This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
“You’re a bitch,” Gary sneered. Then, as if one utterance of that loaded word wasn’t enough, he repeated it. “You’re nothing but a little bitch.” Finally, he upped the ante. “You say it to me one time, say it, and I bet I beat your little bitch ass.”
I’d only just sat down, but the animosity in the air was palpable, and the tension mounted before culminating in the angry threat. Gary was a bully, and his latest beef was with Trey, who was sitting across from him at the four-person table in the chow hall. I could see that Gary was trying to goad him into a fight, and I could see, too, that it was working. In prison, “bitch” is the gravest of insults, and to call someone that in public was akin to throwing down the gauntlet. To let it happen without standing up for oneself is to lose face, invite ridicule, and have it presumed that the slur is justified.
When I saw Trey’s back stiffen and his shoulders pull themselves taut, I began to force food into my mouth because I knew what was coming next. Time was of the essence.
“You’re a bitch.” It was said so meekly, quietly, almost begrudgingly as if he didn’t actually want to say it but felt he had no other recourse. Gary was out of his seat and around the table in half an instant, punching Trey before he even had a chance to stand. The poor guy never had much of a chance anyway. They were both only five-nine or so, but Gary was a solid and stout 185 pounds with a half-and-half mix of muscle and fat that made him deceptively formidable. Trey was all thin limbs and at least thirty pounds lighter than Gary. After absorbing a few haymakers to the face and chest, Trey managed to flail out a loose fist and poke Gary in the eye with an errant finger. It wasn’t exactly a victory, but it gave him a little confidence. Mostly, though, it just pissed Gary off.
I swallowed a chunk of hamburger and chased it with a couple tater tots, trying to clear my tray as fast as I could.
Gary swung rage-fueled right and left hooks that looked impressive but mostly missed his target. The target backed away from the onslaught, bumping into tables and blindly tripping over the legs of people who had turned around in their seats to view the spectacle. Even in retreat, Trey managed to land a couple of weak punches on Gary’s chest, but they didn’t slow him down or even seem to faze him at all.
I glanced to one side to see if any officers or loos on duty in the chow hall were paying attention, but for that brief window of time, not a single one was in sight.
Ketchup drooled over my lip as I swallowed mechanically and slurped lukewarm milk to lubricate the process.
When I returned my gaze to the show, Gary’s eyebrow was bleeding. Trey must have slipped him a good one when I wasn’t looking, but that only made him cocky. Trey overstepped, literally, as he lunged forward to swing on Gary. Instead, he slipped on the slick floor and went down hard. Gary collapsed onto his victim, and it was all one-sided from there.
I was chewing my final bite of burger when a white shirt finally made an appearance.
“Hey!” the loo yelled. He keyed the panic button on his radio, even as a couple C/Os appeared to flank him. The roiling mass of humanity that was Gary and his outmatched opponent had rolled and slid ten feet across the floor until the outside wall of the chow hall had halted their progress. Gary pressed his body against Trey, pinned him helpless to the wall, and drilled his head with repeated hard right jabs.
I lowered my shoulders toward my tray, keeping my head up so I could look back and forth from the oncoming authority figures and the continuing skirmish, and shoveled the remaining ketchup-smeared tater tot bits and mushy mixed vegetables into my eager mouth. I knew it was important to eat all I could before what would come next.
The overweight white shirt ran as fast as his ample girth would allow. The two C/Os passed him easily while yelling, “Stop, let him go, lay down on the floor!” Gary kept beating Trey’s head mercilessly.
I kept watching it all unfold, chewing as little as necessary before forcing the food down my throat.
The loo slowed enough to retrieve something from a pouch on his belt before continuing toward the fracas. He was yelling something unintelligible as he gasped for air. A small canister was in his meaty hand, and he held it in front of him at arm’s length as he ran. I had a brief flash of a memory from my childhood. Then pandemonium ensued.
The recollection from my youth revolved around an old Jim Croce song—music of that character and quality is what I was weaned on. “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” was the song, and the specific lyric was “…you don’t spit into the wind…” As a kid, I didn’t understand why not; I couldn’t grasp the physics of it. So one day, pedaling my yellow BMX bicycle as fast as my little legs could pump, I sped down the sidewalk of my idyllic neighborhood and hocked a major loogie right into the breeze blowing against my face. The spit smeared across my cheek and eye, providing me a valuable understanding of the lyric that had so confounded me. It appeared, unfortunately, that the fat lieutenant had never been a fan of Mr. Croce.
With his belly stressing the buttons of his shirt, the loo sped along. He began to yell again, and as he did, he pressed the button on the canister. A thick stream sprayed out before dissipating into a mist. The loo ran right into his own pepper spray just as he encountered the same slick patch of floor that had been Trey’s undoing. His entire portly frame went momentarily airborne—even as he choked on the spray—while he still held the button down and covered the entire area with the noxious fog. It wasn’t until his mighty shuddering collision with the floor that he finally stopped spraying.
The chow hall became a cacophony of conflicting howls and screams. The C/Os yelled for the fighters to release each other; the loo hollered in pain as he clutched his lower back with one hand while covering his burning eyes with the other. Inmates in the pepper-sprayed region coughed and cried out against the itchy pain in their eyes, nose, and throat. Thankfully, I was fifteen feet from the epicenter of the incident, so I was spared the worst of it.
More C/Os rushed onto the scene, hacking and yelling their way into the area and then gagging on the particulates of pepper spray polluting the atmosphere. There were moans and groans as officers struggled to control and cuff the fighters while a few other C/Os tried to heave the loo to his feet without causing him too much pain. Even as the C/Os tried to escape from the field of foul air, they yelled at inmates to sit down and stay where they were. As swiftly as the loo and officers had arrived on the scene, they all retreated—vanished—leaving behind only the awful cloud and a few splashes of blood on the wall courtesy of Gary and Trey.
The C/O in the gun tower displayed himself and his weapon prominently to ensure that peace ensued, but he was unnecessary. No one was in the mood to fight. Every inmate, to varying degrees, was coping with his watering and stinging eyes, tickling and tingling nose, and interminably itchy throat that comes with exposure to pepper spray. We sat like that, suffering, chemicals floating in the air, for forty-five minutes in the enclosed space without a single open door or window that would allow the place to air out.
It would have been impossible to eat anything, so while I, too, endured the discomfort, I didn’t have to do it on an empty stomach. I counted that as a minor victory.