gate enough to slip through. However, whoever had secured and locked the gates had done too good a job of it. Great. At least the guards were too lazy to actually stand their post at the gateway to the dorms. Murphy was dealing us a dirty hand, but it wasn’t a complete loss.

I marked the time, while keeping track of those who passed us. It wasn’t long before the walkways were clear. Only the perimeter remained an issue. A van was out there creeping around with its lights off. After I timed its circuit around the unit, and considered it a safe move, I said, “Climb over. Go.”

Don was first. And quick. Mike was next. A decent athlete for a big guy. I made it over easily enough, and the others followed.

“Change. Hurry.” We had time, but it was going to be close.

As partners, we aided each other to pull the white layers off, leaving them pooled near/against the fence. That done, we sprinted and knelt behind the generator. We had access to the utility road, but the perimeter fences were our goal.

First, the van needed to pass. Because my eyes were on my watch, I didn’t notice that Don had gone ahead to scout. When I glanced up, however, looking for the van, I also saw Don.

He was coming back at a jog; he wasn’t going to make it.

“Don,” I hissed, “down!”

To his credit, Don hit the deck instantly. He slammed into the mostly dirt access road and didn’t move. As the van slowly passed, I focused on the earthy smells. How the cool breeze rippled the grass. No one moved. I was hardly breathing. Maybe they saw Don, maybe not. Surely the spinners of fate knew, but they weren’t sharing their secrets. 

And Murphy was probably giggling like an idiot at our misfortune!

The van passed and didn’t stop or give any indication that it had seen us, which was good. Soon it was out of sight and we were up and running. We had about three minutes to do our best.

I fully expected the fences to do everything in their power to hinder us. All that razor-wire. Their shadowed rings of light. And all their sensors that we knew were there.

My problems began before I ever reached them, though. At the end of the short run, I hard-planted with my left foot to stop… and would’ve screamed had I been able! It was like a bolt of lightning shot through my leg, radiating out from my knee. The pain was so intense that I was momentarily paralyzed. Shocked. All I could do was watch through watery eyes as I fought back the tears.

Mike was going “straight up”, as I’d directed him to do before the pain ripped through me. Don had split right, finding a gap between the lower and upper strands of the wire. The other two were simply watching, and I couldn’t get my mouth working to get them moving. 

Then Mike looked down and growled, “Daniel, come on!”

Some sort of primal need responded to his words and the pain vanished. Everything slowed down. A sense of mental clarity forced me to move. To not think, just act. Before I knew it, I had kicked in the lower fence, leapt, then used Mike’s back like a ladder to the top. From there, I easily made it over and down.

Only to pace in frustration as I urged him to move faster.

Mike tried but got entangled in the razor-wire. Don finally crested the top, then slipped and rolled until he was dangling by where the wire snagged his pants. I reached up and yanked Don down.

He crashed to the ground, groaning, but was soon up.

All of a sudden, Mike was there, breathing hard.

The other two…? I hoped they’d finally convinced themselves to move, but I had no time to concern myself with them. Mike, Don, and I were already jumping onto the second fence but, as we grabbed it, fate reached out and pinched Murphy on the behind.

“Stop!” The warning rang out. “Get off the fence!”

Well, that wasn’t going to happen.

Climbing furiously, we formed a line abreast: first me, then Mike, with Don beyond to his right. We were close enough to offer each other assistance, if necessary. Unfortunately, the razor-wire on the second fence was strung on the inside lip. Leveraging each other up would take too long, so we did the best we could individually. The stainless-steel mesh gloves allowed me to grab the wire fully, around the barbs, and pull myself up, but it was slow work.

As if I needed more motivation, the command, “Get off the fence!” kept ringing into the night.

Then the shooting started.

We were all dark silhouettes beneath the pale glow of the perimeter lights. Even through our masks, heavy breathing formed whip-like clouds. The coughing, rapidly firing AR-15 was a distant echo and, in the still night, it sounded like popcorn in a microwave. 

Pop. Pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop.

I tried to ignore it. Keep climbing, I told myself. The top is right there! But then, to my left, I saw a flash. Peripheral awareness. It had been entirely too close. And I was too intensely focused to feel pain. I did, however, register the sensation of falling – being weightless, for a brief moment, until I slammed into the ground on my left side. I felt a tooth chip, but I was quickly back on my feet.

So was Don.

Mike was in agony, though. “Ahh, it hurts. Damn.” He was shot in the left thigh. No doubt the bullet had hit the bone. Mike wasn’t going anywhere.

“Where are your gloves?” I asked, while starting toward him. Mine had torn free when I fell. 

“Stuck in the first fence,” he hissed out, grimacing as he motioned in that direction. 

“Damn.” What a waste. With a shake of my head, I put on my reinforced leather gloves and returned to the fence with a stoic expression. Don climbed at my side. Near the top again, we were working to help each other over when a car came flying around the corner and skidded to a halt. 

The road was less than ten meters from the fence line, so the occupants quickly arrived and drew down on us. 

“Get down. Off the fence. Now. Or you’re dead!” 

And to think, the Senior Warden had always seemed like such a tolerant guy. I guess climbing the fences crossed a line...

Don and I got down.

“Now, lay on the ground. Move!”

And we did; just not as the Senior Warden directed. While he ranted and raved, I went to check on Mike. He was still in agony, holding his leg. Blood was saturating his pants where the bullet had entered. 

From a pocket, I pulled out a spare sock and then, under the baleful ravings of the pistol-wielding Senior Warden, commenced tying the sock around Mike’s upper thigh.

“I need to pull it tight. This’ll hurt. Hang on.” I made it quick. 

Mike groaned, but didn’t say anything just then. Soon I was laying beside him, though. Once there, he whispered, “It was nice knowin’ you, man.”

Yeah. There’s that, at least.

As I helped Mike, Don went to check on the other guys. The handler had got shot in the collarbone area – literally shot off the first fence. Seeing that, Alex had climbed down on his own and quit while he was ahead. Don instructed Alex on how to apply pressure to the wounded area...

Mike had taken a bullet in the thigh; Mr Handler had nearly been shot in the neck; and Don had suffered a graze.

Which left me… did I get shot?

At the end there, when I knew there was no way out, I had the time to remove my shank and throw it far away. Some sensitive items I destroyed, by swallowing them. The remaining paperwork was unimportant. Useful as a plant, though. Every critical thing had been memorized; I set myself to quickly start forgetting.

Laying on the ground beside Mike, I could feel when the adrenaline faded and the pain rushed in. The cold was soon to follow. My knee started to throb in a way that made me feel as if I had a second heartbeat. The pain was amazing, brutal, alive. So real, it nearly consumed my ability to reason.

“If any of them move,” the Senior Warden instructed his response team, “get out of the way and I’ll shoot them.”

Pure bluster. He knew we weren’t going anywhere. The blood had to be visible but, I guess, he had to save face somehow. A lieutenant helped me up, and that was about it. My left leg was worthless – it couldn’t support my weight.  To stabilize me, the lieutenant grabbed my right arm to reposition it; but he paused with a curious expression when his finger sank into the bullet hole.

“Ahh, I guess they got you,” he remarked.

In more ways than one.

Maybe I laughed then, or shed tears? I was in and out of lucidness, fighting the pain.

Supported by two officers, I slowly hopped along, passing Mike who was on the ground near the back gate of the unit. Another pair of guards were pulling at Mike’s clothing. They’d taken the sock-tourniquet off. A large pool of blood was spreading. 

“Oww,” Mike called out weakly, as they worked to pull off his pants (evidently, Mike told them about the knife), “that’s a lot of blood.”

I felt a horrible sorrow to see him suffer like that. Mike had faults, but he was a kind man. Stalwart and strong. Great at wrestling; though he had accidently hurt my knee once – and it is amazingly sad to ponder how that initial, partially torn ACL evolved into what we endured on that winter night…  

Even assisted, the walk to medical was a horrible burden. Definitely a humbling experience because I was helpless. Soon enough, I was laid out on a stretcher, yet still so cold. The chill had seeped into my bones. We were inside, finally, but the idea of warmth was a distant fantasy.

I don’t know how long I was there. My vision would fade… then return. At times someone would come to check on me. Eventually it began to hurt to breathe.

Then I went into shock. Heaving. Shaking uncontrollably. The next thing I knew was the sensation of shaking and bouncing as a vehicle accelerated. When I could see again, a female EMT was moving around, grabbing things. Catching herself as the ambulance shifted and turned. My eyes clouded until I felt a new weight – the woman straddling me… applying bandages…?

I will never know because the darkness came to claim me.

Hospitals. I have a long, love-hate history with them! The hospital in Livingston, Texas, added to that dark legacy. Especially when I was finally deposited in a bed, in a room, with an older doctor casually, and not gently, inspecting my wounds.

What did he find? Luckily, I didn’t have a “hot stomach” – that is, bleeding in the stomach – which is why they had rushed me to the hospital. Puncture wounds were in both hands, though. A ragged gash was on my chin (thanks razor-wire), and another existed on the front side of my right leg near the ankle. It looked like my skin unzipped itself. Finally, the Doc found a through-and-through (an entrance and exit) bullet hole in my right bicep.

Of course my knee subdued me, to a point. It really overrode my ability to feel pain anywhere else, so I barely blinked when the oh-so-friendly doctor stapled my chin closed. Then my leg. After applying salve to my arm, he left. Obviously to check on the others. 

In the interim, a sergeant from TDCJ came in and wanted to talk. He was an Army veteran. His goal was to build a rapport, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk. Sometimes I nodded; sometimes I shrugged. When he left, I tried to take a nap.

Maybe I did, but I “felt” the doctor return. 

Admittedly, I paid more attention to him. “You are cleared to go,” he said, a bit waspishly, “but I’m going to check you out one more time.” Which is how he finally found the second bullet hole… in my left knee.

“I’ll be damned!” the doctor oozed displeasure. He wanted to get rid of me; instead he had to coordinate with an ambulance to take me to Galveston.

The bullet is still in my left knee, like a grave marker. Death chased us that night; we were lucky. The bullet is also a grave reminder. Participating in the escape was a horrible mistake; I suffered a harsh lesson. Internal and external scars remain as mementos of that dark time.

Fears remain, as well.

I still struggle, at times, to reconcile the weight of my father brutally beating my mother, and the childhood abuse, and all of the moving that made it nearly impossible to make friends. I’ve managed to begin the quest to unravel the Gordian Knots binding me, mentally, but I recognize this will be a lifelong journey.

At least I now understand that it is possible to find grace and strength in pain. That has helped me to look outside myself to build and repair relationships that are vital. Forgiveness is powerful, but not easy.

Back in 2010, I didn’t think there was a way out. My life was a broken shell of burned bridges and self-destructive behavior. My mother even wrote to ask: “Do you have a death wish?” 

I didn’t, but there is a fine line between that and “Do you want to live?”

Another lady who is near and dear to me commented, “I see your IQ dipped for a time.” Maybe so.

None of that made me feel any better. It was about as enjoyable as travelling to Galveston, Texas, in an ambulance, then being rushed through a minor procedure. Prior to the planned operation, I asked one of the doctors if my ACL was damaged. He told me he would check when I was sedated because the leg would be fully relaxed.

It only seemed as if five minutes had passed by the time I woke up. They scoped the knee and cleaned out the excess debris inside but left the bullet alone. The doctor told me, “Yeah, your ACL is probably damaged.”

More like torn to shreds; ripped apart so thoroughly that an orthopaedic surgeon would eventually have to cut my knee open and insert a dead person’s ligament… 

But that’s a story for another day.

First, I had to go back to Polunsky Unit, where they housed me in a Death Row section for several days. I would have to endure their investigation and answer questions. Was it all a test?

All I know is that Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld – the fate spinners – got the last laugh. Fate is inexorable. Evidently, so is Murphy’s stupid Law.

Terry Daniel McDonald 01497519 (pictured with his father)
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Walk the Dog

By Chris Dankovich

When the prison in which I've grown up partnered with a local animal shelter and a service-canine organization to start a dog rehabilitation and training program, it had been nearly 4000 days since I had last seen a dog in person, had one sniff my hand, lick my face... since I’d run my hand through fur. The only animals I had seen had been on television, or the few that wandered outside the triple razor-wire fences abutting woods and a swamp: or the few that had found their way through a drainage pipe to wander the prison yard. Deer and turkeys pranced around outside the sunset-side of the yard in the evenings; and robins, bluejays, finches, hawks and even a few bald-eagles flew around, nesting on the sunrise side. A couple of groundhogs made the empty space around the drainage culvert inside the fence their "chow hall,“ along with the occasional raccoon and an albino skunk. But nothing with the familiarity that dogs offer: that comfort that makes you desire to go meet them.

I had a dog while growing up, a gorgeous long-haired dachshund. I trained her, and other dogs, and never met one (at least after a proper introduction) that I didn't feel comfortable around. I wasn't Caesar Milan, but I loved animals and they always seemed drawn to me as if I were a snack. I had never met a dog I didn't like, or that I couldn't get along with.

Fast forward eleven years. Rumors that the dog program was coming to the prison had been going on for months, if not a year or more. No one really thought it would actually happen. I advocated for it when I could. When it started to seem like a real possibility, I told everyone inside to write letters (kites) to the administration in support. I told everyone about how much I was looking forward to having them here. 

Before they brought the dogs in, they initiated a screening process. I was one of the first people asked if I wanted a dog. I already had the best job in the prison - teaching in the Food Technology class -- essentially a culinary arts class where I get to eat real food for two meals -- and we aren't allowed under any circumstances to have more than one job.

"I really would like one, C/O. It's a difficult decision though. It's the only other job here I‘d want, but I just can't quit the one I have."

I really wanted a dog though. I craved affection, which otherwise doesn't exist inside prison, where I've been since I was 15 years old.

Then they brought the dogs in, a week or so before my 26th birthday. The first time anyone (other than the selected dog-trainer inmates) saw the hounds was at night, through the windows in the front of our unit, when the dogs were taken out to use the bathroom. A group of my friends and I huddled around the window, the officer allowing it since here was something worthy of attention. 

They came out, one-by-one, these pure-bred Labradors and Golden Retrievers with tails wagging, these beautiful, Kennel Club worthy canine specimens, and they looked,unfamiliar... strange. I pressed my face against the window and rubbed my eyes, but these animals, so like my former pet, appeared to me as... creatures. They seemed more wild, less real, than even the deer or eagles.

"Dank, you wanna come meet my dog?" Asked Rodriguez the next day on the yard.

Approaching me from behind on the track, he stopped, telling his dog to sit. I looked at Niko, a Golden Retriever that belongs in a Disney movie, and I felt what I hadn't in a long time: hesitation. I thought that having spent half my life around people, both good and evil, I had destroyed any anxiety inside me. But when Niko approached and tried to lick my hand, my instinct was to pull my hand away from his touch. Niko, stopped by the leash, just stood there with his mouth open, panting, wagging his tail while my subconscious paralyzed.

I wasn't worried the dog was going to bite me. Niko, smiling the way a dog can, whose hair color was the same as my first crush, made me nervous for reasons I wasn't sure of at first. Was there something wrong with me? Was I scared that somehow I might accidentally hurt him? Touch him wrong? If he got closer, would he not like me? Grown men, dangerous men -- human monsters -- didn't scare me, no matter their size. What was it about this little dog that backed my hand away?

“Just let him lick your hand. He likes being petted behind the ear..."

It had been so long since I’d had any affectionate contact, real contact, or since I had given any to another living thing. What I felt was the unknown... not knowing how to deal with the emotions I felt welling up. I wasn’t frightened, scared of the affection. The terror I felt was from acknowledging an absence I'd pretended every day to ignore, to harden myself against. Institutionalization isn't the result of the constraints the state puts on us. It's from the barriers we build up in ourselves, protecting ourselves, pretending that nothing else really matters. And this beautiful, friendly dog was shattering that to pieces.

But I was not going to be beaten. I was not going to give up. I am a person. I am human. And I have the strength to face, not only the dog, but also my fractured past. I gathered up a smile and reached my hand forward. 

Niko almost devoured my hand, not with teeth but with licks. I ran my hand down his silky coat, and he twisted around and leaned his whole body against my legs, his wagging tail whacking the back of my knees. In an instant my anxiety fell, and I leaned down to give the dog a hug. Covering my face with kisses, he laid down on my shoes as I scratched behind his ear. My hands ruffled his fur, and for a moment, I felt free.

A year later, out of thirty or so dogs at any given time, I can name 25 of them. While still not a trainer myself due to my other job, I have worked with multiple trainers and help train and teach these young dogs new tricks. I watch as a friend of mine, a 36 year old juvenile lifer with a history of violence in and out of prison, transforms into someone completely different around these dogs, being given the most abused, difficult-to-train dogs to rehabilitate because no one else can work with them. And the dogs listen. And when I listen to the dogs, I smile more than I ever have in prison.

{Note from the Author: I was diagnosed upon coming to prison with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I‘ve suffered on and off from it for many, many years now. Spending time with the dogs in the dog program here is the only sure way that I have in prison to not remember it at all.}

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer MI 48446

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Out on the Tracks

By Michael Moore

I squinted into the light of the train as it came at me full speed. The ground vibrated under my eleven-year-old ass, and my heart sped up with anticipation. WHAH! WHAH! The street was about fifty feet away, and there was a loud "ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding" where the gates came down to keep cars from driving over the tracks. Even if there had been cars stopped, nobody would have seen me. It was pitch dark out and the part of the tracks I was sitting on disappeared into a patch of woods. After the train drove over me, it would cross Hoag Road and then a bridge that went over the Skagit River.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching it turn to fog. It lit up wonderfully by the light on the front of the train. I liked trains. WHAH! WHAH! I mean, it wasn't an obsession or anything. I didn't have a mini set running around my floor, or locomotive wallpaper. But still, I thought they were pretty cool. When I was a kid, I used to love it when one of my parents would get caught at an intersection waiting for one to pass. I would sit in the backseat and count the boxcars. Sometimes they seemed to go on forever. I wasn't a kid anymore though. I was eleven. Now, I couldn't even count that many years on my fingers, which was okay, because I had stopped using my fingers to count in the third grade.

On both sides of me, metal rails went on forever. The noise seemed to be coming out of them. From my bedroom, it always sounded meek: tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-a. But up close, it was a humbling, thunderous roar. Steven Miller had said not to touch them, telling me they had some sort of electricity running through them. "It's okay to touch 'em when there's no train," he’d said. To demonstrate this point, he had leaned down and placed the palm of his meaty hand flat on the track. "But be careful when there's a train comin’, Danny. They'll zap the livin’ shit out of ya". That had been two days before. Frankly, I hadn't believed there was electricity running through the tracks. Why would there be? But my neighbor was a year and a half older than me and had more experience with this sort of thing. He said he had laid between the tracks before and let the train pass over him, said it was the best feeling he ever had. That, I did believe. I had heard of other kids doing it. Never seen one, even though we had lived in The Meadows as long as I could remember, and I had spent most of my days playing around the tracks. The closest anybody ever got when I was around was the bottom of the hill that they ran along. A dozen feet at least. I had been told that if you're not careful, being that close, the train would spit rocks at you. "Seen that too", Steven Miller had said, "Kid used to live right here in The Meadows. Lost his whole eye". The train was a big part of story telling in my neighborhood. Some kids claimed to have jumped on and rode it for miles. Others said they caused derailments by leaving loose spikes on the tracks. (All a long, long time ago, of course.)

Mostly, I just left pennies and came back later to find them flattened like pancakes. But I wanted a story, which was why I snuck out that night. Why my bedroom window stood open on the other side of the fence, as I sat in my plaid red pajamas on the damp wooden beams, staring into the light of an oncoming train. My body trembled as cold, humid air brushed against the exposed skin of my face. My only regret as it approached, was that I hadn't brought anybody to witness what I was about to do. But it was well past midnight and nobody would be out this late. Even I shouldn't have be, really. My dad would have welted my backside if he knew. The thunder radiating from the tracks grew louder and the earth began to shake more violently. The train was getting close. I needed to lay down. WHAH! WHAH! My heart beat like a snare drum, and there where pinpricks all over my body as I reclined and looked up into the foggy sky. There were no stars visible, but the moon peeked curiously around a thin grey cloud at me, my only witness. Every muscle in my body tensed. I clenched my jaw so tight that I thought I chipped a tooth in the back of my mouth.

WHAAAAAAH!!!!! I closed my eyes and held my breath, my hands balled into fists. This was it. Only then did it occur to me that this might really be IT. What if the stories were all balogna? What if I died? But how? The wheels were far enough apart that I could have fit three of me between them. And I had seen parked trains. They were high. I could have crawled on my hands and knees and they still would have been able to pass over me. But what if there were pieces that hung down? Chains? The thought of getting whacked in the gonads with a dangling metal chain didn't sit well with me. Nor the idea of anything dragging across my face. Suddenly, being under the train didn't seem like such a hot idea. And it was close. How close? The air around me grew somehow colder. I needed to move. I opened my eyes, ready to jump, to roll, to get off the tracks as fast as I could. But, instead, I froze up. Every hair on my body seemed to stiffen and reach for the sky. Until then, I had never seen death, or experienced the dirty tingling sensation of its reality as it stares down at you. I could die content if I never know that feeling again. I opened my eyes and looked into the caved-in face of a dark-haired boy, who appeared to be about my age. I could only see one eye. The other disappeared where half of his skull had collapsed. His jaw hung down so far, he could have fit both fists in his mouth. His head rested on one shoulder, as if it had somehow popped off of his neck bone. Blood decorated his white t-shirt in horrible streaks and splotches. With his one eye, he looked down into mine and blinked. I screamed. I sat up abruptly and my head hit his, causing it to fall from his shoulder and dangle from the skin of his neck. The train was right behind him. I didn't have time to get up and I knew it. I screamed again, and was somehow able to take note over the thunderous noise that I sounded like a girl. I didn't care though. Funny what does and doesn't matter when you know you're about to die. The boy grabbed me by my shoulders and shoved me back to the ground, pinning me against the wooden beams. My head collided with a sharp rock, and the pain that shot through my body told me that this wasn't a nightmare. WHAAAAAAH!!!!! Then the music of hell erupted around me as the train passed over. I closed my eyes as tight as I could, but tears somehow managed to seep through the slits. I'm sure the ground was shaking more violently then ever under my back, but I didn't notice. Fear filled every cell of my body, causing it to vibrate like a jackhammer. I reopened my eyes and he was still there. Somehow his head was back resting on his shoulder, and he was laying on top of me, holding me down. He wasn't strong, I was paralyzed. Something about his touch seemed to drain the life out of me. Though I didn't try, I knew I wouldn't have been able to turn my head and look away from his hideous face. The worst part though, was the way he stared at me, with his head tilted and that lonely eye trained on me like a hunter's scope. He was emotionless. Cold. His jaw, which I now saw was completely detached from his skull, hung from his cheeks, stretching them and resting on my lips. The train was a blur as it passed above him. Even though the light mounted on the front of the locomotive had long passed, and the night was darker underneath. Still, somehow, I saw every horrible detail. All that came out of my mouth was a shaky, "Nnnaaaggghhh!!!” I felt a warm spot spread over my crotch, it contrasted with the cold of the night, telling me that I had pissed myself. What could I do? There wasn't a doubt in my mind what the boy was. I closed my eyes again and thought about what came next. I would die like he had. He probably died the same way, laying under the train. He probably had a neighbor like Steven Miller, with some bologna story about laying on the tracks, who talked him into it. I didn't want to die. At that moment, that's all I really knew. I opened my eyes and looked into the one eye of the ghost. I begged him to read my mind.

Please, I thought. I don't wanna die. Protect me, please. He just continued to stare back at me. That moment seemed to go on forever, and as I looked up into his dead stare, I thought about everything that mattered to me. For the first time in my eleven years, I understood that life is a privilege, not a right. Somewhere in the wreckage of what was once the face of a young boy like me, the cold gaze began to make sense. It wasn't cold at all. It was just broken. For the longest second of my life, I felt what he felt. My fear didn't disappear, but it was gone nonetheless, changed into sorrow. It was bigger and more horrible than the tons of steel passing over me. Not because the boy was dead, but because he was lost and always would be. Then the cloudy sky appeared behind him, and the noise faded out. I looked up and saw the back of the train disappear over the bridge, then back at the dead boy. My tears had stopped flowing at some point, I was still shaking though. "Thanks". I didn't think about it, it just spilled out of me. He didn't answer, he just stood up and began to walk away. I saw then that his back was broken like his neck, and the top half leaned over to the side. He walked with a terrible limp. I think I expected him to disappear, but that's not what happened. He kept walking along the tracks until he was so far away that I couldn't see him anymore through the fog. Suddenly, I knew that he hadn't died laying under the train. He had been hit, walking on the tracks. I went home that night and crawled back in through my window without anybody ever knowing I was gone. I decided not to tell my story to Steven Miller, or any of the other neighborhood kids.

I'm now in my thirties, and telling this story for the first time. I never saw the boy again. However, every time I see some train tracks, I look for him, but I imagine he's far away by now. Still, I never forget to whisper a "thank you" in the direction that he was walking.

Michael Moore

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Hero of the Quotidan

Admin Note: Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.  His sister Lisa, the keeper of his writings and his memory, shared this previously unpublished story with Minutes Before Six and it is our great honor to share it with you

By William Van Poyck

It was in the golden, grasshopper-drenched spring of my eighth year that I first purposed to become a police officer, when I watched the grim-faced deputies arrest and carry away Phillip Jurnigan, the hatchet-faced man who had murdered my best friend, Calvin. Later, in the waning days of that endless Florida summer, dangling my tadpole legs from the hard oak bench in a hushed rural courtroom, I raptly listened to the solemn oratory of the prosecutor’s opening statement, gripped my father’s hand tightly and quietly resolved to instead become an attorney. But it was seven days later, as I observed the precise, skillful and devastating cross-examination of the witnesses, and the steady, inexorable presentation of irrefutable forensic evidence by Horace Addison, the veteran white-haired attorney for the accused, that I first considered becoming a criminal defense attorney.

By the time the jury returned its verdict of not guilty, it seemed a mere technicality, and it was with profoundly mixed emotions that I watched Jurnigan, one arm draped across the shoulder of his lawyer, walk down the coquina stone steps a free man. Most everyone’s attention was drawn to the austere visage of Jurnigan, searching his implacable countenance for some sign, yet I could not tear my eyes from Horace Addison, solid as a cannonball, smiling broadly, stopping occasionally to shake a proffered hand, stepping with authority, exuding confidence. He had known from the beginning, I remember thinking, that he would win. He just knew. I longed for that type of certainty.

Even now, when I close my eyes I can vividly recall the heavy scent of orange blossoms hanging in the humid evening air, the familiar ratcheting burr of the cicadas homesteading in the towering Australian pines bracketing the courthouse, the dusty yellow, curly-tailed dog skulking around the edges of the crowd. And, when I squint hard I can clearly see the sweat-streaked face of Calvin’s father, pushing through the crowd, silently mouthing words. I see the big pistol rise up and over the heads of the bystanders, the shooting flames, the deafening roar, the cherry bomb smell of burnt cordite. And, finally, the tumbling body of Phillip Jurnigan, followed by that of Horace Addison, parting the screaming crowd like startled pigeons, coming to rest in a heap on the hot macadam street. Mostly I recall the thick, white, lion mane of Horace Addison, matted a cruel red, and his parted mouth, pearl-white teeth streaked crimson, silently opening and closing until it finally stopped moving at all. And, though I was just a little skipper at the time, barely big enough to pull the slack out of my drawers, my mind was fully formed on the subject from that point on.

That’s how it was in my eighth year, after my mother had disappeared but before the tuberculosis took my father, before the state took me and running away became more than just a metaphor. All I ever wanted to do was be a lawyer, the hero of the day, a daily hero, and save the innocents. It was my sole grounding dream. It was a good dream. And, even when later that same year fate’s indifferent razor gutted my life and ripped everything else away, it was my dream still.

To this day, in my mind’s eye, that trial performance by Horace Addison remains the finest demonstration of a criminal defense attorney’s skill and dedication that I have ever witnessed, and given another time or place it would have been the stuff of legend, grist for the Hollywood mill. But, it was a backward, hardscrabble, pine tree county, unafraid of death, populated by alligators and armadillos, and its import has long since faded away, leaving only the faintest tracings in the minds of those who toiled in life’s margins. Many years later, not long out of law school and not fully trusting my memory, I had the trial transcripts transcribed, poring over them to reassure myself that my inspiration was grounded in fact. My searching fingers traced across the flimsy onionskin as the scenes once again played themselves out. It was all there, just as I had recalled, even better, since I was able to better appreciate all of the subtle legal nuances.

As it was, Jurnigan had lived and Addison died. Calvin’s father ended up at the state penitentiary in Raiford, chipping away at a forty-year sentence. The next year they caught the man who had sodomized and murdered Calvin, after he killed two other boys in a more or less identical fashion. Following his confession he was tried, convicted and sent up to Raiford, where in due time, he was executed. Some years later, so I heard, Calvin’s father braided a rope from his blue denim work pants, slung it over a beam in the prison chapel, and hung himself. But, that’s another story.
You’ve folded back your memory like a soft, familiar blanket and it lies at your feet, a faithful, curly-tailed, dusty yellow dog, ignorant of the sins of its master. You lean into the long wind, searching, searching, your eyes scanning with a fierce vigilance that energizes the spirit. Where you once dared to believe that life was good, you now search intently, far beyond the temporal sky where Orion commands the Southern Firmament, forever locked in battle with his eternal enemy, Taurus. You listen intently for the terrible song, even as your soul recoils at the prospect of a life’s balance spent accommodating an impulsive moment in time, of a Mephistophelian bargain you never knew you struck.

There it is, a corrupt blight on the cerulean horizon. Your spirit contracts as it approaches, this inky cloud, swinging, turning, flying toward you like some youthful fantasy, sweeping and rolling across the swaying expanse of emerald sawgrass, toward you, raining down the detritus of a life shattered on the rocks of unrealized potential. The voracious dystopian shadow passes through its valley, howling its dreadful song, searching relentlessly, for you, approaching inexorably, suffocating in its awful certitude, and you turn your face against it. Your search for life’s unrehearsed moments has ended and you reflect in the final moments on what you might have done differently, for grace always seemed to be just one revelation away. You struggle, resist, but your feet appear locked in destiny’s embrace, and now the shadow has your scent, that of total despair, so you just lean into the long wind, feeling for the comfort of the blanket at your feet, until you realize it is no longer there. The shadow embraces you, silencing all light, and you finally accept the way it is.

She lived on a mountain framed-plateau, close enough to the Pacific to feel the kiss of its breezes, yet far enough removed to partake of the unique temperate microclimate. The capacious adobe house was typically Mexican with its high, wooden-beamed ceilings and cool Spanish tile floors. A high, white wall surrounded the house like a modest skirt, punctuated by cactus, banana trees and splashes of colorful bougainvillea. In the center of the interior courtyard a cool, blue-tiled fountain gurgled amid the scent of lemon trees hugging the air. Outside of the walls jasmine, sandalwood and blooming jacarandas vied with heavily scented frangipani trees and orange hibiscus for the attention of fat black and yellow bumblebees. The house stood as though posed by an artist, the distant sparkling ocean waves glittering like a million shards of glass, set on a timeless, mysterious landscape teetering between arid and tropical. A sprawling house, a little old, a little tired, but as it should be. At least that is how I remember it.

Some twenty miles to the east, across a wide, spectacular valley inhabited by chattering monkeys and gangs of colorful parrots, loomed the cloud-shrouded hulk of Kukulcan, a not-so-dormant volcano both feared and worshiped by local Indians. Or so I had heard.

I remained hidden in the jungle at the clearing’s edge until day turned to night and the cool mountain air drifted down to chill my sweat-stained shirt. Then, I crossed the back field, scaled the outer wall, slipped through a colonnaded archway and noiselessly entered the darkened courtyard. I carried no weapon.

Directly ahead was a set of large French doors, framed in dark wood, open to the gentle breeze rustling the palm fronds. Through the doors I saw a motionless figure on a couch facing me, wearing dark wraparound sunglasses. Straining with concentration I took in every feature offered through the shadows. It was her. The neatly coiffed hair was even blonder than I remembered it, not a strand out of place. My breath caught and my heart began pounding. Pushing myself deeper into the vegetation I struggled to regain my composure and steel myself for my purpose. The begging question again raised its head: What in the hell am I doing here? Self analysis was my foe, though exactly why, I could not say. So I leaned on the question with both hands, as a man leans on a chest during CPR, pushing it back into its box before it could fully form. And when, in turn, I questioned that response, I leaned on that, and so on, like a never-ending hall of mirrors, until what remained was pure base instinct. Just as rapid word association strips away the facade of pretense and convention leaving only the true essence of personality to reveal itself, so my actions were the distilled essence of who I was. This is who I am. This is what I am. I yam what I yam!

The tired looking woman on the couch stared ahead, a sphinx in Ray-Bans. I clenched my teeth, reminding myself why I was there, then stepped through the open doorway into a large room, facing her squarely. She made no movement, neither surprise nor recognition, and for a fleeting moment I feared that I was too late, that she was already dead. The shiny glasses made me think of a mounted insect, and then I recalled that she suffered from macular degeneration. Perhaps she was blind by now.

“Shostakovich,” she finally said, as if resuming a conversation only briefly interrupted. The voice I remembered as smooth, like polished gemstones, was now unnaturally husky. My heart began racing again and I considered whether she was speaking one of the countless foreign languages she had mastered. My attention was drawn to several large, colorful abstract paintings mounted over the long couch. I recognized her distinctive painting style.

“Dmitri Shostakovich,” she continued, waving her hand towards the sound system from which the strains of a string quartet wafted. “The composer. He was a true prodigy. So gifted. If you listen closely you will hear how he makes use of the musical equivalent of a monogram: D, E-flat, C, B. It is so beautiful.” She spoke without moving her head and it was impossible to see her eyes. “But, he was shattered by Stalin’s secret police. Silly politics.”

Even in my anger some part of me admired her coolness. Coming from someone else, her comments might have sounded pretentious, but the fact is, she was the most cultured and knowledgeable person I have ever personally known. She spoke with authority on any conceivable subject, from science, mathematics, geometry or history, to literature, art and music. Color, music, numbers and geometry, she often lectured me, were the fundamental language of the cosmos, transcending our limited three-dimensional plane. As a younger man I was often forced to surreptitiously consult dictionary or encyclopedia following a conversation. But, she never spoke in a showy, didactic manner; rather, she simply expected others to be on a par with her. In truth, she was a soul caught between the depth and complexity of her own thinking and the intellectual inadequacy of her audience.

“Nine years,” I finally croaked. Despite the countless rehearsals of this very scene, that was all I could come up with. I felt vaguely foolish. She had a way of doing that to everyone. It was her art.

“So, did you come to kill me, darling?” Her voice sounded like dry cellophane.

“That’s all you can say after nine years?” I struggled to regain my lost script.

“Is that all you can say?”

“You destroyed me. You took away my dream, ruined my life, everything I worked for.”

“Everything we worked for.”

“You betrayed me.” I willed the rage to come forward, to well up and overcome reason. It was always so easy when I practiced, and I wondered why it was now so hard to hate. It should be easier, considering.

“Yes, I did.”

There it was. The admission momentarily stymied me. I expected excuses, evasions, justifications, cajoling, even begging. An oppressive silence filled the room. A macaw’s distant screech gnawed at my consciousness, followed quickly by the unmistakable guttural roar of a hunting jaguar.

“I tried to help. I left you a quarter of a million in cash, darling. Remember? You turned it over to the police. How foolish.”

“It was stolen money! If I had used that money it would have been a tacit admission of complicity.”

“So, then, you did consider keeping it?”

“No,” I protested, wondering why I was on the defensive. “I am not a thief. I did not invest all those years at law school just to throw it all away over stolen money. It was stolen. It’s a matter of principle.” I heard my voice trailing away.

“Always thinking like a lawyer, darling.” Despite the dark glasses I imagined I could see those piercing green eyes, the ones she used to probe my soul like a surgeon’s lance.

“And, after they forfeited your house, your cars, your boat and your bank account, I hired the finest criminal defense team in the nation. I paid them anonymously, in advance, cash. And you refused to accept them. You ended up with a federal public defender. A martyr complex did not become you.”

“You just don’t get it, do you? I am not a thief. Your stolen money did not interest me. You think that if you steal millions of dollars, it makes it special? Like it isn’t theft? You bankrupted companies in six states. You left hundreds of people penniless, robbed of their life savings, their dreams, their…”

“How melodramatic. You sound like that prosecutor in his closing argument at your trial. The sermonizing does not become you, either.”

In the sudden silence I heard her labored, wheezing breath, as if tutoring me was hard work. The faint, mellifluous ballet of the string quartet made me feel as though I were playing a part in a movie, with Shostakovich trying to reveal God through the notes of a violin.

“I’m not here to reason with you,” I said, drawing myself up and locking eyes.

“So, why are you here? To kill me, or for the money? Or both?” The cellophane voice crackled and she cocked her head in that way she had of drawing you into her presence.

“The hell with that money.” I spat the words out like red-hot rivets. “This is not about money. Do you have any idea what nine years in prison is like? Nine years! Can you even fathom a life totally reduced to the mere hope of survival? Do you know what happens to lawyers in prison? Nine years for something I did not do? Nine long years of scornful laughter at my claims of innocence? Betrayed by someone I loved and trusted with my life? Can you even conceive of it?”

My rage left me breathless. I once was very good at thinking and speaking on my feet; I earned my living doing it. But now I fumbled for just the right words, the ones that would reveal the scars on my soul. I felt out of place, as if in a dream. I once read a book where a character felt just as I did at that moment, though I could not recall how the book ended.

“Have you considered that I found you, picked you up out of a Key West gutter, a lost, frightened, little runaway boy? I took you in, molded and shaped you. You owe me everything that you are and all that you will become. Have you considered it?” She spoke dispassionately, belying the emotions of her words, as if once again instructing me. Then she stood up, visibly trembling, the hem of her gown shaking.

To my left I saw a blur of movement. A short, thick-limbed Indian had quietly entered the room as if bidden by some telepathic command. I recognized Squanto, her ageless, faithful Mayan servant of many years, first in Guatemala, later in the Caribbean and now apparently here. He silently accepted his inapposite nickname, loyal to a fault. His face was impassive but his liquid obsidian eyes were questioning. She turned to address Squanto and I saw the deep, wrinkled wattles garnishing her neck like folded parchment. When had she gotten so old? She instructed Squanto to return to his room and remain there. Having finally learned Spanish in prison, I understood most of what she said.

“I was an attorney,” I said vehemently when we were again alone. “An officer of the court. I took my responsibilities seriously. It meant something to me.”

“How noblesse oblige.”

“I was committed to working within the system,” I continued, wondering why my words suddenly sounded foolish to me, “and stolen money, or the fruits thereof, is not part of the system. It isn’t just all about money. It can’t be.”

“No? Why do you think it is called a system?”

“I thought you knew me better than that.”

“So did I.”

“I had dreams,” I countered. “Goals. A vision for my life. You took it all away. In one moment my entire future disappeared.” My voice cracked as my emotions escaped my grasp. “I signed all of those papers trusting you. I never knew. I never knew! I trusted you, dammit, and you betrayed me.”

“True betrayal can only occur in the presence of true love.”

“Love?” I sputtered. “It was you, not love, that betrayed me.”

“Your principles betrayed you,” she shrugged.

I stared at her, the hatred coming easily now, pushing away the mountain of exquisite shared memories, those beautiful times we shared an achingly special magic. The poet claims there exists a thin line between love and hate. Mine was flint hard. A sudden, uncontrollable surge of pure, raging hatred rose up like bile until a crimson mist curtained my tunnel vision. A thick, numbing detachment overcame me as I felt myself moving towards her, aware but powerless to stop, tightly gripped in the emotion of Cain. In my dreams, my fantasies, I invariably used my hands.

“I always believed your spirit would overcome even your deepest sorrows,” she said with infinite sadness, her warm breath caressing my face.

Those were her last words, though I did not recall them until later. She stood stoically, seemingly resigned, even as my hands wrapped around her neck, as if offering herself up in a sacrament of penance. With power that startled even me, I throttled her violently, squeezing ever tighter until her glasses flew off as an involuntary gurgle escaped in protest. She never resisted, yet still I squeezed, transmitting my fury like an electrical current, watching her bulging green eyes search for absolution. Finally, her body went slack while her eyes glazed over and rolled back, looking like small, white boiled potatoes. Even then my fingers closed their grip, digging ever deeper into the flesh, until, drained and exhausted, my burning forearms rebelled and her limp body fell to the sofa.

I stood mute, willing my heart to stop pounding, fighting to catch my breath. It was done. Now I had to think clearly. With extreme deliberateness I took long, deep breaths, forcing down the panic. Slowly, methodically, I inventoried my options. It was strange how, in my fantasies, I never thought past this moment, and now I possessed no real plan.

Picking up the sunglasses I placed them back on her face. Pinching her jaw until her mouth opened I stuffed her tongue back inside, wiping the saliva off on her gown. I arranged her body on the couch, laying her out and folding her hands neatly across her belly. For the first time I noticed that she wore a wig. Pulling it back I saw that she was bald. Staring down at the woman I had once loved beyond reason, I strove to decipher my feelings. I was a killer now and there was no turning back. There was also a witness. I knew what I had to do.

A distant troop of howler monkeys exploded in a riot of cacophonous alarm calls; something was hunting in the jungle.

Moving quietly through the darkened house I found the kitchen, then rummaged through the drawers until I found a large, cruel-bladed boning knife which I slid behind my belt, feeling the cold steel against the small of my back. For good measure, a six-inch steak knife went down my sock. I learned a lot about knives in prison, more than a man should have to know.

Passing back through the big room I carefully edged down a hallway, listening at each door. “Squanto,” I whispered hoarsely. “Squanto!”

The house appeared even larger inside than out, and I was soon lost in the labyrinth of rooms, stairs, alcoves and hallways. Suddenly Squanto materialized before me like a silent wraith, his dark, shiny eyes boring into mine. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as my gut tightened. Squanto remained motionless, enigmatic, and I suddenly remembered that it was I who had been calling him.

“She’s dead,” I offered suddenly, without thinking. Then I unnecessarily repeated myself in Spanish. There was no discernible reaction, only his black eyes glittering with question. Finally, he nodded deliberately. “Yes,” he responded, as if assuring himself of something he already knew. “She knew it would happen soon. She was expecting you. We hoped you would arrive sooner.”

I stood rooted in bafflement, as unsure of his meaning as of my next move. Cold, greasy sweat slid down my back along the knife’s edge. Turning slightly, I began easing my hand towards the knife handle.

“She wanted to speak with you before she died. That is all she spoke of,” I tried to ignore his words, concentrating on his shirt button where I would thrust the blade. My fingers touched the wooden handle. “But the cancer was bad. Muy malo.”

Cancer? Frozen with indecision, my body swayed, suddenly lightheaded from a rushing kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotions. “Cancer?” My voice stuttered, cracked.

“The many trips to the towns and villages weakened her greatly. But she loved the children, and seeing their faces kept her alive.” Squanto made the sign of the cross against his chest.

“How long? How long did she have cancer?” My mouth felt numb, my voice sounded strangely distant.

“Two years now,” he replied sadly. “The doctors did all they could, but there was no hope.” Squanto paused, hesitated. “We will call for the doctor in the morning.”

The doctor. My mind raced with the implications. I had to stall.

“What did you mean about her going to the towns and villages?” My empty hand dropped to my side.

“Come.” Squanto beckoned, then slipped past me. I followed silently as he led me up a wide stone staircase into a high ceilinged library with walls of built-in bookcases, where he pointed to a massive, ornately carved desk crafted of dark Honduran mahogany. Neat stacks of books were arranged on the top. “It is all in the green book.”

I slowly sank into an old leather chair, feeling the knife dig into my back. Eyeing the books, I noted some titles, recognizing Pater, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Swinburne and other Romantic poets. A large, well worn Bible lay to my right. Next to it lay The Phenomenon of Man, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosacrucian Symbolical Philosophy by Manly P. Hall. Alone in the center of the desk was a large, green leather bound ledger. When I opened it, the faintest essence of her perfume floated up like a faded promise.

Squanto was right, it was all in the book. Dating back over two years, page after page, column after column of figures and explanatory notes in her beautiful, florid script, showing how she had given away money. The amounts were staggering. To hospitals, schools, orphanages, every type of charity and philanthropic organization imaginable. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, American Cancer Society, on and on, millions and millions of dollars. Suddenly I felt very small.

“Every morning she picked a new village. Then, I would drive her there and watch her pass out American dollars to the poor. They loved her, especially the children. But it was very hard on her, very hard.”

“But, surely, with this kind of money…” I shook my head in disbelief. “With modern technology, medicine. . . .” My voice trailed off. “I just cannot believe that this cancer could not be treated, stopped.”

“Yes, at first she tried. The doctors were hopeful. But…” Squanto looked away. “After that, she saw doctors only for the pain. She was ready to die.” He hesitated, then added softly, “I think she was punishing herself. This was her way of…” He did not finish.

Squanto pointed, indicating a metal strongbox. Reaching up, I pulled it to me, noting its heft. Inside were a dozen thick bundles of American hundred dollar bills secured with rubber bands. Turning to face Squanto, I caught myself in mid-sentence. Over his shoulder I saw a large oil painting. It took me a long moment to recognize myself against a sparkling tropical sea, the sun high in an impossibly blue sky, smiling back from the canvas. My arm was around her waist. A floppy straw hat perched playfully on her head, failing to hide those green, green eyes, while she smiled at the huge amberjack hanging at her side. With vivid clarity I recalled the scene, at her languid, low-slung island home on Long Boat Cay, Bahamas, where we often retreated for fishing trips. The date on the painting was this year and the oils seemed barely dry.

“She loved you very much,” he said quietly, following my gaze. “She spoke every day of the time when you would return.”

Not for the first time I wondered just how much Squanto really knew.

“Her fear was that she might die before she could give it all away. The fear, I think, kept her alive. She said if she died you would know what to do.”

Turning back to the ledger book I calculated that she had eight different bank accounts, six mutual funds and three stock brokerage accounts in five countries under nine names. She had already given away over a hundred million dollars, as best as I could determine, and with almost two hundred million dollars left it was clear that she had invested well. Apparently she conducted all transactions by mail.

I don’t know how long I sat there, lost in thought, until the plan formed in my mind. It seemed fitting, on balance. Having already been charged, convicted and punished for stealing this money, it seemed only right that I could now dispose of it. At her insistence I once took calligraphy classes, part of her notion of what constituted a cultured individual. I became quite skillful with the pens. Picking up her silver Mont Blanc I began practicing, and within twenty minutes I mastered the different signatures.

Straightening up, I took a deep breath. “Squanto,” I said, pulling the knife from behind my back and laying it on the desk, “I have a plan.” He eyed the knife warily, grunting noncommittally. “We have a lot of work to do,” I continued, pulling the steak knife out of my sock and laying it down. “We are going to give it all away.”

For the first time the old Indian smiled, and I began writing the checks, backdating each one by several days, consulting with him occasionally. By the time I was done the sun was rising above the eastern mountains and dust motes danced in the golden beams of light. I was very tired.

“Where will you go now, Squanto?” I asked, closing the green book.

“Home to my village.”

“Guatemala?” I recalled that Squanto came from an ancient Maya village deep in the interior, a mysterious region called el despoblado, “the uninhabited land.”

“Yes. My village is called San Miguel. The true name, though, is Ixtamacojo. I have nobody else and no place else. I have served the senora many years. Now I am old and I will go home.”

“You should go now. There may be trouble later. I will take care of things here.”

“She must be buried.”

“I will do it. But you must leave now.” I handed the strong box to Squanto. “There is enough money in there to buy everyone in San Miguel a new house.”

“We are very poor. We need a hospital. Roads. Good water. And a school for the children.”

“Yes,” I agreed, handing him the largest check I ever wrote. “This is for you. From now on they can call you the mayor of San Miguel.” I smiled faintly.

“Yes,” he said as I stood up. “Yes, I would like that.” He returned my smile.

“We have done the right thing,” I said finally, searching his face.


“There is nothing else we could have done.”

“That is true,” he replied, not unreasonably. Then, taking my hand, he shook it firmly, said something in a language I did not know, and turned, leaving the room. Ten minutes later I heard the Jeep grinding its way down the rutted road.

Picking up the boning knife, I made my way downstairs until I stood before her lifeless body. In law school they teach you that even if the reasoning behind a judge’s legal decision is erroneous, the ruling can nevertheless be upheld on appeal if the ultimate outcome is correct. In the end, it is the result that counts.

I brought the knife blade up against my neck, feeling the sharp, cold steel caress that spot where my carotid artery pulsed. I reflected on the body lying before me, soon to be interred in the black volcanic soil outside, as dead as my childhood dreams of being the hero of the day. Had I ever truly known this woman at all? In the end she was an enigma, as perhaps was I. Perhaps in the end we all become what we resist. With that thought, and befriended by that peculiar euphoria which accompanies a supremely decisive act, I stretched out beside my mother in the dawn’s early light.

You choose to lie down, your heart burdened from the gravity of a lifetime weighed in the balance and found wanting, a life lived in places where others cannot go, less than the sum of its parts. You cast your eyes upon a landscape littered with the soft fruit of the mistakes you have earned. You reach back, far back, to a time when your life was stitched to the rising and falling fabric of a small boy’s world, of golden grasshoppers and dusty yellow dogs, of desperately wanting to be the daily hero, but try as you might, your reach exceeds your grasp. You wonder how and why it all went so wrong, and whether you at least get points for effort.

It occurs to you to pray, but the fear that you might receive justice rather than mercy stops your throat. So, weary from your struggle against a tide of regrets, knowing not what else to do, you lean into the long wind, searching, listening for its mocking song, until you finally sense the approach of that familiar dark shadow, its thundering hooves in tune with the beating of your own heart, its melancholy song echoing back to a time long ago. Squinting your eyes shut, you hunker down, struggling, resisting, according to your nature, until, finally, with a wretched gasp you hold up your frail human fallibility like Orion’s shield and choke out a prayer. And, in that singular moment out of time you again feel your father’s hand tightly gripping yours, and finally, in that moment, the shadow ceases to sing.

Bill Van Poyck and beautiful Lisa