Thursday, January 31, 2019

No Mercy For Dogs Chapter 24

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Chapter 23 click here

The month of June seemed determined to cook me in my own juices.  The relative mildness of May morphed suddenly, angrily, into the hottest weather I’d experienced in la Republica.  Hector, incapable of feeling pity for anyone not smart enough to find someone else to work for, drove us harder.  We finished the structural expansion of the furniture store during the first week of the month, and he divided the crew.  Most of the guys were tasked with finishing the ground floor level, everything from laying tile to painting the walls and running the electrical system and lighting.  He assigned me to Don Adrian, his master carpenter.  We spent a day taking careful measurements of the kitchen, where we were going to build and install shelves and cabinets.  We then moved into the living room and bedrooms, doing the same.

Hector respected Adrian, but he didn’t like him very much.  A man like him could never understand the carpenter’s silences, the way he let his craft speak for him.  I think Hector assigned me to him because he thought I would be miserable as his apprentice, only proving how little he understood other people.  Adrian’s workshop was situated in the back of the home he shared with his adult daughter.  It was a simple space, but it had the aura of a temple of sorts, a place where a great deal of attention was given to very small details.  I discovered that Adrian’s work with Hector was actually his side job, and that he made far more money fabricating furniture.  He showed me how none of his chairs, desks, or armoires used screws or nails.  I couldn’t imagine how this could be, so he brought out some samples and illustrated to me how he managed to create joins that were so perfectly aligned that they slid into each other like puzzle pieces.  After a little time had passed, moisture in the air would swell the wood, locking everything into place.

He also made clocks, though mostly for his own amusement.  When he showed me the one he was working on, it looked more like a piece of art than anything one would put on a shelf.  Instead of hiding all of the gears behind a shell, Adrian left the innards completely exposed.  There was very little metal involved: almost everything was made of wood, beautifully sculpted and detailed.  There was something eerily beautiful about them, and about the quiet genius of a man building such things at night, mere hours after having to toil for a man who’d never had a creative or beautiful thought in his life.  My respect for Adrian soared.

I’d never worked with wood before, but Adrian carefully introduced me to the world of lathes, planers, and adzes.  We did most of the work for the kitchen off-site, because Hector didn’t want sawdust getting into all of Jr’s stuff.  This was not an ideal situation, but Adrian never complained.  After our first day of working together, Adrian invited me to have dinner with him.  I accepted, and was introduced to his daughter, Maria.  I’d seen her around town, but I’d never had any cause to speak to her.  She was a secretary of some sort at the city’s administrative building.  I discovered rather quickly that she had clearly inherited her father’s quiet ways.  There was something sad about Maria.  Already well into her thirties, she had never married, and I doubted very much that any callers would be arriving soon.  After dinner Adrian led me through the house to the front door.  I promised to bring the beer the next day. 

I don’t know if it was the wood itself or if I was merely absorbing some of Don Adrian’s love for the medium, but I really fell into carpentry.  Hours would disappear in a fog as I churned out doors and shelves.  Every day around 3pm we’d hear Hector’s honk from out on the street, and we’d load everything up to be transported to the jobsite.  Such was the skill of the man that we never had to make more than the tiniest of adjustments once we set about installing everything.  After work I’d buy some beers and we’d sit on Adrian’s porch, unless he had an order to finish, in which case I’d help him with that.  I usually only had a single beer, which the Maestro didn’t seem to mind much, considering this meant that the rest were for him.  I never stayed for long, and we never said much.  It wasn’t that kind of relationship.  I once asked Maria how long he stayed out there, and she merely smiled and said “until the beer is gone.”

I noticed after about a week of working with the Maestro that the cold tension that had settled in my soul the last few months had begun to thaw.  My life was simple for all of a week or so.  I knew on some level that this was never going to last, so I felt a sort of grim satisfaction the evening I approached my taller on a bicycle and found the Hammer’s white Chevrolet truck parked out front.

True to my request, he’d kept his distance from me since my return to Cerralvo.  I’d seen him around town a few times, but he simply nodded or touched his finger to his hat.  I found him sitting on the bench I’d built in Adrian’s workshop on my third night working overtime.

“You could at least fake the smile to see me, cabron.”

“I was considering my options in case that thing collapses underneath you.  Do drug kingpins even bother with insurance?”  A little smile crept over his face.

“Should I be concerned?” he asked, looking down in fake alarm.

“It was my first attempt.  I should probably put a warning on it or something.”

He extended his hand out and ran it across the surface of the handrail.  “I may have you make me one.”

“You can have that one.  Gelo?”


“What do you want?”

That got a bigger smile.  “I need for you to see sometheeng.”

He drove me back to the ranchita, parking out front.  Something was wrong; my radar was pinging like mad, but I couldn’t tell what I was hitting.  I stayed behind him a few paces as he led me back to the barn, where he paused before opening the gate.  Inside was Chespy’s metallic grey Land Rover.  I scanned about rapidly for the man but saw nothing.

“I had to move eet from the front.  The keys were left in the cabeen, along weeth thees,” he said, handing a white envelope with my name printed on the face, and a key ring with a futuristic fob attached to it.  I cursed and took the things from him.  He left me there, warring with the urge to toss the keys down the well.  I finally ripped open the envelope and found what appeared to be a Santander credit card that I knew to be an RFID chip in disguise, a series of vehicle registration and insurance forms all listing the name on my Mexican ID package as the owner of the vehicle, and a handwritten note.  The light was fading, so I had to step out of the shadows of the barn to get a better view.  In a messy hand that I knew instantly had to be Chespy’s, I found a quote from what I later learned was Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: 

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgement I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

I flipped the page over, looking for some kind of personal message or explanation for the truck having been left there in the first place.  He had once promised to give the Rover to me, but I thought he was kidding.  I stalked over to one of the picnic tables and sat, staring at the note in frustration.  The cipher was not a complicated one to crack: he was telling me that he knew my soul better than I did, and that at some point I was going to come back to him.  Well, fuck all kinds of that mess, I thought angrily.  We may indeed all live in a deterministic universe, but he wasn’t the spider at the center of the causal web.  I went to close the barn and stopped.  I looked back towards the ranchita’s main buildings and saw the Hammer screwing around with one of his horses.  I turned back around and clicked the button on the fob to deactivate the alarm.  Climbing inside, I closed my eyes and thought back over the months to when Chespy had picked me up from the mountain hideout.  First, seat, I remembered.  Second, close the doors.  I sealed the cabin, then placed the key into the ignition.  I then found the defroster and activated it.  It took me a few minutes to remember the XM station for the radio, but I got there eventually.  With my left hand I pulled up on the toggles for the driver and passenger windows, while waving the fake credit card across the face of the radio.  I heard the click and reached out, lifting up the lid of the contraband well hidden in the dashboard.  Inside I found almost 30 thousand dollars in US currency and yet another pistol.  I sat back in the seat and mulled over what was very obviously a promise of more Chespy in my life.  I sighed and sealed the well, leaving the “gifts” inside.

I found the Hammer standing by the well.  One of his cats watched us from nearby.  He turned when he heard me approaching, but didn’t say anything.  The silence grew into a living thing between us.

“It’s bait,” I said, finally.

“The car?”

“And other things in the car.”

He nodded. “You see the hook?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Don’t be so sure.  Hees people, they have you fight the bait, then the hook come at you from behind.”

“Can I leave the bloody thing here for awhile?”

Por supuesto. As long as you like.”

“Thanks,” I called, starting to walk back to my place.

“Rudy,” I turned to look back at him, saw him staring down the well.  He started to say something else, then shook his head.  “Buenas noches,” he said quietly, then headed back towards the complex.  I walked home.

Adrian and I finished installing the cabinets in the kitchen that following week, and the painters took over.  Hector had decided on a horribly garish color scheme, all golden glazes and royal blue accents.  It was almost a travesty to have done this to the functional beauty of the Maestro’s work, but aside from a tiny grimace from Adrian, he said nothing.  I shrugged my shoulders and followed him into the den, where we were building an entertainment center.

Cynthia had been fairly cold to me since my return to Cerralvo.  I had for a  time been an object used by both daughter and parents to pretend that perhaps she could have a normal, acceptable life after all.  While I sympathized with her situation – growing up gay in a conservative town in Mexico was not an easy childhood – I was barely holding together all of my own lies and I simply couldn’t carry hers as well.  Raul tried to mend fences.  Cynthia wasn’t having any of it.  She starting “dating” a friend from Monterrey, a man called Rodrigo who seemed to encapsulate pretty much every negative trait possible in her parents’ worldview.  For starters, he was about as goth as it was possible to be: he owned a seemingly endless supply of black heavy metal band t-shirts, all of which seemed to feature a variety of skulls, monsters, demons, and wicked bishops; he had chains draped all over his body, for no apparent reason; he had so many facial piercings that it appeared that someone had booby-trapped his jewelry drawer/box/whatever with plastic explosives.  On top of all of that, he was abundantly, flamboyantly gay.  He was clearly calculated to enrage Don Hector, and in this he did not disappoint.  Rodrigo seemed to relish the role of pissing off Cynthia’s father.  I suppose I ought to give him points for that.  He had stones.  Probably pierced ones.  With chains attached.  Whatever. 

He was a hell of a musician, too.  The first time I met him he was playing some kind of long-necked mandolin looking thing he called a theorbo.  He was studying piano at a conservatory in Monterrey, but was also incredibly gifted at the guitar and cello.  I played with them once, but I couldn’t keep up.  That night, he was showing Cynthia how to get the Rolling Stones’ sound.  She’d never toyed with open five-string tuning before, and it wasn’t natural to her.  She wasn’t all that into theory, so “open G tuning” meant nothing to her.  I, on the other hand, was fascinated.  All of a sudden “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “Flash” sounded like they were supposed to.  Rodrigo could tell I liked it.

“Bo Diddley,” I said, smiling.  “Lo conoces?”

“Oh, si, si. Tambien Don Everly.  Sabes?”

I played around with putting a capo on the fifth and seventh frets, and we jammed for a few hours. I was clearly not worthy to hang with either of them, but Rodrigo was gracious. Cynthia remained cold, but I ignored her.  I set the guitar aside that evening with a strange mixture of satisfaction and regret.  I had already decided that I wasn’t going to play with them again, or play any of Cynthia’s games any longer.  Music is full of silences.  I added mine.

On the way downstairs I stopped by Raul’s room to say goodnight.  He was on the phone with his fiancée, but held his finger to tell me to wait.  I turned and faced the television.  The news was talking about yet another violent confrontation between narcos and the military, in some place called Piedras Negras.  Incidents with automatic weapons exchanges were growing frighteningly common, and would grow more so over the next few years.  This battle apparently featured explosives as well, but it was unclear whether these had been deployed by the cartel or the police.  Some Sheriff from a place called Eagle Pass, Texas was also interviewed, for some reason, but he had nothing intelligent to add.  I turned away, not understanding what I was looking at.  Raul hung up the phone and we talked for a while.  They had decided there was no reason to wait on the wedding, so they had scheduled it for the second week of July.  We were all pretending that this in no way implied that Elizabeta was pregnant, but I think we all knew.  It wasn’t going to be a fancy affair, just a brief (or so I was told) church ceremony followed by a party at the San Nicolas house.

The Hammer found me at work the next day.  I was unloading some of Don Adrian’s tools from Hector’s truck when I saw his Chevy pull up across the street.  I sighed and excused myself, walking across to him.  Instead of heading back to the ranch, he took me to the Plaza Grande.  I followed him into the restaurant of the largest hotel in town, where he took a table.

“Get one of the periodicos, mijo, one of the ones from Monterrey,” he said to me as he sat. I went into the lobby and bought a newspaper.  He unfolded this after I set it down on the table and took my seat.  I was tense and kept scanning the room, trying to notice what he wanted me to observe.  People avoided my stare, something that always seemed to happen when I was with Papa Ramos.  Gelo laid the paper out and pointed to an article on the front page.  I looked down, read the headline.

“I saw that on the news last night,” I said at last.

“For a man who just lose hees beeg problem, you no seem very happy.”

“What does that mess have to do with me?” I asked, then leaned over to start reading the story in full.  The Hammer said nothing to me, just let me read while he ordered a late breakfast.  I finished the article just as confused as when I had started it.

“So what, Gelo?  The cops caught up with some nut, he guns a bunch of them down and then blows himself up.  I’ve seen this movie before.”

“You don’t know the name of thees person?”

I looked at the newspaper again, found the name, and tried to recall ever having heard it before.  “I don’t know this fool from Adam.”

The Hammer nodded, clearly enjoying this.  “Ah, ah, yes you do, senor!  He has more name than even you.  You know heem as Chespy.”

His words arrived like a physical blow.  I exhaled and sat back in my chair, wrestling to master myself.  Gelo grinned at me. “Eet was only a matter of time, Rudy.  He toy with la Santisima too much.” I said nothing as he ate his eggs, and then let him take me back to work.  I felt numb all day.  I excused myself when Adrian asked me to eat with him and rode back to the ranch.  I opened the barn and felt along the top of the back tire on the driver’s side for the keys.  I sat down in the driver’s seat, retrieved the note he had left me from the center console, and leaned the seat back.

Did Chespy know he was going to his death?  The whole time I was reading the article, it felt like a sort of trap, the way the gunman had selected a room with a balcony that looked down on the street, the fact that he’d obviously brought enough explosives with him to send pieces of the roof flying over the neighborhoods for hundreds of feet.  I’d never seen Chespy tote about bags full of plastic explosives before, though I suppose he wouldn’t have told me if he had.  I suddenly felt an overpowering need to search the vehicle I was sitting in thoroughly, which I did.  Half an hour later I was left staring at his note.  When I had first read it, I had assumed he was saying that I was the leaf, he the wind.  If he knew he was on a suicide mission, then perhaps he was saying that he was the leaf, the wind forces beyond our comprehension.  If so, the car was…what?  A gift?  A warning?  Something to use to get the hell out of dodge?  Was his interest in me purely professional, as I had always guessed, or was he saying that there was some part of him that actually liked me?  I thought of the barrels of pozole being wheeled out of the alley and jerked away from the Rover.  I left his note on the seat, activated the alarm, and rode back to the taller.  I felt like there were worms crawling around in my stomach, inching their way up my spine and into my brain.  I buried myself under my blanket and tried to find oblivion.

I ghostwalked through the world during the weeks preceding Raul’s wedding.  Whatever mental salve Adrian’s craft had previously offered me disappeared.  I think he knew it too, because his smiles began to be inflected with touches of concern.  I tried to find the calm I’d located in the mountains, but those moments were ephemeral, numbness blending rarely into the freedom from the self and all of its strange gravity that I had achieved mere months before.

The supposedly short wedding mentioned by Raul turned out to be a more than three hour affair.  Elizabeta’s dress didn’t show any signs of her pregnancy, but you could tell by the relief on the faces of the bride’s parents that they felt they had dodged a bullet.  The pair left that night for a honeymoon in San Luis Potosi.  I never saw either of them again.

Something was coming.  I felt it.  This isn’t memory playing an elaborate trick on me, not some sort of revisionist history informed by later knowledge.  For several days before Raton showed up at the taller looking like he’d seen a ghost, I’d been looking over my shoulder or glancing up at the sky, wondering why it felt like a storm was coming.  I knew it by his eyes, the way Edgar looked like he’d been let off the hook only to be lodged on an even bigger one.  He tried to smile, but I knew that something was ending.

“Papa wants you.”

“Of course he does,” I sighed, and started walking towards his truck.  “What’s happened?”

“Blackie killed all the chickens.”

I stopped.  “Edgar, who the fuck cares about a dozen hens?  What’s this got to do with me?”

He shook his head.  “Not the hens.  Well, them too, but that’s not…it’s the gallos, even the prize one, the one he bets with.”

I sighed again and got into the truck.  I never understood the appeal of rooster fighting, but it was almost a religious pursuit amongst the narcos.  “Why’d he do that?  Blackie, I mean.”

Pues, quien sabe?  He went crazy, killed all of them in the night.  It’s not good.  Gelo se puso furioso.” 

When we pulled up to the front of the ranch we found the Hammer pacing back and forth near the gate.  He had a pistol shoved into his waistband.  Raton dropped me off and then left, and I silently cursed his cowardice even while I envied him for his good sense.  Lacking other options, I entered the gate and walked towards Gelo.

He wasted no time, yanking the pistol from his pants and handing it to me by the barrel.  “Shoot that maldito perro.

I looked down at my hand, surprised to find a gun there.  “Uh...hello to you as well.  Why am I shooting your dog?”

“Thees stupeed crazy mongrel, he keel twenty thousand doolar in cheeken!”

I gaped.  “Those…birds…are worth 20k?”

“Si, si, the rey, he is worth thees,  in thees year alone.  The rest are no important.”

“You owned a chicken worth a car.”

“I tell you thees already, yes.”

“I feel like I ought to shoot you for paying that much for a bird.”

That, as it turns out, was pretty much the worst possible thing to say at this particular juncture.  The ice in his eyes could have solved global warming.  “Okay, okay,” I said, taking a small step back.  “Where is…Blackie?”

He pointed angrily to the right, into the scrubland that stretched out for miles to the east of the ranch.  “He ees tied to a mesquite about 200 yard.  You weel see.  Go do thees for me. I can no shoot thees stupeed perro.  A man should no keel hees own dog, even when the stupeed hijo de su puta madre keel the king of rooster.”

I’d never seen Gelo like this, but Blackie clearly wasn’t the only sentient being in the neighborhood that wasn’t thinking clearly.  I started walking in the direction the Hammer pointed, twice pausing to make sure he was still standing back by the gate.  He’d called me to do this thing, I reflected.  Not one of his goons, not his own son.  Despite everything, he needed me.  That was worth something.  It meant something.  Still…I wasn’t going to shoot Blackie, was I?  The wacky buffoon had hovered about my life in this crazy town for more than a year, had stood watch over me that night when I had passed out in the desert.  Did I have a choice?  What would Gelo do to me if I refused?  I suddenly began to appreciate the numbness of the previous weeks.

I found him after a few minutes of searching. He was lying completely still on the ground. His tail spasmed twice when he saw me, but he didn’t even lift his head off the ground.  I could see that his pitch black fur was wet with blood; the Hammer must have thrashed the hell out of him before dragging him out here.  He knew he had messed up, and stared at me mournfully, begging for absolution.  I looked up at the sky for a long moment, reflecting on the choices I’d made in my life, how they all seemed weirdly to have funnelled me to this one moment.  Everything, I knew, depended on this.  Everything.  As usual, the skies were silent, and I found no answer there.

“Sorry, Blackie,” I said, looking down finally.  I raised the pistol, took aim, and then fired two shots.

I stood over him for a long moment, letting the echoes fly towards the mountains in the distance.  Then I turned and walked away.

I found the Hammer still by the gate.  I handed the pistol back to him.

“Thank you, Rudy.  A man no should-“

“Gelo, I don’t really want to talk to you right now, okay?  I’m going to go and get a shovel and bury your fucking dog.  I’d appreciate it if you found somewhere else to be for a while.”

He didn’t argue with me, even though it was a little absurd, me evicting him from his own ranch.  I stalked back to the main buildings and paused to watch his truck disappear in the distance.  I counted to one hundred, then sprinted to the barn.  I flung the door open, got into the Rover, and backed it out.  I stopped by the cabins.  Entering the main one, I removed the extra comforter from the chest at the foot of the bed, tossed it into the passenger seat.  I closed the gate to the ranch behind me, drove to the east fifty yards.  I popped open the back seat, grabbed the comforter, and started running.

Blackie was still laying where I had left him, beaten and terrified by the sound of the shots. I reached down to lightly pat his thick skull, and he tentatively licked my hand a few times. I moved to the mesquite, and started to untie his leash from the trunk.  The holes where the bullets had entered the thick bark were barely visible.  It took me a few minutes to get Blackie wrapped up in the comforter, but eventually I was able to heft his immense bulk up and carry him back to the SUV.  Under normal conditions, that dog loved a car ride to a degree that is impossible to describe.  You could barely keep him in the car, the way he bounced around.  I had no idea how badly he was hurt, but given that he simply closed his eyes after I laid him in the backseat, I figured he was in a lot of pain.

I pulled in to the front of the taller, cut the engine off.  It only took me a moment to load all of my clothes into my pack, which I tossed into the back of the Rover along with my satchel.  I then grabbed a shovel from Emilio’s workbench and dug up the coffee canisters where I’d buried my money,  I climbed to the rafters, where I’d hidden the pair of pistols Chespy had given me in Monterrey, and returned to the car, unlocking the contraband trap.  I hid the pistols inside, removed a thousand dollars of my money before dumping the rest inside, then removed a clean stack of five thousand from Chespy’s hoard, betting that the serial numbers on his cash were cleaner than my own.  I then searched through Emilio’s desk until I found a pen and paper, plus some brown paper sacks and a cotton rag.  I wrote two notes, one to Emilio, the other to Adrian.  In the first, I thanked him for renting me the office, and said that the enclosed money was for back rent.  I asked him to please give the second package to Don Adrian, the carpenter, and that Emilio was now the owner of all of the furniture I had left behind.  I wrapped the five thousand in this, then sealed the bundle up in brown paper and twine.  I finished by writing his name on the top.  In the second, I wrapped my Rolex up in the rag.  I wrote a note thanking the Master for taking me on as an apprentice, and then explained the kinetic movement and how to wind the watch manually. I wrapped all of this up in brown paper and wrote his name on the exterior.  I left both packages sitting on top of his workbench, in a place that would be impossible to miss.  If, on some strange event, Emilio ever reads these paragraphs, he’ll get the joke hidden in the previous sentence.

On the way out the door I froze, then returned to the car, removed the cell phone that I’d bought in Monterrey and seldom used, and brought it back into the taller.  Searching through Emilio’s toolbox I found a hammer.  I placed the phone on the cement floor and then bashed it to pieces.  Out of the rubble I removed the SIM chip, which I broke into pieces.  The debris went into the trash can, and I locked the door behind me.

Chespy’s truck parted for me the security cordons of the Mexican military just as it had for him, the survival instincts of the soldiers trumping their professionalism.  I stopped twice on the road to Monterrey to check on Blackie, who seemed to be recovering slightly.  He walked around outside of a cemetery for a few minutes, before urinating.  He then laid back down, obviously spent.  I loaded him back into the SUV and continued driving.  I’d never actually driven a car in Monterrey before.  From the back seat of a cab, the suicidal tendencies of the average driver were merely terrifying.  From the driver’s seat of an 80 thousand dollar luxury SUV that might or might not belong to a massive and ruthless narcotics cartel, they are infuriating.  My knuckles remained tightly gripped to the wheel the entire way downtown, which was the part of the city I was most familiar with.  I stopped in front of a luxury hotel, told the valet I would be right back, and then found the concierge.  He was talking on the phone when I walked up to his desk.

“Telephone directory,” I demanded.  He looked up from his phone in surprise, and then held up a finger, motioning for me to wait.  I took a deep breath, looking up at the large lobby.  I then jammed my finger down on the phone, disconnecting his call.  “Telephone directory. Now.”  His mouth hung open but he quickly reached into a drawer of his desk and plopped down a thick book.  I took this and left.  I heard him call out to me once but no one tried to stop me.  Still in the line of vehicles either picking up or dropping off guests, I searched for a veterinarian.  I finally found one on a street I knew, only a few blocks from the Macroplaza. The tires squelched once as I took off.  It really was a beautifully well-made car.

The vet’s office was in an upscale mixed-residential district, not so different from the one in which I had lived while working for el Lobo.  The gods must love dogs, because I was able to find a parking space only a few doors down from the entrance.  Blackie’s tail flopped around a little more this time when I woke him up. He licked my hand a few more times as I gathered him up and closed the door behind me with my hip.  A woman in her forties looked up from the reception area when I came through the door, and then immediately came around to meet me, the concern obvious on her face.  She assessed the situation at once, gave me an evil glare, then told me to follow her.  She led me to a clean room in the back that contained an immense stainless steel table.  Motioning to the table, she darted back out of the room.

I set Blackie down and then unwrapped the comforter.  The blood on his fur looked to be completely dry by this point, but he was still obviously not right.  The normal Blackie would have already stuck his nose into pretty much every drawer in the room by this point, but he just lay there, not even mildly curious.  If I didn’t know any better, I would have said he was…depressed.  He closed his eyes as I rubbed his head lightly.  I didn’t think I had any heart left to break, but I was wrong.

The assistant/receptionist was back a few seconds later, following the veterinarian.  He too gave me a critical stare and then started inspecting Blackie.  Even though the answer was abundantly self-evident, after a moment he looked up at me and ask: “What happened here?”

“He was beaten.”

“Yes, I see that.  Did you do this?  What did you use?”

I stared at him hard, touching the zero, channelling Chespy, el Martillo, el Cachas, every last blood-soaked one of them.  The doctor shut his mouth and took a step back.  I closed my eyes.  Everything depends on this, I repeated.  I opened my eyes, tried to soften them.  “The only crime I’ve ever committed in regards to this dog is the fact that I stole him from his rightful owner this morning.”

“Very well,” he answered at last, and began working on Blackie.  I didn’t understand all of the medical Spanish he utilized in his inspection, but I got the gist of it.  They were going to clean him up, give him some X-rays, make sure that none of his organs were ruptured. They wanted to observe him overnight, and unless they discovered a major problem, I could pick him up the next morning any time after 10 o’clock.

“You…do not intend to return him to…the man that did this?” the nurse asked me as I settled the bill.

“He won’t ever see that man again,” I promised.  Neither will I.

I returned to the Rover and sat behind the wheel, deep in thought.  I had already known what I was going to do, in those first few seconds of my freedom, as I watched the Hammer’s truck drive away from the ranch.  Now I plotted the details. Two stops, I decided. I could do all of it in just two stops.  I flipped through the directory again, first for the addresses of the city’s Home Depot stores.  I compared these to the many listings for Walmarts and found a conjunction.  Thirty seconds later I was off.

A diesel generator.  A twelve-piece Black and Decker electric hand tool kit that weighed as much as I did and came in three large boxes.  Every tool I could think of, and then some that the staff suggested.  Nails; screws; electrical equipment; LED light bulbs; a cool looking first aid kit; a hand-cranked flashlight; a lighter that the makers claimed would work under water, though why anyone would ever need to do this was beyond me; leatherwork tools; a Gerber multi-tool; a titanium folding shovel that I kind of wanted for myself, though I wasn’t even completely sure why; a heavy duty extension cord; tools for laying brick or block; and dozens of other useful and useless items that escape memory now.  I can only imagine what the staff thought of me, the crazy American who was willing to drop a little over 15k on random hardware in a single visit.  Four hours later, several employees helped me wheel everything out to the truck.  I spent twenty minutes wedging everything into the tightest possible configuration in the cargo space.  Satisfied, I tipped the staff with 50 dollars each. It’s a kind of magic trick, I decided.  Dirty money to clean in the span of a human heartbeat.

The parking lot for the Walmart adjoined that of the Home Depot, so it only took me a few minutes to find a parking spot immediately in front of a bank of security cameras.  I then spent the next three hours buying everything I could think of to supply a home: pots, pans, sheets, utensils, plates; the biggest, baddest stereo system in the building; a decent 20-something inch television, plus the most advanced multi-band antenna set in stock; five thick fleece blankets; a sturdy steel mirror; a set of wicked looking kitchen knives; a gigantic container of Motrin; an elaborate sewing kit; a mammoth bag of dog food.  I had to guess the sizes of the jackets and clothing items, but I think I mostly got it right.  I spent at least 45 minutes in the section of the store picking out school supplies, everything from paper and pens to a calculator.  I probably forgot some items that would be obvious to someone else, I know.  But it really was a mountain of stuff.  Once you have filled up four carts and are looking for a fifth, you start to feel like everyone in the place is judging you as some sort of spoiled rich asshole, even if it is someone else’s money you are spending.

Somehow I managed to squeeze everything into the cargo hold and the back seat.  The rear view mirror was now worthless.  All told, I’d spent just under $20,000 in less than seven hours.

Sleeping somewhere was going to be an issue.  There was no way I was going to park a luxury SUV filled to the roof with gear in the parking lot of the dive hotels I usually stayed in. After spending such an obscene amount of money, all of my genes for cheapness suddenly kicked into high gear.  I seriously thought about sleeping in the truck with one of Chespy’s pistols in my lap, but I ended up back in the Macroplaza district, moving from hotel to hotel until I found one that had a reasonably secure parking garage.  The lobby was full of white people, and I found myself watching them as if they were foreigners.  Which they were, of course, but foreign from me in a way that I wouldn’t have expected.  The obese gringo in front of me in line couldn’t seem to stop wheezing like a bullet-riddled accordion.  He seemed calculated to annoy me.  He was wearing a strange purple shirt that looked like it had been fashioned out of an old parachute.  I tried to ignore him, but he kept moving about and invading my sightlines, apparently in a great rush to get to his room.  He kept fanning himself, even though the hotel’s AC was currently attempting to freeze the blood in my veins.  This is how they see us all, I thought.  No wonder they hate us.  At one point he turned, caught my eye, and leaned back, making a mildly derogatory comment about the female clerk having obviously missed her siesta.  “Maybe so, but at least she doesn’t look like an enormous fucking macaw.”  He suddenly found more interesting things to look at in front of him.

The room was pleasingly boring and very clean.  The smell of chemicals draped in a lavender overcoat greeted me at the door.  I plopped my pack down on the bed and stared out the window for a few minutes, watching the sky fade from lilac to indigo.  Later I took a shower, found some grapefruit juice in the fridge that Chespy paid four dollars for, and pushed a chair in front of the window.  I turned the light off and watched the avenues pulse with traffic.  Some hours later I found my way to bed.

The Rover was unmolested the next morning when I checked out of the hotel.  I went to the vet’s office early.  I wanted to be there first in order to see them coming.  I spent at least twenty minutes reviewing the maps I had bought, and wrote out some notes on the route I wanted to take.  The 10 o’clock hour eventually came and went, and no teams of SWAT-esque troopers swarmed the place, so I let myself in.  The same nurse/assistant greeted me, this time with a marginally less frosty demeanor.  Not surprisingly, they had found a way to tack on some extra charges, which I paid.  I placed fifty dollars in the donation box for the local equivalent of the pound, which seemed to warm her up a few degrees.

They brought the chicken-slayer out from the back a few minutes later, along with the comforter, which someone had washed.  Blackie seemed to have recovered somewhat, though he still wasn’t his usual, energetic self.  He was happy to see me, though, and I dropped down on my haunches to say hello.  The combination of my action and Blackie’s response seemed to conclude things on a happy note for the nurse, who finally gave me a smile that contained some actual warmth. The veterinarian gave me a quick run down of Blackie’s injuries: myriad contusions, inflicted with a whip-like object – most likely a belt, I thought, though I didn’t inform the doctor of this suspicion – no internal injuries of note, and one cracked tooth, though this last could have happened at any point over the past week, he thought.  I took all of this in, watched Blackie for a moment, and decided his subdued posture probably really had more to do with fear than anything else.  I knew how to fix that.

Before I loaded him into the passenger seat of the Rover, I laid the comforter down on the seat.  He hopped in without trouble, giving the console a good sniffing.  He perked up some more once we got moving, his head stuck completely out the window, which I had to raise a bit in order to keep him from what seemed to be serious consideration on his part of perhaps diving out at some point.  He settled down when we reached the highway, ultimately deciding he preferred the floorboard in front of his seat.  He curled up and seemed to fall asleep almost instantly.

The last time I’d made the drive in this direction, I’d been concussed.  When I’d last seen it in reverse, Mexico was still gripped in winter’s fist.  What had been grey and dim was now green and full of life.  It wasn’t a complicated route – not until the end, at least – and I enjoyed it.  The journey felt like a sort of last crusade.  On some level I realized that I was intentionally not thinking about what would happen after this evening, but this seemed okay to me, the way this was meant to be.  I pulled off the highway into some back roads a few times for Blackie to wander around and stretch his legs.  On one of these stops, he took off after something brown and swift in the underbrush, and this made me feel better.  The restaurant options weren’t great, but fortunately for me Blackie was not exactly gastropedantically inclined and pretty much inhaled everything I set down in front of him.  After destroying his third order of plain beef tacos, he climbed back into the passenger seat, laid his head on the center console, and let me scratch behind his ears until he fell asleep.

The afternoon was beginning to wane by the time we reached the point on the map where the directions got a little fuzzy.  I had paid attention when Chespy exited the dirt road that led to the mountain hideout, but everything looked different now, all of these months later.  I didn’t start to doubt myself until the sun started to descend far enough that I had to use the visor.  I was seriously considering turning around at some point and backtracking when I saw them: a henge of several rows of jet-black solar panels, all angled upwards toward the sky, tracking the sun.  I’d seen those before, I knew; I had even joked with Juan el Chivero about him having stolen some of the panels on his roof from the drug dealer that owned this very array.  I sighed in relief, knowing the cut-off towards Juan’s place was less than ten miles down the road.

It’s strange the way thoughts connect, the speed of the associations that the brain jams together.  Something about the thought of el Chivero scurrying about in the dark with solar panels draped over his back morphed into the realization – somehow overlooked until now – that I was bringing to Juan quite a few new electronic gadgets, and the panels he was currently utilizing were probably not going to provide enough juice to run everything.  Just like that, I knew exactly what I was going to do, and how I was going to do it.

“Blackie,” I said as I turned the truck around.  He opened his eyes at the sound of his name, and then yawned.  “You up for some mischief?  Yeah?  Thought so.”

It wasn’t exactly a tactical strike.  There were a thousand ways it could have gone wrong.  It took me a minute to find the wire clippers amongst the pile of tools loaded into the SUV, and another to locate the wrench set.  Blackie just assumed I knew what I was about as I cut through the barbed wire fence.  I needed almost a full half-hour to disconnect the four panels and lug them back to the Rover.  It took me another fifteen minutes to unload the fleece blankets and webbing and lash the panels to the roof.  God knows how many cars passed by during this process.  I remember at least five or six, but it could have been many more. Fortunately, nobody was dumb enough to say anything to me.

I drove slowly down the dirt road leading to Juan’s place.  I paused for a moment at the turn-off to the hideout, then continued on.  Evening was settling in by the time I pulled up to Juan’s gate.  The Rover’s ice-white headlights had clicked on automatically some time before, and they ignited little stars in the distance, where the goats were peering out at me from their pens.  I honked the horn twice, and waited.  Long minutes passed.  I knew they were watching me from the house, trying to figure out who in the world was at their gate.  Finally, the door opened and Juan stepped outside.  He appeared slightly hunched over as he neared the gate, his hand held over his eyes, attempting to get a view of who was in the car.  I stepped out and met him at the gate.

“Did you find the bottle I left you?  And the note?”

His face broke into a wide grin when he recognized my voice.  “Oh, Conrad, it is you!  Mi mujer, she give me such a yelling the day I find the mezcal, I tell you even the chickens hide for two days.  Not even the food I take from your house is enough para cerrar su pinche boca.”

I laughed and shook his hand through the gate.  “Open this up.  Maybe we can figure out a way to make her happy tonight.”

“Que tenga suerte Ud con eso,” he murmured, setting about the task.  “If nuestra Senor come back tonight, she find a way to criticize him for taking 2000 years.”

I pulled up to the house, and then backed up to the porch.  Juan caught up with me and gave me a confused look as I opened the passenger door and let Blackie out.  The beast bounded around with close to his old amphetaminic comportment for a few minutes, giving everything a close inspection.  I saw several of Juan’s dogs whimper and flee behind the house.  “Who is this?” Juan asked grinning.

“A friend of mine that needs a new home.  You know of someone that might have need of an extra guard dog?”

“I think I might, si,” he answered, approaching Blackie.  I let them get introduced, and returned to the SUV, opening the cargo bay door.  I had unloaded several boxes before Juan noticed.

Y todo eso?

“This all belongs to Blackie.  He said you could use some of it if you like.”  It took Juan a few seconds longer than I would have liked to get the joke, but eventually he grinned and helped me unload the truck.  His girls came out eventually, proceeding shyly at first, but they enlivened when it became clear that quite a lot of the loot was for them.  Juan seemed both grateful and confused, an emotional mixture I remembered from my youth, when my parents took gifts to the children of some of the family business’s employees.  The connection flowed through me like a cold wave, and I turned my back on them, busying myself with the panels on the roof.

The Senora even put in an appearance at one point.  I watched her through the window of the SUV as she noted the contents of the haul.  For a brief second she looked actually pleased, happy even.  Then her eyes snapped back towards me and her affect went flat.  I knew what she thought I represented, and, I supposed, she wasn’t all that far off.  Once Juan and I had the panels off and I had explained to him where I’d gotten them from, I stepped back to the driver’s seat.  I watched as the family carried items inside, and then opened the contraband well.  I removed the last unbroken stack of $5000 from Chespy’s haul, and the three pistols.

“Juan, can I speak with you?” I asked, exiting the cab.  He came around the side of the truck and stopped in his tracks when he saw the weapons.  “Do you want these?  I have no use for them.”

His mouth opened and closed, and then his eyes darted back to his front door.

“I remember you telling me once about having to kill the wild dog. I thought these might help.  If nothing else, they’re bound to be worth quite a lot of money.”

Juan approached me slowly, looking me in the eyes.  “You say you do not need them any longer?”

I merely nodded in response.

“Then I say to you that your place has a well.  These things belong to the devil.  You should send them back to him.”

“Okay,” I said, setting the three down on the seat.  “What about this?” I asked, taking out the cash and flipping the bundle to him.  “I’m told that money belongs to the darkness, too.”

He thumbed through the stack, before looking back up to me “You know…eh…el diablo. He probably get a bad rap sometimes, sabes?”  This cracked me up, and I clapped him on the shoulder.  I made sure everything was out of the truck, and then closed the back gate. Juan’s wife had retired inside with two of the daughters, and I could hear them speaking in muffled tones.  The third daughter, the young one with the huge eyes, had Blackie on the ground by the porch and was rubbing his stomach.  Juan was busy looking through the box of tools, little exclamations of contentment as he figured out what each was for.  It was good.  It was enough.  “Bye Blackie,” I whispered, then climbed back into the Rover.  I didn’t look back as I drove off and through the gate.  

The Hammer’s cabin in the mountains looked diminished in the darkness.  I turned off the car and sat for a time, letting my eyes adjust.  Then I bundled the pistols together and stepped outside.  The stars were a gaudy splash of diamonds overhead as I wandered over to the well.  I sat on the edge, looking up.  Between my position and the Milky Way jutted the pipe that I once used to take some incredibly invigorating showers.  I smiled at the memory, then looked down at the weapons in my lap.  They, too, carried memories.  I closed my eyes and let them wash over me, submerge me, grind down upon me until I knew I was too far down to ever reach the surface again before I drowned.  Then I opened my eyes, held the pistols over the edge, and let them go.  Everything depended upon that, I knew.  Then I got back in the Rover, fired up the engine, and started the long drive back to Monterrey.

Less than two weeks after my sudden departure, a joint taskforce of AFI and the military descended upon Cerralvo, acting on information provided by the FBI.  The real Rudy Ramos, disappointed by his inability to milk any more money out of me, and envious over the relationship I had developed with his father, contacted the police in an attempt to obtain the Crime Stoppers reward offered for my capture.  Several of the Hammer’s thugs were arrested on weapons charges, though these were eventually paid off.  Dozens of people were interviewed, and my identity was confirmed.  An immense manhunt was initiated, though the government managed to keep this out of the press.  I knew nothing about this at the time.  In the AFI report generated after this raid, the word “disappeared” appears no less than six times.

To read Chapter 25 click here

Thomas Whitaker 02179411
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Roots Between Stones, Part. 2: Cracking the Convict Code

By Steve Bartholomew
(To read part one, click here)

The Convict Commandments:
1) Thou shalt not rat
2) Thou shalt not have on your jacket sex offenses nor violence toward children
3) Thou shalt not break your word (to your fellow prisoner)
4) Thou shalt not steal (from your fellow prisoner)
5) Thou shalt mind your own damn business
6) Thou shalt not seek protection from staff for any reason whatsoever
7) Thou shalt not shirk a debt, nor forgive your debtor
8) Thou shalt not tolerate disrespect or aggression, nor back down from a fight
9) Thou shalt neither sympathize nor fraternize with The Enemy, your keeper
10) Thou shalt forsake whosoever breaks these commandments

I began my first prison sentence 24 years ago, a short stint for drug-related nitwittery.  I learned a fair amount during that year, but not how to stay out. Since then I have spent less than four years in the free world, a tally I own with no small amount of regret.  I returned for a fourth time in January of 2003. As a historical reference, two months later the U.S.  Invaded Iraq, looking for WMDs and Saddam.  I’ve never held a smart phone. To me, Facebook mght as well be outer spacebook and a “cellfie” stick is a paintbrush. What I know of your world is mediated through either a TV screen or whomever I’m asking whether the thing in question is still the way I remember it to be.  Too often it isn’t. Most of my interesting memories are attached to what no longer exists. But I know a thing or two about what it means to be a convict. 

A dying breed, the old school yard dog invokes in his pursuits the only gods he cares to acknowledge: hustle and muscle.  Inured to his adopted habitat, he remains outwardly unaffected by all but the passage of time. Indominable no matter the correctional tactics employed against him, he admires in others the potential for violence, and truly respects only the rare capacity for violence that exceeds his own. To him, inscrutability is a virtue, a mechanism crucial to his safekeeping of personal information, including his own mindstate. His expectations are drafted by decades of confiscation, occasional betrayal, and punishment.  He endures out of sheer spite for the very same ones who would piss on his gravestone.  Particularly ferocious when provoked in the modern convict you see the Will to Power locked in a death roll with a destructive principle, rendering him incorrigible even in the face of brutal consequence. A magnate of cellcraft, he is ingenious and resourceful, making him a genuine threat to the power structure. He is, in a word, unbendable.

The convicts I met all those years ago as a wide-eyed duck inspired me to minimize liabilities such as fear, attachment and compassion. I’ve adhered to much of the code since I was a street kid, intuitively for the most part. But even after having spent half my life in here, an inner quirk keeps me from defining myself as wholly convict.

A dozen years ago I set for myself the unattainable goal of living authentically, such as I can while being held captive in the kingdom of artificial imposition.  I say unattainable because authenticity is best defined by what we do when we are free to externalize our passions, to realize our possibilities. Aside from practical matters of what I’m willing to accept or how I might express myself, my outer life contains few choices.  I am left with only the free play of ideas, my commitment to the spirit of freedom entertained internally. I don’t want the truths I accept to be situational ones. In here, dogmatic norms masquerade as ethics to be held aloft like a guiding light. I refuse to believe that truth is a matter of consensus. 

Big Chuck became a free man this morning, after being told for 24 years that he would die in prison. (To understand why he was released from a life-without-parole sentence, please read “Roots Between Stones, Part  1.”) He had to spend the past six months at this camp, as a “transitional step.”  Although not as visibly shunned as he was in the Reformatory, he still felt for the most part socially repelled, not quite accepted.

Because everyone here has less than 4 years left to serve (the average is 18 months), most feel less invested in prison politics than they would in a real joint. Here, those of us who’ve done real time are in the minority, to be sure. And ironically, the short timers seemed to be the ones whispering things like “Captain Save-a-Pig” behind his back. In this facility I have the most seniority of any “solid” white prisoner, an unenviable distinction that affords me, if nothing else, a little deference. Prior to his transfer I’d gotten wind that Chuck was heading out here. I was able to present his side of the story to the fellas ahead of time, which I’d like to think helped to soften some hearts and minds towards him. 

Our former boss from the maintenance department in the Reformatory volunteered to pick Big Chuck up at 2 AM this morning and drive him to SeaTac Airport.  His flight departed at 6:02.  Destination: Florida, and the remainder of his newly restored life. 

Big Chuck’s actions—principled on a fundamentally human duty, the “categorical imperative” to save the life of a person in peril—have run afoul of the rule of law in this land.  Risking one’s own safety to stop a violent act is the sort of thing that earns one labels such as “hero” and “Samaritan” out there.  In here, his actions made him a pariah.  After giving much thought to the rift between the social norms of this forlorn backwater and those of the freeworld, I am faced with the conclusion that some members of my tribe may be incompatible with yours. 

Big Chuck’s story, moving though it may be, carries with it larger, darker implications. How vast must be the divergence between a natural social environment and one capable of recalibrating the moral compass to magnetic west. In the same way that Omerta (the Mafia’s infamous code of silence) evolved to preserve a power structure against an opposing force, the convict code emerged as a behavioral pattern conferring an adaptive advantage to a population under extreme selection pressure. A population trapped in an environment whose features include a bureaucratized rationale for psychological and physical violence, the negation of individuality, carefully codified oppression, and weaponized isolation, to name but a few. Here, punishment is the often the ends, not the means. 

At some point the corporate gaze affixed itself to prison as an untapped market, and human storage became commodified, monetized. The sheer profitability of the prison industry incentivized legislation calling for harsher sentences which would, of course, require expansion of the prison complex.  Claims used to justify the funding of ever more severe prisons and their extensive staffing had to be legitimized, giving rise to the modern correctional facility in all its soul-remaking glory.  In this parallel universe, betrayal is a form of currency and pathological bullies are rewarded, often with promotions. The convict is a byproduct of the collision between the pleasure principle and a reality stripped of pleasurable experiences.  We learn to minimize our pain at any cost. 

Evolutionary theory makes some interesting predictions about competitors and compromise—namely that arms races are expensive. Cheetahs gave up the ability to fight and climb trees in exchange for bursts of speed sufficient to run down gazelles at an acceptable rate of probability. Gazelles gave up the sturdiness of their slower cousins to be able to elude cheetahs often enough to survive as a species. And so, it goes. Granted, human nature isn’t exactly a logical construct with tidy lines of causation. It isn’t my job to prove these things away.  I can only attest to what I’ve observed as a rational person who pays attention. Convicts surrender certain hallmarks of humanity in favor of antibodies against a dehumanizing pathogen. 

Acknowledging that a systemic pattern of behavior provides an adaptive edge in a specific environment is not to say that that attribute is universally beneficial, in the sense of conferrting overall well-being. We watch drop-forged convicts release after serving sentences lengthy enough to “serve as a lesson,” or so we would imagine. And yet here they are, returning at a rate you may find alarming, and I find dismaying.  Legislators look to ever-increasing penalties for the answer, believing that a convict can be prosecuted into a citizen. Law enforcement sees in the sorrowful rate of recidivism their needed evidence for increased funding and further militarization. Both have succeeded only in filling new prisons as fast as they can be built. Correctional staff refer openly to recidivism as “job security,” a euphemism aptly summing up in two words the reason the American prison complex seems geared against reform. Modern prison is a wasteland of opportunity - - few restorative programs except those that are religion-based, no transferable jobskill training or opportunities for betterment—simply because prison is exactly as it is meant to be. Ignored in the recidivism conversation is the link between released convicts and a remodeled worldview at odds with that of society: a warped perspective owing its genesis to the very place where we are sent to be “reformed.” And reformed we are, indeed. 

This subculture goes to work on us immediately upon our arrival, fashioning a tolerably shaped being so that our social structure can preserve itself.  Where the dominant is suffering, we are socialized to think anti-socially, acculturated to be apathetic.  Resculpting one’s social conscience is critical to maintaining mental health: either you are affected by what you see, or you protect your inner life, your sanity.  You can’t do both. The atmosphere is always toxic, sometimes turbulent, and always pressurized. Were we to feel and react like you do, we wouldn’t outlast our bid. 

We are subjected to two extreme, and at times competing, forms of panopticism – that awareness of being constantly watched that leads one hostage to one’s own visibility.  For most of my sentence, cameras were a constant presence, day and night.  There was even one watching me through the bars of my cell, recording for posterity some the most boring footage ever purchased by your tax dollar. The likelihood of getting away with violence nowadays is almost nil. We are surveilled constantly and often sanctioned remotely for rule violations observed by a guard in a booth behind a wall of video screens. And we watch one another. Constantly scrutinizing the actions of one another for deviations of the code, we keep score like no other social machine: in here, transgressions never wash. For any given situation, there are two sets of rules - - the administration’s “thesis”, and our “anti-thesis” - - and oftentimes the outcome depends on which set of laws you hold most dear.  Out of such an ungainly dialect emerges a misshapen entity, benumbed and dysfunctional “synthesis”. The modern convict.

It might be tempting to pigeonhole the hardliners who blacklisted Big Chuck as simply amoral and institutionalized, emblematic of the antisocial stereotype. But that isn’t the case. The relatively few who were most vocal in censuring Big Chuck are, for the most part, men who pride themselves in behaving nobly. Striving for betterment through self-education, these are family-oriented men. A few of them I would trust to look in on my Mother were they to get out before me. And yet they would banish a man for actions considered by society as heroic. 

Ethical paradoxes suggest more about a person’s social environment than the person himself.  Nazi soldiers tasked with manning the gas showers were often devoted family men. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned hundreds of human beings. These were men otherwise considered paragons of virtue. Simply put, their moral community had been shrunken to longer include the other. After all, in times of war, we never hear the news anchor announce how many Iraqis or Afghanis were killed during the prior month. 

How we approach questions of right and wrong has much to do with precisely whose happiness and suffering matters to us, the set of those with whom we identify.  A distinction once made at the entrance to our cave, where “us” ended and “them” began. The notion of bright-line ethical borders has been elemental to phenomena such as colonialism, slavery, Trump’s rise and the penal system. A defining ideal of modernity is the outward push of our moral community to include (nearly) all humankind, toward sentient creatures in general. How we’ve progressed since the 16th century, when Parisians turned out in droves to watch cat burnings: dozens of cats gathered in a net, hoisted into the air and lowered slowly onto a bonfire for the crowd’s amusement. More recently scientists performed vivisections (live dissection) on dogs, believing Christian claims that since animals were soulless automata, they could feel no pain. In a post-Blackfish world, we can no longer revel in the antics of captive orcas because our knowledge of their emotional suffering imbues us with moral outrage. We are unwilling to contribute to the infliction of a woeful existence driven by our demand for entertainment. We’ve come so far - in some ways.

With each glance over our shoulder at former ethical blind spots comes a wave of revolt, and maybe shame. How could we? We wonder, recoiling. How could we have been so cruel?  I want to avoid bogging down here, so I’ll skirt the common resort of relativism: that right and wrong are normative aspects of culture, subject to social or religious whimsy. It makes more sense to me that we tend to build our identities on certain premises (American; Christian; Democrat; or white convict, etc.). It follows that we also tend to withdraw our moral concern for anyone (or anything) that we perceive as not sharing those defining premises, who is therefore the Other.  

Even if I could, I would not exonerate the convict as simply a product of his environment. But I would indict the overfed and diseased institution that gave birth to him. The cognitive offspring of American prison is a species of moral chauvinism. Psychologists involved in “mortal salience” studies have isolated the causal relationship between threat and the winnowing of perception. They’ve found that when primed with images of potential danger (guns, knives, fatal car accidents) our minds go immediately into “us or them” mode. It makes sound evolutionary sense that in the presence of peril we would extend protection to our own clan - - those perceived to be “like” us - - and disregard outlanders. We are hardwired, it seems, to discriminate under extreme stress in a binary manner: you are either from my cave or you are Other. Threat stirs an instinct to side with those - - and only those - - with whom we share familial bonds (considering that there is more than one way to define family).  A drive that evolved in the interest of promoting genetic survival, goes the argument. 

When stresses are chronic, rather than acute, you may find your identity circumscribed to no longer include all sentient creatures as objects of moral concern. Not all humans earn empathy, nor even all prisoners.  “Few lives matter”, is your moto. Your boundary of concern might be limited by principle to include other convicts with whom you share a sense of communality.  In any serious dealing with another there is another subtle calculus that informs your behavior in real time, a labyrinth of logic shaped around alliances, elements of folk-biology, known prior missteps, whether you share beliefs, and how you’ll be perceived, against the need to reinforce solidarity. 

Our community is more fragile than it appears. Kinship metaphors permeate our social sphere, mechanisms to implant and foster communal thinking. Crips call one another “cuz” or “nephew,” Bloods are either “Blood” or “fam”, and whites have cliched “brother” or “bruder” (German for brother). A universal tool of sympathetic politeness is the term “bro”, a generic appeal to familial leeway. Eventually, we become callous to the plight of an ever-expanding subset of humanity until sentiments similar to those expressed by Chuck’s arbiters are held toward all living creatures, save the vanishingly few considered members of our ingroup. The narrowing of the mind is the narrowing of my world. 

I enjoy reading about brain science, maybe for the fuzzy illusion of self-awareness I get when I learn the clinical name of some lumpy whorl in my own brainthat must have misfired in the past, leading me here. Anyway, it turns out the nosey folks in neuroscience have ferreted out the brain structures where empathy is rooted. A cluster of brain stuff nestled behind the forehead and known as “resonance circuitry” (the superior temporal and middle prefrontal cortices, to sound smarter than I am) is responsible for creating mental maps of the internal states of others: the “intentional stance” explored by philosophers of mind. The intentional stance represented in my mind allows me to divine your motives from simply observing your actions, a critical skill in here. What I find particularly interesting is that these regions are all tied to “mirror neurons,” an area in the parietal lobe with a specific function. Mirror neurons allow us to mentally represent the intentional actions of others. A perfect receiver for modelling behavior, mirror neurons allow us to imitate or predict from experience an act performed by someone else. They also account for the contagiousness of yawns, laughter, and - - I believe - - the sense of shared mystical energy peculiar to religious practitioners when gathered and acting in unison. Perception of the inner states of those around us seems to happen cross-modally, that is, not limited to sight. We’ve all “felt” the sorrow of another through the phone, some of us more than others.

“Resonance” implies more than simply aping the acts of others. How shallow we’d be if that were the case.  Those of us with intact resonance circuitry absorb or become attuned to the emotional state underlying the behavior of others. Survivors of head trauma resulting in injuries to resonance circuits have described themselves as feeling “soulless.” A sort of sociopathic affect, mothers with damaged resonance circuitry have lost all but a passing interest in their own children. In a bleak sub-world where the zeitgeist fosters emotive states between apathy and antipathy, where behavior patterns are born of indifference and often embedded with contempt, the mental maps of others we create are distorted by a warped lens. We cannot help but internalize the intentional stance of those whose behavior has the greatest impact: our keepers. The dehumanizing pathogen becomes a contagion. 

Over time, the physical changes that take place in our brains relate to our focus of attention. Neuroplasticity (new connections among neurons) seems to occur in brain regions responsible for the actions into which we pour our energy.  Brain imaging of violinists, for instance, show increased synaptic growth and connections in the area controlling the left hand. There seems to be an emotional component to neuroplasticity as well. Brain reshaping is not simply incidental to repetitive behavior - - it occurs when what is practiced is also meaningful. How has my brain changed shape after decades of paying attention to stony disregard laced with malice?

Albert Einstein, when asked about human integration, has this to say:
“[A human being] experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation…”

Rehabilitation involves more than forcing prisoners into cognitive-behavioral therapy crash courses and remedial adult education.  Like any other type of growth, human transformation requires an environment that will sustain it. One in which a human being may retain his humanity, where betterment is incentivized and rewarded. An environment capable of nurturing basic human principles: compassion, empathy, and understanding, allowing the circle of moral concern to include those with whom we do not identify. Maybe one day our system will take a page from the European model, socially remodeling prison communities to represent the macrocosm beyond, rather than stand as its antithesis. In the meantime, some of us shake our heads in dismay as we watch our convict cohort return to prison one by one after serving decades. Time enough one would think, to learn that this life is no life.  It isn’t the lessons learned that brings them back. It’s the failure to unlearn the convict code.

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272
To view Steve's artwork, click here

Thursday, January 10, 2019

I Got My Own Back

I got my own back 
- Maya Angelou

This Place Where I Live

By Lauren O'Dell

This place where I live is so different from your place, yet the parallels are many. It is eclectic, diverse, and annoying. It is a sorority we didn't pledge for  yet have an indelible membership.

In this place where I live we remember birthdays; comfort the sick and heartbroken. We share our books, magazines, potentials, and obsessions. We start our own businesses and learn new languages. We simultaneously love and loathe one another, for the two emotions always seem to end up entwined. 

In this place where I live you can always find someone either crying or laughing, worrying, plotting, celebrating, lashing out, loving, dying, manipulating, studying, changing, comforting, complaining, or clinging to traditions. We are self-sustaining and yearning for more autonomy. 

This place where I live may be the last and only place where your personal politics don't matter. We don't care if a player kneels during the anthem or if you should be 18 or 21 to buy a killing machine. Those things don't matter. In this microcosm it's all about finding a way to get through your day without the rug being pulled out from beneath you.

This place where I live runs on rumors and gossip. “I heard....” “They said...” “From what I understand....” “Did you hear about...” is the constant stream, the steady heartbeat and lifeline of this place. At times rumors are all we have, though they give no solace, only distress. Yet they serve a purpose: as explanations for the arbitrary changes that fly from one day to the next.

This place where I live strangles the humanity from you, then silently returns it just when you think it is gone forever. I often wonder: when was the exact moment I stopped caring? And then I realize, I do still care. The difference is how I express that I care, how I show compassion and convey my best humanity. 

This place where I live drives you toward the edge of apathy, dangles you over the cliff, just to pull you back at the last second. Once you return from the edge you are filled with that missing humanity, maybe as a result from the guilt you have for feeling so internally hardened. Nonetheless, it's there.

This place where I live is filled with people just like me, people trying to make a life out of chaos; to cobble together a semblance of control and normalcy. Isn't that all anyone wants?

This place where I live houses intolerance, bigotry, sexism, and every phobia imaginable, yet we are fiercely protective of our own. We may tear one another to shreds with our lies and vengeance, but don't you dare come at us with your stereotypes and assumptions. 

This place where I live is an island of Wonder Women, most of whom don't realize their power. We stand silent yet strong with the other women who say #metoo. Their strength inspires and urges us to be bold as well. We have this universal secret that we can finally share (and be heard!) that connects us to one another. We are part of the circle, here in this place where I live, that links us all. 

Lauren O'Dell 1181196
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974
My name is Lauren O’Dell and I have been incarcerated since 1994.  Throughout this time, I have consistently worked, taken classes, stayed connected with my family, and tried to be an active participant in bettering the community in which I live.  In 2013 I earned as Associate Degree in General Studies and am currently working on a B.A. Government and Sociology.  I’m an activist at heart.  Upon my release, I would like to work with refugees and immigrants new to the country.  In the mean time, I continue to support, and in my own small way, fight for all human rights.


By Simone A. Mendez

My mother was 17 de day I was born; my father 18. They were never married, ending their relationship when I was three.  My childhood was chaotic.  I was sexually abused by the hands of a relative, creating a confused and angry kid.  I began to drink and use drugs at 12 years old, following the footsteps of my addict-father.

Finding stillness for me was unimaginable.  I never allowed my mind a moment of rest from the stress of dealing with life at home to active addiction to this cell.  Over the years, I grew so accustomed to havoc in my life, I began to embrace it.  In hindsight, I was avoiding myself.

When I allow myself to stop and be present – not just physically – but emotionally, I´m forced to feel.  When I feel, I am often overcome by darkness; the darkness being painful memories from my childhood, failed attempts to overcome mental illness and addiction, and ultimately the crime that I committed, that led to my incarceration.

Surprisingly, allowing the darkness into my mind in the quiet moments when I´m alone, has somehow reignited a light within my heart and spirit. Only by beginning to understand the darkness in my world was I able to embark on this journey to heal, and to forgive myself as well as those who have hurt me in my life. Being alone with myself and my thoughts can be painful, but it´s a necessary part of this process. The place of stillness in myself in myself is reached when I simply stop and breathe even if it´s only for one minute a day. These moments bring light back into my life…giving me hope for the future.

Simone Mendez 404414
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic. CT 06357
My name is Simone.  I’m 24 years old.  I’m a recovering addict and currently halfway through a six year prison sentence.  I love the outdoors. Music, writing, reading and my family sustain me. Upon my release, I hope to become a social worker.  I’m very optimistic for today and for the future.