Pinto beans are a special meal in prison, simply because not every cook is capable of preparing them. In a yet-to-be-explained paradox, bags of pinto beans are available for purchase in commissary, but there’s no way to cook them without using a hot pot that’s been illegally rigged to boil, or at least modified to get much hotter than the thermostat was originally regulated for.
Cooking beans fills the air with a pleasant, home-cooking aroma. Procuring spices like garlic powder or onion powder – or, even more exotic and elusive, an actual onion obtained from a sticky-fingered chow hall worker – to add to the pot transforms run-of-the-mill beans into truly scrumptious fare. You can fancy yourself a chef and feel the satisfaction of enjoying something made with your own hands that is surely tastier than anything served in the chow hall. Plus, at a cost of little more than a buck per bag, with each bag producing four generous heapings of beans, it’s a fairly cheap meal. For Pauley, unfortunately, his final batch of beans was much more costly.
Pauley was a short, skinny, dark-skinned black guy with a peanut-shaped bald head and a smile forever creasing his face. We were both in a lower-security facility that afforded us more freedom of movement, which meant we could be out of our cells (rooms, really) and move around the interior of the building pretty much all day long. Pauley lived in a four-man room that had an adjoining bathroom with a sink and toilet. It was actually quite luxurious, and a marked step up from some of the places I’d called home before landing in the lower-security prison.
Pauley was wearing his usual grin as his hot pot bubbled in a rolling boil, spitting out scorching droplets of bean juice and adding more stains to the already befouled towel his boiler sat on. I stood at the threshold of his cell, batting the breeze with him and acting as a security lookout for his illicit endeavor. Then, as we were sharing a laugh over a rerun episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” I heard the telltale tinkle of keys. When I looked up, I saw a C/O heading in our direction—no more than fifteen feet from us—which put him within twenty feet of an illegally boiling hot pot that would be clearly visible when he passed the doorway.
The shelf Pauley had his pot setting on was the only space available to him. The reason it wasn’t otherwise used was because (thanks to top-notch prison craftsmanship) it was tilted at about a seventy-degree angle. This meant that something could be placed on the shelf, but at considerable risk of sliding off. On numerous occasions I had told Pauley how reckless and stupid I thought it was for him to place a boiling hot pot on an off-kilter shelf, but he never listened to me.
As the C/O approached, Pauley raced toward the burner as I surreptitiously pulled the door so that it was only a quarter of the way open. Then I stood in the breach to obstruct the oncoming officer’s view. I figured that shutting the door outright might seem more suspicious. My eyes were shuttling back and forth between Pauley and the C/O, so what I saw next came in time-lapsed snapshots: Pauley reached for the hot pot with one hand; his other hand went for the towel the pot was sitting on.
(Pauley would later tell me that his intention was to simply lift the hot pot, grab the towel, and throw the towel over the pot so the passing C/O wouldn’t see it. Anything more than a cursory glance from the C/O would’ve exposed the infraction of the rules, but Pauley figured his simple plan was all he had time for. (The Scottish poet Robert Burns had something to say about best laid plans…)
Pauley had bridged the gap from where he’d been standing when we heard the rattling keys to where the hot pot was located in one loping stride. But he hadn’t yet brought his back foot up to meet the front foot. This placed him in the position of a long, deep lunge, even as he was reaching for the hot pot and towel. I saw him reach, then I saw his back foot, clad in only a dusty shower shoe, slip on the concrete floor. Pauley groaned a hefty grunt of pain as he involuntarily slammed down into the splits, James Brown-style. His left hand missed the hot pot, but his right hand slapped the uneven shelf and tugged on the towel just enough to set in motion the ensuing debacle. The hot pot tipped towards Pauley – and I could swear it paused ever so slightly, for the slimmest of insidious seconds pregnant with disaster – before toppling over and splashing its scalding contents onto the exposed flesh of Pauley’s right shin and foot.
The cry from Pauley’s throat was high-pitched and immediate. It was thick, liquid, and undulating, like he was trying to gargle his own tongue. I closed the door the rest of the way, so the sound was squelched considerably. I peeked through the square of security glass in the door and saw Pauley pressing his forearm against his mouth in an effort to muffle his agonized yelps. When I turned back around, the C/O was right there.
Officer Scutt always sported about a week’s worth of stubble, never enough to qualify as a full beard, but just enough to always appear shabby, unkempt, and borderline scrofulous. He wore the perpetual hangdog and hungover look of the professional alcoholic. He’d been known to come to work noticeably inebriated and smelling the part. Scutt turned his head toward me as he passed. Our eyes met. I nodded at him; he nodded at me. He never even slowed as he made his way down the hall and back for his rounds. On the return trip, he appeared utterly oblivious of me. There was no earthly way he hadn’t heard Pauley’s girlish caterwauling. I couldn’t figure whether Scutt’s actions that day were attributable to his ineptitude or indifference. My belief is that he preferred to remain oblivious.
Once it was safe, I went inside Pauley’s room, but he’d retreated behind the bathroom door. Steam still rose furiously from the mess of liquid and beans on the floor. The hot pot lay there empty, but Pauley had at least had the presence of mind to unplug it before seeking shelter. “You all right in there?” I asked, knowing full well his answer couldn’t possibly be in the affirmative.
“No…shit, man…” his voice was a falsetto whine, thick with tears. I briefly pondered the strangeness of the situation and the oddness of asking another man in prison if it is okay to join him in the bathroom, but I made the request all the same. There was a pause as he sniffed and snorted his runny nose back to normal before, I assume, wiping the evidence of his crying away.
His voice didn’t have as much of the sniveling sound to it when he responded again. “Yeah. Shit. Yeah, c’mon.”
He could’ve had Niagara streaming down his cheeks and I wouldn’t have noticed. When I opened the bathroom door, my eyes were riveted to his hot foot, and I let out an inarticulate yelp of surprise and revulsion. I was smacked with a swift but slight wave of nausea at the sight of it. Thankfully, it was fierce but fleeting, and it wasn’t long before I felt safe opening my mouth to say something supportive and comforting to my friend.
“Ugh…damn. Dude. That is…that is nasty. That is not good.” Somehow this failed to comfort him. The air was close around us, and the scent of beans and cooked meat filled the confined space. Unfortunately, I’m not referring to summer sausage. The skin of his ankle and foot was bubbled up, and looked more liquid than solid. The top layer of his dark complexion had been scalded away to reveal bright pink meat that had been designed to always remain concealed. Suddenly, and completely inappropriately in the face of such a grotesque tragedy, I had to cover my mouth as it morphed into a grin. I couldn’t manage to stifle the chuckle that crept its way up my esophagus.
“What the hell are you laughing for?” Pauley asked, but he sounded more exasperated than upset.
“Dude, you did the splits,” I said, matter-of-factly, then I allowed myself a full-throated chortle that made my diaphragm dance. The great comforter, I am not.
“You’re an ass.”
“What?” I queried, feigning offense. “I told you not to cook on that wonky shelf anymore.”
“Well, where were you for security?”
“It’s Scutt, man! He don’t care. Probably at least half drunk.”
“Well, what about this?” Pauley nodded his head toward his broiled limb. “What’s he gonna care about this?” We each stared at his grievous injury in silence. I don’t know what was going through his head, but I know what I was thinking: “Oh my God, he cooked his foot. He cooked his foot. He actually COOKED HIS FOOT!” Since I had clearly evidenced my proclivity for insensitivity, I felt no need to voice these thoughts. I was pulled my reverie by Pauley’s question.
“So, do you think I gotta show him?”
It took me a moment to process the query.
“Who? The C/O?”
I just looked at Pauley, dumbfounded. Then I yelled at him.
“Yes! Dude! That’s like a tenth-degree burn, for Pete’s sake! Are you kidding me?”
(To all those medically inclined individuals out there, yes, I am aware that a “tenth-degree burn” isn’t an actual designation, but I attempted to use hyperbole to impress upon Pauley the severity of the situation. So relax. Also, don’t be so picky.)
“You gotta go to Healthcare, man.” He looked like I’d just destroyed all his hopes and dreams. He perked up briefly to ask a question.
“Will you take me up there?”
“No. No, no, nnnooooo. Uh-uh. I can’t…uh…be… um…yeah. No, I can’t be associated with all of this.” I made two sweeping arm gestures taking in his injury and the formerly boiling hot pot. He looked like he’d just watched me drop-kick his puppy.
“But, what I will do is clean all this up for you, and I’ll get you to the dayroom. I’ll do that, at least.” Pauley looked stricken. The constant grin I was so accustomed to seeing as a signal of his usual sunny disposition had been eradicated by a grimacing visage. He was clearly in pain, but also legitimately worried about the ultimate outcome of this ordeal.
“All right, all right. Thanks.” He was sitting on the bathroom floor. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. In that instant, he looked exhausted and defeated. I felt terrible for him, because I knew his predicament was only just beginning.
I gathered the beans and sopped up the muck with the towel, then carted the whole mess down the hall to the trash can. After rinsing out the hot pot, I put it on the ground beside Pauley’s bunk—not on the crooked shelf. I collected Pauley under his arms and winced sympathetically as he yelped in pain and began to whimper, “Man, this hurts, man.”
“I know,” I responded. “Let’s get you up and moving. Once Scutt sees your foot, he’ll get you to Healthcare quick. Just keep saying it’s a ‘medical emergency,’ and they’ve gotta get you over there.” I hoped that I sounded confident, sincere, comforting. Unfortunately, I knew that a C/O’s capacity for callous and uncaring behavior knew no bounds. While their generally mercurial nature made them about as reliable as a candle flame in a tornado, it was also possible that Scutt might rush Pauley to Healthcare. It was equally as likely that he might tell him to go back to his cell. Another possibility was that Scutt could have Pauley put in Segregation.
After the necessary medical care was administered, a trip to Seg wasn’t out of the question. I’m sure all of this weighed on Pauley while he readied himself for our excursion.
As I helped Pauley hop down the hall toward the dayroom, I got a good look at the slick wound in the harsh light of the fluorescents. From three inches above his ankle to the tips of his toes, the flesh on the top of Pauley’s foot and shin looked like it might all slough off with nothing but an assist from gravity. I escorted Pauley to just inside the dayroom, him leaning heavily on me. Then, with a silent prayer, I sent him hobbling and hopping across the final fifteen feet to the bubble where two C/Os sat, oblivious to the situation they would be forced to deal with.
“You’ll be all right, man,” I called quietly to his back, hoping it didn’t sound like the lie that it felt like. Then I turned towards my cell. I didn’t once look back. The last thing I heard was C/O Scutt letting loose a string of obscenities.
Pauley was hustled to Healthcare immediately—a van was sent to transport him. He was gone for several tense hours as his cellies waited to see what would happen. Pauley received treatment and was subjected to a lengthy inquisition by an Internal Affairs lieutenant before being returned with a gauze-wrapped appendage and a diagnosis of third-degree burns. The next day, Pauley’s hot pot was confiscated. Then just for good measure, the other three hot pots in his cell were taken. His cellies were livid, but they never had their property returned.
Along with the loss of the hot pots, Pauley’s punishment was severe. He couldn’t attend yard or gym, make any phone calls or go to commissary for two months. Penalties that severe meant he probably only narrowly avoided a trip to Seg.
For months, Pauley had to go to Healthcare every morning to have a fresh dressing put on the oozing wound. It constantly pained him, but there was never any talk of surgery or skin grafts from medical staff – only talk of nerve damage and how dumb Pauley was to do it to himself. Their bedside manner was almost as good as mine. When his foot finally healed, Pauley’s ebony skin tone was marred by a long, thick patch of vivid pink scar tissue. Other than the discipline and disfigurement, Pauley’s debacle also had the unfortunate consequence of earning him a slew of related nicknames—Pauley Hot Foot, Hot Foot Pauley, or just Hot Foot—all of which plagued him until the day he went home. Thankfully, despite all he’d been through, Pauley retained his grin.