This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
As I watched the two of them pummel each other, with teeth bared in some feral display of rage and dominance, my fellow inmates and I cheered them on. In that moment, I experienced a flash of clarity that shames me to this day.
I had been walking along the edge of the yard, enjoying the beautiful, sunny day and ignoring the admonitions of more seasoned convicts to be careful of the holes hidden in the grass. Then I stumbled over one of them. The prison yard fence that I grabbed to stop myself from tumbling to the ground was discolored by corrosion, so after I regained my balance, I clapped my hands together to rid myself of the rust-colored residue I’d collected. While clapping, I noticed a movement in the grass on the other side of the fence, and my eyes adjusted and fixed on a dark brown furry head nestled in the overgrown grass.
The rumors of a thriving groundhog population were true.
The groundhog crawled toward me, then stood on its two hind feet and looked up at me through the dirty rungs of the fence. His tiny nose sniffed the air to catch my scent. I’d never seen a groundhog up close before, and the dark brown pudgy guy looked like the cutest of teddy bears come to life. Just as I was becoming enamored with the little guy, an even smaller, cuter one appeared from some unseen hole. This new one had a light brown coloring—almost blond—and once he was in view, he started to make his way towards me. The big, brown teddy bear noticed his little blond buddy and lowered himself back to all four feet before ambling off, only to have his friend fall in step behind him. I forgot all activity in the yard. I was captivated by the sheer wonder of the show—my own private teddy bear parade. The pleasant moment seemed to draw itself out as I enjoyed the peaceful scene of prison wildlife. But, as with all tender moments captured in prison, it was precarious and fleeting.
Little Blond took a few speedy, loping steps and leapt at Big Brown, sinking his teeth into the larger groundhog’s rear right haunch. Big Brown reared his head, snarling in pain and rage, before shaking loose from his opponent’s tenuous hold and turning to face Little Blond. They came at each other on their hind legs, paws up, lips separated to reveal miniature but lethal-looking teeth. A higher-pitched squealing growl emanated from each wide-open mouth as they tried to bite each other. I was reminded of footage I’d seen on nature shows of bears fighting for dominance or over a mate in some far-off corner of Alaska. This was no different, except the brawlers were around two feet tall. Tiny, vicious little grizzlies.
Big Brown had a couple inches and at least a few pounds on Little Blond. I’m no expert in groundhog weight classes, but Big Brown was plumper, and he used his stature and girth to his advantage by proceeding with a wicked barrage of paw slaps to Little Blond’s head. This backed Little Blond up, but he countered by snapping his jaws at Big Brown’s throat. He just barely missed his target.
“I’ve got a fin on the little one!” someone to my left yelled.
“Is you crazy? The brown one’s bigger, he’ll beat the little one’s ass.”
Without my noticing, a crowd had gathered around me and was growing as everyone else on the yard rushed toward the mass of humanity to see what the commotion was. It was shocking to see the men herding mindlessly like that, but not interesting enough to redirect my attention from the teddy bear throwdown just on the other side of the fence.
Little Blond had rallied and was pummeling with all his might, but Big Brown had too many advantages and kept using them against the smaller guy. Twice Big Brown fell bodily on Little Blond and gnawed on his skull and snout for a moment before Little Blond shook loose and scurried away to regroup before charging ahead for more violence. He was a scrapper, that Little Blond, and just kept coming back. Biting, scratching, hitting, tackling—the two of them went at it tirelessly. The sounds coming from them were that of scrappy mutts, or perhaps prepubescent bears. There was a ferocity and fullness lacking in it that robbed the fight of some of its seriousness, but before long even those pathetically unferocious noises were lost in the cacophony of jeers and cheers from onlookers.
We were the rabble at the ancient gladiatorial matches, hollering out expletives of glee and invectives of murder. People pressed against me for a closer look, the fence rattled and shook as guys pulled and pounded on it like they were watching some absurd cage match. The bout was bloody, violent, glorious, and I was swept up in the crowd’s chaotic frenzy as I yelled for my favored fighter—Big Brown. Forget the underdog! It was insanity incarnate, and in the midst of the madness, I had my moment of clarity.
At that point in my bit, I’d been locked up for close to five years. I had developed a personal mantra to remind myself to fight the pressure to capitulate to the violence and rage of prison. “Just because they cage me like an animal, doesn’t mean I have to act like one.” I’d shared this motto with others to serve as an admonishment and encouragement to control their own behavior. However, in that moment by the fence as Big Brown and Little Blond fought for supremacy, I wasn’t so sure my mantra had much truth in it.
In a brief, lucid instant, I captured the scene. More than forty men eagerly watched with faces bent in maniacal shapes, their voices colliding and rising in a twisted orgy of hate and ecstasy. Bestial forms and visages contorted like visions of the damned writhing in hell, issuing sounds like demons speaking in tongues to some unholy thing. We were anything but rational men, all because a couple of groundhogs were fighting.
Emerging from these thoughts, I felt sick to my stomach, disgusted with how seamlessly we’d all been embroidered into the tapestry of mob mentality. I watched the rest of the battle between Big Brown and Little Blond with a grim sense of disdain for myself and the whole situation, while everyone else continued placing wagers and cheering the two of them on.
The two teddy bears stood toe to toe, teeth bared and claws swiping wildly. Their movements had lost some of the speed and intensity they started out with. They were still growling and angry-looking, but mostly they were leaning on each other like two spent pugilists trying to keep from kissing the mat. Big Brown’s fatal mistake came when he got a little cocky. After connecting solidly with two swipes of his right paw, he reared back for a mighty third, but Little Blond seized that moment to unleash an unexpected onslaught of paws that I hadn’t imagined he had the strength for. Big Brown went over in an uncontrolled heap onto his back, exhausted but still growling, until Little Blond pounced and clamped his jaw shut on Big Brown’s throat.
Instantly, Big Brown went limp. His entire face drooped back to teddy bear; his eyes lost their animal aspect and seemed innocent, human, and almost sad. He licked his lips thoughtfully and blinked repeatedly. It looked like he was waking from some strange psychotic state, only to discover the horrible things he’d done. Little Blond was growling from deep in his throat, his mouth still latched onto Big Brown’s neck. The sound was angry and loud, but cycling down in its volume and intensity. An almost hallowed hush had enveloped the once-rowdy crowd, as if in deference to the somberness of defeat. Big Brown took a few feeble swipes at his opponent’s head, but this only made Little Blond bite down harder, growl more insistently. Finally, Big Brown capitulated entirely and lay still as Little Blond slowly eased his grip and backed away as the victor.
With what little pride he could muster, Big Brown got his four paws under him and began to limp away towards the nearest hole. Little Blond allowed him to get a few feet away before running after him and leaping onto his back. Big Brown collapsed to the ground without a fight and allowed Little Blond to chomp onto his shoulder and growl some more. Big Brown had been fully humbled, and even to the most inexperienced eye it was obvious that Little Blond had just made Big Brown his bitch. Finally Little Blond relinquished his hold and let Big Brown crawl to his hole. Little Blond walked to a hole in the opposite direction, limping and spent, but as the undisputed champion of the teddy bears.
Prison is like that sometimes. Funny one minute, then bizarre and disturbing the next. There’s no way to tell what’s right around the next corner, but the day I saw the teddy bear throwdown still ranks as one of my most surreal.